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.

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.

More on the morass

Green Morass, by Zdenka Kezele

It is a matter of personal taste: would you like to struggle more with the beginning, the middle, or the end? I know of writers who find getting going excruciating – every word a struggle until enough brain-lubrication has been got down and their pistons can fully come online. The ending – well, I don’t know of anyone who’s fought too badly with this, but presumably there are those who have to hack away with the machete of will to get out of a novel.

Me, I’m a middle man. Specifically, I’m a ‘the bit from 25-40k’ man. It seems like on every novel I get hung up about this point; the words don’t flow no more and every session is a slog. Progress can be measured in paragraphs, not pages, and a decent conversation is a joy as it means you can feel like you’ve really got somewhere, even if the word count is still crawling.

To put it another way – because word-count doesn’t mean all that much, not really – it’s the section from the inciting incident to the central conflict that I really struggle with. To those wot don’t speak Hero’s Journey (or whatever we’re calling it today), the inciting incident is that occurrence that means the central character can’t sit around in their armchair all novel and must go out and do something: their house mysteriously burns down, say, or their attempts to rebuff the kindly old wizard finally come to naught: the band have got together and they’re on their way to adventure.

The central conflict is the conflict at the novel’s heart, where all things flip and the protagonist is sent in a new direction.

It seems that I always struggling with this section. It’s not necessarily that I’m stuck for ideas, though often the slowness is caused by having to think – an occupation of which I Do Not Approve. Rather it’s… Well, I’m, honestly not sure what it is. I just know that, for two novels in a row, I have been pulling words like teeth precisely at this juncture. If I could remember I’d swear it was other novels too.

This is where novels are abandoned. Where they’re set aside ‘to stew’ and never quite get picked up again. Or where a new project suddenly looms on the horizon making all that’s come before seem like a waste of time.

If you are struggling with this, or with any part of your novel, I wish I had answers for you. The only real advice I can give you is to keep going. For each word you write – even the wrong ones – get you closer to the end. You’re not in a race (unless you are). You’re not (usually) writing to a deadline. All progress is good and it does get easier (or so I tell myself). You’ll have good days amidst the struggle, and soon you’ll find that all the hard work has not only moved you forwards considerably, but that now you can ‘write downhill’ and dance through big chunks of story because you’ve done all the hard prep already.

I suppose that’s the real trick of writing. That it has to be done. There may be shortcuts – proper prep and gestational work – that I’m not an expert on, but at the end of the day it comes down to getting the words down on (electronic) paper.

Keep going. No matter how slowly you move, no matter how many hours spent thinking, or not thinking, keep coming back to that manuscript and make words happen.

Soon you’ll be looking back, amazed at how much you’ve done. And eventually you’ll have a finished draft.

First draft morass

First drafting is an inefficient thing. When the initial rush has worn off, when there’s nothing left but vague ideas and you’re stumbling around to try and find a clear path, the clumsiness is clear. The only maps are long out-of-date and the natives none too friendly; forwards a few paces, then sideways, then over a strange fold that seems to take far longer to cross than by rights it should… Inefficient.

Sometimes an inch takes an hour, sometimes you seem to fly. Like a punch-drunk boxer you sway and stagger and when the bell rings for the end of a round it’s all you can do to hope you’ve somehow engaged the enemy.

But the only enemy is the shape of the story in your own mind. Can you design a vessel for the ideas? Can you channel them – whether in a familiar fashion or in a direction you’d completely failed to anticipate – into something story-shaped?

So I trip and I stumble but I keep going forwards. There’s nothing glamourous about this. It’s hardly sitting at a keyboard and letting the fingers dance, as the media would have you believe. It’s stop-start, it’s distraction, it’s having an idea whilst you’re in the middle of another and so you have horrible nesting conversations where no-one gives an answer to the preceding question but is instead discursing on the history of the East India Company.

Conversations especially have a way of getting out of control. Because what you want to say is always hijacked by the characters, how will insist on responding to imagined insults when you’d rather they helped move the plot along.

Writing is a mess. First drafting is a mess. It’s why I so admire people who can plan books out properly and don’t have all this chaos in their life. I’ve never been able to manage it, personally; I always say ‘okay, this will be the novel I outline fully before setting pen to paper’ but it never works – or, at least, I’ve still not found a way to make the actual writing any easier.

