The fallibility of success

calvin-hobbers bad writing

If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

WritingHumour-Criticism

I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

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That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

Dilbert

So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

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Getting into editing for fun and profit

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I’ve been doing commercial editing work for a few years now. Mostly it’s been sporadic, just a few clients a year. Recently, however, I got a Big Score: I’ve been added to the approved copyeditors list of a significant name in the SFF field.

And it occurred to me: maybe you’d like to know how I did it? Not that I’m exactly sure myself, but if you’ve ever had the urge to go down this road, here’s my idiot’s guide (because I’m an idiot) to getting a toe into the editorial world:

  1. Get good at writing. Of course you’re all way along this step already. You’re reading this blog for a start, which suggests you’ve an interest in writing. That’s good. Keep it up. Read much, write much, practice, grow.You DO NOT need to know every single grammar term. You don’t need to have read English at university. Knowledge always helps – grammar-language is a shortcut for those in the know – but I struggle with anything beyond nouns. It’s not essential.  Similarly, most editing work these days is done with Track Changes on MS Word. You don’t need to know all the proofreading symbols, though they are fun.
  2. Join a writing group. Not only will this help with Point 1 but it’ll help you get used to taking and giving critiques. Start with critiques of manageable length and with giving feedback pitched at the level (and confidence) of the writer.
  3. Give full manuscript critiques. I did a lot – over a dozen – as part of a group who did reciprocal feedback – I’d read theirs, they’d read mine. Practice. Get used to going through a manuscript and seeing what strikes you as wrong and what works well. And listen to other people’s critiques too.
    If you can’t find people to exchange views with, look online. There’s always people looking for beta-readers.
  4. Be poor. I needed a way to monetise my skills, and, as these are limited, I was looking for a way to turn words into cash.
  5. Find a mentor. This isn’t essential but it does help. My writers’ group contained a retired proofreader who very generously offered to act as my guide. In practice I didn’t ask much of her, but she did put me in touch with my first paying customer, which is always a bonus.
  6. Find advice. Search Twitter for editors. Ask them for help. I was very lucky to stumble upon Dan Coxon of Momus Editorial; he gave me the names of two key reference works and was generally kind and encouraging. People – me included, though I’m mostly a doofus – are kind and will help if they can.
  7. Learn the differences between different kinds of editing. There are a lot of different terms – structural edit, proof-editing, developmental edit and so on – but the two main types are proofreading and copy-editing. See this guide for details, but bear in mind that each website you search will tell you something slightly different. Trust nobody! Especially not me!
  8. Do a course. Having decided that I wanted to go down this road, I decided to pay for membership of SfEP and to do their ‘Proofreading 1’ course. I’m not sure if it was entirely worth it – it was a little basic and I’ve not made much use of SfEP’s other services – but there are courses out there if you’re interested. At the very least it may give you some confidence and allows you to flash this handy logo sfep-badge-[entry-level-member]-normalat prospective clients. And there’s a pricing-guide to tell you how much to charge and fora upon which to ask questions.
  9. Be nice. Assuming you have a social media presence, use it for good, not evil. If you’ve been to one (or both) of my book signings you’ll know of my story: that the aforementioned Dan Coxon ended up proofreading Night Shift. Good relationships with people in the industry – built over months, not minutes – will eventually bring opportunities
  10. Advertise. Create a webpage or add a page to an existing blog. Get business cards (I didn’t do this until the night before Sledge-Lit and missed off half the necessary information) and look for conventions at which to hand them out.
  11. Email publishers. And this, folks, is how I got my business. I simply cold-called publishers until I got a break.What swung it was my knowledge of genre-fiction, and the fact that the publisher in question was kinda desperate. But until these people have heard of you there’s no way they can give you a chance.

There’s more, of course. There always is. You might be asked to do a test or trial, possibly for little or no money. I was lucky enough to get paid for my debut proofreading, upon which I was so anal that I was immediately shunted into the ‘copyeditors’ file.

literally

And this is only my experience. I’m sure there are many other ways of getting into the editorial field that I’m almost totally ignorant of.

But I can only speak for my experiences.

If you’re thinking of getting into proofreading or copyediting, it’s only fair that I give you a few harsh truths before we part. Because it’s not the land of milk and honey that you may be thinking:

    1. You will not get rich. Publishers, especially the smaller ones who are more likely to take you on, count every penny. You may well be paid by the job rather than by the hour. My first job for a publisher (as opposed to dealing with the author directly) saw me work for around £5.30 per hour – way below minimum wage and certainly not enough to live on.
    2. You will have to work to deadlines.
    3. You will be a freelancer. You will not have a pension, holiday or sick-pay. You will have periods where you have too much work and – more likely – you’ll have periods where you have nothing on at all.
    4. This means that you will, at least at first, need another source on income. You also have to be ready to put your real life on hold. You may have to work evenings and weekends to get things done.
    5. You will need to have a few basic business competencies: time management, producing invoices, keeping accounts and so on.
    6. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with the government and be prepared to pay tax on your earnings.

 

This is a lot of info and I’m sure I’ve left reams out. And, I stress again, this is a story of how I did it; it’s not the only way, and I very much doubt it’s the best way. Hopefully it will give you at least a rough idea of how to go about it. If you have any questions I’ll do my very best to answer them.

I’ve been lucky. I look around and see where I am and I blink in astonishment.

On Interviews

Q & A

I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.

It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.

