The three-pass rule

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I have a rule. No, that’s not true. I have a theory, an idea, and it’s this: after every big change you need to make at least two more passes of your manuscript before you can send it out into the great wide world.

At the moment I’m doing major revisions to my latest work-in-progress. This is a good novel (I think) but one upon which I stuffed a little in the character department. I have a plan to combine two characters into one easy-to-swallow morsel. This obviously involves a lot lot lot of work.

So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to concentrate on that job. I’m not going to worry so much about the actual words I use. I’m not going to worry too much about little slips or finding the perfect prose. This draft is for big things: for who does what and when and how. Not about perfecting the micro-expressions or the tiny gestures.

And that’s why I’ll need another draft when this is done. I’ll need a troubleshooting pass, a precision-engineering job after the great earthmoving of pass #1 (actually pass #6, but it’s been a while since the last one). I need to make sure the voice is right, the silences are on cue and the smiles are from and to the right people.

So: two passes, one for heavy engineering, one for precision. So why is this a three-pass rule?

Truth is that two might be enough, but I’m not happy – I don’t trust myself enough – that this is enough to catch all the imperfections with this little work.

But before that, it’s time for a break.

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Such intense work is likely to take you extremely close to the material. So close, in fact, that you start to lose objectivity and focus. So it’s my plan that before I go on for a third pass I take a long, hard go at something else before coming back to the work in question. This isn’t my idea, of course; it’s in all books of writing advice and the like. I’m just trying to (finally) put it into practice.

That’s where I am at the moment with New Gods, the last in my Antarctic trilogy. I did a major overhaul then cantered through it to fix obvious errors. Now I’ve set it to one side to let cool and to give myself a little distance before I go through it again.

This would also be the time to get beta-readers involved but I fear I’ve already blown all of mine on earlier drafts.

And, while I wait, I’m on to the next task. For writing is a production line and there should always be something on the conveyor belt.

Fixing the fixes

Maniscript mend

Editing is a cruel beast, especially over the course of a trilogy. I’m currently on book three, dealing with a relationship that no longer exists in book two. This means a certain character no longer has access to a certain other character’s quarters. It’s ludicrous; a wave of Consequence has overswept the novel and tossed all my best laid plans into the ocean, so much flotsam and jetsam, and with it many words I can’t afford to lose.

See, the problem is this: my protagonist has staggered back to his apartment to find Character B waiting for him. This meeting cannot be delayed for totally essential plot-type reasons; but Character B is no longer on the guest list, and has no knowledge of when Protagonist will get home, so…

At this point you’ll be saying ‘but can’t B just send a message – a phone call or some fancy science-fictiony videoconference-hologram-type thingy?’ Well, it’s funny you should say that because that’s what I did.

I did this completely forgetting that, for totally essential plot-type reasons, the messaging system across the entire base has just been taken down.

This is what happens when you have a week off. You (by which I mean me. I’m sure you’re much more organised) forget crucial little details and have to totally rewrite the rewrite you just rewrote.

Fragments

How to write a novel

Writing is, in other words, a bugger.

It’s not too bad for me – this time. It’s only a few hundred words and a bit of head-scratching (a problem solved by the strategic deposition of a differently-systemed radio). But there’s always the fear that you’ve done something stupid and not caught it. Which is why, of course, so much of writing is rewriting. And rewriting again. And then getting beta-readers to check the manuscript, all the way up to the paid professionals – the structural editors, copy-editors, all the way up to the proofreaders.

The aim is always to produce the best possible work you can. And you’re not always the best person to help you do that.

But the initial work is all yours. The better you can do it the greater the likelihood that someone else will pay for the fine-detail-sifting. it’s why I’m going to do another full read-through-and-edit when I’ve completed this one.

All them experts don’t come cheap.

Slave to the story

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Sometimes editing is cruel. You spend hours crafting, creating, the most delicious scene, or set of scenes, and then in a heartbeat it is torn away.

Greetings. Welcome back to Editing 101: where I realise that what I’ve done is all wrong and needs a complete overhaul. Specifically, welcome back to my massacre of words that’s seen me shed nearly 15k words of New Gods before getting even a third of the way through.

This is due to a misplaced action scene (5k gone just like that) that started the novel on the wrong foot; and various smaller cuts that have come about as a result of moving the discovery of my corpse – not actually my corpse, I’m not writing this as a zombie, you understand – forwards by about 100 pages. Everything has been squeezed, compressed, or cut.

Fragments

Sensible people will tell you that you must let the story sing. It doesn’t matter how long it is; as long as it’s true to itself and coherent it’s the right length. And there is a lot of truth to this. On the other hand, however, I say ‘piffle’.

The standard* minimum length for a novel is 70k words. Some publishers only accept submissions over 80k. Below that and you no longer have a novel. New Gods is now hanging dangerously close to that 70k line.

