Character flaw

One of the biggest, most consistent criticisms from my recent beta-readings of Our Kind of Bastard was that my characters were too sketchy. Too hard to really get to grips with, to really feel for; to make matter. This I put down to the complications of writing a sequel. It’s a lot easier to blame that then it is to blame my shortcomings as a writer, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Sequel-writing is difficult. You have to assume the reader has either not read the previous or has read it and then forgotten all they learnt. No spoilers are allowed, nor can you repeat what has gone before. When I was drafting OKOB I chose semi-consciously to ignore backstory, to just forge ahead and let my character’s personalities come out with actions rather than explanations.

This obviously hasn’t worked. So now one of my most pressing jobs is to go back and insert individuality into the gaps I left.

Except I didn’t leave any obvious gaps. There are very few ‘insert backstory here’ places that leap out at me as I reread. Instead I must seek out opportunities to crowbar in the requisite information.

And sometimes it means telling, not showing. Perhaps that’s the hardest thing of all – to drop my demonstrative principles and simply announce how people are feeling, and why they’re feeling it, is tough. I don’t know how far I can go before it becomes too much, too obvious.

This isn’t my first sequel, but it does seem like the first time I’ve had this particular problem. With Human Resources I had to add the happenings of the first novel without being too explicit, and that was difficult enough. But I didn’t have the issues of character.

I think that’s because HR was written in 1st person, and so we constantly had telling – protagonist Anders’ thoughts were always front and foremost and so we had access to how he felt about the people around him – an extra layer to reinforce their actions.

Our Kind of Bastard is not only 3rd person but freely hops from character to character. That means we share less intimacy with each person. I’m thinking it gives a more nuanced perspective of how events unfold, and allows me, the author, to show the reader just what I want them to see. Hopefully this will make a rounded, cinematic experience. But, as I’m learning, there are perils.

So what do I do? Well, I guess I wield my crowbar and my hammer with gleeful abandon. I say more what people are thinking. I share more with the reader, especially early in the novel when they’re still forming their perspectives.

Apart from that, I guess the onus is on me to become a better writer.

Anxiety lifting

Confidence is the trickiest of tricky buggers. Mine has been oscillating wildly this last few months; I’ve been switching from bold optimism to doom and gloom, turning on a sixpence and making myself – and the people around me – sick in the process.

I can write this now because I had a fillip last night that’s put me on more of an even keel. No, nothing too exciting or remarkable – the Publisher of my Dreams has yet to pass judgement on my magnus opus – but a self-inflicted weight has been lifted from me.

I wrote recently about being too afraid to read at my new writing group because everyone there is simply too good at what they do and I am afraid of appearing silly. Well I sucked it up and I presented an extract from Our Kind of Bastard. And I’m glad I did because, though it was far from plain sailing, I now have a much better idea of what I’m doing and where I’m going and where I’m going wrong.

More importantly, I feel less paralysed, less frozen. I worry far too much about what other people think and about how I’ll react to it. The anxiety I was feeling before reading was making me sick. It’s such a relief to have the weight off my chest.

And the funny thing is that the criticism I received was not light, nor simple. There is learning to be done and improvements to make. I guess it’s just now I think I can see a little clearer, have a greater understanding of where I’m going.

More significant is the personal thing, though. I’m not saying I was especially brave or anything for facing my fears, just that I was caught in a negative loop – I hadn’t realised how negative – and this helped get me out of it.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that I have anxiety. *shrug*

Onwards (again)

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

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

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

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

Visual representation of my brain

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

The work must still be done, however.

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

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

En avant

It feels like this year has been mostly taken up with insecurity and moaning. Apologies for that, and thank you for sticking with me. Now it’s time to push that all aside – for now at least – and look at the more positive things I’m doing.

At the moment I’m balancing three major projects:

Self-publishing New Gods. This is in train – I’ve commissioned my cover art and now I’m being fairly inactive in getting the final text together. That’s the problem with a long deadline (I’m aiming for publication late October/early November, a year on from the release of Human Resources) – the sense of urgency is lacking. But this is obviously a significant enterprise and I’m determined to put out the best product I possibly can.

Exposing Our Kind of Bastard to the world – or at least to significant parts of it. By the time you read this I’ll have had my major beta-read feedback and I’ll have a better idea of where I’m going and just what is and isn’t working in what I’ve done so far. I am, alongside that, putting it piece-by-piece to my spanking new writing group, where it’s getting the micro-kicking it needs. This also involves very much revising my conversational French, of which I speak almost none. See, OKOB is set in Brittany and thus features la langue de la France. This is clearly a very stupid idea and I urge you not to follow my folly.

Writing a novel. I am also follyitious enough to have started a new novel. It’s still in its infancy so I don’t want to talk too much about it for fear of cursing the whole project. But I have finally, after what seems like forever stuck in Editsville, got back to creating original words – or at least rearranging old ones into a hopefully satisfying new pattern.

