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.

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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.

Pitch Wars

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‘No, my manuscript is better!” “Pah! You don’t even have multiple narrators.” “At least I don’t have a talking dog as a protagonist!” “You dare mock Wuffles? You must die!” [I’ve no idea who this picture’s by; I stole it from here]

I have decided that what I really need is serious, professional-level input to help me across that final gap; to make my novel ready for publication. And by publication I mean ready for agents. And by professional-level input I mean free professional-level input.

This is why I’m submitting Oneiromancer to this year’s Pitch Wars competition. Full details are here, but in essence it’s an opportunity to work with a mentor – a published author – to develop your novel and your query letter. Which is exactly what I need.

First you have to have a finished novel with at least a modicum of polishing. You also need a query letter, and a synopsis is desirable. Then you choose four potential mentors, and this is where it gets tricky. There are a hundred to choose from – though only 37 of these deal in adult stories, and of those I’ve a longlist of twelve who take urban fantasy.

This is the first time I’ve attempted anything like this. I’m not one for competitions – there aren’t many for full-length novelists and I’m too mean to pay. Or, rather, I’m too cautious for uncertain returns. I’ve spent a lot of my life being poor and such habits run deep.

But social media is gradually winning me over. Slowly I am expanding my circle of influences: gradually I am becoming aware of opportunities, of new writers and – I hope – new perspectives. If there’s one thing I beg you take from my blog it’s this: be open. Even if you just watch from the sidelines and stay silent – as I’ve spent a lot of my life doing – let yourself grow.

Maybe Pitch Wars will be a bomb. Maybe I’ll be eliminated after the first read-through and I’ll just face more rejection. But at least I’ll have re-examined my manuscript and met (virtually) a few more authors. I’ve already learned there’s a difference between US and UK query letters. Really, what have I to lose?

Bringing the band together

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Stolen from here

Oneiromancer has an ensemble cast. It has five characters who think they’re the star; each has a point of view and rather like having the focus on them, thank you very much. This is great. This is the story I wanted to tell and it’s a lot of fun, slipping beneath skins and giving different perspectives. Like a movie I can select the viewpoint and give the information I want given.

But, inevitably, there is a problem. Put simply, I don’t know how to start the novel. My early drafts had each ‘hero’ taking their turn: building a scene as they saw it, and then moving to the next person. And, as I’ve never been a big fan of ‘five men walked into a bar’ setups (although I am a big fan of bars), each of them was in a different place, a different time, with no connection to the scene that came before.

In other words I had a series of ‘starts’, none of which built on a narrative. Early criticism was that the novel didn’t really cohere until around the fifth chapter, by which time we’d met all the main players.

So I rewrote the beginning. I removed some early POV changes/introductions and tried to ‘flow’ from one character to the other. But it seems I didn’t go far enough. More simplification is needed. More difficulties are to be overcome.

Oneiromancer is a long novel. All the characters are well bound together, and the POV changes – I think – work well over the long haul. I don’t want to change it. Besides, lots of novels have ensemble casts and continent-spanning perspectives aren’t something to be feared.

But we still have to get the beginning down. Nobody will stick around to witness the genius of my legerdemain if they give up on the novel before my characters collide. Agents base their initial decisions on less and less material: ten pages is now normal. Why should they – or you – read more than that? It’s not as if we’re starved of quality literature.

So it’s back to the start with me. Lop off the first chapter, extract any relevant info, compress and sneak it back in later. And then it’s all about the hope – and the next round of beta reading and feedback and rejection – that this time it works. That I can properly bait the audience until they’re hooked, unable to wriggle away.

Ensemble casts are, in summary, a bugger. If anyone has any answers I’m all ears.

The frustration of not writing

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I have no idea who owns the copyright to this image, but it’s pretty great

There is little in life as frustrating as not being able to work on what you want. I have many hard, difficult, but necessary tasks awaiting my attention. Sadly, I also have an unwell wife and a squeaksome Lyrapillar to wrangle, in addition to all the normal detritus of life such as Paid Employment of Doom and chasing a mayor for money.

So: here are my current projects. For some reason I’m trying to do them concurrently. This will obviously go well.

  • A new novel. Of the many potential story-ideas I’ve had rolling around for a while, I’ve decided to go with the fenland, possibly YA, one. I don’t really know what the story is – or where it’ll go – but I’m getting there. Slowly.
  • A short story. I don’t do short stories. I never have; they’re just not part of my cultural makeup. But I’ve written one; or, at least, I have a really crap first draft that I want to gut and reassemble. Just for fun – just because I have a half-asleep shower idea that I thought might make an interesting piece of flash fiction. It’s got slightly out of hand and needs a total rewrite.
  • Editing Oneiromancer. Right. So this is the big one. This is the one I least want to do. But after myriad rejections I’ve determined that I’ll enter Oneiromancer into this year’s Pitch Wars event/competition/whatever. I’ve previously promised to say more about this and I will. For now, though, my priority is to take a good hard look at the way my novel opens and simplify, deepen and simplify again. Possibly with a chainsaw.

The thing is that no matter how difficult I find these things, no matter how I might procrastinate, they’re always on my mind. They’re The Things I Should be Doing. Writing is, as they say, a form of madness, a mania. You know you’re a writer when these things become compulsions and you can’t not write.

Writing is not the most important thing in my life. My family comes first. But writing is the thing I most need to do; the thing I should be doing when I’m not.

In fact, the only time is when I don’t want to be writing is when I’m sitting in front of a computer and I can’t think where the story is going. That’s when the washing-up is at its most appealing.

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

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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?