Writing: June 2006 Archives

1. Smartphones are not yet there as word-processing platforms. Tantalizingly close, but no banana.

2. Writing a novel in the second person present tense is surprisingly easy. Ditto reading it, after the first ten minutes of extreme cognitive dissonance. What you do end up with is the same set of tiresome headaches you get with omniscient third-person — only more so.

3. Because it's an "intrusive" voice, you don't want to put words into your protagonist's heads that are likely to dump the reader out of their willingness to imagine themselves thinking those thoughts. So there's a tendency to leave the interiorization out altogether, or to paint it using delicate watercolour tints rather than vibrant saturated oils.

4. If your characters are looking over here there's no way to sketch in significant details over there.

5. The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

6. History inserts itself into our lives, seamlessly. When did you last get through a day without hearing some kind of off-hand reference to 9/11 or the Iraq war? Kids these days are learning about Margaret Thatcher in history lessons at school. In ten years time there'll be some other iceberg-like intrusion of History into the zeitgeist: the question is, what? (My money's on something energy or environment related, and big.)

7. Trying to get into the head of a 28-year-old British professional circa 2016 — the people this novel is about — is an interesting exercise, even though people of this generation are easy enough to track down right now: the trouble is, if I ask them questions now, I'm asking a bunch of 18 year olds. Whereas what I'm interested in is what they'll be thinking when they're 28 ...

You were one year old when the Cold War ended. You were thirteen when the war on terror broke out, and eighteen or nineteen when Tony Blair was forced to resign as Prime Minister. You graduated university owing £35,000 in student loans, at a time when the price of entry into the housing market in the UK was over £150,000 (about 4-5 times annual income; the typical age of first time buyers was 35 and rising by more than 12 months per year). Unless you picked the right career (and a high-earning one at that) you can't expect to ever own your own home unless your parents die and leave you one. On the other hand, you can reasonably expect to work until you're 70-75, because the pension system is a broken mess. The one ray of hope was that your health and life expectancy are superior to any previous generation — you can reasonably expect to live to over a hundred years, if you manage to avoid succumbing to diseases of affluence.

For comparison, when I graduated university in 1986, I had no student loans, first homes cost £30,000— or about 2-2.5 times annual income — and the retirement age was 60-65. So it should be no surprise if the generation of 1988 has very different expectations of their future life from the generation of 1964.

8. Agatha Christie once said, "when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." Yet these were the prevailing parameters from 1945 to the present. I might equally well say that when I was eighteen I never expected to be so poor I couldn't afford a four bedroom house, or so rich that I could afford a computer. What terms of reference will these people use to define their relative affluence and poverty? Motor cars and domestic robots? (Too facile.) Children and immortality treatment? (Too crudely obvious.) Privacy and ubiquity? (Too abstract.)

To be continued ...

It's a hot Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh — I'm not betting against an evening thunderstorm — and I've got a blog, so I'm going to ramble on.

One of the curses of writing for a living is that life doesn't stop while you're trying to wrestle a story into submission. In fact, I could probably work a regular 40 hour week as a writer without actually writing any fiction. Where does the time go?

First of all, I get email. If you write me a note and (a) you appear to expect a reply, (b) you don't scare me, and (c) it's not one of those days when I don't want to get out of bed, you can usually expect a response. But I don't get that much mail; unless I'm up for a major award (or worse, have just won one) it doesn't take more than half an hour to deal with it.

Then there's the business admin side of things. Being a full-time writer means being self-employed. There's keep track of expenses, doing the accounts, and the usual stuff that goes with running a one-man business. Also wrapped up in this: keeping all the computers going. There's the colocated server I lease, which runs this blog (and a whole bunch of other stuff including the email server and the spam filter that keeps the 500 spams a day I get from washing out the reader emails). There's the laptop I work on. There's my smartphone, and the old laptop I keep as an emergency spare in case the work machine dies on me (as it did last month ... and again, last week, albeit for less serious values of "died"). Unfortunately for me, I'm an inveterate tinkerer and I can't hide behind my own ignorance and leave tinkering with the computers to someone else. Some guys do DIY, others do gardening, and more do car stuff. I don't do any of that. I do computer stuff, and it's even more annoying because if I don't keep an eye on my time I can mistake it for paying working hours.

