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.

General pause

The Plague has struck.

Yes, it’s been one of those weeks. The little one has brought home more than the usual sniffles and has been restricted to the house – extra annoying as she’s absolutely fine in herself and has been slowly going mad under confinement. Now my wife has got it too and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before I succumb.

In any case, the bare fact is that I’ve been unable to operate on anything like normal conditions. I’ve taken time off work to look after said Small and all writing time has been erased.

All this is an over-elaborate way of saying that I’ve got nothing to talk about this week. I have no writing news – I still wait for my submissions to either bear fruit or be declared barren. I have added zero words to my work in progress, nor have I scraped any editing barrel. Any Editorium-time I’ve been managed to garner – like the hour I have now – has been devoted to the deadline-ridden piece of proofreading I currently have on my plate.

This is fine. This is all fine. There will always be days or weeks when the best-laid plans are all rent asunder. The trick is not so much in the coping with the fall but in the getting back on track again once the dust has settled.

So: resolutions. I must finish my proofreading and dispatch it avec invoice. That’s front and centre.

Then I must get back to writing and actually try and find something interesting to say next week.

Hope you’re well and happy and all’s happily productive in your world.

Onwards!

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws, the other has a pause at the end of its clause

Coasting

There’s a lot of fretting in writing. Or, at least, there’s a lot of fretting in the way I do writing. Worrying about submissions, worrying I’m not reading enough, or the right sort of books; worrying about making progress, about using the time well; worrying about editing and falling foul of tropes and, when you get right down to it, that I’m simply not good enough of that.

Balls to all that. I have a fairly clear period at the moment (which might end at any moment, if editorial work is despatched in my direction, but still) and I’m just going to coast.

 I have three novels I could be working on – the trilogy that begins with Oneiromancer could all do with some time spent on them – and, at the moment, I am perhaps foolishly choosing to work on the last: Breathing Fire. This is first drafting, and it’s gritty, attritional going.

Nothing comes free, and nothing comes easy. I am struggling to get into the flow of writing, and there are many slips between the brain and the fingers and what appears on the screen. The deletion key is getting worn away.

But I am not worrying about this. I am making progress, and that’s what matters. Word by word I assemble something that might be mistaken for a story from a distance. This novel has already taken an eternity to write; what’s a few more interruptions between friends?

I am trying to get back into that state of actively, positively enjoying what I’m doing. Everything recently has been contingency, emergency, short-notice work. This is the first spell of 2022 where I don’t have pressure or deadlines and I can simply take my time. And I want to make the most of it.

If this means I don’t get as much done as I would if I had the hounds of hell breathing down my neck – well, that’s okay. No-one cares what I do in the privacy of my own Editorium anyway. It’s time to embrace that fact and Make Writing Pleasurable Again.

It won’t last. Nothing ever does. I’ll be depressed by my failures before too long. I’ll have more deadlines arriving. I’ll have rejections to accept and I’ll feel like giving up many times over.

Despite this – because of this – I’m determined to just take it easy and enjoy myself and accept my shortcomings whilst I’m in a positive enough frame of mind to make the most of my time. And that’s not always measured in word count.

*             *             *

As I was writing the final words above an email pinged into my inbox. Another editorial job has arrived, bringing with it deadlines and a need for focus and other adultatious responsibilities. And so the holiday is over, and I must snap back into ultra-disciplined mode.

So it goes, the writer’s life. So it goes.

Round in circles

Sometimes it feels like we are bound in endless circles, doomed Sisyphean to repeat the same old circuit. Thus I come to you with advice I’ve given before and will doubtless be given again: be nice.

At the end of last week I was struggling to see a real future for me as a writer, should this last submission come to naught. Today I am feeling more positive, and that’s in no small part due to the kindness of a relative stranger. A person I’d talked to all of once before, a published, agented author, got in touch out of the blue to say that he was going to speak to his agent on Monday and would I like him to put in a good word for me?

One unexpected submission later and ‘why yes, that would be dashed sporting of you, sir’ and I now have two irons in the fire.

I know, I know, a good word means nothing if the agent doesn’t like my work. It’s hardly a guaranteed passport to Publishersville, or even Agentshire. But it’s enough to perk me up, to make me feel like there is hope after all. I have, after all, always relied on the kindness of strangers. I believe in people. Most people are, in fact, lovely. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet good people throughout my life.

