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A Ridiculously Short List

POSTED ON May 18th, 2011  - POSTED IN Writing

I think if my list of revisions to the novel (post-appraisal) had been massively long, I’d bizarrely be less concerned. But it’s not. It’s incredibly short and that frightens me.

So I’ve done the sensible thing and not just dive in. Instead I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the changes I need to make. For instance, I know what to do to a secondary character to make him really stand out, and I know that I need to put more obscure mythological races into some scenes.

I’ve even gone through, for each of the points, and marked the chapter numbers I’ll need to amend. Some chapters will need a line, others a paragraph here or there, but none of them anything ‘major’. Even so, the list is ridiculously short and the fact that if I pulled my finger out I could be seriously looking for agents to submit to in the next couple of days… well, it scares the hell out of me!

Chapter Rewrites

POSTED ON January 6th, 2011  - POSTED IN Writing

January, and the return to work after the Xmas has meant I feel exhausted. How I envy through rose-tinted glasses those who can write full time.

My spare time over the last few days has been taken up with the rewrite of a chapter. I’m taking it incredibly slowly and whilst the chapter isn’t a big one in terms of the overall story, there’s a lot of emotion interaction between characters.

This novel has had a long evolution. Even close friends have questioned whether I’m trapped in an endless cycle of re-writes. It’s very easy as a writer to get bored with the words after a couple of read-throughs and find yourself wanting to rewrite so everything is shiny and new again.

But my rewrites for the most-part are about making the story tighter, bringing the scene more sharply into focus, turning everything up to 11 on the dial. I have a story in my head and for a long while what was on the page fell short.

The first chapter has been rewritten at least twenty times, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as high as fifty. The early versions tried to do too much, tried to tell too much story in too short a space. Subsequent versions moved elements back, expanding the world and the story chapter by chapter, rather than club you over the back of the head in chapter 1.

But the comments from friends always came back “you’re writing it again? The chapter is fine, leave it.” And it gets to a stage where I felt I had to make do.

But what’s the point of writing, if you can’t be happy with what you write? If I’m writing for myself, does it matter if I write a chapter fifty times? A hundred? A thousand times?

It’s easy as a writer to cheat yourself, to tell yourself you’re doing something for one reason when you’re really doing it for another. And then you worry that because all the “How To” books on writing tell you that this isn’t normal and should be stopped, you’re somehow doing it wrong.

But here’s the thing: there’s no right or wrong way to write, there’s only your way. And sure, sometimes you’ll get it wrong and hindsight will show you what you were blind to at the time. But if your gut tells you a chapter needs a rewrite because you’re not happy with it… rewrite it.

Sure, that’s scary. In fact it’s pretty fucking terrifying, because you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing, and you’re just winging it, and you worry you might be so completely fucking deluded that you’ll “screw everything up”.

Breathe.

You’ll write and fuck up and learn and grow.

And so this is why I came to edit chapter 30, read about a page and decided it needed a rewrite, whilst at the back of my head all the anticipated comments from my friends played out.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to those doubts. I’m really happy with the revised chapter 30. The few good bits from the old draft are still there but the rest is all new words. It’s tighter, it’s more alive and I think it’s some of my best work to date. I even made the point of really taking my time with it (about 500 words a day).

Now I have no guarantee that it’ll be people’s favourite chapter. Heck, I have no idea if anyone other than me will like the book. But I like it.

And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

In Which I Suck

POSTED ON December 23rd, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

I suck.

No, truly I do!

I’ve finally worked out why the editing on the novel is going so slowly.

I’d initially put it down to being inexperienced at proper editing. I’ve been lucky that in non-fiction I can get to a publishable version inside a single draft, but that means I’ve never had to sit down and really think over the words. I suspect that my initial draft isn’t bad, but “isn’t bad” isn’t an option, the prose needs to sparkle.

And to be fair I’ve worked hard, harder than I ever have on a piece of fiction before, and as a result it’s taken time. That’s fine, I have time.

But as I’ve got closer and closer to the end, I’ve noticed my productivity wane to the point that it’s almost non-existant. I mean I think about the story all the time, I’m just not doing a lot of editing.

And then it struck me earlier this week as to why. I’m scared.

I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into this novel, and if I’m honest I think it’s pretty good. Don’t get me wrong, the prose needs work for it to sparkle, but the plot, the characters – give or take a tweak here and there – pretty much work. But what if it isn’t any good?

There’ll be those that hate it, and I’m fine with that so long as it’s a case of the book not being for them. What I’d hate, what I’m scared of is the prose letting the story down. Worse still, what if it’s universally thought to be a bad book?

And this is why I suck. Because I’m being irrational. Because I know that it can’t be a universally disliked novel because people have read parts of it and have been very complimentary. And worse still, I know this is just me being stupid and I just need to power through it, get the book out there, and if it’s not good enough get on with the next. Seriously, people don’t need to tell me this. It’s not like I don’t have a dozen book ideas at any one time. Why can I not follow my own advice?

So all this subconscious procrastination is just me being stupid and irrational. And this is after a week where I’ve thought to myself that I need to be more positive about my stuff. All I can do is look at myself in the mirror and roll my eyes.

The Editing Continues

POSTED ON November 18th, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

I had wanted to write a blog post about how well the editing process is going, but then I hit chapter 25, and boy is that chapter a mess. But still, I knew there were a few chapters like this.

