The Edit

I’ve spent the past week tweaking my latest novel following a rather excellent edit by my agent.

An excellent edit. What does that mean?

It’s not that he corrected the spelling or tidied up the word order, though he did that.

It’s not that he pointed out inconsistencies in the plot, though again these were flagged up.

It was an excellent edit because he showed how to make the story better. He highlighted the areas where characters acted inconsistently, where I’d withheld information unnecessarily, where I’d missed a trick on the story development.

Basically he pointed out where I could be a better writer.

Just to put the above in context, I’d already edited the novel myself several times, I’d had extensive feedback from my wife and two other well known and very experienced authors.

If I’m honest, when I hand my work across to others, I’m really hoping for unadulterated praise. I want them to say that they’ve just read a work of genius. Until that day arrives, I’m delighted to have such talented people offering me advice.

Swearing in a Suit

Last week I headed into Manchester to do some writing, as I often do on Wednesdays. An hour in a coffee shop to go through my notes and get my ideas in order, and then off to the library for four or five hours of writing, free of the distractions presented by music and the internet.

All pretty routine, with one exception. I was going to a meeting that evening, so I was wearing a suit. The full works: shirt, tie, jacket, trousers, dress shoes. Nothing unusual. I wear a suit for the day job. I felt perfectly at ease.

Until I began updating my swearword list.

You haven’t got a swearword list? I started one when I wrote COSMOPOLITAN PREDATORS – a list of the different swearwords used by the inhabitants of Eunomia, the asteroid world where the action takes place. It made sense to me that an international community would have a cosmopolitan collection of swearwords. My swearword list contains the word, its meaning and its language of origin. I found it so useful I’ve been keeping it updated for the novel I’m currently writing.

It’s fun using swearwords from different languages, but not, I discovered, when wearing a suit.

Sitting in a cafe in a shirt and tie, copying down lists of rude words, I suddenly felt a little bit childish. Not just a little bit. I felt like there must be better ways to spend my time. I found that I was turning my laptop so that people couldn’t read the screen, that I was checking that no one was watching me.

Thinking about it, this shouldn’t have been surprising. My writing has always been affected by my environment. If not, I wouldn’t carry a notebook with me in order to capture live emotions. But even so, I didn’t realise that environment extended to what I was wearing.

Apparently it does.

So if you find yourself in a coffee shop in Manchester, and you notice a man in a suit blushing as he types away, come over and say hello. Just don’t take offence if I close the laptop first.

Shorthand

A few years ago I was travelling back to Manchester by train. I couldn’t help overhearing the phone conversation of the person sitting opposite me. He was an aspiring actor, travelling back from an audition in London, and he was recounting the experience so loudly the whole carriage couldn’t help but overhear.

He was a interesting character; it quickly become obvious that every setback in his life was someone else’s fault, that the main thing holding him back was people’s inability to see his natural talent.

So I started to take notes: I’ve written elsewhere about how important I think it is to capture conversation live. In those days I used to write notes in the back of the paperback I was reading, and that’s what I did…

… until the aspiring actor noticed what I was doing, and took offence. He’d read my words upside down.

Which is a roundabout introduction to the real reason I learned shorthand: so I could quickly take notes without other people knowing what I was doing.

I was reminded of this on reading the following article on the BBC website: is the art of shorthand dying out?

Perhaps it is. I don’t use shorthand as much as I used to, I now mainly capture notes straight to Evernote on my phone (although I wish there was an app that understood Teeline).

But I don’t regret learning shorthand. It still comes in useful occasionally, capturing conversations, getting ideas down fast, and giving me something to do in boring meetings.

Anyway, isn’t life all about learning new things?

Manifesto

(I read the following at the launch party for Dream Paris, 11th Sept 2015)

It’s a common question asked of all authors: why did you write this book?

So when I finished Dream Paris, just like when I finished all my other books, I sat down and thought about what my answer would be when asked that question.

It was only than that it occurred to me how odd this was. I’d just spent 381 hours or 15 and a bit days (I timed myself, see my website) writing a novel over the course of a year, and I hadn’t once stopped to think why.

Why am I doing this? Why write at all?

There’s a very easy answer to this. That great writer about writing, Sol Stein said that a writer was someone who couldn’t not write. But perfect though that answer is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why write at all?

I spent a lot of time over the summer, wondering just that. I spend a lot oIf my time writing, my family put up with it, they’ve rearranged their lives to a certain extent to let me spend my time sitting at keyboard.

Why do I write? I could say it’s because I’m a story teller, but every human is a story teller. The first story we tell ourselves is the story of who we are. We make up the story of what sort of a person we are: happy or sad or popular or deserving or hard done by. We make up stories about other people, our friends and acquaintances, and our stories about them never match their stories of themselves. We put ourselves in their shoes so we can try and understand their motives and actions. This is what scientists call a theory of mind, some say this is the dawn of intelligence.

