All posts in The Suicide Tree

2nd March, 2011: How I won Wednesday

Made it. The required 2,000 words was hit today. This feels good. Actually, it feels better than good.

On the days I don’t hit 2,000 words, I’m in a bad mood. Just ask my wife. When I don’t reach 2,000 words, there’s no amount of tea in the world that can solve my problems. Woe, as they say, is me.

But when I hit 2,000 words, or cross it, something changes. The universe suddenly becomes a vast and wonderful thing, and life is precious and wonderful and something to be treasured. Seriously. Hitting 2,000 words is a buzz. 2,000 words and you have won the day. Your sole purpose in life has, for that 24-hour period, been achieved. Rejoice and be reborn and have the best cup of tea you’ve ever drunk in your whole life.

Etc, etc.

And when your 2,000 words are good – and at the vomit draft stage, ‘good’ means they don’t make you want to drink hemlock when you read them back… and trust me, there are days like that – it’s even better. This writing thing? I think I like it.

Here’s the stats:

Project: The Suicide Tree (post-apocalyptic horror in storm-battered Louisiana)
Words today: 2,052
Words total: 5,003 (sample chapters only, no specific word limit)
Total words for 2011: 70,979

Ooh, I’ve crossed the 70k mark on words for the year. Behind my target but quite a chalk, but words are words.

Also today both Vegas Knights by Matt Forbeck and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss arrived. I’ll be digging into Vegas Knights first, as I’ve been looking forward to it for months. And The Wise Man’s Fear has to go back to Amazon anyway as the back of the dust jacket was damaged in transit. I guess when a hardcover book is 1,000 pages long and about the weight of Harrier jumpjet (seriously, have you ever tried to pick up a Harrier? Those things are hea-vy) then the chances of damage increase. Oh, that and the single layer of thin card Amazon chose to wrap said book in.

And the sun was even out today. And I’m listening to some Joy Zipper. Not even Amazon’s crappy packaging can spoil today.

I win Wednesday.

1st March, 2011: That new start thing

Weeeell… I’m not doing that badly. The first chapter of The Suicide Tree is done and dusted (pending redraft, of course). It comes in at 2,951 words, which is probably a bit long for a first chapter. But it’s the clay on the wheel, as I am fond of saying.

Project: The Suicide Tree (post-apocalyptic horror in storm-battered Louisiana)
Words today: 1,732
Words total: 2,951 (sample chapters only, no specific word limit)
Total words for 2011: 68,927

Ooh, just short of the requisite 2k today. Dang. Must try harder. Although I did say it would take a couple of days to get back up to speed. So, all eyes on day three!

Also today I had a Skype conference with Kate about Godless, which was a pleasure as always as we try and figure out what happens in the next chapter. We do have an outline, but one of the problems of sharing the writing chores on a novel is that rather than just sitting down and getting your words out for the day, and then repeating that the next day, and the next, instead you have to process the proceeding chapter, work out where it digressed from the outline, have a Skype call to make sure you’re on the right track for the next bit, and THEN write your chapter.

As a solo writer, everything happens inside your own head and even if you head off on a tangent, you kinda know where you are going. When somebody else has written the chapter before, you have to analyse it and try and guess where the other person was heading. It’s an immensely fun process, and seeing a new chapter from your co-writer is always a surprise, but it is also time consuming. It’s Kate’s turn to write, and I gummed up the works a little by writing a gigantic chapter (at least twice as long as it should be) which is mainly a conversation between our hero and a local sheriff who is having a bad day. Fun to read (and write), but it took some unravelling to work out what needs to come next.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. But that’s what else I did today. Ain’t the internet a wonderful thing?

28th February, 2011: New month, fresh start

Well, in 2.5 hours’ time, anyway.

Today I did some writing (!), which I haven’t done in more than a week (not counting the 10,000 words added to Ludmila, My Love during the course of editing). Possibly as a result I only squeaked in today with 1,219, but I’ll allow myself a day or two to get back up to speed.

