Tag Archives: Exile

Craft v Platform

There is a tension in some, it would appear, between two apparently opposing forces: the practice of one’s craft, and the building of one’s platform.

I’ve discussed this before, but really, I have never thought of this – what I’m doing here – as ‘platform’. The concept that blogging, maintaining a site, setting up a page, being active on twitter, attending cons… that all of that could be merely some effort to ensnare potential readers, that always struck me as slightly nefarious. Dishonest at worst, a mistake of priorities at best.

I always figured on doing all those things because I like doing them. I like here tapping away and throwing my words out into the churning void of bandwidth and opinion that is the internet. I liked going to Genrecon and meeting a community of people who shared my passions, or gave me new insights into passions related but different, or even new insights into my own. I like interacting with people on Twitter, on Facebook, wherever else it might be. So I hadn’t really felt the tension between these things and the craft of writing, other than the obvious mismanagement of time that could occur.

But Jane Friedman’s post on Writer Unboxed got me thinking about this tension anew last month, and as a result I went away from the website here, I left neglected my Facebook Page, I went away from Twitter… ok. That last one’s not true. Twitter is a difficult thing to shake. I did though take a more passive role on twitter, allowing those I follow to guide me to links and such, but not tweeting (much).

What then has been gained from this month of social media ‘sabbatical’? What gained from a month devoted to craft rather than the building of ‘profile’?

  • I finished writing my draft of Old Man Madigan. It comes in at 10,000 words and I’m wondering now whether I submit it to a market which may be prepared to serialise it, or whether I go in hard with the editing shears and cut.
  • I started expanding some ideas for other short stories, tentatively entitled: Pareidolia, Watchers, Melange. They run a gamut of weird urban/psychological, scif-fi futurism, alt world Fantasy.
  • I wrote a draft of ‘The Witch Way’, a Fantasy short story  at 5,000 words and in need of an edit.
  • I completed a draft of ‘Leaving the Farm’ which had been kicking around in my head and on my computer for years, never really having much structure or purpose. It’s 2150 words and not really genre fiction at all to be honest, straight up Lit Fic with a rural bent.
  • I did a heck of a lot of reading: Chuck Wendig’s Bad Blood, Shotgun Gravy, Bait Dog, Blackbirds, and Mockingbird; Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country; Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (and currently reading King). Reviews to come.
  • And I sent out a query email for Exile, in the hope that an agent may be interested.

An agent was, and requested chapters, and so I’ve sent them now. I’m cautious and nervous and excited and apprehensive and uncertain and hopeful and worried and blasé… all at once or vacillating between the states. In one sense it’s not a step I haven’t reached (and stumbled upon) before, but I feel it’s progress. The last time an agent requested chapters it was on the basis of a face-to-face meeting, not so in this case. The agent currently considering my submission asked to see more based solely on the few paragraphs into which I distilled my novel. So that’s a good thing, to know that the query email worked, to know that I can pique the interest.

All in all a productive month, especially as I look back on it now. So what’s in store for this month? I hope to edit those two stories that are complete drafts, and to send them out. I have a list of markets to which I can submit (thanks Peter M Ball and  Alan Baxter) and I intend to put that list to use… and of course to check my emails obsessively, in the hope of good news.

Next Big Thing

I was nominated as ‘The Next Big Thing’ by fellow Spec-Fic writer Chris Andrews (see his post here). The idea behind the nomination is that writers promote one another through our various networks and blogs, and so it falls to me to answer the questions below.

You may wish to head over to Chris’ blog and have a look around, he’s been doing this a while longer than me I feel and has some really interesting resources on his planning process and novel writing. Far more organised than my general musing and occasional update of progress.

But I digress…

1) What is the working title of your book?

