Say what?

Empty Dad.jpg

This image is all over the internet but I can’t find an original source to credit. And yes, he does look remarkably like me

The hardest thing about writing is working out what you want to say.

It all looks simple enough. ‘I want to write a story about a robot gardener who makes it his mission to reforest the Earth.’ Great stuff. So you sit down and open a new document and…

Nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.

I’ve just got to the second scene of my latest rewrite of Australis. I’ve known for some time that I wanted the major rewrites to start here but now I’m there:

  • Where am I going to set it? The original scene was a cocktail-style gathering, which I always felt uncomfortable about. Now I have the chance to relocate it, but… where?
  • Who’s in it? Again, the original was a chance to introduce some key figures (and yes, I know cocktail party = clichéd way of bombarding the reader with names – another reason I wanted it to change). What do I do now? If I don’t introduce people here I have to introduce them later. Who has to be here; who must be shown up front and centre?
  • What do they want? This is a little easier: there is a disturbance they want stopped. But what sub-motives are going on around me?
  • What does the reader need to know of these sub-motives?
  • What tension is there? Tension is what keeps the reader reading. It has to be there; but it can’t be too obvious. Can it?
  • What motion is there? This comes back to setting: does the robot gardener have a workshop? Then maybe his visitor is handling his tools. In the cocktail party there will the supping of drinks and the chomping of canapés. But now I’m rewriting my scene in a more open space, who, how and where will people move to?
  • How do I give all this information without going into reams of description? How can I be concise whilst still keeping all my balls in the air?

These are basic things but they have to be worked out either before or during the writing. Actually getting the words down – and the choices that reveal character, mood and so on – is the final task.

But even then, even when you know all this, when you think you have all the answers, you still have to get something down on the page. And that’s the hardest thing of all.

Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia – the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.

It’s not knowing what to say. It’s not knowing how to say it. It’s everything happening at once as the mind gets stuck in a logjam and can’t clear room to set one word after another.

And it’s just as hard in the editing stage as it is to set the first word on that white blank page. In some ways it’s harder: you have to change everything whilst also keeping everything.

For the time being I’m ignoring character, nuance and any form of subtlety – in other words I’m trying to forget the last of my bullet points. I’m concentrating on the broad strokes. Because, at this stage, any attempt to be note-perfect is bound to fail; there’ll always be something I’ve forgotten to say; something that needs adding. Concentrate on the basics – they’re hard enough as it is.

The first word brings the second. And the third. And on until the whole sentence is out.

And then you might have to delete it all and start again, but at least you know what doesn’t work.

Put everything down. Get everything together. Work on the aesthetics later.


The neverending


To all you sensible people out there: I’m sorry.

A few weeks ago I mused on whether I should go back to rewrite old material or if I should crack on with something new. The overwhelming (single) response was that I should move on.

Well I’m sorry. I’ve let you down, I’ve let myself down, I’ve let the school down.

I’ve started to take Australis to pieces. I’ve given it a new name, even a new folder in my master ‘Writing’ file. I come armed with a spreadsheet and a new approach. The intention is to use pretty much all of the old writing, pretty much, but with new motives, mischiefs and mishaps superimposed.

Simple. Should take me a few hours and then it’s to the pub.


Dorfl fanart

Dorfl, From Pratchett’s Feet of Clay; fan art by somone whose name I can’t find by whose tumblr page is here


This is a stupid idea, I know that. It’ll take months and I’m not exactly short of other things to work on. Thing is, I need this to work. It’s more than just a novel, it’s the middle book of a trilogy; it’s the book that I need to sell to my publisher so I can build a career and not just be a one-off.

That’s not true either. I know I could self-pub the second- and third parts (and I might still do that) but I can’t bring myself to release something that I don’t think is good enough.

And that’s the real reason I need to do this. I need this thorn to be gone from my foot. It bugs me, it bugs me, it bugs me. It is unfinished business.

Stubbornness is an underrated quality in a writer. Sometimes you have nothing but grim bloody determination to get going; writing can be a slog and discouragement lies round every corner.

Sometimes all you can do is flick the vicars* to the world and carry on regardless.



*A quick internet search suggests that I am the only person in the world who uses this phrase. I mean, of course, raising two fingers in a manner generally considered impolite.

