I have been away – properly away, to the sunshine cliffs and beaches of Norfolk – for the last week and, as such, I have done nothing work-related. I have not even approached a keyboard. I have not typed a word. This might be considered a disadvantage when considering a writing-based blog.
Time off is great. It’s entirely necessary; one will go mad without proper rest and relaxation and mental time away from a job. But it can also be a right bugger.
I’ve been so disrupted through the process of writing Breathing Fire that I don’t believe I’m really capable of losing the thread. The thread is already lost. All I have is a haystack of words from which I draw a few at a time until I get to call the novel complete. Then the editing – the real work – will begin and I try to knit a few of these isolated concepts into something approximating a balanced, form-fitting fiction.
It’s one of those pieces of advice – make sure you write, even a little, everyday – that I have so dispensed with that I almost make it mockery. Write often, write when you can, and, if you’re so inclined, make notes in the inbetween times would seem to me to be better advice, though I personally am no notetaker.
My structural edits, that are hopefully paying for future holidays, are much harder to set aside. I have a new job and that involves me being able to retain as much fundamental plot information as possible all through at least one read-through so’s I can (allegedly) spot errors, contradictions, unfired side-quests and the like. And… well, taking a week off in the middle of it might not have been the best way to go about it.
Still. Nothing to be done for that now. And it was lovely to get away from it for a while.
All that’s left is to wade back in mid-stream and try and latch onto the splintery sticks of memory and plot as they come floating past.
So I settle bum into seat and get back to it. Deadlines wait for no-one. The work needs doing.
And, as ever, I hope to slip a few additional words onto the top of Breathing Fire in passing.
By the time you read this I shall be in sunny Norfolk on my hols. Yes, even us artists need time off. I’m writing this the week before in order to plug the gaping absence in your life that this blog doubtless fills.
After last week’s mirth-packed delve into the world of finance, let’s get back to Breathing Fire. Despite my time being mostly taken up with commercial editing, I have been managing to burgle odd half-hours, sometimes more, on this manuscript. It currently sits at 80k words, that tasty milestone hit earlier today, and I reckon there’s around another 10k to go.
I’m having fun, folding my own traumas into the text and building up – trying to build – a close relationship with all of the characters, main or otherwise.
Problem is, the scenario I now find myself heading towards is nothing like the one I imagined when I was first setting out to write this benighted novel.
No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in this case the enemy is the actual writing of the tale. I don’t know about you, but when I’m envisioning a story I have fairly strong mental images of certain scenes, be they big key set-pieces or more transitional sections. I have pictures and moods in my mind.
And then I try and turn them into a story. And it never works.
Stories need logic. They need reality. The characters have to go from place to place and those places need to connect somehow, even if that’s in the most nebulous way imaginable. I need to describe things that existed previously as mere ‘vibes’; and as they’re described they become more solid, more vital. And – sometimes – the environments you describe become almost players in the game in their own right.
And once they ‘exist’ they have to be respected. They’ll have their own parts to play in your story.
Example: a lot of Breathing Fire is set in and around an old converted cotton mill. I established this as canon a long time ago, replacing the original idea of climaxing, if you’ll forgive the expression, in a shopping centre.
Which is good, which is great. But now I find I need to build in a lot of the immediate surroundings – streets, houses, cafes, bus stops. Things in which we can lurk. With me so far?
Well I’ve down all this and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re entirely on the wrong side of the street. We’re on the wrong side of the railway. We’re on the wrong side of the river. All my angles of approach are askew.
How can this be when it’s all coming straight out of my imagination in the first place?
It’s because of those pesky characters, demanding I set in stone the vague outlines I had originally envisioned. As the action has progressed I’ve had to draw more and more explicit details and push further and further from my original plan.
Seriously, it’s getting ridiculous. I really should have drawn a map. Would probably have saved me a lot of sweating and/or swearing. But there is something to be said of allowing these ‘errors’ in a first draft and only really tightening the strings subsequently.
