Bringing the band together

main_characters

Stolen from here

Oneiromancer has an ensemble cast. It has five characters who think they’re the star; each has a point of view and rather like having the focus on them, thank you very much. This is great. This is the story I wanted to tell and it’s a lot of fun, slipping beneath skins and giving different perspectives. Like a movie I can select the viewpoint and give the information I want given.

But, inevitably, there is a problem. Put simply, I don’t know how to start the novel. My early drafts had each ‘hero’ taking their turn: building a scene as they saw it, and then moving to the next person. And, as I’ve never been a big fan of ‘five men walked into a bar’ setups (although I am a big fan of bars), each of them was in a different place, a different time, with no connection to the scene that came before.

In other words I had a series of ‘starts’, none of which built on a narrative. Early criticism was that the novel didn’t really cohere until around the fifth chapter, by which time we’d met all the main players.

So I rewrote the beginning. I removed some early POV changes/introductions and tried to ‘flow’ from one character to the other. But it seems I didn’t go far enough. More simplification is needed. More difficulties are to be overcome.

Oneiromancer is a long novel. All the characters are well bound together, and the POV changes – I think – work well over the long haul. I don’t want to change it. Besides, lots of novels have ensemble casts and continent-spanning perspectives aren’t something to be feared.

But we still have to get the beginning down. Nobody will stick around to witness the genius of my legerdemain if they give up on the novel before my characters collide. Agents base their initial decisions on less and less material: ten pages is now normal. Why should they – or you – read more than that? It’s not as if we’re starved of quality literature.

So it’s back to the start with me. Lop off the first chapter, extract any relevant info, compress and sneak it back in later. And then it’s all about the hope – and the next round of beta reading and feedback and rejection – that this time it works. That I can properly bait the audience until they’re hooked, unable to wriggle away.

Ensemble casts are, in summary, a bugger. If anyone has any answers I’m all ears.

Graft

I am not special. I am not a genius. My characters don’t keep me up at night, conversing, nattering, telling me their life stories. I am one of nature’s grafters, trying to compensate for my lack of natural talent with hard work and a furrowed brow.

Writing is an unusual thing. Take a glance at Twitter, or do a search for author quotes: I’m betting you’ll find in short order quotes on the lines of ‘writer’s block is when your invisible friends stop talking to you’; ‘I don’t create, I merely eavesdrop of the voices in my head’. I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of voice-hearing and it makes me rather sad that I don’t seem to have this faculty. I’m sure I used to. Somewhere in the last ten years I lost it.

I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake. I’m just a middle-aged white cisgender male who has yet to achieve anything worth singing about. I have no Muse – which is decidedly not the same as inspiration, of which I have plenty, thank you very much.

On the other hand, I have got things done. I have written seven novels, some of them worth the effort of creation. It’s been a strong contention of mine that too much attention is given to the nebulous and unexplained phenomenon that is ‘genius’ and not enough to the achievements born of submersing oneself into a field and working damn hard. I say again: I am a grafter. I’m proud of that.

All these awards for ‘best first novel’, ‘best first writer’; shouldn’t we also celebrate the most improved novelist? Can’t we tell more from a third novel than a (possibly) flash-in-the-pan debut? Can you sustain the pressure? Can you make a career out of an artform?

I’m not grumpy about this – or at least no grumpier than I am about the rest of modern life. I’m merely musing Muselessly. But I’d be very interested in your experiences. When you’re writing do you hear your characters talking to you, telling you what to write? Or do you have to poke them with sticks and lead them by the nose to get them to get off their fat asses and act?

Getting to know you

My final argument for not overdoing the planning is this: writing is more fun when you’ve still got things to learn. Every novel I’ve written has begun not when I know every twist and turn but when I’ve got the shape – both of the plot and of the characters. But characters change and grow and mutate, and that’s when the act of creation is truly thrilling and almost visceral.

I began Oneiromancer when two new characters sprang almost fully-formed into my vision, immediately dominating the cast that I’d been building for years. After writing with them for a few weeks I realised there’s still space to fill in my cast-list. My original idea was to have one of the estate’s ‘bad kids’ as a point-of-view character, and maybe to have a female PCSO as the old ‘innocent in the enemy’s camp’ meme. Somehow they spun together and Jazz Kinney is now one of the most important characters in the novel.

