To submit

It’s time. By Friday, when you’ll have read this, I’ll have submitted my novel to The Open Submissions Period of Doom. At time of writing I still have to tinker with my synopsis and make a few alterations to the submittable chapters. But I’m almost there; almost ready to throw my work into the pyre and hope the smoke-signals it gives off are enough to summon demand for the full manuscript.

It’s a horrible situation – not just for me, of course, but for all writers in my position. Publishers willing to take on authors without agents are few. Publishers who’ll take on SFF are few. There are about three moderate-sized ones in the UK with whom I have my heart set on publication, all of which are usually agent-only. So there’s a lot riding on this, because I’m ambitious.

I’m ambitious not for ‘success’ in any of its flawed, double-edged forms, but for the feeling of moving forwards. I’ve published with an independent publisher and I’ve self-published. I want to be making progress, as a person and within my chosen career. I‘m impatient for that.

I also feel that the work I’m currently hawking marks a significant step forwards as an author.

The other writers – maybe you – who are submitting to this open period may well be better authors than me. They may be more polished in their pitches. In fact, it would be quite astonishing if there weren’t numerous pieces that the company feels are ‘better’ than mine. So what hope do I have?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But hope I do still have, so I shall enter my work and then try to forget about it until the (almost) inevitable rejection.

The big question that then follows: what’s Plan B?

At the moment I simply don’t know. I believe in this work, but I’ve been rejected by all agents under the sun. I could self-publish again, but this is the first in a trilogy and… well, the honest truth is that it would simply feel like failure. Don’t get me wrong, I salute all those who choose to self-publish and I wish them every success. But I don’t have it in me – at the moment – to go out and try drum up publicity all over again, three more times, whilst staring down the barrel of low readership, no engagement and… well, the lack of the things I aspire to.

This is me now. I reserve the right to change my mind/acquire some enthusiasm.

What else? I could go into some great diatribe about the state of publishing, but you might just come back and tell me it’s just that my writing’s not very good, and who am I to argue that?

This is the 450th (ish) post I’ve written for this blog and I’m still back exactly where I started. One of those lifetimes, I guess. A writer’s life.

On hindsight

The best thing about writing a sequel before the first book is published is that it’s much easier to return to part one and fix errors in continuity before a work is out there in the public domain. And by errors in continuity I mean areas where you’ve subtly changed your mind or re-placed emphasis rather than big plot-holes or the like. Those should have long-since been closed by now.

I’m currently retooling Oneiromancer with the expectation of an imminent submission. I had been working on book three but have had to temporarily (again) shelve this, what with life and priorities and all that. But I find that, now, going back to book one in the series feels subtly different. I know what’s going to happen to these (surviving) characters in two books’ time. And some things just don’t quite mesh.

It’s little things. Giving one character a fake East End accent is now unnecessary and slightly at odds with what I’ll explain to be his background (there is room for the accent – I could justify it – but it’s a layer of explanation and backstory that’s just not necessary). It’s having my ‘magical’ character able to do things that she’s never going to do again – again, slightly at odds with how the rest of the series pans out.

Nothing I’m seeing now is actually wrong, or clunky, or inappropriate. It’s just that I’ve seen these characters’ futures and can better mould them to the labours ahead.

The best thing about getting a book published before writing the sequel is that certain things are set in stone and cannot be simply fixed. They become part of the mythos and must be accounted for in any subsequent works.

Why is this a good thing? Well, for a start it rules out the possibility of second-guessing. You have to move forwards, you cannot look back and endlessly tinker. What’s done is done.

Secondly, limitations are good for the imagination. Giving yourself a problem forces yourself to think logically. My stray accent, say, might be explained in the second book, which, if done well, might actually make you look like some long-term strategic thinker rather than just some desperate blunderer. My miracle-worker might realise she can no longer do what she initially did – and that might be a whole plot-thread in itself.

Plus you’d have a damn book out. I dream of getting this bloody thing into print. Don’t seem no closer now to when I was first-drafting it.

