You Are Here: style and substance

2013-06-15 13.22.06

At least somebody knows where they are…

I’m half way through the latest set of edits on A Spoke In The Wheel. Latest of how many? I’ve lost count. It feels like about six, but it can’t really be as many as that. Three or more, anyway. And I am still finding scenes where it isn’t clear which room the characters are in, let alone whether they’re standing, sitting, or swinging from the lampshades.

Dialogue is easy for me. It’s the first thing that appears as the book begins to materialise. I start out with indeterminate blobs in an indeterminate landscape exchanging stinging banter with each other. Perhaps I should write radio plays instead. I have no regrets about my Write Whatever The Hell You Want policy, but sooner or later the time comes when I have to fill in the gaps. And that time is now. I’m working my way through A Spoke in the Wheelagain – and asking myself where people are, and what they’re doing, and then putting in things to indicate that.

I write a lot about characters who are stuck in their own heads. But heads are attached to bodies, and bodies have to be somewhere in space. I’ve had to think more about that this time around, since these particular characters have more reason than most to be aware of their bodies, but even so I keep running across scenes where I can’t tell whether people are in the kitchen or the living room, or which pub they’re in, or what’s happened to the character who must have been there three lines back, because they said something hilarious. Did they tidy themselves out of the way, and, if so, why?

The only way to fix it is piece by piece: adding in a chair here, a glass there, some TV noise in the background. And then, of course, I have to go back to the beginning and see whether my use of chairs and glasses and TV noise is consistent through the book. Every little change can have consequences, rippling forwards and backwards through the text. If I mention a coffee table in chapter 14 (because the bowl that held the jewellery that gets stolen in the burglary has to sit on something) then I have to go back to chapter 3 and make sure it’s there when my characters are eating pizza in front of the telly, or else explain how it comes into the house somewhere in between. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s got to be done.

In a year or so I might try writing a murder mystery: something where I have to know exactly where everyone is, and exactly what they’re doing, all the time. In the meantime, I’m getting there. I am. On this edit, some pages have ended up without any red ink on them at all.

Second novel syndrome

DSCF0921

I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.

Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.

Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.

Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
  • it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
  • it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
  • and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
  • you’re a one-hit wonder
  • everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
  • you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
  • write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???

But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.

What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.

That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.

Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:

It isn’t finished yet.

Where I am with Speak Its Name

I saw this floating around Twitter a few days ago:

It made me wince in recognition. I have seen some truly terrible self-published books. (I have also seen some truly terrible traditionally published books, and in most cases I muttered, ‘Get a proper editor!’ and in one I appended, ‘And make it someone who knows that low-church bishops don’t wear soutanes, or at least don’t call them that!’)

It made me smile. On this count, at least, I have nothing for which to reproach myself, except perhaps for only paying my army of editors in promises of gin.

At present Speak Its Name is with five different people. Two of them are looking at overall language and structure and hunting plot holes. Another two are nitpicking: searching for errors in my portrayal of the High and Low Church wings of university Christianity respectively (though the word ‘soutane’ is not used in my book).

And the fifth is telling me where things just don’t make sense. He opened his critique with the words ‘I am probably one of the most critical people you will meet’, so I was expecting it to be dire; in actual fact it was rather like being savaged by a very fluffy kitten, particularly after the first general editor had suggested I cut half the first chapter. Having said that, I’d cut forty thousand words off my own bat, before any of this crowd got to look at it, because I knew those bits just didn’t work.

I’m working on incorporating all those people’s suggestions into my text. I’m waiting on some of their suggestions; these are all people who have day jobs and/or children, and I’m only paying them in gin! I’m also glumly aware that I need to standardise my inverted commas, some of which are straight and some of which are curly, depending on which program I was using when I wrote the scene in question. I’ve already fixed all the en dashes that should have been em dashes.

The inverted commas are going to be tedious, but they’ve got to be done. It’s all got to be done. In a little while – perhaps a month, perhaps longer – people will start reading it, not because they are kindly pulling it to pieces for me, but because they want to read it. Now, that’s scary.