Line by line

I gasp with relief. The Great Editing is complete, dispatched, out the electronic door in the nick of time, the deadline met by the skin of the teeth. And by so doing I feel free, enlightened and able to see past the metaphorical ramparts once more.

And what do I see? Why, is that the grim spectre of More Work ghosting o’er the horizon?

I do believe it is. Yes, I still have four novels lined up in my copy-edit-queue, plus – and this is next in my sights – a proofread of Human Resources, which represents my very last chance to change anything in the text before it’s off to the printers and all is set in stone.

Hopefully this will be more of a quick scan of the text than a serious editing challenge – I don’t think the editor who has already signed off on my piece would be too pleased with wholesale changes – but we shall see.

I still hope to get back to doing more intense editing/creation of my own writing someday in the not-too-distant future. But for now it’s time to crawl back inside the Editorium and crack on with line-by-line work. Because that’s as important as the blue-sky big picture thinking.

It’s certainly what pays the bills. Or at least gets the beers in.

All hands

Too busy

All hands on editing. That’s how it’s going at the moment, as I forge my way through a commercial piece with a harsh (self-set) deadline and, frankly, no time to write this blog-post.

I’m doing a copy-edit but it’s an unusual piece that requires every single bit of my brain. So I’m not able to spare any neurons for my own work this week, and probably not for the week after. That’s frustrating – or it would be, if I had energy for frustration – but that’s just how it goes sometimes. As a freelancer one has to take the work that comes and do it with a much speed (and quality) as possible.

And, truth be told, it’s not come in at such a bad time. I’m kind of between my own projects at the moment; I’ve a novel that I need to hunt down beta-readers for (any volunteers?) and another to review before that too goes out to the great unwashed. Then it’s either back to Our Kind of Bastard for its biggest edit or on with something new… though heaven knows what that’s going to be.

I might even try writing an outline for my next piece. You never know.

So let me just apologise for boring the hell out of you. Fingers crossed that I can come up with something more interesting next week. Given the state of 2020 so far events will probably have been overtaken by a plague of locusts or a dragon attack and I’ll have even more of an excuse for writing gibberish.

Peace out, you wonderful people, you

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Apologies in advance

Apologies in advance: this little ramble is a last minute substitution for a real blog-post. I had one written but I was never happy with it and… well, events have overtaken me.

I’m currently going through a period of doubt and uncertainty; my self-confidence has taken a bit of a battering recently and, in any case, what’s the point of writing (and, in the case of this blog, writing about writing) when the world seems about ready to slide into another wave of fascism?

Though it is of no significance whatsoever, I’m very busy right now. I have a whopping great manuscript to copy-edit, one which I’m going to struggle to hit the deadline for, and another four manuscripts in the queue for when that’s done. Which is great; means I’m keeping out of mischief and earning money all in one.

The bad side of the equation is that I’m not working on anything of my own. I really need to be; I have three novels that need a damn good editing and I feel like I need to be thinking about something new, as I finally got my last original idea down on paper not too long ago. The well is drawing dry; I need to refocus and refresh.

And that’s about all I have to say right now. Sorry to have wasted your time. Now go out and fight the good fight and I’ll see you back with more positivity very shortly.

Oh, and I still have a book out on sale and one for pre-order. Just in case you didn’t know…

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Beset by doubts

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I am beset by doubts.

I am adrift upon a sea of words and I don’t know if they form the complete works of Shakespeare or are a monkey-typist’s random gibberish.

I have a novel that I know not what to do with.

It’s like this: I have raced through Draft 6 of New Gods, the (probably) last in the Antarctica series of novels. I have made minor alterations, mostly tinkering around the edges after last draft’s heavy rewrite. Now I have to decide whether it’s good enough to send in to my editor at Flame Tree Press, who have published or are publishing the first two books.

And I have doubts.

Following the excision of a nearly 10k section (the pacing was wrong), the novel is on the short side at 75k. The central twist is perhaps too on the nose (or is that a good thing?). I’m relying on character interactions and motivations that may only exist in my head. The central mystery might be too obvious, the culprit too easily guessable.

All this and more.

One thing I am happy about is the writing. It’s fluent and clear, with very occasional poetic flights to break up the monotony. I think it stands up. As I said last week, I think I drafted this with a degree of confidence and fluidity that I lacked previously; it feels to me like a ‘level up’ novel.

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Ironically, it’s the fluency of this that makes me agonise over my most recent work. I haven’t felt this – and certainly haven’t achieved this – when working on Our Kind of Bastard. That was a slog and I don’t feel the writing stands up, though the plot might. I feel I’ve gone backwards with the actual craft. Which is okay, it just means I have to work harder with the editing pencil sledgehammer.

