‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

5 Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies

At the writing club I run in Derby, we attempt to have discussions about literature. Sadly, these often slide – via such exchanges as ‘Who’s read The Hunger Games?’ ‘Well I’ve seen the movie’ – into discussions about movies.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love movies. I watch them quite often. They only take about two hours to get through and they do have that social/communal experience thing going for them which books nearly always lack. But I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, and so I now humbly present to you 5 reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies:

1) Unlimited budget. Books never have shots of run-down parts of Vancouver pretending to be more exciting locations. They never have cheesy CGI or obvious stock-footage inserts or men running round in unconvincing gorilla suits. In a book you can have whatever you want: magic floating cities, flocks of dragons, impossible geometries. In the land of literature, the accountants hold no sway.

2) Actors never ruin books. Ever watched a film and been less-than-impressed by one or more of the performances? Or found a transition between two actors playing the same character at different ages jarring? Or enjoyed the film but for the fact it’s got your least-favourite actor in it *cough* fat-face DiCaprio *cough*. It never happens in books, my friend. When you read a book, all the characters’ performances are always perfect.

3) Vagueness. Huh? Why is vagueness good? Well, because while films have to shove everything up on screen in a boringly literal way, books can leave things to your imagination, for horrifying and/or comedic effect. The monster can be so unspeakably terrifying any attempt to describe it leaves people gibberingly insane. The main character’s outfit can be so outrageous that it makes people faint with shock to even hear it described. Plus there are all the joys of the unreliable narrator.

4) Books go anywhere. Admittedly, the advance of technology is making this one less and less of a clear advantage, but still, you can read a book just about anywhere: in the bath (that one’s my personal favourite), up a mountain, in the park, on a crowded subway train. Thanks to audio books, you can even read them while doing yoga or household tasks. Or whatever you fancy. Ever tried watching a film while doing yoga? I don’t recommend it.

5) Books can get you right inside a character’s head. They can show you someone’s thoughts and feelings, their hopes and fears, all in intimate detail. The only way a film can get inside someone’s head is with clumsy devices like the voiceover. Or, depending on the type of film, a buzzsaw.

Do Stories Matter?

This blog post contains spoilers for the Captain America comics, and Game of Thrones (sort-of).

I’m having a busy year. I’ve finished the final draft of one book and the first draft of another. Today, I reached the 25,000 word mark on my latest work-in-progress, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell. It’s the story of a young woman who, desperate for a job and unable to find one anywhere else, ends up accepting a role as the Librarian of Hell. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual stuff – less epic fantasy, more urban fantasy, laced with satire and dark humour, and it’s been fun to write so far.

Writing stories can be fun, but it can also be frustrating, and I’m sometimes nagged by the question: does what I’m doing actually matter? Obviously, I enjoy it – but will it ever matter to anybody else? Well, I hope so. And, looking around the parts of the internet I frequent, I see that stories obviously matter a lot, to a lot of people.
The Marvel character Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, has had focus on him lately. After the release of the film Captain America: Civil War, there’s been a Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend (I have to confess I had a moment of confusion at that hashtag, until I remembered that apparently some people still think Steve and Bucky are Just Really Good Friends).

Marvel’s response to this was not to give Captain America a boyfriend, but to make him a Nazi. Yep, you read that right. The latest issue of the Captain America comic outs him as a member of Hydra – the fictional uber-Nazi evil cult he’s been fighting since the 1940s.

Some people are quite upset about this, and I can see why. Captain America, after all, is the brainchild of two Jewish creators and was punching Hitler in the face long before Pearl Harbor. Making him into a Nazi for some cheap shock-value publicity is therefore… insensitive. For many people, he’s not just a super-hero, he’s a hero they can identify with, and making him evil feels like a personal betrayal.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 - a year before the US entered WW2.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 – a year before the US entered WW2.

