The Road to Bedlam

the-village-of-bedlam

I’m currently enjoying a bad book. Needless words, repetition, lack of subtext: the writing is sometimes amateurish to the point of parody.

My sympathies go out to the author as I don’t feel it’s really his fault. But, as a writer, I can’t but laugh (or wince, or simply gape) when I come across professionally-produced writing that’s – well, that’s just bad.

A few examples:

“He offered his hand, and I shook it.”

Error one: it’s pointless. It adds nothing to the story. Error two: come on, now, we can all do better than this. “We shook hands” is better. “He offered his hand and, reluctantly, I shook” would give it context. But only if it mattered to the story – which, in this case, it doesn’t.

“No sinks on the walls, just pipes and screw-holes in the walls where mirrors had been mounted above them. There was a blank screen wall…”

I mean come on. We all know not to repeat word like this (and I could have expanded the section to find a lot more walls). This is so incredibly basic – and so terribly poor.

“…and then had to apologise to the young man who served me coffee while I paid for the drink and for a sandwich I’d picked up.”

Pointlessness again. We don’t need this detail. It’s also convoluted; at the very least the last three words can be cut without any loss of understanding.

“A breeze gusted.”

Breezes don’t gust. Breezes are breezes and gusts are gusts and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Such errors are scattered through the novel. But, as I said, I don’t blame the author. These are the mistakes that we all make as we do our thinking on the page. We experiment, we try out formations, and metaphors, and various shades of purple prose, whilst we hammer out the plot. But they should never reach print. No-one needs to see the author’s brain. And the author wants nobody to see it.

The work in question is The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon. It’s the sequel to Sixty-One Nails and here, I think, we get to the root of the problem: it’s not his first work. The pressure to get a book to the publishers to schedule – with another on the horizon after that and a whole future to follow (the series stands at four) – means that pressures mount. Deadlines arrive.

Bedlam feels like a second draft. All the work has been put into plot and story. The actual words have been left for later.

So whose fault is it? Do we blame the publisher (the usually excellent Angry Robot)? Or the individual editor? Or the demands of an industry that requires work be squeezed out to schedule regardless of its quality? If anyone has an idea please do let me know.

The thing is: I opened this post by saying I was enjoying this book, and I am. There’s so much to recommend about it. The characters are good, the plotting promises a great final act and – poor writing notwithstanding – it’s carrying me with it. I will see this to the end. And if anything it’s all the goodness that shoves the poor writing into sharp relief. This isn’t some hack churning out amateurish self-pub level material*.

So how can a major publisher get away with releasing something that, in many ways, is so bad? And what can be done about it?

 


All quotes are from The Road to Bedlam, pub. Angry Robot 2012. I’ve been listening to the audio version, pub. 2014: as it’s audio I can’t give a page number, I’m afraid

*Not to imply that self-published works are inherently worse than trad-pubbed material. There’s a difference between ‘self-publishing’ and ‘amateurish self-publishing’

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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.

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.