I have flown

I have flown. I have ridden the updrafts and I’ve soared. Now I fall back to earth.

It’s been a week. I have been ill. I have deadlines. I have done no writing creatively at all – maybe a paragraph on the side, but that’s all.

I’m at a difficult stage of the novel, now. The tension has been ramped. The action is underway – though not always combatty-shooty-explodey action. There’s a lot of small, slow movements woven in, and perhaps a surprising amount of observation and ‘feelings’. For action without consequence is simply empty and cold. There must be ramifications and they only mean something to the reader if they mean something to the characters.

That’s what I think, anyway.

I have a horrible twin-peaked mountain to climb; a double-climax with only a brief, small valley in between. Although I have some idea what’s got to happen, my original outline (which I’ve barely kept to anyway) says only things like ‘and the building burns down’ without going into any details, any of the mechanics. Past Rob left it up to his future compatriot to work out the specifics.

Which is fine. I have room to dream, room to imagine – I’ve always said that I’m neither a pantser (horrible word) nor a planner. I know where I’m going. I may even know how to get there. I just don’t know which specific bus I’m going to get, or what platform the train leaves from. As phase space collapses, so my ideas get more specific; so the next section comes into tighter focus.

It’s the way I work, and – generally speaking – I’m content. But, faced with the almighty task that’s rearing up in front of me, I doubt my own ability. I doubt whether I have the willpower to scale this particular Alp.

Of course, the best way to do any such task is to take one step at a time, looking ahead (or up) only so far as to plan routes and ensure that no dead-ends are reached. Each step will (hopefully) get me closer to completion. Each word written is one another that I won’t now have to agonise other. Small joys, small victories.

This is, of course, true about any writing activity. One could quite easily write this piece about the very opening of the novel, when the whole mountain range stretches out in front of you. And it’s true that Breathing Fire seems to have been a particular slog; the downslopes have been few and far between.

But that’s okay. I’m still here. Still working, when I get the chance. And I will get it done.

I also have optimism that what I’m writing is worthwhile. Just because the birthing has been tough doesn’t mean that the baby won’t be a thing of wonder. I believe in what I’m doing. Just wish it’d come a little easier, that’s all.

But I’m still here. And I will get the work done.

Just as soon as this latest deadline is out the door…

The blessed relief

The blessed relief. To remember what it’s like to be able to set words down on paper, to enter a loose facsimile of a ‘flow state’; in short to rediscover the joy in writing.

Regular readers will know that this has been something of an angst-station for some time now. I have been trying, and I have been trying, and I have been trying; but I have been swimming uphill against the tides of Breathing Fire and I have had to gouge every word from basalt with only my fingernails.

I finally found my flow, just yesterday, and though I only ran for around 1.5k words, those words felt glorious.

By way of contrast, when I was working on the Anders Nordvelt trilogy, and on Oneiromancer, I was regularly – okay, occasionally – getting 3k down in sessions little over an hour. Doing half that yesterday took me a whole afternoon.

The thing, though, is this: that means nothing.

Editors, or the reading public at large, don’t care just how painful a novel is to produce. They don’t care whether or not its creation was a joy or a soul-rending suffering and, by all accounts, they can’t tell the difference anyway. The likelihood is that I produced 1.5k words of rubbish. And it’s equally likely that the words I spent so much soul-energy tapping out, one scratchy, thrice-reconsidered word at a time, is likely to be just as poor.

First-drafting is hard and painful or it’s a free-flowing joy; more often it’ll be both, at different times, or will elide between them so you can’t really tell where one level begins and ends. It’s not about putting good words down, about finding that perfect prose. Even poetry – though I’ve no doubt there are exceptions for those more talented than I – in my experience was all about the editing, not the initial framing.

But you can’t do that editing until that initial framework exists. The first draft remains the most important, which is why I tend to bang on about it. It’s why I keep going even when I feel that I’m producing nothing but hot filth. Was it Neil Gaiman who said, once, that one of the most important things is to finish the damn thing? You can make a bad thing good but it has to be there, to exist somewhere other than in the fastness of one’s skull, in order to heat it and beat it with the Great Blacksmithing-cum-Editorial Hammer of Truth.

So it’s entirely possible that the work I’ve been agonising over will turn out to be better than that which flew from the fingers. How it got onto the page really, really doesn’t matter.

But getting into the flow state feels good.

