The wrong side of the tracks

By the time you read this I shall be in sunny Norfolk on my hols. Yes, even us artists need time off. I’m writing this the week before in order to plug the gaping absence in your life that this blog doubtless fills.

After last week’s mirth-packed delve into the world of finance, let’s get back to Breathing Fire. Despite my time being mostly taken up with commercial editing, I have been managing to burgle odd half-hours, sometimes more, on this manuscript. It currently sits at 80k words, that tasty milestone hit earlier today, and I reckon there’s around another 10k to go.

I’m having fun, folding my own traumas into the text and building up – trying to build – a close relationship with all of the characters, main or otherwise.

Problem is, the scenario I now find myself heading towards is nothing like the one I imagined when I was first setting out to write this benighted novel.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in this case the enemy is the actual writing of the tale. I don’t know about you, but when I’m envisioning a story I have fairly strong mental images of certain scenes, be they big key set-pieces or more transitional sections. I have pictures and moods in my mind.

And then I try and turn them into a story. And it never works.

Stories need logic. They need reality. The characters have to go from place to place and those places need to connect somehow, even if that’s in the most nebulous way imaginable. I need to describe things that existed previously as mere ‘vibes’; and as they’re described they become more solid, more vital. And – sometimes – the environments you describe become almost players in the game in their own right.

And once they ‘exist’ they have to be respected. They’ll have their own parts to play in your story.

Example: a lot of Breathing Fire is set in and around an old converted cotton mill. I established this as canon a long time ago, replacing the original idea of climaxing, if you’ll forgive the expression, in a shopping centre.

Which is good, which is great. But now I find I need to build in a lot of the immediate surroundings – streets, houses, cafes, bus stops. Things in which we can lurk. With me so far?

Well I’ve down all this and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re entirely on the wrong side of the street. We’re on the wrong side of the railway. We’re on the wrong side of the river. All my angles of approach are askew.

How can this be when it’s all coming straight out of my imagination in the first place?

It’s because of those pesky characters, demanding I set in stone the vague outlines I had originally envisioned. As the action has progressed I’ve had to draw more and more explicit details and push further and further from my original plan.

Seriously, it’s getting ridiculous. I really should have drawn a map. Would probably have saved me a lot of sweating and/or swearing. But there is something to be said of allowing these ‘errors’ in a first draft and only really tightening the strings subsequently.

What all this does, this turning of ephemeral majesty into lumpen stone, it changes the story itself. In my original mental outline I had my characters crossing a railway line from a junkyard into an area of decayed terracing. Now, as I actually write the damn thing, I have my characters still crossing that rail line – it’s one of the keynote actions in my mind, even if it is, in plot terms, entirely superfluous – but this time they’re going from perfectly adequate terrace housing to an area of… something else. Warehousing, perhaps.

I didn’t plan this, or a thousand other changes. It happened – it’s happening – because the act of writing takes ideas and smashes them against the reality that your story is making. Holding too tight to an idea makes for forced, bulging plot-devices and ugly transitions. A little flexibility is needed to collapse phase-space into manageable bites.

Does any of this make sense?

Maybe I should just have drawn a map before I started out. Problem is that I didn’t really know what areas I needed to draw.

Anyway, I’m on holiday at the moment, so you can all complain about me in my absence.

Happy writing!

State of play

This week I have been mostly editing, and thus not writing. Some weeks are like that. Just got to take it and keep snatching the time where you can. And, of course, it means I don’t have much to say.

It appears as if the game-writing gig is off. Corporate politics – or possibly just determined accountancy – has doomed it. And that’s okay. I didn’t have the chance to blot my copybook, so I escape with my reputation – such as it is – intact. The money would have been nice, but it would have been a bonus, not an essential. I’m back to having just the three jobs instead of four, and I might just get Breathing Fire finished before the year turns.

