All posts in Dark Heart

Superheroic writing plan and Seven Wonders progress report

Last week I did a bit of a mid-year assessment of my writing, comparing where I want to be with where I actually am, having a look at word counts and targets (daily, weekly, yearly), and sketching out not only writing work for the next six months, but looking ahead a little to see what projects I will have coming up well into 2010. It’s important for all writers – seasoned pros or enthusiastic amatuers – to set writing goals that are measurable and attainable, and it’s equally important to take stock at regular intervals to see what needs improving, and how the long-term writing plan needs adjusting. I even got a wall planner, wrote some dates and timelines on it, and stuck it to the wall next to my computer. It’s a good reference, and with a glance I can remind myself what I need to achieve this month, next month, before Christmas, etc.

For the moment, I have three main things on my mind. So for today, first on the list, is my superhero novel Seven Wonders.

Seven Wonders has a target of 100,000 words. I’ve just today hit 46,454. My own, self-imposed deadline for this is Friday 31st July, so I need to crank out about 2,000 words a day to get this first draft done.

Seven Wonders has been an interesting learning experience. I chose this as my second novel quite deliberately, as the modern-day third person style is very different to the pseudo-Victorian first person of my steampunk series. Writing is a continuous learning process, and having completed my first 100,000-word novel in one style and genre (Dark Heart), I needed to tackle a different genre and style to learn about that.

And it was hard work. I didn’t do a comprehensive outline either. Instead I wrote a list of 45 key events or plot points that I wanted to occur – most of them flow from one to the other, so arranging these ideas into a story order is relatively straight forward. I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, so really it’s just filling in the gaps and cementing the plot threads together.

What I soon discovered was that without a proper outline, I initially floundered a little. I found myself picking and choosing exciting moments from that list of 45, and writing those almost as self-contained vignettes. While each was satisfying in its own right, because I was skipping story chronology, I couldn’t quite visualise a cohesive narrative for the novel as a whole. Cue hair-tearing and table-thumping and declarations that writing is not for me and I should really be doing something else with my time.

Which, of course, is what every single writer thinks at some point or another. Looking back at Dark Heart, I had exactly the same feeling at almost exactly the same wordcount – that this was too hard, too big, too stupid, and 25,000 words really was enough of this nonsensical slog.

And again, as with Dark Heart, a few thousand words later it all seemed to snap into place. With Seven Wonders, it was when I picked a pivotal scene from that master list and wrote it, then an idea came to me and I wrote the next scene. Then the next, and the next. From here onwards I seem to be moving linearlly through the story, and I expect to continue to do so until I reach the end. This means that I’ll have the second quarter of the book to go back and write, but knowing how the land lies from words 50,000 to 100,000, it should be quite satifying to tie it up with some backstory and earlier events.

What I have I learnt so far from Seven Wonders? That writing is hard work, but it I can do it, and that throwing the computer out of the window after a few weeks of work is just a natural instinct best ignored.

According to my schedule, Seven Wonders will take me to the end of July. Following this, I have all of August pencilled in to edit and revise Dark Heart before I send it to my beta readers. If I can time it right, I should be in a good position to start querying agents with this – steampunk seems to be gaining (quite coincidentally) in popularity. Just this weekend, the latest issue of SFX magazine arrived with a big feature article on the genre, and there seemed to be a lot of interest generated by my guest posts at Babbling About Books.

But first things first. I have superheroes to torment and Californian cities to destroy. Someone has just betrayed the Seven Wonders, and the villain has met an untimely early death!

Superhero and steampunk round-up

I know I promised some info on Crescent Rising this week, but we’re actually busy rebuilding things as our secret planning site for that collaborative fiction universe got hacked and/or taken offline. Hopefully the database will be retrieveable, but in the meantime it’s about time I updated a couple of links.