If nothing else, that brief taste, that brief dip of the toe into the white waters of creation – well, it reminds me of why I’m doing this.

To quote Elbow: ‘One Day Like This a year would see me right’.

Now I must descend back into the world I’ve created to try and hack my way to the end. I’m under no illusions: it’s not going to magically become easier now I’ve had my taste of glory. There are deep plottish issues that I must work out. The vague idea I’m holding in my head for the climax will not survive contact with the enemy. The problems I’ve foreseen remain, and a brief taste of joy doesn’t actually give any answers.

But, after months and months of striving, I finally cast off my stabilisers – just for one liberating moment – and I flew.

Ain’t nothing like creation, baby.

Feelings and fragments

What am I doing right now? Apart from being interrupted frequently with that pesky old ‘real life’ thing – the need to earn a crust, for example – I am mostly concentrating on Breathing Fire. Whilst Oneiromancer is out on submission (to all of two places) I am working on its second sequel. And, as I have frequently complained in these very pages, it has been a long and difficult road.

From being worried about my well of inspiration to it becoming the longest first-drafting process I’ve (yet) experienced, Breathing Fire has been a struggle. And yet I don’t feel any resentment towards it. It’s not my problem child – that was the novel that eventually became Human Resources. The writing, when I’ve been able to get down to it, has been steady.

Of course it may be that hindsight shows me for a fool. But, at present, I am oddly well-disposed to the beast. No matter that I’ve had to fight for time, that I’ve yet to find my flow, I feel good about the project. It will be done; no matter how long it takes or where it takes me, I believe in it.

And that’s a little odd, because I have no real basis for my belief. When I wrote Oneiromancer I had the real sense that I was making words good: that I had ‘levelled up’ and was creating something that I couldn’t have done before. I don’t have this feeling now. What I do feel is that I’ve got a little more weight of experience both as a writer and a reader, a little more self-awareness and – yes – maybe I have got a little more skilled at setting down the words.

But this is a first draft, and the real skill is in the editing. When I finally get this stage complete and I turn to look at myself in the mirror, that’s when ‘quality of writing’ can be measured. All I have at the moment is the vaguest of feelings, almost an itch, that gives the sense that this is worth doing.

That and the plot I have in mind, which still interests me even as I spin it from the air. If book one was about creating the world, and book two (Our Kind of Bastard) was about almost malevolent glee in misdirection, book three is about… what? About cruelty and indifference, I guess. It’s leaner, hungrier and more desperate than its predecessors, I think.

I’m talking in vague terms, I know; descriptions that are almost worthless on their own. Feelings rather than fragments. I could talk at length about what happens in the story; or maybe I should just shut up and finish the damn thing, only open up about it then.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still here, still writing. And maybe – just maybe – it’s actually worth the effort.

Still here

I’m remarkably sanguine about my lack of progress as a writer at present. Certainly, to look at it one way, I am going nowhere. I have no expectations of publication, I’m not working towards self-publishing, and my work in progress has been in a state of more-or-less-stalled-ment since August.

But, as I said, I’m not feeling like the world is on my shoulders. Because, though progress is glacial, it is happening. I am productive with my commercial work, at least, and I’m managing to squeeze odd sessions of original writing in around the edges – and that makes all the difference.

Yes, Breathing Fire is still moving forwards. I’m now climax-adjacent – by which I mean I’m setting the final pieces in place, manoeuvring both heroes and villains, before I let them have at each other. Actually, that might not be quite true; rather I’m at the false climax, where it all goes wrong, before the true climax where… well, I’m not entirely sure what’ll happen there. But I’m sure it’ll be action-packed and full of thrills.

Setting it down like this makes me realise there is still so much to do. I am still so far away.

But I am going to do it. One session, on page at a time. Whether it takes me a month or a year (money’s on the latter), I shall get there.

And, really, time isn’t an issue right now. Maybe that’s a bad thing; maybe I’m too comfortable – I need some crisis to propel me to action. But I have my two submissions out and I am awaiting rejection. Until my dream publisher finally turns me down I’m not looking to do anything with the work I’m sitting on (whilst keeping a weather eye out for other opportunities, of course); I have a book, a good book, ready to go. Once the rejection arrives I’ll consider self-publishing or whatever.

Until them I shall potter along, keeping my foot in the field with my editorial work and reading the best and the brightest of the forthcoming, and squeezing what little I can from my brain.