Truth is that I should get it done a long way before that, but it doesn’t feel that close to resolution at the moment. This is partly because I’m deep in editing; right now I have a deadline breathing down my neck and I’m really burgling the time to write this now. Mainly it’s because I don’t have that clear an idea of where I’m going or how to get there.

I mean, that’s not entirely strictly true. I do know where I’m going. I’m working to climax no. 2, and then the denouement, and then done. I know a few key things that I want to happen along the way. Problem is that I don’t have a physical location tied down, so I have to do a lot of thinking along the way. I know roughly what has to happen – the vanquishment of the antagonists – but not exactly how.

Thinking: the curse of my life. I’d really much rather drift through and let other people make all the important decisions, thank you very much. I don’t know why I do this to myself.

Anyway, the final completion of this virgin draft seems a long way away. The individual writing sessions, when I can actually find the time to do any, are actually coming along quite nicely. Just a few days ago I was having fun winding a little of my own personal history into a character’s mouth. I do that every now and again, just ‘gift’ the character a little memory of something that once happened to the author. It’s a bit like cheating, as really these things should be born of pure imagination – or so I hear – but it’s also convenient, easy, fun, and possibly a cheap form of therapy.

So life is pretty slow, pretty heavy, pretty hot right now – but still I’m pretty sanguine. All it takes is hard work and the necessary intellectual heavy lifting. And then, before you know it, you have a completed novel.

I can barely remember the last time I completed a book of my very own. I spend most of my time in other people’s.

Onwards!

Reflections

Not for the first time I appear to find myself in a holding pattern. Unable to move forwards, what with this and that, and unable to find a good circumnavigation; I am locked into an editing loop and can’t free much time for original writing.

Not that things are going backwards. I am still making – generally – decent progress in the game of life. I have my WIP and I’m trying to eke out odd half-hours to move it onwards. Problem is that, really, you can’t do much in stolen half-hours. By the time you’ve locked in to where you are, who’s in a particular scene and what motives they may have your time’s up. I even forgot a major character’s name last session because it’d been so long since she’d spoken.

At the end of the day, if you’ve written 100 words then you’ve made decent progress. 300 words is a win.

Truth is, of course, that any progress – even if that’s a negative word-count – is good. Anything to either claw your way closer to the finish, or that makes the writing better, is good. Personally I think I find 2-hour sessions to be optimum. Not so short that you spend all the time recapping; not so long as to melt the brain. I do (very) occasionally indulge myself in all-day sessions but I find that the breaks lengthen and the intensity wears off past a certain point.

Which is, of course, absolutely fine. It’s not like I’m working to a deadline here or anything. Would that I were; that’d mean that someone, somewhere, was wanting to read my words.

Speaking of deadlines and of people wanting to read my words, the job writing for computer games seems to have been delayed. There’s a chance it might be cancelled completely. Sorry to tease, but them’s the corporate breaks. I’m not too fussed, to be honest. I’d like to do it, but I’m a bit of a clew of anxiety about the whole thing, and it’s not like I’m sitting on my hands waiting. I have a big ball o’ editing to keep me busy.

And, of course, I have a WIP to finish – in, it seems, 100-word bites. I’m going to finish this because I want to, but I still don’t know what to do with the trilogy. Assuming none of the irons-in-fires (submissions) comes to pass – and I have no reason to think they will, nor that I’ll hear anything but silence – then I have five years’-plus work with nothing to show for it. I have tinkered with the idea of making – or trying to make – Breathing Fire work as a standalone, or retool it to be the first in the trilogy, and then try to sell that.

But that seems like a lot of work. I am, generally, opposed to hard work.

Another option is to self-publish. A third is to simply park this trilogy and work on something else. I’ve no idea what that ‘else’ would be right now.

Anyway. I’ve some good friends, and did I mention all the editing I have to do? That’ll have to see me for now.

Happy writing, everyone.

