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That night, out in the family boat, when he was ten years old. Sea-mist came from nowhere. He was careless, and fell into chill April water, breathing its knife pain into his lungs. Panic. The current was strong, and the life-jacket could not protect him from cold. The water wanted to hold his head under, a force, a something that wanted to drag him down.
Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller
I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman
Here’s the point about writing advice. I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.
Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’ That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time. To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days. (Think about it every day if you can.)
Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing. Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods. Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet. Which is right?
I think it depends how you put words together. Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker. They write slowly – add a comma here? Oooh, tricky! What comes out is serviceable. Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.
I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse. I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again. I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working. To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating. It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet. I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.
When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.
Plot or pants? Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants? See the two esteemed figures above. Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing. Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.
I’m more King than Aldiss. However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous. People don’t forgive poor endings. Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book. Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there. I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.
What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end? Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle? Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies? Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?
Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’ Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one. I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.
I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan. I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan. Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan. But the plan is the servant not the master.
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So, it’s only February but this is a strong contender for the Science Story of 2018. Cheddar Man, the skeleton of a 10,000 year old hunter-gatherer found in Cheddar Gorge, turns out not to be white. In fact, like other skeletons of the same age found across Europe, DNA testing shows he was brown or black – but had blue eyes.
This was presented in the Channel Four documentary as utterly stunning and unexpected. Although three hunter-gatherer skeletons on continental Europe in the 10000-7000 year old range gave exactly the same findings in previous studies, so a bit of hype I think.
About 10% of British DNA comes from these dark Mesolithic hunters. I could hear people falling off their barstools as I read the story.
I’ve been in Cheddar several times, and I am now dreaming of the man and his family hunting reindeer and ‘they gurt* aurochs’ with dogs, looking up at the cliffs … my ancestor, with as much right to be here as anyone else. His people walked from what is now continental Europe, because there was a fertile land now drowned joining the gaps. British, European, Middle-Eastern, African, human.
Scientists now think pale skin only came to the fore once farming begun, and palefaces benefited from higher vitamin D levels. Farming doesn’t feed you better than being a hunter, or keep you healthier, it just allows you to have more people, and take over. (Cheddar Man was lactose intolerant, which fits with not being a farmer.) It is interesting that although younger hunter-gatherer skeletons in Spain and Luxembourg come up with the same dark skin and blue eyes, the oldest German farmer found was pale skinned.
I love how new scientific developments throw established wisdom into confusion. There’s almost no Italian DNA in the UK – so the Romans came, ruled for four centuries, and left without leaving a trace. (That chimes with the fact that Latin words came into English through the post-Roman civilisation. Can we assume that the Romans didn’t breed with or teach the locals much?**) On the other hand, DNA tests have shown that the Black Death was in fact the Black Death and not as some controversialists claim, something else.
The real truth is hair, eye and skin colour are distinctive, but irrelevant for most purposes. We’re all related to each other. In fact, everyone is descended from most people alive in the Middle Ages. Many Europeans and Asians carry little bits of DNA from earlier versions of humanity than homo sapiens.
The debate about race and racism is not really about facts, but here’s hoping this stunningly visual find opens people’s hearts and minds.
*big. Of course I hear him talking in a West Country accent.
**Sometimes genes just drift out of a population for no obvious reason.
I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon. When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.
A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.
[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate. Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]
No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’ ‘Will it still be your book?’
The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book. What Jo is doing is helping make it happen. Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out. If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.
So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with. ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.
Imagine you write and direct an amateur play. You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut. Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed. Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on. Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success. How exciting!
That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one. But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works. They will come back with a string of points. All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama. Do you need both the heroine’s brothers? They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other. You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme. The set design is very bland. Is there a reason the period is so vague?
Some of this is so obviously right you nod. Some of this might be very challenging. You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on. Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body. Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.
Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’ Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed. But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.
So, you muse on it all. Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth. The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns. You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that. The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further. If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play. And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.
You see the point. Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people. A book comes down to you and the editor.
What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively. So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success. To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage. If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble. The book ought to be winning, and the readers.
An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’. I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity. Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable. Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.
Nothing says Christmas like moaning about old TV. I am watching Star Trek The Original Series – I used to love this when I was ten or so. It lit up my world with wonder. Now, rewatching, please send help, because it’s terrible.
I’m not particularly fussed about the terrible clunky sets, the lack of common sense like seat belts, and the fact that it was thirty years behind written SF in addressing either bold speculative ideas, or social issues. In the Christmas Spirit of putting the boot in, I call in evidence:
The teeth-gritting sexism. Female characters as one episode love interest, professional women constantly characterised as flighty idiots incapable of driving a shopping trolley, women getting no lines except screaming and screwing things up. The uniform with incredibly short skirts. Women who get married leave Starfleet. Everyone wanting to shag Kirk (ewwwww).
The balls-aching line of command. No-one ever has any independent authority. Kirk has to tell Spock to tell someone to do the bloody obvious thing. In a real warship, they’d be blown out of the sky waiting for permission to wipe their own arses.
The teeth-gritting sexism can’t be entirely excused by the times. The pilot famously had a cool, competent, strong First Officer who was a woman, and they dropped the character because test screenings didn’t like it. In the pilot, all the Starfleet women wore trousers and weren’t stupid. So, don’t tell me the team were prisoners of their time – they backed down under pressure.
Even as a kid I noticed that they sent exactly the wrong people down to the surface, and let’s all face front so the monsters can jump them from behind. Although some nerd has shown wearing a red shirt is not an indicator you are going to die. Endless terrible decisions.
Broadly racist, white Americans tend to hold all the positions of power. My ten-year-old-me’s crush, Nichelle Nichols, was urged to stay by Martin Luther King; she inspired other black women into TV; I know she’s an icon, but she’s never given that much to do. Sigh of relief when Uhura’s shown with a soldering iron doing something. Soldering, not just smouldering.
