My writing week

The plan, this week, is to present you with my diary and explain how I make time for writing and important things like that. It is somewhat of a gamble. So much of this human interest stuff I imagine many of you find deadly boring. I also worry it’ll come across as a bit of a sneak-grumble when that’s really not the intention.

See, I really only have time for writing two, maybe two and a bit, days a week. The rest of the time is taken up with the dust and detritus of modern life. But before I get ahead of myself, here’s my guide to burgling my house how my typical week works:

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Monday

Chiildcare. Until recently the grandparents took the little one in the mornings so I had that as writing time too. I’ve lost that recently, and so it’s off to Mucky Pups and singing with the folk in the care home with me of a morning and watching Monsters Inc in the afternoon.

Tuesday

A writing day! The little one is in nursery, so after dropping her off I get to sit down, purge my emails and draft my blog (I write these words at Tuesday 09:22). Unfortunately, I have a regular medical appointment that takes two hours out of my day. I also have to do household jobs like the laundry, making dinner and taking the rubbish out, so it’s not just free and easy time for me.

Then it’s time to collect the monster from nursery, and one weekend in two I have Paid Employment in the evening.

Wednesday

I have Sproutface in the morning; it’s off to Busytots with us, then the playground. My wife works from home in the afternoons so sometimes I manage to squeeze in another hour or so of writing before it’s off to Paid Employment.

Thursday

Another writing day, this time free of interruptions… sometimes. As I have commitments on other days, Thursday is my Random Appointment Day, so my time is often thieved by the magpies of modern life. C’est, as they say, la vie.

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It’s worth saying that my ‘writing days’ (typically around 09:00 to 15:30) are also when I spend time on social media. I live a fairly isolated life, so Twitter especially is a way of keeping in touch with my interfriends. I’ve some strong attachments to people I’ve met only virtually and this connection is important to me.

It’s also important to point out that a writing day is not merely about getting words down and creating new stories. It’s also editing time, both on my work and other people’s. I work as a proofreader and copy-editor and in truth could use more gigs – but when I do get a job the deadlines are usually tight. It has to slide right in to whatever time I have and so my own work is set to the back-burner. This can be frustrating but I do enjoy editing. It’s a different discipline to writing and is, frankly, easier than first-drafting.

Friday

Another Sprout-filled day with Shake, Rattle and Roll, then swimming, then more Monsters Inc before I pick up the wife and she takes over the childcare whilst I do Paid Employment.

Saturday and Sunday

Saturday mornings I work one in two; otherwise the weekend is Family Time for doing Family Things like going to National Trust places, looking at houses (we’re trying to move) or going to garden centres. Time away from the computer and with the ones I love, in other words.

Not that I don’t love you too. You’re fantastic in your own special way.

 

And that’s it. That’s how my week works – and it’s a reminder to myself that I’m really lucky. I don’t have a full-time job; I’m supported by an amazing wife who works so I don’t have to (not entirely true; she enjoys her work and has a career of her own. But I know she’d like to spend more time with the little one). We can afford to send Sproutface to nursery so I have a few days a week to do my thing. I am really very lucky indeed.

But I also work hard. I’m determined to make the most of the little free time I have – though I find it difficult, sometimes, to not procrastinate and difficult, sometimes, to keep a proper focus on what I should be doing – still I sit at my desk whenever I can and try and get through whatever I’m working on.

Could I do more? Well, maybe I could set aside time at night, when the rest of the family is in bed, to scribble a few more words. Maybe I could get up early and join the Stupid O’Clock Writers’ Group and try and get some words down that way.

But I need free time, rest time, too. I’ve never claimed to be the most motivated person in the world. I’m just trying my best after my own fashion.

 

I hope this has given you some insight into my life and the way I work and it hasn’t been too self-absorbed or just plain dull. I’m always shy of writing too much about me personally as I’m sceptical as to how much anyone actually cares. Who am I? I’m no-one.

But if there’s anything you’d like me to talk about then please do let me know, either via Twitter or in the comments below. Requests always welcome.

Peace out.

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Post-hiatus blues

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January was a funny ol’ month. Work on my novel-in-progress was on hold for pretty much all of it, due to having an couple of paying edits to do. I guess, in the future, I need a way of managing my time to work on two projects at the same time; of protecting my creative time. But at the moment I am fully monoprojectile. One thing at a time is enough for me, especially since the paying gig was for a structural edit, and thus required me to get deep into someone else’s work.

It’s done now, and my calendar is free, so I’m back to Claws, or Our Kind of Bastard, or whatever the hell I’m calling it today. But there are, I’m sure you’ll be totally unsurprised to hear, difficulties when you park a project for five weeks.

I left a scene half-written, which was good because I could get straight back into the action. But after that… If I ever had a plan I’ve totally forgotten it.

Luckily, I’ve kept pretty good notes. Mostly these take the form of what’s already happened (but also when in the manuscript it happened, which is useful) but I’ve also a list of questions that still need to be answered. So I’m not operating in a total void.

What I don’t have is an outline, which I’m increasingly thinking is a strategy I should adopt; that I should finally shed my pantser clothing and fully integrate into the society of planners.

I say this in the full knowledge that I will probably never be organised enough for that.

