I have flown

I have flown. I have ridden the updrafts and I’ve soared. Now I fall back to earth.

It’s been a week. I have been ill. I have deadlines. I have done no writing creatively at all – maybe a paragraph on the side, but that’s all.

I’m at a difficult stage of the novel, now. The tension has been ramped. The action is underway – though not always combatty-shooty-explodey action. There’s a lot of small, slow movements woven in, and perhaps a surprising amount of observation and ‘feelings’. For action without consequence is simply empty and cold. There must be ramifications and they only mean something to the reader if they mean something to the characters.

That’s what I think, anyway.

I have a horrible twin-peaked mountain to climb; a double-climax with only a brief, small valley in between. Although I have some idea what’s got to happen, my original outline (which I’ve barely kept to anyway) says only things like ‘and the building burns down’ without going into any details, any of the mechanics. Past Rob left it up to his future compatriot to work out the specifics.

Which is fine. I have room to dream, room to imagine – I’ve always said that I’m neither a pantser (horrible word) nor a planner. I know where I’m going. I may even know how to get there. I just don’t know which specific bus I’m going to get, or what platform the train leaves from. As phase space collapses, so my ideas get more specific; so the next section comes into tighter focus.

It’s the way I work, and – generally speaking – I’m content. But, faced with the almighty task that’s rearing up in front of me, I doubt my own ability. I doubt whether I have the willpower to scale this particular Alp.

Of course, the best way to do any such task is to take one step at a time, looking ahead (or up) only so far as to plan routes and ensure that no dead-ends are reached. Each step will (hopefully) get me closer to completion. Each word written is one another that I won’t now have to agonise other. Small joys, small victories.

This is, of course, true about any writing activity. One could quite easily write this piece about the very opening of the novel, when the whole mountain range stretches out in front of you. And it’s true that Breathing Fire seems to have been a particular slog; the downslopes have been few and far between.

But that’s okay. I’m still here. Still working, when I get the chance. And I will get it done.

I also have optimism that what I’m writing is worthwhile. Just because the birthing has been tough doesn’t mean that the baby won’t be a thing of wonder. I believe in what I’m doing. Just wish it’d come a little easier, that’s all.

But I’m still here. And I will get the work done.

Just as soon as this latest deadline is out the door…

The blessed relief

The blessed relief. To remember what it’s like to be able to set words down on paper, to enter a loose facsimile of a ‘flow state’; in short to rediscover the joy in writing.

Regular readers will know that this has been something of an angst-station for some time now. I have been trying, and I have been trying, and I have been trying; but I have been swimming uphill against the tides of Breathing Fire and I have had to gouge every word from basalt with only my fingernails.

I finally found my flow, just yesterday, and though I only ran for around 1.5k words, those words felt glorious.

By way of contrast, when I was working on the Anders Nordvelt trilogy, and on Oneiromancer, I was regularly – okay, occasionally – getting 3k down in sessions little over an hour. Doing half that yesterday took me a whole afternoon.

The thing, though, is this: that means nothing.

Editors, or the reading public at large, don’t care just how painful a novel is to produce. They don’t care whether or not its creation was a joy or a soul-rending suffering and, by all accounts, they can’t tell the difference anyway. The likelihood is that I produced 1.5k words of rubbish. And it’s equally likely that the words I spent so much soul-energy tapping out, one scratchy, thrice-reconsidered word at a time, is likely to be just as poor.

First-drafting is hard and painful or it’s a free-flowing joy; more often it’ll be both, at different times, or will elide between them so you can’t really tell where one level begins and ends. It’s not about putting good words down, about finding that perfect prose. Even poetry – though I’ve no doubt there are exceptions for those more talented than I – in my experience was all about the editing, not the initial framing.

But you can’t do that editing until that initial framework exists. The first draft remains the most important, which is why I tend to bang on about it. It’s why I keep going even when I feel that I’m producing nothing but hot filth. Was it Neil Gaiman who said, once, that one of the most important things is to finish the damn thing? You can make a bad thing good but it has to be there, to exist somewhere other than in the fastness of one’s skull, in order to heat it and beat it with the Great Blacksmithing-cum-Editorial Hammer of Truth.

So it’s entirely possible that the work I’ve been agonising over will turn out to be better than that which flew from the fingers. How it got onto the page really, really doesn’t matter.

But getting into the flow state feels good.

If nothing else, that brief taste, that brief dip of the toe into the white waters of creation – well, it reminds me of why I’m doing this.

