Update on the Book

So my book is progressing at a reasonable pace, and I’m learning a lot as I go.

The first thing I learned is my dialogue format wasn’t great: too much “I said” and “she said”. I read a few pages of books which handle dialogue well and saw they used them much more sparingly than me, so I made some edits. Fortunately this was an easy fix, so no big deal.

The second thing I learned – which I ought to have known before – is “show, don’t tell”. I was doing too much explaining rather than letting the reader infer what is happening from the actions and speech of the characters. Again this was an easy fix, simply a matter of deleting the unnecessary sentences where I have explained what has just taken place.

The third thing I learned was to do with word count and structure. When I started this project I assumed writing a book was simply a matter of banging out 80-90k words to tell some sort of story. I was making splendid progress and the words were falling off my keyboard onto the screen, and I made it as far as 65k words. I was nearly done! It’ll be in people’s stockings for Christmas! Then I stopped and engaged my brain a little.

I’m an engineer and perhaps because of that any project I undertake I do in a very structured manner. I use the word “structure” a lot in my day-job, and I’m not referring to I-beams, concrete, and rebar. If I’m asked to do a job I look at what needs doing, why, by whom, and in what order. I put that together into what is called a Work Breakdown Structure which helps me organise the whole job in my mind. At the beginning it is a rough outline and as I get more information and the picture becomes clearer I start filling in the gaps. I start to see how one part will link to another and what I need to do to make that happen. With the structure in place I can concentrate on one small area for a while without losing focus on the overall project. If anyone wonders why I always seem to have so much time on my hands it is because I work fast and efficiently, skills acquired through being naturally bone idle and workshy. I can work fast and efficiently because I invest time and effort up front into making sure the work is properly structured before it begins. If everyone could do this I’d never have got a job, let alone a career.

So I realised at 65k words that my story needed a structure. I had the unstructured story in my head but that doesn’t mean it will translate well to paper. Any story has what I will call “Key Events”: two people meet, somebody dies, a vital piece of information is revealed, somebody switches sides, the killer is identified. It is vitally important that these key events take place at regular intervals: you can’t have the reader waiting for half the book for the first one and then the next three come along in the following chapter. The book needs to “balance”, as I call it. The first Key Event has to come early on to keep the reader interested, and the last must come very near the end (obviously). I don’t think there is any rule as to where the rest must fall, but they need to be spread out somehow and not clustered. And that’s where I went wrong in my first draft: too much was happening close together.

The other area where structure plays an important role is in character development. You need to spend enough time on this so that reader is invested in the characters, otherwise he simply won’t care when one of them turns out to be Prince Harry’s lovechild. But you also don’t want to go far and leave the reader wondering when the hell something interesting is going to happen to all these people he by now knows very well. I doubt there is a hard and fast rule on this, but the right balance needs to be struck in the context of the overall book length and the frequency of the Key Events.

It was all getting rather complicated, and so I did what all good engineers do: I made a spreadsheet. I have a list of the key events and the place at which they appear in the story in terms of percentage of overall word count. Actually I have three figures, assuming total word counts of 80k, 85k, and 90k. I have each scene listed and their corresponding word counts and so whenever I write anything I can see where each Key Event is falling in the book and whether the space between them is too large or small. Using this method I keep an overall eye on how the book is balanced, and it tells me where I need to expand a scene or cut some words out.

I’m already struggling to keep under my maximum word count of 90k and so I need to be very disciplined in what I am including: anything that isn’t directly relevant to the story, and some things that are relevant but unimportant, are being chopped out already. However, it is easier just to get as many scenes written as possible in the early stages and cut when required later, I think. I am already finding that exercising this discipline on the word count is making the writing better, which is why I am reluctant to exceed the maximum.

The other thing I need to keep an eye on is the mood flow of the book. There are several Key Events and scenes connecting them, and a reader needs to be given a breather every now and again. Some scenes may be harrowing and intense, but he will need some which are more relaxed between them. A good story will manage the emotions so they rise and fall like a roller-coaster, and not have the first half depicting savage hand-to-hand combat with an alien species with no letup, and the second half somebody who has escaped the fighting lying on the beach with his girlfriend talking about relationships: the intensity and emotions need to ebb and flow. The spreadsheet helps with this to some degree, too. It also helps me to decide how the book will be divided into chapters, and which scene goes in which chapter.

