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.

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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?

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.