It’s currently going under the title of Exile. I like the idea of a shorter title, and I like the idea that ‘exile’ functions as both noun and verb, that as a noun it can apply to a person or a condition or perhaps even a place.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It has changed so much since it was first conceived that I’m not sure that I can answer the question well. I didn’t think so at the time of writing, but looking back I suspect it may have come from the experience of my own family’s circumstances. When I started writing I had a very clear idea of who the main character would be, but I’ve drifted away from that, perhaps as I’ve matured, and it’s more an ensemble piece now.
It draws from my studies of history and the Classical world. I kept wondering how different historical cultures would have reacted if they ever were to have met. I also wanted to explore the social contract we enter into, that decision to submit to an authority and the assumption that the authority will act in your interests, or at least not directly against them. I’m interested in how that social contract is currently functioning in various cultures, and I wanted to explore how it functioned in a Fantasy setting.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s Fantasy, but that’s not really specific enough is it? When I describe it to others they use the term Epic Fantasy. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. Certainly I think there is an epic back-drop in terms of the scale of the world-building.  The plot is influenced by inter-continental events, the clash of great powers, and yet that’s not the focus. It’s not about the saving of worlds, or the shaping of history through great deeds and prophecies fulfilled, and I think to be Epic Fantasy these are pretty important.

Low Fantasy then perhaps, but not quite as dark as Abercrombie, Morgan, Lawrence et al.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have deliberately avoided thinking in these terms. In many ways because if it ever were to be made into a film that future is so distant and unlikely that references to current Hollywood stars would be meaningless.

So I would choose up-and-comers. I would (given my ‘druthers) avoid the star-powered path. That said, I think there’s a part in there for Djimon Honsou and for Chiwetel Ejiofor or Idris Elba. Cristoph Waltz almost certainly. Stellan and Alexander  Skarsgård. Probably more European actors than American.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When three siblings are separated by a conflict they cannot control, each must adapt to a new life, and perhaps find a way to thrive.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have pitched to an agent, who requested pages, so the process is under-way. I’m thinking the agent to publishing path is my preferred, so I’ll try and exhaust that possibility before looking too closely at others.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This is another interesting question. I started writing the manuscript that would become this manuscript about 15 years ago. That’s not to say I’ve spent 15 years writing it though. I wrote as a hobby, when I could. I had only the most nebulous dreams of one day being a ‘writer’ and I didn’t ever think I would reach the point of having a manuscript that might interest anyone else. That original writing has changed so much, been rewritten so often, been so edited that very little of it survives in the current manuscript.

I’ve been seriously working to make this a novel for the last 12 months or so.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’ve mentioned a few. I’ll use the usual suspects and some new-comers as landmarks and maybe place myself that way:

Not as stolid as Tolkein, not as genealogical as GRRM, less graphic sex than Richard Morgan, less bleak then Abercrombie. Not as weird as Bas-Lag. Not as dense as Viriconium. Not as overtly allegorical as Dune.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The foremost influence was Feist’s  ‘Magician’ I think, at least initially. It wasn’t the first Fantasy novel I had read but it was the first time I had read a novel and seen the constituent parts that built the story. I think it stands as an excellent example, perhaps the prime example, of what it is. I cannot think of a Bildungsromanin the Fantasy genre that does it quite so well. It also opened up the idea of non-European cultures in Fantasy, and of those cultures being something more than the indistinctly drawn enemy. It seems that Feist will use Tsurannuani this way, and yet there’s that scene where he gives us their POV: We see the characters we’ve followed as they saved Crydee and we see them as a respected enemy, and from there of course we learn about the fractured nature of the Tsurani and their internal political disputes.

From that point, that I decided I could write a novel, I drew inspiration from many places. From history’s many tales. From Chaucer’s Middle English, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval bestiaries, the eddas and sagas, the myths of India and Africa, the common human myth identified and explained by Joseph Campbell.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

What indeed. I suppose that depends on the reader.

A huge secondary world with a living history?

Fallible characters who err and face the consequences, who are uncertain, who lack-confidence or over-commit, who cannot rely on divine prophecy or enchanted trinkets?

Political intrigues played out in the chambers and courts of nobility?

Bloody battles played out in the mud, ringing with the cries of warriors and the clash of spear on shield?

Forests filled with strange beasts?

Death, love, betrayal, suspicion… all the confused emotions that from people trying to find their way toward the life they wish to lead.

And my recommendation for the ‘next big thing’?

