The kindness of strangers

Hug

Whether you’re looking to publish traditionally or do-it-yourself, you’re going to have to do-it-yourself.

Unless you have the massive good fortune to land a top agent or publishing house who have ‘people’ to do these things for you – and I suspect that streamlining (another horrible phrase, like downsizing, which means ‘we’re no longer going to pay people to do important jobs’) means that there are fewer and fewer bodies that so do – you’re going to have to write your own publicity and provide your own copy.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having to give journalists your own Q&As, but it’s more than that. You also have to write your own book description: not merely the blurb but the longer document which is used to sell the book to wholesalers. You have to write your own biography. You have to provide your own author photograph.

This maybe isn’t such a surprise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. At least you keep control – perhaps it’s best to do these things oneself rather than let somehow who knows neither you nor the deep themes and undercurrents of your work.

But there you are, having only just mastered synopses, cover letters and a new year of neologisms, and here’s something new to learn. Can’t they see that all you want to do is write?

Well suck it up, laughing boy. You’re an author now. Ain’t no-one to blame but yourself, and no-one else will do it if you don’t.

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the way we’re no longer simple creators but fully-fledged business-twonks. It’s still true. But don’t get too discouraged because there is help out there. You have to do the work, it’s true, but you’re not alone.

First and foremost, you have friends. If you’re reading this then you’ve already stretched out a little and have a greater awareness than just that of your own four walls. You’ll have connected with authors and editors and – whilst they may be strangers to you – most people are willing to give advice, even if it’s only  280 characters long. People like to help. They’re nice like that.

Secondly, other people want you to do well. If you’re working with a publisher or agent they have a vested interest in your success. Got a problem? Ask them. They may not have all the answers but they’ll point you in the right direction. And any self-publishers who’ve used any outside services – editorial, cover design and so on – have people to ask too.

Then there’s the internet. This – as you know – can be a double-edged sword: not only may you be receiving bad advice but you can spend as long hunting down information as the original task should take. And – to my surprise – the internet doesn’t have all the answers. I haven’t been able to track down any information on what’s wanted in a long-form book description. But the internet is a resource. It’s there for you to use.

For my money the best option has always been to rely on the kindness of strangers. There’s always someone willing to help. Just remember, when your turn comes, to pay your debts.

Helping others isn’t such a hard thing, is it?

 

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Cutting the great scene of doom

film-photo-eisenstein-editing.jpg

Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

Editing comes in waves

Wave3

Editing comes in waves. There is the initial draft, which has errors large and small; typos aplenty mixed in with trailing plot-vines, character instability and shoddy dialogue. So the primary edit is, for me at least, a case of pruning out the missteps and giving the sickly plants a little more manure.

Then you enter your prize cactus into a competition and all its many flaws are coldly, cruelly exposed. You feel like an amateur; what you thought was a beautiful bloom is merely a canker. So it’s back to the hothouse for another round of editing.

This time you have to make wholesale changes. You have to uproot whole stems, repot, replant, replace. Isolate whole lines: trim and deadhead and mature before they can be reintegrated into the Shubbery of Gloriousness. Only then can you get to grips with the little things: the leaves must be buffed to a shine and here, perhaps, the metaphor collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness.

I’ve taken Oneiromancer for public scrutiny. To say it failed would be overstatement; I got respect for what I was trying to achieve. But it wasn’t where I want it to be. I want it to be perfect and it’s not. That’s fine. That’s why I got feedback.

Now I’m nearing the end of my (first) Big Edit. It’s been a nightmare of copy-and-pasting: whole sections ripped up, rewritten and reinserted elsewhere. Every such change has involved the surrounding scenes being altered to accommodate as previously dead characters come back to life, or need excising, or have new information. To my annoyance I’ve seen the word-count swell back towards the 140k mark; I’d been hoping to write a 110k novel. I can only hope the extra 30k ‘adds value,’ as they say. As someone says, at least.

So when this draft is finished I’m done, right? Oh, but that were the case. As soon as this is done – after a large drink or two – it’ll be time for another read-through. A copy-edit always needs to be followed by a line-edit. This is not only for the myriad fresh typos that I’ve doubtless introduced but to examine the aspects I’ve not been looking at here. Little things like voice, character and the actual words.

Wave

And then it’ll be back out into the wider world for more feedback. Hopefully I can still dredge up another beta-reader or two to plunge me back into the deep, shark-infested pool of editation. But after that comes the sell: to agents, to publishers, to hope and despair.

