Bad books

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I want to read bad books. I’m sick of coming up against five-star extravaganzas. I want poor plots and painful prose, especially in debut novels. I want to feel like my writing has a chance. I want to be able to compete.

It’s my own fault. A lot of the new reading I give myself is because I see hype on Twitter and I think I’ll give that author a shot. I should know that, if it’s hyped, it’ll probably be of a decent standard. At least it’ll be technically accurate. Oh! for a debut that consistently misjudges commas or over-purples the prose.

Why do I want this? Because every good book I read makes me feel like I’m less of a writer myself. Established, successful writers can be as good as they like; that doesn’t bother me. It’s the newbies that get me; seeing my stable-mate, a debutante like me, getting starred reviews in the press (or getting press in the first place) – I can’t compete with that!

I’m being silly. I’d never wish anything less than success on my partners-in-writing. And I love to be thrilled and transported by novels both old and new.

But my insecurities, and the void into which my writing has fallen, pull at me. Every single novel I read at the moment seems to excellent – more than that, they seem to be ‘special’, that undefinable quality that one agent told me, mid-rejection, that new novels have to be nowadays.

I say again, I can’t compete with that.

So it’d be nice to pick up, just once, a new and hyped book and think ‘how the hell did this get published?’ To think ‘oh, well of course I’d never make such a silly mistake.’ Or even ‘pah! At least I can use ellipses properly…’

But no. They’re all great.

Damn you, publishers and agents, for doing your jobs!

sad book

Checking in

Check in

Today’s blog is a short one, I’m afraid, and more of a check-in than a fully-fledged post. This is because I have managed to simultaneously contract a proofread, a copy-edit and a structural edit. I am thus plagued by deadlines and have had no time for real writing.

Two of those three things are for other people – paid work, in other words, and thus a priority. The other – the copy-edit – is for my own work and thus a priority priority. I’ve been sent a manuscript full of corrections to my own half-baked scrawl and instructed to ‘sort it aht, geezer.’

Just because it’s for my own work doesn’t mean it’s deadline-free. This is from the publisher and publishers work to a schedule. I have to prove my dependability by not only making half-decent corrections but by getting them in on time.

It’s done now and sent off to the Great and Wonderful Editor of Oz – or, rather, New York. And it’s straight on to the next deadline.

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All of which means that the novel I was working on has been temporarily parked. The realities of life and business get in the way sometimes and, with only finite time available, the novel has to be the one to go to the kerb. But that’s okay. It just means it’s had extra time to percolate around my brain so that when I return to it – and I will – it’ll be with a vengeance.

Whatever happens, the holidays seem a long way in the rear-view mirror. Hope you all had good ones. I’ll catch up with you again next week.

The hangover

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This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.

The hardest part

Brian John Spencer - Ernest Hemingway

There’s always debate: which part of the novel is hardest to write. Some say beginning, some argue passionately that no, it’s the end where the problems doth dwell. For me I think it’ll always be the bits in the middle. Specifically the bits between the inciting incident (at around 15-25% through) and the mid-novel climax.

Beginnings are easy: find a good cinematically happy starting point and start writing. No doubt you’ll change your mind half a dozen times before you’re satisfied, and maybe it’ll be a headache in the revision process, but for first drafting I’ve never found it too much of a problem.

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As for endings – well, it can be complex to tie up all your threads in a way that’s concise and satisfying, but at least by that point you know what all your threads are. After a certain point you’re writing downhill anyway: you’ve released all your pigeons and now they’re coming home to roost. I find that endings tend to come more or less naturally after all the hard work you’ve put in to the set-up.

No, it’s middles that stymie me. Especially early middles where you’re still unspooling the wires and making big decisions.

Let me illustrate this by giving a few of the major determinations I’ve made in just this section of my current WIP:

  • Having a major character be abducted (my inciting incident)
  • Deciding how much faffing around my characters should do before she’s found
  • Wondering how insane to make major character #2
  • Having the ‘court intrigue’ subplot result in major character #3 being exiled from the castle
  • Working out how minor character #1 can assist in the search for major character #1
  • Working out a location for the character to be held in
  • Working out if my characters can go straight there or if there should be a misstep along the way
  • Working out the location/details of this misstep
  • Working out how this misstep is carried out, with specific reference to French policing techniques and equipment
  • Deciding what monster my characters must face at the mid-novel climax – the MNC itself being a whole subset of big doomladen decisions

Every single one of these steps was complicated and involved a lot of deep thought. I’m still setting up the framework for the adventure to come; trying to anticipate my needs for later in the story and giving enough clues, enough evidence to set me on the way to a resolution that convinces and has enough emotional wallop.

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I’ve crawled through this section. Writing has been attritional, chip after single chip as I attempt to hew the novel from the great mass of Possibility. And it seems to me that it’s always been like this: this section of the novel contains so many choices, so many set-ups that the rest is almost easy in comparison.

This is, of course, rubbish. Every single bit of a novel is difficult. Everything is the hardest part. That’s just the nature of the beast, kid.

But this is my hardest part. And it probably reflects my lack of outlining or planning to any great degree. Which is ironic, given that I had considered this to be my most planned novel yet attempted. Just goes to show what I know.

Yeah, come to me for advice, folks. I really know what I’m doing.

