Still here

I’m remarkably sanguine about my lack of progress as a writer at present. Certainly, to look at it one way, I am going nowhere. I have no expectations of publication, I’m not working towards self-publishing, and my work in progress has been in a state of more-or-less-stalled-ment since August.

But, as I said, I’m not feeling like the world is on my shoulders. Because, though progress is glacial, it is happening. I am productive with my commercial work, at least, and I’m managing to squeeze odd sessions of original writing in around the edges – and that makes all the difference.

Yes, Breathing Fire is still moving forwards. I’m now climax-adjacent – by which I mean I’m setting the final pieces in place, manoeuvring both heroes and villains, before I let them have at each other. Actually, that might not be quite true; rather I’m at the false climax, where it all goes wrong, before the true climax where… well, I’m not entirely sure what’ll happen there. But I’m sure it’ll be action-packed and full of thrills.

Setting it down like this makes me realise there is still so much to do. I am still so far away.

But I am going to do it. One session, on page at a time. Whether it takes me a month or a year (money’s on the latter), I shall get there.

And, really, time isn’t an issue right now. Maybe that’s a bad thing; maybe I’m too comfortable – I need some crisis to propel me to action. But I have my two submissions out and I am awaiting rejection. Until my dream publisher finally turns me down I’m not looking to do anything with the work I’m sitting on (whilst keeping a weather eye out for other opportunities, of course); I have a book, a good book, ready to go. Once the rejection arrives I’ll consider self-publishing or whatever.

Until them I shall potter along, keeping my foot in the field with my editorial work and reading the best and the brightest of the forthcoming, and squeezing what little I can from my brain.

So maybe it’s not the glittering career I’ve been hoping for, full of stars and celebrity and champagne, but I’m still here, still hoping, still tapping away.

After nearly nine years of blogging, and a lot more of writing, that’s not such a small achievement. I’m still here.

I’m still here.

Let down

Letting people down is the worst part of being a published author/freelance editor. I hate it. But it’s happened before and I’m sure it’ll happen again. It is, in fact, happening right now.

I’m not the sort of celebrity that gets authors’ proofs or advanced-review-copies and are quoted on the front of books to help shift copies. I think you need an agent for that, or at least have some cachet of name. So I don’t have to let people down by failing to read novels and give some soundbite by a specific deadline. But I know that if I was, every book I receive will be an agony of hope. I’d want to read them, and to say something nice, because I want to pay back what I’d like to happen to me. And I like making people happy.

But you can’t possibly read them all, can you? Judging by the few ‘bookmail’ or ‘the ARC pile’ pictures I’ve seen on author’s Twitter, it seems that the elite receive dozens of books a week. Surely they can’t get through that many? Not whilst you’re expected to do your own writing, and (in some cases) a day job and a family?

As I said, this doesn’t affect me yet. I’m neither on nor receiving those piles. But I do have my dues to pay. I’m a member of a manuscript critique group – small, select, and not very busy – and I have a few other friends who have read my works-in-progress and to whom I owe a debt. They have provided me wonderful, perspicacious feedback and I owe them my time in return for what they’ve given to me.

But sometimes…

At the moment I have a 150,000 word novel to get through for said manuscript critique group. I have until the end of the month before we virtually meet to feed back. And I’m not going to get it done.

I have paying work that has a similar deadline and I can’t – or at least I don’t feel I can – get through both. And, at the end of the day, the commercial work takes priority.

But I feel horrible. I owe these people both for past opinions and future readings. And for friendship. I won’t let myself be someone who takes without ever giving back. Sometimes it seems like life is preventing the basics – being nice, being courteous, being human. We must fight against that constriction.

So it’s back to the Editorium I go, hoping to get something done on something.

In the meantime, I practice my excuses; doubtless they’ll stand me in good stead for the future.

On hindsight

The best thing about writing a sequel before the first book is published is that it’s much easier to return to part one and fix errors in continuity before a work is out there in the public domain. And by errors in continuity I mean areas where you’ve subtly changed your mind or re-placed emphasis rather than big plot-holes or the like. Those should have long-since been closed by now.

I’m currently retooling Oneiromancer with the expectation of an imminent submission. I had been working on book three but have had to temporarily (again) shelve this, what with life and priorities and all that. But I find that, now, going back to book one in the series feels subtly different. I know what’s going to happen to these (surviving) characters in two books’ time. And some things just don’t quite mesh.

It’s little things. Giving one character a fake East End accent is now unnecessary and slightly at odds with what I’ll explain to be his background (there is room for the accent – I could justify it – but it’s a layer of explanation and backstory that’s just not necessary). It’s having my ‘magical’ character able to do things that she’s never going to do again – again, slightly at odds with how the rest of the series pans out.