Last month I attended the Bristol Comic Expo, which featured DC Comics Senior Executive Editor Dan DiDio as guest of honour. They’ve dropped off the main site now, but I wrote three reports for major US comic site Comic Book Resources. Snag them here:

The DC Universe – Story plans and upcoming titles and events for 2009-2010.
DC Nation – The first and only time a DC Nation has been hosted outside the US. Great discussion and feedback session.
Gibbins & Higgins Talk Watchmen – including CG genitalia.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to write an essay on steampunk, and why I chose to write in this slightly unusual genre, for Babbling About Books, the website of New York-based blogger Kate Garrabrant. Kate split my rather long essay into three chunks (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but I’m going to reproduce it here in full. I’ve also added in some extra detail about the various subdivisions of steampunk, which I had glossed over in the main piece and then went into when prompted by some reader comments on Kate’s blog.

I’ll put this on its own page, but in the meantime, sit back with your favourite brand of absinthe and afix your Gentlemen Reading Goggles at setting four!

Top Hats and Hellfire – The mystique of Steampunk

1. “So, what are you writing about?”

Cue the big grin, the far-away look, the deep breath the preceeds five minutes of non-stop exposition. Hand-waving optional but recommended. Because you’ve just asked a writer their favourite question.

Well, most writers, anyway. For Those Guys it’s easy. “Oh yeah, Jack is a cop, and he’s about to retire when his young niece goes missing…”, or “Well, it’s about a princess called Missy who lives in magic castle…”. Those Guys, they have it so easy. Ten minutes later, your eager audience is delighted and expresses good luck and best wishes for the project. If they’re related to you in some way, most likely an elderly aunt that you don’t really know that well, then expect excited promises to buy the book when (if!) it comes out.

But then there’s us. We’re not anything special, we’re just average Joe writers working hard at our craft, just like Those Guys. Thing is, to answer the question “So, what are you writing about?”, we need more than five minutes and a wistful gaze. This expedition needs provisions. Tea, coffee, cake. Anything with sugar or stimulants. Then that deep breath (we have the same requirement for oxygen as Those Guys), and we’re off.

“So, when Babbage designed his difference engine… you know Babbage? And the difference engine? Like a big clockwork computer. No, not 1972, 1822. No, I don’t know how it works either. Okay, so let’s skip that… so then Byron, riding a steam-powered brass horse, becomes Prime Minister… the poet, Byron? Yes, steam-powered. Like a robot. Star Wars? Erm, not quite. Steam-powered, yes. Okay, so going back a bit, you know the industrial revolution…?”

This goes on for some time. Eventually you’ve laid the foundation, explained the world, and you’re fairly sure Great Aunt Nelly has remembered that Faraday is a time-travelling action hero, even if she doesn’t quite know that he really discovered electromagnetism in the mid-19th century. And then you get the seal of approval: “Well, good luck with the writing! I can’t wait to buy it in a bookstore!”. My advice at this point is to just smile and drink your tea. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t actually got to the story yet, the bit you’re actually writing. Get used it. As a writer of steampunk, incomprehension and potted histories of Victorian railway engineering go with the territory like gaslight and brass goggles.

2. What is steampunk?

I should preface this by saying I’m not an expert on steampunk. Steampunk is a vast, complex subcultural phenomenon that spans literature, fashion, philosophy, comic books. And while I go misty eyed over the thought of top-hatted Victorian explorers travelling to the moon in coal-fired brass rocket, or Sherlock Holmes packing a clockwork raygun as he battles the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I’m not particularly interested in wearing Edwardian frockcoats over brass breastplates decorated with clock gears. True enough, I’m probably slightly too interested in the facial hair of King George V as is normally considered healthy, but I’m not a “steampunk”, if such a thing even exists or is an appropriate label. See, I really don’t know. Steampunk as a fashion statement and as a way of life is, I think, a related but somewhat distinct movement from steampunk as a science fiction/fantasy subgenre.

Responsibilty disclaimed. So, what is steampunk?

Steampunk itself can be broaded divided into two different sorts – ‘period’ steampunk, and ‘modern’ steampunk.

