On 2022

I’ve had a book on submission with a publisher for eleven months now. That’s a long time – by no means a record, but a long time nevertheless. In the meantime I’ve got halfway through the (second) sequel, as well as doing a hell of a lot of commercial editing, so I’ve hardly been sitting on my hands. But I’ve not been submitting. I have been waiting.

This is how 2022 is going to go for me. This book is either going to be accepted for publication or I’ll be rejected. If the latter I’ll be very disappointed but, y’know, life and all that. I’ll then have to consider whether I go on trying to place it commercially – all the hells themselves won’t know where, mind – or if I’m going to take all the lessons learnt from New Gods and self-publish.

If it’s accepted – well, it probably won’t be published before 2023 and there’s all the rounds of editation it’ll need to go through, but I’ll know what I’m doing. I can get on with first-drafting Breathing Fire, and editing Our Kind of Bastard, and I’ll keep the hope of being some kind of ‘success’ alive.

Of course I’ll do all that writing and editing anyway because it is, at the end of the day, what I do.

2022 is to be determined, for me, by a binary choice made by someone else. This is not a good way to be and I don’t advocate it – which is, of course, why I,’m trying to carry on as if that’s not happening. I am still keeping my eyes open for other submission opportunities – I’m not beholden to anyone – but I’ve already been rejected by all agents and, for this trilogy, this seems like my last chance.

So how optimistic am I about the year to come? I have no idea. Not very? Somewhat? I always try to expect rejection because that way it doesn’t hurt as much when it happens. I guess, though, this time I am afraid because I can’t see a road ahead with a no.

And that’s what I really fear. Not the rejection itself, but the feeling of helplessness that is likely to accompany this one. This is a good book. It’s levelling up on my past work – or at least that’s how I feel anyway. I just won’t know what to do next if the thumbs turn down.

2021 can get in the bin. It was not a good year for me. 2022? Well, we shall just have to see.

Breathing fire

I am doing some writing.

I know, I know. I’m every bit as surprised as you are. But it‘s true. I’ve finally got a bit of leeway in my schedule (I think – I’m always terribly worried that I’ve either forgotten something or that the jobs I have on my plate will take longer than anticipated) and I’m using it to create.

Breathing Fire is the third in the modern fantasy series that began with Oneiromancer and continued with Our Kind of Bastard. It’s an absolutely pointless thing to write as I have no home, nor even a hope of a home, for the first two books; I should be doing something unique and entirely standalone rather than revisiting old characters.

Well, tish and pshaw to that. This is the book I want to write. And now I’m a self-publishing veteran (if not an earner) there is always that option.

I don’t want to say too much about the story yet, but it revolves around cursed books, grief, terminal (?) insomnia and evil industrialists-cum-venture-capitalists. It’s set in the environs of Bradford, which is where I grew up. I’m fed up of the London-centricness of British novels, which is rich seeing as Oneiromancer was set there. Still: London, Brittany, Bradford – I’m moving things around, at least.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say for now. I’m first drafting, and doubtless what I’m producing is pretty terrible. A first draft is all about getting the story down on paper; of finding steps and mis-steps and of trying not to get too bogged down in a morass of one’s own making.

But it’s fun, and exciting, and though it’s a slog it’s my slog.

*             *             *

For those what missed it I did an interview with the wonderful Runalong Womble the other week. If you want to read about New Gods, about my influences, the problems of writing sci-fi, and my book recommendation for the world, head along here – and check out all of Womble’s other interviews whilst you’re at it.

Oh, and maybe buy and/or review New Gods? Cheers. You’re the best.

Sack the juggler

And… breathe.

It’s busy times again and I must work on working on: I must find myself time to write. Recently I’ve been somewhat swamped with the dirt and diesel of modern life. Only now can I take stock and see what I’ve been missing.

I’ve barely presented any new writing at my weekly group meetings because I’ve been so buried in self-publishing, and in proofreading and copyediting that, though I have virgin writing to share, I’ve not had time to actually go over it and do the inevitable rewrites.

I’ve managed to carve little half-hours, here and there, and I’ve been inching on with my very brandish-new project (not the thing I’ve been editing; that’s Our Kind of Bastard. This is the as-yet-untitled sequel to that and Oneiromancer) but that’s slow, painful going, not helped by the piecemeal approach.

I’m juggling these things but sadly not very well. It’s more just waving balls around rather than a jaw-dropping transcendent many-limbed performance.

Sack the juggler.*

I’ve just handed in another editorial assignment and, though I do have another project checked in, things currently look a little calmer out in front of me. The self-publishing is done (bar any possible far-too-late edits, should any typos have crept through, and possible promotion opportunities). So it’s time for me to get back to what I do best I’m here to talk about.