Nothing I’m seeing now is actually wrong, or clunky, or inappropriate. It’s just that I’ve seen these characters’ futures and can better mould them to the labours ahead.

The best thing about getting a book published before writing the sequel is that certain things are set in stone and cannot be simply fixed. They become part of the mythos and must be accounted for in any subsequent works.

Why is this a good thing? Well, for a start it rules out the possibility of second-guessing. You have to move forwards, you cannot look back and endlessly tinker. What’s done is done.

Secondly, limitations are good for the imagination. Giving yourself a problem forces yourself to think logically. My stray accent, say, might be explained in the second book, which, if done well, might actually make you look like some long-term strategic thinker rather than just some desperate blunderer. My miracle-worker might realise she can no longer do what she initially did – and that might be a whole plot-thread in itself.

Plus you’d have a damn book out. I dream of getting this bloody thing into print. Don’t seem no closer now to when I was first-drafting it.

As an aside, Our Kind of Bastard owes a fair bit to a friend/beta-reader who pointed out that I missed an opportunity to save a character’s life. I took the idea she suggested – a road not taken rather than a plot-hole – and incorporated it into the survivors’ psyche; a sense of guilt to sharpen the loss. Going back was an option (and, I guess, one that any future editor may still desire) but it would have so radically affected Oneiromancer that I chose to fold the failure into the sequels.

I guess I always think that moving forwards is the best option. But they say it’s always much easier to write the beginning once you’ve got to the end. My failures to get the damn thing published means I can continue to make the novel sharper, leaner and hungrier.

Crumbs of comfort, I guess, as my failures also make it harder to get published in the first place. But I still believe. I do. Honest.

Onwards!

50 shades of doubt

Last week I wrote about the gyp I was getting from synopsis and elevator pitch. It has subsequently come to my attention that I should probably look at the actual writing that gets attached to a submission, not merely the flashy, fleshy bits on the side.

The piece I’m submitting here is Oneiromancer, and for the life of me I can’t remember when I actually wrote the damn thing. It was definitely two houses ago, back when I occupied an entirely different world. I know I submitted it to Flame Tree Press at the same time as I submitted Night Shift. It’s been a while, at least, through various drafts. And I’ve not really examined my submission package for at least three years.

Good thing is that the writing pretty much stands up. Or at least the first half-chapter does; for this I took to my writing group last week. There are improvements to be made, but, by and large, things make sense. The voice mostly works, the characters are graspable and all that. Changes I’ll have to make are relatively small, the swearing I have to perform only of a moderate nature.

But a writer never stops fretting. I read a chunk that’s in only a single voice, but this is a polyfocal novel with a lot of ‘stars’: the writers’ group don’t know that I’m about to change to someone else’s POV for the next section.

I worry about this. I worry about introducing to many names too soon. I worry about not giving the audience time to properly ‘bed in’ to the novel before switching things around.

You may be saying to yourself ‘well if you fret so much, and you can see the potential problems, why don’t you just do something about it?’ To which I respond with a sigh as long and deep as the great spot of Jupiter.

It’s not that easy. I wanted to write a multiple-POV novel. I like this kind of story. It’s kind of got fixed over the years. To rewrite this would be to rewrite the whole sorry tale, and I’d rather walk my own path right now, pending agentory/editorial demands. I personally happen to think that the damn thing works.

And that last thing, that’s what it really comes down to. I doubt, gods know I doubt. But I have something, some shred of ability to string words and ideas together in a form that I believe in. May just be self-delusion, I guess – but then I have persuaded people to give me money for words, so it can’t be just me. Can it?

I console myself with the writers’-grouperly thumbs-up. Now I need to gird my metaphoricals and take the next section to a meeting soon. I have only three weeks before my target open-submission period closes. I have very little time to waste.

No time for doubting. Needs must and all that.

Two guvnors

I have done but a single line of creative writing this side of Christmas. This is clearly sub-optimal. I’m not blocked, though, or taking ill-deserved time off; I am, in fact, as busy as I’ve ever been – just not with the things that matter to me.

Partly the problem is that I am very lucky. I have a day-job at which I spend twenty hours a week, plus a little time commuting and preparing. I then fill up the rest of the working week with writing or editing.

Thing is that my commercial editing arm has got really long recently. I am in demand, with all of two jobs awaiting my attention. This obviously isn’t many, not really, but it’s rare for me to have work stacked up; usually I work from one to the next, never quite knowing when my next job will come through.

It’s been like this since August. I’ve been so busy working on other people’s writing that it’s taken all the time I used to use for myself. And I’m not (honestly) complaining about that – it’s great. Good, interesting work that keeps me entertained and off the streets, or at least saves me from being too dependent on my wife.

