The constant gardener

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.” George R Martin

The first page of the 'plan' of my work-in-progress. It's very much a working document, full of aide-memoires, things to (re)consider and the like. The greyed-out scenes have been deleted but are kept in  as a reminder of things I've yet to cover

My work-in-progress plan, page one. It’s very much a working document, full of aide-memoires, things to (re)consider and the like. The greyed-out scenes have been deleted but are kept in as a reminder of things I’ve yet to cover

It might be time to admit that I’m not all that good at this ‘planning’ thing.

I’m trying. I should have learned by now. I could have saved myself a lot of work if I’d started my novels knowing exactly where I’m going. And I’m trying to absorb my lessons: I’m keeping a spreadsheet, a working document where I outline what I’ve done and what ideas/corrections come to mind as I’m writing. But it’d be a lot easier to make progress if I had every scene planned out, an end-point and an out-point already set down with only the actual words to be written.

But that’s just not me. I admire people who can work like that, I really do. It must be great to have that level of organisation, but I just have to leap in. The beginning of the novel is set and I know in what direction I’m heading: I know what sort of story it’s going to be and I have a rough idea of the length I’m aiming at. But what happens, to whom, at any particular moment – that I’m not so up with. Yet.

I like to think that this isn’t so much a product of laziness but because that’s what I really enjoy doing as a writer. I plant a seed. I watch it grow, watch it entangle with the other shoots. I cut back the weeds, fertilize it, give it water. And I work backwards: I see an interesting frond and I think ‘well, if we plant something in this patch of empty ground it’ll grow to meet it’. Sometimes I might completely uproot a sapling if it threatens to pull the climbing-frame right out of the wall.

This is really quite a silly way of working. I could – I should – have got it all worked out, a picture of my perfect shrubbery on paper before I planted the very first seed. I should have worked out exactly what equipment I needed, got my trowel, watering-can and my bark-chippings all ready before I even set foot in the garden. But…

But I love doing it this way. I love seeing what tendrils link with others; I want to see where they go. I love to improvise, to allow the blow of inspiration as I realise how to pull these shoots together, what will bind them tight and what choke them.

And anyway, is there really any difference? All it means is that, instead of taking all that time initially to map out my path, I’m doing it in medias res; the thinking all works out the same. It’s just done at different stages of the process.

What it means is that I’m constantly going backwards and forwards, rewriting scenes to allow new futures to spill from them and noting future-possibles for inclusion, when I get to the next crossroads and have to choose my path. Let nothing be lost, no idea, no matter how half-baked, be unignored.

The bad thing? This process is inefficient. How many scenes will I write then completely discard? How many times will I tinker with the same shoot – trimming, re-potting, fertilising – to turn it into the thread I’ve finally decided I need?

But I don’t mind that. It’s the beauty of writing without pressure, without a deadline: I’m doing this solely for myself. I can play. This is my back yard, my demesne, and I can do whatever I want.

And I am making notes as I go along, so my first task when I finish this draft will be to take those notes, take my coffee and my manuscript, and work out which lines I’ve not taken, which need repotting and which should be allowed to bloom.

Maybe I shouldn’t be calling this Draft One. Maybe I should call it Draft Zero, because the things I’m doing are so fundamental. But it’s a lot easier for me to work on something already written than to build from scratch.

Adventure time

I don’t trust genre.

When you walk into your friendly local library you’ll see the books all neatly corralled, forced to comply with a regime that dictates their neat characterisation. Crime must not rub shoulders with Classics. Literary fiction is too good to mix with the SF/F oiks. Romance must – at all costs – be kept from the tiny LGBT shelf. And conspiracy theories demand a place in non-fiction, despite… well, despite evidence.

And that’s all well and good. But the fact is that a science-fiction novel can have more in common with mythology than it can with its immediate neighbour. It’d make as much sense to shelve books according to their settings as to their body-count (one or two corpses = crime: a million corpses = either space opera or political commentary). Think about it: books set in London all together on one shelf, be they sagas or gangland thrillers. Makes about as much sense as anything else.

Genre-division really doesn’t give you any idea of what any particular story is about, or how it’s told. What’s Agatha Christie got in common with Patricia Cornwell? The stories they tell are so different in voice that they might as well be from different planets. CJ Sansom cohabiting with Ellis Peters? SF/F is equally confusing. Ursula Le Guin next to Terry Pratchett? I love them both but hardly see them as interchangeable.

Which is why we’ve got all these subdivisions within genre. And that’s great. But it still doesn’t give us an idea of what any story is actually like.

See, I’m currently writing an Adventure. It’s an action story, told in a linear fashion: no flashbacks, little circularity save in location. Each scene will lead inexorably to the next as the tension grows, the stakes get higher…*

But of course it won’t be classified as an adventure. There isn’t really an adventure genre any more; not since the heyday of Wilbur Smith and Ian Fleming, not since we Gave Back Our Colonies has such a thing existed. It’s why Bernard Cornwell – the man who taught me everything I know about writing action – is historical fiction. And it’s why Oneiromancer will be classified as Urban Fantasy.

Adventure isn’t so much a genre as it is a way of telling a story. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are adventures. Some of you may know of Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’; for those who don’t know he divided all fiction into the following categories:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

You can take issue about these categories. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of his analysis. But a library or bookshop based on this categorisation would make at least as much sense as its current system. Genre, as we know it, really describes a book’s ‘dress’ – its setting or basic theme – rather than what it’s really about. Add a few more categories if you like: Extended Metaphor; Not-So-Subtle Political Manifesto; Loosely-Camouflaged Autobiography; Celebrity Cash-In; The Monster Within.