I have to get better at balancing my time. I need to reprioritise and maybe say no to things sometimes. Because I’m not doing the fundamentals right now. For good reasons, maybe, but still, I’m failing.

I’m also eager to get back to it. I miss creating and picking away at a novel; as I said, it’s what I’m here to talk about and for too long I’ve not really been doing it.

So let’s get to it. No time for this! Whose idea was it to write a stupid blog anyway?

*How do you kill a circus? Go for the juggler

Letting go

I’m a bit frustrated at the moment. I’m working all out – by which I mean I’m sitting on my hands, waiting – on self-publishing (New Gods still planned for an October 26th release, all you people desperate to pre-order) and beyond that…

And that’s the question: what next?

After New Gods, all I have in the bank are the three novels (one complete, one in the factory for a refit, one a fifth of the way written) in the series that begins with Oneiromancer. I’m proud of these books. I think they’re either good or have the potential to be good. Thing is that I’ve already been rejected by all the sci-fi/urban fantasy agents in the country (and some beyond). So I have no idea how I’m going to go about getting them published.

Yes, yes, self-publishing and all that. I know I have that option. But I’m reluctant to go down that route. New Gods is a special case; the finale to a series that I simply want to get out because I’m proud of it and know that no other publisher with the situation as it is.

I am by no means negative about self-publishing. But that’s not how I envisioned my career as going, and I don’t know how to adapt my thinking to make myself embrace that future. I will, of course, if I can’t see any other way forwards – which I can’t at present – because I am, as I said, proud of my work and the books deserve readers.

I don’t believe I’m capable of drumming up those readers. Not on my own.

It’s times like this that ambition gets in the way of productivity. One can spend so much time worrying about whether one will ‘make it’ and less about getting not only this product ready, but that there’s a continued flow of product for the future.

Maybe the best option is simply to let go. To abandon the work I’ve put into this particular stack of world-building and move on to something entirely new. An agent can be tempted to any project, and then they might be interested in promoting a back catalogue too.

But I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve not even finished my trilogy.

No, perhaps I need to abandon my plans for being a successful (however that be defined) author. I can’t see myself ever being an award-winner, like I am in my dreams, and I’m getting too old and too envious – in a benevolent way – of the breakthrough authors I see on Twitter.

What, after all, is success but a false form of happiness? Change my paradigm, let go of dreams that will never come true and work on the things within my control; that’s what I should do.

But letting go is always hard.

Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

Feeling better

In between times, when I need a break from proofreading and can’t face getting any new words down on paper, I’m giving New Gods one last checkover before I format it for self-publishing. And you know what? It’s not bad.

I’ve been on a bit of a downer about my writing recently. I’ve started to worry whether or not I ‘have it’; am capable of writing to the level I want to present to the wider world. It says nothing that I’m published: a book’s publication is a commercial decision, not one based on quality. I’ve been doubting myself.

But now I find myself somewhat reassured. Not that I’m claiming genius, or great profundity, but I’ve been reading my own work and kind of not hating it. And I’ve been remembering how it felt when I was in the midst of writing the piece, remembering that at the time I felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written. And then I felt, yeah, New Gods and Oneiromancer represented a sort of high-water mark for my writing; when it all clicked and I was churning out decent work with ease. And then I thought Well, Our Kind of Bastard is fun too; maybe that sits up there. And then I thought my new thing might not be bad either.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of a trough, it’s a good idea to look at what you’ve achieved. Negativity comes easily – to me, at least. But I am a capable writer, and also the least accurate judge of my own prose. I am as good as many published writers. And you know what? You are too.

Because, as I said, a book is published to make money, not to win awards with its prose (as I understand, publishers enter books in awards-competitions to sell more copies, not to simply celebrate books they think wonderful – though of course they can’t do both).

So, after a rough few months – 2021 has not treated me kindly so far – I now feel a little more stable, a little more confident in my new abilities. I’ve had to take some time off from actual creative writing because I’ve had so many other things on my plate, and maybe this will prove to be long-term beneficial. I still gaze in awe at my contemporaries, still feel too old and a little burnt-out, but now I believe: there is a good writer in me.

I’m not anticipating many sales for New Gods. I’m not interested in doing great amounts of promotion. As I’ve said before, I’m putting it out to complete the Antarctic trilogy for both my few fans and for myself. There is too much competition in the world of indie authors for me to hold great dreams of runaway success.

But I am going to put out a work I believe in. And that means more to me than any number of sales.