I say all this because I have not got the faintest idea how anyone else structures their writings and what tools they use. Scrivener has a built-in storyboard function which looks good, but I just found it easier to use an Excel spreadsheet to create something similar to the Work Breakdown Structures I compile in my day-job. It will be interesting to see if this works for me, particularly if in years to come whole documentaries are being shown on television about how the great T. B. Newman structures his masterpieces. I can hope.

I have also had some useful feedback on what I have written so far. I am sending completed scenes to a friend of mine who is probably not completely objective but is certainly somebody who would be considered in the core target readership, and the information she is giving me is invaluable. The first thing she pointed out was that I’d blabbed out the whole story in the opening pages, giving the reader little incentive to carry on. These kind of errors could cost me a yacht. She’s also highlighted the bits that don’t make sense, are confusing, add nothing, or seem incomplete. So far everything has been easily fixable, which is encouraging. She thinks the writing is okay, the characters believable, the descriptions relatable, and the story sound enough. Whether the rest of the world agrees remains to be seen, but as I say, it is encouraging.

Finally, it appears to be a lot more work than I first envisaged but my motivation is still running in the high nineties, percentage wise.  I hope to get it in front of an editor by mid-year, but we’ll see.

Editors

Regular commenter Watcher left the following comment under my last post on writing:

Editing, as anyone who has written anything knows, is an utter pain up the dark place. It may be having an idea is fairly easy, writing a draft is fun but editing really does separate the men from the sheep, as it were. You have to have a hard heart to edit something you have come to love. (By the way, when I was at Art College one exercise that came as a real shock to us kiddies was spending an hour drawing some plant and then being told to rub it out and start again. Naturally, we all tried to save the ‘best bits’ of the drawing. To edit, you have to be prepared to rub out the ‘best bits’ and, pooh above, that is really, really hard)

I know I’m going to struggle with this.  In my professional life I write reports and when they are sent for review I take every comment and suggestion as a personal affront, believing my work to be the epitome of perfection first time around.  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  I really, really don’t like having my work edited.

But I have no choice: an engineer cannot check his own work and nor can a writer edit his, and I have no doubt a good editor will make my output much better.  The question I have, with my having no experience, is what exactly does an editor do?  Specifically, where does his/her role start and stop.

My guess is that an editor will take an objective look at the story and make suggestions with the goal of improving it in the eyes of future readers.  He will look at the book length, the prose, the characters, the overall story and other elements and then advise what changes ought to be made.  I would imagine they would include fleshing out a character, removing unnecessary scenes which are effectively duplicates of others, reducing the length of some sections, increasing the length of others, rewriting sections to make them more readable and to remove ambiguities, and possibly making recommendations to improve a character or storyline.

But how far do they go?  Do they attempt to change the story, for example by substituting a sad ending for a happy one?  Do they ask the author to drop the first person narrative and rewrite it in the third person?  Would they suggest major alterations to key characters thinking readers will find them more accessible?  Would they want additional scenes included to make the story more like the one they would have written were they an author instead of an editor?

And how are the conflicts between the editor and author resolved?  Obviously an author must trust his editor, but how does one go about this?  How do you know whether an editor is adding value or destroying your work to satisfy his own ego?

I would love to get some feedback on this, as it is obviously going to be a tough period.

Even More on Writing

As an update on how my book is going, I have now written just shy of 56,000 words.  If we take a book to be between 80k-90k words, I’m 70% of the way through at the lower end.  Of course, this is just the raw word count of the first draft and – as others have advised me – months of rewriting and editing will follow and then publishing, marketing, etc.

