Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2017

Every year I write a first draft in November and every year I try to learn something new while doing it. This year’s first draft was a straightish crime novel with the working title Project Cecil. The name doesn’t mean anything I just had to call it something and one thing I’ve learned in previous years is that I suck at titles.

This year’s big lesson is that I can write a novel without relying on fantasy, science fiction, or the supernatural. I’m just not entirely sure I want to. It’s really too early to tell if the story is any good. That wasn’t the point. A first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. But I am starting to question the logic of writing it.

I wrote a straight crime novel because a friend challenged me to write it. She challenged me because my attempts to get an agent or a publisher are hampered by the kind of stories I normally write. It’s not that they’re bad it’s just that they’re hard to market because they don’t fit easily into any single genre. My friend suggested that if I could write a regular crime novel I would have more chance of getting an agent or publisher interested and once I have something published I might have more luck with my weirder books.

My friend might be right. But I’m starting to think about the long game. My ultimate aim isn’t to get a single book published or even to get paid for a couple of manuscripts. My aim is a career as a writer and to do that I need to concentrate on the books I actually want to write. I like the story I’ve been telling but it’s not representative of most of the stories that I want to tell.

Of course it might still be worth taking this novel to Bloody Scotland next year and pitching it. Even if it doesn’t lead to the career I want it might at least lead to enough money to pay to self publish the other stories well enough to build a career that way.

This doesn’t mean I regret this experiment though. I’ve met some interesting characters while writing this story and I think I’ll probably come back to them at some point and finish telling their stories properly.


Behold the wall and tremble

Another post for NaNoWriMo. If you’re participating and you’re on track or close to on track then read on. If you’re more than 2000 words behind then stop reading right now, set a timer and write for twenty minutes. You have my permission to make the first sentence something like “I hate her but if I don’t write something she’s going to come after me what that damn stick.”

So here we are, staring down the barrel of week two. There’s something in the distance. It’s getting closer. How strange. It looks like a wall.

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that if you’re still writing at this point, no matter how far behind you are, then you have already overcome two of the greatest barriers that stand before any aspiring writer. The bad news is that number three is right ahead and it’s a doozy.

Most people who want to write a novel ‘some day’ never get as far as writing a single word. You got past that when you actually sat down and wrote something.

Most people who get as far as writing something stop as soon as they realise that what they’ve written sucks. Because of course it sucks. It’s a first draft. That’s what first drafts are for.

The third barrier is the week two wall. Can you keep going now that writing has stopped being fun? Can you keep going even though you’re lost and you hate your novel and you have so many more words to write before it’s done? Can you keep going as the laundry piles up and it’s getting harder to find time to write and your friends and family begin to express surprise that you’re still writing? Can you keep going now that you’re losing hope that your terrible words can ever be anything better?

You can’t avoid the wall if you want to write your 50,000 words. You have to go through it, or over it, or tunnel under it. And you have to do it one word at a time. Don’t worry if you slow down when you hit the wall. You have time to catch up as long as you keep going. So keep going.

Tips to help you beat the wall:

  1. Stop caring about good. Start caring about finished.
  2. It’s ok to skip a difficult scene and come back to it.
  3. It’s also ok to slog through that scene with painful slowness.
  4. Don’t delete anything.
  5. If something is so bad that you can’t stand to look at it then change the text colour to white or use the highlight function to change the background to black.
  6. If you’ve written something wrong and you need to change it don’t delete the old version. Write it again and keep both versions. That way you can choose to go back to the old version if it was better.
  7. If you’re not sure which word to use then use all of them. There will be time to pick the right one later.
  8. If you find you need to sort out some word building or some backstory then do it but keep the words in the draft. Even if you know you’re not going to use any of it in the finished version. It’s fiction. You wrote it in November. It counts.

Good luck. See you on the other side of the wall.

The History of Department Y

This is a tricky post to write because I am terrible at self promotion. However it has occurred to me that I’ve been writing for over a year about the process of finishing my novel and querying it and doubting it and wondering if I’ve been concentrating on the right novel but I haven’t really talked about the novel itself. Any of the novels.