On a more positive note, and delving into the world of fantasy fiction, we’ve this week seen one of George RR Martin’s key reveals from A Song of Ice and Fire adapted onto television before the book has come out. Unlike the ‘shock’ twist described above, this plot development is both devastating and fully convincing within the story’s context. If you want to make a Game of Thrones fan cry, just sneak up behind them and yell ‘Hold the door!’

Stories can be incredibly powerful. They might not be real, but the emotions they rouse – whether rage, sorrow, joy, terror, or anything else – certainly are. As I weave my own tales, I can dream of one day rousing a fraction of these passions.

Memoirs of a Quiet Life

A writer friend of mine is currently working on a memoir. While swapping writerly news with her in a cafe one afternoon this week, it briefly crossed my mind what it would be like if I tried to write my own memoir.

Answer: probably not that great. The truth is, my life is quite boring. Okay, so I make that claim, and then when I start dissecting it I find it’s not completely true – I’ve had some experiences which aren’t entirely commonplace. I’ve written questions for the Weakest Link. I’ve been to an inner-city comp followed by Oxford. I moved to America three weeks after passing my driving test. But while I expect I could cobble together an autobiography if I absolutely had to, I haven’t had an experience I’d describe as truly memoir-worthy. No epic journey of self-exploration through the wilderness a la Cheryl Strayed (author of ‘Wild’). No tragic past to overcome like Dave Pelzer (author of ‘A Child Called It’). It’s all just been… a bunch of stuff that’s happened. And I’ve bumbled my way through. Which is fine – after all, experiences which are good to read about and experiences which are good to live through are not the same thing. It just means I don’t have rich seam of real-life story-gold to mine, so I have to make stuff up instead.

A question I actually only rarely get asked – probably one of the perks of writing fantasy – is if I’ve ever plundered my own life for writing material. The answer is no, not really – I’ve not even been particularly tempted to insert caricatures of people I know into my work. There have been times when I’ve tried to put aspects of myself into my writing, but I’ve never found the resulting stories very successful. They end up feeling forced, somehow less honest than the stuff I’ve invented out of whole cloth, and I’ve found writing them uncomfortable.

It seems to write about yourself well you need to achieve a level of critical distance on your own experiences that I simply haven’t managed to reach, and perhaps I never will. Maybe that’s nothing to worry about. After all, one of the inherent limitations of memoir as a genre is that you’ve only got so much material available. I’m currently reading Caitlin Moran’s novel ‘How to Build a Girl’, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s deja vu-inducingly close – even in title – to her memoir ‘How to Be a Woman’, and she’s also used her own early life as the basis for the sitcom ‘Raised By Wolves’. Now I love Caitlin Moran, but I don’t think she can really keep recycling her eccentric upbringing indefinitely. The great thing about fantasy, in contrast, is that you can make up whatever you want, and keep making it up. I’ve already got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use, and I have more of the buggers every day. (having ideas is not the same, alas, as having written books).

In some ways, moreover, writing pure fiction can feel more revealing than writing memoir or confessional fiction, since you haven’t got anything to hide behind, no ‘but it really happened like that’ defence. You have to admit that everything just came out of your own head and yes your brain really is that weird. But then, if I was too concerned about people thinking I was weird, I wouldn’t have started down this route. Today, I have a nice quiet actual life, and plenty of time to spend with my inner life, filled with things both rich and strange. I might never get a memoir out of it, but I’m happy.

Dreams of Adaptation

After a few weeks off sick, I’m now getting stuck back in to writing my novel The Silvergreen Sea, trying to unpick a plot knot I’ve been tangled in for a while. It’s going… ok, I guess? Having lost all my previous momentum, it’s now taking a while for me to build up my steam again, and of course the downside of being self-employed is I have to provide all my own motivation.

