Writing: The Beginning of All That

I’ve been working very hard on The Copper Promise lately (no, really, stop laughing), typing away until my fingers are nothing more than shiny little nubbins, so consequently I haven’t come up with any interesting blog ideas lately. So in lieu of something good, I thought I would do one of those self indulgent posts about how I started writing.

 

I’ve always loved stories, of course. When I was very wee, I asked for a desk for Christmas, and the year after that I wanted a typewriter (gods, I have always loved having a desk). I wrote lots as a child and then tons at school, and then it tapered off somewhat and I got distracted by art college, with its poshery and paint and dodgy vodka in the union bar. I started writing seriously, I suppose you could say, on one random day in my early twenties.

 

I came home from work in a bad mood. This was back when I worked for a certain bookshop, and I know some people will say: “You worked in a bookshop! How could you possibly have had a bad day? You whinging numpty.” – believe me, it is possible to have a bad day, particularly when you’ve heard a lot of “Have you got that book? It was on that table last month and I can’t remember what it was called or who it was by. Don’t you know any of the books?” This happens more than you would believe… But, anyway, I was cheesed off, and I decided, in a desperate act of therapy, that I would sit down and write a scene that had been stuck in my head for some months. It involved a girl becoming a witch via a really rather nasty and brutal ritual, and once I’d written that I found that, a) I felt better, and b) I wanted to know how the girl came to be in that situation in the first place. Those were the seeds that became the book Bad Apple Bone (still the best title I’ve ever come up with, I think) and over the course of a couple of years, writing in fits and starts, I eventually finished it.

 

This was a big deal for me. I’d thought about writing books before, but I’d always considered it beyond my abilities – I wrote short stories, picture books, and essays, but not books. But I’d started one and finished it, which proved that actually, I did have the attention span for these things. After that I got involved in NaNoWriMo, where I wrote a short children’s book called Bird and Tower, and the next year I started writing a much longer book called Ink for Thieves… Somewhere along the way I realised two things; that writing books made me happy, and that I couldn’t stop. In fact, writing seemed to satisfy two very basic needs of my personality; the need to make things, and the need to control everything (Yes, writing is a control freak’s dream: “You will all do as I say! Dance my puppets, dance!).

 

And that’s how I came to be writing a sword and sorcery serial that’s getting longer and more complicated by the minute… I look back at the years when I wasn’t writing books and I worry that I lost time there, that I should have been working on it ever since I got my first typewriter and that little desk with all the stickers on it. But the important thing is, I got there in the end. And art college does get you access to some really cool libraries.

Post-its and Planning

So I completely forgot to update last week. I can’t even remember why now, but let’s just pretend it was due to a flurry of productivity on my part, and not just huge laziness, which is more likely but less heroic.

The Steel Walk is edging towards 100,000 words now and alarmingly enough, shows no particular signs of being near the end. At least I am well into the third act and having fun with the story; Eri is angrily traipsing through the swamps of the Green Jenny Council while evil things are afoot in all corners of Ferrum, and Saul has some difficult choices to make. I may even have some clue as to how the whole thing ends.

Writing The Steel Walk has been an education in the process of how to put a book together, although I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring out the best way of doing it. So far each book has been approached differently, and I have learnt different lessons.

Bad Apple Bone- Started writing it before I even knew it was a book, and consequently I only had a vague idea of the plot by around the 30,000 words mark. An exciting if agonising way to put a novel together, it did however all fall together with surprising neatness. I’m sure this was a fluke, and unlikely to ever be repeated.

Bird and Tower- When I started this one for NaNoWriMo, I was very clear on the beginning and the end, and had a vague structure for the middle (“Quint searches for other siblings, hijinks ensue”) but what with the fabulous by-the-seat-of-your-leg-hats* approach of NaNo, if I did any more planning than that I don’t remember it. A joy to write, quite honestly, even if I kept forgetting one of the characters existed.

A Boy of Blood and Clay- A lesson in how it is wise to have, you know, even the slightest clue of how the plot will develop and who your characters are. Not sure what I was thinking with this one (I still believe that when it’s finished, it might be the best thing I’ve written)

Ink for Thieves- This book was a return to a vague plot outline and detailed character notes, and thanks again to the backside-wallop of NaNo, largely quite fun to write. It had it’s moments of “I have shamed myself and my ancestors with this book” but the characters came to life for me and behaved in naughty ways, the plot headache of the Embers resolved itself and I got to the end of it. After A Boy of Blood and Clay, that was a big relief.

