Anti-creation

Another week goes by without any creative work from me. I am still editing aplenty, but not my own work. This is supposed to be a writing blog. I am letting the side down, no?

Well, maybe. But that’s how it is; not every week can be jam-packed with creativity or dangerous dreams (and speaking of which, I had a doozy last night). Do I not deserve a little time off sometimes? Don’t you? We all need a little downtime. It’s hard for us, the creatives, to take a proper break because the ideas come irregularly and opportunities must be seized as they arise.

But self-care is still important; burn-out – whatever that actually means – is a danger and flying too far, too fast, can lead to a hard landing. For months I was engaged with first-drafting a novel and I only finished that hard, intense work less than a month ago. I should not be so hard on myself. And you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself either.

We all do what we can, work in our own ways. Comparing ourselves, our productivity, with others is hard to resist, sometimes, but never tells anything more than half-truths.

….And, just like that, the above has been turned into one big lie. The final final proofs of Human Resources have arrived. My last last chance to spot errors/tidy grammar before the novel goes to the printers.

So, no rest, no relaxation for me. Once more I go through this darn novel; each pass takes me further from reality, it seems, and my connection to the text becomes weaker. There’s not even any wincing, now, but also no sense of good or bad.

But the work must be done. No taking it back now, saying ‘I’ve suddenly lost my confidence and can we forget the whole thing?’ I am committed.

Human Resources will be published in November. It will be as good as I can possibly make it.

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.

Apologies in advance

Apologies in advance: this little ramble is a last minute substitution for a real blog-post. I had one written but I was never happy with it and… well, events have overtaken me.

I’m currently going through a period of doubt and uncertainty; my self-confidence has taken a bit of a battering recently and, in any case, what’s the point of writing (and, in the case of this blog, writing about writing) when the world seems about ready to slide into another wave of fascism?

Though it is of no significance whatsoever, I’m very busy right now. I have a whopping great manuscript to copy-edit, one which I’m going to struggle to hit the deadline for, and another four manuscripts in the queue for when that’s done. Which is great; means I’m keeping out of mischief and earning money all in one.

The bad side of the equation is that I’m not working on anything of my own. I really need to be; I have three novels that need a damn good editing and I feel like I need to be thinking about something new, as I finally got my last original idea down on paper not too long ago. The well is drawing dry; I need to refocus and refresh.

And that’s about all I have to say right now. Sorry to have wasted your time. Now go out and fight the good fight and I’ll see you back with more positivity very shortly.

Oh, and I still have a book out on sale and one for pre-order. Just in case you didn’t know…

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Beset by doubts

Doubt 2

I am beset by doubts.

I am adrift upon a sea of words and I don’t know if they form the complete works of Shakespeare or are a monkey-typist’s random gibberish.

I have a novel that I know not what to do with.

It’s like this: I have raced through Draft 6 of New Gods, the (probably) last in the Antarctica series of novels. I have made minor alterations, mostly tinkering around the edges after last draft’s heavy rewrite. Now I have to decide whether it’s good enough to send in to my editor at Flame Tree Press, who have published or are publishing the first two books.

And I have doubts.

Following the excision of a nearly 10k section (the pacing was wrong), the novel is on the short side at 75k. The central twist is perhaps too on the nose (or is that a good thing?). I’m relying on character interactions and motivations that may only exist in my head. The central mystery might be too obvious, the culprit too easily guessable.

All this and more.

One thing I am happy about is the writing. It’s fluent and clear, with very occasional poetic flights to break up the monotony. I think it stands up. As I said last week, I think I drafted this with a degree of confidence and fluidity that I lacked previously; it feels to me like a ‘level up’ novel.

Doubt 3

Ironically, it’s the fluency of this that makes me agonise over my most recent work. I haven’t felt this – and certainly haven’t achieved this – when working on Our Kind of Bastard. That was a slog and I don’t feel the writing stands up, though the plot might. I feel I’ve gone backwards with the actual craft. Which is okay, it just means I have to work harder with the editing pencil sledgehammer.