I’ve written several, though only one is ready to send out, and most of them share a setting. I don’t really want to talk a lot about the novels. I don’t want to spoil them. I want them to be published and you to go and buy them. But maybe it’s time to talk about that setting.

The novels and stories that I’ve been working on recently all take place on an alternative Earth where the old Gods are real, magic works and stories have power. But it’s all pretty subtle and most people don’t know. It’s so subtle that the history of that world almost exactly mirrors our own.

Just like in our world Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, surrounded himself with sycophants and plunged the world into war. Just like in our world some of those sycophants were occultists and most of them had as weak a grasp of science as they did of morality. Just like in our world the British intelligence services consulted British occultists to work out how to influence the more superstitious Nazis and predict what they might do.

Just like in our world the Germans were using Enigma machines to code their radio transmissions. They believed the Enigma code was unbreakable. Just like in our world the British codebreakers based at Station X (Bletchley Park) broke the unbreakable code. The intelligence they gained this way was called Ultra and it was the biggest secret of World War II.

In real life history the British government went to enormous lengths to disguise the source of Ultra. In the world of my stories they created a fake intelligence agency called Department Y and stocked it with occultists and witches and psychics and Druids and planned to claim it as the source for Ultra. They didn’t tell the people they’d hired that it was fake. Nobody outside Department Y took it seriously until the magic started working.

No one had ever put that many magical experts together in one place before. The pressure of the war and the atmosphere of camaraderie was as effective on occultists as it was on the mathematicians and cryptologists at Bletchley and the physicists working on the Manhattan Project.

Department Y grew throughout the war years. After the surrender of Germany Department Y operatives were active throughout Europe putting down the dark forces unleashed by an unintentional, continent-wide blood sacrifice. Department Y was never shut down and still operates under rules set in a secret section of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939. When the police, the armed forces or the intelligence services of the United Kingdom run into something beyond their ken they know where to go for help. It became known simply as “The Department” because if you have to ask which department you’re not cleared for the answer.

In the modern world the Department is still around, still doing the same job, still saving the world or at least making sure that it remains interesting but not lethally so.

In the world of the Department.

Science and magic are one.

All the ancient stories are true, even the ones that are mutually incompatible.

The Gods of every pantheon are real, for a given value of real, and they might answer your prayers but not always how you’d like.

The Fae folk are real and just as dangerous as the legends say.

There are witches and druids and shapechangers and dreamwalkers and proper mad scientists and living constructs and AIs and most of them just want to do a decent days work for a decent wage and then go to the pub on a Friday.

A request for readers

I have a small favour to ask. I have two novels to choose between. One as close to finished as I can get it and one that needs a couple of scenes and then editing. I need to know which one I should be focusing on.

I’m suspicious that the finished novel might be the wrong one to query. The nature of the story means that it takes longer to hook the reader. Maybe the finished one would make a better second novel? Maybe the other one has a better opening?

I need people willing to read the first 30 or so pages of both and tell me which one they’re more desperate to read the rest of. So I’m looking for people with the time and inclination to read 60 pages of thrilling urban fantasy stories. You don’t even need to give me detailed feedback if you don’t want to.

Genre Woes

Today’s displacement activity is obsessing about genre. Again.

I should be writing or querying. Instead I’m obsessing about which genre I should be describing my completed novel as.

I know that the books that it most closely resembles are usually described as urban fantasy or contemporary urban fantasy. Except for when they’re magical realism but there’s at least two contradictory definitions for that. The urban fantasy thing isn’t quite right because the magic in my books is too subtle and I also have some weird science. There’s some alternative history but it’s not alternative history because it’s set in the present. There’s some advanced technology but not enough to make it science fiction. It’s quite dark but I don’t think it’s dark enough to call it horror.

The opening paragraph of a query letter should tell the agent you’re querying what genre the work is. How do I describe my weird, dark, slightly magical, detective thriller so that the right agent will actually read it?

