Tag Archives: novel

The constant process of revision

Before I launch into today’s blog post: sorry. Yeah, long time since I last posted. It’s been a busy year and the blog has not been my priority, or anything close to it. I’ve got a few things to say, and I’ve read a few things I want to talk about, so that’s likely to change now. Starting with this.

In 2008 I attempted NaNoWriMo for the second time ever, and succeeded. The story I wrote was called Flame Undying, and it was about an immortal character with an affinity to fire who returned, after a decade, to the city he once ruled. That year, NaNoWriMo had a promotion with a print-on-demand service such that winners – people who successfully wrote 50,000 words in November – could get a free printed proof of their novel if submitted in time. I took advantage of that offer, and still have the proof copy.

The concept of immortals was one I had developed for a previous story, based on a sort of magical force being generated by belief, fear, awe, hope and other emotions about particular parts of the worlds – geographical features, human traits, concepts and ideals. My first immortals were the Four Horsemen – Death, War, Famine and Pestilence – but the concept quickly grew, to include River Guardians, Mountain Walkers, Fate, representatives of the four seasons, and, ultimately, Fire. Coupled with a couple of months hearing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on the radio constantly at my summer job, I developed the story of Blaze, the immortal who “used to ruuuule the world”, to quote Chris Martin.

This was followed by a prequel story, The General’s Secret, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I became obsessed with the story, writing literally dozens of versions of some scenes in my attempts to get it right. But ultimately, I had to drop it. I couldn’t make it work. And for years it sat untouched as I worked on other ideas, other stories.

I had a backstory for Blaze: he was a bronze-worker in the Bronze Age, who became immortal as a result of dying in a fire and being taken over by the magic. The fire that killed him, and all of his people, was started by raiders from a city called Caer, which later burned down too.

Gradually I returned to this concept, but I knew it was time for a major overhaul. For starters, I wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted her story to be closer to the start, not when she was two thousand years old. In 2015 I started working on Kell’s Adventures, set some ten years after the destruction of Caer. But it lacked something, and it didn’t get far. A few times in the two years that followed, I tried out one thing or another – a second protagonist as a travelling companion and ally, a series of short stories involving individual encounters, scenes I thought might need to exist in a novel. But it was still missing something. I worked on other projects.

Now to this year. This year has been an odd one. I got a full-time job, lost it without warning or explanation a week after my probation period ended, learned I was autistic, worked through a hell of a lot of baggage about that, then got another job where I am much happier. I’ve been there four months – longer than I was at the previous job.

In August this year I came to a realisation that, all this time, I’d been writing Blaze and Kell as a metaphor for autism. The affinity for fire as a special interest, the overwhelming effects of it causing an overload response, the discomfort of certain sensations making concentration difficult, the effect of immortality causing isolation as a parallel to my own social awkwardness making it hard to fit in. This wasn’t a product purely of my imagination, it was an embellished analogy for what I experienced daily and had no word for until recently: autism.

That realisation made it all click into place. It felt as though I’d been looking through a keyhole, trying to work out the story from what little I could see, for years, and now I had the key and could open the door and walk right inside. Since then, I have written tens of thousands of words of notes, and at least as many words of actual story drafts, each version building on previous decisions, revelations and calculations to make Kell’s story more and more real. Every day I get closer to creating a story, and every day I am excited by what I discover in the process.

It is a process of constant revision. A decision I make one day may be revoked or overwritten the next day when I get a better idea of how to approach the scene, think more about the implications of events on non-core characters and the world at large, or work out how a character is likely to behave or react. A small idea one day might grow and, a week later, become a significant plot point, a new character or an element of the world that makes it feel more real and lived-in.

There are still gaps. I focus on what interests me, and follow the threads until I am satisfied. There are still things I need to visualise – especially now I’ve realised that I’ve been picturing two events as being on opposite sides of the river, without having a river crossing happening in between them. Oops.

But I’m getting there. I’ve got an outline. Well, I’ve got several, and the latest one – written two days ago – already needs to be amended to take into account new decisions made today about the timescales in the final third. I’ve started on character sheets. I’ve got some ideas about family trees I need to write down.

Even when I start the next draft of the manuscript, the revision won’t stop. It never does; it can’t. Generally my process when writing a manuscript is to stick at it, start to finish, and not go back and change anything, but rather make a note where I’m at, stating the planned change, and continuing with the text on the assumption that the change has been made, then go back at the end to make the edits. It’s how I can revise without losing momentum on the story.