Period steampunk is set, usually, during the height of the Victorian era. Top hats and canes, gaslight and London fog, moustachioed adventurers unwrapping mummies in the British museum. Every kind of Victorian pulp cliché and imagery, with added supertechnology. And by supertechnology, I mean technology which more or less resembles the correct period, but is floating away into the realms of fantasy. Steam-powered robots, clockwork rayguns, giant calculating machines that think. All related to the fundamentals of the late Industrial Revolution – namely steam power. Period steampunk is a vision of that period of industrial revolution accelerated, advancing science and technology to fantastical reaches, allowing the Victorians to colonise Mars in coal-fired rockets, or the monarchy overthrown by a clockwork computer. These are just examples. It could also be something much better. /futurama

‘Modern’ steampunk, by contrast, is set in the present day or the future, and postulates that the steam tech of the 19th century never went away, that the 20th century developments of electricity and electronics never happened. Instead, we get a charactiture of Victorian life in the present day – people still wear top hats, gentlemen discuss matters of great import in their exclusive clubs, and detectives chase cut-throats through the gaslit streets. But computers are clockwork, intercontinental travel is via supersonic steam-powered zeppilin, and a night at the movies is brought to you by Mebberson’s Magic Lantern, That Wondrous and Fully Patented All-Purpose Aetheric Transference Visiscope to Delight and Thrill All-Ages.

Both are alternative versions of our Earth. One is about a superadvanced Victorian age, exploring how the wonderfully inventive and eclectic society of the 19th century would use such fantasic technology. The other is about modern or future age which, despite disappearing into a steam-powered technological dead end, has flourished, using steam and coal for outrageous and decidedly modern achievements.

However, to build up a more accurate picture of the possibilities of steampunk, I need to expand on this rather cut and dried definition, because, obviously, you can have steampunk elements in a book which isn’t steampunk, and likewise you can have a steampunk book that is nothing to do with Victorians and the Industrial Revolution.

For the first example, I’m currently reading Lamentation, by Ken Scholes, which is a rather good high fantasy novel. Except it includes steam-powered robots called mechanoservitors, which are programmed by engraved metal scrolls.

Does this make Lamentation a steampunk novel? No, I’d certainly be happy calling it high fantasy. But it’s a steampunk element – ie, a steam-powered, out-of-place piece of supertechnology.

The second example is something like Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian series, starting with The Court of the Air and following with The Kingdom Beyond The Waves and most recently The Rise of the Iron Moon. The world of his novels is Victorian-esque, and mixes magic and steampunk (complete with airships!) very effectively, but it’s not set in England, or even on the Earth, unless it is in parallel universe several times removed. Later books do hint at it being modern steampunk, but set in the far, far future after some calamity, but I don’t want to give anything away!

Interestingly, Stephen’s first novel, For the Crown and the Dragon, is actually a very good example of real period steampunk, where the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century are fought with wizardry and steam-powered supertechnology.

So, back to that that difficult question “So, what are you writing?”. While steampunk is growing in popularity, it’s still a fairly specialised subgenre, and unlike mainstream fiction or even science ficton and fantasy, it relies heavily on context and historical knowledge. Sure, it’s pulpy, that’s part of the charm, but it’s also literate and intelligent to a degree that perhaps other genres aren’t. For example, in my own steampunk novel, Dark Heart (modern steampunk, I should add), you really need to know that in our universe, Prince Albert died in 1861, not Queen Victoria. Once you realise that he’s still around in 2009 while Queen Victoria succumbed to typhoid in his place 148 years ago, you can start to see how real history can be adapted, twisted, and rewritten to present a new, alternate reality of brass and leather and steam.

3. What’s the appeal?

Ah, to ask the unanswerable. Why do some people like olives, and why do some people like Westerns. I suspect most fans of steampunk, the literary genre at least, feel nostalgic for an imaginary Golden Age that waxed and waned 150 years before their birth. An age where everything had it’s place, where formal headwear was required when out of doors, where men could smoke cigars and stroke their waxed moustaches (their own, I imagine, although I’m sure mutual beard-stroking is a niche market) and women could be frightfully brave and adventurous and yet still look hot in a bustle.

But clearly to be a fan of such a bizarre genre isn’t as strange as all that. Alan Moore, the greatest comic writer there has ever been, has gathered a huge following with the decidedly steampunk League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and super-gravitational science hero Tom Strong. Northern Lights – aka The Golden Compass – features airships and clockwork magic. Steampunk is in now like it never has been before. Of course, steampunk existed even in the Victorian age itself – Jules Verne and HG Wells, with their Captain Nemos and First Men in the Moon, were not only the first writers of science fiction, they were also the finest proponents of genuinely period steampunk.

