Time makes fools

‘Time makes fools of us all…’; photograph by Thordi

Time makes fools of us all. And time is very much on my mind at the moment, as mine has suddenly become a premium commodity.

Yes, I have just started a new phase in my life of paid employment. Or, to put it another way, I’ve got a new job. This is for reasons which are sound and very much justified and, indeed, employment will hopefully be pleasurable. I’ll be working with books and with readers, and that can never be a bad combination.

But it means I’ll have less time for writing, for editing, and for managing life beyond the paying of the bills. This causes me a certain amount of anxiety. I have commitments, the ones to myself not the least amongst them. I want to write and to edit and spend time on Twitter; I want to communicate, in one medium or another and my new life status threatens that.

So what will I do? Well, I’ll take around a fortnight to stress and then I’ll settle and work out new working arrangements. Because that’s what we do when life changes; for a while the shift seems all-consuming and we don’t quite know where the time is going. Then we settle down and what’s important to us will reassert itself.

So at the moment I am all of a quiver: I have a new editorial job upcoming and I fear for when it’ll get done. I have a short story to tinker with and a whole damn novel to edit. When will I find the time for these things?

The answer will come. Things will settle and new working patterns will develop – hell, with a different type of stimulation I’ll almost certainly write better for it. I will work out all the answers because I have to.

But for now I am all of an anxiety; and it’s not just the new job fears.

Synopses 101

Just because I have a book out doesn’t mean I’m immune to rejection. I still regularly get turned down by agents – an agent is still what I desperately want – and now I’ve received an inkling as to why.

My most recent rejection came with actual feedback, which is very rare in the world of publishing and agency. It said that my writing is good, but they didn’t get a good enough idea of the story from my cover letter and synopsis. Too diffuse, were the words used: the story had too many competing elements and it was difficult to know where the story would sit.

I’m very grateful for this feedback, disappointing as it is. It’s clear I have more work to do in an area I felt I had down. What that work should be I’m not exactly sure at the moment. I have, after all, written an ensemble piece with a lot of voices; how do I simplify and still accurately communicate what the story’s about?

An agent’s opinion is subjective and what might turn one agent off might attract another. I know that. But being granted an insight into their thinking is a real plus. I’d be a fool to ignore it.

I’m also confident that I’ve written a quality novel. I just need someone to read the damn thing. So, after the high times of last week, it’s back to the grindstone: there’s work to be done and nobody’s going to do it for me.

On point of view

Getting close now! Just 11 days until Human Resources is unleashed on an unsuspecting world! So here is the fourth and – unless popular demand makes me write more – the last in my special blog-posts on different aspects of the novel. If you missed the earlier parts you can read about my characters here, my ideas about plotting here, and all about the novel’s setting here.

This week we’re looking at point of view – POV. A bit more esoteric, perhaps, but hopefully just as interesting and with as many insights about my writing process as the other posts.

I really hope these articles have got you as excited as I am for Human Resources. As ever, if you want to comment please feel free, either below or on Twitter @RobinTriggs. I do my best to give good advice to all who ask.

Also, I suppose I’d best say that you can buy Human Resources from any half-decent bookshop, or even Amazon. But let me link you direct to the publishers, and also to Hive.co.uk which is like Amazon but without the evil, working with indie bookstores to hopefully benefit everyone.

***

There’s no getting away from it: Human Resources, like Night Shift before it and New Gods after, is in first person. It’s a pretty rigid first-person too: no sneakily popping out into someone else’s head for a crucial reveal or simply to provide a bit of variety. No, it’s stuck-with-the-same person all the way.

So why did I choose that, and what does it mean for the story and its telling? Well, the reason I originally chose it is because, without it, the payoff for the first book wouldn’t have worked. It really is as simple as that. And I suppose I feel a little guilty about it – like the whole device was just a cheap stunt.a

But first-person is a venerable tradition and works well for me. Previously I’d worked only in third person, but I made the shift to really get inside the head of Anders Nordvelt.

To be honest, the change wasn’t as great as all that: my third person writing had always been very tight, very limited in its perspective – no omniescentising for me. So the switch to first-person wasn’t that much of a jolt. Nor has it felt too weird going back to third person in its aftermath – yes, my post-Antarctic writing is back in third-person, if only to give myself a bit of a break.