Similarly, a cop that I’d set up as one of the story’s villains has somehow grown sympathetic and curious and embittered. Cartwright is now set to be one of the main characters – along with Jazz – and almost overshadow the blokes around whom the story was originally wound.

This is beautiful, and glorious, and even if this novel never comes close to publication and remains only as an abandoned draft on an abandoned hard-drive – well, it’s given me hours of joy to see these people take me in directions I never thought I’d go. You read of the character’s ‘journey’, their story-arc through which they must grow and develop and change – well I’m living that right now as the author.

Which is not to say that I should be happy with the changes, the things they’re telling me to do. I’m having fun but I’m not just doing this for my own jollies. I want it to work as a story. I want other people to read this and share with me these characters. So this can only be the start. I’ve got to nail their dialogue. I’ve got to make these people convincing and realistic. And that means going back to the beginning, when I only had the faintest inkling of what Jazz and Cartwright – and the others, the minor characters who’ve pulled themselves into a constant orbit – and use my later knowledge to inform their earlier appearances.

At the moment I’m still getting to know my cast. They’re still revealing to me their real fears and dreams and the horrors that lie deep, deep within the skin. It might seem like a paradox to say that you have to finish a novel to know how it should begin, and that you can’t end a novel without starting. But it’s not. It’s what editing is all about. This first pass is all about getting to know them. Getting the story down and finding out who really lives within your character’s skins. It’s only when you’ve done this that you can go back and see all the things that your cast would never do in a million years – the boyfriend they’d never actually have, the unrealness of that particular action.

The first draft is the hardest. All those times you felt yourself beating against the floodgates and struggling to walk against the torrent, just treading water and desperately screaming for a life-raft.

But it’s also the most invigorating, the most awesome adventure. The moments where you find you’ve been holding the map upside down, when everything clicks into place. It’s a feeling like no other. Like falling in love every day.

And it’s all about the people – the weak, fallible humanoids you’ve thrust into the fire again and again and again. They’re the ones who really make your story sing.

A brief diversion

This week I have been mostly learning why, when and how to evict people from nightclubs. Yes, I know – nothing to do with writing. And, if you’ve ever seen/spoken/interacted with me, nothing close to my natural metier. But work told me to go and so I went.

Now there are several lines I could go down here. I could lament the loss of writing time (I’ve written not a word creatively) and point out the lack of money in fiction. I’m sure you’ve seen the reports saying that the vast majority of novelists don’t even earn a living wage. I could ask if anyone knows ways of supplementing your income through writing-related skills: editing, proof-reading and the like. Apparently 41% of 200 writers attending the LA Times Festival of Books teach creative writing, and it’s occurred to me that I could do such things if I’m prepared and can afford to get the relevant qualifications.

Or I could say how much I – to my own surprise – enjoyed the course and met some interesting people and got new ideas for stories.

Life is good. People are good, and interesting, and fuel your imagination. Whilst it’s hardly possible to learn everything under the sun – or even beyond, out in deep space – everything you do helps you grow as a person and as a writer. Now I have a greater understanding of how clubs and festivals and assorted shindigs operate I’m much more confident should I ever want to set a scene in these environments. I now know something about the sort of people who might take work as bodyguards.

I can bank this info and draw on it – at any point in the future – to create something richer, more realistic, than I could before. Plus I’ve added new character-types to my well: prison officers, ex-military, Russian migrants, former methamphetamine producers – examples of all were on my course. So was the clown who hides his smarts behind a veneer of simplicity, and if that’s not an archetype you can paint me pink and call me Joanna.

There’s no moral to this. No great message, barely even a point. I’ve not had time to read through this piece to see if it’s worth posting: it’s going up even if I look back in a month’s time and think it’s all bollocks. Please accept my apologies for wasting your time. Just be warned. I now know how to put you in the ‘safety pin’ and escort you from the premises. So don’t go causing trouble in here. Mmmkay?

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.