Priorities

Another day, another excuse. This time it’s a combination of Easter holidays and the Sickness of the Child that have arisen together to thwart my plans. The latter, at least, is over now; she’s back fighting fit. But my plans to switch between original writing and deadline-fuelled editation have come to naught. I have done neither and, as time roars on, I must prioritise accordingly.

So what does this mean? Well, apart from a general cursing of the universe and everything in it, it means that Breathing Fire takes a back seat once more. It means that I’ll probably not be able to finish the beta-reading I was undertaking for a friend in time to give useful feedback. It means that I must enter my Zen-space once more and compose myself before showing my face to the public.

It is life. If you’re a writer and you’re not yet fortunate enough to be able to earn a living from writing – or be supported by a rich patron/lover – the chances are that you have another job, or at least a sideline in applying for jobs/making excuses to the job centre. You are going to have days like this. You are going to be disrupted. You are going to be disturbed just as you were picking up the threads from the last disruption, just as you were picking up speed and starting to find your feet in the flow.

It’s easy to curse life, to lament the failures of society that doesn’t afford the creatives the resources they need to create. And it’s not wrong to so do; a lot of systems are seriously weighted not in our favour. But, whilst we labour in imperfection, the important thing is picking up the slack once more.

Which is why I’m writing this now. Truth is that, after a barren period without taking up my keyboard in anger for over a week, I don’t really have that much to say. But I’m making myself work. I’m making the words appear on the screen not because I’m inspired but because I have to do this.

Quitting is the easy option – and it’s probably sometimes the right one. But I’m determined to get Breathing Fire finished, and that means working past all these interruptions.

But first come the deadlines. Which is why, when I add the final full stop to this, it’ll be my editing that I fire up and not, as I might choose (maybe not; editing is, for me at least, the easier option) the first drafting.

Priorities. I am a writer, thus I will write, right? But I know that all the stitches I’m dropping can be picked up again, not least in the editing. Family comes first, then paid employment, then other commitments, and only after that can I have the freedom to work on what I want to work on.

It is sub-optimal, but it is life.

Efficiency is overrated anyway.

How I got published

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually said how I got published in the first place. I mean, this whole blog contains the story, but I’ve never actually sat down and spelled it out. So, without further ado, here’s the story of Night Shift:

  1. Write lots of writing that never goes anywhere, probably because it’s not very good
  2. Finish some of the former; get into the habit of finishing, and editing, and editing again
  3. Join a writing group – a proper one, one that suits me and can pitch criticism at the right level
  4. Write the first draft of Night Shift, receiving regular feedback on chapters as they’re written
  5. Edit said first draft. Edit it again
  6. Get beta-feedback from my small coterie of loyal friends, for whom I return the favour, and re-edit
  7. Enter the whole ‘submissions’ market. Approach agents. Make lots of mistakes. Get lots of rejections…
  8. Work on other material: first Night Shift’s sequels, then Oneiromancer
  9. …but Hark! What’s this? Receive a request for a full manuscript
  10. Receive a request to meet with an agent. Get all excited. Research not only said agent but also sensible questions to ask of her
  11. Attend meeting. Get lots of notes/criticism – what basically amounts to what I now see as an ‘R&R’ (revise and resubmit) request
  12. Overpromise. Rush the job in order to try and appear professional. Get embarrassed by some of the mistakes that were pointed out. Return manuscript to agent
  13. Get another R&R request (from the same agent) as the first was a disappointment
  14. Revise. Take more time. Really break the novel down before resubmitting
  15. Get rejection. Take it on the chin. The novel is now much better than it was before the agent got her hands on it
  16. Be grateful
  17. Prepare to self-publish
  18. …but Hark! An email arrives, offering to publish Night Shift pretty much as is! From a publisher I’d submitted to eight months earlier and had all but forgotten about
  19. Sign contract
  20. Profit!

This is, of course, the briefest of brief canters though the process. I could write a whole lot more about every stage I’ve listed here – indeed, I have, many times over, in these very pages. There’s also surely things I’ve missed; I haven’t mentioned, for example, the great Writing of the Synopsis and the Writing of the Cover Letter.

My memory is also fallible. Nothing I (ever) say should be taken as gospel.

It’s also worth emphasising that this is not the best way to publish a novel; it’s not the quickest, or most efficient, or even most guaranteeing of quality. It’s simply the path I took. Your method will almost certainly vary.

