Nothing doing

Blank

I’ve done nothing, you say? Nothing at all? Tish and piffle. Here’s what I’ve done this week:

  • Learnt the difference between a rook and a crow: “If it’s ‘crows’ it’s ‘rooks’. If it’s ‘rook’ it’s ‘crow.’” (The point being that rooks are social and crows solitary.)
  • Continued my studies of comparative suburban architecture by dint of walking for tens of miles through various estates, trying to identify the basic ‘house’ beneath years of alterations
  • Studied the interactions of homo sapiens sapiens in a variety of habitats: a greasy spoon in a middle-class town, for example, or the chitterings of parents in the back of a small car
  • Learnt of the longevity of Fen-management techniques and of the benefits of flooding
  • Critiqued a stranger’s décor
  • Was judged on appearance and attitude by strangers
  • Lay on the floor for a while and contemplated the futility of human existence
  • Fought with the NHS switchboard and its plethora of Kate’s
  • Led the expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Was deposed from leadership of expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Explored the origins and implications of the Tribal Hidage
  • Dithered over the costs and benefits of childcare
  • Studied mothers and children
  • Pined for social media
  • Ruminated on the nature and necessity of tact

A writer doing nothing? Impossible. What you may think is wool-gathering, or prevarication, or honest-to-goodness laziness is, in fact, method acting: assimilation of source material; an exploration of perspective. What might appear to be idleness is merely necessary research.

So be wary when contemplating the writer. It’s rare that the observer isn’t also the observed.

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Strata and substrata

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Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

Unholy Pitches

Wordpile

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try and sell a novel with an ensemble cast.

That’s the message I have for you today; another episode in the ‘Oh my lord, what the hell have I done?’ series I’ve been running for what seems like forever. Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to write a novel with an ensemble cast – write what the hell you like – but trying to create a pitch for a novel without a single identifiable star is another thing entirely.

Yes, it’s more Pitch Wars angst from me. By the time you read this I’ll have sent my submission into the electronic ether* and I’ll be chewing on my knuckles, fingernails long-since devoured. See, the thing about Pitch Wars is that you actually have to pitch. Or at least you have to write a query letter.

Now a long, long time ago I was actually brave/stupid enough to try and give advice on querying. I think, by and large, I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I didn’t realise then that American queries are different. And Pitch Wars uses the American system.

Basically, an American pitch is – well, it’s a pitch. Basically it’s like sending a mini-synopsis or book-blurb, the kind you’d see on the back of a novel. These are hard at the best of times but when you have seven major characters, all of whom demand that they’re the star? A blurb that covers all of them would completely cover the back of a book (in very small print) and start creeping across the front as well. And that’s before we get to what actually happens to significant minor creatures, like the girl whose murder sparks a whole sub-plot and emotional wringeration, or the creepy neighbour-witch who gives another character a major fillip…

So basically I have to choose one of my cast and put her centre-stage, ignoring the rest of the crew. It’s the only way I can see to do it. But she’s not the character the novel opens with, and I worry about confusing the reader/judge, and, and, and…

So if all you out there want to save your sanity, don’t work with ensemble casts. Not on your debut, at least. Save it until you’ve got a reputation, when people are slightly more likely to indulge you. It’s the only way to be safe.

 

*Not submitted yet. Today. Tomorrow at the latest. Stupid last-minute editing

Marathon man

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In today’s metaphor writing is like running.

So you want to run a marathon. You’ve been wanting to do it for ages. Now you’re finally resolved – today’s the day. So you clear a few hours, sign yourself up and go out and run – and pull a muscle within a few yards of the start. Heartbroken you limp home and booze away the pain.

You know that such an endurance feat takes training, exercise and, at the last, a proper warm-up. And yet every time you read a novel – especially a bad one – you say to yourself ‘I could do that.’ Could you? Really?

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a writer, and yes, you probably could. You’ve most likely done your training; all the scribbles in your notebooks, all the half-formed attempts that led nowhere but to strained sides and refuge in wine. You’ve built yourself up over the years with the ‘bad’ writing that you won’t show to anyone. You’ve found your coaches – in writers you enjoy and in writing courses – and got motivation from your friends/rivals in your writing groups. This is you building up your muscles and your stamina, watching others fall by the wayside as they decide other tasks are more important.

Eventually, when you’ve got a little practice down, you choose your distance. The poets are the sprinters; the flash-fictioneers are hurdlers. Every step counts. Short-story writers run the 800m or the mile. The novelists are the marathoners. George R. R Martin chose the Ironman challenge.

