First draft morass

First drafting is an inefficient thing. When the initial rush has worn off, when there’s nothing left but vague ideas and you’re stumbling around to try and find a clear path, the clumsiness is clear. The only maps are long out-of-date and the natives none too friendly; forwards a few paces, then sideways, then over a strange fold that seems to take far longer to cross than by rights it should… Inefficient.

Sometimes an inch takes an hour, sometimes you seem to fly. Like a punch-drunk boxer you sway and stagger and when the bell rings for the end of a round it’s all you can do to hope you’ve somehow engaged the enemy.

But the only enemy is the shape of the story in your own mind. Can you design a vessel for the ideas? Can you channel them – whether in a familiar fashion or in a direction you’d completely failed to anticipate – into something story-shaped?

So I trip and I stumble but I keep going forwards. There’s nothing glamourous about this. It’s hardly sitting at a keyboard and letting the fingers dance, as the media would have you believe. It’s stop-start, it’s distraction, it’s having an idea whilst you’re in the middle of another and so you have horrible nesting conversations where no-one gives an answer to the preceding question but is instead discursing on the history of the East India Company.

Conversations especially have a way of getting out of control. Because what you want to say is always hijacked by the characters, how will insist on responding to imagined insults when you’d rather they helped move the plot along.

Writing is a mess. First drafting is a mess. It’s why I so admire people who can plan books out properly and don’t have all this chaos in their life. I’ve never been able to manage it, personally; I always say ‘okay, this will be the novel I outline fully before setting pen to paper’ but it never works – or, at least, I’ve still not found a way to make the actual writing any easier.

At the moment I’m all tangled up in backstory, but the buggers will insist on interrupting, telling things arse-over-tip, and generally being messy. Characters are like that.

I guess I should really try to embrace the chaos, get it all down and tidy during Round 2. But inefficiencies can be paralysing; we can’t do that until this is sorted.

There is no point to any of this. I will struggle onwards because it’s what I do. But my mind is all a bit of a muddle at the moment. I need to remind myself that it does get better – because it surely does. I’m just at that horrible 30k mark, where everything eternally is a slog.

Back to the coalface to chip, chip chip away. I’ll keep going. It’s what I do.

Breathing fire

I am doing some writing.

I know, I know. I’m every bit as surprised as you are. But it‘s true. I’ve finally got a bit of leeway in my schedule (I think – I’m always terribly worried that I’ve either forgotten something or that the jobs I have on my plate will take longer than anticipated) and I’m using it to create.

Breathing Fire is the third in the modern fantasy series that began with Oneiromancer and continued with Our Kind of Bastard. It’s an absolutely pointless thing to write as I have no home, nor even a hope of a home, for the first two books; I should be doing something unique and entirely standalone rather than revisiting old characters.

Well, tish and pshaw to that. This is the book I want to write. And now I’m a self-publishing veteran (if not an earner) there is always that option.

I don’t want to say too much about the story yet, but it revolves around cursed books, grief, terminal (?) insomnia and evil industrialists-cum-venture-capitalists. It’s set in the environs of Bradford, which is where I grew up. I’m fed up of the London-centricness of British novels, which is rich seeing as Oneiromancer was set there. Still: London, Brittany, Bradford – I’m moving things around, at least.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say for now. I’m first drafting, and doubtless what I’m producing is pretty terrible. A first draft is all about getting the story down on paper; of finding steps and mis-steps and of trying not to get too bogged down in a morass of one’s own making.

But it’s fun, and exciting, and though it’s a slog it’s my slog.

*             *             *

For those what missed it I did an interview with the wonderful Runalong Womble the other week. If you want to read about New Gods, about my influences, the problems of writing sci-fi, and my book recommendation for the world, head along here – and check out all of Womble’s other interviews whilst you’re at it.

Oh, and maybe buy and/or review New Gods? Cheers. You’re the best.

Writing is fun

It’s fun, writing. I mean no, it’s horrible, a unique and vengeful form of torture. It weakens the soul, erodes the buttocks and is no good for diet, digestion or dignity. But apart from that it’s fun.

It’s a massive challenge, writing anything, let alone a novel. It’s worse when you feel like you’re stuck in mud, striving desperately to shift the merest inch. And the road, should such a thing exist, is a switchback, easily lost, and sometimes we must reverse course to make progress.

And even then, when all the kinks are unbound and the thing laid flat upon the paper, it will look nothing like the golden model that originally shone in the mind’s eye. It will have been watered down, irrevocably changed by the needs of ‘logic’, ‘consistency’, and ‘taste’.