*Emphatically doesn’t mention the brief snatches of second-person in the series finale*

What does writing in first-person mean for the story? Well, in being as strict as I have been for the Antarctic trilogy, it means that we’re going to become very intimate with a single personality and perspective.  That puts a heavy weight on the main character to be interesting, to not alienate the reader with a whining, dull companion.

It also means you have to be aware of what other people are doing, that you don’t leave your other characters standing around and waiting for the main character to come around before they ‘switch on’. Indeed, there is, in a way, more potential for surprise with first-person as things happen off-stage, so to speak: the character is as ignorant of others’ actions as the readers are.

That, I suppose, means there may be more potential for jump-scares as opposed to a slow build-up of tension. But maintaining tension is part of the craft of the writer, and I find that different tellings merely encourage the writer to stretch themselves in different ways. Nothing is impossible, not with any mode of telling.

Of course, the difference in perspective makes a big difference to the reader; it’s not just a case of the same novel in different clothes. I have heard of people who won’t read a novel written in first-person (and I deeply hope this doesn’t include you, dear reader). I like to write in first person or third according to what feel I want to give a novel – it’s hard to quantify or to explain exactly why, but I feel like first-person gives more of a sense of the lone film-noir-esque gumshoe whilst third person is more cinematic with a cast you can check in and out of.

That might just be me, though. As I said – hard to quantify.

If you’re interested, I wrote more about point-of-view right back in 2015, which just goes to show for how long I’ve been a) keeping this blog, and b) gnawing away at the same subjects. Check that article out if, as I said, you’re at all interested.

And that’s me for now. Expect more ramblings about Human Resources through the next few weeks but that’s the end of these themed articles about the writing of the benighted thing. Hope you’ve enjoyed them; and stay happy and healthy in whatever you do.

All the best

Rob

On Setting

Mark Molnar

Salutations! Here we are in part three of my series of ramblings in celebration of Human Resources. It’s due out on November 10th, available wherever books are sold. I think it happens to be rather good and you might like it too.

Today’s ramble – I mean interesting article – is on setting. If you missed the previous editions, you can read about my character creation and development here and about how I came up with the plot here. All are spoiler-free and May Contain Interest (but no nuts). There’s also the entire rest of the blog if, after reading this, you’d like to know more about me and my work.

Onwards!

***

There are two aspects to setting: one is environment, the other is worldbuilding.

Human Resources is set in the Antarctic, in the bleak environment of all-day or all-night. More specifically it’s set in a brand new city, and a lot of my preparation went into imagining what that city would look like; the practical considerations of survival in such an atmosphere and the most sustainable architecture.

The background to what has led humanity to occupy this last outpost of the planet’s surface is never explicitly gone into in the story, but as far as I’m concerned, Human Resources – and the whole Antarctic trilogy – is an exploration of what will happen if population keeps expanding, if climate change is not arrested, and if the planet’s natural resources start to run dry. What will humanity do to survive such a collision of circumstances? It’s not an apocalyptic novel – indeed, in some ways it’s rather optimistic – but humanity has these obstacles to overcome.

The real world ‘city’ of Las Estrellas

So Human Resources is set in a virgin city, and, with the aside of a few scenes set out in the frozen land, this is essentially an urban, underground novel. Here I admit that a lot of my influence is born out of the fifties, sixties and seventies, both in the utopian world of town planning (I did A-Level Geography, for my sins) and in science fiction.

As for the Antarctic itself, setting a novel there meant incorporating practical measures: the warmsuits that everyone wears when they go out into the wilderness and the airlock-like vestibules that all buildings have.

Setting scenes out in the icy wastes was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the novel, where I could give my poetic side full rein. As well as the city and the wilderness we have scenes in the mine that gives the city its raison d’etre and in a semi-legal bar set up by the miners.

I have to be careful here to talk about Human Resources and that alone: I’m deep in the editing of book three and I’m doing my best not to conflate the two. In the third, for example, there’s a big combat scene out in the wastes that I resolutely shall not mention here.

So: HR. We have urban planning on a grand scale and I used a map – three-dimensional as the majority of the structures are set underground to avoid the worst of the climatic challenges – to help give myself an idea of how the layout would work practically. I’ve not replicated that map for the readers as I don’t think it’s necessary – indeed, it was only a scratty little thing in a notebook – but it did help me visualise the setting and distances, as well as reminding myself of what the city needed to function.