Your first completed work was likely bloated; you got lost, somewhere, on the way. You trailed in a distant last. You are discouraged. Some give up here, happy they got to the finish line at all. It is, after all, an achievement to be celebrated. But some want to go on, want to make a career out of it. So they go back to their coaches. They memorise the route. They study other athletes, copy their training techniques. They trim the fat, smarten their kit, and run, run, run.

Writing is like any activity: to be good you have to work. You all know this. Yet there is a popular idea that anyone ‘has a great novel in them’; that all they need to do to be published is to get it down on paper. It’s strange how people don’t think this about becoming a rock star or an elite cyclist or any number of other disciplines. There’s an imagination gap.

Anyone can write. But to be good at it takes work, takes practice, takes time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Rewiring

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Baby Lyra is home. The sleepless nights have begun. And I find myself facing a new challenge: how to abandon all old patterns of production and learn to write afresh.

I’ve written before about the value of routine, and habit, to creativity. I’ve waxed at length about how I’ve trained myself to sit at my desk at this particular time and crack on, to get down to it; to shape my brain to operate with the parameters of work and wakefulness. The more you do it, the more you expect to focus at a certain time, the easier it is to pick up and run.

Now I have to retrain myself to take opportunities as they present themselves; in those blissful snatched moments when Lyra is asleep but I’m not. I have to forget the years of mental discipline and work out how to be ad hoc, to be ad lib, to take my splintered moments and make the most of them. Because every second spent thinking of a project is a second you move further forwards. I’ve been advocating a way of working for years. Now I have to forget all that and start again.

I hate not working. To put it another way, I enjoy idleness so much that I fear not working. I now have the perfect excuse to sleep in, to prevaricate, to put everything else first. I have to say to myself that will not do that – whilst at the same time not being so hard on myself as to not give myself the much-needed leisure and relaxation time that everyone needs.

I’m sorry if this post is seeming rambly and unfocused: if it does then at least it’s an accurate representation of my mental state. The important thing for me is to write something.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to write something good.

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?

One man and his dog

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A dog

What if he brought his dog?

Such a simple question. This is the sort of dangerous thought that occurs when an author’s lying in bed at night, running through her novel and thinking about tomorrow’s writing.

How would the other characters react?

Such a simple idea. A tiny, tiny change that has no real long-term consequences; is merely an in-character possibility. It doesn’t matter if the dog is there or not, certainly not in terms of long-term plottables. And yet… It’d be easy to add in, right? A few lines or two to give depth and to subtly reinforce a trait, to tell you a little more about the man and the situation and the world. So you settle at the computer and scroll back to make this one small addition…

An hour later and you’re still trying to deal with the consequences of the change. You’ve totally rewritten your scene. Other characters have been totally altered, their reactions taking you by surprise and leading you way off track. The function of the scene may remain unchanged, but the action has been ripped apart. Not only that but you’ve considerable downstream consequences to resolve.

What if I showed this scene from a different point of view?

Now you have to lose all the lovely internal contradictions that you’d created in the original draft. You’ve got to observe reactions rather than experience them. But it’s worth it, right? You got this great idea for a new perspective and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Writing – and editing – is full of this sort of thing. Your worries and your search for perfection make you constantly question what you’ve already written. Your words aren’t set in stone: your scenes, even the big set-pieces, are mutable, improvable. But are you making things any better?

This is why I don’t trust ideas. Most of the time they’re simple pains in the backside. Any serious writer has more ‘ideas’ than he knows what to do with. The pressure on you is to choose the right ones. Because any origin has a multiple different outcomes, a multiverse of possibilities just waiting to be explored. So how do you chose? Is it worth going right through the story, ripping up your road as you go and relaying it on a totally different alignment? Buggered if I know.

Writing isn’t about ideas. Writing is about choices. Which idea? Which road? In Oneiromancer I’ve already dropped plans a sub-plot involving a general election. I’ve chosen my focus and don’t need any other complications, thank you very much. Some ideas can be saved for sequels; others will be jettisoned forever. Choices. Not easy.

For the record, I’m leaning against the dog. She’ll make an appearance later. But her presence earlier is in character and would add something plausible and potential-filled. I have made the POV change, though, adding yet another head-character to my already twisted tapestry.

As with everything else it’s a question of balance. Sometimes you need to just plough on and get the damn thing done. But inflexibility is not your friend. If, when sharing your hard-crafted words with others, they ask awkward questions and make perfect suggestions you have to at least be prepared to make these changes. Even if it means rewriting every scene in your novel. Even if it means another three months of blood, sweat and swearing.

No-one ever said writing was easy.