Still, it’s progress.  I have structured the story using “scenes” or “conversations” which I want to take place, and outlined these in advance – although more get added as I think of them, or I want to split scenes up into smaller parts.  Probably 60-70% of the book consists of key scenes or conversations which I consider vital to the story, and these are the ones I have written first.  My plan is to finish these and then see how many words I have remaining to join them together and flesh out the characters in advance of anything interesting happening between them: one of the things I consider vital in any story is that the reader gets to know the characters well enough to take an interest, otherwise they won’t care what happens to them.  I’m not far off completing these “essential” scenes now, maybe three or four left to go.  Some of them are in rough draft, some I have gone back over and tidied up, a few I have fine-tuned.

I’ve found my method of writing goes something like this.  I write the scene or conversation as fast as I can, getting down the pertinent points and not caring if words are repeated, using “I said” and “she said” a lot, not writing whether something was said loudly, simply, etc. and not describing any facial expressions, etc.  It is just the raw outline of what is happening or being said.  This part takes the most effort, because now I am up to 56k words I forget what points I have made elsewhere and what ground is still left to cover.  I find myself re-reading other sections to remind myself what I have already written.  Once this is done I go over it again, improving it as much as I can: removing repeated words, adding in descriptions, expanding sections, removing lines, trying to get it as readable as possible.  The third step is to fine-tune it, twiddling with bits here and there to get it to read better.  Once this is done I put it aside and consider it finished, for now.

The plan is to get every scene to this stage and join it all together, then re-read the whole thing several times, fine-tuning as much as I can.  I will also need to cut or expand sections to ensure the book balances: it’s no good to have half a book of character development and then what happens with them is packed into a few pages, and the same is true for the reverse.  Pacing is also important, and adjustments will need to be made: I am aware I need to include scenes which drop the pace and let the reader catch their breath for a while, before putting them through another intense passage of dialogue.  Then I need to stick the whole lot in front of an editor who will probably tell me to chuck it all in the bin and start again, this time refraining from basing the central character on Ron Jeremy.

As I said in my previous post, I am doing this as much for the learning experience as anything else.  I don’t know how many other writers would use the methodology I describe above, but the three things I have learned so far are:

1. Scrivener is an excellent tool for writing in the way that I am.

2. My original idea that a novel could be written in chronological order now appears to be insane.

3. The idea that passages can be well-written on the first attempt is equally insane.

So far I still have the motivation to continue, I hope it stays that way.

More on Writing

Via The Manc in the comments to my post on writing a book, I am directed to this article on how to improve your writing.  This bit jumped out at me, among several very good points:

As Harvard professor Steven Pinker explained when I spoke to him, if we’re going to learn the rules of good writing, it’s probably going to be passively from the books we devour:

“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”

And then, as William Zinsser explains, you can take it to the next level. Study the books you love and imitate them.

Whatever writing ability I have almost certainly comes from the fact that I’ve read a lot.  As the above extract says, knowing how to write mainly comes from reading a lot of very good writing.  My three favourite authors would be Raymond Chandler, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dashiell Hammett.  Why I would choose them is because of their style of writing: the way they weave the English language into prose and dialogue is one of the finest art forms I can think of.  I’m not much into the visual arts: paintings, sculptures, and suchlike,  but a well-written passage from the pen of one of the aforementioned three authors is as emotive and beautiful as anything.  Consider this, from Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely:

He wore a brown suit of which the coat was too small for his shoulders and his trousers were probably a little tight under the armpits. His hat was at least two sizes too small and had been perspired in freely by somebody it fitted better than it fitted him. He wore it about where a house wears a wind vane. His collar had the snug fit of a horsecollar and was of about the same shade of dirty brown. A tie dangled outside his buttoned jacket, a black tie which had been tied with a pair of pliers in a knot the size of a pea.

I first read that in my late teens and his dry, cynical humour resonated with me then and has never stopped.  Without a doubt, reading passages like this has not only influenced how I write, but also inspired me to write and given me the ability to do so.  If I could write to a tenth of the quality of Chandler, Wodehouse, or Hammett I’d be happy.

