State of play

This week I have been mostly editing, and thus not writing. Some weeks are like that. Just got to take it and keep snatching the time where you can. And, of course, it means I don’t have much to say.

It appears as if the game-writing gig is off. Corporate politics – or possibly just determined accountancy – has doomed it. And that’s okay. I didn’t have the chance to blot my copybook, so I escape with my reputation – such as it is – intact. The money would have been nice, but it would have been a bonus, not an essential. I’m back to having just the three jobs instead of four, and I might just get Breathing Fire finished before the year turns.

Truth is that I should get it done a long way before that, but it doesn’t feel that close to resolution at the moment. This is partly because I’m deep in editing; right now I have a deadline breathing down my neck and I’m really burgling the time to write this now. Mainly it’s because I don’t have that clear an idea of where I’m going or how to get there.

I mean, that’s not entirely strictly true. I do know where I’m going. I’m working to climax no. 2, and then the denouement, and then done. I know a few key things that I want to happen along the way. Problem is that I don’t have a physical location tied down, so I have to do a lot of thinking along the way. I know roughly what has to happen – the vanquishment of the antagonists – but not exactly how.

Thinking: the curse of my life. I’d really much rather drift through and let other people make all the important decisions, thank you very much. I don’t know why I do this to myself.

Anyway, the final completion of this virgin draft seems a long way away. The individual writing sessions, when I can actually find the time to do any, are actually coming along quite nicely. Just a few days ago I was having fun winding a little of my own personal history into a character’s mouth. I do that every now and again, just ‘gift’ the character a little memory of something that once happened to the author. It’s a bit like cheating, as really these things should be born of pure imagination – or so I hear – but it’s also convenient, easy, fun, and possibly a cheap form of therapy.

So life is pretty slow, pretty heavy, pretty hot right now – but still I’m pretty sanguine. All it takes is hard work and the necessary intellectual heavy lifting. And then, before you know it, you have a completed novel.

I can barely remember the last time I completed a book of my very own. I spend most of my time in other people’s.

Onwards!

Reflections

Not for the first time I appear to find myself in a holding pattern. Unable to move forwards, what with this and that, and unable to find a good circumnavigation; I am locked into an editing loop and can’t free much time for original writing.

Not that things are going backwards. I am still making – generally – decent progress in the game of life. I have my WIP and I’m trying to eke out odd half-hours to move it onwards. Problem is that, really, you can’t do much in stolen half-hours. By the time you’ve locked in to where you are, who’s in a particular scene and what motives they may have your time’s up. I even forgot a major character’s name last session because it’d been so long since she’d spoken.

At the end of the day, if you’ve written 100 words then you’ve made decent progress. 300 words is a win.

Truth is, of course, that any progress – even if that’s a negative word-count – is good. Anything to either claw your way closer to the finish, or that makes the writing better, is good. Personally I think I find 2-hour sessions to be optimum. Not so short that you spend all the time recapping; not so long as to melt the brain. I do (very) occasionally indulge myself in all-day sessions but I find that the breaks lengthen and the intensity wears off past a certain point.

Which is, of course, absolutely fine. It’s not like I’m working to a deadline here or anything. Would that I were; that’d mean that someone, somewhere, was wanting to read my words.

Speaking of deadlines and of people wanting to read my words, the job writing for computer games seems to have been delayed. There’s a chance it might be cancelled completely. Sorry to tease, but them’s the corporate breaks. I’m not too fussed, to be honest. I’d like to do it, but I’m a bit of a clew of anxiety about the whole thing, and it’s not like I’m sitting on my hands waiting. I have a big ball o’ editing to keep me busy.

And, of course, I have a WIP to finish – in, it seems, 100-word bites. I’m going to finish this because I want to, but I still don’t know what to do with the trilogy. Assuming none of the irons-in-fires (submissions) comes to pass – and I have no reason to think they will, nor that I’ll hear anything but silence – then I have five years’-plus work with nothing to show for it. I have tinkered with the idea of making – or trying to make – Breathing Fire work as a standalone, or retool it to be the first in the trilogy, and then try to sell that.

