Sunday, 11 December 2016

In which I look back

It's December.  It's the sort of time when things get reviewed.  Arbitrary as it may be, there are things to review and it's as good a time as any.

So NaNoWriMo happened.  My final wordcount for the month (and the first draft) came in at just over 104,000 words.  Slightly fewer than last year, but the story ends when it ends.  And first drafts are where we find things, no matter how much we think we planned the story in advance.  I found a Khevelese engineer living in the refugee camp with fire in her heart and a refusal to take any crap despite her situation.  I found the story wants to be more of a mosaic, picking up perspectives from all over the city.  And I found the poisoner wasn't who I thought it was, and now the whole story needs reworking with that in mind.

This is why no one ever gets to see the draft I knock out during NaNo.  I reach the end of the month with so many ideas about how I should have been writing the story that there's no point in sending it to beta readers.  They'll get a later version, when I've fixed all the really obvious stuff.

The other thing I did this year was that big ol' rash declaration about sending a novel out to agents.  I managed that, of course.  The queries went out, and whilst I'm still mostly waiting to hear back (it's a busy time of year) I have now had two (two!) requests for the full manuscript.  And that's set against only one flat rejection, which seems like a damn good hit rate to me.  Even if both of those requests ultimately turn into rejections, it's a positive sign that those opening chapters have something good in them.  I'm feeling quite optimistic about the whole affair at the moment.  We'll see how long that lasts.

It's nice to have something to feel optimistic about at the moment.  I never did get a proper response to the email I sent to my MP.  And the world is probably going to end in nuclear apocalypse before I get a book published.  But, you know, if racing the end of the world is what it takes then I'm lacing up my running shoes.

Oh yeah, running.  Really ought to get back to that...

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

In which I get all political again

Yeah.  It's hard not to be political at the moment, isn't it?  It makes me miss my student days, when the world was comfortable enough that we could afford to be entirely apathetic.  What joy.

It's hard to talk about any of the recent stuff without swearing a lot, but I did my best to hold it in long enough to email my MP today.  I'm pasting the contents of said email below, for the sake of a record.  I don't think we can afford to be complacent, or to pretend that events on the other side of the Atlantic won't affect us.  And I'm not happy with the current assurances that we should just give him a chance and everything will be fine.  He had his chance, and he used it to appoint a full-on Nazi to his staff.  No more chances while that's still true.

Here's the email.  Feel free to crib the text if you think I've said anything useful:

Dear Mr Sturdy,

I am asking you as my elected representative to denounce the recent appointment of Stephen Bannon to Donald Trump's presidential staff, and to urge the whole of Parliament to do the same.  Mr Bannon holds a number of unpleasant views and should not be given such a powerful platform for his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny and homophobia.  This goes beyond mere differences of political opinion and into views that society as a whole should reject as harmful.

This is a test.  Firstly, it is a test by Mr Trump to see what he will be allowed to get away with as President.  If we accept this appointment, we will enable him to cross further boundaries down the line, each of which will be normalised by our acceptance of the previous.

Secondly, it is a test from those who share Mr Bannon's views, to see if they are accepted by the rest of society.  If we do not reject this now, we send a message to these people that their views are acceptable.  By denouncing the appointment of Mr Bannon we make it clear that Britain will not allow these things to flourish.

Thirdly, it is a test of how we want to be considered in the future.  We have no control over who will tell our story, but we can have some measure of control over what they will say.  When historians look back at this time, do we want them to say that we stood aside and did nothing as hateful views were made acceptable?

Now is the time to take a stand.  If Mr Trump is serious about healing the divide in America, he will not achieve it by appointing a man who hates so many of its residents.  We are swift to condemn these things when they occur in smaller countries; we should not hesitate when they happen in a larger one.  And as much as I want our country to succeed in the wake of the Brexit referendum, I will not accept that success if it comes at the expense of women, gay people and people of colour.  We should refuse to make any deals with Mr Trump as long as he is working with Mr Bannon and others of his ilk.

I hope that you agree with me on this and that you will encourage the rest of Parliament to do the same.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

In which I dive headlong into novel writing once more

It's November!  That means it's National Novel Writing Month, and I'm once again writing a new novel instead of editing an old one.  If nothing else, it's a great way of keeping from obsessing over agents (still very little to report on that front.  Waiting to float to the top of the slush pile, I imagine).