When I was in my sixth form and applying for university places, I had to write a Personal Statement on my UCAS form, which was basically a short essay detailing my achievements and how great I was.  One of my teachers, the physics teacher who I mention here, told us there is one sure-fire way to know if what you’ve written is any good: stand in the school quadrant and read it out at the top of your voice.  You’ll soon know which bits make you cringe.  That man gave me many, many good pieces of advice at a time when I needed it, and this was one of his best.  When I’m writing, I re-read the passage I’ve just written and think “If I read this out in front of all my colleagues now, would I cringe with embarrassment?  Or if it should somehow be leaked, would I care or would I be quite proud?”

Even yesterday I found myself deleting sentences which I felt sounded too earnest, or two elaborate: that advice, which pops up everywhere, not to “overwrite” is crucial to bear in mind.  The three greats I mentioned didn’t overwrite, they kept it extraordinarily simple given how poetic the final output was.

A month or two back somebody suggested I give the Welsh author Ken Follett a try, and so I downloaded his 1999 historical novel The Pillars of the Earth.  It took me only a few chapters to become tired of the weak prose: I’m even spotting repeated words in sentences, something even mere bloggers try (with varying degrees of success) to avoid.  It reads as though it was written by somebody in high-school for an audience of particularly dim adults.  But it became a best-seller.  The reason why is because the prose is extremely “accessible” and you can get through it without too much thought, and the story itself is mining that rich seam of medieval knights and religious orders engaged in nefarious plots and treachery which has made Game of Thrones so popular.  The characters are so cliched they might as well be cartoons, and the dialogue cringe-inducing.  I have no wish to read this stuff, let alone write it.  I fully congratulate Ken Follett and others like him – Dan Brown, for example – for being able to churn this stuff out and make themselves millions in the process, but it does raise one question.  Do these guys write like that on purpose, knowing it will sell well, and as such are true geniuses?  Or do they write this crap because that’s all they know and by pure, blind luck find that it sells?  I’d love to find out.

Anyway, I reckon I can do better than that, in terms of quality of writing if not sales.  Only one way to find out.  I’d better get cracking.

Take Vienna

Writing, I’ve found, is a bit like running.  For some reason – I have no idea why – I started knocking out blog posts in August at a rate much higher than I’d ever done previously finishing that month with 22.  My previous highest had been 17 in September 2005 when I moved to White Sun of the Desert from my first blog.  I carried this through to September when I put up 19 posts, with my 10 days in New York being the reason for slacking off.  We’re not out of October yet and this will be my 35th post of the month.  Hopefully I can keep this up because blogging, for me, is fun again.

Sometime over the summer I decided I would write a book, and in mid-August I made a start on it.  I only really got going in mid-September after I came back from New York and yesterday I passed the halfway mark of 40k words, assuming a book is somewhere between 80k and 90k words.  Like running where the more you do the fitter you get and the easier it becomes, with writing I find the ideas come more easily and the phrasing almost starts to write itself.  All of this tells me that, if nothing else, I can write fast.

Which is great, but what about the quality?  Well, that is subjective and there is only one way to find out if it’s any good.

My favourite quote from Napolean is:

If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna.

If I had the option I would write for a living.  Ideally I’d write fiction that people would love and it would sell well.  Less ideally I’d do technical writing.  As things stand I have to stay working in the oil business, which to be fair is no great hardship so don’t all start sending me your old shoes and coupons cut from the local paper.

Before I get much older I want to find out if I can make a living as a fiction writer.  I probably can’t because it is fiendishly difficult, but I want to try – firstly because I want to say I tried and found out, and secondly because the process of finding out is, at the moment, quite enjoyable.  And the only way to find out, as I’m sure Napolean would agree, is to write a damned book and get it out there.  So I am, or at least, I’m halfway through.

I believe two things sell fiction writing: story and style.  If you stumble upon a good story then the style doesn’t matter: Dan Brown proved that.  But this relies on pure luck.  For me style is probably more important because if people like the style but not the story, I can dream up another story, and I reckon changing styles would be harder.  Of course it would be great to have both a good style and a good story, which is what makes masterpieces what they are.

I’ve thought a lot about writing a book before, and each time I’ve started I’ve looked at the first thousand words and thought “this is crap”, referring to the style.  I’ve never actually had a complete story in my head.  This summer I reckoned I’d gotten one, and so I started to write.

