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.

Smolvics

Something new

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I’m not entirely sure if I’m capable anymore, but I’m giving it a go. I am starting again. I am trying to write a new novel from scratch.

This is really down to necessity. I’ve recently re-edited two older pieces, both of which need going through at least once more, but my gut is telling me it’s too soon to re-read them yet. They need more time to simmer before I return to them, more time for me to forget the contents so I can see them with clearer, more objective eyes.

I can’t bear to be sitting here without some kind of project on the go so I am forced, against my will, to try and scratch out something new.

This might not work. It’s been so long since I tried anything this ambitious – or, frankly, with any ambition at all. So I am on the beginning of a slippery slope of brain-entangling doom. Especially as the story I’ve envisioned is incredibly complicated and convoluted and full of false-flags and betrayals and serial killers and werewolves…

At least I have a certain amount of faith in my ability to set one decent word after another. It may prove to be totally misfounded, but my limited excursions into fictiondom recently have produced wurdz I am not totally objectificational to. This is encouraging.

Now I just need to carry that development – for I’m sure I have got better at the craft of writing over the years – into the realms of characters, plotting and causality. Otherwise I’ll be back on this blog crying in very short order.

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.

Update

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Stolen from HourDetroit.com; artist unknown

For the past three years I’ve struggled to get things done. Mechanical acts are fine, but serious creative endeavours have slipped from my grasp to shatter into irretrievable pieces. This is in part because I’ve been ill, something I’ve maybe hinted at through past blog-posts but never actually said out loud.

It’s got to the point where I’ve been advised, in all seriousness, to give up writing for a little while. This is in order to take the pressure off myself, to allow me to recover without torturing myself over what I should be producing.

Instead I will be torturing myself with thoughts of what I should be doing, for endless is the list of tasks I assign myself. Driven might be the word; masochistic is another. But I’m not good at doing nothing.

Whether or not I try for any actual creative writing, there’s still plenty on my plate. I have to prepare a reading and a workshop for Edge-Lit, for one. I have my author questionnaire to finish. I have a novel to edit – unless that counts as creative writing and therefore verboten?

There’s also this blog to maintain. I don’t feel like I’ve been putting out very interesting stuff recently. I’m sorry about that. I’m trying.

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Truth is, my activities firmly walk the line of creative/mechanical so much that there’s not much point even trying to stick to anything. I will write if I feel capable. I will prepare materials if my brain is stuck in that kind of gear.

Perhaps the important thing is to merely acknowledge that I’ve been given advice. I have been ill; I have been struggling. Whether any particular prescription helps or not isn’t, perhaps, as important as it is to stare it in the face and not pretend everything’s as it was before.

Also, maybe I should give myself a little credit. I’ve built an editing career in the midst of deep personal problems. I’ve edited my own work to publishable standards. If I’m feeling unsatisfied or afraid for the future, that’s maybe a symptom of what I’ve been going through.

But I am myself and the truth is that I’m not happy with what I’ve achieved. That’s not all bad as it drives me onwards to – hopefully – greater things.

Just as long as I don’t burn myself to the ground in the process.

UPDATE: I have already started working on my next (old) WIP , which just goes to show.

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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The inequality of words

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I am on Twitter most days and one of the things I see most frequently is the author’s daily word-count. In it a writer will simply say how many words they’ve written today, or this week, or whatever. And it’s great. It’s lovely to see how people are getting on, to be able to support people if they’re struggling and to be inspired by another’s successes.

These totals vary from a few hundred – Ben Aaronovitch, for example, typically commits 500-700 words a day, though these are, I hear, finished, publisher-ready words – up to a friend’s purple-patch of around 6,000.

What gets me, though, is that these numbers are all treated as equal, as equivalent, when in reality they tell us very little. They are often a stick with which to beat ourselves when the comparison is, so often, completely unfair.

How does someone write 6,000 words a day? By sitting down behind a desk and getting on with it. Great stuff. But if they’re doing that they can’t be earning money. Unless they’re professional writers they must have either a job or a support-network that enables them to take the time out to write such a prodigious number.

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I have a small child, a part-time job and I get occasional freelance editorial work. These all take precedence over my real writing. I also have a spouse who works full-time and pays to send the smolrus to nursery two days a week so I can do my own thing. I’m very lucky – and yet my writing time is still horribly restricted. I could probably average about 5,000 words a week if free to get on with first-drafting.

But even that is a useless, artificial number: where in the first draft? At the beginning, when you’re filled with inspiration? At the end, when you’ve the joy of things coming together and you can see the finish-line? Or in the middle where every word has to be individually dredged up from the deep purgatory of your soul?

Not all words are equal.

If you’re out there with a full-time job, or with similar full-time commitments, it’s not fair on yourself to compete with these people who have the freedom to write at will. Averaging 100 words a day is fine – great, in fact. Anything better than zero is good. Hell, maybe you’re deleting vast swathes of experimental nonsense and your daily total is decisively negative. You’ve still accomplished something. Today you’re closer to the finished novel you envisaged than you were at the same point yesterday.

So by all means go and tell the world if things are going well. Just remember that numbers may be as much a reflection of privilege as of genius.

And make sure you share when things are a struggle too. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the real inspiration. The strength to get down a single word when the world is falling  around your shoulders will always stand with me as much as 15,000 done by someone who never has to leave the comfort of their study.