On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

The Frankenstein pass

What the hell are scenes for anyway? To move the story along, natch. But reality moves in tiny, tiny movements: you can’t tell the audience every little single thing. You can’t have the protagonist wondering whether she should put the bins out now or wait until morning. Not unless that’s crucial to the story. ‘Showing not telling’ is great. But sometimes you have to cover things in absentia. Otherwise you’re cast immediately into snoozeville.

When you’re first-drafting you’re finding your way. You’re marking the path. Sometimes you need to write scenes of blather just so you know what your characters are thinking: to work the background, the backstory. Second draft is, in large part, getting rid of these sections and condensing the novel to make it grip and flow and to carry the readers along on a tide of thrill.

But knowing which scenes to lose and which to keep is a bugger. You wrote those sections because things are happening. Boring things, maybe, but things that, to some extent at least, matter. That foreshadow later events. That explain things. That get inside your character’s heads. How do you know what matters and what doesn’t?

Last session I cut a scene that I decided was better shown offscreen: the arrest of a minor character. But later on I need to have him interviewed by the police. It’s a bit of a jump to have a previously free character suddenly appear in a cell. I can’t quite square it. Should I put the scene back in? I also want to trim down the interrogation itself. But all these cuts threaten to destroy rationality: how much of a leap will my audience be prepared to swallow? How much explanation will ruin the flow?

A novel is not a static thing. It grows, it shrinks, it grows again. At the moment – partly because I have this artificial idea of how long I want the damn thing to be – I’m working on trimming away the fat. I envisaged the novel at around 115k; the first draft weighed in over 140k. So the scissors are out. But I have a feeling that my next draft, as yet unimagined, will be mostly addition. Story comes first. Description – of both location and emotion – is most likely going to be the next big thing for me. Eventually I’ll find my happy place: a lean, taut core with enough depth to raise the damn thing above the pulp potboilers and the penny dreadfuls that give genre a bad name.

Anyway, word count is artificial. A story should to be as long as it needs to be. I worry that by fighting to get down to an acceptable level (and what does that mean anyway?) I’m sacrificing quality.

Writing is a balancing act. It’s about choices – hard, painful choices, just like the ones your characters are making. The answer, of course, is to find a proper critique group and you let your word-baby be tamed by wider perceptions. You need to have the opinions of those who haven’t lived through your anxieties, who are seeing the work fresh and can spot waffle at a hundred paces. The best thing you can do as a writer is to allow yourself to get it wrong and to accept that you’re never going to produce a work of genius without these angels in human form. Of course what you’ve done is precious to you, but you can’t allow yourself to hold it too tightly. Otherwise you’ll smother your work and it’ll never grow hale and healthy.

In the meantime I struggle with notes and knives, with complexity and continuity. I will not produce a polished, publishable product on this draft. But I’m getting closer. This is my Frankenstein pass. With a little surgery my corpse may yet become an Adonis.

How long does it take to write a novel?

So how long does it take to write a novel?

National Novel-Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, to the initiated – is in full swing and I hope those of you that have joined this year’s challenge are getting along swimmingly. I’ve never tried it myself. Nothing against it; I’m just happy with my own way of working and don’t feel the need for this sort of mission.

The aim of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. Possible? Yeah, I guess. But to write a good novel takes longer. That’s because getting words down on the page is only a fraction of the whole task, and not the first one either. The NaNo organisers themselves advise that you prepare by getting some idea of where you want to go in your story. And that work can continue on the project long after the onset of December.

So how long does it take to write a novel? Well, I’ve been working on Night Shift for two and a half years now –

Except that’s not actually true. It’s been two and a half years since I first started typing the first draft. But that was only after I’d abandoned a hand-written attempt. And that itself was after the hours spent lying in bed thinking about the damn thing in the first place. So… maybe three or four years, that’s how long I’ve been working at it.

Chivalry’s been longer. That’s had around six years of work. The only good thing is that you can work on more than one project at once, alternating between drafts.

The actual creation of the first draft is a relatively speedy process. Night Shift only took something like a month and a half to bring to life (63,000 words in its initial form). Just think – something from nothing in under two months. That’s kind of magical, and the act of creation has to be one of the most exciting, wonderful things a human being can do.

But a first draft is nothing. Unless you’re a staggering genius, a first draft will have massive errors and little of merit except its own potential. So it’s back to the forge, hammering and smelting and folding and annealing, testing and sharpening all the way. And it’s always important to emphasise how useful putting the damn thing away and working on something else for a while is to the process. You know what you’re trying to do; what you need is a bit of perspective to help identify where and why you haven’t quite got it right.

Night Shift is now hovering around the 78,000 word mark. Those extra 15k didn’t come from nowhere (and by way of comparison Chivalry’s been cut from 150k to around 137k); the changes have come because they’ve helped make the story more rounded and satisfying. And that all takes time, and the will to improve your work.