Those there words were the opening salvo on a new book, The Suicide Tree, which (for those of you catching up) is a post-apocalyptic horror novel I am writing a proposal for. The synopsis is locked (and was actually tweaked a bit today to tidy up a couple of loose ends), which just leaves a few sample chapters to write. Time is beginning to tick on this, so I want to get them done this week and then (hopefully) sent off next week.

Project: The Suicide Tree (post-apocalyptic horror in storm-battered Louisiana)
Words today: 1,219
Words total: 1,219 (sample chapters only, no specific word limit)
Total words for 2011: 67,195

March starts tomorrow, and it’s time to set some goals for that month:

  • Finish and submit the proposal for The Suicide Tree. This takes top priority, but the writing side of it should be done this week at least. Allowing for a few days of beta-reading, I’ll look at submission next week sometime.
  • Finish Hang Wire. I’ve got 61,000 words to go on this, and I’m taking way too long, although that’s mainly because I’ve had two spec projects to work on (proposals for Transmission and The Suicide Tree), plus a couple of chapters of Godless, plus the final edit on Ludmila, My Love. It might sound like I’m trying to do a lot of work at once, and that is true, but once The Suicide Tree chapters are done I’m home and dry for at least a month. And that’s a month I can use to focus on Hang Wire and get the first draft complete. The goal for this year was to write three complete novels – Hang Wire being the first (although I started it last year), plus two more. I need to put the pedal to the metal, just a tad, so it’ll be fulltime on this until the first draft is done. While I do have Godless to work on as well, the pace of that collaboration is slow enough that I’ll probably only have to do a single chapter of this during March.
  • Plot the next book, whatever that may be. Oh, my magic corkboard taunts me with ideas. I’m still thinking about Night Pictures… but what about Crawlspace? Or The Last of the Outlaw Truckers? Or The Hot Rock? Ah, decisions, decisions. So that’s for the list this March – pick one (the one that excites me the most) and hammer it out.
  • ‘Plot’ out four Escape Pod blogs. Seriously, Mur is going to paddle across the Atlantic and kick my ass if I don’t get this sorted (she knows Kung-Fu, too). I need to be organised and stick to a schedule, and also stick to a list of predetermined topics instead of idly looking out the window of my office for inspiration.

That doesn’t sound like too much, and after a hectic February should be a more comfortable workload.

Reading-wise, things have really slowed down. I managed three books in January (The Long Walk, Death’s Disciples, and The Dead Zone) but in February I managed only 150 pages of Firestarter before stopping (temporarily), and am about halfway through Fight Club (although Fight Club is only about 200 pages long, and a nice book to break with). I want to be reading three novels a month – one by Stephen King, and two not by Stephen King. It’s just a case of setting time aside, which, as a self-employed person who works from home, I’m not that good at doing.

The only other thing lined up for March is a trip down to London for the launch of the limited edition hardcover of Embedded, by Dan Abnett, from Angry Robot books on Saturday March 26th. We’re taking a couple of days off and will probably hit a show and take in a museum while we’re down there.

February just went so fast. March is going to be just as intense, writing-wise, but should be more focussed.

27th February, 2011: The lost weekend

Let’s call this day two of a two-day break. I meant to do something constructive today, honest, but what with scones with clotted cream and jam for breakfast and the Dragon Age 2 demo to finish on the PS3, and Fight Club to read and John Lennon documentaries on TV (which were great until I realised I’m now older than Lennon was in 1971 when he was recording Imagine), well… I deserved a break.

But I have made a list. I like lists. Lists are good. This coming week I need to:

  • Write 2,000 words a day
  • Tweak the synopsis for The Suicide Tree
  • Work up sample chapters for The Suicide Tree
  • Have a story conference with co-author Kate about the next few chapters of Godless
  • Continue work on Hang Wire
  • Work on plots for a couple of ideas on my corkboard that are burning a hole in my brain
  • Develop a proper synopsis for Ludmila, My Love
  • Catch up on overdue blog posts for Escape Pod.

