Creator of worlds, writer of words. Humbler than I sound…

Month: February, 2016

That first novel…

Damn, what a feeling it was when I finished it. Months of early mornings, pouring my soul into a word processor. Watching the characters appear, forming lines, pages, chapters.

A novel.

I don’t think anything I’ve ever done gave the same sense of achievement and pride as when I wrote that final line and deemed my work complete. There was no talk of drafts or edits. There were no doubts: I’d written a best seller and, by the end of the year, I’d be doing chat shows and book signings.

Can you even begin to imagine my sense of shock when I sent it to an agent, and they rejected it? I was caught midway between fury and desolation. I mean, how could they fail to recognise just what a talent I was?

In the ‘old days’ there were no other options other than woo an agent or pay a fortune to a publisher to ‘vanity’ print copies of your novel and, being the old fashioned type, I’d chosen an agent. Chosen. Damn, there’s arrogance for you.

And then they said no.

I think it took about another year of writing several hours every day before I realised why they’d rejected me. – My novel was crap, and my prose immature. THANK GOD I didn’t self publish. I mean, it’s bad enough confronting your own ineptness in private. Just imagine how bad it would have been if I’d thrown it on Amazon and shown the entire world…

It’s the better part of five and half years since I first started writing, and I think I’m just starting to get the hang of it. I can laugh at the festering guff I used to create, and remember how pleased I was with myself at the time. Back in early 2011 I was checking the price of local stately homes, imagining I’d be putting a deposit down on one from my advance cheque.

Yeh, thank God I didn’t take my own counsel and self publish.

It was only recently I realised that the first ten novels I’d written were now consigned to the hazmat bin, and perhaps one or two of my most recent six may join them too. – I don’t lament saying farewell to a substandard novel, but I do make sure I understand just why it fell short, and hope I’ve learned enough to make the next one a little better.

It’s hard to learn from other people’s mistakes, as you don’t get to feel the pain they felt. I wish you could. How I wish I could take people five years from their first novel and let them look at it through more experienced eyes. I remember back in those early days of writing when I’d look down my nose at other wannabe novelists, sure I was floating on a cloud so far above them that they’d not see me. The truth is we all tend to feel that way in the early days. Ignorance is such bliss, but it’s a bubble each of us has to pop if we’re to find out just where we stand on the literary ladder. Without that knowledge, how do can we plan the route to real awesome rather than the imaginary one we teleport ourselves to?

I’ll be up tomorrow morning at 4:45am writing a couple of thousand more words that, perhaps, no one will ever get to read. Still, it’ll be a day closer to when I can write words that others will read and enjoy.

Yeh, it would have been the death of me if I’d self published five years ago. – I could see myself now still ringing social media’s bell and begging people to read it, but I’d make it feel more respectable by calling it marketing.

Instead I’m just writing and waiting for the day I’ve exorcised the last of the substandard words.

The Tallest Hurdle.

How do you react when someone offers up their thoughts on how you could write better? Do you feel the rush of adrenalin as the urge to defend the purity of your work consumes you? Do you feel the need to explain why you’re right, and they are wrong. If this strikes a chord with you, the chances are your prose is far less than it could be.

Some writers, from personal observation, are plagued by insecurity. Such as they tend to gather around them people prepared to praise and, with the help of such sycophancy, ward off any critique. Their insecurity condemns them to loiter at the bottom of the literary pile, finding excuses other than within their prose as to why their book sales are poor or why agents reject them. Oh, there are plenty of exceptional authors who also suffer the same issues, but they’re more considering and introspective in their reasoning. They listen to advice, and try to grow from it, understanding that the world of knowledge and wisdom does not begin and end with them.

And that’s why you need to listen to the ones who criticise and find fault. Such as they are the ones who will lead you to the tallest hurdle that every writer of merit must face: criticism. With their help, you will learn to clear it.

I speak from experience as, until four years ago, I’d growl at anyone who dared to grimace at my lumpy, misshapen prose. I still grimace when people shriek in pain at my words, but I’ve a pen and paper at hand too, jotting down everything they say.

