Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

Let’s talk about sex

Sex. Yes, dirty word, sex. I’d like to thank the geniuses behind some of our biggest e-book retailers for inspiring this weeks’ column. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24491723.

The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Delta of Venus…Classics? Well, I’ve only read one of them (I’ll let you guess which) but certainly they’ve all come in for plenty of flak in their time. They’ve all been banned. They’ve all been accused of encouraging (or exemplifying) ‘moral degeneracy’.

As I said, I’ve only read one of them – but I’ve read a lot in my time, read a lot of sex, and I think I’m moderately normal and no more degenerate than the rest of the herd. In fact, my first encounter with the adult world was through books. Of course, I’m not talking about the sort of things that’ve caused Kobo to temporarily suspend their entire self-published list. But take another look at the titles I’ve listed above: pederasty? Check. Homosexuality? Check and check. Public masturbation? You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think books about incest should appear on the screen when someone enters the word ‘daddy’. You have the right to be offended by this. But the stupidity lies on the fault of the companies, not the authors. Especially not by authors who made no attempt to hide the nature of their works.

Which leads me ask: why is it so notoriously hard to write a good sex scene?

Sex is one of the most natural things in the world. Most people who are looking to put out books will have had it at some point. It’s been depicted in the cinemas for decades, either via insinuation or full exposure and all degrees in between. So why do authors struggle so?

There are, I think, two aspects to good sex. One is the mechanical pleasures – the fleshly sensations of squishing together with your partner. The other is the emotional: the reading of the senses, the instincts for touch, for whispers: that which bonds you (or not, if you’re writing a different kind of scene) to your partner and has very little to do with sticking it in and wiggling around a bit.

I’ve never written a sex scene – not what I’d call a proper full-on graphic account of hot hard rumpy-pumpy. I was planning on putting two in Chivalry, but when it came to it I ducked out. This is partly because I believe that the most vital images are in the readers’ head and, with a good enough set-up, the reader will create anything better than I could. In this regard I’m influenced heavily by American films from the 40s and 50s, when the Hays Code was in force and film-makers were severely constrained as to what they could show on-screen. The response was to insinuate sex: oh, Lauren Bacall! Those classic films noir; never more than a kiss, but the subtext…

The other main reason for not writing sex – and, indeed, it can stop people writing at all – is that someone’s going to read what you’ve done. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It may seem obvious – of course it’s obvious – but you’ve got to show what you’ve done to other people. Writing is a terribly personal thing. It’s so exposing. You’re putting your heart and soul into every word; the characters are a part of you – and not necessarily a nice part. It takes courage to present others with what you’ve done; you’re exposing your naked flesh to the world.  And sex – especially anything even faintly ‘other’ – can be a step too far for an author.

I’m a member of a writing group. Every month or so I’ll take an extract of my writing and read it out. I’ll then get instant feedback from a disparate group of people (alright, not that disparate. I do live in Oxfordshire). I’ve never tried a sex scene out on them. I’ve never heard anyone else try it either. It’s not at all as if we’re prudish (I’ve dropped a few ‘c’-bombs and an ‘mf’-bomb in my time to a complete lack of flabbergastedness) but still – how comfortable would I be about this?

And then there’s the fact that my parents read my work. Hi, Mum, if you’re reading this.

So why should you write sex? Why even try? Well, for one thing, sex is normal. Lots of people do it. It can very quickly look as if you’re a bit strange if you constantly skirt around the edges. And it’s popular. Who doesn’t like a good sex scene? And it can be comic, or threatening, or boring…

And that’s the real reason. And it’s why a good sex scene is one that shows how people are thinking: not only is it more involving, a good sex session can tell us far more about the novel’s protagonist(s) then almost any other type of scene. It shows us if they’re happy, dull, adventurous, dangerous… It can set up a novel (disappointing sex showing us the character is at the start of his journey), or be the big game-changing valedictory fuck in the middle. It is an incredibly useful tool for letting us know the dynamics of a relationship.

So why do authors get them so wrong?

The two main sins, I feel are to either be too mechanical (‘I did this. She did that. I cried out in joy…’) or to get all poetic and ‘literary’. I suppose this happens because – well, it’s what writing is, right? To find new, true, ways of saying what we all know; to describe events – ordinary or extreme – with subtlety and insight. That’s the aim. And a lot’s been said about sex over the years. How many new ways of describing the act can we come up with? ‘He ploughed her fertile delta, wondering – always wondering, dreaming, delighting, fearing – whether this time, this time, his seed would find purchase in her soil.’

So: problems technical and personal. That’s why so many people duck sex or write it badly. My advice? For what it’s worth, always keep in mind that these aren’t robots you’re describing (unless they are) – they’re people and have reasons for wanting – or just having – sex. And those reasons tell us a lot about the person you’re inhabiting.

My favourite sex scene? Actually, I don’t think it’s that erotic, but in the context of wonderfully drawn romance, my props go to Jane Fletcher and The Walls of Westernfort.

That is all.

Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

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I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

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A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/33-hilariously-terrible-novel-sentences-you-need-to-read/#KujBrXMc5kzrDBo2.01

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

http://gu.com/p/3jx63

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.