Onwards (again)

Our Kind of Bastard has had its beta readings (or possibly alpha readings; the terminology is beyond me) and the feedback is in. There is much work to be done. There are flaws with just about every single aspect of the novel: its characters, plot, dialogue, setting – all need work.

But it’s not all bad. There is a good story hiding in there. It just needs more. More backstory, more development, more atmosphere, more time spent on characters. Just more.

Aside from the bits that need less, of course. Fewer distracting digressions and parenthesised asides.

Writing is a tricky business, and this is perhaps the hardest thing to drag yourself to: to take a work out of the ‘completed’ siding of the mind and disassemble the train, adding in new coaches, new trucks, repainting and getting it ready to run the Submissions Express.

Visual representation of my brain

Except that, as a sequel, this train is going nowhere for some time yet, even should it be made all gleaming-squeaky clean.

The work must still be done, however.

Getting feedback is perhaps the hardest – and most necessary part of writing a novel. The mental adjustment involved in hacking off the first two chapters, for example, or removing a character, or simply adding in a scene, is out of proportion to the actual work involved. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it can be a whole lot of chopping, of typing, of tying together. But the mental effort involved – not in simply coming up with new ideas but with cracking open a ‘perfect’ capsule of a novel and rearranging the innards – far outweighs that. To me at least.

So I gird my loins and put the kettle on, select the writing music of choice, and get down to it. This thing ain’t gonna write itself.

Doll’s house


This seriously disturbing ‘doll’s house’ is the work of Giai-Miniet. There’s more here, if you’re interested

I was going to write today about plotting and the difficulties thereof. But last night I realised that’s not what I’m struggling with. Plot is all about people, about what they do and what they cause to happen. I’m more concerned with the architecture: with giving my cast a place to inhabit, to interact with and to burn to the ground.

I’ve been struggling with making my ideas work. I have my protagonists – it’s a sequel to Oneiromancer – so that’s done. I have my location (contemporary Brittany). I have an idea of what drives the story and where I want it to end up. But I can’t get down and actually write the damn thing because I don’t have my backdrop: I don’t know what drives the as-yet-uncreated minor characters or villain(s); I don’t know what’s happened before my characters got on stage.

A good book is all about the creatures who inhabit its pages. No-one (these days) starts with reams of backstory. It must start in the middle, after the ball’s been rolled and as the pins are tremble at its approach. The die has been cast but the score is obscured.

But the author needs to know what that score is. I need to have built my doll’s house, to know the position of every wall, every piece of furniture (for a good solid chair is very handy for beating down any giant mutant rats that may sneak in), every hidden passageway. Then my characters can move in and – hopefully – burn the beds, rip off the wallpaper, dig into the cellar and maybe hack into next-door’s wifi.

But (most of) the walls will remain. My world. My political machinations. The bits that will only be revealed to my cast as they explore: the skeletons that’ll be exhumed; the maids to lust after; the cows that give blood instead of milk. The cast will change their world as they walk (run, career, hurtle) through it. But I need to know the nature of the diorama they’ve just been cast into.

A good plot allows your characters to pull down the world into which they’re been scattered. But the world has to have been there first.

Marathon man

In today’s metaphor writing is like running.

So you want to run a marathon. You’ve been wanting to do it for ages. Now you’re finally resolved – today’s the day. So you clear a few hours, sign yourself up and go out and run – and pull a muscle within a few yards of the start. Heartbroken you limp home and booze away the pain.

You know that such an endurance feat takes training, exercise and, at the last, a proper warm-up. And yet every time you read a novel – especially a bad one – you say to yourself ‘I could do that.’ Could you? Really?

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a writer, and yes, you probably could. You’ve most likely done your training; all the scribbles in your notebooks, all the half-formed attempts that led nowhere but to strained sides and refuge in wine. You’ve built yourself up over the years with the ‘bad’ writing that you won’t show to anyone. You’ve found your coaches – in writers you enjoy and in writing courses – and got motivation from your friends/rivals in your writing groups. This is you building up your muscles and your stamina, watching others fall by the wayside as they decide other tasks are more important.

Eventually, when you’ve got a little practice down, you choose your distance. The poets are the sprinters; the flash-fictioneers are hurdlers. Every step counts. Short-story writers run the 800m or the mile. The novelists are the marathoners. George R. R Martin chose the Ironman challenge.

Your first completed work was likely bloated; you got lost, somewhere, on the way. You trailed in a distant last. You are discouraged. Some give up here, happy they got to the finish line at all. It is, after all, an achievement to be celebrated. But some want to go on, want to make a career out of it. So they go back to their coaches. They memorise the route. They study other athletes, copy their training techniques. They trim the fat, smarten their kit, and run, run, run.

Writing is like any activity: to be good you have to work. You all know this. Yet there is a popular idea that anyone ‘has a great novel in them’; that all they need to do to be published is to get it down on paper. It’s strange how people don’t think this about becoming a rock star or an elite cyclist or any number of other disciplines. There’s an imagination gap.

Anyone can write. But to be good at it takes work, takes practice, takes time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Arts & crafts

I’m not a good writer. I am, however, a pretty respectable craftsman. Allow me to explain.

Writing is seen as an art. It is art, they say, that allows one to choose the best word, to create a plot that enraptures and enthrals and to populate it with wonderful characters and to build themes and subtexts and miracles. Like a caricaturist scribbling out mocking little portraits on demand, a writer can spin wonders out of nothing.

I can’t. The more I work on my stories, the deeper I delve into the craft, the more I realise that I’m really nothing special when it comes to word-weaving. Not on the first pass. My errors are legendary, my drafts filled with mis-used words and obvious conceits and paper-thin depictions.

What I can do, however, is to go over this run-through and develop it into something worth reading. I chip away at its rough edges, clean out the flaws and fill the gaps, redecorate and encourage my characters to tell us precisely why they never got on with their fathers. This is why I consider myself as a craftsman rather than an artist.

The difference between a steel rod and a sword is a lot of hammering and a lot of heat. The blacksmith sweats at his anvil just to work the metal into its blank form. This is the first draft, a blunt weapon full of flaws. Sure, it might knock someone out if swung hard enough, but it’s hardly a reliable tool. The metal needs to go back into the furnace and then you beat, beat, beat…

After enough work you have something approximately sword-shaped, but it’s not finished yet. Now you need to test it, to weigh its balance and to make sure there’s no fundamental weakness in the metal. If there is then it’s back into the fire, maybe adding more charcoal to toughen it up or another laminate of steel if you’re pattern-welding. Even if it withstands the proving there’s still endless days of sharpening to follow, honing the blade endlessly until it’s a scalpel-sharp perfectly balanced precision instrument.

Even when the weapon is deadly there’s still room for elaboration: a fine hilt, perhaps, or scabbard. Even, for swords of a particular bent, eldritch runes to be etched into the blade. There’s always something more that can be done.

I am not a naturally talented writer. My sword-blanks are weak and unbalanced and liable to shatter in their first engagement. But what I have is a willingness and a discipline to take my rough back to the forge and beat the shit out of it, over and over and over again, until it is the best I can possible make it.

So don’t call me an artist; that’s too good for me. Maybe one day I’ll learn enough to earn that title, when I can produce an epee, a rapier or a mighty broadsword on spec; for now I’m perfectly happy to be a craftsman.

Now it’s time for me to go back to the forge. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.