What all this does, this turning of ephemeral majesty into lumpen stone, it changes the story itself. In my original mental outline I had my characters crossing a railway line from a junkyard into an area of decayed terracing. Now, as I actually write the damn thing, I have my characters still crossing that rail line – it’s one of the keynote actions in my mind, even if it is, in plot terms, entirely superfluous – but this time they’re going from perfectly adequate terrace housing to an area of… something else. Warehousing, perhaps.
I didn’t plan this, or a thousand other changes. It happened – it’s happening – because the act of writing takes ideas and smashes them against the reality that your story is making. Holding too tight to an idea makes for forced, bulging plot-devices and ugly transitions. A little flexibility is needed to collapse phase-space into manageable bites.
Does any of this make sense?
Maybe I should just have drawn a map before I started out. Problem is that I didn’t really know what areas I needed to draw.
Anyway, I’m on holiday at the moment, so you can all complain about me in my absence.
I wasn’t going to mention money in last week’s blog. The bit about losing out on the cash for the cancelled game project? That was a last-minute addition. I put it in because to not do so seemed both dishonest and to ignore my immense good fortune. To some people, losing out on a substantial chunk of earnings would have a massive impact on their lives – indeed, one of my would-have-been colleagues has been hit that way. I personally never had the cash down on my mental balance-sheet because privilege.
My main job, financially, is 20 hours a week as a library assistant, a job I enjoy and which keeps me in the worlds of books and people. That’s my day job; that’s my main earner. I also work as a freelance editor. This work comes and goes and is hard to rely on as an income stream, but I’ve been averaging £4-5k for the last few years: a useful sideline. Those jobs together take up most of my time and (sort of; see below) keep my head above water.
What doesn’t earn me money is creative writing. My novel-writing – the thing I’m really here to talk about – has earned me a grand total of precisely £2k. That’s £1k as an advance for each of my professionally published novels. I’m not sure if I should say that that £2k is over four years (since I was first published in 2018), or over 14 years (since I started writing seriously) or over the course of my whole life. All are true, all are accurate. From that perspective you’re backing a loser here, folks.
New Gods, my self-published novel, still hasn’t earned out the cost of its cover.
I’m not saying this to complain. I am happy with life. I am still producing good stuff here, writing I believe in. But, financially, the hierarchy is clear: day-job, sideline, then writing last of all. It’s clear that, if money was my main motivation, I should try and either get more hours in the library, expand my editorial business, or get another side-hustle – like the writing for computer games biz.
Clearly, money is not my main motivation.
And this is where my good fortune comes in. Because I can afford to make that choice. I can afford to be not heartbroken when a gig falls flat. I can always rely on having a roof over my head. Why? Because I married well.
Now I hope it goes without saying that I married for love. My wife is, in all ways, best. It just so happens that she has a proper job. She earns decently. She pays the bills and I do more moderate things like cover the groceries.
I am a lucky man though, like all lucky people, I sometimes forget this and feel undeserving pride in my own achievements.
A lot of people aren’t as lucky as me, can’t roll off a paying gig with the sort of ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude I can. A lot of people can’t make time to write for themselves because they’re so busy trying to keep their financial heads above water. And that’s a tragedy.
I hope you’re fortunate enough to be able to put your heart and soul into something you really care about. Just be aware that, if you’re a writer, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living from your words; certainly not at first and maybe not ever. Keep your day-jobs. Cultivate your side-hustles. Write because you love it, because of all those wonderful stories you have to share with the world.
As for me? Another edit has arrived on my desk, and I am both yearning to get my teeth into it and cursing because of imposter syndrome it means that Breathing Fire gets delayed again.
Someday I will learn to say no to work, to prioritise my own writing; maybe when I start to earn from it, when I have deadlines for my own work. I will only be able to do that because I have financial security.
Without leaning even further on friends and family, the dream of being a professional author remains just that: a dream.
This week I have been mostly editing, and thus not writing. Some weeks are like that. Just got to take it and keep snatching the time where you can. And, of course, it means I don’t have much to say.
