Brave new world

Writing speculative fiction is – in part – about building a coherent world. Creating a (future) history, a polity, an environment that convinces and entrances. This is obvious enough if you’re creating a fantasy world or alien planet, but even a ‘normal’ Earth has its rules. Every step away from what we laughably call reality – every demon that haunts every corner – has its consequence. And you, as author, have to know what this means for the people who inhabit your world. Who knows about the monsters that lurk in the closet? Is there a conspiracy? Or are the powers-that-be as clueless as the rest of the world?

Recently I’ve been playing around with some character development for my sci-fi/crime novel using a set of questions recommended by a writing colleague. Most of it is fairly straightforwards: age, hair colour and the like. But then I got to ‘favourite food’ and that made me pause. What, in my world, do people eat? This is a near-future Earth that’s hugely overpopulated: what do the hoi polloi eat? And I realised, then, that I don’t just need to answer these questions for my characters – I need to ask them for the entire planet.

To some extent I have answers: before I wrote a single word I had to develop a political landscape, a context for the story to exist in. But I realise now that I don’t know enough detail – a problem magnified by numerous drafts, each of which has subtly altered the base-state of existence.

Most of this information will never be mentioned in the text. People don’t need to know a character’s favourite colour and people don’t need to know the precise hierarchy of a nation state (unless they do: we’re dealing in generalisations here, and another story might well need this information). But the author needs to know how things work. I’m always reminded of Terry Pratchett’s assertion that to create a city you have to start by knowing how water gets in and how waste gets out. The reader might never know this, but the author has to. It’s amazing how unreal a place can seem if the nuts and bolts aren’t properly tightened.

And the comparison with character building stands. It’s helpful to think of the environment as a character in itself, a neutral, unforgiving presence – or a warm, suffocating cocoon – with its own rules and regulations. How do the off-stage folk survive? What jobs must be done to get food on the table – or for there to be a table in the first place? You as an author need to know these things or nothing will seem real.

Of course, it’s a lot easier if you write fiction set on this plane of existence. Then you can just get on with the damn plot.

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The long haul

The best way to increase sales of your book is to have written another.

That’s one of those truths you regularly hear trotted out that’s both absolutely correct and of no use whatsoever. It doesn’t actually help you write anything else. It also creates the idea (not entirely without foundation, sadly) that quantity is more important than quality.

When you finish one writing project you should set it aside for a few months until you can come back to it with a cool, objective head.

Great advice. But I don’t know about you; as soon as I’ve finished something knew I’m usually too excited, too much in a screaming hurry to let it sit like that; especially when I know that I’ve only created the outline and can still dramatically improve the actual words.

Which is why I’m always most comfortable when I have two or three or four projects on the go at once. That way when I finish a draft of one I can immediately crack on with the next, cycling between them and keeping my writing hat on all the time. It’s possibly a little schizophrenic, especially if you’re moving between genres and times or whatever, but it works for me.

I’m just finishing my latest draft of Australis, the middle book in my trilogy. As I’ve said before, this is an especially radical revision and the echoes of these changes will ring across both the first and last books of the series. That what I’ve done here will affect the third is no surprise: I’ve changed the architecture of the city, and also altered the world mythos: a new background, a new history, all of which will have to be reflected in later actions. Plus the plot will have to shift as, as it stands, the second and third books are now too similar in places.

But the changes also work backwards. Again this is partly due to world-building and similar fundamental things; but it’s also because I have a better idea of some of my characters and where they’re going. I’m creating landmarks not only in the Antarctic wilderness but also in the crew’s minds and bodies.

Australis isn’t ready yet. I know this because I’ve been coming up with new ideas all the way through to the end, and all these need seeding in the early chapters and expanding and developing and then trimming right back. But I’m not going to do this just yet. First I have to go back to Night Shift and get that damn thing (which has been sitting untouched since February) one draft closer to being ‘finished’.

And it does me no harm to have a corpus of work that I can show to publishers. Not only one, but three books ready to go (that’s an outright lie: none of them are publishable as is – but they are complete, and that’s close enough in the circumstances); a coherent trilogy that will require minimal editing and proofreading. And that too is a lie, but these things are all relative.