The home straight

I am on the home straight now. I’ve done Climax 1. I just have Climax 2 and the denouement to go and then – happy days – Breathing Fire will exist. It’ll be in the form of a completed draft and, though there’ll be so many edits to go and the whole beta-reading corrections and many more shenanigans between here and publication, I’ll have a fully-formed story in my metaphorical hands.

This is, of course, something to celebrate. And, indeed, I’m holding hard to that image. But I’m not there yet.

Maybe ‘home straight’ is the wrong image. I’m on the home section of switchbacks; the final labyrinth of a whole series of deadly mazes.

I am the furthest I’ve been from my starting point and so my original outlining was vaguest here. I roughly know what I want to achieve – a hunt, a chase, a final face-off before bittersweet victory – but I’ve got many streets still to navigate. I need to assemble, array and vanquish my forces. I need to block out every step, to storyboard (would that I could) the stages before the final curtain.

So I am nearly finished, in terms of wordcount, of stages left of this bedarned novel. But there is so much more left to do in terms of actual work. I will spend disproportionate amounts of time staring blankly at the manuscript, or at Twitter, or other forms of procrastination. I will, I know, operate in single sentences, or odd paragraphs, without getting anywhere near into a flow.

This is how it works. Or how I work, I should say, for I can only speak for myself. The more the pieces need assembling, the slower the process. And this is no bad thing.

What is a bad thing – from the point of view of finishing Breathing Fire – is that I am still enmeshed in all the other things that need doing as a priority. I have an edit to do. I have a day-job. I have a baby. That whole ‘real life’ thing continues to roll over me.

And then there is the whole new writing job that I’ve signed up to. No longer merely hanging over my head at some vague point in the future, that is about to kick in. I shall have to produce copy – quality words – to a deadline, and I shall have to do it week in, week out, for a year or thereabouts.

That isn’t to say that it’s all stop in my individual creative endeavours, but there has to be a working-in period, a period of stress and anxiety that I can’t look past right now.

Plus I’ll still be working on my editing, plus day-job, plus baby, plus all that ‘real-life’ stuff.

So forgive me if I’m not celebrating just yet. I have so much to do, a whole 3D maze of labyrinths to navigate. As I said before, I’ll be doing well if I can get this 1st draft done this side of Christmas.

I want to get it done, though. I will get it done. Because Breathing Fire is still a thrill to me. It could be the best thing I’ve written – it might not, of course, and of course the whole ‘re-drafting’ thing, but still. I want to get on with that process.

It’s been such a long time since I started, I can’t even remember half the story.

Fun days lie ahead. And that’s only half sarcastic.

Days of grace

The major life event has occurred. I am in an odd period of calm, balanced with anxiety, as I try and finish up as many little outstanding jobs as possible before the anxiety becomes overwhelming I really get into the new task that lurks on the horizon.

Thus am I back, for a short period of time, in the Editorium, working on a structural edit and trying to squeeze in the odd half-hour on Breathing Fire. Yes, I still have ambitions – though, now, I feel like I’ll be lucky to get it done this side of 2023.

It’s nearly finished! It really is. I have written – or loosely drafted, at least – the pre-climax, the first bit of action that precedes the final conflict. Now I’m just at the little valley that runs between the two sections; a place for emotional regatherings, a catching of metaphorical breaths before I try and pick up the pace again before the end.

And then it’ll be time for the denouement which, in my mind, will involve still more death and destruction, because I’m just like that. Because that’s what the story is telling me it needs.

But I have a lot of other things on my plate right now. The major life event has major consequences and the family needs a presence beyond the merely physical. Then there’s paid employment – I’m so busy with this writing life that sometimes I manage to forget I have a day-job at all.

This is good. Things are positive (apart from the aforementioned anxiety). I just need to get on and do.

Which is why I am, as ever, trying to make hay in this grace period I find myself in. I don’t know how long it will last – not long enough – and then inevitably I’ll have to reprioritise and the writing will have to take a back seat again.