The first item is now the priority seeing as my editing is out of the way. Those 2,000 words a day will include the chapters of The Suicide Tree and whatever I get done on Hang Wire, but I wouldn’t count the plotting and synopsising in that. It also makes sense to do the synopsis for Ludmila, My Love this week as the whole book is still fresh in my mind. If the beta-readers suggest any major changes, it’ll be easy enough to amend the synopsis. It’ll be great to have a submission-ready manuscript soon for this book, but that can’t be sent anywhere without a two-page synopsis.

Godless hasn’t moved since I sent my last (long) chapter off to Kate a couple of weeks ago, but I might have digressed from the outline a little, hence the need for a Skype call about it. Writing a book with two authors in different parts of the world is pretty cool, but the length of time the project takes means that both of us tend to forget what is going on when it comes to writing our bits. But I think it’ll be a pretty cool book when it’s done.

The couple of ideas on my corkboard that are demanding attention are the ideas vying for their place as the next book written after Hang Wire is done, which in theory should only be a month or so away. Which means I need to figure out which idea is the most exciting and which has the most potential. I’ve got a feeling I know which it is, so for the moment I’ll give it the codename Night Pictures. The index card on my corkboard is actually without a title anyway, so that will suffice as a WIP title. I’m not sure it works as a proper title, but it is pleasant on the eye for some reason.

Which means I can now relax and enjoy the rest of my Sunday. I feel absurdly lazy and guilty about being lazy and guilty about not doing anything writing related. Seems I might hooked on this business.

17th February, 2011: Leave it to the reader

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Suffice to say, it was far and away my favourite book of 2010. I hope it wins a BSFA award this Easter. I hope it wins a Hugo – it deserves to, for sure. I reviewed Zoo City and interviewed Lauren last year over at Dark Fiction Review, but a couple of things I’ve been working on reminded me of the key reason why I love Zoo City, why I think Zoo City works, and why I think it should win a lot of awards. Minor spoilers ahead, although I don’t think they do any harm if you haven’t read it yet (why the hell haven’t you, anyway?) because the book isn’t actually about this. This is just an aspect of it. I think it’s the aspect that is critical, but it’s nothing to do with the plot as such.

In Zoo City, nothing is explained. Nobody knows where the animals come from, or why they come to those who have committed crimes. Nobody knows how it started or quite when. Nobody knows what the Undertow is, although a few people have seen it in action. There are a lot of theories, but I like to think the (fictional) author of the academic paper on the Undertow presented within the book is well out of his depth, trying to apply current scientific understanding to a possibly supernatural, or at least super-normal, phenomenon.

Because none of the mechanics of being animalled are explained or understood, the reader gets the sense of something much larger and much darker at work. Suddenly the universe is far stranger place. With nothing explained Zoo City goes from being a medium-sized SF novel about a weird near-future South Africa to a small slice of much, much larger world, one that we (the readers) want to learn more about. When the book ends, the story itself is wrapped up but we’re left with a whole bunch of questions. We want more, more, more.

I know I’m a late-comer to this, but last year I discovered a “new” favourite film – Assault on Precinct 13, written and directed by John Carpenter (I’m talking the 1976 original here, not the 2005 remake). Assault on Precinct 13 is a very simple action film – a street gang declares war ona defunct police precinct, and it’s up to a rookie policeman Ethan Bishop to defend the building through the night with the help of convicted killer Napoleon Wilson. That’s all there is to it.

Why then does Assault on Precinct 13 – an action film with little action – qualify as one of my favourite films? Because nothing is explained. Napoleon Wilson is a convicted killer on his way to death row, but he doesn’t answer another policeman’s question about why he “killed those men”, and his actions suggest his crime was a far more complex affair than just cold-blooded murder. Ethan Bishop is a new on the job and we see him leave his house at the beginning but that’s about as much as we know about his background. The gang, Street Thunder, swear blood revenge on the police after several members were killed in a police ambush, but the apparently supernatural nature of their oath, Cholo, goes unremarked. Street Thunder also never speak, and when they retreat after the first siege at the precinct, they tidy the bodies of their fallen away very quickly. Too quickly, as one of the men inside the station comments, quietly, to himself. Are Street Thunder even human?

