The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

themoneypack_0

Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

creation.jpg

St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

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There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

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On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

Death to the Editorium!

Egyptian mourning

Sad news! The Editorium is no more. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an ex-Editorium.

Yes, I am moving house – moving across counties, no less. So far I have left my phone in IKEA and had to dash back 100 miles for forgotten things. Idiocy is no respecter of location.

The Editorium is dead. But fear not! For, like royalty, no Editorium can die without another rising to take its place.

All hail the Editorium! I shall shortly be tipper-tapping away in a room of one’s own: in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to the place where I wrote all those thousands of words.

I will, at least. And you’re free to join me.

cheers__by_natoli-d9b782h

Image stolen from natoli.deviantart.com

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

What you don’t know

black-hole-cygnus-crop.jpg

Still from Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, which I’d never heard of until I went a-hunting for an image for this post

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I have my strong beliefs. Not many of them, to be sure, but some I return to like a dog to its vomit. One of them is this: you must write what you know.

This is one of those pieces of writing wisdom that has entered popular parlance (can you remember where you first heard it? I can’t; a quick search suggests that Mark Twain might be its originator but this I take with a generous pinch of salt), and I have written about it before. But can we try a little thought experiment? Can we try and examine what happens when you write what you don’t know?

Let’s imagine a house. Think of somewhere you’ve lived. Now it’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re reading this you’re neither madly wealthy nor living in abject poverty so your experiences are probably fairly average.

Now: what if the walls were thinner? What if they were made of plastic panels instead of brick? What if the superstructure had been replaced so many times that none of the original remained? The windows are made from cut-down bottles that shine a kaleidoscope on the battered furniture (nothing matching; salvaged; repaired; cast-offs traded for favours or rescued from the rubbish of the wealthy).

There is no sound-proofing. You can hear everything that happens outside; not only the jet-planes that are constantly circling but the arguments in the shack next door and the fights outside – the ones that make the walls shiver and shake and make you keep a knife by your nest of old newspapers and blankets.

And yet it is still your space. You still sigh in relief when you get inside and shut the ill-fitting door behind you. It is still the place – perhaps the only one – where you can truly let your guard down and be yourself.

With me? Good. Now let’s try and take it in another direction:

You’re in your spaceship. It’s your single most important possession, your lifeblood: the thing you rely on to keep the (space) wolves from the door. It’s second-hand because a two-bit trader like you can’t afford to buy new. Every piece of kit, every wire, every relay has been replaced at least twice. Half the instruments don’t work, their components cannibalised to run more important systems. You had to take out an exorbitant loan to replace the oxygen-scrubber last time it went down on you.

Each trip earns you just enough to buy fuel for the next – maybe, if you’re lucky, with enough on top to keep up with the interest repayments. You still dream of earning enough to retire on a nice little place on Mars but each day you’re getting older and the dream’s not getting any nearer. Guess you should have listened to your Mama and taken that office job on Phobos, huh?

I suppose, in the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that I have never lived in a shanty nor owned a spaceship working the Mars-Jupiter trading run. I know, I know – what a fraud I am. But I have lived in a house and been in a car. I can imagine what life would be like if you strip away the things you take for granted

I can also go the other way and imagine I was protected by perfection; that everything around me is new, pristine and inviolate (although if you do that it’s almost as good as saying ‘watch all this go wrong’ because them’s the rules).

Take what you know and strip it back. Or build on it. Write what you don’t know.

And, if you’re still in doubt, see what all these famous authors have to say on the subject.

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.