The timescale is also worth mentioning. It took comfortably over seven years for me to get from first draft to finished book-in-hand product, and that’s disregarding the first early novels that even I have given up on now. I live in hope that this period will shorten with time, but evidence is yet unclear.

What’s the most important step? Probably #1 and #2, which almost go without saying, and #8. Never stop moving forwards. Never stop swimming.

As for point #20… well, we’re talking very (very) modest sums here. A small advance which I’m just a little shy of earning out of.

Which is part of the reason I don’t post things like this very often, I guess. I’m still a baby author – I have no publisher, no agent, practically nothing to show. I consider myself to be a learner and an apprentice; certainly no-one to be giving advice.

But I have achieved two commercial publications, which is not nothing. And this is how I did it.

Deadlines and assorted complications

Deadlines. Gotta love ‘em.

I myself am not so good at them. Not that I miss the buggers – rather the opposite, in fact. I’m no good at pacing myself sensibly. Whenever a job comes through I throw myself at it, body and soul, and work all hours until it’s done, even if I the timeframe is generous and the target wide. I am simply too afraid of failure, of letting people down. As character flaws go, it’s not the very worst, but it is annoying.

At the moment I have a great six-week chunk of work on my desk. I should be able to meet it fairly comfortably. So do I throw myself at it and let it absorb me in its cocoon? Or do I try and pace myself and mix in other jobs – and maybe a little actual writing – in with the Big Task?

I’m trying the latter, which means that I’ll be able to progress with Breathing Fire – albeit at a slower pace (if possible) than before. This is good because it means – at least theoretically – that I’ll be able to keep up some momentum and won’t entirely forget where I’ve got to, what I’m trying to mull. And I have, indeed, made a little progress. The big break-in and the subsequent climax rapidly approach, bringing with it the need for thought and intelligence which is, of course, where I fall down. It also may mean that I have things to write about in this blog, though I promise nothing interesting.

The downside of this multi-strand approach is, of course, anxiety. I’ll always be worrying that I’m not leaving enough time for Task A, that I’m wasting time when I should be focussing, laser-like, on my target.

It also relies on me having time – actual available time in which to do more than one task. I have a part-time day-job – I am lucky – and a small (though heavy) child to wrangle. So there’s only maybe two days a week when I can look at more than one job.

Did I mention I also have a beta-reading to undertake? That’s on a six-ish week deadline too.

But the main mission comes first. It may be that I have to abandon side-quests and this many-headed attempt will fall apart within a week. Or it may be that the main job is remarkably straightforward and I have time to broaden out my focus. At the moment I can’t really say.

As a non-professional author, life is going to throw times like this your way. You’re going to have to find some way to cope, whether it’s going hell-for-leather to clear the non-creative jobs aside, or multi-tasking, or even taking a whole chunk of time away from real-life in order to focus solely on what really matters. I am, as I said, very lucky in that I can afford to work two part-time irregular jobs – library assistant by day, editor by later-in-the-day – rather than having to scrape time around full employment.

But editing time is also writing time. And life is shortly going to become very much more complicated.

So it’s on me to make the most of what time I have. And, for now, that means forging ahead with both editing and creative work. Because anxiety is just another name for love.

Perseverance

Another week down with very little progress. This is my life, now: I am trapped in a perpetual cycle of completely failing to get on with Breathing Fire. I mean, seriously – I have 175 pages written; over 50,000 words. You’d think that I know what I was trying to achieve by now. You’d think that I was capable of writing more than 50 words at a time. You’d think I’d think and sort the damn thing out.

This is almost certainly (memories may go down as well as up) the longest I’ve ever spent on a first draft (or ‘sloppy copy’, as someone coined it on Twitter). I’m past the point of simply blaming interruptions. This is seriously so damn hard. Pulling teeth is nothing compared to pulling words.

At the moment I‘m trying to plan a break-in. This means I have to think. Then, after said break-in, I need to plan a climax. And I’m just not sure I’ve got the energy for that.

Sigh. I shall get it down. I will not be defeated. But overall victory (in, what must be remembered, is still only Draft One of – judging by prior performance – at least seven) has never seemed so far away.

Perseverance is the only card left in my hand. It’s having to do a whole lot of work right now.

And then there’s the big Plot Issue I need to solve.

Back in book one (Oneiromancer) I killed a lesbian, inadvertently sending me careering down a trope-fuelled nightmare that I still fret about; I worry that any potential agent/editor will hit that point and either reject me because of it or demand changes that I feel incapable of resolving.

