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Making the transition from unpublished writer to published author

Readers of this blog will notice that I haven’t really talked about new or ongoing projects much recently, although January was Empire State‘s release month so there’s been a bit of a blitz on news, reviews, interviews, etc, related to that title. But I’ve actually come to realise that, perhaps a little to my own surprise, things have changed.

When I started this blog, I was an unpublished writer, and like many I wanted to basically chart my own progress – even if no one else was reading the blog, at least it would be a good tracker for my own benefit. So it made sense to talk about the work – short stories here and there, various novels I was working on. I used to put up little wordcount trackers, I revealed titles and one-line descriptions. In fact, for a few novels, I even wrote fake back cover blurbs, little mini-synopses.

For an unpublished writer, that all makes sense. You want to get noticed by people, but there’s more to it than that – you want to get people interested. So, free fiction here and there, and a blog about your projects and their progress. If you say you are a writer, it’s good to back that claim up with some evidence. And while novel blurbs and progress reports are perhaps a little academic if no one actually gets to read the books – because, unless you decide to self-publish, the ultimate goal is to hopefully get a publisher to pick them up – for any agents or editors out there who may be looking, it’s a nice way of showing that you are working your ass off.

At least, that’s what I think.

When you get a book deal, things change, and perhaps more than I realised at first. Apart from obvious things that are contracted and kept confidential until the appropriate time – for example, I sold Empire State to Angry Robot in February 2011, but it wasn’t announced until March – there are actually a lot of things that become important to keep private. This is a business, after all, and as with any business, information is shared only with those who need to know.

This includes future projects – but not just projects that may be contracted, pretty much anything else I’m doing. I actually realised this only relatively recently as something that has come up while doing promo work for Empire State. Interviewers love to ask what I’m working on at the moment or what is coming up next, and really it’s not something I can answer. Empire State is out, and Seven Wonders is coming in September, but beyond that I’ve had to default to the old standbys of “watch this space!” or “more information when I have it!”. To me that sounds a little pretentious, but really there isn’t anything to report. I’m working on stuff, for sure, but until projects are locked down and signed off, there just isn’t anything to say.

So gone are the days when I can list the next three or four novels I want to work on. I either want to sell them, or they might already be contracted but not announced, but either way it’s not public information anymore.

In a way this feels kinda weird, because it’s completely different to why I set this blog up in the first place! But, times and circumstances change. Wordcounts are gone. Book titles are gone. I mean sure, I can say I’m working on four things, and I’ve posted on both Facebook and Twitter than I’ve been doing a lot of synopses recently, but that’s it. It’s not that I’m being deliberately mysterious or vague, it’s just that there is nothing to say.

But when there is something to say, you can be sure I’ll say it. In the meantime, I’m… busy working on stuff!

And Seven Wonders is out in September, and you can put in your pre-orders at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com now.

The year ahead

2012 eh? Cool. I like it already.

Event reminders:

It’s at the point now where I can’t keep up with reviews or mentions of Empire State, so rather than try and list them as they come up (which is a little dull anyway) I’ll do weekly roundups each Friday. I’ve also got a number of interviews and guest blogs coming up so they’ll go in the weekly listings too.

So, 2012. Fellow Angry Roboteer and Team Decker member Cassandra Rose Clarke wrote a good blog post the other day about the difference between goals and accomplishments, which is worth a look. I think she’s completely right, and I’m quite guilty of setting accomplishments instead of goals myself. The thing about publishing is that there is so much of it that is out of an author’s control. All you can do is make sure you are doing your best to position yourself properly, should the right opportunities arise.

And essentially, that just comes down to one thing: keep writing. If you keep writing, and keep writing well, you’ll have material and content that you can then show to other people, and hopefully they’ll like it enough to buy. It’s that simple, honestly.

With that in mind, here’s my list of 2012 goals:

1. Complete, revise, and send out current novel in progress.
2. Complete draft for two new novels
3. Complete, revise and send out one or more of the novels listed in (2)
4. Complete edits and rewrites on Seven Wonders for Angry Robot.
5. Work on new non-novel writing project.

All of those are things I have total control over. Although of those only Seven Wonders is under contract, they are all non-negotiable. Item 5 is a little vague, but I’ll know more about it and what needs to be done to it once I’ve worked a little more on it.

Onwards!

Revisionland Hotel and a red lizard man in a cape

A few friends are on the agent/publisher hunt at the moment, and someone pointed out this nice little blog post from Erin Morgenstern from about 18 months ago. Of course, since then, Erin’s career has taken a rather dramatic leap, with her debut novel The Night Circus spending so far five weeks in the New York Time Bestseller list. Her old blog post is a nice reminder that writing takes a lot of work, and everybody starts somewhere.