The science. I don’t mind ‘handwavium’ – I don’t think the point of science fiction is to explain exactly how your faster than light works. It is the GCSE level science that everyone watching ought to know. Like, if you bombard a planet with incredibly bright ultraviolet light, aliens hiding in the dark still won’t be touched by it. Light doesn’t bend round corners. Humans looking up would be burned or blinded. Also, antimatter isn’t ‘evil’.
The world seems inconsistent from episode to episode. For example, if you don’t have enough energy to run the warp engines, can you still have enough energy to have shields and full impulse power? This stuff really matters to the story, different episodes give different answers. What happens when a nut locks themselves in Engineering, which happens every Wednesday? Different solutions in different episodes.
Primitive people enslaved by a god/god like computer – three times in the last eight episodes I watched. Women choosing flightily. Immortal chasing immortal for all time (twice).
Spock is not that credible a character, Vulcan an unbelievable society, Amok Time might be the worst episode of any science fiction programme ever. Not least because of the teeth-gritting and illogical sexism. (The modern take – Vulcans have emotions but suppress them, is far more logical, believable, and dramatic.)
Jim, Bones and Spock ‘joshing’ humourlessly may cause cancer and should be banned.
Characters give speeches which are plot points, not consistent with their character.
The story telling is sometimes ponderous, the acting hammier than a pork sausage, but AT LEAST THE MUSIC SUBTLY TELLS YOU WHAT TO THINK. Oh, the Woman is Being Seductive
Bonus point, Chekov is impressively annoying as a character. The Wussians probably agreed to a nuclear arms treaty on the promise Chekov would be frozen in ice for two billion years.
STTOS is optimistic. It espouses diversity and peaceful cooperation, even if it doesn’t deliver. It aspires to progress. Its penal system is based on rehabilitation, the culture aspires to be meritocratic. Not every episode is terrible. But sometimes when you go back to something, the river has flowed on. Nothing ages like the future.
Everyone is astonished that a book accepted in Summer 2017 won’t be out until Feb 2019. And I’ll be honest, I gulped. Naively, I was hoping Our Child of the Stars would be out for summer or autumn 2018.
Reason 1: traditional publishing takes time. If I was self-publishing, you’d be reading it now.
Reason 2: most books in the UK are sold ‘for Christmas’ and ‘for the beach’. Tons of books are published to grab the shelves for those times. October 5th, 2017 was this year’s Super Thursday, the day the largest number of titles hit UK shelves. 505 new books were published in that one week. I mean, Jo Fletcher Books could launch a debut novel, a bit unusual, into a Hurricane Pullman of new books. That might work. Better chance for a quirky debut they don’t.
Reason 3: they really like the book. But editors don’t buy a book and say, it’s fine, we can go straight to copy editing. They bring their own commercial and artistic insight to it. It needs some work – not massive but not inconsequential. And it’s not, wouldn’t the trousers in chapter six be better blue. Or change that character’s name. It’s more like, bring this up, bring this down, I need to believe this character would do this. When that’s right, there’s copyediting – real dots and commas – then proofing. I will do a piece on Editing is not Ruining.
Reason 4: Covers. People judge books by their cover. It sells you the book before you even pick it up. The wonderful draft design I saw really gives the feel of the book – the hope, the wonder, the beauty and the tinge of danger and darkness. All that without spoilers. Publishers must factor time to get the cover right, and they need the cover right long before you see the book, to sell into the trade and to talk to foreign markets.
In short, they think the book will do better with more time. They’re paying. And as they cheerfully say, ‘You’ll never get this much time with a book in future.’ No pressure there.
The good news is that some lucky people do get to see it a lot earlier, when advanced copies become ready. That’s for another time, but a very good reason to subscribe to my newsletter.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s a weird saying. Covers are designed to help you judge the book. They’re designed to make you pick them up, or click on them, to find out more.
Look at these above – you can see which is science fiction, fantasy, horror and not sure.
Think of the last fifty novels you read. In how many did you think, oh that cover misled me? It might have been a terrible book, but was it in the ballpark of the sort of book you wanted? You didn’t pick up a light women’s fiction beach read and find duelling dinosaurs in it, for example.
Agents and publishers know covers matter, not least because booksellers care about them too. Big publishers have been known to consult Waterstones and the supermarkets. I’m told a publisher once paid for a special cover just for Tesco, cos the supermarket didn’t like the planned one. Smart self-publishers pay for professional designs, even when their book is primarily sold on Amazon. Covers matter.
Authors have rights to be consulted on the cover, and I detected just a touch of nervousness in The Big Publishing Office. A little warming up work as they prepared to show me what they believe Our Child of the Stars should look like. They showed me the proposal – and I loved it. It really suits the book. It has the mix of wonder, love, beauty and a hint of darkness that it needed. They love it too. We sat in the canteen and loved the cover together. It’s been presented to the sales team, and they love it.
An important feature is that it is designed to appeal to a very broad audience, which is what the book wants and needs. I’m very happy with where we are going.
I have some updates coming, but my lovely subscribers will get them first.
I have seen a first draft of the cover art and I love it so much, I am seeking legal advice as to whether I can marry it. That’s led to Serious Thoughts about Covers.
I’ve got some hot thoughts on Why Does This Take So Flipping Long? The quick answer is, it does, and if Our Child of the Stars is going to take a bit longer than a typical debut, then it’s with good reason. Which I explain.
I’ve had my Important Notes off my editor, Jo Fletcher. Notes are the editorial changes she wants, and this work is underway. I might write sometime about what this sort of editing is about. It’s not line or copy-editing, which is fixing semi-colons, tenses, and noticing characters’ eye colour changes.