And let’s face it, a man really should never be without a hat while outdoors. It’s just not seemly.

4. Writing steampunk

And here, dear reader, I must admit to a frank truth that may, if administered without due preparation and preface, be prone to cause such surprise and shock that certain jointed extremeities may with sudden impulse become quite weak, necessitating an immediate adoption of the reclined position and the furious fanning of whatever Popular Magazines may lie close to hand, preferably with the able skill of a personal friend.

Because, friend, writing steampunk is a damn good lark.

It’s not easy. If you want to sink right into the world, you pretty much need to hunker down in front of your keyboard and pretend you’re Sir Aurther Conan Doyle. You need to get the style, the wordage, of an era and style long since passed. If you can crack it without throwing your computer off the nearest convenient balcony, it’s a hoot.

Fun it may be, exhausting it most certainly is. My first official foray into steampunk was a novella, something like 26,000 words, called The Devil in Chains. I wrote it for the web zine Pantechnicon, and it was split into two parts and published in 2008-2009, and it’s also available as an eBook for the iPhone/iPod touch.

To give a practical demonstration of the difficulty in describing steampunk to an unknowing audience, here’s the blurb I finally came up with. This is approximately the 34th draft, give or take.

December 14th, 1861. Queen Victoria dies from typhoid fever. A distraught Prince Albert instigates a coup and takes direct control of the Empire. A patron of science, he steers the path of progress down a dark and dangerous road, antagonizing the forces of magic and the occult as he strives to bring his queen back from the other side. As the 21st century dawns, the world is trapped in a Victorian caricature, industry powered by sun and steam. And nearly 150 years since the death of his wife, Albert still fights to bring her back, his lifespan unnaturally extended with steam power and black arts.

When journalist Jackson Clarke is sent to the Isle of Man to investigate the tale of a talking animal, he unwittingly steps into a battle between mankind and an ancient evil imprisoned beneath the peaceful island. Charged with treason and cut off from the mainland, can Clarke defeat the Devil in Chains?

Gripping stuff, I hope you’ll agree. I actually wrote it almost as a trial run for my first steampunk novel, Dark Heart, which features the two main characters introduced in The Devil in Chains, now in partnership many years later as part of an occult-detective agency. In Dark Heart, the agency is sent by the British government to investigate a poltergeist outbreak in the West African jungle, where they uncover a buried voodoo god and a zombie army. Meanwhile, an explosion rips through the heart of London and a steam-powered serial killer stalks the streets.

Oh yeah, and an airship crashes into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

See? Steampunk is fun! The pulpiness of it is part of the appeal, letting you play with clichés and familiar tropes, welding them together to form something quite, quite wonderful. Despite what appears to be a fairly rigid form, in many ways steampunk actually allows far more creative freedom that regular space-faring science fiction or even fantasy – the more outrageous the steampunk scenario, the more fun it is hammering in to the pseudo-Victorian framework. One of my current projects is a collaborative fictional universe, Cresent Rising, set in a single location, the mythical city of Fell Hold, and as part of that I’m writing a steampunk story set in an early period of the city’s history. The title started as a joke – Captain Carson and the Case of the Robot Zombie – but then I realised it was actually perfect. Fitting a plot around it was hard work, but immensely satisfying once all the pieces had been slotted together. And this is an example of that other-worldly steampunk – it’s not Victorian England, although it might be a parallel universe several times removed.

5. The future of steampunk

What’s next? Well, for me, getting that draft of Dark Heart ready to pitch to an agent, while plotting Captain Carson’s adventures in Fell Hold City. In the meantime, I’m writing a superhero novel called Seven Wonders – more as a break from the rigours of first-person Victoriana – but when that’s done, it’s on to Dark Heart II. And then III, and then IV. And then… well, you get the picture.