So I don’t think it’s enough to say that I’m a story teller, because everyone is.

I could point out that like many people in this room I’m a professional story teller, what’s called a teacher, and have been since I taught fencing on a children’s camp in America and discovered to my surprise that I enjoyed it. All teaching is story telling, teaching is taking the real world in all its splendid, unknowable complexity and reducing it to a story that a child can understand. Not only understand, but believe. And any teacher will tell you that the student doesn’t always believe what you’re saying.

So I’m a teacher and a writer. I don’t know which of those things come first, I know that they’re both linked. Incidentally, my wife often points out that those are two things nearly everyone thinks they can do until they try it…

Now, I don’t know if the above explains why I’m a writer. I know it leaves me thinking who wouldn’t want to be a writer?

But that still doesn’t explain why I write what I write.

There’s a certain cachet in being a writer, and whilst I’m delighted with this, it’s a sign of our society that someone who has written an impenetrable 80 000 word novel about the pain of being middle class is generally held in higher esteem than someone who gives up all their free time to run a Scout Troop or a Brownie Pack.

It’s also true that there is less cachet in writing SF. Indeed it’s not uncommon for people to ask me if I ever intend to write a ‘proper’ book. And yes, that is as rude as it sounds.

Well, I believe that SF is the only truly original form of literature of the past 100 years. SF encompasses everything from the mainstream but adds its own unique sensibility. I believe that SF is read by people who appreciate the beauty in Euler’s Identity just as readily as they appreciate the beauty in the St Matthew Passion, and if they don’t understand either of those things then they don’t scoff at them, they don’t say they are boring they are pretentious, they set off to learn about them. SF recognises that there is as much beauty in maths and science as there is in the arts, and that all these things make humans what they are. In my opinion, to try and explore the human condition without acknowledging the cold equations is to fail as a writer.

I believe what I just said to be true, and I could say that’s why I’m an SF writer, but it’s not.

The truth is, I’m an SF writer because when I write, I write SF. That’s the way that I think. SF isn’t about the robots and spaceships and rayguns – I rarely write about those things anyway – it’s about the way you look at the world, it’s the way that the stories are told. I can’t write a story without extrapolating, without asking what if, without acknowledging the fact that there is a cold, impersonal but ultimately wonderful universe out there.

I want to explain the world, I want to find wonder in the everyday. Ultimately, I think that the fact of the evolution of the horse is more wonderful than any unicorn and I can’t pretend otherwise. That really would be selling out.

This is why I write
This why I write what I write.
I can’t help it, I have no choice

A Pierre Victoire Event

When my wife and I lived in London, we’d often go to a little chain of restaurants called Pierre Victoire. Back in the 1990s you could get a three course meal and a glass of wine for £4.99.

It was excellent value and very tasty. My wife used to be in catering and she would often comment on how they brought the cost down: smaller portions, using cheaper vegetables like carrots, warming the cheap red wine slightly to make it taste better and so on.

And then Pierre Victoire put the price up to £5.99. Same good food, still excellent value…

… but we stopped going. There was something about that extra pound that meant it no longer seemed like such a bargain. I don’t know, maybe it was the difference between paying for two meals with a tenner and with having to pull out a note and then scrabble for two more coins.

There are lots of occasions in life when a tiny change makes all the difference. My wife calls these changes a Pierre Victoire Event. You can read an Emacs example of this here on my Tech blog

How to be a Great Writer

I was having a conversation about Detective Fiction with a friend of mine recently.

He brought up the fact, apparently well known in detective fiction circles, that the mobile phone is killing detective plots. Writers are tying themselves in knots trying to invent situations in which their characters are unable to make phone calls: they lose their phone, they’re out of charge, there’s no signal, whatever.

Now, I should state again for the record that I don’t read much detective fiction. I’ve nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. But I can’t help thinking that the writers he’s talking about are missing the point. They’re making the same mistake that bad SF writers do: they’ve had an idea and they’re going to hammer the story around it to make it work. They’ve worked out a plot, and they’re going to follow that plot to the end, even if it means getting their characters to act in some pretty strange ways.

I’m often asked about how much I plot a story, and I usually say the same thing. I plot about half way, I have an idea about the ending but that’s it. I always end up following my characters somewhere else. This is one of those things that you can’t be taught, it only comes with practice.