At the moment I’m all tangled up in backstory, but the buggers will insist on interrupting, telling things arse-over-tip, and generally being messy. Characters are like that.

I guess I should really try to embrace the chaos, get it all down and tidy during Round 2. But inefficiencies can be paralysing; we can’t do that until this is sorted.

There is no point to any of this. I will struggle onwards because it’s what I do. But my mind is all a bit of a muddle at the moment. I need to remind myself that it does get better – because it surely does. I’m just at that horrible 30k mark, where everything eternally is a slog.

Back to the coalface to chip, chip chip away. I’ll keep going. It’s what I do.

Breathing fire

I am doing some writing.

I know, I know. I’m every bit as surprised as you are. But it‘s true. I’ve finally got a bit of leeway in my schedule (I think – I’m always terribly worried that I’ve either forgotten something or that the jobs I have on my plate will take longer than anticipated) and I’m using it to create.

Breathing Fire is the third in the modern fantasy series that began with Oneiromancer and continued with Our Kind of Bastard. It’s an absolutely pointless thing to write as I have no home, nor even a hope of a home, for the first two books; I should be doing something unique and entirely standalone rather than revisiting old characters.

Well, tish and pshaw to that. This is the book I want to write. And now I’m a self-publishing veteran (if not an earner) there is always that option.

I don’t want to say too much about the story yet, but it revolves around cursed books, grief, terminal (?) insomnia and evil industrialists-cum-venture-capitalists. It’s set in the environs of Bradford, which is where I grew up. I’m fed up of the London-centricness of British novels, which is rich seeing as Oneiromancer was set there. Still: London, Brittany, Bradford – I’m moving things around, at least.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say for now. I’m first drafting, and doubtless what I’m producing is pretty terrible. A first draft is all about getting the story down on paper; of finding steps and mis-steps and of trying not to get too bogged down in a morass of one’s own making.

But it’s fun, and exciting, and though it’s a slog it’s my slog.

*             *             *

For those what missed it I did an interview with the wonderful Runalong Womble the other week. If you want to read about New Gods, about my influences, the problems of writing sci-fi, and my book recommendation for the world, head along here – and check out all of Womble’s other interviews whilst you’re at it.

Oh, and maybe buy and/or review New Gods? Cheers. You’re the best.

La petite mort

The end

The novel is finished. Done. The completed manuscript is on the computer and in the cloud, ready to be chainsawed and steamrollered into some sort of shape. I have 95k words down after the longest period I’ve ever spent on a single draft.

It’s hard to say how I feel about this. A little empty, I guess. This draft has been with me for such a long time that I can barely remember not working on it.

I’m also hyper-aware of all its flaws. Whenever I’ve done first drafts in the past I’ve always felt the arrogance of completion; I’ve always felt like ‘this’ll need a polish and a few coats of paint but it’s otherwise fine. It’s great! The best thing I’ve ever done, hands down.’

This time I don’t feel like that. As I’ve been writing I’ve been aware of all I need to go back for, to retrofit and add in, and, I’m sure, there’ll be bits I need to remove as well. I have produced a mess, an overcomplicated, overwritten heap of words that needs industrial processes to salvage.

Dickens-Great-Expectations

This is in part because it’s the most complex piece of work I’ve ever attempted – it’s much less linear than my previous novels, more of a mystery than an adventure, with several overlapping themes and subplots.

I’m not beating myself up too much about this. I’m sure there’s a good story in what I’ve produced. It’s just not there yet.

The question now is this: do I go straight back to the start and try to fix all my problems, or do I leave it for a few months so I can see it with fresh eyes? All opinion goes with the latter; it must be left to moulder, to be forgotten and revisited afresh. But I am torn. I wonder if I should get straight back into whilst I can remember all that’s wrong with it and try to make good before setting it aside for a while.

It’s not like I don’t have other work to do. I have two other novels to edit and a four-volume epic has just arrived through my commercial editing factory doors.

Maybe I could use a break. I’ve been very close to this work for such a long time, a little recovery time might be wise.

But first I must set down a few notes for future Rob to decipher. That’s the least past Rob can do to make things easier.

Then it’s on to the next thing. For we never rest easy, not in this job.

Write on!