To quote Elbow: ‘One Day Like This a year would see me right’.

Now I must descend back into the world I’ve created to try and hack my way to the end. I’m under no illusions: it’s not going to magically become easier now I’ve had my taste of glory. There are deep plottish issues that I must work out. The vague idea I’m holding in my head for the climax will not survive contact with the enemy. The problems I’ve foreseen remain, and a brief taste of joy doesn’t actually give any answers.

But, after months and months of striving, I finally cast off my stabilisers – just for one liberating moment – and I flew.

Ain’t nothing like creation, baby.

Perseverance

Another week down with very little progress. This is my life, now: I am trapped in a perpetual cycle of completely failing to get on with Breathing Fire. I mean, seriously – I have 175 pages written; over 50,000 words. You’d think that I know what I was trying to achieve by now. You’d think that I was capable of writing more than 50 words at a time. You’d think I’d think and sort the damn thing out.

This is almost certainly (memories may go down as well as up) the longest I’ve ever spent on a first draft (or ‘sloppy copy’, as someone coined it on Twitter). I’m past the point of simply blaming interruptions. This is seriously so damn hard. Pulling teeth is nothing compared to pulling words.

At the moment I‘m trying to plan a break-in. This means I have to think. Then, after said break-in, I need to plan a climax. And I’m just not sure I’ve got the energy for that.

Sigh. I shall get it down. I will not be defeated. But overall victory (in, what must be remembered, is still only Draft One of – judging by prior performance – at least seven) has never seemed so far away.

Perseverance is the only card left in my hand. It’s having to do a whole lot of work right now.

And then there’s the big Plot Issue I need to solve.

Back in book one (Oneiromancer) I killed a lesbian, inadvertently sending me careering down a trope-fuelled nightmare that I still fret about; I worry that any potential agent/editor will hit that point and either reject me because of it or demand changes that I feel incapable of resolving.

I’ve hit that same note again here. I have a queer couple and I was intending – no, the plot is demanding – that one of them should die. There is an inexorable momentum towards unhappily-ever-after.

Seeing this coming, I desperately want to save their life. I just don’t know how. For reasons of plot and momentum and the iron laws of tragedy, I don’t know how to avoid having myself labelled as something I don’t think I am. I want to wrench things round to a happier ending.

I just don’t know how. The book screams for blood and I’m not sure how to best escape the gravity-well of my own creation.

I am mulling. I have rarely mulled so hard. And in the meantime I scratch word after word and drag myself inevitably closer towards the end.

Except I don’t, because another paying job has thunked down upon my desk and now I’m back to editing.

One day I’ll actually get to finish something I started. That day is not today.

On being stuck

When I am stuck, I scribble.

Having slogged through weeks of getting nowhere I finally found myself sliding to a complete halt. I couldn’t see where I was going. All momentum had long since faded. It felt like I was scratching for the sake of scratching rather than for real purposes of creation.

I went back to my notes but, this far through the story, I found I’d deviated too much from my outline for it to be really useful – at this point in proceedings, at least. To be honest, calling it an outline is perhaps optimistic anyway. The barest whispers of ideas given undue confidence and swagger is a better description.

So I wrote some new ideas.

Let’s be honest, it didn’t happen just like that. It took me about four sessions of staring at my manuscript, then staring at my wannabe-outline, before I realised I needed a different approach. But however long it took me, it seems to have helped. I have new direction and less ‘oh my god this is torturousness’ (torturosity?) feeling about the whole project.

When I’m stuck the first thing I like to do is to write about the problem: to find a way to express it. This doesn’t always come easy, but getting it down on paper – or occasionally Twitter – is an important first step for me. Hence:

Callan and the book: Could be going to either of two locations

  • To the DM, who has his Glen Rd house
    • Fitz wants to deal with this man
    • Rewrite introductory scene to feature DM, not the Peppers (though they may also be present)
    • DM has the power to make Fitz’s ambitions happen
  • To the Troll Farm
    • Peppers want the book there

Callan needs to be left alone with the book

Once the problem is set out, the answers always seem easier; a spot of selective brainstorming (oxymoronic, I know, but you get what I mean) shows me possible futures, and though I never seem to stick with what I come up with – this is already out of date – it resets me, gets me out of the morass I created. Thus:

So: Fitz’s POV: (or Callan’s?)