Agent Bothering…

Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a trick with my paucity of submissions to agents. Although I’ve six novels completed, I’ve only sent three submissions for one of those six in the last year, while the others five gather dust. I see several people on my Twitter timeline who mention how many times they’ve submitted that day, totalling hundreds per year, and perhaps they’re the ones with the right idea.

But what happens if you exhaust every avenue before you’ve even reached an acceptable standard? I defy any unpublished writer to accurately gauge his or her own worth and, should they feel they are able, I think it is more likely that they would overestimate it. – I remember the heady days when I was surrounded by people telling me I was a literary god. In reality, my prose made Vogon poetry look appetising…

Do agents accept the same novel coming back at them, year after year, each version a little better than the prior one? I’m guessing they don’t have the time, and I’d worry about the machine-gun method anyhow. – Yes, I accept I’m likely being too reserved, perhaps too patient, but I also feel confident with my preferred approach. I can say ‘perhaps I don’t produce prose of a standard yet, but I know one day I will.’

So I’ll just keep on building a portfolio, periodically harassing some poor unsuspecting agent’s slush pile. I’ll accept the rejection as just another step towards what I hope will be a positive outcome. And, if the day ever comes when I am accepted, I promise I’ll be every bit as vocal as other writers who proclaim their own worth to anyone willing to listen.

I just struggle to shout about what I do until someone of note is willing to shout alongside me.

What a Difference a Year Makes…

A year ago, I wrote a synopsis for a novel and I remember just how overcome with pride I was on finishing it. It was the distilled essence of awesome, kissed by angels and blessed by the almighty. So who stole that little monument to literary excellence and replaced it with a dribble of puke?

I think it just underlines how, as a writer, I’m still improving. What a relief I’ve never published anything out of hubris, as the passage of time would have revealed it for what it truly was. Trash.

Our terms of reference as writers stop at the here and now. We can look at what we did a year or more ago and say ‘thank god I don’t write that kind of tripe anymore’, but will we say the same thing of our current writing, a year hence? I’ve no answers, for I’m still evolving, and perhaps always will be. Somewhere out there is a magical bar labelled ‘good enough’ and I’m just not sure how close I am to it. – I’ve betas aplenty who think I hurdled it long since, but I’m far more cautious.

Oh, I’ll send a couple of speculative sends to agents in the coming months, but I’ll just keep on writing. I’ve six novels written in the last couple of years that are somewhere in the ballpark, and around a dozen in the preceding years that would have readers clawing at their eyes.

So, please, take a moment if you’re considering self-publishing. Have a few people scan it who are prepared to tell you what you need to hear rather than just what you want to hear. – There’s little more restricting than people claiming you’re good when you are something far less. Writing well, like anything, comes with practice, and I very much doubt the first novel or two you create will be fit for public consumption.

I’ll leave this with an open invite for anyone who would like me to read the first few pages of their recently finished novel. – I swear I’ll be honest, but that’s not something every writer is ready for just yet. When you are, you’ll have taken a massive step along the literary road we all must walk if we wish for success.

Consistent Characters

Perhaps it’s the way I write but, when I first start on a project, I know as little about the characters as the reader does. It takes me the better part of a book to realise exactly who they are and, consequently, there are a few identity issues that need addressing in subsequent drafts. – The problem was it took me over three years to realise this.

If a character has a lopsided smile, first introduced in chapter 28, I make sure that it is added, as appropriate, in the preceding chapters too. Phrases and words, their reaction to stress, all these need to be consistent to ensure continuity. Yes, of course a character evolves throughout the book, but it’s important that this growth appears organic and not governed by the whims of the author.

One of the other big issues I used to have with my characters is how they react to situations. – Belief and immersion are suspended for me if, an hour after losing a loved one, the character is cracking jokes, their beloved forgotten. – The book I’m reading now is a thriller by a superb author, but a character has just announced to the protagonist that he is well over a hundred years old, but is spry, fit and young looking. – It’s set in our modern day world, and the protagonist, Liz, never reacted in the slightest. – The author may have got away with this mistake (and I feel it was an oversight) but I doubt you or I would, especially if we’re running the gauntlet of literary agents.

But you’ll miss more mistakes than you’ll find, and that’s why you need a bunch of betas who are pedants, not sycophants.