It’s come a long way. Over the course of more than ten years, I have created and refined a character and a concept until I’ve found a story that draws on my own experiences and tries to explore life through the lens of autism, in a fantasy world as alien and familiar to me as the real one, while still telling a story about a character with hopes and fears and goals. I have no doubt it’s still got a way to go – aside from the gaps I’ve yet to work out, the names I need to fix, I’ve still got the whole manuscript to write, after all. But I’m certain the end is in sight now. I’ve found what was missing before. I’ve revised my way to the story I’m trying to tell.

When the revision stops, that’ll be when I know it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than my own.

Some reflections on NaNoWriMo

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for about 12 years now. I first attempted it ten years ago, in 2007 when I first went to university, so a city that had an active NaNoWriMo group. Since completing my studies, though, I haven’t done much with NaNo: I’ve signed up several times, updated my profile, filled in the novel info, and so on, but after winning in 2008 and 2009, I have not been successful since.

If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is an annual writing challenge that takes place in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. The website provides pep talks, community forums and a tracking system, as well as rewards for successful challengers.

Over the last decade I have learned a great deal about writing. I’ve read a lot of books, including several about writing; I have written several novels and numerous short stories; I have agonised over scenes and despaired of ever writing something I could be happy with. NaNoWriMo was an important part of that journey, but it is no longer a good fit for me. At least, not at this stage; I won’t rule out the possibility of it becoming useful to me again.

Part of NaNoWriMo is building discipline: to succeed at such a challenge, a writer must write an average of 1,667 words per day for a whole month. That’s not a trivial amount of words; if I know what I’m writing, I’m not interrupted and I don’t get stuck, that quantity of words would probably take me about an hour and a half. If you miss a day, an even higher daily time commitment would be needed to meet the 50,000-word goal, so writing every day is pretty important.

Developing discipline is an important tool for a writer, but it’s not one I need NaNoWriMo for anymore. Since July 2015, I’ve been writing every day without fail: I’ve got that discipline, even it doesn’t involve as much of a time commitment as NaNoWriMo would require.

NaNoWriMo is a fantastic motivating tool. There are a lot of people who want to write a novel some day but never manage it, or who spend a lot of time planning and never start. Having a major global event which has a start and end date and a clearly-defined goal, in which tens of thousands of people communicate with one another, and regional groups arrange in-person meetings, is incredibly powerful.

But those are not problems I currently have: I’m not a “some day” writer, I’m an “every day” writer. I’m not stuck in the rabbit hole of planning. I’m four chapters deep in my current WIP (work in progress) so I don’t need help starting. I don’t need community forums to motivate me to write, and I can’t easily access regional in-person meetings from the rural backend of the west midlands.

As for deadlines and word targets, I don’t think that suits the way I write at the moment. I don’t want to rush. When I rush for word targets, I write a lot of useless fluff, which only creates more work in the editing stage. I can see the value in it, certainly: a way to prevent self-editing in the writing stage and let the story flow, a challenge to spur you forward. But the pace that suits me is a lot slower than NaNoWriMo aims for. Perhaps in time I will increase my productivity to a rate that makes NaNoWriMo more viable, but that is not the case right now, especially since my current process involves planning and writing one chapter at a time rather than planning everything in advance and then writing the whole story in one go.

That is perhaps a long way of saying “I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year”. It’s been a useful tool for me in the past, and I don’t want anyone to think my decision not to use it this year means I don’t think it’s useful: it is. It just doesn’t fit with my process this year.

Kindle Unlimited changes are good for readers and bad for content churners

This month Amazon announced a change to the Kindle Unlimited payout system. Effective from July 1st, authors will be paid based on pages read. At present, authors are paid per book, where a reader has read at least 10% of the book. This change is going to have a significant impact on the incomes of authors, with some seeing an increase and others seeing a decrease, but it was also change the kind of content readers see included in the Kindle Unlimited scheme.

Continue reading Kindle Unlimited changes are good for readers and bad for content churners

Constantly re-evaluating my writing

This month has not gone as well as I’d hoped for the writing. In fact I’ve not written a word since my last blog post. But I have been thinking. Thinking about what motivates me, thinking about the stories I’m trying to write and the stories I worked on long ago.