As an aside, Our Kind of Bastard owes a fair bit to a friend/beta-reader who pointed out that I missed an opportunity to save a character’s life. I took the idea she suggested – a road not taken rather than a plot-hole – and incorporated it into the survivors’ psyche; a sense of guilt to sharpen the loss. Going back was an option (and, I guess, one that any future editor may still desire) but it would have so radically affected Oneiromancer that I chose to fold the failure into the sequels.

I guess I always think that moving forwards is the best option. But they say it’s always much easier to write the beginning once you’ve got to the end. My failures to get the damn thing published means I can continue to make the novel sharper, leaner and hungrier.

Crumbs of comfort, I guess, as my failures also make it harder to get published in the first place. But I still believe. I do. Honest.

Onwards!

50 shades of doubt

Last week I wrote about the gyp I was getting from synopsis and elevator pitch. It has subsequently come to my attention that I should probably look at the actual writing that gets attached to a submission, not merely the flashy, fleshy bits on the side.

The piece I’m submitting here is Oneiromancer, and for the life of me I can’t remember when I actually wrote the damn thing. It was definitely two houses ago, back when I occupied an entirely different world. I know I submitted it to Flame Tree Press at the same time as I submitted Night Shift. It’s been a while, at least, through various drafts. And I’ve not really examined my submission package for at least three years.

Good thing is that the writing pretty much stands up. Or at least the first half-chapter does; for this I took to my writing group last week. There are improvements to be made, but, by and large, things make sense. The voice mostly works, the characters are graspable and all that. Changes I’ll have to make are relatively small, the swearing I have to perform only of a moderate nature.

But a writer never stops fretting. I read a chunk that’s in only a single voice, but this is a polyfocal novel with a lot of ‘stars’: the writers’ group don’t know that I’m about to change to someone else’s POV for the next section.

I worry about this. I worry about introducing to many names too soon. I worry about not giving the audience time to properly ‘bed in’ to the novel before switching things around.

You may be saying to yourself ‘well if you fret so much, and you can see the potential problems, why don’t you just do something about it?’ To which I respond with a sigh as long and deep as the great spot of Jupiter.

It’s not that easy. I wanted to write a multiple-POV novel. I like this kind of story. It’s kind of got fixed over the years. To rewrite this would be to rewrite the whole sorry tale, and I’d rather walk my own path right now, pending agentory/editorial demands. I personally happen to think that the damn thing works.

And that last thing, that’s what it really comes down to. I doubt, gods know I doubt. But I have something, some shred of ability to string words and ideas together in a form that I believe in. May just be self-delusion, I guess – but then I have persuaded people to give me money for words, so it can’t be just me. Can it?

I console myself with the writers’-grouperly thumbs-up. Now I need to gird my metaphoricals and take the next section to a meeting soon. I have only three weeks before my target open-submission period closes. I have very little time to waste.

No time for doubting. Needs must and all that.

Back to basics

A few weeks ago I wrote about how a binary decision would go to shape my year; about how I was awaiting a simple yes/no decision that would define 2022 for me. Well, things have changed, as these things are wont to do. The offer has been (amicably) rescinded. I must return to traditional submission techniques – the last resort of the desperate and hungry.

This means I am returning to my traditional haunts: the worlds of synopsis, covering letter and elevator pitch. And instead of a single known person deciding my future, I am returning to the lands of faceless committees and anonymised readers.

At the moment I have three different versions of the synopsis – one short, one long, one nearly-as-long-as-the-long-one – I need to either choose between or merge. I have a covering letter that I think isn’t bad but has been rejected by most agents. And I’m entirely lacking a suitable elevator pitch.

There is an open-submissions period coming up with a great SFF publisher, so the clock is ticking. I need to get these right, and in any case it’s probably the elevator pitch – the handful of words (precise counts differ) that you’d use to seduce some high-powered exec were you to find yourself in a lift together – that gives me most concern. Quite aside from the fact that I’m British and would just stare at my feet for the entire time confined with said theoretical executive, I just don’t know how to go about it.

