Racist, sexist, homophobic

Note: this post was written at the beginning of 2021 but got delayed because writing about my publishing problems seemed more immediate. Sorry to begin the new year with two fairly downbeat essays, but that’s the writer’s life for you: ups and downs all the way. Hope you get something out of this; hopefully I’ll be able to present more positivity next week.

This isn’t meant as a moan or a whine; apologies if it comes across as one. But I was told at my last writing group meeting that I’d been imbibing – and regurgitating – racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, and… well, it’s been on my mind.

It’s not just one piece; it is, apparently, in my work in general. The accusation was made by the person who accused me of being racist – or at least colonialist – in my treatment of slum clearances, and this scene was certainly in her mind as she, once more, took me to task.

So what do I make of this? Has she got a point? She didn’t directly accuse me of being the ‘ists’ but she might as well have, as I flatter myself that I am a modern, well-balanced human being who is, if not immune to racism and sexism, then at least am aware of my flaws and my ignorances and try to work on them. The accusation stings and I’m not sure what to do about it.

First things first: is she right? This latest criticism came to over a short(ish) story that involves a central female character who is viewed through the lens of a narrator who idolises, almost worships her. My critic says that there is nothing to her but her looks and here she may have a point; I’ve almost deliberately not gone into her spirit and agenda as I want her to be ethereal, almost mesmerising, rather than grounded and gritty.

As for her looks, I wasn’t even aware that I’d portrayed her as good looking (there’s certainly no paragraph of description that could appear in the Men Writing Women twitter feed) but, looking back, I suppose I had managed to give that impression.

So I can just about see where my critic is coming from. I just don’t know if I should make changes based on her opinion.

And now I’m shaken. I have many, many flaws, but I didn’t think I was a bad person. I’ve reviled groups like the Sad Puppies for their right-wing agenda. Am I now to see myself in such company? Hell, have I been lying to myself – and the world – all this time? How do I become the person I imagine myself to be?

Writing is an intensely personal business. That’s why criticism hurts. We lay ourselves out there on the page and receive what slings and arrows come our way. I’m constantly afraid that my Antarctic trilogy, in particular, will fail one of these acid tests because it’s consciously multinational and I’m writing outside of my own experiences.

Now I’m being told that my writing in general fails. And that means I’ve failed as a person.

I don’t think I’m in the best position to evaluate my flaws, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else. If anyone out there feels they’re better placed, I’d love to hear from you.

Slings and arrows

It’s not quite imposter syndrome but it is close. I’m having a crisis of confidence because I fear that I’m the worst writer in my writing group (five people) and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

It doesn’t reflect well on me. I should be grateful for being shown how much I have to improve. I should be proud to have room to grow – and I am, I promise. And that’s good, and humbling, for I am not without ego and it does me no harm to be shown the emptiness of my rhetoric.

But I’m the published author. I should be better than I am; I shouldn’t be an over-writer. I shouldn’t be struggling with quiet scenes. I should be better than what I’m showing.

I should also be better at giving criticism. Lord knows I’ve had enough practice at that, what with being an editor to boot.

It doesn’t help that I’m finding it hard to mesh on a personal level with the other members of the group. Not that there’s any animosity or unpleasantness, but remote meetings make it harder to express empathy or to communicate in any ways other than through direct speech. In such a small group these things seem magnified.

So what do I do? I don’t want to leave because these people are, as I said, damn good writers and I should be learning from them. I’m determined to be as good as I can possibly be.

I guess I just suck it up, grit my teeth and take the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

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.

A necessary break

I had New Gods critiqued last week. It should have been the final stop on its way to submission, nay, publication, and that may still be the truth of it. But I received enough common complaints that I feel a pause might be of benefit.

New Gods, to those not in the know, is the third (and final?) novel in the Antarctic trilogy that began with Night Shift and will be continuing this November with the release of Human Resources. See how I’ve kept the punchy two-word theme throughout? Clever, eh?

I personally think NG is the best – or has the potential to be the best – of the lot. I’m excited about it. I want it to work. I want it to sing, to shine. And I think it can.

But I think I need to hold my horses a little. There are still enough imperfections that I need to address, and those common complaints aren’t going anywhere. The only urgency is self-created. I can afford to take a little time and make it as good as I possibly can.

Specifically, the major complaint is that I haven’t put enough description in, and have left certain things too ambiguous. To some extent that’s a stylistic choice and I don’t want to go overboard to compensate. But clearly there is room for a few more words of explanation.

I also have to address a few plausibility gaps; not that things didn’t work, necessarily, but if they can be tightened it’ll be a better, more absorbing story.

The big thing I have to grapple with at the moment, however, is a question of showing or telling.

The old mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. This is often debated and isn’t always the best advice. But I originally wrote a fairly long scene near the opening of the novel that described a piece of action – specifically, a rescue attempt from a fire in a medical centre.

Then I cut it. I replaced it with a few paragraphs describing what happened instead of showing it live, as it were.

I had good reasons for this. The scene was over-long and, I felt, unbalanced the novel, especially as it occurred so early in the narrative. I just felt uncomfortable with it as it was, and – I think – I managed to sum it up concisely in dialogue as a past event.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Some members of the critique group asked me why I hadn’t shown the event in question and told me to show, not tell.

Now I don’t know what to do. I still have the scene saved and can reinstate it without too much difficulty (it would be edited, of course). But then would I have the pacing problems again? Is it better as is?

I just don’t know what to do.

What I really need, of course, is an agent. Without one I am on my own.

Except for you lot, of course. What would you do?

Must try harder

copyediting (1)

I had my first virtual writing group on Sunday. I read and I’m feeling a little disheartened as I write this.

