The ruts

rut

If you’ve been following this page for a while you might be wondering where all my posts on ‘real’ writing have gone. I’ve been blithely blithering on about proofreading, world-building, and all sorts of tangentialities and not once getting to grips with my own work. There is a reason for this. It’s because I’m stuck.

Just before Christmas I finished the fourth draft of Oneiromancer. It is as good as I can make it – or, at least, as good as I can make it right now. I’m under no illusions that it’s perfect (whatever that means) but I can’t work on it further without feedback and without a decent break.

Next on my mental ‘to-do’ list was to go back to the ‘problem child’ novel: Australis, the second in my Antarctic trilogy. But I just can’t face that right now. I need to move forwards, so January found me playing around with a new project: a cyber-thriller that, as yet, has no title. Also no plot, characters or direction.

It should come as no surprise to hear that I’ve got nowhere. I need to have at least an end-point in mind – something to write towards. Without that I have nothing.

There’s been litres of ink spilled on the subject of writers’ block. I’m not going to add to that here because I don’t think I have it – hell, seeing as no-one can actually agree what it actually is and whether it even exists, adding my own tuppeneth seems somewhat superfluous. But I am stuck, or at least stalled.

My problem, as I see it, can be interpreted in two ways. Either I’ve been lazy, not really applying my mental faculties to working through my storyline, or I’ve had so much on my mind that there’s not much room left for creativity.

The good thing is that there are far worse things in life than taking a month out. I don’t have deadlines. I don’t have the pressure to produce: I do what I do because I want to; because the joy of writing is transcendent, the kind of high that I imagine elite athletes get when they’re in the ‘flow’, when instinct lets you do things that you’d never be able to if you sat and thought it all through beforehand.

The other thing is that I’m working through obstacles in my personal life: things that have been filling my brain, that are important but not conducive to creativity. I’m slowly clawing my way into becoming an adult. I have my driving test on Wednesday: at the moment my dream-time – when I lie in bed awaiting sleep – is full of mirror, signal, manoeuvre and fantastic worlds have been squeezed out.

I am hard on myself. I consider time spent not writing as time wasted. This is not the case. Things have been tricky recently but they will resolve soon. If you’re in a similar position maybe you need to reprioritise, reassess, reboot. The ties will release. Things will get better. You will write again. Believe that.

I’ll have had my driving test by the time this is posted* and we’ll see where we stand then. Then there’s just the small matter of –

No, I’m not going to talk about that. That’s for next week’s blog.

 

*Failed. Cloud not lifted. Bugger.

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The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

Good money after bad

I’ve finally realised: the reason I’m struggling with Australis is because it wasn’t written by me. It was written by the person I was three years ago.

It’s a revelation. It explains so much. I remember writing the first draft, thinking how much better it was than its back-to-back-written prequel. I was wrong, although I can see why I thought that. I pushed myself, trying something new, stretching beyond my comfort zone. It took the thread of the previous book and took it to its logical conclusion. I was proud of it.

Since then I’ve worked intensively on Night Shift, written the trilogy’s closer New Gods and – with a great sigh of relief – left Antarctica for the relative warmth of summertime London with Oneiromancer. Australis has lurked with only minor tinkering until a major overhaul around 18 months ago, the details of which I’d more or less forgotten. Now I find myself reading a stranger’s work; a grim, depressed stranger who clearly thought that endless blank corridors and anonymous offices made a good setting for a psychological thriller-cum-murder mystery-cum science fiction novel.

How did I come to write this? How could I have made so many misjudgements? What am I do with it now?

Also: who am I now? As a writer, what’s changed in my life to transform the author of a plodding police procedural into a writer of pacy adventures*?

The answer, of course, is that I wrote a plodding police procedural. I wrote something that, in retrospect, I’m not happy with, and I learned from the process. I took my feedback and, whilst there was nothing immediate, no fireworks in the brain, I got better. Gradually I realised how to avoid the sins I’d committed; a mirror was held to my own crapness and I did my best not to screw my eyes tight shut.

Fundamentally I’m still the same person. My errors are still legion and doubtless I’ll have committed many egregious sins in both Oneiromancer and New Gods. I will do my best to learn from these too. Indeed, early feedback is that O’s opening chapters are confused and congested. More work. Yay for work.