For the past few years, I've managed to arrange to have the first week in November off work to really get cracking on the writing.  This year, it's only four days (because the month had the poor taste to begin on a Tuesday), but I've got the 30th off as well just in case I need a sprint to the finish.  It's actually starting to look more like I'll be spending the 30th playing the new Pokemon game, because after three days I have 17,000 words written.  Enough to be able to take an evening off and write a blog post, if nothing else.

Yes, it's a little over the top.  But this is my 12th year doing NaNo.  If I hadn't learned a few things about how to get a first draft written in that time, there'd be no point in keeping doing it.  So, here are the things that I think have contributed to this most excellent beginning:

1) Experience - 12 years has taught me a lot about how I work best.  I know that I need a plan before I start, because 'pantsing' is too much like hard work and I'm happier knowing where my story is heading.  I also know that I do well with writing sprints - short, focussed bursts of writing followed by 10 or 15 minutes of goofing off and reading Twitter.

2) Bigger targets - The official NaNo target is 50,000 words, and for a long time that's what I aimed for.  And that's what I got, year in and year out.  I wasn't entirely happy with that, though, because I knew that that's actually right at the bottom end of the range of novel sizes.  Most published novels are longer.  Fantasy and sci-fi, in particular, are a lot longer.  But something about having a target for the month of 50,000 meant that my stories never ran much longer than that.  I'd tell myself it could be longer, then I'd hit 50k and the whole thing would wrap itself up in the next five thousand or so.

Then one year I ended up aiming for 100,000, split across two novels (it's a long story).  Writing that much nearly killed me (figuratively speaking), but I made it.  The following year, I decided to set myself a goal of 75,000 in a single novel.  I figured it would allow my story more room to breathe, and encourage me to stretch myself.  It worked.  I've been writing longer stories ever since, but still within that 30 day timeframe for the first draft.

3) Good advice - Pacing was my bugbear for a long time.  My stories always came out badly paced, because it's difficult to tell as you're writing.  Things that feel like they're taking forever to write actually rush by when you read them back.  Then a friend pointed me at the book Save the Cat, and its wonderful Beat Sheet.  Theoretically aimed at screenwriters rather than novelists, the beats are nevertheless a great way of working out when different things should happen in the novel.  I've had much better first drafts since I started using it, and just like the plan it gives me something to aim for.  If I know I need another ten thousand words before I get to the next Important Plot Moment, then I can just knuckle down and get on with those ten thousand words.

4) Confidence - A lot of this is related to the other points.  Years of doing NaNo have taught me that the moments when I'm sure the whole thing sucks are transitory, and will pass if I just push on and keep writing.  Writing longer books has made me more confident of my ability to get words down.  But most notably, the improvement in pacing has really done wonders.

I first used Save the Cat two years ago, for Shadows in the Nursery.  And I got a first draft that was worth editing, for the first time ever.  A first draft that I successfully turned into a complete second draft, and even a complete third draft.  I'm sure that success had a knock-on effect, because last year with Iron and Gold I wrote significantly more in that first week off, and indeed broke the 100k mark in November without it almost killing me (figuratively speaking).  Iron and Gold, as we know, has been through multiple drafts in the intervening year and is now my first novel to be clogging up agents' slush piles.  That feels like an achievement, regardless of any response I might get, and it's pushing me into writing even more this year.

And there we go.  Put that all together and that's how I've written a scary number of words in just three days.  Though ultimately, of course, it all boils down to that simple mantra: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard.  Everything else is just how you get there, and stay there.

There's still a long way to go.  I think I have, maybe, about 15% of the book written at this point.  Plenty more left to write before I can relax and start playing Pokemon.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

In which I have nothing much to report

It's been a month since I sent out my first queries for the novel.  And of the original six queries I sent, I've so far had one rejection (yay, first agent rejection!) and a whole lot of silence.

This is not a complaint, I hasten to add.  For one thing, the agents I queried were pretty much unanimous in claiming a 6 - 8 week response time on queries, and we haven't even reached that milestone yet.  For another thing, last week was Frankfurt Book Fair which will not only have impacted the reading of the slush pile while it was on, but the weeks before it will have been filled with prep work and now they'll be filled with follow-up.  My query won't be getting read and rejected until the dust from all of that has settled.  So we wait, and we have a little freakout every time the email notification appears on our phone, and we find other things to do in the meantime.