So, what have I learnt? Mostly, that no planning is bad, except when it works, and over planning is good, except where it doesn’t. Does that make sense? I had detailed character notes for Eri and Saul before I started The Steel Walk, but they still went merrily ahead and behaved in all sorts of unexpected ways anyway, and Alice, a character who barely existed at the planning stage, has come to impact on the plot in all sorts of drastic ways.

The next, as yet unnamed project, is a sort-of-science-fiction first person narrative with strong crime elements (and a girl called Zootsi) so I think I have no choice; planning will be done, notes will be made, and post-its will be wasted, until I can go into NaNoWriMo this year knowing that I just have to fill in the fun bits. I may restrain myself from drawing a map though.

*for an explanation of leg-hats, please go and listen to The Soldiers of Tangent, the fab new comedy podcast from those behemoths of audio genius, Danny “The Accent” Davies and Marty “Churlish” Perrett. http://thesoldiersoftangent.mevio.com/

By the pricking of my thumbs

I realised an odd thing today. I identify with the witch.

Or at least, I am drawn to witches more often than almost anything else (aside from possibly, uh, child sacrifice). I was reading a short story by George R.R Martin called In the Lost Lands, a lovely thing concerning werewolves and a woman who, although she is never named as such, is almost certainly a witch of a sort. It occurred to me that I liked it especially because Grey Alys was written with sympathy, and not entirely as a dirty ol’ monster.

When I think about it, I come back to witches again and again in all of my work. Bad Apple Bone is the most obvious example, as it concerns a great many witches, some of whom are bad, some of whom are good, and some, in the case of Noon, who are just tremendously lazy. Even if I don’t have a witch by name in my story, I will undoubtedly have a crazy old woman who is more than she appears to be, such as Moony Sue in A Boy of Blood and Clay, a woman who is possibly an elderly wise woman and just as possibly the River Thames. Bird and Tower, and Ink for Thieves both have examples, and in The Steel Walk I have returned to big ol’ groups of proper witches, with the Green Jenny Council- and there’s not a single good apple amongst that lot.

None of this was deliberate, so where has it come from? When I was a kid I was a big fan of the more gruesome fairytales, and most of those involved witches (Hansel and Gretel- when you really think about it, how deeply fucked up is that story? Love it). When it came to Disney films, I was always vaguely on the witchy side, and who can blame me? We had Marvellous Madam Mim, Ursula, Maleficent and the scary old bag from Snow White, all of whom were more interesting than the supposed heroes and heroines of the movies. And the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys at her disposal! That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

And when I went to college I spent a lot of time reading about folklore and fairy tales, even writing essays on it- I might have many issues with my time at art college, but I can’t complain about the freedom of the course; you could write about anything you wanted to, as long as you did it reasonably well. My dissertation was even about witches, in a way; I wrote about the evil mother figure that features as the enemy in so many stories, such as Coraline’s Other Mother, or Yubaba from Spirited away. That research was enormous fun.

But the biggest influence has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, the marvelous witches of the Discworld. I loved the witches novels the best I think, because it was always Pratchett writing at his best; about the conventions of folklore, and the strange and unfathomable ways of people. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were instantly deeply familiar to me, through my own Nan, through my aunts, various school teachers and even the dinner lady everyone was scared of- I knew these ladies, and they both scared me and made me laugh. They may seem like odd examples, given the dark nature of many of my own witches (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg might have been fearsome, but they usually had your best interests at heart) but I believe that Pratchett’s witches showed me that witches were also people; capable of being good and bad, and therefore more realistic. And through that they became the characters I would be most excited to write about.

Go on, tell me. Which is your favourite witch?

The Joy of Big Fat Books

I’m feeling vaguely accomplished today for two reasons, and as this doesn’t happen very often I will dwell on it a bit (I think it was Alan Bennett who once said something about how writers never feel like writers unless they’re physically writing; the rest of the time they feel like frauds).

I have the first draft of Bad Apple Bone sitting in front of me, in glorious chunky paper form. It’s the first time I’ve seen it printed out, and it looks ginormous. It’s lovely, to feel the heft of it, to see all those words collected together in one place, and to flick through to read random bits; grimacing at some, laughing at others. There will be lots of problems with it, because I started writing the book without any idea what I was doing, or indeed any idea I was writing a book, and no doubt I’ll have made lots of terrible, first-time-writer mistakes, but I think I’m going to enjoying reading it again nonetheless.

