More on Lucy and Pete

Thanks everyone who commented on my previous post. Now some comments from me.

First of all, TDK makes an interesting point:

People seem determined to understand the question wrongly as “is she cheating?” rather than “is she lying?”

This is important, because I think the logic is that provided she’s not cheating then the lying doesn’t matter. So I’ll furnish you with some more background info.

Lucy was at university studying English when she met Pete, who was twelve years older than her and married, but with no kids. His wife was apparently open to her husband sleeping with other women, which allowed Lucy and Pete to see one another. But Pete, a freelance IT consultant, lived a weird hippy-like lifestyle which involved copious volumes of Class-A drugs, which Lucy soon got tangled up in. She used to smoke weed when they first met, but soon she was onto the harder stuff: cocaine, acid, and anything else that Pete could get hold of. She started to spend more time with him, cooped up together in her student flat or staying with his friends in other cities. She became more sexually adventurous, and had several threesomes with Pete and a woman called Amy who he met online. Her studies began to suffer, and within a few months she’d quit her course and taken an admin job at a magazine, but all the money she earned went on rent and feeding her drug habit. She loved Pete and believed he loved her in return, but after a year she began to regret quitting university, and wondered where their relationship was going. She was only 22 after all, but already her friends had graduated and some were settled down with men their own age and talking of starting a family. In the year that followed, nothing much changed for Lucy. She lost her job at the magazine and cut down the drugs, but when Pete got divorced and her hopes rose, he told her he didn’t want to be tied down again. They finally split up on her 24th birthday, when he confessed he was seeing another woman. Lucy was sad, but she understood: exclusivity had never been part of the bargain with Pete, but she didn’t want to share him any longer. For the few years she maintained the lifestyle, sleeping with Pete’s friends occasionally, and even dating one of them for six months, a man she’d known since the time they first met. On the odd occasion she’d bump into Pete at a party they’d usually go home together, but even that stopped eventually. She fell into depression and spent a month in rehab, and had several therapy sessions when she came out.

Her life took a turn for the better at 31 when her parents moved to London, allowing her to live with them while she went back to university and completed a degree in pyschology. She was working in a hospital and earning a reasonable salary when she met the narrator, an industrial chemist, who was 36 at the time. She’d not been in a proper relationship in the intervening years, just had the occasional fling. He gradually learned of her background and relationship with Pete, and they’d been dating four months at the time of the conversation I posted.

As the narrator goes on to say:

“I didn’t care she still spoke to an ex-boyfriend, nor even that she’d lied about it. In isolation we could have recovered from that, but this Pete was different. The only way I could overlook the sex, drugs, and the whole fucking lifestyle was by knowing it was in her past and she wanted to forget it. Her being friends with one of the main players cast doubt on that, and I’d put far too much faith in her already. The onus was on her to build trust with me, but she was doing the exact opposite.”

In short, the narrator never suspected her of cheating but considered it important to know whether she was still in touch with Pete. Her lying – if that’s what it was – therefore mattered.

Also interesting is what Watcher said:

It would hardly be surprising if people therefore discounted this as a form of serious interaction, even if it was quite regular.

In a way the key question (to Lucy, about being in contact, not to the commentators) is from the 1970s, but poised in the 2010s – it lacks key qualifications.

This is true, but as the narrator says:

“This why I went through the pantomime of asking if she could get hold of him. I had to be sure there were no misunderstandings.”

One thing which surprises me is that despite Lucy being asked several times whether she could get hold of this guy if she had to and her saying “no”, people – especially women – still think the question was open to interpretation, as if she didn’t know what he meant. It’s hard to think of how the narrator could have been more clear.

When the narrator finally confronted Lucy, the conversation went as follows:

‘Why did you lie about losing touch with Pete?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Lucy, he left a comment under your photo a few weeks ago, and you replied to it. You comment on his stuff, too. You’re in regular contact.’

‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’

‘He’s called Pete Navardauskas, it’s a Lithuanian name. How many do you know?’

She emitted a nasty, bitter laugh. ‘Well, I can’t be expected to remember every comment made on my photos. And I’m not interested in these arguments any more. It’s over. Bye.’

‘You lied to me, Lucy.’

‘Well, we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on that,’ she said, and hung up.

Later, he remarked:

“There’s no way you’d overlook a comment from an ex-lover with whom you had that shared history, let alone several comments. You might not remember the precise remarks but you’d not forget the interaction, and you couldn’t say you’d lost touch without lying.”

 And I think that’s important. This isn’t some random guy she met years ago, it’s a man she was in love with, slept with, shared a huge chunk of her life with, and had considerable influence on how her life turned out. Would it slip your mind if somebody like that was commenting on your photos ten years later? No, it wouldn’t.

Watcher was right about one thing, though:

It’s also the sort of question that would be a big red flag to me that this relationship had problems (not being a fan of tension and jelousy in relationships).

Yes, the relationship was fucked.

Thanks for the participation, everyone. It’s been a lot of fun.

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Did Lucy lie?

Over the course of the past year I’ve described a scenario to various people, and been surprised by the reaction of women. Just for fun (and readers interested in serious stuff are free to skip this post), I’ll lay it out here.

Background:

The narrator is in a relationship with Lucy. Ten years before, Lucy had a serious boyfriend called Pete, who she was with for about 2 or 3 years. She said there was a time when she couldn’t bear to be without him, and when they split up it was amicable but they gradually lost touch. The narrator has just looked at Lucy’s social media account.

The scene:

I should have given the account a wide berth, but the next morning I opened it. There was a photo of the toy rat, propped on its hind legs against a black ceramic skull she’d brought back from London. I’d been with her when she unwrapped it, and behind her as she took the picture. There was one comment underneath, a single word – ‘Beautiful!’ – left by Pete. ‘Thanks!’ Lucy had replied.

My throat tightened as the anger built inside me.

I looked at other photos and found more comments from Pete. I clicked on his profile, and saw comments from Lucy less than a month old. The interaction was ongoing, and in both directions. A photo from Glastonbury caught my eye, the caption alluding to how much he missed it. A sympathetic comment from Lucy lay underneath.

Lucy was outside a long time, probably on the phone with someone. By the time she came back I’d got a grip of myself, and when she sat down I buried my rage and said in a friendly tone, ‘Can I ask, is there anyone who still holds a candle for you?’

‘You mean an ex who still likes me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Michael still texts me. He wants to get back together, but there was really nothing there to begin with.’

‘All right,’ I said, nodding. This didn’t bother me. ‘Anyone else?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘How about you? Any of your exes still interested?’

‘Jane might be, I think. I get messages from her sometimes, asking how I am.’

‘Okay.’

‘So the rest of your exes – you’re no longer in touch?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Including those from university?’

‘Yes!’ she said, getting cross. ‘Why are you asking about this?’

I ignored her and asked, ‘What about Pete? Are you still speaking to him?’

‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Why do you keep asking about this?’ she demanded again.

‘Lucy,’ I said gently. ‘Please don’t get mad, I’m just asking some questions and I’m doing it nicely.’

‘Look, if I saw him at a party I might say hello, but I wouldn’t make any special effort.’

‘So let me ask you something. It’s going to seem like a strange question, but humour me, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘If you needed to contact him urgently – for whatever reason – could you do it? Could you get hold of him within twenty-four hours, for example?’

She stared at me in silence. I stared back until she answered the question.

‘Well, I might have an email for him somewhere,’ she said, trying to act casual and failing. ‘I don’t know, I’d have see if I still have it. Why?’

‘I’m just wondering. So you still have his email?’

‘It’s probably somewhere, but like I said, I’d have to look. What’s this about?’ Her temper was building, I had to wrap this up fast.

‘So if you wanted to get hold of Pete quickly, you could do it. Is that what you’re saying?’

