The problematical son returns

C and H bad writing

@Bill Watterson

It’s an interesting, uncomfortable experience, editing old work. For reasons of new possibilities I have taken up Australis again (a novel which may well be retitled) and am starting to inflict the Red Pen of Destiny upon its sickly frame.

Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and has long been my problem child. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s drowning in words and I’m struggling to set it free. There’s a strong theme – a point – to the story, an expansion of the mythos, and characters I’ve enjoyed developing.  But something is getting in the way and I can’t see how to release it from its shackles.

Perhaps more interesting is to re-evaluate my writing after a gap of three years. And… well, for the most part the writing itself is actually okay. Or, to put it another way, I’ve not improved as much as I should have.

The two major problems I’ve found so far:

  • A pesky overuse of dashes. This is quite embarrassing, but a relatively easy fix
  • Too many words. This isn’t so much a case of over-writing – though there are some deletions that can be made – but just the look of the script on the page. My writing feels dense, unappealing. This is much harder to deal with as to unpick and unpack would also be to lose coherence.

In other words, my problem child is still a problem. She doesn’t just need a new suit and a bit of a haircut but a thorough delousing and training in the basic routines of civilised hygiene. I can’t yet see a way to provide her with that: I’m no paragon myself.

Everyone says that reading old works can be painful. You can see every single mistake you made, every cliché left in, every stereotype, every innocent adjective sadly abused. But the writing industry is all about editing. You have no choice but to look backwards. You have to get to grips with your own flaws because it’s your job.

Sometimes the best option is to abandon a work and move on to the next one. But if you can’t do that? You just have to suck it up. Get that red pen out and, if necessary, rewrite the whole damn thing.

Hey, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Best get the whole time-travel thing sorted, then. You’re lucky. You’ve got the chance to kill your sins before they’re inexorably committed to the public record. Not everybody has this opportunity.

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Good news, everyone

Bad news! I’m going to have to change my byline. ‘The unfocussed abstractions of an unpublished author’ has served me well for four and a half years. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

But this is because of Good News. I’ve signed a publishing contract, and Night Shift is scheduled to be released late 2018. Hooray and huzzah! And extra special congratulations to anyone who guessed this had happened from my last few blog posts. Aren’t you just the cutest little smartypants?

I signed the deal a few weeks ago but was holding back from telling you because I wasn’t sure the publishers would like it if I went shooting my mouth off. Indeed, that’s why this blog is late today: I wanted to be sure that I could say anything, and if there was anything the publisher wanted me to keep shtum about. Professionalism, see? I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I can still do a respectable impersonation of it.

Anyway, there are myriad slips ‘tween cup and lip and I’m not sure I’ll believe this myself until I’ve got my grubby little mitts on a copy of the book. I’ll tell you more about the project – and my heavily-edited experiences in Publishland – over the coming months.

Good news

The great mistake

MIstake
Okay. I made a mistake. I made the same mistake I made a dozen times before. To do the same thing and expect a different response is madness. Make of that what you will.

This is what I’m thinking: I sent Oneiromancer out too soon. I should have polished it further. Perhaps I was arrogant; I had too much faith in the improvements I’ve seen in myself as a writer (which I still believe are there – I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago). I overrode my own doubts, and this is always, always a mistake.

I’ve had some twenty rejections so far, with a few submissions still outstanding. No-one (agents only so far) has requested a full manuscript. Now is the choice: I can keep going, reaching deeper into the list of fantasy-accepting agents I find across the internetverse. Or I can pull back and reconsider my options.

The reason I’d push on is simple: it’s easy. I have a query letter that I still think is good and is relatively easily tailored to an individual agent’s tastes. I have my sample material and synopsis ready. Each rejection can be simply met with two more submissions sent out. Like Hydra, soon my sinuous necks will envelop the planet.

But easy is not necessarily best. Maybe it’s time for me to pause. To look again at the opening of my novel and see if it can’t be improved.

I still believe in Oneiromancer. It’s a good story, strong and dark and rich. I’m not fooling myself into thinking it’s perfect, though. They say you should never send out anything that isn’t perfect, but I’d reached a point where I couldn’t improve it any more. I’d reached the end of my mental strength and needed professional input to smooth out those last few creases.

It is, perhaps, arrogance that persuaded me that an agent would be the place to get that assistance. But, in my defense, this is what had happened with Night Shift. And my work has been beta-read and improvements made. What’s the alternative? The only one, so far as I can see, is to pay hundreds of pounds to a literary consultancy and that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t appeal.

So here is my plan: I will pause on the submissions. I will start on an entirely new writing project. I will, when I get a little mental clarity, try and re-examine the first three chapters of Oneiromancer to make sure my lure is as irresistible as possible to agents.

I have as a deadline and incentive this year’s Pitch Wars competition. More on that in future posts. For now, however, I must go and do some real writing.

Downshift

downshifting-600x450

Things change. It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I was writing this merry little blog-post, filled with optimism, sunshine and metaphorical puppies. Now rejection is my only friend. I have exhausted the few connections I have. I am running out of options.

Writing is a funny game. There are so many slips ‘twixt cup and lip that it’s almost impossible to feel confident; even a critically-admired trilogy is no guarantee of book four reaching the shelves. There’s so much competition that we have to measure success in little ways: a personalised rejection; a request for a full manuscript, even if then rejected; ‘another agent might feel differently’. Small mercies. Cold comforts.

I want to be published. I want to make a career, even if it’s alongside Paid Employment, proofreading and all the rest. I believe I’m good enough. I’m certainly battered and ugly enough. So I find myself looking once again to self-publishing.

I have product: Night Shift is ready for press, its sequels drafted and requiring only another run-through or three. Oneiromancer is also ready to go, a simpler matter as the subject is deeper within my comfort zone. I’m planning a sequel to that – but herein, really, lies the rub: what’s the point of writing a sequel if the first book stands no chance (a premature statement, but still) of getting published?

The book will be written because the book needs to be written. When you have visions and wonders inside you have to find a way to let them out, regardless of the sense of it. This is what a writer is – a conduit between dreams and the wider world, and one that has only limited powers over what they emit.

But it’s frustrating and dispiriting. I understand the business; I understand that agents are overwhelmed with wannabees and they can only endorse the works they truly fall in love with.

But I’m getting old. I’ve given over a decade to writing and I believe that I’m good (for a given value of good) and will get better. What do I do? What do any of us do? Shall we organise a revolution and overthrow these guardians of respectability and set up our own empire of fools?

Or shall we just get back to the keyboard and keep going, keep going, keep going until we smash the walls with the sheer weight of our words?

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.