Piracy, proofreading and podcasts

It’s been a busy few weeks. Podcasts, piracy and proofreading; all have distracted me from the important business of working out what to hell to say in this blog. So here’s another hastily thrown together post-cum-news-update in lieu of anything actually interesting:

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Piracy: Night Shift has been pirated. Copies were being offered free to download – without my or my publisher’s permission – on a notorious website that has, for now at least, been taken down. Now, as I said on Twitter, I’m more phlegmatic than furious. There is a certain sense of ‘achievement unlocked’ and a slight smugness that my hack-work appears above Stephen King’s book of the same name on the site.

Why do I feel like this? Well, I might be wrong but I have the sense that I’m too low in the author hierarchy – I’m not even midlist – for it to matter that much. I’m not going to get many sales anyway, so I’m not going to lose much, if anything, if a few people take it for free.

I’ve also got people to go into bat on my behalf. My publishers are the ones who really will suffer and they’re the ones that are going to fight – have fought – to get the site taken down. The people I feel sorry for are the indie authors and the small presses. I have no idea how my book is doing; I won’t until my periodic royalty statement arrives. Indies count every sale are the ones who suffer and I feel for them.

This is also another reason to join any writers’ union or organisation you can. Strength in numbers.

Piracy genuinely hurts people – hurts authors, who are struggling enough as it is. If you really can’t afford a book, join a library. If you can’t get to a library, many offer ebook and audiobook loans you can access without ever setting foot outside your house. Plus there are sites like Project Gutenburg that give out kosher ebooks for nothing.

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From XKCD. And it’s one space after a paragraph

Proofreading: I’ve been kept busy with that annoying thing – paid employment – recently. Due to people mistaking me for competent, I’ve had a full load of editorial work on my plate. This has ranged to the book mentioned in this podcast – a cracking good read by a lovely chap – to an amateurish novella to my current job: a non-fiction guide on how to be a mayor.

It’s great to have work. I enjoy proofreading, and copy-editing, and picking up a few extra pennies is very satisfying. It has, however, distracted me from what I really should be doing right now.

Yes, folks, my betas have responded. Huge thanks to Geoff, Robin, Dave and Alex – Human Resources, the sequel to Night Shift has been eviscerated and awaits my delicate surgery.

So that’s next on my list. Or it wouldn’t be if yet another piece of work had not just landed on my desk. Still, actually getting Human Resources into vaguely publishable state is the toppermost of my personal goals – and it’s so, so nearly there. It’s just life that keeps inserting its great size-twelves in my path.

Life. Don’t talk to me about life.

Marvin

Back to the betas

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At long last I’ve finished the sequel to Night Shift. Long-time readers of this blog will know it as my problem child novel; it’s taken years to get into any sort of shape, and has been through renames and remixes aplenty.

What I’d like to do now is to get it off to my editor and then hide under my desk for a few months until I get a response. I might do that anyway, but first I must take time and do my best to ensure the eventual response doesn’t draw out a guttural howl of agony. It is time to request beta-readers.

Beta-readers are saintly humans who are willing to give up their time – sometimes a lot of it – to help make your work better. They ask for no money (yet – they really should unionise), dealing only in favours; specifically, the expectation that you’ll read their blithering drivel works of undiscovered genius in return.

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Beta-readers aren’t professionals; they’re not sensitivity readers and they often don’t have the experience of paid-up editors. But they’re spot-on 90% of the time. If they tell you your multi-time-frame-and-perspective-jolting climax isn’t working, they’re probably on the money.

It also helps that in many cases, these betas know you and know how to give criticism, coming as they do from that mythical group of people called ‘friends’. Sometimes payment is made in beer, wine and chocolates.

But this is the hardest time for me. I know the novel needs at least a good sanding down; there must be rough edges aplenty. There is work to be done.

But I just want to get on. On to the next one. Maybe do some real writing for once.