But I have decided that I need to pause my headlong charge into the mire of adventure to try and catch my breath, and my bearings. ‘How are you doing this?’ I hear you ask: well, through spreadsheets, of course. Simply creating a grid with all my characters/groups at the top and time/scenes down the side and filling in the gaps in the middle.

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It’s rough and ready and not really something I’d recommend – there must be a better way. But it works for me. Or at least it’s working at the moment. Planning needn’t be over-complicated. A note is often as good as an essay. And a spreadsheet strikes me as more manageable than index cards or whiteboards or whatever.

So I struggle onwards, limping back into the teeth of my manuscript and desperately searching for word upon word. But maybe this time I’ll know where I’m trying to get to. And any further interruptions won’t derail me too much because this time I’m coming prepared.

That’s the idea, at least. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Delay of game

Delay of game

Important news: Human Resources has been postponed. It will now be released in November, not July as originally advertised.

First off, I need to apologise to all you who have already pre-ordered it. What’s that, you say? You haven’t done that yet? Well, it’s still orderable from Flame Tree Press’ website and, presumably, all good bookshops. What are you hanging about here for?

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The delay, I hasten to say, is nothing to do with me. My copy-edits were in on time and the editor was happy with my work. It was instead a business decision. I’m not allowed to give any details beyond that a new deal has led to Flame Tree’s release schedule being rejiggered and my book is amongst those affected.

I can also say that it should work out to be a positive move both for me and the company; this isn’t one of those ‘oh my god it’s all gone to shit’ moments; it’s a good thing, I’m assured (I know very little about the actual business of publishing, though I’m learning).

Good thing or not, it’s a disappointment to me personally. I was hoping for some sort of launch event at Edge-Lit and maybe take in one or two more cons as an author with something to talk about. Now I have nothing to declare but my incompetence.

It’s also a short-term blow financially. Like most authors, the advance I will/have received for Human Resources is split into three payments: one upon signing of the contract, one on receiving of the finished text (though I’m not entirely sure when that arrives; I’ve done my copy-edit but not received this payment yet) and the last upon publication. Obviously I won’t now be receiving this last part until November. Not that it’s a great deal of money, you understand. But it’s money I won’t now be getting when I thought.

Long-term it may well be better for me to wait. Depends how this deal pans out, though in any case it’ll be very hard to judge cause-and-effect. We shall see.

Of more concern to me, however, is that it now feels like my career’s on hold until November.

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Normally I’d advise people to try and fill their downtime with either writing their next novel or trying to get other material published and that’s what I’m going to be doing myself. I’m somewhat limited, however. I’m not a writer of short fiction, which is bread-and-butter to a lot of writers, and I’m contractually unable to pitch my other big novel-hope out to publishers at the moment. I don’t have an agent (my perpetual refrain; sorry to go on about it) and so don’t have the benefit of their advice on how to take my career forwards.

So, although I will be continuing to write and my endless search for an agent goes on, I feel like I’ve nothing really to do until November. My career hangs in limbo, and has done ever since the release of Night Shift – a gap of two years between publications. Two years’ wasted time.

(It’s not wasted, of course it isn’t. I’ve been busy writing; I’ve edited two novels and a have a third on the way. But that’s how it feels. Like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs all this time.)

So what do I do? I fill my downtime with writing, of course. And trying to find an agent. And making more friends amongst the writing community. And getting better at what I do.

I just wish I had something to sell, something to get my name out there. Tiny steps; no miracle-hunter I.

Something to make me feel like I was making progress.

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How to save a novel

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Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

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  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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Closing in

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If the quality of my rejections is anything to go by, I’m getting closer.

Yes, it’s another round of ‘near but not near enough’. Last time the rejection was because only special novels need apply. This time it was ‘something about the tone just doesn’t sing with me.’

But the rejection was personalised – which is relatively rare – and some lovely things were said. ‘[Characters] are brilliantly realised’; ‘the writing has real zip and purpose’. I’ll take that, for sure.

I’m getting closer. I’m getting the cover letter right, and I know my work is good. And yes, this may be self-delusion but I believe in what I’ve written. Today, at least; I may feel different tomorrow.

The problem is that I’ve run out of agents to target. Or at least I’m finding it hard to track any more down. I’ve been on the manuscript wishlist website and I’ve been through the Writers’ And Artist’s Yearbook but I don’t want to do things like that anymore; no more blank sending out of queries. I want to find an agent that I feel a connection with, and that basically means liking what they say on Twitter.

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Maybe I should go back to lists and try and hit out randomly. I don’t know. There just seems to be a limited pool of agents who work in the field and I’ve already struck out with most of them. Certainly in my world the same names seem to come up again and again.

So what do I do? Well, I won’t get into a panic or allow myself to get too down. I’ve probably forgotten about a dozen people who are worth submissions. I’ll get to them, I’m sure. I’ll check who my favourite authors are repped by and see if I can’t jump on that particular bandwagon (assuming I’ve not already fallen flat on my face).

And I will of course keep on writing. The best book to sell is always your next one; it’s always the best you’ve ever written.

I am on the right track but it is a tortuous, pitfall-filled road with many slips ‘twixt cup and lip.

But I am making progress. I’ll get to my destination one day.

Unless, of course, this is all massive self-delusion. Don’t be surprised to read a remarkably similar post from me in a year, two years, five years’ time. The industry works slowly, and so do I.

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No flow

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At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

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It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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Autodidact

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It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

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I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

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