On writing when aphantasic (attn @LoyaulteMeLie )

This post may be a bit disjointed, because I’m not particularly well today, or coherent, but it’s been several days since I wrote anything at all here, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion yesterday, and I wanted to get the things I said into some sort of more thought-out state.

One of the things I don’t talk about very much is that I am aphantasic — I am (almost) incapable of seeing things “in my mind’s eye”. I don’t talk about it very much because, despite what that link seems to claim, it’s not a particularly interesting or newly-discovered thing. In fact one of the founding papers of psychology as an experimental science, by Francis Galton back in 1880, was the one that first established that there is a wide range in people’s ability to visualise things — with some people able to see entire scenes as vividly as in real life, and others completely unable to. (I am in Galton’s “last suboctile” in his rather confusingly-named schema — “I am very rarely able to recall any object whatever with any sort of distinctness. Very occasionally an object or image will recall itself, but even then it is more like a genereralised image than an individual one. I seem to be almost destitute of visualising power as under control.”)

Anyway, this isn’t a disability or anything, it’s just one of those interesting different ways people’s brains work (the same way I *can* hear in my head an entire record, with production, vocals, instrumental parts, all in place, which apparently most people can’t). But a friend who writes just discovered that this was A Thing, and that a particularly difficult problem she’d been experiencing wasn’t just her being no good at writing, but that she is aphantasic, and she wanted to know how I deal with it.

You see, the advice one is given as a writer is to “show, don’t tell”. The ideal writer, according to many self-appointed experts on the subject, is one who puts reams of physical description into their writing. One apparently needs to give a “sense of place” — to describe every piece of clothing worn by every character, the lighting in the room, the books on the bookshelf, the… I’ve already run out of things I could list, actually.

You see the problem. If you want a description of, say, the differences between the two versions of Help Me R(h)onda by the Beach Boys, I can do that no problem without listening to them. But my legs are currently hidden by the desk I’m writing at, and if you asked me for a description of the trousers I’ve been wearing all day… well, I’m *fairly* sure I’m actually wearing some, but that’s as far as I could go without looking.

And this was the problem that my friend had been having, too. Her stories had been criticised for not providing enough description of the physical world, but she knew that I have had fiction published, by proper publishers who pay money and everything, and that at least some people had enjoyed it, so she wanted to know how I get around this problem.

So I’m going to talk about… not tricks, exactly, because a lot of this is stuff I do because many of the writers whose work I admire the most do it, rather than to work round weaknesses. But all of this stuff *also* helps work round this particular weakness.

The first thing I’d say is write in first person. I think this surprised my friend, when I made this point so strongly, because she writes in close third and thought that would be close enough that it wouldn’t make a difference, but in fact in makes a huge one. When you write in third person, even if you’re sticking to one character’s viewpoint, the reader has expectations of you they don’t have of the character.

Put simply, we expect P.G. Wodehouse to know what the Drones Club looks like, but we don’t expect Bertie Wooster to think to tell us. Read one of the Jeeves books, and you won’t find a single description of physical space (I just scanned through Right Ho, Jeeves, and while I may have missed something, I think there’s one paragraph of description of a garden, which sounds like it’s quoting something rather than an actual description written by Wodehouse), and while you’ll find descriptions of characters’ appearance, they will generally tend to be along the lines of “In build and appearance, Tuppy somewhat resembles a bulldog, and his aspect now was that of one of these fine animals who has just been refused a slice of cake.”

An oblivious narrator can be an absolute boon in this regard, especially if the character has a very strongly defined voice, as Wooster does. You could also have a character describe a room using a pop-culture reference that character might use (“it looked like the kind of office that Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss might think was a bit too corporate”), get angry at the idea the room needs describing (“it was an office. You know what offices look like. Let me get on with the story”), or even handwave it more explicitly (“We were talking… I think it was in the office… unless it was in the canteen? It could have been the canteen… anyway, we were talking about..”). You could also, for example, have a blind narrator, which immediately gets rid of the need for any visual description at all.

