Critical distancing

editing

It is another quiet week here in lockdown. I am managing to claw out regular writing slots, but now I’ve finished The Great Draft of Doom it is commercial editing that occupies my time. Yes, I have decided it’s best to leave my manuscript out to dry before cracking on with the ironing; the redrafting will wait until I’ve got some kind of objectivity.

Objectivity is the right word, but it’s not quite the honest reason for setting the manuscript to one side. No, the real reason is that finishing the damn thing took a lot out of me and I need to recover. I can’t face the work right now, save maybe in short writing-group-shaped snatches. Doing the necessary cutting and pasting and ripping and stitching is beyond me at the moment.

Objectivity is a side benefit, not a prime motivation. The advice is all about giving yourself critical distance; the experts never tell you about emotional space. But that’s what I find I need more than anything.

So I will spend my time on my editing, and, when I feel strong enough, I’ll get back to my other creative projects. I have two novels to give the final once-over to (which may involve a lot more than it sounds; I’m already getting anxiety over them) before – yes, before I rip Our Kind of Bastard (or Claws, or The Indomitable Gauls, or whatever I end up calling it) to pieces and try and repattern the shreds into something vaguely aesthetic.

So the lull is where I live right now – which is a bit of a shame as I could do with something to take my mind off the current state of the world. Can’t control these things, I suppose; one has to be philosophical. No point in dragging out the work until the perfect moment as there’s really no such thing.

So I sit in what feels like limbo, though of course it’s no such thing: I am doing work and I’m recovering objectivity.

It’s just hard to see where forwards is right now.

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La petite mort

The end

The novel is finished. Done. The completed manuscript is on the computer and in the cloud, ready to be chainsawed and steamrollered into some sort of shape. I have 95k words down after the longest period I’ve ever spent on a single draft.

It’s hard to say how I feel about this. A little empty, I guess. This draft has been with me for such a long time that I can barely remember not working on it.

I’m also hyper-aware of all its flaws. Whenever I’ve done first drafts in the past I’ve always felt the arrogance of completion; I’ve always felt like ‘this’ll need a polish and a few coats of paint but it’s otherwise fine. It’s great! The best thing I’ve ever done, hands down.’

This time I don’t feel like that. As I’ve been writing I’ve been aware of all I need to go back for, to retrofit and add in, and, I’m sure, there’ll be bits I need to remove as well. I have produced a mess, an overcomplicated, overwritten heap of words that needs industrial processes to salvage.

Dickens-Great-Expectations

This is in part because it’s the most complex piece of work I’ve ever attempted – it’s much less linear than my previous novels, more of a mystery than an adventure, with several overlapping themes and subplots.

I’m not beating myself up too much about this. I’m sure there’s a good story in what I’ve produced. It’s just not there yet.

The question now is this: do I go straight back to the start and try to fix all my problems, or do I leave it for a few months so I can see it with fresh eyes? All opinion goes with the latter; it must be left to moulder, to be forgotten and revisited afresh. But I am torn. I wonder if I should get straight back into whilst I can remember all that’s wrong with it and try to make good before setting it aside for a while.

It’s not like I don’t have other work to do. I have two other novels to edit and a four-volume epic has just arrived through my commercial editing factory doors.

Maybe I could use a break. I’ve been very close to this work for such a long time, a little recovery time might be wise.

But first I must set down a few notes for future Rob to decipher. That’s the least past Rob can do to make things easier.

Then it’s on to the next thing. For we never rest easy, not in this job.

Write on!

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On achievement

Snowdonia

I was thinking the other night. Dangerous, I know, but sometimes unavoidable. And what I was thinking was this: should I get this WIP finished it will be a real achievement.

No novel is easy to write, and whilst I lament the general quality and fear the work I have still to do, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’m 75k words into a story that has no real right to exist. It’s been born out of a breakdown, has suffered through many, many interruptions and re-starts and changes in direction.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve struggled to get into the flow of the story, that I’ve agonised over sections and have taken an age to write single chapters. It should come as no surprise that I’m unhappy with large parts of the narrative, and as for the quality of writing, of course it’s not as good as it can be.

