Posts Tagged ‘Musings upon writing’

Well 2014 is barely a week old and already it’s been quite a busy period on the writing front. So far I’ve submitted two short stories to anthologies, submitted a comic strip to 2000AD, and sent the opening three chapters of novel #4 off to two agents. Added to this I’ve started writing novel #5, and in the last few days have received a galley proof to check for an anthology coming out soon, and got a rejection through from Analog magazine in the US, meaning I need to find another potential new home for that story!

I’ll be sending off the opening few chapters to a couple more agents soon. The etiquette in such matters is a little vague, many agents don’t like you going down the multiple submission route , although I’ve seen a few that say they understand why a writer would. The trouble is an agent can take anything up to three months to get back to you as to whether they want to see the full manuscript. Now bearing in mind I have a list of around 16 legit agents who take sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, and bearing in mind that it’s unlikely (unfortunately) that the first one I send it to will bite, and you can see how this can become a time consuming process, and also a dispiriting one, and it can be hard to motivate yourself to send you work off when you have to wait so long just to, probably, get bad news.

I can see it from the agents’ perspective, the last thing they want is for the next big thing to drop through their letter box only to discover 16 other agents have it as well and they’re either in a bidding war, or else someone else has already agreed to represent the author and they’ve wasted their time, but since, however confident I am about my talent as a writer, I can’t imagine 16 agents fighting over me any time soon, I’m going to maximise my chances and minimise my time by submitting to multiple agents.

However in an attempt not to completely take the piss, I’m limiting the number of active submissions at any one time to a maximum of four. When (if!!) I get a rejection I’ll fire off another one, but not before.

Things no one ever tells writers…there’s a bloody lot of admin!

I’ve been feeling a little down this week, and whilst I initially put it down to the cold dark nights drawing in I think there is another reason. You see I finished the first draft of novel #4 last Friday. I know, you’d think this would be a time for celebration, but oddly as I typed that last full stop horns didn’t blare, fireworks didn’t go off, and beautiful women in scanty costumes didn’t bring me a nice cold beer…

In fact I didn’t even have a beer in the fridge.

Finishing a book is a curious business. Whilst there is a case for using the example of a marathon as an allegory for writing a novel (both are a test of endurance, and for most people just finishing the darn thing is a huge achievement) there are differences.

There are no cheering crowds waiting for you when you cross the finishing line of a book, and no one rushes over to wrap a tinfoil blanket around your shoulders (although to be honest if they had that would have been quite scary.)

No, when you finish a book…well not much has actually changed, and yet everything has changed.

There’s the realisation that you’ve finished the story you’ve been working on for (insert number here) months, and you do wonder what they hell you’re going to do with your time now?

Of course what you’re going to do is go back and proofread/edit the whole darn thing, and try and get it in a fit state to start sending off to publishers and agents. And this raises another aspect. When you finish that first draft it becomes a lot more real. It’s no longer a bit of a fun you spend half an hour on a night, now it’s a complete entity, not quite the finished article of course, it needs polishing, it needs pruning, but you’re that much closer to the point of sending it off to people, and of having people (probably) reject it, unless you’re very, very lucky, very, very good, or both!

Having someone reject a short story you spent a few hours writing is one thing, having someone reject the novel you’ve spent over a year on is something else entirely. But you have to go through it, if only because you’ve poured all that time and effort in.

It’s a lonely life being a writer, and you can see why so many experience emotional problems, or have substance abuse issues, but perhaps the loneliest moment for a writer is that moment when the work is done, because there is that yawning gulf of “What now?”

Luckily it doesn’t last, and now I’m trying to juggle working on my second draft, with preparatory work for novel #5. And it’s nice to read through your story again, nice to go back and spend time with your characters when they were young and innocent, you know, before you put them through the wringer…

Hopefully Novel #4 will soon be in a fit state to start sending out, and then I can start the next marathon!

The third in my occasional series about things other writers do that get my back up!

Today: Speedy and lacklustre conclusions.

You know what it’s like, you’ve read through 400 pages of story, seen characters grow and evolve, seen them overcome (or not) obstacles in their way, but you’ve reached the finale, the final confrontation with the bad guy. Perhaps they’re going to go toe to toe at last with the supernatural forces that have plagued them throughout the book, or maybe the hero is about to declare his love for the heroine. Whatever it is, you’ve waited for this moment, waited to see how things all come together in the end, how the author will resolve all the issues…

And then within the space of a page he or she has their heroine hit the villain over the head with a plant pot, or the hero throws a bible and the seemingly indestructible vampire-Chihuahua barks its last and crumbles to dust.