Really, we only accept the narrows of ‘form’ because a) we all grew up with it, and b) we know it well enough to navigate its treacherous undertow. But it means that I, and many, many other writers will feel ‘misfiled’ because the clothes matter more than the body beneath. And that, if you stop to think about it, is just a little bit strange.

*The right is thoroughly, completely and emphatically reserved to completely change this pre-emptive description of my future novel. What am I, a fortune teller?

Schrodinger’s email

Disclaimer: This post was written about a month back but shelved as I had another idea that I thought was better. Unfortunately I’ve had a magnificently unproductive week, writing-wise, and so I’ve been unable to upload my unconscious urgencies unto my computer. So, rather than stall, prevaricate or panic – or, worse, to improvise – I’ve wheeled this out just for you.

Remember: your eyeballs and brain-cells will recover, but my reputation will never recover its sheen. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster have mercy on my soul, and may my readers have pity upon me.

Well. Another week. Another draft complete and Night Shift is back with the agent. Now I have to forget all about it as I await, anticipate and dread the response. For all we do this work – and it has been a hell of a lot of work – for these moments, nothing is quite as terrifying as receiving the E-Mail of Doom. Knowing intellectually that Yay or Nay doesn’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of things, but still being terrified to open that email. Knowing that a no is much, much more likely and yet still fearing rejection and still feeling the pain in an almost visceral way.

Schrodinger’s email could sit in the inbox forever unopened. If it’s unread then it must contain both a yes and a no. Only the act of reading will collapse the waveform, let the phase-space disintegrate and leave you with a cold, hard, irrevocable Answer.

I suppose really I should take a little time off now – or, failing that, get back to work on Night Shift’s sequels. Or even look at a Plan B and consider self-publication or testing out other avenues of agency/publication. Nuts to that. I need a break. I desperately need to get out of Antarctica. So I’m going back to the world of dreams to actually write something new.

I’m a grafter. I am not given to genius, I’m stolid, persistent and dull. The actual act of creation doesn’t come along too often; maybe I’ll write something new and unique once every eighteen months. The rest of my time is spent nibbling away at editing and redrafting and agonising over the placement of individual commas and semi-colons. The chance to actually write doesn’t come along too often.

I don’t mind this: it’s the puzzler in me, the workhorse – and, for people like me, it’s what writing is. But still, there’s nothing to compare with the white-hot joy of creation, when you get far enough along the story that all the pieces fall into place and you’re writing downhill again…

It’s time to reboot. It’s time to use all the skills I’ve learnt over the last year – to focus on what I’ve found are my weaknesses and grow them into strengths. To realise that I have, in previous novels, failed to consider plot deeply enough and especially characterisation, and start again.

It’s time to write a new story.

Warning: may contain language

So. Clean Reader, then.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Clean Reader is an app designed by an American couple that replaces selected swearwords with a pre-approved list of acceptable replacements. Thus we have chest for breast and jerk in place of bastard and so on, and a lot of people have got somewhat het up about it. I refer you to Joanne Harris’ email exchange with the app-makers, and to Chuck Wendig’s exceptionally sweary post.

One of the main issues, as far as I can see it, is that these substitutions can be made without authorial consent. A work of fiction is going out with your name on it – but it does not consist solely of words you’ve written. Now you could argue that no novel ever consists entirely of one person’s words – editors, proofreaders and agents have all had a hand in it somewhere. But these changes were all made in discussion with the person whose name was appearing on the front. Clean Reader introduces changes without permission: is the resulting work truly the author’s?

Personally, I think the Clean Reader furore will blow over quickly and be forgotten: as early as 1807 Thomas Bowdler was releasing his ‘Family Shakespeare’, and his name has become little more than shorthand for stentorious censorship. Many authors have already campaigned to have their works removed and, fundamentally, Clean Reader is just too dumb to have much of an impact. It works as a simple ‘find and replace’ function and so you’re left with non-sequiturs like ‘chicken chest’. It doesn’t understand the historical context of words like bastard (‘the jerk Jon Snow’ doesn’t quite cover the meaning of the original term). And some of its substitutions only seem to make sense in Christian America. Is ‘crap’ really better than ‘shit’? Or ‘witch’ for ‘bitch’?

But it’s also true that writers require readers to do half of the work involved in creating a story. The words on the page are only a framework for the imagination. Every single reader builds their own world in their head and that world is influenced not only by what they’re reading but by their own knowledge, personality and background. A writer should work in collaboration with their reader. What Clean Reader shows is that some readers feel that they’re being left behind by the modern acceptance of profanity.

Swearing in fiction is an interesting issue. We may think that, as we become more and more desensitised to bad language, that this becomes less of a concern. But I still know enough people who are put off novels by profanity; shouldn’t they be represented too? People like Chuck Wendig would say ‘Sure, just not by me’.

It’s worth remembering that (good) writers don’t swear because they think it’s big or clever, but because real people swear. Profanity has weight; a well-timed ‘fuck’ can bring you up short, can create an impact that ‘darn’ simply lacks. Every single swear-word has been chosen with as much care as every other word. You might not like it – a reader, a reviewer or an editor might criticise, but it’s not there for nothing. Removing it changes the work and in some small way it becomes not the author’s, and you did not ask permission first.

Swearing has most impact when it’s used sparingly. It was beaten into me through my apprenticeship: a festival of fucks only anaesthetises. It’s the rare that carries the kick. Save the most powerful expletives for the real moments of emotional extremity. That’s when it works best. Use it when no other word will express the terror, the joy, the blind rage.

And then don’t touch it. Because it’s mine. That’s my motherfucker, and you don’t touch it without my permission.