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

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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

What’s it all about, Alfie?

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I’ve been musing, recently, on something you’d probably think I’d have worked out years ago, and that’s what I write about.

I’m not talking about that complex and ill-defined area of ‘theme’ that writing manuals always go on about – or, at least, not in the way that I interpret it.

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Theme is, I think, what your story is about; what’s the thread that runs through it? They often say that you don’t know until the first draft is finished. Well, Night Shift is a murder mystery set in Antarctica (and is available from at least some good bookshops) and if there’s a theme…

Well, maybe I am talking about theme after all. It’s terribly complicated and, clearly, I don’t understand it at all. But I’m here to talk about two things that I’m slowly realising are significant influences on the novel and the trilogy as a whole. One is poverty. The other is mental illness.

Let’s talk about mental illness first because it’s simpler: I didn’t realise it when I was writing the early drafts at least, but Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, is mentally ill. Childhood trauma leading to long-lasting depression and possible borderline personality disorder or Asperger’s. To what extent he’s a proxy to me you can decide yourself.

As I said, I had no plan to do this. It’s just how he came to be written. What pleases me immensely is that the trilogy in which he stars shows a clear progression in his mental health until, by the end of the third book, we (will) see…

Hold on their, youngster – let’s keep this spoiler-free, shall we?

As I said, that’s simple. It’s a character arc, albeit an inadvertent one. The issue of poverty is harder to explore.

One of the things that interviewers are fond of asking is if I’ve been to Antarctica. My stock answer has been to say that no, I haven’t, but whilst I was writing the first draft I was working in a building that lacked heating. Ah ha ha ha, how funny and disingenuous, let’s move on quickly, right?

But now I’m realising: Antarctica is poverty.

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Antarctica is a character in my novel and I’ve come to believe (not ‘realise’ because even now I’m not 100% on it) that it is based on my experiences of being poor.

Now I should say that I was never truly hungry. I always had a roof over my head. I had family to fall back on, loathe though I was to do that.

But I felt the constant pressure that poverty causes. It’s not necessarily about feeling a physical chill – not in my experience, at least – but it’s about constant stress, of worrying whether or not you can afford any luxuries at all. It’s having to carry a balance-sheet in your head at all times. It’s about being drained. Poverty is a vampire that sucks you dry and leaves a bloodless corpse in its wake.

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@Mark Parisi; OffTheMark.com

And somehow these emotions became embodied within the frozen wastes. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t think it’s obvious in the novel. But that’s what it is to me as I now look back.

Antarctica, in the story, is context. It’s the matrix in which my characters operate; and even when it’s not mentioned it’s implicit within everything every character does. This, is realise now, is exactly how life was for me when I was flat broke.

Again I must say that there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. This probably says as much about me as it does my economic state.

But every day was difficult. Every day was stress.

In Night Shift, when the chill of Antarctica starts to break through the walls and reach its frozen fingers into what was previously held safe, that how I felt when some unexpected expense undid all my hard-worn calculations. The retreat deeper into the bowels of the base was mirrored by my own retreat into home-life and hibernation.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should forget about ‘theme’; maybe instead it’s a perverted version of ‘write what you know’ (and see also here). My subconscious took an innocent story and twisted it into a nightmare of its own neuroses. And by telling you this I wonder if a) I’m putting off potential readers, or b) making everything worse.

But then, isn’t the subconscious responsible for all writing? Doesn’t it drive all our decisions, for better and for worse, and don’t we just try and justify the outcomes? I don’t know. This is all a bit too heavy for me.

So I shall sign off here, leaving only a vague sense of anxiety in my wake. Am I oversharing? Have I alienated you all forever?

I worry about these things. But I also hope. And wish you, as always, happy writing.

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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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On air #2

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If anyone’s interested in listening to me disappearing down conversational crevasses, I was on BBC Radio Guernsey on Thursday. Despite having no connection with the Channel Islands for over 500 years (very distant ancestry) I can be heard via this link just around the 02:03 hour mark. Right after Aretha Franklin.

See if you can work out where Jenny Kendall-Tobias is reading from the promo pack she was sent. And keep on listening to hear an interview from a Strictly contestant and to catch up with all the local news.

Not-quite-a-launch-party #2

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Another day, another book-signing! This one was on a Friday night in the world’s smallest bookshop* and it went much better than I could have imagined. Not only did my daughter arrive too late to heckle me but the place was packed**. Huge thanks to the staff at Between the Lines, and the people of Great Bardfield, who gave me this wonderful book as a thank-you gift.

Whether they were there for me or for the free prosecco is a moot point***. Applause was polite. Books were sold. There was only one left in the shop when I rolled out at the end of the evening, all the customers (not, for the most part, my target market) having remembered cousins, sons and friends for whom it might make a good present.

In completely unrelated news, Night Shift is available now and makes a great Christmas present for all those cousins, sons and daughters (not just for boys!) and spouses and rabbits (tasty pages!) the world over.

And that’s it. That’s all the promo I’ve got lined up. Hopefully I’ll get something lined up for the new year, but, as we stand, it’s back to the real world for me.

It’s been a busy week. Maybe now I can get on with some real writing****.

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*It’s not actually the smallest bookshop in the world. That honour goes to this place. But it is pretty small

**It would feel packed with six people in. That’s how small it is

***Prosecco. No doubt

****Just been told that BBC Radio Guernsey want an interview. Reality is postponed. Here’s your surreality-replacement service. Please don’t wee on the seats

Not-quite-a-launch party

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For those of you who don’t know, I did my first ever book-signing cum reading on Monday night. Huge thanks to Sarah at Mostly Books for hosting an event that, to my mind at least, went really well.

The only problem, in fact, was that I was heckled during the reading. Repeatedly. By my own daughter. It seems that being up two hours after bedtime and being sneakily funnelled chocolate by well-intentioned friends might not lead to perfect behaviour. Who knew?

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I’ve got another signing tomorrow night at Between the Lines in Great Bardfield. If you’re in that particular corner of Essex please do come along; I’ll be pathetically grateful for the attention.

Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get chance to set down a more reflective piece, and maybe even give some advice on how to go about doing a talk/signing/interview. Not that I know the second thing (the first is to get to the right place at the right time) about it, but still.

Oh, and I’ve not mentioned Sledge-Lit at all, which is a sin. I was there. It was great. More on that, too, shortly.

But for now I’m still trying to catch up with all the things I’ve let fall slack over the last week. Happy reading and happy writing, folks. I’ll be back when I’ve caught my breath.

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All photos copyright Sarah at Mostly Books, used with permission.