An offering to the New Gods

An author very rarely reads their own work. I don’t mean working through it, but actually sitting back and letting the words float through their subconscious, with no attempt to ‘improve’ the text in any way, shape or form. We’re tinkerers by nature. It’s an alien concept to just let the words wash over us. We’re also wincers, in the ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote something so facile’ sense.

I finished my rough draft of New Gods getting on for a year and a half ago now. Since then it’s been set back in the metaphorical closet whilst I wrestled with Night Shift and Australis. But now two things have caused me to take up my Kindle (other e-readers are available, as are books) and read over my own work.

The first thing is that I’m approaching a brief lacunae in Night Shift. Draft 9a should be finished by the time you read this, and then I have a pause whilst it goes out to beta-readers. The second factor is my Fiction (Adult) Group is currently going over New Gods and will haul me over the metaphoricals next week and I need to be prepared. And by ‘being prepared’ I mean I need to know what the hell happens. I can barely remember anything but the beginning and the end.

So what have I learnt so far? Well, my writing, by and large, hangs together in a not-too-bad fashion. It’s all correct and (I think) tells a decent story. So I’m not beating myself up too much about the errors, of which there are plenty. But the one thing I’ve learnt over the last year is to really take my time with my characters. Too many of my conversations are simply there to get a job done – to move the novel from one scene to another with a minimum of fuss. But that fuss matters. That’s what I’ve learnt. The whole novel needs patience; I need to allow my characters to breath, to express themselves.

When I were but a lad I read things like ‘every line has to have a purpose’ and ‘the story needs to be constantly moving forwards’, and I think I absorbed these mantras in a particularly shallow way. Yes, everything needs to keep moving and every word needs to justify its place in the novel, but that’s left conversations terse and oddly unrealistic. It doesn’t matter how well you know a character’s personality, past and inner life if they never have a chance to express these subtleties. My world is empty. I need to really make it come alive.

That’s writing. You start with a blank canvas and then you fill it with shape and colour and direction. Then you go over and pick out the outlines, add light and shadow, make the nebulous solid and (sometimes) the solid nebulous.

I’m not too worried about the actual quality of the prose. I’m no genius; the words aren’t great at present, but they’ll improve draft-on-draft until it achieves something approaching respectability. What I need second opinions on is the basic plot – what convinces and what doesn’t, who comes alive and who remains a cipher throughout. That’s why I’m offering myself up to creative evisceration and it’s why I’m going through NG myself. It’s been a long time, and I hope I’ve managed to divest myself of the personal link with the work which can blind the best of us to its flaws.

I shall keep you posted.

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Back to school

There’s a ring on my finger and I am a very happy bunny. But now it’s back to school, back to battling the evil forces of paid employment for time to write. After a few weeks of altered priorities it’s a struggle to get the brain together. I’d not expected the post-project depression to hit me quite so hard. I should have known better.

I took last week off to be with the woman, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But now I’m back and I’m determined to get back with the flow. I don’t like having nothing to do. I crave the tiny bits of stress – not too much, just enough to focus and drive – that comes from a major undertaking such as planning a wedding, or indeed a novel. For years I’ve known that I should always have at least one creative outlet on the go at any one time. But it’s always hard to get back in the swim after a break, and that’s where I am right now.

So, here’s a recap. Night Shift. Ninth draft. Major reworking – which means I have to think as well as do.

What I’m trying to achieve is to shift the story from an adventure into a psychological thriller. Yes, I know that the novel will get classified as science-fiction whatever the actual ‘feel’ of the book will be, but still. Having squashed some plot-holes in the last run-through (8a; my draft-numbering system is somewhat erratic) I’m now focussing on small things such as character, motivation and background. It’s not easy. I’m not an expert at any particular genre and this is new territory for me.

So how do I go about it? In recent posts I’ve included pictures of my planning sheets and that really symbolises my writing process at the moment. I’m going back to the very beginning. I’m really thinking. How and why did this person get here? How would they react in any particular situation?

One of my major characters is an African engineer called Max. I know her pretty well. I’ve got a good idea of her background and her personality, but a few days ago I realised I still don’t know enough. Because I’m writing in the first-person I never really looked beyond my protagonist for action. But even – especially – when looking through the eyes of a single person it’s vital to know how those around him will behave. How will Max feel when asked this or that question? What will my supporting cast be doing, how will they be feeling when a crisis hits?