And yet I maintain that it is fun. There is not enough fun in this world right now, and so I am resentful about all the things that are getting in my way at the moment. I have proofreading to do, deadlines to meet, edits to edit.

It has been a long time since I could just sit back, untethered by expectation, and create.

I can just about see the pages through the foliage. Recently I have carved out brief moments where I have been able to take my manuscript, the same that I’ve been mucking around with since February-ish, but which got lost in August as Other Things arose to bury it in the morass.

I can see it. I want to get back to it. It’s called Breathing Fire and I’ve written enough of it to worry that it’s not very good, so that’s something. I’ve also written enough of it for it to have a shape already, and there are flashes that I was to nurture and grow and hot-house.

Other things are currently in the way, but with my machete I will hack my way back to the trail and scamper after loose lost pages, scribbling on them as I go, until I find my way to the clearing and the great heart of the story is to be found, a bloated, sweating carcase fanning itself slowly with abandoned plot-lines.

And then I’ll complain about not having enough paid work to do. You watch me.

Sack the juggler

And… breathe.

It’s busy times again and I must work on working on: I must find myself time to write. Recently I’ve been somewhat swamped with the dirt and diesel of modern life. Only now can I take stock and see what I’ve been missing.

I’ve barely presented any new writing at my weekly group meetings because I’ve been so buried in self-publishing, and in proofreading and copyediting that, though I have virgin writing to share, I’ve not had time to actually go over it and do the inevitable rewrites.

I’ve managed to carve little half-hours, here and there, and I’ve been inching on with my very brandish-new project (not the thing I’ve been editing; that’s Our Kind of Bastard. This is the as-yet-untitled sequel to that and Oneiromancer) but that’s slow, painful going, not helped by the piecemeal approach.

I’m juggling these things but sadly not very well. It’s more just waving balls around rather than a jaw-dropping transcendent many-limbed performance.

Sack the juggler.*

I’ve just handed in another editorial assignment and, though I do have another project checked in, things currently look a little calmer out in front of me. The self-publishing is done (bar any possible far-too-late edits, should any typos have crept through, and possible promotion opportunities). So it’s time for me to get back to what I do best I’m here to talk about.

I have to get better at balancing my time. I need to reprioritise and maybe say no to things sometimes. Because I’m not doing the fundamentals right now. For good reasons, maybe, but still, I’m failing.

I’m also eager to get back to it. I miss creating and picking away at a novel; as I said, it’s what I’m here to talk about and for too long I’ve not really been doing it.

So let’s get to it. No time for this! Whose idea was it to write a stupid blog anyway?

*How do you kill a circus? Go for the juggler

Weasels

The problem with being a human being is that you not only have to be strong to organise an event, or review, or interview or whatever, you also have to be strong when the actual time to do it comes round. And then you have to be strong when the results come in, too.

Case in point: in the run-up to the publication of New Gods, I decided I’d darn well gird my metaphoricals and try to arrange for the book to be reviewed. And, in a rare fit of energy, I decided to double-down by offering myself for interview by someone else. To my surprise, both fishing expeditions bore fruit (or possibly fish). Great! Go me!

No good deed goes unpunished. Now I have New Gods reviewed by a highly respected blog/website, and this is absolutely brilliant. The only downside… I’m not feeling strong anymore. I don’t know if I can face actually reading the review, which I kind of have to do in order to retweet and otherwise promote it.*

No matter that the review is probably positive (I was tagged in the promotional tweet, which is always a clue). Not having a strong day today. Can’t even face positive comments. Anxiety is a cruel mistress.

As for the interview, it’s only via email, which makes it a lot easier. I don’t have to make an appointment to speak to someone. But still I have to puff myself – and then the benighted thing will only go and be published and I’ll have to promote that and then I’ll immediately realise what a berk I was…

Writers have to face these things all the time. It’s a profession where rejection is the norm, and that rejection can come at any time. We must be bold to put ourselves out there; we must be keen and eager and, on that good day, we can face that probable-no. But we have no control as to when those rejections come in. Can we be strong every day, eternally powerful and vigilant?

I know I can’t. Somedays the brain-weasels just can’t be faced directly, must be approached sidle-wards, armed with a Long Stick of Poking.

The older I get, the more I realise that this is, in fact, modern life. I envy those who have strong days all the time. And it’s why I try not to get cross with people for taking time with things. I mean, I try not to get cross with people at all, but I’m only a deeply, deeply flawed human.

