Holding pattern

I am in a holding pattern, just waiting until I find the courage to return to my literary endeavours.

Life is often like this, for me. The pressure has built up, the self-imposed pressure that keeps us focussed and driven and on alert – it takes its toll, and so you enter a sort of levelled-off state that isn’t quite rest but just acts as a necessary break. Stopping things escalating as much as alleviating the situation. Like a kettle permanently just below the boil.

I am not writing right now. I wasn’t quite as ready as I thought I was – which is not to say that starting a new novel, or getting my beta-feedback, was a mistake – sometimes you have to try to find out just where you are. But I am taking a break whilst editorial work fills my horizon. Yes, I’m keeping busy with the world of writing, it’s just not my own right now. I still have so much to do; I have a whole novel to rewrite, another to create from nothing, another to self-publish.

But right now I am just keeping things ticking over, not pushing myself too hard, not blaming myself (too much) when I slack.

Writing is an activity where sometimes doing nothing is the most sensible option. To merely keep things turning over in the mind is progress; this business of word-counts doesn’t measure the intangible acts of creation that can occur anyplace, at any time.

And, also, it’s sometimes important to pause and work on things totally disconnected with the world of writing. Life is demanding, life can be hard; blaming yourself for just getting through is a road destined for burnout.

There’s also a lot of waiting and lean times ahead. I have a manuscript out with the Publisher of my Dreams and I don’t dare prod them as proddage may lead to a negative outcome. So I wait. And, if they do come back with a ‘no’, I’m not sure what then to do. I feel like I’ve exhausted all my options.

So I am in a holding pattern, circling the landing, afraid to commit and unable to move away.

So fast, so numb

2021 has been a bruiser of a year so far. An uneven canter through ridge-and-furrow fields of deep loses of confidence mixed with occasional highs of self-determination. I’ve been dropped by my publisher, accused of drawing on racist tropes, pushed my own self-promotion to new heights in approaching a house previously thought unapproachable and resolved to self-publish the culmination of my Antarctic trilogy. I’ve also left one writing group and joined another, only to become overwhelmed by the quality and personalities on display and withdraw back into my shell.

In the middle of this I also received beta-feedback on Our Kind of Bastard and started an entirely new novel.

Now circumstances have forced me to take a break and I am seeing this, for the first time, for what it is: exhausting.

I am always trying to push myself. I am a driven person, though you might not know it by looking at me, and I am always determined to do more and do better. I’m driven by fears of failure and of not achieving, and, though my conscious mind can tell me that I’m being silly, I still feel the lash of passing time and my inability to scale any given mountain.

This is all foolish. I am too often unkind to myself. And I’m beginning to realise that this year so far has been hard and I would benefit from just settling down a little.

I’m not given to holidays, or time off. But I have to take some time away from creative writing to do some editing, and I need to reconnect with the world of front-line paid employment. This may turn out to be a blessing. I’ve paused my new novel, uncoupled my anxiety from the feedback-express of writing groups and beta-readers. Because I was on the cusp of making myself miserable, making myself sick.

To quote REM:

You’re coming onto something so fast, so numb
That you can’t even feel

I should have been a lyricist. Lyrics are what I do best. Much better than I am at this prose malarky.

Have a great day, folks. You, at least, are in all things wonderful. Remember to be kind to yourselves, because you deserve it.

Character flaw

One of the biggest, most consistent criticisms from my recent beta-readings of Our Kind of Bastard was that my characters were too sketchy. Too hard to really get to grips with, to really feel for; to make matter. This I put down to the complications of writing a sequel. It’s a lot easier to blame that then it is to blame my shortcomings as a writer, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Sequel-writing is difficult. You have to assume the reader has either not read the previous or has read it and then forgotten all they learnt. No spoilers are allowed, nor can you repeat what has gone before. When I was drafting OKOB I chose semi-consciously to ignore backstory, to just forge ahead and let my character’s personalities come out with actions rather than explanations.

This obviously hasn’t worked. So now one of my most pressing jobs is to go back and insert individuality into the gaps I left.

Except I didn’t leave any obvious gaps. There are very few ‘insert backstory here’ places that leap out at me as I reread. Instead I must seek out opportunities to crowbar in the requisite information.

And sometimes it means telling, not showing. Perhaps that’s the hardest thing of all – to drop my demonstrative principles and simply announce how people are feeling, and why they’re feeling it, is tough. I don’t know how far I can go before it becomes too much, too obvious.

This isn’t my first sequel, but it does seem like the first time I’ve had this particular problem. With Human Resources I had to add the happenings of the first novel without being too explicit, and that was difficult enough. But I didn’t have the issues of character.

