Inane ramble no. 51

A week off. One week. Don’t sound like it’d make a difference, right? We all need a holiday; all need a little time with the brains off the hook, letting the pot simmer gently whilst the head chef of destiny stirs idly, distracted by thoughts of summertime and the slow ripening of the rape-seed in the field across the road.

Bollocks to that. A week off is a nightmare. All very pleasant in and of itself, but all time off makes a return to work more painful, more stressful and fraught. Every step out of habit is a disruption. Every minute spent lazing on the riverbank equates to more time sat blankly in front of a machine, scratching for words and desperately fighting against the inevitable wave of ‘can’t be arsed-ery’.

Habit. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s got to answer for. All the good things, all the bad things we do in life – all down to habit. It takes time for an inclination to become routine, but once it’s lodged then it’s the absence of work – of writing, of cycling, of going to the cinema – that makes us uncomfortable. Doesn’t take long for something to become habit, doesn’t take long to slip out of either.

So last week I was in hospital for emergency surgery (not serious but extraordinarily painful). Now, after vaguely recovering some form of sleep-pattern, I’ve got to re-learn the habits of sitting in front of my computer when work allows and getting back to Australis. Yeah, to be serious a single week shouldn’t take me too long to get over. But it’s the longest I’ve had off since Christmas, and in my hospital bed I was unable to even think about the work. It’s a pain, especially because I’m doing fresh, virgin writing – and attempting fresh thinking.

I guess this might be another – yes, another – example of why it’s better to plan your work thoroughly before starting. I don’t know why I fight so hard against proper planning, against blocking out the novel step-by-step from beginning to end before setting down a (metaphorical) pen in anger. I think it’s because I just enjoy working it out as I go along; I simply get a thrill be flying from the seat of the pants. But the more experience I accrue the more doubtful I become. Certainly a proper plan would allow me to take time off without my flow becoming totally disrupted. Maybe, one day when I’m rich and famous and have my own library-come-office, I’ll have my very own whiteboard littered with my usual scraps and detritus of construction. But until then I plod along with noting more than a pair of post-its to keep the mind on the rails.

By the way, is there anyone out there who doesn’t dream of having their own library? That still represents my own personal pinnacle of civilisation. One day, one day…

But for now it’s on with the blank stare-age. Wish me luck, folks and people.

‘He’s not the Messiah…’

I’m not doing what I should be doing. I’m putting off my work, opting instead to carry on with Other Things. I feel guilt.

The work in question is, of course, my latest revision of Night Shift. As I’ve said previously, I did a rewrite for an agent and got a ‘disappointed’ (mentally converted into maybe a D minus) back. The good news is that she wants me to have another go. The bad news… Well, there’s no bad news as such, save the damage to my ego and confidence. But I’m not getting on with it. Not yet.

Writing is a job and you can’t always choose when to work, can’t summon up the perfect mood – or muse – at will. So feeling a bit down is no reason not to crack on. But writing is an emotional game. I’ve been slogging at that damn novel for far too long now and I think I need a little more time to get myself together. We all need time away from a project so we can come back to it with fresh eyes, and mine are still a little jaded. Right now I can’t face starting from scratch; can’t face drawing up proper plans, character profiles and the like. In other words I can’t face doing what I should have started off by doing.

The other factor is that I’m not – have not – been idle. As soon as Night Shift went winging to the agent back in February I pulled out Australis and set about a good hard editing. Now, again at the risk of repeating myself, Australis has been a problem child since it was a few months old. I’ve said before: it just wasn’t working. For reasons I’ve never quite been able to decipher it was – well, it was just dull.

So as soon as NS was dispatched I accessed that cobweb-covered file on the hard drive and started to rip Australis to shreds; to really get my teeth into it and tear it into its component pieces. With rare determination I attacked the damn thing and completely redrew the characters, added new ones (and a new murder) to the pot.

This has involved a lot of new writing – it looks as if most of the last half will actually be fresh, virgin words. Almost like starting over. And it’s still not finished yet; maybe I’ve another month at current speeds. And, as ever, I’m barely ahead of the pen in terms of plotting. I’m still working out where I’m going, groping in the dark with only a flickering candle spitting and spilling hot wax onto my fingers for illumination.

I’ve decided – I think this is sensible – that it’s better to finish this draft of Australis before going back to NS. That’ll mean I’m not dropping my plot-reins in mid-flow and also gives me time to read up on the flaws that made the agent ask me for more work. Gives me time to study, to think – and to not-think, an underrated exercise – and to come to the work with enthusiasm and decisiveness.