But that’s by the by. I have this novel that I think is well written and I enjoyed creating, but now I don’t have faith in it to send out just yet. I need an agent (though then I’d be worried about sending it to them, of course) – an intermediary to rate my work and tell me if it works or not on a fundamental level.

Without an agent, I have no choice but to turn to beta-readers. These glorious people have saved my skin before and hopefully will do it again – if I can find any.

What I want is for them to say that everything’s okay and boost my ego enough to survive the transmission of the manuscript. Failing that, I want to know what doesn’t work so I can fix it – though of course I will lament the effort and mental gymnastics that such an edit would require.

And then, of course, it would take another round of confidenceless and recriminations and maybe even a further hunt for beta-readers before I was ready to send that out.

The circle of manuscript-production never seems to end.

Next up

Manuscript

Next on my to-do list, whilst I wait for my next piece of commercial editing, is to dig up a manuscript I last worked on over a year ago. That’s not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough for me to forget just about every single detail. Long enough, one hopes, to gain a little perspective and to be able to judge the book on its true merits.

Yes, it’s back to the word-mines for me. After complaining, last week, about the need for emotional space after the completion of a big project, I am going straight back to the well. It’s really too soon; I’m not strong enough yet. But I have a bit of time and I need to be doing something to justify my existence. So it’s on with editing.

This particular piece is the third book in the Antarctic trilogy – the finale, at least as it stands. It’s a novel I have fond feelings for. I enjoyed writing it, as far as I can remember, and it gives Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, a measure of closure after the ordeals he’s been through throughout the three books.

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My heart says that this is the best of the trilogy. And right there is something to be fearful of: one can never trust one’s own emotions on such a subject. I’ve been wrong before. When I first wrote what became Human Resources I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. That took a hell of a lot of work to beat into a reputable shape (I think I succeeded, by the way. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come November).

So I am being exceptionally cautious. In my last pass, all those months ago, I excised a large (10kish) section because it interrupted the flow; now I worry that the novel is too short. And while I feel like I have the nucleus of a strong story, it’s just the execution that matters. Ideas are two a penny, but the way the tale is told is what makes it unique.

I am doing my best to not be a fool to myself. Sadly, being a fool is what I do best. And I am terrified: this novel is next up to be sent to my editor; the next with a chance of being rejected, in other words, and one that I really care about being published. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Maybe I’m speaking more of anxiety than I am about writing here, but I’m terrified of the publisher turning round and saying no.

So yes, this matters. Time I got down to it, I guess.

Actually, forget all that: my next commercial job just came in so I guess all this is put on the back-burner, for a little while at least.

Onwards!

Onwards

There are a surprising number of sloth/unicorn artists out there. I believe this copyright is owned by Jez Kemp

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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La petite mort

The end

The novel is finished. Done. The completed manuscript is on the computer and in the cloud, ready to be chainsawed and steamrollered into some sort of shape. I have 95k words down after the longest period I’ve ever spent on a single draft.

It’s hard to say how I feel about this. A little empty, I guess. This draft has been with me for such a long time that I can barely remember not working on it.

I’m also hyper-aware of all its flaws. Whenever I’ve done first drafts in the past I’ve always felt the arrogance of completion; I’ve always felt like ‘this’ll need a polish and a few coats of paint but it’s otherwise fine. It’s great! The best thing I’ve ever done, hands down.’

This time I don’t feel like that. As I’ve been writing I’ve been aware of all I need to go back for, to retrofit and add in, and, I’m sure, there’ll be bits I need to remove as well. I have produced a mess, an overcomplicated, overwritten heap of words that needs industrial processes to salvage.

Dickens-Great-Expectations

This is in part because it’s the most complex piece of work I’ve ever attempted – it’s much less linear than my previous novels, more of a mystery than an adventure, with several overlapping themes and subplots.

I’m not beating myself up too much about this. I’m sure there’s a good story in what I’ve produced. It’s just not there yet.

The question now is this: do I go straight back to the start and try to fix all my problems, or do I leave it for a few months so I can see it with fresh eyes? All opinion goes with the latter; it must be left to moulder, to be forgotten and revisited afresh. But I am torn. I wonder if I should get straight back into whilst I can remember all that’s wrong with it and try to make good before setting it aside for a while.