I think that’s because HR was written in 1st person, and so we constantly had telling – protagonist Anders’ thoughts were always front and foremost and so we had access to how he felt about the people around him – an extra layer to reinforce their actions.

Our Kind of Bastard is not only 3rd person but freely hops from character to character. That means we share less intimacy with each person. I’m thinking it gives a more nuanced perspective of how events unfold, and allows me, the author, to show the reader just what I want them to see. Hopefully this will make a rounded, cinematic experience. But, as I’m learning, there are perils.

So what do I do? Well, I guess I wield my crowbar and my hammer with gleeful abandon. I say more what people are thinking. I share more with the reader, especially early in the novel when they’re still forming their perspectives.

Apart from that, I guess the onus is on me to become a better writer.

Onwards (again)

Our Kind of Bastard has had its beta readings (or possibly alpha readings; the terminology is beyond me) and the feedback is in. There is much work to be done. There are flaws with just about every single aspect of the novel: its characters, plot, dialogue, setting – all need work.

But it’s not all bad. There is a good story hiding in there. It just needs more. More backstory, more development, more atmosphere, more time spent on characters. Just more.

Aside from the bits that need less, of course. Fewer distracting digressions and parenthesised asides.

Writing is a tricky business, and this is perhaps the hardest thing to drag yourself to: to take a work out of the ‘completed’ siding of the mind and disassemble the train, adding in new coaches, new trucks, repainting and getting it ready to run the Submissions Express.

Visual representation of my brain

Except that, as a sequel, this train is going nowhere for some time yet, even should it be made all gleaming-squeaky clean.

The work must still be done, however.

Getting feedback is perhaps the hardest – and most necessary part of writing a novel. The mental adjustment involved in hacking off the first two chapters, for example, or removing a character, or simply adding in a scene, is out of proportion to the actual work involved. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it can be a whole lot of chopping, of typing, of tying together. But the mental effort involved – not in simply coming up with new ideas but with cracking open a ‘perfect’ capsule of a novel and rearranging the innards – far outweighs that. To me at least.

So I gird my loins and put the kettle on, select the writing music of choice, and get down to it. This thing ain’t gonna write itself.

En avant

It feels like this year has been mostly taken up with insecurity and moaning. Apologies for that, and thank you for sticking with me. Now it’s time to push that all aside – for now at least – and look at the more positive things I’m doing.

At the moment I’m balancing three major projects:

Self-publishing New Gods. This is in train – I’ve commissioned my cover art and now I’m being fairly inactive in getting the final text together. That’s the problem with a long deadline (I’m aiming for publication late October/early November, a year on from the release of Human Resources) – the sense of urgency is lacking. But this is obviously a significant enterprise and I’m determined to put out the best product I possibly can.

Exposing Our Kind of Bastard to the world – or at least to significant parts of it. By the time you read this I’ll have had my major beta-read feedback and I’ll have a better idea of where I’m going and just what is and isn’t working in what I’ve done so far. I am, alongside that, putting it piece-by-piece to my spanking new writing group, where it’s getting the micro-kicking it needs. This also involves very much revising my conversational French, of which I speak almost none. See, OKOB is set in Brittany and thus features la langue de la France. This is clearly a very stupid idea and I urge you not to follow my folly.

Writing a novel. I am also follyitious enough to have started a new novel. It’s still in its infancy so I don’t want to talk too much about it for fear of cursing the whole project. But I have finally, after what seems like forever stuck in Editsville, got back to creating original words – or at least rearranging old ones into a hopefully satisfying new pattern.

May contain Bradford.

And that’s it: aside from that it’s a case of balancing all this work with the demands of the day job, to which I will be returning to (as opposed to working from home) in the terrifyingly near future. All will change again when I do go back as I will lose a lot of flexibility and writing hours will be severely constrained.

But that’s a problem for another day. I will work out a way to keep going creatively. Almost all authors have day-jobs these days – it is merely how life works in this late-stage capitalist paradise in which we live.

So: write on, my friends. Here’s to a better future for us all.

On plot

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release of Human Resources (November 10th, fact fans) on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; here I’m going to be talking about plot. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

***

Human Resources is, at it’s heart, a murder mystery, and thus plot is central. I hope I haven’t skimped on character, setting and just old fashioned good writing, but it’s plot upon which the work will primarily be judged.

So how did I come up with the plot for Human Resources? Well, like with all the novels in the Antarctic series, by starting at the end and working backwards. That is to say, I started with the crime, the killer, and then motive. Then I went back to the beginning to find the victim of the crime – and by that point the plot had mostly revealed itself to me.

I say that, but the first draft varied greatly from the version you’ll see when the book’s finally unleashed upon you. In fact, the only constants really are the bits I’ve just told you: the killer, the motive, the victim. Almost everything else – the way the story’s told – has changed, and changed radically.