The story is about a man in his late 30s who enters into a relationship with a woman in her early 30s who he met online, and it goes well for a while before he finds out she’s not who he first thought she was and it ends.  Not very interesting, is it?  Maybe not, but what I’m attempting to do is map out the thought processes of the man as the relationship develops: what he’s looking for, what he doesn’t want to see, etc.  Lots of this stuff is written about women, and lots is written about Alpha-male millionaires.  What I haven’t seen much written about is how men in their 30s think and what they look for in a woman from the man’s perspective.  I’m also going to explore a few other themes: the effect of third-wave feminism on women in their 30s who are trawling the dating markets, addressing a few myths about what men supposedly want and alleged double standards.  I have no idea if this is interesting, but I think it might be new.  Only one way to find out.

As for the style?  Well, I can only write one style I think.  I posted an excerpt yesterday, so make of that what you will.  There will be a lot of dialogue, something I’d never tried writing before last month but now I think I can do it quite well.  Again, only one way to find out.  If people like my style of writing then I’ll be onto a winner, because I can knock this stuff out as fast as I can think.  If not, then it will be a slog because I don’t think I can switch to another without considerable effort that might not be worth it.

But the main reason for my writing a book is because, if you want to write a book, you need to write a book.  Sitting around in a Paris cafe wearing a black polo-neck smoking Gauloises and talking about it isn’t going to get a book written.  And I’m hoping that the second one, if I should ever write one, will be a lot easier and – if necessary – better than the first.

So, just another 40k words to go.

Creative Writing – An Excerpt

***

The place we went next would otherwise have been a typically overpriced cocktail bar had it not the unique selling point of being disguised as a New York speakeasy from the prohibition era. To enter you first had to go through a tiny, narrow burrito bar, squeezing past the customers sat eating at the counter, and on through a door at the far end as if you were going to the kitchen. Only this opened onto a short corridor at the end of which was a small, dimly-lit lounge with a bar on the right-hand wall and a row of fixed stools along the counter. I had never been to this place and found it quiet, and at 10pm on a Saturday night it was filled to the rafters.

I wriggled my way through to the bar and grabbed a couple of cocktail menus, handing them backwards through the crowd to Katya, and by the light of a fake candle on a shelf we perused expensive drinks with names like Winter is Coming and Minas Gift. It was noisy in there and Katya shouted the drink of her choice in my ear and I set off towards the bar with the sort of grim determination normally reserved for frontline infantry. It took me over fifteen minutes and a lot more pounds to return with two small but powerful-looking drinks, one of which had cinnamon powder all around the glass. Katya had spent the time either waiting patiently a few metres behind me or had disappeared for a cigarette in the meantime and returned, I don’t know which. She took her glass from me and we looked around for somewhere to stand where we wouldn’t be knocked about by clumsy patrons. Sitting was out of the question. A dangerous looking flight of stairs led down to the toilets from the corridor we came in from and I spotted a landing on the top no bigger than a manhole cover. We could throw our coats over a banister and occupy the landing, provided we breathed in a bit when folk using the toilet needed to pass. And Katya would have to stand very, very close to me.

I positioned her against the banister and stood on the remaining square inch of landing, then slipped my arm around her waist. My body was pressed up against hers with our faces inches apart. The wine from the meal had taken hold and the music and clamour of voices accompanied a lively atmosphere of raised pulses. We clinked glasses and drank. Mine was strong and the glass rim sticky with sugar. I took another slug. Katya lowered her glass and I pulled on the arm around her waist, squeezing her tighter, and kissed her mouth which she’d already opened, our tongues working together. We came up for air after a few seconds, when somebody on their way to the toilet accidentally nudged me in the back.

‘It’s okay here, isn’t it?’ I said, speaking into Katya’s ear from a distance of half an inch. I have no idea what perfume she had on, but it smelled good.

‘Yes,’ she said, with a smile sweeter than a schoolgirl’s. ‘It is. Thank you.’ She leaned in and we kissed again. This time nobody disturbed us.

