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I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade now. As I tentatively, and (as yet) without a real plan, move on to a new project, it’s starting to strike me that most of my novels have certain things in common. I’m not sure I like this, but it’s moderately undeniable.

Here’s a look at what I’m beginning to identify as the key themes of my writing:

  • A love of the Everyman

Born out of a teenage infatuation with film noir, and probably deeper-rooted in childhood frustration at my own limitations, my protagonists are – without exception – normal. No superheroes for me: no supersoldiers, or psychics (except Oneiromancer, and even there it’s the ordinary folk that stole the show). No Spidermen or cyborgs or even battle-scarred lone-wolf PIs.

  • Split narratives

The first person Night Shift series seems more and more like an aberration. I am drawn relentlessly to the lure of multiple viewpoints and film-like changes of POV within scenes. A large cast is inevitable so I can give a broad perspective – especially when I can show…

  • Cat and mouse

…hunter and hunted: predator and prey. Those split narratives of mine always seem to show both sides of the fence…

  • A heavy police presence

…and one of those sides is usually represented by the police. Not that the police are necessarily the Good Guys.

This is probably the thing that bothers me most about my own writing. I have no real knowledge of the police. All my info comes from crime novels and the sort of ‘Miss Marple’-type dramas I used to watch as a kid. It’s all guesswork and bits cobbled together from other fiction. I’m desperate to drop it but I just don’t seem able to let go. The police are just so damn useful. How else do you prove the Everyman’s innocence?

  • Madness

At least one of my characters will have unresolved mental problems. It’s depression in Night Shift (though I didn’t realise it when I was doing the writing). One of my protagonists in Oneiromancer has had a breakdown. Chivalry has a pair of nutters. Why do I do this? Maybe I have unresolved issues myself (actually, I know I do. But still). Maybe it’s a way of showing a fraction of some deep-seated resentment. But it’s there. Always there. At its best it’s an important and underwritten commentary on modern life. At its worst it strays close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory.

This is probably just scratching the surface. There are probably many more commonalities I’m not seeing quite yet; I’m still too close, too blinkered.

The Downside

Tropes – common themes – are great. There’s nothing wrong with having a style, a niche and a way of writing that readers can follow, and get behind and embrace. It also says a lot about the writer. Politics (sometimes direct, sometimes more subtle) will always creep through your words: where would Terry Pratchett be without his love of the underdog, his challenges to received orthodoxy? Within (massive) boundaries, you know what you’re getting when you read a Discworld novel.

But tropes are dull. It can lead you into ruts; who doesn’t yearn to break free of their comfort zone and do something totally unique and off-the-wall? I want to push myself, to explore new ways of writing; I want to grow.

Maybe some of this is cowardice. I fear to write a real space-opera, or a historical novel, or to truly break out of my comfort-zone. Maybe I’m not sure I’m good enough, or that I’ll be laughed at or thought too out-there, man.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve started a new piece. I don’t know where it’s going yet but I’ve already written in a police point-of-view, which means a split narrative and… And I don’t want to do this. I’ve done it before.

The only way to break out of this is to sit down and plan, to rewrite and rework. The problem with that is that I like to find my way through writing, through getting things down on the page and seeing where they take me: almost the antithesis of pre-planning.

There is, of course, a middle ground. There has to be some sort of whole-novel planning, even if it isn’t a scene-by-scene breakdown. Then maybe I can reassign some characters and turn my story in new directions.

But I’m not at this stage yet. I still don’t know where I’m going.

I just know I want to get off this treadmill and go free-running through new landscapes.

Crisis of confidence

There comes a point in the writer’s life when you are no longer capable of seeing anything good in your own work. Overexposure has sapped the joy from your words. All you can see is the dark patches of underdeveloped concepts and ridiculous attempts at purple prose. Be reassured: it’s just a sign that you’re getting better as a writer and that you’re more aware and free in your craft.

But I’ve reached that point where I can’t see anyone wanted to publish Night Shift, nor can I see the agent for whom I’ve spent the last year rewriting being the slightest bit interested. That does not, in itself, break my heart. What bothers me is that I’ve spent all this time on one project and it still doesn’t feel anything like finished. I’ve spoken before about how I want to move on to other things but once again I find myself upon the endless treadmill of editing, sending out, re-editing…

I had been thinking that my best option was, once this final line-edit is done with, that I would give the damn thing one last shy around the agents and publishers I’d not yet hassled – and, if I got nothing from them, to seriously look into self-publishing. Now I find myself wondering if I can bear to put this out at all – not, at least, without yet another series of major revisions.