Invisible Duke

With Invisible Duke, I’m a bit unsure on exactly where the crux of the story is, where it begins and where it should end. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t what’s stopping me writing; I’ve written before where I’ve had a go at an idea, not liked it, changed what the start and end and what the focus were, and tried again and ended up with something halfway decent. The story that ended up as Ailith’s Gift (available to read for free at Myths Inscribed) started out a very different story, told from the perspective of the dragon, after the events of Ailith’s Gift. I even had a character called George and this whole take on the old George and the Dragon myth, and themes of change and the baby from Ailith’s Gift growing up and everything. But for a short story, with a target of 3,000 words, it just didn’t work. There was too much to fit in, even if I broke it down to the most important plot points. By changing the focus and reducing the scope, though, I came out with something that did work, that wasn’t too rushed and which met the needs of what I was aiming for.

I think that’s something of what I need to do with Invisible Duke too. I’ve got the concept, I’ve got hints of the story, but I’ve not got the right angle on it. It’s already an amalgam of two ideas, that magical point at which ideas can become stories, but I think it needs a third idea to get there. I just need to work at it some more, but here’s the second problem: I’ve been putting off that work. A couple of weeks ago I heard of a call for submissions for stories that give a new twist on fairytales or subvert them in some way from The Book Smugglers. And it sounds perfect, exactly the sort of thing I should be submitting a story like Invisible Duke to, a story which looks at one of the fundamental assumptions of fairytales. The deadline for submissions is 31 July.

And I’m scared. I’ve not even finished the story, but having realised what an opportunity had landed on my lap when I heard about this, I failed to reach for it, and instead let it intimidate me. I’m not confident. I haven’t ever been, really, but right now my confidence level is at the lowest it’s been in a decade. And that has meant, on this occasion, that I’ve let myself be scared off from a prospect that could help me build up my confidence, help me improve my writing, and possibly even give me my first writing success in a long time.

I don’t what to do now with Invisible Duke. I think I’ve got two options:

1. Leave it til after the Book Smugglers deadline, take a fresh look at it, and try and work out where within the whole concept there’s an interesting story I can tell. Then take my time drawing the story out and getting it right – even if it takes a month.

2. Try to condense all the thinking and all the writing into the four evenings (today included) I have left til the deadline and get something I can submit, if only for the potential feedback I might get if not a real expectation it might be considered.

It’s a decision I’m going to have to make soon. Maybe I’ll have a go at looking at the story this evening and see where I am by bed time, and then decide.

In the meantime, there are other things I’ve been thinking about.

Penal Colony

I got stuck at the end of May with the Penal Colony story. Since then I’ve been dancing around the issue I had with it. A soft, slow middle when nothing much happened. I considered reworking the story as a series of short stories, each one with a different character from the last engaged in a complete arc, where the whole thing together told the overall story. That, I decided, was not the answer; it would dilute my core message.

I spent one evening looking in depth at my core theme of justice, and how Fiarra views it as something that is objective, but herself acts very subjectively when attempting to determine what actions are just. I looked at how other characters might disagree with her, how she treats different characters whose crimes are comparable in different ways based on her own personal feelings about them, how she advocates doing things “right” right up until it’s inconvenient for her.  I didn’t really come to a solid conclusion on that, on how I should present it and whether it would make the story feel empty or the ending unsatisfying.

Most recently, I’ve thought about how the story has gone so far in the 40,000 words I have written. And actually, it generally goes well for Fiarra. Okay, sure, she gets captured and beaten up and enslaved, but on the whole, by the point at which I stopped writing, she was in a better position than at the start of the story. A few things had gone right for her all in a row, and the things that had not gone right either served the plot or were so insignificant that 5,000 words later they’d leave no impact at all. In short, I’d made it too easy for her.

Or, to be more accurate, I’d made it too easy for me. I wanted to get to the cool speeches and the powerful emotional parts and everything I wrote that wasn’t that was designed to enable me to get to those parts.

I should know better.

The reason I keep going back to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender time and time again (current count: 7) is in no small part because of Zuko’s arc. I did a character study on him not long ago. There’s an end point that he reaches, that he is destined to reach, and there are points along the path where it seems that he might make it, but at those points, where has has the opportunity to befriend Aang and switch sides, he doesn’t, because he’s not done cooking yet. He’s not gained the experience he needs to be the kind of person who will decide that this is what he needs to do, that this is the person he should be, until he’s made the wrong decisions and lived the consequences.

I love that. I love watching it. I love seeing Zuko undergo that change, come to that gradual realisation. And yet I’m not putting that into my writing. I’m too eager to write the end of the journey – the emotional reunions, the important speeches, the redemptive actions – that I rush things along and forget to put enough of the journey in to make those turning points powerful.

