Thursday, 24 March 2011

Self-Editing

This week I've taken my first dive into the huge septic tank known in writing circles as Query Hell. I'm taking a staggered approach, with around 8-10 queries for THE CONVERTED floating around at any one time. When rejections come in, I'll fire off a query to the next agent on my list.

So to distract myself from obsessively refreshing my Gmail every 30 seconds (even when I live on the other side of the world from the agents I'm querying and there's not much chance they'd be reviewing queries at 3am) I decided to write a blog post on self-editing, since that's been consuming most of my non-university time in the last few weeks.

In my first draft, I take a NaNoWriMo-like approach. Vomit the words onto the page, finish the story, and only then go back and edit. In practice, it's not quite so easy. I often have fights with my inner-editor where he tries to convince me that I need to find the right word RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Kicking the inner-editor to the curb takes a lot of mental acrobatics for me, but I will never be one of those people who can disable their backspace key. It would drive me nuts.

Anyway, onto the editing itself. First point: self-editing can be hard. It can also be fun, but trying to critically evaluate your own story is like trying to drive at night when it's raining and the windscreen is fogged up and a wasp is attacking you in the eyes. Spotting the bits of your work that shine and the bits that need to be cut out with a scalpel and the bits that need to be acquainted with my friend, the Molotov cocktail, is tricky.

The oft-given advice is to put the manuscript away for a period of time (suggestions range from a couple of weeks to six months or so). This works for me, although I rarely put the editing off for longer than two or three weeks. During this time, I let my girlfriend read the first draft and offer her criticisms. I realise this is heresy in some circles, but it works for me. My first drafts are usually clean enough and lean enough that the general story and character arcs are all in place, even if the prose itself needs an angle grinder taken to it. So my lovely girlfriend asks questions, tells me what characters she likes and dislikes, how the setting works, and so on. I write all these down without (much) arguing and let them percolate.

When the two weeks or so are up, I pull out the manuscript. Now, I've heard a lot of comments around that you MUST read the manuscript on paper. That's not how it works for me. Perhaps since I'm a bit younger than some of the people giving this advice, I'm more comfortable with reading my novel on a screen. Also, I'm a poor student, so spending money on ink and paper makes it harder to fund my instant-noodle diet. Though I write my novel in WriteMonkey, I read it in Word. I use Word's comment feature to make comments as I read through. These comments might be anything from emotional responses to the text, pointing out repeated story devices, inconsistencies, or things I need to add or cut. I don't let myself fix anything at this stage.

While I'm doing this, I also like to re-read my copy of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I love that book like it's my mother.

Once I've read through the novel I have a good big-picture view of it. I will then start writing additional scenes or extra dialogue or description or whatever the story needs. I don't focus on the prose itself yet. I bounce ideas off my girlfriend, and the plot holes get shored up.

Now is when the polishing comes. I go through line-by-line, reading aloud to myself (with music playing so my flatmates can't hear me). This helps me catch repetition, problems with flow, strange word choices and so on. It also makes it easier for me to pick up typos. At this stage I tend to read the chapters out of order so I don't get caught up in the story and forget to focus on the words.

And then it's done! Well, it would be, if I would ever stop tinkering. But at some stage I have to force myself to put aside the novel and declare it completed. If I don't, I'll keep changing bits and pieces forever, and never get around to sending it out.

So that's my approach to editing my own work. It won't work for everyone, but it seems to do ok for me. These aren't immutable rules. Every novel I write is edited in a slightly different way, but this is my basic outline. And it can even be fun!

Well, these agents aren't going to query themselves. Happy writing!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Terry Pratchett in New Zealand

Just wanted to share this link with everyone in New Zealand.

Terry Pratchett, the ridiculously super-awesome master of comedy fantasy, is coming to Auckland Thursday 14 April. Get your tickets here.

First 100 people to buy tickets get a chance to meet the great man himself. How fucking amazing is that?

