The ruts

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If you’ve been following this page for a while you might be wondering where all my posts on ‘real’ writing have gone. I’ve been blithely blithering on about proofreading, world-building, and all sorts of tangentialities and not once getting to grips with my own work. There is a reason for this. It’s because I’m stuck.

Just before Christmas I finished the fourth draft of Oneiromancer. It is as good as I can make it – or, at least, as good as I can make it right now. I’m under no illusions that it’s perfect (whatever that means) but I can’t work on it further without feedback and without a decent break.

Next on my mental ‘to-do’ list was to go back to the ‘problem child’ novel: Australis, the second in my Antarctic trilogy. But I just can’t face that right now. I need to move forwards, so January found me playing around with a new project: a cyber-thriller that, as yet, has no title. Also no plot, characters or direction.

It should come as no surprise to hear that I’ve got nowhere. I need to have at least an end-point in mind – something to write towards. Without that I have nothing.

There’s been litres of ink spilled on the subject of writers’ block. I’m not going to add to that here because I don’t think I have it – hell, seeing as no-one can actually agree what it actually is and whether it even exists, adding my own tuppeneth seems somewhat superfluous. But I am stuck, or at least stalled.

My problem, as I see it, can be interpreted in two ways. Either I’ve been lazy, not really applying my mental faculties to working through my storyline, or I’ve had so much on my mind that there’s not much room left for creativity.

The good thing is that there are far worse things in life than taking a month out. I don’t have deadlines. I don’t have the pressure to produce: I do what I do because I want to; because the joy of writing is transcendent, the kind of high that I imagine elite athletes get when they’re in the ‘flow’, when instinct lets you do things that you’d never be able to if you sat and thought it all through beforehand.

The other thing is that I’m working through obstacles in my personal life: things that have been filling my brain, that are important but not conducive to creativity. I’m slowly clawing my way into becoming an adult. I have my driving test on Wednesday: at the moment my dream-time – when I lie in bed awaiting sleep – is full of mirror, signal, manoeuvre and fantastic worlds have been squeezed out.

I am hard on myself. I consider time spent not writing as time wasted. This is not the case. Things have been tricky recently but they will resolve soon. If you’re in a similar position maybe you need to reprioritise, reassess, reboot. The ties will release. Things will get better. You will write again. Believe that.

I’ll have had my driving test by the time this is posted* and we’ll see where we stand then. Then there’s just the small matter of –

No, I’m not going to talk about that. That’s for next week’s blog.

 

*Failed. Cloud not lifted. Bugger.

World-building 101

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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.

Plans

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Draft 4 is finished and backed-up. Now I have to decide what to do next.

After every pass you’re left thinking that there’s nothing more to do. The story is complete and you can’t see what improvements can be made. Yet the doubts remain. There are passages you have a faint uncertainty about. You need buy-in – either to confirm your fears or to reassure you that it does, in fact, work. So we all know that the best thing to do is to either get outside opinions or – failing that – to leave the manuscript in the bottom of your metaphorical drawer for six months and then return to it afresh.

I’ve run out of beta-readers. There’s no-one left to give me in depth feedback – not, at least, without paying a considerable wadge of cash for Editorial Services. I’ve got to say I’ve never seriously considered this. Maybe I should. After all, you only get one shot with each individual agent/publishing house. I’ve often lamented my impatience; once a piece has disappeared into the electronic ether that option is removed. If – as is likely – that line comes back bare and rejected you have to move on. And if you have a preferred option for representation – a contact, maybe, or someone you hugely admire – the urge to send your work to them as soon as humanly possible is hard to resist.

All this should advertise caution but I’m planning on going on to the submissions route. This is partly because I am, indeed, hugely impatient. I want to get on. I have other books to write, other plans to make. It’s also because money is a finite resource and – even after all I’ve read and all I’ve come to learn – I’m a little sceptical about editorial services and what they can do for you. I shouldn’t be; I’m thinking of offering my own services as proofreader/copy-editor in the future, so I can hardly say this cynicism is well-grounded. Maybe it’s more my own arrogance; that I don’t see what they can do that I myself can’t.

What you know intellectually but feel emotionally is a far more difficult balance than people realise. The heart rules the head far more than we’d like to admit.