With Penal Colony, therefore, I need to take a step back and work out where I’m making things too easy and make them harder. Where the turning point scenes are too early I need to move them later, to change them and deny those scenes the happy endings I crave so that the story can be told at the right pace, where victories are truly won and not handed over when I feel I can get away with it.

I need to start asking myself, with every scene I write, every paragraph even, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then write it.

The other problem with Penal Colony is that I still don’t have as good a grasp on my characters as I would want. I struggle to hear their voices, the way they speak or think or act. I don’t know much what they look like. I haven’t grasped their mannerisms or their attitudes. It’s all very superficial in the 40,000 words I did write – Prentor is friendly, Laik is cold and laconic. At least, they are for as long as that serves the story. In one scene Laik became very frank and clear because I wanted things spelled out for Fiarra, and that was wrong (not to mention way too early in the plot). It’s something I need to work on.

The Snowflake Method might be a good starting point for working out the characters. It’ll give me the space to think about their own arcs – another flaw in my approach so far for Penal Colony – and expand upon who each character is, what they want, and how they interact with other characters and with their environments.

The next step after that, I think, would be to try to write short stories about each character or tackle certain scenes in the novel from their point of view, as an exercise to understand them rather than as part of the narrative. It certainly helped me earlier in the process when I did this for Laik, though a lot has changed since then and even that short scene might need an update.

In my lowest moment, driving home after a long day and frustrating at work, I considered giving up on this story entirely. I believed it wasn’t working and was never going to work. But I do still believe I’ve got something here. I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to tell, over and over and over again in various guises, for years. In fact it’s only as a result of my recent contemplations that I’ve come to realise exactly how deep that truth goes. I know I’ve been writing stories with this master-slave dynamic and this shift of power for at least eight years. The theme of justice has definitely been strong too; I even had an immortal character named Justice in one of my worlds, and at least three stories with him in. So yes, this is the story I’m going to tell, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll try with something else but I’m not going to give up until I’ve given it a thorough try.

I’m finally coming to realise exactly how much work writing a book really is.

Looking forward

I guess the next steps involve stepping back. I’ve still got some re-evaluation to do, but now also I’ve got a lot of planning to do, a lot of legwork to put in so that when the time comes for me to start writing again I’ve got the confidence to start and to keep writing, and so that I’ve got something to write.

For Invisible Duke, I’ll see if I can make option 2 work, and try to work out where my story is then write like the wind to meet the deadline – of, if that doesn’t work out, take the time to get it right next month.

With Penal Colony, I’ve got to start from scratch: learn who the characters are and how they act; make sure I understand the world of the story; and consider how to get the most out of it and make my characters work for their victories so they meet their destinies when the time is right, not when I really want it to happen.

Book Review: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools is the fourth novel by Mark Lawrence, and the first of the new Red Queen’s War series. It takes place concurrently with the Broken Empire series, which I’ve reviewed previously (here, here and here). Prince of Fools follows Jalan Kendeth, one of several princes of Red March, a self-confessed coward and womaniser, who finds himself at the mercy of mysterious spell which magically binds him to a Viking named Snorri ver Snagason, who is on a rescue mission northwards. They battle mercenaries and undead beings, as Jalan seeks ways to break the spell and run away home. They even – briefly – encounter the Broken Empire protagonist Jorg on the way, along with a few other characters from that series.

This is the UK cover - the one I got - and in my view better than the US cover.
This is the UK cover – the one I got – and in my view better than the US cover.

It is difficult to review this book without comparison to the Broken Empire series. Where Jorg was violent and ambitious, the narration of Prince of Fools via Jalan’s point of view has more fun to it. Wittier and with a lively frankness at times. For those who frowned at Jorg’s darkness, Jalan’s morality may be more appealing; he is no golden paragon, but he does not have Jorg’s murderous ambition. That’s not to say he’s any less driven – just in different directions. I find Jalan an enjoyable character to follow, fun in many respects, with a depth to his personality that lends him interest and promises that the remainder of The Red Queen’s War will be just as good.

While Jalan himself doesn’t match Jorg for darkness, the book overall does. Lawrence has developed some very sinister undead beings that inspire horror on more than one level. Their inclusion lends the plot great menace and reiterates what was revealed in the Broken Empire trilogy, that the world in which these stories are set is a very dark, broken one indeed.

With a smaller core cast and a strong secondary character, I felt that Lawrence did better than he did in the Broken Empire series in showing the personalities of characters beside the protagonist. Snorri’s personality came through very well, both the highs and lows of his character – such that it’s clear that he has as much depth to him as Jalan.