In the meantime I have to decide what to do with Australis. The obvious thing is to abandon it; simply to move on and write something better. But I’m not prepared to do that.

The bad reason for this is that it’s the central part of a trilogy, and to simply bin it is to lose my middle stump. It’s a bad reason because a bad book is a bad book, and no-one will ever want to move onto the finale if they’ve been bored to tears by the previous instalment. Plus I have a reputation to consider: I don’t want to be someone who churns out potboilers for the sake of a few pennies. I want to be good. I want to write well. My ego demands it.

Another bad reason is to persist because of the investment in time I’ve put into Australis. I’ve no idea how many hours I’ve spent on it already but to go ahead just because of that is the equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep working, going to spend more precious time on Australis, for two reasons. The first is that there is a good story hiding beneath the bull and I know I can draw it out. I’m a better writer now. I can do it.

The second reason is because I want to. I need nothing more than that. I like my characters. The world still interests me. There are still things I want to say. And now I know this trilogy will be self-published I have incentive and freedom to write it the way I want it written.

It will work. It will be good. It’ll just take a little more time, that’s all.

*No-one has ever said I write pacy adventures. The self-delusion is strong with this one.

State of the nation

I don’t know about you but I’m getting confused. After a long year working on one single project, I’m now all-of-a-multitask. I figure that this might make this blog a little twisty-turny, so I thought I’d best lay out just what I’m doing and where I am.

First off: Oneiromancer. This is my urban fantasy and main line of creation right now. It’s what I’ve been blogging about for the last year, so I won’t bore you too much here. The second draft is currently with the beta-readers; I have a date set in early May for feedback, beers and tears.

After this review I’ll get back to a new draft (about which I will no doubt tell you at length as I swear and twitch uncontrollably at my keyboard) to iron out all the many and varied problems that were drilled painfully into my skull by The Crusher, The Smiling Assassin, The Highbrow Heckler and the rest of the team. Then I’ll begin to think about contemplating the possibility of going back into the submissions process.

Then there’s Night Shift. I introduced all my work in this post, which is worth a look if you’re totally flummoxed with all these titles. Night Shift is complete – the only work that I’m happy to describe as ‘finished’; that’s after it was critiqued (twice) by an agent. This is the one I’m currently working on self-publishing, having exhausted traditional lines of enquiry.

I’m – that is to say my wife, the Photoshop Queen, is – currently working on a cover. I’m hoping to be able to bring you preview images for your criticism at some point, and so I may well bring my focus to bear periodically over the coming months. But there’s little to say about it right now. I had hoped that self-publishing would provide new bounteous inspiration to share with you here, but so far I am somewhat becalmed. We shall see.

And finally we have Australis. The problem child. Night Shift’s back-to-back-written sequel, over three years ago now. This is the one that’s been giving me considerable pain in the unmentionables ever since. The middle part of a trilogy always turns out to be the most difficult, probably due to ‘psychology’ or some such nonsense.

Around 18 months ago I did a heavy rewrite of Australis, adding in new characters, softening some elements and transforming the story into more of an adventure. I’ve not looked at the damn thing since, but now I’m wading back into the great sea of editation to try and form something vaguely watertight.

So I am doing three things at once: Oneiromancer is my main project. Night Shift is bubbling under, words sorted but all the publish-y details to be arranged. And Australis is my betweentime endeavour; the one I’ll be working on when the others aren’t occupying my tiny mind. My last action was to amputate the first chapter and a half; I’ll shortly be back to try and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

And whilst I’m doing all this I’m rubbing my two remaining braincells together to devise a completely new project: on my mind is an Asterix-inspired sequel to Oneiromancer and a stand-alone YA (possibly) steampunk (possibly) inspired adventure.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

Boredom? Sorry, son, no time for that round here.

The long haul

The best way to increase sales of your book is to have written another.

That’s one of those truths you regularly hear trotted out that’s both absolutely correct and of no use whatsoever. It doesn’t actually help you write anything else. It also creates the idea (not entirely without foundation, sadly) that quantity is more important than quality.