It’s not like I don’t have other work to do. I have two other novels to edit and a four-volume epic has just arrived through my commercial editing factory doors.

Maybe I could use a break. I’ve been very close to this work for such a long time, a little recovery time might be wise.

But first I must set down a few notes for future Rob to decipher. That’s the least past Rob can do to make things easier.

Then it’s on to the next thing. For we never rest easy, not in this job.

Write on!

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Novel extract – the rats

scary-rat

In the absence of anything interesting happening in my life at the moment – Lockdown Rules and all that – here’s an extract from my latest WIP for your delectation. It marks the start of the climax and is – and I can’t stress this enough – a first draft. I already know things that are wrong with it (too much detail in the descriptions, slowing down the narrative; a too-long break in the action to describe the gunfighters; too much (and too bad) French) and it might change dramatically before it’s finally ready for publication, should it ever be so.

The WIP in question is still unnamed, though Our Kind of Bastard is getting a good examination, as is the simple Claws. Suggestions always appreciated. It’ll be a long time before it sees the light of day – the first draft isn’t finished yet, and I’ve two novels before it in the work queue.

This piece is set in Brittany and is a rurban fantasy (an urban fantasy set in rural areas). As the extract title suggests, this section features rats. Consider this a content warning if you have particularly strong feelings about the wee beasties.

Relentless Rats

‘Relentless Rats’; Johann Bordin

Saira came back to the centre of the Devil’s Mouth after having a pee in the nearest ditch. There by the portal dolmen she found Cartwright standing with Eloise, barely talking. Indeed, through all the long watch, all that long day, Cartwright had said barely a word. A damaged man, Saira reflected. But then, weren’t they all damaged in one way or another? She thought of Alex, that aching hole in her heart where she still resided.

“Hi, Eloise,” she said. “Not performing?”

“I’ve finished for the night. We’re past the point where alcohol is under control – the crowds get a bit too rowdy for my liking past eight o’clock at an event like this. Mark’s back asleep in the caravan so I thought I’d come and join you here.”

“Well, thank you. Though I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.”

Eloise frowned, the newly-risen moon casting shadows almost as deep as midday. “I thought the bombers–”

“Oh yes, I know that. I just mean… Well, we don’t know when they’re coming, or from what direction, or whether they’ll be armed–”

“That’s why we’re keeping watch,” Cartwright said. “If we knew all that we wouldn’t have to wait, would we? As for them being armed, I think we have to assume the worst.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Eloise asked. “How can we hope to stop them?”

“We have to do something,” he said simply. “It shouldn’t have been like this. We should have had Jazz, and Mark, and – and Dashwood. A proper team. Now thrre’s just us – but still, we have to try.”

“Besides,” Saira said with a confidence that she didn’t feel, “we’ve got me.”

“What do you mean?”

Saira opened a hand and let a little ball of amber particles coalesce into something akin to a crystal ball. Then she blew on it and let the thing dissolve. It was so easy here, as if the Devil’s Mouth was a sort of sink for dark matter – or if it produced the stuff itself. She wished Twitch was here. There was so much Saira didn’t understand.

“To absent friends,” she muttered.

Pardon?”

“Nothing. Ne rien.”

“Hey, who’s that?”

Saira turned to see two figures bending under the police crime-scene cordon that had been extended in the aftermath of George’s death. The whole monument had been taped around – pointlessly, as no officers had been assigned to patrol it so anyone could simple shimmy under it, as they had.

“That’s Caron,” Cartwright said.

“Who?”

“The sergeant in the Gendarmes I’ve been dealing with. I don’t know the man with her, though.”

Saira felt Eloise stiffen beside her; the carny’s wariness of the police, she assumed. Then the two gendarmes were marching over to them, the man leading the way, bearing an aura of impatience with him.

Tu ne devrais pas être ici,” he snapped.

Monsieur, c’est M Cartwright, la personne dont je tu ai parlé. He says you shouldn’t be here.”

