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.

Fixing the fixes

Maniscript mend

Editing is a cruel beast, especially over the course of a trilogy. I’m currently on book three, dealing with a relationship that no longer exists in book two. This means a certain character no longer has access to a certain other character’s quarters. It’s ludicrous; a wave of Consequence has overswept the novel and tossed all my best laid plans into the ocean, so much flotsam and jetsam, and with it many words I can’t afford to lose.

See, the problem is this: my protagonist has staggered back to his apartment to find Character B waiting for him. This meeting cannot be delayed for totally essential plot-type reasons; but Character B is no longer on the guest list, and has no knowledge of when Protagonist will get home, so…

At this point you’ll be saying ‘but can’t B just send a message – a phone call or some fancy science-fictiony videoconference-hologram-type thingy?’ Well, it’s funny you should say that because that’s what I did.

I did this completely forgetting that, for totally essential plot-type reasons, the messaging system across the entire base has just been taken down.

This is what happens when you have a week off. You (by which I mean me. I’m sure you’re much more organised) forget crucial little details and have to totally rewrite the rewrite you just rewrote.

Fragments

How to write a novel

Writing is, in other words, a bugger.

It’s not too bad for me – this time. It’s only a few hundred words and a bit of head-scratching (a problem solved by the strategic deposition of a differently-systemed radio). But there’s always the fear that you’ve done something stupid and not caught it. Which is why, of course, so much of writing is rewriting. And rewriting again. And then getting beta-readers to check the manuscript, all the way up to the paid professionals – the structural editors, copy-editors, all the way up to the proofreaders.

The aim is always to produce the best possible work you can. And you’re not always the best person to help you do that.

But the initial work is all yours. The better you can do it the greater the likelihood that someone else will pay for the fine-detail-sifting. it’s why I’m going to do another full read-through-and-edit when I’ve completed this one.

All them experts don’t come cheap.

On saying no

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One of the hardest things I’ve had to do recently is turning down work. There is a terrible fear in me; that no once is no forever – that I’ll destroy my reputation by turning round to my putative employer and saying ‘Sorry. Can’t do this.’

The work in question was a piece of emergency proofreading; a short-turnaround job that came with a promised £30 bonus if I were to drop everything – by which I mean cancel family plans – to complete a piece in three days.

I could certainly use the money. It’s been a fallow period for me, earning-wise, over the last month or so and this request was from my one reliable source of income. Not only did I need the cash but I wanted to please: I always want to please, which is perhaps my biggest flaw as a human being.

But a £30 bonus isn’t that much compensation for stress and disruption and a weekend apart from my wife and the tiny monster. So – reluctantly – I turned it down.

And it was fine. I got an understanding response and it turned into a dialogue about my next pieces of work with them. As, intellectually, I knew would happen. Emotionally, though, for a few days, I was a big ball o’ anxious.

Where does this fear come from? It’s nothing but counter-productive. It doesn’t help us do our work, though maybe ensures conscientiousness.

The point, though, is this: it’s okay to say no. It’s much better to say no at the outset then to take on the impossible and fail. And, if you do take on the impossible, tell those who matter that you’ll miss deadlines in good time. These are tricky skills but ones a writer will have to get used to using.

You know all this anyway. You know all this and it makes it absolutely no easier. Well, at the very least, you are not alone. There’s plenty of fools like me around and if I’m surviving, you can too.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been offered another job. And, though it means I have to work like the clappers, I’ve accepted.

Say yes to saying no.

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Slave to the story

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Sometimes editing is cruel. You spend hours crafting, creating, the most delicious scene, or set of scenes, and then in a heartbeat it is torn away.

Greetings. Welcome back to Editing 101: where I realise that what I’ve done is all wrong and needs a complete overhaul. Specifically, welcome back to my massacre of words that’s seen me shed nearly 15k words of New Gods before getting even a third of the way through.

This is due to a misplaced action scene (5k gone just like that) that started the novel on the wrong foot; and various smaller cuts that have come about as a result of moving the discovery of my corpse – not actually my corpse, I’m not writing this as a zombie, you understand – forwards by about 100 pages. Everything has been squeezed, compressed, or cut.

Fragments

Sensible people will tell you that you must let the story sing. It doesn’t matter how long it is; as long as it’s true to itself and coherent it’s the right length. And there is a lot of truth to this. On the other hand, however, I say ‘piffle’.

The standard* minimum length for a novel is 70k words. Some publishers only accept submissions over 80k. Below that and you no longer have a novel. New Gods is now hanging dangerously close to that 70k line.

Also, when I write a novel I usually have a good idea of how long it’s going to turn out. Each project has a ‘feel’, part of which is determined by its length. New Gods wants to be in the 80-90k zone – a bit longer than the previous entries in the trilogy. It demands it. Don’t ask me why that is; I’m not sure I understand myself.

At the moment the book feels wrong.

Plus there’s the fact that I’m cutting words that range from serviceable to good. I am not removing inferior work here; there are some very nice character-notes and turn-of-phrases consigned to the great recycle bin in the sky.

Cutting is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The reason we do it is to make a better story. It’s worth remembering this. We are slaves before story and, whether we can recognise our own sins or if we need someone else to point them out to us, it is our job to give the characters the best (never easiest) route to a resolution.

Hopefully a lot of the words that I’ve excised will creep back in, in one form or another, and the story will begin to plump out like it’s preparing for hibernation. I am optimistic that will happen. I am more concerned that I have lost sight of the story’s overall shape because, whilst deep in the word-mines, scribbling over an old map with the outline of a new, it is hard to keep a proper overview on the landscape. One needs a drone or pet dragon – or agent – to assist with such things.

But I shoulder my burden alone. And I swing the pick. And I sift through the rubble. Because I am a slave to story, and the only way is forwards. Deeper, deeper into the word-chasms we go, my friend.

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*By popular acclaim. It’s an arbitrary figure, like all such things, but this is the one that seems to crop up most often