None of which solves the problem of finding the right agent in the first place. They say that if you think an agent is right for your novel you should query them regardless of their stated genre preferences. Ok. I could do that. How would I find that out? I only have so many hours in the day. I’m not stalking every agent in the English speaking world until one of them expresses a fondness for ghosts and detectives and demons and magic and artificial intelligence all in the same book.

So, obviously, I should employ the scattergun approach and just query every agent in the English speaking world because I’ll eventually find the right agent that way. Right? Except you’re supposed to tailor the query to the agent. And tell the agent what genre you’re querying.

Why can’t I just be a sensible writer and write in a sensible genre?

??? Profit!

The title of this post comes from my favourite episode of South Park. It comes from the Underpants Gnomes and their three point business plan.

  1. Collect underpants
  2. ?
  3. Profit

As a writer I understand the Underpants Gnomes on a deep, spiritual level. For a long time I wasn’t a writer but I kind of, sort of, wanted to be one. I thought that I was smart enough and good enough with words but I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I thought that if I just had a story that I wanted to tell then maybe I could be a writer.

Like everyone else who isn’t a writer I thought that the idea bit must be the hardest bit. Or maybe the actually sitting down and writing. I knew that there were a lot more people talking about writing than actually writing, therefore the writing bit must be really tough, but I also thought that it was probably easier if you had a really good idea.

In the time before being a writer I did write. I wrote in my diaries when I couldn’t not write. I wrote forum posts. I wrote on usenet (does anyone else remember usenet or was it all a fever dream). I wasn’t a writer yet but I was practicing to be one.

I got a lot of practice writing journals for my therapist. It drove me nuts that every week I would sit down in his room and he would ask me how I was and I would say… “Fine.” I was not fine but when there was actually someone there asking me to talk about all the ways in which I was not fine I couldn’t find the words. So I wrote in my journals whenever things were going badly and I took them with me and he would read a week’s worth of misery while I was making coffee and tea.

One source of misery was the feeling of not knowing what I should be doing with my life. My therapist would hint that he thought I had a talent that I should pursue and that it was obvious to him what it was but that he wasn’t going to tell me what I should be doing because it wasn’t his choice. I’m pretty sure now that he meant writing.

But the thing about writing is that it’s kind of like the Underpants Gnomes. Sooner or later you run into the big question mark.

  1. Have an idea
  2. Write a first draft
  3. Tidy up the first draft
  4. Throw out most of the first draft
  5. Write a second draft.
  6. And possibly a third
  7. Find a Beta reader
  8. Find another Beta reader
  9. And possibly a third
  10. Discover massive hole in the plot
  11. Write a bunch of new scenes to fill the hole
  12. Tidy up the scenes
  13. Find a new Beta reader to look at this latest version
  14. Tidy it up some more
  15. Declare it finished
  16. Start pitching
  17. Start querying
  18. ?
  19. Profit

I know what in theory there’s a bunch of steps that fit where that question mark is. Either you pitch and query till you get an agent and they get you a publisher or you get the publisher yourself or you cut out both of them and publish it yourself. But how?

How do you keep going in the face of silence or rejection? How do you find agents and publishers that actually want the thing you’ve written? People talk as if self-publishing is easy but even self-publishing badly is a lot more than hitting the print button and doing it well requires money and skills that I just don’t have.

My other half self-published 8 short stories last year and saw less than $2.00 in return. That doesn’t sound like profit to me.

New fail conditions.

My life has always sucked but for more than half of it I was sure that the suck was all my fault. I didn’t know what I wanted and I knew I wasn’t trying very hard at anything. I thought that if I could just work out what to go for and really go after it then all my problems would be solved.

You can see why I thought that, can’t you? It’s all over pop culture. The idea that if you want something enough and you fight hard enough for it then you can get it. It’s bullshit. Dangerous bullshit.

Underachieving because you’re not really trying does hurt but at least it feels like it’s under your control. Trying your very hardest and still failing hurts far worse. It hurts so much that it makes you try harder than your hardest. It makes you push yourself beyond the point of failure, beyond the point where your body ceases to work properly, beyond the point where you are, strictly speaking, sane.