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When drafts collide

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One of the great things about editing – especially if it’s been some time between drafts – is the way you can be constantly tripping over yourself. There you are, freshly resolved to fix some dreadful plot-hole, armed to the teeth with stratagems, reinforcements and stiffened morale, and you run slap bang into the quagmire of your previous edits.

Replacing bad writing is fine. Replacing bad ideas is harder but can be done. But realising that your last draft was actually quite good in certain areas can create a horrible sense of dislocation.

Case in point: I’ve finally managed to get a good glimpse of my eternal project – the one I’ve been working on for five years and still isn’t right. This time round I came forearmed with a whiteboard, with reams of ideas and a fresh awareness of some of the weaknesses of my previous drafts.

And that was fine for the first few hundred pages. Rewriting there was aplenty; new motivations and causalities led to some characters being replaced and shuffled around, leadership-hats moving from head-to-head.

Then I ran into something I hadn’t expected: ideas that were actually pretty good.
It seems I had some thoughts previously. Moreover, they took a pattern remarkably similar to the one I had in mind now.

Worse, they might actually be… better?

Which leaves me with a dilemma. On the one hand, the differences can easily be married with a quick search-and-replace to make sure all ends are neatly tied off. But, on the other, I’m wondering if I don’t need an entire rethink. Again.

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If nothing else I need to call on my loyal, eager team of beta-readers – by which I mean I have to beg on my knees for an emergency hearing – to make sure that what I end up submitting shows no joins, no fragments, no speedbumps or irresolutions.

I also need to get the hell on with it before my next bit of paid work comes in.

Phoney war

I am redrafting. Specifically, I am doing my third draft of Oneiromancer, and things are quiet, calm, and sedate. The phoney war is underway.

The first draft was the initial creation: nine or so months of blood, sweat and metaphors. Then came a quick(ish) four-month canter through the text to smooth out the kinks: to eliminate underdeveloped ideas and massage out the obvious imprecisions. Then came the beta-feedback, which was then combined into a new Masterscript (a physical printout much abused and bescribbled). Now I am back at the computer trying to turn all this information into a coherent story.

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The Masterscript. Actually an old version as I’m too incompetent to access fresh files

It is slow, steady work. I suppose technically speaking it’s a copy-edit: scenes are being moved, split, merged, rewritten. Points-of-view are changing. Structural changes are afoot. But I am incapable of doing a pass-over without a little bit of line-editation in the margins. Typos – bane of my existence – are being squished and the odd clumsy line rewritten.

This is a dangerous time. Neither fish-nor-fowl, I risk missing big things for the sake of the little and little things for the sake of the big. I guess it’s worth saying that I don’t see this as my final rewrite. This is, after all, only my third draft. Every other piece I’ve completed has gone through at least seven run-throughs. Bitter experience has taught me that a novel is only finished once you’ve released or abandoned it. Five years ago I could think ‘yeah, this is it, this is nigh-on perfect.’ No more.

But back to Oneiromancer. I call this stage the phoney war because I’m still marshalling my troops, assigning reinforcements and strengthening the line. Because I’m still in a state of uncertainty. Aside from a few simplifications to my earliest scenes (removing aliases and a POV that prevented immediate graspage of characters) the changes have so far been small and unthreatening. I’ve decided to ignore calls for more description because I’m not that sort of novelist. Small changes.

(Possibly too small: there is still information that I may want to go back and squeeze within the introduction. But I’ve left this because a) I can’t find the places to put it in and b) I’m unsure whether it’s really necessary. I’ll need another round of feedback to decide me.)

Ahead, though, lurk the greatest changes. There is one particular scene that my betas all demand be moved. Were that it so simple. Moving one scene requires fairly wholesale changes: a flank withdrawn, the cavalry force-marched across bitter terrain to open up a whole new salient. Injuries must be bandaged, wounds cauterised and peg-legs installed. The real work lies before me.

And that’s just this draft. Every change risks an epidemic of blood-sucking typos, of vampiric continuity-errors, of characters suddenly lacking motivation and depth. Every copy-edit requires its own line-edit.

