The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.

Today’s moment of doubt

Busy this week. New job. Editing. Working all free hours to meet a deadline constricted by real world plans and a return to paid employment after long months of furloughship.

Which means I’ve not been working on anything interesting this week. Actually, that’s not true at all; I’m working on new fiction, and that’s always interesting – there’s always something new to learn, even if it’s only how opinionated you are, how stuck in your ways (this time I’m noticing how uptight I am about commas and about paragraph length).

But I haven’t been working on my own writing, which is a bit frustrating as I was well on my way with what may be my final reworking/polishing of New Gods before it goes off to the publisher.

It also means I have precious little to say here.

So let me instead ask you a question: would you read a book with a prologue in second person? Or would that put you off forever? For today’s moment of doubt concerns my clever-clever introduction, which, for very solid(!) reasons, is in that hotly debated pronoun-classification.

Would it bring you up short, or would you push on through to the real narrative beyond?

Mistrust your instincts

I have resolved my ‘show don’t tell’ dilemma. I shall show. To a diminished degree, at least, and with great chucks of the original pared away. My original 7k scene is now around 1.5k, but it is going back in.

This is the conclusion of a season of great doubt. The question that arose from one group of readers has been closed by another. My beta readers suggested that I was missing a trick by not demonstrating the incident in question; my writing group listened to my suggested reinsertion and, with a few relatively minor caveats, okayed its presence in the story.

All this makes me feel a lot better, and once again confirms my feelings that we, as authors, know nothing. Or at least that I don’t. ‘Trust your instincts’, they say. Well my instincts are clearly on the fritz as it was them that had me cut the damn thing in the first place when in fact they should merely have been telling me to set fire to it and insert only what was still legible in the aftermath.

Trusting your instincts is a difficult thing as they are so easily fooled. Who hasn’t brought out a piece of writing, thinking it’s in all things wonderful, only to have it roundly shunned? And yet there are times when it’s right, when it’s paramount, to preserve our vision no matter how the naysayers protest. We, as writers, must keep faith in our work despite the world and his wife turning their nose up at it. Rejection is part of the business. We must, in all things, persist.

But there is wisdom in crowds. Which is why new perspectives, and the wisdom to listen to criticism, is also a key part of becoming a ‘successful’ (or at least ‘good’) writer.

So I urge you: join a writing group. Join several. No, it’s not essential. But a good one can shave years off your developmental journey. And, if nothing else, they can guide you through the thickets and copses and forests of mistrusted instinct.

If you can’t bear to do that, at least try and find friends – real or virtual – who can empathise with what you’re going through.

It is, after all, always nice to have somewhere to turn for advice.

A necessary break

I had New Gods critiqued last week. It should have been the final stop on its way to submission, nay, publication, and that may still be the truth of it. But I received enough common complaints that I feel a pause might be of benefit.

New Gods, to those not in the know, is the third (and final?) novel in the Antarctic trilogy that began with Night Shift and will be continuing this November with the release of Human Resources. See how I’ve kept the punchy two-word theme throughout? Clever, eh?

I personally think NG is the best – or has the potential to be the best – of the lot. I’m excited about it. I want it to work. I want it to sing, to shine. And I think it can.

But I think I need to hold my horses a little. There are still enough imperfections that I need to address, and those common complaints aren’t going anywhere. The only urgency is self-created. I can afford to take a little time and make it as good as I possibly can.

Specifically, the major complaint is that I haven’t put enough description in, and have left certain things too ambiguous. To some extent that’s a stylistic choice and I don’t want to go overboard to compensate. But clearly there is room for a few more words of explanation.

I also have to address a few plausibility gaps; not that things didn’t work, necessarily, but if they can be tightened it’ll be a better, more absorbing story.

The big thing I have to grapple with at the moment, however, is a question of showing or telling.

The old mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. This is often debated and isn’t always the best advice. But I originally wrote a fairly long scene near the opening of the novel that described a piece of action – specifically, a rescue attempt from a fire in a medical centre.

Then I cut it. I replaced it with a few paragraphs describing what happened instead of showing it live, as it were.

I had good reasons for this. The scene was over-long and, I felt, unbalanced the novel, especially as it occurred so early in the narrative. I just felt uncomfortable with it as it was, and – I think – I managed to sum it up concisely in dialogue as a past event.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Some members of the critique group asked me why I hadn’t shown the event in question and told me to show, not tell.

