Getting things wrong

goodnews

News! Human Resources, the second in the Australis trilogy, is due out July 2020!

That’s the best part of a year away but I’m already getting anxious and wondering if there’s anything I should be doing to promote it. And so I begin to compose an email suggesting a few things that my publisher might like to help me organise: to get on a few convention programmes, maybe a launch event; and to merely put myself at their disposal.

There’s not much I like less than sending emails promoting myself, pushing my agenda or asking for favours. I’ve never learnt the art of the blag. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Couple that with my almost complete ignorance of the way the world works – specifically publishing, conventions and media bookings – and there’s a massive opportunity to get things wrong. But I know that big things are booked way in advance so, at least in theory, now is the perfect time to think about these things. I have about nine months’ grace. Last time, with Night Shift, I missed chances. I should be thinking about this now.

But I agonise over emails; I compose them when I’m in the car, or when I’m lying in bed, and they’re perfect: but get me behind a computer and it all falls apart. Am I asking too much? Am I being cheeky? I lack the necessary arrogance to imagine that people see my emails as anything other than self-serving and grasping. I am an inconvenience, something to be resented.

But the emails have to be sent. I have a book coming out, for goodness’ sake. How wonderful is that?

There is something of imposter syndrome in all this. At least part of me believes that my writing isn’t good enough to be published; that I’ve somehow got away with something. To be asking for more is the height of impertinence, even when our interests collide.

impostre

Besides, I don’t deserve more. Who am I? An end-list nobody, that’s who. Who am I to be asking to be put on convention programmes? They’ve never heard of me. You’ve barely heard of me, and you’re reading this.

But this is where everyone starts from. Everyone feels like this. It’s part of what makes us human and there are a lot of people who get it worse than me. Ha, I’m even an imposter when it comes to imposter syndrome.

Anyway, I have sent the Great Email of Doom. It’s done. It’s off.

Now it’s just a case of waiting for the Great Reply of Terror.

The scene that would not die

DoaS

I am writing the scene that will not die.

I am working on a scene that has, so far, taken over a week’s work. It’s not especially complicated – it’s my heroes breaking into a shop – but it’s taking an eternity to get through. And at least part of the reason is this: I’m not sure what I want to happen. I lack an exit point and I’m not sure just what I’m doing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have no deadline or especial expectations. I can afford to take my time. But by golly it’s hard work.

It’s also not something I’d recommend. I think the best writing is done when you know where you’re trying to get to – even if you have lots of deviations and diversions on the way, and even if that end-point changes – because you have an aim and are less likely to waffle to try and cover that you don’t really know where you’re heading.

It’s always been my mantra: have an end-point. Know where you’re going, if not exactly how you’re getting there. But today I find myself without that pole-star, that lodestone, to guide me. I am rudderless, but finding myself oddly liberated by the ignorance I carry.

There are advantages to going in plan-less. You can draw up the scene in little bits, one step at a time. You can let the story develop around you. You can find your way through the paths your characters take: an organic development, the slowness giving you space to develop your ideas and tell you just where they need to go.

fresh-writing-ideas

This is, of course, an illustration of the difference between plotting and pantsing (a word I still hate). I’ve always been a loose combination of both, but in this particular scene I’ve swung decisively into the pantsing camp. And I am finding it oddly liberating.

I’m under no illusions that it’ll need a thorough edit before it’s ready even for a normal run-of-the-mill readthrough. There always is the tendency, when you don’t quite know what you’re doing, to take refuge in description because you yourself don’t know what’s in the room, for example, or precisely what that mysterious masked stranger looks like (or even just who they are). Similarly, you end up saying everything in conversation because you don’t know just what it is you’re trying to say.

And this method is slow. As I said, it’s been over a week in the writing, scratching a line at a time and drinking copious amounts of coffee, procrastinating wildly rather than getting down to the serious business of thinking.

But I am getting through it. I’ve just got to the point where I invoke Chandler’s Law, which opens up new realms of decisions and choices, all of which will take me further into knowing just where the novel will take me next, and beyond that, and beyond that.

The scene that will not die may well end up being the most important in the entire novel. If only I could work out just what I’m trying to do.

All an act

Cat typing

I’ve realised what I’ve done wrong.

Ever since I started working on my WIP it’s been fighting me. It’s been kicking up a stink, complaining and not going where I want it to take me. More specifically, I’ve got up to 20,000 words and I’ve not seen any sighting of an inciting incident or a mid-novel climax or any of the other waypoints that one uses to hang their story upon.

I’m not one to plot out a novel in detail but I do have some idea of points along the way; I generally have some set-pieces or emotional climaxes that I’m intending to meet. I also have an idea of the ending, so I roughly know where I’m going even if I take the scenic route to get there. I don’t use a sat-nav but rather a list of attractions to call in at along the journey.

So I’ve been writing on, aiming for my markers and trying to hit my notes whilst allowing myself the odd deviation if something of particular interest catches my magpie eye. But now I’m starting to worry that I’ve run out of road when realistically I should have another 80,000 words to go.