I knew I was going to like The Name of the Rose when, in the first chapter, I read:

In the pages to follow I shall not indulge in descriptions of persons—except when a facial expression, or a gesture, appears as a sign of a mute but eloquent language—because, as Boethius says, nothing is more fleeting than external form, which withers and alters like the flowers of the field at the appearance of autumn; and what would be the point of saying today that the abbot Abo had a stern eye and pale cheeks, when by now he and those around him are dust and their bodies have the mortal grayness of dust (only their souls, God grant, shining with a light that will never be extinguished)?

This is perfectly in character for a fourteenth century monk, but it’s also the greatest writing cop-out I’ve ever read — precisely because it’s so in character, while still ensuring the writer doesn’t have to do the boring descriptive stuff (Eco *does* do a lot of physical description of spaces, but the book is in large part about a space — to the extent I caught myself thinking it would make rather a decent text adventure game). It’s an utterly beautiful passage, and made me giggle like a small child when I read it and realised what he was doing.

Another writer who doesn’t do much in the way of standard description is Damon Runyon, who again lets the character of his unnamed narrator do a lot of the work:

WHEN Mr. Ziegfeld picks a doll she is apt to be above the average when it comes to looks, for Mr. Ziegfeld is by no means a chump at picking dolls. But when Mr. Ziegfeld picks Miss Midgie Muldoon, he beats his own best record, or anyway ties it. I never see a better-looking doll in my life, although she is somewhat smaller than I like them. I like my dolls big enough to take a good hold on, and Miss Midgie Muldoon is only about knee-high to a Pomeranian. But she is very cute, and I do not blame Handsome Jack Maddigan for going daffy about her.

We don’t get any more description of Muldoon than that, and all we’re actually told is that she’s small and good looking. But the narratorial voice is so strong that it feels like we’ve been told all we need to know.

Another technique you can use is the epistolary story
This can be combined with the first-person thing quite easily. My own first novel has multiple narratorial voices (it’s not clear exactly how many — at one point there are *at least* seven stacked unreliable narrators…), almost all first-person, but even the third-person stuff is seen through a narratorial voice other than my own, because it’s all in the form of found documents. If your story is in the form of letters, emails, memos, blog posts, diary entries, Tweets, or what have you, then you can have a lot of the story happen in, if you like, “text space” — in the interactions between the documents, rather than in a physical space. Two good, free to read, examples of this kind of thing are the Alien fanfic short story Killing Elvis and the novel I linked the other day, The Northern Caves.

The expectations about content for an email or blog post are very different for those for an extended piece of prose, to the extent that in an epistolary story readers will actually get thrown out if you include many descriptions of place or character appearance.

Next there’s the telling detail. If you pick out one thing and emphasise that, and how strange it is, then people will fill in the rest themselves. To use an example from Runyon:

He is a big heavy guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin-cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet in a violin-case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a ‘cello.

I must tell you more about Feet’s feet, because they are very remarkable feet indeed. They go off at different directions under him, very sharp, so if you see Feet standing on a corner it is very difficult to tell which way he is going, because one foot will be headed one way, and the other foot the other way. In fact, guys around Mindy’s restaurant often make bets on the proposition as to which way Feet is headed when he is standing still.

This is all we’re told about Feet Samuels’ appearance, and yet I’m sure that everyone has enough of an idea what he looks like when reading the story.

Another thing you can do is use all the senses. While most people are visual, we all get information from multiple senses, and some advice I’ve seen given is that if you use at least one instance of each sense in a given two-page passage, that will give more of a sense of place than just a visual description would:

The barroom was dark, and the scent of urine and stale lager hung over it, so thick you could taste it, and my jacket stank of it for weeks afterwards. The jukebox was playing some shitty country tune, and as Tammy Wynette or whoever it was cried about her dead dog, I pushed my way to the bar, choking on the smoke. I leaned on the bar, and discovered my hand was in a pool of acrid liquid I could only hope was beer.
It was my kind of place.

Now, I wrote that in about ten seconds, so it’s clearly not great, but you’ve got smell, taste, touch, sound, and vision all in there. The only visual cue there is that the room is dark, but I still think it creates a fairly decent sense of place.