Such is life: the reward for hard work is, has always been, will always be, more work.

Anyway, I’m tired and I have a lot to do. So be off with you. I’ll catch you again next week when hopefully I have more to say.

Turn left

Things have changed, and the change, as such things often do, happened quickly. Last Thursday I was a moderately unsuccessful writer, a wannabee, a striver with a nearly completed second trilogy I’ve been struggling to place, and a freelance editor. Then, come a series of DMs on Friday, I find myself as a (paid) writer on a computer game.

How did this happen? I guess it comes down to ‘friend of a friend’ thing. Or networking. Or being, to some extent not for me to judge, ‘nice’. Put another way, I got lucky.

What does this mean? Well, that’s a little more complex – I don’t really know. In simple terms it means that I have to combine a new job alongside my existing part-time employment, my editing, and my childcare duties and general familyship. I’d also like to keep a little time for working on my own projects, but we’ll have to see how it all breaks down. Basically I’ll be writing to order, composing text on someone else’s outline and characters.

But I had to accept the invitation. Not just for money – in fact, money was one of the least considerations, so long as I’m not being exploited or doing other writers out of their fair share – but for my own ambitions. It’s a new opportunity – a chance to learn, to experience a new form and field of writing.

When I was a teenager, besotted by all things Games Workshop, it was my deepest dream to be a games designer. This is not that job. But it’s the closest I’ve come, writing dialogue and helping shape plot on what will hopefully be a not inconsiderable commercial release. It’s a chance for me to trial the field, see if it’s something I want to delve deeper into.

It’s also my first real experience of team-writing; of being part of a group all trying to be heard and to shape the narrative together. How can I turn down the chance to test these waters and see if it’s for me?

Part of me feels like I’m betraying myself, and betraying you, dear readers. This might wipe out my own ego-driven ideals and ambitions and ultimately – for a year, at least – halt my attempts to get a release with my name on it. That’s still what I really want.

I’m still me. I’m still going to be doing my best to get this blog out each week – hopefully finding interesting things to say (no promises). But today feels a little different. Like I have, in fact, been changed by circumstance; hard to quantify the qualia but it’s there, like it never was when I became a published author. Then I was just another jobbing author whose primary emotion was disbelief that anyone could take a chance on me. Now I feel like all the certainties have been washed away.

The job won’t start in earnest for a few weeks, so for now it’s time to finish up on the deadlines and try, try, try to get Breathing Fire at least within spitting distance of completion.

it’s down to me to make sure I’m not taking on too much, that I still have time for my family, that I don’t ignore my own writing brand on the journey.

However things go I’ll do my best to keep you posted, my wonderful friends.

Out of time

There is a major life event approaching, and I’m not just talking about the climax to Breathing Fire. I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but I was desperately hoping to be able to get the novel done before the onset of Doom. Or at least in the post-Doom aftermath. Seems like that’s not going to happen now.

Another paying job has arrived, which is great because a) money, b) I generally enjoy my editorial work, and c) it’s always nice to be wanted. Never take me seriously when I grumble about having too much on my plate. I do enjoy it, and I’m proud of having built up a little sideline, even to the point of being a go-to guy for a major(ish) publishing company, that keeps my head about financial waters and keeps me out of mischief.

But I am sick of not having finished my novel yet. I started it in April 2021 (if not before; this blog is woefully short on actual facts), and that was based on a dream I had in the summer of 2020 (I think). This has been the longest I’ve ever spent on a draft and that’s mostly because I’ve had to spend so much time on Other Things. Some of these are worthwhile (publishing New Gods, for example). Others… well, others have been necessary.

I am frustrated. Especially since this latest interruption comes as I feel like I was just – finally! – getting to grips with what I was attempting to do. I am climaxing, and enjoying the blocking out of action, the collapsing of phase space, and the culmination of what I’ve spent the last year building up to.