The fact is that I don’t know if I’ll ever be confident enough to call a book finished – done, once and for all completed to be put out of mind forever except as a memory. I get the ghastly image of myself in the same place in ten years’ time, still writing, still scratching away, with a pile of books under my metaphorical bed, all waiting to be polished ‘one last time’ before I send them out. Let’s face it, I’ve been telling myself I’m ‘on the edge’ of publication for at least five years. Why should today’s delusion be any different from yesterday’s?

My comfort is that other people have read my work and not hated it. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that no writer can accurately judge their own work; I hope that I’m not just surrounded by a shield of ‘don’t hurt his feelings’-ness and that I can draw genuine comfort from positive feedback. I have had my literary viscera drawn out before me on enough occasions already and I know how painful it can be – but for all I am a vulnerable and precious flower, I would rather be pilloried for my incompetences than bloated with a diet of flannel and hot air.

The other positive is that I’m still able to work, even when faced with the barbs of marginal comments and footnotes designed to point out my failures. I can take them, and I can decide myself whether to listen or not. This is the job of writing; choosing to work on what wounds rather than on what sends our hearts a-soaring. It is another thing I take a measure of comfort and (yes) pride in. I can work. I can put in the hours. Even when I’m feeling bleak I can still plough on through.

Self-doubt will never go away. But every revision I make will (hopefully) save me from one more slab of pain in the future. After all, these doubts are caused by people who at least in theory like me. Soon, if I’m a good boy, eat my greens and do all my homework, my work may be placed before the harshest critics: the public. Best to harden oneself before the slings and arrows are trained in earnest.

Night terrors

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder what the hell I’m doing. Trying to write, trying to blog – desperately trying to think of something new to say, or some new way of saying the same old thing.

Technically I’m sure I’m a better writer than I was fifteen months ago, when I first sent Night Shift out to this agent. I can feel my skills developing, my mindset broadening. It’s now a better novel. I’ve slowed things down. I’ve drawn out conversations, hopefully still keeping conflict and plot foremost, to give the characters time to breathe. I’ve added around 7,000 words in total and I obviously think that’s for the best. But when you’re doing this you lose track of the pacing. I worry whether I’m just damping the highs and lows of my set-pieces and the emotional echoes that come in the aftermath of high-impact scenes. What if my new McGuffins don’t carry enough weight and look as if they’ve been inserted by a ham-fisted keyboard-masher?

Self-doubt is a constant in writing, and it’s not a bad thing in itself. It keeps me humble and open to new ideas, keeps me working, keeps me going. But I am the worst judge of my own work there is. What if I’m totally misunderstanding what it takes to improve this damn thing? What if the bits I’m adding are clichés, mis-steps, caricature? I think I’m walking along my original thread of Idea and broadening the plot from a straight line – pitched with peaks and troughs, incidents and investigations but ultimately two-dimensional – and turning it into a more rounded, three dimensional psycho-drama.

What if I’m wrong?

‘…I appreciate the work you’ve done, but ultimately I don’t think I can take this forward…’

That’s my fear. However it’s worded – polite, no doubt, but definitely cutting and absolute – these are the sentiments that I tell myself is the most likely outcome of my year-long dalliance with this agent. I know this: I’m operating in a business and I’ll only be taken on if they feel they can make money out of me. I’m fine with that. Intellectually I know that even after two rewrites at their direction, the most likely outcome is still rejection.

‘….Your writing undoubtedly has potential but their remains too much work to do to make it commercially viable, and so, with regret…’

I’m coming to the end of the work I can usefully do on Night Shift. Just another 90 pages of line-edits then it’s off to the beta readers – if I can find any – and we’re done. That means it’s back to the agent who’s been patiently waiting for the best part of a year. This is my last chance; she won’t give me another go. It’s a risk, putting all your efforts into pleasing one person, and with no guarantees.

‘…I have to say I’m a little disappointed with this rewrite; you’ve not quite got to grips with what I was wanting and so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass…’

And that’s before I even get started on this blog. The times I lie, half-asleep, and worry that I come across like an adolescent assured of his own immortality: patronising, aloof and somehow repulsive.

I still keep going. Night terrors ain’t got nothing on single-minded self-delusion.

And this, ultimately, is a writer’s life.