And finally, there’s the assumption of familiarity. This works particularly well in a particular kind of children’s book, especially when combined with the telling detail — “Now, everyone knows what a dragon looks like, but this dragon was a very peculiar dragon indeed, because he had two tails. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a two-tailed dragon before, but they can’t fly as gracefully as other dragons…”

But you can also do this with adult fiction as well. “Every town has a bar like that. It’s the place where you go when you need something sorted out, and you don’t care too much about how the sorting is done, or whose legs have to be broken to get it sorted. And the Chimes was absolutely typical of its type, except in this one regard — the landlord was convinced he was running a respectable establishment”

The reader will immediately fill in what she thinks that kind of pub musty be like, and so long as you don’t say anything to contradict that mental image, she’ll just assume that her mental image matches what’s in the story.

But this is the single most important point — if you can’t do visual description, you have to let the reader do the work, and you can’t contradict their mental image without pulling them out of the story. Sometimes you want to pull them out of the story, of course — “AH! You thought the black man was the criminal, but really he was the policeman. AH! I subverted your expectations!” — but mostly you don’t. So you want to make sure that if you’re giving sparse descriptions, you front-load EVERYTHING that is going to matter. If in chapter three the main character hides behind the sofa because she thinks there’s a burglar, you’d better have mentioned in chapter one that there’s a sofa there, or the reader might have spent two chapters imagining a room with only armchairs in (or if you’ve been really sparse with the description, she might think your main character is in the kitchen).

I’m sure there’s more that can be said about this — I’m sure there are more things *that I do*, even — but I’m a relative novice as a fiction writer (only one novel and three short stories sold to professional markets) and I don’t want to pretend to an expertise I don’t have. But I hope this is of some help to anyone who, like myself, simply can’t “see” things in their mind’s eye.

This post brought to you by my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

The Joys Of Edge Cases

I use the word processor LyX to write my books in, and have done for several years. I’ve recommended it to everyone I can — I believe it’s the best word processor, by far, I’ve ever come across.
However, I’ve just hit on an annoying bug while formatting the California Dreaming book.
In previous books, and even in the original drafts of this, I’ve been italicising song titles, but in this one I’m trying to use Oxford style, just because I use that at work and it’s easier for me to do proofreading if I don’t have to context-switch so much. So song titles are going in quotes, so where before I’d have “One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’“, now I have “One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with “Surfin’”.”

Or at least, that’s what I type.
You see, LyX uses LaTeX as a backend, and LaTeX was designed for seven-bit character systems. So LyX converts the apostrophe and double quotes into three single quotes, sends that to LaTeX, and then LaTeX converts that back into double quotes and an apostrophe. In that order.

So every time I have an apostrophe followed by a double quote in my text, I now have, in the output, a double quote followed by an apostrophe.

In a book full of writing about songs like “Surfin'”, “California Dreamin'”, “Everybody’s Talkin'”, and “Willin'” (which has been annoying me anyway. What IS it with 60s songwriters and dropped gs in titles?!). Oh sorry, make that “Surfin”‘, “California Dreamin”‘, “Everybody’s Talkin”‘, and “Willin”‘

This isn’t something that would come up normally, because in normal situations you don’t end something in quote marks with an apostrophe — there’d be a full stop or a comma before it — so it’s a bug I’ve never hit before. But it means I’m having to go through and do a workaround, pasting in a little bit of LaTeX code every time there’s an apostrophe followed by a quote mark (and I can’t even do it programmatically, because for some reason LyX’s search is borked when it comes to quotes).

(The code to use, BTW, is \textcompwordmark if anyone else is having this problem).

I finally discovered the cause of the problem and the workaround when I found the one other person on the Internet who’d ever had this problem, which took a *LOT* of googling (because you can’t use quote marks to search for an exact phrase when the exact phrase you’re using has quote marks). The problem was reported to the LyX-users list, and the response eventually came back:

I do not know whether the problem is worth fixing now, but I’ll add it on the bug list.

That was in June 1999, so I don’t expect a fix any time soon…

NB, I still think LyX is the best word processor I’ve ever come across, bar none. This is the first actual bug I’ve ever experienced in it, and that’s after intensive use for five years. And the number of obstacles it removes when compared with Word or LibreOffice or their ilk make it an utter joy to use overall. Please don’t let this put you off using it.

But I had to vent. Most Word processors are fine for 90% of documents but fail horribly for the other 10% — including most of the documents I want to write. LyX is fine for 99.9% of documents, but failed horribly here because of people who think dropping gs in their song titles makes them look cool.