And, if I decide to self-publish, I have my whole series (almost) ready to go. I can promote them as a whole, try and maximise follow-on sales linking one to the other. The only problem is that I really rather fancy working on something new. Ideas? Easy. Time? Less so.

But soon (hopefully one more draft) Night Shift will be ready. Then it’s back to Australis, and then the major reworking of New Gods. Maybe I’ll find time to tinker with Chivalry once again. If I ever do get any interest from a publisher than I’m sure it’ll be back to Night Shift again… the cycle never ends.

But one day at least one of these titles will be out in the public domain. Finally I’ll be able to call it done. And then – finally, finally, it’ll be on with something new. And so the corpus builds.

A good year

Tomorrow will be This Blog’s first birthday. The internet is a funny thing: words of a single moment become etched into the bloggosphere, forever archived and accessible to all whether you want them there or not. I was thinking of celebrating with a week off; sitting back and putting my feet up, maybe sampling a nice beer and doing – well, not much. But how could I leave my loyal followers blogless? So here I am again, illuminating and warming your lives with the heat of my personality…

It’s been a good year. Yeah, let’s be positive. It’s been a great year. Nothing to show for it, maybe, but still; it’s hardly been unproductive. This, for me, has been The Year of Becoming Professional. I’ve changed from being a writing dilettante to someone who works day in, day out on their craft. I’ve learnt so much and every time I sit at my computer to write – or kick back with a good book – I’m learning more.

So what have I found over the last year? Time, I think, for a quick list:

  • Rightly or wrongly, people take you more seriously if you can act (and write) with confidence. Sometimes personality is more important that ability
  • That said, Twitting and blogging are great places for the shy to learn (and to teach) with minimal human interaction
  • There are some truly wonderful writers and bloggers out there on the internet. It’s worth spending time on Twitter just to find links to these people
  • Writing: you never stop improving. The setbacks – of which there have been many – are helpful in themselves. Rejections may hurt, but any snippets of advice you may receive are there to be acted upon
  • Agents want to find great books. If they take even the vaguest interest in your work that means it’s got something. A rejection doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s good enough to be published
  • A good submission letter is worth its weight in gold. Constant evolution is the way forwards; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – and personalise each letter for its recipient
  • Most people in the world are really quite nice
  • It’s an insanely up-and-down world out there. The highs are utterly euphoric, the lows crushing. Treating those two impostors, success and failure, the same is good advice. But don’t ignore praise (you’ve earned it) and take criticism seriously. The critic is usually right, and you can do it better

More specifically, I’ve learnt that my work is lacking in depth of character. I also miss plotholes and don’t provide sufficient red herrings. So I’m working on these things. Thanks to a fantastic writing group and the interest of an agent I’m growing as an author. It’s wonderful. I urge all aspiring authors to embrace criticism, to actively hunt it down because you won’t get better unless you know what you’re doing wrong.  When I first joined Abingdon Writers I was so self-confident, so sure that my work was worthwhile, that I initially met criticism with a barricade of defensiveness. It’s only when I began to dismantle this wall that I really started to improve.

Every question answered, every skill mastered opens a door to reveal wild expanses of ignorance beyond. The questions never stop coming. There’s also something new to learn, new skills to develop. You never, ever, stop learning. Even the great masters – the Hemingways, the Chandlers, the Steinbecks – they weren’t the complete article. And that’s great. It’s the best thing about humanity, I think – life is never dull because there’s always something new to learn.

An interview with Marissa de Luna

As promised, this week’s blog is an interview with Marissa de Luna, author of Goa Traffic and The Bittersweet Vine. In fact, she’s at the launch for TBV almost as I type (Monday night).

 

This is the last halt on Marissa’s innovative ‘blog tour’; I’ll copy the details of her previous stops at the end of the interview. I know her through Abingdon Writers’ Group, of which we’re both members, and she’s been good enough to read through some early drafts of both Night Shift and Australis and provided much-appreciated feedback.

 

Hope you enjoy.