  • In the limo, with lord & lady Pepper and the DM
    • They have been to the DMs house; called the Peppers from there; kept Callan locked up until they arrived
    • Praise for Fitz: DM lets him know that he’s going to get his reward
      • Temporal power
      • Revenge on Mark/Paul

(I feel safe letting you into this part of my manuscript as I’ve no doubt this will make any sense to anyone. It barely makes sense to me. In fact, looking back at it now, I can’t believe how sketchy it is; there’s so much skipped, assumed, even for me.)

The point isn’t to say that you should be doing this. Just that this works for me. Everyone has their own way of making progress, be it following a set plan down to the last syllable or by dispensing with notes altogether. I just thought you might be interested to see that a) I do get (very) stuck sometimes, and b) I have a way to get myself out of the mire.

It’s something I think I’ve done for about every novel I’ve written. It’s just that this time I actually noticed what I was doing.

Interesting? I’m not sure. But it filled in another week’s blog, so there’s that, at least.

Merry writing!

99%

So, one of my editing jobs is complete, the other not so very long or intensive. I can finally see my way to the world of creative writing beyond.

Indeed, I actually managed to fire up my WIP for the first time since Christmas. I carved out an hour to do something original, something new, and… I failed.

It seems as if just having the time isn’t enough. One must also have brains in order to write, and, right now, I’m just not getting anywhere.

Frustration. But also optimism. Because writing is work, and I can do work. It’s just a case of sitting behind the keyboard and staring at the screen until those black marks on the screen – the words, I mean, and not just the dirt – make sense, and then they start talking to you.

I never really understood what it means to say you’re blocked. I’m finding it hard right now – does that mean I’m blocked? Does it signify something horribly awry with the work I’ve produced thus far? I don’t think so. I believe in what I’ve done, imperfect though it is at this stage. My problem is that I’m out of practice; since August I’ve not had a few straight weeks to just focus on the manuscript, and that’s costing me now.

But I will continue. I will keep scratching away, one word at a time, doing as little as I’m able each session until either a) the metaphorical pen begins to fly again and I realise that I’ve slipped back into the swing of things, or b) I look back and realise that all this scratching has added up to a solid page or two of writing.

It won’t be very good, of course. But that’s what second drafts are for.

So at the moment I’m taking odd moments to reacquaint myself with the situation I’ve left myself and my characters in. Just adding a few words here and there as the inspiration finds me. Treading water, not really getting anywhere.

But all this is valuable. It is the building blocks of progress. It’s not ideal; ideal would be to sit down and write solidly until the work is done. But it is what I have to work with after real life is added to the equation.

They say that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration*. I’m no genius but it’s where I am. I’ve had my moment of inspiration – a dream 16 months ago – and now I’ve just got to sweat it out.

Any future biopic of me will surely rewrite this section of my life. Score points for determination, but it ain’t never going to be the most dramatic Oscar-worthy sequence.

Onwards!

*Edison said that. Leacock puts the figures at 10-90. Can’t even agree on that one.

More on the morass

Green Morass, by Zdenka Kezele

It is a matter of personal taste: would you like to struggle more with the beginning, the middle, or the end? I know of writers who find getting going excruciating – every word a struggle until enough brain-lubrication has been got down and their pistons can fully come online. The ending – well, I don’t know of anyone who’s fought too badly with this, but presumably there are those who have to hack away with the machete of will to get out of a novel.

Me, I’m a middle man. Specifically, I’m a ‘the bit from 25-40k’ man. It seems like on every novel I get hung up about this point; the words don’t flow no more and every session is a slog. Progress can be measured in paragraphs, not pages, and a decent conversation is a joy as it means you can feel like you’ve really got somewhere, even if the word count is still crawling.

To put it another way – because word-count doesn’t mean all that much, not really – it’s the section from the inciting incident to the central conflict that I really struggle with. To those wot don’t speak Hero’s Journey (or whatever we’re calling it today), the inciting incident is that occurrence that means the central character can’t sit around in their armchair all novel and must go out and do something: their house mysteriously burns down, say, or their attempts to rebuff the kindly old wizard finally come to naught: the band have got together and they’re on their way to adventure.

The central conflict is the conflict at the novel’s heart, where all things flip and the protagonist is sent in a new direction.

It seems that I always struggling with this section. It’s not necessarily that I’m stuck for ideas, though often the slowness is caused by having to think – an occupation of which I Do Not Approve. Rather it’s… Well, I’m, honestly not sure what it is. I just know that, for two novels in a row, I have been pulling words like teeth precisely at this juncture. If I could remember I’d swear it was other novels too.

