Stuck in phase space

It would be ‘another day, another dollar’, but sadly economic conditions haven’t been favourable so it’s ‘another week, another dollar.’

Yup, I have another job to fill my time, But that’s okay because I’m getting to read tomorrow’s stories today. And anyway, I’m stuck on Breathing Fire.

It’s a simple thing. I’ve reached the end of a section and don’t know whose head to hop into next. I’ve been rotating nicely through my cast of POV characters. And I know generally where my story’s going. But, for some reason, I’ve hit a hump and can’t think where to go next.

This is where first person has the edge. You’re always in one person’s head and there’s no choice: if you’re writing chronologically – as I do – then the next action is always the next significant experience of that person. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to work out what’s significant and there are plenty of difficulties therein.

But I have about seven different perspectives I can choose from. Which I opt for – well, I really shouldn’t say this, but oftentimes it’s pretty much random. Who hasn’t said much recently? Who’s most interesting? Who’s most active here? There’s just too much choice and often I find myself thinking ‘well, just commit and make it work.’

Have I discussed phase space in these pages before? It’s a concept in physics which is remarkably applicable in storytelling. Put (over) simply, it’s every possible outcome to anything. Start with a great ‘space’: this represents everything in your world of story. Then draw a dot in it: that’s your starting point. Before you lie infinite options. Narrow the choices by selecting genre, setting, mood. Start writing and trace a line across that infinite plane. Ahead of you is everything, but only certain everythings will make sense. Phase space collapses. Options coalesce. The further you get, the more you commit to a plotline or a trope the smaller the arc of infinity that can be chosen from.

This is what I mean when I say ‘phase space collapses’, which I do remarkably often in the privacy of my own head.

If I haven’t rambled about this before it’s because it’s devilish hard to communicate meaningfully, concisely. And I am an idiot. And all I’ve just written is probably entirely incorrect. There’s also no useful – or pretty – images of it either, which is why you’re getting space pics instead.

Anyway, I bring this up because I am stuck. I am nearly at the end of my novel and so phase space is a fairly narrow beam. It should, therefore, be easy to see a way forwards – and, on the broader axis, it is – I know exactly where I’m going.

But it’s like a torchbeam shone upon a distant object: I can see it, the destination, perfectly clearly. But there are mantraps and ditches and tangling roots right at my feet. Do I take my eye off the prize in order to light my path?

Also I am so close to the end that I just want to get there. I want to leap all these obstructions and land hard at the finishing post. But I can’t. I won’t let myself. I have to earn the journey, not skip the effort on the train like some of the first riders of the Tour de France did.

Any now I am stuck. I have too many options. I just need to make myself commit and then run with the consequences. But for now my narrow arc of phase space is open in front of me and, combined with the white blank page of my word processing software, I am frozen into inaction.

Maybe I should just go back to my editing. Plenty to get on with there.

A necessary delusion

I believe in myself. I have to have some sense of self-worth to show the public my face each week, writing and publishing this blog; I have to have some sense of self-belief to submit my writing to publishing houses and agents across the world. Each attempt is a little part of me craving for attention. ‘Look at me! I can do this – in a way that no-one else can.’

Every writer that puts their work out there is the same, and that’s no bad thing. You need a little ego to survive, to push yourself onwards; it’s a bold step, trying to get yourself published, and you need to be bold to make the attempt. But I’m worse.

I read a lot of proofs of novels that are about to hit bookshops. Some of them take my breath away, are so accomplished, so innovative, that I’m in awe of the authors. I read these. I work on them, try and give them that final spit-and-polish so the final product is as perfect as perfect can be. I go through all this, I see all these wonders, and I still think I’m good enough to sit on the bookshelves alongside.

Problem is that self-belief and self-delusion are very hard to distinguish between. I do believe in myself. But I’ve got to weigh that against the fact that I’ve been rejected by hundreds of agents over the years. I just can’t cut it, on that front at least.

So maybe I am delusional.

As time goes by it seems to me that my chances of being taken on by either the publisher of my dreams (to whom I submitted Oneiromancer in their yearly open-submissions period), or the agent with whom I got a personal recommendation, are inexorably slipping away. The former has silence equating failure; the latter… well, no news is bad news?

So: I am delusional. And that’s fine. I will take that delusion and use it for the betterment of mankind. Or at least it’ll make me persist, to keep thrashing on, to keep sending my work out into the world.

The problem is that I believe. I believe in Oneiromancer, even if it has a shonky title, even if it turns out to need a good editing. It’s better than anything I wrote before. And in my belief – in my arrogance – I want it to be read.

I just don’t know how to help that come to pass.

The publisher of my dreams achieved that status by having a great network of nice writers and an excellent social media team. I want desperately to be part of that world. Ego again?

I just want to be read. I desperately wish I could do something to make that happen – something that, hopefully, involves other people doing the marketing work. I’m just no good at it, as can be evidenced by the lack of sales of the otherwise excellent New Gods.

I believe in myself. I am delusional. I just need someone in the business to take a risk on me.

All these things can simultaneously be true.

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.

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!

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.

Let down

Letting people down is the worst part of being a published author/freelance editor. I hate it. But it’s happened before and I’m sure it’ll happen again. It is, in fact, happening right now.

I’m not the sort of celebrity that gets authors’ proofs or advanced-review-copies and are quoted on the front of books to help shift copies. I think you need an agent for that, or at least have some cachet of name. So I don’t have to let people down by failing to read novels and give some soundbite by a specific deadline. But I know that if I was, every book I receive will be an agony of hope. I’d want to read them, and to say something nice, because I want to pay back what I’d like to happen to me. And I like making people happy.

But you can’t possibly read them all, can you? Judging by the few ‘bookmail’ or ‘the ARC pile’ pictures I’ve seen on author’s Twitter, it seems that the elite receive dozens of books a week. Surely they can’t get through that many? Not whilst you’re expected to do your own writing, and (in some cases) a day job and a family?

As I said, this doesn’t affect me yet. I’m neither on nor receiving those piles. But I do have my dues to pay. I’m a member of a manuscript critique group – small, select, and not very busy – and I have a few other friends who have read my works-in-progress and to whom I owe a debt. They have provided me wonderful, perspicacious feedback and I owe them my time in return for what they’ve given to me.

But sometimes…

At the moment I have a 150,000 word novel to get through for said manuscript critique group. I have until the end of the month before we virtually meet to feed back. And I’m not going to get it done.

I have paying work that has a similar deadline and I can’t – or at least I don’t feel I can – get through both. And, at the end of the day, the commercial work takes priority.

But I feel horrible. I owe these people both for past opinions and future readings. And for friendship. I won’t let myself be someone who takes without ever giving back. Sometimes it seems like life is preventing the basics – being nice, being courteous, being human. We must fight against that constriction.

So it’s back to the Editorium I go, hoping to get something done on something.

In the meantime, I practice my excuses; doubtless they’ll stand me in good stead for the future.

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.

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.

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.