Why should this be? Well, put plainly, to make it better. The first draft simply was too simple. I had to… well, not necessarily obfuscate but to add more depth, more intrigue. I’m not a great one for red herrings but I had to give plausible alternative explanations, more reasonable suspects. I used the first draft as a sketch-map upon which to elaborate, to erase some mistakes and draw ‘here be dragons’ upon the wilderness of Antarctica.

I wrote last week about character and in this sort of story character is hard to distinguish from plot. The latter is dependent on the former. So the alterations I spoke of last week are just as relevant here. As I thought of new aspects of plot – as I gave my readers more suspects – characters had to change, and as characters changed so did the plot.

Thinking back on it now, I think I was remarkably naive when I wrote that very first draft. I’m currently struggling to face up to new ideas, and I think my naivety protected me from worrying to the point of inactivity about simply whether I could do it or not. I just got on with it and let all issues come out in the editing. And that’s a good thing, because I can edit. Human Resources has been a difficult child to bring to term; I’ve worked harad on it, and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved.

I hope you get as much out of reading it as I have from the writing.

Next up: setting

Things I’ve learnt this week

What have I learnt this week?

Well, I’ve learnt that I’m no good at second drafts.

I’ve learnt that I’m not in the right place to really take my draft to pieces and carefully reassemble, no matter how much the story might need it.

I’ve learnt that my memory is too hard on me and I’m maybe capable of writing an okay story – or at least one that could be okay with a little work. And that my writing sins aren’t as pronounced as I feared they may be. Overwriting, for example – I’ve been told that I say too much, to not leave enough to the audience’s imagination. I still struggle to see where decent cuts could be made beyond the occasional few words here and there – though whether that’s because there aren’t cuts to be made, or just that I simply can’t see them, is an open question.

I’ve learnt that I actually enjoy my own writing. Or at least this particular story has elements that make me smile

But – and I’m looking at a different project now – I still have The Fear; that it’s not good enough, that it has some ideas that are simply ill-advised (cough *second-person POV* cough), that if I send it to my editor it’ll be rejected out of hand and our relationship will be forever soured.

I also have the fear that, with a few slots of time opening up for me, writing-wise, I’m going through things too quickly. That I’m working like a proofreader, seeing obvious errors rather than more subtle missteps.

I’ve learnt that I still need a lot of hand-holding before I’m ready to commit to – well, to anything, really. And that I really do need (but can’t get, right now at least) an agent.

So where does that get us? Surprisingly, thinking back on it, more positive than negative. I have three stories that are either pretty well polished or have the potential to work when all the problems are dealt with. The problems I do have can be sorted if I have the patience and the will to get it done.

What I really need, right now, is a new project. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not ready to start anything right now. My ideas are all too nebulous and I’m not in the right headspace to draw them all together.

It will come. I’m in a surprisingly reflective mood, clearly, and I know it will all come together somehow, someday, someway.

The second pass

The second pass of a manuscript is always an odd one for me.

So here I am. I wrote my first draft and I was good and put it away for a few months so as to approach it afresh the second time around. I know, in that vague sense you get of being convinced of something without being able to place precisely why, that it needs thorough surgery before anyone else can read it.

The second draft should, therefore, be the perfect place to pick it apart and stitch it back together. You know work needs doing. You’re in a fresh headspace so as to see those flaws. You’re not too committed to going down the wrong streets.

Well it never works like that for me. For me the second draft always seems to be one of self-congratulation, of saying ‘hey, this isn’t all as abysmal as I’d remembered.’

It always turns into a game of changing odd words, of fixing egregious errors within sentences rather than egregious errors of continuity or pacing or logic. And this is wrong: the individual words don’t matter at this stage. The foundations have to be firmly established before the building’s ornamentation can be affixed.

And yet I find myself making the same mistake that I’ve made again and again and will almost certainly make in the future.

Why should this be? I suppose that a part of it is just that lack of familiarity that makes it worth putting aside to gain also handicaps a little: I’m still discovering my own work and want to see the big picture before I get with the scissors.

It also must be down to my perception. I’m so surprised that anything in the story hangs together that I struggle to see the bits that are flapping in the wind. And maybe also I’ve just not left it long enough (yes, I know, I want it both ways) and I’ve not come to the manuscript with the right attitude.

Point is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant to manage a problem at the optimum time. I know these problems are still there, that I will have to deal with them at some point. Why not now?

But for the meantime I’m just really rather enjoying the tiny tinkerings; the swapping of one word for another in the here-and-there.

Anyway, we all know that draft 3 is where the real work begins. Right?

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.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?