The Redemption of the Irredeemeable

I am sure I’m not the only one who gets a nice little tingle when the hero does something heroic, even if he or she shrugs it off as ‘just doing their job’. It’s expected, and part of the winning formula for many books. Where would Lord of the Rings be without Gandalf squaring up to the Balrog?

Although it’s expected, a skilled writer will make the scene more than just a good combination of words, but will drag us inside the story and we’ll feel each blow landed on our hero, cheer each counter as they fight back against improbable odds. Yes, we’ll all applaud the wordsmith who leaves us sobbing when the hero saves the day with his or her dying breath.

But what about the antagonist? How would the reader feel if the evil priestess sacrificed her soul in the name of love? How would they feel if the homicidal maniac pushed the child out of the bus’s path and died as a result? Would the unexpected act, when done believably, have more impact than the hero ‘just doing their job’?

That’s the beauty of creating a novel. The rules are there, but breaking them can have far more impact than trudging through using the same old formula. As a writer, I’ve a long way to go, but it’s something I both like reading about, and I try to include in my own prose. Ambiguity is a great tool in a writer’s arsenal, as long as it doesn’t spread confusion. The redemption of an antihero can be far, far more compelling than the hero saving the world as they bled their last.

I mean, who didn’t have a little sob when Spike sacrificed his life for Buffy?

Well, that got me hooked…

“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.” – What a simple opening to a novel and, over thirty years after I first read it, I still remember it verbatim. I shudder with pleasure at those seven simple words. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s the opening to ‘Battlefield Earth’ and is as good a book as the film is bad (in my opinion).

I’ve written almost every day for five years, three or four million words in total, and I don’t think I’ve ever produced anything quite so compelling as Mr Hubbard. Although I’ve some decent openings, I just can’t distil quite the ‘awesome’ into it that I would like. Without doubt, I’ve spent more time worrying over the first page than on any other part of my prose. – Endings are easy to define, their finality indisputable, but a beginning… Well, that’s not quite so straightforward.

The most recent novel I’ve written is the third in a series, and I noticed the opening hook has a different flavour. In it, I use a familiar character doing something very ordinary, but it felt right.

‘Alspeth, with the cleaning now done, transformed from a cranky old woman into a sixteen-year-old girl, mustard eyes twinkling from a pale face.’

Perhaps because sequels are continuations rather than new beginnings, the emphasis is different. IF this was an opening to book 1, it could be considered uninviting or even bland.

Now, when I look at the opening to my newest standalone novel, I know I’ve yet to convince the reader of anything other than to glance at the first page. – Damn, the pressure is on, and I don’t think I’ve quite grasped what is needed. – Perhaps five years and four million words isn’t enough practice.

Perhaps I’m just not good enough.

Anyhow, my most recent attempt at a hook is:

‘A thousand war drums announced this day belonged to blood and death.’

Is it enough to convince a reader or agent? I don’t know. Is it enough to convince them to read the second and third line? I would hope so. Thing is, I expect in six months I’ll feel the urge to replace it with something I see as better.

So would you read on? Is a hook a one sentence affair, or is it a series of barbs, each sinking deeper into the reader’s imagination, dragging them further into the book?

‘A thousand war drums announced this day belonged to blood and death. A myriad campfires bled smoky trails into the predawn sky where clouds underbellies, stained with golden hues, drifted over the fertile flood plains of Mesopotamia. Across the Euphrates, the city of Dimal hid behind earthen walls that offered its inhabitants scant protection from the thirty thousand strong army camped half a mile away.

Queen Lacita pulled her cloak a little tighter round her shoulders, for the sliver of sun clambering over the horizon was yet to deliver on its promise of warmth. How would the city’s residents welcome her this day once the fighting was done? Unlike the towns and villages before, Dimal’s citizens would not see her as their liberator when husbands and brothers had bled their last, bodies pierced by her warriors’ spears.’

It’s just a few short months since I wrote ‘The Shaded Mountain’ and this is still a first draft. – I doubt I’d change much in the first paragraph, but the second one makes me shudder. Would you read on? As things stand, I doubt I would…

…Yeh, it took a long time before I could do other than congratulate myself at my perceived creative genius. – Time was when I could do no wrong. Now, after writing countless words, I know less than I ever did.

If nothing else, I’m ‘hooked’ on writing.