So maybe it’s not the glittering career I’ve been hoping for, full of stars and celebrity and champagne, but I’m still here, still hoping, still tapping away.

After nearly nine years of blogging, and a lot more of writing, that’s not such a small achievement. I’m still here.

I’m still here.

Let down

Letting people down is the worst part of being a published author/freelance editor. I hate it. But it’s happened before and I’m sure it’ll happen again. It is, in fact, happening right now.

I’m not the sort of celebrity that gets authors’ proofs or advanced-review-copies and are quoted on the front of books to help shift copies. I think you need an agent for that, or at least have some cachet of name. So I don’t have to let people down by failing to read novels and give some soundbite by a specific deadline. But I know that if I was, every book I receive will be an agony of hope. I’d want to read them, and to say something nice, because I want to pay back what I’d like to happen to me. And I like making people happy.

But you can’t possibly read them all, can you? Judging by the few ‘bookmail’ or ‘the ARC pile’ pictures I’ve seen on author’s Twitter, it seems that the elite receive dozens of books a week. Surely they can’t get through that many? Not whilst you’re expected to do your own writing, and (in some cases) a day job and a family?

As I said, this doesn’t affect me yet. I’m neither on nor receiving those piles. But I do have my dues to pay. I’m a member of a manuscript critique group – small, select, and not very busy – and I have a few other friends who have read my works-in-progress and to whom I owe a debt. They have provided me wonderful, perspicacious feedback and I owe them my time in return for what they’ve given to me.

But sometimes…

At the moment I have a 150,000 word novel to get through for said manuscript critique group. I have until the end of the month before we virtually meet to feed back. And I’m not going to get it done.

I have paying work that has a similar deadline and I can’t – or at least I don’t feel I can – get through both. And, at the end of the day, the commercial work takes priority.

But I feel horrible. I owe these people both for past opinions and future readings. And for friendship. I won’t let myself be someone who takes without ever giving back. Sometimes it seems like life is preventing the basics – being nice, being courteous, being human. We must fight against that constriction.

So it’s back to the Editorium I go, hoping to get something done on something.

In the meantime, I practice my excuses; doubtless they’ll stand me in good stead for the future.

Priorities

Another day, another excuse. This time it’s a combination of Easter holidays and the Sickness of the Child that have arisen together to thwart my plans. The latter, at least, is over now; she’s back fighting fit. But my plans to switch between original writing and deadline-fuelled editation have come to naught. I have done neither and, as time roars on, I must prioritise accordingly.

So what does this mean? Well, apart from a general cursing of the universe and everything in it, it means that Breathing Fire takes a back seat once more. It means that I’ll probably not be able to finish the beta-reading I was undertaking for a friend in time to give useful feedback. It means that I must enter my Zen-space once more and compose myself before showing my face to the public.

It is life. If you’re a writer and you’re not yet fortunate enough to be able to earn a living from writing – or be supported by a rich patron/lover – the chances are that you have another job, or at least a sideline in applying for jobs/making excuses to the job centre. You are going to have days like this. You are going to be disrupted. You are going to be disturbed just as you were picking up the threads from the last disruption, just as you were picking up speed and starting to find your feet in the flow.

It’s easy to curse life, to lament the failures of society that doesn’t afford the creatives the resources they need to create. And it’s not wrong to so do; a lot of systems are seriously weighted not in our favour. But, whilst we labour in imperfection, the important thing is picking up the slack once more.

Which is why I’m writing this now. Truth is that, after a barren period without taking up my keyboard in anger for over a week, I don’t really have that much to say. But I’m making myself work. I’m making the words appear on the screen not because I’m inspired but because I have to do this.

Quitting is the easy option – and it’s probably sometimes the right one. But I’m determined to get Breathing Fire finished, and that means working past all these interruptions.

But first come the deadlines. Which is why, when I add the final full stop to this, it’ll be my editing that I fire up and not, as I might choose (maybe not; editing is, for me at least, the easier option) the first drafting.

Priorities. I am a writer, thus I will write, right? But I know that all the stitches I’m dropping can be picked up again, not least in the editing. Family comes first, then paid employment, then other commitments, and only after that can I have the freedom to work on what I want to work on.

It is sub-optimal, but it is life.

Efficiency is overrated anyway.