And you’re left thinking; is that it? That was a bit easy, wasn’t it? I mean, why didn’t they try throwing a bible at the blood sucking miniature dog before?

As someone who’s close to finishing his fourth novel I can understand that there are two forces at work here. The first comes down to planning. Sometimes, however well mapped out your book is, you might not decide how it’s all going to end until… well until the end, but I’m still not convinced that you can’t take a little time to come up with something better than “And then he shot her. The end.”

The second factor relates to writing a novel being somewhat akin to running a marathon, only slightly less sweaty and if you need the loo you don’t have to pee in the street. Of course I’m sure there are some very sweaty authors out there who love nothing more than relieving themselves in the gutter, but I digress…writing a novel is usually a long process. Notwithstanding the Stephen Kings of this world who can reputedly knock out a book in three days (Running Man) for the most part writing a novel is a process that will take the average writer many months at least (My first novel took my 6 months, my second about a year, the third almost two years and I’m currently 14 months into the fourth) and like a marathon, for the most part it’s a matter of keeping your head down and keeping going, not thinking of the 25 miles or six months ahead, taking each step, each paragraph, at a time.

But in every marathon must come that moment when you enter the final straight, and can see the finishing line up ahead, and you’re so tired, so utterly weary, that all you want to do is reach that bloody finish line as fast as you can, break the tape and finally stop running, have someone wrap a silver blanket round you and sit down with a nice cup of tea!

And so you pick up the pace, despite everything that’s gone before, despite all your dedication and focus, you sprint the last hundred yards, and I think it’s the same for writers. However much you’ve enjoyed writing up to this point, however invested you are in your characters, by the time you can see the end is in sight you just want to get it over with, and, truth be told, you probably hate your novel a bit by this point.

Like I say I can understand it, and frankly with my current novel being so close to the end I can taste it (hmm, strawberries) it does make me want to just wrap things up!

I think writers do have an obligation to the readers though, to give them a satisfying conclusion. Of course it isn’t always possible, and sometimes you do have to go where the story leads, and of by the end of a book the reader might well be feeling like the author, however much they’ve enjoyed it they probably want it to end too, and a seventeen chapter finale where the hero defuses a nuclear bomb and wrestles a gorilla before finally having a swordfight with the villain on top of the London Eye might be just as annoying as a more truncated ending.

But still, if you can spend a chapter early on describing a car chase, is it too much to ask for more than a paragraph in conclusion?

Anyway, I must go now. Need to finish my novel…

…er…does anyone know how to defuse a nuclear bomb?

This will be a short series of brief complaints about the things writers do that P*** me off. Please note, this is just a bit of fun, and yes I am a hypocrite because many of the things I’ll complain about I may well have done myself, or may do in the future!

So, what hacks me off today is…writers who describe characters as looking like famous people.

Yup, that’s right. It always gets my goat when I read something along the lines of; “John was a handsome fellow, he looked a bit like Tom Cruise.” It’s laziness. It’s a case of not being arsed to actually describe what a character looks like, so you’re going to just use shorthand, ‘cos everyone knows what Tom Cruise looks like, right?

Of course, get successful enough and it can backfire on you. Dan Brown’s character Robert Langdon looks like Harrison Ford. He must have been miffed when they cast Tom Hanks in the films…

And also it relies on people knowing what the famous person looks like, and over time this may not always be the case. Want an example? Ian Fleming suggests James Bond looks like Hoagy Carmichael…yes I had to Google pictures of him as well…

Even one of my favourite authors, James Herbert, has fallen into the trap. For the most part he describes his characters vaguely enough that they could be anyone, but in Creed it’s made plain that Joe Creed looks like Mickey Roarke (thankfully Mickey Roarke circa 1990 not Mickey Roarke circa 2013, although to anyone who’s read the book there’s a certain irony given Roarke has ended up looking like he might fit in at the old people’s home where the book’s finale takes place). Of course if Creed had ever made it to the screen it’s doubtful they could have got Roarke, in fact the man who was, back in the day, exceptionally interested in helping bring the novel to life (and playing the eponymous hero) was actually Lenny Henry!