At the moment I have version that are entirely the wrong length, thus:

Insomniac miracle-worker Saira accidentally gives form to a being from another reality. Now she must prevent the sadistic Dashwood from flooding London with monsters from the Dreamland.

Slightly longer:

Saira, a seamstress in a London sink-estate, can draw matter from the very air around her and shape it to her will. But when Dashwood, a racist thug from a 1930s novel, slips into this world through her dreams and takes the role as a police inspector, Saira must band together with a rag-tag band of allies to stop him – before Dashwood can flood the city with monsters.

Are they any good? Well I have no idea. I might reinforce whichever I choose with my old fallback: Monsters Inc as written by Stephen King. Problem with this, of course, is that it doesn’t really convey much information. And I’ve not really read enough SK to make a meaningful comparison; I’m too much of a wimp to read horror.

So what else is there to say? I must go back to basics, pausing the long-suffering WIP (it’s already on pause, to be honest, as I have more proofreading to do) in order to revisit past infamies.

Hope. I still have hope. And, at the end of the day, it’s the hope that kills you.

Onwards!

On being stuck

When I am stuck, I scribble.

Having slogged through weeks of getting nowhere I finally found myself sliding to a complete halt. I couldn’t see where I was going. All momentum had long since faded. It felt like I was scratching for the sake of scratching rather than for real purposes of creation.

I went back to my notes but, this far through the story, I found I’d deviated too much from my outline for it to be really useful – at this point in proceedings, at least. To be honest, calling it an outline is perhaps optimistic anyway. The barest whispers of ideas given undue confidence and swagger is a better description.

So I wrote some new ideas.

Let’s be honest, it didn’t happen just like that. It took me about four sessions of staring at my manuscript, then staring at my wannabe-outline, before I realised I needed a different approach. But however long it took me, it seems to have helped. I have new direction and less ‘oh my god this is torturousness’ (torturosity?) feeling about the whole project.

When I’m stuck the first thing I like to do is to write about the problem: to find a way to express it. This doesn’t always come easy, but getting it down on paper – or occasionally Twitter – is an important first step for me. Hence:

Callan and the book: Could be going to either of two locations

  • To the DM, who has his Glen Rd house
    • Fitz wants to deal with this man
    • Rewrite introductory scene to feature DM, not the Peppers (though they may also be present)
    • DM has the power to make Fitz’s ambitions happen
  • To the Troll Farm
    • Peppers want the book there

Callan needs to be left alone with the book

Once the problem is set out, the answers always seem easier; a spot of selective brainstorming (oxymoronic, I know, but you get what I mean) shows me possible futures, and though I never seem to stick with what I come up with – this is already out of date – it resets me, gets me out of the morass I created. Thus:

So: Fitz’s POV: (or Callan’s?)

  • In the limo, with lord & lady Pepper and the DM
    • They have been to the DMs house; called the Peppers from there; kept Callan locked up until they arrived
    • Praise for Fitz: DM lets him know that he’s going to get his reward
      • Temporal power
      • Revenge on Mark/Paul

(I feel safe letting you into this part of my manuscript as I’ve no doubt this will make any sense to anyone. It barely makes sense to me. In fact, looking back at it now, I can’t believe how sketchy it is; there’s so much skipped, assumed, even for me.)

The point isn’t to say that you should be doing this. Just that this works for me. Everyone has their own way of making progress, be it following a set plan down to the last syllable or by dispensing with notes altogether. I just thought you might be interested to see that a) I do get (very) stuck sometimes, and b) I have a way to get myself out of the mire.

It’s something I think I’ve done for about every novel I’ve written. It’s just that this time I actually noticed what I was doing.

Interesting? I’m not sure. But it filled in another week’s blog, so there’s that, at least.

Merry writing!

99%

So, one of my editing jobs is complete, the other not so very long or intensive. I can finally see my way to the world of creative writing beyond.

Indeed, I actually managed to fire up my WIP for the first time since Christmas. I carved out an hour to do something original, something new, and… I failed.

It seems as if just having the time isn’t enough. One must also have brains in order to write, and, right now, I’m just not getting anywhere.