Secondly, after four mouths and a scattering of days, I have finished the rough draft of Ink for Thieves. I struggled over the line at the weekend, so toasts were made and Snoopy dances were danced, and I saw my characters off into the sunset with a tear in my eye.
It’s been an interesting experience, this one. It started as a novella for NaNoWriMo, but grew quickly into a larger book within the first week of writing, and I realised this one had a bigger story to tell. Coming just after a bit of a cock up with A Boy of Blood and Clay, which fatally stalled at 63,000 words, it was a relief to know I could still do big stories. Around about halfway through a minor tangent turned into a major story arc, and by and large, Ink for Thieves was a joy to write. It certainly had it’s difficult moments, particularly when I realised I was three quarters of the way through and still had no real idea how the Big Bad was going to be resolved, or getting too bogged down in the detail of a city that only appeared in the first chapter, but for the most part I had a lot of fun. The characters really did have a life of their own this time round, and I was amazed (and slightly annoyed) that I could not put any of them in a situation together without there being a blazing argument; their actions often surprised me, and showed me parts of the story I hadn’t been aware of. Following where the characters lead has been an interesting journey, almost as interesting as Guido’s dangerous and frantic journey across the Embers.

It’s that time of year again…

Oh 2009, how shall we judge you?

Annoyingly, I am something of an optimist and normally reluctant to judge a year based on perhaps the last six months or so; if that were not the case, I would merrily tell 2009 to take a running jump off a prickly cliff. But I’m always looking for the silver lining in the dark clouds (or the smarties in the dog turd) so I shy away from condemning it completely. It’s time to look, perhaps, at what I hoped to do in 2009 and what I actually did, as awkward and slightly embarrassing as it may be:

By the end of this year I wanted to have finished Bad Apple Bone, written an entirely new novel, and a novella during November (which would also be finished).

What I actually did: Well, I did finish Bad Apple Bone (when was that? May? I think it may even have been on Star Wars day…), which was a major achievement I suppose, after two years writing the bugger. It was my first book, and my first real attempt at writing anything, and remains the truest thing I have written, I think.

I did start writing an entirely new book, A Boy of Blood and Clay, and even got 61,000 words into it, but made the rather silly error of mistaking research for planning, and found myself halfway through the book with only the slightest inkling of what was happening. Plus, I really loathed one of the main characters, and wanted to kill her off. Except she was already dead. Oh.
So that book remains at rest currently, “composting” as my favourite art tutor would put it. And the NaNoWriMo novella? Well that little bugger turned into an actual full length book, full of dirt and ooze and I’m-Not-Even-Sure-What-Happens-Next mystery, which made it brilliant fun to write, even as it grows in scope by the minute and I have no chance of finishing it this year.

In conclusion then, I have one finished novel, and two unfinished full length books; not exactly where I wanted to be, but, I have to look the bright side (or the Skittles in the dog plop); this year I have written, not including finishing Bad Apple Bone or any short stories that popped into existence, around 120,000 words. And I can’t really complain about that.

2010 will be the year I learn to give up my time properly to this fabulous craft, and start treating it like I really intend other people to read it some day. This year is The Year of Writing Dangerously.

The First Week of November

…has sort of zipped by, don’t you think?

It’s one of the weird things about NaNoWriMo; it makes November both the longest and shortest month of the year. On the one hand I’ve still got a ridiculously large number of words to squeeze out of my head, but on the other it feel like only yesterday that I was tidying up my writing space for the kick off. A quick run down of how things are going:

Heating fail. In a great example of the fabulous timing of Sod’s Law, our central heating packed up at the beginning of the week, leaving us slowing freezing in our drafty old victorian terrace. It’s amazing really how depressing it can get, being cold all day. I survived by buying new hot waterbottles and keeping mine tucked down the front of my dressing gown while I typed. On Friday, the Boiler Magicians came and sorted it out.

Word count win! So far this year, the writing has been fun, and it has been reflected in my word count. As of tonight I’m at 17,222 words, approximately two days ahead of where I need to be. This is good because this upcoming week contains at least two days when I suspect getting anything done will be difficult.