I think this is sensible. But I feel terribly guilty.

This is all part of the learning process. When you read articles about ‘How Author X first got into print,’ you meet the facts. They tell you – honestly – how they went about it. What these articles rarely tell you is how it felt on their journey. How many times they wanted to give up. How many times they stared in despondence at a blank screen – and then summoned up the will to get the hell on with it. 

It hurts. It hurts so damn much. And it’s all the worse because you know there are myriad other things you should be getting on with; that normal, everyday stuff like cleaning the house, doing the shopping, earning the wage. And, in my case, finding a new job as I Horlicks’d up my last interview.

I’m sure I’m doing the right thing by delaying my re-rewrite. But intellectual and emotional are two diff’rent worlds, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Up and down

Up and down; up and down. Writing is hardly an equitable life. It’s a game of swelling emotions, of thrill and grind and anxiety, both in the actual writing process and in the surrounding business. At the moment I’m feeling bruised and battered. But I’ve come through and I find I’m still on my feet. Soon I’ll be back on the march.

I’ve been trying to get published for the last seven years, on and off. Looking back I can see clearly all the mistakes I’ve made, not least in sending out material that wasn’t ready. But I’ve had nearish misses on the way. I’ve had hopes raised only to be toppled onto the harsh rocks of reality. So I’m older and wiser and know that every submission, every letter and email that goes out is dead as soon as it leaves my possession. It’s the only way to survive. Court failure, defy it, dance with it. Shrug your shoulders and let it fly; if it brings back good news… Well, there are still plenty of ways to drop the ball. No sense in getting carried away.

So what am I to do? Well, I’ve got another rewrite on my plate, but I don’t want to get round to that just yet. I think I need a little time to gather myself, to really think about what kind of novel I’m writing and how the archetypes work. I’m going to do a little reading, a bit of concrete planning before I go any further. Maybe you’re saying that I should have done this before I started to write the damn thing, and you might be right. See, I’m still learning. I hope I never stop.

And if nothing else, these ups and downs are telling me more about myself as a writer, my strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue’s getting better but my plots need work. I can create a great setting but still struggle to communicate a character’s depth… And now I know some things aren’t working I can work on them. It’s not enough for me to churn out novel after novel for the few pence I could scrape up through self-publishing (not to diminish self-publishing; see previous posts for my thoughts on that). I want to write well. I want everything I do to be the best that I can do. I want this not just to be a hobby but a profession. That’s a dream, of course; only the very, very best (or luckiest) writers make a living from their books. But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with dreaming.

So for the moment I struggle onwards with Australis; whilst I hit the library and talk to authors and try and grow outside the strictures of my own work. But it won’t be long now, won’t be long, before I’m back scowling at the computer screen and desperately bending Night Shift into even tighter knots.

I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing this. But for sure I’m going to do it and do it to the very best of my ability.

Problem child

No news. The wait goes on. I’ve heard that it’s a good sign, to have to wait: rejections are easy and come quickly, but acceptance requires time and second opinions and consideration of the future. So I go on hoping, holding off on any more submissions until I get a yea or a nay. Maybe I should be sending stuff out regardless, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to do; not like I’m here sitting on my hands. I’m still working, if only for my own sanity. Working is good and satisfying and will all be worthwhile when the dust’s cleared. The best way to sell a book is to write another. It’s the back-catalogue that generates the interest as much as the current work.

So: Australis. Or, as it’s increasingly becoming known, The Bastard. The Problem Child. The Ugly Sister.

I wrote this back-to-back with Night Shift and, when I completed the first draft back in November 2012 I was sure it was the better story. At the time I could see the holes in NS and felt like I’d anticipated them in Australis. I had a good, coherent story with an atmosphere of heavy intrigue and set in a world that held together, was logical and true.

Since then NS has got better and better, and whilst I’ve rewritten Australis many times since, the changes have been mainly cosmetic: improving the words, the characterisations and the flow. What I’ve never really got to grips with are the problems of the plot. The plain fact that, reading it again now, it’s actually not that good.

I think this reflects the fact that I wasn’t quite sure what novel I was trying to write. Whereas NS was always a psychological thriller (even if I didn’t realise that at the time) Australis was an attempt at a locked-room mystery and a police procedural. Two books I never set out to write, mashed together.

A few weeks ago I said I was editing with a scythe and a hand-grenade. That’s because I’ve finally got my critical faculties together – and maybe because enough time has passed for me to see the work as it is – and now I know that the only way to save this novel is to rip it apart and take the underlying thread of Story and re-stitch the rest of the book around that.