I responded to that one rejection by sending out another query to another agent somewhere else.  I also sent another one out today, just because I'd had a microscopic chat with the guy on Twitter the other day and I wanted to query him before I lost the tweets and couldn't remember who he was any more.  I've also finally gone back to sending out my short stories and acquiring more rejections for those too.  The Rejection Collection is coming along beautifully these days.

And it's only a week until NaNoWriMo!  I have pages upon pages of worldbuilding, and character notes, and story beats, and with luck by the end of November I'll have another first draft that's worth polishing up into something more.  That's assuming we haven't all perished in a nuclear war by then, of course...

Monday, 26 September 2016

In which I review the rash declaration made earlier

So at the start of the year I rashly declared that before another January came around I would be in a position to query agents with an actual, bona fide novel of my own.  And then I went quiet, because getting to that position meant focusing on novel drafts rather than blog posts.

The good news is that all of that work has paid off.  Iron and Gold has been through multiple drafts this year, and I finally reached the point where I'm, well, not happy with it because you can never be entirely happy with a story, but as content as I can be that it's as good as I can make it.  And so I've formatted it properly, and written a synopsis, and written a query letter, and sent it out to a few agents.  Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for the rejections to come rolling in...

Obviously, I hope somebody likes it.  I hope it gets picked up, because I really like these characters and I want to write the other two books that I have in mind with them.  But just in case, I'm going to crack on with other things instead.

Helpfully, I've got NaNoWriMo looming to help with that.  I have a plot in mind, but there's still a certain amount of worldbuilding to be done.  I've got lizard people, and a matrilinear human society, and two different calendar systems, and a not-quite-murder mystery, and a host of characters, but I still need a few more names and things.  And a title.  I've no idea what this one is going to be called yet, but it'll come.

And if NaNo this year gets derailed by a deluge of responses from agents?  Well, that won't be such a bad thing now, will it?

Monday, 11 January 2016

In which I get started...

I'm watching Labyrinth tonight, because of course I am, but this isn't about the majesty of the Goblin King's trousers.  What could I possibly say that hasn't been said better by someone else already?

I've made a surprisingly good start on the second draft of Iron and Gold.  Reading over the first draft I found I actually quite liked it already.  It's not perfect by any means (because what first draft ever is?) but it's worth working on and polishing.  And so I set off, tweaking and improving, and for a while I was going great guns.  Two chapters a day, clean and tidy, and it was looking like I'd be through it in no time.

And then I hit Chapter Eight.

There's nothing inherently bad about Chapter Eight.  It's just that it's the first chapter that needs major work at this point.  It's like sprinting off the end of a race track and landing in a bog (with or without Eternal Stench).  It's still possible to get where you're going, but it takes a lot more effort.  And it's very easy to give up as soon as that happens.  It's not really your fault, after all.  It's the bog.

But there's only one way to get to the magical city of Complete Second Draft, and that's to slog through the bog until you come out the other side.  So that's where I am.  Slogging through the bog, knowing there's a good story in here somewhere, taking it one step at a time.

And admiring the majesty of the Goblin King's trousers...

Friday, 1 January 2016

In which we arbitrarily mark the completion of another orbit of the sun

New Year, New... Books?  Yeah, let's go with that, I got some very fine books for Christmas.

2015 was the year I finally got a story published.  2016 needs to top that, clearly.  And it's the time of year for making rash declarations, so I have Rashly Declared that I'll do everything I can to have something suitable for querying agents by the end of the year.

There are, essentially, two possible contenders for this.  The first, Shadows in the Nursery, is the gothic horror I wrote for NaNo 2014.  It's already had two further drafts in the intervening time, but there's more work to be done.  I'm currently gathering responses from beta readers for that, though, which leaves me open to do some work on the other option.

Iron and Gold is the fantasy novel I wrote during the most recent NaNo.  It's a number of things already; a complete rework of the story I wrote for NaNo 2010; the first novel of mine to run to over 100,000 words; and hopefully the start of a trilogy.  I intend to write book 2, Truth and Consequences, this coming November and that means I need to get the finer points of book 1 firmly nailed down before that.  I'm quite pleased with the first draft as it stands, but I have a list as long as my arm of things that need doing to improve it.  Everything from simple things like making sure character descriptions remain consistent throughout to bigger things like an entire subplot I want to add in.  No beta readers, as yet, because I have too many changes of my own to deal with.  They'll get the next draft, if they're lucky.

So, two big projects ongoing.  With luck I can alternate between the two, working on a draft of one while the other is percolating.  Plenty to keep me busy, and maybe I'll get around to submitting a few more short stories along the way.