Narrative blues

I’m still deep in the rewrites of Project Kindness, the sexy spies and celtic gods novel, and I am pissed off with modern narrative conventions. In theory there are many options for the narrative point of view but if you pick the wrong one you risk any prospective agent assuming that you’re a rank ammateur.

I assume that most of my readers know what first, second and third person are and are aware of the different types of each but not everyone does. Also I don’t have an English Literature degree and it’s been a long time since I passed my higher so I’m almost certainly using some of the terminology wrongly. Therefore I’m going to start with an explanation of the terms I’m going to be using. Feel free to skip ahead if this stuff bores you.

First person

“I did, I saw, I felt.” The Narrator is a character in the story. They might be the main character (Hunger Games), or they might be chronicling the deeds of a friend, (Sherlock Holmes) or they might be documenting events that they lived through (War of the Worlds).

With some narrators the reader feels like they’re inside the narrator’s head experiencing things as they happen like in the Hunger Games books. Stories like these are sometimes written in the present tense and they tend to feel very immediate. The foreshadowing happens in events and dialogue or in the mind of the narrator, there’s never any of that “If only I’d known then what I knew later” stuff.

Some stories have the feel of the narrator having experienced events and then gone away and written about them later. All of the first person Sherlock Holmes stories feel like this. These stories can have a kind of meta narrative going on because the narrator already knows how the story is going to turn out. The Final Problem, the story in which Sherlock Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls, is shot through with Watson’s grief and anger.

Some stories feel more like they’re being told to you by the narrator either during or immediately after the events. It feels like you’re down the pub with them and they’re full of this thing that just happened and telling you all about it with accompanying hand gestures and funny voices. Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books feel like this, particularly if you listen to the audio books.

Second Person

“You did, you saw, you felt.” Mostly used in choose your own adventure books or in short stories. I’m sure there must be some successful Second Person novels out there but I wouldn’t have the first idea how to write one. I believe there’s a fair bit of sexy, second person, fanfic out there where the reader is a character in the stories. Taking the self insert character to its logical conclusion.

Third Person.

“He/she/they did, saw, felt.” I think this is the most diverse narration and there’s multiple kinds of Third person with actual names that writers are expected to know.

Third person omniscient – the Narrator is God, or at least godlike. The narrator knows all and sees all and they get to decide what the reader gets to know. If the narrator dispassionately describes what everyone in a scene is thinking as well as what they’re doing then it’s third person omniscient.

Third person objective – the narrator is a person reporting on the narrative from the outside. They’ve done research, spoken to the survivors, read the clippings, and if possible visited the scene and they’re telling you what they found out. Very popular for true crime and faux true crime stories. Also used by CS Lewis in some of the Narnia Chronicles, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.

Third person limited – the narrative follows a single person’s point of view, everything is seen through the lense of their experiences, but since that person is not actually narrating we don’t get to know exactly what they’re thinking. It’s as if the camera of the novel was following that person and only that person.

Third person variable – very like third person limited but the narrative isn’t always following the same person. Usually the point of view switch happens at very clearly delineated points such as with a new chapter or at the very least a new scene.

Third person multiple – like variable but the point of view switch happens inside scenes. Easy to screw up, hard to get right. When done badly it tends to read like a failed attempt at third person omniscient. Either that or as ‘head hopping’, which just confuses the reader about who’s doing what and to whom.

The Blues

So much choice. Surely there’s a narrative option to fit any story? Yes and no. If you’re writing a novel and you’re not already a respected professional and you’re planning on submitting it to an agent then you might have to stick most of those options straight in the bin.

Third person omniscient, for example, used to be super popular. A lot of literary classics were written that way – Jane Austen was fond of it for one. In recent years it’s fallen foul of the oft repeated advice to show, not tell. It’s the same with third person objective. You can’t get away from the fact that that someone is telling a story and for a busy agent that might lead straight to the rejection pile.

‘Head hopping’ is a complete no-no so it’s best to avoid third person multiple. That also means you have to be careful with third person variable. If you don’t make it clear enough that the point of view has switched then a hurried reader isn’t going to look back up the page to check. That way leads straight to a form rejection email.