It’s just that, what with spending some crumbs of time with my family and the odd moment for myself, my genuine, original writing has taken a back seat. This is beginning to eat at me; I have a half-finished novel just waiting for an ending (though I fear the amount of mental effort I’ll have to pour into it; editing is, for me at least, much the easier task) and I have my own books to problem-solve, thank you very much.

I am not good at turning down work. I am too afraid of being blackballed, or being seen as unreliable, or some red flag being appended to my name, to refuse paying tasks. As I said earlier, I’m used to working as the tasks come in and don’t have a great timetable of works ahead as the true professionals do. Thus I take what I’m given, and I work hard, and I get the job done, he says with a certain amount of pride.

But I want to write. I want to create. And I haven’t truly got the work-life balance right. In this day and age, how do we tell them apart anyway?

I have some great stories to tell. I need to carve out time to tell them.

Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

Balls in many courts

Snooker with Too Many Balls; Udehi Imienwanrin

Balls all over the place, that’s me. So much to do, so little time. I’m not the best at splitting my hours; the most urgent task is always the one I must be working on, no matter that I could space things out a little and multi- my tasks a little better. So it is that I’ve dropped everything to focus on copyediting with its concomitant deadline.

But that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of all the other things on my plate. Currently my attention is mostly on someone else’s world, but in the back of my mind there is an unattended first draft, a underdeveloped third (ish) draft and all sorts of other projects. If I was better at balancing I wouldn’t have left these things in abeyance, but they’re still lurking in the shadows, waiting just to steal a moment of my time.

So, the joy of things to come post-editation:

  • Self-publishing: Another thing with a hard (though self-determined) deadline. There are many things to do before the officially unofficial New Gods release of 26th October, not least of which is contacting my old publisher for some mutual publicity. I’m just awaiting the final final cover design before I move onwards and – well, onwards
  • Editing Our Kind of Bastard. This has somewhat stalled, partly for reasons of available hours in the day but also because I lost confidence in the manuscript. But there’s still a gosh-darn good story in there that needs telling so, once my mojo has returned a little, I’ll be back in the redraftorium giving it the old what-for
  • Writing the Top Secret New WIP. This has also stalled somewhat, mostly because I came to a really hard bit but also due to other priorities. But I’m still trying to chip away at it – another thing where I’m convinced there’s a good story to be told and that I’m determined to tell
  • Redoing this blog-cum-website. Let’s be honest here – it could all do with a bit of spit and polish, couldn’t it. I need a page with my own books put first and foremost. I need proper links to where people can buy my stuff. And it all needs a bit of love
  • Self-publishing. Don’t know if I mentioned this, but I’m self-publishing my book and there’s a lot to do. The terrifying bit is yet to come – the writing of emails and the begging of publicity-based favours

All of this has, of course, to accompany Real Life and The Paying of the Bills. And, doubtless, more deadlines will arise between here and there, and life will bring the unexpected, and all things are up for negotiation.

But I’m quite excited by things at the moment (with the possible exception of website reforms). I’m looking forwards to self-publishing. It is An Adventure. Not a straightforward task – though I know that to many it’s routine – but one that will take me into uncharted waters.

I just hope I can do my work justice. And I hope I can continue to walk forwards with all my other projects too.

Life is never easy. But sometimes the journey can be fun.

Editors of the subconscious

I am still working on my blurb. I am on draft 4 at the moment, and I am as uncertain as ever as to its efficacy. I am not going to talk about that today, however. It is time for me to move on and consider other matters.

Writing a story is all about making choices. Should a protagonist do this, or that, or should the narrative focus in this direction or on this rather attractive patch of wildflowers just sitting here in the dappled glade. As writers, we choose upon which to focus at every step. And it seems to me that the road not taken is sometimes as interesting as the path we do follow.

As I’ve been working on getting my metaphors in a row for self-publishing, I find that more than ever I’m aware of the options I’ve not selected. Partly it’s this ‘blurb’ thing: for perfectly good reasons, I’ve become aware that I’ve had to suggest a personal threat to the protagonist that is more of a background in the novel. And I’m wondering: was I wrong? Should I have made more of this in my story? It would have fitted but I chose – subconsciously, never consciously – to not make more of it. Was this a mistake? Could I have written a better novel?

Attempting to fit every single possibility into a story is a recipe for turgid chaos. We are editors of the subconscious and to try and cover the whole caboodle would not, I think, make for good fiction. Still, hindsight can be vicious. And often hindsight is the only clear lens we have.

Take, for example, the titling of my forthcoming book, New Gods. It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve missed a trick here. The first two books in the series – Night Shift and Human Resources – both have workplace connotations. Would it not have made more sense to have tied the third in with it and called it… oh, I dunno, The Temp or External Agency or somesuch?

