On beginnings

Sometimes you need to hear something out loud to know what you were thinking all along.

Such is the case in my latest editing project: Our Kind of Bastard (and I still can’t tell if this is a good title or not). Despite this going out to beta-readers I still took the first chapter to my new writing group last week. There it got a very gentle, kindly-meant kicking, for which I am grateful.

The truth which I had not allowed myself to say out loud is that I struggled to start this novel. I have four beginnings, in fact, none of which run entirely sequentially and thus are a confusion for the reader.

The difficulty is that there is merit in all of them. But I know I have to lose at least two of those scenes in order to get a little flow going. It just took someone else saying it out loud for me to accept what at least a part of me knew all along.

This is, of course, another benefit of being in a writers’ group, manuscript exchange circle or the like. You are not always aware of what’s going on in your own subconscious and you need an outside force to bring it home to you.

Doesn’t help that OKOB is a sequel: I need to introduce all the characters and the world I’ve built in book one to remind veteran readers and at the same time give enough to newbies. And I need to crack on with the actual story that makes up book two.

So I have a problem – but then I always did have; the only difference is that now I’m aware of it. And now I know what I have to do: expand one scene to allow it to breathe, cut two others, and see if one of those, at least, can’t be worked back into the text further down the line. And, of course, I have to work out what information I haven’t now given and make sure anything essential gets fed back in somewhere.

This is writing. It’s a bloody difficult gig – don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy ‘cause it ain’t.

And this is only the opening scene.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Seeking progress

Banner concept of innovation, creativity and imagination

How do I write my novels? The answer, of course, is ‘badly’ – but do I plan ahead or do I just start writing and find my path amongst the thickets? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Every time I try and start a book I sit down, hopefully in a coffee shop somewhere (obviously not at the moment) and make a page of illegible notes which I’ll then almost totally ignore. It’s not wonderfully efficient but it’s always worked for me; sketching out the mechanics of an Antarctic research base, for example, and letting the plot flow freely through my subconscious.

Then I say to myself, ‘right, next time I’m going to try and do it properly. I will plan things out. I will, dare I say it, outline.’ And I never do.

My last attempt was for Our Kind of Bastard. I created four different spreadsheets. I had charts saying who was doing what where and when. I was organised – and then I started to write the damn thing and realised that, for all my planning, I’d only plotted about a quarter of the novel and I’d barely kept to that anyway.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Being bound too tight to a map means that there’s no room for a minor character to swoop in and bowl you off your feet. There’s a pressure to keep conformity, even if you find a more interesting trail to follow. The scenic route can be rewarding in itself.

Incidentally, Chuck Wendig’s been giving some Gentle Writing Advice on his Twitter stream recently. The one that caught my eye is this: we are urged to ‘trim the fat’ off our manuscripts, to make every word relevant and apposite. But sometimes fat gives flavour and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

In any case, now I am trying to sketch out a plan for a new novel – a follow-up to OKOB, which is in itself a sequel to Oneiromancer – and I am struggling. Inspiration is sadly lacking. So I’m trying to compensate by working hard.

I am, for the first time ever, writing down what may come to be a whole plot before I start the actual scribbling. It may not be: I reserve the right to start writing before I’ve got all the details locked in. And I reserve the right to deviate horribly before I’ve got to the end of the first chapter.

But I am struggling with my brain at the moment. I want to start something new but am finding it difficult. This is my way of steering around obstacles: I will not wait for a blinding flash of lightning to illuminate my way; I will turn on my pitifully feeble torch and seek out a path yard by yard, bitter inch by bitter inch.

Your method may vary. For me this is currently how I’m seeking progress.

Onwards!

I have taken action. I have left the malfunctioning writing group and have both reconnected with friends at my previous assembly and contacted a new potential group.

It’s for the most horrible of reasons, but it’s incredibly liberating to find that, suddenly, distance doesn’t matter. I’m joining with people I could never hope to reach without the wonders of Zoom, or Skype, or Roll20 come to that (yes, more old friends left long distances away that I’ve reconnected with for the purposes of rolling dice and pretending to be other beings).

