On beginnings

Sometimes you need to hear something out loud to know what you were thinking all along.

Such is the case in my latest editing project: Our Kind of Bastard (and I still can’t tell if this is a good title or not). Despite this going out to beta-readers I still took the first chapter to my new writing group last week. There it got a very gentle, kindly-meant kicking, for which I am grateful.

The truth which I had not allowed myself to say out loud is that I struggled to start this novel. I have four beginnings, in fact, none of which run entirely sequentially and thus are a confusion for the reader.

The difficulty is that there is merit in all of them. But I know I have to lose at least two of those scenes in order to get a little flow going. It just took someone else saying it out loud for me to accept what at least a part of me knew all along.

This is, of course, another benefit of being in a writers’ group, manuscript exchange circle or the like. You are not always aware of what’s going on in your own subconscious and you need an outside force to bring it home to you.

Doesn’t help that OKOB is a sequel: I need to introduce all the characters and the world I’ve built in book one to remind veteran readers and at the same time give enough to newbies. And I need to crack on with the actual story that makes up book two.

So I have a problem – but then I always did have; the only difference is that now I’m aware of it. And now I know what I have to do: expand one scene to allow it to breathe, cut two others, and see if one of those, at least, can’t be worked back into the text further down the line. And, of course, I have to work out what information I haven’t now given and make sure anything essential gets fed back in somewhere.

This is writing. It’s a bloody difficult gig – don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy ‘cause it ain’t.

And this is only the opening scene.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Seeking progress

Banner concept of innovation, creativity and imagination

How do I write my novels? The answer, of course, is ‘badly’ – but do I plan ahead or do I just start writing and find my path amongst the thickets? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Every time I try and start a book I sit down, hopefully in a coffee shop somewhere (obviously not at the moment) and make a page of illegible notes which I’ll then almost totally ignore. It’s not wonderfully efficient but it’s always worked for me; sketching out the mechanics of an Antarctic research base, for example, and letting the plot flow freely through my subconscious.

Then I say to myself, ‘right, next time I’m going to try and do it properly. I will plan things out. I will, dare I say it, outline.’ And I never do.

My last attempt was for Our Kind of Bastard. I created four different spreadsheets. I had charts saying who was doing what where and when. I was organised – and then I started to write the damn thing and realised that, for all my planning, I’d only plotted about a quarter of the novel and I’d barely kept to that anyway.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Being bound too tight to a map means that there’s no room for a minor character to swoop in and bowl you off your feet. There’s a pressure to keep conformity, even if you find a more interesting trail to follow. The scenic route can be rewarding in itself.

Incidentally, Chuck Wendig’s been giving some Gentle Writing Advice on his Twitter stream recently. The one that caught my eye is this: we are urged to ‘trim the fat’ off our manuscripts, to make every word relevant and apposite. But sometimes fat gives flavour and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

In any case, now I am trying to sketch out a plan for a new novel – a follow-up to OKOB, which is in itself a sequel to Oneiromancer – and I am struggling. Inspiration is sadly lacking. So I’m trying to compensate by working hard.

I am, for the first time ever, writing down what may come to be a whole plot before I start the actual scribbling. It may not be: I reserve the right to start writing before I’ve got all the details locked in. And I reserve the right to deviate horribly before I’ve got to the end of the first chapter.

But I am struggling with my brain at the moment. I want to start something new but am finding it difficult. This is my way of steering around obstacles: I will not wait for a blinding flash of lightning to illuminate my way; I will turn on my pitifully feeble torch and seek out a path yard by yard, bitter inch by bitter inch.

Your method may vary. For me this is currently how I’m seeking progress.

Onwards!

I have taken action. I have left the malfunctioning writing group and have both reconnected with friends at my previous assembly and contacted a new potential group.

It’s for the most horrible of reasons, but it’s incredibly liberating to find that, suddenly, distance doesn’t matter. I’m joining with people I could never hope to reach without the wonders of Zoom, or Skype, or Roll20 come to that (yes, more old friends left long distances away that I’ve reconnected with for the purposes of rolling dice and pretending to be other beings).

As for the writing groups, I now have a choice. I’ve got one novel with the Publishers of my Dreams. Its sequel I’m reserving for my manuscript exchange collective. So what do I present to the new group?

I worry about this sort of thing. What can I bring them? Some self-imposed criteria:

  • It must be new (ish)
  • It must be of a decent standard, but yet…
  • …It must not be perfect (not that I’m capable) as there’s no point bringing something to be polished that’s already road-legal
  • It must be representative of me as a writer
  • It must not be hideously embarrassing

And I find I really don’t have that much to choose from. My novels are out (though if I get rejected by the Publisher of my Dreams I might reopen that previously-sealed container), and though I am fully intending to crank out some more stuff at some point, I’m currently still mulling ideas.

And that leaves my short stories. And those contain problems of their own.

  1. I’m not a short-story writer, not really, thus meaning that it falls foul of the ‘must be representative’ criterium above
  2. I have only two short stories ‘active’ (I have a few discarded ones in the bank, still). One of those is an mm romance and thus entirely unrepresentative (and possibly embarrassing); the other I’ve lost faith in and don’t know if it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time, including my own

I worry too much. It really doesn’t matter. And I have time – I have to attend the new group as a non-reading guest for a week or three anyway, so I can get the measure of the group first.

It is a dilemma. Fortunately it’s a wonderful dilemma to have as it means that I’m getting on with things, that I’m getting feedback on my writing, and generally moving forwards with my writing life.

Huzzah! And a big huzzah for this world of modern wonders!