Tales of a fifth draft nothing

Matchsticks 2

I can’t find an original artist to credit for this so my efforts to be better at unthieving are thwarted

I am – somewhat to my surprise – approaching the end of another draft of Oneiromancer. This is the fifth time I’ve been though it; here are some random-ish thoughts on the process and the results.

  •  It’s done! Until the next time I do it, it’s done!
  •  It took forever. Due to child-wrangling issues and the perversity of life in general, this draft took around ten months to complete
  • Because of this, changes I made in August took until February to be acted upon. This is not ideal, but…
  • …It was aided by my Big Spreadsheet of Things, upon which I noted the page numbers of each chapter, a rough account of what happens in each scene, and through whose eyes we view it. This meant finding errant links was simpler than would otherwise been, and swearing was kept to a minimum
  • This is, hopefully, the last really substantive edit I’ll have to do…
  • …But I know this won’t be the case as no novel survives contact with the industry
  • The problem with taking a long time over an edit comes when you take a big chunk o’ work from the beginning and reinsert it two-thirds of the way through. Can you remember just what you were thinking six months earlier? You can not. If you’re lucky you left yourself a treasure map and a series of ever more intricate clues which lead you further and further into a conspiracy spanning continents, decades, and, quite possibly, planes of existence
  • Cryptic notes are often worse than no notes
  • If you can cut, cut. Unless you shouldn’t. In which case, add
  • Writing is confusing
  • The novel is, generally, not too bad: much of the plot hangs together…
  • …But I still worry, especially about characters, mood, and finding the right balance between description and overwhelming the reader
  • The climax still thrills me, which is clearly a good sign. The problem is that, in this state, you can miss errors as you’re too eager, or too much seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there
  • Worrying over fine details is, at this stage, pointless. If the hook’s strong enough, if I can get someone to read past the first ten chapters they’ll stick with me until the end. Then they’ll tell me everything I did wrong and I can fix it
  • Getting someone to read past the first ten chapter (and by ‘someone’ I mean an agent or editor) is the tricky bit
  • The novel currently stands at 125,776 words. The previous draft was 130,767. That’s a trimming of 4,990 words, or (roughly) a twenty-sixth. Should more go? Draft One was 140,034, so we’re heading in the right direction. Obviously I’m presupposing that shorter is better, but that’s not true. Leaner is better, but muscle weighs more than fat and skeletons rarely know true love

And that’s all, folks. Now I have to think about something different to blog about for the next few weeks until I’m deep into a new project. Hopefully I’ll have exciting Night Shift news for you soon too. Smoke me a kipper, wonderful folk, and I’ll be back for breakfast.

A touch too much


Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

Sex & violence

halsey-tattoo-Romeo and Juliet

This arm belongs to someone called Halsey,  who is apparently famous. The quote’s from Romeo and Juliet

So I’m back at The Nasty Scene. I’ve written about this before – repeatedly, in fact (see here and here) – but it’s still vexing me. If you’ve neither time nor inclination to check those links, this is my scene of sex and murder. It is, deliberately, deeply unpleasant. And I’ve decided to cut it.

I’ve been considering deleting it ever since I initially wrote the damn thing. Before, in fact; it was nearly killed at birth by the guardians of taste that dwelleth within. But write it I did and ever since I’ve been wondering whether it should remain.

Without going into too much detail, my justification was that this scene matched the characters of both killer and victim; that the novel needed a dose of visceral horror at this point (it forms the mid-novel pivot); and that it served to propel the story forwards. These are all true. So why have I decided to get rid of it after hours of writing, rewriting, testing on colleagues and rewriting again?

Well, the short answer is that I read of a new prize for thrillers that avoid sexual violence against women. Now I didn’t immediately think ‘Hey, I can win this is I just rewrite this one scene.’ For one thing Oneiromancer ain’t a thriller except in the loosest terms. It’s more that this was the last piece of evidence I needed for a conviction. It brought home to me that I was/would be perpetuating a trope that I dislike.

I don’t believe in censorship. I’m glad that people can self-publish material even if I find what they’re saying objectionable (though of course it’s people’s right to complain about such material). I’m not saying that I would never write another scene of sexual violence, should the story demand it.