Of course it would. But I am committed now. It’s been New Gods forever, and now the words are fixed upon the cover. And I am able only to lament a missed opportunity, and to explain a little. See, I never realized what I was doing. Human Resources was a late inspiration for a title: all though the original creation it had been called Australis – indeed, you’ll find it referred to as such in the earlier posts on this site. All through the drafting of New Gods I knew book two by its alternate title. So there never was an overarching titling ‘scheme’.

Hindsight again. More, it took an outsider to join the dots.

I maintain that New Gods is a good title. It came before the text was written, as with Night Shift. In my mind the title and the text are thoroughly entwined.

Still, I wish I’d been able to see a little clearer at an earlier stage. For the road not taken may have been the better option all along.

The final draft

The final manuscript is turned in. I have completed my last pass of New Gods. The work is done.

Not all the work, obviously. But I have the text that I’m going to take to typesetting and, reserving the right for a spot of last minute panic, the text that will be published when I finally go to press.

I can’t even remember how long I’ve been working on this novel. At least five years, I think; probably more like eight. I am not the quickest of copy-producers, it must be said; though this time includes many interwoven hours working on other projects. It’s hardly been a solid chunk of time.

Still, it’s been a while, and now it’s at an end. Unless there’s some last-minute meteorite-like strike, such as an emergency mind-change from the publishers of the first two novels, this is the text that’s going to make it out to the big wide world.

And now I move on to the next stage of the self-publishing process: typesetting. This is perhaps the stage that I’m most anxious about as I am a total ignoramus when it comes to such things. I don’t understand Styles and I don’t know fonts. I don’t know how to do chapter headings or to make things pretty. I also need to work out what vital info I’m forgetting to put on the inside cover, and then there’s the blurb…

Putting a book together is not an easy or straightforward thing. If it were we’d all be at it.

The other big thing I need to think about is whether or not I can find any decent text I can use in publicity. I’ve already posted a chapter of the text here on this blog. I’d love to post more, but I’m not great at choosing selections – I worry too much about context and whether, in fact, I’m any good at this writing business. Also I don’t want to give too much of the game away; really extracts have to be from the first third of the novel – possibly, maybe?

Ideally I’d have easter eggs to post – deleted scenes, character sketches (written or drawn) or similar exclusives. But I can’t think of anything that’s not terrible and never to see the light of day.

So I’ll mull on that. In the meantime, here’s a kitty with a strong political statement for your delectation.

Oh yeah, we got a kitten. That’s news, I spose.

Feeling better

In between times, when I need a break from proofreading and can’t face getting any new words down on paper, I’m giving New Gods one last checkover before I format it for self-publishing. And you know what? It’s not bad.

I’ve been on a bit of a downer about my writing recently. I’ve started to worry whether or not I ‘have it’; am capable of writing to the level I want to present to the wider world. It says nothing that I’m published: a book’s publication is a commercial decision, not one based on quality. I’ve been doubting myself.

But now I find myself somewhat reassured. Not that I’m claiming genius, or great profundity, but I’ve been reading my own work and kind of not hating it. And I’ve been remembering how it felt when I was in the midst of writing the piece, remembering that at the time I felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written. And then I felt, yeah, New Gods and Oneiromancer represented a sort of high-water mark for my writing; when it all clicked and I was churning out decent work with ease. And then I thought Well, Our Kind of Bastard is fun too; maybe that sits up there. And then I thought my new thing might not be bad either.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of a trough, it’s a good idea to look at what you’ve achieved. Negativity comes easily – to me, at least. But I am a capable writer, and also the least accurate judge of my own prose. I am as good as many published writers. And you know what? You are too.

Because, as I said, a book is published to make money, not to win awards with its prose (as I understand, publishers enter books in awards-competitions to sell more copies, not to simply celebrate books they think wonderful – though of course they can’t do both).

So, after a rough few months – 2021 has not treated me kindly so far – I now feel a little more stable, a little more confident in my new abilities. I’ve had to take some time off from actual creative writing because I’ve had so many other things on my plate, and maybe this will prove to be long-term beneficial. I still gaze in awe at my contemporaries, still feel too old and a little burnt-out, but now I believe: there is a good writer in me.

I’m not anticipating many sales for New Gods. I’m not interested in doing great amounts of promotion. As I’ve said before, I’m putting it out to complete the Antarctic trilogy for both my few fans and for myself. There is too much competition in the world of indie authors for me to hold great dreams of runaway success.

But I am going to put out a work I believe in. And that means more to me than any number of sales.

No reason I can’t hope for both, I suppose.