I’ve hit that same note again here. I have a queer couple and I was intending – no, the plot is demanding – that one of them should die. There is an inexorable momentum towards unhappily-ever-after.

Seeing this coming, I desperately want to save their life. I just don’t know how. For reasons of plot and momentum and the iron laws of tragedy, I don’t know how to avoid having myself labelled as something I don’t think I am. I want to wrench things round to a happier ending.

I just don’t know how. The book screams for blood and I’m not sure how to best escape the gravity-well of my own creation.

I am mulling. I have rarely mulled so hard. And in the meantime I scratch word after word and drag myself inevitably closer towards the end.

Except I don’t, because another paying job has thunked down upon my desk and now I’m back to editing.

One day I’ll actually get to finish something I started. That day is not today.

General pause

The Plague has struck.

Yes, it’s been one of those weeks. The little one has brought home more than the usual sniffles and has been restricted to the house – extra annoying as she’s absolutely fine in herself and has been slowly going mad under confinement. Now my wife has got it too and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before I succumb.

In any case, the bare fact is that I’ve been unable to operate on anything like normal conditions. I’ve taken time off work to look after said Small and all writing time has been erased.

All this is an over-elaborate way of saying that I’ve got nothing to talk about this week. I have no writing news – I still wait for my submissions to either bear fruit or be declared barren. I have added zero words to my work in progress, nor have I scraped any editing barrel. Any Editorium-time I’ve been managed to garner – like the hour I have now – has been devoted to the deadline-ridden piece of proofreading I currently have on my plate.

This is fine. This is all fine. There will always be days or weeks when the best-laid plans are all rent asunder. The trick is not so much in the coping with the fall but in the getting back on track again once the dust has settled.

So: resolutions. I must finish my proofreading and dispatch it avec invoice. That’s front and centre.

Then I must get back to writing and actually try and find something interesting to say next week.

Hope you’re well and happy and all’s happily productive in your world.

Onwards!

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws, the other has a pause at the end of its clause

Coasting

There’s a lot of fretting in writing. Or, at least, there’s a lot of fretting in the way I do writing. Worrying about submissions, worrying I’m not reading enough, or the right sort of books; worrying about making progress, about using the time well; worrying about editing and falling foul of tropes and, when you get right down to it, that I’m simply not good enough of that.

Balls to all that. I have a fairly clear period at the moment (which might end at any moment, if editorial work is despatched in my direction, but still) and I’m just going to coast.

 I have three novels I could be working on – the trilogy that begins with Oneiromancer could all do with some time spent on them – and, at the moment, I am perhaps foolishly choosing to work on the last: Breathing Fire. This is first drafting, and it’s gritty, attritional going.

Nothing comes free, and nothing comes easy. I am struggling to get into the flow of writing, and there are many slips between the brain and the fingers and what appears on the screen. The deletion key is getting worn away.

But I am not worrying about this. I am making progress, and that’s what matters. Word by word I assemble something that might be mistaken for a story from a distance. This novel has already taken an eternity to write; what’s a few more interruptions between friends?

I am trying to get back into that state of actively, positively enjoying what I’m doing. Everything recently has been contingency, emergency, short-notice work. This is the first spell of 2022 where I don’t have pressure or deadlines and I can simply take my time. And I want to make the most of it.

If this means I don’t get as much done as I would if I had the hounds of hell breathing down my neck – well, that’s okay. No-one cares what I do in the privacy of my own Editorium anyway. It’s time to embrace that fact and Make Writing Pleasurable Again.

It won’t last. Nothing ever does. I’ll be depressed by my failures before too long. I’ll have more deadlines arriving. I’ll have rejections to accept and I’ll feel like giving up many times over.

Despite this – because of this – I’m determined to just take it easy and enjoy myself and accept my shortcomings whilst I’m in a positive enough frame of mind to make the most of my time. And that’s not always measured in word count.

*             *             *

As I was writing the final words above an email pinged into my inbox. Another editorial job has arrived, bringing with it deadlines and a need for focus and other adultatious responsibilities. And so the holiday is over, and I must snap back into ultra-disciplined mode.

So it goes, the writer’s life. So it goes.

Round in circles

Sometimes it feels like we are bound in endless circles, doomed Sisyphean to repeat the same old circuit. Thus I come to you with advice I’ve given before and will doubtless be given again: be nice.