First 25 Pages of New Novel, for Patreons

For those who are donating $1 a month or more, you can now read the first 25 pages of my new novel at Patreon. I decided the reason I was going so slowly with this compared with my other writing was that I wasn’t writing to an audience, so I’ve uploaded chapters one through eight plus prologue (this is a thriller of sorts, chapters are short) as a PDF, and I’ll be doing at least one extra chapter a week on Patreon until the book’s done in first draft. I’ll then do a rewrite and publish it, and only then will I start to serialise it here.
In this week’s bumper edition:
A perilous journey!
A suicide!
A new job hinges on a crossword!
An unhappy couple!
A puzzle that needs a Professor!
Satanism in the corridors of power!
A history lesson!
And an unresolved puzzle!
Featuring Dennis Wheatley, Rudolf Hess, Alan Turing, Aleister Crowley, and Ian Fleming’s brother, As Yet Untitled Second Novel is worth anyone’s $1 a month, probably!

Progress Report On The Novel

I know nobody likes to read process posts by writers, but I feel a sense of obligation to the people who have backed my Patreon campaign to let them know about my non-blog writing, so you’ll get this every so often.

My plan has been, and still is, to email every one of my backers the work in progress in 5000-word chunks, before shopping it around to publishers, but it’ll be a little while before I get that first 5000-word chunk done. I actually have something like 10,000 words written so far, but much of that is character notes and plot outlining.

I’ve written chunks of what were intended to be the first three chapters, but the plans have changed slightly since I wrote the first half of chapter three. Thanks to feedback from Plok and Gavin R I now have some ideas as to how to solve the problems with lack of inclusion of women (and, happily, all the women with whom I’ve discussed the actual plot idea have said something along the lines of, to quote one, “that sounds like a cool enough idea that I would read it anyway despite it being a sausage-fest, so I say let it come out how it wants” — that from one of my most outspokenly feminist friends, who I’m not naming just because it was a private email and I haven’t asked for her permission to quote it), but those ideas mean, essentially, vastly expanding the setting of the book and slowing the pacing, so what I was planning as a tight 80,000-word book (the lower limit of what’s acceptable to send to genre editors these days) is now probably going to be somewhere around the 110,000-word mark, which has meant that what I thought was chapter three (the one that starts with the bald man reading a letter, for those who will read it) will now probably be chapter seven or eight, if not later.

Given the massive structural changes I’ve had to make before even getting much down, I’m going to hold off letting backers read the story until I have at least 15,000 words or so of it written, and then send them 5000 word chunks 10,000 words in arrears.

And that 15000 words will take some time to write. I’m currently researching the works and biographies of three different novelists, reading some background about a political movement, reading a huge amount about a military institution, and doing all the other kinds of research one needs to do when mixing fiction and reality (for example I had to hunt around to find an appropriate newspaper crossword, from within a fairly specific window of time, which would have a clue I could use to make two different character points when introducing one of my protagonists. Happily I found one, but it took some time). So the novel is not going to be written overnight — this isn’t going to be a NaNo thing. But it’s being worked on.

AndI think people will like it. It’s far, far more straightforward than my first novel — a fairly linear plot, with good guys, evil villains, the fate of the world as we know it hanging in the balance, daring escapes, and all that stuff, but it will also have some real ideas in it, I hope. I think it’s going to be fun.