As for the writing groups, I now have a choice. I’ve got one novel with the Publishers of my Dreams. Its sequel I’m reserving for my manuscript exchange collective. So what do I present to the new group?

I worry about this sort of thing. What can I bring them? Some self-imposed criteria:

  • It must be new (ish)
  • It must be of a decent standard, but yet…
  • …It must not be perfect (not that I’m capable) as there’s no point bringing something to be polished that’s already road-legal
  • It must be representative of me as a writer
  • It must not be hideously embarrassing

And I find I really don’t have that much to choose from. My novels are out (though if I get rejected by the Publisher of my Dreams I might reopen that previously-sealed container), and though I am fully intending to crank out some more stuff at some point, I’m currently still mulling ideas.

And that leaves my short stories. And those contain problems of their own.

  1. I’m not a short-story writer, not really, thus meaning that it falls foul of the ‘must be representative’ criterium above
  2. I have only two short stories ‘active’ (I have a few discarded ones in the bank, still). One of those is an mm romance and thus entirely unrepresentative (and possibly embarrassing); the other I’ve lost faith in and don’t know if it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time, including my own

I worry too much. It really doesn’t matter. And I have time – I have to attend the new group as a non-reading guest for a week or three anyway, so I can get the measure of the group first.

It is a dilemma. Fortunately it’s a wonderful dilemma to have as it means that I’m getting on with things, that I’m getting feedback on my writing, and generally moving forwards with my writing life.

Huzzah! And a big huzzah for this world of modern wonders!

When writing groups go bad

I have taken a big step and decided to leave my writing group.

I can write this because I know that nobody from said group follows me in any way, shape or form; and, indeed, that’s a small part of the issue. I simply feel like nobody in this (small) group likes me or my writing.

That sounds very self-absorbed but it’s hard to shy from. I don’t feel supported or encouraged in my writing and, no matter how ‘big’ or experienced you get, an atmosphere of encouragement is important to help produce.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I’ve mentioned some issues with this group before. So a fair question would be to ask why I’ve stuck at it so long. Well, this group contains at least two first-rate, better-than-me writers that I’ve wanted to learn from and to gain their advice and criticism. Plus there’s a great deal to say for stability. I’ve had a relationship with these people that I’ve always hoped might develop into familiarity, if not friendship.

That hasn’t happened and I’m left feeling alienated and, to some extent, bullied. Now I know, I know – I’m big enough and ugly enough to take some slings and arrows and not to take every little thing to heart. But I also suffer from depression, and when I’m reduced to tears after a particularly bruising session, it’s time for me to bow out and put my own well-being – and that of my family, who have to put up with me in that state – first.

I also have issues with the quality of criticism. Now I believe that all criticism should be weighted by the needs, level and personality of the recipient. I take heavy criticism; maybe that’s a reflection that the rest of the group feels confident enough in my ability to take it and use it constructively.

And I believe it’s fair that one of the weaker writers in the group should take lesser, more broad critiquing. What I don’t like is for that to become outright misdirection; telling her, for example, that a dream sequence works when I felt clearly that it didn’t. That sort of feedback isn’t gradation – it’s simply wrong and unhelpful.

There is an art to good critiquing. It’s not always easy to judge feedback-level. It’s a skill that can be learnt with experience and practice – and I don’t think my group has that down.

So it’s time for me to move on. I’ve had an offer to join another group – non-local, but in this Zoom-fuelled world, what is local? – and I’m minded to accept it. I owe it to my family – and my craft, and my sanity – to try something new.

Community

are times when it feels like one is totally alone in the world; when one is struggling on, trying to plough your own furrow in the teeth of glorious indifference. Please be reassured: help and advice and friendship is there, should you need it.

This week I find myself overwhelmed by the support I’ve received in my quest for self-publication. A few quick tweets and I found a dozen or so people who were willing and able to give me their valuable time to help me make New Gods the best it can possibly be.