It appears as if the game-writing gig is off. Corporate politics – or possibly just determined accountancy – has doomed it. And that’s okay. I didn’t have the chance to blot my copybook, so I escape with my reputation – such as it is – intact. The money would have been nice, but it would have been a bonus, not an essential. I’m back to having just the three jobs instead of four, and I might just get Breathing Fire finished before the year turns.
Truth is that I should get it done a long way before that, but it doesn’t feel that close to resolution at the moment. This is partly because I’m deep in editing; right now I have a deadline breathing down my neck and I’m really burgling the time to write this now. Mainly it’s because I don’t have that clear an idea of where I’m going or how to get there.
I mean, that’s not entirely strictly true. I do know where I’m going. I’m working to climax no. 2, and then the denouement, and then done. I know a few key things that I want to happen along the way. Problem is that I don’t have a physical location tied down, so I have to do a lot of thinking along the way. I know roughly what has to happen – the vanquishment of the antagonists – but not exactly how.
Thinking: the curse of my life. I’d really much rather drift through and let other people make all the important decisions, thank you very much. I don’t know why I do this to myself.
Anyway, the final completion of this virgin draft seems a long way away. The individual writing sessions, when I can actually find the time to do any, are actually coming along quite nicely. Just a few days ago I was having fun winding a little of my own personal history into a character’s mouth. I do that every now and again, just ‘gift’ the character a little memory of something that once happened to the author. It’s a bit like cheating, as really these things should be born of pure imagination – or so I hear – but it’s also convenient, easy, fun, and possibly a cheap form of therapy.
So life is pretty slow, pretty heavy, pretty hot right now – but still I’m pretty sanguine. All it takes is hard work and the necessary intellectual heavy lifting. And then, before you know it, you have a completed novel.
I can barely remember the last time I completed a book of my very own. I spend most of my time in other people’s.
Not for the first time I appear to find myself in a holding pattern. Unable to move forwards, what with this and that, and unable to find a good circumnavigation; I am locked into an editing loop and can’t free much time for original writing.
Not that things are going backwards. I am still making – generally – decent progress in the game of life. I have my WIP and I’m trying to eke out odd half-hours to move it onwards. Problem is that, really, you can’t do much in stolen half-hours. By the time you’ve locked in to where you are, who’s in a particular scene and what motives they may have your time’s up. I even forgot a major character’s name last session because it’d been so long since she’d spoken.
At the end of the day, if you’ve written 100 words then you’ve made decent progress. 300 words is a win.
Truth is, of course, that any progress – even if that’s a negative word-count – is good. Anything to either claw your way closer to the finish, or that makes the writing better, is good. Personally I think I find 2-hour sessions to be optimum. Not so short that you spend all the time recapping; not so long as to melt the brain. I do (very) occasionally indulge myself in all-day sessions but I find that the breaks lengthen and the intensity wears off past a certain point.
Which is, of course, absolutely fine. It’s not like I’m working to a deadline here or anything. Would that I were; that’d mean that someone, somewhere, was wanting to read my words.
Speaking of deadlines and of people wanting to read my words, the job writing for computer games seems to have been delayed. There’s a chance it might be cancelled completely. Sorry to tease, but them’s the corporate breaks. I’m not too fussed, to be honest. I’d like to do it, but I’m a bit of a clew of anxiety about the whole thing, and it’s not like I’m sitting on my hands waiting. I have a big ball o’ editing to keep me busy.
And, of course, I have a WIP to finish – in, it seems, 100-word bites. I’m going to finish this because I want to, but I still don’t know what to do with the trilogy. Assuming none of the irons-in-fires (submissions) comes to pass – and I have no reason to think they will, nor that I’ll hear anything but silence – then I have five years’-plus work with nothing to show for it. I have tinkered with the idea of making – or trying to make – Breathing Fire work as a standalone, or retool it to be the first in the trilogy, and then try to sell that.
