In case you’re wondering…

In case anyone’s wondering, writing for the moment is going slowly and painfully, vanquished as it has been by the demands of work and of editing and It Being Bloody Hard.

My creative muscles seem to have atrophied. After a good, fast start to my new novel, I’ve run into the first real speed-mountain on my way to Completionsville. Creative decisions have stymied me and I’ve found it hard to focus, to put in the real brain-work needed to get over the hump.

This obstruction came just at a time when I found lots of other stuff on my plate; a return to frontline employment, a bevy of editing jobs and suchlike. Thus I allowed momentum to slip away and – though long-term an enforced break may prove beneficial – I have been unable to really get going again.

This is entirely my fault. Or the fault of my stupid brain.

Recently, external pressures have relented a little – or I’ve managed to find a little more balance in all my doings – and I’ve found myself with the odd hour or so here and there. I’ve allowed myself a final check-through of New Gods prior to typesetting as my Adventures in Self-Publishing continue. But I’ve been cutting that with a return to original writing. Or at least I’ve been trying to.

It’s really not going well. Typically I’ll manage to scrape only 100 words or so in a session, which is absolute peanuts. And I’m entirely unconvinced that they’re a good 100 words either.

That’s the negative way of looking at things. The positive is that I’m working through a really difficult section at the moment, and any progress at all is good. I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, to train myself back into the habit of writing and I have plenty of distractions, of other things to do, along the way.

There is no pressure on me to complete other than that I put upon myself. There’s no deadline, no quality control I have to meet. I’m doing this because I want to bring this idea (or set of ideas) to completion. And to prove that I still have what it takes to be a writer.

That pressure I put myself under is real, though. I still doubt, no matter what positive words I can wheel out; I still doubt I have what it takes to make a long-term career as a creative mind. That’s one reason this is so important to me.

In the meantime, I have paying jobs to work through and self-editing to achieve. So my creative time is limited (not that my other tasks don’t involve creativity) and I want to make the most of it. That’s why it hurts to be scratching around the floor for inspiration and motivation. I feel like I need a reboot, a hard reset, to get myself back in the groove.

Or maybe I just need more of a holiday. I’m actually going away – today, in fact – for a week’s ill-deserved vacation in the south-west. Maybe that’s what I need to reignite the touchpaper of writing rehabilitation. Or maybe just dealing with the little one intensively will make me more in need than ever.

We shall see.

It also means there may not be a blog next week, unless something especially grabs me – and I grab time – whilst I’m away. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Happy writing, y’all!

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.

Today’s moment of doubt

Busy this week. New job. Editing. Working all free hours to meet a deadline constricted by real world plans and a return to paid employment after long months of furloughship.

Which means I’ve not been working on anything interesting this week. Actually, that’s not true at all; I’m working on new fiction, and that’s always interesting – there’s always something new to learn, even if it’s only how opinionated you are, how stuck in your ways (this time I’m noticing how uptight I am about commas and about paragraph length).

But I haven’t been working on my own writing, which is a bit frustrating as I was well on my way with what may be my final reworking/polishing of New Gods before it goes off to the publisher.

It also means I have precious little to say here.

So let me instead ask you a question: would you read a book with a prologue in second person? Or would that put you off forever? For today’s moment of doubt concerns my clever-clever introduction, which, for very solid(!) reasons, is in that hotly debated pronoun-classification.

Would it bring you up short, or would you push on through to the real narrative beyond?

Insufficiently Woke

It’s not easy to be blindsided. That is, of course, a lie: it’s the easiest thing in the world. Dealing with it is another matter.

I took a piece of writing to my writing group on Sunday. I hadn’t really thought anything of it; it was simply the next chapter of the novel I’ve been gradually unrolling. And (I thought) I didn’t really care what people said – this work is getting beta-ed as we speak and I only really took it as I had short notice and wanted to read something.

I’d have been quite happy for a nice simple ‘Yeah, it’s great, no problems here.’

The piece I took was a hot section describing a slum clearance. Lots of nice descriptive language, a few deaths and a bit of emotional trauma. It’s been workshopped before, this piece, and, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much except for a little sharpening here and there.

I got taken to task.

The piece was described as a Westernised, colonialist’s view of the world; it was too nice, too polite; it was an insult to anyone who’s experienced a real, genuine slum clearance, where they run the bulldozers through people’s houses at night and deaths are uncounted, uncared for.

The passion, the anger in my interlocutor’s face was shocking. I was completely taken aback. I still don’t quite know what to feel. I was upset, to put it mildly; thinking back now I still feel the tremors and the anxiety.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about cultural appropriation. I believe in being sensitive to experiences beyond my ken. I’ve watched Twitter arguments play out about unconscious ‘white’ writing and perspectives that erase the experiences of the ‘native’. To be accused of doing the same thing myself? Painful.

So what do I do? I don’t think I can make the scene any nastier, crueller, as it would be out of place in this novel and would probably turn the scene into melodrama. To paraphrase another member of the group, doing ‘better’ would make the novel worse.

