Friday, 26 October 2012

Re-writing squared

I'm still re-writing. In fact, I'm almost at the same stage I was last month.

The re-writing I was doing stalled when I began to realise that I hadn't divorced myself from the previous edition entirely and I was making some of the same mistakes again. So, now I'm working on the new, new draft and it's coming out much better. The main character is slicker and, I think, more interesting. It's just a case now, I hope, of plugging away. Luckily, I have next week off to give it some TLC.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The challenge of re-writing

So things have moved on since I last blogged.

I went for a meeting with Agent the Second, screwing up my courage and ducking out in my lunch hour to arrive at a building I've walked past so many times before but didn't realise was a Literary Agents.

Agent the Second greeted me and we went to his office. Turned out he was a human being after all, not some ravenous hellbeast intent on destroying me and ripping my story to shreds. We discussed what he'd already told me in the email, pulling apart what he thought was good and what he thought was bad. As I said in last month's blog, I agreed with him.

'This isn't tweaking you've got to do', he said to me. 'We're talking a complete re-write. Is that something you'd be comfortable with? Or would you rather move onto something else?'

'I think I can do it,' I replied. 'I've worked on this story too long to give up on it now.'

And that's how we left it, my head whirling with how I could rewrite the story if I had to start from scratch. A new, superior version, avoiding all the mistakes of the previous version. Could I even do it?

A week off helped and when I got back I was full of fresh ideas and even a little enthusiasm.

So that's what I'm doing at the moment, re-imagining a story I've written again and again for the past six(?) years.

It's a very strange process and to be honest, I'm not all the way into yet. I'm still in the initial chapters, where the story is pretty much the same except for a few changes here and there which will add up to a completely different book later on.

It's coming out very different, which is interesting. Things are occurring to me, issues and scenes, that were never there in the previous drafts and never would have been. I'm a different person now to the young lad who started this story and so different things are arising as I write. There's part of me rebelling, part of me saying 'but that's not what happened. This happened.' But I'm hoping that will quieten down the further into it I get. There's part of me that worries that what will come out at the end of this will be merely a diluted version of what came before. But again, we'll just have to see.

It's certainly strange having someone like Agent the Second to send things to. I have to resist the urge to send him every chapter as soon as I've done it, like a cat with a dead bird. I'm concerned that having such a person has robbed me a little of my fear of rejection, something that spurred me on to create the best story I could.

So that's a lot of worries and concerns to deal with.

I guess I'll just have to deal with that too. It's true what they say, each stage along the route just leads to different problems.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Submitting to a Literary Agent - Part Two

It's been a while since I blogged. I thought that since so much of seeking an agent is waiting for them to reply it was only worth blogging when I had something to blog about.

And so I'm pleased to say I have!

Agent the First rejected me. It was a short email; simple, to the point, a standard boilerplate. 'Dear [insert name here] I am sorry to say...' which is a little disappointing but fair enough. Agents are very busy people receiving hundreds of manuscripts a month, they can't possibly give personal messages to everyone. So how did I react? A polite thank you email and then a sulk. I sulked till you couldn't sulk no more. It's my right to sulk, but then I brushed it off a half day later and tried again. To more agents it went.

I have learned that there's a difference between sending out short stories and novels. In the short story market you're expected to send stories exclusively to one magazine at a time. You send it, wait for a reply and if it isn't the reply you hoped for then you send it on to the next lot. This isn't the case for novels. For novels you can send out to as many agents as you like! Simultaneously! Beautiful.

A few more weeks had passed by when Agent the Second replied.'Wonderful concept,' he said and 'I'd love to read on'. So, lickety-split BANG! The full manuscript was sent off to him via email.

Cue sweaty palms.

Cue more waiting.

I then heard back from an editor, Simon Spanton of Gollancz, whom I work alongside and had badgered and cajoled into reading the first three chapters. 'Shaping up,' he said. And 'A bit overwritten'.

I looked at it again. He was right. I'd let my nerves get the better of me and overcompensated on the description . Reading it again fresh, it was like all the unnecessary words were highlighted in red. Out they came, creating a slicker, neater version to send out to a few further agents who had pinged my radar, worrying that these same problems would be putting off Agent the Second as I was feverishly making corrections. (Luckily, this problem was mostly evident in the first few chapters, calming down as the book got into a rhythm).