But that seems like a lot of work. I am, generally, opposed to hard work.
Another option is to self-publish. A third is to simply park this trilogy and work on something else. I’ve no idea what that ‘else’ would be right now.
Anyway. I’ve some good friends, and did I mention all the editing I have to do? That’ll have to see me for now.
I am on the home straight now. I’ve done Climax 1. I just have Climax 2 and the denouement to go and then – happy days – Breathing Fire will exist. It’ll be in the form of a completed draft and, though there’ll be so many edits to go and the whole beta-reading corrections and many more shenanigans between here and publication, I’ll have a fully-formed story in my metaphorical hands.
This is, of course, something to celebrate. And, indeed, I’m holding hard to that image. But I’m not there yet.
Maybe ‘home straight’ is the wrong image. I’m on the home section of switchbacks; the final labyrinth of a whole series of deadly mazes.
I am the furthest I’ve been from my starting point and so my original outlining was vaguest here. I roughly know what I want to achieve – a hunt, a chase, a final face-off before bittersweet victory – but I’ve got many streets still to navigate. I need to assemble, array and vanquish my forces. I need to block out every step, to storyboard (would that I could) the stages before the final curtain.
So I am nearly finished, in terms of wordcount, of stages left of this bedarned novel. But there is so much more left to do in terms of actual work. I will spend disproportionate amounts of time staring blankly at the manuscript, or at Twitter, or other forms of procrastination. I will, I know, operate in single sentences, or odd paragraphs, without getting anywhere near into a flow.
This is how it works. Or how I work, I should say, for I can only speak for myself. The more the pieces need assembling, the slower the process. And this is no bad thing.
What is a bad thing – from the point of view of finishing Breathing Fire – is that I am still enmeshed in all the other things that need doing as a priority. I have an edit to do. I have a day-job. I have a baby. That whole ‘real life’ thing continues to roll over me.
And then there is the whole new writing job that I’ve signed up to. No longer merely hanging over my head at some vague point in the future, that is about to kick in. I shall have to produce copy – quality words – to a deadline, and I shall have to do it week in, week out, for a year or thereabouts.
That isn’t to say that it’s all stop in my individual creative endeavours, but there has to be a working-in period, a period of stress and anxiety that I can’t look past right now.
Plus I’ll still be working on my editing, plus day-job, plus baby, plus all that ‘real-life’ stuff.
So forgive me if I’m not celebrating just yet. I have so much to do, a whole 3D maze of labyrinths to navigate. As I said before, I’ll be doing well if I can get this 1st draft done this side of Christmas.
I want to get it done, though. I will get it done. Because Breathing Fire is still a thrill to me. It could be the best thing I’ve written – it might not, of course, and of course the whole ‘re-drafting’ thing, but still. I want to get on with that process.
It’s been such a long time since I started, I can’t even remember half the story.
Fun days lie ahead. And that’s only half sarcastic.
Titles matter. Titles sell books. Titles communicate genre and catch the eye (and brain) of the prospective reader. They are key at-a-glance selling points that, whilst they might not make a book a monster, can certainly aid failure.
Yes, I know – we can all think of counter-examples. Still it’s not a bad place to start. I personally, writing in genre-fiction, would emphasise no. 3. A good title should tell you what field – roughly – you’re reading in.
The one title of my own that I’ve never been happy with is Oneiromancer. This has genre-coding in spades – it references Neuromancer, the William Gibson classic, with cod-Greek for ‘dream’ replacing the Greek for ‘nerve/nervous system’. So: Dream-diviner, or Dreamweaver.
So I think my title tells us what genre we’re working in. It has, I think, a dark, direct hue and at this point I’m beginning to talk myself into thinking it’s a good title again. Hell, it’s all of four of the five points above: it’s short, attention-grabbing (maybe) and memorable (possibly). It’s not easy to say, maybe?