Worse: every draft requires a new phalanx of test-readers. I want to get this novel published. This is perhaps the most commercial work I’ve ever done. I want to find an agent. I want to see this on the shelves.

But you only get one shot with every agent/publisher. This is why beta-readers are so important. You’re never been the best judge of your work and an outside opinion is essential. My team have done a superb job of highlighting the many sins I’ve committed. Now I have to take my time and get this damn thing right.

It might take another year – longer – before I dare launch my assault on the bastions of respectability. The work I’m doing now is essential. The furnaces are burning, the mill-wheel is grinding. Progress is slow, controlled.

Soon the guns will be firing in earnest. But only when I’m ready.

Revenge of the Betas

Oneiromancer Draft 2 is finished. It is now with my reading team; in a month or so we will convene and I’ll learn of all the ways in which I have failed. Then it’ll be back to the Editorium with me to fix all my myriad mistakes.

Some months ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a theoretical beta-reader: now it’s time again for me to think about what I actually want to gain from the experience and how to go about asking for it. Because there is good criticism and there’s bad criticism and it’s possible for you, the author, to make sure you get the one you’re after.

These are the questions I’m asking myself. Unfortunately the human brain (mine, at least) isn’t designed to see these things in one’s own work. So I’m relying on others to filter these things for me. I’m not planning on sending this list out to my chums ahead of review/evisceration because I don’t want to lead their thoughts. But I will be taking this list with me, as a reminder to myself of what I’m trying to learn.

So:

  • Structure:
    • Does the novel start in the right place/in the right way?
    • Are there any areas where the story drags? Do any scenes seem too slow, or would any benefit from being drawn further out?
    • Does the work take too long to get going?
    • Should any scenes be cut?
    • Should any scenes be added?
    • Are the characters introduced coherently?
    • Does the ending satisfy?
  • Mythos:
    • This is a fantasy and so a certain amount of world-building is involved. Is there too much? Or too little?
    • Is it communicated in the right way? Too fast, too slow, too obscure or too spoon-fed?
    • Is my mythos cohesive and believable?
    • Is there anything that you didn’t understand/makes no sense?
    • Have I contradicted myself at any point?
  • Character:
    • Backstory: too much? Too little?
    • Do the characters act out of character at all? Are their motives clear?
    • Are the characters sufficiently distinct? Do they have clear – and not too annoying – voices?
  • Plot:
    • Are there any points where you wondered why my cast acted as they did?
    • Were there any moments where you were screaming ‘No! No, that’s dumb! Why not just…?”
    • Were all actions clearly caused by previous events and not introduced by our old friend Ms Deus Ex?
    • Was there, in fact, a coherent plot?
    • Were all the threads resolved?

It’s especially important to get this sort of feedback because I was essentially making things up as I went along. You come up with one idea and then, a dozen chapters later, you realised the consequences are much greater than you thought. “Well if she can create a sword out of thick air, why can’t she just sever this Gordian knot with a thought?” It’s amazing what you can miss.

I’m not (that) interested in typos, grammatical errors, dialogue and even basic quality of writing. Not at this stage. I’m going to have to rework this piece enough times: each draft will improve the actual writing. At this stage I’m much more concerned with whether the world I’ve built actually works.

It’s always worth asking yourself what you want to find through criticism. Secretly I think we all want to be told that we’re wonderful, that we’ve written something unique for the ages. But even secretly-er we all have anxieties about what we’ve done. The only way to come out with a quality product is to face these fears head on, admit your uncertainties and Get Help. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Some of the points above are generic: we’re all worried about character; any of us might have let a plot-thread hang loose.

Some, however, are specific to this particular work. For me it’s the particular rules of the world – the laws of magic, if you’ll permit me such an odious phrase. So when the group meets and I’m confronted with my shortcomings I’ll know to prick up my ears whenever someone mentions what to me are the underlying fundamentals of my world’s backstory. And so on.

That, at least is the plan. But, as we all know, no plans ever survive contact with the enemy.