The popularity of steampunk and it’s various subcategories – Deiselpunk, Oilpunk, NeoEdwardian – is likely to come and go, just as with any genre. You must never write just to fit a trend, because by the time your book is out the trend will be long dead. But for fans and enthusiasts of brass and leather and steam and robots and airships and rockets and, well, anything that the extraordinary and unique Victorians could never had built in their wildest imaginings, there are fog-shrouded cities to explore, robotic murders to solve, and Venusian landscapes to visit with hot-air balloons. All with tophat and cane and a stiff upper lip.

And brass goggles. Don’t forget the goggles.

The difficult second album

This is weird.

Back when I was writing my first novel, Dark Heart, I got about a third of the way through and started to panic. I was finding it hard to write in the pseudo-Victorian style, and as I’d decided to make it first person from about six different points of view it seemed like I was deliberately making it as difficult as possible. I considered stopping, and switching to my superhero story (now called Seven Wonders), which I thought would be much easier as it’s a modern-day, third-person book. Standard fare, easy to write.

Fortunately I saw good sense and kept on with Dark Heart, and shortly after my angst I found the natural pace of it and the whole thing took off. I was done in a couple of months, with 120,000-ish words done. That book was put in the draw to be worried about later this year.

Seven Wonders has reached about 20,000 words, and is completely horrible to write. This is my first full-length third-person novel, and I’m finding the style very, very dull. Sure, I’ve read plenty of great third-person books, and most people prefer it to first (and nobody uses second, unless the book is deliberately strange). But it’s boring to write, and boring to read back. Maybe I’m destined to write steampunk and alternate Victorian histories. Maybe superheroes, as much as I love them, are not for me, at least in prose form.

So now it occurs to me I’ve hit exactly the same point as I did in Dark Heart, where I have convinced myself it’s all worthless and that I’m better off switching to something else.

It feels worse this time, but then I’m probably just saying that. I’m sure the Dark Heart roadblock was just as bad. And the thing is I need to get my writing habits down pat, which means finishing this 100,000 word novel so I can get on to the next one. If I allow myself to stop a book mid-flow once, I’ll let myself do it twice, three times, etc. By the year’s end I’ll have written half a million words and have four abandoned novels.

The problem, I suppose, is that I’m worrying about what I write. There are two things I need to remind myself of.

One, the first draft is going to be cack. This is the vomit draft, the type anything draft, the get the story down on paper so you don’t forget the plot draft. This is about typing 100,000 words, one after another, until I reach the end. Nobody will ever read this draft. Which brings me to:

Two, any and all problems in the first draft will be fixed in the rewrite. So I write a page of the worst prose ever produced by a human being. So what? When it comes to draft two, I’ll spot it a mile off and will rewrite it until it’s good. Easy.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. If I can fool my conscious mind into believing those two facts, perhaps my subconscious will do the work for me and will get the remaining 80,000 words down. And the quicker I get those words down, the quicker I can file this away as novel number 2, and get on with the third. Novel 1 was an achievement; novel 2 will show me that it wasn’t a fluke.

Ok, problem solved. Thanks for listening!

Lulu is dangerous

I’m not going to get into a debate here, or discuss why self-publishing is ultimately a bad idea, or at least a dead-end alley if you’re not careful. But one good thing about Lulu is that the price is pretty gosh-darned good.

As Dark Heart is maturing for a few months before I commence the edit and second draft, I discovered that creating an actual physical book with Lulu was cheaper than getting the manuscript printed at a copy centre. So just three days after uploading my manuscript, a handsome trade paperback of Dark Heart arrived in the mail.

Dark Heart in print. Not!

The quality is superb, and if I’d gone to any trouble with the cover and interior, I could easily pretend it was a published book.

Pretend is the key word there.

But for a printed editing copy, it’s great. It’s portable, the paper quality is great. So I can take it anywhere, read it, make notes, scribble all over the inside. Good stuff.

Dark Heart 1st draft: complete!

I apologise for not jumping straight in an announcing it, but I’ve been enjoying a few well-earned days off. But I am very pleased to say that on Thursday 9th April, 2009, at something like 7.50am, I completed the first draft of Dark Heart. The target wordcount was 100,000 words. I made it to 118,637, which is fine and dandy as I can already see sections that need reworking and editing, so cutting 18,637 should be fine. A huge, rollercoaster of a novel in 19 sizzling chapters; a searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in… erm, hang on, that’s not it! Ancient voodoo gods, steam-powered cyborgs, and a final battle in the flooded London Underground (although it’s the Vacuum Tube Transport System really).