We continued like that for perhaps fifteen minutes more. By then our glasses were empty. I took a look at the scrum around the counter and the solitary barman pouring complicated cocktails and wondered for the thousandth time why London waterholes don’t employ more staff. At these prices they’d pay for themselves in the first three minutes. I turned back to Katya. ‘You still have rum at your place?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Coke?’

‘No. But we pass by the shop on the way home, it’ll still be open.’

‘Okay, shall we go?’

‘Sure,’ she said.

She took my hand as we stepped out of the burrito joint and onto the pavement, and walked in the direction of her apartment.

‘You enjoyed that?’ I asked.

‘I did!’ she said, her New York accent drawing out the words. ‘That place is so cool, I didn’t hear about it before! How did you find out about it?’

The truthful answer was that the Iranian showed it to me after we’d been to the restaurant we’d eaten at earlier. I saw no purpose in telling Katya this. ‘I found it on the Internet,’ I said. ‘It was in some review of bars in this area of London, and I went along after work one day with a colleague to check it out.’ This was partially true: Ricardo and I had been there once on a Friday evening, but that wasn’t my first visit.

‘Well thanks for showing it to me,’ said Katya warmly. I squeezed her hand a little tighter.

Before long we were climbing the stairs to her apartment, a litre bottle of Coca-Cola hanging from my hand in a carrier bag. When we got inside and had taken off our coats and shoes Katya set about putting ice into two tumblers while I sat at the table with the bottle of rum at the ready. I poured us both generous helpings which left a couple of centimetres below the rim for Coke. I had a feeling we’d not be needing that whole litre. I added what I could fit in the glass and handed one to Katya. She took a sip and pulled a face as if she’d drunk bleach.

‘Jesus!’ she exclaimed. ‘How strong did you make it?’

‘You’re Russian, aren’t you?’ I said laughing. ‘Here, give it to me.’ I took a large slurp from her glass, lowering the liquid level by a quarter, and replaced it with Coke. ‘Is that any better?’ I asked, handing her back the glass.

She took a sip the way a gazelle drinks at a crocodile-filled waterhole in the Serengeti. ‘A little,’ she said smiling.

She raised the glass to her lips once more, and I did the same. We looked at each other, and drank again. Neither of us spoke.

‘You’re an awful long way away,’ I said softly, putting my glass down and reaching out with both of my arms.

‘I am, aren’t I?’ she replied, and got up and sat on my lap, drink in hand. My hand slipped around her waist as the dress rode up her thighs. I picked up my glass with my free hand, and we both drank in silence. A minute ticked by.

‘We’re in the wrong room,’ I said quietly, setting my glass down on the table.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘We are.’ She put her drink on the table beside mine and stood up. I took her by the hand and led her into the bedroom, and closed the door. We’d not be needing that full litre.

***

I awoke the following morning from a strange dream as the light was pouring through the gaps in Katya’s hopelessly inadequate curtains. I dreamed I was in some sort of sex club where a man was taking far more interest in me than I felt comfortable with. I felt Katya stir beside me and she opened her eyes as she rolled over and put her arm across my chest. Her naked body felt soft and warm, and I could smell her hair and what remained of last night’s perfume.

‘Morning,’ she said sleepily. ‘Did you sleep well?’

‘I did,’ I replied. ‘But I had a weird dream.’

‘What about?’ she asked.

‘I dreamed I was at an orgy and rather than having fun with a bunch of of girls I had some fat, bearded guy wanting to go down on me,’ I complained.

She laughed, waking up a little. ‘Yes, that sounds like an orgy,’ she said. I assumed she’d read about them somewhere.

‘You were in Pompeii, right?’ I asked. ‘Did you see the frescoes there, of the Roman orgies?’ I have no idea why I asked this.

‘Yes,’ she said.

I continued my train of thought, for no particular reason. ‘I wonder if those things happen here. Orgies, I mean. You hear them mentioned in places like Paris, but I wonder if they go on in London. I suppose they must, somewhere,’ I speculated idly.

‘Well, they happen in New York,’ said Katya with a disturbing tone of certainty.

I stiffened a little. ‘How do you know?’ I asked cautiously.

‘Because I’ve been to them,’ she said.

 ***