But that seems like a lot of work. I am, generally, opposed to hard work.

Another option is to self-publish. A third is to simply park this trilogy and work on something else. I’ve no idea what that ‘else’ would be right now.

Anyway. I’ve some good friends, and did I mention all the editing I have to do? That’ll have to see me for now.

Happy writing, everyone.

On titles

Titles matter. Titles sell books. Titles communicate genre and catch the eye (and brain) of the prospective reader. They are key at-a-glance selling points that, whilst they might not make a book a monster, can certainly aid failure.

According to the internet, a good title should be:

  1. Attention-Grabbing
  2. Memorable & Searchable
  3. Informative
  4. Easy & Not Embarrassing to Say
  5. Short

Yes, I know – we can all think of counter-examples. Still it’s not a bad place to start. I personally, writing in genre-fiction, would emphasise no. 3. A good title should tell you what field – roughly – you’re reading in.

The one title of my own that I’ve never been happy with is Oneiromancer. This has genre-coding in spades – it references Neuromancer, the William Gibson classic, with cod-Greek for ‘dream’ replacing the Greek for ‘nerve/nervous system’. So: Dream-diviner, or Dreamweaver.

So I think my title tells us what genre we’re working in. It has, I think, a dark, direct hue and at this point I’m beginning to talk myself into thinking it’s a good title again. Hell, it’s all of four of the five points above: it’s short, attention-grabbing (maybe) and memorable (possibly). It’s not easy to say, maybe?

That’s the problem with lists such as the above: it doesn’t actually give you any of the answers you need. It’s all personal interpretation. Does the Tom Clancy classic Clear and Present Danger* qualify as short and searchable? How many syllables equates to ‘long’?** Our Kind of Bastard is, I think, a good title – but it’s four whole words, and one of them’s a swear/slur, and it doesn’t necessarily communicate genre/meaning. Also, as the sequel to Oneiromancer, it should vaguely be keeping some sort of thematic feel, should it not?

For me personally, the feel of the title is the most important thing. It’s an indescribable, intangible thing: the feel of the words on the cover should match the feel of the words inside. I can’t put it any better than that.

Going back to Oneiromancer, the real reason it’s called that is simply because I’ve never been able to think of anything better – and now it’s stuck, incontrovertible, in my mind. I’ve played around with other ideas – Somnia is the one I remember – but nothing’s felt quite as true as Oneiromancer. And so I’ve given up trying. It’ll stay as the Big O until some editor or agent or industry professional tells me , once and for all, it’s rubbish and it must be changed.

I do wonder if a bad name might have cost me the chance of getting an editor or agent, though. I know that sometimes professionals do request alterations in titles, but one has to get the right kind of interest first.

Anyway, onwards! I have an edit to do and a WIP to finish.

And we can all agree that Breathing Fire is a decent title, can’t we?

*Feel free to insert your own example. For the record, I think C&PD is a great title. Not that I’ve ever read the book.

**The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a whole 19 syllables. This Reedsy post is possibly a better resource than the one I linked to earlier.

Stuck in phase space

It would be ‘another day, another dollar’, but sadly economic conditions haven’t been favourable so it’s ‘another week, another dollar.’

Yup, I have another job to fill my time, But that’s okay because I’m getting to read tomorrow’s stories today. And anyway, I’m stuck on Breathing Fire.

It’s a simple thing. I’ve reached the end of a section and don’t know whose head to hop into next. I’ve been rotating nicely through my cast of POV characters. And I know generally where my story’s going. But, for some reason, I’ve hit a hump and can’t think where to go next.

This is where first person has the edge. You’re always in one person’s head and there’s no choice: if you’re writing chronologically – as I do – then the next action is always the next significant experience of that person. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to work out what’s significant and there are plenty of difficulties therein.

But I have about seven different perspectives I can choose from. Which I opt for – well, I really shouldn’t say this, but oftentimes it’s pretty much random. Who hasn’t said much recently? Who’s most interesting? Who’s most active here? There’s just too much choice and often I find myself thinking ‘well, just commit and make it work.’