With a face like thunder she picked up her phone, and I watched in silence as she furiously searched.

After a minute she stopped. ‘No, see!’ she said triumphantly, showing me the screen. ‘He’s not in my contacts any more, it’s gone. So no, I couldn’t get hold of him, even if I wanted to.’

‘Okay,’ I said neutrally. ‘That’s fair enough, thanks.’

***

When I’ve put this to women, their reaction has usually been to doubt that Lucy had lied, saying something to the effect of: “Maybe she didn’t think being in touch meant being friends on social media?” Men are a little less forgiving.

What say you, readers?

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Nocturnal Animals

Last night I watched Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen it and wish to, you might want to skip this post because SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The film concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who’s made a right hash of her life. Severe Mummy and Daddy issues drove her as a young graduate to marry her childhood friend (Gyllenhaal) who’s a budding author but seems to be hopelessly naive about what that entails. For example, he complains his wife criticises his work, into which he’s poured his heart and soul. Well, wait until it hits the shelves pal, then you’ll know what criticism is. After two years of marriage she bins the author for some hot-shot Adonis she works with. The film takes place 19 years later when the Adonis is cheating on her with a younger, prettier woman and her gallery is failing. Cue lots of shots of her sitting in the dark, alone and weeping. The only thing missing was her securing an order for half a dozen cats down at the local pet shop.

I think the lesson we’re supposed to take away is that you should always follow your heart and stand by your first true love no matter what. The lesson I actually took away was that spoiled brat women in their twenties acting like stroppy teenagers in dealing with their parents are likely to make catastrophic decisions which will leave them alone and miserable later in life. That’s not really the point of this post, though.

Instead I’m going to talk about lazy plot devices. Early on in the film Adam’s character receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, who she’s not seen in decades, and reads it. The film then becomes a story within a story, and we see the tale in the manuscript being played out. The idea is that the author’s new novel is so brilliant that his ex-wife will see she made a mistake in dumping him all those years ago.

The problem is the novel doesn’t seem very good or original. It concerns a man who is run off the road by rednecks (of course) in Texas after which his wife and teenage daughter are raped and murdered. The man survives and seeks revenge. This story has been done a million times already, so I wasn’t persuaded it could induce a change of heart in his ex-wife. What they needed was a really clever story, not a by-the-numbers rape-revenge yarn, but I guess if they came up with one they’d probably just make a film of that rather than use it as a sub-plot in a film about a lonely, ageing woman.

But my main issue is with what this tweet complains about:

I’m not alone in finding rape increasingly being used as a plot device, and not liking it. I’ve complained before about bad guys in movies and TV series being made into cartoons, and the audience battered over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to ensure we’re left in no doubt who is good and who is bad. Making the bad guy a rapist appears to have become the default way of going about it, and I find it lazy. Rape may induce feelings of disgust and hatred, and make for intense scenes the audience won’t forget, but it’s akin to the shots of emaciated African kids with flies around their face you see in TV adverts begging for money – it’s cheap, emotional blackmail. Some years ago my sister noticed the frequency with which rape is used as a plot device when writing for the F-Word:

James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them.

Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”

Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth was another bestseller which had the bad guy raping women with such frequency I’d roll my eyes wondering why the editor didn’t point out he’d used this scene already.

It may be necessary to include a rape scene in a film or novel – The Accused would hardly work without it, nor would I Spit on Your Grave – but in most cases it is necessary only because the writer lacks the skill or imagination to come up with anything else. You might forgive the writers of Game of Thrones frequently throwing in rape scenes because that particular series relies heavily on torture-porn, but others don’t have that excuse.

Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.

Nocturnal Animals wasn’t a bad film, and I liked the ending, but lazy writing using rape-revenge as a plot device let it down badly. I look forward to the day when authors and scriptwriters quit doing it. It’s probably one of the few subjects on which I agree with the feminists.