Leaving the details to the imagination of the reader, or viewer, is key here. The monster lurking behind a closed door, with only the sound of creaking floorboards and a shadow under the door, is much scarier than showing the thing itself, as the reader’s imagination goes into overdrive, filling in with ill-defined and generally impossible detail. Lovecraft was a master of this – while he often went to extraordinary lengths to throw adjectives at things (one of his key points of style, and another reason why he’s my favourite dead author), actual description was sometimes thin. He would emphasise the point again and again that something was horrific, terrifying, or mind-rendingly incomprehensible (and usually a combination of all three), without actually saying why or how. As a result, you create the detail yourself with whatever your subconscious can dream up. The end result is much more effective. It’s writing advice as old as the hills – leave it to the reader, leave it to their imagination.

Not everyone agrees, of course. I read a negative review of Zoo City which complained that nothing was explained and therefore nothing made sense. Likewise Assault on Precinct 13 has more of a cult following than a wider one, because a lot of original audience thought the lack of explanation and detail was a pulp-style shortcut on the part of Carpenter. Many critics slam Lovecraft for breaking the cardinal rule of show, don’t tell by doing the exact opposite.

The book I’m editing at the moment, Ludmila, My Love, and the synopsis I’ve just finished for another, The Suicide Tree, contain unexplained elements. In both cases I wrote what I wrote knowing that an explanation or mechanism would be needed, but that I could worry about that later. Now, working on both projects concurrently, I’m not sure I need to. If my point-of-view characters don’t understand what’s going on, do I need to break into the unfashionable omniscience third-person perspective (which would screw the rest of the book up, given that both are told from a couple of different third-person personal perspectives), or do I gift the knowledge of events to some other characters and have them infodump it somehow? And if so, why, exactly?

But I’ll just leave it, I think. I want to give the reader something to think about. I’ll provide the building blocks and the prompt, and they can go and create whatever they like.

Incidentally, as well as being eligible for the Hugo award for Best Novel, Lauren Beukes is still eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. While not a Hugo award, this is nominated, voted and awarded concurrently with the Hugos. Click here for more information on the Hugos and how to nominate and how to vote for them.

Hang Wire is pootling along nicely. I’m now into the second third of the book, and some bizarreness at the circus is starting to occur. In an unexpected twist of events, another character witnessed said bizarreness at first-hand, and was seen herself by the bad guy. I had planned this particular character to be present for the rest of the book, but it looks like she might meet a sticky end. I love it when the unexpected happens!

Project: Hang Wire (superheroes and serial killers in San Francisco)
Words today: 2,099
Words total: 35,975/100,000 (34%)
Total words for 2011: 54,960

It’s now full-steam ahead on Ludmila, My Love. I hope to get it to my beta-readers on 1st March, but we’ll see. The current draft is a little short (about 95,000 words versus the 100,000 to 110,000 that I want), but already by the end of chapter four I’ve added quite a lot of text, so by the time I hit the end I expect the numbers to be about right. I know for a fact that one particular sequence towards the end needs beefing up, and that might account for the additional words all on its own anyway.

Books: some pages of Firestarter by Stephen King. I’m enjoying it, but it doesn’t seem to have that page-turning quality that his other books do. I had the same problem with The Shining, which so far is my least favourite work of his. Anyway, keep on keeping on.

12th February, 2011: The value of beta-readers

No stats again today as I mentioned yesterday, but I am happy to report some wordage was achieved today (Saturday) and will appear in this blog tomorrow.

Yesterday was spent on reading and revision, firstly on my synopsis for The Suicide Tree, and then on some pieces sent in by friends who use me as a beta-reader.

Beta-reading is a very important step in the editing of a manuscript or story – or even a synopsis. Before you send a piece of fiction off anywhere, before you even just put it up for free on your own blog, you have to get other people to read it. And not just your partner or spouse, or friends or family. You’ve got to choose your beta-readers carefully. My own set of beta-readers is a small group comprising a technical editor, a couple of fiction writers, a couple of fiction editors, and a blogger or two. Each of them was selected for the particular skillset or point of view I know they would bring to a piece. A lot of my fiction is set in or around America, so approximately half of my beta-readers are from the US.