Frustration. But also optimism. Because writing is work, and I can do work. It’s just a case of sitting behind the keyboard and staring at the screen until those black marks on the screen – the words, I mean, and not just the dirt – make sense, and then they start talking to you.

I never really understood what it means to say you’re blocked. I’m finding it hard right now – does that mean I’m blocked? Does it signify something horribly awry with the work I’ve produced thus far? I don’t think so. I believe in what I’ve done, imperfect though it is at this stage. My problem is that I’m out of practice; since August I’ve not had a few straight weeks to just focus on the manuscript, and that’s costing me now.

But I will continue. I will keep scratching away, one word at a time, doing as little as I’m able each session until either a) the metaphorical pen begins to fly again and I realise that I’ve slipped back into the swing of things, or b) I look back and realise that all this scratching has added up to a solid page or two of writing.

It won’t be very good, of course. But that’s what second drafts are for.

So at the moment I’m taking odd moments to reacquaint myself with the situation I’ve left myself and my characters in. Just adding a few words here and there as the inspiration finds me. Treading water, not really getting anywhere.

But all this is valuable. It is the building blocks of progress. It’s not ideal; ideal would be to sit down and write solidly until the work is done. But it is what I have to work with after real life is added to the equation.

They say that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration*. I’m no genius but it’s where I am. I’ve had my moment of inspiration – a dream 16 months ago – and now I’ve just got to sweat it out.

Any future biopic of me will surely rewrite this section of my life. Score points for determination, but it ain’t never going to be the most dramatic Oscar-worthy sequence.

Onwards!

*Edison said that. Leacock puts the figures at 10-90. Can’t even agree on that one.

Two guvnors

I have done but a single line of creative writing this side of Christmas. This is clearly sub-optimal. I’m not blocked, though, or taking ill-deserved time off; I am, in fact, as busy as I’ve ever been – just not with the things that matter to me.

Partly the problem is that I am very lucky. I have a day-job at which I spend twenty hours a week, plus a little time commuting and preparing. I then fill up the rest of the working week with writing or editing.

Thing is that my commercial editing arm has got really long recently. I am in demand, with all of two jobs awaiting my attention. This obviously isn’t many, not really, but it’s rare for me to have work stacked up; usually I work from one to the next, never quite knowing when my next job will come through.

It’s been like this since August. I’ve been so busy working on other people’s writing that it’s taken all the time I used to use for myself. And I’m not (honestly) complaining about that – it’s great. Good, interesting work that keeps me entertained and off the streets, or at least saves me from being too dependent on my wife.

It’s just that, what with spending some crumbs of time with my family and the odd moment for myself, my genuine, original writing has taken a back seat. This is beginning to eat at me; I have a half-finished novel just waiting for an ending (though I fear the amount of mental effort I’ll have to pour into it; editing is, for me at least, much the easier task) and I have my own books to problem-solve, thank you very much.

I am not good at turning down work. I am too afraid of being blackballed, or being seen as unreliable, or some red flag being appended to my name, to refuse paying tasks. As I said earlier, I’m used to working as the tasks come in and don’t have a great timetable of works ahead as the true professionals do. Thus I take what I’m given, and I work hard, and I get the job done, he says with a certain amount of pride.

But I want to write. I want to create. And I haven’t truly got the work-life balance right. In this day and age, how do we tell them apart anyway?

I have some great stories to tell. I need to carve out time to tell them.

On 2022

I’ve had a book on submission with a publisher for eleven months now. That’s a long time – by no means a record, but a long time nevertheless. In the meantime I’ve got halfway through the (second) sequel, as well as doing a hell of a lot of commercial editing, so I’ve hardly been sitting on my hands. But I’ve not been submitting. I have been waiting.

This is how 2022 is going to go for me. This book is either going to be accepted for publication or I’ll be rejected. If the latter I’ll be very disappointed but, y’know, life and all that. I’ll then have to consider whether I go on trying to place it commercially – all the hells themselves won’t know where, mind – or if I’m going to take all the lessons learnt from New Gods and self-publish.