I don’t want to be spending my whole life working on the same few projects, endlessly rewriting and polishing and never getting it out. There are many other novels that I want to write. So it’s my hope that what I’m learning on the journey are the sort or tricks and tools that help shorten the process. I think instinct is often the word we give to experience. Knowing what works and what doesn’t, what ideas have depth and what are resoundingly non-stick, is a question of this experience.

So how long does it take to write a novel? God knows. I’m still to finish my first.

The books that made me

Today’s blog comes from my metaphorical sickbed. This week I’ve spent four nights in hospital and have committed not a word to hard drive. Sorry. So, without a status update or any insights into the creative writing process, here instead is a quick canter through a few books and authors that I count as major influences on me and my writing. Hope you enjoy.

Sargasso of Space – Andre Norton

A half-remembered classic, one of my most formative experiences of science fiction. My Mum read this to me when I was but small – around 10, maybe. Looking back, I remember not the story so much as the atmosphere Norton created. First published in 1955, it’s a very British novel with such a different feel to the writing of Asimov or the other early American pioneers. It was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Terra’ and also contained the Psych test, now thoroughly ‘appropriated’ by me for the Night Shift novels. I reread one of her later novels recently and found it to be quite stiff, especially in dialogue – very much of her time. But her voice remained strong and her stories are always gripping.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy L. Sayers 

Gaudy Night has the most beautiful writing. Murder Must Advertise is the classic crime novel. And yet this is the one that I have most admiration for. There are six suspects in a murder investigation: five of them are red herrings. That’s it. Beautifully plotted, I read it for the first time relatively recently and couldn’t help but smile at the deftness with which the story played with itself. Plus Wimsey really does stand up as a character, even in these cynical and proletarian times.

Caliban – Roger MacBride Allen/Isaac Asimov

Don’t be fooled by Asimov’s name – this is one of those ‘by Isaac Asimov, with RMA’ things where you know that all of the work was really done by the lesser name (are you listening, James Patterson?). This novel’s all but unknown now and that’s a shame because it deserves a lot better.

Asimov’s involvement is in the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics and in sketching out the consequences of these on humanity. He posits that they’d create an indolent, unproductive society, cosseted by an ever-worshipful army of dependent robots. But when a robot becomes lead suspect in a murder enquiry society might choose to sacrifice their planet for short-term comfort.

This, you’ll notice immediately, is classic speculative fiction: ‘so if things continue like this, how will they be in a century?’ It’s also a quality crime novel, and a massive, massive influence on the Night Shift trilogy. It’s also a series I’ve re-read many, many times and have lent to many, many people.

Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones

A confession: I watched the series before I read the book. Well, children’s TV was worth something in 1992. This is everything you want in junior fiction. It’s inventive, funny, thrilling, and a tour de force of the imagination. Howard, the young protagonist, arrives home after school to find a Goon in his kitchen. That’s it – no messing about, we’re right into a wonderfully surreal adventure in a town controlled by seven mysterious siblings, all with their different areas of responsibility.

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

I’ve written before about PKD. About how I’m not a fan of his writing – and, like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is a story that might actually be better on screen. But the ideas – the ideas! Oh, I can’t tell you how this affected me when I first read it. Unsettling, terrifying, dislocating. I can’t tell you too much because I’ve stolen ideas liberally. Just, if you are going to read this, be prepared for some extreme scowling at the page as you try and decipher those hopelessly convoluted sentences.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My first taste of Gaiman and still (alongside Good Omens) my favourite. With an everyman hero and a delightfully off-key world – at the same time larger-than-life and sad and tarnished – London Below is a beautiful labyrinth. It also has some of the best villains in literature. Don’t just take my word for that – ask Mr Pratchett, who lifted Croup and Vandemar wholesale for Discword novel The Truth. I’d have been a teenager when I first came across this, long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. Lenny Henry’s involvement was the big news, not Gaiman’s input. In hindsight it’s a wonder this didn’t make more of an impact because it captures the imagination like nothing else.

UnRoman Britain – Stuart, Laycock

Non-fiction time! And historically/archaeologically dubious non-fiction at that. Which is not to say this isn’t based on good solid evidence, just that the conclusions Laycock draws aren’t widely accepted in academia.

This matters not a jot. This is a fascinating work and one with a good strong story; that of the collapse of Roman culture after the last of the legions left Britain. I doubt you’re interested, but it fascinated me with its analysis of cultural change throughout (and before, and after) the Roman occupation. It strongly influenced Chivalry and, whether or not it all happened like Laycock posits, it really made me think how people react to authority. And what they might do when that authority is removed.

The third rule

The third rule:

Thou Shalt Join a Writing Group. And Thou Shalt Take Time to Find the Right Group for You. And Lo! Thine Words Shall Flow.

Ahem. Yes. The third rule is that you get feedback on your work before showing it to the people who matter.

It’s certainly possible to become a good – nay, great – writer on your own, in your room, beavering away in silence with only your MA in Creative Writing for company. The annals are littered with the names of the illustrious who’ve done such a thing – or many such things. And there’s no reason you can’t either. But take it from me, getting feedback on your work is a surefire way to get better quickly.