Selection of beta-readers is not just a casual thing, either. Personally I think using the same group of people for everything (or people from your larger pool of beta-readers) is valuable, because they’ll get used to my way of working. When I asked my beta-readers, I went into quite some detail about what I needed them to do, and for each project, the timelines I expect them to adhere to. Beta-reading is a serious business, and when you’re asking a group of five or so people to read something as long as a novel, you’ve got to be organised and formal about it. Short stories and synopses are a different matter, because they’re generally so short and don’t really require that much notice.

But the most important thing about beta-reading, and the key reason to spent some time and effort negotiating the contract, effectively, between writer and beta-reader, is the need for honesty. Beta-readers are no good if they are not honest – it’s absolutely no use to the writer, and it defeats the whole purpose. Some of my beta-readers are my best friends, but I know they all understand the need to be completely open and honest. If something in a story works, I want them to tell me about it because I can perhaps try and work out why that particular bit was good, and how I achieved whatever effect my beta-readers report. Likewise, if something is broken, doesn’t work, is unconvincing or badly written/plotted/whatever, I need to know about it so I can work out what went wrong and what I need to do to fix it. By examining the good bits and the bad bits I can learn as a writer and improve my craft.

Despite the above, it can sometimes be quite surprising when a beta-reader comes back with a particularly positive comment. The default state of a writer is one of disatisfaction, so someone else telling you that they enjoyed a particular piece, or thought a story was good or even great, can some as something of a surprise. My gut reaction is always: “Are you sure? You’re not just saying that, are you?”. But, knowing that the policy of total honesty has been firmly established between a tight group of beta-readers that I trust implicitly, this isn’t the case. But that reaction is just natural. I’m a believer in the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I think if I ever sent a piece out to beta-readers thinking to myself that it was a shit hot bit of writing and they will love it, then something would be very, very wrong.

Yesterday then I got back beta-reader comments on the synopsis for The Suicide Tree, which were positive and which only highlighted a couple of problems to fix. Once those amendments are made I’ll look at working up some sample chapters for the book. Also yesterday I beta-read a short story which was outstandingly good and which I believe will be appearing somewhere for free very soon.

Now, I’ve just said that story was outstandingly good, but the manuscript I sent back to the author had a large number of comments and suggested edits on it. My honest reaction when I read it was “wow”, but there was still bits that needed fixing, which will hopefully make it “wow+”. That’s the value of beta-readers. You must, must, must get someone else to read your work, someone who can look at the piece from a distance that the writer never can. I also think it’s important for a beta-reader to read the manuscript as a whole, the writer having completed and polished the work to the best of their abilities, and assuming that it is perfect and ready for publication. If you sent it out knowing that there is something not quite right, that something needs fixing, with the expectation that the beta-reader will pick up the problem and offer a fix for you, then you shoudn’t have sent it out in the first place. The beta-readers are not your editor and they’re not there to fix your problems. I think that’s the job of the alpha-readers, who may be sent bits and pieces, with the explicit intention of checking something and giving requested feedback to the writer on a particularly problematic section. I tend not to use alpha-readers, but I know several writers who do. But I’d never confuse the function of an alpha-reader with a beta-reader.

10th February, 2011: The battle of the synopsis

No stats for yesterday and probably none for today either, because to be honest just trying to stay on top of this post-convention cold is work enough this week. Phew! But yesterday was still a very productive one – with The Wasp in the Lotus sent off, I can now really focus on the synopsis for The Suicide Tree.