Editing comes in waves, as I said at the beginning. My experience with agents means that, even if I get to a place where I’m confident enough to approach them, I know that I’ll have at least one more tsunami of a rewrite. For now, though, it’s just a case of keeping my head above water. For the first time in eighteen months at sea I can see the shore.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming until you feel the glorious, sun-baked sand beneath your feet.

A question of style

I do not write here as I do in my novels. Here I indulge my taste for neologisms, for bad puns, for annoying alliteration and all those other little stylistic tics that would drive you crazy if they were to appear in a novel. I have a different voice here from the one I use to construct my stories.

Style is possibly the most difficult thing to define in writing. It’s not the words you put on the page but the way you get them down. Except… it is the words too. If you’ve ever got anything down on the page then you’ve got a style. Just not necessarily a good one.

Confused?

Well, cheer up. It’s impossible not to develop a style. Style is just a combination of several different factors and the way they interact:

• Word choice

Simple or complex? Blunt or flowery? It’s really as simple (or complex) as that.

• Word order

‘They’re not the same thing’ vs ‘The same thing they are not’. Same words, same meaning – but a different effect. One is flat and straightforward and draws no attention to itself. The other can be – depending on context – playful, arch, or just bloody annoying.

• Sentence/paragraph length

Obviously this should vary, partly to avoid monotony and also to create different effects, but you’ll find that each author has a tendency for short or long sentences. Which leads us on to…

• Punctuation

I’ve a weakness for semi-colons. Love the buggers, I do. Most of my sentences are short, but I spice things up with rambling, poetic(er) sections with clauses and sub-clauses and even brackets. Punctuation is, perhaps, the greatest definer of style, which is why I’m totally nonplussed when I meet authors who say that they’re really bad at it and don’t seem to care. To me, that’s like saying ‘I’m a bit crap but that’s no big deal’.

Style varies according to what effect you’re trying to get across. My voice in this blog is more like my natural conversational voice. This blog is, after all, meant to be fun; often, when I write this, I’m playing. I’m writing with a smile, trying to satisfy myself as much as I’m trying to enlighten or entertain you, the reader. It’s possible that this just makes me an arse, in which case congratulations! You’re saved the bother of actually meeting me.

Style is also about omission as much as it is about what you put in. Missed words, unusual syntax – they shape the feel of the read. Take that ‘Just not necessarily a good one’ from the second paragraph: you all know that was ungrammatical, a sentence fragment. But I chose (without any real thought) to omit the object. This is part of my style. I also have the habit of starting sentences with conjunctions: ‘or,’ ‘but,’ or most especially ‘and’. I’ve got the idea that this creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I think by and large it works. But this is something that I used to do a lot more, and still end up cutting a lot of these through successive drafts. I once defended this technique with the cry of ‘Style!’ – and I was right. But stylistic tics like this are best used sparingly. Otherwise they scream out to the reader. They scream ‘amateur.’

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything special to develop a style of your own. You’ve already been fully inculcated by the books you’ve read and are reading. You’re critique group (you have one of those, right?) will tell you without prompting where you’ve crossed the line into arseishness. Style simply comes from writing: from getting the words down on page, regularly and in abundance. You need to make mistakes.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the old saw ‘you need to know the rules in order to break them’. It’s not quite true; you can sidestep the process and trust to instinct, although that’s a high-risk strategy – you may be called out at any moment. You certainly don’t need to read grammar-primers – I’ve read them for you, and I couldn’t make much of them. But it helps. The better you understand convention the easier it is to manipulate.

Certainly don’t fall into the trap of taking only one source for your inspiration. A mentor is a great thing. We all have our literary idols. But – and I can say this on any subject – the only way to round your style is to read as widely as possible and get as many different feedback-sources as you can.

And never trust a man who writes one-sentence paragraphs.

Bring forth the sacrificial lambuscript!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He's really good!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He’s really good!

Some people are better at some things than others. Yes, I know – blindingly obvious, huh? But it’s amazing how much stall you can put in a single person’s advice, no hint of a second opinion or of checking over for anything missed.

I have the very good fortune to belong to AB-FAG, my local manuscript-critique-exchange group. Last week was one of our periodic get-togethers where, over a pint or two (white wine for the ladies*), we eviscerate our sacrificial lambuscript and perform several pagan – and probably illegal – orgiastic dances with its entrails. The cleaning bill’s a bit of a bugger, but it is a guaranteed cure of all known arrogances, blockages, superverbosities and misplaced metaphors in the writing world.

