Slave to the story

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Sometimes editing is cruel. You spend hours crafting, creating, the most delicious scene, or set of scenes, and then in a heartbeat it is torn away.

Greetings. Welcome back to Editing 101: where I realise that what I’ve done is all wrong and needs a complete overhaul. Specifically, welcome back to my massacre of words that’s seen me shed nearly 15k words of New Gods before getting even a third of the way through.

This is due to a misplaced action scene (5k gone just like that) that started the novel on the wrong foot; and various smaller cuts that have come about as a result of moving the discovery of my corpse – not actually my corpse, I’m not writing this as a zombie, you understand – forwards by about 100 pages. Everything has been squeezed, compressed, or cut.

Fragments

Sensible people will tell you that you must let the story sing. It doesn’t matter how long it is; as long as it’s true to itself and coherent it’s the right length. And there is a lot of truth to this. On the other hand, however, I say ‘piffle’.

The standard* minimum length for a novel is 70k words. Some publishers only accept submissions over 80k. Below that and you no longer have a novel. New Gods is now hanging dangerously close to that 70k line.

Also, when I write a novel I usually have a good idea of how long it’s going to turn out. Each project has a ‘feel’, part of which is determined by its length. New Gods wants to be in the 80-90k zone – a bit longer than the previous entries in the trilogy. It demands it. Don’t ask me why that is; I’m not sure I understand myself.

At the moment the book feels wrong.

Plus there’s the fact that I’m cutting words that range from serviceable to good. I am not removing inferior work here; there are some very nice character-notes and turn-of-phrases consigned to the great recycle bin in the sky.

Cutting is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The reason we do it is to make a better story. It’s worth remembering this. We are slaves before story and, whether we can recognise our own sins or if we need someone else to point them out to us, it is our job to give the characters the best (never easiest) route to a resolution.

Hopefully a lot of the words that I’ve excised will creep back in, in one form or another, and the story will begin to plump out like it’s preparing for hibernation. I am optimistic that will happen. I am more concerned that I have lost sight of the story’s overall shape because, whilst deep in the word-mines, scribbling over an old map with the outline of a new, it is hard to keep a proper overview on the landscape. One needs a drone or pet dragon – or agent – to assist with such things.

But I shoulder my burden alone. And I swing the pick. And I sift through the rubble. Because I am a slave to story, and the only way is forwards. Deeper, deeper into the word-chasms we go, my friend.

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*By popular acclaim. It’s an arbitrary figure, like all such things, but this is the one that seems to crop up most often

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All the right words

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I write these words from deep within my editing cave. Taking advantage of a temporary lacuna in paid work, I am busy ripping apart and putting back together New Gods, the finale of my Antarctic trilogy – the series that began with Night Shift.

As I said last week, there is (more than) one small problem with the work I’ve encountered so far and it’s this: the body doesn’t come soon enough. This means the novel feels unbalanced, like it doesn’t really start until we’re nearly half-way through.

It is, in other words, a problem.

And the problem with a problem is that rectifying it comes with its own legion of problems. Move the murder? That means you also need to move the essential preliminaries to murder (and isn’t that everything?) and the aftermath, and…

And before long you don’t know where you are; your carefully crafted story is in tatters; you sit surrounded by piles of disarticulated sentences and lost paragraphs and you’re sure you saw chapter seven in there three times. And does chapter fourteen really come straight after four?

Jean Oram quote

This is where planning becomes exceedingly helpful. For me this takes the form of a simple spreadsheet with the old scene-order – a few words about what happens in each one – on one side and the new on the other. Then it becomes mostly a question of copying and pasting…

…Except it doesn’t, because none of your delicious words make sense anymore. None of your references hang together as your gentle allusion is now the first mention there’s been. Before long you’re lost in a maze of misplaced openings and dead ends all around. Evidence is scattered willy-nilly and all sense of cause-and-effect is discarded.

But the ideas are there, as is, to a large extent, the writing. What matters now is that I get the scenes in the right place and make sure the feel and flow of the novel is improved.

