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.

On reviews

Night Shift has hit a milestone. We have – at last count – 53 reviews on Amazon. Most are favourable, which is nice. But I wonder, why do we care? Why do authors fret so about words that are often tossed out there without too much consideration or deep thought (with apologies to serious book reviewers and, indeed, anyone who really works out how they want to help others who may be wondering if a certain book is for them)?

Partly, of course, its ego; a desire for one’s work to be appreciated and to reassure them that they can write. More pertinently it’s because we live in fear of the dreaded algorithm.

Some websites begin to promote books that get more reviews higher up on lists; they’re more likely to be shown in ‘Other people read’ screens and similar. The more reviews we get – good or bad – the more visibility our work receives. Success breeds success. It ain’t right, but there it is.

I’m no expert on these things. I just know that it’s nice to find that people are still discovering and reading. After being dropped by the publisher and having abandoned all hope of royalties or a great film/television adaptation bonus, it’s terribly reassuring to find that my little novel still has a life out there. Maybe I’m premature in dismissing my chances of earning out after all.

Human Resources, on the other hand, has only one Amazon review. That seems to have disappeared without trace.

But the thing about modern times – when books can be printed on demand, and e-books exist, and the internet seems both endless and eternal, is that these figures can only ever go up. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly seems that way. I don’t need to fear being remaindered or my work becoming unavailable. Time can bring only more sales.

Because, as I said, it’s always nice to know my stuff is being read and I’m not simply pissing into the void. Money – material reward – is almost irrelevant. I want people to read and enjoy my stuff. And I want my future writings to find a market.

Which leads me onto asking why we do this. I love writing, except when I hate it and will do anything to avoid it, and I’m determined to make everything I do the best it can possibly be. Money, material reward, isn’t what I do this for, though – and don’t get me wrong, here – it is nice.

I digress. The fact is, reviews matter to authors. It (sometimes) makes us feel good. It helps our sales. It gives that word-of-mouth, that we rely on, a little boost. We the majority aren’t backed by great publicity campaigns. It’s generally us on our tod battling various degrees of social anxiety trying to do our best to get books into brains.

And of course they help other readers even more than it helps us.

So: do your good deed for the day. Find a book you’ve loved and tell people about it.

On blurbs

So. Blurbs. In another week of not getting anything very productive done (sick child and imminent deadline) I turn my mind to blurbing – writing the copy that traditionally goes on the back cover of one’s book. If you’re successful your blurb may consist only of a list of other notables saying great things about you and your work. For the rest of us it’s possibly the hardest thing you’ll have to write. Harder, even, then the accursed synopsis.

A good blurb introduces the scene, the major characters and, perhaps most importantly, it sets the tone. It should tell people this is the sort of thing they’re looking for, whether they knew it or not. In these days of thumbnail covers and mobile-phone screens, a good blurb is a key weapon in the armoury of marketing.

All at 150 words max.

As a baby writer, I was somewhat surprised to realise that I was expected to write this myself. I assumed the editor or some underpaid underling would take on the task. Then I was even more surprised when my putative copy made it onto the back on my novel without e’en a comma, a character, changed.

Of course, your experience may vary. But I did it all myself, and have no-one else to blame for their shortcomings.

So Night Shift can still be found with the following:

Antarctica. A mining base at the edge of the world.

Anders Nordvelt, last-minute replacement as head of security, has no time to integrate himself into the crew before an act of sabotage threatens the project. He must untangle a complex web of relationships from his position as prime suspect.

Then a body is found in the ice. Systems fail as the long night falls. Now Anders must do more than find a murderer: he must find a way to survive.

Will anyone endure the night shift, or will ice and frozen corpses be all that remains?

96 words. Human Resources’ blurb was a whole 4 words longer, coming in at exactly 100:

Antarctica. A city on the edge of nowhere.

Anders Nordvelt is chief of security in this frozen land, so, when a prominent member of a dissident group is murdered, it is his job to find the killer. Unsatisfied with the obvious explanation, Anders keeps pushing until the body of a colleague turns up in his apartment.

