Things I’ve learnt this week

What have I learnt this week?

Well, I’ve learnt that I’m no good at second drafts.

I’ve learnt that I’m not in the right place to really take my draft to pieces and carefully reassemble, no matter how much the story might need it.

I’ve learnt that my memory is too hard on me and I’m maybe capable of writing an okay story – or at least one that could be okay with a little work. And that my writing sins aren’t as pronounced as I feared they may be. Overwriting, for example – I’ve been told that I say too much, to not leave enough to the audience’s imagination. I still struggle to see where decent cuts could be made beyond the occasional few words here and there – though whether that’s because there aren’t cuts to be made, or just that I simply can’t see them, is an open question.

I’ve learnt that I actually enjoy my own writing. Or at least this particular story has elements that make me smile

But – and I’m looking at a different project now – I still have The Fear; that it’s not good enough, that it has some ideas that are simply ill-advised (cough *second-person POV* cough), that if I send it to my editor it’ll be rejected out of hand and our relationship will be forever soured.

I also have the fear that, with a few slots of time opening up for me, writing-wise, I’m going through things too quickly. That I’m working like a proofreader, seeing obvious errors rather than more subtle missteps.

I’ve learnt that I still need a lot of hand-holding before I’m ready to commit to – well, to anything, really. And that I really do need (but can’t get, right now at least) an agent.

So where does that get us? Surprisingly, thinking back on it, more positive than negative. I have three stories that are either pretty well polished or have the potential to work when all the problems are dealt with. The problems I do have can be sorted if I have the patience and the will to get it done.

What I really need, right now, is a new project. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not ready to start anything right now. My ideas are all too nebulous and I’m not in the right headspace to draw them all together.

It will come. I’m in a surprisingly reflective mood, clearly, and I know it will all come together somehow, someday, someway.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?

Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.

Re-proof

I’m taking it easy this week. After all I’ve posted about in the last few weeks, it’s time for me to take some pressure off myself.

I have finished the final final proofs of Human Resources, finding a mighty total of two errors (one typesetting, one artistic). It’s a hard process, finishing a book. As well as around nine drafts – I lost count somewhere along the way – of the damn novel, I have had to answer to my copy edits. Then, over the last month, I’ve gone through pre- and post-proofread drafts to ensure the product is as good as it can possibly be, given the massive drag factor of my brain.

That’s a lot of reading in not much time. And it aint what you call fun reading, either: not only is it your own stuff but it’s stuff that you’ve already moved on from, mentally. It’s like you’re being called back to court to answer to charges you’d thought had been heard long years ago.

Which is why I’m having a rest this week. I shall return to my Old Testament intergenerational epic of an edit with something of a sense of relief: at least here is something new, a sort of mental palate-cleanser.

And as for this blog? Well, much as I love you, I’m not going to break my back with a search for something new to say. No, you can make do with this and be happy.

I do love you, though. Never think otherwise

Betwixt and between

I am betwixt and between. Jobs on my plate and deadlines – some fixed, some mutable – approach. This has been the busiest writing time of my life and it’s not finished with me yet.

If nothing else this time is teaching me to change gears quickly. I veer between hard-core high body-count SF, cosy crime and Biblical inter-generational epic. And that’s before I get to my own writing, which probably lies somewhere in the middle of that very complicated and possibly interdimensional web.

I’ve had another writers’ group gathering since we last talked, and got more feedback on a section of my own writing. Useful stuff. And tonight I go to give feedback on a complete manuscript of a friend’s.

If you ever have the chance to join a manuscript exchange group then I’d heartily recommend it. You learn a lot about your own writing (not to mention personality) by comparing your opinions with those of other critiqueers. It’s a chance to find out in what areas you’re hot on – if you notice slips in dialogue and character, say, or plot or pacing – and what might be flying over your head. And learning this enables you to see what you need to work on in your own writing.

Then, of course, you get your tender evisceration of your own work. That’s why it’s called an exchange; you take turns to rip the heart out of each other’s opus.

I’m hoping to get the last of my Antarctic trilogy considered before too long. It’s just awaiting a final polish (I hope) before it goes off to the publisher and I want reassurance that it’s not a pile of poo. I have a (possibly not very good) reputation to maintain, after all.

So it’s onwards, onwards, onwards for me. Now, back to that cosy crime: it must be finished before close of day.

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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Critical distancing

editing

It is another quiet week here in lockdown. I am managing to claw out regular writing slots, but now I’ve finished The Great Draft of Doom it is commercial editing that occupies my time. Yes, I have decided it’s best to leave my manuscript out to dry before cracking on with the ironing; the redrafting will wait until I’ve got some kind of objectivity.