Pratchett quote

Now I’m nearing the end and I’m taking a moment to turn around and cast my eye over the view. I have climbed giddy peaks and it’s time I took a moment to acknowledge the successes. I have done this. I have made it. I have hewn a story out of the very rock; I have mined and delved and, whilst the statue is still rough-carved and ugly, it exists where nothing existed before. And I have done it in the face of many personal and professional difficulties.

It’s easy to be hard on oneself; to feel like you’re never good enough. It’s much harder to see your successes. If you’ve ever written anything, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story, novella, novel or epic, you’ve achieved. Even if it’s objectively not very good, you’ve still worked miracles – and you’ve not lost the potential to make it good, and you’ve not lost all you learned through the process of writing.

And if you’re still in the process of creation and you’re finding it difficult, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your work. It just means you’ve taken on a challenge. Whether it’s just a case of carving out a little piece more every day or if you need a little background noise to die down or you need to take a step back and think about the bigger picture, remember that you’re not in a race and you’re not competing with anyone else.

What you’re doing is beautiful and unique. No-one can do it but you. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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Shutting down

closed

This is my second attempt at writing this post.

The first one… well, I fear it came off as whingy, or misplaced, or over-wrought – just generally tonally askew. So I’m having another go.

Thing is, I need to talk about the pandemic and explain a little about how it’s affecting me – because this blog is, at its heart, about me and my writing.

But it’s very difficult to moan about my small difficulties when people are dying. When there’s genuine suffering in the world, my small problems don’t amount to a hill of beans. But I’m immunocompromised so I’m at extreme risk of contracting the virus. I’m therefore in isolation for all of twelve weeks, dependent on my wife for all shopping and necessities – and also for all of my social contact.

That doesn’t matter half as much as the fact that my daughter is home from nursery all the time.

A few weeks ago I set out my typical writing week, which basically comes down to this: I write when the little one’s in the care of others. Now all that is worth so much hot air. She’s always here. And though I’m timesharing with my wife, she’s supposed to be working full time so I’ve lost my breathing space.

That’s before we get to the fact that I’m a really bad dad and don’t know how to properly stimulate or educate my child. That’s another issue entirely.

See? Whingy and over-wrought. This is a tough piece to write.

What it comes down to is this: writing has suddenly sunk down my list of priorities. This feels like a bunker situation; we just have to hunker down and get through. Previously I managed to balance paying editing work with my own creative writing. Now I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to write at all.

in the bunker

For the next few months my WIP is on hold. This blog may be on hold as I don’t know if I’ll have anything to write about. All that was solid has melted into air.

I am absolutely certain that I’m not alone in this. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds of artists who are suddenly having to down tools and focus on the immediacies of life.

Hopefully in a week or two I’ll have found a new routine but for now it feels like shutting down. I’m sure I will adjust but there must be many more out there who can’t. To all you creatives out there who are struggling let me just say that I see you, that you’re not alone.

Shakespeare may have written King Lear whilst he was in quarantine but he had servants, financial security and no children to look after. It ain’t the same for us, folks.

But we will get through this. There will be another side. Them pesky kids will go back to school at some point.

Until then we just get through as best we can. Anything we manage to get done is a bonus.

Q & A part 1

Author Life Month

This last week has been taken up by mostly non-writing things so I thought that, rather than desperately scraping the barrel for something to write about, I’d borrow someone else’s scrapings instead. Here’s something that was going round Twitter last month. I always see these and think I should join in, but I know I’m too disorganised and too likely to be away from the computer on crucial days.

So instead I thought I’d do this for you now. A simple Q&A, presented for your delectation and delight. Bon appetite!

 

  1. Me:

Hallo, I’m Rob and I write books. I also have a part-time job in a library/community centre and earn a little money as a freelance editor.