But that’s by the by. I have this novel that I think is well written and I enjoyed creating, but now I don’t have faith in it to send out just yet. I need an agent (though then I’d be worried about sending it to them, of course) – an intermediary to rate my work and tell me if it works or not on a fundamental level.

Without an agent, I have no choice but to turn to beta-readers. These glorious people have saved my skin before and hopefully will do it again – if I can find any.

What I want is for them to say that everything’s okay and boost my ego enough to survive the transmission of the manuscript. Failing that, I want to know what doesn’t work so I can fix it – though of course I will lament the effort and mental gymnastics that such an edit would require.

And then, of course, it would take another round of confidenceless and recriminations and maybe even a further hunt for beta-readers before I was ready to send that out.

The circle of manuscript-production never seems to end.

Next up

Manuscript

Next on my to-do list, whilst I wait for my next piece of commercial editing, is to dig up a manuscript I last worked on over a year ago. That’s not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough for me to forget just about every single detail. Long enough, one hopes, to gain a little perspective and to be able to judge the book on its true merits.

Yes, it’s back to the word-mines for me. After complaining, last week, about the need for emotional space after the completion of a big project, I am going straight back to the well. It’s really too soon; I’m not strong enough yet. But I have a bit of time and I need to be doing something to justify my existence. So it’s on with editing.

This particular piece is the third book in the Antarctic trilogy – the finale, at least as it stands. It’s a novel I have fond feelings for. I enjoyed writing it, as far as I can remember, and it gives Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, a measure of closure after the ordeals he’s been through throughout the three books.

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My heart says that this is the best of the trilogy. And right there is something to be fearful of: one can never trust one’s own emotions on such a subject. I’ve been wrong before. When I first wrote what became Human Resources I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. That took a hell of a lot of work to beat into a reputable shape (I think I succeeded, by the way. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come November).

So I am being exceptionally cautious. In my last pass, all those months ago, I excised a large (10kish) section because it interrupted the flow; now I worry that the novel is too short. And while I feel like I have the nucleus of a strong story, it’s just the execution that matters. Ideas are two a penny, but the way the tale is told is what makes it unique.

I am doing my best to not be a fool to myself. Sadly, being a fool is what I do best. And I am terrified: this novel is next up to be sent to my editor; the next with a chance of being rejected, in other words, and one that I really care about being published. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Maybe I’m speaking more of anxiety than I am about writing here, but I’m terrified of the publisher turning round and saying no.

So yes, this matters. Time I got down to it, I guess.

Actually, forget all that: my next commercial job just came in so I guess all this is put on the back-burner, for a little while at least.

Onwards!

Onwards

There are a surprising number of sloth/unicorn artists out there. I believe this copyright is owned by Jez Kemp

La petite mort

The end

The novel is finished. Done. The completed manuscript is on the computer and in the cloud, ready to be chainsawed and steamrollered into some sort of shape. I have 95k words down after the longest period I’ve ever spent on a single draft.

It’s hard to say how I feel about this. A little empty, I guess. This draft has been with me for such a long time that I can barely remember not working on it.

I’m also hyper-aware of all its flaws. Whenever I’ve done first drafts in the past I’ve always felt the arrogance of completion; I’ve always felt like ‘this’ll need a polish and a few coats of paint but it’s otherwise fine. It’s great! The best thing I’ve ever done, hands down.’

This time I don’t feel like that. As I’ve been writing I’ve been aware of all I need to go back for, to retrofit and add in, and, I’m sure, there’ll be bits I need to remove as well. I have produced a mess, an overcomplicated, overwritten heap of words that needs industrial processes to salvage.

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This is in part because it’s the most complex piece of work I’ve ever attempted – it’s much less linear than my previous novels, more of a mystery than an adventure, with several overlapping themes and subplots.

I’m not beating myself up too much about this. I’m sure there’s a good story in what I’ve produced. It’s just not there yet.

The question now is this: do I go straight back to the start and try to fix all my problems, or do I leave it for a few months so I can see it with fresh eyes? All opinion goes with the latter; it must be left to moulder, to be forgotten and revisited afresh. But I am torn. I wonder if I should get straight back into whilst I can remember all that’s wrong with it and try to make good before setting it aside for a while.

It’s not like I don’t have other work to do. I have two other novels to edit and a four-volume epic has just arrived through my commercial editing factory doors.

Maybe I could use a break. I’ve been very close to this work for such a long time, a little recovery time might be wise.

But first I must set down a few notes for future Rob to decipher. That’s the least past Rob can do to make things easier.

Then it’s on to the next thing. For we never rest easy, not in this job.

Write on!

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How to save a novel

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Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

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  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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Deleting characters

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To lose a character should be one of the easiest of editing jobs. Isn’t it just a case of reassigning his actions, redistributing his words and a bit of a spit and a polish to cover all the hack-marks?