 It’s hard to admit that work you yourself have produced isn’t very good. Especially when the there’s really nothing wrong with the words: they create the image you were after, they’re technically correct. Just dull and unbelonging. That’s my biggest sin. Far worse than being bad, I’ve written something dull.

 In my defense, the words I wrote seem fully at home for the police procedural I was steering close to. And therein was the problem; although I was never truly happy with what I was doing, I was allowing myself to be consoled with thoughts like ‘well, there are sections like this in Donna Leon and Henning Mankell’.

But I’m not giving up. Australis has a place; I still want it and need it. Not just because of stubbornness or because or its place in my world but because it’s gonna be a good story. Got me an intellectual puzzle, something to unpick.

So it’s back to the beginning. Thinking properly for once – seeing clearly. I’ve tried to work out what the essence of the story is, which characters I like and which need changing. I’ve added a new antagonist and rebooted the female lead. The changes are actually quite small – differing emphases, I suppose, rather than regenesis.

But changes snowball. A new character added early on will change everything they come into contact with; a new suspect, a new motive, a new location: one idea leads to two more further down the river. Droughts and floods and diversions all the way to the sea.

At the moment the plot is running the same as it did before. But I’m rapidly approaching the point at which the stream will fork. And then everything will change. It’s like doing a crossword backwards: you have all the solutions, now you have to work out precisely what the questions were in the first place.

It’s fun. You should try it.

Rip it up

So: Night Shift is back with the agent. I wait nervously, the e-mail of Damocles hanging over me. I have no idea if it’s good enough. I’m sure this draft is considerably better than the last, but is it now in a saleable condition? I vacillate by the moment, optimism and depression warring within me.

Strictly speaking this doesn’t really change anything. I’ve improved my work, that’s what matters. If things don’t go anywhere with this particular judge then I can always go back to the well and try again. Plenty more opportunities out there.

But I want to get an agent. Soon. Partly because – well, we all want to sell our work, right? We all want a professional to tell us they like our work. And partly because I want to get on with something new.

I love writing. I adore it. My mind is full of stories and I want to work on new things all the time. I mean, I enjoy editing and making changes too – but my plate is full with four novels that need developing. I don’t feel I can crack on with something new until at least one or two of them are crossed off the list. I want them out there so I can’t tinker with them any more. I want to be hammering hot steel again, not sitting with my whetstone.

At the moment – a fortnight or so since the NS MS went in – I’m taking things kinda easy. Trying to finish the perpetual redraft of Chivalry is a sort of background to everything now. But my real focus for the next few months is going to be Australis.

If you remember, Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and is proving something of a problem child. I wrote it back-to-back with NS and, at the time, thought it was much better. Since then – nearly a year and a half ago now – NS has improved considerably and I’ve never really got to grips with Australis.

The problem is that Australis works. The plot’s fine, I introduce some good, strong ideas and it’s still a story that interests me. But what I’ve written… it just doesn’t sparkle. I don’t know why. I think there are too many sections (and one is too many) that I wrote not sure what I was trying to say, but because no-one ever objected to their presence I let them be, tinkering only with the words and not with the underlying structure.

Now I’m trying to go through with a combine harvester, ripping up these sections and spitting out wheat and chaff to be either discarded or reworked. It’s hard. It’s basically rewriting the whole book, keeping only characters and events; and whilst most of my redrafts take only a few weeks at Rob-speed, this I anticipate will take a lot longer. Sometimes it’s painful, abandoning things I fundamentally like in exchange for a better story. Sometimes it’s painful because I’m forced to face up to my own lazy writing.

But I don’t just do this to get published, or to get recognition, or money, or sex, or whatever. I want to write the best possible book I can. I want people to think ‘hey, that guy can write.’ Maybe it’s for ignoble reasons of ego and pride, but I want people to read my work because they want to, not because they feel obliged.

So it’s time to rip Australis to pieces. To enjoy working without a deadline, take my time and really make the damn thing work. Because I need that novel – without Australis there’ll be no New Gods. Gotta have the second before the third. I can do this. Just gonna take work and application and some deep thought. New characters, old ones shifting, emphases changing…

Let’s go to work.

An interview with Marissa de Luna

As promised, this week’s blog is an interview with Marissa de Luna, author of Goa Traffic and The Bittersweet Vine. In fact, she’s at the launch for TBV almost as I type (Monday night).

 

This is the last halt on Marissa’s innovative ‘blog tour’; I’ll copy the details of her previous stops at the end of the interview. I know her through Abingdon Writers’ Group, of which we’re both members, and she’s been good enough to read through some early drafts of both Night Shift and Australis and provided much-appreciated feedback.

