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Monday, 26 November 2007

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

I was asked by James Maxey, author of Bitterwood, to write an article complementing his series of articles entitled “5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing”, which can be found here:

Each individual section is here:

1. Stories are made out of scenes. Scenes are made out of nouns
2. The best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story
3. Momentum matters!
4. Embrace your demons
5. You never write alone

So then, I shall thus attempt to address this topic with my own personal experiences. I’m not sure how coherent this content will be, but I’ve written it in order to try and help anybody who’s in the field of writing, and has that burning desire to get published…

When I first started writing, it was on a typewriter, and I was skint, so I regularly produced pages with very faint type which drove (I am sure) editors and agents nuts. As I progressed, I learnt (mainly by being nagged by my current agent, Dorothy Lumley, as she rejected yet another novel) to present my work correctly. Editors/ agents receive sooo many manuscripts that it’s easy to turn something away if it’s hard to read, or somehow limits access to the written word within. I personally present with a nice clear font (like Lucida Sans) with 1.5 line spacing. I believe it’s still common practice to send an outline with the first 3 chapters (or around 10,000 words) for consideration. Again, more than this chunk and you’re immediately alienating yourself from the people you’re asking to consider your work (i.e. the guys with the cheque books).

Lot’s of people have been credited with this little gem (just try GOOGLING it) and despite the cliché, it’s true. Obviously, different people have different lives and different commitments. My life was so much easier before children, and I would genuinely work all day. Doing a degree in English gave me plenty of spare time to write, and I simply wrote and wrote and wrote. I’d finish a novel, start sending it off to publishers and agents, then work on the next novel as the first one was being kicked back. I met a nice guy at Novacon (I’ll allow him anonymity here J)who’s first novel took him seven years to write, and it’s currently doing the rounds looking for a publisher; now, he’s working on the sequel. I feel this is a grave mistake, because the second novel is by definition un-publishable until the first one hits the mark, and anyway, if an editor picks you up for publishing he/she may well want you to take the concept in a different direction, or point out flaws which force you to take it in a different direction. Either way, you’ve wasted your precious writing time when you could be exploring different avenues or genres, where a new idea could suddenly hit. I worked solid for 10 years writing novels I couldn’t get published, but each work was a stepping stone towards publication and I think subliminally I recognised this element. I one day dreamed of getting published, but ultimately, I wrote for my own enjoyment, I wrote what I wanted to read, and just hoped like hell to get lucky. Funnily enough, after 10 years of slog, I got lucky, first with an agent, then a couple of years later, with a publisher. But then the real work begins. Which brings me neatly on to… The Editing Process.
[Incidentally, James Maxey says in his article that writing a bad novel is a good thing, because it teaches you how to write, and he’s so, so right. I learnt style, tricks, technique, all sorts of things every time I made a mistake. This is oft quoted by Iain Banks as well, who admits to taking 10 years to getting published, and how he had to write a million words of crap in order to fashion himself with the skill-set necessary to become a published author. And look at Iain’s work now! Stunning.]

I readily admit, this is one area I used to despise. I’d write a novel, do a quick single edit, then chuck it out of the door to be rejected time and again. I think I was naïve, and just had ideas piling up so fast in my head I wanted to slam on with the next project. I should have spent much longer learning to edit, and ironically, it was only after getting my first publishing deal for my “first” ( in fact, probably about twelfth) novel, SPIRAL, that I really, really learnt how to edit. My editor at the time at Orbit was Simon Kavanagh, a very switched on guy, who basically guided me and taught me how to edit my books properly. However, being the stubborn mule that I am (and apologies to Simon, who must have banged his head against a brick wall so many times after conversations with me!!) it took a long time for certain lessons to sink in.
I feel I am still on a massive learning curve. My new novel, WAR MACHINE, well I worked through it 8 times during the editing process (including proofs). Each time, I was attempting to hone and cut and hone, to speed up the pace of the prose and refine the text into a well-oiled machine. I had 3 great reviews, and then a review in SFX where the guy said it was “massively overwritten to an extent that’s frequently hilarious”. I know this is only his personal, narrow, viewpoint, but Jesus, I’d been through the damn thing 8 times and was sure it was honed and oiled like a perfect chainsaw blade. In my opinion, it was. But I didn’t please this guy (although magazines sometimes have other agendas during reviews, but that’s another story). I suppose future sales will be the make or break, and now I’ll try even harder for the next book to make damn sure there’s no superfluous junk!! See, self-improvement, that’s what I’m about.
OK, when I’ve finished a novel, I do the Stephen King thing, where you sit back for a few weeks and let it mellow, let your brain chill, then go back to it with a different (Wurzle Gummidge) head on. Remove the writing head, and put on the editing head, because I find the two processes massively different, and even different types of edit are different in what’s required. So, what I do is this:

a] Write novel.
b] First pass edit, where I’m rewriting scenes, tweaking dialogue, picking up lost threads and reintegrating them into the story whole, and basically trying to read it from a reader’s point of view (which becomes impossible later on, more of that next) as I search for that little bugger, the continuity error.
c] Second pass edit, where I tighten and hone, and delete as much unnecessary wordage as possible. And try to check again that it works as a whole, for a reader, rather than disparate sections written at different times which may sometimes fail to link up coherently.
d] Third pass edit, purely checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, honing and deleting sentences and words.