Perhaps the setting of the Antarctic trilogy will be what the novels are best remembered for – if, indeed, they are at all. It’s what makes the series unique and I’ve spent a long time working on it. I hope it stands up – I think it does, but, as with so many things, it’s the readers that will decide.

Next up – POV!

On plot

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release of Human Resources (November 10th, fact fans) on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; here I’m going to be talking about plot. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

***

Human Resources is, at it’s heart, a murder mystery, and thus plot is central. I hope I haven’t skimped on character, setting and just old fashioned good writing, but it’s plot upon which the work will primarily be judged.

So how did I come up with the plot for Human Resources? Well, like with all the novels in the Antarctic series, by starting at the end and working backwards. That is to say, I started with the crime, the killer, and then motive. Then I went back to the beginning to find the victim of the crime – and by that point the plot had mostly revealed itself to me.

I say that, but the first draft varied greatly from the version you’ll see when the book’s finally unleashed upon you. In fact, the only constants really are the bits I’ve just told you: the killer, the motive, the victim. Almost everything else – the way the story’s told – has changed, and changed radically.

Why should this be? Well, put plainly, to make it better. The first draft simply was too simple. I had to… well, not necessarily obfuscate but to add more depth, more intrigue. I’m not a great one for red herrings but I had to give plausible alternative explanations, more reasonable suspects. I used the first draft as a sketch-map upon which to elaborate, to erase some mistakes and draw ‘here be dragons’ upon the wilderness of Antarctica.

I wrote last week about character and in this sort of story character is hard to distinguish from plot. The latter is dependent on the former. So the alterations I spoke of last week are just as relevant here. As I thought of new aspects of plot – as I gave my readers more suspects – characters had to change, and as characters changed so did the plot.

Thinking back on it now, I think I was remarkably naive when I wrote that very first draft. I’m currently struggling to face up to new ideas, and I think my naivety protected me from worrying to the point of inactivity about simply whether I could do it or not. I just got on with it and let all issues come out in the editing. And that’s a good thing, because I can edit. Human Resources has been a difficult child to bring to term; I’ve worked harad on it, and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved.

I hope you get as much out of reading it as I have from the writing.

Next up: setting

On characters

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release (10th November) of Human Resources on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; first off, here’s a little ramble about Character. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like plot, setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

Big thanks to Fiona Glass – a lovely person and top class author – for the inspiration for these posts.

*

Let’s get one thing straight straight off. Human Resources is the sequel to Night Shift and, as such, features some of the same characters. Primary amongst these is our point-of-view character, Anders Nordvelt.

I don’t want to go into great detail about him as you’ll all know him from the first novel. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of me in him; socially awkward, with unresolved mental health issues, an observer as much as a participant, he’s an unusual protagonist and it’s all my fault.

I never realised this at the time of writing, of course. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never knew what I was doing.

The supporting cast of Night Shift – those that survived – make their reappearances in Human Resources. They are, however, joined by a new cast of characters that all bring their own neuroses, obsessions and paranoias.

The story revolves around the growth of the isolated mining base from the first novel into a city and the problems that brings. Thus we have an Executive Committee that have their own motives; a new security service – headed by Anders – that are trying to work out how to enforce laws never tested in the field; and a population of immigrant labourers, not all of whom want to be in Antarctica in the first place.

How do I come up with my characters? In a variety of different ways. Some, like the executive committee, came in the initial worldbuilding prep – I knew I needed a ‘ruling class’ and thus there had to be people to occupy these roles. Others, like my own personal favourite, Sergeant Bartelli, came more spur-of-the-moment: I needed a policeman and he arrived more-or-less fully-formed in my head just in time to fill the role I’d created.

Then there’s the in-between characters like Shakil Mithu, unwilling immigrant and rebel leader. He’s a big personality and prime suspect in the murder of… but I don’t want to give too much away. For now let me just say that he’s an example of a character that I had to come up with before setting pen to paper; he’s a plot-character, integral to the story. But he didn’t really come alive until I reached him in the story and had circumstances and other characters for him to play off.