Now the review has spawned another interview, which is brilliant! I’m something of a publicity whore, which might seem to contradict all of the above.

Except it doesn’t. Because I can make myself get up to perform, no matter how weaselly the brain.

The writing game is not so dissimilar to a performance. Long hours of rehearsal, fearsome critics, great rounds of indifference.

And so I must go and do my little turn on the catwalk once more.

Happy weaselling, folks!

*The more astute amongst you will have noticed that I’ve just linked to said review. Well I have actually skimmed it, now. But it wasn’t easy, and I don’t know if I dare actually read the spaces between the words

Reflections

So New Gods is out and, if you’ve not already picked up a copy, I’d be extraordinarily grateful if you could see your way to buying one. Please. Oh, and if you could leave a review whilst you’re at it? Ta.

So what now? That’s the question I have to ask myself as I enter the hangover-days as the adrenaline and panic slowly ebb away to leave only void in its wake.

Really I should take a break after completing as big of an achievement as putting out a whole book. I should bask for a while, take a little holiday, enjoy watching the sales figures shooting up(!)…

I won’t, of course, but I should.

No, I’m going to be getting straight back to work. For there are always more words to write, more wrongs to right. There will still be one or two more bits relating to New Gods to straighten – don’t know what, just yet, aside from updating this damn blog, a job I’ve had on my to-do list for months and still haven’t gotten round to. But I’m sure there will be something I’ve got wrong on NG, or in its sales-patter, some opportunity that will arise. I’d be naïve to write the whole project off as completed just yet.

And there’s still more stories to tell. I must get back to editing Our Kind of Bastard. I have New Novel to finish – I’m currently about a quarter of the way through, clawing out words as if excavating coal with my fingertips. Time has been hard to find for genuine original creativity. Maybe November will see a little more breathing space.

I am happy with the way New Gods has come out. As it stands, as it looks to me right now, self-publishing has been a success. Of course, many measure success as sales and I have no way to judge that right now (I’m drafting this the day before release, so I don’t even have the first day’s figures to go by). But I’m more concerned with the quality of the product and the stress, or lack thereof, in the project management. I am proud of myself for seeing it through, for making my deadlines, for not getting anything really hugely, obviously wrong.

And now? Well, I have Other People’s Deadlines to meet, and then it’s back to the Editorium with me. New adventures await!

The Prologue

Morning all, and how are we doing today?

New Gods is speeding towards publication; Pre-ordering – for the e-book at least – should be available any day now. Expect to hear more about this next week. Everything is ready, apart from the bits that aren’t.

Still on the hard sell, this week’s blog is an extract from the novel: the prologue, to be precise. Hope you enjoy. Oh, and a reminder that I previously posted an extract from a little later in the novel back in September 2020. You can find that here.

…Static… A crackling, whistling roar… Vision slowly filtering – and then suddenly resolved…

          A slum: the camera jerks around, shows you a forest of crude buildings. There is no order. The shacks fall into each other, rubbish litters the dirt streets. But this isn’t a shanty; rather its descendent. It’s a palimpsest, a polyglot of styles, of years, of building, rebuilding; cannibalisation of a thousand different materials and styles. This is rubble and dust…

          A voice, sudden and uncomfortably close, barks in an unfamiliar language. The camera spins and blurs again; down a mud street it finally focuses on a unit of soldiers. A dozen or so men armed with rifles. They’re walking – not marching, this is no parade-ground drill – but neither are they diving for cover. Company logo on their chests, on their guns. Behind them, maybe another thirty yards back, come the bulldozers. They roll inexorably on, smashing walls on their blades, carving a highway of crushed brick and mangled iron and powdered glass.

          The camera pans again and there are more shouts. Now you see a crowd of men – and women, and children – facing the soldiers. They are unarmed, but they are resisting. Indian or Bangladeshi; there are scraps of writing, unfamiliar text; there are more shouts, screams. And yes, there are men with weapons there too: blue-capped soldiers nervously trying to herd the civilians back.

          You watch as a man leaves this group and advances towards the bulldozers. He is waving, shouting towards the Company men. His voice is lost beneath the roar of engines. His words are swallowed by the crash of masonry and he coughs as dust billows around him. He spreads his arms wide: stop. He pauses and sets his gun on the ground before walking forwards still further. His face is pale, his Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows.