Also, when I write a novel I usually have a good idea of how long it’s going to turn out. Each project has a ‘feel’, part of which is determined by its length. New Gods wants to be in the 80-90k zone – a bit longer than the previous entries in the trilogy. It demands it. Don’t ask me why that is; I’m not sure I understand myself.

At the moment the book feels wrong.

Plus there’s the fact that I’m cutting words that range from serviceable to good. I am not removing inferior work here; there are some very nice character-notes and turn-of-phrases consigned to the great recycle bin in the sky.

Cutting is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The reason we do it is to make a better story. It’s worth remembering this. We are slaves before story and, whether we can recognise our own sins or if we need someone else to point them out to us, it is our job to give the characters the best (never easiest) route to a resolution.

Hopefully a lot of the words that I’ve excised will creep back in, in one form or another, and the story will begin to plump out like it’s preparing for hibernation. I am optimistic that will happen. I am more concerned that I have lost sight of the story’s overall shape because, whilst deep in the word-mines, scribbling over an old map with the outline of a new, it is hard to keep a proper overview on the landscape. One needs a drone or pet dragon – or agent – to assist with such things.

But I shoulder my burden alone. And I swing the pick. And I sift through the rubble. Because I am a slave to story, and the only way is forwards. Deeper, deeper into the word-chasms we go, my friend.

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*By popular acclaim. It’s an arbitrary figure, like all such things, but this is the one that seems to crop up most often

All the right words

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I write these words from deep within my editing cave. Taking advantage of a temporary lacuna in paid work, I am busy ripping apart and putting back together New Gods, the finale of my Antarctic trilogy – the series that began with Night Shift.

As I said last week, there is (more than) one small problem with the work I’ve encountered so far and it’s this: the body doesn’t come soon enough. This means the novel feels unbalanced, like it doesn’t really start until we’re nearly half-way through.

It is, in other words, a problem.

And the problem with a problem is that rectifying it comes with its own legion of problems. Move the murder? That means you also need to move the essential preliminaries to murder (and isn’t that everything?) and the aftermath, and…

And before long you don’t know where you are; your carefully crafted story is in tatters; you sit surrounded by piles of disarticulated sentences and lost paragraphs and you’re sure you saw chapter seven in there three times. And does chapter fourteen really come straight after four?

Jean Oram quote

This is where planning becomes exceedingly helpful. For me this takes the form of a simple spreadsheet with the old scene-order – a few words about what happens in each one – on one side and the new on the other. Then it becomes mostly a question of copying and pasting…

…Except it doesn’t, because none of your delicious words make sense anymore. None of your references hang together as your gentle allusion is now the first mention there’s been. Before long you’re lost in a maze of misplaced openings and dead ends all around. Evidence is scattered willy-nilly and all sense of cause-and-effect is discarded.

But the ideas are there, as is, to a large extent, the writing. What matters now is that I get the scenes in the right place and make sure the feel and flow of the novel is improved.

Because, to paraphrase that famous Morecambe and Wise sketch, I have written mostly the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

Morecambe and Previn

The mystery of the missing corpse

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I am missing a corpse.

There is a piece of advice that I’m sure you know already, and that’s to make your first act as short as possible. Don’t waste time with introductions and preliminaries bar the essentials but get to your inciting incident as soon as possible.

That means, if writing a murder mystery, you should cut to the corpse. The novel doesn’t really begin until you have your dead body. No matter what interest you have, what civil unrest, what interesting character dynamics you create, without that central pillar your novel will feel like it’s missing something.

My corpse has gone AWOL. It should have been here – right here – but someone’s snuck off with it whilst my back was turned.

I should explain: I’m talking about New Gods, the third book in my Antarctic trilogy. I wrote this years ago and, unlike Night Shift and Human Resources, it hasn’t really been looked at since. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised; fixing continuity caused by my tinkerisations with the previous books has been the greatest problem.

But I’m 100 pages in now; that’s nearly a third of the way through.

There hasn’t been a single murder yet. Not one.

There’s a lot of good things. There’s the suggestion of a historical massacre. There’s political intrigue. There’s the reintroduction of an old character and just enough about him to cause the reader doubt. New characters seem realistic and intriguing.

But there’s no body. And this is a problem. Nearly a third of the way through and the novel hasn’t yet begun.

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This is odd, if you think about it. Why should it be so important that there’s a death when there’s so much else going on? It’s not as if other genres make such simple, bare demands. All that matters is a conflict, a course irrevocably decided upon. I have that in spades.

But this is a murder mystery. People need a body – or, at the very least, something with the same emotional heft. I don’t have that here. Will what I do have be enough to keep people reading? Well maybe; as I said, there’s plenty going on. But why leave it to chance?

It’s time to dust off my scissors. The (first) murder needs to be brought forwards. It needs to be front and centre. It needs to be my primary focus. If that pushes some other strands into the background then so be it.

Hell, that might make those threads stronger; a little messiness can frazzle my lead-character, can distract and disorientate so as to mask (from character and reader) what really matters. This could become a boon.