A good source of motivation/pointless indulgence is always daydreams about eventual success: buying a brand new Alfa Romeo, reading letters from adoring fans, that kind of thing. One dream popular with many writers is of course the idea of your book being turned into a film or TV show. This particular fantasy, shiny with Hollywood glamour, is especially brilliant because it’s got so many different facets. You can imagine which actors you’d cast, how your favourite scenes will play out on the big screen, what outfit you’d wear to the Oscars.

What I’m going to say next definitely comes under the heading of problems-I-would-love-to-have, or even problems-I-daydream-about-having (a special kind of fantasy). The impression I get from reading about some writers’ experience of adaptation is that the book-into-movie dream might become an example of Be Careful What You Wish For. While a few hyper-successful writers are exceptions – witness EL James’ notorious meddling with the production of the Fifty Shades of Grey film – most writers have to accept that when they sell their soul – er sorry I meant film rights – they surrender creative control, and the resulting adaptation might end up more travesty than triumph.

A recent example of this would be World War Z. The original book by Max Brooks is part horror, part scabrous political satire, told as a series of loosely-connected short stories set in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The unusual narrative structure meant it was always going to be difficult to turn into a movie, but at least the film-makers had plenty of juicy material to work with. I mean, the book has lots of different stories, any one of which, with a bit of fleshing out, would have made a pretty good film in its own right. But after years of wrangling with the script, what eventually arrived in the cinemas bore almost no resemblance to any part of Brooks’ book and was, let’s be honest, Not Very Good. I’d give it at best 7/10, and I love both zombie films and Brad Pitt’s pretty pretty face. For anyone less keen on the undead and/or the delectable Mr Pitt, it’s more of a 4/10 movie.
And that’s just the way it goes. For every hugely successful and widely praised TV adaptation like Game of Thrones, there’s at least one Dresden Files – a TV show which mucked around with Jim Butcher’s books, got cancelled after only one season, and sank without trace. Not to mention the countless adaptations which never even make it that far. As a writer, you’ve just got to take the money and run, and hope the film-makers’ decision to re-imagine your elderly, disease-ridden protagonist who lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton as a 19-year-old supermodel who lives in Malibu doesn’t turn out too disastrously.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing, and keep dreaming that one day I’ll get to complain at length to anyone who’ll listen about how that multi-million dollar movie series completely trashed the purity of my vision no matter how many Oscars it might win and yes that is a new Alfa Romeo on my driveway but anyway the point is they should never have cast Leonardo diCaprio…

One Year On

Today marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s exactly one year since I left the safe harbour of my nice, secure, well-paid but ultimately unfulfilling office job, and threw myself upon the tempestuous waters of full-time writing. In some ways the year seems to have gone by quickly, in other ways it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.

How’s it gone? Well, I’ve soon got used to the no-alarm-clock lifestyle, and I haven’t struggled with boredom or lack of motivation. I’m progressing well with my new book, The Silvergreen Sea. No publishing deal as yet but my synopsis and first three chapters are currently out on submission. And I’ve got an – albeit unpaid – tutoring gig at Swanwick writers’ summer school on 10th August http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ So it’s not fireworks-and-champagne but all told, I’m satisfied. And have I ever regretted my decision to take the plunge? Not for one nanosecond.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. Getting a part-time job hasn’t really worked out – I’ve had to quit Clarks after three months because I found it impossible to juggle the unpredictable shifts with my writing, family, and social commitments. And my internet addiction is as bad as ever… my spell of cold turkey last summer completely failed to fix that problem. Oh well, it’s the malaise of modern life I suppose (she writes on the internet).

Occasionally I’ll catch myself moaning or stressing about something, and have to remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to devote myself fully to writing. Maybe I won’t ever catch my dreams, but at least I have the chance to chase them. When I quit my job last year, one of my colleagues said to me ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’ Last week, his words were very painfully brought home to me when I learned that another colleague – who this time last year seemed absolutely fine – has just died of lung cancer.

Nothing like the spectre of mortality to make you appreciate what you’ve got. So I will raise a glass to Steve – may he rest in peace – and feel grateful for a good year.

Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.