My views on outlines and synopses have changed over time – I used to think that nothing short of a complete chapter-by-chapter breakdown was essential, and to try and write something as long as a novel without one was foolhardy. However as I’ve written more and more – four full novels complete so far, a fifth and sixth being written semi-concurrently – I’ve relaxed a very great deal. Now I tend to work with a concept or central idea, and several “milestone” events which I know will lead to the conclusion. I guess that’s like saying I’ve got the beginning, middle and the end all mapped out, with other bits here and there to string the story together from one end to the other. With this all fresh in my mind, I open a new workbook in Excel and basically write a list of key events. Some of the events lead naturally from one to the other. Sometimes I’ll be noting down one particular scene or sequence and more will naturally evolve from it, so they get noted down too. Sometimes there will be a large gap between event X and event Y, so I leave some blank lines to fill in later.

And that’s about it, really. I’ll keep this event sequence close to hand as I write, and will refer back after every few chapters written to see where I thought I would be, and also to see how far I’ve actually gone off track. Going off track is not a bad thing, in this instance. Writing is organic and as I’ve said before, if you characters are real and living in your mind, then once the ball is rolling they’ll start to tell their own story.

It’s different for every writer, I’m sure, and this is just the work pattern I’ve fallen into for myself. Ask me again this time next year and maybe it’ll be different.

What is different about The Suicide Tree is that it needs a proper synopsis, a coherent ordered summary of the story from beginning to end, with pretty much everything mapped out and explained, as I’m not writing this novel on spec, I’m proposing it to a publisher. It’s also important that the synopsis is matter-of-fact and doesn’t itself read like a story – the reader of a synopsis should not have to guess anything or infer anything. There is no mystery in a synopsis – sure, there may be twists and turns and surprises, as with any good yarn, but everything is laid out. The Suicide Tree need this because the editor wants to know what the thing’s about. The synopsis will tell him if he likes the story, and the sample chapters will be tell him if he likes the writing.

I’ve done proposals for a number of things, and although it’s a lot of initial work, it also means that should the proposal not be accepted, I’ve already got the groundwork done for a good novel. If I believe in the novel and think that it is worthwhile, I’ll end up writing it eventually anyway – and if I didn’t believe in it, well, I wouldn’t be proposing it in the first place. I can imagine if you were pitching for a very specific kind of book – say, a Star Wars novel, or something with another rigid shared universe, perhaps even using a pre-existing cast of characters and maybe even a required plot thread – then untangling the story from all the window-dressing may be quite a task if you wanted to convert the proposal into a standalone novel. I’m not pitching for anything as complex or restrictive as that (and I’m not saying that being restrictive is a bad thing here). I’m lucky that I have pretty much free reign on the story, within certain established boundaries.

So far my synopsis for The Suicide Tree – a post-apocalyptic horror story set in the south-eastern United States – is about 2,000 words long, and is pretty much there save for one or two plot niggles. This is one of the issue with having everything laid out so far in advance – these kind of plot niggles are most likely the kind that I’d either avoid or manage to write through if I were actually working on the novel itself, but at this stage, with a synopsis required, I have to figure them out now. It does take some of the discovery out of it – as Stephen King said, writing is like archaeology, the writer carefully extracting the story from the ground a bit at a time, never quite knowing what else lies under the dust – but that’s an accepted part of the process. A synopsis is a synopsis, it fulfills a certain requirement and must contain certain information, and I can either accept that fact or kick against the bricks and get precisely nowhere.

Writing a synopsis is, however, very good writing exercise. Condensing 100,000 words – or a story that will become 100,000 words in the telling – down to just a couple of pages is skill that requires practice. At 2,000 words, the outline for The Suicide Tree is probably about right, although those little plot niggles still need fixing. However, having it all down in front of me – and having been working on the thing for several hours over the last two days – means that the story is pretty firmly rooted in my mind. It’s now at the stage where my subconscious will take over, smoothing over any issues and, with a bit of luck, fixing those problems for me. Which means it’s time to hit save and go do something else, maybe leave the thing stewing overnight, and with a fresh set of eyes give it another run-through to catch anything I’ve missed and to fit those last couple of pieces into the puzzle.

Books: A page or two of Firestarter by Stephen King. Going slowly on this, but I’m enjoying it so far. Having this damn cold is sapping my reading concentration a little (although oddly not my writing concentration).
Comics: Issues lined up and ready for today. That’ll be a good way to relax tonight, actually.