Of course the truth is that writers often base their characters on famous people, I know I do. In fact I can tell you right now that the lead characters in the novel I’m currently writing are (in my head) Cillian Murphy and Emilia Fox, and one of the bad guys is Idris Elba. However, at no point in the book are they (or any other characters) described as looking like their famous counterparts, even if how they look dictated how I described them.

So if your lead does look like Tom Cruise, why not just say he had all American good looks, perfect teeth and twinkling blue eyes—oh yes, and he wasn’t the tallest of guys either— rather than just lazily say he looked like Tom Cruise. People will probably figure it out anyway, but even so at least in their heads he might not quite look like Ethan Hunt…

I get a lot of ideas for stories. Hundreds and hundreds over the years, and I own multiple notebooks just full of scribbled plots. Some are full formed ideas, most are half-baked notions, and I’ve been known to clamber out of bed searching for a scrap of paper and a pen because I’ve had an idea just before I drop off to sleep. I get ideas on the train, I get ideas in the bath, I even get ideas on the loo! I once conceived an entire novel (to date still unwritten) trying to sleep on a night time coach journey to Mt Sinai!

The immortal question every writer is asked at some point is; where do you get your ideas? Well, it’s hard to answer, I just do. In a way it’s simply the way my mind is wired. I see connections where others don’t. Most people see a news story and that’s that. Me, something just fires in my head. What if A happened instead of B? What would it be like to be X? What is Z was actually a vampire robot from the year 4000 instead of a postmistress…

Many years ago I heard about some builders who were killed during the construction of a nearby swimming pool because they got chemicals on themselves and dived into the pool to clean themselves off, not realising the chemicals would react badly with water…what most people would have seen as just a horrible tragedy formed the basis of my first published short story ‘On a Hundred Other Nights’ in Bridge House’s anthology Spooked.

The majority of ideas come to nothing of course. In the main this is simply because there isn’t enough time in the day to write everything, and even if I was able to give up work and earn a living from writing I suspect there still wouldn’t be enough time to breathe life into every idea.

Plus some ideas are, frankly, rubbish. I’ve lost count of how many notions I’ve come up with over the years that struck me as the greatest thing ever when I had them, yet crumbled like rotted timber once I gave them serious consideration. The trouble is, often you can’t tell which stories have legs and which don’t until you start writing. Last year I abandoned a novel despite struggling to almost 30,000 words. It was a horrible thing to give up on but it really just wasn’t right. Conversely a few weeks after I gave up on it I got another idea, and to date the new novel is up to 130,000 words (and rising!)

Of course sometimes an idea can sit in one of my notebooks (or even my head) for years before it actually ends up being written, and it might not end up in the format I originally intended either…

For example; I recently submitted a zombie story for an anthology but the idea itself was one I originally had for another anthology about 3 years ago, I just never got around to writing it then, but when this new anthology cropped up the idea seemed to fit it to a tee so I wrote it now.

Then there’s the book I have on Kindle. The Devils of Amber Street was originally conceived years ago, and it was supposed to be a novel, but though I started it I couldn’t get into it. About two years later I decided to try it as a short story, but during the course of writing it the short story morphed into a 20,000 word novella, which, as it turned out, was probably about the right size.

Ideas aren’t everything of course. You can have all the ideas in the world but if you lack the skill to string two sentences together, or the dedication to commit to writing, editing and proofing a complete story, novella or novel, then all you’ll end up with is lots and lots of notebooks and not much else.

That said, I’d hate it if one day my brain stopped generating story ideas, I can’t think of anything worse (well actually I can, because you see my imagination hasn’t stopped working! Aha!!) and I wonder which would be more soul destroying, to be a skilled writer with no ideas, or a person with dozens of ideas who lacks the skill to do anything with them?

You know, there could be a story in that…now where did I put my notebook?

Vainglorious

Posted: February 1, 2013 in Regarding writing
Tags: ,

Vanity publishing is something that used to occur many years back, where if you’d written a book but no publisher would touch it with a bargepole, you could still find yourself in print by using a company who would print your book for you. In a way, for many people, this was their only way of getting their name in print, but it had many downsides. Firstly there were (probably still are) a lot of cowboys out there who would charge extortionate fees to publish people’s work, and I suspect more than a few people over the years were tricked into believing their opuses had been optioned by ‘real’ publishers, only to discover they had to pay for the privilege.

Even if the company was on the level, this process was usually costly. Not so long ago for a printing company to produce a book would have been a time and resource consuming business, and in order for it to be cost effective for even the most charitable of printers meant that you had to order a substantial number of books, often several hundred at least. This meant that the aspiring author usually lost money (aside from a rare few who managed to sell all their books on).

