2014: The year everything changed

Except, of course, not much has changed after all.

After starting with the buzz of a 2-book deal the year’s been a strange never-quite-stepping-across-that-threshold affair as my publishers were put up for sale by their holding group. They’ve risen phoenix-like from the ashes ready to resume publication in 2015 with The Waterborne Blade rescheduled for release in May.

On the writing front, I’ve discovered the massive dose of validation from a publishing deal doesn’t do much to counter the self-doubt – if anything, it provides a near-inexhaustible supply of new food sources for the self-doubt. At this point I can vouch for the wisdom of advice to bash on with the next book once the previous one is out of the door. Maybe next time I’ll try that. As it is, the sequel has had the benefit of a long gestation period before drafting began in earnest in mid October. I’ve compiled a list of tweaks for the first novel to accommodate developments in the sequel and been mulling over the editor’s notes which arrived just before Christmas, ready to start work post-festivities.

Drafting the sequel has been an interesting writing exercise in itself, working to get the most from the elements already in place – they say creativity thrives within constraints, after all. I’ve learned more about my writing process, too, and to trust my instincts. Since I have a grown-up author contract I set out to plot like a grown-up author. The very first scene I drafted was what I anticipated would be the final one of the novel. So far, so good. With the overall shape in mind I outlined the early stages, but the further I planned, the more hazy things became. Outlines are sterile things, and I find better details arise organically while drafting. The upshot of this is I’ve stopped trying to plan too far ahead, but now aim to work in chunks of 25-30k at a time with a pause to take stock between each chunk. anticipation

On the reading front I’ve been reading more in other genres this year. Standout reads for me have been The Three by Sarah Lotz, and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson. There was a load more stuff I’d thought to include here, but 2014 is almost done and there’s a lot of work ahead in 2015 so I’m closing now with a suitably festive pic of our dog (the household’s chief wrapping-shredder).

Wishing all the best to everyone for 2015, especially those for whom 2014 has been a particularly tough year.

First Draft Euphoria

Or: Outlining? Pfft.

This week I completed the first draft of the novel I thought I’d never finish, nine months after embarking on a major rewrite. It’s rough, it’s messy, and it weighs in at a suitably epic 124k.  I’ve resisted the temptation to print it out. A whole ream of A4? Ouch. Enough paper’s been sacrificed to reach this stage, most of it dog-eared and no longer relevant:Image

A few lessons learned at this stage. All of them are highly subjective as with any creative process.

This project’s much heftier than previous novels so I’ve needed to keep track of world-building notes and plot details. Scrivener offers loads of options for keeping notes and adding meta-data and it’s taken time to fathom out which are most suited to my way of working. Hopefully for the next project I’ll be able to work smarter from the outset.

I started out with a core 50k from the previous draft. With hindsight it would have been better to ditch that and start from scratch as I spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with detail that’s ceased to be relevant as the story’s evolved.

Outlining’s been of limited use for this project. I feel like it should be some kind of magic plot bullet, but, no. Twists and turns emerge organically once I’m immersed in the writing. I’m a diehard pantser (I need a Bruce Willis-style vest* for writing first drafts). Whenever the drafting process ground to a halt it was because I’d outlined a development that didn’t tally with character motivation.

On the other hand, brainstorming possibilities and mind-mapping them has been tremendously useful. Everything gets jotted down, however daft or dull. Then you can drag them about, rearrange them, highlight the useful ones, cross things out and still have a record of where you’ve been if you need to backtrack. I’ve been using Scapple for this, it’s great value for money but Mac-only. The open source Vue is also very accessible and available for other platforms.

I’ve taken to working in 20-30k chunks, pausing to take stock and brainstorming the next section before pushing on. Freewriting’s been invaluable for pushing through the no-idea-what-happens-next moments. From feeling out of my depth working on a novel of this length I’ve stumbled on a process that works for me.

So, I finally got it written. Now to get it right.

* You already knew not to come to me for sartorial advice, right?

Shakespeare as Oracle, or Much Ado about Plotting and Pantsing

This isn’t where I wax lyrical about how much I love Shakespeare’s work. I’ve read very little of it, beyond what we had to read at school, and remember less. First there was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A character named Bottom? Really? I never quite got past that.* Later, in Middle School, we tackled Julius Caesar. In one memorable** class we had to learn a speech off by heart then stand up and recite it: Therecomesatideintheaffairsofmenwhichiftakenatthefloodleadsontobetterthings … thefaultliesnotinourstarsbutinourselvesthatweareunderlings … Dear Reader, I crashed and burned. Thanks to a crackly radio adaptation we listened to in school I do at least have a favourite line: Then fall Caesar. Gnurrgh.

Somewhere along the way we encountered Romeo and Juliet. I suspect I had mumps at the time, for I managed to keep my eyes averted as I shuffled past their tragic corpses. I can’t even remember which play we studied for ‘O’ levels alongside Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre, although I do remember flinging poor Jane across the room in disgust upon reading the words ‘Reader, I married him.’ One day I might read to the very end, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. Despite the best efforts of the exam boards my reading choices at the time remained centred on space ships, triffids, dragons, and Jane Austen.

But there’s no escaping the ubiquitous bard. I’ll find a phrase noodling around in my mind and, thanks to the wondrous internet, I’ll discover it’s one of his. He has a way with language that makes his phrases stick, tenacious as any earworm. Hold that thought.

What has that to do with plotting and pantsing? You may already have guessed I tend towards the pantsing end of the spectrum. Once I’ve found my characters and their dilemma we launch into the unknown until we run aground 20-30k later, and then pause to take stock. After that I loosely plan the next stage of the story, along the lines of this, this and this has happened, so that, that and that will happen next. But it rarely does. Some other thing crops up, and it’s usually far more convincing than what I’d planned.

So here I am approaching the end of the story. Except the characters galloped headlong into what I’d originally envisaged as the closing scene several thousand words ago and it wasn’t the ending at all. While I was stuck an online friend – plotter to the core – commented she always knows the ending before she begins to write. That just doesn’t work for me, my process is altogether more messy. Away I trailed to delete another 5k of plot cul de sac, envying her efficient process. And the earworm began taunting me – the stupid earworm that led me into the stupid not-ending first time round – the first line from the opening scene of Macbeth. The notion of three characters closing the circle at the end still felt relevant so I went and looked it up in context.

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

Light bulb moment! After several weeks of minimal progress this may be a beleaguered writer clutching at straws, but I like to think my subconscious was on the case the whole time. Either way, I’ve decided which direction the story takes next. Time will tell if it works or not.

This isn’t the first time the bard’s bailed me out when a plot’s stalled. The very first time it was one of Bottom’s lines, no less, rattling round my subconscious since the mid-seventies, just waiting until I needed it to trigger a few new associations:

… to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.

You’d think I’d have learned by now. Next time the writing grinds to a halt I’ll ask the oracle a bit sooner.

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* Anna J Grace-Smith has no such problems. You can find her rather wonderful extrapolation of the tale here.

** A day without a dreadful pun is a day wasted.