Then, out of the blue, Agent the Third rejected me, this one a well-known respected agent of the YA community. But this was no boilerplate rejection. No, it was an actual response. 'An awful lot to like about it,' she said. And 'a near miss'. Buoyed by that, I continued to wait for things to happen. There was still Agent the Second to hear back from and a number of other agents who had yet to get in touch one way or the other.

Agent the Second replied. It was a long reply.

'Loved the concept'.
'Reminded me of early Stephen King, John Wyndham, John Christopher.'
'You can really write'.
'Quite a bit of work to be done'.
'If you wanted to come and chat...'

More time passed, but this time it was me passing it, screwing up my courage to actually take that step. This was exactly what I was expecting, was hoping, to hear. This was, is, something I've wanted for so long, and I was keenly terrified at the prospect of getting it. I emailed. He replied. We now have a date, 12th September.

It's hard to describe how I feel about it all. Excited is one word. Scared is another. There's also a calm there as well, in getting a version of what I wanted, knowing I worked hard and possibly even earned it. There are still other agents to hear back from, some I may not hear back from at all, other routes that still might open up, but right now I have this and I'll be very interested to see what happens next.

And if it all fucks up? I've still got Neo Noir and End of the Line to fall back on. My second and third chances are being lined up. Ha ha!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Waiting for Answers

It has now been over three months since I made my submissions to an agent and publishing house.

I was quite happy with those three months, working away at Neo Noir (120,000 words btw), safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going to be hearing anything any time soon. But part of me was clearly paying attention because nameless dread began to cloud over me a week ago. Restless nights began to abound. A little tic appeared beneath my left eye . It took me a while to figure out the source. Three months is up. Will I hear back soon?

The truth is that neither the agent nor the publishing house ever said they would get back to me in three months. I made three months up. So why I'm getting so twitchy over a deadline I made myself is beyond me. But three months is a while to wait.

Part of me wants to give them a nudge. 'Just please tell me how I did, please!' But then I'm afraid that nudging them will increase the chance of a negative response and wouldn't I rather wait a while for a 'yes' rather than force a 'no' from them?

The difficulty with asking for feedback is that I have no leverage. I have no influence over these people and it feels that to talk to them, to say 'look at my work, I think it's really good' would actually detract from my standing. There are many people sitting in that same pile with just as much confidence  as I do (if not more).

But I've seen slush piles in my time. I've delved through a couple and it's fair to say that a lot of submissions are bad from the first page. To many, simply writing something as long as a novel is a feat worthy of publication. To others the fact that the story is based on their lives is just as valid a reason. When you submit to an agent or publisher, your voice is amongst those kind of people and from the pile it looks and sounds just like all the others, clamouring to the agent that their's is the one that should be read next. Asking that the agent hurry up and read yours simply adds to the noise of other impatient wannabes.

But saying nothing achieves nothing too. There are stories of people getting answers eight months later and rejections at that.

So is it a case of sitting back and having faith? Or trying to push yourself to the top of the pile and having confidence? When it comes to something you made yourself its really hard to tell. You simply don't know how good you are, that's for other people to decide. It's just at this stage it takes other people a really long time to hear the question.

Let's give it another month. What harm's another month? Gives me more time to work on Neo Noir, anyway.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Writing the Second Novel

Not the most accurate title as, technically, I don't have a first novel. Not officially, anyhow.

At the time of writing this blog I am now 72,000 words into the new book, Neo Noir.

Why am I writing a new book when Machinations' fate has still to be decided?

As I've said before, this helps steady my nerves while I'm waiting for news. I'm also writing because, well, it's just what I do and I've been aching to get my teeth into this novel for years.

It's fair to say that Neo Noir is a very different beast to Machinations. There are fewer main characters, it tackles different subjects and the rules of the world are very different. I'm glad for all of these things, as they allow me to do very different things with the story that wouldn't have worked in Machinations and after spending so long on one novel with one set of rules its a breath of fresh air to be able to try something new.

So writing this one should be easier right? I have a novel under my belt already and, whether it is published or not, I've learned a great deal while writing it. Surely, NN should flow from brain to page easy as anything.