May contain Bradford.

And that’s it: aside from that it’s a case of balancing all this work with the demands of the day job, to which I will be returning to (as opposed to working from home) in the terrifyingly near future. All will change again when I do go back as I will lose a lot of flexibility and writing hours will be severely constrained.

But that’s a problem for another day. I will work out a way to keep going creatively. Almost all authors have day-jobs these days – it is merely how life works in this late-stage capitalist paradise in which we live.

So: write on, my friends. Here’s to a better future for us all.

On beginnings

Sometimes you need to hear something out loud to know what you were thinking all along.

Such is the case in my latest editing project: Our Kind of Bastard (and I still can’t tell if this is a good title or not). Despite this going out to beta-readers I still took the first chapter to my new writing group last week. There it got a very gentle, kindly-meant kicking, for which I am grateful.

The truth which I had not allowed myself to say out loud is that I struggled to start this novel. I have four beginnings, in fact, none of which run entirely sequentially and thus are a confusion for the reader.

The difficulty is that there is merit in all of them. But I know I have to lose at least two of those scenes in order to get a little flow going. It just took someone else saying it out loud for me to accept what at least a part of me knew all along.

This is, of course, another benefit of being in a writers’ group, manuscript exchange circle or the like. You are not always aware of what’s going on in your own subconscious and you need an outside force to bring it home to you.

Doesn’t help that OKOB is a sequel: I need to introduce all the characters and the world I’ve built in book one to remind veteran readers and at the same time give enough to newbies. And I need to crack on with the actual story that makes up book two.

So I have a problem – but then I always did have; the only difference is that now I’m aware of it. And now I know what I have to do: expand one scene to allow it to breathe, cut two others, and see if one of those, at least, can’t be worked back into the text further down the line. And, of course, I have to work out what information I haven’t now given and make sure anything essential gets fed back in somewhere.

This is writing. It’s a bloody difficult gig – don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy ‘cause it ain’t.

And this is only the opening scene.

Seeking progress

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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.

All hands

Too busy

All hands on editing. That’s how it’s going at the moment, as I forge my way through a commercial piece with a harsh (self-set) deadline and, frankly, no time to write this blog-post.

I’m doing a copy-edit but it’s an unusual piece that requires every single bit of my brain. So I’m not able to spare any neurons for my own work this week, and probably not for the week after. That’s frustrating – or it would be, if I had energy for frustration – but that’s just how it goes sometimes. As a freelancer one has to take the work that comes and do it with a much speed (and quality) as possible.

And, truth be told, it’s not come in at such a bad time. I’m kind of between my own projects at the moment; I’ve a novel that I need to hunt down beta-readers for (any volunteers?) and another to review before that too goes out to the great unwashed. Then it’s either back to Our Kind of Bastard for its biggest edit or on with something new… though heaven knows what that’s going to be.

I might even try writing an outline for my next piece. You never know.

So let me just apologise for boring the hell out of you. Fingers crossed that I can come up with something more interesting next week. Given the state of 2020 so far events will probably have been overtaken by a plague of locusts or a dragon attack and I’ll have even more of an excuse for writing gibberish.

Peace out, you wonderful people, you

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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.

Critical distancing

editing

It is another quiet week here in lockdown. I am managing to claw out regular writing slots, but now I’ve finished The Great Draft of Doom it is commercial editing that occupies my time. Yes, I have decided it’s best to leave my manuscript out to dry before cracking on with the ironing; the redrafting will wait until I’ve got some kind of objectivity.

Objectivity is the right word, but it’s not quite the honest reason for setting the manuscript to one side. No, the real reason is that finishing the damn thing took a lot out of me and I need to recover. I can’t face the work right now, save maybe in short writing-group-shaped snatches. Doing the necessary cutting and pasting and ripping and stitching is beyond me at the moment.

Objectivity is a side benefit, not a prime motivation. The advice is all about giving yourself critical distance; the experts never tell you about emotional space. But that’s what I find I need more than anything.

So I will spend my time on my editing, and, when I feel strong enough, I’ll get back to my other creative projects. I have two novels to give the final once-over to (which may involve a lot more than it sounds; I’m already getting anxiety over them) before – yes, before I rip Our Kind of Bastard (or Claws, or The Indomitable Gauls, or whatever I end up calling it) to pieces and try and repattern the shreds into something vaguely aesthetic.

So the lull is where I live right now – which is a bit of a shame as I could do with something to take my mind off the current state of the world. Can’t control these things, I suppose; one has to be philosophical. No point in dragging out the work until the perfect moment as there’s really no such thing.

So I sit in what feels like limbo, though of course it’s no such thing: I am doing work and I’m recovering objectivity.

It’s just hard to see where forwards is right now.

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