Progress uncertain

In a vague attempt to make myself a) employable and b) to help myself as a self-employed writer/editor I have been doing a course in business skills over the last fortnight. This means there has been precious little time for actual writing, something that shivers the very soul within my skin.

It also means I don’t have much to say right now, unless you want me to take you through the intricacies of invoicing.

So: please allow me to update you on what I’m currently working on and what lies in my immediate future in lieu of more interesting words.

Maze

  • Night Shift

As you all know, NS is scheduled for publication on November 6th. I’ve recently completed my copyedits and the manuscript is back with the publishers who are, I hope, busy doing publish-y things to it. Fear not, good people – I shall keep you posted whether you want to learn more or not.

  • The Problem Child

The Novel Formerly Known As Australis was half-rewritten before I both moved house and was swamped by edits and learning. But as soon as I get some clear water I’ll be coming back to this: it’s the sequel to Night Shift and I want to give my publishers a decent novel to make a decision on. More specifically I need to go back to take my seventeenth stab at an open as the damn thing still isn’t co-operating

  • Book Three

The last in the trilogy is way down my list of priorities but it is in there somewhere. And yes, it does have a name. I just can’t remember what it is

  • Oneiromancer

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. The novel is completed and polished and – I think – is pretty good. There’s just one problem: two characters need to be replaced. I just don’t quite know how to go about it – the structure is based around them and I can’t quite see how to sub them out without the whole novel collapsing into randomness. The answer might be to embrace chaos, but I’m not quite there yet. I am mulling

  • The New Thing

I don’t actually do much new writing. Most of my time is taken up with rewriting and tinkeration. But I am moulding a new project in the deepest recesses of my worst nightmares: a concept that may or may not involve refugees, corruption, journalism and a heist. This may be the last anyone ever hears of it, but at the moment it’s something I’m throwing ideas at to see if anything sticks

Carrington Labyrinth

Leonora Carrington: Labyrinth

And that’s it, apart from the prospect of a new world of (part-time) paid employment and an editing job I’m grinding my way through in the background. Which reminds me, I must make a push to get new work in: proofreading, far more so than creative writing, is what will pay the bills.

Oh, and I’ve just found I passed my exam. I am officially skilled in business, having achieved a rating of Competent. Go me.

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The proofreader addresses his audience

After spending the last few weeks lamenting copy-edits I now find the boot on the other side of my face. Yes, fresh from weeping hot tears of shame at my own inadequacies, I’m now in eviscerating-other-people’s-work mode. And it’s… not nice. It’s not fun, tearing apart something someone has laboured over, has spent hours, days, months reaching into their very souls and pouring it onto the page.

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So I’ve written a letter. It’s a letter I can never send, but I want to share it with you, my friends, to try and explain how I feel when I’m in editor-mode. Hope you find it interesting.

Dear Writer

Let’s not beat around the bush: there’s a lot of red ink on your manuscript. I’m sorry about that. It’s my job to find fault and to let things slide would help no-one. The disappointment would still come, it’d just be delayed. Kudos to you for wanting to meet things face-on. You’ve dodged the easy option and I respect that.

I feel that I should say that I’m not perfect. I’ve got no secret wisdom or knowledge – the changes I’ve made are based on my understanding of good writing, good grammar and good story. I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’ve heard enough stories of editors completely missing the point with their critique to know that editing is subjective. This subjectivity might affect the placement of a single comma or it might concern the plot as a whole.

It’s down to you, ultimately, to decide whether to take my advice or not. I won’t judge you either way.

I want to help you. I want you to improve as a writer. Perhaps my biggest single fear is not that you’ll think me an idiot, or that you’ve wasted your money, but that I might scare you off writing. My criticisms aren’t meant to depress or to discourage but to make your work better and, if possible, to help you become a better writer.

Editors will always tell you that they’re judging your work, not your worth as a person. That’s true to some extent but let’s be honest here: sometimes it’s hard to separate the words from the wordsmith.

This isn’t about whether or not your work is at a publishable standard. I actually quite enjoy getting a piece with basic errors of grammar or point-of-view or chronology: I can help with those and I find I like acting as a teacher.