The point (and there is one) is this. Some people can spot things like plot-holes or impossible travel times. Some people are quite happy to let those go but are absolutely abhorring of the misplaced apostrophe. Some are super-hot at dialogue; when it’s singing and when it’s turning into gruesome parody.

My thing is the factual error; internal contradictions; things that a character describes but can’t actually see; and a side-order of plot-nonconvincery and missing motivations. A colleague is hot on character and voice. These strengths overlap (we hope) with those of the rest of the group. We can all see these things but some emphasise some things over others. Sometimes this leads to intense debate. Example: in this last manuscript there is a character of a piratical nature. Two of the group found him shallow and lacking in logic/motivation. Two others had absolutely no problem and thought him convincingly villainous.

It is an aside that the two who thought him shallow were male and the two who liked him female. Not sure if that really means anything. Just, as I said, an aside.

It’s up to the writer whether they make any changes – on this and on anything else – or if they simply say ‘to hell with you all’. The point is that one person can mislead, can give you a bum steer. There’s no guarantee that a multitude will be any righter, but a more rounded critique – by a body of people who read both in- and outside of the (any) genre – can be nothing but useful.

Because everyone reads differently. Even professionals – agents and editors and the like – have their strengths and weaknesses. They should be all-round better than you and I because it’s their job to see things from many angles: they should have the experience to have raised their floor to a level above that of the average joe. But – and I’m sure you all know this – they’re only human. Your manuscript can fall on the wrong desk at the wrong time. Some people might have a sudden urge for a red-hot erotic fantasy just as your worldly-worthy study in Victorian prudery arrives in their inbox. Just your bad luck.

There’s nothing you can do about luck. The only thing that’ll help you is to make sure that you’ve got the best possible material out there just in case your epic tome on German cheesemaking lands on the desk of a committed subscriber of Westphalia Tilsiter at the time when she’s desperate to bring her passion to the masses. And the best way to get the best possible material is to share your drafts with as wide an audience as possible – preferably early enough in your writing process that you’ve time and energy to make the changes.

And now I’m off to prepare my own sacrificial lambuscript for the altar of public opinion. Happy writing to all.

*An Al Murray/Pub Landlord quote. Not being sexist. Honest.

The climax

So. The Climax. The decisive moment – the event, the emotion that you’ve spent the whole novel waiting for, writing for. The bit where the tension you’ve been ratcheting up for the last hundred pages finally explodes as the brakes fail and the momentum splinters like an industrial accident.

Modern novels are all about tension. Climaxes are the ultimate release of that tension. The climax of the stereotypical detective story is in the reveal of the killer (‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…’) – although these days there’s usually a chase and a fight just after the reveal for one last stroke of adrenaline and power.

This tension is why I like quick jump-cut scenes in the final stages: two things happening simultaneously. Build up the action in one, bring us to a high-point – and then cut to the other characters before the action is resolved. Build this new scene up – and then jump back. Never let the reader relax. Keep the buggers on tenterhooks.

What matters is less the logic of the situation, less the blood and the smug satisfaction of having got one over on your readers: it’s about the emotions you create. Violence without an emotional punch is just sadism. It’s the completion of the hero’s journey, their final step to independence. It’s about making that definitive decision that allows them to grow, to be free. A final realisation. A psychic blow to the gut that leaves the reader breathless, drained and – yes – satisfied.

This is why I always like to sacrifice an ally in the climax – someone the audience (and author) has grown to care about. To show them this is real, it has consequences, that winning hurts.

It’s also why pacing is so important in the world of the novel. You need your lull before the resolution. You need your moments of fear and anxiety and introspection so that when you come to the crunch you can accelerate from thereon in. Shorten your sentences. Forget the prose. Forget description. Feel the punches; mix it with long run-on sections to bring out and the breathlessness and the panic and chaos (for speed is inherently chaotic) and punctuation is optional for this is your oh my god this hurts this hurts moment.

The antagonist – usually an external force, but not always – may be defeated. They may not. But even defeat must give a sense that the (surviving) characters have learnt and grown. Otherwise you’re writing a very bleak piece indeed.

Of course, that might be the point. But it’s always nice to have hope.

And, after the climax is complete, it’s time for the denouement where we sift through the wreckage in search of unanswered questions. But more on that later.

For now – happy writing, folks.