Next, there are those odd demands on my time that come from the business of writing but aren't strictly writing per se. When you sell a book, and deliver the manuscript to your editor, that's not the end of the job. I reckon that it takes me somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of extra work before a novel I've delivered goes into print — time spent checking copy edits, poring over galley proofs, writing up outlines and marketing pitches for the editor to point at their sales staff where necessary, and (this bit goes first) writing the original proposal for the book that gets sent to the editor before they buy it. If you write more than one book a year, this peripheral activity mounts up. And if there's a scheduling crunch such that three books I wrote some time ago end up coming out in the same 12 month period, that's up to a third of the current productive year gone before I start writing. Note that this doesn't mean I'm writing three books a year — just that they end up coming out in the same year.

And then there's marketing and promotion.

If you're a midlist author (one with maybe five or more books in print, but not a best-seller: you make a living, but you're probably driving a ten year old banger unless your car is your main recreational expenditure) then your publisher probably allocates a marketing budget to your books consisting of five tulip bulbs and a coat button. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. They'll probably purchase a few targeted ads in some of the trade and enthusiast magazines (like Locus or Asimovs), and they'll send out review copies and talk to the book chains, but you're not getting any signing tours or stretch limos with buckets of champagne. You're not even getting dump bins in the chain stores. (Those are expensive.) If you want your books to do well, you need to promote them: not necessarily by getting out in public and hectoring people to buy them, but at the very least you need to practice being friendly and helpful to reviewers and members of the press, however obscure their publications are. Sometimes it's hard: if you tried to contact me this week I'd like to apologize for being a little short. (Excessively hot weather, computers breaking, and being behind schedule on a deadline job, combine to have that effect on me.)

Science fiction conventions and fandom are a whole other kettle of fish; I'll talk about them some other time. Suffice to say that they suck up about another month per year, if not more. While SF/F has this subculture and other genres don't, you can easily spend plenty of time rushing from one book festival to the next.

Anyway. In combination, these activities can turn into such a sucking vortex of administrative inactivity that you can be horribly busy and not realize that you're not actually doing anything productive — the stuff they pay you for. I had a patch like that from February through late April; four SF conventions (three of them overseas — in two cases, on other continents), the Clarke awards, copy edits on three novels, galley proofs to check on two. It's a miracle and a wonder I got anything written at all over that period, although I did manage to fit the back half of a novel in somewhere along the line.

Now I'm running late on the next book — due on my editor's desk on September 1st, Or Else — with the first draft about 40% complete. There is, in principle, enough time to do a competent job of finishing it. Things look a bit more fraught if you factor in two weeks against an unscheduled illness (this is not the kind of job where you can outsource the heavy lifting to a temping agency), and another three and a half weeks booked long in advance for a vacation (and an SF convention appearance) on another continent. I suspect I'm going to be taking the laptop on holiday and working in the hotel room, if I don't want to blow the deadline (with a knock-on effect on the two novels that are due in next year).

So: business as usual. Why am I wasting time blogging? Because ... it's not a waste of time. It's time spent getting myself into a working frame of mind, and it's time spent communicating with you, the reading public. Some folks read my blog because they liked the books, and some folks read my books because they liked the blog. Blogging is, in fact, a vital marketing tool for midlist writers these days (as other authors, like Neal Asher — a few entries down from here — have figured out). There is no longer any pretense at there being a fourth wall between the show that is the writer's life and the audience who read their work. I wouldn't go so far as to say that writing books has become a performance art, but it's getting close.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go write some more of "Halting State" ...

Today's thought: when is a law of writing not a law?

Anton Chekhov (paraphrased): if you put a gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1, it must be fired no later than the end of Act 3. (Of a three act play).

This is pretty much a rule to live by, at least when you're starting out writing fiction: if there are lots of dangling loose threads in your story, diverticulae that don't go anywhere, then you're wasting words and misleading your readers.

However. It's not a rule to be taken as an absolute requirement.

Consider the crime novel. Your classic murder-mystery-whodunnit is almost by definition a maze of dangling threads, for the detective's overt task is to navigate among them and determine which of them are actually connected to the crime.

But not every gun has to be fired to serve a purpose within a story. Sometimes just the fact that there is a gun on the mantlepiece conveys a message. And not all guns are guns: sometimes a gun is just a signifier. There's an example in my latest novel to see print, GLASSHOUSE — click below to see the gory spoiler.

You can find Neal Asher's blog at theskinner.blogspot.com. Another SF author joins the blogging borg ...



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This page is an archive of entries in the Writing category from June 2006.

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