I have to know. I have to know what’s happening off-camera for all the characters in the novel. In an emergency, who will panic? Who will be pragmatic? Who will start the rumours and who will listen to them? All the characters I’ve created are specialists, experts: I have no fools. And only fools listen blindly to their leaders. The rest will act depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

Even if this has little bearing on my story I still need to know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. For a plot isn’t one thing happening after another, it’s things happening as a direct consequence of what went before. A stray word said in jest can resonate through a novel; a single action made with the best intentions can come back to haunt you. This is dramatic irony. This is the stuff that stories are made of.

So I’m rewriting not so much the story (this time) but the people. Not changing them per se, more trying to give them room to breathe. And always thinking about what’s going on off-camera, because real people don’t stand around waiting for the protagonist to interact with them.

And, of course, I’m still shuffling scenes around and fixing the remaining logic-gaps within my world. In summary: there’s still a lot of work to do. But the novel will be a lot more convincing if I can get it right this time.

‘Quit yo’ jibber-jabber, fool.’

When I began to write – many, many moons ago – I was uncomfortable about conversations. Not dialogue per se (although I should have been) but how to move the plot on when people are just talking about the metaphorical weather. It’s a tricky balance. Every single word matters in a novel, but characters need space to be real people with real motivations.

I think there was a sense of fear in me. I didn’t want to put in my stories the type of inconsequential nonsense that most of us wile away our lives with. I wanted people to get on with the action and all conversations, therefore, had to be tension-filled, dynamic and relevant to the plot.

Now I’m on my eighth complete rewrite of Night Shift and I find that the key change I’m making is to slow things down. I’m trying to add depth and so I’m teasing out the chatter, trying to build subtleties into people and to make them more rounded. It’s difficult. There needs to be tension and subtext in every scene: how can idle talk carry any real information?

Everything matters. The clothes a person wears, their mannerisms, their choice of words – all are to some extent political decisions. When two people meet the first thing they do is try to establish their relative statuses. This is natural. Add in secrets and fears and the uncertainty that the other person might be lying to them – well, that’s almost a plot already.

Of course it helps that I already have a plot. All I have to do now is remember that key mantra: what does this person want to get out of this conversation? Even if it’s only to make a new friend, or to get through without embarrassing him/herself, that’s an aim.

It also gets a lot easier when you really know who your characters are. The realisation has been forced upon me that I didn’t know my cast as well as I should: by focusing on motivation I find my fear of idle chatter has been somewhat diminished. Now my protagonist has to face people who are afraid of him because of his (incorrectly) perceived status, and each of them will portray that fear in a different way. One particular character will respond by aggressively reinforcing his superiority. Others will be circumspect, standoffish. The trick is to establish this through words and body language – subtly, so that the motives are never said but make sense when more of the plot is revealed.

It’s difficult. It’s even more difficult to try and do this in a scene I’ve already rewritten seven times and is so fixed in my mind that any alteration is an effort – but that’s my own fault and there’s no use bitching about it now. But finally I feel I’ve overcome my fear of chit-chat. Every word in your novel has to have meaning, yes – but sometimes this meaning is better hidden than overt.

Brave new world

Writing speculative fiction is – in part – about building a coherent world. Creating a (future) history, a polity, an environment that convinces and entrances. This is obvious enough if you’re creating a fantasy world or alien planet, but even a ‘normal’ Earth has its rules. Every step away from what we laughably call reality – every demon that haunts every corner – has its consequence. And you, as author, have to know what this means for the people who inhabit your world. Who knows about the monsters that lurk in the closet? Is there a conspiracy? Or are the powers-that-be as clueless as the rest of the world?

Recently I’ve been playing around with some character development for my sci-fi/crime novel using a set of questions recommended by a writing colleague. Most of it is fairly straightforwards: age, hair colour and the like. But then I got to ‘favourite food’ and that made me pause. What, in my world, do people eat? This is a near-future Earth that’s hugely overpopulated: what do the hoi polloi eat? And I realised, then, that I don’t just need to answer these questions for my characters – I need to ask them for the entire planet.

To some extent I have answers: before I wrote a single word I had to develop a political landscape, a context for the story to exist in. But I realise now that I don’t know enough detail – a problem magnified by numerous drafts, each of which has subtly altered the base-state of existence.

