The feel of a novel

Emotions Delawer

Copyright Delawer Omar. Used without permission because I don’t understand these things

People talk about genre. They talk of setting. They talk of plot and ask ‘so what’s it all about, then?’ They don’t ask what a novel feels like. Which is odd – or at least it seems so to me – as feel is the fundamental starting point of all fiction. And probably a lot of non-fiction too.

This is a hard thing to describe, but every novel, to me, has its own individual taste; its own colour, smell, texture. Maybe it’s best described as an emotional synthaesthesia; and maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But when I’m setting out to write a new story the first thing that I develop is a feel, a smell. This is wrapped up in genre and setting but to me is deeper, more intrinsic. It’s like selecting the palette with which you’ll paint your characters.

When I started to develop Night Shift I began with the cold. Add onto that both claustrophobia and a hint of agoraphobia (not quite a contradiction) and paranoia and I had a framework upon which to build the actual plot. Of course setting went hand-in-hand with this: Antarctica makes some of this simple. But it’s possible to set a blazing-hot emotional volcano within a frozen landscape; and it’s entirely possible to build a frigid tundra with no sense of cold.

Similarly, Oneiromancer is a nighttime novel. Its palette is streetlit: umbers, browns, shades of amber. It’s ambiguity and shifting, untrustworthy flickers. It’s no accident that the few chapters set outside London form the Relief Section of open skies, sunlight and the taste of the coming harvest.

At the moment I’m working on three ideas, trying to build them up from nebulous concepts into something I can actually write. I don’t know what genres they will eventually fall into – though I have ideas – but what I have is a feeling for them all:

• The Breton One – paranoia, a sense of being lost, a hunt, ripe sunlight in rich countryside
• The Urban One – identity and the loss of the same; clear skies and cloudy hearts
• The Fenland One – a great, willow-fringed lake; a flatland where the land and the sky are indistinguishable. It’s also wading through knee-high stagnant water with vegetation leaning into you and choking and drowning you at the same time…

So what comes first? Story? Setting? Genre? Maybe all these are just aspects of the same thing. But for me the first stirrings of a novel will always – no matter how I actually go on to tell the story – be the feel of a piece. I’ll know this before I find a universe in which to nurture it.

World-building 101

wb2

There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.

Trending now

 

trope-bingo

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade now. As I tentatively, and (as yet) without a real plan, move on to a new project, it’s starting to strike me that most of my novels have certain things in common. I’m not sure I like this, but it’s moderately undeniable.

Here’s a look at what I’m beginning to identify as the key themes of my writing:

  • A love of the Everyman

Born out of a teenage infatuation with film noir, and probably deeper-rooted in childhood frustration at my own limitations, my protagonists are – without exception – normal. No superheroes for me: no supersoldiers, or psychics (except Oneiromancer, and even there it’s the ordinary folk that stole the show). No Spidermen or cyborgs or even battle-scarred lone-wolf PIs.

  • Split narratives

The first person Night Shift series seems more and more like an aberration. I am drawn relentlessly to the lure of multiple viewpoints and film-like changes of POV within scenes. A large cast is inevitable so I can give a broad perspective – especially when I can show…

  • Cat and mouse

…hunter and hunted: predator and prey. Those split narratives of mine always seem to show both sides of the fence…

  • A heavy police presence

…and one of those sides is usually represented by the police. Not that the police are necessarily the Good Guys.

This is probably the thing that bothers me most about my own writing. I have no real knowledge of the police. All my info comes from crime novels and the sort of ‘Miss Marple’-type dramas I used to watch as a kid. It’s all guesswork and bits cobbled together from other fiction. I’m desperate to drop it but I just don’t seem able to let go. The police are just so damn useful. How else do you prove the Everyman’s innocence?

  • Madness

At least one of my characters will have unresolved mental problems. It’s depression in Night Shift (though I didn’t realise it when I was doing the writing). One of my protagonists in Oneiromancer has had a breakdown. Chivalry has a pair of nutters. Why do I do this? Maybe I have unresolved issues myself (actually, I know I do. But still). Maybe it’s a way of showing a fraction of some deep-seated resentment. But it’s there. Always there. At its best it’s an important and underwritten commentary on modern life. At its worst it strays close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory.

This is probably just scratching the surface. There are probably many more commonalities I’m not seeing quite yet; I’m still too close, too blinkered.

