Progress uncertain

In a vague attempt to make myself a) employable and b) to help myself as a self-employed writer/editor I have been doing a course in business skills over the last fortnight. This means there has been precious little time for actual writing, something that shivers the very soul within my skin.

It also means I don’t have much to say right now, unless you want me to take you through the intricacies of invoicing.

So: please allow me to update you on what I’m currently working on and what lies in my immediate future in lieu of more interesting words.

Maze

  • Night Shift

As you all know, NS is scheduled for publication on November 6th. I’ve recently completed my copyedits and the manuscript is back with the publishers who are, I hope, busy doing publish-y things to it. Fear not, good people – I shall keep you posted whether you want to learn more or not.

  • The Problem Child

The Novel Formerly Known As Australis was half-rewritten before I both moved house and was swamped by edits and learning. But as soon as I get some clear water I’ll be coming back to this: it’s the sequel to Night Shift and I want to give my publishers a decent novel to make a decision on. More specifically I need to go back to take my seventeenth stab at an open as the damn thing still isn’t co-operating

  • Book Three

The last in the trilogy is way down my list of priorities but it is in there somewhere. And yes, it does have a name. I just can’t remember what it is

  • Oneiromancer

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. The novel is completed and polished and – I think – is pretty good. There’s just one problem: two characters need to be replaced. I just don’t quite know how to go about it – the structure is based around them and I can’t quite see how to sub them out without the whole novel collapsing into randomness. The answer might be to embrace chaos, but I’m not quite there yet. I am mulling

  • The New Thing

I don’t actually do much new writing. Most of my time is taken up with rewriting and tinkeration. But I am moulding a new project in the deepest recesses of my worst nightmares: a concept that may or may not involve refugees, corruption, journalism and a heist. This may be the last anyone ever hears of it, but at the moment it’s something I’m throwing ideas at to see if anything sticks

Carrington Labyrinth

Leonora Carrington: Labyrinth

And that’s it, apart from the prospect of a new world of (part-time) paid employment and an editing job I’m grinding my way through in the background. Which reminds me, I must make a push to get new work in: proofreading, far more so than creative writing, is what will pay the bills.

Oh, and I’ve just found I passed my exam. I am officially skilled in business, having achieved a rating of Competent. Go me.

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Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

Tales of a fifth draft nothing

Matchsticks 2

I can’t find an original artist to credit for this so my efforts to be better at unthieving are thwarted

I am – somewhat to my surprise – approaching the end of another draft of Oneiromancer. This is the fifth time I’ve been though it; here are some random-ish thoughts on the process and the results.

  •  It’s done! Until the next time I do it, it’s done!
  •  It took forever. Due to child-wrangling issues and the perversity of life in general, this draft took around ten months to complete
  • Because of this, changes I made in August took until February to be acted upon. This is not ideal, but…
  • …It was aided by my Big Spreadsheet of Things, upon which I noted the page numbers of each chapter, a rough account of what happens in each scene, and through whose eyes we view it. This meant finding errant links was simpler than would otherwise been, and swearing was kept to a minimum
  • This is, hopefully, the last really substantive edit I’ll have to do…
  • …But I know this won’t be the case as no novel survives contact with the industry
  • The problem with taking a long time over an edit comes when you take a big chunk o’ work from the beginning and reinsert it two-thirds of the way through. Can you remember just what you were thinking six months earlier? You can not. If you’re lucky you left yourself a treasure map and a series of ever more intricate clues which lead you further and further into a conspiracy spanning continents, decades, and, quite possibly, planes of existence
  • Cryptic notes are often worse than no notes
  • If you can cut, cut. Unless you shouldn’t. In which case, add
  • Writing is confusing
  • The novel is, generally, not too bad: much of the plot hangs together…
  • …But I still worry, especially about characters, mood, and finding the right balance between description and overwhelming the reader
  • The climax still thrills me, which is clearly a good sign. The problem is that, in this state, you can miss errors as you’re too eager, or too much seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there
  • Worrying over fine details is, at this stage, pointless. If the hook’s strong enough, if I can get someone to read past the first ten chapters they’ll stick with me until the end. Then they’ll tell me everything I did wrong and I can fix it
  • Getting someone to read past the first ten chapter (and by ‘someone’ I mean an agent or editor) is the tricky bit
  • The novel currently stands at 125,776 words. The previous draft was 130,767. That’s a trimming of 4,990 words, or (roughly) a twenty-sixth. Should more go? Draft One was 140,034, so we’re heading in the right direction. Obviously I’m presupposing that shorter is better, but that’s not true. Leaner is better, but muscle weighs more than fat and skeletons rarely know true love

And that’s all, folks. Now I have to think about something different to blog about for the next few weeks until I’m deep into a new project. Hopefully I’ll have exciting Night Shift news for you soon too. Smoke me a kipper, wonderful folk, and I’ll be back for breakfast.