One unexpected side-effect was that as soon as I saved the project, created a back-up and an archive, and updated my wordcount spreadsheet, I felt quite sad. For a project of this difficulty – first-person Victoriana told from the point of view of about five different characters, each requiring their own voice and personality – I was really, really looking forward to finishing it and moving onto something more straight forward. Third-person, modern day, easy!

But then it hit me that these characters – Dr Clarke, Alexander Bellamy, Zoe, Canadian Airman Scott Faulkner, and others – had been living in my mind for the better part of three years. The writing itself took around a year, although about 80,000 words were written in the last couple of months as I finally cracked the procrastination bug.

And now they’re gone, frozen in amber as the final page of the book is turned over. The immediate reaction to this would be to start the sequel – I have the second book plotted and it’s ready to roll – but this would really be a bad idea.

Firstly, Dark Heart isn’t done. It needs an edit, and a second draft. But I can’t do that now, because I’m too close to it. It needs to ‘cellar’ for a few months until I forget how I wrote it, and then I can read it fresh and will be able to edit, cut and change as required with a much clearer view of what works and what doesn’t, rather than what I want to work.

Secondly, if something significant changes in Dark Heart, it will affect the sequel. So if I start the sequel before Dark Heart is at second draft, that might be a lot of work to undo further down the track.

Those are the two practical reasons why the as-yet untitled sequel needs to wait. In the meantime, I need to learn more about the craft of writing, so I need to write something completely different as a new challenge.

This challenge is a modern-day superhero novel that I used to call Power, but now I’m calling New Gods. Yes, okay, it’s just a working title, and comics legend Jack Kirby got there a LONG time before me, and I would be a foolish writer who would speak of their meagre efforts in the same breath as Kirby. But it’s a good title, and there is no connection to Kirby’s Fourth World, but the title is relevant and resonates with my story. And anyway, titles are not important at such an early stage. So for now, New Gods will be a useful enough temporary title to save my project as.

So here’s to Dark Heart! A novel of blood, sweat and tears, both for myself and for my heroes, who are well and truly wrung by the end of it.

And here’s to New Gods!

100,000 words, and beyond!

Funnily enough, the 100,000 word mark – which I reached on Dark Heart sometime last week – didn’t feel like a big deal. 100,000 words is the intended final length, but with my buffer of 25,000 to get the story finished, it didn’t quite feel like the milestone I thought it would. So no matter, I kept on trucking, and the draft is now 113,138 words long. See, I even passed another 10k marker and didn’t even notice!

Dark Heart draft 1 is now in the final stages. I’ve just written the grand finale, where three plot strands come together for a big old fight, a difficult decision is taken, a sacrifice is made, the world is saved, and one major character dies.

Novels are all about character change – the heroes or heroines that enter the story at the beginning cannot be the same heroes or heroines that exit the story at the end. They must change, or there is no point in writing the story. That’s something I was very conscious of whenever I took a step back to check what I was writing against the plot I had designed. Did events have meaning for the characters? Do the characters change over the novel?

I think the answer has been ‘yes’ at every checkpoint. The finale itself was rather difficult to write, and as a single chapter of 7000 words I know it is way too long. I’ve been trying very hard not to worry about what I write, but even so, I can clearly see areas that need to be cut and tightened. I don’t think there will be any problems with reducing the text to 100,000 words when I’m done.

So what’s left? A closing chapter, then a coda, and then I need to go back and fill in those 1000 words that went missing when my backup failed, and add in the second chapter in the story of the Interregnum. It’s almost like the last piece in the puzzle, as it will link up the black sarcophagus buried outside the temple in Africa with the exiled kings of Europe, and the strange gentlemen who makes a rather surprising entrance in the final battle.

Getting close now!

Days like these

Took a break from my regular work schedule today to focus solely on Dark Heart. Because the target wordcount has been revised upwards, from 100,000 words to 125,000 words, and because I still want to get the first draft completed as close to my original deadline of March 31st as possible, I decided to try and put some extra elbow grease in and see how far I could get.