Could Anders really be the killer? Why does he half-remember wielding the knife? And why are the whispers of a fabled Human Resources black-ops team getting ever louder?

As for Anders, he’s about to enter a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a ruthless killer.

I’m not ready to unleash New Gods’ blurb upon you yet. It’s still a work in progress. I can’t get it right, though I’m getting close, I think.

On paper, writing a blurb is a tiny job, almost an afterthought. After slogging away for 75-80k words, what’s another 150 on top of that? But those final words, they have a weight, a difficulty, far beyond their characters. There’s so much to say and such little space in which to say it; so much to convey and such little time to create a voice.

Still, it must be done. And there ain’t no-one gonna do it for me.

Character flaw

One of the biggest, most consistent criticisms from my recent beta-readings of Our Kind of Bastard was that my characters were too sketchy. Too hard to really get to grips with, to really feel for; to make matter. This I put down to the complications of writing a sequel. It’s a lot easier to blame that then it is to blame my shortcomings as a writer, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Sequel-writing is difficult. You have to assume the reader has either not read the previous or has read it and then forgotten all they learnt. No spoilers are allowed, nor can you repeat what has gone before. When I was drafting OKOB I chose semi-consciously to ignore backstory, to just forge ahead and let my character’s personalities come out with actions rather than explanations.

This obviously hasn’t worked. So now one of my most pressing jobs is to go back and insert individuality into the gaps I left.

Except I didn’t leave any obvious gaps. There are very few ‘insert backstory here’ places that leap out at me as I reread. Instead I must seek out opportunities to crowbar in the requisite information.

And sometimes it means telling, not showing. Perhaps that’s the hardest thing of all – to drop my demonstrative principles and simply announce how people are feeling, and why they’re feeling it, is tough. I don’t know how far I can go before it becomes too much, too obvious.

This isn’t my first sequel, but it does seem like the first time I’ve had this particular problem. With Human Resources I had to add the happenings of the first novel without being too explicit, and that was difficult enough. But I didn’t have the issues of character.

I think that’s because HR was written in 1st person, and so we constantly had telling – protagonist Anders’ thoughts were always front and foremost and so we had access to how he felt about the people around him – an extra layer to reinforce their actions.

Our Kind of Bastard is not only 3rd person but freely hops from character to character. That means we share less intimacy with each person. I’m thinking it gives a more nuanced perspective of how events unfold, and allows me, the author, to show the reader just what I want them to see. Hopefully this will make a rounded, cinematic experience. But, as I’m learning, there are perils.

So what do I do? Well, I guess I wield my crowbar and my hammer with gleeful abandon. I say more what people are thinking. I share more with the reader, especially early in the novel when they’re still forming their perspectives.

Apart from that, I guess the onus is on me to become a better writer.

Cover issues

Had another battering from writing group yesterday, but I don’t think I need to go into that right now. I need more time to decompress. So instead I shall return to the vexed issue of self-publishing.

Now that I’ve committed – in mind if not in money – to the project, I need to follow through and make sure it happens and that it happens well as I possibly can make it. I’ve been worrying at the issue with a little reading and it seems like the following stages are pretty much nailed down:

  • Writing the damn book
  • Editing the same
  • Get cover designed
  • Format the interior layout
  • Publish
  • Market

But the more you read into it, the more difficult each section seems to become. The big problem I have is that most resources seem to focus intensely on the marketing of the novel and neglect the technical aspect: just how does one prepare a manuscript for publication?

Luckily, this is where the lovely community that I mentioned last week comes in. I’ve been fortunate to get lots of help and advice and I know I can turn to friends for assistance.

As for New Gods, I’ve already completed the first two steps. I have a product ready to publish. Now I need to commit to a cover designer, and this is where all terrors stalk me. I’ve been put on to reedsy.com, which is, apparently, where all editors and designers hang out, just awaiting your special commission.

Unfortunately I’m awful at making big decisions. I’d much rather trust word of mouth that go through a big, impersonal site, even if there are artist’s portfolios just awaiting my attention.

