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.

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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?

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?

Mistrust your instincts

I have resolved my ‘show don’t tell’ dilemma. I shall show. To a diminished degree, at least, and with great chucks of the original pared away. My original 7k scene is now around 1.5k, but it is going back in.

This is the conclusion of a season of great doubt. The question that arose from one group of readers has been closed by another. My beta readers suggested that I was missing a trick by not demonstrating the incident in question; my writing group listened to my suggested reinsertion and, with a few relatively minor caveats, okayed its presence in the story.

All this makes me feel a lot better, and once again confirms my feelings that we, as authors, know nothing. Or at least that I don’t. ‘Trust your instincts’, they say. Well my instincts are clearly on the fritz as it was them that had me cut the damn thing in the first place when in fact they should merely have been telling me to set fire to it and insert only what was still legible in the aftermath.

Trusting your instincts is a difficult thing as they are so easily fooled. Who hasn’t brought out a piece of writing, thinking it’s in all things wonderful, only to have it roundly shunned? And yet there are times when it’s right, when it’s paramount, to preserve our vision no matter how the naysayers protest. We, as writers, must keep faith in our work despite the world and his wife turning their nose up at it. Rejection is part of the business. We must, in all things, persist.

But there is wisdom in crowds. Which is why new perspectives, and the wisdom to listen to criticism, is also a key part of becoming a ‘successful’ (or at least ‘good’) writer.

So I urge you: join a writing group. Join several. No, it’s not essential. But a good one can shave years off your developmental journey. And, if nothing else, they can guide you through the thickets and copses and forests of mistrusted instinct.

If you can’t bear to do that, at least try and find friends – real or virtual – who can empathise with what you’re going through.

It is, after all, always nice to have somewhere to turn for advice.

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?

Anti-creation

Another week goes by without any creative work from me. I am still editing aplenty, but not my own work. This is supposed to be a writing blog. I am letting the side down, no?

Well, maybe. But that’s how it is; not every week can be jam-packed with creativity or dangerous dreams (and speaking of which, I had a doozy last night). Do I not deserve a little time off sometimes? Don’t you? We all need a little downtime. It’s hard for us, the creatives, to take a proper break because the ideas come irregularly and opportunities must be seized as they arise.

But self-care is still important; burn-out – whatever that actually means – is a danger and flying too far, too fast, can lead to a hard landing. For months I was engaged with first-drafting a novel and I only finished that hard, intense work less than a month ago. I should not be so hard on myself. And you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself either.

We all do what we can, work in our own ways. Comparing ourselves, our productivity, with others is hard to resist, sometimes, but never tells anything more than half-truths.

….And, just like that, the above has been turned into one big lie. The final final proofs of Human Resources have arrived. My last last chance to spot errors/tidy grammar before the novel goes to the printers.

So, no rest, no relaxation for me. Once more I go through this darn novel; each pass takes me further from reality, it seems, and my connection to the text becomes weaker. There’s not even any wincing, now, but also no sense of good or bad.

But the work must be done. No taking it back now, saying ‘I’ve suddenly lost my confidence and can we forget the whole thing?’ I am committed.

Human Resources will be published in November. It will be as good as I can possibly make it.

Betwixt and between

I am betwixt and between. Jobs on my plate and deadlines – some fixed, some mutable – approach. This has been the busiest writing time of my life and it’s not finished with me yet.

If nothing else this time is teaching me to change gears quickly. I veer between hard-core high body-count SF, cosy crime and Biblical inter-generational epic. And that’s before I get to my own writing, which probably lies somewhere in the middle of that very complicated and possibly interdimensional web.

I’ve had another writers’ group gathering since we last talked, and got more feedback on a section of my own writing. Useful stuff. And tonight I go to give feedback on a complete manuscript of a friend’s.

If you ever have the chance to join a manuscript exchange group then I’d heartily recommend it. You learn a lot about your own writing (not to mention personality) by comparing your opinions with those of other critiqueers. It’s a chance to find out in what areas you’re hot on – if you notice slips in dialogue and character, say, or plot or pacing – and what might be flying over your head. And learning this enables you to see what you need to work on in your own writing.

Then, of course, you get your tender evisceration of your own work. That’s why it’s called an exchange; you take turns to rip the heart out of each other’s opus.

I’m hoping to get the last of my Antarctic trilogy considered before too long. It’s just awaiting a final polish (I hope) before it goes off to the publisher and I want reassurance that it’s not a pile of poo. I have a (possibly not very good) reputation to maintain, after all.

So it’s onwards, onwards, onwards for me. Now, back to that cosy crime: it must be finished before close of day.