I've got my tickets. How about you?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Self-publishing and Traditional Publishing in 2011

So for the last couple of weeks, the web has been abuzz with discussions around Amanda Hocking's success in self-publishing. Nathan Bransford and Kristin Nelson have both done interesting and thought-provoking posts on this in recent days. Being incautious and willing to throw in my opinions about things I know little about, I thought I'd do a post on this as well. Here we go.

First, a bit of background on where I'm coming from. I am currently unpublished either by traditional or self-publishing methods, but I am planning my submissions for traditional publishing houses. I am not planning to self-publish in the next few years. The main reason for this is I want exposure.

Of course, many self-published authors make good sales. Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath are the prototypical examples of this. If we eliminate the authors that were previously traditionally published, such as Konrath, we can cut this number down quite significantly. I don't have figures (what, you want me to provide evidence to support my conclusions?), but off the top of my head I can count all the new, successful self-pubbed authors I know of on one hand. That may be saying more about my knowledge of the industry than anything else, but in a way, that's my point.

Most readers still buy books from traditional publishing houses. I've seen a bunch of different numbers bandied about, but most agree on this. Whether they buy print books from brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon, Book Depository or ebooks from any online seller, readers buy books from traditional publishers. Especially the Big 6. The big publishing houses have the muscle to edit the book, slap a good cover on it and get it where it needs to be: under the noses of booksellers and readers. Though the royalties per book may be smaller, and authors have less control over the process, those are the authors that have the best chance of decent sales. For now.

I'd have to be a blind hermit to not see the changes in the industry. Big bookstores are struggling and collapsing, ebooks are on the rise, online retailers increasingly becoming dominant in the marketplace, publishers are restructuring. Many predictions are being made, and it's hard to know who to believe. Personally, I'm with many of the blogging agents who don't think the end is nigh. Some publishers and booksellers may struggle, but the entire traditional publishing model won't collapse. It will adapt. Perhaps the small and mid-sized independent presses will adapt quicker, and this will give them a chance to cut in front of the behemoths. Time will tell.

All this is not to say I'm opposed to self-publishing. For many authors, it is a brilliant way of getting their work out there. It is not just an easy path to take if you can't get traditionally published. From everyone I've spoken to, successfully self-pubbing and marketing your own book is a tremendous amount of work. If you can work hard, deal with the steep learning curve, and your writing is great, it is definitely possible to succeed.

It's just not the path for me. For the moment, at least. Who knows what the future will bring?

Happy writing!

Monday, 7 March 2011

World-Building in Fiction

I thought I'd kick off my blog with a discussion about world-building. I was going to title this post "World-Building in Fantasy", but of course, world-building isn't exclusive to speculative fiction novels. Even if your manuscript is set in your current time, in your current town or city, you still need to build up the sub-cultures your characters inhabit, the places they spend their time, and work out how the world drives the story.

I say this because in any work of fiction, the world shouldn't just be a background setting, like some painted backdrop your characters walk around in front of. The world shapes your characters, and your characters shape their world. So even in a highly character-driven story, the world will be an important part of the story, even if your readers don't notice it. Nail down those details, work out how the world, your plot, and your characters interact, and your story will be much richer and more believable.

For the rest of this post, I'm mostly going to be discussing world-building in fantasy (and to a lesser degree, SF. Not because SF doesn't need bucket-loads of world-building thrown in, it usually does, but just because of my personal bent towards fantasy.) For myself, a fictional world usually starts with a single idea or spark. It might be something I see in a movie, or read on a blog, or hear in a lecture theatre. You can get ideas from damn near anywhere, as long as you have the idea receiver in your brain tuned in. You might get a story idea first, but for me I usually begin to develop a world first, then work out what stories could be told in it.

For example, the world for my next WIP came from a mash-up of ideas from:
1) a dream I had about a leather-coated train travelling through snowy mountain passes and
2) another idea in my notebook surrounding a natural environment that had been damaged by a technologically advanced colonising force trying to pass themselves off to the natives as gods or magicians.

The world began to grow because I kept asking questions. Why is the train leather-coated? Maybe when the "magicians" tried to demonstrate their powers, they accidentally released a toxin into the environment that rapidly corrodes metal. Machines and metal weapons would be useless, unless adequately protected.