The plot was strong, with a sense of direction from the outset that gave the story the feeling of there being a definite goal, even if it wasn’t initially clear what or where the goal was. The events that paved the plot’s path were neither predictable nor dull, but made sense in the context of the story and kept things moving, while revealing character for both the key figures. The story ended well, with action and menace, darkness and lightness, and the promise of fresh adventure and different kinds of challenges in the next book.

For someone who has read the Broken Empire, there were some references back to that series, without taking the story off course to allow for them. A few little references to things outside that series, too, gave reward to wider readers of fantasy, or even anyone aware even of general culture, again in a manner which did not detract from the story or characters but which would produce a laugh. I won’t spoil them, but I did enjoy the circus sign and the name of the longboat they travel on.

Overall I rate Prince of Fools 10/10. I cannot find fault with it. Well paced, populated with interesting and varied characters and in particular a protagonist with depth, a plot with adventure sometimes exciting and sometimes dark – and occasionally both. A world which grows in depth and darkness with every chapter. And promise that The Red Queen’s War will continue to possess the same strength and enjoyment as it continues.

New writing schedule: update Feb 2014

Back in January I announced my new writing schedule. Well, it didn’t exactly go quite as planned. I did okay for what was left of January – five days fulfilling the “ideal” writing day, three fulfilling the “alternate” schedule, one Sunday off and one missed day.

February was less successful, though. Three days meeting the ideal to start it off, but then thirteen days in a row with nothing. On the 17th I picked up and managed four very good “ideal” days in a row, before missing two days, working on planning for one day for an “alternate”, missing four more days and writing for about half an hour – which I allowed as an “alternate” day – for yesterday.

So how can I fix things?

Continue reading New writing schedule: update Feb 2014

I’m starting a new writing schedule

At the start of this year I determined that I would write a complete manuscript of a novel this year. Specifically, the novel I was working on in November, though starting again from scratch. And so far this year I have done very little work on it. I’ve made a couple of pages of notes, written a short story to give one of the key characters a more solid personality and motivations in my head, and I’ve managed about six paragraphs of the novel itself; less than a page.

Well, it’s about time I stopped being lazy. Because that’s the reason I’ve not been writing much. Well, laziness and tiredness, but mostly laziness. Or at least, prioritising other things like crochet and watching Avatar: the Last Airbender (at the same time). Well, tonight that ends. I have a new writing schedule.

Continue reading I’m starting a new writing schedule

Announcement: Article up on Mythic Scribes

In my latest article for Mythic Scribes, I’ve written a piece called A New Page for a New Year, about writing goals and news years resolutions. This is a perfect time of the year to consider goals and their achievability, to set new goals and work out how you’re going to go about getting them done.

My goal for 2014 is to write the first draft (well, attempt 2) of the novel I was working on in November. This is the story I have inside of me, and I mostly know what I’m doing with it, and I’m going to write it this year. I’m going to try to work on it every day, but “working on it” doesn’t necessarily mean adding words to the manuscript – it might mean working through a tricky bit in note form, writing short stories around various characters to help me work out their personalities, voices and motivations, drawing maps, worldbuilding or anything else involved. As long as the manuscript itself is complete by the end of the year, I will have been successful.

Getting back on the writing horse: update

Two days ago I decided to have a go at writing a lot yesterday. It didn’t quite go to plan, but I did manage to finish the short story centred on one of the characters from my novel, and I did sort a few things in the middle section of the novel.

Back in November, when I was working on the novel, one of the problems that led me to stop writing was that I didn’t have a good enough grasp on the character Laik, a major character with a complex role in the story, whose interactions with the protagonist Fiarra was an important driver of the plot and of core importance to the theme of justice in the novel. But I just didn’t have a feel for her. I struggled with her motivations and her personality.

Continue reading Getting back on the writing horse: update

NaNoWriMo progress report 2

My progress with this novel hasn’t been quite what I’d hoped. Certainly not at the rate I need to win the challenge, but I am getting there. After a fantastic day in Leicester last Sunday, joining my former region for some coffee, chat and word warring, I’ve had a few zero days this last week.

Today I determined to at least make up for a dud Friday and Saturday (though in my defence I had a nasty headache all Saturday that left me unable to do anything), and with some word wars with the lovely people over at Mythic Scribes I have managed 5,013 words today, bringing me far closer to where I should be, though I’m still a few thousand behind. I should be at 28,334 words by the end of today, I’m actually at 21,356. So getting there, but still some way to go before I catch up.

Continue reading NaNoWriMo progress report 2