Most characters arrived before or during the first draft, and stayed fairly constant. Others were created – or at least significantly retooled – in the editing. Sergeant Nascimento was a late arrival, whilst Engineer Prashad and Professor Holloway both underwent significant revision in later drafts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no set way of creating characters for a novel. I don’t sit down and draft in-depth character sheets for everyone; I don’t have everyone set before I put pen to paper for the first time. Some key figures I have pre-prepped but it’s often the ones who take me by surprise, who come from somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I end up falling furthest for. Yet others take work and require multiple drafts before they ‘fit’ properly.

Human Resources is a combination of all of these and it took time for me to get it right. For me the genius is in the editing, not in the first-drafting.

I’m always more interested in the Everyman rather than superheroes, the sidekick more than the main event. I like the underdog and favour the dogged rather than the inspired and the influence of film noir over me has far exceeded the amount I’ve actually seen.

Valentin Demchenko

That gives me free rein to create a cast of flawed and – hopefully – realistic characters.

Next week – Plot!              

Things I’ve learnt this week

What have I learnt this week?

Well, I’ve learnt that I’m no good at second drafts.

I’ve learnt that I’m not in the right place to really take my draft to pieces and carefully reassemble, no matter how much the story might need it.

I’ve learnt that my memory is too hard on me and I’m maybe capable of writing an okay story – or at least one that could be okay with a little work. And that my writing sins aren’t as pronounced as I feared they may be. Overwriting, for example – I’ve been told that I say too much, to not leave enough to the audience’s imagination. I still struggle to see where decent cuts could be made beyond the occasional few words here and there – though whether that’s because there aren’t cuts to be made, or just that I simply can’t see them, is an open question.

I’ve learnt that I actually enjoy my own writing. Or at least this particular story has elements that make me smile

But – and I’m looking at a different project now – I still have The Fear; that it’s not good enough, that it has some ideas that are simply ill-advised (cough *second-person POV* cough), that if I send it to my editor it’ll be rejected out of hand and our relationship will be forever soured.

I also have the fear that, with a few slots of time opening up for me, writing-wise, I’m going through things too quickly. That I’m working like a proofreader, seeing obvious errors rather than more subtle missteps.

I’ve learnt that I still need a lot of hand-holding before I’m ready to commit to – well, to anything, really. And that I really do need (but can’t get, right now at least) an agent.

So where does that get us? Surprisingly, thinking back on it, more positive than negative. I have three stories that are either pretty well polished or have the potential to work when all the problems are dealt with. The problems I do have can be sorted if I have the patience and the will to get it done.

What I really need, right now, is a new project. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not ready to start anything right now. My ideas are all too nebulous and I’m not in the right headspace to draw them all together.

It will come. I’m in a surprisingly reflective mood, clearly, and I know it will all come together somehow, someday, someway.

The second pass

The second pass of a manuscript is always an odd one for me.

So here I am. I wrote my first draft and I was good and put it away for a few months so as to approach it afresh the second time around. I know, in that vague sense you get of being convinced of something without being able to place precisely why, that it needs thorough surgery before anyone else can read it.

The second draft should, therefore, be the perfect place to pick it apart and stitch it back together. You know work needs doing. You’re in a fresh headspace so as to see those flaws. You’re not too committed to going down the wrong streets.

Well it never works like that for me. For me the second draft always seems to be one of self-congratulation, of saying ‘hey, this isn’t all as abysmal as I’d remembered.’

It always turns into a game of changing odd words, of fixing egregious errors within sentences rather than egregious errors of continuity or pacing or logic. And this is wrong: the individual words don’t matter at this stage. The foundations have to be firmly established before the building’s ornamentation can be affixed.

And yet I find myself making the same mistake that I’ve made again and again and will almost certainly make in the future.

Why should this be? I suppose that a part of it is just that lack of familiarity that makes it worth putting aside to gain also handicaps a little: I’m still discovering my own work and want to see the big picture before I get with the scissors.

It also must be down to my perception. I’m so surprised that anything in the story hangs together that I struggle to see the bits that are flapping in the wind. And maybe also I’ve just not left it long enough (yes, I know, I want it both ways) and I’ve not come to the manuscript with the right attitude.

Point is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant to manage a problem at the optimum time. I know these problems are still there, that I will have to deal with them at some point. Why not now?

But for the meantime I’m just really rather enjoying the tiny tinkerings; the swapping of one word for another in the here-and-there.

Anyway, we all know that draft 3 is where the real work begins. Right?

The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?