A touch too much

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Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

Sex & violence

halsey-tattoo-Romeo and Juliet

This arm belongs to someone called Halsey,  who is apparently famous. The quote’s from Romeo and Juliet

So I’m back at The Nasty Scene. I’ve written about this before – repeatedly, in fact (see here and here) – but it’s still vexing me. If you’ve neither time nor inclination to check those links, this is my scene of sex and murder. It is, deliberately, deeply unpleasant. And I’ve decided to cut it.

I’ve been considering deleting it ever since I initially wrote the damn thing. Before, in fact; it was nearly killed at birth by the guardians of taste that dwelleth within. But write it I did and ever since I’ve been wondering whether it should remain.

Without going into too much detail, my justification was that this scene matched the characters of both killer and victim; that the novel needed a dose of visceral horror at this point (it forms the mid-novel pivot); and that it served to propel the story forwards. These are all true. So why have I decided to get rid of it after hours of writing, rewriting, testing on colleagues and rewriting again?

Well, the short answer is that I read of a new prize for thrillers that avoid sexual violence against women. Now I didn’t immediately think ‘Hey, I can win this is I just rewrite this one scene.’ For one thing Oneiromancer ain’t a thriller except in the loosest terms. It’s more that this was the last piece of evidence I needed for a conviction. It brought home to me that I was/would be perpetuating a trope that I dislike.

I don’t believe in censorship. I’m glad that people can self-publish material even if I find what they’re saying objectionable (though of course it’s people’s right to complain about such material). I’m not saying that I would never write another scene of sexual violence, should the story demand it.

But I also have to live with myself. I’ve never been happy with this scene, and that should be enough to tell me that it needs revisiting. Everyone censors themselves every day (all the things you didn’t say or do) for a whole host of reasons: writers call it editing. I’m not happy with something I wrote so I’m doing something about it.

I’m glad I tried. It proved a good exercise, pushing me beyond the safe and into new territory. It made me focus on a new kind of language and imagery; a (literal) nightmare of sensation and emotion I’ve never tried to conjure before.

But now it’s time for it to go.

Of course, this means I’ll have to find something to replace it. But that’s an entirely different matter.

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.

The slough of despond

(c) Luton Culture; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘Slough of Despond’, Edward Callam c.1972

I am already anticipating failure. We writers are a sensitive lot, and silence to us is like a sharp slap across the buttocks with the iron ruler of destiny.

You’re probably sick of Pitch Wars already. Either you’ve entered – in which case you’ll be desperately hoping to get that magic ‘send me more’ email – or you haven’t, in which case you’ll be wondering why the hell you should listen to me ramble on about it. Again.

Well it’s like this: at some point in life you’re going to submit something you care about. It could be a manuscript to a competition or to an agent. It could be a job- or university application or assignment. You’ve worked hard; you’ve made the deadline; you’ll have sent it off with a sigh of relief and a ‘well, that’s my brain cleared of that for a while’.

Obviously, the first thing you should do is unkink with the beverage or unhealthy snack of your choice. Then…

Well, take a look at this post, written in response to last year’s Pitch Wars. Now I have a thing about odds. So the sentence ‘there’s a 90% chance you’re about to have your author heart broken’ stands out to me. Of course it’s strictly true: and this year, with more entrants, there’s an even slimmer 4.7% chance of ‘succeeding’.

The odds of being chosen as a mentee, as a candidate, as an employee, are small if you look at You vs. Number of Applicants. And certainly luck is necessary; it has to land on the right desk, at the right time, whilst the recipient is in the right mood.

But you can help yourself by making your work better. In that linked post you’ll see that the co-mentors had a system of assessing writing. A certain degree of technical proficiency is needed to get you past the first round of cuts.

So my message to you is this: if you fail in any venture the first thing you should do – after the aforementioned beverage/snack – is to make yourself better. Write something else. Write something better. You can’t lose from practice, from pushing yourself, from learning something new.

The other thing to remember is that losing isn’t losing. I’ve found new people to connect with, even if it’s a vague ‘following on Twitter’ thing. My work has been seen by more people, and maybe something will have come of that in the future. I’ve given my manuscript a good polish and that will definitely stand me in good stead. I’ve practiced pitching and have learned a great deal about the business I want to be in.

Now I’m going straight back to Oneiromancer. In rewriting up my opening chapter I created a new rod for my back in the next section. I must be ready: should an opportunity fall in my lap I must be ready to catch it; that means the rest of the novel has to be as good as the opening.

There is no rest for the wicked, and I must drag myself free of the slough of despond.