          The Company men pause, and, though the camera is unstable and the focus swoops in and out, you can see the tension etched in their faces. Their sergeant advances to meet the leader of the blue-caps. Sergeant waves expansively. Move aside. We are coming through. There is nothing more to say.

          Blue-cap shakes his head. He gestures behind him, to the civilians, then to encompass the slum around them. He is speaking, shouting. He is begging.

          The sergeant does not care. He pushes the man aside and Blue-cap’s colleagues step forwards, then halt as the Company troops bring their weapons to bear. Blue-cap is still begging. And all the while the bulldozers are closing in, behind them a storm of dust like a waterfall. Now you can see that the drivers are all masked. They’re horribly robotic without their eyes.

          Another burst of static, a blurring; more voices from behind the camera. A microsecond of blackness and then an almost vertiginous movement; you are running, camera showing the ground, showing feet – the cameraman is not alone, and this small group is ducking behind walls, scattering, scampering down alleys, through abandoned kitchens, kicking over pots and scrambling through windows. They pause. Words are said. You are afraid. You peer around a corner, zoom out and in and realise you’re looking at the same scene from a different angle. But the dynamic has shifted. Now the blue-caps are backing off, the Company man advancing in a line, weapons held steady before them. The blue-cap leader tries again. He is almost crying – dust or emotion? – as he pleads.

          You are rocked: the camera spins. Focus. In the background a bulldozer has exploded. Gas bottle? IED? Debris rains down. Spin again: the civilians are cheering. Some kneel to pray. A boy scampers forwards and grabs a section of caterpillar track, a souvenir. Some chant, inaudible over the din that surrounds you.

          You turn back to the soldiers. The Company sergeant now has the blue-cap pinned against a wall. Blue-cap is speaking quickly. He gestures to the bulldozers, now drawn up just a few yards behind the confrontation. Again Blue-cap is begging. Stop. Stop, please. Talk to us. He waves to the civilians, tears in his eyes.

          The sergeant’s face is hard. He is in control. He speaks in short bursts. We have our orders. We will not stop. We are coming through. This town is being erased.

          The voices around you are as much part of the background as the terracotta sky.

          Blue-cap’s face changes. Now he looks dazed, unbelieving. His mouth falls open. He shakes his head weakly, swallows. Camera zooms in tight on his eyes (brown), just for a moment, then out again. Company-man turns away from Blue-Cap, releases the pressure on his shoulder. He signals the bulldozers to continue their advance. Blue-cap is stunned. He staggers out of the sergeant’s grasp and into the middle of the road. He faces the bulldozers, head turning this way and that. And then a Company soldier steps smartly forwards, whips the butt of his rifle across Blue-cap’s face. He falls. Blood drips onto the rutted track. The defenders raise their weapons. The Company troops respond in kind. The bulldozers growl.

          You jerk round again, back to the civilians – the ones who are losing their homes and everything they can’t carry. A man is running forwards. He is young. His clothes are rags. He is carrying – my God, he’s carrying a sword. Where the hell did he get that?

          The man’s eyes are too wide, too white. His mouth is distorted in a feral snarl, saliva spinning off his beard. Dust eddies around his bare ankles as he raises the weapon to cleave…

          He is shot before he gets within a dozen paces of the enemy. A red bloom erupts from his shoulder; the sword flies from his hand. He falls backwards, spinning madly in the dirt as if his blood is pushing his body in tight little spirals, legs flexing madly, scrambling in a crimson razor-dance.

          This is the first bullet fired. No-one knows who made the shot.

          The bulldozers are moving again.

          Blue-cap makes on final effort to make peace. He is pushed aside. The Company men have had enough. They advance, ignoring the weapons pointed at their chests. Stones fly, the civilians, the peasants, resisting the only way they can. The missiles rattle off body-armour, off helmets, off the blades of the bulldozers. The camera spins again; there is so much to take in, you can’t see it all.

          So you miss the next shot.

          Blue-cap is dead, a neat little hole in his forehead. His face still bears a look of shock, of disbelief. The Company soldiers walk calmly over his body.

          Then the bulldozers grind him into a bloody smear in the dirt.

          More shooting. More UN soldiers drop. The slum-dwellers are fair game too.

          The cameraman is backing off; dragged away, you think, by his companions. But he keeps the lens pointed –

– static again, the picture breaking up –

          – civilians screaming. Women crying, children wailing, the timeless sounds of panic. There is no mistaking terror.

          And the staccato snap of bullets, cutting through the avalanche of collapsing buildings. Bulldozers dig their blades into flesh and masonry without prejudice.

