Crossing the ts, dotting the is, squaring the circles, tying the loose ends….


I’m coming, I think, to the end of my editing process with book one (The Fall). We even have a cover, to be unveiled soon (I love it). What has surprised me about editing is just how long it all takes.  I’ve been editing since March and we still aren’t finished. I think writing a book is like clicking through different lenses on a microscope. The way that I write, getting the words down on paper is the most enjoyable part. I don’t worry at this stage how the plot holds together, or consistency of character, or adjectival agreement. It can be a joyful, free-wheeling time, as I think creativity should be. This means I am fast, and can write a book in a matter of months.

However, it also means editing is a gigantic pain in the derriere. With one click of the lens, I have to abandon creative joy and start thinking about the big issues – does this plot in fact make any sense? (no) If I do some research, will it all fall apart? (yes, frequently) Does this character need extra scenes to develop them? (yes you eejit, get writing)Then what do I do when it grows 10,000 words too many? (cry) What kind of book is this and does it achieve what it sets out to?

Once the really big editing questions are answered, you have to worry about level two – the character’s hair changes colour halfway through. That bus route doesn’t pass by the church as you’ve said it does in chapter four.  Then, level three, which I am (hopefully) scraping to the end of.  Spelling. Grammar. Is it blond or blonde? That particular conundrum necessitated four different phone calls to my editor last week. Italics? Speech marks? As the microscope focusses in, the minute defects are endless. But, of course, it has to end, because the book is due out. Meanwhile behind the scenes I know it’s taken months to come up with a cover. Producing a book is a whole lot of work.

All of which is why I would hate to self-publish. It’s a profound relief to know that you can unplug yourself from the white-noise that is writing your book alone for months, and ask someone else what works and what doesn’t. That other people will work out what should go on the cover, and what the blurb should read, and check it for mistakes. Because I really can’t do all that myself. That’s why you have an editor.

It’s been a long slog, but with the appearance of the cover I feel it’s not long till I can call myself a properly published author. Now it’s time to attack book two, a plot-addled behemoth of a thriller. I have no idea what to do over some issues. Working on the second book is very different, removed from the blithe ignorance of the first-timer who just writes and hopes.  I find myself noticing minor inconsistencies, like wanting to change the spelling of ‘strobing’, when at this stage I should be wondering if the whole thing in fact makes any sense at all. Today all I did on the book was delete a paragraph, worry about it for several hours, then put it back in again. I’m too close to the work, as people are beginning to tell me, with tact.

This is why I think, to write a book, you have to go through the four stages. When you’re writing it, don’t think about spelling or editing or any of that: just finish it. Don’t let anything unplug you from your creative charge. But now the book is pretty much finished, it’s time to be moving into stage two.  My least favourite bit – does the book make sense? (probably not) Is it any good? (haven’t the faintest idea at this point) But at least I’m not on my own, as I take a deep breath and peer down the lens at the grain of this book. 

I had an opinion once, me.

I must apologise now, because I’m about to regurgitate words all over your screen. I have a lot of thoughts at the moment. They’re popping up faster than chickenpox. I have opinions oozing out of every pore, and thanks to the wonder of the Interweb, no one can stop me grabbing up handfuls and smearing them all over an unsuspecting public. No, really,  you’re welcome.

I watched the London riots from a distance and filtered through TV and the web – what someone like philosopher Slavoj Zizek (not a good drinking buddy, I imagine, you’d think you were already drunk every time you said his name) might call the Desert of the Real.  As far as my actual senses go, I have no idea at all what the riots were like. Pretty scary in places, I imagine. I can’t conceive of what it’s like to have your house burnt out from under you, or forget riot season of 1998 back home (to take just one blood-soaked example), when three kids died after their house was fire-bombed in a similarly pointless explosion of violence. But no, I don’t know what these ones were like.  Instead I experienced the online version, in which reactions and accusations and judgements were hurled like stones. I watched it start small, and then, like the violence, rip its way through the web.  Blogs were flamed. Snide comments launched. In a nice bit of irony, people starting calling for censorship of the net or Blackberry networks (yes, the same ones we use to broadcast these views).