And do I believe this person is right anyway? No-one else (and the novel has been read by around a dozen people, though the vast majority are white-British) has commented or complained. Can I make big changes on the back of one person’s objections?

I don’t know that I can. I might add a sentence or two to ask if this slum clearance is typical, if it’s overly mannered, or if it could represent the tip of the iceberg. I will look at doing that. I will also make sure to ask my beta-readers what they think of the scene in question. I will ask them to check me, as I am checking myself.

In the meantime I am trying to get over the shock, and I am looking at myself in a different light, and I am worrying about what this episode says about me as a person. I am deeply flawed, insufficiently Woke; that is not news, but never has it been brought to my attention so baldly.

I suppose I should look upon this as an opportunity to grow.

No hack

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This week I’m going to talk about something I find difficult, so bear with me if I take my time to get to the point. See, I’ve been thinking about what matters to me, in writing and without, and I’ve come up with this: I want to be thought of as a good writer. I want the respect of my peers. I’d quite like at least a couple of fans, though I realise this makes me shallow and unworthy.

Thing is, I’m just not sure I’m good enough. The longer it goes since I wrote the novels that I’ve got/am getting published, the slighter they seem. That’s the first part of the difficulty, of course, because I still want you to buy them (Night Shift out now; Human Resources out July! Buy buy buy!). I’m also aware that it’s totally natural; indeed, if I still thought they were the pinnacle of what I could achieve it’d be a poor reflection on my development and ambition.

But I also look at what I’m doing now and I worry about that too. Is it good enough? Will I ever be good enough to meet my own standards? Am I, in fact, capable of becoming anything more than a hack?

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These are the doubts that plague me. As I struggle to get anywhere near the end of my WIP (currently about a quarter of the way through) I wonder if I can actually achieve what I’ve envisaged, or is it all some impossible pipe-dream no different from when I was a child and dreamt of being a top-flight footballer.

Will I ever be good enough?

I say ‘will I ever be more than a hack?’ but that’s to disregard the skill involved in being a hack. A hack has to produce copy to order, to keep churning out material even if their heart isn’t absolutely in it; they have to achieve publishable quality again and again and again. It’s a skill, a talent, and I’m not sure I’ve got that in me.

I still aspire to be respected for my writing. I want people to look at my work and say ‘yeah, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’

I’m not there yet. The only thing to do is to keep going. To keep writing, to try and encourage people to read me and to try and make them happy when they do.

Maybe then I’ll feel like I’ve met my own objectives.

Or maybe I’ll grow up and get over myself. Who can say?

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Plans

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Draft 4 is finished and backed-up. Now I have to decide what to do next.

After every pass you’re left thinking that there’s nothing more to do. The story is complete and you can’t see what improvements can be made. Yet the doubts remain. There are passages you have a faint uncertainty about. You need buy-in – either to confirm your fears or to reassure you that it does, in fact, work. So we all know that the best thing to do is to either get outside opinions or – failing that – to leave the manuscript in the bottom of your metaphorical drawer for six months and then return to it afresh.

I’ve run out of beta-readers. There’s no-one left to give me in depth feedback – not, at least, without paying a considerable wadge of cash for Editorial Services. I’ve got to say I’ve never seriously considered this. Maybe I should. After all, you only get one shot with each individual agent/publishing house. I’ve often lamented my impatience; once a piece has disappeared into the electronic ether that option is removed. If – as is likely – that line comes back bare and rejected you have to move on. And if you have a preferred option for representation – a contact, maybe, or someone you hugely admire – the urge to send your work to them as soon as humanly possible is hard to resist.

All this should advertise caution but I’m planning on going on to the submissions route. This is partly because I am, indeed, hugely impatient. I want to get on. I have other books to write, other plans to make. It’s also because money is a finite resource and – even after all I’ve read and all I’ve come to learn – I’m a little sceptical about editorial services and what they can do for you. I shouldn’t be; I’m thinking of offering my own services as proofreader/copy-editor in the future, so I can hardly say this cynicism is well-grounded. Maybe it’s more my own arrogance; that I don’t see what they can do that I myself can’t.

What you know intellectually but feel emotionally is a far more difficult balance than people realise. The heart rules the head far more than we’d like to admit.

So: plans. My next mission is to write a synopsis. This is a skill in itself, and will take a fair amount of swear-based sweatery. After that a proper cover-letter will need to be constructed. And then I’ll have to go back to my opening chapters and ensure they’re absolutely perfect: I’ve twice posted my opening scene on this blog but I’m still not completely confident in it. And the opening is critical: an agent hasn’t got time to plough through reams to find the nugget of talent. You only get a few pages to impress.

This work should take me to Christmas. Then it’s a little break for me as I do the whole family thing. Hopefully this’ll give me a little distance to properly reconsider my plans.

Then the submissions will start to roll.

And then it’ll be time for a change: a chance to re-energise my self-publishing plans and maybe even starting a whole new first draft.

So the whole circus begins again.

Diet hard

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I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?