Review: Several Books on Writing

A few days ago, I linked to a pay-what-you-want bundle of ebooks of writing advice, on the principle that all the writers were, if nothing else, people who managed to earn (in many cases very good) livings from writing, and so for the price there would probably be something useful in there for writers.
Now that I’ve read all (but one) of the books (not as impressive as it sounds — many of them would be better described as e-pamphlets rather than ebooks), I thought I’d post a quick… not so much a review, but a look at which ones I find helpful and which I don’t, and what they cover, so if you’ve decided to spend ten quid or whatever on the books, you’ll know which ones, if any, to bother with.
Now, these books are aimed at a particular audience, and written by a particular type of writer, and that colours everything about them. Put bluntly, many of the people involved (though not all) are what most people would term hacks. Many of them have made millions of dollars from writing, but much of that writing has been things like Star Wars tie-in novels (which apparently routinely make the New York Times bestseller list, astonishingly…) or writing additional volumes to dead writers’ unfinished series, that sort of thing.
That might put off anyone who wants to be the next Joyce or Hemingway — and it’s not the sort of thing I read either — but there are skills there that are definitely worth having. I certainly can’t throw any stones — my upcoming novel is, after all, part of a Doctor Who spinoff series, and the short story I recently had published is a crossover between that Who spinoff and Sherlock Holmes…
But this colours the writing advice in all of these. These are guides to pulp writing, to “telling a rattling good yarn” and writing a “page-turner” (and looking at this sentence, aren’t those scare quotes telling? I still have a touch of literary snobbery when talking about books that people actually want to read…).
And to do that is itself a skill, and one that I, at least, could do better at. I’ve been trying to write more fiction recently, and in my own estimation I’m pretty good (better than that actually, extremely good) at voice, and pretty decent at theme, but absolutely lousy at plot (I still cringe at the submission I put together for an anthology last year, which I shouldn’t even have sent it was so poor), description of environments, and at the sort of nuts-and-bolts storytelling one needs to write an actual novel, rather than a Menippean satire. These books won’t teach anyone to be a great artist, but they might teach some good craft tips.
That said, which of the books are worth reading?

Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland told me very little except that Farland really likes Tolkien, and thinks that his work resonates well. Farland was apparently Stephenie Meyer’s writing teacher, and is a best-selling author himself, so presumably knows plenty about writing saleable fiction, but I got nothing out of this that I didn’t already know.

Million Dollar Productivity by Kevin J Anderson has some advice that may well be useful to some people — things like dictating a first draft rather than typing it, so you don’t worry about cosmetic problems like punctuation. Most of the things he suggests are either not for me (I can’t talk nearly as fast as I think, so dictation is right out) or are things I was doing already (working on multiple things at once so you don’t get bogged down in the boring bits of a project and never finish anything), but other people might find it useful.

Killing The Top Ten Sacred Cows Of Publishing by Dean Wesley Smith is a collection of ten of his blog posts, lightly revised. Basically, it amounts to a long-form argument for Heinlein’s rules (write every day, finish what you start, never rewrite unless at editorial request, keep stories in the mail until they sell somewhere). While I disagree with a lot of what Smith has to say about the value of publishers (while I self-publish my nonfiction I intend to at least try to get all my fiction traditionally published) he makes a very good case when aimed at the type of writer who fiddles with stuff and never finishes it. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but some worthwhile stuff in there.

The Pursuit of Perfection and How it Harms Writers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch says basically the same thing as the Sacred Cows book — don’t overpolish your story, it’s for editors, not you, to say whether it’s good enough.

Million Dollar Professionalism by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta collects a lot of advice that one would expect to be obvious — keep your deadlines, don’t send abuse to editors or agents who reject you, don’t send your serial killer novel to a publisher of Christian non-fiction, don’t act like an arsehole at conventions around fans and editors. You would expect it to be obvious, at least, if you don’t read blogs like Query Quagmire which collect some of the horror stories of publishing. Sadly, it would appear that this book is necessary, though whether those who would profit by it will ever read it is a different matter.

Shadows Beneath by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler, is an interesting one. It’s a collection of four short stories, all more or less in the fantasy genre, along with transcripts of the authors’ podcast Writing Excuses, in which they first brainstorm the stories together and then analyse draft versions. Drafts of the stories are also included — multiple drafts in some cases — allowing one to examine how the writing changed between drafts. I suspect that how useful this is will depend on one’s opinion of the various stories included. Personally, I really enjoyed one, found another interesting, and couldn’t bring myself to finish the other two, and I found my interest in the analysis of the stories similarly skewed.

Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland is… weird. Parts of it are what you’d expect from a very clean-cut writer like Farland (who teaches at Brigham Young University, which should give you some idea of his writing style) — there’s a section when he cautions against giving a teenage protagonist a “masturbation problem” because “You should recognize that each time you associate some vileness with your protagonist, you create a barrier between that protagonist and your reader… Some kids never even think of masturbating, and they’d be horrified to learn that others do.”
But then on several occasions he’ll talk about using experiences from your own life in your fiction, and gives examples from his own life and… well, if he’s telling the truth, he has a very, very interesting family, and the book should come with trigger warnings for, among other things, animal torture, domestic abuse, suicide, and multiple murders (none of these committed by Farland, incidentally, who seems a very nice man indeed. But this is one of those “…and I thought my family was bad…” books).