I’ve currently checked into what Erin calls “Revisionland Hotel” myself with nothing but the manuscript of Hell Space and an endless supply of tea. A month and half to go on this thing, and so far, so good.

Like I don’t have anything else to do, I also started up a Secret Project the other day. It’s actually quite nice, because it gives me something else to tinker with when I have Hell Space fatigue. Anyway, indulging in some research for it I came across what might be the worst panel of modern comic art I’ve ever seen:

However… I actually quite like it! It’s rather sweet, and was pencilled by Mart Nodell. Nodell was the creator of The Green Lantern back in 1941, and by the time he drew the above panel (from Green Lantern #19, the 50th anniversary special from 1991) he was 76 years old and had been retired for 15 years.

I’m very tempted to get that panel on a t-shirt, actually!

It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights…

So. September is here, bringing with it autumn and a whole bunch of stuff I need to get done by the end of the year. Time for a big old status update.

Edits on Empire State are due back to Angry Robot by October 5th at the latest. In addition, I need to compile all the extra material including the usual stuff (acknowledgements, etc) and the special bonus features.

The final manuscript for Seven Wonders, my whizz-bang superhero novel scheduled for publication in late 2012, is due for delivery to Angry Robot by October 1st, although I’ve got some extra time up my sleeve as getting Empire State done is the top priority.

Once these are out of the way, I need to get my agent’s edits on The Novel Formerly Known As Ludmila, My Love done and the final manuscript tidied up by the end of the year. The title, as you may have guessed, is up for change for a couple of very sensible reasons: firstly, the original is a little too abstract for what is essentially a space opera horror. Secondly, punctuation of any kind – commas, even hyphens – play merry havoc with databases and catalogues, and the last thing I want is for the book not to show up anywhere! Writers, take note!

The above mean that work on Night Pictures, my current WIP about missing people, TV hackers, and parallel universes at the bottom of swimming pools, will now go on hold until at least January. Night Pictures is about halfway there, and this hiatus actually comes at a good time as I need to make some adjustments to the outline for the second half of the book and redefine a couple of forthcoming plot threads.

After the first draft of Night Pictures is done, I’m embarking on a rewrite of my first manuscript, Dark Heart. This is a (much-needed) complete top-to-bottom rewrite. Before I get started I’m going to work on some tone ideas for it and will probably do a new outline to feed this in. The end result should be a quite different book – and one that is quite a bit more interesting!

My small-town post-apocalyptic horror pitch The Suicide Tree is somewhere out in the publishing world but I’m not expecting to hear anything at the moment – this is something to be revisited next year at any rate. Also something on the backburner is my weird Western horror collaboration The Gospel – this is a really cool project and a really neat story, but with other deadline-dependent projects this year it’s unfortunately dropped to the bottom of the priority list.

I’ve added about four new index cards to my Magic Corkboard of Ideas, but I need to take a look at the board and take a couple of older idea cards off, as they’ve either been combined with or subsumed into other novel ideas. I suspect a dedicated planning and note-taking day is in order shortly.

And that, I think, is about it for now, not including the various bits and pieces of ongoing Empire State promotional work, which are beginning to ramp up as the US publication date approaches.

Phase Two: The Fear

Night Pictures has moved to phase two of writing.

Phase one is the what-the-hell-is-this? phase. No matter how much planning and outlining you do, you still really don’t know what the book is like until you start writing. So after five days I have a feel for it.

Phase two is the OMG-this-sucks! phase – the writing is terrible, nothing is happening, it’s all awful, I need to quit writing.

This is the tricky bit because you are worrying about stuff which doesn’t need to be worried out until later. On the first draft, you have permission to suck, and you have permission to write badly. That’s why it’s the first draft, and that’s why you edit the book. I suspect this is where a lot – if not most – people who want to write novel-length fiction get stuck. You get a little bit in, and things aren’t quite what you thought they would be, and you really want to be doing better, so you quit and try something else. Only you’ll get to the exact same point at the next attempt, and the next, and the next.

As with anything repetitious in life, it sometimes takes a while to realise what’s going on. Phase two of the novel will pass quickly and I’ll get to phase three soon enough. And phase three is the cool bit, the hey-I-love-writing! phase. That’s the bit to enjoy, before phase four shows up, for me, usually around the 60,000 word mark.

Phase four is the nasty one. I hate phase four. Phase four is the wait-I-have-a-better-idea-for-a-book! bit.

Human nature is so predictable, but at least I’ve recognised The Fear now and can happily keep on trucking.

