Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Crushing Feelings of Inadequacy

At the moment, I'm reading Janny Wurts' 'The Wars of Light and Shadow' series. These are fabulous, amazing books, by a writer of staggering gifts, and I love them to bits. By a clear margin, the best fantasy epics I've ever read; rich in detail at every level, powerful, moving, inspiring and brilliant.

Meanwhile, I'm also trying to promote my book. As part of this process, over the weekend, I started going through the whole book looking for lines I can pull out and use for #novelines tweets. This meant reading the whole thing back.

Let's just say the comparison was not flattering. Contrasted with Wurts' prose, my writing looks bland, emotionless, clunky and overall just bad. I'm now fighting the urge to de-publish and completely rewrite the cussed thing. I *know* I can do better.

And yet, I still have a bunch of really positive feedback from readers. There's some serious cognitive dissonance going on. I'm used to being my own worst critic, but I thought with 'Heaven Can Wait' I'd finally found something I could be pleased with.

So much for that good idea. It's only been 7 months since I finished writing the book, but I've changed massively as a writer (mainly due to the density of reading I've been doing - 'The Wars of Light and Shadow' is the 4th epic fantasy series I've gotten through in that time). The key question is whether the changes are progress or simply reflect me realising exactly what kind of writing I want to be doing.

There are certainly elements of both. On the one hand, I've got a much better grasp now than I used to have of how to use environmental and physical description to flesh out a scene, and of how to write about internal psychological processes (which I used to avoid altogether due to terror of 'telling' too much). On the other, eight months ago I thought of myself as a sci-fi author, despite the overwhelming fantasy bias of my bookcase.

In both cases, there's a legitimate question to be raised over whether I should re-write and re-publish Heaven Can Wait, but it's a different question each time.

If I've just got that much better, then conventional wisdom suggests I should rewrite and republish before lasting damage is done to my reputation as a writer by a shoddy (or at least unrepresentative) debut novel. The alternative view comes from all that time I spent as a webcomic creator that I never shut up about; the webcomic community, or at least the bits of it I had contact with, seemed to mainly be quite strongly opposed to re-writes and re-draws. There was a powerful sentiment of people liking to see how writers and artists progress and grow over time.

There's also the problem of where to stop rewriting. I actually did completely re-do the first two chapters of my webcomic, and regretted it forevermore because there was a sharp and jarring drop in quality at the start of chapter 3. On top of that, I didn't stop getting better after the re-draw, so by the time I gave up the first two chapters were back to being well below the standard of later updates.

Certainly, the desire to see a writer growing and maturing isn't something that's likely to transfer to a paid-for ebook, but I'm not completely convinced about that. The problem of where to stop re-writing is also a worry, though perhaps forestalled in this case since the remainder of the trilogy also needs a re-write. What I'm going to do (and thus my advice, should you find yourself in a similar situation) is talk to the handful of people who've read my book again and grill them in greater detail about what I see as the flaws in my writing.

The alternative, that my tastes have just shifted/settled on a style unlike the style I wrote Heaven Can Wait in, provokes a different question. Specifically, the question of how far I want my published oeuvre to reflect my tastes. Arguably, it's a question of integrity, but I'm not sure it's a serious one. There is still the issue that the later parts of the trilogy are written in style much closer to my current preference, and so if I leave book 1 as it is there's going to be a bit of a clash (particularly if, as discussed last time out, I decide to bung the three together in one volume).

Overall, the arguments seem to marginally favour rewriting, but I don't know whether I have time, and I'm deeply reluctant to take down a book already published. All thoughts on the issue very much welcomed!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Multiple enemy contacts

As in 'no plan survives first contact with the enemy'...

This is something like the third time I've changed my core plan since deciding in March to go the self-publishing route, so some explanations are in order. Particularly since I'm not sure whether I'm changing plans this time or not. Any and all opinions welcome (okay, this is the internet. Any and all relevant, considered opinions welcome ;D).

So I'm thinking of abandoning my plan to publish The Non-Agency as a trilogy and instead publishing a single volume version as soon as parts 2 and 3 are ready (basically, 'Heaven Can Wait' will disappear from Amazon, to be replaced with a single 200,000-word book 'The Non-Agency').

