Slave to the story

burning

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

restructuring_image

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.

The-New-Lagos-Island-Mortuary-700x385

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 importance of being critiqued

No matter how experienced you are, how much you appreciate criticism and really want to be shown all your errors, there is a part of you who wants to hear nothing but that you’ve written a good book.

My critique group are excellent. They may pull their punches in the face of your trembling lip, but that doesn’t stop them from dropping you to the canvas in a heartbeat. It’s a reciprocal arrangement so I’ve no complaints: I’m harsh too. This honesty is vital as you’ll never become a better writer unless you know where you’re going wrong. Still it leaves a mark.

On Monday I had New Gods in the ring and it got savaged. Despite the fact that I knew they were right in almost every way, it still hurts. Now I know I have to go back to the very beginning, take it apart and rebuild from scratch. Much as I enjoy writing, the last thing I ever want is more work. Because I’m lazy. And because it’s about time I got out of Antarctica and gave my tired brain a change of scenery.

More positively, this critique also proves how much I’ve learnt over the last year. I’ve not looked at New Gods for about 15 months, and it showed. In the intervening time I’ve learnt so much, have really reconsidered how I go about something as complex as a novel. Much of the criticism I got last night revolved about depth of character, the need for backstory and for better dialogue. I’ve already thought about that and am not too worried – I can do it.

I’m more concerned with problems of plot – and missed opportunities – that were pointed out to me. But I suppose all it means is that I have to think harder: sometimes you can’t just sit back and let ideas come to you; sometimes you have to put on your pith helmet, take down the old elephant gun and stalk those treacherous wee bastards.

So thank you to my group, some of whom are probably reading this. You gave me exactly what I needed. I’ll come back with a much better story as a result. Right now, though? Well, it’s a short step from criticism of one unfinished project to worry about all your output and whether you’ve got what it takes at all. Self-doubt is never that far away.

But I do this because I love it and I’ve trained myself to sit down and my desk and work. So I will get up, get back to it and produce something better than I could before. And though the self-doubt may never leave me, if I can fool others into believing I can write then maybe I can trick myself too.

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.

Gadgets and NaNoWriMo

I got a new phone in August. I hate it. And I hate it because I like it so much.

What did we do before mobiles, tablets and their ilk? When we were on our buses and trains, when we were waiting for friends or our families, how did we pass the time? Were we perpetually bored?

I hate my phone because instead of spending quality time in my head I play chess or read Twitter. I don’t use my eyes as much – spend less time playing with architecture or admiring nature, or people-watching or dreaming. Several scientific papers – no, I can’t quote them – have suggested that we overstimulate our children and that being bored is an important part of growing up to be a human being. Now I worry we’re losing that as adults.

Because being in our own heads allows us to dream. It allows us to create stories, to make connections – a form of meditation where we can enter a state almost like sleep. Quiet time, where we do nothing, is a precious resource. It’s where we get to know our characters both real and fictional, where we plan and sketch theories and refine and abandon them. I’m a landscape historian by education, and my eternal pleasure is to spot old hedgerows and trackways and try to trace them back through time: to see where a t-junction used to be a crossroads; to spot old manor-houses and lodges and…

And so on. The point is that we’re willingly giving it up. And this time we sacrifice is also the best time for thinking of new stories. Writing-time isn’t just that spent on your computer or with your note-pads: it’s also the time we spend seeing and drifting through time, into wild fantasies and lurid, sweat-drenched nightmares.

Modern technology is fantastic. It’s given us so much, freed us up for more and more time to do what we actually like to do. But don’t let it steal your ability to dream.

*          *          *

It’s been a quiet time here at Writerly Towers. After the highs and lows of September, getting baited by publishers only to see them withdraw the hook, and the new first drafts, and all this… activity, I seem to have been swept into the Doldrums. Becalmed upon an ocean lacuna, awaiting fair wind to gently blow me into harbour, I’m slowly picking my way into the second draft of New Gods and sending off the occasional submission.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it’s a strange life being a writer. You’re constantly sculling from one manic phase to another, trying to cram as much real life as you can around the edges. I’m not a believer in some benevolent muse who’s pulling your strings like a puppet; writing is much more of a habit, even a struggle, than a gift. Still, there are days when the words just won’t come and, despite your best intentions, you feel like it’s just been wasted time.

I’m old now, and resigned enough to be philosophical. Take your time out, take a walk, visit the most excellent Norwich Beer Festival (who can fail to enjoy a brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody with an ale in ‘and?). I’m not a big one for holidays, but I’m treating this time kinda like a brain-off-the-hook session. It’s nice to coast, for once, and not be hammering my muscles against the mighty ocean. And speaking of, you might like to check out this article (http://storyfix.com/help-wanted-hiring-fiction-writers-now) which demonstrates that it’s a mighty ocean indeed.

So for now I’m coasting, doing just a little every day; a sort of busman’s holiday. How long will it go on for? I’ve got no idea. Next week I might be back in the midst of creativity, as abustle as a Dickensian Matron. Who knows, maybe I’ll have had another nibble of interest and I’ll be bouncing around puppy-like, unable to keep from yapping at you all. Or I might have had hopes dashed, thrust into maudlin bitterness and lashing out at the whole industry.

A writer’s life. Weird, unpredictable, where the dull moments are to be treasured and schizophrenia is a constant.

Who will you be today?

*          *          *

It’s NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month (although it should really be InNoWriMo, as it’s gone exceedingly international) for those not in the know. The aim is to write a 50,000-word book in thirty days; a real challenge and a real achievement for those who get it done. Anybody out there giving it a try? I’d love to hear your stories of success or failure, elation or frustration.

I came across the idea a few years ago when I read the official NaNoWriMo guide – memorably described by my Dad as ‘a good book telling you how to write a bad book quickly’. I’ve never taken part; it’s not for me as I’ve got my ways of working and I reckon I’m doing okay on my own. Still, anything that encourages writing – or reading – is a good thing in my eyes.

Just remember that writing is supposed to be fun – or, if not exactly fun, then at least satisfying. For amateurs like me who don’t get paid for their work (not yet, at least) it’s important that we don’t burn out by setting unrealistic targets for ourselves. If you want to write know that I’m here cheering you on; there’s a great writing community out there and we’re all on your side.

And remember that, if it all goes wrong and you abandon your project half way through, that’s okay too. It’s how one responds to setbacks that really defines us as people. Treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, etc…

Happy writing!

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.