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Pompous Stupidity

Oliver Kamm once again grumbles about people other than him giving aspiring writers advice:

Now the article he links to is a bit crap, but so is Kamm’s dismissal of it. The biggest error the columnist makes is equating stylistic preferences with grammar, which despite Kamm’s complaints about people doing this has nonetheless gifted him a regular column with which to share them.

Regardless of the other points the columnist makes, he is right to advise against using the term “very unique”. If I saw such a pairing I’d think the author ought to have found a better description, or – if it was unique – to drop the “very”. Kamm’s argument seems to be that if a famous writer has used it, then everybody else can too. This is idiotic. In Charlotte Brontë’s case, the overall quality of her output allows her to use pretty much any term she likes. But not everyone is Charlotte Brontë and if their work does not match her standard, they have less leeway. There are some truly awful passages in The Lord of the Rings and too much repetition, but nobody cares because overall it is a masterpiece. Nevertheless you’d perhaps tell an aspiring writer not to use the word “carven” to describe every damned pillar their heroes encounter, even if you acknowledge that Tolkien did just that.

There’s a good analogy here with sport. Top-class sportsmen can get away with pulling off audacious tricks on the field: Kevin Pietersen with the switch-hit, René Higuita’s scorpion kick, or this penalty by Lionel Messi. They have license to do so only because they have proved themselves masters of the basics to the point their overall product is beyond doubt and inadvisable behaviour can be overlooked. But if a lesser player were to do it, particularly one who is just setting out and a long way from proving themselves, they’d be rightly criticised and told not to do it again.

Back to writing, there is an error in the plot of The Big Sleep where Raymond Chandler forgets to tell us who killed the chauffeur. This doesn’t matter because the writing is of such high quality that glaring plot holes can be overlooked. According to Kamm’s logic, aspiring writers shouldn’t worry about tying up loose ends in a story because Raymond Chandler didn’t. This is pompous stupidity, and probably has less to do with improving people’s writing than signalling that he is familiar with the classics.

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Another Update on the Book

Yesterday I finished the second draft of my book, tightening up the prose, making my use of words more efficient, and improving the structure in certain places. The word count has dropped from 98k to 74k with almost no changes to the story; that gives you an idea of how overwritten it was. The second draft took me just over 2 months on the calendar, 40 days of which I worked on it.

I now need to start on the third draft which will be twofold:

1. A further tightening up of the prose, cutting more unnecessary words, and generally improving individual sentences as much as I can.

2. A look at the intensity of both the overall storyline and that of individual scenes. Readers need a break occasionally, and a scene which is too intense for too long will get tiresome. As Alex K pointed out in the comments, terse conversations should include sentences which are longer and more laid-back, and the same is true for the story as a whole. I think I will probably need to include some filler in places, just to give the reader a chance to relax a while; fortunately with my much-reduced word count I’ll have room to do that.

I’m not sure when this will be done, but hopefully by the end of summer. I’ll also need to get the synopses written, and then find an editor. I know of one who I will approach, but does anyone know any others who specialise in (sort of) romantic, realistic fiction that would appeal to middle-aged men and women? Also, does anyone have any idea what an editor would charge?

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An Excerpt Re-Written

I took on board the advice I received when I posted the excerpt from my book in May and am in the process of rewriting the whole lot. In particular I am trying to, as commenters dearieme and Andrew suggested, build the descriptions as the action occurs, not alongside it. More importantly, I realised it is overwritten and my efficiency of words was poor (which is probably not surprising for a first draft), and I was spoon-feeding the reader with too much information.

I don’t find this rewriting particularly difficult as such – I understand what I have to do – but it does take concentration, more than writing the first draft did. If you have to check every word for suitability and necessity, it only takes a few paragraphs before you’re skimming and not doing the job properly. I have found myself having to read and re-read the same passages a dozen times or more. Of course, there may be other things I need to do with it which I’m not yet aware of and may prove more difficult again, and I am sure at least one more rewrite will be required before it goes in front of an editor.