Because, to paraphrase that famous Morecambe and Wise sketch, I have written mostly the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

Morecambe and Previn

The mystery of the missing corpse

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I am missing a corpse.

There is a piece of advice that I’m sure you know already, and that’s to make your first act as short as possible. Don’t waste time with introductions and preliminaries bar the essentials but get to your inciting incident as soon as possible.

That means, if writing a murder mystery, you should cut to the corpse. The novel doesn’t really begin until you have your dead body. No matter what interest you have, what civil unrest, what interesting character dynamics you create, without that central pillar your novel will feel like it’s missing something.

My corpse has gone AWOL. It should have been here – right here – but someone’s snuck off with it whilst my back was turned.

I should explain: I’m talking about New Gods, the third book in my Antarctic trilogy. I wrote this years ago and, unlike Night Shift and Human Resources, it hasn’t really been looked at since. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised; fixing continuity caused by my tinkerisations with the previous books has been the greatest problem.

But I’m 100 pages in now; that’s nearly a third of the way through.

There hasn’t been a single murder yet. Not one.

There’s a lot of good things. There’s the suggestion of a historical massacre. There’s political intrigue. There’s the reintroduction of an old character and just enough about him to cause the reader doubt. New characters seem realistic and intriguing.

But there’s no body. And this is a problem. Nearly a third of the way through and the novel hasn’t yet begun.

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This is odd, if you think about it. Why should it be so important that there’s a death when there’s so much else going on? It’s not as if other genres make such simple, bare demands. All that matters is a conflict, a course irrevocably decided upon. I have that in spades.

But this is a murder mystery. People need a body – or, at the very least, something with the same emotional heft. I don’t have that here. Will what I do have be enough to keep people reading? Well maybe; as I said, there’s plenty going on. But why leave it to chance?

It’s time to dust off my scissors. The (first) murder needs to be brought forwards. It needs to be front and centre. It needs to be my primary focus. If that pushes some other strands into the background then so be it.

Hell, that might make those threads stronger; a little messiness can frazzle my lead-character, can distract and disorientate so as to mask (from character and reader) what really matters. This could become a boon.

But I’m not going to start cutting just yet. First I’m going to read through the rest of the novel. It’s worth remembering what I’m trying to achieve before trying to achieve it.

Besides, it should be fun.


 

UPDATE: I found it! That pesky corpse was hiding on page 138. Now I just need to rearrange the whole novel to bring it front and centre.

Also, I can’t wait to the end of the novel. It’s time to start snipping!

The difficult second album

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I have done what I promised. I have submitted Human Resources and now I have that vague feel of remorse that often follows big actions.

But it’s not a big thing is it, not really. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times. A rejection here wouldn’t be so different – would it?

Well, yes and no. A rejection here won’t make me poorer. It won’t knock me off what low-level perch I’ve managed to claw myself to. I won’t be back to starting from scratch.

But this is my difficult second album. It’s where the sales from my last release are compared with the quality evident in my work to determine if I have a future with this publisher. A rejection means they don’t believe I can sell enough to make their investment worthwhile. This isn’t necessarily down to me, or things I can control, but obviously I control the quality of my work.

Or do I?

As soon as you commit a story to paper, you are starting the process of fixing it into a set form. It’s fine and flexible for the first draft or two – it’s easy to change your mind at this stage – but the more time you spend on a work the more ossified it becomes. Soon it is a colossal wrench to make the smallest changes.

At some point you will come to a decision: continue wrestling with an intractable beast, start a new work from scratch, or declare it finished and move on.

I’ve had real difficulty in getting Human Resources into a shape I’m happy with. The wrestling has left its scars. Now I have declared it finished but I am still unsure if that’s because it truly is as good as it could possibly be or if I’m simply too beat up.

Time, too, is a factor here. Without an agent to tell me what is ‘normal’ for the delivery of a sequel, I imagine missed opportunities, publishing dates passing, other authors and novels by the same publisher dominating my news-feed. Have I been forgotten? Am I already written off as a flop? Why haven’t we got his next work yet?

