No flow

flow

At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

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It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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The hangover

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This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.

The hardest part

Brian John Spencer - Ernest Hemingway

There’s always debate: which part of the novel is hardest to write. Some say beginning, some argue passionately that no, it’s the end where the problems doth dwell. For me I think it’ll always be the bits in the middle. Specifically the bits between the inciting incident (at around 15-25% through) and the mid-novel climax.

Beginnings are easy: find a good cinematically happy starting point and start writing. No doubt you’ll change your mind half a dozen times before you’re satisfied, and maybe it’ll be a headache in the revision process, but for first drafting I’ve never found it too much of a problem.

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As for endings – well, it can be complex to tie up all your threads in a way that’s concise and satisfying, but at least by that point you know what all your threads are. After a certain point you’re writing downhill anyway: you’ve released all your pigeons and now they’re coming home to roost. I find that endings tend to come more or less naturally after all the hard work you’ve put in to the set-up.

No, it’s middles that stymie me. Especially early middles where you’re still unspooling the wires and making big decisions.

Let me illustrate this by giving a few of the major determinations I’ve made in just this section of my current WIP:

  • Having a major character be abducted (my inciting incident)
  • Deciding how much faffing around my characters should do before she’s found
  • Wondering how insane to make major character #2
  • Having the ‘court intrigue’ subplot result in major character #3 being exiled from the castle
  • Working out how minor character #1 can assist in the search for major character #1
  • Working out a location for the character to be held in
  • Working out if my characters can go straight there or if there should be a misstep along the way
  • Working out the location/details of this misstep
  • Working out how this misstep is carried out, with specific reference to French policing techniques and equipment
  • Deciding what monster my characters must face at the mid-novel climax – the MNC itself being a whole subset of big doomladen decisions

Every single one of these steps was complicated and involved a lot of deep thought. I’m still setting up the framework for the adventure to come; trying to anticipate my needs for later in the story and giving enough clues, enough evidence to set me on the way to a resolution that convinces and has enough emotional wallop.

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I’ve crawled through this section. Writing has been attritional, chip after single chip as I attempt to hew the novel from the great mass of Possibility. And it seems to me that it’s always been like this: this section of the novel contains so many choices, so many set-ups that the rest is almost easy in comparison.

This is, of course, rubbish. Every single bit of a novel is difficult. Everything is the hardest part. That’s just the nature of the beast, kid.

But this is my hardest part. And it probably reflects my lack of outlining or planning to any great degree. Which is ironic, given that I had considered this to be my most planned novel yet attempted. Just goes to show what I know.

Yeah, come to me for advice, folks. I really know what I’m doing.

Stick with me for another month and I’ll be going on about how hard the third quarter of the novel is to wrote.

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No hack

Laptop-PC-Computer-Battery-Desktop

This week I’m going to talk about something I find difficult, so bear with me if I take my time to get to the point. See, I’ve been thinking about what matters to me, in writing and without, and I’ve come up with this: I want to be thought of as a good writer. I want the respect of my peers. I’d quite like at least a couple of fans, though I realise this makes me shallow and unworthy.

Thing is, I’m just not sure I’m good enough. The longer it goes since I wrote the novels that I’ve got/am getting published, the slighter they seem. That’s the first part of the difficulty, of course, because I still want you to buy them (Night Shift out now; Human Resources out July! Buy buy buy!). I’m also aware that it’s totally natural; indeed, if I still thought they were the pinnacle of what I could achieve it’d be a poor reflection on my development and ambition.

But I also look at what I’m doing now and I worry about that too. Is it good enough? Will I ever be good enough to meet my own standards? Am I, in fact, capable of becoming anything more than a hack?

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These are the doubts that plague me. As I struggle to get anywhere near the end of my WIP (currently about a quarter of the way through) I wonder if I can actually achieve what I’ve envisaged, or is it all some impossible pipe-dream no different from when I was a child and dreamt of being a top-flight footballer.

Will I ever be good enough?

I say ‘will I ever be more than a hack?’ but that’s to disregard the skill involved in being a hack. A hack has to produce copy to order, to keep churning out material even if their heart isn’t absolutely in it; they have to achieve publishable quality again and again and again. It’s a skill, a talent, and I’m not sure I’ve got that in me.

I still aspire to be respected for my writing. I want people to look at my work and say ‘yeah, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’

I’m not there yet. The only thing to do is to keep going. To keep writing, to try and encourage people to read me and to try and make them happy when they do.

Maybe then I’ll feel like I’ve met my own objectives.

Or maybe I’ll grow up and get over myself. Who can say?

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Getting things wrong

goodnews

News! Human Resources, the second in the Australis trilogy, is due out July 2020!

That’s the best part of a year away but I’m already getting anxious and wondering if there’s anything I should be doing to promote it. And so I begin to compose an email suggesting a few things that my publisher might like to help me organise: to get on a few convention programmes, maybe a launch event; and to merely put myself at their disposal.

There’s not much I like less than sending emails promoting myself, pushing my agenda or asking for favours. I’ve never learnt the art of the blag. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Couple that with my almost complete ignorance of the way the world works – specifically publishing, conventions and media bookings – and there’s a massive opportunity to get things wrong. But I know that big things are booked way in advance so, at least in theory, now is the perfect time to think about these things. I have about nine months’ grace. Last time, with Night Shift, I missed chances. I should be thinking about this now.