I received links to websites, to authors, to workshops. I got connected with editors. I got quotes for cover art.

All this is useful, but it’s the knowledge that I have a community of friends that is the most important. So I urge you, if you’re struggling with some aspect of writing, of publication, or of any other field, to not agonise in silence. There are people willing to help.

Writers = bloody brilliant. And that goes for you as well, you lovely hunk of humanity, you.

The plan

So the votes have been tallied: aside from a few suggestions that I might crowdfund or Patreon – I think sadly my reach is a bit limited to raise any significant funds in this manner and I’m loathe to take money off my friends – everyone who responded thinks that I should self-publish. So I shall. Or, at least, I’m planning to at this moment in time.

Self-publishing is not quick, or easy. Nor is it necessarily cheap, not for a relative pauper like myself. I shall have to go for budget options pretty much across the board. I’ll also – and this is the big thing for a ditherer like me – have to trust myself; to back my belief that New Gods truly is the best thing I’ve written so far.

I also don’t have much of an idea of what I’m doing – not at the moment, at least. I know things like an ISBN and legal declarations are needed. I know the novel has to be typeset and formatted properly for Amazon/Kindle (I’m assuming I’ll go with Kindle Direct Publishing as it has the widest reach, but that is something else to look into). I know how to do none of these things at the moment.

So my next task is to research and examine and explore. I have the product, that’s one thing I’m happy(ish) about. The rest is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Thankfully I have plenty of friends who have self-published and, like most authors, they’re eager to help. I’ve already had offers of assistance and a quote for a cover. I can do this.

So that’s the plan. And, in the meantime, I’ll keep working on my other writings and I’ll try and get my next novel published traditionally, because why not have both? Hybrid authors: the coming generation goes both ways, don’t you know?

Thank you to all who commented/advised/reached out to me after last week’s post. You’re all wonderful people and I look forwards to buying you all drinks when we can travel/meet up/go to places where they sell drinks safely.

Next?

Now the dust has settled, it’s time for me to consider what to do next in my writing career. And, specifically, what to do with New Gods, the third in my Antarctic trilogy.

Having been dropped by my publisher after two books, it’s not an easy decision to make. No publisher is going to take on a single book in a trilogy – they wouldn’t have any share in the intellectual property (so no potential film/television rights, though that’s a very distant dream) and, with diminishing sales a massive probability, really what’s in it for them?

So my choices seem to be pretty much one of four. I can:

  1. Abandon the novel. This would be gutting, not only for me – I’ve put a lot of work into it and, as I’ve said before, I really regard it as the best in the series – but for the few fans who’ve persisted and really want to see the finale. But it’s perhaps the most realistic option
  2. Wait seven years. In seven years’ time I regain the rights to the first two novels. I could then try and find a publisher willing to take the series (though heaven alone knows how) as a whole and issue the whole lot as a reprint. Or I could self-publish the trilogy as a whole
  3. I could self-publish Book 3 now. There’s nothing to stop me doing this, as far as I’m aware – nothing except cold-hard economics. I’m under no illusions as to either my appeal or my abilities as an illustrator. I’d have commission someone – hell, I have to find someone – to do the cover art and that would cost money (all artists should be paid for their work. To hell with exposure). And even if I do all the typesetting and publishing and editing myself – a risky business, publishing without professional editorialness – there’d still doubtless be costs. I don’t believe that I’d ever cover these with sales as – at the end of the day – who am I? I’d sell maybe a dozen to family and friends, maybe a few more through this blog and via Twitter, and that’s all, folks
  4. I could release it free of charge, possibly serialised through this blog. I haven’t really thought this option through, yet. But I want to get this novel out there. It’s good. And, if I spend anything I’ll lose. So why not just save the costs and let you lot read it anyway? One potential downside is that my seven-year plan of reclaiming my rights and then seeking a fresh publisher might be harmed by this; I will have shot my bolt somewhat

So what would you do? All opinions gratefully received – and any options not yet considered would be appreciated also.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, I’ve got Oneiromancer to flog. I’ve got Our Kind of Bastard to edit. I’ve got an as-yet un-thought-through new novel to start thinking through.

