Cutting the great scene of doom

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Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Bringing the band together

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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.

The frustration of not writing

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I have no idea who owns the copyright to this image, but it’s pretty great

There is little in life as frustrating as not being able to work on what you want. I have many hard, difficult, but necessary tasks awaiting my attention. Sadly, I also have an unwell wife and a squeaksome Lyrapillar to wrangle, in addition to all the normal detritus of life such as Paid Employment of Doom and chasing a mayor for money.

So: here are my current projects. For some reason I’m trying to do them concurrently. This will obviously go well.

  • A new novel. Of the many potential story-ideas I’ve had rolling around for a while, I’ve decided to go with the fenland, possibly YA, one. I don’t really know what the story is – or where it’ll go – but I’m getting there. Slowly.
  • A short story. I don’t do short stories. I never have; they’re just not part of my cultural makeup. But I’ve written one; or, at least, I have a really crap first draft that I want to gut and reassemble. Just for fun – just because I have a half-asleep shower idea that I thought might make an interesting piece of flash fiction. It’s got slightly out of hand and needs a total rewrite.
  • Editing Oneiromancer. Right. So this is the big one. This is the one I least want to do. But after myriad rejections I’ve determined that I’ll enter Oneiromancer into this year’s Pitch Wars event/competition/whatever. I’ve previously promised to say more about this and I will. For now, though, my priority is to take a good hard look at the way my novel opens and simplify, deepen and simplify again. Possibly with a chainsaw.

The thing is that no matter how difficult I find these things, no matter how I might procrastinate, they’re always on my mind. They’re The Things I Should be Doing. Writing is, as they say, a form of madness, a mania. You know you’re a writer when these things become compulsions and you can’t not write.

Writing is not the most important thing in my life. My family comes first. But writing is the thing I most need to do; the thing I should be doing when I’m not.

In fact, the only time is when I don’t want to be writing is when I’m sitting in front of a computer and I can’t think where the story is going. That’s when the washing-up is at its most appealing.

The Road to Bedlam

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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’

Proof

I’ve done something that at least sounds moderately impressive this month. With malice aforethought, with eyes wide open and with a degree of trepidation, I’ve joined my first ever professional body and can now officially – and with a certain degree of self-mockery – display this badge:

sfep-badge-entry-level-member-retina

I’ve also paid to take a proofreading course, which means that my war against typos has been stepped up to new levels.

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. One to teach myself the jargon: just as you can know the rules of grammar without knowing the terminology, proofreading can be done without training. But it has its own tics and mannerisms that it can only be of benefit to learn. This will, I hope, ultimately save me time both in my own editing and in communication with other professionals.

Technical languages like the rules of grammar (of which I am more or less entirely ignorant) are a shorthand and a pretension. You don’t need to understand dilithium crystals to make a spaceship fly, but understanding them may help you communicate with engineers.

I’m hoping that learning to proofread may help me be a better writer. If I know what the industry considers to be mistakes, if I can see what they’re looking for, the hope is that I can incorporate these ‘rules’ into my writing at an earlier stage. Or, if I’m going to break them, I can break them good and hard and with malice aforethought. And write ‘STET’* in the margin in huge letters and underline it several times.

The biggest reason for doing a proofreading course, however, is simple and obvious: I’d like to earn a little cash. Like the vast majority of writers I don’t earn money – not a penny – from my calling. I have a paid job that keeps me alive and sane, but 2017 will see me taking six months out. I need something to do. I have skills and I need to monetise them.

This sounds mercenary but it’s life, and life is sometimes cold and dark. I’ve not the temperament for teaching and writing copy for bingo sites will kill my creativity. What other options do I have? I’ve spent ten hard years on fiction writing. It’s what I know. I also need to live, and to help my family live. I also have some experience, what with all my work helping other writers with their works-in-progress.

It also keeps me locked into the world of words. Really it’s just a way of expanding what I already do: read manuscripts and give feedback. If I can pick up a few contacts through freelancing and getting my name in the world of publishing then all to the good.

My biggest worry is that I’m branching away from my true love – creative writing – and losing time from what I could be doing: writing, self-promoting and building my own career. This next year will be a crucial one for me. I am good at what I do – I have to believe that – but whether I can make a future for myself as an author remains to be seen.

Oh, and if you need any proofreading done please drop me a line. ‘Honest Rob’ is at your command; reasonable rates, satisfaction guaranteed etc etc.

 

*Apparently they don’t do this any more. I am sorely disappointed.

Plans

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Draft 4 is finished and backed-up. Now I have to decide what to do next.

After every pass you’re left thinking that there’s nothing more to do. The story is complete and you can’t see what improvements can be made. Yet the doubts remain. There are passages you have a faint uncertainty about. You need buy-in – either to confirm your fears or to reassure you that it does, in fact, work. So we all know that the best thing to do is to either get outside opinions or – failing that – to leave the manuscript in the bottom of your metaphorical drawer for six months and then return to it afresh.

I’ve run out of beta-readers. There’s no-one left to give me in depth feedback – not, at least, without paying a considerable wadge of cash for Editorial Services. I’ve got to say I’ve never seriously considered this. Maybe I should. After all, you only get one shot with each individual agent/publishing house. I’ve often lamented my impatience; once a piece has disappeared into the electronic ether that option is removed. If – as is likely – that line comes back bare and rejected you have to move on. And if you have a preferred option for representation – a contact, maybe, or someone you hugely admire – the urge to send your work to them as soon as humanly possible is hard to resist.

All this should advertise caution but I’m planning on going on to the submissions route. This is partly because I am, indeed, hugely impatient. I want to get on. I have other books to write, other plans to make. It’s also because money is a finite resource and – even after all I’ve read and all I’ve come to learn – I’m a little sceptical about editorial services and what they can do for you. I shouldn’t be; I’m thinking of offering my own services as proofreader/copy-editor in the future, so I can hardly say this cynicism is well-grounded. Maybe it’s more my own arrogance; that I don’t see what they can do that I myself can’t.

What you know intellectually but feel emotionally is a far more difficult balance than people realise. The heart rules the head far more than we’d like to admit.

So: plans. My next mission is to write a synopsis. This is a skill in itself, and will take a fair amount of swear-based sweatery. After that a proper cover-letter will need to be constructed. And then I’ll have to go back to my opening chapters and ensure they’re absolutely perfect: I’ve twice posted my opening scene on this blog but I’m still not completely confident in it. And the opening is critical: an agent hasn’t got time to plough through reams to find the nugget of talent. You only get a few pages to impress.

This work should take me to Christmas. Then it’s a little break for me as I do the whole family thing. Hopefully this’ll give me a little distance to properly reconsider my plans.

Then the submissions will start to roll.

And then it’ll be time for a change: a chance to re-energise my self-publishing plans and maybe even starting a whole new first draft.

So the whole circus begins again.

Diet hard

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I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?