There was even a moment of fire-breathing in a novel called Breathing Fire. Only took 60k words to get there.

But there’s no point in complaining. Ain’t nobody going to care. Ain’t nobody going come take my burdens off me. I could have turned down the work; really it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

So all I can do is get on with the work. And, in the back of my mind, I’ve always got the fact that I have a trilogy (almost) written but nothing to do with it. No publisher, no agent, no way of getting it out to the great and the good. Ambition aplenty; at present no hope.

So I guess it really doesn’t matter whether I complete Breathing Fire tomorrow or a decade hence. ‘S gonna be done because I have a story to tell. How to get it to you? That’s another problem entirely.

En avant!

I have flown

I have flown. I have ridden the updrafts and I’ve soared. Now I fall back to earth.

It’s been a week. I have been ill. I have deadlines. I have done no writing creatively at all – maybe a paragraph on the side, but that’s all.

I’m at a difficult stage of the novel, now. The tension has been ramped. The action is underway – though not always combatty-shooty-explodey action. There’s a lot of small, slow movements woven in, and perhaps a surprising amount of observation and ‘feelings’. For action without consequence is simply empty and cold. There must be ramifications and they only mean something to the reader if they mean something to the characters.

That’s what I think, anyway.

I have a horrible twin-peaked mountain to climb; a double-climax with only a brief, small valley in between. Although I have some idea what’s got to happen, my original outline (which I’ve barely kept to anyway) says only things like ‘and the building burns down’ without going into any details, any of the mechanics. Past Rob left it up to his future compatriot to work out the specifics.

Which is fine. I have room to dream, room to imagine – I’ve always said that I’m neither a pantser (horrible word) nor a planner. I know where I’m going. I may even know how to get there. I just don’t know which specific bus I’m going to get, or what platform the train leaves from. As phase space collapses, so my ideas get more specific; so the next section comes into tighter focus.

It’s the way I work, and – generally speaking – I’m content. But, faced with the almighty task that’s rearing up in front of me, I doubt my own ability. I doubt whether I have the willpower to scale this particular Alp.

Of course, the best way to do any such task is to take one step at a time, looking ahead (or up) only so far as to plan routes and ensure that no dead-ends are reached. Each step will (hopefully) get me closer to completion. Each word written is one another that I won’t now have to agonise other. Small joys, small victories.

This is, of course, true about any writing activity. One could quite easily write this piece about the very opening of the novel, when the whole mountain range stretches out in front of you. And it’s true that Breathing Fire seems to have been a particular slog; the downslopes have been few and far between.

But that’s okay. I’m still here. Still working, when I get the chance. And I will get it done.

I also have optimism that what I’m writing is worthwhile. Just because the birthing has been tough doesn’t mean that the baby won’t be a thing of wonder. I believe in what I’m doing. Just wish it’d come a little easier, that’s all.

But I’m still here. And I will get the work done.

Just as soon as this latest deadline is out the door…

The blessed relief

The blessed relief. To remember what it’s like to be able to set words down on paper, to enter a loose facsimile of a ‘flow state’; in short to rediscover the joy in writing.

Regular readers will know that this has been something of an angst-station for some time now. I have been trying, and I have been trying, and I have been trying; but I have been swimming uphill against the tides of Breathing Fire and I have had to gouge every word from basalt with only my fingernails.

I finally found my flow, just yesterday, and though I only ran for around 1.5k words, those words felt glorious.

By way of contrast, when I was working on the Anders Nordvelt trilogy, and on Oneiromancer, I was regularly – okay, occasionally – getting 3k down in sessions little over an hour. Doing half that yesterday took me a whole afternoon.

The thing, though, is this: that means nothing.

Editors, or the reading public at large, don’t care just how painful a novel is to produce. They don’t care whether or not its creation was a joy or a soul-rending suffering and, by all accounts, they can’t tell the difference anyway. The likelihood is that I produced 1.5k words of rubbish. And it’s equally likely that the words I spent so much soul-energy tapping out, one scratchy, thrice-reconsidered word at a time, is likely to be just as poor.