I’m enjoying the story and I’m beginning to wonder if this is a full length book rather than a novella. :s It’s always difficult to decide this; ideally, I’d like to have finished this story by the end of the month, so I can get on with a) finishing A Boy of Blood and Clay, b) editing Bad Apple Bone or the rogue c) option, starting another book. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But if I’m really getting somewhere with the story, perhaps I should consider continuing into December. Hmm, it’s all about the pacing…

I have been surprised by the cynicism of some people. It’s not a huge deal, as most people seem to “get” NaNoWriMo and what it’s all about, but there does seem to be a little flicker among some who seem to think it’s a bit silly and deserves a bit of mockery. My initial response to such people would be “Come back and take the piss when you’ve written a book in 30 days, dude. Or anything longer than your facebook status update”. But I have been good, and ignored any such comments. It’s my folly and I love it.

And that’s where I am at the moment. :) Guido Foss has made it to the Flats, and is about to find out just how unpleasant life can be out in the desert. I shall enjoy making it difficult for her.

Where I am now…

I am better than I was.

As some of you might know, I’ve had a shitty few months. Ongoing problems with a tooth, a chest infection that may or may not have been swine flu, an unusable bathroom for weeks, and very sadly my Nan passed away.

I suppose that sometimes strife doesn’t line up in an orderly queue, sometimes it just shouts “BUNDLE!” and lets rip. The good news is, I feel like I have, to some extent, come out of the other side now. Although my chest is still a little weak and I have a very sensitive gag reflex now, I’m over the mystery flu. We now have a bathroom with an actual door and sink (you don’t realise how important a toilet door is until you don’t have one for weeks). We’ve had my Nan’s funeral, which was as difficult and painful as you would expect, and there will be more pain to come as the house where I grew up in is emptied of all the things that made it home, and is sold; but you take the memories that you can and you soldier on, always the walking wounded.

The tooth that was lingering on has been removed. Hoo-fucking-ray! The horrible thing about that was the waiting for the appointment; even when I was feeling myself again, and relatively happy, always at the back of my mind was the tooth problem, sucking away any ability to relax. Now it’s sorted, it is genuinely like a black cloud has stopped hanging over my head, and has gone off to bother Charlie Brown or Calvin or someone.

So I am better than I was. :) A side effect of the crap of the last few months has been that my writing has taken a serious knock. I can’t concentrate when I’m anxious, and a number of problems with A Boy of Blood and Clay that I had been trying to write around suddenly became insurmountable, and I lost my way with the book. Shitsticks. I forced myself to write for a while, and stopped again when I realised I was hating it, hating the characters, and hating the story. The problem is longwinded, but the short version is this; with Bad Apple Bone, I had the main character in my head for some time, years even, before I started writing. I might not have known the plot, but I had a good idea of what Noon was like. With A Boy of Blood and Clay, I did the briefest of outlines and character sketches, and then threw myself into it, assuming I’d be able to make it up as I went; after all, it had worked with the last book.

It turns out, that was a slightly silly idea.

So I’ve put A Boy of Blood and Clay to one side for a while. I don’t know the characters well enough, and it needs a hell of a lot more research before I can get the story into the shape I wanted in the first place. I’ll come back to it (if only because I’ve written 63,000 words of the bugger already!) and Mike and Faye and Gushel and the terrible Eustace Cream will certainly get an end to their stories one day.

In other news, NaNoWriMo is two weeks away! I had a great time last year writing Bird and Tower, and I can’t wait to do it all again- this time with more planning and research, obviously. ๐Ÿ˜‰ More about that on the next blog post.

Bird and Tower

A brief one, since I have remembered that I’ve yet to talk about the novella I wrote for last years NaNoWriMo.

Bird and Tower (I hate the title, and have yet to think of a better one) is almost a Young Adult book I think, in that the main characters are young people. I didn’t conceive of it as such, but writing about teenagers, and in particular, a naive, optimistic kid gave the book a lightness and mood that is very different to Bad Apple Bone. Having said that, it has it’s dark and bloody parts, and I would have to investigate how much violence you’re allowed in a YA novel before I really start calling it that…

Written in the frantic time frame of Nano, it has obvious pacing issues and a couple of moments where one character will drop off the page for a bit and reappear later on (not used to handling so many main characters at once!) but all in all I enjoyed writing it, and it surprised me by making me cry at the end. I would love, ideally, to write a sequel as I would dearly like to know what happens next to Quint, Aksu and Acolyte Jones, but that’s in the far future I think…

Anyway. Here’s a very brief and wonky synopsis I’ve knocked up to give you an idea of what it’s all about. :)

Quint has spent all sixteen years of his life inside the Tower and has never once ventured out into the sprawling city of Ternestrad. This has never worried him particularly; the man who acts as his father, Dr Phiestus, has always taken good care of him, and the many mechanical Croids that keep the Tower spick and span provide a company of sorts.
However, one night Dr Phiestus leaves the Tower and does not come back, and when Quint accidently hatches an egg in the doctor’s storeroom, he realises that it’s time for him to leave the Tower and head out into the world. With the help of a thief, a runaway monk and a creature from another age, Quint must solve the mystery of his own birth and discover the legacy that waits for him beneath the city of Ternestrad.