The word count is tumbling: the first draft was about 98k words and it’s already down to 87k and I’m only halfway through the rewrite. Anyway, yesterday I re-wrote the passage which I posted as an excerpt back in May, taking it from 4,014 words to 2,671 (a reduction of a third). Not quite the 50% which commenter James Hoskins implied, but close enough.

Anyway, the re-written passage is below. Feedback, no matter how brutal, is welcome: I found the last lot to be of tremendous help.

Continue reading

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Traditional versus Self-Publishing

dearieme points me towards this illuminating post on the subject of authors getting published. It makes for grim reading if what you expected was something different:

As you might imagine, I often hear from wannabe professional writers who have finished a book-length project and are horrified to discover that getting it published is harder than writing the damn thing. I offer them the sagest bit of wisdom I possess, which is that perseverance counts more than talent. A harsh message perhaps, but essential to incorporate in your world-view if you want to take up the vocation.

It only gets worse from here.

It’s especially troublesome if you produce something original, something that doesn’t fit into a tried-and-true marketing template.

Uh-huh.

I came by this knowledge the hard way, having been fucked around by morons in the publishing industry my whole career — not to put too fine a point on it.

The truth is, you are producing work that nobody asked for and that no one especially cares about.

That last part is particularly important.

You have to grind away at this lonely business day-after-day to get the job done. The only thing that avails to keep you going is your own conviction that it is worth doing.

Which to be fair is the case for anything. From memory, nobody paid me to learn Russian.

Thus, the second morsel of wisdom I offer wannabes is to give up seeking validation from friends and relatives. I never ask friends to read my works-in-progress.

I quit doing this early on because, frankly, only one person was interested. Which only goes to amplify the point that nobody asked for it and nobody especially cares about it. That said, the one person’s feedback has been extremely helpful. Plus all of your comments on the excerpt, of course.

I sent the manuscript out to two editors who had expressed some interest in my work over the years. The first guy, Daniel Menaker at Harper Collins, had a snit when he learned I’d made a multiple submission — a no-no for authors in those days — and told me to get lost.

Publishers really are arrogant shits, aren’t they? They turn people down by the million but get all snotty if you submit your proposal to anyone other than them.

I finished my latest “book” project last year around Halloween. In late December, my publisher turned it down. I’d been with The Atlantic Monthly Press, part of the Grove-Atlantic group, for seven books, starting with The Long Emergency.

They eventually published my four-book World Made By Hand series of novels about life in a small New England town after the sort of economic collapse I described in The Long Emergency, a natural progression for me. I sensed they were none too happy about the project, but perhaps the chance that the series might be picked up by a cable network kept them on the line. My advances sank with each book. In any case, they never offered a kind word (e.g. “Hey, nice job… I enjoyed it….”). They did absolutely nothing in the way of marketing the books.

If an established publisher isn’t going to bother marketing your book, what is the point of using them in the modern era? To get it on a shelf for a week before pulping the lot? And being dropped like a stone without warning appears to be a part of life in the writing world.

So, when I handed in A Safe and Happy Place last year, they dumped me just in time for Christmas. My current agent didn’t want to try to sell it elsewhere, either. He said it was “off my brand” of hard-hitting polemical non-fiction and no other publisher would want it.

Like a lot of so-called professions – recruiters, letting agents – literary agents seem to be very much fair-weather friends, happy take their cut when things are going well of their own accord, but unwilling to put in any effort when things get more difficult.

If his publishers won’t market books and agents refuse to do their job, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose to go the traditional route over self-publishing these days. I suspect in the coming years we’ll see more and more examples like Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was self-published and then snapped up by a traditional publisher when they realised it was doing exceptionally well (it is worth reading, miles better than the film). As I said, fair-weather friends.

