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.

Calmer waters

Calm waters

After last week’s cri de coeur I return to calmer waters. Progress is slow. Work is frequently interrupted, patterns nascent, yet to fully form. There are images in the maelstrom but they are vague and shifting, unpredictable and ill-shaped.

I am managing to get enough work done to stave off the wolves – to make it possible to write this blog post, for one thing. I’m even managing to do a bit of creative writing – just a few words here and there, you understand.

These are strange times. We can’t measure ourselves against what’s normal. For some of us this is a chance to get a lot of writing down, a lot of art produced. For others it’s a time of shutdown, where nothing is possible. Thanks to a spot of timesharing with my wife I lie somewhere in the middle. What I’m trying to do, to cope, is to take the pressure off myself. Anything I do is a bonus. But I expect nothing.

There are odd spots of normality. I managed to record a podcast with Jane from Dumpy Little Unicorn, which was great fun and lovely and strangely unreal, to be talking of ordinary things whilst the world is collapsing around our ears. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s up, should you wish to hear me rambling about books and writing.

But this just serves to heighten the oddness of these times we find ourselves in. Be kind to one another, I entreat you all. Be kind to yourself most of all. My method, as I said, is to stop measuring progress in words or even in time spent on a project. My success is simply to be sitting at my desk and having my documents open. Keeping a project in the subconscious is a win; any words added – or deleted – is a bonus.

So yes, this is just a little ramble, a way of coping and of sharing a few little thoughts with you. I think this is how the next few weeks will be; no normality save that we make for ourselves; and then one day we’ll turn round and find that this is normal and the real world will seem like nothing but a distant memory.

How are you doing?

Shutting down

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This is my second attempt at writing this post.

The first one… well, I fear it came off as whingy, or misplaced, or over-wrought – just generally tonally askew. So I’m having another go.

Thing is, I need to talk about the pandemic and explain a little about how it’s affecting me – because this blog is, at its heart, about me and my writing.

But it’s very difficult to moan about my small difficulties when people are dying. When there’s genuine suffering in the world, my small problems don’t amount to a hill of beans. But I’m immunocompromised so I’m at extreme risk of contracting the virus. I’m therefore in isolation for all of twelve weeks, dependent on my wife for all shopping and necessities – and also for all of my social contact.

That doesn’t matter half as much as the fact that my daughter is home from nursery all the time.

A few weeks ago I set out my typical writing week, which basically comes down to this: I write when the little one’s in the care of others. Now all that is worth so much hot air. She’s always here. And though I’m timesharing with my wife, she’s supposed to be working full time so I’ve lost my breathing space.

That’s before we get to the fact that I’m a really bad dad and don’t know how to properly stimulate or educate my child. That’s another issue entirely.

See? Whingy and over-wrought. This is a tough piece to write.

What it comes down to is this: writing has suddenly sunk down my list of priorities. This feels like a bunker situation; we just have to hunker down and get through. Previously I managed to balance paying editing work with my own creative writing. Now I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to write at all.

in the bunker

For the next few months my WIP is on hold. This blog may be on hold as I don’t know if I’ll have anything to write about. All that was solid has melted into air.

I am absolutely certain that I’m not alone in this. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds of artists who are suddenly having to down tools and focus on the immediacies of life.

Hopefully in a week or two I’ll have found a new routine but for now it feels like shutting down. I’m sure I will adjust but there must be many more out there who can’t. To all you creatives out there who are struggling let me just say that I see you, that you’re not alone.

Shakespeare may have written King Lear whilst he was in quarantine but he had servants, financial security and no children to look after. It ain’t the same for us, folks.

But we will get through this. There will be another side. Them pesky kids will go back to school at some point.

Until then we just get through as best we can. Anything we manage to get done is a bonus.

The many problems

writing

I am slowly nearing the end of my as-yet unnamed work-in-progress. The end of the first draft, at least; there is much more to do. Here is a brief look at the things that are wrong with it:

  • The subplots are woefully underdeveloped: my serial killer thread needs putting in earlier whilst my Breton court intrigue thread basically needs to be written from scratch
  • Breton court intrigue means introducing a new POV character, which will be fun
  • Writing over a long period like I’ve had to do, what with interruptions and the like, chances are the novel is totally dislocated and misjointed. A general smoothing out is needed
  • And along with that, some threads (character A’s mental state, for example) might not be consistent. Has he shown remarkable improvements between scenes?
  • It’s about 20,000 words too short
  • Most of the words are wrong. The first draft is about getting the plot and themes down, not about finding les bon mots. The actual writing will need to be mostly rewritten
  • Speaking of bon mots, there’s a significant amount of French in this novel. It needs checking to make sure I’ve not accidentally insulted the whole of the nation. Or simply embarrassed myself
  • Similarly, this novel is set in Brittany. I need to check I’ve not inserted details that make no sense in this foreign milieu, or created a landscape that a French person would immediately recognise as fake. This includes descriptions of architecture and social concepts like fairs and markets and those that embody both like industrial estates
  • Some ideas – like the name of the bar and the fact that there’s a stream running through the (fictitious) town – have only occurred to me late on in the process and need retrofitting into earlier parts
  • Characters B and C have far too little to do. Given they’re the ones with extraordinary powers you’d think they’d be front and centre in this novel, but they’re very much background. I need to decide what to do about this
  • Did I mention it’s about 20k words too short?
  • It needs a name
Tom Gauld bad writing

@ Tom Gauld

Doubtless there’s a lot more problems than this; this is simply all I can think of off the top of my head. It’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?

First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect and this one certainly isn’t. I’m a long way short of where I want to be – I want to write a brilliant, compelling story and there are way too many holes in this one to be even of acceptable standard.

But I do have a framework. And hopefully some of the writing will stand up to scrutiny, serving at least as a scaffold to hang better words upon.

So there is hope. There is hope, and there is belief. I have nothing to be proud of but proud still I am: I have nearly completed a draft of a novel and that’s no small achievement.

So onwards I go! Onwards, to write the climax and the denouement – and this’ll take me months – and then it’ll be time to set the darn thing aside for a time.

Then the real work will begin as I try and fix the many problems I’ve saddled myself with.

Bad books

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I want to read bad books. I’m sick of coming up against five-star extravaganzas. I want poor plots and painful prose, especially in debut novels. I want to feel like my writing has a chance. I want to be able to compete.

It’s my own fault. A lot of the new reading I give myself is because I see hype on Twitter and I think I’ll give that author a shot. I should know that, if it’s hyped, it’ll probably be of a decent standard. At least it’ll be technically accurate. Oh! for a debut that consistently misjudges commas or over-purples the prose.

Why do I want this? Because every good book I read makes me feel like I’m less of a writer myself. Established, successful writers can be as good as they like; that doesn’t bother me. It’s the newbies that get me; seeing my stable-mate, a debutante like me, getting starred reviews in the press (or getting press in the first place) – I can’t compete with that!

I’m being silly. I’d never wish anything less than success on my partners-in-writing. And I love to be thrilled and transported by novels both old and new.

But my insecurities, and the void into which my writing has fallen, pull at me. Every single novel I read at the moment seems to excellent – more than that, they seem to be ‘special’, that undefinable quality that one agent told me, mid-rejection, that new novels have to be nowadays.

I say again, I can’t compete with that.

So it’d be nice to pick up, just once, a new and hyped book and think ‘how the hell did this get published?’ To think ‘oh, well of course I’d never make such a silly mistake.’ Or even ‘pah! At least I can use ellipses properly…’

But no. They’re all great.

Damn you, publishers and agents, for doing your jobs!

sad book

A little on writing groups

writing group

I went to a writers’ group for the first time in over a year on Sunday. I hadn’t realised how much I missed it.

It’s not about the feedback, though some I received, and it’s not about the feedback I gave. It’s just about being around authors and talking writing and books. It’s about being stimulated and sharing perspectives. Actually getting constructive criticism, or a brand new idea, or anything like that – that’s a bonus. A big bountiful bonus that maybe you can expect (it depends on the group and the nature of the meetings), but for me just being around creative minds is worth the car parking costs in itself.

I used to be in an active group in Oxfordshire; indeed, I chaired it for a few years though I found the responsibility gave me terrible anxiety and I gave it up with a great sigh of relief. Really it made me the writer I am today. I only left because I moved away and I’m still in touch with many of the members through the wonders of the internet.

Getting good feedback on your writing is essential and joining a writing group is the most straightforward way to get that. Most (all I’ve been to) are friendly and welcoming and are full of people who want to help you, free of ulterior motive save maybe the expectation that you might help in return.

I wrote about the benefits of joining a writing group in one of my very first blog-posts back in 2013. Since no-one read me then I feel no compunction in linking to it here.

You might also make some friends and lord knows that writers don’t have enough of those to go round. Just getting out of the house and meeting with like-minded people can be stimulation enough. It has been for me.