Have I discussed phase space in these pages before? It’s a concept in physics which is remarkably applicable in storytelling. Put (over) simply, it’s every possible outcome to anything. Start with a great ‘space’: this represents everything in your world of story. Then draw a dot in it: that’s your starting point. Before you lie infinite options. Narrow the choices by selecting genre, setting, mood. Start writing and trace a line across that infinite plane. Ahead of you is everything, but only certain everythings will make sense. Phase space collapses. Options coalesce. The further you get, the more you commit to a plotline or a trope the smaller the arc of infinity that can be chosen from.

This is what I mean when I say ‘phase space collapses’, which I do remarkably often in the privacy of my own head.

If I haven’t rambled about this before it’s because it’s devilish hard to communicate meaningfully, concisely. And I am an idiot. And all I’ve just written is probably entirely incorrect. There’s also no useful – or pretty – images of it either, which is why you’re getting space pics instead.

Anyway, I bring this up because I am stuck. I am nearly at the end of my novel and so phase space is a fairly narrow beam. It should, therefore, be easy to see a way forwards – and, on the broader axis, it is – I know exactly where I’m going.

But it’s like a torchbeam shone upon a distant object: I can see it, the destination, perfectly clearly. But there are mantraps and ditches and tangling roots right at my feet. Do I take my eye off the prize in order to light my path?

Also I am so close to the end that I just want to get there. I want to leap all these obstructions and land hard at the finishing post. But I can’t. I won’t let myself. I have to earn the journey, not skip the effort on the train like some of the first riders of the Tour de France did.

Any now I am stuck. I have too many options. I just need to make myself commit and then run with the consequences. But for now my narrow arc of phase space is open in front of me and, combined with the white blank page of my word processing software, I am frozen into inaction.

Maybe I should just go back to my editing. Plenty to get on with there.

I have flown

I have flown. I have ridden the updrafts and I’ve soared. Now I fall back to earth.

It’s been a week. I have been ill. I have deadlines. I have done no writing creatively at all – maybe a paragraph on the side, but that’s all.

I’m at a difficult stage of the novel, now. The tension has been ramped. The action is underway – though not always combatty-shooty-explodey action. There’s a lot of small, slow movements woven in, and perhaps a surprising amount of observation and ‘feelings’. For action without consequence is simply empty and cold. There must be ramifications and they only mean something to the reader if they mean something to the characters.

That’s what I think, anyway.

I have a horrible twin-peaked mountain to climb; a double-climax with only a brief, small valley in between. Although I have some idea what’s got to happen, my original outline (which I’ve barely kept to anyway) says only things like ‘and the building burns down’ without going into any details, any of the mechanics. Past Rob left it up to his future compatriot to work out the specifics.

Which is fine. I have room to dream, room to imagine – I’ve always said that I’m neither a pantser (horrible word) nor a planner. I know where I’m going. I may even know how to get there. I just don’t know which specific bus I’m going to get, or what platform the train leaves from. As phase space collapses, so my ideas get more specific; so the next section comes into tighter focus.

It’s the way I work, and – generally speaking – I’m content. But, faced with the almighty task that’s rearing up in front of me, I doubt my own ability. I doubt whether I have the willpower to scale this particular Alp.

Of course, the best way to do any such task is to take one step at a time, looking ahead (or up) only so far as to plan routes and ensure that no dead-ends are reached. Each step will (hopefully) get me closer to completion. Each word written is one another that I won’t now have to agonise other. Small joys, small victories.

This is, of course, true about any writing activity. One could quite easily write this piece about the very opening of the novel, when the whole mountain range stretches out in front of you. And it’s true that Breathing Fire seems to have been a particular slog; the downslopes have been few and far between.

But that’s okay. I’m still here. Still working, when I get the chance. And I will get it done.

I also have optimism that what I’m writing is worthwhile. Just because the birthing has been tough doesn’t mean that the baby won’t be a thing of wonder. I believe in what I’m doing. Just wish it’d come a little easier, that’s all.