21 Days to a Novel by Michael Stackpole is the book from this list that I found most useful personally. It doesn’t tell you how to write a novel in twenty-one days, but how to spend that time preparing so that after twenty-one days you’ll be able to just sit down and write, with all the background work done. His notes on character creation and outlining have helped me fix some problems with the novel I’ve been working on, and I suspect some of the tricks in here will be useful to anyone trying to write fiction.

Charisma +1: The Guide to Convention Etiquette for Writers, Geeks, and the Socially Awkward by Jessica Brawner is another guide to stuff that shouldn’t need a guide — have a shower every day if you’re going to be in a cramped space with lots of other people, no the “booth babes” don’t want you to stalk them even if they did flirt with you when you were at their stand — but which, again, all too many people apparently *do* need to be told. I don’t, and I hope you don’t either, but it might be the clue that someone else needs.

The Freelancers’ Survival Guide by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a book I already had (though in the first edition — this is the third. I’ve not reread it to see what the difference is), and is definitely worth reading. It’s basically a guide to running a small business, aimed at writers (and specifically at writers in the US), but applicable to anyone.

500 Ways to Write Harder by Chuck Wendig is pseudo-Gonzo from someone who thinks Gonzo just means swearing a lot. It reads like Mr Agreeable from the old Melody Maker, who I thought was pathetically unfunny even when I was sixteen. Your mileage may vary.

And I didn’t read The Non-User-Friendly Guide for Aspiring TV Writers by Steven L. Sears because I have no interest in writing for TV. Sears seems to have a lot of experience in (US) TV though, so it may be of use to those who want to do that.

Overall, about 10% of the stuff in these books was of use, while 90% was padding, irrelevant to me, flat out wrong, or all three. But then, Sturgeon’s law says 90% of everything is crap, and there’s no reason to expect anything else from a selection like this. But that 10% is actually useful, and 10% of 12 books is still 1.2 books’ worth of useful information. Bear that in mind when paying for these, and they might be of use. For me, it was worth it for Stackpole’s book, with everything else a nice bonus.

A request for writing help…

We all know that writer’s block can be a very real problem. I’ve not got it quite that bad — in fact I’m having a fairly productive few weeks — but I do have a problem.

I’ve mentioned recently that I’m writing a second novel. I won’t go into too much detail (and those of you who know about it, please don’t do so in the comments) but the basic idea comes from knowing that two authors, long dead, knew each other and also knew a few other interesting historical characters, and that if you look at some of their personalities, some of them line up pretty well with the principal characters in those authors’ novels. I’ve got rather a nice fun plot that basically rubs the stock plots from the two authors together until sparks fly, and all is good.

The only problem is, all six of the real historical figures around whom the story revolves are men. They’re not all straight men — one is gay and one is bi — but they’re all men. I decided to solve this problem by having two fictional characters, both women, be the protagonists, but I simply can’t fit them into the stock plots — one of those stock plots features two women, one who basically gets tied to the railtracks and one who’s a femme fatale, while the other features no women whatsoever. I have the characters, I have them involved in the situations, I can even get them to be part of the story, but I simply can’t give them any agency whatsoever. They’re Doctor Who companions, not the Doctor himself.

So do I:
Go ahead and write the book as is, dominated by male characters, put as many female characters in minor roles as possible, and reassure myself that it’s still infinitely less sexist than the source material?
Crowbar the women characters in anywhere I can, and hope that I find a place for them in the plot as the book gets written, but that that place doesn’t diminish the basic appeal of the book (which is that it’s *these* people in *this* kind of plot)?
Scrap the whole thing and start on the other, less good, novel idea I’ve got?
Do as a friend “helpfully” suggested, and gender-swap all the characters, make it steampunk, have it be a slash crossover with Hannibal and hope it gets the Tumblr audience?
Put it aside a few months and hope I get an idea?
Or do I do the really clever thing someone is about to suggest to me?

A Writing Process Post

Today I started proper work on my second novel, and the first truly original one, not based in anyone else’s universe. This time I’m carefully filing off the numbers from so many other people’s pieces of work before throwing them all together that with luck it’ll look like my own ideas, which is all one can hope for in a piece of (hopefully) commercial fiction.