Good writing involves finding an original set of characters and putting them in an interesting situation. Find those things and the story will write itself. A real character will have their mobile phone with them, they will remember to have charged it. Instead of asking how they will lose their phone, a good writer will instead ask what happens next after the character has made that call a lesser writer would have been trying to avoid. That will resuly in a far more interesting story…

You can tell great writing by the way that it just is. There’s something very unforced about it, something very natural, a sense that what you’re reading could be no other way than the way it is. Characters act naturally, any surprises in the story come from their circumstances, not from their reaction to events. Plots unfold in a manner which appears logical (at least on reflection), nothing seems contrived.

Great writing leaves the reader thinking "I could have done that. All I needed was the basic premise and I would have written that. I mean, what else could have happened?"

And that’s the point. It all seems so real, so natural. That’s the mark of a great writer. Someone who has worked hard to make it all look so effortless.

How Long does it Take to Write a Novel?

The answer? Fifteen days, twenty hours and fifty five minutes.

I know that because I finished Dream Paris yesterday and I’ve been clocking the time I spent working on the novel.

The time includes the writing of the first draft of the novel and three redrafts: first redraft, the second following feedback from my wife and a third following feedback from other readers. The novel is now with my editor awaiting his feedback and will probably undergo at least two further redrafts.

I’ve not counted time spent planning the novel or the notes I made prior to embarking on the writing. As some of the ideas, scenes and dialog that appear in the novel have been collected over several years, it was difficult to measure this.

Some statistics you might find interesting:

I started on the 18th February, 2014 at 9:58am
I finished on the 20th February, 2015 at 3:00pm exactly

If I’d been writing an 8 hour day the novel would have taken around 48 days to complete.

The book is almost exactly 100 000 words as it stands, given that it took just short of 381 hours to write that gives an average word rate of a rather pitiful 262 words an hour. Given that the first draft took around half the total time to complete, that makes the word rate a more respectable 524 words an hour. As I normally average around 850 words an hour, the missing words are partially accounted for by the fact that I cut around 60 000 words from the novel due to mistakes, changing my mind or no good reason.

If you’re interested how I collected this data, well, have I mentioned Emacs? I recorded the time taken using org-mode. You can find out more by reading this post on My Emacs Writing Setup.

PLR – Have you signed up?

I just received my PLR statement for this year. If you’re wondering what the PLR is, then read this, taken from the PLR website:

Public Lending Right (PLR) is the right for authors to receive payment for the loans of their books by public libraries.

I’m a huge fan of the PLR and not only for the obvious reason that they send me money each year, but also for the fact they are so good at their job.

I first found out about them a few years ago when one of their operatives phoned me up to say she’d noticed I hadn’t registered with them and was due some money if I did so. Since then they have operated with quiet efficiency, paying my money directly into my bank each February without fail. They’ve also got an excellent website – nothing fancy, it just works.

If you’re a published writer and you’ve not signed up yet, you could be losing money. Where does it come from? Well, again, as it says on the website:

Under the PLR system in the UK, payment is made from government funds to authors, illustrators and other contributors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK. The Irish Public Lending Remuneration (PLR) system covers all libraries in the Republic of Ireland and operates in a similar way.

To qualify for payment, applicants must apply to register their books.

It takes less than ten minutes. There’s absolutely no reason not to sign up.

There’s a nice end note to all this, too. Many top selling authors waive their PLR payments, allowing them to go back into the pot to help out other writers.

PLR, they really do bring a ray of sunshine into these dark January days.

Live Writing

I’ve just returned from a few days in Paris where I’ve been finishing off the first draft of my next novel, Dream Paris.

Did I have to finish the book in Paris? Well, there’s no denying it was an enjoyable experience: walking down the boulevards in the unseasonable autumn sun; stopping at a cafe to drink a Leffe and watch the world go by; taking my time over coffee in a restaurant at the end of a meal…

But was it really necessary to go to Paris? I think so. It gave me the opportunity to take lots of photos to use as reference images. But more importantly, It gave me the opportunity to use my note book. I’ve written about this before (and I’ll mention it again in the future), there’s nothing like capturing a scene live. One of my favourite definitions of a novelist comes from Sol Stein: a novelist is someone who communicates emotion.

I’m not a photographer, I can’t capture the emotion in a scene with a camera, all I can do is to take snapshots. I do like to think that I can capture a scene in words, however, and this has to be done live. You’re capturing your emotional reaction to the scene, or the imagined reaction of your characters. Failing to realise this is a mistake that many beginners make: a simple description of the scene before you is not good writing, no matter how detailed that description, no matter how many fancy words you use.

In a story, the scene you are describing should be there to communicate some emotion: tension, happiness, fear, excitement. You can recreate this emotion at your desk or in the coffee shop, but if you are moved by what you see before you remember, it’s not play of sun on the leaves that you are trying to record, capture those emotions there and then.