I want it to be clear that I’m not criticising agents. I don’t even know for sure that they do react that way. I just know that it doesn’t feel worth the risk. It’s not enough to avoid amateurish mistakes. You also have to avoid stuff that might look to the hurried glance like an amateurish mistake. With so many other writers clamouring for attention why would they spare the time for a second glance?

There’s a part of me that thinks that the real problem is quality. I just need to ‘git gud’ and then I can write things how I want to write them. There’s another part of me that disagrees with that. That part thinks the problem is time. From the moment a reader starts reading there’s a timer counting down to the point at which they lose interest. I your story doesn’t grab them somewhere tender before that timer runs out then you’ve lost them.

The author name on the front of the book affects the starting time on that timer. My name isn’t Neil Gaiman, or Sir Terry Pratchett, or JK Rowling. I don’t have much time to prove that my story, my writing and my characters are worth sticking around for. Part of that is demonstrating that I’m a professional. And that means that sometimes I have to choose to rewrite a scene so that it’s not as good but does more closely conform to the current narrative conventions.

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Sunday Update 13/01

The first Sunday update of the year.

As I mentioned very briefly in the last update of 2018 I did get a new writing chair. It’s a proper rise and recline chair that allows me to write with my feet up and will help me to stand when I need it. Writing has been so much easier with it. Everything has been easier.

The chair was super expensive. I was only able to afford it because years ago I had a credit card with a somewhat shitty company that got in trouble with the Financial Services Authority and was recently forced to send refund cheques to a bunch of people. I spent mine on a chair that I absolutely need but could not otherwise afford. I should have been able to get one on loan from the Occupational Health department of my local council but there aren’t enough to go round.

At the moment I’m working on Project Kindness – the sexy spies and Celtic gods novel that I’ve was working on for most of last year. It’s been interesting to get back to it after some time working on other stuff. I’ve realised that there’s two massive scenes that need complete re-writes to change them from novel equivalent of a floating camera to the novel equivalent of a following camera and a voice over.

The annoying thing about the change is that I don’t think the new version of the scenes will be as good. I’m doing it partially so that they’re more consistent with the rest of the novel and partially because narrative conventions have changed and I’m unlikely to hook an agent if the first 40 pages of my novel contains the sort of sweeping ‘camera shots’ that used to be fairly standard narrative devices.

The other thing I’ve been working on is planning. I’ve been pouring over my two (2) new diary/planner things. One is focused on writing, the other is more generally focussed on setting and reaching goals.It’s too early to tell if I’ll be able to stick with either of them or if they’ll be any good to me. In theory structure and order are the best thing for someone with ADHD but they’re also the absolute hardest things for someone with ADHD to impose on ourselves. Kind of like how the best treatment for eating disorders is moderation. If we could eat in moderation we wouldn’t have eating disorders.

Welp I’ve hung around depressing myself for so long that this blog is now late. I’m starting this year as I mean to go along.

I’m back.

Here we are. 2019 and the world still hasn’t ended. I am also still alive, somehow. I know, it’s a constant surprise to me too.

Since we’re all still here I thought I might try that whole planning thing that seems to be all the rage. You know, that thing where you decide what you want to happen and then work out what you would have to do in order for that to happen and then do those things. Apparently if you do that then the thing that you want is supposed to happen. Seems fake to me but some people swear by it so I thought I’d give it a go.

This year I have three writing goals.

  1. Finish Project Kindness and pursue traditional publishing for it (query agents, pitch it etc).
  2. Properly cost out self publishing and consider that for my already completely novel, Singularity.
  3. Diversify my writing by working on short stories, working on my YA book, Project Academy, and by writing something completely new for NaNoWriMo 2019.

I absolutely do not want to do any of these things. What I want to do is to finish the current rewrites on Project Kindness, shelve it, and start work on the sequel to Singularity. Or alternatively go back to bed for the rest of the year and never have to think about anything or make a decision about anything ever again. Neither of these options would get me to where I want to be so for now I’m going to do the work.