I don’t know if it’ll get completed, but I think that doing the work in semi-public might help, so what I’m going to do is every so often do a progress report here, talking about the process of writing. I’m also going to send the first draft, in 5000-word increments, to people backing my Patreon funding thing, partly as a backer reward (though whether it’ll be very rewarding is open) but also because the people backing it so far are friends whose opinions I value, and so their feedback would be useful (I’m not drafting them in as unpaid beta-readers — they don’t have to say anything — but if they want to that’d be great. And yes, I am aware that I have 23,000 words of fiction by one of them to provide feedback on myself — I’ve not forgotten).

So I thought that I’d make the first of these irregular writing-in-public posts about the actual process of structuring the novel. I know a lot of people find writing process blog posts tedious — this is for the 1% like me who find them fascinating.

For my first novel, I had been wanting to write a Faction Paradox novel for a while, and was in fact kicking around a space opera plotline which I still may use one day, but it was getting me nowhere, when suddenly, walking through Piccadilly Station in Manchester, I got two images in my head, more or less simultaneously — Scheharazade telling her last story after being beheaded, and a Presidential assassination attempt in modern-day America. I knew the two images were connected, and I could see ways to connect both to the Faction Paradox mythos, but not to each other. Working out the way to connect them was the major part of the effort — once that was done there was only one possible structure for the book, and the plot fell out of the connections.

This one’s rather different. Four hours ago, I didn’t have a plot at all, just an idea — I wanted to do a novel based on a conspiracy theory that some people take seriously, but have it be a supernatural comedy thriller. I knew precisely the mood I wanted to evoke, and could think of many pieces of fiction that played in the same area, but basically all I had was the idea that the connection between four real people could easily create a good basis for a novel.

You can’t base a novel on a single idea, though. You can’t even really base a short story on a single idea — The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate, my most successful short story by far, needed at least five — and so I have used a two-stage process to go from a single idea to something which can become a novel.

The first stage was to get a lot more ideas. A commercial genre novel is usually between 80,000 and 100,000 words, and I want this novel to be publishable by a trad publisher, so I have to aim for about that. I’m going for the low end, because I tend to underwrite, and find writing at longer lengths uncomfortable. I find the natural length at which I can write on any one subject is usually about 1000 words, so that means I had to find eighty things to write about.

So I sat down in front of a word processor, created a numbered list, and free-associated eighty things that are either subjects I want to write about or are connected in some way to the real people who will be characters in the novel. After an hour or two thinking, I had a list of eighty characters, places, and topics to write about, some of them two or three sentence descriptions, others single words. Not all of these will make it into the novel of course — I suspect “eating boiled eggs and constipated”, “Sapir-Worf hypothesis” and “Apples” will make the cut, while “Independent Labour Party” and “Time travel” probably won’t — but by doing this I forced myself to come up with not only a lot of subjects that can be diversions or add thematic resonance, but a lot of images and scenes that seem to go together.

I still needed a structure, however, so I cheated a bit and took a list of plot beats that all pulp fiction follows, and got a series of headers from that. Normally I wouldn’t do that — my last novel is among other things about subverting that kind of narrative totally — but in this case, two of my characters are writers whose own books fit that template perfectly, and part of the idea is having them trapped in their own story.

I then cut and pasted elements from the list under whichever of those headers they seemed best to fit, and just by doing that, they suddenly became a plot. There’s a narrative through-line, a B-plot, a major villain, a minor villain, and all the other stuff you need for rip-roaring pulp adventure.

That won’t, of course, be the plot that I finally use, but it’s something to work from. Tomorrow, I intend to use that edited list to write up a 1500-word-ish synopsis, telling the story to myself, and I’ll then use that as the basis from which I actually write the novel. Unlike the last one, though, I won’t have to get approval from anyone else before starting to write, so I can deviate as much as I want. And I will — the process of writing is the process of discarding ideas as you get better ones, and of discovering a structure as you go. The most exciting thing for me is when I’m writing with no real idea how I’m going to pull together the five things I threw in earlier because they seemed like a good idea, but just don’t fit with each other. That’s when I always do my best work.

But I always need a structure, even if I later throw it out, and that’s what I’ve got now. Tomorrow, the writing proper can begin.