Little victories

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I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. Trying to build a novel, yes, but… how? It’s been such a long time since I sat at a computer and tried to pour words to a blank screen.

In order to write you have to know what you’re writing about. And, though I have a story and an idea of a plot and I know what key the story will be in and the characters all waiting, I really feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

This is not special. It’s not unusual. This is what makes writing so difficult: the vista of all possible options spread in front of you in the form of that accursed blank page. The impossibility of making choices. The collapsing of waveforms into a single, informed reality.

It doesn’t help to know that nothing is unchangeable: that you will inevitably make missteps and that’s what editing is for. It should help, but it doesn’t. You still have to make those decisions, get the words down on that page.

People who plan out their novels in great detail before setting metaphorical pen to paper probably have the right idea. I’ve never been able to do that, although this current project has involved some fairly heavy-duty forefront thinking.

Even then, when you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve in each scene, it’s never easy. The blank page resists. Writing can be like wading through treacle; the words seem to drag at you, to want to pull you down into inertia, to drown you in liquid amber.

This is why any progress, no matter how small, is a success. 50 words? Good. Even if they only put off a problem, they’re 50 words that didn’t exist yesterday. Decided on the next scene? Even if you change your mind and delete all you’ve done, it’s easier to work from a positive decision than it is to work from uncertainty.

If you’re a writer and if you’ve decided to write you’ll know how tough it can be. The small victories are all we have, sometimes – especially when we’re just starting out and are still fighting through the beaded-curtains of indecision.

So take those little victories and recognise how much of a fighter you are. You’re still scrapping forwards, still fighting the tide that threatens to wash you back into a little ball of unfulfillment.

You’re doing it. You’re moving forwards.

You’re brilliant.

And I don’t know about you but it makes me feel absolutely 0% better.

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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.

Edge-Lit 2019

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I survived. I lived to tell the tale with merely a flesh-wound or two; a little beat up around the edges but mostly intact.

Yes, Edge-Lit has happened. And it was great. Huge thanks to the organisers and volunteers who helped make it a magnificent day, and to the writers and attendees who were relentlessly good-natured and happy to talk and share their wisdom.

This was my first ever con as a participant and so my reflections are of a different order to that at Sledge-Lit in the winter: I was actually doing things, pretending to be the expert and in the know when in fact I know extraordinarily little.

My workshop (‘The Art of Description’) went okay; not perfectly as I still fluffed some lines and sometimes struggled to give full explanations for the things I was trying to say. But the group helped by turning it into a discussion and pulled me through. In the end I’d say it was not a triumph but a win. And so a little of the terror slipped away.

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The panel: Anna Stephens, Zen Cho, some idiot, Adrian Tchaikovsky. Photo by David Stokes, used with permission

The panel (‘Beyond the Darkness: Where does fantasy fiction go after Grimdark?’) was where the terror regrouped. There I was, sat between Adrian Tchaikovsky and Zen Cho, with Anna Stephens moderating – there was no Jen Williams as she was ill – trembling in the presence of their huge brains. Oh, and in the presence of an auditorium full of people.

It went… okay? I’d resolved not to say too much, just to contribute on each question and not be too garrulous. And that worked, for the most part. I soon found myself out of my depth, however, when the conversation veered to far from the pre-set questions, and especially on the audience questions that followed. I am now fully aware that my reading is wholly inadequate.

I was much more confident on the discussion of Terry Pratchett that broke out in the middle of the session: unexpected in a discussion on Grimdark, but that just highlights the influence PTerry has had.

EdgeLit panel Angeline

Photo by Angeline Trevena, used with permission

So, I survived with only minor injuries – I confess to being somewhat intimidated by Adrian in particular – and had only my reading to go before I could properly relax, and drink – and eat, because I’d had only snacks all day, my nerves preventing my eating a solid meal.

Except I had not to read, for no-one turned up. This is not a huge surprise: I am not a big name draw, it was the fag-end of the day and the room was rather tucked away out of the main flow. A disappointment? Yes, but also something of a relief: after all the day’s terror, at last I could unwind properly, eat some sweet potato fries, and have a beer.

And thus we enter the most important part of the con: the serious business of talking with other people. Not schmoozing or networking, though elements of both are involved, but just meeting and talking with like-minded people; catching up with old friends and making new.

I had a lovely chat with Anna Stephens and shared words with Aliette de Bodard, to drop a name or two, but most of the time was spent with unfamous people – people like me, in fact, who were striving to be in the big chairs in a year or two’s time. I mean, I say this but I was in at least one big chair at Edge-Lit but I put that down to my publisher’s publicity department rather than my own achievements.

As a friend told me on the day: everyone feels like an imposter. No-one feels like they truly deserve to be in the position they find themselves in. I did okay at Edge-Lit.

