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.

Reflections on a first draft

That’s it. Done. Complete. Oneiromancer (or possibly Somnia; I’m considering a change), after nearly a year’s slog, is finished –

It’s not, of course. The work has barely even begun. But the first draft is through. 140k words of chunksomeness; a hefty doorstep of a novel. I am hoping this will be reduced through the redrafting, but more on that in a minute. For now, left me just bask in its completeness and take a moment to reflect on the first-draft experience.

I started the actual writing at the beginning of March, as soon as my last work went through its last edit and disappeared agentwards (ultimately for rejection). Nine months, then. That’s how long this has taken; the longest I’ve spent on a first draft since I stopped handwriting and went straight to the word processor. I’d like to say that this is because this draft is the beneficiary of my greater experience; the extra time is because of all the extra thought I’ve put into it throughout the process. Sadly, the truth is more prosaic: I’m simply doing more hours in my day job and have painfully little writing-space.

Which is not to say that I’ve not learnt. I’m not a big pre-draft planner am reluctant to become one; I find a starting point and an endpoint and simply write until I link the two. But I’ve accompanied my creative writing with an as-I-write plan: creating a spreadsheet of happenings and notes for me to think about/address in the future. I’m hoping that this is evidence of my growing awareness as an author. This is still to be proven.

What it means is that what flows from my fingers still has the power to surprise and thrill me. The two characters that I considered ‘main’ have been gradually sidelined; the two characters that I created solely to fill a need – and thus had no pre-draft role save for a vague ‘shape’ – have grown to dominate. Others have changed sex and age and status. This is an utter joy, although it’s also filled with dangers. Are these people real? Do they have depth and back-story (unwritten, perhaps, but present in my mind)?

Similarly, the story has mutated and drifted and become something other than that I originally envisioned. This, again, is both a delight and a danger and it’s why I’m breaking the rules and diving straight into draft two. The novel I’ve finished up with is not the same as the one I started. There are empty threads to be drawn out – to be either removed entirely or given a proper resolution. There are plot-points that arise suddenly towards the end: they need to be properly bedded and what now appear as coincidences must be foreshadowed.

Oh, and I forgot about a significant character’s existence for 100 pages, which is frankly just embarrassing.

Aside from the big plot points – which should be comparatively easy to weave in – my big concern is my flabby middle. I could stand to lose a few pounds. And I certainly want to cut a few thousand words. As I was drafting I was aware that, after the central crisis, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going. I wrote a half-dozen scenes that I, as author, had to write to work out what I was trying to do. Does the reader need to see this? I’m not sure. I’ve seen it with other writers; scenes which don’t really advance the story but I can totally understand why the authors included them. I’m hoping cuts can be made here. My biggest worry is that these scenes actually turn out to be quite good; then I’ll have difficult decisions to make.

And then, once this draft is complete, it’ll be off to my team of readers – authors all, and a reciprocal arrangement where I read their stuff in return. It’s a great deal. They will, I’m sure, tell me where I’m going wrong and either assuage all my many (many) doubts or give a reader’s-eye view on how best to proceed with draft three.

It’s worth pointing out how little I’m concerned with the actual words at this stage. All I’ve said above is concerned with either character or story. Of course I want – always – to write good quality prose, to captivate and enthral my audience. And, in going through my draft, I’ll be sure to make improvements in the actual wordsmithery. I can’t not. I want to write well and I’ll be wincing and scribbling and crossing-out all the way through. But prose grows where my Rosemary goes with repeated passes. I don’t need to focus on that right now. It’ll come.

So there we are. Draft one complete, and a few notes on where I stand. At the moment I’ve got 541 pages of not-quite-crap: certainly not a work I want to share with the world. But before you can blast a rocket to the stars to have to build a platform from which to launch it. This is that platform. It’s rickety and unstable and prone to collapse, but it is there. Now I just have to build the real story around it.

The climax

So. The Climax. The decisive moment – the event, the emotion that you’ve spent the whole novel waiting for, writing for. The bit where the tension you’ve been ratcheting up for the last hundred pages finally explodes as the brakes fail and the momentum splinters like an industrial accident.

Modern novels are all about tension. Climaxes are the ultimate release of that tension. The climax of the stereotypical detective story is in the reveal of the killer (‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…’) – although these days there’s usually a chase and a fight just after the reveal for one last stroke of adrenaline and power.

This tension is why I like quick jump-cut scenes in the final stages: two things happening simultaneously. Build up the action in one, bring us to a high-point – and then cut to the other characters before the action is resolved. Build this new scene up – and then jump back. Never let the reader relax. Keep the buggers on tenterhooks.

What matters is less the logic of the situation, less the blood and the smug satisfaction of having got one over on your readers: it’s about the emotions you create. Violence without an emotional punch is just sadism. It’s the completion of the hero’s journey, their final step to independence. It’s about making that definitive decision that allows them to grow, to be free. A final realisation. A psychic blow to the gut that leaves the reader breathless, drained and – yes – satisfied.

This is why I always like to sacrifice an ally in the climax – someone the audience (and author) has grown to care about. To show them this is real, it has consequences, that winning hurts.

It’s also why pacing is so important in the world of the novel. You need your lull before the resolution. You need your moments of fear and anxiety and introspection so that when you come to the crunch you can accelerate from thereon in. Shorten your sentences. Forget the prose. Forget description. Feel the punches; mix it with long run-on sections to bring out and the breathlessness and the panic and chaos (for speed is inherently chaotic) and punctuation is optional for this is your oh my god this hurts this hurts moment.

The antagonist – usually an external force, but not always – may be defeated. They may not. But even defeat must give a sense that the (surviving) characters have learnt and grown. Otherwise you’re writing a very bleak piece indeed.

Of course, that might be the point. But it’s always nice to have hope.

And, after the climax is complete, it’s time for the denouement where we sift through the wreckage in search of unanswered questions. But more on that later.

For now – happy writing, folks.