A Boy of Blood and Clay?

A small update, because I’ve left it far too late this evening and after a couple of glasses of wine I’m a wee bit sleepy, but it’s been a while and there has been some progress.

I’ve hit the 10,000 word mark on the new project, which is, well, not that much really. If I was sticking to my NaNoWriMo schedule I’d be way ahead, but at least I’ve been adding words every day, which I believe is more important than the overall wordcount. I find that as soon as I have a few days off, getting back into the book is a harder and slower process than it needs to be. So if I only do a few hundred words one day, it’s not a disaster because at least I’m still thinking about it and forming the story.

I’m currently working on chapters 3 and 4. These first few chapters are largely about introducing the characters and the situation, and not too much about setting the scene; because both Bad Apple Bone and Bird and Tower were set in entirely fantasy worlds, I had to spend a large amount of time sketching out the world the story inhabited, but as the new project is set in London, this is not so much of an issue. That’s not to say I’m not bothering with “building the world”, because I love this city and it’s lots of fun to write about.

One thing I am having difficulty with is the title. I know it’s not essential to have one in place at this stage, and certainly Bad Apple Bone was a good number of words in before the title came, but it is irritating. “The Odd” was originally chosen because I had a vague idea to base the journey of the main character on the Odyssey, but that idea has been pushed aside a little in favour of less wanky ideas. I still half like it as a title because it refers to the odd nature of the story, but… I dunno. My only other reasonable idea has been “A Boy of Blood and Clay”, which is appropriate, but possibly a little long.

So what do you all think? Stick with The Odd for now, or give A Boy of Blood and Clay a try?

The Great Big New Pain in the Arse

Far too long without an update- naughty sen, to your bed.

The last week or so has been quite a difficult one writing-wise. When I sat down to start on the new project I was immediately met with a big fat problem, namely, whether or not to write it in the first person. While I was finishing Bad Apple Bone and this project was beginning to form in my mind, I always imagined it to be in the first person. I wanted to try writing an entire book in that style, mainly because when I’ve done it in short stories I’ve found it quite enjoyable, and a couple of my favourite writers almost always write in the first person- namely John Connolly and Michael Marshall Smith.

So when it came to the first day of writing, I sat down all ready with my character’s voice and the opening scene and… I completely dried up. It felt terribly forced and awkward, and I didn’t like it. Mostly, the character just sounded like me. Like me writing a book. This was not what I had planned at all, and even worse, my brain was already re-writing the chapter in the third person. I was crippled with indecision- should I soldier on with my original plan, despite how wrong it felt, or abandon most of my plans for the book and keep to my usual style?

In the end, I did the only sensible thing and wrote the chapter in both the first and third, to see how they compared (this was, by the way, an incredibly painful thing in itself. I am really fucking lazy you see, and writing the same bit twice drove me up the wall). I couldn’t help noticing how much easier the words came though, and how much more enjoyable it was the second time around.

So I think I’ve learnt some things from this:

1) You can’t pick a style of writing just because you like the sound of it and because you admire people who do it well- it may simply be inappropriate for the project.

2) I’ve spent two years on Bad Apple Bone essentially learning how to write (successfully or not I cannot say) and that was in the third person. Perhaps I should use what I’ve learnt, and carry on improving as much as I can.

3) There will be another time for a big first person story. Yes there will. Possibly in one huge mad rush in November.

I’m on to the second chapter now, the characters are getting to talk to each other and I’m finding out strange things about them. There are lots of juicy bits about it that I love, I just need the framework to make itself a little more obvious, and it’s still being difficult and fairly unpredictable (I only realised fairly recently that it all makes a lot more sense if one of the main characters is dead) Not to mention that the sodding thing doesn’t have a sodding title!

But I think I’m getting there. Chapter 3 is in my sights.