In recent years things have changed. First with the rise of so called print on demand publishers such as lulu.com, and more recently with the rise of e-books and the ability to self-publish, most notably via Amazon for their kindle. Add into this the ability for even the most technically illiterate to create an online presence, be it a website or a blog, and the capability to publish vainly has never been easier.

As you may know, I published a novella and some short stories (The Devils of Amber Street) via Amazon a few weeks ago, and a couple of years ago I published my first novel (City of Caves) via lulu.com. What I want to discuss here is my reasons for doing so, in fact the reasons anyone would choose to self-publish.

So first off, is it vanity? Well, I think to an extent it is. Even the most self-conscious of writers usually want their work to be read, we want validation, we want people to read and enjoy what we’ve written. The American thriller writer Lawrence Block summed it up nicely in his excellent ‘Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print’ when he points out that, even as a hobby, if you can’t publish your work it tends to just sit in a drawer. As he says, if you paint you can always hang your artwork above your mantelpiece and people will hmm and ah at it, it’s hard to impress people with a manuscript.

Which brings me to the next point, vanity yes, but understandable vanity. An incredible amount of work goes into the writing of short stories or novels. City of Caves took me just over six months to write, my second novel took almost a year, and my third (The hopefully eventually to be self-published Safe House) took almost eighteen months. After all this effort, the thought of my work just sitting there on my hard drive never being read by anyone but me was anathema. I suppose I could have just published online via a website or blog but (and here’s where that damn vanity comes in again) there’s just something that makes it feel more special to see your work published in a more professional looking way. Holding a finished copy of City of Caves was a wonderful feeling.

I suppose the next thing to address is the notion that if you have to self-publish it means your work just isn’t good enough for the mainstream publishers. Well I might be biased here (and let’s be honest I probably am) but I don’t think this is always the case, and certainly there have been plenty of success stories over the years where books started out self-published yet ended up huge money spinners for the traditional publishing houses. The most famous recent example would be EL James’ 50 Shade of Grey and its sequels, and whatever your views may be of those books, it can’t be denied that they made the jump from self-published e-books to the New York Times best seller list, in fact given they started life as fan fiction (the lowest of the low in some eyes, though not mine given how much of it I wrote over the years) you could argue they’ve journeyed further than most.

The fact is that, whilst technology has provided more opportunities for writers, it’s also enabled an awful lot more people to become writers. When I first toyed with the notion of being a writer, I had two options; write in long hand or use a typewriter, and whilst I did both, it would be fair to say I never got very far. I quite enjoy writing long hand now, but in reality this was never an option for any work of great length, and whilst I did own a typewriter, I don’t think it was a particularly good one and given the number of mistakes I made again it was never a viable long term option, so it’s no major surprise to me that my ability to write large amounts coincided with a newfound access to word processing software! (Although in fairness a newfound dedication had its part to play as well.)

So, more opportunities but so many more writers as well, and even the most prolific of publishers can only publish a finite number of stories, and however good your work is, you’re relying on the publisher not finding ten or twelve authors they think are better—when you consider that they receive hundreds of submissions… well you can do the maths yourself.

I’ve had stories published however, and it would be a misnomer to think that the tales that make up The Devils of Amber Street are all ones that have been rejected by dozens of publishers. In fact only one of them, the Bonaventure Jane, has really done the rounds, but it’s a story I like a lot, and I wanted to see it get an airing. Megg was rejected by a couple of publishers, but I never really put it out there as much as I should have done, and as for The Wolf, given this is the opening chapter of my novel, Safe House it’s not a story that’s had any opportunity to find a home as a standalone piece.

This leaves the titular Devils itself, and believe it or not I’ve never submitted the novella anywhere. In part this is down to its length, novellas are hard to find a home for, but also I think I always knew it was something I wanted to build a book around, plus it’s a great title isn’t it?!

So there you have it, it is to do with vanity, it is to do with ego, but hopefully this is mitigated somewhat by more rational concerns; the need to see something you’ve poured a lot of time into reach a wider audience, and the need—in a crowded market place—to occasionally jump above the parapet and shout LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! Because it’s hard to get noticed sometimes, however good you are, you only have to consider how many publishers turned down the likes of JK Rowling or James Patterson to understand that.

As the saying goes, the lord helps those who help themselves…