I do, however, come to some conclusions based on the content. If you repeatedly extol the virtues of a particular diet or philosophy I may conclude that this comes from the author, not the character. If all your heroes are blond and blue-eyed I won’t assume you’re a Nazi but I will wonder if you’ve lived a particularly sheltered life. And yes, sometimes this makes me angry – but only in my quiet, inside-of-my-own-head way.

I also know just how easy it is to suggest something that you really didn’t mean. Quite apart from my own failures in writing I’ve picked people up, for example, for intimating that people were only poor because they were lazy. The author didn’t mean it, but that’s how it came across. It’s my job to find this sort of error; everyone slips up sometimes.

It’s true that sometimes I get frustrated when I see the same errors over again and yes, sometimes I’m bewildered to the point of getting ‘creative’ in my marginal notes. But that’s my weakness (as a person and as an editor), not yours.

So please take this manuscript back with my thanks. I’m honoured that you’ve trusted me with something you know is imperfect and want to make better. You’ve shown me great trust and I take it seriously. See all my corrections (which I reiterate are suggestions, not instructions) as a sign of sincerity, not a desire to hurt.

You have done something unique and worthy and, whilst I think it could be better, you should feel proud of yourself. You have achieved. You’ve not just sat there dreaming; you’ve made the effort. More than that, you’ve had the courage to show your work – to me, and to others. That’s worth something.
Look at it this way: the more corrections I’ve found the more worthwhile your expenditure has been.

I wish you happy redrafting

The Freelancer

Night Shift

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0

Well, here it is: the cover for my novel. It’s due out on November 6th and you can order your copy right now!

Excitement! Excitement and thrills!

Hopefully I’ll be doing some events around the time of the release – I’ll let you know as soon as I can. But in the meantime please just bask in the magnificence of that artwork and allow me to shove more info in your direction:

Night Shift

Antarctica. A mining base at the edge of the world. Anders Nordvelt, last-minute replacement as head of security, has no time to integrate himself into the crew before an act of sabotage threatens the project. Then a body is found in the ice. Now Anders must do more than find a murderer: he must find a way to survive.

Will anyone endure the night shift, or will ice and frozen corpses be all that remains?

It’s being published by Flame Tree Press (who publish many wonderful books by authors other than me) and will initially be launched in the UK and US. Feel free to go harass your local bookshop/library/online supermarket for your copy. Remember – every copy pre-ordered saves one book-sprite from Brit Gringo’s Pixie-Parts Emporium (LLC), so there’s moral reward as well as the opportunity to get your grubby little mitts on a pretty tolerably adequate read.

I’m serious about the library thing. If you’re poor, or if you’ve already pre-ordered and want the joy of seeing other people spending money, most library services have electronic forms for the requesting of stock. It’d help me out and cost you almost nothing.

I’m also really happy to do events, signings or meet with your local book group for a chat. Drop me a line (my details are in that ‘contact’ tab above) and we’ll see what we can do. And yes, I am aware that this paragraph is inherently arrogant and that no-one has heard of me or my work. A boy can dream.

Right, back to the latest round of copy-edits. No rest for the pixie-dissector writer.

Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

The Editorium Strikes Back!

I’m deep in the middle of copy-edits at the moment. It is a doom-filled process and one I intend to write more about when I’m not too damn busy doing.

So in the meantime please enjoy these pictures of the all-new singing and dancing Editorium! A room of one’s very own (apart from all the family stuff that’s temporarily – he hopes – dumped in here for the interim) that actually has a view. I’ve spent the rest of my writing life staring at a wall; now I merely have to turn my head slightly to the left and I see fields! And trees. And a big, big sky.

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Typically I’ve waited until the heatwave has ended before taking my photographs. That’s just how I roll.

The most wonderful thing about this space is that I can cocoon myself in books. How wonderful, how warming, to be surrounded by some of my very best friends.

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The obligatory shelfie

My actual writing-desk is a hideous mess at the moment. I’d like to say that it is a work-in-progress, which is true. I suspect, though, that there’s always going to be debris scattered all over. The more mess changes the more it stays the same.

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Besides, I like a little mess. This is a work-space, not an Ideal Home installation.

Now I’m off to get back to my edits. Hopefully I’ll have a more enlightening post for you next week.

Happy writing.

 

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.

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.

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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.

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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.