Something new

Quill
I’m not entirely sure if I’m capable anymore, but I’m giving it a go. I am starting again. I am trying to write a new novel from scratch.

This is really down to necessity. I’ve recently re-edited two older pieces, both of which need going through at least once more, but my gut is telling me it’s too soon to re-read them yet. They need more time to simmer before I return to them, more time for me to forget the contents so I can see them with clearer, more objective eyes.

I can’t bear to be sitting here without some kind of project on the go so I am forced, against my will, to try and scratch out something new.

This might not work. It’s been so long since I tried anything this ambitious – or, frankly, with any ambition at all. So I am on the beginning of a slippery slope of brain-entangling doom. Especially as the story I’ve envisioned is incredibly complicated and convoluted and full of false-flags and betrayals and serial killers and werewolves…

At least I have a certain amount of faith in my ability to set one decent word after another. It may prove to be totally misfounded, but my limited excursions into fictiondom recently have produced wurdz I am not totally objectificational to. This is encouraging.

Now I just need to carry that development – for I’m sure I have got better at the craft of writing over the years – into the realms of characters, plotting and causality. Otherwise I’ll be back on this blog crying in very short order.

The Greatest

muhammad-ali-leonid-afremov

Art by Leonid Afremov

I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done!

I have something in me that demands I be the best at whatever I do. It’s not enough for me to struggle then ultimately fall short. It’s not even enough for me to scrape home. I must be good. I must be the best version of me I possibly can be. I feel Ali’s quote deeply.

I’ve done a lot of low-paid jobs; I’ve worked in warehouses and in the dirt. I’m the ground-floor employee. And in every role I want to be best, even if I know it really doesn’t matter what I do and that my job will be replaced by robots as soon as they can find machines prepared to perform such menial tasks.

This is not a healthy place to be. It’s beyond human to be good at everything – indeed, it’s why I’ve given up on numerous things I enjoy. It’s why I’m not playing chess anymore. It’s not a fear of losing. It’s a fear of not being as good as I think I can be.

I want to be good. I have to drive on the ragged edge because I can’t bear inefficiency: I have to be perfect, the optimum speed, the smoothest gear-change, the swiftest transition. The problem with the ragged edge is that you don’t know you’ve hit it until you’ve crossed to the far side at least once.

It’s why I crashed my car.

It’s why I put my daughter in hospital.

It’s a fine line: the desire to be best is a great motivator. It drives many top athletes. You need targets and drive and dedication; an arrogance that doesn’t allow losing as an option.

But it’s not healthy. It’s certainly not healthy in the arts, where subjectivity is everything. Criticism is hard to bear at the best of times. When you’re dumb and driven, like me, a harsh word is a piledriver.

I don’t think I’m the world’s best writer. I’m always striving to be better, and that desire is a positive thing. I want to make people happy. I want editors, reviewers and readers to enjoy what I do. If they don’t I feel like a failure.

For me it’s always about the destination, not the journey. It shouldn’t be this way.

It’s enough to enjoy what you do. You’re not in competition with anyone else. Life isn’t a zero-sum game.

It is a balancing act. You need that drive to improve; you have to be willing to work, you have to have pride in your achievements. But you have to enjoy that work. You need to be able to step back from it. You need to have some sort of off-switch; sometimes you need to remind yourself that taking the longer path is just as rewarding.

Or maybe I’m just in a funny mood and none of this really matters.

Je regrette

Droids
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t trust my own ambition.

I had an idea for a story. I knew what I wanted to happen; what I was struggling with was a mechanism for it to happen. I tried a few things on for size but nothing seemed to be quite a la mode.

What, after all, is a story? Is it setting? Or plot? Or is it the high concept behind it all? I had the latter but not the former. I needed to anchor my idea and shape the reality that held everything together.

My initial idea, the one that I turned many ways and almost put together, was to set the idea in space, on an isolated end-of-the-road station, where bionics played a crucial role.

The idea worked, or could have been made to work. But I retreated. I didn’t trust myself to write that story. I pulled back, pulled back, instead relied on simpler causes.

I did this because I was afraid. Because it took less mental effort to keep closer to the ‘real world’. And this I regret. This choice forced me to make ever more convoluted (and less plausible) explanations to keep some semblance of the original concept. I feel like I’ve wasted that idea.

That’s not to say I haven’t done good things with it; what I eventually produced is coherent and, I think, well written. But it’s not what I set out to do.

That’s not to say that you should never back away from an idea.

Starting a project that would take years to bring to life – even as just a first draft – might not be what’s best for you right now. Certainly, when learning your craft (as I was then), the creation of a whole new world – whether that world is a fantastic planet or an extra-solar empire or a mafia family – might be enough to stall your writing altogether.

Creation requires effort. A space station, isolated though it may be, requires a polity to create it. It requires scientific knowledge (which might be made up, but still). It requires structure, a place, a transit system which might take years to reach it. Communication lag needs researching. Oxygen must be generated.

So I don’t blame myself for not wanting to send months researching, reading and creating. I was impatient to get to the story. And to do that I scaled back my ambition.

What I regret is losing the chance to exploit the potential of an idea that’s fascinated me for years.

Fortunately the world is full of ideas. And they’re all out there just waiting until you’re ready.

Diet hard

litmap

I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?