No reason I can’t hope for both, I suppose.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Seeking progress

Banner concept of innovation, creativity and imagination

How do I write my novels? The answer, of course, is ‘badly’ – but do I plan ahead or do I just start writing and find my path amongst the thickets? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Every time I try and start a book I sit down, hopefully in a coffee shop somewhere (obviously not at the moment) and make a page of illegible notes which I’ll then almost totally ignore. It’s not wonderfully efficient but it’s always worked for me; sketching out the mechanics of an Antarctic research base, for example, and letting the plot flow freely through my subconscious.

Then I say to myself, ‘right, next time I’m going to try and do it properly. I will plan things out. I will, dare I say it, outline.’ And I never do.

My last attempt was for Our Kind of Bastard. I created four different spreadsheets. I had charts saying who was doing what where and when. I was organised – and then I started to write the damn thing and realised that, for all my planning, I’d only plotted about a quarter of the novel and I’d barely kept to that anyway.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Being bound too tight to a map means that there’s no room for a minor character to swoop in and bowl you off your feet. There’s a pressure to keep conformity, even if you find a more interesting trail to follow. The scenic route can be rewarding in itself.

Incidentally, Chuck Wendig’s been giving some Gentle Writing Advice on his Twitter stream recently. The one that caught my eye is this: we are urged to ‘trim the fat’ off our manuscripts, to make every word relevant and apposite. But sometimes fat gives flavour and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

In any case, now I am trying to sketch out a plan for a new novel – a follow-up to OKOB, which is in itself a sequel to Oneiromancer – and I am struggling. Inspiration is sadly lacking. So I’m trying to compensate by working hard.

I am, for the first time ever, writing down what may come to be a whole plot before I start the actual scribbling. It may not be: I reserve the right to start writing before I’ve got all the details locked in. And I reserve the right to deviate horribly before I’ve got to the end of the first chapter.

But I am struggling with my brain at the moment. I want to start something new but am finding it difficult. This is my way of steering around obstacles: I will not wait for a blinding flash of lightning to illuminate my way; I will turn on my pitifully feeble torch and seek out a path yard by yard, bitter inch by bitter inch.

Your method may vary. For me this is currently how I’m seeking progress.

Progress uncertain

In a vague attempt to make myself a) employable and b) to help myself as a self-employed writer/editor I have been doing a course in business skills over the last fortnight. This means there has been precious little time for actual writing, something that shivers the very soul within my skin.

It also means I don’t have much to say right now, unless you want me to take you through the intricacies of invoicing.

So: please allow me to update you on what I’m currently working on and what lies in my immediate future in lieu of more interesting words.

Maze

  • Night Shift

As you all know, NS is scheduled for publication on November 6th. I’ve recently completed my copyedits and the manuscript is back with the publishers who are, I hope, busy doing publish-y things to it. Fear not, good people – I shall keep you posted whether you want to learn more or not.

  • The Problem Child

The Novel Formerly Known As Australis was half-rewritten before I both moved house and was swamped by edits and learning. But as soon as I get some clear water I’ll be coming back to this: it’s the sequel to Night Shift and I want to give my publishers a decent novel to make a decision on. More specifically I need to go back to take my seventeenth stab at an open as the damn thing still isn’t co-operating

  • Book Three

The last in the trilogy is way down my list of priorities but it is in there somewhere. And yes, it does have a name. I just can’t remember what it is

  • Oneiromancer

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. The novel is completed and polished and – I think – is pretty good. There’s just one problem: two characters need to be replaced. I just don’t quite know how to go about it – the structure is based around them and I can’t quite see how to sub them out without the whole novel collapsing into randomness. The answer might be to embrace chaos, but I’m not quite there yet. I am mulling

  • The New Thing

I don’t actually do much new writing. Most of my time is taken up with rewriting and tinkeration. But I am moulding a new project in the deepest recesses of my worst nightmares: a concept that may or may not involve refugees, corruption, journalism and a heist. This may be the last anyone ever hears of it, but at the moment it’s something I’m throwing ideas at to see if anything sticks

Carrington Labyrinth

Leonora Carrington: Labyrinth

And that’s it, apart from the prospect of a new world of (part-time) paid employment and an editing job I’m grinding my way through in the background. Which reminds me, I must make a push to get new work in: proofreading, far more so than creative writing, is what will pay the bills.

Oh, and I’ve just found I passed my exam. I am officially skilled in business, having achieved a rating of Competent. Go me.

Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

NPCcoverthumb.jpg

I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

Man in stone wall 1300w.jpg

They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

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This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.