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.


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?


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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…


What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.


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.



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.