How I got published

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually said how I got published in the first place. I mean, this whole blog contains the story, but I’ve never actually sat down and spelled it out. So, without further ado, here’s the story of Night Shift:

  1. Write lots of writing that never goes anywhere, probably because it’s not very good
  2. Finish some of the former; get into the habit of finishing, and editing, and editing again
  3. Join a writing group – a proper one, one that suits me and can pitch criticism at the right level
  4. Write the first draft of Night Shift, receiving regular feedback on chapters as they’re written
  5. Edit said first draft. Edit it again
  6. Get beta-feedback from my small coterie of loyal friends, for whom I return the favour, and re-edit
  7. Enter the whole ‘submissions’ market. Approach agents. Make lots of mistakes. Get lots of rejections…
  8. Work on other material: first Night Shift’s sequels, then Oneiromancer
  9. …but Hark! What’s this? Receive a request for a full manuscript
  10. Receive a request to meet with an agent. Get all excited. Research not only said agent but also sensible questions to ask of her
  11. Attend meeting. Get lots of notes/criticism – what basically amounts to what I now see as an ‘R&R’ (revise and resubmit) request
  12. Overpromise. Rush the job in order to try and appear professional. Get embarrassed by some of the mistakes that were pointed out. Return manuscript to agent
  13. Get another R&R request (from the same agent) as the first was a disappointment
  14. Revise. Take more time. Really break the novel down before resubmitting
  15. Get rejection. Take it on the chin. The novel is now much better than it was before the agent got her hands on it
  16. Be grateful
  17. Prepare to self-publish
  18. …but Hark! An email arrives, offering to publish Night Shift pretty much as is! From a publisher I’d submitted to eight months earlier and had all but forgotten about
  19. Sign contract
  20. Profit!

This is, of course, the briefest of brief canters though the process. I could write a whole lot more about every stage I’ve listed here – indeed, I have, many times over, in these very pages. There’s also surely things I’ve missed; I haven’t mentioned, for example, the great Writing of the Synopsis and the Writing of the Cover Letter.

My memory is also fallible. Nothing I (ever) say should be taken as gospel.

It’s also worth emphasising that this is not the best way to publish a novel; it’s not the quickest, or most efficient, or even most guaranteeing of quality. It’s simply the path I took. Your method will almost certainly vary.

The timescale is also worth mentioning. It took comfortably over seven years for me to get from first draft to finished book-in-hand product, and that’s disregarding the first early novels that even I have given up on now. I live in hope that this period will shorten with time, but evidence is yet unclear.

What’s the most important step? Probably #1 and #2, which almost go without saying, and #8. Never stop moving forwards. Never stop swimming.

As for point #20… well, we’re talking very (very) modest sums here. A small advance which I’m just a little shy of earning out of.

Which is part of the reason I don’t post things like this very often, I guess. I’m still a baby author – I have no publisher, no agent, practically nothing to show. I consider myself to be a learner and an apprentice; certainly no-one to be giving advice.

But I have achieved two commercial publications, which is not nothing. And this is how I did it.

Deadlines and assorted complications

Deadlines. Gotta love ‘em.

I myself am not so good at them. Not that I miss the buggers – rather the opposite, in fact. I’m no good at pacing myself sensibly. Whenever a job comes through I throw myself at it, body and soul, and work all hours until it’s done, even if I the timeframe is generous and the target wide. I am simply too afraid of failure, of letting people down. As character flaws go, it’s not the very worst, but it is annoying.

At the moment I have a great six-week chunk of work on my desk. I should be able to meet it fairly comfortably. So do I throw myself at it and let it absorb me in its cocoon? Or do I try and pace myself and mix in other jobs – and maybe a little actual writing – in with the Big Task?

I’m trying the latter, which means that I’ll be able to progress with Breathing Fire – albeit at a slower pace (if possible) than before. This is good because it means – at least theoretically – that I’ll be able to keep up some momentum and won’t entirely forget where I’ve got to, what I’m trying to mull. And I have, indeed, made a little progress. The big break-in and the subsequent climax rapidly approach, bringing with it the need for thought and intelligence which is, of course, where I fall down. It also may mean that I have things to write about in this blog, though I promise nothing interesting.

The downside of this multi-strand approach is, of course, anxiety. I’ll always be worrying that I’m not leaving enough time for Task A, that I’m wasting time when I should be focussing, laser-like, on my target.

