Tag Archives: writing

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.

… and continue…

So I’ve got more than 50,000 words which have survived these revisions (in fact 53,300-ish).

That’s the good news. It represents 18 chapters of the novel and I’m hitting the point where the narratives are becoming quite divergent so there will be (I’m hoping) some chapters upcoming from POVs or in locations which are only minimally affected by the necessary changes.

I’m on page 177 of the word document (out of 633) and the total is still hovering on 195,000 words (so I’m more than 25% of the way there – kind of). I’m thinking I’m going to have to cut a whole scene, or perhaps whole characters / sub-plots to really get this thing down the the lean piece of writing I think it needs to be.

Big job, but I accepted the challenge, and if I’m going to go around calling myself a writer I’d better be doing some writing to justify the tag.

If deep cuts helped Cormac McCarthy produce Blood Meridian then who am I to puff out the chest and insist all my words are worthy of being spared?

The revisions continue…

I’m struggling to find an appropriate metric to evaluate my progress on this project at the moment, so let’s just deal with raw figures.

I have 93 pages of completed (revised) manuscript. Currently that equates to about 30,000 words (I’m being really rough here).

The total word-count on the document is 197,698 words. That means I only have 167,698 ish words to revise in the next five weeks (when Genrecon arrives).

That’s the road ahead. The road behind though is a little more encouraging: that 197,698 figure is down from 240,141. If my maths is not mistaken (by which I mean my ability to operate the calculator app on my phone) I’ve cut 42,443 words. That’s a good chunk of writing gone. The original Word page count was 766. Now it’s 638. I’ve cut out 128 A4 pages of 12 point Times New Roman.

It also means that of the (approximately) 75,000 words I’ve reviewed through this process 56.6% of them are gone. More than half! In a way that’s liberating, but in another way it’s terrifying. Yet I have faith in the process. I must have faith in the process.

This manuscript was flabby and lazy. For year it had built up its corpulence until it was too sluggish and stubborn to fight back, but now I’ve come to whip it in to shape and by November I want it mean, lean and undeniably impressive!

Five weeks. 167,000 words. 545 pages.

*cue ‘Gonna Fly Now

Challenge accepted.


The need for (safe) risk taking

I have always been more a solitary writer than one who actively seeks a community of the like-minded. The reasons for this are manifold:

Firstly I haven’t found a strong community of like-minded writers. Possibly (almost certainly) this is a bit of a chicken/egg argument, as I haven’t really actively sought one out. When I have, and I was for a short time part of a group of writers, the ‘like’ in like-minded was quite strained – incorporating everything from Hard SF to Paranormal Fiction to Epic Fantasy – and didn’t really fit within the genre niche I was carving for myself.

Secondly I have (until recently – more on that to come) been quite guarded about what I was doing. It was really only when I finished the ‘Exile’ manuscript (I’ve posted excerpts from the prologue here before) that I felt I had something I wanted people to read. Sharing scenes, excerpts, even chapters felt a bit false because they were so de-contextualised.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, I was just in an utter state of fear that it would all be rubbish. I had this thing I’d been building and crafting and drawing forth from my own creative energies for years (over a decade). How could I risk putting it out there and having it savaged? How could I risk being told that all that time and effort was wasted? Wasn’t it safer to keep my work of genius locked safely away from the harsh judgements of those that would seek to judge it?


Of course not.

And yet it was a prevailing mindset. I recognise it sometimes when I think of my boys growing up. My eldest is off to school next year and I’m excited for him, but at the same time some part of me wishes I could hold him back – hold him locked in time – so he wouldn’t have to go out there and get bullied and fail at things and have his heart broken and risk all the myriad tragedies and tribulations of a life lived. That’s fair enough isn’t it? I’ll just keep him here in this happy (mostly) state of early child-hood where I can enjoy the beaming smile I get when he sees me and he will never tell me he hates me and storm out, and no one will be able to say a bad word about him?


Of course not.


We know lives need to be lived, despite – or perhaps because of – all the inherent risks in the living. Books need to be read for the same reasons (I just compared my manuscript to my son. How droll. Forgive me.).

So I sent my book out to some (highly) trusted readers. Close friends. Family. People who have read and enjoyed the books I believe inspired me in the writing of ‘Exile’. The feedback I got was positive, and in some ways and in some cases constructive, but really it was a comfortable and familiar blanket in which to wrap myself. I mean no disrespect to my readers in saying that – they performed their role perfectly. My point is I needed someone to play another role.