“Evening, Caron. Who is he? What are you doing here?”

“This is Commander Felix, my boss. I – I told him about the murders and the possibilities of the bombing–”

Qu’est-ce que tu dis? Tu as mentionné la bombe? Où est-il alors? Je ne vois rien de dérangé, juste ces gens qui se cachent ici.”

Monsieur, je viens de vous présenter et d’expliquer pourquoi nous sommes ici.” Caron spoke with deference but, Saira thought, there was a little exasperation in her tone, or perhaps a tiredness.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de nous expliquer, Caron. Pourquoi ces gens ici?”

“He wants to know why you’re here,” she said.

“We’re waiting for the bombers,” Cartwright said.

“To stop them?” Caron asked.

“Of course.”

Ils disent qu’ils sont là pour arrêter les bombardiers, monsieur.”

C’est juste une perte de temps–”

“What’s that?” Cartwright asked suddenly.

“What?” Caron asked.

“That – over there.”

Saira followed his outstretched arm but she couldn’t see anything – just the deep greens of the twilit grass lined against the deep blues of the sky; pools of black shadow in the lee of the bank and movement – what was that?

Something was moving through down the bank, something low to the ground, flowing like a whispering river through the dusty grass. Its leading edge disappeared into shadow and then re-emerged only thirty paces from where that were standing.

“What–” Cartwright began.

“Rats,” Eloise said.

And they were. Rats – hundreds, thousands of them, charging through the grass.

Each one had a tiny rider upon its back.

“C‘est quoi ce bordel?” Felix said.

It was hard to make out details in the shifting twilight, in the ever-moving flow. But the riders seemed to be armed with miniature lances and were topless but for leather straps and harnesses and for expressions of mad war-lust.

Saira just had time to gape for a moment before the tide was upon her. She heard Cartwright yell in pain and then felt a prick, a dozen pricks in her feet – pricks that became stabbing pains and she too was gasping as the lances bit into her shoes, dug through the light fabric of her summer wear and pierced the flesh beneath.

Instinctively she hopped, then jumped. She felt blood running from her feet – and then she landed and the ground had become a floor of vermin. She felt bones breaking and lances snapping beneath her; she was vaguely aware of an amber haze as dead rats and riders dissolved under her feet but there were more, more more – her feet were being cut to ribbons and she could tell from the sounds that her comrades that they were in no position to help.

Saira desperately tried to think of something she could conjure to rid the Devil’s Mouth of this vermintide but her mind was trapped in glue. She could only imagine a sword – but what use would that be? She just kept hopping, jumping, kicking – and desperately trying to keep her feet because falling into that mat of rats was unthinkable.

Somewhere, close at hand, a wolf howled.

And then she became aware of the prick and scratch and dig of tiny feet running up her ankles, of teeth and sword-blades cutting up her shins and calves and crawling up over her knee onto her thigh and the blood ran down her flesh as the vermin crawled over itself, a great mass eating her alive, threatening to strip the flesh from her bones.

She screamed.

Carl Frank

A desperate act, she conjured up a sickle and held it tight in her right hand, as the rats and their riders ran up over her waist, teeth, claws and blades digging into her pubis and her bum as they went, her whole lower half a mess of blood and dirty, dirty wounds; she slashed down and cut away a handful of the vicious creatures, saw them turn to their component molecules as they fell away.

But by swiping down she’d allowed the survivors to make the leap onto her hand; now the tiny claws were scratching at her fingers, the lances burning into her wrist, sword-blades slashing at tendons. She shook her hand desperately, felt some riders fall away, before her muscles gave way and she dropped her weapon into the carpet of monsters.

Skipping, dancing, shaking like a victim of St Vitus’ Dance, she saw Eloise and Cartwright and the gendarmes were doing the same, and they were all screaming in pain and fear, and they were all going to be dragged into the mire and consumed. It was just a matter of time – of moments… and there were people there who hadn’t been there before – two of them, a man and a woman, on the edge of the pool of vermin. But no time for them.