I started at 9am, and finished at 5pm. I took a couple of breaks, had a nice lunch, and also managed to finish A. Lee Martinez’s truely excellent The Automatic Detective. And by close of business I had 6148 words under the belt. That beat my old daily wordcount record by nearly 100%, so it’s say to say that I am currently enjoying a very smug cup of tea. Today I did good.

So Dark Heart, a rip-roaring tale of steam-flavoured adventure, is now at 87,501 words. This gives me 37,499 to go. Of course when I hit the 100k mark I spend some time time in quiet celebration, as this was my original finish point. Actually it’s still my finish point – the extra 25,000 words is a buffer to let me finish the story. And then later this year the fun begins of trying to cut the thing down to an acceptable size.

One interesting side-effect of being so immersed in writing and fiction is that I’ve found my mind picking apart plot and dialogue in other things. To take an example, last night I watched an episode of The Invasion, a rather good Doctor Who story from 1968. But as the story unfolded, I found myself analysing the dialogue, working out how the scriptwriter had got from one line to the next, almost second-guessing how conversations between characters ran. And today, finishing off The Automatic Detective, I could almost see the thought processes that led the plot down several twists and turns.

I’ve never seen, read, heard or absorbed fiction like this before, and I put it down to my new (and successful) habit of a high daily wordcount. If nothing else, this is some serious bootcamp training for my mind on the mechanics of writing and of story, and is (I hope) a strong sign that I’m learning some good lessons.

Time will tell if this pans out of course – I know for a fact that the section I’ve been working on is padded and will need a significant rewrite, but I won’t worry about that until June or July.

But maybe, just maybe, somewhere in those 125,000 words of waffle will be one good 100,000 word novel.

Wordcounts, targets, and the problem of waffle

I shook my head. “Nope. We tend to keep things just on the normal side of paranormal back home. Easier to shoot at.”

“Any opportunities for past-it sergeants?”

“Not with a moustache like that, pal…”

The good news! Dark Heart has hit another milestone – today I crossed the 75,000-word mark. Which is pretty great, and firm proof that my new writing routine is right on the mark – 1600 words a day, Monday-Friday; 3000 words a day, Sat-Sun. That averages 2000 words a day. And ok, I don’t want to get too clinical about it, but it’s useful to know.

The bad news! This sucker isn’t going to be finished at 100,000 words. I had a feeling this would happen, but it’s actually a good kind of bad. I’d rather hit 100,000 words and keep on trucking, rather than find my story collapses in on itself well before the 100k mark. That would be a bad sign.

The solution? Well, I figure I can round this off at 125k, and have it finished not on March 31st, as planned, but April 10th. So I’ll be ten days out but have a considerably longer story.

So why did I decide on 100,000 words in the first place? Quite simply, the length of a debut genre novel is 80,000 – 100,000 words. Any longer than that and the book costs too much to print, pack and ship, and no publisher wants to take a chance like than on an unknown quantity. So 100,000 words it is – I chose the upper end because it’s a psychological milestone for myself, and I figured that as I’ve got three or four plotlines running this story that I’d need the extra leg room.

And now I need a full 25k more. But no problem – sure, it means I’m going to need to cull 25,000 words when I come to second draft, but I need to let the story finish naturally without rushing or forcing anything precisely so I can work out which are the good bits and which are the bits that need trimming.

In particular, I’ve been spending the last few days in the company of our Canadian airman, Scott Cleveland Faulkner, as he relates his side of the army camp attack to Grange and Megan, who rescue him from the crashed airship at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Now, Scott’s a talker, and he’s fun to be around, but I’m very aware that a lot of his story is going to have to go. It’s way, way too long, but the guy just won’t shut up. Even now, he’s standing inside the ruined temple, torch in hand, lecturing me about what he thinks of the ancient stonework. Come on, get to the action!
But that’s part of the exercise. If I decide that this is too much waffle and try to reign it it, Faulkner’s voice will become forced, and the condensation of the story will show in the prose and the reader will spot what I’ve done. So I need to forget about it, get the words down, regardless of length, and then once this section is finished I can then, and only then, work out which are the good bits and which are the unnecessary bits, and edit accordingly. Well, not for months of course (editing as you write is the road to gauranteed failure), but it’ll all be there, a sort of ‘director’s cut’ for me (the director) to pick and choose from as I wish.