Writing groups seem, to my ignorant eyes, to be a fairly new phenomena, but the idea is as old as the hills. Wasn’t Frankenstein first performed in such a circle, sheltering huddled in an Alpine fastness? What was the Bloomsbury group but a way of exchanging ideas and feedback in a London ripe with zeitgeist? These examples – and I’m sure you can add more – can perhaps be seen as the prototypes from which a proliferation of groups have exploded in the last decade.

Seriously. Go on the internet. Type in ‘writing groups [name of town/region]’ and see what comes up. Even if you’re living in a cave in the Bora Bora mountains you’ll be able to find lots of groups that ‘meet’ online and all of whose interactions are carried out on the intraweb. You can barely escape the buggers. Don’t like the internet? Well, I’d be curious to know how you’re reading this, but anyway – just go into your nearest bookshop (indie for preference – they’re better about things like this) and ask. Simples.

When I first started writing seriously I joined a group based around people from my local Ottokar’s. That folded after a few months and I seriously considered joining a bigger one. But I didn’t. And that’s because I couldn’t really see what such a group could do for me. I bet that’s what you’re asking yourself now, isn’t it? Be honest. Why should I give my time to join a group when I already know how to write – when I’m at home with my craft?

It’s a fair question. And to some extent the answer depends on finding the right group for you. Because all these groups might be called something similar (the words ‘Writing Group’ is a clue), but the way they operate might be completely different. But here’s a quick outline of some of the things you can gain from joining:

Confidence

Technical advice

A reason for writing

Support

Contacts

Feedback on your work

Friends

A different perspective

A deeper understanding of ‘foreign’ genres

The Ottokar’s group I mentioned earlier mainly revolved around writing exercises – given out one meeting, reviewed the next. This was great fun, and in my memory I produced some really nice stuff – now sadly lost. But that’s not the best way to go about it, I think. A year and a half ago, when I moved to Abingdon, I joined the local group in part to give myself something to do in this curious little town. And in that year and a half my writing has improved greatly.

The format of the meetings is this: each fortnight we meet up in the proverbial church hall – pubs work well too – and any of us are free to bring an extract of our work; around 1,000 words. We then take it in turns to read this section, and then the rest of the group will provide feedback. And then we move to the next person.

The group is made up of eighteen people, and average attendance is somewhere from eight to twelve – the ideal number. Four or five people will read in a session. As with Fight Club, new members have to read .There are drawbacks, which I’ll get to later, but for now let me spell out the advantages.

First of all, feedback. Instant, unvarnished feedback on the section you’ve read. What works, what doesn’t. I still remember my first reading; I took the opening of Chivalry and saw it criticised for being too confusing, for not having a real sense of ‘here’. This can be painful. And the critics might, of course, be wrong. But it’s always a good idea to listen, to hear this, as they’re usually right.

Other readers are also excellent at picking out what you’re not good at, be it technical issues such as punctuation or formatting or aspects such as dialogue, It took me some time to realise that my dialogue was lacking, and since that was pointed out to me (twice) I knew I had to work harder on it. The result? Rapid (I hope) improvement.

It’s also incredibly good for you to give feedback to other people. This is a massively under-explored area, I feel. It’s really beneficial as a writer to look critically at the work of others, to see what’s working and what isn’t – and why that might be. It’s especially interesting to look at other genres or forms such as poetry and scriptwriting. I can’t overstress how helpful it is to push out of your comfort zone a little; even if you never write their yourself, to think about things in a whole different way can set you down roads you never knew existed.

I’m lucky to be in a group that’s good at balancing criticism with encouragement. It’s pointless to surround yourself with people who say everything is brilliant – that’s no help at all. Neither is it helpful to face a constant barrage of disparagement. Take your time, try out different groups, explore. You have to find a group that’s right for you, and that can take a little time. At this point I guess I’m supposed to say ‘if you don’t find one, set up your own’, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be bothered. So I won’t waste my breath.

The big disadvantage of the setup I’ve described? Well, if you’re a novel-writer you’re working with small extracts only. So, unless you read your whole work in bite-sized chunks, there’s no real feel for plot or character arcs. There’s no real answer for this – but there’re often people in the same position who’ll be willing to do novel-exchanges. And, if there are enough, you can form your own little spin-off ‘Fiction Action Group.’

And the Lord Spaketh: Go Forth and Multiply Thy Words. Take Communion With Thy Brethren in Letters, and All Shall Reap The Rewards.

Amen.

*          *          *

Just a quick reminded that next week I’ll be hosting the finale of Marissa De Luna’s ‘blog tour.’ Her novel The Bittersweet Vine is being launched on Monday (28/10/13) in London. The previous instalments of her tour can be found, as she describes…

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog.http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from Hockey player to author.

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on the 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog.http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

And finally… Stop 6 will feature the last part of the author interview on Robin Triggs blog, A writer’s Life on the 31st October.  Robin is another talented writer. I have read two of his manuscripts and can’t wait to read the third. The minute you read his blog – even if you don’t write – you will want to pick up a pen. Witty and insightful it’s a great read!

(Marissa’s words, not mine – thanks Marissa!)