I'm quickly learning that the answer to that is 'no'. Turns out the process of writing a first draft, any first draft, involves the same worries as before. Does the story work? Would it be better if I added in this or took that out? Will the reader care about the characters? Is the world convincing? etc. etc. etc.

As I get deeper into the story (I think I'm reaching the two-thirds mark but there's no way to be sure) there's more and more I need to change. Ideas occur to me as I write that require me to go back and change things. I'm realising where I need to go away and do some research (mostly for locations and subject matter). There are subjects I've ended up touching on that I hadn't even considered while I was writing my plan and scenes I've written that just need that little spice of detail that only real life can provide. In some cases, there are things and scenes that simply don't work, or need to change if something is to work later. And there are scenes I've written on uninspired days that need to have a re-write on a day when I'm feeling perkier.

You see? All the same problems as before.

Is my writing better than it was? I damn well hope so, the effort I've made, but that's not making writing a first draft any easier, I might have new tools, new techniques and new tricks that I didn't have before Machinations but it all still requires the same process of putting one word after another and trying to see what my brain comes up with, never knowing if the idea in my head will translate onto paper.

In short, I can't wait to finish the first draft and start to edit it, shaving it from a twisted, gnarled stick I found in the forest into a spear that cuts and thrusts. And, if I'm doing this right and continuing to learn, I think it'll be best spear I've ever made.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Writing again - the cycle of abuse continues

So it has been over a month now since the novel went to an agent. I haven't heard anything back but this isn't particularly worrying as a month has never been very long in submission terms. Three months and I'll start to get antsy, six months and then I'll worry.

As I said the last time, the best way to get over the first novel jitters is to start writing the next one. Seeing as how at my writing speed a first draft takes roughly three months and to hear back about a submission (even just to get a rejection) is about the same, it feels a good use of the time. It keeps my hands busy, anyway.

It's been such a long time since I've written a new novel. There have been short stories, certainly, which are very different creatures but I haven't written a novel that wasn't Machinations since...(doesn't bother to check)... 2007? 2008? That's quite a long time.

I can honestly say I've been looking forward to it. I learned a lot from writing and editing Machinations and have learned even more just by reading other people's books. This new book feels like it'll be Freeman 2.0. I want to see how much I've improved. Now, I don't expect writing this one to be any easier, it'll still need a first draft, a second, a third, just so long as it doesn't take me as long as Machinations did.

This story is very different from Machinations, there are fewer characters, the world is bigger, there are things I can do with it that I couldn't with Machinations, simply because to do them in Machinations would have broken it (there are also things I could do in Machinations but not get away with in this new one). The rules to this book are different.

So how do I do it?

Let's start with the title since I can't just keep calling it 'this book'. It's called Neo Noir. I've had this story in my head almost as long as Machinations and I've been aching to commit it to paper.

For the first week I sat with a notepad jotting down all my thoughts; characters, backgrounds, story, history, cool scenes I'd like to include and a chapter-by-chapter plot layout. This was simply downloading the pictures and feelings in my head onto the page and seeing how they looked. Sometimes thoughts that work in your head don't look the same on paper. You see what else needs to be there for the story to make sense. If I want a scene like this, then I need a character like this. And they'd need to have done that, that and that beforehand or it won't work for the reader. If I drop a hint to it around here, then it'll be even better and more of a surprise.

Admittedly for the layout, my notes were a lot more specific for the first few chapters than they were closer to the end. For me, this is fine. I need to get to know my characters as I write them and will have a better idea of how the later chapters work after having seen the characters go through the events of the initial ones.

Then it's writing time. 2,000 words a day is the target. Do that for three months and you have a novel. They might not be the words you'll have in the final version but you're learning as you go. Little ideas occur to you as you write, you knew your character had scars but where exactly are they? You knew there were propaganda posters everywhere but what do they actually say? And why do they say that? The important thing at this stage is to just get the story down. You can change things later.

2,000 words a day takes me roughly an hour and a half. Sometimes I know what the scene is meant to be, sometimes I'm just making it up as I go. A lot of the time it's all just waffle and background and exposition that will never make it into the final draft but it's all occurring to me in real-time and it helps to get it all down.