Second-album syndrome. It shouldn’t exist. You’re always trying to do your best work; why should this one be so different?

It is, though. And now I’m nervously waiting the answer that could go a long way to determine my career as a writer.

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For the last time

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I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder

Piracy, proofreading and podcasts

It’s been a busy few weeks. Podcasts, piracy and proofreading; all have distracted me from the important business of working out what to hell to say in this blog. So here’s another hastily thrown together post-cum-news-update in lieu of anything actually interesting:

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Piracy: Night Shift has been pirated. Copies were being offered free to download – without my or my publisher’s permission – on a notorious website that has, for now at least, been taken down. Now, as I said on Twitter, I’m more phlegmatic than furious. There is a certain sense of ‘achievement unlocked’ and a slight smugness that my hack-work appears above Stephen King’s book of the same name on the site.

Why do I feel like this? Well, I might be wrong but I have the sense that I’m too low in the author hierarchy – I’m not even midlist – for it to matter that much. I’m not going to get many sales anyway, so I’m not going to lose much, if anything, if a few people take it for free.

I’ve also got people to go into bat on my behalf. My publishers are the ones who really will suffer and they’re the ones that are going to fight – have fought – to get the site taken down. The people I feel sorry for are the indie authors and the small presses. I have no idea how my book is doing; I won’t until my periodic royalty statement arrives. Indies count every sale are the ones who suffer and I feel for them.

This is also another reason to join any writers’ union or organisation you can. Strength in numbers.

Piracy genuinely hurts people – hurts authors, who are struggling enough as it is. If you really can’t afford a book, join a library. If you can’t get to a library, many offer ebook and audiobook loans you can access without ever setting foot outside your house. Plus there are sites like Project Gutenburg that give out kosher ebooks for nothing.

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From XKCD. And it’s one space after a paragraph

Proofreading: I’ve been kept busy with that annoying thing – paid employment – recently. Due to people mistaking me for competent, I’ve had a full load of editorial work on my plate. This has ranged to the book mentioned in this podcast – a cracking good read by a lovely chap – to an amateurish novella to my current job: a non-fiction guide on how to be a mayor.

It’s great to have work. I enjoy proofreading, and copy-editing, and picking up a few extra pennies is very satisfying. It has, however, distracted me from what I really should be doing right now.

Yes, folks, my betas have responded. Huge thanks to Geoff, Robin, Dave and Alex – Human Resources, the sequel to Night Shift has been eviscerated and awaits my delicate surgery.

So that’s next on my list. Or it wouldn’t be if yet another piece of work had not just landed on my desk. Still, actually getting Human Resources into vaguely publishable state is the toppermost of my personal goals – and it’s so, so nearly there. It’s just life that keeps inserting its great size-twelves in my path.

Life. Don’t talk to me about life.

Marvin

Back to the betas

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At long last I’ve finished the sequel to Night Shift. Long-time readers of this blog will know it as my problem child novel; it’s taken years to get into any sort of shape, and has been through renames and remixes aplenty.

What I’d like to do now is to get it off to my editor and then hide under my desk for a few months until I get a response. I might do that anyway, but first I must take time and do my best to ensure the eventual response doesn’t draw out a guttural howl of agony. It is time to request beta-readers.

Beta-readers are saintly humans who are willing to give up their time – sometimes a lot of it – to help make your work better. They ask for no money (yet – they really should unionise), dealing only in favours; specifically, the expectation that you’ll read their blithering drivel works of undiscovered genius in return.

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Beta-readers aren’t professionals; they’re not sensitivity readers and they often don’t have the experience of paid-up editors. But they’re spot-on 90% of the time. If they tell you your multi-time-frame-and-perspective-jolting climax isn’t working, they’re probably on the money.

It also helps that in many cases, these betas know you and know how to give criticism, coming as they do from that mythical group of people called ‘friends’. Sometimes payment is made in beer, wine and chocolates.

But this is the hardest time for me. I know the novel needs at least a good sanding down; there must be rough edges aplenty. There is work to be done.

But I just want to get on. On to the next one. Maybe do some real writing for once.

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