Turns out it is, in fact, bloody hard. That’s currently what I’m trying to do; to kill my darling and reassign all his delicious lines to other members of the cast. And I’m still not sure whether I’m making things better or am just cruelly imbalancing scenes by making another character a ‘know-everything’ and, frankly, a bit of an over-voluble, overpowered menace.

Still, it’s what I’m doing, for reasons. And at the moment it feels like I’m editing with a paintbrush. Everything’s confusing and blocky and ill-rendered; it’s blurry and it’s ill-defined. But it’s the stage I have to get through before I can sit calmly back and decide whether the change works at all.

This is step one in my three-pass rule. Get the work done. Get it done badly – or at least roughly – and then take another sweep to work out what needs refining and what just hasn’t worked. To make big structural changes is a pain in the bum; for now we’re concentrating on architecture, not decoration. I am making some changes to speech to make it sit better in other character’s voices but tuning the acoustics is another thing to focus on in another pass.

Or, at least, I’m supposed to be doing this. Actually what I’m doing is, due to an unusual conjunction of circumstances, holidaying in the Dordogne. Hence the slightly truncated post.

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The chateau where I may well be found

More moaning next time. Possibly about the heat.

The three-pass rule

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I have a rule. No, that’s not true. I have a theory, an idea, and it’s this: after every big change you need to make at least two more passes of your manuscript before you can send it out into the great wide world.

At the moment I’m doing major revisions to my latest work-in-progress. This is a good novel (I think) but one upon which I stuffed a little in the character department. I have a plan to combine two characters into one easy-to-swallow morsel. This obviously involves a lot lot lot of work.

So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to concentrate on that job. I’m not going to worry so much about the actual words I use. I’m not going to worry too much about little slips or finding the perfect prose. This draft is for big things: for who does what and when and how. Not about perfecting the micro-expressions or the tiny gestures.

And that’s why I’ll need another draft when this is done. I’ll need a troubleshooting pass, a precision-engineering job after the great earthmoving of pass #1 (actually pass #6, but it’s been a while since the last one). I need to make sure the voice is right, the silences are on cue and the smiles are from and to the right people.

So: two passes, one for heavy engineering, one for precision. So why is this a three-pass rule?

Truth is that two might be enough, but I’m not happy – I don’t trust myself enough – that this is enough to catch all the imperfections with this little work.

But before that, it’s time for a break.

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Such intense work is likely to take you extremely close to the material. So close, in fact, that you start to lose objectivity and focus. So it’s my plan that before I go on for a third pass I take a long, hard go at something else before coming back to the work in question. This isn’t my idea, of course; it’s in all books of writing advice and the like. I’m just trying to (finally) put it into practice.

That’s where I am at the moment with New Gods, the last in my Antarctic trilogy. I did a major overhaul then cantered through it to fix obvious errors. Now I’ve set it to one side to let cool and to give myself a little distance before I go through it again.

This would also be the time to get beta-readers involved but I fear I’ve already blown all of mine on earlier drafts.

And, while I wait, I’m on to the next task. For writing is a production line and there should always be something on the conveyor belt.

Today’s fear

Fear - Saeeda Bibi

@ Saeeda Bibi

My career as a writer is just beginning. It’s going well, so far. One novel published and another on the way. But I’m here to confess my biggest fear: that I’m already washed-up and a has-been.

The reason is this: everything I’ve been working on is old. Years old. I have a backlog of writing back from my younger and more vulnerable years: four novels that have required much editing but are good enough to be worth the work.

Now I’m the first to say that editing is part of writing. An essential part, no less, and what I’m doing is as valid as every first draft that proudly gets ‘The End’ inscribed at its end.

But I haven’t written anything new for about three years now. And, for a writer, that feels like a lifetime.

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My greatest fear is that I have nothing left to say; that I’ve lost the discipline and the drive that makes a writer sit in front of a blank page and simply create. Sure, I have ideas – but nothing ready. I’ve been spending so much time buried in old words that I don’t know how to get down the new.

This isn’t imposter syndrome, and it’s my hope that, once I find my way nearer to the end of my back catalogue, that I’ll be able to see a future once again. But right now I feel like I’m already nearing the end.

It doesn’t help that I’m building a career as a freelance editor, so my time is split between editing and editing. Plus I owe friends my opinions (for what it’s worth) on their novels; I can easily see myself working through this block of already-written novels and then settling for a career as an editor.

I don’t want this. I want to be a writer.

I go online and see author after author telling us of their accomplishments; of their new works of wonder and delight, and I have nothing.

I am not a real writer. I’m someone who can edit works until they look like a competent author produced them, but I still need the source material and that I’m fast running out of.

This, at least, is my fear. Whether it turns out to be true or not is yet to be seen.

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