What is the nature of this toxin? Is it chemical? Biological? Airborne? Waterborne? Ah ha, perhaps it is an airborne biological agent, which is why the train can only operate high in the mountain passes. It's too cold and too high for the spores or whatever to significantly affect the train.

As you continue to ask yourself these questions, more details come to light. Then you can ask yourself about the implications of these new developments on the world, and so on. As you come up with new ideas, feel free to chuck them into the mix and see if they mesh well. If so, great! If not, write it down in your ideas notebook for another story. This process is fluid; things can and should be shifted around, questioned, added to or eliminated. You may even change the entire plotline of the novel. That's fine. Go with it. It's still early stages.

All right, so you've got yourself a nice little world developing. While I'm working on this, I like to start thinking about how the people or other creatures of this world fit in. The world I'm using in my example is fairly forbidding, so humans would be confined to settlements in places where the effects of the biological toxin are less marked. How are these settlements formed? Are they independent city-states, or part of an empire? Ruled by committee or by a ruthless overlord, crushing all beneath his leather-covered boot? How do the common people view their lot in life? Do they resent their leaders, hate their environment? Are they oppressed, or free to do as they choose? What does a normal person do for a job?

When you start getting into the practical side of your civilisations, the most important things to think about are often the essentials of life. Food, water, shelter. Who controls the food supply? He who controls the food, controls the people. Is water easy to come by, or is it a precious commodity? Do people gather together in skyscrapers for shelter, or are they nomads, sleeping under the stars?

One of my favourite podcasts for thoughts on this is the Writing Excuses podcast: Writing Practical Fantasy. Check it out.

So now you've got the practical side of your society sorted out, it's time to consider other aspects. Culture is essential in any society. Culture is not something foreign, it is something that every single one of us has, whether we realise it or not. A white, middle-class person has a culture just as a tribesman in an undiscovered tribe in South America has culture. Understanding how your society's culture operates and how it affects your characters is essential. This can be as wide-ranging as the ways in which a family is formed (nuclear family? polyamory? matriarchal?), to the ways religions interacts with the population and with each other. Was your culture formed after generations of isolation, or were dozens of different cultures thrust together, trading and assimilating each others' cultural quirks?

These are just a few questions I ask myself early in the world-building process. If you want a great list of things to consider in your world-building, I recommend the SFWA World-building resources. They ask you to think about things we've talked about here, along with many others.

About now, many writers (me included) fall prey to world-builders' disease. Somewhere around the time you're working out the evolutionary history of the algae in the pond outside the Chief Mage's tower and the meaning of the name of the King's auntie's third cousin's pet rock, you realise you should probably stop all this world building and actually WRITE THE DAMN BOOK. So put all that world-building into a handy folder and get started. It's ok if you don't have every aspect of the world worked out. Really.

Just fake it.

You heard me. Details are the key. Your readers don't want to read everything you created in your world. They want to read a story about characters. If you provide enough detail to make that world seem real and interesting, they will be happy.

So get your butt in that chair and build that world. Then stop building that world, and get stuck into the real work.

Happy writing!

Welcome!

Hi all you internet-browsing people. Welcome to my blog. This is my obligatory introductory post. I'm an aspiring speculative fiction writer from the little ol' country of New Zealand. Over in the side panel you can find a link to the first chapter of my current manuscript, THE CONVERTED.

This blog will be primarily writing-related. Hopefully I'll be able to give a few of you my perspectives on writing fiction, and maybe also engage everyone in some discussion. From time to time posts might devolve into pointless ramblings about life, books, music, current events and anything else that takes my fancy, but I'll try to keep posts as interesting and relevant as possible.

I suppose I should tell you all a little about myself. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I'm also a medical student at a New Zealand university. For the most part, I'll keep discussions of med student life off this blog, except as examples where it intersects with writing.

I'm working towards becoming a published author. It's still in the early stages, but I'm getting submission packages ready to send off, so watch this space!

I think that's enough for now. Any questions, feel free to drop me a message at my email at the top of the page. You'll also find a link to my Twitter account, @CRHindmarsh

Happy writing!