Now I feel energised and ready to return to the WIP from hell. I shall get it finished, I shall.

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My writing week

The plan, this week, is to present you with my diary and explain how I make time for writing and important things like that. It is somewhat of a gamble. So much of this human interest stuff I imagine many of you find deadly boring. I also worry it’ll come across as a bit of a sneak-grumble when that’s really not the intention.

See, I really only have time for writing two, maybe two and a bit, days a week. The rest of the time is taken up with the dust and detritus of modern life. But before I get ahead of myself, here’s my guide to burgling my house how my typical week works:

DIARY-popup

Monday

Chiildcare. Until recently the grandparents took the little one in the mornings so I had that as writing time too. I’ve lost that recently, and so it’s off to Mucky Pups and singing with the folk in the care home with me of a morning and watching Monsters Inc in the afternoon.

Tuesday

A writing day! The little one is in nursery, so after dropping her off I get to sit down, purge my emails and draft my blog (I write these words at Tuesday 09:22). Unfortunately, I have a regular medical appointment that takes two hours out of my day. I also have to do household jobs like the laundry, making dinner and taking the rubbish out, so it’s not just free and easy time for me.

Then it’s time to collect the monster from nursery, and one weekend in two I have Paid Employment in the evening.

Wednesday

I have Sproutface in the morning; it’s off to Busytots with us, then the playground. My wife works from home in the afternoons so sometimes I manage to squeeze in another hour or so of writing before it’s off to Paid Employment.

Thursday

Another writing day, this time free of interruptions… sometimes. As I have commitments on other days, Thursday is my Random Appointment Day, so my time is often thieved by the magpies of modern life. C’est, as they say, la vie.

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It’s worth saying that my ‘writing days’ (typically around 09:00 to 15:30) are also when I spend time on social media. I live a fairly isolated life, so Twitter especially is a way of keeping in touch with my interfriends. I’ve some strong attachments to people I’ve met only virtually and this connection is important to me.

It’s also important to point out that a writing day is not merely about getting words down and creating new stories. It’s also editing time, both on my work and other people’s. I work as a proofreader and copy-editor and in truth could use more gigs – but when I do get a job the deadlines are usually tight. It has to slide right in to whatever time I have and so my own work is set to the back-burner. This can be frustrating but I do enjoy editing. It’s a different discipline to writing and is, frankly, easier than first-drafting.

Friday

Another Sprout-filled day with Shake, Rattle and Roll, then swimming, then more Monsters Inc before I pick up the wife and she takes over the childcare whilst I do Paid Employment.

Saturday and Sunday

Saturday mornings I work one in two; otherwise the weekend is Family Time for doing Family Things like going to National Trust places, looking at houses (we’re trying to move) or going to garden centres. Time away from the computer and with the ones I love, in other words.

Not that I don’t love you too. You’re fantastic in your own special way.

 

And that’s it. That’s how my week works – and it’s a reminder to myself that I’m really lucky. I don’t have a full-time job; I’m supported by an amazing wife who works so I don’t have to (not entirely true; she enjoys her work and has a career of her own. But I know she’d like to spend more time with the little one). We can afford to send Sproutface to nursery so I have a few days a week to do my thing. I am really very lucky indeed.

But I also work hard. I’m determined to make the most of the little free time I have – though I find it difficult, sometimes, to not procrastinate and difficult, sometimes, to keep a proper focus on what I should be doing – still I sit at my desk whenever I can and try and get through whatever I’m working on.

Could I do more? Well, maybe I could set aside time at night, when the rest of the family is in bed, to scribble a few more words. Maybe I could get up early and join the Stupid O’Clock Writers’ Group and try and get some words down that way.

But I need free time, rest time, too. I’ve never claimed to be the most motivated person in the world. I’m just trying my best after my own fashion.

 

I hope this has given you some insight into my life and the way I work and it hasn’t been too self-absorbed or just plain dull. I’m always shy of writing too much about me personally as I’m sceptical as to how much anyone actually cares. Who am I? I’m no-one.

But if there’s anything you’d like me to talk about then please do let me know, either via Twitter or in the comments below. Requests always welcome.

Peace out.

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Post-hiatus blues

normal-service2

January was a funny ol’ month. Work on my novel-in-progress was on hold for pretty much all of it, due to having an couple of paying edits to do. I guess, in the future, I need a way of managing my time to work on two projects at the same time; of protecting my creative time. But at the moment I am fully monoprojectile. One thing at a time is enough for me, especially since the paying gig was for a structural edit, and thus required me to get deep into someone else’s work.