          The camera spins; you see bare feet. The battle is lost. You are fleeing.

          But there is still time for one last look back. Now you can see only Company soldiers amidst the rubble.

          Company soldiers and the dead and the dying.

Letting go

I’m a bit frustrated at the moment. I’m working all out – by which I mean I’m sitting on my hands, waiting – on self-publishing (New Gods still planned for an October 26th release, all you people desperate to pre-order) and beyond that…

And that’s the question: what next?

After New Gods, all I have in the bank are the three novels (one complete, one in the factory for a refit, one a fifth of the way written) in the series that begins with Oneiromancer. I’m proud of these books. I think they’re either good or have the potential to be good. Thing is that I’ve already been rejected by all the sci-fi/urban fantasy agents in the country (and some beyond). So I have no idea how I’m going to go about getting them published.

Yes, yes, self-publishing and all that. I know I have that option. But I’m reluctant to go down that route. New Gods is a special case; the finale to a series that I simply want to get out because I’m proud of it and know that no other publisher with the situation as it is.

I am by no means negative about self-publishing. But that’s not how I envisioned my career as going, and I don’t know how to adapt my thinking to make myself embrace that future. I will, of course, if I can’t see any other way forwards – which I can’t at present – because I am, as I said, proud of my work and the books deserve readers.

I don’t believe I’m capable of drumming up those readers. Not on my own.

It’s times like this that ambition gets in the way of productivity. One can spend so much time worrying about whether one will ‘make it’ and less about getting not only this product ready, but that there’s a continued flow of product for the future.

Maybe the best option is simply to let go. To abandon the work I’ve put into this particular stack of world-building and move on to something entirely new. An agent can be tempted to any project, and then they might be interested in promoting a back catalogue too.

But I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve not even finished my trilogy.

No, perhaps I need to abandon my plans for being a successful (however that be defined) author. I can’t see myself ever being an award-winner, like I am in my dreams, and I’m getting too old and too envious – in a benevolent way – of the breakthrough authors I see on Twitter.

What, after all, is success but a false form of happiness? Change my paradigm, let go of dreams that will never come true and work on the things within my control; that’s what I should do.

But letting go is always hard.

Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

On reviews

Night Shift has hit a milestone. We have – at last count – 53 reviews on Amazon. Most are favourable, which is nice. But I wonder, why do we care? Why do authors fret so about words that are often tossed out there without too much consideration or deep thought (with apologies to serious book reviewers and, indeed, anyone who really works out how they want to help others who may be wondering if a certain book is for them)?

Partly, of course, its ego; a desire for one’s work to be appreciated and to reassure them that they can write. More pertinently it’s because we live in fear of the dreaded algorithm.

Some websites begin to promote books that get more reviews higher up on lists; they’re more likely to be shown in ‘Other people read’ screens and similar. The more reviews we get – good or bad – the more visibility our work receives. Success breeds success. It ain’t right, but there it is.

I’m no expert on these things. I just know that it’s nice to find that people are still discovering and reading. After being dropped by the publisher and having abandoned all hope of royalties or a great film/television adaptation bonus, it’s terribly reassuring to find that my little novel still has a life out there. Maybe I’m premature in dismissing my chances of earning out after all.

Human Resources, on the other hand, has only one Amazon review. That seems to have disappeared without trace.

But the thing about modern times – when books can be printed on demand, and e-books exist, and the internet seems both endless and eternal, is that these figures can only ever go up. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly seems that way. I don’t need to fear being remaindered or my work becoming unavailable. Time can bring only more sales.

Because, as I said, it’s always nice to know my stuff is being read and I’m not simply pissing into the void. Money – material reward – is almost irrelevant. I want people to read and enjoy my stuff. And I want my future writings to find a market.

Which leads me onto asking why we do this. I love writing, except when I hate it and will do anything to avoid it, and I’m determined to make everything I do the best it can possibly be. Money, material reward, isn’t what I do this for, though – and don’t get me wrong, here – it is nice.

I digress. The fact is, reviews matter to authors. It (sometimes) makes us feel good. It helps our sales. It gives that word-of-mouth, that we rely on, a little boost. We the majority aren’t backed by great publicity campaigns. It’s generally us on our tod battling various degrees of social anxiety trying to do our best to get books into brains.

And of course they help other readers even more than it helps us.

So: do your good deed for the day. Find a book you’ve loved and tell people about it.