At the end of last week I was struggling to see a real future for me as a writer, should this last submission come to naught. Today I am feeling more positive, and that’s in no small part due to the kindness of a relative stranger. A person I’d talked to all of once before, a published, agented author, got in touch out of the blue to say that he was going to speak to his agent on Monday and would I like him to put in a good word for me?

One unexpected submission later and ‘why yes, that would be dashed sporting of you, sir’ and I now have two irons in the fire.

I know, I know, a good word means nothing if the agent doesn’t like my work. It’s hardly a guaranteed passport to Publishersville, or even Agentshire. But it’s enough to perk me up, to make me feel like there is hope after all. I have, after all, always relied on the kindness of strangers. I believe in people. Most people are, in fact, lovely. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet good people throughout my life.

It is just another day in the life of an author. Some days good, some days bad. It’s worth emphasising this, both to you, if you’re a fledgling writer, and to myself. Success is not a line graph, going forever upwards. It’s peaks and troughs, setbacks and step-ups. Success is the climate, not the weather.

At the moment I am in a not-success trough. I have no agent or publisher, no great well of victories to draw upon. The difficult bit is to see this time as a basic – perhaps the basic – state in that writer’s life. It doesn’t mark me down as a failure, just as signing my debut book deal didn’t make me a success. Only a long-term view will give an accurate picture, even assuming I can ever define what ‘success’ would actually look like.

So, in the meantime, whilst I polish my writing CV and swear over elevator pitches, I will keep an eye and a brain out for opportunities. And I will concentrate on being the nicest person I can possibly be, because that’s clearly the way I want to define my life. If I get breaks, if I have to rely on being an ‘industry insider’ or anything cishetwhitemaleish, then I want it to be because I’m a nice person and people want to work with me because they feel they can trust me rather than a reflection of going to the right clubs or of having the right school tie.

And that means I have an obligation to pay any niceness onwards. Find me on Twitter and ask me questions, if you have any. I’ll never make any promises because so often life intervenes, but I promise to try and help.

So many people have been nice to me. I’ve got where I am today (however you want to take that) by word of mouth, by people taking a punt on me, by trying to be vaguely reliable.

It’s the least I can do to try and pass some of my good fortune on.

To submit

It’s time. By Friday, when you’ll have read this, I’ll have submitted my novel to The Open Submissions Period of Doom. At time of writing I still have to tinker with my synopsis and make a few alterations to the submittable chapters. But I’m almost there; almost ready to throw my work into the pyre and hope the smoke-signals it gives off are enough to summon demand for the full manuscript.

It’s a horrible situation – not just for me, of course, but for all writers in my position. Publishers willing to take on authors without agents are few. Publishers who’ll take on SFF are few. There are about three moderate-sized ones in the UK with whom I have my heart set on publication, all of which are usually agent-only. So there’s a lot riding on this, because I’m ambitious.

I’m ambitious not for ‘success’ in any of its flawed, double-edged forms, but for the feeling of moving forwards. I’ve published with an independent publisher and I’ve self-published. I want to be making progress, as a person and within my chosen career. I‘m impatient for that.

I also feel that the work I’m currently hawking marks a significant step forwards as an author.

The other writers – maybe you – who are submitting to this open period may well be better authors than me. They may be more polished in their pitches. In fact, it would be quite astonishing if there weren’t numerous pieces that the company feels are ‘better’ than mine. So what hope do I have?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But hope I do still have, so I shall enter my work and then try to forget about it until the (almost) inevitable rejection.

The big question that then follows: what’s Plan B?

At the moment I simply don’t know. I believe in this work, but I’ve been rejected by all agents under the sun. I could self-publish again, but this is the first in a trilogy and… well, the honest truth is that it would simply feel like failure. Don’t get me wrong, I salute all those who choose to self-publish and I wish them every success. But I don’t have it in me – at the moment – to go out and try drum up publicity all over again, three more times, whilst staring down the barrel of low readership, no engagement and… well, the lack of the things I aspire to.

This is me now. I reserve the right to change my mind/acquire some enthusiasm.

What else? I could go into some great diatribe about the state of publishing, but you might just come back and tell me it’s just that my writing’s not very good, and who am I to argue that?

This is the 450th (ish) post I’ve written for this blog and I’m still back exactly where I started. One of those lifetimes, I guess. A writer’s life.

On hindsight

The best thing about writing a sequel before the first book is published is that it’s much easier to return to part one and fix errors in continuity before a work is out there in the public domain. And by errors in continuity I mean areas where you’ve subtly changed your mind or re-placed emphasis rather than big plot-holes or the like. Those should have long-since been closed by now.

