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.

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.