 

Hope you enjoy.

 

Author Interview with Marissa de Luna – Part 3

 

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

 

The Bittersweet Vine is a psychological thriller set in England. It tells the story of a traumatized abduction victim, Maria Shroder, who is abducted from her workplace but wakes in her bed physically unharmed. Having no recollection of the days that have passed Maria discovers she is suffering from hysterical amnesia; her mind is protecting her from a terrifying truth. Desperate to pull into consciousness the secrets her mind has buried, Maria must first uncover the lies hidden in her past.  

 

Do you see writing as a career?

 

In an ideal world, yes. But in reality I still need a full time job so that I can pay the mortgage. I love writing. It’s in my blood and even after a tough day at work I still feel compelled to write. As many writers will tell you – you write because you love to and not for money. The money is a bonus.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

 

I am proud of The Bittersweet Vine as it stands I wouldn’t change a thing. I really spent time on the manuscript and believe it achieves what I set out to do! But I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.


Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

I remember always wanting to write but I never really having the courage to pick up a pen and actually do it. In 2007 I took a year out to travel and afterwards I spent some time in Goa, where I grew up. Inspired by the culture and the people I decided to write my first novel, Goa Traffic. It snowballed from there!

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

 

I think I am still developing my writing style. I enjoy the use of moving from the present to the past to create a sense of heightened suspense. I did this in Goa Traffic and the book starts with the protagonist looking back over the last year of her life. In The Bittersweet Vine the main character is on a journey but she too needs to look into her past in order to find clues to her future.

 

What’s your favourite part of The Bittersweet Vine?

 

There is a lovely scene when Maria and Alice (sisters) let go of their pride and their egos and just tell each other how they feel. To me that part of the book is special. They were close growing up and somewhere along the way they lost each other. From this scene onwards they start to learn about each other again. After they disclose their insecurities to each other they are able to pick up from where they left off. I think this is a pretty poignant scene.


Who is your favourite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

 

At the moment it has to be Sophie Hannah.  I plan to read a chapter of one of her books before bed and three hours later I’m still reading. Reading one of Sophie Hannah’s books is like being on a roller coaster in the dead of night. There are so many twists and turns and sometimes you just don’t see them coming.

What was the hardest part of writing The Bittersweet Vine?

 

Not being able to get my words on the page as quickly as I would like. I found with The Bittersweet Vine ideas were forming rapidly in my mind as I wrote. What I find most difficult with writing a novel, such as The Bittersweet Vine, is the drafting and re-drafting process. It is, of course, essential but it’s laborious and hard work!  

Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

Persistence. With Goa Traffic I didn’t have an agent or a publisher and so I decided to self publish. It was a great experience because I learnt so much along the way. When I finished writing The Bittersweet Vine I was tempted to just self publish after the success of Goa Traffic, but I decided to try the traditional route once again and after countless rejections I finally got a bite. It was worth the wait.

 

While you are going through the submissions process you can always improve your writing by polishing your writing skills. Start a blog or take up a short course. I have two blogs and I’m getting pretty savvy with social media. Having an on-line presence is a must for any new author.  Ensure that you have an up to date website and use various social media platforms such as Twitter, Pinterest and a Facebook Page.  It all helps when you finally launch yourself as an author.

 
What are the major themes of your work?

 

There are several themes running through The Bittersweet Vine. Trust is one of the main topics explored. Maria is estranged from her sister and her ex-lover, her supposed soul mate, has left her. Maria has lost her confidence and so she seeks the help of a therapist. When her best friend begins to doubt her, Maria does not know who to turn to making her plight even more arduous.

 

Sibling rivalry is another theme within the novel. Alice and Maria had an idyllic childhood. But when they first meet in the Bittersweet Vine they are estranged. The book explores the fragile relationship between sisters.

 

Previous ‘Blog Tour’ entries – and much more besides – can be found at…

 

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On the 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

 

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

 

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers’ blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

 

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog. http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from hockey player to author.

 

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog. http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

 

And, finally, Stop 6 is the one you’ve just read!

 

 

The Bittersweet Vine is available now
The Bittersweet Vine (ISBN: 978-0-85728-094-7, Thames River Press, paperback and e-book.) at Amazon or other on-line stores and in selected bookshops.  For more information about The Bittersweet Vine or about the author see www.marissadeluna.com 
Find Marissa de Luna on Facebook www.facebook.com/marissadelunaauthor 

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.