Project: Night Pictures (missing persons, ghost towns and TV hackers)
Words yesterday: 3,017
Words total: 14,451/100,000 (14%)
Word to go: 85,549
Days to go: 55

Conflict, change, and need

I’m not starting the first draft of Night Pictures until Monday, but I’ve been tweaking the outline a little, even adding in a whole new character and small subplot.

I’ve also been looking at the characters and their own, individual stories, which brought to mind a classic piece of writing 101. A story needs conflict and change. A character cannot be at the same place at the end of a book as they were at the beginning (change). In order to get from the beginning to the end, there needs to be something they need to overcome on their journey (conflict).

But there’s a third aspect of character and storytelling which is sometimes harder to pin down, although quite obvious. Everybody in real life is their own superhero. Your own life is a big story. Everybody has their own needs.

Asking what a character in a story needs is vital. It will be obvious for the main character – he/she needs to win the race, needs to defeat the villain, needs to find the magic key. Therein lies the change and conflict too – when the hero finds the magic key they are at a different place than they were at the beginning when they didn’t have it (although that’s only the overt representation of change; by claiming the key, something has changed inside them as well), and in order to get the key they’ve overcome their obstacles.

Easy.

But when it comes to secondary characters, you have to ask what they need. In some ways this is more important for secondary characters than change or conflict. Supporting characters often share the conflict and change of the main character, while having their own subplots or secondary story threads. But they also have needs – in their own mind, THEY are the hero of the story. It’s not enough for someone to be a sidekick to help punch bad guys, or to be a handsome stranger for the heroine to fall in love with. Everybody in the story needs something. If you can find out what it is, your character will have so much more depth.

Like I said, writing 101, but sometimes it’s good to think about the basics.

Your readers are smart

This week is the final week of the Seven Wonders edit. A week today, no matter what, this book is going out to my beta-readers.

One of the challenges of this edit, in contrast to Empire State, is that the first third of the novel has two concurrent timelines running – the present, and a series of flashbacks which then catch up with the main narrative. Add to that the fact that because we’re dealing with superheroes, a lot of the characters have more than one identity, as you can imagine it has required quite a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything slots right into place and makes sense.

I’m also at the stage where it’s hard to tell whether something is good or bad, or makes sense or not – and this is why it goes to beta next week. I’m too close to the text, and while I’m enjoying the book as I read it back, I need some second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth opinons.

But… something occured to me today. Readers are smart. Readers can figure things out. Readers don’t need to be told everything, because they can either a] work something out that suits them, if it’s not implicit in the book, or b] sit back and enjoy a little enigma here and there.

I realised this as I’m coming to the end of The Five by Robert McCammon. This is a brilliant book, but also one that (as I have mentioned before) is very loose with structure. Character POV roves around between paragraphs. Flashbacks, timeline shifts and dreams take place within the ‘present’ timeline without any section breaks.

But it all makes sense. As a reader, I figured it out for myself. And the book isn’t experimental or difficult or anything like that – on the contrary, it’s a cracking horror/thriller with more than a little dash of Stephen King thrown in – but the author trusts his readers to do some work.

I’ll let my betas decide whether I’ve managed to pull off the tricky first third of Seven Wonders. But, y’know, for all my back-and-forth tweaks of the shifting timelines, perhaps I don’t need to do it all for them. That’s not to say I’m throwing my hands up in the air with a cry of “ZOMG, editing is hard” and will sit around for the next week drinking juice in the sun. Far from it – I’m still making tweaks and adjustments on every page.

But, your readers are smart. Let them do some work, and when they get it, they’ll thank you for that little bit of trust.

Character point of view and breaking writing rules

One thing I’m trying to be careful of when editing Seven Wonders is to keep clear character points of view. This probably sounds like a very obvious and necessary part of writing, but I only really started consciously thinking about while I was writing Empire State. One early reader did a critique of a couple of chapters of that book, and while he enjoyed them, he found the changing POV so infuriating he almost stopped reading. It was, he said, breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing – don’t change the POV within a scene/sequence without a very clear break. He also said that he’d recently seen it in a novel by Peter F. Hamilton, and while Hamilton was one of his favourite writers ever, he very nearly stopped reading that as well, for the same reason as that chapter of Empire State.

I found this observation interesting – the scene in question in Empire State did (and still does) switch from detective Rad Bradley to his friend and associate, Kane Fortuna. Almost incidentally, it does this because Rad gets progressively more drunk as the scene progresses and we can no longer see his POV clearly, so it switched to Kane.