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  1. My books:

I’ve written seven novels. One of them’s been published (NIGHT SHIFT), one (HUMAN RESOURCES) will be published in November and two more may be published one day. The published/soon-to-be-published are SF/CRI. I also write urban fantasy and similar contemporary speculative stuff. Maybe one day I’ll get on to some of my other ideas too.

  1. Writing fuel:

Coffee and music, both steadily drip-fed to me through the writing day

  1. My biggest fan/Mascot:

My wife. She’s not a fast reader so not such a fan of my work, but she works full-time in part so that I can get on with my writing. What more can I ask?

  1. A shelfie:

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My shelves were tidy once. I promise. They will be again.

  1. Inspiration:

Half-heard lines of lyrics. Old novels that won’t leave me alone. Television. History and the landscape. Fragments and wonders. The road not taken.

  1. Swag/Stationery:

Confession time: I’m not a big stationery person, nor do I have much swag. But my publishers were grand enough to gift me a few notebooks and some bookmarks to distribute, so that’s what I’ll present here.

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  1. My WIP:

As I witter on about at regular intervals here, I’m currently working on an urban fantasy set in Brittany. Featuring werewolves, trolls, miracle-workers, dreamwalkers, acrobats, police officers and gendarmes and spies and much, much more….

  1. Author fashion:

Sadly lacking. Though I have been known to wear a cravat.

  1. Bookish bucket list:

I dunno, I’ve never given this much thought. Just to have a career writing, I guess, would be sufficient. Meeting lots of fascinating and like-minded people would be nice. Going to more conventions and mingling with fun, inspirational people – and not feeling like an outsider or a fraud. That’d be nice.

  1. Goals accomplished:

Well I’ve been published. That’s got to be a pretty big one. Also appearing on a panel discussion with Adrian Tchaikovsky, Zen Cho and Anna Stephens – not so much a goal, more a ‘I can’t believe that actually happened’ moment.

  1. Other fave media:

This is where I prove my cool/nerd quotient by saying how much I appreciate Star Wars, isn’t it? Well… it’s okay, innit? It’s never been the biggest influence on me, though. Similarly, I was late to the whole graphic novels thing and anything I can say will just be posturing – even though I do love things like Sandman, The Boys, Saga and, of course, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

No, my other fave media is resolutely small-screen. Buffy, Doctor Who, Blakes Seven… and, of course, my all-time favourite, Time Team.

Cool? No. Not I.

  1. Writer friends:

I have lots of writer friends from my time in Abingdon Writers’, of which I was a member for seven or so years. But they ain’t (yet) famous. I’ve not yet ascended the great halls of writer bro-dom, though I dare say some moderately well-known writers will have heard of me from Twitter. My most prominent friend (I call him a friend at least; what he calls me is another matter) is Rod Duncan, who is lovely and wonderful.

  1. Treat yourself:

Go on, then. A nice real ale, please, or possible a Speyside whisky. Or if we’re talking food? Chicken pathia if we’re going Indian; kung po if we’re in a Chinese frame of mind.

 

And that’s all for now, folks. It took me far too long to get even half of the questions answered so I’m going to take a break. I’ll bring you part two next week whether you want me to or not. Hope you’ve found this even vaguely interesting/entertaining.

Peace out!

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The many problems

writing

I am slowly nearing the end of my as-yet unnamed work-in-progress. The end of the first draft, at least; there is much more to do. Here is a brief look at the things that are wrong with it:

  • The subplots are woefully underdeveloped: my serial killer thread needs putting in earlier whilst my Breton court intrigue thread basically needs to be written from scratch
  • Breton court intrigue means introducing a new POV character, which will be fun
  • Writing over a long period like I’ve had to do, what with interruptions and the like, chances are the novel is totally dislocated and misjointed. A general smoothing out is needed
  • And along with that, some threads (character A’s mental state, for example) might not be consistent. Has he shown remarkable improvements between scenes?
  • It’s about 20,000 words too short
  • Most of the words are wrong. The first draft is about getting the plot and themes down, not about finding les bon mots. The actual writing will need to be mostly rewritten
  • Speaking of bon mots, there’s a significant amount of French in this novel. It needs checking to make sure I’ve not accidentally insulted the whole of the nation. Or simply embarrassed myself
  • Similarly, this novel is set in Brittany. I need to check I’ve not inserted details that make no sense in this foreign milieu, or created a landscape that a French person would immediately recognise as fake. This includes descriptions of architecture and social concepts like fairs and markets and those that embody both like industrial estates
  • Some ideas – like the name of the bar and the fact that there’s a stream running through the (fictitious) town – have only occurred to me late on in the process and need retrofitting into earlier parts
  • Characters B and C have far too little to do. Given they’re the ones with extraordinary powers you’d think they’d be front and centre in this novel, but they’re very much background. I need to decide what to do about this
  • Did I mention it’s about 20k words too short?
  • It needs a name
Tom Gauld bad writing

@ Tom Gauld

Doubtless there’s a lot more problems than this; this is simply all I can think of off the top of my head. It’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?

First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect and this one certainly isn’t. I’m a long way short of where I want to be – I want to write a brilliant, compelling story and there are way too many holes in this one to be even of acceptable standard.

But I do have a framework. And hopefully some of the writing will stand up to scrutiny, serving at least as a scaffold to hang better words upon.

So there is hope. There is hope, and there is belief. I have nothing to be proud of but proud still I am: I have nearly completed a draft of a novel and that’s no small achievement.

So onwards I go! Onwards, to write the climax and the denouement – and this’ll take me months – and then it’ll be time to set the darn thing aside for a time.

Then the real work will begin as I try and fix the many problems I’ve saddled myself with.

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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All an act

Cat typing

I’ve realised what I’ve done wrong.

Ever since I started working on my WIP it’s been fighting me. It’s been kicking up a stink, complaining and not going where I want it to take me. More specifically, I’ve got up to 20,000 words and I’ve not seen any sighting of an inciting incident or a mid-novel climax or any of the other waypoints that one uses to hang their story upon.

I’m not one to plot out a novel in detail but I do have some idea of points along the way; I generally have some set-pieces or emotional climaxes that I’m intending to meet. I also have an idea of the ending, so I roughly know where I’m going even if I take the scenic route to get there. I don’t use a sat-nav but rather a list of attractions to call in at along the journey.

So I’ve been writing on, aiming for my markers and trying to hit my notes whilst allowing myself the odd deviation if something of particular interest catches my magpie eye. But now I’m starting to worry that I’ve run out of road when realistically I should have another 80,000 words to go.

Which is not to say that I’ve nothing left to write: I’ve still got all my plot-points to resolve and that’d take me at least another 20,000 words. But I’m not seeing what I should be seeing: my mid-point climax is hiding from me and, without it, I feel like I’m lost and alone.

This is because I’ve failed to plan a novel. All my prep, all I’ve done so far, is merely the first act.

start

This realisation may have saved my sanity. I’ve been imagining all my work as a great adventure but really it’s just the introduction. That’s why I can’t see beyond the next chapter: I haven’t created anything yet to see.

So the question is this: how do I proceed?

As I see it, I have two, maybe three options. One is to turn this novel into a novella. Another is to embrace my idiocy and write acts two and three (for which I have an idea but intended to write as the next novel in the series – ie after a good long break). The third option is to carry on exactly as I have been doing and hope that it all turns out okay in the end.

Any guesses as to which I’ll end up doing?

Writus interruptus

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There is a myth that a writer can sequester themselves in a room, or some isolated lodge high up in the Catskill mountains, and produce a novel. That they can work non-stop from beginning to end and the world will simply pass by their door until they emerged, dishevelled and blinking, with a fresh steaming manuscript in hand.

Truth is that the writing process is full of interruptions. Even allowing for the simple necessities of life, something is going to get in the way. A sick child, paid employment, a sudden commission – they all might interrupt the smooth process (ha!) of creation that popular culture tells us is the way a novel is made.