So, 75,867 words down, 49,133 to go. Better see if I can sneak some more in tonight…

The Mounted Patrol

Time for some Dark Heart work-in-progress! And thanks to the supreme talents of Glen Southern from Southern Graphics, I’ve even got a rather spiffing visual to go with it.

In Prince Albert’s London, the centre of his Science Empire, the streets are patrolled by the Metropolitan Mounted Patrol. Once regular bobbies, the best were selected and… altered. Augmented is the official word, transformed into steam-powered cyborgs on steam-powered cyborg horses. Our London-based heroes, market stallholder Grange Parkes and his wife Megan, have a close encounter with a patrolman on an apparently ordinary afternoon.

Megan clutched my arm, and together we looked up into the face of the mounted patrolman. Its horse was now statue-still. The blank metal panel that formed the face of the patrolman titled downwards slightly, scanning the humans that stood at no more than knee height to it. I breathed deeply, and focussed on sorting a stack of brown crepe bags that had partially scattered back into a neat pile. Out of my field of sight, I could feel the market shoppers dispersing in almost total silence.

Five bags, six bags, seven bags, one with a tear.

Two iron plates ground together to form a glacial monotone. “Licence please.”

The Mounted Patrol

Click here for the full-sized version!

Dark Heart is now approaching 75,000 words. Getting close now! Look out for another update later this week.

So I wrote a novel

Well, by some counts anyway. Dark Heart is now at 63,096 words, and one definition of a novel is anything over 60k. Go me! Actually, another definition says it’s 50k, but I wonder if the wikipedia entry for novel length has been edited by the bods behind NaNoWriMo… but I digress. 63,096 it may be, but the show ain’t over. I’ve got 36,904 words to go and 19 days in which to write them.

Which is actually why this blog update is late – I’ve been trying to hit that daily wordcount of 1600 words each and every day, which means other things have to come second place. But I apologise, and the FDO would have me courtmartialled for that. So it’s blogs a-go-go!

Getting into the routine of twice-daily writing sessions, one in the morning, one in the evening, 800 words a time, was actually pretty easy once I’d given myself a little work plan to stick to. Dark Heart has several strands running through it, told from different points of view (all first person), but it’s mainly the story of Bellamy, Dr. Clarke and Zoe in Africa, and Grange Parkes and his wife Meg in London. These plots are the bulk of the narrative, tying up at the end.

So to get the words rolling and also to try and get some consistency with the work, I decided to stop just writing chapter-by-chapter, and focus on these two plot strands to take them to completion. So while before I would write a chapter with Bellamy and co. cruising above the African jungle on a small trading barge, and then switch to Grange and Meg getting a surprise visit from Sally late one night, and then the next chapter on Macmillan Brown visiting Albert, and so on, I picked one main storyline and stuck with it.

Which not only means a consistency within a single plot, but it’s also a useful exercise in judging the wordcount of the project overall. As a result, Bellamy’s plotline is probably now 75% done, and I can estimate how much more it has to run before the finale, when Grange and Bellamy finally meet in the flooded tunnels of the London Underground (sorry, VTTS!).

Bellamy’s plot actually hit a snag – not so much a problem with the story, or characters, or action, but a slight gap in the narrative which I need to fill in order to transition from one scenario to the next. I’ll trust to my subconscious to work on the for me, so in the meantime have switched to Grange’s story. His plot is probably 60% complete, and now he’s found the Canadian pilot Faulkner hiding in St Paul’s Cathedral, things will start moving along pretty quickly.

And while all this is going on, I’ve entered the world of Twitter for some real-time microblogging action – you’ll find me floating around as ghostfinder. Twitter has been a really good experience, and I’m chuffed at the number of people who have tracked me down to say how much they enjoyed The Devil in Chains. Which, I feel obliged to point out, is still available as a PDF eBook from this very blog, and also as a nifty Legends eBook for the iPhone and iPod touch.

#steamandmirrors folks!