If it’s accepted – well, it probably won’t be published before 2023 and there’s all the rounds of editation it’ll need to go through, but I’ll know what I’m doing. I can get on with first-drafting Breathing Fire, and editing Our Kind of Bastard, and I’ll keep the hope of being some kind of ‘success’ alive.

Of course I’ll do all that writing and editing anyway because it is, at the end of the day, what I do.

2022 is to be determined, for me, by a binary choice made by someone else. This is not a good way to be and I don’t advocate it – which is, of course, why I,’m trying to carry on as if that’s not happening. I am still keeping my eyes open for other submission opportunities – I’m not beholden to anyone – but I’ve already been rejected by all agents and, for this trilogy, this seems like my last chance.

So how optimistic am I about the year to come? I have no idea. Not very? Somewhat? I always try to expect rejection because that way it doesn’t hurt as much when it happens. I guess, though, this time I am afraid because I can’t see a road ahead with a no.

And that’s what I really fear. Not the rejection itself, but the feeling of helplessness that is likely to accompany this one. This is a good book. It’s levelling up on my past work – or at least that’s how I feel anyway. I just won’t know what to do next if the thumbs turn down.

2021 can get in the bin. It was not a good year for me. 2022? Well, we shall just have to see.

More on the morass

Green Morass, by Zdenka Kezele

It is a matter of personal taste: would you like to struggle more with the beginning, the middle, or the end? I know of writers who find getting going excruciating – every word a struggle until enough brain-lubrication has been got down and their pistons can fully come online. The ending – well, I don’t know of anyone who’s fought too badly with this, but presumably there are those who have to hack away with the machete of will to get out of a novel.

Me, I’m a middle man. Specifically, I’m a ‘the bit from 25-40k’ man. It seems like on every novel I get hung up about this point; the words don’t flow no more and every session is a slog. Progress can be measured in paragraphs, not pages, and a decent conversation is a joy as it means you can feel like you’ve really got somewhere, even if the word count is still crawling.

To put it another way – because word-count doesn’t mean all that much, not really – it’s the section from the inciting incident to the central conflict that I really struggle with. To those wot don’t speak Hero’s Journey (or whatever we’re calling it today), the inciting incident is that occurrence that means the central character can’t sit around in their armchair all novel and must go out and do something: their house mysteriously burns down, say, or their attempts to rebuff the kindly old wizard finally come to naught: the band have got together and they’re on their way to adventure.

The central conflict is the conflict at the novel’s heart, where all things flip and the protagonist is sent in a new direction.

It seems that I always struggling with this section. It’s not necessarily that I’m stuck for ideas, though often the slowness is caused by having to think – an occupation of which I Do Not Approve. Rather it’s… Well, I’m, honestly not sure what it is. I just know that, for two novels in a row, I have been pulling words like teeth precisely at this juncture. If I could remember I’d swear it was other novels too.

This is where novels are abandoned. Where they’re set aside ‘to stew’ and never quite get picked up again. Or where a new project suddenly looms on the horizon making all that’s come before seem like a waste of time.

If you are struggling with this, or with any part of your novel, I wish I had answers for you. The only real advice I can give you is to keep going. For each word you write – even the wrong ones – get you closer to the end. You’re not in a race (unless you are). You’re not (usually) writing to a deadline. All progress is good and it does get easier (or so I tell myself). You’ll have good days amidst the struggle, and soon you’ll find that all the hard work has not only moved you forwards considerably, but that now you can ‘write downhill’ and dance through big chunks of story because you’ve done all the hard prep already.

I suppose that’s the real trick of writing. That it has to be done. There may be shortcuts – proper prep and gestational work – that I’m not an expert on, but at the end of the day it comes down to getting the words down on (electronic) paper.

Keep going. No matter how slowly you move, no matter how many hours spent thinking, or not thinking, keep coming back to that manuscript and make words happen.

Soon you’ll be looking back, amazed at how much you’ve done. And eventually you’ll have a finished draft.

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.