 

Author Interview with Marissa de Luna – Part 3

 

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

 

The Bittersweet Vine is a psychological thriller set in England. It tells the story of a traumatized abduction victim, Maria Shroder, who is abducted from her workplace but wakes in her bed physically unharmed. Having no recollection of the days that have passed Maria discovers she is suffering from hysterical amnesia; her mind is protecting her from a terrifying truth. Desperate to pull into consciousness the secrets her mind has buried, Maria must first uncover the lies hidden in her past.  

 

Do you see writing as a career?

 

In an ideal world, yes. But in reality I still need a full time job so that I can pay the mortgage. I love writing. It’s in my blood and even after a tough day at work I still feel compelled to write. As many writers will tell you – you write because you love to and not for money. The money is a bonus.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

 

I am proud of The Bittersweet Vine as it stands I wouldn’t change a thing. I really spent time on the manuscript and believe it achieves what I set out to do! But I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.


Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

I remember always wanting to write but I never really having the courage to pick up a pen and actually do it. In 2007 I took a year out to travel and afterwards I spent some time in Goa, where I grew up. Inspired by the culture and the people I decided to write my first novel, Goa Traffic. It snowballed from there!

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

 

I think I am still developing my writing style. I enjoy the use of moving from the present to the past to create a sense of heightened suspense. I did this in Goa Traffic and the book starts with the protagonist looking back over the last year of her life. In The Bittersweet Vine the main character is on a journey but she too needs to look into her past in order to find clues to her future.

 

What’s your favourite part of The Bittersweet Vine?

 

There is a lovely scene when Maria and Alice (sisters) let go of their pride and their egos and just tell each other how they feel. To me that part of the book is special. They were close growing up and somewhere along the way they lost each other. From this scene onwards they start to learn about each other again. After they disclose their insecurities to each other they are able to pick up from where they left off. I think this is a pretty poignant scene.


Who is your favourite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

 

At the moment it has to be Sophie Hannah.  I plan to read a chapter of one of her books before bed and three hours later I’m still reading. Reading one of Sophie Hannah’s books is like being on a roller coaster in the dead of night. There are so many twists and turns and sometimes you just don’t see them coming.

What was the hardest part of writing The Bittersweet Vine?

 

Not being able to get my words on the page as quickly as I would like. I found with The Bittersweet Vine ideas were forming rapidly in my mind as I wrote. What I find most difficult with writing a novel, such as The Bittersweet Vine, is the drafting and re-drafting process. It is, of course, essential but it’s laborious and hard work!  

Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

Persistence. With Goa Traffic I didn’t have an agent or a publisher and so I decided to self publish. It was a great experience because I learnt so much along the way. When I finished writing The Bittersweet Vine I was tempted to just self publish after the success of Goa Traffic, but I decided to try the traditional route once again and after countless rejections I finally got a bite. It was worth the wait.

 

While you are going through the submissions process you can always improve your writing by polishing your writing skills. Start a blog or take up a short course. I have two blogs and I’m getting pretty savvy with social media. Having an on-line presence is a must for any new author.  Ensure that you have an up to date website and use various social media platforms such as Twitter, Pinterest and a Facebook Page.  It all helps when you finally launch yourself as an author.

 
What are the major themes of your work?

 

There are several themes running through The Bittersweet Vine. Trust is one of the main topics explored. Maria is estranged from her sister and her ex-lover, her supposed soul mate, has left her. Maria has lost her confidence and so she seeks the help of a therapist. When her best friend begins to doubt her, Maria does not know who to turn to making her plight even more arduous.

 

Sibling rivalry is another theme within the novel. Alice and Maria had an idyllic childhood. But when they first meet in the Bittersweet Vine they are estranged. The book explores the fragile relationship between sisters.

 

Previous ‘Blog Tour’ entries – and much more besides – can be found at…

 

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On the 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

 

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

 

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers’ blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

 

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog. http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from hockey player to author.

 

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog. http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

 

And, finally, Stop 6 is the one you’ve just read!

 

 

The Bittersweet Vine is available now
The Bittersweet Vine (ISBN: 978-0-85728-094-7, Thames River Press, paperback and e-book.) at Amazon or other on-line stores and in selected bookshops.  For more information about The Bittersweet Vine or about the author see www.marissadeluna.com 
Find Marissa de Luna on Facebook www.facebook.com/marissadelunaauthor