I needed the harsh, but fair, critic. I needed the bald-faced truth. I needed someone to cast aside the flatteries and the positive reinforcement and to go straight to the heart of anything in the novel which didn’t work. I needed a critical eye to find the faults I had been denying to myself: the faults I most needed to fix before I pitch this tale.

And I found my man, and recently he gave me what I needed. I’ll give you all more detail on what that is in a series of subsequent posts. It’s a work in progress. Suffice it to say that some fairly drastic cuts are recommended and some significant changes to characters and characterisation. That in itself doesn’t amaze me (though to be honest I was amazed by the extent of the recommended cutting). What amazed me most was how well the advice I was getting struck those loose nerves that I had been soothing over. Almost everything which was identified for me aligned perfectly to some sense of uncertainty I’d been feeling, or some concern about the manuscript which I would occasionally glimpse and turn away from. It had become a ‘wilful unseeing’ of the faults in my work, and I’d gotten so fixated on looking at words within a scene that I hadn’t asked myself ‘does this paragraph need to be here?’ ‘does this scene?’ ‘does this chapter?’ ‘does this character?’.

I feel the answers may be difficult to nail down, and maybe all these alterations will take something away from the manuscript which will be lost forever. This is the risk involved in following these recommendations, but I’m at least now at a place with my writing that I have the courage to take the risk.

The Narrative Present

After writing my last post I was curious to see that I had, without making any conscious desire to do so, framed the narrative in the past tense. This I assume is, of itself, unremarkable. But I later found in telling the tale, and writing it down elsewhere that as the event became more distant in the past my narrative voice shifted from past-tense to present.

Instead of ‘the car sped through the intersection I am suddenly telling people that ‘this car speeds through the intersection’. I’m describing the driver, I’m reporting the dialogue with the woman in distress, I’m explaining that ‘she just walks off’ after she denies the need for further assistance. All this in the present tense, as if it were happening as I spoke. The astute among you may have noticed that I’m doing it now in recounting these past tellings of the tale.

This is not a new, nor even entirely unexpected phenomenon, but it was one of which I was not even conscious.

Literary theorists would describe this as the Narrative Present Tense, but linguists might be more likely to describe it as the Historical Present Tense, and it’s use has been becoming more common, to the point that in 2010 The Guardian ran an article on its prevalence in that year’s Man Booker Prize nominees and Phillip Pullman’s apparently scathing rebukes (Pullman later responded).

The Historical Present Tense is quite rightly used in non-fiction – such as for accounts of history, or in journalism – such as in headlines. In conversation and other spoken modes we seem quite at ease slipping into the Narrative present to tell stories and relate anecdotes of our day.

‘So I’m walking past the shops when suddenly this guy jumps out and he asks me for a lighter…’ or some such. Note the verb forms: ‘walking’, ‘jumps’, ‘asks’. This type of story telling conveys the action as something immediate and ongoing. This is not a completed event, relegated to memory. This event is suddenly alive again. It is being played out ‘in real time’ as it were.

But does it have a place in written fiction?

The narrative present does bring the past back to life. A ‘revivification of history’ as it were. It can also mark a change it the narrative, using changes in tense to separate different segments, such as a character in the narrative relating dialogue in the narrative present. It can provide a ‘now’ – a present moment in the ‘life’ of the text – which separates that particular scene from those that come chronologically before or afterwards.  All of these things are useful, and if skilfully used will add to the quality of the writing, but as Pullman warns its overuse can denude the writing of the desired effect. By striving to be expressive, we rob our writing of the variegations of expression.

The Editor’s Blog has a good discussion on the pros and cons of both the past and present tenses as they apply to longer narratives (such as novels).

In the end, the important thing is to write good fiction and write it well. If the tense helps to make your fiction more powerful then so much the better. If it makes it seem that you are constantly shouting for attention, then you have a problem. Of course knowing the problem makes it that much easier to solve.

For my part I tend to prefer the past tense for extended pieces, but I’m playing around with the present for flash length fiction and shorter stories. The most important thing I’ve found (and most will agree) is to be consistent. Perhaps I’ll be able to polish something up into an example of how to make the narrative present  work for your readers.