Objectivity is the right word, but it’s not quite the honest reason for setting the manuscript to one side. No, the real reason is that finishing the damn thing took a lot out of me and I need to recover. I can’t face the work right now, save maybe in short writing-group-shaped snatches. Doing the necessary cutting and pasting and ripping and stitching is beyond me at the moment.

Objectivity is a side benefit, not a prime motivation. The advice is all about giving yourself critical distance; the experts never tell you about emotional space. But that’s what I find I need more than anything.

So I will spend my time on my editing, and, when I feel strong enough, I’ll get back to my other creative projects. I have two novels to give the final once-over to (which may involve a lot more than it sounds; I’m already getting anxiety over them) before – yes, before I rip Our Kind of Bastard (or Claws, or The Indomitable Gauls, or whatever I end up calling it) to pieces and try and repattern the shreds into something vaguely aesthetic.

So the lull is where I live right now – which is a bit of a shame as I could do with something to take my mind off the current state of the world. Can’t control these things, I suppose; one has to be philosophical. No point in dragging out the work until the perfect moment as there’s really no such thing.

So I sit in what feels like limbo, though of course it’s no such thing: I am doing work and I’m recovering objectivity.

It’s just hard to see where forwards is right now.

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Must try harder

copyediting (1)

I had my first virtual writing group on Sunday. I read and I’m feeling a little disheartened as I write this.

Reading to a critique group is one thing I never seem to get right. Either one takes something that’s over-edited and thus defeating the purpose of the criticism, or one takes something raw and unrefined that will get too-obvious criticism and there’s not much to be learnt from it.

I chose the second route. Turns out I’m an overwriter. My writing is full of redundancies and repetition – and I’m supposed to be the published author who’s past such silly mistakes (not that anyone in the group knows I’m published).

That’s what gets me. I should be better than this. I’ve done my apprenticeship, logged the hours behind the computer, read the writing instruction books, had the feedback. Why aren’t I a good writer now? Why doesn’t the prose flow error-free? Not perfect, because no-one is, but competent. Surely my editing time should be spent on finding the perfect words, not on hacking and slashing and thrashing around in amateurish prose.

Tom Gauld bad writing

Copyright Tom Gauld

What it means is that, instead of trenchant criticism on individual sticky spots, or where the passage moves too slowly, or some particular imagery doesn’t work, attention was all on the obvious things that I’d like to think I’d have spotted myself on a second pass.

Well, I will do the work. I will do what is necessary and I will strip the beast back to its bare bones if that’s what’s necessary. I never said the WIP was good; not in its current state, at least. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story, after all. There is a good yarn hiding within, that I know.

I’m just feeling a little down. I should be better than this.

One at a time

Stepping

A quiet week here in quarantine. The paid work is dispatched and out of the door. The novel advances one scene at a time, with only limited awareness of where I’m going or where I’ve been. Which isn’t great, really; an idea of where we’re ending up has always seemed to me to be an essential part of writing a novel. For though it may change hugely from the original vision, some idea of our final destination is key to ensuring we move forwards to a killer ending and don’t spend an age just wandering around.

With all my other projects I’ve had my set-piece finale in mind from the start. This time I have too many threads and piecing them all together is my major challenge. My ideas for a great last battle are hazy; there’s so much I want to say that getting it all in in an aesthetically pleasing fashion is going to be difficult.

Which is one reason I’m taking things scene by scene. I’ve created a situation where my characters are under almost constant stress, and if I get stuck I’m trying to imagine just what they’d be doing in this situation: what their individual aims are and how they’d go about it. It’s taken the novel in a direction I hadn’t imagined (three new POV characters have appeared), and is fun and satisfying to write. I’m not exactly sure it will be the same to read, but that’s what editing is for.

Domino question

Writing like this, in piecemeal fashion, has also helped take the pressure off me. We live in interesting times and life is giving us new challenges – not the least of which is staying sane, all cooped up as we are. Writing for the moment feels a lot less intense than trying to corral everyone into a set formation for some set-piece climax. I still have to do this, mind; but I’m letting the characters take me forwards in their own sweet time. The more I write, the more I collapse phase space into certain directions, the more ‘real’ my future options feel. The story coalesces and focus tightens.

Forward motion both limits and creates possibilities: by writing like this, one scene at a time, I am allowing myself to work out just what I need to write next. Each scene shapes a future, and that future inevitably leads to a climax.

That’s the theory, at least. For now I’m just trying to discover that I still enjoy writing.

And I do that one scene, one page, one word at a time.