Robin_Triggs_Banner_Twitter

On achievement

Snowdonia

I was thinking the other night. Dangerous, I know, but sometimes unavoidable. And what I was thinking was this: should I get this WIP finished it will be a real achievement.

No novel is easy to write, and whilst I lament the general quality and fear the work I have still to do, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’m 75k words into a story that has no real right to exist. It’s been born out of a breakdown, has suffered through many, many interruptions and re-starts and changes in direction.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve struggled to get into the flow of the story, that I’ve agonised over sections and have taken an age to write single chapters. It should come as no surprise that I’m unhappy with large parts of the narrative, and as for the quality of writing, of course it’s not as good as it can be.

Pratchett quote

Now I’m nearing the end and I’m taking a moment to turn around and cast my eye over the view. I have climbed giddy peaks and it’s time I took a moment to acknowledge the successes. I have done this. I have made it. I have hewn a story out of the very rock; I have mined and delved and, whilst the statue is still rough-carved and ugly, it exists where nothing existed before. And I have done it in the face of many personal and professional difficulties.

It’s easy to be hard on oneself; to feel like you’re never good enough. It’s much harder to see your successes. If you’ve ever written anything, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story, novella, novel or epic, you’ve achieved. Even if it’s objectively not very good, you’ve still worked miracles – and you’ve not lost the potential to make it good, and you’ve not lost all you learned through the process of writing.

And if you’re still in the process of creation and you’re finding it difficult, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your work. It just means you’ve taken on a challenge. Whether it’s just a case of carving out a little piece more every day or if you need a little background noise to die down or you need to take a step back and think about the bigger picture, remember that you’re not in a race and you’re not competing with anyone else.

What you’re doing is beautiful and unique. No-one can do it but you. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Robin_Triggs_Banner_Twitter

The many problems

writing

I am slowly nearing the end of my as-yet unnamed work-in-progress. The end of the first draft, at least; there is much more to do. Here is a brief look at the things that are wrong with it:

  • The subplots are woefully underdeveloped: my serial killer thread needs putting in earlier whilst my Breton court intrigue thread basically needs to be written from scratch
  • Breton court intrigue means introducing a new POV character, which will be fun
  • Writing over a long period like I’ve had to do, what with interruptions and the like, chances are the novel is totally dislocated and misjointed. A general smoothing out is needed
  • And along with that, some threads (character A’s mental state, for example) might not be consistent. Has he shown remarkable improvements between scenes?
  • It’s about 20,000 words too short
  • Most of the words are wrong. The first draft is about getting the plot and themes down, not about finding les bon mots. The actual writing will need to be mostly rewritten
  • Speaking of bon mots, there’s a significant amount of French in this novel. It needs checking to make sure I’ve not accidentally insulted the whole of the nation. Or simply embarrassed myself
  • Similarly, this novel is set in Brittany. I need to check I’ve not inserted details that make no sense in this foreign milieu, or created a landscape that a French person would immediately recognise as fake. This includes descriptions of architecture and social concepts like fairs and markets and those that embody both like industrial estates
  • Some ideas – like the name of the bar and the fact that there’s a stream running through the (fictitious) town – have only occurred to me late on in the process and need retrofitting into earlier parts
  • Characters B and C have far too little to do. Given they’re the ones with extraordinary powers you’d think they’d be front and centre in this novel, but they’re very much background. I need to decide what to do about this
  • Did I mention it’s about 20k words too short?
  • It needs a name

Tom Gauld bad writing

@ Tom Gauld

Doubtless there’s a lot more problems than this; this is simply all I can think of off the top of my head. It’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?

First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect and this one certainly isn’t. I’m a long way short of where I want to be – I want to write a brilliant, compelling story and there are way too many holes in this one to be even of acceptable standard.

But I do have a framework. And hopefully some of the writing will stand up to scrutiny, serving at least as a scaffold to hang better words upon.

So there is hope. There is hope, and there is belief. I have nothing to be proud of but proud still I am: I have nearly completed a draft of a novel and that’s no small achievement.

So onwards I go! Onwards, to write the climax and the denouement – and this’ll take me months – and then it’ll be time to set the darn thing aside for a time.

Then the real work will begin as I try and fix the many problems I’ve saddled myself with.

The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.