I don’t know how long this is going to last. My experience of life has been that the planning thing doesn’t work for people like me. Between my poor health, my poverty and my lack of connections I don’t really have much leverage. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

If you want to help me on my journey towards… um.. success of some kind, you can buy me a virtual coffee with Ko-Fi.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Update 3

I am continuing to write. I’m well ahead of where I need to be to hit the official target of 50,000 words but am slightly behind on my personal goal of 60,000.

My story is feeling really episodic. Not so much a coherent plot line as a series of scenes that don’t really connect to one another. That failure to transition properly from one scene to another is something that I can fix in the edit but I know that it’s going to be really annoying. I’d like to save future me from that soul destroying task but I can’t do that without slowing down. And I cannot afford to slow down.

I’m also having trouble with one of my characters. I have a character that I’ve described as a ‘trans boy genius’. Throughout the story everyone treats him as a boy and I always use male pronouns. How do I show the readers that he’s trans? My main character is meeting him for the first time at a point in his life where he’s already on puberty blockers and everyone he knows has got used to using his male name and male pronouns. You could argue that I don’t have to bring it up at all, trans boys are boys, but if I don’t then I’m concealing a part of who he is and denying my trans readers the representation they deserve.

I’m also having intermittent problems with my finger joints. Following my last appointment with the doctor I now have anti-inflammatory gel to apply when they start to swell and hurt but it’s not magic. It doesn’t work instantly and it’s not fixing the underlying problem. Can the underlying problem even be fixed? Is this just another example of life kicking me in the teeth? My continuing existence is going to be more unpleasant and there’s nothing I can do about it?

The worst thing about the finger pain is that it feels like a betrayal. I’ve never been pretty or fit or anything but I used to be able to rely on my hands. My hands were always steady and quick and strong. I could touch type, and crochet, and make jewellery, and I could learn new things to do with my hands quickly. My hands looked good too. They looked considerably better than the rest of me. And now my little fingers are crooked and the joints are swollen and it’s probably only a matter of time before the rest of my fingers look like that. Eventually I won’t even be able to paint my nails to cheer myself up.

I’m going to finish this post with some pictures of that time when I accidentally co-ordinated my nails with my iPad case. I don’t know how many more pictures I’ll want to take of my hands.

Sunday Update 21/10

Well this has been a week of disappointment, anticlimax and annoyance.

I already wrote a detailed post about the Wednesday from hell so I suppose this is the place to talk about the fallout from that day. I knew when it happened that I’d be useless for the rest of the week and this has proved to be true. I haven’t been able to do much around the house at all and I’ve been on painkillers and vaping CBD for pain every day since. Things are beginning to get a bit easier but I reckon it will be next week before I’m back to normal. And let us not forget how shitty normal is for me.

No major news about my mother and although I hear that she is continuing to recover there’s still no timetable for her getting back home. I’m still working on a lighter weight poncho for her. It’s taking so long because it uses much finer yarn which takes longer to work up. Also the ongoing problem with my hands is slowing me down.

I finished part 5 of my current novel this week. Well… I finished it enough to show it to my beta readers. That means there’s still a lot of work to be done but at least I’m not fixing this part on my own.

Sharing a file with my beta readers always feels like a huge anticlimax. Not because my beta readers are bad, or lazy or cruel, just because there’s no reaction that would match the build up. There’s so much work in getting my writing to a state that I’m happy to share and it feels like a major milestone but it’s not. The story is very slightly closer to being finished. It’s just another step along the road.

This week I’ve had trouble shaking the feeling that it should be possible to find an agent and get published. Other people do it. There are supernatural thrillers and occult police procedurals being published all the time and my work isn’t that different. I am undecided about what to do.

And another excellent new episode of Doctor Who. Rosa marked a new high point for th series as a whole. I predict that people will be talking about it alongside episodes like Vincent and the Doctor for years to come. I’m sure there are people who’re going to complain about how political this episode was and to them I say, “Have you not been paying attention at any point in the history of the show? It’s always been political.”