First-drafting is hard and painful or it’s a free-flowing joy; more often it’ll be both, at different times, or will elide between them so you can’t really tell where one level begins and ends. It’s not about putting good words down, about finding that perfect prose. Even poetry – though I’ve no doubt there are exceptions for those more talented than I – in my experience was all about the editing, not the initial framing.

But you can’t do that editing until that initial framework exists. The first draft remains the most important, which is why I tend to bang on about it. It’s why I keep going even when I feel that I’m producing nothing but hot filth. Was it Neil Gaiman who said, once, that one of the most important things is to finish the damn thing? You can make a bad thing good but it has to be there, to exist somewhere other than in the fastness of one’s skull, in order to heat it and beat it with the Great Blacksmithing-cum-Editorial Hammer of Truth.

So it’s entirely possible that the work I’ve been agonising over will turn out to be better than that which flew from the fingers. How it got onto the page really, really doesn’t matter.

But getting into the flow state feels good.

If nothing else, that brief taste, that brief dip of the toe into the white waters of creation – well, it reminds me of why I’m doing this.

To quote Elbow: ‘One Day Like This a year would see me right’.

Now I must descend back into the world I’ve created to try and hack my way to the end. I’m under no illusions: it’s not going to magically become easier now I’ve had my taste of glory. There are deep plottish issues that I must work out. The vague idea I’m holding in my head for the climax will not survive contact with the enemy. The problems I’ve foreseen remain, and a brief taste of joy doesn’t actually give any answers.

But, after months and months of striving, I finally cast off my stabilisers – just for one liberating moment – and I flew.

Ain’t nothing like creation, baby.

Feelings and fragments

What am I doing right now? Apart from being interrupted frequently with that pesky old ‘real life’ thing – the need to earn a crust, for example – I am mostly concentrating on Breathing Fire. Whilst Oneiromancer is out on submission (to all of two places) I am working on its second sequel. And, as I have frequently complained in these very pages, it has been a long and difficult road.

From being worried about my well of inspiration to it becoming the longest first-drafting process I’ve (yet) experienced, Breathing Fire has been a struggle. And yet I don’t feel any resentment towards it. It’s not my problem child – that was the novel that eventually became Human Resources. The writing, when I’ve been able to get down to it, has been steady.

Of course it may be that hindsight shows me for a fool. But, at present, I am oddly well-disposed to the beast. No matter that I’ve had to fight for time, that I’ve yet to find my flow, I feel good about the project. It will be done; no matter how long it takes or where it takes me, I believe in it.

And that’s a little odd, because I have no real basis for my belief. When I wrote Oneiromancer I had the real sense that I was making words good: that I had ‘levelled up’ and was creating something that I couldn’t have done before. I don’t have this feeling now. What I do feel is that I’ve got a little more weight of experience both as a writer and a reader, a little more self-awareness and – yes – maybe I have got a little more skilled at setting down the words.

But this is a first draft, and the real skill is in the editing. When I finally get this stage complete and I turn to look at myself in the mirror, that’s when ‘quality of writing’ can be measured. All I have at the moment is the vaguest of feelings, almost an itch, that gives the sense that this is worth doing.

That and the plot I have in mind, which still interests me even as I spin it from the air. If book one was about creating the world, and book two (Our Kind of Bastard) was about almost malevolent glee in misdirection, book three is about… what? About cruelty and indifference, I guess. It’s leaner, hungrier and more desperate than its predecessors, I think.

I’m talking in vague terms, I know; descriptions that are almost worthless on their own. Feelings rather than fragments. I could talk at length about what happens in the story; or maybe I should just shut up and finish the damn thing, only open up about it then.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still here, still writing. And maybe – just maybe – it’s actually worth the effort.