So how am I getting on? I'm currently at 35,000 words. So, maybe, a third of the way through the story. That's just based on the average novel being 100,000 words long. I honestly don't know how long the story is going to be. I just know it won't be as long as Machinations. This 35k words took me to the end of my specific notes, so I've spent the weekend sat back with my notepad again, taking what I've learned and applying it to the next 35,000. 'What happens next?' I ask myself. And 'What just happened?' Already I can see what I'd change and that goes in the notepad too. Maybe by the time I get to 70,000 words I'll have to sit back down for a second introspective and start thinking about what the end will be. I already know what the end end will be but not some of the details. I don't know how the villain is going to die, for instance, or even if he does die. Or if he does who will kill him? And how will that feed into the wider story?

Guess I'll just have to find out.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The novel is finished! And now... the submitting to an agent

It's been a long time since I blogged. The reasons for this were threefold.

1. At the moment very few people read this blog so there are very few people to disappoint. Actually that's a lie - I get on average 100 views a month. These people are either interested in a photo I once put up of Stephen King's writing room or are looking for the font style of the Back in Black album cover and stumble across a post I made in 2008 of the same name (Back in black font). This mistake has happened so often that by the miracle of Google I'm currently the third link that comes up when you search for this.

2. Those people that really do come to my blog looking for new posts already know me personally and so know what I'm doing anyway.

These two points may sound like I'm moaning but I'm not. These are simple facts. I'm not a well-known writer, my successes are small and there are thousands of other novelists' blogs to read who actually have books you can read and also can talk about book tours and new books and other interesting author things. The advantage of my lack of notoriety is that I can abandon the blog for a while and receive no complaints - it relieves me of the terrible burden of guilt when I neglect it. 

But I mentioned three points. So...

3. I was finishing the novel. The end was in sight and I didn't want to spend time doing anything other than finally wrestling it to the ground, stunning it and dragging its carcass to an agent's submission pile.

Does this mean the novel is finished? After five years of working on this leviathan, have I finally subdued it?


It's done. I finished reading it through, I proofread it and now it's a manuscript.

So what happens next? It's time to submit it to an agent.

How did I pick an agent to send it to?

The Handbook helped. It more than helped. And so did the advice of a colleague who knows a great deal about agents. There are questions that have to be asked before you choose an agent to send it to. Do they read the kind of things I write? Would they be flexible if I stretched my genres a bit? Would they get me a good deal with a high-profile publishing company? Would I get attention from them or just be lost under a pile of greater, more powerful authors the represent and never see the light of day? Would they push for results, both of me and the publisher, or leave everything to its own devices? It's a very big decision, taking into account not only what the agent is like but knowing what I'm like and what I need of an agent and how the two would combine.

The submission?

There was every temptation to just knock a letter and synopsis together and send it out as is but after so much time writing the book, I tried to be as careful as possible with writing these supporting documents. For the first impression they're just as (if not more) important as the book itself.

There was about a week of working on the synopsis, which was difficult to do. Imagine taking 257,000 words and boiling the story down to 4,000, that's how difficult it was. Taking out everything that was interesting and leaving just what was important (and realising the difference between the two) and still making it sound like a book worth reading was a task, I can tell you.

And then there was the covering letter, a quick intro on who I am and what the book is about. Here, I also  mentioned the short stories I've already had published. This should hopefully help grab at least more than a passing glance when it passes across the agent's desk.

So is it done? Sent to an agent? Yes. It's with him now, sitting at the bottom of his slush pile awaiting a yea or an 'oh my god, no!' He probably doesn't even know its right in front of him, the very document that's going to make him (and me) a megastar. And it is also in the hands of a publisher who asked to see it, a very exciting prospect as they're very well respected, so we'll see what happens. Now, it's a case of waiting and seeing what happens and of my book cuts the mustard or just smears itself on the hardened crust of indifference.

So what next? I took a week off. And now I'm planning the next book. Harlan Coben once said that the best way to get over the jitters of your first novel being published is to have the second book finished before the first even hits the shelves. Wise words, I reckon.

Will my book ever be published? I have no idea. Will it even be picked up by an agent? Who knows. Is it even any good? I have my opinions, my girlfriend has hers and maybe between those two opposites there's something approaching the truth. Right now I can only wait and see and get on with the next book. That's the only thing I can control.

Either way, I loved writing the book and I'm aching to get to work on the next one and really the writing was all I was in it for anyway. Any cash, mansions, super stardom that comes about is a welcome by-product.