So on to drinking and the sad reflection that I had to wimp out early due to being up at 04:00 to get to the damn thing: this caught up with me just after we’d decamped to the pub. Thus I missed a proper catch-up with many of the friends I’d made at Sledge-Lit and the chance to make new.

But that’s okay. Self-care is part of the equation at cons; push yourself too hard and you’ll be no good to anyone, least of all yourself. Trying to do it all is a sure way to achieve nothing. I still had a great time. I worked through my terror. I made a decent enough impression.

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do

Unanswerable questions

So, tell us about your novel.

It’s the question that authors hate – the first time, at least. The good thing is that we get asked it so often that we have time to prepare an answer; to evolve a soundbite that we can wheel out and reuse as required. Mine begins with ‘it’s a murder mystery set in near-future Antarctica…’ and often stops there too.

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Stolen from markpollard.net

A book description, however, is a different beast. It’s disturbingly close to being a blurb – a written account of your book that the publisher will use for publicity. As such it’s got to be punchy, moody and to the point – but, unlike a synopsis, it has to avoid spoilers and the end must remain resolutely not given away.

Then there’s the author biography. How much character do you want to put into that? Where’s the fine line between

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dull and factual and cringe-makingly jokey and self-reverential?

Guess what I’m doing at the moment?

 

Yup, it’s another ‘author questionnaire’ for my publisher: the document that they’ll use to try and flog my efforts – to bookstores, to distributors and to the media, should they be interested in interviewing me in whatever form.

And it’s horrible. This is the second time I’ve had to do it and it’s wincingly horrible. Even though I can copy-and-paste some of my answers from the last time I did it, I just have to have a little tinker and in a trice I find myself back inside the prison of my attempts to make myself sound interesting.

Interesting but not an attention-seeking freak: again, it’s a fine line.

It is, in fact, rather like writing this blog.

Some people, no dog

Last Friday I did my first ever ‘Meet the Author’ event, turning out at Earlham library in Norwich to be interrogated by the great and good. Or, at least, to meet the few people who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday teatime.

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The only photo of the event I have, thanks to my wife having to wrangle the small one whilst 

The crowd was small – it wasn’t quite one man and his dog but it wasn’t too far off. The crowd was bolstered by my own family (a mixed blessing), but an audience is still an audience. And worthy of my best efforts, which I gave in the form of a brief talk, a reading, and a Q&A.

And I had fun, I think, and (I’m told) went down okay. There were enough questions to make the whole thing feel worthwhile – a good one on the use of 1st person as opposed to third, and another on what about the commute from the library to home (as I described in the talk) had given me the idea for a novel set in Antarctica.

Anyway, all this dashing about across the country means I’ve little to discuss this week. I’m a busy bee right now and writing has suffered; I’m still trying to edit the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift, working on my workshop for Edge-Lit (and imbibing as much grimdark as possible before my panel there) – I’m even trying to contemplate writing something new for the first time in years.

So I’m not idle. Promise. I just don’t have much to say right now.

Hope you’re managing to be more productive!

The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

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I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

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Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

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St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

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There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

The great release

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Today my book is released onto the great unsuspecting world. And today it struck me: there is no-one (save my wife, who doesn’t count, and my daughter, who calls me Momma most of the time so her evidence must be considered suspect) within an hour of me who knows who I am.

It’s out. And nothing has changed.

Hell, I’ve not even got any copies of the novel. I’m going on rumour and hearsay – well, the word of my publisher – that anything’s happened at all. There’s such a colossal disconnect between my daily life and my Twitter-life that, right now, I’m struggling to marry the two.

I’m still a writer trying to get work completed and out in the public domain. I’m still distracted by publicity, by events and by life, the universe, and – as they say – everything.
But now I have a novel out.

They say – those ‘they’ again – that, no matter what else you do, you should mark the occasion. A book release is a big deal, ‘they’ say. It must be celebrated. Frankly, I’ve been too busy with emergency proofreading work and with trying to organise trips to bookshops and conventions. There’s been no chance to even think of organising my own party too.

So: happy release-day to me! A quiet day will be had, unless I spend a little extra time on some promotionary tweets. But there will be no cake. No champagne. Really this is just another day; one spent with a sick child (just a minor snuffle with accompanying nasal oozage) and with no chance of hitting a bookshop or a library or anywhere else where I might see my work.

Maybe this evening I’ll polish this off

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Or maybe work on this

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But there’ll be no visit to the inebriatorium. That’ll have to wait until the much more tangible prospect of the few events I have lined up. They’re the things I’ve been working towards. The actual day of release has arrived as something of an afterthought.

So yes, I’m happy. Hell, I’m delighted. This is the day I’ve been working towards for years. It’s just that… nothing at all has changed. Nappies need changing. The bins need putting out.

Can you smell the glamour?

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“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”