It is just another day in the life of an author. Some days good, some days bad. It’s worth emphasising this, both to you, if you’re a fledgling writer, and to myself. Success is not a line graph, going forever upwards. It’s peaks and troughs, setbacks and step-ups. Success is the climate, not the weather.

At the moment I am in a not-success trough. I have no agent or publisher, no great well of victories to draw upon. The difficult bit is to see this time as a basic – perhaps the basic – state in that writer’s life. It doesn’t mark me down as a failure, just as signing my debut book deal didn’t make me a success. Only a long-term view will give an accurate picture, even assuming I can ever define what ‘success’ would actually look like.

So, in the meantime, whilst I polish my writing CV and swear over elevator pitches, I will keep an eye and a brain out for opportunities. And I will concentrate on being the nicest person I can possibly be, because that’s clearly the way I want to define my life. If I get breaks, if I have to rely on being an ‘industry insider’ or anything cishetwhitemaleish, then I want it to be because I’m a nice person and people want to work with me because they feel they can trust me rather than a reflection of going to the right clubs or of having the right school tie.

And that means I have an obligation to pay any niceness onwards. Find me on Twitter and ask me questions, if you have any. I’ll never make any promises because so often life intervenes, but I promise to try and help.

So many people have been nice to me. I’ve got where I am today (however you want to take that) by word of mouth, by people taking a punt on me, by trying to be vaguely reliable.

It’s the least I can do to try and pass some of my good fortune on.

On hindsight

The best thing about writing a sequel before the first book is published is that it’s much easier to return to part one and fix errors in continuity before a work is out there in the public domain. And by errors in continuity I mean areas where you’ve subtly changed your mind or re-placed emphasis rather than big plot-holes or the like. Those should have long-since been closed by now.

I’m currently retooling Oneiromancer with the expectation of an imminent submission. I had been working on book three but have had to temporarily (again) shelve this, what with life and priorities and all that. But I find that, now, going back to book one in the series feels subtly different. I know what’s going to happen to these (surviving) characters in two books’ time. And some things just don’t quite mesh.

It’s little things. Giving one character a fake East End accent is now unnecessary and slightly at odds with what I’ll explain to be his background (there is room for the accent – I could justify it – but it’s a layer of explanation and backstory that’s just not necessary). It’s having my ‘magical’ character able to do things that she’s never going to do again – again, slightly at odds with how the rest of the series pans out.

Nothing I’m seeing now is actually wrong, or clunky, or inappropriate. It’s just that I’ve seen these characters’ futures and can better mould them to the labours ahead.

The best thing about getting a book published before writing the sequel is that certain things are set in stone and cannot be simply fixed. They become part of the mythos and must be accounted for in any subsequent works.

Why is this a good thing? Well, for a start it rules out the possibility of second-guessing. You have to move forwards, you cannot look back and endlessly tinker. What’s done is done.

Secondly, limitations are good for the imagination. Giving yourself a problem forces yourself to think logically. My stray accent, say, might be explained in the second book, which, if done well, might actually make you look like some long-term strategic thinker rather than just some desperate blunderer. My miracle-worker might realise she can no longer do what she initially did – and that might be a whole plot-thread in itself.

Plus you’d have a damn book out. I dream of getting this bloody thing into print. Don’t seem no closer now to when I was first-drafting it.

As an aside, Our Kind of Bastard owes a fair bit to a friend/beta-reader who pointed out that I missed an opportunity to save a character’s life. I took the idea she suggested – a road not taken rather than a plot-hole – and incorporated it into the survivors’ psyche; a sense of guilt to sharpen the loss. Going back was an option (and, I guess, one that any future editor may still desire) but it would have so radically affected Oneiromancer that I chose to fold the failure into the sequels.

I guess I always think that moving forwards is the best option. But they say it’s always much easier to write the beginning once you’ve got to the end. My failures to get the damn thing published means I can continue to make the novel sharper, leaner and hungrier.

Crumbs of comfort, I guess, as my failures also make it harder to get published in the first place. But I still believe. I do. Honest.

Onwards!