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?

Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.

Today’s moment of doubt

Busy this week. New job. Editing. Working all free hours to meet a deadline constricted by real world plans and a return to paid employment after long months of furloughship.

Which means I’ve not been working on anything interesting this week. Actually, that’s not true at all; I’m working on new fiction, and that’s always interesting – there’s always something new to learn, even if it’s only how opinionated you are, how stuck in your ways (this time I’m noticing how uptight I am about commas and about paragraph length).

But I haven’t been working on my own writing, which is a bit frustrating as I was well on my way with what may be my final reworking/polishing of New Gods before it goes off to the publisher.

It also means I have precious little to say here.

So let me instead ask you a question: would you read a book with a prologue in second person? Or would that put you off forever? For today’s moment of doubt concerns my clever-clever introduction, which, for very solid(!) reasons, is in that hotly debated pronoun-classification.

Would it bring you up short, or would you push on through to the real narrative beyond?

Mistrust your instincts

I have resolved my ‘show don’t tell’ dilemma. I shall show. To a diminished degree, at least, and with great chucks of the original pared away. My original 7k scene is now around 1.5k, but it is going back in.

This is the conclusion of a season of great doubt. The question that arose from one group of readers has been closed by another. My beta readers suggested that I was missing a trick by not demonstrating the incident in question; my writing group listened to my suggested reinsertion and, with a few relatively minor caveats, okayed its presence in the story.

All this makes me feel a lot better, and once again confirms my feelings that we, as authors, know nothing. Or at least that I don’t. ‘Trust your instincts’, they say. Well my instincts are clearly on the fritz as it was them that had me cut the damn thing in the first place when in fact they should merely have been telling me to set fire to it and insert only what was still legible in the aftermath.

Trusting your instincts is a difficult thing as they are so easily fooled. Who hasn’t brought out a piece of writing, thinking it’s in all things wonderful, only to have it roundly shunned? And yet there are times when it’s right, when it’s paramount, to preserve our vision no matter how the naysayers protest. We, as writers, must keep faith in our work despite the world and his wife turning their nose up at it. Rejection is part of the business. We must, in all things, persist.

But there is wisdom in crowds. Which is why new perspectives, and the wisdom to listen to criticism, is also a key part of becoming a ‘successful’ (or at least ‘good’) writer.

So I urge you: join a writing group. Join several. No, it’s not essential. But a good one can shave years off your developmental journey. And, if nothing else, they can guide you through the thickets and copses and forests of mistrusted instinct.

If you can’t bear to do that, at least try and find friends – real or virtual – who can empathise with what you’re going through.

It is, after all, always nice to have somewhere to turn for advice.

A necessary break

I had New Gods critiqued last week. It should have been the final stop on its way to submission, nay, publication, and that may still be the truth of it. But I received enough common complaints that I feel a pause might be of benefit.

New Gods, to those not in the know, is the third (and final?) novel in the Antarctic trilogy that began with Night Shift and will be continuing this November with the release of Human Resources. See how I’ve kept the punchy two-word theme throughout? Clever, eh?

I personally think NG is the best – or has the potential to be the best – of the lot. I’m excited about it. I want it to work. I want it to sing, to shine. And I think it can.

But I think I need to hold my horses a little. There are still enough imperfections that I need to address, and those common complaints aren’t going anywhere. The only urgency is self-created. I can afford to take a little time and make it as good as I possibly can.

Specifically, the major complaint is that I haven’t put enough description in, and have left certain things too ambiguous. To some extent that’s a stylistic choice and I don’t want to go overboard to compensate. But clearly there is room for a few more words of explanation.

I also have to address a few plausibility gaps; not that things didn’t work, necessarily, but if they can be tightened it’ll be a better, more absorbing story.

The big thing I have to grapple with at the moment, however, is a question of showing or telling.

The old mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. This is often debated and isn’t always the best advice. But I originally wrote a fairly long scene near the opening of the novel that described a piece of action – specifically, a rescue attempt from a fire in a medical centre.

Then I cut it. I replaced it with a few paragraphs describing what happened instead of showing it live, as it were.

I had good reasons for this. The scene was over-long and, I felt, unbalanced the novel, especially as it occurred so early in the narrative. I just felt uncomfortable with it as it was, and – I think – I managed to sum it up concisely in dialogue as a past event.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Some members of the critique group asked me why I hadn’t shown the event in question and told me to show, not tell.

Now I don’t know what to do. I still have the scene saved and can reinstate it without too much difficulty (it would be edited, of course). But then would I have the pacing problems again? Is it better as is?

I just don’t know what to do.

What I really need, of course, is an agent. Without one I am on my own.

Except for you lot, of course. What would you do?

Filling the well

It is all very well to complain of an empty well. It is another thing to do anything about it.

After last week’s dirge I was hoping to be able to write something more cheerful here today. It seems, however, that my introspection is taking a rather gloomier turn as I contemplate my lack of creative intake in recent times. To put in in simple terms, I’m not reading enough.

I do get through a decent amount. Problem is that, recently, my reading has been of manuscripts for the editing, and I don’t think you experience them in the same way as you do a finished, off the (library) shelf paperback. The books I get for paid work are good and interesting but I’m reading them critically, looking for misplaced plot-holes and anomalous punctuation. I’m not taking them up and getting sucked into the pages.