For a while I tried not to say anything, the equivalent of staying at home with the lights off.  I didn’t know enough about it and I don’t even live in London. I didn’t feel entirely entitled to an opinion. But soon it got too much. I was bewildered by the various reactions – calls to shoot on sight, racism, BNP agit-prop, assertions that this event was a product of various societal ills, anger at ‘apologists’, misplaced sympathy, fear, and simple over-reaction (the police in Kent had to keep up a 24-hour Twitter feed explaining that despite online rumours, no, there weren’t any riots in Hastings. THERE AREN’T ANY RIOTS! IT’S JUST A SEAGULL IN A BIN FOR GOD’S SAKE!) Eventually I waded in myself, got accused of being an apologist and/or anti-army, felt a bit bruised, and retreated. Upsettingly, I realised I was censoring myself. Because although I might stick any old ramblings up online (no realy, you’re totally welcome), I don’t want to get embroiled in a riot of the online variety. I just want to have a bit of a laugh and connect with people, basically. And not in a left-hook kind of way.  I just want everyone to be a bit nice – the classic Liberal bumper-sticker.  And as a writer I really don’t want to be censored, most especially not by myself. Censorship is death to creativity, whether it’s thinking, I can’t write this, it’s no good; or I can’t write this, someone might shout at me.

Then, just as quickly, it all died down. My Twitter feed was back to books and what people are having for lunch. The window of having to comment was over. It was an unusual feeling during those few days, the perceived pressure to have an opinion, any opinion, and the burning need to articulate it, versus the uneasy suspicion that, much like that drunk friend who hurls themselves into a nascent fight shouting ‘LET’S ALL JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN, DUDES!’, joining in was only going to make it worse.

Worse than this was the implication that a) having a bitter laugh about it; or b) talking about something non-riot related, was in some way offensive. I saw a few people getting attacked online for putting up pre-scheduled tweets about writing, for example. I find this bewildering and more than a little frightening. Perhaps I’m just used to riots (back home we even have a Riot Season) and I underestimate the impact they had on people. But it feels to me like what the internet has created is a sloshing reservoir full of uncorroborated opinion, and an educated, articulate user-base who feel driven to share these opinions with the world, however little they know. To scoop a handful of opinion and splash it all over everyone. And I’m one of them. And this blog post is one more handful of LISTEN TO ME, I HAD A THOUGHT ONCE AND THIS IS IT. Next time there’s a storm in a Twitter-cup I might make myself a badge that says: I DON’T KNOW WHAT I THINK. I HAVE NEITHER THE TIME NOR THE KNOWLEDGE TO FORMULATE A COHERENT OPINION ON THIS TOPIC. LET’S JUST BE NICE, MMMKAY KIDS?

Thanks for listening.  Please don’t shout at me.

How to Get Published 2: Read

By this I mean two pieces of advice.  First, read as much as possible of what you’d like to write. This is the easiest writing tip you’ll ever get, because A) in theory, as a writer you enjoy books, and would rather read than do almost anything else; and B) All you have to do is read! You don’t even have to take notes or be aware of how the story is constructed. Just immerse yourself in it, and somehow, by strange alchemy, the awareness of form will seep through your fingers and you’ll be able to reproduce it yourself. So just read, lots and lots! To help with this, try to spend your adolescence being really geeky and living somewhere where the only entertainment is sheep-rustling and illegal underage drinking in fields (worked for me). Ensure you have a good library nearby that will be flexible about age limits and let you take out Stephen King though you are only ten and it will scare the bejaysus out of you.  Sneak reads at those books your mother puts on the high shelf in case they corrupt your mind. Just read everything you can get your hands on – this is the writer’s apprenticeship. Don’t worry if you go through phases where you just regurgitate thinly-veiled copies of what you’ve read and loved. This should pass (if it doesn’t and you don’t realise, that’s a bit of a problem).

The second point I was going to make was about reading how-to books. I went through a bit of a stage last year of being mildly obsessed with how-to writing books. I must have read nearly every one going. Why? Partly I found them fascinating, discussing the craft and art of it, and imagining living as a writer. I love the insight into the mind of someone else who thinks like me – it’s the same reason I actually love reading fiction with a writer as a central character. But on the whole I think it was good old-fashioned procrastination. As long as I was reading these, I felt I was working on being a writer, without having to actually do any work. (Clever). So these suggestions come with a caveat – you still have to actually sit down and write.

A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist, Louise Doughty – One of the first I read, when I was still struggling to finish the book. I didn’t actually follow the exercises (am not a fan of exercise in general) but it gave me the nudge I needed to finish. Read if you’re bogged down in the writing still and the end if not in sight.

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg – a brilliant guide to freeing your creativity, and writing – and living – without fear. Read this if you’re stuck and feel frightened of your writing.

Teach Yourself: Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published – written by an agent, I found this useful and practical. Read if you’re ready to get serious.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass – written by a top US agent and author, I’ve gone back to this time and time again. It’s lengthy and thorough, and outlines exactly what makes certain books bestsellers. Read if you’ve finished a first draft and you want to know how to make it even better.

Getting Published – Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide, Harry Bingham – a common-sense guide to the process of publishing. Read if you’re experiencing pre-submission jitters or ludicrous doubts (see previous posts).

