About robjtriggs

Currently based in Cambridgeshire but with links to Belfast, Bradford and Norwich, I'm a writer of speculative fiction and a dreamer of dreams. Including that one which starts out nice and then turns on you like a twisty-turny thing

How to save a novel

editing

Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

kitty

  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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Checking in

Check in

Today’s blog is a short one, I’m afraid, and more of a check-in than a fully-fledged post. This is because I have managed to simultaneously contract a proofread, a copy-edit and a structural edit. I am thus plagued by deadlines and have had no time for real writing.

Two of those three things are for other people – paid work, in other words, and thus a priority. The other – the copy-edit – is for my own work and thus a priority priority. I’ve been sent a manuscript full of corrections to my own half-baked scrawl and instructed to ‘sort it aht, geezer.’

Just because it’s for my own work doesn’t mean it’s deadline-free. This is from the publisher and publishers work to a schedule. I have to prove my dependability by not only making half-decent corrections but by getting them in on time.

It’s done now and sent off to the Great and Wonderful Editor of Oz – or, rather, New York. And it’s straight on to the next deadline.

copyediting (1)

All of which means that the novel I was working on has been temporarily parked. The realities of life and business get in the way sometimes and, with only finite time available, the novel has to be the one to go to the kerb. But that’s okay. It just means it’s had extra time to percolate around my brain so that when I return to it – and I will – it’ll be with a vengeance.

Whatever happens, the holidays seem a long way in the rear-view mirror. Hope you all had good ones. I’ll catch up with you again next week.

Books of the year 2019

trophyIt’s that time again. Not quite awards time – I’m not even going to pretend I’m wearing a specially rented tuxedo and have just stepped from a Limousine to deliver this preamble (and charged myself an astronomical fee for the privilege) – but time to celebrate some of the wonderful books that have crossed my path this year.

Here’s a list of my favourite books of the past twelve months. I’m not limiting myself to 2019 publications but happily freewheeling through the years; I don’t see enough current releases to focus solely on the most recent publications. I’ve never met a loop I wasn’t out of.

Here we go, then – fourteen books that have uplifted me this year:

The Imaginary Corpse – Tyler Hayes (2019)

Imaginary corpse

This is beautiful. An impossible, ridiculous concept – a stuffed triceratops detective; a noir mystery in a cartoon world of forgotten ideas – that brings out the heights and depths of the emotions.

Tippy lives in the Stillreal, a world where ideas go when they’re not needed anymore. There he solves mysteries and battles his own trauma – until he runs into The Man In The Coat, a creature who can do the impossible: he can kill an Idea permanently. Now Tippy must solve the case before there is nothing left but imaginary corpses.

A mad idea written with such beauty and delicacy that it utterly convinces. Were I awarding a Book of the Year this would be a strong candidate.

The Breach – MT Hill (2020)

BreachI crammed my way through this in two days, thanks to deadlines. But I feel like it’s still unfolding in my brain, even a month after finishing it. Intense, lyrical and creepy as hell.

Shep is a steeplejack with a second life as an urban explorer, breaking in to abandoned structures to document their existence and for the sheer thrill of it. But when he discovers a mysterious nest on one such foray, his life will be forever altered – and maybe much, much shorter.

Meanwhile a down-on-her-luck journalist, Freya, is investigating the death of another urbex adventurer. She meets Shep and follows him across the world to try and get to the bottom of just what is making people act so strangely.

Just what is out there? And what is trying to get in?

Dark River – Rym Kechacha (2019)

Dark RiverTwo mothers, with 8 millennia between them, struggle to save their children in this brooding, suspenseful novel of climate change.

In Doggerland Shaye makes an epic journey to perform a ritual that will secure a future for her son. In London in 2156, Shante waits for a visa that will allow her to extract her family from an angry Thames and make her way to the safer north. On the way both women will face trials and tests that will push them to the limit.

Written without speech-marks, Dark River is a flowing, liquid read that sweeps you along relentlessly right up to its devastating conclusion.

The Outside – Ada Hoffman (2019)

OutsideA lot’s been written about this already, with its autistic main character and its great AI Gods and semi-human Angels. It’s worth the hype.

After Yasira’s prototype energy drive malfunctions and destroys the space station its mounted on, her work is deemed heretical and Yasira is abducted by angels. Her mission becomes one of tracking down her old, vanished mentor, who has been committing atrocities not only against people but against the known laws of the physical universe.