It also relies on me having time – actual available time in which to do more than one task. I have a part-time day-job – I am lucky – and a small (though heavy) child to wrangle. So there’s only maybe two days a week when I can look at more than one job.

Did I mention I also have a beta-reading to undertake? That’s on a six-ish week deadline too.

But the main mission comes first. It may be that I have to abandon side-quests and this many-headed attempt will fall apart within a week. Or it may be that the main job is remarkably straightforward and I have time to broaden out my focus. At the moment I can’t really say.

As a non-professional author, life is going to throw times like this your way. You’re going to have to find some way to cope, whether it’s going hell-for-leather to clear the non-creative jobs aside, or multi-tasking, or even taking a whole chunk of time away from real-life in order to focus solely on what really matters. I am, as I said, very lucky in that I can afford to work two part-time irregular jobs – library assistant by day, editor by later-in-the-day – rather than having to scrape time around full employment.

But editing time is also writing time. And life is shortly going to become very much more complicated.

So it’s on me to make the most of what time I have. And, for now, that means forging ahead with both editing and creative work. Because anxiety is just another name for love.

Perseverance

Another week down with very little progress. This is my life, now: I am trapped in a perpetual cycle of completely failing to get on with Breathing Fire. I mean, seriously – I have 175 pages written; over 50,000 words. You’d think that I know what I was trying to achieve by now. You’d think that I was capable of writing more than 50 words at a time. You’d think I’d think and sort the damn thing out.

This is almost certainly (memories may go down as well as up) the longest I’ve ever spent on a first draft (or ‘sloppy copy’, as someone coined it on Twitter). I’m past the point of simply blaming interruptions. This is seriously so damn hard. Pulling teeth is nothing compared to pulling words.

At the moment I‘m trying to plan a break-in. This means I have to think. Then, after said break-in, I need to plan a climax. And I’m just not sure I’ve got the energy for that.

Sigh. I shall get it down. I will not be defeated. But overall victory (in, what must be remembered, is still only Draft One of – judging by prior performance – at least seven) has never seemed so far away.

Perseverance is the only card left in my hand. It’s having to do a whole lot of work right now.

And then there’s the big Plot Issue I need to solve.

Back in book one (Oneiromancer) I killed a lesbian, inadvertently sending me careering down a trope-fuelled nightmare that I still fret about; I worry that any potential agent/editor will hit that point and either reject me because of it or demand changes that I feel incapable of resolving.

I’ve hit that same note again here. I have a queer couple and I was intending – no, the plot is demanding – that one of them should die. There is an inexorable momentum towards unhappily-ever-after.

Seeing this coming, I desperately want to save their life. I just don’t know how. For reasons of plot and momentum and the iron laws of tragedy, I don’t know how to avoid having myself labelled as something I don’t think I am. I want to wrench things round to a happier ending.

I just don’t know how. The book screams for blood and I’m not sure how to best escape the gravity-well of my own creation.

I am mulling. I have rarely mulled so hard. And in the meantime I scratch word after word and drag myself inevitably closer towards the end.

Except I don’t, because another paying job has thunked down upon my desk and now I’m back to editing.

One day I’ll actually get to finish something I started. That day is not today.

General pause

The Plague has struck.

Yes, it’s been one of those weeks. The little one has brought home more than the usual sniffles and has been restricted to the house – extra annoying as she’s absolutely fine in herself and has been slowly going mad under confinement. Now my wife has got it too and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before I succumb.

In any case, the bare fact is that I’ve been unable to operate on anything like normal conditions. I’ve taken time off work to look after said Small and all writing time has been erased.

All this is an over-elaborate way of saying that I’ve got nothing to talk about this week. I have no writing news – I still wait for my submissions to either bear fruit or be declared barren. I have added zero words to my work in progress, nor have I scraped any editing barrel. Any Editorium-time I’ve been managed to garner – like the hour I have now – has been devoted to the deadline-ridden piece of proofreading I currently have on my plate.

This is fine. This is all fine. There will always be days or weeks when the best-laid plans are all rent asunder. The trick is not so much in the coping with the fall but in the getting back on track again once the dust has settled.

So: resolutions. I must finish my proofreading and dispatch it avec invoice. That’s front and centre.

Then I must get back to writing and actually try and find something interesting to say next week.

Hope you’re well and happy and all’s happily productive in your world.

Onwards!

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws, the other has a pause at the end of its clause