On Writing, Stephen King – as compelling and easy to read as any of his novels. Not sure it teaches that much practically, but it’s compulsive reading. Read if you want to know how to live as a writer, and from what deep well the words are wrung.

Wannabe a Writer?, Jane Wenham-Jones – hilarious and practical guide to the whole business. Read if you need to take your writing less seriously, and have a good laugh while still learning a lot. There’s also a sequel -Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard of? – which is a must-read for when you’re about to be published and need to know about putting yourself out there.

From Pitch to Publication, Carole Blake – by uber-agent Carole, this is really useful for more established writers, who perhaps have contracts already. Read if you need to understand how the business of publishing works, and what an agent can do for you.

How Not to Write a Novel-a humorous look at what we do wrong in writing. Read if you want a laugh and need to know what mistakes to avoid.

Enjoy! If you know of any more, do send them my way.

Irrational Worries of the Writer

 

 

It’s not a profession that lends itself well to mental health, writing. Look at poor old Sylvia Plath – she was only 30 when she lost her struggle against depression, and during a freezing British winter, put her head in the oven. 30! (What have I been doing with my life?). Hemmingway, drinking himself to death for years, then finally putting a shotgun in his mouth. Arthur Koestler, who along with his wife took a lethal cocktail of booze and pills. Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and then threw himself down the stairs forty years later.

This is kind of depressing. What was my point? Oh yes – we may not have the same mortality rates as rock stars, but writers do mine a dark seam of misery, alcoholism, and mental illness. It’s not surprising, actually. Sitting day after day, unspooling the bizarre contents of your mind onto the page, with no company but the imaginary characters who prod and poke you and demand to have their story told? I think crime writers must have it worst – perfectly nice people who are driven to excavate the darkest caverns of the human heart and shovel out the substrate on the page. How do you cope?

There used to be a certain tolerance to the myth of the tortured artist. The writer as rock star. In these days of dwindling advances and perfectly packaged media phenomena, it no longer cuts any ice. The writer needs to be well-behaved, presentable, but above all productive. There’s no time for demons. However dark and wrenching your tale, you must still present it on deadline and comb through it for stray commas. Going to Hell and back is no excuse for sloppy punctuation.

But there is an upside. In my so-far limited experience, it’s the not-writing that makes you crazy. If you’re really a writer, nothing makes as much sense as when the story is coming. You may in fact look up from the screen to find the real world is the one that looks flat, dark. So we can keep the whole shambolic show on the road by writing, writing, moving the fingers over the keys. But just to let the crazy out a little, I find myself plagued from time to time by what I like to think of as Irrational Worries of the Writer. These include, but are not limited to:

What if I die before I write my book? I’ve got this totally awesome idea but I won’t be ready to write it until three or four books down the line. What if I die before I get this masterpiece finished? How will the world cope with such a loss? I don’t want it to be finished by some loser who will never have my grasp of character and situation.

What if someone else comes up with the same idea before I can get mine out? I’ve got this totally awesome idea but it’s going to take me a while to write/edit/sell it. In the meantime what if some other ‘writer’ gets it out there sooner? I’ll have to pull mine, even though I’d obviously tell it a million times better. How will the world cope with such a deprivation?  

What if someone steals my title? I’ve got this totally awesome title but what if someone’s already used it for a recent, similar book? (This has actually happened to me, and it was quite irritating, I can vouch).

What if I accidentally libel someone? You read a few cases of people being sued for millions, and you see the libel clause in your contract. You think about how you used Aunt Maria’s chin-hair for that librarian character in chapter four. You panic.

What if someone real gets upset and realises or thinks it’s them in the books? Of course you’ve used the deepest emotional trauma of your own life, especially in your first book (may as well get some use from it). But what if your parents get really upset and refuse to speak to you, and your grandma cuts you out of her inheritance forever? You really wanted that Royal Doulton teaset, dammit.

What if I use real-life locations and they get cross? I’ve said my character goes to a real hospital down the road and they set her leg so badly she has a limp for life, and this is what impedes her in the chase with the knife-wielding villain….Wait, will the hospital sue me for maligning them? Should I make up a hospital? Subtly change the letters? Oh dear.

Have I accidentally used a line I read somewhere before? I always get this one when I’ve written a plot twist or a line that seems particularly harmonious. I don’t remember everything I’ve read in my life (and I’ve read a LOT), so what are the chances I might accidentally plagiarise someone. This is a big worry.

What if no one buys my books and I have to stop being a writer?

Too scary to think about. If I was Ernest Hemmingway I’d be pouring myself a large whiskey right about now….