But I’m not going to start cutting just yet. First I’m going to read through the rest of the novel. It’s worth remembering what I’m trying to achieve before trying to achieve it.

Besides, it should be fun.


 

UPDATE: I found it! That pesky corpse was hiding on page 138. Now I just need to rearrange the whole novel to bring it front and centre.

Also, I can’t wait to the end of the novel. It’s time to start snipping!

The importance of being critiqued

No matter how experienced you are, how much you appreciate criticism and really want to be shown all your errors, there is a part of you who wants to hear nothing but that you’ve written a good book.

My critique group are excellent. They may pull their punches in the face of your trembling lip, but that doesn’t stop them from dropping you to the canvas in a heartbeat. It’s a reciprocal arrangement so I’ve no complaints: I’m harsh too. This honesty is vital as you’ll never become a better writer unless you know where you’re going wrong. Still it leaves a mark.

On Monday I had New Gods in the ring and it got savaged. Despite the fact that I knew they were right in almost every way, it still hurts. Now I know I have to go back to the very beginning, take it apart and rebuild from scratch. Much as I enjoy writing, the last thing I ever want is more work. Because I’m lazy. And because it’s about time I got out of Antarctica and gave my tired brain a change of scenery.

More positively, this critique also proves how much I’ve learnt over the last year. I’ve not looked at New Gods for about 15 months, and it showed. In the intervening time I’ve learnt so much, have really reconsidered how I go about something as complex as a novel. Much of the criticism I got last night revolved about depth of character, the need for backstory and for better dialogue. I’ve already thought about that and am not too worried – I can do it.

I’m more concerned with problems of plot – and missed opportunities – that were pointed out to me. But I suppose all it means is that I have to think harder: sometimes you can’t just sit back and let ideas come to you; sometimes you have to put on your pith helmet, take down the old elephant gun and stalk those treacherous wee bastards.

So thank you to my group, some of whom are probably reading this. You gave me exactly what I needed. I’ll come back with a much better story as a result. Right now, though? Well, it’s a short step from criticism of one unfinished project to worry about all your output and whether you’ve got what it takes at all. Self-doubt is never that far away.

But I do this because I love it and I’ve trained myself to sit down and my desk and work. So I will get up, get back to it and produce something better than I could before. And though the self-doubt may never leave me, if I can fool others into believing I can write then maybe I can trick myself too.

An offering to the New Gods

An author very rarely reads their own work. I don’t mean working through it, but actually sitting back and letting the words float through their subconscious, with no attempt to ‘improve’ the text in any way, shape or form. We’re tinkerers by nature. It’s an alien concept to just let the words wash over us. We’re also wincers, in the ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote something so facile’ sense.

I finished my rough draft of New Gods getting on for a year and a half ago now. Since then it’s been set back in the metaphorical closet whilst I wrestled with Night Shift and Australis. But now two things have caused me to take up my Kindle (other e-readers are available, as are books) and read over my own work.

The first thing is that I’m approaching a brief lacunae in Night Shift. Draft 9a should be finished by the time you read this, and then I have a pause whilst it goes out to beta-readers. The second factor is my Fiction (Adult) Group is currently going over New Gods and will haul me over the metaphoricals next week and I need to be prepared. And by ‘being prepared’ I mean I need to know what the hell happens. I can barely remember anything but the beginning and the end.

So what have I learnt so far? Well, my writing, by and large, hangs together in a not-too-bad fashion. It’s all correct and (I think) tells a decent story. So I’m not beating myself up too much about the errors, of which there are plenty. But the one thing I’ve learnt over the last year is to really take my time with my characters. Too many of my conversations are simply there to get a job done – to move the novel from one scene to another with a minimum of fuss. But that fuss matters. That’s what I’ve learnt. The whole novel needs patience; I need to allow my characters to breath, to express themselves.

When I were but a lad I read things like ‘every line has to have a purpose’ and ‘the story needs to be constantly moving forwards’, and I think I absorbed these mantras in a particularly shallow way. Yes, everything needs to keep moving and every word needs to justify its place in the novel, but that’s left conversations terse and oddly unrealistic. It doesn’t matter how well you know a character’s personality, past and inner life if they never have a chance to express these subtleties. My world is empty. I need to really make it come alive.

That’s writing. You start with a blank canvas and then you fill it with shape and colour and direction. Then you go over and pick out the outlines, add light and shadow, make the nebulous solid and (sometimes) the solid nebulous.

I’m not too worried about the actual quality of the prose. I’m no genius; the words aren’t great at present, but they’ll improve draft-on-draft until it achieves something approaching respectability. What I need second opinions on is the basic plot – what convinces and what doesn’t, who comes alive and who remains a cipher throughout. That’s why I’m offering myself up to creative evisceration and it’s why I’m going through NG myself. It’s been a long time, and I hope I’ve managed to divest myself of the personal link with the work which can blind the best of us to its flaws.

I shall keep you posted.