That’s the problem with lists such as the above: it doesn’t actually give you any of the answers you need. It’s all personal interpretation. Does the Tom Clancy classic Clear and Present Danger* qualify as short and searchable? How many syllables equates to ‘long’?** Our Kind of Bastard is, I think, a good title – but it’s four whole words, and one of them’s a swear/slur, and it doesn’t necessarily communicate genre/meaning. Also, as the sequel to Oneiromancer, it should vaguely be keeping some sort of thematic feel, should it not?
For me personally, the feel of the title is the most important thing. It’s an indescribable, intangible thing: the feel of the words on the cover should match the feel of the words inside. I can’t put it any better than that.
Going back to Oneiromancer, the real reason it’s called that is simply because I’ve never been able to think of anything better – and now it’s stuck, incontrovertible, in my mind. I’ve played around with other ideas – Somnia is the one I remember – but nothing’s felt quite as true as Oneiromancer. And so I’ve given up trying. It’ll stay as the Big O until some editor or agent or industry professional tells me , once and for all, it’s rubbish and it must be changed.
I do wonder if a bad name might have cost me the chance of getting an editor or agent, though. I know that sometimes professionals do request alterations in titles, but one has to get the right kind of interest first.
Anyway, onwards! I have an edit to do and a WIP to finish.
And we can all agree that Breathing Fire is a decent title, can’t we?
*Feel free to insert your own example. For the record, I think C&PD is a great title. Not that I’ve ever read the book.
**The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a whole 19 syllables. This Reedsy post is possibly a better resource than the one I linked to earlier.
It would be ‘another day, another dollar’, but sadly economic conditions haven’t been favourable so it’s ‘another week, another dollar.’
Yup, I have another job to fill my time, But that’s okay because I’m getting to read tomorrow’s stories today. And anyway, I’m stuck on Breathing Fire.
It’s a simple thing. I’ve reached the end of a section and don’t know whose head to hop into next. I’ve been rotating nicely through my cast of POV characters. And I know generally where my story’s going. But, for some reason, I’ve hit a hump and can’t think where to go next.
This is where first person has the edge. You’re always in one person’s head and there’s no choice: if you’re writing chronologically – as I do – then the next action is always the next significant experience of that person. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to work out what’s significant and there are plenty of difficulties therein.
But I have about seven different perspectives I can choose from. Which I opt for – well, I really shouldn’t say this, but oftentimes it’s pretty much random. Who hasn’t said much recently? Who’s most interesting? Who’s most active here? There’s just too much choice and often I find myself thinking ‘well, just commit and make it work.’
Have I discussed phase space in these pages before? It’s a concept in physics which is remarkably applicable in storytelling. Put (over) simply, it’s every possible outcome to anything. Start with a great ‘space’: this represents everything in your world of story. Then draw a dot in it: that’s your starting point. Before you lie infinite options. Narrow the choices by selecting genre, setting, mood. Start writing and trace a line across that infinite plane. Ahead of you is everything, but only certain everythings will make sense. Phase space collapses. Options coalesce. The further you get, the more you commit to a plotline or a trope the smaller the arc of infinity that can be chosen from.
This is what I mean when I say ‘phase space collapses’, which I do remarkably often in the privacy of my own head.
If I haven’t rambled about this before it’s because it’s devilish hard to communicate meaningfully, concisely. And I am an idiot. And all I’ve just written is probably entirely incorrect. There’s also no useful – or pretty – images of it either, which is why you’re getting space pics instead.
Anyway, I bring this up because I am stuck. I am nearly at the end of my novel and so phase space is a fairly narrow beam. It should, therefore, be easy to see a way forwards – and, on the broader axis, it is – I know exactly where I’m going.
But it’s like a torchbeam shone upon a distant object: I can see it, the destination, perfectly clearly. But there are mantraps and ditches and tangling roots right at my feet. Do I take my eye off the prize in order to light my path?
Also I am so close to the end that I just want to get there. I want to leap all these obstructions and land hard at the finishing post. But I can’t. I won’t let myself. I have to earn the journey, not skip the effort on the train like some of the first riders of the Tour de France did.
