Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

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I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

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A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop:

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.

The first rule

The first rule of write club is that you do not talk about write club.

The second rule of write club is –


Hang on a moment. That’s not the first rule. The first rule for writers is that you must write.


You’re a writer because you write, right? It’s what makes you what you are. Of course I understand that many people want to write but haven’t got round to it yet, haven’t found the time – but if they’re not doing it they’re not writers. In the same way that I’m not a rock star or an international cricketer or a lesbian.


I sometimes wonder if writing shouldn’t be seen in the same way as a mental illness, or as an addiction like smoking. Antisocial? Check. Habit forming? Most definitely. Somewhat smelly? Well, I don’t want to get too close to you.


Writing isn’t something you just do. It’s a compulsion, a dark, dirty secret done furtively on one’s own – often (if I’m to believe what I read) done at night, or in the early hours of the morning when the rest of the family’s asleep. The first time you come to it you might choke over the words, sit despondent and disillusioned in front of a blank screen. But if you get just fifty words down – or one line of poetry, or a spider-diagram of where you’re going – then that’s something you didn’t have beforehand. And the second day is always, always easier.


See, that’s the thing. The further you get, the more you do, the more you want to do. The first few sessions are the hardest. Of course, later on you’ll find plot problems and you have days when it’s just not flowing. But in essence, once you’ve started, once you’ve got the scent of a story in your nostrils, stopping becomes much harder than starting.


I’m not the most disciplined writer. The average hour-and-a-half session is usually eroded by an unfeasibly large number of coffee-breaks, of washing-up intermissions and the like. You wouldn’t believe how much time I can waste just by deciding what music I’m going to have on. I excuse this idleness by saying that my subconscious needs time to chew things over, which I think is true and is rarely mentioned in ‘how-to’ books.


But with the odd exception I write five days a week every week, either before or after work depending on my shift. Every week is pretty much the same: Monday’s a – well, struggle is perhaps too strong a word, but Monday is always my least productive day. Just two days off (I do like to spend some quality time with my partner) and I’ve lost the thread. Takes time to reconnect, to draw back the reins, consult the map and compass. It’s a slow limp forwards. One of the horses has lost a shoe, have to back up slightly realign the traces.


But Friday – Friday, on the other hand, can be a great day. Not just because I have the weekend ahead of me but because I’m straight in the zone and know exactly where I’m heading.


In theory, at least. It’s never quite that simple, but you get the idea.


All of which is why I hate taking time off. I hate finishing a project because I’m floundering for something to give my energies to. All the advice is to rest, or to ‘prove’, a completed project for six months before going over it again, so you can see what’s worked and what hasn’t. You need that time to get out of the flush of elation and have lost the blinkers you need to wear whilst you’re drafting. I’m not so good at that. I’m too eager. I have to force myself to play games and eat chocolate instead of writing. It don’t feel right not to be tapping away. Even a week is too long.


Which is why I always have about three projects on the go at once.


At the moment I’m busy on the first draft of my new novel, New Gods. That’s all I’m working on right now, chucking out something like 5,000 words a week. In the background I also have Australis to butcher. That’s my next mission. Another run-through of Night Shift is needed, and of course there’s Chivalry. The latter two are so nearly finished it almost hurts. Sometimes it feels like I’m schizophrenic, trying to keep three or four worlds in my head at the same time, each with a different set of characters with different needs and temperaments. And at any moment my priorities can change: a request for a manuscript will send me scampering back to Night Shift. A new idea could rear in my head, as ignorable as Mothra. Very little stability in this writing world of ours.


I bloody love it.


Because I’m a writer. I write. And the real world never stood a chance.

Just keep swimming

‘Are you waiting for the world to get it?’ Swervedriver sang on their last album.