Reading to a critique group is one thing I never seem to get right. Either one takes something that’s over-edited and thus defeating the purpose of the criticism, or one takes something raw and unrefined that will get too-obvious criticism and there’s not much to be learnt from it.

I chose the second route. Turns out I’m an overwriter. My writing is full of redundancies and repetition – and I’m supposed to be the published author who’s past such silly mistakes (not that anyone in the group knows I’m published).

That’s what gets me. I should be better than this. I’ve done my apprenticeship, logged the hours behind the computer, read the writing instruction books, had the feedback. Why aren’t I a good writer now? Why doesn’t the prose flow error-free? Not perfect, because no-one is, but competent. Surely my editing time should be spent on finding the perfect words, not on hacking and slashing and thrashing around in amateurish prose.

Tom Gauld bad writing

Copyright Tom Gauld

What it means is that, instead of trenchant criticism on individual sticky spots, or where the passage moves too slowly, or some particular imagery doesn’t work, attention was all on the obvious things that I’d like to think I’d have spotted myself on a second pass.

Well, I will do the work. I will do what is necessary and I will strip the beast back to its bare bones if that’s what’s necessary. I never said the WIP was good; not in its current state, at least. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story, after all. There is a good yarn hiding within, that I know.

I’m just feeling a little down. I should be better than this.

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.

(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

The critic’s black heart

litcrit

When you see the eyes start to glaze it’s time to back off.

I’m not proud of myself. I’m not a good person. Reducing someone to tears is not an achievement – not that it quite got that far, but still. Close is too close.

Writing is a tough, personal business. After you’ve scratched and scrapped your way to a completed work you’re attached to it; you love your characters and you’re proud of your achievements. Rightly so. Even the very worst adolescent scribblings is worth more than the “I could do better if I had the time”s in the world. So the very last thing you need is for some jackass like me come along and rip your work to shreds.

It’s worse because I’ve had it happen to me. I have no excuse.

Shall we contextualise a little? Last week I met with my fellow write-smiths to feed back on one of my colleagues’ work-in-progressese. It was a first draft. It had flaws: flaws that made me write in capital letters on my notes. Errors that frustrated me, made me rant. Which is not to say that it didn’t have merit; it most certainly did. But I find it hard to praise when the plot-holes are so large you could fit a Dostoyevsky in them.

This is my confession. I should have backed off. I should have seen the mood and picked my words more carefully. I should have spared the blade.

Criticism has to be pitched to the mood, to the recipient, to the look in the eyes. If, as I said at the beginning, you see the eyes start to glaze and your words are bouncing off like bullets from a cyborg heroine, it’s time to stop. To pause, get another drink, have a metaphorical cigarette. The last thing you want to do is make someone abandon their precious. All writers put a lot of themselves in their work. To insult their prose is to pierce their hearts.

The point of criticism is to help. That’s worth stating explicitly. It’s not a podium from which to demonstrate one’s own superiority. It’s not to highlight the ways in which you could do better; it’s not the place to show your command of words or of plot or dialogue or character. You’re there to help – either to aid the reader in finding a work that’s right for them, or, as in this case, to help the writer produce a better story.

I fear I did not do that. And for that I’m truly sorry.

The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

State of the nation

I don’t know about you but I’m getting confused. After a long year working on one single project, I’m now all-of-a-multitask. I figure that this might make this blog a little twisty-turny, so I thought I’d best lay out just what I’m doing and where I am.

First off: Oneiromancer. This is my urban fantasy and main line of creation right now. It’s what I’ve been blogging about for the last year, so I won’t bore you too much here. The second draft is currently with the beta-readers; I have a date set in early May for feedback, beers and tears.

After this review I’ll get back to a new draft (about which I will no doubt tell you at length as I swear and twitch uncontrollably at my keyboard) to iron out all the many and varied problems that were drilled painfully into my skull by The Crusher, The Smiling Assassin, The Highbrow Heckler and the rest of the team. Then I’ll begin to think about contemplating the possibility of going back into the submissions process.

Then there’s Night Shift. I introduced all my work in this post, which is worth a look if you’re totally flummoxed with all these titles. Night Shift is complete – the only work that I’m happy to describe as ‘finished’; that’s after it was critiqued (twice) by an agent. This is the one I’m currently working on self-publishing, having exhausted traditional lines of enquiry.

I’m – that is to say my wife, the Photoshop Queen, is – currently working on a cover. I’m hoping to be able to bring you preview images for your criticism at some point, and so I may well bring my focus to bear periodically over the coming months. But there’s little to say about it right now. I had hoped that self-publishing would provide new bounteous inspiration to share with you here, but so far I am somewhat becalmed. We shall see.

And finally we have Australis. The problem child. Night Shift’s back-to-back-written sequel, over three years ago now. This is the one that’s been giving me considerable pain in the unmentionables ever since. The middle part of a trilogy always turns out to be the most difficult, probably due to ‘psychology’ or some such nonsense.

Around 18 months ago I did a heavy rewrite of Australis, adding in new characters, softening some elements and transforming the story into more of an adventure. I’ve not looked at the damn thing since, but now I’m wading back into the great sea of editation to try and form something vaguely watertight.

So I am doing three things at once: Oneiromancer is my main project. Night Shift is bubbling under, words sorted but all the publish-y details to be arranged. And Australis is my betweentime endeavour; the one I’ll be working on when the others aren’t occupying my tiny mind. My last action was to amputate the first chapter and a half; I’ll shortly be back to try and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

And whilst I’m doing all this I’m rubbing my two remaining braincells together to devise a completely new project: on my mind is an Asterix-inspired sequel to Oneiromancer and a stand-alone YA (possibly) steampunk (possibly) inspired adventure.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

Boredom? Sorry, son, no time for that round here.