Only now am I happy with the beast, and willing to let my agent and editor read it. They, obviously, then pick up on stuff I’ve missed, things to add, things to delete, continuity errors etc; and I find at this point, I’m so bog-eyed at reading the damn thing, I’m no longer objective and can no longer read it as a novel. I’m blind to what a reader would think, and have to rely at this stage on the professionals. Also, that’s one reason why it’s quite amusing when Mr Unpublished, your average unpublished SF author, slags off a book in a review[SFX, here’s looking at you]; he/ she is not just abusing the author, but also sticking a (admittedly small) knife blade in the neck of every editor and copy-editor who’s worked on the book. Dave Gemmell once said “no novel is written in a vacuum”, and he’s damn right. There’s a lot of people with fingers in your pie!! So don’t be mocking a publisher’s pie, Mr Unpublished, because one day you want your own pie, and you’re potentially nibbling at the hand before it feeds you.

It took me a long, long time to realise that everything important stems from character. I used to think plot was the most important element, and yes, whilst it’s central to the “whole” and is what gets you brownie points with a reader for originality, for me, personally, all action and conflict stems from characters, their traits and interactions. So, when I approach a new work I have a vague idea of setting and maybe a plotline, but I always ask myself the question, “What characters do I want to inhabit these locations? What drives them, and will, in turn, drive the story forward?”. All my favourite novels have totally original characters- like in Banks’ Consider Phlebas where you’ve got Horza the Changer, who alters glands in himself so he can gradually change to imitate other humans. Beautiful.
I think it’s also the conflicts between characters that are oh so important, and in War Machine I think I got it exactly right with my three main protagonists, Keenan, Pippa and Franco. Keenan and Franco are like brothers, so you have the brotherly camaraderie element. Keenan and Pippa are ex-lovers, and blow hot and cold between hatred vs lust. And Franco and Pippa have a bizarre relationship where Franco consistently tries to get in her pants, but she thinks he’s mental. Yet, as a combat squad, they work like a well-oiled machine and always get the job done, despite their bickering. To me this constant tri-way hub of conflict and cooperation is the basis for the entire set of adventures they embark upon, and for me this formula works.
Story, I think, is modular. Your story should be like a Christmas tree. You’ve got your central plotline, the trunk, which starts at the base with lots of different branches arcing away, so maybe A needs to find B, take it to C and destroy it with Z. From this trunk, as the novel progresses, secondary plotlines evolve and are completed, all branching from the main plotline; as you reach the end of the novel, the secondary plotlines must be shorter and shorter, as the pace increases, and then you reach the glittering star- or the climax- of the story J. That’s the way I see it, anyway. Others may (and will, it is the nature of (wo)man) disagree.

I used to believe, when I was younger and locked in my happy little writing bubble, that the distant publishing world was a lovely happy back-slapping gentleman’s arrangement that would hopefully one day take my book and make magical things happen. As I got older, I had various jobs, which culminated in me running my own business for 5 years. In this I dealt with staffing, bureaucratic inspectorial agencies, and existed in the very real world of the hard dollar, marketing and advertising, of selling a “product” where if it didn’t sell, they took your nice house and nice car away and locked you in a cellar full of rotten fruit.
Anyway, now I know and understand the publishing world is a business. It exists to make money. A book is a product. That product needs to sell copies, to make money, to keep both the publisher and writer in business. Yes, a novel is art. Yes, a novelist is an artist. But the bottom line is that without sales, you won’t get a new contract, and your art will not have an audience (although these lines are blurring a little, with online publishing and such-forth, but I can still never ever, ever see me using an electronic book reader/ they’re just… just not a book, dammit).
So, it’s all very well writing a novel consisting of the crazy-paved inner-thoughts of a psycho, backwards, interlacing hieroglyphics with the text; it might be intelligent original art, but if it doesn’t sell then said publisher won’t be a happy bunny and your contract may be garrotted.
As a budding writer, I believe, you should approach publication as a business enterprise. So, you must be professional at all times, research your field well, your work should be presented at the best level you can achieve, your writing should be honed to the very best of your ability, and when you finally make that wonderful first sale, and get to drive to [wherever] to meet your proposed editor, it helps if you acknowledge publication as a business option to him/ her. An author, in this day and age, must be willing to promote their books, do readings and signings, attend conventions, get out and about. It has always, always cost me money; but I treat every single event as an investment in my future writing career, which I, hopefully, see as a lifetime option. I know some people write books for money (Terry Pratchett once said, early on in his career, that he writes purely for the money- I have the interview!) but I don’t. If I wasn’t paid, I’d still do it. For me, it is an affliction. I write because I just love to write, and I try my best to look at the long term picture.

It can be a very hard, long road. Be patient. And always be professional :-)

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