Now I don’t know what to do. I still have the scene saved and can reinstate it without too much difficulty (it would be edited, of course). But then would I have the pacing problems again? Is it better as is?

I just don’t know what to do.

What I really need, of course, is an agent. Without one I am on my own.

Except for you lot, of course. What would you do?

Beset by doubts

Doubt 2

I am beset by doubts.

I am adrift upon a sea of words and I don’t know if they form the complete works of Shakespeare or are a monkey-typist’s random gibberish.

I have a novel that I know not what to do with.

It’s like this: I have raced through Draft 6 of New Gods, the (probably) last in the Antarctica series of novels. I have made minor alterations, mostly tinkering around the edges after last draft’s heavy rewrite. Now I have to decide whether it’s good enough to send in to my editor at Flame Tree Press, who have published or are publishing the first two books.

And I have doubts.

Following the excision of a nearly 10k section (the pacing was wrong), the novel is on the short side at 75k. The central twist is perhaps too on the nose (or is that a good thing?). I’m relying on character interactions and motivations that may only exist in my head. The central mystery might be too obvious, the culprit too easily guessable.

All this and more.

One thing I am happy about is the writing. It’s fluent and clear, with very occasional poetic flights to break up the monotony. I think it stands up. As I said last week, I think I drafted this with a degree of confidence and fluidity that I lacked previously; it feels to me like a ‘level up’ novel.

Doubt 3

Ironically, it’s the fluency of this that makes me agonise over my most recent work. I haven’t felt this – and certainly haven’t achieved this – when working on Our Kind of Bastard. That was a slog and I don’t feel the writing stands up, though the plot might. I feel I’ve gone backwards with the actual craft. Which is okay, it just means I have to work harder with the editing pencil sledgehammer.

But that’s by the by. I have this novel that I think is well written and I enjoyed creating, but now I don’t have faith in it to send out just yet. I need an agent (though then I’d be worried about sending it to them, of course) – an intermediary to rate my work and tell me if it works or not on a fundamental level.

Without an agent, I have no choice but to turn to beta-readers. These glorious people have saved my skin before and hopefully will do it again – if I can find any.

What I want is for them to say that everything’s okay and boost my ego enough to survive the transmission of the manuscript. Failing that, I want to know what doesn’t work so I can fix it – though of course I will lament the effort and mental gymnastics that such an edit would require.

And then, of course, it would take another round of confidenceless and recriminations and maybe even a further hunt for beta-readers before I was ready to send that out.

The circle of manuscript-production never seems to end.

Next up

Manuscript

Next on my to-do list, whilst I wait for my next piece of commercial editing, is to dig up a manuscript I last worked on over a year ago. That’s not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough for me to forget just about every single detail. Long enough, one hopes, to gain a little perspective and to be able to judge the book on its true merits.

Yes, it’s back to the word-mines for me. After complaining, last week, about the need for emotional space after the completion of a big project, I am going straight back to the well. It’s really too soon; I’m not strong enough yet. But I have a bit of time and I need to be doing something to justify my existence. So it’s on with editing.

This particular piece is the third book in the Antarctic trilogy – the finale, at least as it stands. It’s a novel I have fond feelings for. I enjoyed writing it, as far as I can remember, and it gives Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, a measure of closure after the ordeals he’s been through throughout the three books.

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My heart says that this is the best of the trilogy. And right there is something to be fearful of: one can never trust one’s own emotions on such a subject. I’ve been wrong before. When I first wrote what became Human Resources I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. That took a hell of a lot of work to beat into a reputable shape (I think I succeeded, by the way. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come November).

So I am being exceptionally cautious. In my last pass, all those months ago, I excised a large (10kish) section because it interrupted the flow; now I worry that the novel is too short. And while I feel like I have the nucleus of a strong story, it’s just the execution that matters. Ideas are two a penny, but the way the tale is told is what makes it unique.

I am doing my best to not be a fool to myself. Sadly, being a fool is what I do best. And I am terrified: this novel is next up to be sent to my editor; the next with a chance of being rejected, in other words, and one that I really care about being published. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Maybe I’m speaking more of anxiety than I am about writing here, but I’m terrified of the publisher turning round and saying no.

So yes, this matters. Time I got down to it, I guess.

Actually, forget all that: my next commercial job just came in so I guess all this is put on the back-burner, for a little while at least.

Onwards!

Onwards

There are a surprising number of sloth/unicorn artists out there. I believe this copyright is owned by Jez Kemp

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