It’s done now, and my calendar is free, so I’m back to Claws, or Our Kind of Bastard, or whatever the hell I’m calling it today. But there are, I’m sure you’ll be totally unsurprised to hear, difficulties when you park a project for five weeks.

I left a scene half-written, which was good because I could get straight back into the action. But after that… If I ever had a plan I’ve totally forgotten it.

Luckily, I’ve kept pretty good notes. Mostly these take the form of what’s already happened (but also when in the manuscript it happened, which is useful) but I’ve also a list of questions that still need to be answered. So I’m not operating in a total void.

What I don’t have is an outline, which I’m increasingly thinking is a strategy I should adopt; that I should finally shed my pantser clothing and fully integrate into the society of planners.

I say this in the full knowledge that I will probably never be organised enough for that.

But I have decided that I need to pause my headlong charge into the mire of adventure to try and catch my breath, and my bearings. ‘How are you doing this?’ I hear you ask: well, through spreadsheets, of course. Simply creating a grid with all my characters/groups at the top and time/scenes down the side and filling in the gaps in the middle.

plan hiatus

It’s rough and ready and not really something I’d recommend – there must be a better way. But it works for me. Or at least it’s working at the moment. Planning needn’t be over-complicated. A note is often as good as an essay. And a spreadsheet strikes me as more manageable than index cards or whiteboards or whatever.

So I struggle onwards, limping back into the teeth of my manuscript and desperately searching for word upon word. But maybe this time I’ll know where I’m trying to get to. And any further interruptions won’t derail me too much because this time I’m coming prepared.

That’s the idea, at least. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Delay of game

Delay of game

Important news: Human Resources has been postponed. It will now be released in November, not July as originally advertised.

First off, I need to apologise to all you who have already pre-ordered it. What’s that, you say? You haven’t done that yet? Well, it’s still orderable from Flame Tree Press’ website and, presumably, all good bookshops. What are you hanging about here for?

Human Resources cover USE THIS

The delay, I hasten to say, is nothing to do with me. My copy-edits were in on time and the editor was happy with my work. It was instead a business decision. I’m not allowed to give any details beyond that a new deal has led to Flame Tree’s release schedule being rejiggered and my book is amongst those affected.

I can also say that it should work out to be a positive move both for me and the company; this isn’t one of those ‘oh my god it’s all gone to shit’ moments; it’s a good thing, I’m assured (I know very little about the actual business of publishing, though I’m learning).

Good thing or not, it’s a disappointment to me personally. I was hoping for some sort of launch event at Edge-Lit and maybe take in one or two more cons as an author with something to talk about. Now I have nothing to declare but my incompetence.

It’s also a short-term blow financially. Like most authors, the advance I will/have received for Human Resources is split into three payments: one upon signing of the contract, one on receiving of the finished text (though I’m not entirely sure when that arrives; I’ve done my copy-edit but not received this payment yet) and the last upon publication. Obviously I won’t now be receiving this last part until November. Not that it’s a great deal of money, you understand. But it’s money I won’t now be getting when I thought.

Long-term it may well be better for me to wait. Depends how this deal pans out, though in any case it’ll be very hard to judge cause-and-effect. We shall see.

Of more concern to me, however, is that it now feels like my career’s on hold until November.

techsupportonhold

Normally I’d advise people to try and fill their downtime with either writing their next novel or trying to get other material published and that’s what I’m going to be doing myself. I’m somewhat limited, however. I’m not a writer of short fiction, which is bread-and-butter to a lot of writers, and I’m contractually unable to pitch my other big novel-hope out to publishers at the moment. I don’t have an agent (my perpetual refrain; sorry to go on about it) and so don’t have the benefit of their advice on how to take my career forwards.

So, although I will be continuing to write and my endless search for an agent goes on, I feel like I’ve nothing really to do until November. My career hangs in limbo, and has done ever since the release of Night Shift – a gap of two years between publications. Two years’ wasted time.

(It’s not wasted, of course it isn’t. I’ve been busy writing; I’ve edited two novels and a have a third on the way. But that’s how it feels. Like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs all this time.)

So what do I do? I fill my downtime with writing, of course. And trying to find an agent. And making more friends amongst the writing community. And getting better at what I do.

I just wish I had something to sell, something to get my name out there. Tiny steps; no miracle-hunter I.

Something to make me feel like I was making progress.

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