Glue. It was all Saira could think of. Glue. Gum. Ooze. She concentrated, tried to push the bites, the injuries from her mind, kept her body moving as the rats scratched their way up past her navel, up to her breasts – she concentrated; forget all that. Conjure. Call a haze of amber particles around her, absorb the energy of this place, of all the dead rats and riders. Thicken the cloud until it’s almost solid, an accretion disc around her head like she was a star. Try for liquid, though that doesn’t come naturally. Glue. And drop the mass down her body, let it cling to her and trap the rats, suffocate the riders (and don’t imagine that they’re human-shaped and may have thoughts, feelings and desires of their own; this is pure survival).

Take the energy of the dead and increase the mass. Feel it hardening on her skin; use it, wear it like a suit, sealing her wounds and pushing away the vermin; a suit made of dead rats – better, easier to form than the fluid.

Saira breathed. She was calm, now. The suit she wore kept the vermin at bay. She stopped her desperate dance, let the rats crawl up her legs; they could do no harm.

There was a crack and a whistle and something flew past her head – she felt the wind of it. She spun round, turning away from her friends who were still desperately fighting not to be dragged down by the vermintide.

There she saw the man and the woman – Paul Girin and Erica Henry, Saira guessed. The woman was holding a shoebox-sized wooden object with a glistening golden lozenge set in its front. They both wore heavy-looking backpacks, but only hers looked big enough to contain a bomb.

In front of them stood a posse of four gunfighters; they looked as if they’d come straight from the set of a Western, complete with black bowler hats and six-shooters; two held rifles and all wore ruffled-up suits, jackets open to reveal pocket-watches and waistcoats.

Time to worry about them later; first she had to save her friends from the rats. She lurched into the closest figure – Eloise, it was, and fell on her in some kind of excuse for a hug. As she touched the rats that were struggling to get into the Frenchwoman’s mouth they became stuck in the glue of Saira’s verminsuit, their struggles soon subsiding as they became part of the energy shield she wore. Soon Eloise was free of rats, gasping and bleeding, and Saira had enough death-energy to start seeping her glue-trap across the floor–

There was another crack and a man’s yell – Felix. Saira turned to see him fall to one knee – she thought it was him, the others were so covered in rats that it was hard to see who was who. Another crack and Felix fell to the ground. With the rats crawling over him it was impossible to see if he was still moving or not.

Saira looked up to see the gunfighters had raised their rifles, their pistols, and were aiming right at her.

 

On achievement

Snowdonia

I was thinking the other night. Dangerous, I know, but sometimes unavoidable. And what I was thinking was this: should I get this WIP finished it will be a real achievement.

No novel is easy to write, and whilst I lament the general quality and fear the work I have still to do, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’m 75k words into a story that has no real right to exist. It’s been born out of a breakdown, has suffered through many, many interruptions and re-starts and changes in direction.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve struggled to get into the flow of the story, that I’ve agonised over sections and have taken an age to write single chapters. It should come as no surprise that I’m unhappy with large parts of the narrative, and as for the quality of writing, of course it’s not as good as it can be.

Pratchett quote

Now I’m nearing the end and I’m taking a moment to turn around and cast my eye over the view. I have climbed giddy peaks and it’s time I took a moment to acknowledge the successes. I have done this. I have made it. I have hewn a story out of the very rock; I have mined and delved and, whilst the statue is still rough-carved and ugly, it exists where nothing existed before. And I have done it in the face of many personal and professional difficulties.

It’s easy to be hard on oneself; to feel like you’re never good enough. It’s much harder to see your successes. If you’ve ever written anything, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story, novella, novel or epic, you’ve achieved. Even if it’s objectively not very good, you’ve still worked miracles – and you’ve not lost the potential to make it good, and you’ve not lost all you learned through the process of writing.

And if you’re still in the process of creation and you’re finding it difficult, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your work. It just means you’ve taken on a challenge. Whether it’s just a case of carving out a little piece more every day or if you need a little background noise to die down or you need to take a step back and think about the bigger picture, remember that you’re not in a race and you’re not competing with anyone else.

What you’re doing is beautiful and unique. No-one can do it but you. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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