Most of this information will never be mentioned in the text. People don’t need to know a character’s favourite colour and people don’t need to know the precise hierarchy of a nation state (unless they do: we’re dealing in generalisations here, and another story might well need this information). But the author needs to know how things work. I’m always reminded of Terry Pratchett’s assertion that to create a city you have to start by knowing how water gets in and how waste gets out. The reader might never know this, but the author has to. It’s amazing how unreal a place can seem if the nuts and bolts aren’t properly tightened.

And the comparison with character building stands. It’s helpful to think of the environment as a character in itself, a neutral, unforgiving presence – or a warm, suffocating cocoon – with its own rules and regulations. How do the off-stage folk survive? What jobs must be done to get food on the table – or for there to be a table in the first place? You as an author need to know these things or nothing will seem real.

Of course, it’s a lot easier if you write fiction set on this plane of existence. Then you can just get on with the damn plot.

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…

On Ideas

No-one’s ever asked me where I get my ideas from. I guess that’s because the people I talk to about writing have tonnes of ideas of their own, so they don’t talk about it much. But it’s always struck me that this question – where do ideas come from? – is wrong. Fundamentally so. Because ideas are all around us. Seriously, if you’ve any sort of enquiring mind you’ll barely be able to walk a hundred paces without being assailed with ideas.

Take that wall you’re strolling casually past. Why was that built? When? Who might live behind it? Oh, that’s a cool-looking alley. I wonder who might lurk down there?

See? Ideas all around us.

I think people who don’t write sometimes have this image of writers (and artists, musicians, actors etc) as people who are somehow different, that we see the world in a different way.  I’ll tell you now we’re not and we don’t. Everyone, everyone, is jam-pack full of ideas, whether it’s how to deal with an annoying colleague or how to improve on some new gizmo that’s just been produced by the engineering department. Ideas are cheap. They’re nothing special. And 99% of them aren’t worth much.

The trick is to have a second idea.

Take your average novel. Think about it. How many ‘ideas’ are in one book? In the crudest terms you’ll have at least three: you’ll have plot, setting and character(s), and each aspect requires a different way of thinking, of inspiration.

This is why I’ve so far been unable to write my great historical novel. I can create convincing characters and I reckon, now I’ve done years-worth of reading, that I can create a setting that has depth and colour. But I’ve yet to come up with a killer plot to bind everything else together.

And plot – what most people think of as the ‘idea’ – without setting, without an atmosphere to breathe in, is nothing. Unless you’re Franz Kafka, a plot without a world is a waste of time.

The trick, for me at least, is to find the right combination of ideas.

Imagine your head is the Large Hadron Collider. You have an endless circle, an endless flow, and into that you pour Your Idea. There it goes, zooming away… But it’s a solid, solitary thing, out there on its own. So, to give it company, you tip in a whole bucket-worth of fragments, of half-developed concepts and rudimentary characters. What you’re hoping for is that magical moment when two ideas smash into each other and react in strange and wondrous ways; to produce something that is neither addition, nor multiplication, but change. Something new. Something different. Something more than the constituent elements ever could have been on their own.

The Higgs-Boson of ideas.

I said in my first post that Chivalry came out of the question ‘what if a game could start a war?’ This is true, but what really made the idea take off was when I combined it with ‘what if you tried to live by the code of chivalry in the modern world?’

When I was working on Night Shift someone once asked me if I could take it out of Antarctica and set it in a country manor or somesuch. I couldn’t answer. It’s true that the novel shares, deep in its DNA, a common link with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and did so more in its early drafts). But…

But the setting is so integral to my concept of the novel as a whole that to make what might appear to be a superficial change has a profound affect on how one views the work in its entirety. I don’t think I’d be able to write the book in a different setting, now. Not because of the work that’d be needed – work is work, be it minor editings or massive structural revisions – but because that’s not what the book is to me.

It’s also important to remember that ideas change. No collision of thoughts leaves the nucleus unbent. Thus those questions I mentioned above remain unanswered; they’ve been bastardised into grotesque mutants by the initial impact, and then further twisted to fit my needs. I suspect that’s why authors (and musicians) return to the same themes again and again and again.

They’re still trying to answer their questions. They’re still trying to refine their amalgams into perfect shining swords of truth.

They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there. But that’s really, really not the point.