However, I seem to recall when I were a lad that POVs shifted all over the show – so long as the change was obvious (so you didn’t suddenly get confused about who was saying or thinking or feeling what) and it worked, it worked. But apparently even this is a major no-no that really annoys some people. I’ve been wondering recently if it’s actually a recent development – most of the stuff I used to read seemed to be all omniscient third person (which means POVs don’t matter so much, because the omniscient narrator can see into everybody’s heads all at once), and I know that omniscient third person is out of favour now.

So… fine. Since then, I’ve tried hard to keep POVs on the straight and narrow, and when they change, the switch only ever occurs after a scene/section/chapter break. A recent scene in Seven Wonders springs to mind – two detectives, shooting the breeze in their office over milkshakes and coffee – in which a POV shift occurs. With the experience of Empire State in mind, I changed it on the edit.

But I’m now reading The Five by Robert McCammon, and the POV roves all over the show. And there’s no confusion at all, and none of the POV changes jar or are even noticeable, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been thinking about them recently anyway.

So does POV “focus”, for want of a better term, matter? Is it something writers need to really think about? And if they’re thinking about it too much, does that limit the writing process artificially and prevent what the writer really wants to get on the page from, well, getting on the page? Is that scene from Seven Wonders now a lesser piece of writing, constrained by adherence to some arbitrary rule of writing?

Because there is only one rule of writing: what works, works.

Something to think about anyway as I head into another week of edits.

Headspace

I was going to talk about superhero television today, but I’ll save that for next week.

Something has been bugging me today. It’s day 2 of my big write/edit-a-thon. I’ve got 18 days to get Seven Wonders into shape for my betas, and with new chapters and some re-ordering of events, there is a fair amount of work to do.

But… I am a naturally idle person. I’m also easily distracted, and I have procrastination down to a fine art. But in addition, I have that writer’s itch – that feeling you get that no matter how much work you do in a day, it’s still not enough. I’ve had days where I’ve written 5,000 words, and haven’t been satisfied. With publishing being a glacially slow business, and with too many ideas for books on my magic corkboard, sometimes I get the feeling that I need to work harder and work faster.

Which, I think, is really what drives a lot of writers. Well, not the need or desire to be super-prolific or super-fast, but the continuous vague feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s this dissatisfaction that is a big driver for me to Get Stuff Done.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I write a book and am then dissastisfied with it. I didn’t work my ass off to get a book deal and am now feeling dissatisfied with that. Far from it. What I’m talking about is the need to Get Stuff Done. Sometimes 2,000 words a day isn’t enough. Sometimes 5,000 words a day isn’t enough. Sometimes 5,000 words a day and notes on another book and research on a third isn’t enough.

It’s like zombies and brains. A zombie has to eat. It can’t help it. A writer has to write, we can’t help that either. I’d use the word “urge” here but it sounds kinda biological and weird. And I have been reading a zombie novel today!

All of which is a roundabout way of me saying I didn’t get enough done today that I wanted to get done. But – and I admit this myself – that’s me being precious and complainy when in reality I need to shut up and sit down and write something or, hell, take up a different line of work.

So I will. Erm, sit down and do my work, I mean!

But to help with that kind of headspace, I’m going to get retro. Distraction free. Email will be off. Twitter will be off. I’m going to have a writing retreat in my own house – and hey, I’ve got a garden and canal and a view of the woods from my office which a heck of a lot of people would think is the perfect setting for a writing retreat anyway.

In anticipation then of a few distraction-free days, I leave you with the outstandingly great trailer for the forthcoming John Carter movie. Enjoy!

You know, it just occurred to me that we really haven’t had a successful test of this equipment…

A blip on my writing radar yesterday… my wri-dar? No, let’s not go there. Anyway, over at Futurebook Amanda Rutter reviewed the Angry Robot books website and somehow I managed to get a wee namecheck. Huzzah!

Today I came to the end of what was an epic 13-day stretch of day gig, and I’m now, officially, a full-time writer!

…for the rest of July, anyway.

But, while I’ve been planning this writing break for a while – Seven Wonders has a submission deadline and I need to get this final edit done and the manuscript out to my betas by 1st August – today I realised that it’s actually my first little official slice of being a proper fulltime writer, because during this period my only income (theoretically at least) is from my publisher.

Erm, wow. That’s actually pretty cool.

The key then, I think you’ll agree, is to make sure I use the time to its fullest and not spend it on Twitter. So if you don’t see me around the internets much for a couple of weeks (yeah, right), you can just imagine I’m holed up in my office, staring blanking at the trees out the window putting the finishing touches to my rather larger than expected book.

While wearing my Superman bathrobe writing gown, of course.

And quoting Ghostbusters to the cat.

Awesome.