There’s also the question of timescale. Getting a cover takes time – an artist can’t just drop everything to get immediately to your (fairly minor) commission. I’ve been quoted a turnaround of six months, which is probably perfectly reasonable and not atypical but which needs to be accounted for.

Fortunately I have time. Human Resources was only published in November and I figure October/November is not a bad time to aim for to publish its follow-up. I have to think in such terms in order to make this a proper business project.

Project management – another skill that the self-publisher must learn in order to produce a successful project.

I also have to produce something that matches in style the previous two volumes in the trilogy. I need an artist who’s prepared to be constrained by my history, and that (I imagine) is not a little thing in itself.

And that’s it for now – another week, another round of musings. If I actually resolve any of these issues, you’ll be the first to know. Promise.

UPDATE: I have chosen a cover designer. I have been in contact with her and she’s agreed to take on the project. This might actually happen!

Dropped

It’s finally happened. It’s over.

How to talk about this without overstating or making this into a bigger thing than it is? First of all, the bald facts: I have been dropped by my publisher. They have decided that sales of Night Shift and Human Resources aren’t good enough to justify picking up the third novel in my Antarctic trilogy and have decided to move on from me.

This is perfectly fair and, really, it’s hard to argue against. I too have been disappointed with sales (of NS; I’ve not seen any for HR yet) and I suppose the writing has been on the wall. I bear no ill-will to the publishers and wish them well. They gave me my chance and – hey – there’s nothing to say I’ll never work with them in the future. I still want people to rush out and buy my books from them!

My publisher’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of writing; they were keen to emphasise that. It’s purely a business decision, and I respect that.

But it is heartbreaking. I feel like my career is done. I don’t know what to do with myself.

Most immediately, I have the third book in a trilogy that I desperately want to get out there. I feel it’s the best in the series and provides a neat, satisfying climax to the story of Anders Nordvelt. Without it I’ll always feel like my work is incomplete – because it is. I want readers to know that there is an ending; there is happiness, of a sort, for my protagonist.

I have also lost my safety net. I have another complete, ready-to-go novel that I’ve been unsuccessfully hawking to agents. This now becomes my primary weapon. I now should be putting it out to publishers as well – but now I feel a much greater vulnerability. Without the option of Flame Tree Press, I feel rejection to a much greater degree, especially if my primary choice, the company for whom I do most editorial work, should take a look and turn me down.

I don’t dare send it out. I can’t bear the pain.

So it feels like my career is over. And I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Blog tour

Hello all!

It’s been a busy week for me, what with Human Resources being released and all. So I don’t have much to say right now (other than that, if you missed the news, Human Resources is out now – please consider thinking about picking up a copy), except that I should be in the middle of a blog tour as we speak.

Now I confess to not knowing much about blog tours, but if you check out any of the contributing websites on the appropriate dates or after, you should see reviews or other features on the book. Which of course I urge you all to do forthwith.

And that’s all for now, save to say that, if you missed it, I put a chapter of the aforementioned novel on YouTube, if you wish to see my particularly bouffant beard in all its glory. Check it out to hear me reading and to get a taste of Human Resources.

See you all next week!

x

Human Resources is out now!

It’s here! It’s now! It’s out! Hopefully, by the time you’ve read this, your copy will either have already reached you or be in some kind postie’s knapsack, rapidly approaching your doorstep.

If you’ve not got a copy on pre-order, let me assure you that Human Resources is very much available from all good booksellers – go indie if possible, but I’m not going to Amazon-shame anyone – and is not only an excellent read but also makes an excellent Christmas present for all.

Four days to go!

Four days to go! It’s still not too late to pre-order; get your shiny new book on release day by asking of any good bookseller or, failing that, Amazon.

Normally I’d be desperately promoting my new release through the odd bookshop signing, convention attendance and as many radio interviews as I can possibly con my way onto. This time around there is much less for me to do.

Which is not to say that my publishers have been sitting on their thumbs all this time. There are review copies out in the wild; there is a blog-tour in the planning; there are many other things behind the scenes that I am barely aware of. All to sell my book. Bless them.