Sunday Update 14/10

This has been a big week for birthdays. We celebrated the births of my spouse, my son and my mother. This week also saw a brief visit from the in-laws. I have been unusually social and as a result I am knackered. But not in a bad way.

My Mother is still in hospital recovering from her broken arms but she continues to make good progress. I’m still working on a poncho for her which means I haven’t done any more spinning.

My mother, in her usual ‘helpful’ way, has suggested that I start a new business selling hand crocheted ponchos to people recovering from shoulder and arm injuries. I don’t know how she thinks I’m going to find those people to sell stuff to them. I also don’t know where she thinks they’re going to get the money from. It’s at least £30 of yarn plus 10 to 50 hours of my time (depending on pattern). She’s still not ready to give up on the idea of me being able to make money at something.

Speaking of which, I am starting to give head space to the idea that If I want people to read my stories I’m going to have to give them away. I wrote a post about this that you can read here. I still haven’t come to a decision though.

November is fast approaching and with it NaNoWriMo. I have quite a lot of prep done for my own writing but I feel like I’m falling behind on my prep as a Municipal Liaison. I should be doing more to organise meetings and write-ins. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Perhaps it’s just that with such a rural region it’s hard to find meeting locations that everyone is happy with.

I’m continuing to work on the rewrites of my current novel. I might even have fixed that one scene that I just wasn’t happy with and that was keeping me from sending part Five to my beta readers. Maybe. I might look at it again in another couple of days and hate it just as much as before.

Just watched the new episode of Doctor Who and it was another belter. My only problem was the epic faff necessary to watch it. Our Tivo, which we have through Virgin Media, took multiple restarts to play sound. So we missed the beginning of the episode. So we tried to watch it from the start on the iPlayer app on the Tivo. Which would play sound but no pictures. Couldn’t get that to work even after a hard reboot and recalibrating the Tivo. Ended up watching it using the iPlayer app on the PS4. Worth the effort but I am not happy with Virgin. I pay a lot of money to them every month and I expect the kit they give me to work when I want to use it.

Sunday Update 02/09

Here we are again. My second Sunday update. I know, I’m surprised too.

I continue to work on the sexy spy novel (Project Kindness). This week has been tough. I’ve spent most of it trying to fix one scene at the start of part Five that just gets worse the more time I spend looking at it. I can’t tell if the scene sucks or if I’ve just been looking at it too long.

I’ve also been working on my next project, Project Academy, by creating some of the cast of characters and talking to people who know more about education than me. I am almost certain that it’s a terrible idea for a book but that’s not going to stop me. Writing prep usually involves a lot of seesawing back and forth between the fear that the idea is terrible and the fear that the idea is great but I’m not good enough to do it justice.

This week I dragged my other half out to see The Meg in the cinema. I liked it. My other half not so much. If I can write a review then I’ll have two posts this week. We also sat down and watched The Equalizer in preparation for watching the sequel in the cinema. I’ve already written one post about The Equalizer so all I’ll say here is that it’s good, it’s on Amazon Prime, and if you liked John Wick and you also enjoy action films when they’re slightly slower paced and more thoughtful you’ll enjoy it.

My attempt to learn to spin has continued. I am still terrible at it but I have now produced a very small amount of something that’s not entirely unlike yarn. I will continue in this endeavour.

In my continuing, life-long quest to be organised like a proper grown up I have a fancy new planner. It’s got an app to go with it. I’m supposed to set aside time to feel grateful for stuff and start the day by deciding when I’m going to do stuff. I did a personality test to get these personalised suggestions and it’s like they don’t even know me. Nevertheless I am attempting to use it.

No further news from my Mother on her tick problem. Nothing further on the stockpiling for Brexit. Good luck, take care of each other and I’ll see you next Sunday if I don’t see you before.

Time to make a plan

For the last few weeks I’ve been drifting. I was stuck between writing projects. I couldn’t work out what I wanted to focus on and I felt lost. It’s time to pick a direction and start walking.

I haven’t heard anything from Bloody Scotland so I’m going to assume that they don’t want the story I pitched for Pitch Perfect. Frankly that’s a relief because I didn’t feel ready to finish it. For now Project Cecil can stay on the shelf.