The Downside

Tropes – common themes – are great. There’s nothing wrong with having a style, a niche and a way of writing that readers can follow, and get behind and embrace. It also says a lot about the writer. Politics (sometimes direct, sometimes more subtle) will always creep through your words: where would Terry Pratchett be without his love of the underdog, his challenges to received orthodoxy? Within (massive) boundaries, you know what you’re getting when you read a Discworld novel.

But tropes are dull. It can lead you into ruts; who doesn’t yearn to break free of their comfort zone and do something totally unique and off-the-wall? I want to push myself, to explore new ways of writing; I want to grow.

Maybe some of this is cowardice. I fear to write a real space-opera, or a historical novel, or to truly break out of my comfort-zone. Maybe I’m not sure I’m good enough, or that I’ll be laughed at or thought too out-there, man.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve started a new piece. I don’t know where it’s going yet but I’ve already written in a police point-of-view, which means a split narrative and… And I don’t want to do this. I’ve done it before.

The only way to break out of this is to sit down and plan, to rewrite and rework. The problem with that is that I like to find my way through writing, through getting things down on the page and seeing where they take me: almost the antithesis of pre-planning.

There is, of course, a middle ground. There has to be some sort of whole-novel planning, even if it isn’t a scene-by-scene breakdown. Then maybe I can reassign some characters and turn my story in new directions.

But I’m not at this stage yet. I still don’t know where I’m going.

I just know I want to get off this treadmill and go free-running through new landscapes.

Loglines

logline

The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?

Chivalry

In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.

Oneiromancer

They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

Art hard

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about how authors were no longer simply required to write: how we had to be artists & designers, marketing gurus, social media specialists and wotnot. What I didn’t really mention was how much fun this could be. For the last week I’ve set my editing aside and – inspired by the collapse of my somewhat elderly hard-drive – colonised my wife’s laptop and turned my attention to cover-art.

I’ve never missed as many buses as I did on my week’s sojourn, never lost time so completely. Learning new skills is always great. I just never expected to enjoy playing with Photoshop as much as I do.

Greyscale

The prep-work for the cover. It took bloody hours to get this far, mostly because of incompetence and uncertainty. A better impression of how the final image will look can be found here

I’ve never been as artist. I’ve always wanted to be; I’ve played with photography (GCSE grade A, I’ll have you know) and I did go through a phase of creating pastel abstractions in my early twenties. But I can’t draw. I’ve bitterly envied those that can; those amongst you who can simply pick up a pen and show me the inside of your mind. Just like I envy the guitarists. Damn communicators, making it look so easy. Everything I do – have ever done – is the result of bitter struggle, wringing myself out and trying, trying, retrying just to express myself.

I’m trying to get the cover-art right. My methods are the same as those I use to write. The ideas are nebulous. Trial and error; constant deletions and reworkings, shaping my mind as much as I do the image. Using three simple tools because I don’t know how to use the slightly more complicated (but infinitely quicker) fourth. Stumbling, misunderstanding, limping and cursing. But always moving forwards. Making my work a tiny bit better everyday.

It helps that I’ve found tools to design the basic outlines and that the overall image is towards the abstract. That means I’m trusting my intuition, heart and experience as much as my conscious mind – and, given that my conscious mind is an idiot, that means I can sense the image coming together. It’s a wonderful feeling, like learning a new means of – yes – communicating. A book-cover is a capsule encompassing everything the story is. The aim is to set mood, to tell the prospective reader just what the reading experience will be like at a glance.

Of course, this not only covers the image but the text: font, scale, hardness or softness: the mind draws inferences from a fraction of a second’s glance, and can judge from a tiny thumbnail whether the work will be right for them. The human mind is amazing, and anyone who sets out to influence it has their work cut out.

But right now I’m lost in the sheer joy of creation. I hope, deeply hope, that I find the other aspects of self-publishing as much fun as this. Or at least I hope I can learn as much from it. It’s certainly possible to view the business-side of writing as a distraction from real creation, but – right now – I’m choosing to view it as a tremendous opportunity. Not to sell books – that’d be a very nice bonus – but to learn. To grow. To build on my skills and possibly even to find new things to write about.

The road to Good

Image

The first step towards doing something well is to do it badly.

I could be talking about more or less anything. The first draft; the rough demo, or sketch; hell, this blog usually requires a very erratic (and badly grammaticised) bash-through before I’ve worked out precisely what I want to say and how I want to say it.