So: plans. My next mission is to write a synopsis. This is a skill in itself, and will take a fair amount of swear-based sweatery. After that a proper cover-letter will need to be constructed. And then I’ll have to go back to my opening chapters and ensure they’re absolutely perfect: I’ve twice posted my opening scene on this blog but I’m still not completely confident in it. And the opening is critical: an agent hasn’t got time to plough through reams to find the nugget of talent. You only get a few pages to impress.

This work should take me to Christmas. Then it’s a little break for me as I do the whole family thing. Hopefully this’ll give me a little distance to properly reconsider my plans.

Then the submissions will start to roll.

And then it’ll be time for a change: a chance to re-energise my self-publishing plans and maybe even starting a whole new first draft.

So the whole circus begins again.

Diet hard

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I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

A pathetic failure

pathos

You’re pathetic. Yes, I went there. Because it’s true. You certainly appeal to my emotions.

Pathetic, as I’m sure you know, comes from pathos. Pathos, along with ethos and logos, was one of the three main points of rhetorical speaking. I don’t want to go into great detail about their roots and definitions (let me instead point you to this website, which has good examples) but to look at pathos in particular.

I want to do this for two reasons. The first is to point out how pathetic modern politicians are: I mean seriously, Trump (and almost all politicians these days) used nothing but pathos in his speeches. You can agree with him or you can disagree, but learning rhetoric at least helps you recognise the tricks of the trade. Maybe Clinton wasn’t pathetic enough. A pathetic failure.

The second reason is to look at the role of pathos in writing. It’s there in every single (competent) thing you read; in every movie too. Because without pathos you have something flat and uninteresting; you have no reason to care about any of the characters or what they’re trying to achieve.

If you know anything of screenwriting (and maybe even if you don’t) you’ll have come across a concept known as ‘saving the cat.’ This is a moment of charity early on in the film designed to make you care for the protagonist – especially important in an antihero, who might otherwise be hard to root for. It could be a five second flash of our chap giving money to a worthy cause or calling his dear old Mom or – indeed – saving a cat from a fire.

This is pathos. This is direct, unalloyed, unhidden pathos. It is directly and unashamedly trying to influence us – the reader, the viewer, the listener – and tell us how we should feel. It’s subconscious and it’s terribly powerful. We are manipulated into feeling the way the writer wants us to feel.

This is not a bad thing. We, as readers, are willing participants in this game. If you’ve ever read a book and said, ‘but yeah, I just didn’t really care for the characters,’ that’s a pathetic failure. And what appeals to one reader won’t necessarily appeal to another.

The other big area of the pathetic in fiction comes towards the end: there is the ‘whisper of death’ moment around two-thirds of the way through. This is the moment at which your characters are traditionally at their lowest ebb. They are defeated, they are despairing, they are ready to quit. Sometimes the death is literal, sometimes not. Here the pathos isn’t just in the nearness of defeat but in the way the protagonist picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets ready to take up the blade again.

And then there’s the climax – or, rather, the denouement. This is where tragedy or triumph is brought home, where our characters learn to live – or not – with the consequences of the story. Happily-ever-after? With loss and heartbreak? It depends on the type of novel.

Oneiromancer uses pathos quite overtly. I have heartbreak twice: it’s there simply because it feels right in my story – but, at the same time, I’m well aware of what I’m doing. And I’m aware that I’m playing it up for a specific purpose. I want to make my readers sad, that I want them to feel. I want them to admire my characters for picking themselves up and bearing the scars with pride. It’s a difficult balance. I want these moments to matter to my readers. I want my characters’ tears feel real.

But the flipside of pathos is schmaltz. It’s fairytale. It’s unrealistic and unconvincing and, at its worst, it has the writer’s fingerprints all over it. That’s the basis of the contract: we will buy anything we read if it’s true to the story. But the moment we start to feel manipulated we kick back and reject the work.

So be pathetic. Use pathos to manipulate your readers; make them weep and make them whoop and holler. Just remember that one man’s pathos is another’s pathetic. You’re walking over a shark-pit on a buttered plank with a box of kittens in one hand and a hand-grenade in the other. Find your moments and make them count.

And watch those politicians carefully. It’s worth knowing how you’re being manipulated.

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If you’re interested in reading further, check out Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I came across it years ago and keep meaning to read it again. Also Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder: the over-use of exclamation marks irritates me, but it’s part of the screenwriter’s (and all writers’) essential toolkit.

Why write Urban Fantasy?

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Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.