But I’m still here. And I will get the work done.

Just as soon as this latest deadline is out the door…

The blessed relief

The blessed relief. To remember what it’s like to be able to set words down on paper, to enter a loose facsimile of a ‘flow state’; in short to rediscover the joy in writing.

Regular readers will know that this has been something of an angst-station for some time now. I have been trying, and I have been trying, and I have been trying; but I have been swimming uphill against the tides of Breathing Fire and I have had to gouge every word from basalt with only my fingernails.

I finally found my flow, just yesterday, and though I only ran for around 1.5k words, those words felt glorious.

By way of contrast, when I was working on the Anders Nordvelt trilogy, and on Oneiromancer, I was regularly – okay, occasionally – getting 3k down in sessions little over an hour. Doing half that yesterday took me a whole afternoon.

The thing, though, is this: that means nothing.

Editors, or the reading public at large, don’t care just how painful a novel is to produce. They don’t care whether or not its creation was a joy or a soul-rending suffering and, by all accounts, they can’t tell the difference anyway. The likelihood is that I produced 1.5k words of rubbish. And it’s equally likely that the words I spent so much soul-energy tapping out, one scratchy, thrice-reconsidered word at a time, is likely to be just as poor.

First-drafting is hard and painful or it’s a free-flowing joy; more often it’ll be both, at different times, or will elide between them so you can’t really tell where one level begins and ends. It’s not about putting good words down, about finding that perfect prose. Even poetry – though I’ve no doubt there are exceptions for those more talented than I – in my experience was all about the editing, not the initial framing.

But you can’t do that editing until that initial framework exists. The first draft remains the most important, which is why I tend to bang on about it. It’s why I keep going even when I feel that I’m producing nothing but hot filth. Was it Neil Gaiman who said, once, that one of the most important things is to finish the damn thing? You can make a bad thing good but it has to be there, to exist somewhere other than in the fastness of one’s skull, in order to heat it and beat it with the Great Blacksmithing-cum-Editorial Hammer of Truth.

So it’s entirely possible that the work I’ve been agonising over will turn out to be better than that which flew from the fingers. How it got onto the page really, really doesn’t matter.

But getting into the flow state feels good.

If nothing else, that brief taste, that brief dip of the toe into the white waters of creation – well, it reminds me of why I’m doing this.

To quote Elbow: ‘One Day Like This a year would see me right’.

Now I must descend back into the world I’ve created to try and hack my way to the end. I’m under no illusions: it’s not going to magically become easier now I’ve had my taste of glory. There are deep plottish issues that I must work out. The vague idea I’m holding in my head for the climax will not survive contact with the enemy. The problems I’ve foreseen remain, and a brief taste of joy doesn’t actually give any answers.

But, after months and months of striving, I finally cast off my stabilisers – just for one liberating moment – and I flew.

Ain’t nothing like creation, baby.

Feelings and fragments

What am I doing right now? Apart from being interrupted frequently with that pesky old ‘real life’ thing – the need to earn a crust, for example – I am mostly concentrating on Breathing Fire. Whilst Oneiromancer is out on submission (to all of two places) I am working on its second sequel. And, as I have frequently complained in these very pages, it has been a long and difficult road.

From being worried about my well of inspiration to it becoming the longest first-drafting process I’ve (yet) experienced, Breathing Fire has been a struggle. And yet I don’t feel any resentment towards it. It’s not my problem child – that was the novel that eventually became Human Resources. The writing, when I’ve been able to get down to it, has been steady.

Of course it may be that hindsight shows me for a fool. But, at present, I am oddly well-disposed to the beast. No matter that I’ve had to fight for time, that I’ve yet to find my flow, I feel good about the project. It will be done; no matter how long it takes or where it takes me, I believe in it.

And that’s a little odd, because I have no real basis for my belief. When I wrote Oneiromancer I had the real sense that I was making words good: that I had ‘levelled up’ and was creating something that I couldn’t have done before. I don’t have this feeling now. What I do feel is that I’ve got a little more weight of experience both as a writer and a reader, a little more self-awareness and – yes – maybe I have got a little more skilled at setting down the words.