But I also have to live with myself. I’ve never been happy with this scene, and that should be enough to tell me that it needs revisiting. Everyone censors themselves every day (all the things you didn’t say or do) for a whole host of reasons: writers call it editing. I’m not happy with something I wrote so I’m doing something about it.

I’m glad I tried. It proved a good exercise, pushing me beyond the safe and into new territory. It made me focus on a new kind of language and imagery; a (literal) nightmare of sensation and emotion I’ve never tried to conjure before.

But now it’s time for it to go.

Of course, this means I’ll have to find something to replace it. But that’s an entirely different matter.

The rotting carcase of the word-whale


Ideas. I don’t trust ‘em. Sneaky little beasties, creeping in where they’re least welcome, turning your world upside down and then glancing apologetically at their watches and sidling out when you need them most.

I’ve been working on my Problem Child of a manuscript for five years now. I’ve written two others in that time so it’s not been wholly consuming, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had unfinished business with this one. Now I’ve had an idea that might – might – just help me fix this horrible quagmire of a nearly novel.

Five years is a long time. Long enough for the Earth to die in. I could have saved myself the pain – and all the time spent scowling at an uncooperative manuscript – if I’d just abandoned the thing long ago.

Or if I’d self-published it.

And this is the question: even without the re-write I’m contemplating now this novel is better than the one I originally drafted. But would I have been better off just moving on and working on other things?

I’m a perfectionist, but then isn’t everyone? No-one sets out to put out bad work. I know writers who self-publish and I admit I envy their way of moving forwards; they somehow seem to know when a book is ready for the wider world. Do they have the agonies of chances missed? Do they ever feel uncomfortable about the material they’ve shared with the world?

I guess the envy really is in their resolution to say ‘That’s done. It is what it is. Onwards.’

Because the alternative is to endlessly circle the basin and never quite fall down the plughole. I know there really is no such thing as perfection; the basic conceit will always have a flaw somewhere. There’ll always be descriptions you can’t bring forth because you have to keep the story moving. There’ll be times when you have to bend the characters to your will. There has to be a beginning and an end and these are never the true start or finish, just the place the telling demands. There’ll also be the things you never saw but the readers will leap right on.

And that’s before we get into plot-holes, clichés, stereotypes and all the other things we’re going to hit in our first, roughest drafts.

How long can you keep at a piece before the structure beneath you starts to sag with the weight of rewrites, bolt-ons, new characters, new locations? How long before you’re left with nothing but the rotting carcase of a word-whale?

Maybe you should have self-published years ago. Maybe that really is the better option.

The problematical son returns

C and H bad writing

@Bill Watterson

It’s an interesting, uncomfortable experience, editing old work. For reasons of new possibilities I have taken up Australis again (a novel which may well be retitled) and am starting to inflict the Red Pen of Destiny upon its sickly frame.

Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and has long been my problem child. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s drowning in words and I’m struggling to set it free. There’s a strong theme – a point – to the story, an expansion of the mythos, and characters I’ve enjoyed developing.  But something is getting in the way and I can’t see how to release it from its shackles.

Perhaps more interesting is to re-evaluate my writing after a gap of three years. And… well, for the most part the writing itself is actually okay. Or, to put it another way, I’ve not improved as much as I should have.

The two major problems I’ve found so far:

  • A pesky overuse of dashes. This is quite embarrassing, but a relatively easy fix
  • Too many words. This isn’t so much a case of over-writing – though there are some deletions that can be made – but just the look of the script on the page. My writing feels dense, unappealing. This is much harder to deal with as to unpick and unpack would also be to lose coherence.

In other words, my problem child is still a problem. She doesn’t just need a new suit and a bit of a haircut but a thorough delousing and training in the basic routines of civilised hygiene. I can’t yet see a way to provide her with that: I’m no paragon myself.

Everyone says that reading old works can be painful. You can see every single mistake you made, every cliché left in, every stereotype, every innocent adjective sadly abused. But the writing industry is all about editing. You have no choice but to look backwards. You have to get to grips with your own flaws because it’s your job.

Sometimes the best option is to abandon a work and move on to the next one. But if you can’t do that? You just have to suck it up. Get that red pen out and, if necessary, rewrite the whole damn thing.

Hey, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Best get the whole time-travel thing sorted, then. You’re lucky. You’ve got the chance to kill your sins before they’re inexorably committed to the public record. Not everybody has this opportunity.