With her own home planet infested by impossible monsters, Yasira must choose who to trust: the AIs and their harsh angels or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics can open doors to impossible space.

An elegantly put together story that manages to bring something new to the table, and introduces mind-twisting concepts in a way that doesn’t twist your mind!

Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway (2012)

AngelmakerThis is great fun. Gangster noir meets James Bond meets absurdist comedy in this book of clockwork, of secret doomsday weapons, mad museums, dictators and octogenarian secret agents.

Joe Spork is a clockmaker and son of a famous mob figure. He is drawn into a conspiracy by the seemingly normal pensioner Edie Banister, who, sick of a life of fighting the nations foes, plots to activate a secret 1950s doomsday machine. Joe now has to fight not only the government but Edie’s arch-nemesis – a mad Asian dictator with a cult of mysterious monks at his behest.

A sprawling, thrilling adventure that always leaves a smile on your face, this is a big, fun thrill-ride that never bores despite its considerable bulk.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – KJ Parker (2019)

Sixteen waysThis was an unexpected delight. A colonel of engineers is, thanks to a series of unfortunate events, left in charge of a Classical city just as it’s invested by a vicious enemy who’s promised to kill all of the inhabitants. To save the city would be a miracle, but Orhan – a cheat, a liar, a man with a serious problem with authority – might just be the perfect person to pull off the impossible.

Witty throughout and with characters you really come to love, the beauty of this really is in the telling; the style is light and irreverent and simply a pleasure to read.

The Ninth Rain – Jen Williams (2017)

Ninth RainA cut above the normal fantasy epic, this is the first in a trilogy set in the world of Sarn: the ancient protectors of the planet, the Eborans, are all but dead from disease, their ancient god powerless and dormant. The planet is littered with the remnants of past wars.

Tormalin the Oathless, one of the last Eborans, leaves his home to wander and live a dissolute life. That is until he meets scholar and antiquarian Vintage de Grazon and the escaped fell-witch Noon. They find themselves hunting old relics in warped and mutated ruins whilst fleeing Noon’s old foes from the Winnowry. And, should they survive that, there is the prospect of the waking of the foes of all – the ruthless and totally alien Jure’lia. They are coming. And the ninth rain will fall…

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful book, the dark mood totally lightened by Williams’ wonderful touch with characters. The central players are all wonderfully drawn, their sarcasms and dry wit brightening a fairly dark world to produce a truly compelling trilogy.

This Dreaming Isle – Various (Dan Coxon ed) (2018)

Dreaming IsleA short story collection of dark and twisted folk tales from the British Isles. Fifteen stories, all depicting something unsettling about this land. Some explore myth and legend, others root themselves very much in the here and now. All are fascinating and it’s a real credit to editor Dan Coxon that he’s produced such a coherent body of work from a disparate and high-powered cast of authors.

 

 

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (2019)

Outlaw UKDisclaimer – I call Rod a friend so you can feel free to disregard my opinion. Nevertheless, this is great. Rod blasts his Elizabeth Barnabus series into the New World with this explosive novel set on the frigid isle of Newfoundland where tattoos bear witness to laws and oaths.

Elias is an outlaw, a man who was cheated out of his place in society – and his thumbs. He wants revenge. Is the mysterious woman who landed unwontedly on the island’s rocky sure, a way for him to reclaim his honour? Or will she just lead them to their deaths?

A fantastic adventure filled with great characters and a real feel for the cold, hostile landscape, this is definitely worth a pace in my favourite books of 2019. Indeed, my next read will be the last book in the trilogy, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

Fleet of Knives – Gareth L Powell (2019)

Fleet of KnivesAnother second-in-trilogy book here, and another cracker from this Golden Age of British SFF that we’re living through.

The story concerns the former warship Trouble Dog – one of the best AIs I’ve ever come across – and its crew answering a distress call from the crew of Lucy’s Ghost, who have taken refuge aboard an enormous alien generation ship. Meanwhile the Marble Armada have decided to enact peace at any cost – including the destruction of many human ships.

Can Trouble Dog and her crew survive being trapped between chaotic alien monsters on one side and the Marble Armada on the other?

The Winter Road – Adrian Selby (2018)

Winter RoadThe Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.

With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .

A very fine work filled with characters you really feel and care for. A little different to the run-of-the-mill fantasy works it’s competing with, its plant-based ‘magic’ a tonic after the years of wizards. Highly recommended.

Embedded – Dan Abnett (2011)

EmbeddedThe role of journalists in war is the premise in this intriguing SF tale of warring factions.

Lex Falk is recently arrived on planet Eighty-Six, a dull place without much more than minor military skirmishes to cover. But when Lex gets the runaround from the military, his interest is piqued. He gets himself chipped to share the consciousness of a front-line soldier. But when that soldier is killed, Falk must use all his resourcefulness to get back to his own body – and maybe, on the way, he’ll find out what on earth the fighting is really all about.

Lovely writing, an interesting premise and believability are all strong plusses here. There are also strong echoes of contemporary conflicts and the role of journalists within war-zones. Is access to the frontline worth being channelled to give what is essentially military propaganda?

An excellent novel.

Darksoul – Anna Stephens (2018)

DarksoulAnother second of three; Darksoul is the sequel to Godblind and, though it manages not to be quite as nasty as the first book, Darksoul is still pretty grimdark.

The veil that kept the red gods from walking the earth has been torn down. The Mireces army controls the fields of Rilpor. All that stands in the way is the city of Rilporin – and the mind of a soldier with the eyes of a fox.

Bloody, action-packed and thrilling from start to finish, this is a fine book. I really must get around to reading book three.

The Tiger and the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2018)

Tiger and WolfAll people have two shapes: human and the animal to whose tribe they belong. This is the simple and fascinating concept behind The Tiger and The Wolf. And it works brilliantly.

Maniye’s father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, but she’s an outcast. Her mother was queen of the Tiger and these tribes have been enemies for generations. Maniye can take on tiger and wolf shapes. She refuses to disown half her soul so she escapes and the killer Broken Axe is set on her trail.

Beautifully written and with a real feel for landscape and character, this is a fantastic novel.

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And that’s that for another year! I’m going to take a break, now, until 2020, unless something thrilling and dramatic happens inbetweentimes that I just have to share. Otherwise, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and much, much, happy reading.

 

Closing in

victory

If the quality of my rejections is anything to go by, I’m getting closer.

Yes, it’s another round of ‘near but not near enough’. Last time the rejection was because only special novels need apply. This time it was ‘something about the tone just doesn’t sing with me.’

But the rejection was personalised – which is relatively rare – and some lovely things were said. ‘[Characters] are brilliantly realised’; ‘the writing has real zip and purpose’. I’ll take that, for sure.

I’m getting closer. I’m getting the cover letter right, and I know my work is good. And yes, this may be self-delusion but I believe in what I’ve written. Today, at least; I may feel different tomorrow.

The problem is that I’ve run out of agents to target. Or at least I’m finding it hard to track any more down. I’ve been on the manuscript wishlist website and I’ve been through the Writers’ And Artist’s Yearbook but I don’t want to do things like that anymore; no more blank sending out of queries. I want to find an agent that I feel a connection with, and that basically means liking what they say on Twitter.

Laptop-PC-Computer-Battery-Desktop

Maybe I should go back to lists and try and hit out randomly. I don’t know. There just seems to be a limited pool of agents who work in the field and I’ve already struck out with most of them. Certainly in my world the same names seem to come up again and again.

So what do I do? Well, I won’t get into a panic or allow myself to get too down. I’ve probably forgotten about a dozen people who are worth submissions. I’ll get to them, I’m sure. I’ll check who my favourite authors are repped by and see if I can’t jump on that particular bandwagon (assuming I’ve not already fallen flat on my face).

And I will of course keep on writing. The best book to sell is always your next one; it’s always the best you’ve ever written.

I am on the right track but it is a tortuous, pitfall-filled road with many slips ‘twixt cup and lip.

But I am making progress. I’ll get to my destination one day.

Unless, of course, this is all massive self-delusion. Don’t be surprised to read a remarkably similar post from me in a year, two years, five years’ time. The industry works slowly, and so do I.

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No flow

flow

At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

quote-good-writers-hate-bad-writing-but-hating-bad-writing-doesn-t-make-you-good-writing-badly-dan-harmon-108-3-0367

It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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Autodidact

AD

It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

Autodidact cartoon

I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

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The hangover

bookhangover-epicreads

This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.