On the cusp

balance

So far I have sent out two* submissions for Oneiromancer and I have had two rejections. At least I’m consistent.

This is not a big deal. Agents – I’ve not gone direct to publishers yet – receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions each week and take on maybe three new clients a year. Even if they love your writing the stars still have to align for them to offer to take you on.

What makes things different this time is that I feel uniquely close to actually breaking through. Rejection one: ‘I admire your writing’. Rejection two: ‘Better than a lot of submissions’. I feel like I am on the cusp; on the cusp of what I am not exactly sure, but something.

I have felt like this before. Night Shift received a lot of full-manuscript requests and ultimately got nowhere. I started this blog because I felt like my writing career was about to take off. Three years later and I’ve barely moved.

Not true, of course. I’ve moved huge distances. It’s just that these distances are very difficult to see from the outside.

Back to rejections. It’s interesting to look at the reasons I was, ultimately, rejected:

  • Submission One: ‘I don’t know the Urban Fantasy market.’

Even genre specialists do not know all aspects of every sub-genre. Agency is about having relationships with editors and publishers; having contacts and avenues in a specific field. If they don’t have that then they won’t be the best representative for your work.

  • Submission Two: ‘…Don’t currently have room on my list’.

Agenting takes a huge amount of time and effort: first the editing, the licking of the work into publishable shape. Then the hawking of the work around editors, representatives and publishers’ readers. Finally the negotiations, the financial play, the business side of the industry. All this takes time and there’s a limited amount of that for each author. Of course their lists get full. Even agents are allowed a day off every so often.

Of course it could be that these compliments are just sweet words; a sop to their conscience and my ego. They could be lies. But you always hear that agents don’t have time for slushpile critiques and anything they say should be taken at face value. So I choose to be complimented. I choose to believe that I am close.

This doesn’t actually help me at all. I’m still unpublished and unagented. But the world at the moment looks bright and positive. It is an inspiration to push on; to get another batch of submissions out there. And, when they’re on the way, to write more. That’s the way to get better. Maybe a stroke of luck is what it’ll take, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of your fortune.

I am on the cusp. It’s down to me to make the most of any opportunities that come my way.

*Three now. Three rejections. That is fine

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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.

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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.

The world of epic

It must be hard to write a trilogy. I mean seriously, how do you even begin? I’m not talking about series’ here; not a series of individual stories wound within a larger plot like Scott Lynch’s ‘Lock Lamora’ novels or even my Antarctic trilogy. I’m talking about Lord of the Rings style epicness, or Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series.

I wrote about Joe Abercrombie’s work a few weeks ago. I had problems with it, but I stuck at it. I’m glad I did because I’m enjoying it, but there are issues. In the first book there is a character that has almost no redeeming features. Arrogant, shallow and privileged, I could see that his ‘journey’ was going to be one of learnt humility and discovering that the world didn’t exist for his benefit. But he barely changed over the course of that first (long) book.

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Now, halfway through the second, those changes are starting to occur. This might be the perfect time in terms of the story and in terms of the series as a whole – but he basically spoiled the first section. Do readers accept this? I did. There was enough about The Blade Itself to make me want to read the follow-up. But how many readers were put off by the lack of development? I don’t know if it’s an incentive or a discouragement that book one didn’t end with any sort of resolution: the novel ended so obviously mid-flow that it wasn’t like reading a full novel at all.

It may be that my puzzlement is because these epic-style stories aren’t that common, at least in my experience. The Harry Potter series doesn’t really count because – except possibly as it gears up to the finale – all the mysteries are resolved within each individual episode. There is a clear arc within each novel as Voldemort and his minions are sent packing: the villain remains a thread running through the series, but each book stands on its own.

The same applies for all crime novels that I can think of: Inspector Rebus becomes aware of a crime and solves it. He may grow, become richer and deeper and more entangled with his supporting cast on each case, but the culprit isn’t left hanging (not literally) between books. A resolution is achieved. Ditto Morse, and Brunetti, Lord Peter Wimsey &c &c

In a single book – where a protagonist encounters finds and overcomes a specific problem – we can see change. We expect change. The protagonist will be a different person at the end of the story. If that character then goes on to star in subsequent novels the inverse problem occurs: how can they change further? How can we feel the character-arc we’re used to? There comes a point where we, as readers, settle for comfort, for familiarity: the character becomes an archetype of their own and just being in their presence is enough.

I’ve always had problems with Lord of the Rings (and are these epic-style books solely limited to SFF? I struggle to think of other examples). The characters just don’t change, even across the whole six books. This is especially galling in the case of Sam Gamgee, the real hero of the series. He’s presented as the same plodding simpleton from beginning to end: even when he returns to the Shire to become mayor we’re told that he rules well. We’re not shown any wisdom or depth. Conversely Aragorn is the master-ruler from the very first meeting to the last. The only character in LotR with any depth is Borimir, and we all know how that turns out.

So, in summary: long, multi-book series = difficult. I’d be interested to know your experiences and recommendations. Do you like them, or do they leave you cold? Or have I just missed the point completely?