Richard Marek, whom I knew online long before I met him (recently – at Genrecon), and has shown me some of his work and I sincerely hope he  continues with his efforts to publish.

The re-write is complete


Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.


The continuing importance of editing

I’m under 150,000 words now on the continuing project to bring my manuscript down to a publishable size. Given that the upper limits (especially for an unpublished author) are in the 130 – 140k range I still have some work ahead of me, but I feel it’s going well.

Most of the words cut so far came from some major changes:

I cut a character. In one sense he was minor, but I had a plan to develop him much further later in the story. When some of that got chopped he became even less significant in his earlier scenes, and so, brutally, I cut him. Not an early death… he never existed.

I have restructured the opening chapters. Originally they were all weighing in between 3 and 4 thousand words and most had more than one narrative POV, so I changed the structure of the chapters to have each be a single narrative POV. They’re shorter, punchier and arranged so that there is a more logical flow. I think it has done wonders for my pacing and has  also removed the last vestiges of their being a really clear dominant POV character, so that now several POV characters each progress the narrative and each give us insights into the events from their own perspective.

I also restructured the plot in the opening, partly to facilitate the narrative changes, and partly to streamline the plot. In one chapter in particular the various changes I had made over time had caused a great deal of confusion. This chapter was (and is) a crucial nexus for the characters and I think it now does a better job of drawing the threads together and scattering them, where before it just drew them in and left me with an ugly tangled mess.

So the process is a positive one. I have lost a lot of words to the cutting-room floor and many of these I believe were quite good ones. I’ve lost scenes I liked, because they no longer were needed, or no longer made sense. I’ve lost some nice prose, some sharp dialogue, some insights into the characters and how they maintain themselves in the world… but in return I’ve got a leaner, fitter plot, I have thinned out some of the exposition chunks into a nice exposition stew (there’s a better metaphor for that I’m sure. Perhaps I’m hungry? Certainly I’m tired).

So I need to cut at least another 10,000 or so, possible 15,000, and I’ve made the major changes. I’m back to the start and going through, chapter by chapter, finding superfluity and error. It’s difficult and at times tedious, but it’s necessary and ultimately a very positive thing. Today I cut 750 words from a chapter. That’s probably a higher than average edit.

If I can cut 500 words from every chapter by this process I’ll get to the end of the book having carved out another 17,000 words or so, and I’ll be right on target!

Product over profile

For a while now (read several weeks) I’ve been devoting myself to refining my product and this has come at the expense of my profile, on this website, on Facebook, on Twitter, etc… There really is too few hours for me each day at the moment.

The deadline looms for me to have that product ready though. I’ll be attending my first writers’ convention in one week’s time. Flights are booked, accommodation too. I have  some acquaintances with whom I’ll be able to become more acquainted, some twitterati who I will be able to meet IRL, and hopefully there will be new and interesting people for me to meet, with whom to share ideas, discuss our shared and varied experiences of writing, etc…

That said, one highlight for me will be the opportunity to pitch my novel manuscript. It’ll be a verbal pitch, five minutes in a tight schedule where I and presumably many other hopefuls will be trying to convince an agent (or editor, but I have preferenced agents) that we might be worth doing business with.

Worst case scenario it’s a ‘thanks, but…’ response, and I’m tying to establish that as the default expectation, not in a cynical way but in a realist way. Expectations and hopes vary though, and I hope I get a great response and a request for a full manuscript… in which case I better have one to provide which is polished to the point of shining with brilliance.

Now having said all that I’m reminded of some wisdom that came to me via twitter from the dark and twisted (but no less wise for that) mind of Chuck Wendig. Conventions should not be about schlepping the goods and forging commercial interaction protocols. They should be about meeting people as people, not as cogs in an industrial writing complex (or publishing receptacles). Sure that industrial side of the pursuit is there, let’s not be naive, but I’m kinda looking forward to just meeting people and sharing ideas.

Product over profile, people over platforms, proficiency over publication.

Always remember that my stated goal is not to be a published writer (that’s easy enough these days if you have enough spare cash and low enough standards) but to be a good writer (or at least a better one than I was yesterday).