Buckle up, folks. Here we go:

‘Paper’ Interviews

These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.

The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.

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Some quick pointers:

  • Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
  • Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
  • Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
  • If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
  • If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
  • Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
  • Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
  • Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
  • Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
  • Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
  • You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?

Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews

If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.

That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.

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Onto the advice:

  • Pretty much all the above applies
  • If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
    • Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
    • Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
    • Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
  • Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
  • Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
  • Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
  • It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
  • What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
  • You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
  • Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
  • Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
  • Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
  • …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
  • Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
  • Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
  • Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
  • Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!

Homer

And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing!

Sledge-Lit 2018

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Sledge-Lit

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

  • It’s great. Okay, this is definitely not advice, but I had a great time and am already planning my trip to Edge-Lit in the summer
  • Plan ahead. I made a big mistake in not properly scoping out the programme beforehand. I hadn’t realised all the information was available ahead of the day – which I guess shows my naivety – and this meant that I was immediately confronted by hard choices. The sign-ups for various workshops had to be completed straight through the door and I panicked and signed up for pretty much everything. This was not necessarily a mistake, but…
  • I found some workshops a bit basic
  • However, the workshops are still worth doing, if only to have a better chance of chatting with new people. Lectures, panels and talks aren’t so connective
  • I didn’t have the best morning because I failed to make the most of this, mostly because…
  • I’m a bit shy. I mean, you might not believe this because I work hard to appear outgoing. But come lunchtime I’m feeling all down because I’d not learnt much and because I was sitting alone whilst all around me everyone else (it seems) was having fun with friends
  • It follows that if you can find someone to drag along, do. It makes everything easier
  • HOWEVER I didn’t meet anyone – not a single person – who wasn’t happy to talk and wasn’t really nice. The people are what makes an event a success. If you are one of those lucky people who can talk to strangers as if you’ve known them all your life you’ll have an absolute blast
  • I was lucky because I had an ‘in’. I’m a Twitter-friend of Rod Duncan – we’ve met once previously in person – and I got chatting to him after a panel he was chairing. I managed inveigle myself into the company of himself and his colleagues Siobhan Logan and Penny Reeve. I had a great time chatting with them. Almost like I was a real human being
  • Remember a lot of people will want to talk to your hero. Talk don’t stalk
  • Sarah Pinsborough hosted the sweariest raffle in the history of conventions. Or swearing. Or raffles

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At this point I will step out of list mode momentarily because I’m kind of doing this chronologically and here I left the convention to go and check into my room. I’d booked an AirBnB near the station, about ten minutes’ walk away.

All my ‘friends’ had left. I’d eaten only a sausage roll and a slice of tiffin all days. I was seriously contemplating calling it a moderately-successful night (the chat with Rod and Penny was lovely; the only negative was sitting with Dave Hutchinson in absolute silence for ten minutes because I could think of not a single thing to say to him. I mean, I’d love to read his books – they’re on my mental TBR-shelf – but you can hardly start a conversation with ‘hey, I haven’t got round to you yet; what’s it all about, then?’ can you?), getting a curry and having an early bed.

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I checked in then strolled back to the venue just because it was a nice night and just on the off-chance that someone might approach me to chat. I got a beer and sat on my own; there were maybe a dozen people from the convention still hanging around.

After a drink and maybe another twenty minutes’ silence I finally found a way to sneak into a conversation. And so back to bullet-points:

  • Be patient. Don’t be in a rush to do things
  • Eat more regularly than I did
  • Be prepared to spend a little money. I know, this isn’t easy for everyone. But try and treat yourself to at least one drink – it doesn’t have to be alcoholic; no-one will judge you. Buy books. Enter the raffle. Come ready to have fun and hang your worries on the shelf for a little while
  • You will meet interesting people if you stick around long enough
  • There is no better place to network than the bar/pub…
  • …to which we thence repaired
  • …and it was at this point that the business cards I’d prepared in a last-minute panic came in most handy. See, I’d expected to be handing them out to indie publishers and lost-looking writers and all that. I did give out the odd couple like that, but I found them most useful in the bar afterwards. For although I’d managed to send the printers the draft without my blog or Twitter-handle on it, they proved really useful in getting my name across. We’d chat a bit, do introductions, and I’d whip it out – so to speak – so next morning they’d be able to link to me
  • Don’t stay longer than you feel comfortable. Don’t make yourself ill; if crowds aren’t your thing, don’t feel like you have to drag yourself to the dirty club. You’re not going to make a good impression if you’re asleep on your feet. Most publishers don’t take too kindly to being vomited on
  • Follow up on any contacts you’ve made. If you’ve got an email address just send a quick hello. I’m chronically shy and fearful of this sort of thing; social media makes it all so much easier. Connect on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the cool kids are on nowadays
  • It’s all about making friends. And girls just wanna have fun

And that’s it. I reckon I spent approximately £130 on the entrance fee, accommodation, train-fares, books, and sustenance. Was it worth it? Financially, probably not; maybe some of the people I met will offer me work in the future. I can’t count on that.

But I had a great time. I met a lot of fun, interesting people that I otherwise would have missed. And yes, there are other ways of having fun and other ways of meeting people (and yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white). I don’t want you to leave this post with the impression that you must go to Sledge-Lit, or any of the other conventions that are sprinkled through the calendar. There are other ways to do it.

But I had a great time. I’m already starting to plan my trip to Edge-Lit 2019.

Edge-Lit

On writing copy

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If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.

On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

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This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.