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.

Revenge of the Betas

Oneiromancer Draft 2 is finished. It is now with my reading team; in a month or so we will convene and I’ll learn of all the ways in which I have failed. Then it’ll be back to the Editorium with me to fix all my myriad mistakes.

Some months ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a theoretical beta-reader: now it’s time again for me to think about what I actually want to gain from the experience and how to go about asking for it. Because there is good criticism and there’s bad criticism and it’s possible for you, the author, to make sure you get the one you’re after.

These are the questions I’m asking myself. Unfortunately the human brain (mine, at least) isn’t designed to see these things in one’s own work. So I’m relying on others to filter these things for me. I’m not planning on sending this list out to my chums ahead of review/evisceration because I don’t want to lead their thoughts. But I will be taking this list with me, as a reminder to myself of what I’m trying to learn.

So:

  • Structure:
    • Does the novel start in the right place/in the right way?
    • Are there any areas where the story drags? Do any scenes seem too slow, or would any benefit from being drawn further out?
    • Does the work take too long to get going?
    • Should any scenes be cut?
    • Should any scenes be added?
    • Are the characters introduced coherently?
    • Does the ending satisfy?
  • Mythos:
    • This is a fantasy and so a certain amount of world-building is involved. Is there too much? Or too little?
    • Is it communicated in the right way? Too fast, too slow, too obscure or too spoon-fed?
    • Is my mythos cohesive and believable?
    • Is there anything that you didn’t understand/makes no sense?
    • Have I contradicted myself at any point?
  • Character:
    • Backstory: too much? Too little?
    • Do the characters act out of character at all? Are their motives clear?
    • Are the characters sufficiently distinct? Do they have clear – and not too annoying – voices?
  • Plot:
    • Are there any points where you wondered why my cast acted as they did?
    • Were there any moments where you were screaming ‘No! No, that’s dumb! Why not just…?”
    • Were all actions clearly caused by previous events and not introduced by our old friend Ms Deus Ex?
    • Was there, in fact, a coherent plot?
    • Were all the threads resolved?

It’s especially important to get this sort of feedback because I was essentially making things up as I went along. You come up with one idea and then, a dozen chapters later, you realised the consequences are much greater than you thought. “Well if she can create a sword out of thick air, why can’t she just sever this Gordian knot with a thought?” It’s amazing what you can miss.

I’m not (that) interested in typos, grammatical errors, dialogue and even basic quality of writing. Not at this stage. I’m going to have to rework this piece enough times: each draft will improve the actual writing. At this stage I’m much more concerned with whether the world I’ve built actually works.

It’s always worth asking yourself what you want to find through criticism. Secretly I think we all want to be told that we’re wonderful, that we’ve written something unique for the ages. But even secretly-er we all have anxieties about what we’ve done. The only way to come out with a quality product is to face these fears head on, admit your uncertainties and Get Help. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Some of the points above are generic: we’re all worried about character; any of us might have let a plot-thread hang loose.

Some, however, are specific to this particular work. For me it’s the particular rules of the world – the laws of magic, if you’ll permit me such an odious phrase. So when the group meets and I’m confronted with my shortcomings I’ll know to prick up my ears whenever someone mentions what to me are the underlying fundamentals of my world’s backstory. And so on.

That, at least is the plan. But, as we all know, no plans ever survive contact with the enemy.

Sitrep

Christmas is gone. 2014 is here. Time to pack away your party clothes and get back to the coalface: the work you stowed away, out of sight and out of mind, is back and demanding your attention. After all, you said you’d try to work whilst you were away but did you? I didn’t. I carried my manuscript between two sets of parents and looked at it not once.

So: sitrep. As you know I’ve been asked to rework Night Shift for an agent and it’s this (and this blog) that’s occupying my tiny mind at the moment. As my Dad insightfully pointed out, Christmas could either be the best or the worst thing for me. A break could either disrupt all progress or it could provide a much needed glass of perspective and soda. Before the enforced merriment of Yule I was fighting my way through a particularly knotty section: cutting, pasting, adding new linky-bits and removing odd extemporaneous phrases. Three weeks on and that’s still what I’m doing.

This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. It feels like I’m trying to rebuild a house from the bottom up. Up till about page 100 I was happily repointing the brickwork, occasionally fitting a new window. Now I’ve realised that the foundations are unstable. I’ve dug down and found a burst pipe has washed away all the mortar. So I’ve had to buttress the superstructure, remove all the sodden bricks and replace them in an entirely different configuration. Will anyone notice what I’ve done? They shouldn’t: all this work should be carefully hidden from sight, never to be noticed until the whole structure is finally condemned as uninhabitable (or, possible, given Listed status).

Anyway, the point is that five or so pages have now become seventeen. But were that all it is…

It seems that to avoid unsightly joins in my rebuilt dwelling I’m going to have to dismantle some of the walls as well. A west-face might now become south. Those new windows will once more need replacing as I realise they no longer match the scheme…

Enough of this extended and increasingly tortuous metaphor. The point is that this is what writing is. Thanks to expert critique a number – a significant number – of structural problems have been revealed to me. It’s possible that these issues might never have been noticed by the casual reader – they weren’t noticed by me, the author – but that’s no excuse. The agent was right: plot-holes and illogic must be banished if I want to produce a narrative that convinces and envelops.

So I work on. Cut, copy and paste have become my best friends. New files containing isolated fragments of the novel have sprung up in my hard drive like bacteria. Finally I feel like I’ve got past the ‘knot’ that was preventing any real forward progress.

But every change affects every scene ahead. I’ve dragged in material from further on, saved some for later. I’ve started to forget how the whole thing fits together. Lost sight of the bigger picture, so concerned have I been with this one particular section. This isn’t such a problem as long as I have time, at the end, to go through the whole thing again and smooth out any (inevitable) humps. I’m not concerned too much about the words, not right now. I’m wrestling with alligators, can’t stop to admire the pretty fishes.

This is what writing is. I hope – I very much hope – that I’m learning lessons from all this. I hope this is a valuable lesson for me and that future work will prove easier, plot-holes less likely to bubble up to the surface. Or, with my cynical hat on, I hope that this establishes some sort of a reputation for me and that future is less scrutinised, as seems to happen with successful authors.

No, I don’t mean that. I want to produce the best work I possibly can. I’m a writer. This is what I do.

But it’s anything but straightforward. Anything but easy.