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An Excerpt From The Book

I’ve finished my first rough draft of the book and am now in the process of fine-tuning it, meaning flushing out the repeated words, inconsistencies, and other errors and doing my best to improve it. Once I’ve done that I will put it aside for a month and then go through the whole lot from beginning to end with a red pen trying to get it as good as I possibly can before handing it over to an editor (who I’ve yet to find – I’ll post on that later).

If you’re interested in an excerpt I have posted one below the line of a scene which takes place around the halfway point of the book. The narrator has accompanied his girlfriend Katya, a Russian-American woman, to the birthday party of a Russian artist in London (the rough overall synopsis is here). Continue reading

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A Synopsis of The Book

It occurred to me that I should probably tell people what this book I’m writing is about. So here’s a synopsis:

A middle-aged divorcee living in London meets Katya, an intriguing Russian-American woman some eight years his junior on a popular online dating site. With her facial piercings, bohemian style, and artsy outlook she is not his usual type but the two get along fabulously well and soon they are embarked on what promises to be a healthy, long-term relationship.

Then one morning, after a romantic night together, Katya reveals a secret about her past which destroys all his assumptions and makes him realise that he doesn’t know this woman at all. Only he is hopelessly in love, and so instead of leaving he decides to stay with her in the hope her past is behind her and there are no more secrets to be revealed. But the more he learns about Katya the more questions are raised: why did she divorce her husband back in New York? Why is she so drawn to the Burning Man festival that takes place each year in Nevada’s Black Rock desert? And why is she with him in the first place?

In an effort to find out he accompanies her to Brooklyn and enters the world which has shaped her life since she fled Moscow and her estranged family a decade before. What he discovers forces him to confront his own weaknesses and insecurities and question just how far he is willing to go in accepting Katya once the truth is known.

The book is written in the first person and is set on the Eurostar between Paris and London where the protagonist is recounting his experience to some friends, a married couple, he met by chance at Gare du Nord. The actual story takes place in London, moves to New York, and then comes back to London with a brief visit to Vilnius somewhere in the middle.

The themes that are touched on are, to varying degrees (I can’t list all of them because of spoilers): the middle-age dating scene for men, online dating, what men expect from romantic partners in middle-age, the difference in mindset between men in their twenties and middle-aged men vis-a-vis romantic relations, women’s sexual history and how men view them, Russian women and other aspects of Russia, third-wave feminism (and its effect on young women), drug use, sex, artsy types, Burning Man, Brooklyn’s arts scene, and the general interaction between a man and a woman from very different worlds when they attempt to form a relationship.

I appreciate it might not be everybody’s cup of tea but I wrote it mainly because I reckoned I had a complete story with this one, and that’s half the battle. I’ve kept it as realistic as possible in the hope that people – both men and women – will be able to relate to the characters and situations, or at least find it interesting. I am confident that I am saying something different, stuff that hasn’t been put into writing before, at least not in novel format. I’m also confident that the story is interesting enough and my writing is good enough that people will like it.

Only one way to find out, though.

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Another Update on the Book

The status of my book is as follows: as of this morning I have written 80,000 words in chronological order from the start, checked over at least once. The first half of those are in sufficient state to be put in front of an editor; the other half probably could as well at a push.

I reckon the final word count will be between 90,000-95,000 words, leaving me with 10,000-15,000 to go: the ending. Of those I have written somewhere around 5,000 in first-draft form, meaning I have about 10,000 to write from scratch. I know what I’m going to write, I just need to work out the structure of the ending such that it balances both within itself and the rest of the book. The way things are looking it will be 12 chapters plus an epilogue.

Once I have finished writing the ending I will go back over the second half that I’ve not properly scrutinised, and then print the whole thing out and go back over it again with a red pen making adjustments and improvements where I think they’re needed and trying to spot any mistakes or overused phrases. I’m hoping all of that will be done sometime around June or July.

Then I’ll need to get it in front of an editor. My aim is to get an edited, fully-formatted version out there ready for marketing by September: that will be a year from when I first started. Then I suspect the real effort will begin…

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