When you finish one writing project you should set it aside for a few months until you can come back to it with a cool, objective head.

Great advice. But I don’t know about you; as soon as I’ve finished something knew I’m usually too excited, too much in a screaming hurry to let it sit like that; especially when I know that I’ve only created the outline and can still dramatically improve the actual words.

Which is why I’m always most comfortable when I have two or three or four projects on the go at once. That way when I finish a draft of one I can immediately crack on with the next, cycling between them and keeping my writing hat on all the time. It’s possibly a little schizophrenic, especially if you’re moving between genres and times or whatever, but it works for me.

I’m just finishing my latest draft of Australis, the middle book in my trilogy. As I’ve said before, this is an especially radical revision and the echoes of these changes will ring across both the first and last books of the series. That what I’ve done here will affect the third is no surprise: I’ve changed the architecture of the city, and also altered the world mythos: a new background, a new history, all of which will have to be reflected in later actions. Plus the plot will have to shift as, as it stands, the second and third books are now too similar in places.

But the changes also work backwards. Again this is partly due to world-building and similar fundamental things; but it’s also because I have a better idea of some of my characters and where they’re going. I’m creating landmarks not only in the Antarctic wilderness but also in the crew’s minds and bodies.

Australis isn’t ready yet. I know this because I’ve been coming up with new ideas all the way through to the end, and all these need seeding in the early chapters and expanding and developing and then trimming right back. But I’m not going to do this just yet. First I have to go back to Night Shift and get that damn thing (which has been sitting untouched since February) one draft closer to being ‘finished’.

And it does me no harm to have a corpus of work that I can show to publishers. Not only one, but three books ready to go (that’s an outright lie: none of them are publishable as is – but they are complete, and that’s close enough in the circumstances); a coherent trilogy that will require minimal editing and proofreading. And that too is a lie, but these things are all relative.

And, if I decide to self-publish, I have my whole series (almost) ready to go. I can promote them as a whole, try and maximise follow-on sales linking one to the other. The only problem is that I really rather fancy working on something new. Ideas? Easy. Time? Less so.

But soon (hopefully one more draft) Night Shift will be ready. Then it’s back to Australis, and then the major reworking of New Gods. Maybe I’ll find time to tinker with Chivalry once again. If I ever do get any interest from a publisher than I’m sure it’ll be back to Night Shift again… the cycle never ends.

But one day at least one of these titles will be out in the public domain. Finally I’ll be able to call it done. And then – finally, finally, it’ll be on with something new. And so the corpus builds.

Know thyself

The better you can picture something in your head, the better you can write about it.

I’m not exactly sure how this works, but it does. Even if you barely describe an item or a room in passing, the clearer the mental image you have the sharper the interaction – with both the characters and the reader.

That’s not to say that you should start working on the interior décor for your entire world before you start writing. Your first draft should focus on getting the story down and you can fill in details later. But it’s worth bearing in mind. Draw diagrams, if that helps, of rooms and wildernesses (wildernii?) and continents. I can’t draw at all; I’m constantly cursing my inability to set things down in the right order so the lines cross in the right way. But that doesn’t matter. Even the act of trying helps fix these details in the mind.

I think what happens is that you subconsciously slip in details as you then work on the story. People cease to live in a formless vacuum but instead start to interact with their worlds. They pick up case-notes from a paper-strewn desk, for example, rather than from the void. Things happen in a real, solid world rather than a swirling fog of uncertainty. You also avoid mistakes; you cease to cram masses of furniture into a place you’d previously described as small.

Which is not to say that your work should be overloaded with description. On the contrary, it’s vital to be able to slip details in minimally, unobtrusively. Conan Doyle describes Sherlock in one paragraph and then barely mentions his appearance for the rest of the series. Be subtle. Use descriptions to give character and mood rather than to just inform. We never want the old role-playing cliché: ‘The door opens onto a corridor. It is eight feet wide and fifty feet long. At the far end is another door. A pair of orcs are guarding this door. On seeing you they raise their clubs and…’ (I originally said ‘heft their clubs’, which would have been better as the word heft gives an impression of weight and size in addition to the description of the action).