But I agonise over emails; I compose them when I’m in the car, or when I’m lying in bed, and they’re perfect: but get me behind a computer and it all falls apart. Am I asking too much? Am I being cheeky? I lack the necessary arrogance to imagine that people see my emails as anything other than self-serving and grasping. I am an inconvenience, something to be resented.

But the emails have to be sent. I have a book coming out, for goodness’ sake. How wonderful is that?

There is something of imposter syndrome in all this. At least part of me believes that my writing isn’t good enough to be published; that I’ve somehow got away with something. To be asking for more is the height of impertinence, even when our interests collide.

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Besides, I don’t deserve more. Who am I? An end-list nobody, that’s who. Who am I to be asking to be put on convention programmes? They’ve never heard of me. You’ve barely heard of me, and you’re reading this.

But this is where everyone starts from. Everyone feels like this. It’s part of what makes us human and there are a lot of people who get it worse than me. Ha, I’m even an imposter when it comes to imposter syndrome.

Anyway, I have sent the Great Email of Doom. It’s done. It’s off.

Now it’s just a case of waiting for the Great Reply of Terror.

The scene that would not die

DoaS

I am writing the scene that will not die.

I am working on a scene that has, so far, taken over a week’s work. It’s not especially complicated – it’s my heroes breaking into a shop – but it’s taking an eternity to get through. And at least part of the reason is this: I’m not sure what I want to happen. I lack an exit point and I’m not sure just what I’m doing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have no deadline or especial expectations. I can afford to take my time. But by golly it’s hard work.

It’s also not something I’d recommend. I think the best writing is done when you know where you’re trying to get to – even if you have lots of deviations and diversions on the way, and even if that end-point changes – because you have an aim and are less likely to waffle to try and cover that you don’t really know where you’re heading.

It’s always been my mantra: have an end-point. Know where you’re going, if not exactly how you’re getting there. But today I find myself without that pole-star, that lodestone, to guide me. I am rudderless, but finding myself oddly liberated by the ignorance I carry.

There are advantages to going in plan-less. You can draw up the scene in little bits, one step at a time. You can let the story develop around you. You can find your way through the paths your characters take: an organic development, the slowness giving you space to develop your ideas and tell you just where they need to go.

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This is, of course, an illustration of the difference between plotting and pantsing (a word I still hate). I’ve always been a loose combination of both, but in this particular scene I’ve swung decisively into the pantsing camp. And I am finding it oddly liberating.

I’m under no illusions that it’ll need a thorough edit before it’s ready even for a normal run-of-the-mill readthrough. There always is the tendency, when you don’t quite know what you’re doing, to take refuge in description because you yourself don’t know what’s in the room, for example, or precisely what that mysterious masked stranger looks like (or even just who they are). Similarly, you end up saying everything in conversation because you don’t know just what it is you’re trying to say.

And this method is slow. As I said, it’s been over a week in the writing, scratching a line at a time and drinking copious amounts of coffee, procrastinating wildly rather than getting down to the serious business of thinking.

But I am getting through it. I’ve just got to the point where I invoke Chandler’s Law, which opens up new realms of decisions and choices, all of which will take me further into knowing just where the novel will take me next, and beyond that, and beyond that.

The scene that will not die may well end up being the most important in the entire novel. If only I could work out just what I’m trying to do.

All an act

Cat typing

I’ve realised what I’ve done wrong.

Ever since I started working on my WIP it’s been fighting me. It’s been kicking up a stink, complaining and not going where I want it to take me. More specifically, I’ve got up to 20,000 words and I’ve not seen any sighting of an inciting incident or a mid-novel climax or any of the other waypoints that one uses to hang their story upon.

I’m not one to plot out a novel in detail but I do have some idea of points along the way; I generally have some set-pieces or emotional climaxes that I’m intending to meet. I also have an idea of the ending, so I roughly know where I’m going even if I take the scenic route to get there. I don’t use a sat-nav but rather a list of attractions to call in at along the journey.

So I’ve been writing on, aiming for my markers and trying to hit my notes whilst allowing myself the odd deviation if something of particular interest catches my magpie eye. But now I’m starting to worry that I’ve run out of road when realistically I should have another 80,000 words to go.

Which is not to say that I’ve nothing left to write: I’ve still got all my plot-points to resolve and that’d take me at least another 20,000 words. But I’m not seeing what I should be seeing: my mid-point climax is hiding from me and, without it, I feel like I’m lost and alone.

This is because I’ve failed to plan a novel. All my prep, all I’ve done so far, is merely the first act.

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This realisation may have saved my sanity. I’ve been imagining all my work as a great adventure but really it’s just the introduction. That’s why I can’t see beyond the next chapter: I haven’t created anything yet to see.

So the question is this: how do I proceed?

As I see it, I have two, maybe three options. One is to turn this novel into a novella. Another is to embrace my idiocy and write acts two and three (for which I have an idea but intended to write as the next novel in the series – ie after a good long break). The third option is to carry on exactly as I have been doing and hope that it all turns out okay in the end.

Any guesses as to which I’ll end up doing?