Which is not to say that I’ve nothing left to write: I’ve still got all my plot-points to resolve and that’d take me at least another 20,000 words. But I’m not seeing what I should be seeing: my mid-point climax is hiding from me and, without it, I feel like I’m lost and alone.

This is because I’ve failed to plan a novel. All my prep, all I’ve done so far, is merely the first act.

start

This realisation may have saved my sanity. I’ve been imagining all my work as a great adventure but really it’s just the introduction. That’s why I can’t see beyond the next chapter: I haven’t created anything yet to see.

So the question is this: how do I proceed?

As I see it, I have two, maybe three options. One is to turn this novel into a novella. Another is to embrace my idiocy and write acts two and three (for which I have an idea but intended to write as the next novel in the series – ie after a good long break). The third option is to carry on exactly as I have been doing and hope that it all turns out okay in the end.

Any guesses as to which I’ll end up doing?

How to rite a novil

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I don’t sit down and outline every scene before I set pen to paper, though I often wonder if I should. Nor do I set out writing without any sort of idea where I’m going. I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I am something in between, as I suspect most people are.

The way I write a novel is this: badly.

Just kidding (maybe). To be serious: a novel starts with an idea that then spends a long time revolving around the cranium as the tone, characters and locations simmer and settle. Then, maybe a year, maybe several years after the initial flame, I’ll come up with a starting point and an end point and I’ll start writing.

I’ll then stop writing as I realise I don’t know what I’m doing. So at this point I’ll do a bout of planning; of writing down some key points I want to visit; some key characters and intrigues and betrayals. Then I’ll start writing again.

This time I’ll get a bit further before I find I’m writing myself into another hole; that what’s going on the page isn’t covered by my sketchy notes and I need to stop again. There then follows a bout of soul-searching. More notes are written, crossed out and reassessed, like so:

Notes

…and so the endless circle continues. I see a little ahead. I write. I realise that this thread is going to cause me problems. I get depressed. I stop and try to think. I see a little further ahead so I write…

Does this make me a plotter or a pantser? Of course it’s neither, which is why I find the terms so reductive as to be useless. (Plus I hate the term ‘pantser’. It’s such an ugly mangling of the language, and such an ugly image is conjured.)

Unless it’s just me. Are there really people out there who can write a whole novel by the seat of their pants, without any sessions of brain-work at all? Can you really be led entirely by the flowing of the pen?

Are there really people who plan out every scene in detail before committing pen to paper? I can just about imagine there are, but if so… how? Do you need to be an expert in narrative structure or something, because I’ve never managed to fill in all the gaps before starting. Surely it’s a thankless, joyless task to fully outline a story without giving it some blood in the writing?

What sayest thou?

Of course, I write this post just as I reach a brick wall in my own writing; a state of stuckness that makes me reevaluate my decision to ever start this novel. Ploughing onwards isn’t getting me anywhere so I must pause and try and gain some big picture perspective. But that’s damn hard work and I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. Or at least I’m not today.

Whatever the method, it seems that there’s nothing easy about writing a novel.

plantser

Little victories

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I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. Trying to build a novel, yes, but… how? It’s been such a long time since I sat at a computer and tried to pour words to a blank screen.

In order to write you have to know what you’re writing about. And, though I have a story and an idea of a plot and I know what key the story will be in and the characters all waiting, I really feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

This is not special. It’s not unusual. This is what makes writing so difficult: the vista of all possible options spread in front of you in the form of that accursed blank page. The impossibility of making choices. The collapsing of waveforms into a single, informed reality.

It doesn’t help to know that nothing is unchangeable: that you will inevitably make missteps and that’s what editing is for. It should help, but it doesn’t. You still have to make those decisions, get the words down on that page.

People who plan out their novels in great detail before setting metaphorical pen to paper probably have the right idea. I’ve never been able to do that, although this current project has involved some fairly heavy-duty forefront thinking.

Even then, when you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve in each scene, it’s never easy. The blank page resists. Writing can be like wading through treacle; the words seem to drag at you, to want to pull you down into inertia, to drown you in liquid amber.

This is why any progress, no matter how small, is a success. 50 words? Good. Even if they only put off a problem, they’re 50 words that didn’t exist yesterday. Decided on the next scene? Even if you change your mind and delete all you’ve done, it’s easier to work from a positive decision than it is to work from uncertainty.

If you’re a writer and if you’ve decided to write you’ll know how tough it can be. The small victories are all we have, sometimes – especially when we’re just starting out and are still fighting through the beaded-curtains of indecision.

So take those little victories and recognise how much of a fighter you are. You’re still scrapping forwards, still fighting the tide that threatens to wash you back into a little ball of unfulfillment.

You’re doing it. You’re moving forwards.

You’re brilliant.

And I don’t know about you but it makes me feel absolutely 0% better.

Smolvics

All the right words

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

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

It is, in other words, a problem.

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

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

Jean Oram quote

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

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

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

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

Morecambe and Previn

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.