The satisfaction writing can provide is amazing. The highs can be tremendous. Just the sheer pleasure of achievement, to have a passage down, locked, ready for the tinkering; it can be a fantastic feeling. But most authors write to be read, and that’s where the fragile nature of our egos is revealed in all its primitive antiglory. We’re like jack russells yapping at your feet, desperate for any scraps of praise that may fall from the table. And should the rolled-up newspaper of criticism come down instead…


This is never felt more keenly then when we’re submitting our work – to publishers, agents, magazines, whatever. We read the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook carefully, draw up our shortlists and check our targets on the internet. We make careful note of just what material they request (and God forbid that you stray even a single character from their demands) and collate it – careful, of course, that not a single typo remains, that we’ve got the date right, that our personal details are present and correct.


And then off the package goes, either in the post (expensive) or via email.


At first, when it vanishes from our sweaty grasp, we are filled with hope and optimism. Of course Publishgasm will love my work. I was made to be with them! See, their website says that their commissioning editor loves {insert genre here} – bingo!


Time passes. Maybe, like me, you’ve sent out a dozen submissions; at any moment, any one could get in touch; an eager phone-call, an email, even a letter. An invitation to meet up at their offices, an expenses-paid lunch. But nothing comes. Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. Okay, you know the odds are against you. You know – you’ve read all the books on getting published, the writers’ guides, all the advice in the W&AY – you know that the chance of getting a positive result is tiny. But the heart doesn’t. The heart is still full of passions, of songs, of dreams.


But as the days pass, something strange happens. You stop wanting responses to arrive. Instead of the postman bringing good news, you fear his arrival as each day the horrible, incriminating, malevolent package that is your self-addressed envelope might drop on your doormat. Another rejection.


And the email. That’s even worse because you have hope until the very, very last second. The envelope is obvious – as soon as you catch sight of it you know it’s your sample chapters returned with an ultra-brief note telling you that your work isn’t quite right for Publishgasm after all. Email… emails are sneaky. For a start, it’s not always easy to see who they’re from. You sent off your work months ago – can you remember which individual company-person you addressed it to? And it might not be them replying anyway. They have People for that sort of thing.


And the subject line gives you no indication. They just reply to your message, meaning, in my case, that such things are usually titled ‘RE: Night Shift – fiction submission’.


Again, you know that the odds are weighted heavily against you. You know that it’s almost certainly a ‘thanks but no thanks’. But you hope, you hope, you hope. Because you believe in what you’ve done. You believe, and you know that it only takes one person to get what you’re saying, for your work to cross the desk of the right person at the right time and your career’s underway. Because writing’s about being read: the arrogance of us to think that strangers want to read our work.


So why even open the message? Why not just let it sit there? It’ll become Schrödinger’s Email, full of mystery and potential. In fact, isn’t it better for people not to reply so you can keep the beautiful Hope alive?


This, of course, is stupid. I still do it, though, sometimes – wait until I feel I have the mental strength to deal with it.


Because I’m getting rejected a lot at the moment. This is partly because I’m sending in a lot of submissions and I guess partly because these things come in fits and spurts. Most of the time I manage to be philosophical and take what I can from the rejections (you can read a lot into the way an email is worded; my ironic favourite came from a grammar-starved obviously work-experiencing bod). Quite often the commissioner will squeeze in a little almost-compliment to sugar the pill. So far I’ve garnered a ‘not right but we’ll see any more work you have’ and a ‘your work shows intelligence and imagination’. Mostly you’ve got to look pretty hard to find these markers, though. ‘Don’t take this rejection as a reflection on your writing’ and its variants are common.


But they’re still rejections. So how does one cope? Well, you just have to keep going. ‘Keep on swimming’, as my lovely fiancée sang to me recently. Because no matter how many rejections you get, you have to believe that someone out their in publishingland will get you. You have to believe this. And whilst you’re sending out the finely-whittled samples, keep working on new stuff. After all, no-one’s ever said that your work has to be published in the order it’s written.


UPDATE: Just returned from work to find the Envelope of Doom on my hall carpet. Inside was not even a note: the agent had simply written ‘no thanks’ in red pen on the bottom of my covering letter.


Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…