I’ve decided that this year’s NaNoWriMo first draft will be of a story I’m calling Project Academy. It’s another attempt to write some YA (young adult) fiction so I’ll have something that I can share with my kids. I’ve already done most of the pre-November work on this story.

That means that I have until the start of November to work on something else. So I’m going back to Project Kindness, my tale of sexy spies and Celtic gods. I’m sure my beta readers will be delighted*.

I’m aware that for most of my readers this doesn’t really count as a plan. None of this is moving my ‘career’ along. It’s not going to solve any of my real life problems. I admit that I have no idea how to have a ‘career’ and that most of my real life problems are insoluble. I do have the beginnings of a plan for a small part of my real life problems but that is a post for another day.

 

*That was probably sarcasm.

The invisible wall

It feels like there’s an invisible wall between me and my novel. Some part of me doesn’t want to work on it and I’m not sure what it is.

It’s not because I don’t know what to write, or because I’m having plot problems. I know where the story is going and how to write it. It’s not because I don’t like the novel or because I’m tired of the characters. I like it and them as much as I ever have.

It feels like I’m scared of something. Or at least reluctant. Could it be that I’m scared of finishing it because that would mean I’d have to query it and that would mean more rejection?

I’ve invested a lot of hope in this novel. I’m hoping that, because it has a better opening, it will have more chance of attracting an agent. I think the opening is good but it doesn’t solve the problem of writing that doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Agents just don’t seem to be looking for the stories that I write. I’ve been trying to build contacts but so far the contacts that I have don’t link up with the kind of stories that I write.

There’s also the problem of my, apparently, terrible grammar. I say apparently because every grammatical problem that gets pointed out is stuff that I can’t see even after it gets pointed out. I know there are rules to formal english but prose isn’t formal. In prose you’re allowed to break the rules. Unless I’m wrong. Unless I should be following the rules of formal English just so that agents will know that I know what they are. Are agents laughing at my terrible comma usage?

It’s tempting to just give up on the idea of ever getting paid, stick a plain cover on it, self publish and then try to find something else to do with my time. It is just so frustrating to put all this work in on stories that nobody wants to read. I believe in them but I don’t know how to communicate that belief in any useful way.

In Honor of Beta Readers

For those who don’t know beta readers are the people who read your ‘nearly finished’ book as a favour in order to tell you if it really is nearly finished. They’re also the people who tell you if your structure is horribly broken and if your plot makes sense and if they can tell who’s alive and who’s dead at the end of a fight scene and point out when you’ve made cardinal errors like head hopping or accidentally changing a character’s name half way through.

Beta readers are important to the process of turning a manuscript into a novel. I suspect that once upon a time most beta reading was done professionally by ranks of editors and printers. I doubt that Austen, Dickens or Conan Doyle were sending out hand copied manuscripts to their writer buddies and waiting for the notes to arrive by post. But we live in a better educated world where many more books are published by much slimmer profit margins.

I’ve been lucky to have some excellent beta readers. I know at least one of them finds the process immensely enjoyable and actively tries to make me laugh with every errant apostrophe she finds. That makes the process much less painful for the writer. I’ve been honored to be asked to beta read for another writer and I hope my feedback was useful to her because I loved her book and I want to see it get published.

Actually now that I think about it I realise that there have always been beta readers. Most of the great writers left behind massive piles of correspondence. Often they correspond with other writers. And when they weren’t corresponding they were down the pub with each other. JRR Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings) and CS Lewis (author of the Narnia books) were members of the same writing group, the Inklings, that met in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. H.P. Lovecraft (creator of the Cthulhu mythos), R.E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), and Clark Ashton Smith (artist, poet and author) regularly corresponded with each other and borrowed elements of each others fiction.

So when you’re reading your favourite books maybe you should take a moment to be thankful to the people who listened as the author drunkenly thrashed out the idea, to the people who read it when it was raw, to the people who pointed out that there were two characters with the same name, and the villain had no motivation, and that’s not how you punctuate a quote within speech. It’s not just that beta readers make a book better. By believing in the book they make it more likely to be finished.