Overall though, I’m still enjoying the editing process. One of the joys is the actual discovery of the process. The editing pass I’m doing at the moment is real top level stuff: ensuring my timeline is correct (Oh, I so need to keep timelines for future books with multiple threads), ensuring the characters are fully rounded, that the story… well… works basically. That doesn’t mean clunky sentences aren’t being dealt with if they are encountered, or spelling mistakes corrected. No, it just means the focus is really on the actual story itself.

There are other little things I try and keep an eye for. I’ve learned that my writing sometimes lacks spatial awareness, has a sort of Tardis effect, so as I edit I’m accutely aware of the size of things. There is a room, towards the end of the novel that things won’t fit into but they currently do. Yes, it’s deliberately cryptic.

I’m very aware that a lot of my dialogue still has too many adverbs attached to them (“Maureen smiled worriedly”). But I’ve decided those need their own editing pass, where I just worry about dialogue. There’s enough work to do there to justify a pass.

Why not do it all at once you ask? Heck, I would ask that, but I think it can be so easy to try and juggle so many balls that you drop them all. If the story is right, no-one loses or gains a day, and my monsters fit inside the room, then I can approach a second editing pass not having that “but is the story alright?” worry at the back of my head.

And of course, there are the worries. Last week I spent most of the week panicking that the book was too short. “I’ll have to cut 10% and it’ll be too short”. This, when I tend to underwrite in certain areas, and the novel already stands at 110k.

I came to the conclusion this week that the reason for these irrational worries was simply that the real problems – those broken timelines and clunky sentences – are being dealt with; or even if they are not currently actively being dealt with, they have at least been identified.

What’s surprised me, though, is how much I enjoy the actual novel. I would buy this and love it. Seriously, I have no idea whether anyone would want to publish it or not, but (with the current exception of Chapter 25), my inner critic has enjoyed the book. It’s the book I wanted to create when I set out, and whilst that’s no guarantee that anyone else will like it, pleasing that toughest of my critics (me) feels like a major accomplishment.

People who have read what I’ve done so far have been incredibly positive. That’s no reason to be complacent, but what more can I ask myself than to write the novel I want to write? Seriously, if everyone else hates it (which it is very evident that they don’t), if no-one wants to publish it, I’ll be gutted, but I still will have written the book I’ve spent years trying to write. I realise that might not make a lot of sense to some people, but I think it will to those of you who know what it’s like to have a great story you just want to do justice to.

Anyways that Centaur with a shotgun (who for reasons of clunky sentence structure, somehow has eyes in his beard) won’t fix themselves. Back to Chapter 25!

The Joy Of Editing

POSTED ON October 8th, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

I’ll let you into a little secret. One of those ones that will have you rolling your eyes and muttering “oh my heart bleeds for you”. You see, I’ve never properly edited stuff. Sure, I’ve read over pieces a thousand times, fixed the odd gramatical or spelling error and changed a clunky sentence, but never much more than that.

I tend to write non-fiction in three dimensions, writing and revising, the beginning, middle and end simultaneously. I’m literally all over the place, building a framework, making it solid and building it up. The end result is pretty good, good enough that editors have relied on me to pull together an article when a contributor drops out at the last minute.

The trouble is that it’s made me lazy – blog posts, for instance, only get a cursory read – and the process doesn’t seem to work with fiction for me. As I move towards completing the novel, I know I need to raise my game.

So the editing stage of the novel approached with both fear and intrepedation. I know how polished I want this novel, and yet I worried I would get bored and would put up with “make do”. I think, in reality, that fear has made me focused, and once those idiotic, irrational fears of “OMG, I’m not sure I know how to edit” disappeared I sat down to take a close look at the novel.

The start of the novel has been re-written countless times, so technically these should be the easiest chapters, with the least amount of changes. Yet, I was amazed as I got stuck in, just how much I had raised my game.

Every word in a sentence, every sentence in a paragraph, every paragraph in a chapter has a job to do. It would be the easiest thing in the world into falling into the trap of trying to make every sentence glowing purple prose. But I’m more subtle than that. Some sentences do shine, but others, they’re workhorses, getting the job done efficiently. They’re a team, each with their role to play, their mission: to convey the story to the reader as entertaining and efficiently as possible.

So clunky sentences are being reworked (indeed the first night I spent the entire evening working on the second sentence of the novel), I’m ensuring the subject of the sentence isn’t ‘it’ and a million and one other things.

And you know what? I’m really, really enjoying it.

What’s even better is that there’s nothing stopping me going back, and refining if I find something and wonder if I’ve overlooked it elsewhere. Slowly, a style seems to be emerging. I always had this image that editing was about taking stuff out, and there was a danger of editing your polish away. But I’ve found it’s more like trying to bring every sentence into focus. Sometimes that’s removing something, sometimes it’s adding things in.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m very tough on my writing. I set myself impossible standards and expect myself to reach them. As a result I’m rarely pleased, but even my inner critic can see that I’ve made huge strides in my editing. I was always told I’m a good writer, but I feel I’ve punched it up a gear or two here.

There’s probably things I’m still overlooking, further stuff I need to learn, but you know what? I’m actually really happy with the results so far. I can see the novel coming into focus, and despite readers (including an Arthur C Clarke Nominee) being very positive of weaker drafts of these early chapters, I’m only now starting to feel very happy with this book. I’m frightened to publically say how much for fear of

A) looking a fool
B) jinxing it

There’s still a long way to go, and even then there are no guarantees. But whether this book finally sees print or not, I want something I can truly be proud of. That means a lot more editing. Whether I get it done by the end of the month looks doubtful if I’m honest, but given how I keep dipping into editing without my usual procrastination, who knows?