Stick with me for another month and I’ll be going on about how hard the third quarter of the novel is to wrote.

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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.

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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.

On being an idiot

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By the love of all that’s holy, don’t set your novel in a place where you don’t speak the language.

That’s what I’ve done: I’ve tried to write a novel set in France and I now find that it’s full of pesky French-speakers and it’s ruining my vibe, man.

Writing a novel is hard work. I mean it’s seriously hard. Getting the words down on paper is the easy bit; it’s doing all the thinking and plotting and working out settings and characters that’ll make your brain go runny. So, whatever you do, don’t add any unnecessary complications along the way.

I should say that I have reasons for setting it in France, and specifically Brittany. Reasons that have all to do with worldbuilding and history and which make perfect sense. Apart from anything else, it’s quite unusual; not exactly exotic – that’s the wrong word – but how many spec fic novels can you name that are set in rural France? Rural anywhere, come to that.

Yes, I’m writing a rurban fantasy novel, a genre of my own invention and in which I can think of only one other novel (Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch). I therefore claim exclusive rights and all appropriate kudos.

But still, setting it in France really is the height of stupidity.

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The map from the Asterix books,  which, as I intimated last week, has had a suspiciously large influence on my work in progress

I might have to give in and move it to Cornwall, a location which also works but I oddly know less about. Brittany often features in mediaeval British histories; Cornwall, it seems, was only glued on to the British Isles when tin mining because industrialised.

As it is, I’ve already had to remove a character from a scene because he spoke neither Breton, French nor Irish (the major languages of my fantasy Breton court) and unwrite a scene entirely because I realised that my spying character wouldn’t have been able to understand a word of what was being said. A lot of the locals are now suspiciously fluent in English, something I put down to the increasing numbers of ex-pats in the area.

There are ways around almost every problem. I can do this: I can jerry-rig a solution to all the issues – hell, I can even make language issues into plot-points if I try hard enough and the reader is sufficiently involved to suspend their belief hard enough. And it may all work out well enough to be worth the hassle.

Just… why? Why would I do it to myself? Why make things harder than they already are?

Because, dear friends, I’m an idiot. That’s why.

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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.

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Reading and not reading

James Coates

‘Woman Reading’ by James Coates

If you ever take a look at my book log you’ll notice that my reading has tailed off considerably over the last year. This almost exactly coincides with the leaving of my last job – and, more pertinently, the lack of a regular bus-rides and lunch breaks.

This is a cause of considerable distress to me. I love reading. It remains the source of unalloyed joy and learning and I am always mindful of Stephen King’s maxim: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

But that’s not the whole story, for I have been doing a bunch of reading that hasn’t appeared on my blog, and that’s the proofreading and copy-editing I’ve been doing professionally. I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t think it’s professional to put this on my blog: there’s thoughts of anonymity and confidentiality in mind but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Regardless, there’s another reason for not putting my proofreading work on my blog and that’s because it’s not reading. It’s work.

I learn a lot from my regular reading-for-fun. It’s how I developed my writing skills and how I learnt as much as I have about the world. But it’s above all for pleasure. I read because I love to read, no matter what the subject or the genre.

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‘Spring’ by Lee White

Proofreading and copy-editing is an entirely different experience. It’s not about enjoyment; it is, first and foremost, work, and it requires discipline to get through. That’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasure – my favourite book of the year so far was one I was given to proofread – but really if you get lost in a proofread you’re not doing your job properly. You get swept up in the flow and the mistakes you’re paid to find slip past.

So I have been missing out on a lot of pleasure over the last year. I need to get back in the saddle – and maybe that will involve dropping some of the worthy books, the non-fiction weighties, and concentrate on sheer pleasure. Maybe that’ll give me a road back in.

But why impoverish myself like that? Maybe it’s better to try and carve out some dedicated reading time – half an hour minimum per day? Surely that’s not much to ask?

Or maybe I should just relax and not let it bother me. I’m still reading. I’m still learning. I’m still in love with books. Circumstances will change again, sooner or later.

I just miss those days of getting through three books a week. What a heavenly time that was.

Some people, no dog

Last Friday I did my first ever ‘Meet the Author’ event, turning out at Earlham library in Norwich to be interrogated by the great and good. Or, at least, to meet the few people who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday teatime.

Earlham talk

The only photo of the event I have, thanks to my wife having to wrangle the small one whilst 

The crowd was small – it wasn’t quite one man and his dog but it wasn’t too far off. The crowd was bolstered by my own family (a mixed blessing), but an audience is still an audience. And worthy of my best efforts, which I gave in the form of a brief talk, a reading, and a Q&A.

And I had fun, I think, and (I’m told) went down okay. There were enough questions to make the whole thing feel worthwhile – a good one on the use of 1st person as opposed to third, and another on what about the commute from the library to home (as I described in the talk) had given me the idea for a novel set in Antarctica.

Anyway, all this dashing about across the country means I’ve little to discuss this week. I’m a busy bee right now and writing has suffered; I’m still trying to edit the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift, working on my workshop for Edge-Lit (and imbibing as much grimdark as possible before my panel there) – I’m even trying to contemplate writing something new for the first time in years.

So I’m not idle. Promise. I just don’t have much to say right now.

Hope you’re managing to be more productive!

The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

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Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

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St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

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There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.