In other words, I need to get back into the word-mines. It’s what I do.

Sayonara, lovely folks.

Thank you

Howdy, blog fans. At the moment I’m buried both in boxes – a consequence of moving house – and in copy-editing, a consequence of taking on more than I can chew.

I just wanted to say a big thank you to all of you who have read over the last couple of posts I’ve put up here and have given their support, either through the medium of likes, comments, DMs, retweets, or the simple act of still being here to read this now. I really appreciate you all because you’re great.

I’m currently sitting back and mulling over my options, which are somewhat limited but do, indeed, exist. I’ve been convinced of this by some of the glorious people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and by the people they in turn put me in touch with as a result of reading said posts.

Life is not an empty, ruinous black hole vortex of doom and despair. Being dropped by my publisher could, in fact, end up being a good thing. And I am reassured that I’m not a horrible bigot. There is sunshine and bunny rabbits and good Scotch and all of these things – and yet more – will keep me fighting.

So what now? Well, after this copy-editing is done with, I will return with a vengeance to the short story of alleged bigotry because I still believe in it. I will continue to consider what to do with New Gods. I will continue to turn over ideas for a new novel, because it’s what I do.

I am a writer. I may not, at present, have a career, but the fundamental fact remains.

Thank you all for reminding me of that.

Racist, sexist, homophobic

Note: this post was written at the beginning of 2021 but got delayed because writing about my publishing problems seemed more immediate. Sorry to begin the new year with two fairly downbeat essays, but that’s the writer’s life for you: ups and downs all the way. Hope you get something out of this; hopefully I’ll be able to present more positivity next week.

This isn’t meant as a moan or a whine; apologies if it comes across as one. But I was told at my last writing group meeting that I’d been imbibing – and regurgitating – racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, and… well, it’s been on my mind.

It’s not just one piece; it is, apparently, in my work in general. The accusation was made by the person who accused me of being racist – or at least colonialist – in my treatment of slum clearances, and this scene was certainly in her mind as she, once more, took me to task.

So what do I make of this? Has she got a point? She didn’t directly accuse me of being the ‘ists’ but she might as well have, as I flatter myself that I am a modern, well-balanced human being who is, if not immune to racism and sexism, then at least am aware of my flaws and my ignorances and try to work on them. The accusation stings and I’m not sure what to do about it.

First things first: is she right? This latest criticism came to over a short(ish) story that involves a central female character who is viewed through the lens of a narrator who idolises, almost worships her. My critic says that there is nothing to her but her looks and here she may have a point; I’ve almost deliberately not gone into her spirit and agenda as I want her to be ethereal, almost mesmerising, rather than grounded and gritty.

As for her looks, I wasn’t even aware that I’d portrayed her as good looking (there’s certainly no paragraph of description that could appear in the Men Writing Women twitter feed) but, looking back, I suppose I had managed to give that impression.

So I can just about see where my critic is coming from. I just don’t know if I should make changes based on her opinion.

And now I’m shaken. I have many, many flaws, but I didn’t think I was a bad person. I’ve reviled groups like the Sad Puppies for their right-wing agenda. Am I now to see myself in such company? Hell, have I been lying to myself – and the world – all this time? How do I become the person I imagine myself to be?

Writing is an intensely personal business. That’s why criticism hurts. We lay ourselves out there on the page and receive what slings and arrows come our way. I’m constantly afraid that my Antarctic trilogy, in particular, will fail one of these acid tests because it’s consciously multinational and I’m writing outside of my own experiences.

Now I’m being told that my writing in general fails. And that means I’ve failed as a person.

I don’t think I’m in the best position to evaluate my flaws, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else. If anyone out there feels they’re better placed, I’d love to hear from you.