Because that’s how you fill an empty well: you lose yourself in a flood of words, in worlds, in mysteries and miracles. Not just through books, but through all sorts of art; TV and films that you let wash over you and carry you away to distant shores.

I’m not doing that. I’m buried in technical detail, not experiencing, not learning. No wonder I’m feeling a little dry, for there is no wonder in my life.

So what do I do about it? Why, I read more, of course.

Except that’s easier said than done. Reading is a habit, a practice, that I’ve fallen out of recently. And it is a high horse; a long way to fall, a difficult beast to remount.

But I must get back on board; I must read (and watch, and listen) for pleasure; I must realign my time in order to refloat that damn boat.

For once begun I’m hoping a trickle will become a flood and I’ll be sailing the high seas for adventure and ideas will be two a penny.

But for now they are rare and precious indeed.

The empty well

The Empty Well, Joel Kass

I fear what comes next. I’ve been so far in an editing morass that I’ve not had much chance to work on anything new for a little while, and whilst it’s true that I have a few works in the bank – in various degrees of draftage, three stories are ready to be polished/rewritten – I don’t know where I’m going from here.

At some point I’m going to have to write something original and, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m drawing from an empty well. I see other writers, some close to me, some a little further away, churning out novel after novel, and I look in the mirror and see only emptiness there.

I am a writer. But I can’t see what I’m going to write next. Worse than that, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it at all; all the disciple I built up, all the muscles I developed, they seem to have atrophied.

That’s the fear. That I’ve nothing left in me. That I’m a fraud, I guess, in calling myself something I no longer feel myself to be.

This is, I know, mostly bollocks. So I’m feeling a bit fallow – show me an author that doesn’t have the occasional period where the words don’t quite flow. It’s barely been two months since I finished my last first draft – that’s no time at all. Just because I don’t immediately have something to go on to doesn’t invalidate my whole existence.

Still, this is the way I feel right now. Like there is nothing left in me. It’s not a nice place to be.

There is hope. I had a dream the other day that I thought (within the dream, which is a trick) would make a good novel with a little tinkering. And I managed to write a dream synopsis before I forgot it all. Even if this is just a false blind it shows that my subconscious is still churning over the goods.

It’s a stupid thing, to put faith in dreams. This idea may well come to nothing. The positive I’m taking is that it shows there is still creativity in me somewhere.

But in the immediate future it is editing that is occupying my time. I’ve an Old Testament intergenerational epic to renovate. So if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the Bronze Age with me.

*             *             *

A quick reminder that, for the next few days only, Night Shift can be yours for only 99p/99c. Head over to Amazon (I believe it’s an Amazon-only offer – sorry, folks) and grab your e-copy now! It’s, like, good. At least 99p good. The offer ends on Sunday (2nd August), so hurry hurry hurry!

Insufficiently Woke

It’s not easy to be blindsided. That is, of course, a lie: it’s the easiest thing in the world. Dealing with it is another matter.

I took a piece of writing to my writing group on Sunday. I hadn’t really thought anything of it; it was simply the next chapter of the novel I’ve been gradually unrolling. And (I thought) I didn’t really care what people said – this work is getting beta-ed as we speak and I only really took it as I had short notice and wanted to read something.

I’d have been quite happy for a nice simple ‘Yeah, it’s great, no problems here.’

The piece I took was a hot section describing a slum clearance. Lots of nice descriptive language, a few deaths and a bit of emotional trauma. It’s been workshopped before, this piece, and, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much except for a little sharpening here and there.

I got taken to task.

The piece was described as a Westernised, colonialist’s view of the world; it was too nice, too polite; it was an insult to anyone who’s experienced a real, genuine slum clearance, where they run the bulldozers through people’s houses at night and deaths are uncounted, uncared for.

The passion, the anger in my interlocutor’s face was shocking. I was completely taken aback. I still don’t quite know what to feel. I was upset, to put it mildly; thinking back now I still feel the tremors and the anxiety.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about cultural appropriation. I believe in being sensitive to experiences beyond my ken. I’ve watched Twitter arguments play out about unconscious ‘white’ writing and perspectives that erase the experiences of the ‘native’. To be accused of doing the same thing myself? Painful.

So what do I do? I don’t think I can make the scene any nastier, crueller, as it would be out of place in this novel and would probably turn the scene into melodrama. To paraphrase another member of the group, doing ‘better’ would make the novel worse.

And do I believe this person is right anyway? No-one else (and the novel has been read by around a dozen people, though the vast majority are white-British) has commented or complained. Can I make big changes on the back of one person’s objections?

I don’t know that I can. I might add a sentence or two to ask if this slum clearance is typical, if it’s overly mannered, or if it could represent the tip of the iceberg. I will look at doing that. I will also make sure to ask my beta-readers what they think of the scene in question. I will ask them to check me, as I am checking myself.

In the meantime I am trying to get over the shock, and I am looking at myself in a different light, and I am worrying about what this episode says about me as a person. I am deeply flawed, insufficiently Woke; that is not news, but never has it been brought to my attention so baldly.

I suppose I should look upon this as an opportunity to grow.