This is where novels are abandoned. Where they’re set aside ‘to stew’ and never quite get picked up again. Or where a new project suddenly looms on the horizon making all that’s come before seem like a waste of time.

If you are struggling with this, or with any part of your novel, I wish I had answers for you. The only real advice I can give you is to keep going. For each word you write – even the wrong ones – get you closer to the end. You’re not in a race (unless you are). You’re not (usually) writing to a deadline. All progress is good and it does get easier (or so I tell myself). You’ll have good days amidst the struggle, and soon you’ll find that all the hard work has not only moved you forwards considerably, but that now you can ‘write downhill’ and dance through big chunks of story because you’ve done all the hard prep already.

I suppose that’s the real trick of writing. That it has to be done. There may be shortcuts – proper prep and gestational work – that I’m not an expert on, but at the end of the day it comes down to getting the words down on (electronic) paper.

Keep going. No matter how slowly you move, no matter how many hours spent thinking, or not thinking, keep coming back to that manuscript and make words happen.

Soon you’ll be looking back, amazed at how much you’ve done. And eventually you’ll have a finished draft.

Breathing fire

I am doing some writing.

I know, I know. I’m every bit as surprised as you are. But it‘s true. I’ve finally got a bit of leeway in my schedule (I think – I’m always terribly worried that I’ve either forgotten something or that the jobs I have on my plate will take longer than anticipated) and I’m using it to create.

Breathing Fire is the third in the modern fantasy series that began with Oneiromancer and continued with Our Kind of Bastard. It’s an absolutely pointless thing to write as I have no home, nor even a hope of a home, for the first two books; I should be doing something unique and entirely standalone rather than revisiting old characters.

Well, tish and pshaw to that. This is the book I want to write. And now I’m a self-publishing veteran (if not an earner) there is always that option.

I don’t want to say too much about the story yet, but it revolves around cursed books, grief, terminal (?) insomnia and evil industrialists-cum-venture-capitalists. It’s set in the environs of Bradford, which is where I grew up. I’m fed up of the London-centricness of British novels, which is rich seeing as Oneiromancer was set there. Still: London, Brittany, Bradford – I’m moving things around, at least.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say for now. I’m first drafting, and doubtless what I’m producing is pretty terrible. A first draft is all about getting the story down on paper; of finding steps and mis-steps and of trying not to get too bogged down in a morass of one’s own making.

But it’s fun, and exciting, and though it’s a slog it’s my slog.

*             *             *

For those what missed it I did an interview with the wonderful Runalong Womble the other week. If you want to read about New Gods, about my influences, the problems of writing sci-fi, and my book recommendation for the world, head along here – and check out all of Womble’s other interviews whilst you’re at it.

Oh, and maybe buy and/or review New Gods? Cheers. You’re the best.

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 achievement

Snowdonia

I was thinking the other night. Dangerous, I know, but sometimes unavoidable. And what I was thinking was this: should I get this WIP finished it will be a real achievement.

No novel is easy to write, and whilst I lament the general quality and fear the work I have still to do, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’m 75k words into a story that has no real right to exist. It’s been born out of a breakdown, has suffered through many, many interruptions and re-starts and changes in direction.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve struggled to get into the flow of the story, that I’ve agonised over sections and have taken an age to write single chapters. It should come as no surprise that I’m unhappy with large parts of the narrative, and as for the quality of writing, of course it’s not as good as it can be.

Pratchett quote

Now I’m nearing the end and I’m taking a moment to turn around and cast my eye over the view. I have climbed giddy peaks and it’s time I took a moment to acknowledge the successes. I have done this. I have made it. I have hewn a story out of the very rock; I have mined and delved and, whilst the statue is still rough-carved and ugly, it exists where nothing existed before. And I have done it in the face of many personal and professional difficulties.

It’s easy to be hard on oneself; to feel like you’re never good enough. It’s much harder to see your successes. If you’ve ever written anything, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story, novella, novel or epic, you’ve achieved. Even if it’s objectively not very good, you’ve still worked miracles – and you’ve not lost the potential to make it good, and you’ve not lost all you learned through the process of writing.

And if you’re still in the process of creation and you’re finding it difficult, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your work. It just means you’ve taken on a challenge. Whether it’s just a case of carving out a little piece more every day or if you need a little background noise to die down or you need to take a step back and think about the bigger picture, remember that you’re not in a race and you’re not competing with anyone else.

What you’re doing is beautiful and unique. No-one can do it but you. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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