If you get to that point and still fail it feels like death. It feels like you’ve died and gone to hell. You must be dead because how can something hurt that much without killing you?

I hit that particular wall back in 2012. My repeated failure to do anything with my completed novel is nowhere near as bad as that. But it is giving me flashbacks.

Change of plans

I have decided that maybe it’s time to give my completed novel a rest for a bit. Maybe it’s the wrong work to query? Maybe I was thinking too big, too long, or too crazy?

I’m going to concentrate on another story. As it stands it’s a complete first draft of a novella but I think it could be more. I think it could be a short novel. It’s smaller in scope than the novel I was querying though I think it will get a bit bigger as I expand it. Maybe it’s more what agents are looking for as a first novel? I know that the setting will be easier to pitch to Scottish publishers and easier for them to sell to readers.

Of course it’s probably displacement activity. It’s easier to write another novel than it is to query the finished one. The novel has to be finished before someone can reject it and, by extension, me. Writing is the bit that I know I’m good at. Well, think I’m good at. Most of the time.

It’s something a bit different for me. The narrator character is disabled. Writing stuff that’s too close to home is something I usually shy away from. It feels like cheating somehow. But I keep seeing agents and publishers asking for diverse storytelling and diverse characters. Maybe they actually mean it. And if they don’t I’ve got this other story I can whip out when they tell me that they can’t sell a locked room mystery set in Aberdeen where the central character is an unglamorous disabled woman.

Coming Soon: Storybuilder’s toolbox

I’m trying out a new thing. Guest posts on the subject of building stories and story worlds and the tools needed to do that.

Any story needs a world to happen in and that world has to be built. Even if the world of the story looks just like the real world it still has to be conjured on a page. It has to be mapped out in some way. It has to be edited. When the story world is the past or the future or a place that doesn’t look like the real world there’s a lot more work to be done.

Every story is built on millions of decisions made by storytellers. Most of those decisions are invisible to the people reading or watching or listening to the finished thing. But they don’t just happen. Dracula is a vampire because Bram Stoker decided he should be. Had he been some other kind of monster it would have been a different novel. In a Batman film the director can make the Joker a thief in make-up and a colourful suit, or he can be a permanently disfigured anarchist, or a tattooed psychopath. Those choices result in radically different films.

Anyway. Enough waffling from me. Later this week I’ll post the first Storybuilder’s Toolbox. I’ll be talking to Leah Chiasson about her novel Marked For The Hunt and how she built her werewolves.

Do the thing now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned recently (and I really should have learned it a long time ago but sometimes I am hard of thinking) it’s that you should always do the thing now. Don’t put things off. If you can afford it, if you’re physically able, if you have the time or you can make the time. Do it now.

Clean up the mess as soon as you notice the mess. Wear the nice outfit while it still fits. Go see the film before someone spoils it for you. Tell the people that you care about that you care about them while they’re still around to hear it. Don’t wait for some far off perfect future to write your novel. Do the thing now.

I wanted to go and see Logan on Monday. I was really tempted to book the tickets on Sunday but I didn’t and when Monday came around my other half wasn’t really feeling it and we didn’t want to cook and see a film and we couldn’t afford take out and tickets and so we didn’t. We put it off.

Then we got some bad news. News so bad that it colours everything. I could still go and see the film but I’ll never enjoy it as much now as if I’d gone on Monday. And with every passing day the temptation to spend the ticket money on something more sensible grows. It becomes more and more likely that I’ll never see the film.

It will become the latest in a long line of lost joys. These are the things that would have given me a tiny spark of joy but didn’t because I didn’t do them. I put them off. Or decided they weren’t sensible choices. I waited and the moment was gone.

This does not change my positions on technology and computer games though. Leave the early adopting to people who get a kick out of being first. Let them deal with all the bugs and the glitches and the exploding batteries. Buy the fancy new kit when the price drops in anticipation of the next model coming out. If you can stand to wait for the computer game at all then wait for the game of the year edition or the Steam sale.

Not that I expect I’ll be able to follow my own advice. I give it 6 months before I make exactly the same mistake again and I’m back here saying this all over again.