The second pass

The second pass of a manuscript is always an odd one for me.

So here I am. I wrote my first draft and I was good and put it away for a few months so as to approach it afresh the second time around. I know, in that vague sense you get of being convinced of something without being able to place precisely why, that it needs thorough surgery before anyone else can read it.

The second draft should, therefore, be the perfect place to pick it apart and stitch it back together. You know work needs doing. You’re in a fresh headspace so as to see those flaws. You’re not too committed to going down the wrong streets.

Well it never works like that for me. For me the second draft always seems to be one of self-congratulation, of saying ‘hey, this isn’t all as abysmal as I’d remembered.’

It always turns into a game of changing odd words, of fixing egregious errors within sentences rather than egregious errors of continuity or pacing or logic. And this is wrong: the individual words don’t matter at this stage. The foundations have to be firmly established before the building’s ornamentation can be affixed.

And yet I find myself making the same mistake that I’ve made again and again and will almost certainly make in the future.

Why should this be? I suppose that a part of it is just that lack of familiarity that makes it worth putting aside to gain also handicaps a little: I’m still discovering my own work and want to see the big picture before I get with the scissors.

It also must be down to my perception. I’m so surprised that anything in the story hangs together that I struggle to see the bits that are flapping in the wind. And maybe also I’ve just not left it long enough (yes, I know, I want it both ways) and I’ve not come to the manuscript with the right attitude.

Point is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant to manage a problem at the optimum time. I know these problems are still there, that I will have to deal with them at some point. Why not now?

But for the meantime I’m just really rather enjoying the tiny tinkerings; the swapping of one word for another in the here-and-there.

Anyway, we all know that draft 3 is where the real work begins. Right?

The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?

Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.