But this is a first draft, and the real skill is in the editing. When I finally get this stage complete and I turn to look at myself in the mirror, that’s when ‘quality of writing’ can be measured. All I have at the moment is the vaguest of feelings, almost an itch, that gives the sense that this is worth doing.

That and the plot I have in mind, which still interests me even as I spin it from the air. If book one was about creating the world, and book two (Our Kind of Bastard) was about almost malevolent glee in misdirection, book three is about… what? About cruelty and indifference, I guess. It’s leaner, hungrier and more desperate than its predecessors, I think.

I’m talking in vague terms, I know; descriptions that are almost worthless on their own. Feelings rather than fragments. I could talk at length about what happens in the story; or maybe I should just shut up and finish the damn thing, only open up about it then.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still here, still writing. And maybe – just maybe – it’s actually worth the effort.

Let down

Letting people down is the worst part of being a published author/freelance editor. I hate it. But it’s happened before and I’m sure it’ll happen again. It is, in fact, happening right now.

I’m not the sort of celebrity that gets authors’ proofs or advanced-review-copies and are quoted on the front of books to help shift copies. I think you need an agent for that, or at least have some cachet of name. So I don’t have to let people down by failing to read novels and give some soundbite by a specific deadline. But I know that if I was, every book I receive will be an agony of hope. I’d want to read them, and to say something nice, because I want to pay back what I’d like to happen to me. And I like making people happy.

But you can’t possibly read them all, can you? Judging by the few ‘bookmail’ or ‘the ARC pile’ pictures I’ve seen on author’s Twitter, it seems that the elite receive dozens of books a week. Surely they can’t get through that many? Not whilst you’re expected to do your own writing, and (in some cases) a day job and a family?

As I said, this doesn’t affect me yet. I’m neither on nor receiving those piles. But I do have my dues to pay. I’m a member of a manuscript critique group – small, select, and not very busy – and I have a few other friends who have read my works-in-progress and to whom I owe a debt. They have provided me wonderful, perspicacious feedback and I owe them my time in return for what they’ve given to me.

But sometimes…

At the moment I have a 150,000 word novel to get through for said manuscript critique group. I have until the end of the month before we virtually meet to feed back. And I’m not going to get it done.

I have paying work that has a similar deadline and I can’t – or at least I don’t feel I can – get through both. And, at the end of the day, the commercial work takes priority.

But I feel horrible. I owe these people both for past opinions and future readings. And for friendship. I won’t let myself be someone who takes without ever giving back. Sometimes it seems like life is preventing the basics – being nice, being courteous, being human. We must fight against that constriction.

So it’s back to the Editorium I go, hoping to get something done on something.

In the meantime, I practice my excuses; doubtless they’ll stand me in good stead for the future.

Priorities

Another day, another excuse. This time it’s a combination of Easter holidays and the Sickness of the Child that have arisen together to thwart my plans. The latter, at least, is over now; she’s back fighting fit. But my plans to switch between original writing and deadline-fuelled editation have come to naught. I have done neither and, as time roars on, I must prioritise accordingly.

So what does this mean? Well, apart from a general cursing of the universe and everything in it, it means that Breathing Fire takes a back seat once more. It means that I’ll probably not be able to finish the beta-reading I was undertaking for a friend in time to give useful feedback. It means that I must enter my Zen-space once more and compose myself before showing my face to the public.

It is life. If you’re a writer and you’re not yet fortunate enough to be able to earn a living from writing – or be supported by a rich patron/lover – the chances are that you have another job, or at least a sideline in applying for jobs/making excuses to the job centre. You are going to have days like this. You are going to be disrupted. You are going to be disturbed just as you were picking up the threads from the last disruption, just as you were picking up speed and starting to find your feet in the flow.