The key reason for this has to do with the problems, which I've mentioned but not yet discussed in detail, I've had with part 2 of the trilogy, 'Some Kind of Angel'. The first draft turned out lacking everything that made the first book good. One particular problem is that SKOA is bloated and sluggish, and I think one of the big reasons for that is all the work I had to put in in the first half re-introducing and explaining stuff that is introduced very smoothly in HCW.

The third part, 'Don't Fear the Reaper', has no such problem, because I made a conscious decision not to explain all that stuff in the first draft. As a result, it's much more streamlined and, despite being fairly slow-paced, it moves along a lot better than SKOA. As I've been preparing to rewrite SKOA, reading back through it, my inner editor has been screaming at me to chop out all that explanatory gubbins.

One of the things that has been a common theme in the feedback I've received (not that there's been a whole lot of it, what with having only sold 7 copies...) on HCW has been that people really enjoyed learning about how the world of the trilogy works. SKOA in its current incarnation spends too much time retreading that ground, not enough time breaking new ground, and the little bits of new ground it breaks are lost in the heaps of old stuff.

That's not to say there aren't other serious problems with SKOA. I don't consider myself an expert on the technical side of writing, so I don't normally do 'how to write' blogs, but SKOA's given me a whole lot of material for one or more potential 'how not to write' posts, which I may do over the next few weeks. Among SKOA's other problems are a lack of an arc for the main character, the third act being on back-to-front at the moment, and some deeply unlikable side characters (who, in fairness, are supposed to be unlikable; you've just got to understand why they can still like each other...).

That's beside the current point, though. I can do a lot to help SKOA by relieving it of the burden of being a book in its own right. There are other plusses to amalgamating the trilogy into one book (besides getting to use the word 'amalgamating'. Twice!); the collected version will come in at almost 200,000 words, which is much more the length ball-park for epic fantasy. I've blogged before about how lost I am in the field of YA fantasy, but at 63,000 words, 'Heaven Can Wait' sits quite uneasily in the 'grown-up' fantasy section. The collection will also look distinctly less pitiful as a paperback - more like 650 pages than 200 (which in 8' by 5' trade size looks more like a textbook than a novel).

The main downside is for the handful of people who've bought HCW on its own, particularly for full price. These folk - to whom, after all, I owe a great deal more by way of gratitude and goodwill than I do to the rest of the world - face having to pay for HCW twice. I don't know how I'd feel in their place, but I know there certainly are people in the world who'd object. Maybe the concerns of seven people shouldn't make much of a difference to what's essentially a commercial decision, but desperation hasn't yet stripped me of my conscience, so at very least I'm going to have to make some arrangement to cover the lapse.

Anyway, that's my thinking on the subject. Thoughts?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Obligatory Self-congratulation

I completed my NaNoWriMo 50,000 words in about 3 hours shy of 7 days. Finishing the novel (which topped out at about 63,500 words, first draft) took another week, but I polished that off on Monday.

Rather than dwell overlong on how awesome I am (which I do a lot of, I know...), I thought I'd share the secrets of how I did it. If nothing else, I want a record of them for next year, but I hope I can offer some help to people still struggling through this year's challenge too.

1: You've got to have the time.
Unfortunately, we writers can't control the real world the same way we can our fictional worlds. It doesn't matter if you can write at 5,000 words an hour; if you've only got a half-hour every day for writing, it's still going to take you twenty days to write your 50k.

I write at an average of about 800-900 words an hour (which is about average for human beings), so I need about 60 hours of focussed writing time to do my 50k. There are 168 hours in a week; I knew going into NaNo that I was going to need over a third of the available hours to meet my goal of completing in a week.

If you want to complete NaNo fast, this is the sum you have to do. Fortunately for me (or not, if you look at it from a bank manager's point of view), I've got very few hours at work at the moment - only 9 a week - and few other obligations that couldn't be put down for a week. Assuming I wanted to sleep 8 hours a night (in the end, I pulled an all-nighter on the Sunday night to enable me to finish in time), 60 hours' writing time leaves me with 43 hours in the week for doing everything else.

