A brief diversion

This week I have been mostly learning why, when and how to evict people from nightclubs. Yes, I know – nothing to do with writing. And, if you’ve ever seen/spoken/interacted with me, nothing close to my natural metier. But work told me to go and so I went.

Now there are several lines I could go down here. I could lament the loss of writing time (I’ve written not a word creatively) and point out the lack of money in fiction. I’m sure you’ve seen the reports saying that the vast majority of novelists don’t even earn a living wage. I could ask if anyone knows ways of supplementing your income through writing-related skills: editing, proof-reading and the like. Apparently 41% of 200 writers attending the LA Times Festival of Books teach creative writing, and it’s occurred to me that I could do such things if I’m prepared and can afford to get the relevant qualifications.

Or I could say how much I – to my own surprise – enjoyed the course and met some interesting people and got new ideas for stories.

Life is good. People are good, and interesting, and fuel your imagination. Whilst it’s hardly possible to learn everything under the sun – or even beyond, out in deep space – everything you do helps you grow as a person and as a writer. Now I have a greater understanding of how clubs and festivals and assorted shindigs operate I’m much more confident should I ever want to set a scene in these environments. I now know something about the sort of people who might take work as bodyguards.

I can bank this info and draw on it – at any point in the future – to create something richer, more realistic, than I could before. Plus I’ve added new character-types to my well: prison officers, ex-military, Russian migrants, former methamphetamine producers – examples of all were on my course. So was the clown who hides his smarts behind a veneer of simplicity, and if that’s not an archetype you can paint me pink and call me Joanna.

There’s no moral to this. No great message, barely even a point. I’ve not had time to read through this piece to see if it’s worth posting: it’s going up even if I look back in a month’s time and think it’s all bollocks. Please accept my apologies for wasting your time. Just be warned. I now know how to put you in the ‘safety pin’ and escort you from the premises. So don’t go causing trouble in here. Mmmkay?

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.

Learning to write

Learning to write. That’s what I’m doing. End of game, reboot, start over. I’ve gone as far as I can by just toying with words. Now I’ve got to learn how the game’s played for real.

I can write. I can string words together in a way that feels good, that contains both truth and – yes, and beauty. But I’ve not written the perfect novel yet. It’s all part of the process, I guess; you learn enough in one area to show you how little you know in another. Me? I’m learning that I don’t know enough about pace and structure, about character and about consistency, to achieve what I want to achieve: to get that book out there on the shelves.

So instead of sitting before my keyboard, conjuring with conjugates and stirring the synonyms, I’m pulling my work apart. Going through each scene in turn – ignoring the things I could easily improve – and summing up what happens, to whom, with what; what implications the scene may carry and why it’s there. This is the first step – my first step – to breaking the pieces apart like chunks of honeycomb, trimming and nibbling at the edges until it can fit into a new symmetry, a new network of juicy fibres, sticky and rich and oozing…

I am, in other words, planning. Searching for flaws, for incongruities, for gaps in the plot. Preparation for rebuilding better, faster, stronger. To tighten the wires, to stitch a beautiful new Frankenstein’s monster.

Some of you out there may be mocking me for not doing this sooner. Some of you will be saying that I should have started out with a proper plan – then I wouldn’t have to be going through this slow, painful task. Fair enough. You’d have a point. But I don’t regret the way I’ve worked. I’m not the same person I was when I starting writing Night Shift – two years ago it was, give or take. I’ve developed and learnt and I’ve learnt through doing. Now? Yes, now I’d do things differently. I’m still not sure if I’d start a new project with a full plan, but I think I’d at least keep a chart of scenes as I went along. If nothing else it’s always worth asking yourself ‘why am I writing this scene?’ as you go into a section. Always worth keeping the end-point in mind.

So I’m going back to the start because I’m still learning how to write. At the end of the day, words are easy. Words can always be changed, be bent to the will. I’ve got that now, I know how to beat them into shape. Structure? Deeper issues? That’s heavy industry right there, and a tour around the foundry ain’t enough to make you a master craftsman.

So how do you learn how to plot? Is this what’s taught on MA courses in creative writing across the land? Once you’ve started using rhetorical questions how the hell do you stop? If anyone has any answers I’d be interested to hear them. But in the meanwhile I’m again learning by doing; seizing the mammoth by the horns and attempting to wrestle it into submission.

I said I was learning. I didn’t say I was learning quickly.

Fear and loathing

I wrote this at the end of May, just before my computer died and trapped my files within its Manichean folds. I’m resurrecting it here because I’ve finally finished Australis and am just about to start on the Big Task of rewriting Night Shift. And although the delay has left me feeling a little ‘readier’ for the job that awaits, all I wrote then still applies: the pain of criticism will surely stab most cruelly at my unprotected goolies.

* * *

I’m afraid. That’s what it is.

To make it as a traditionally published writer you have to be able to take criticism, but no matter how accustomed to it you are, it still hurts. You prepare yourself; whenever you show your work to anyone you know you’ll be in for a few tactful pointers – but still those words hurt. Writing is an intensely personal thing, maybe more so than it should logically be. Criticism of one’s work is like criticism of the person.

That’s why I’ve been putting off going back to Night Shift, the work I should really be doing. I’m afraid. I’ve got an annotated manuscript waiting for me; a barrage of mistakes, errors and misjudgements that I need to fix. And no matter how much I tell myself that it’s not personal, it’s just another way of making my work better, it’s still gonna make me wince and squirm.

It helps that I have good, justifiable reasons for not going back to that just yet. I’m in the middle (more of towards the end, now) of something else which demands much of my writing energy, and I’m taking time to track down a few more Night Shift-like novels to better understand the genre I work in, so I’m not exactly wasting time. But the real reason – the reason that makes me feel so guilty – is that I need a little space to rebuild my defences. I need time to take the proverbial deep breath, to re-forge my armour before heading back into battle.

That’s why I’m prevaricating at the moment. And I think – still – that it’s a sensible thing to do. I also hope that writing this blog will help shift the subconscious anxieties into the conscious mind. And I’m sure that the proof-reader’s comments won’t be that bad; after all, she wants the novel to work too.

I also know I’m got a hell of a lot of work still ahead of me. I have to go back to the very beginnings, redefine elements of theme, character and plot. I can’t say I’m looking forwards to that, but it doesn’t scare me in the way criticism does. Is it true of all writers that they have this almost split personality? Sharp arrogance – after all, you’ve got to believe that you’re doing something others will like – tempered with an almost crippling lack of self-esteem?

Or is it just me?

* * *

UPDATE: Been working my way through the preliminaries. It is indeed a painful and angstifying experience, with work I thought was decent simply ripped to shreds. But this is writing. It can hurt and it can be slow and difficult. And I’ve not written a single word in anger yet, not on this phase of the project.

More literary adventures next week!