So it’s without a great deal of surprise that I have to suspend working on my current work in progress. 15k words in, or a biscuit under, and I have to pause in order to earn a little money. Another proofreading request has arrived and I must down tools to get on it.

That, as they say, is life. We’re used to holding many different things in our minds at the same time. Hell, I’ve taken about a dozen looks at Twitter whilst writing this. The postman’s been with a parcel. I can hear my daughter rampaging downstairs. Nothing to do but to make damn sure we get back to work once the interruption passes.

shirt

Because the biggest fear when we put a project on hold is that it’ll remain on hold indefinitely. It takes courage and perseverance to get back to a project that’s been held in abeyance, especially if it was proving recalcitrant in the first place.

My current WIP, for example, has been a bit of a pig to get down so far. It’s not flowing easily or freely; every words seems to have required its individual blood sacrifice.

But I will persist. I will keep going. I’ll try and use this pause – which should only be for a week or two – to refresh my mind, to build internally upon a story that needs a little thought and reflection every now and again. Or maybe a bit of blankness with de-congest me; either way I hope to get back to it with freshness and vigour.

Failing that – and far more likely – I’ll be back to ploughing my especially claggy field, drawing up a word at a time and taking days over every small decision.

All that matters is that I get back to it and keep moving forwards.

Incidentally, I’ve been calling it my work-in-progress because I haven’t got a name for it yet. I’ve toyed with The Indomitable Gauls (for the Asterix reference, you understand) and Claws but my current favourite is Our Kind of Bastard.

No doubt that by next week I’ll have changed my mind and possibly have a whole new trio of possible titles. Once I’ve finally settled on one I’m sure I’ll remember to let you know.

Peace out. x

How to rite a novil

your-plans-vs-the-universe-plans1

I don’t sit down and outline every scene before I set pen to paper, though I often wonder if I should. Nor do I set out writing without any sort of idea where I’m going. I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I am something in between, as I suspect most people are.

The way I write a novel is this: badly.

Just kidding (maybe). To be serious: a novel starts with an idea that then spends a long time revolving around the cranium as the tone, characters and locations simmer and settle. Then, maybe a year, maybe several years after the initial flame, I’ll come up with a starting point and an end point and I’ll start writing.

I’ll then stop writing as I realise I don’t know what I’m doing. So at this point I’ll do a bout of planning; of writing down some key points I want to visit; some key characters and intrigues and betrayals. Then I’ll start writing again.

This time I’ll get a bit further before I find I’m writing myself into another hole; that what’s going on the page isn’t covered by my sketchy notes and I need to stop again. There then follows a bout of soul-searching. More notes are written, crossed out and reassessed, like so:

Notes

…and so the endless circle continues. I see a little ahead. I write. I realise that this thread is going to cause me problems. I get depressed. I stop and try to think. I see a little further ahead so I write…

Does this make me a plotter or a pantser? Of course it’s neither, which is why I find the terms so reductive as to be useless. (Plus I hate the term ‘pantser’. It’s such an ugly mangling of the language, and such an ugly image is conjured.)

Unless it’s just me. Are there really people out there who can write a whole novel by the seat of their pants, without any sessions of brain-work at all? Can you really be led entirely by the flowing of the pen?

Are there really people who plan out every scene in detail before committing pen to paper? I can just about imagine there are, but if so… how? Do you need to be an expert in narrative structure or something, because I’ve never managed to fill in all the gaps before starting. Surely it’s a thankless, joyless task to fully outline a story without giving it some blood in the writing?

What sayest thou?

Of course, I write this post just as I reach a brick wall in my own writing; a state of stuckness that makes me reevaluate my decision to ever start this novel. Ploughing onwards isn’t getting me anywhere so I must pause and try and gain some big picture perspective. But that’s damn hard work and I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. Or at least I’m not today.

Whatever the method, it seems that there’s nothing easy about writing a novel.

plantser