I’m currently retooling Oneiromancer with the expectation of an imminent submission. I had been working on book three but have had to temporarily (again) shelve this, what with life and priorities and all that. But I find that, now, going back to book one in the series feels subtly different. I know what’s going to happen to these (surviving) characters in two books’ time. And some things just don’t quite mesh.

It’s little things. Giving one character a fake East End accent is now unnecessary and slightly at odds with what I’ll explain to be his background (there is room for the accent – I could justify it – but it’s a layer of explanation and backstory that’s just not necessary). It’s having my ‘magical’ character able to do things that she’s never going to do again – again, slightly at odds with how the rest of the series pans out.

Nothing I’m seeing now is actually wrong, or clunky, or inappropriate. It’s just that I’ve seen these characters’ futures and can better mould them to the labours ahead.

The best thing about getting a book published before writing the sequel is that certain things are set in stone and cannot be simply fixed. They become part of the mythos and must be accounted for in any subsequent works.

Why is this a good thing? Well, for a start it rules out the possibility of second-guessing. You have to move forwards, you cannot look back and endlessly tinker. What’s done is done.

Secondly, limitations are good for the imagination. Giving yourself a problem forces yourself to think logically. My stray accent, say, might be explained in the second book, which, if done well, might actually make you look like some long-term strategic thinker rather than just some desperate blunderer. My miracle-worker might realise she can no longer do what she initially did – and that might be a whole plot-thread in itself.

Plus you’d have a damn book out. I dream of getting this bloody thing into print. Don’t seem no closer now to when I was first-drafting it.

As an aside, Our Kind of Bastard owes a fair bit to a friend/beta-reader who pointed out that I missed an opportunity to save a character’s life. I took the idea she suggested – a road not taken rather than a plot-hole – and incorporated it into the survivors’ psyche; a sense of guilt to sharpen the loss. Going back was an option (and, I guess, one that any future editor may still desire) but it would have so radically affected Oneiromancer that I chose to fold the failure into the sequels.

I guess I always think that moving forwards is the best option. But they say it’s always much easier to write the beginning once you’ve got to the end. My failures to get the damn thing published means I can continue to make the novel sharper, leaner and hungrier.

Crumbs of comfort, I guess, as my failures also make it harder to get published in the first place. But I still believe. I do. Honest.

Onwards!

50 shades of doubt

Last week I wrote about the gyp I was getting from synopsis and elevator pitch. It has subsequently come to my attention that I should probably look at the actual writing that gets attached to a submission, not merely the flashy, fleshy bits on the side.

The piece I’m submitting here is Oneiromancer, and for the life of me I can’t remember when I actually wrote the damn thing. It was definitely two houses ago, back when I occupied an entirely different world. I know I submitted it to Flame Tree Press at the same time as I submitted Night Shift. It’s been a while, at least, through various drafts. And I’ve not really examined my submission package for at least three years.

Good thing is that the writing pretty much stands up. Or at least the first half-chapter does; for this I took to my writing group last week. There are improvements to be made, but, by and large, things make sense. The voice mostly works, the characters are graspable and all that. Changes I’ll have to make are relatively small, the swearing I have to perform only of a moderate nature.

But a writer never stops fretting. I read a chunk that’s in only a single voice, but this is a polyfocal novel with a lot of ‘stars’: the writers’ group don’t know that I’m about to change to someone else’s POV for the next section.

I worry about this. I worry about introducing to many names too soon. I worry about not giving the audience time to properly ‘bed in’ to the novel before switching things around.

You may be saying to yourself ‘well if you fret so much, and you can see the potential problems, why don’t you just do something about it?’ To which I respond with a sigh as long and deep as the great spot of Jupiter.

It’s not that easy. I wanted to write a multiple-POV novel. I like this kind of story. It’s kind of got fixed over the years. To rewrite this would be to rewrite the whole sorry tale, and I’d rather walk my own path right now, pending agentory/editorial demands. I personally happen to think that the damn thing works.

And that last thing, that’s what it really comes down to. I doubt, gods know I doubt. But I have something, some shred of ability to string words and ideas together in a form that I believe in. May just be self-delusion, I guess – but then I have persuaded people to give me money for words, so it can’t be just me. Can it?

I console myself with the writers’-grouperly thumbs-up. Now I need to gird my metaphoricals and take the next section to a meeting soon. I have only three weeks before my target open-submission period closes. I have very little time to waste.

No time for doubting. Needs must and all that.