It’s easy to curse life, to lament the failures of society that doesn’t afford the creatives the resources they need to create. And it’s not wrong to so do; a lot of systems are seriously weighted not in our favour. But, whilst we labour in imperfection, the important thing is picking up the slack once more.

Which is why I’m writing this now. Truth is that, after a barren period without taking up my keyboard in anger for over a week, I don’t really have that much to say. But I’m making myself work. I’m making the words appear on the screen not because I’m inspired but because I have to do this.

Quitting is the easy option – and it’s probably sometimes the right one. But I’m determined to get Breathing Fire finished, and that means working past all these interruptions.

But first come the deadlines. Which is why, when I add the final full stop to this, it’ll be my editing that I fire up and not, as I might choose (maybe not; editing is, for me at least, the easier option) the first drafting.

Priorities. I am a writer, thus I will write, right? But I know that all the stitches I’m dropping can be picked up again, not least in the editing. Family comes first, then paid employment, then other commitments, and only after that can I have the freedom to work on what I want to work on.

It is sub-optimal, but it is life.

Efficiency is overrated anyway.

How I got published

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually said how I got published in the first place. I mean, this whole blog contains the story, but I’ve never actually sat down and spelled it out. So, without further ado, here’s the story of Night Shift:

  1. Write lots of writing that never goes anywhere, probably because it’s not very good
  2. Finish some of the former; get into the habit of finishing, and editing, and editing again
  3. Join a writing group – a proper one, one that suits me and can pitch criticism at the right level
  4. Write the first draft of Night Shift, receiving regular feedback on chapters as they’re written
  5. Edit said first draft. Edit it again
  6. Get beta-feedback from my small coterie of loyal friends, for whom I return the favour, and re-edit
  7. Enter the whole ‘submissions’ market. Approach agents. Make lots of mistakes. Get lots of rejections…
  8. Work on other material: first Night Shift’s sequels, then Oneiromancer
  9. …but Hark! What’s this? Receive a request for a full manuscript
  10. Receive a request to meet with an agent. Get all excited. Research not only said agent but also sensible questions to ask of her
  11. Attend meeting. Get lots of notes/criticism – what basically amounts to what I now see as an ‘R&R’ (revise and resubmit) request
  12. Overpromise. Rush the job in order to try and appear professional. Get embarrassed by some of the mistakes that were pointed out. Return manuscript to agent
  13. Get another R&R request (from the same agent) as the first was a disappointment
  14. Revise. Take more time. Really break the novel down before resubmitting
  15. Get rejection. Take it on the chin. The novel is now much better than it was before the agent got her hands on it
  16. Be grateful
  17. Prepare to self-publish
  18. …but Hark! An email arrives, offering to publish Night Shift pretty much as is! From a publisher I’d submitted to eight months earlier and had all but forgotten about
  19. Sign contract
  20. Profit!

This is, of course, the briefest of brief canters though the process. I could write a whole lot more about every stage I’ve listed here – indeed, I have, many times over, in these very pages. There’s also surely things I’ve missed; I haven’t mentioned, for example, the great Writing of the Synopsis and the Writing of the Cover Letter.

My memory is also fallible. Nothing I (ever) say should be taken as gospel.

It’s also worth emphasising that this is not the best way to publish a novel; it’s not the quickest, or most efficient, or even most guaranteeing of quality. It’s simply the path I took. Your method will almost certainly vary.

The timescale is also worth mentioning. It took comfortably over seven years for me to get from first draft to finished book-in-hand product, and that’s disregarding the first early novels that even I have given up on now. I live in hope that this period will shorten with time, but evidence is yet unclear.

What’s the most important step? Probably #1 and #2, which almost go without saying, and #8. Never stop moving forwards. Never stop swimming.

As for point #20… well, we’re talking very (very) modest sums here. A small advance which I’m just a little shy of earning out of.

Which is part of the reason I don’t post things like this very often, I guess. I’m still a baby author – I have no publisher, no agent, practically nothing to show. I consider myself to be a learner and an apprentice; certainly no-one to be giving advice.

But I have achieved two commercial publications, which is not nothing. And this is how I did it.