As I’ve been rewriting Australis I’ve come to realise just how little I knew my own world. Although I wanted a functional world of anonymous corridors, I didn’t know well enough where people would be going from and to. And whilst I knew it needed bars – and created some – I had not enough sense of where they were and how people got to them. What might happen outside? So I’ve created a boulevard, an old main drag where shops, cafes and the like will be based. Which in turn gives me a greater opportunity for plot twists and character development and…

This general advice follows equally well for building your characters. The better you know somebody, the more realistically they’ll behave and speak. This is why you see all those ‘character creation templates’ in writing magazines, given out at conferences and the like. You might never need to know that your lead character’s daughter plays the mandolin, but every little detail you add helps them grow as real people in your mind. And the better you can summon up their deep motivations the more rounded they’ll appear on the page.

Which is why I’m going back to the beginning to my next series of rewrites. I’m realising that, whilst they’re far from cardboard clichés, I don’t always know why my characters are behaving as they are. And if I don’t know how am I going to expect the readers to really believe in these people? I’m not saying it’s necessary to know everybody’s deepest neuroses down to the nth degree; I’m too lazy for that. But even the briefest sketch of the major characters will help me draw them better. Then I’ll know how they’ll furnish their apartments and whether they’d be sticklers for order or have that paper-strewn desk upon which is a fine layer of cigarette-ash, disturbed only in one corner where a small envelope lies…

Feed the tree

I bloody love the subconscious, I do. It’s all somewhat miraculous, the way that a dead end can suddenly be transformed into the open highway, an unrestricted autobahn. Just by not thinking about it.

As you know (and I’m sorry to bore you – again) I’ve been computerless for the best part of a fortnight now, and it’s disrupted everything. I have no routine. Fortunately my semi-waking brain is active even whilst my fingers are idle. I’ve got two projects on the go (projectus interruptus) and I’ve been turning over ideas and problems all the time.

Ideas are easy. Ideas come and go all the time, fleeting, gossamer-fringed things that can create typhoons with barely a flicker of their infinite wings. Others can wave and beat and flutter manically and yet there’s barely a ripple in the microclimate of the mind. Not to be trusted, ideas; often they’ll vanish as soon as you decide they’re worth acting on, leaving you naked in front of the computer, vulnerable and bitter. Others kiss you delicately, shift your orbit fractionally, fractally. Some you have to draw screaming from the well. Others are like gifts from the silent ghost who steps only in your shadow. Some you can’t look at directly for fear they’ll disintegrate before your very eyes.

But if you’ve got your donkey stuck up the minaret, there’s nothing like not thinking about the problem to coax it down. Or to give it wings, let it glide safely to the green pastures of Resolution. That’s what’s happened to me. The main thing on my mind has been Australis, the second novel in my trilogy. I’ve been ripping up the old story and replacing it with something almost completely new. More than that – I’ve been writing an entirely different kind of book. I’ve ditched my police procedural and replaced it with something more akin to a thriller.

And that’s fine, except that the ending I’d had before won’t work now. The audience will see the culprit far too far before the end and suspense can’t be maintained without doubt. So where do I go from here?

The solution, it seems to me, is to change the nature of the climax. In older drafts, the killer’s identity was the key reveal. Now – thanks to my subconscious – I have an answer. Change the high-point to be the capture instead. I always write with an end-point in mind; a place I want the novel to finish. This draft of Australis lacked that until last night, when my subconscious threw that startlingly simple bone in my direction.

So now I know where I’m going. It’s just that… sometimes I don’t really think I’m a writer myself. Just a conduit for the thoughts and dreams of another, some mythical being on a different plane of existence. Do I mine my dreams, my liminal thoughts more than others, or is this how everyone in the creative industries works?

So I wait impatiently for my computer to be returned to me so I can give these vague ideas real form, a proper shape. And they’ll change, I know; a story has a momentum of its own and there’s a limit to how hard you can pull the reins, how skilfully you can steer the course to where you want to be.

And in the meantime I’m reading. Reading ‘instruction books’ on the art of writing, because some little nugget of truth, some little habit will be written to memory if you read it often enough. But mostly reading stories, living in other worlds, and dreaming other people’s dreams.

Because if you can’t write, read. What better way is there to feed your subconscious?