But it feels a little odd to be sitting here doing virtually nothing. I should be out there! I should be helping! My face – or at least voice – should be ubiquitous throughout the etherwaves. It’s an odd feeling, becalmed, itching to crack on and yet unable to do anything.

We live in interesting times. There are bigger things going on in the world. Nothing to do but suck it up.

Still: only four days to go before the release of some excellent lockdown reading. Don’t miss out!

On point of view

Getting close now! Just 11 days until Human Resources is unleashed on an unsuspecting world! So here is the fourth and – unless popular demand makes me write more – the last in my special blog-posts on different aspects of the novel. If you missed the earlier parts you can read about my characters here, my ideas about plotting here, and all about the novel’s setting here.

This week we’re looking at point of view – POV. A bit more esoteric, perhaps, but hopefully just as interesting and with as many insights about my writing process as the other posts.

I really hope these articles have got you as excited as I am for Human Resources. As ever, if you want to comment please feel free, either below or on Twitter @RobinTriggs. I do my best to give good advice to all who ask.

Also, I suppose I’d best say that you can buy Human Resources from any half-decent bookshop, or even Amazon. But let me link you direct to the publishers, and also to Hive.co.uk which is like Amazon but without the evil, working with indie bookstores to hopefully benefit everyone.

***

There’s no getting away from it: Human Resources, like Night Shift before it and New Gods after, is in first person. It’s a pretty rigid first-person too: no sneakily popping out into someone else’s head for a crucial reveal or simply to provide a bit of variety. No, it’s stuck-with-the-same person all the way.

So why did I choose that, and what does it mean for the story and its telling? Well, the reason I originally chose it is because, without it, the payoff for the first book wouldn’t have worked. It really is as simple as that. And I suppose I feel a little guilty about it – like the whole device was just a cheap stunt.a

But first-person is a venerable tradition and works well for me. Previously I’d worked only in third person, but I made the shift to really get inside the head of Anders Nordvelt.

To be honest, the change wasn’t as great as all that: my third person writing had always been very tight, very limited in its perspective – no omniescentising for me. So the switch to first-person wasn’t that much of a jolt. Nor has it felt too weird going back to third person in its aftermath – yes, my post-Antarctic writing is back in third-person, if only to give myself a bit of a break.

*Emphatically doesn’t mention the brief snatches of second-person in the series finale*

What does writing in first-person mean for the story? Well, in being as strict as I have been for the Antarctic trilogy, it means that we’re going to become very intimate with a single personality and perspective.  That puts a heavy weight on the main character to be interesting, to not alienate the reader with a whining, dull companion.

It also means you have to be aware of what other people are doing, that you don’t leave your other characters standing around and waiting for the main character to come around before they ‘switch on’. Indeed, there is, in a way, more potential for surprise with first-person as things happen off-stage, so to speak: the character is as ignorant of others’ actions as the readers are.

That, I suppose, means there may be more potential for jump-scares as opposed to a slow build-up of tension. But maintaining tension is part of the craft of the writer, and I find that different tellings merely encourage the writer to stretch themselves in different ways. Nothing is impossible, not with any mode of telling.

Of course, the difference in perspective makes a big difference to the reader; it’s not just a case of the same novel in different clothes. I have heard of people who won’t read a novel written in first-person (and I deeply hope this doesn’t include you, dear reader). I like to write in first person or third according to what feel I want to give a novel – it’s hard to quantify or to explain exactly why, but I feel like first-person gives more of a sense of the lone film-noir-esque gumshoe whilst third person is more cinematic with a cast you can check in and out of.

That might just be me, though. As I said – hard to quantify.

If you’re interested, I wrote more about point-of-view right back in 2015, which just goes to show for how long I’ve been a) keeping this blog, and b) gnawing away at the same subjects. Check that article out if, as I said, you’re at all interested.

And that’s me for now. Expect more ramblings about Human Resources through the next few weeks but that’s the end of these themed articles about the writing of the benighted thing. Hope you’ve enjoyed them; and stay happy and healthy in whatever you do.

All the best

Rob