Any now I am stuck. I have too many options. I just need to make myself commit and then run with the consequences. But for now my narrow arc of phase space is open in front of me and, combined with the white blank page of my word processing software, I am frozen into inaction.
Maybe I should just go back to my editing. Plenty to get on with there.
I believe in myself. I have to have some sense of self-worth to show the public my face each week, writing and publishing this blog; I have to have some sense of self-belief to submit my writing to publishing houses and agents across the world. Each attempt is a little part of me craving for attention. ‘Look at me! I can do this – in a way that no-one else can.’
Every writer that puts their work out there is the same, and that’s no bad thing. You need a little ego to survive, to push yourself onwards; it’s a bold step, trying to get yourself published, and you need to be bold to make the attempt. But I’m worse.
I read a lot of proofs of novels that are about to hit bookshops. Some of them take my breath away, are so accomplished, so innovative, that I’m in awe of the authors. I read these. I work on them, try and give them that final spit-and-polish so the final product is as perfect as perfect can be. I go through all this, I see all these wonders, and I still think I’m good enough to sit on the bookshelves alongside.
Problem is that self-belief and self-delusion are very hard to distinguish between. I do believe in myself. But I’ve got to weigh that against the fact that I’ve been rejected by hundreds of agents over the years. I just can’t cut it, on that front at least.
So maybe I am delusional.
As time goes by it seems to me that my chances of being taken on by either the publisher of my dreams (to whom I submitted Oneiromancer in their yearly open-submissions period), or the agent with whom I got a personal recommendation, are inexorably slipping away. The former has silence equating failure; the latter… well, no news is bad news?
So: I am delusional. And that’s fine. I will take that delusion and use it for the betterment of mankind. Or at least it’ll make me persist, to keep thrashing on, to keep sending my work out into the world.
The problem is that I believe. I believe in Oneiromancer, even if it has a shonky title, even if it turns out to need a good editing. It’s better than anything I wrote before. And in my belief – in my arrogance – I want it to be read.
I just don’t know how to help that come to pass.
The publisher of my dreams achieved that status by having a great network of nice writers and an excellent social media team. I want desperately to be part of that world. Ego again?
I just want to be read. I desperately wish I could do something to make that happen – something that, hopefully, involves other people doing the marketing work. I’m just no good at it, as can be evidenced by the lack of sales of the otherwise excellent New Gods.
I believe in myself. I am delusional. I just need someone in the business to take a risk on me.
The major life event has occurred. I am in an odd period of calm, balanced with anxiety, as I try and finish up as many little outstanding jobs as possible before the anxiety becomes overwhelming I really get into the new task that lurks on the horizon.
Thus am I back, for a short period of time, in the Editorium, working on a structural edit and trying to squeeze in the odd half-hour on Breathing Fire. Yes, I still have ambitions – though, now, I feel like I’ll be lucky to get it done this side of 2023.
It’s nearly finished! It really is. I have written – or loosely drafted, at least – the pre-climax, the first bit of action that precedes the final conflict. Now I’m just at the little valley that runs between the two sections; a place for emotional regatherings, a catching of metaphorical breaths before I try and pick up the pace again before the end.
And then it’ll be time for the denouement which, in my mind, will involve still more death and destruction, because I’m just like that. Because that’s what the story is telling me it needs.
But I have a lot of other things on my plate right now. The major life event has major consequences and the family needs a presence beyond the merely physical. Then there’s paid employment – I’m so busy with this writing life that sometimes I manage to forget I have a day-job at all.
This is good. Things are positive (apart from the aforementioned anxiety). I just need to get on and do.
Which is why I am, as ever, trying to make hay in this grace period I find myself in. I don’t know how long it will last – not long enough – and then inevitably I’ll have to reprioritise and the writing will have to take a back seat again.
Such is life: the reward for hard work is, has always been, will always be, more work.
Anyway, I’m tired and I have a lot to do. So be off with you. I’ll catch you again next week when hopefully I have more to say.