Everything else means obvious things like personal hygeine and shopping, but also plenty of activities linked to the writing. It might be 6 hours per day, but that vanishes pretty quickly.

2: Know Thyself
When picking music to write to, I don't look for music that suits the mood of what I'm writing. I pick the music I most want to listen to at the time. Why? Because that makes me more reluctant to turn it off to, for example, watch frivolous videos on YouTube.

I'm not making a recommendation for how to pick music to write to. My point is that I know I can fix my fingers to the keyboard more firmly by choosing music in a particular way (this NaNo, it ended up being 20-odd Blind Guardian tracks on endless repeat - I make no apologies). I also knew going in that I had to avoid any urban walk of longer than about 4 miles in one go, because the combination of mild dehydration and fatigue from that would leave my brain too frazzled to write for at least an hour. So, I got pretty much all my food shopping for the week out of the way on October 31st.

NaNoWriMo is not a time to fight these little foibles (however pathetic it might be to be turned into a useless lump by an hour's walking). Figure out what your quirks are and plan accordingly. Can't write without infusions of coffee at hourly intervals? Better make sure to buy an extra jar before November. Need to feel angsty, alienated, and disgusted by humanity in order to find your muse? Buy Snooki's autobiography... (Note: I've not read it, and she may be a literary genius. The nature of blogging just makes sniping at easy targets almost inevitable. No slander intended.)

3. Maintain Your Arsenal
You're trying to write a novel in a hurry. That means you can't afford to spend too much time sitting staring into space looking for inspiration. Whether you're an outline writer or strictly seat-of-the-pants, I'd recommend keeping at least a rough list of cool ideas that you might put in. Start noting stuff down sometime in September and keep the list to hand. Every time you find yourself staring off into space in November, the first thing you do is check the list.

It's not going to help every time. But sometimes 'wombat crashes through window, followed by bad guy' is exactly the twist you need. (There are no wombats in my NaNo novel. Unless you like wombats, in which case, buy my book, it's got wombats! ¬_¬)

4. Your Friends Will Not Understand
For one week, it's okay to ignore them. Sometime on November 6th (I think), I put a note on my Facebook about my progress, and someone responded with 'I don't think you quite understand the concept of a month.'

It's a fair comment and made me laugh, but it didn't make me stop writing. Nor did the housemate who, as the week went on, got steadily more worried by my apparent descent into insane obsession. You have to be crazy to want to do NaNo anyway; if people start looking at you like you're even crazier, just leave them be. You can convince them of your rationality later. All that matters right now is word count. Except...

5. None of it Really Matters
You're doing NaNo for your own benefit. To prove you can do it. To crack the block on that pesky back-burner project. For the thrill. For a holiday (which is how I described it to my PhD supervisor).

If you find yourself well short of whatever goal you've set yourself by day 5, don't beat yourself up over it. Always keep in mind that it's OK to fail, to fall short. You're not negotiating a Middle East peace treaty. You're not trying to develop a cure for AIDS. You're doing a completely frivolous, spurious writing contest where victory is the exclusive province of lunatics. You've then imposed on top of that an even more spurious target to put you in a crowd with lunatics even the lunatics think are lunatics.

The lunatic-lunatics like me have fun with it. We get a rush from the total immersion and the grueling drive. There is no shame in not being one of us. Above all, there's no reason to get stressed about joining our company.

NaNo is a competition without prizes. Do it your way.


I have no idea if any of that has been helpful at all. Maybe it's more about planning for next year than winning through this year. Good luck to y'all, and don't forget to throw a donation the way of the Office of Letters and Light to make sure there *is* a next year!

On an unrelated note, due to some tweaks to my plans for the rest of the Non-Agency trilogy, I've dropped the price of 'Heaven Can Wait' to 99c/75p. The changes have already gone through at Smashwords and should resolve at Amazon sometime tomorrow (Amazon have already bunged a big discount on it, for some reason). Buy it! I promise it's good!

(no wombats, mind)