You sit in front of the computer and you have an idea. You think it’s going to be easy. You struggle to get the words to appear, dark and dreamlike, in front of you, but something goes awry. The sentences don’t flow. Everything is half-baked, clumsy; like a five-year-old on his standardised national test, you shake and tremble and break down in tears as the dialogue that finally emerges seems to have come straight from the aforementioned five-year-old. Sucks to be you.

Be reassured. Everyone goes through this. And it’s easier to fix dodgy work than it is to pour genius onto a blank page. This is where I am with my artwork for Night Shift.

NS2b3

The image here is my first proper attempt at my front cover. I am not happy with it. The figure on the left looks like a robot. The body’s bum is too sharp. Nothing is consistent. There is a distinct lack of harmony.

But getting to this stage is a victory. This is my proof-of-concept: the first real manifestation of the idea I want to bring forth. I had to produce something I’m not happy with so that I can see what’s wrong with both the original idea and the execution – and so I can make subsequent versions better.

The first draft is always the hardest. It takes the most time as you struggle with your tools, with how best to use them, with a lack of prescience and a hole in the bottom of your skills-basket. The second – even if you have to totally scrap the original and start from scratch – will always be easier. You have a map. You have a plan. You know where you’re going. You can avoid the dead-ends and the boggy morasses in favour of higher, more solid, ground.

I will return to my artwork. I will modify my gradient maps (and if you don’t know what a gradient map is, neither did I until a few days ago). I will be more careful with my shading. And, once that’s done, I’ll turn my attention to the equally important choices of font, layout and scaling. Hell, if all else fails I’ve got an idea I can show to a professional so they can do it better.

Now I know where I’m going. With a little luck – and a lot of help – I’ll get there in the end.

Good money after bad

I’ve finally realised: the reason I’m struggling with Australis is because it wasn’t written by me. It was written by the person I was three years ago.

It’s a revelation. It explains so much. I remember writing the first draft, thinking how much better it was than its back-to-back-written prequel. I was wrong, although I can see why I thought that. I pushed myself, trying something new, stretching beyond my comfort zone. It took the thread of the previous book and took it to its logical conclusion. I was proud of it.

Since then I’ve worked intensively on Night Shift, written the trilogy’s closer New Gods and – with a great sigh of relief – left Antarctica for the relative warmth of summertime London with Oneiromancer. Australis has lurked with only minor tinkering until a major overhaul around 18 months ago, the details of which I’d more or less forgotten. Now I find myself reading a stranger’s work; a grim, depressed stranger who clearly thought that endless blank corridors and anonymous offices made a good setting for a psychological thriller-cum-murder mystery-cum science fiction novel.

How did I come to write this? How could I have made so many misjudgements? What am I do with it now?

Also: who am I now? As a writer, what’s changed in my life to transform the author of a plodding police procedural into a writer of pacy adventures*?

The answer, of course, is that I wrote a plodding police procedural. I wrote something that, in retrospect, I’m not happy with, and I learned from the process. I took my feedback and, whilst there was nothing immediate, no fireworks in the brain, I got better. Gradually I realised how to avoid the sins I’d committed; a mirror was held to my own crapness and I did my best not to screw my eyes tight shut.

Fundamentally I’m still the same person. My errors are still legion and doubtless I’ll have committed many egregious sins in both Oneiromancer and New Gods. I will do my best to learn from these too. Indeed, early feedback is that O’s opening chapters are confused and congested. More work. Yay for work.

In the meantime I have to decide what to do with Australis. The obvious thing is to abandon it; simply to move on and write something better. But I’m not prepared to do that.

The bad reason for this is that it’s the central part of a trilogy, and to simply bin it is to lose my middle stump. It’s a bad reason because a bad book is a bad book, and no-one will ever want to move onto the finale if they’ve been bored to tears by the previous instalment. Plus I have a reputation to consider: I don’t want to be someone who churns out potboilers for the sake of a few pennies. I want to be good. I want to write well. My ego demands it.

Another bad reason is to persist because of the investment in time I’ve put into Australis. I’ve no idea how many hours I’ve spent on it already but to go ahead just because of that is the equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep working, going to spend more precious time on Australis, for two reasons. The first is that there is a good story hiding beneath the bull and I know I can draw it out. I’m a better writer now. I can do it.

The second reason is because I want to. I need nothing more than that. I like my characters. The world still interests me. There are still things I want to say. And now I know this trilogy will be self-published I have incentive and freedom to write it the way I want it written.

It will work. It will be good. It’ll just take a little more time, that’s all.

*No-one has ever said I write pacy adventures. The self-delusion is strong with this one.