Several months ago I sent off the opening of my novel (codenamed Project Snails) to three different literary agencies, and promptly tried to forget I had done so. Primarily I did this by pouring myself into a brand new project, an inconveniently hard-to-describe podcast called Rainy Day Adventure Club. I might write some behind-the-scenes stuff about it later, but for now you can go and listen to the first six episodes if you find yourself similarly in need of distraction.
Now I’m trying to work out why exactly I’m finding it so hard to actually read the two rejection emails that are currently sitting in my inbox. I know they are rejections because, in order to extract the vital information from them without having to read the words myself, I have cleverly used the Yahoo! mail search function to confirm that certain strings of words are in them, and that certain others are not. Short of the emails being written in some sort of topsy-turvy Doctor Seuss style, I am extremely confident in saying they are rejections.
But why don’t I just read them to make absolutely sure? I mean, isn’t the fact that they’re rejections the worst part? The actual words used to convey this information can’t hurt any more, can they?
The trouble is, I know myself, and I know the words will hurt me. Even glancing at them will set my brain on fire. I’ll glom onto some phrase or other and pick it apart endlessly, letting myself believe all the worst possible interpretations of it. However kindly the agents’ words have been chosen, they will come to me when I wake up in the night, or when I’m with friends on a sunny day, and they’ll make me pause and cringe and hate myself a bit. I’m not saying it’s rational – I know perfectly well it’s the very opposite of that. But as I said, I also know myself, and my impish brain will use any implement it’s given to torment me. So, back to distracting myself until I feel strong enough to cope with that.
Hopefully that time will come. If I want to keep going with this writing thing, which I think I still do, I’ll have to learn to be less sensitive – or at least not let my sensitivity get in the way of what I continue to think of as my (as yet unpaid) job. Ideally the intellectual side of me should be able to tell the emotional side that rejection is very much the norm for new writers. But it does sometimes seem that my emotional and intellectual sides aren’t talking to each other much these days.
That if nothing else is a reason I should post here more. 2014 has been a weird year, and my brain has a lot to talk to itself about…
A week ago I began working on a new book. It’s a collection of three short stories set in the same world as Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I keep going on about (which is nearly finished but I’m letting it lie fallow to give myself a bit of perspective before I do my final round of edits and start trying to shove it down publishers’ throats). For the purposes of this blog I’ll call this new, smaller book Project Bitesize. The stories in it all follow the same character but are reasonably standalone – they have a bit of a noir flavour, and were conceived to be fun, light, fairly simple and relatively quick to write. What could go wrong?
I realised what could go wrong last Monday, the first day I worked on it full time. I had an outline for the first story, but as I began to write I discovered my outline was woefully inadequate. Even in writing the opening scene, which is primarily about setting up a mystery around a secondary character, it became painfully clear that the main character wasn’t pulling his weight. He was doing and saying whatever was necessary to advance the story, but had no particular agenda of his own. Halfway through the scene, I forced him to do something unexpected, in a crude attempt at turning him into a proper character, but in fact that had the opposite effect – he had subverted our expectations, yes, but in a way that made him even less understandable. There was no thread running through his words and actions to help readers, or me, to empathise with him.
At this point I started questioning everything about the project, particularly my own writing ability. How do you create an interesting and believable character? Suddenly I had no idea. I like to think there are at least a few examples in Project Snails, but I never followed any sort of formula to create them – they sort of grew in my head, over the course of many years and countless revisions of their story. When I started I didn’t know who they were – they were just (made up) names, each with a gender, age and arbitrary hair colour attached. From age 11 (I remember this because the youngest of my three main characters was slightly older than me when I began writing him) I spent years fumbling about, improvising a largely incoherent plot, and later abandoned more or less everything about the book aside from four or five characters and the fact that some of them board a ship quite near the beginning. So I was every bit as clueless then, I just didn’t know it. And doubt is certainly nothing new.
What’s thrown me is that it’s been so long since I wrote something completely new (the last major thing being the now dormant webseries Project Chippy back in 2011) that I’d kinda forgotten what to expect. After spending a couple of years writing characters I know inside out I forgot that there are such things as characters I don’t know. And the protagonist of Bitesize turned out to have no discernable personality at all. Why should he? I hadn’t given him any in my plan. I’d thought, maybe subconsciously, “Ah well, this story isn’t so much about him, it’s about the events he gets caught up in, and I’m sure I can write him to be just kind of generically charming and fun to go on a journey with”. How wrong I was.
Eventually I decided I’d have to shift the scene introducing the mystery back, and make the opening more about the main character – like how in A Study in Scarlet, the first couple of chapters are about Watson’s impressions of Holmes, before the titular case is introduced. And adding that scene has helped – I’m beginning to get a vague sense for the character of the main guy, and am enjoying building his tangled relationship with another recurring character, who was not even in the plan a week ago, but who has become absolutely central to the whole thing. I’ll probably work it all out in the end, though I’m coming to accept that the draft I’m writing now may turn out to be more an exercise in character-building than a publishable story.
If you want to take a painfully obvious lesson away from this post, try this one: if you want to write a story and you don’t know what your main character is like … um, you should probably fix that. I dunno. Despite having written a 200,000 word novel that I’m rather proud of, I sometimes feel I’m just learning for the first time what everyone else learned in their first creative writing class at primary school. Or perhaps writers simply have to relearn writing every time they start a new project?
Either way, I’m aiming to finish a draft of the first story by the end of this week, at which point I’ll reflect and decide what to do next, possibly in another blog post. It could be starting the second story, editing the first, going back to the more familiar territory of Snails, or sitting around watching Orange is the New Black and eating a whole bag of Mini Eggs. What mental state will I be in this time next week? Who can say? Never mind characters, sometimes I feel as if I’m the one I really don’t know.
Warning: self-pity ahead! But also a lovely flower. So … it balances out, right?
January is definitely in the running for my least favourite month of the twelve. This is odd, since it comes after the always-stressful December, and many people treat it as a welcome chance to finally relax a bit and/or make a fresh start, pretending all the mistakes they made last year don’t count because the last digit of the year has ticked around. But I’ve found it rarely works that way for me. Instead I end up unable to shake off December’s exhaustion, while at the same time yearning for the sense of purpose and excitement I had in the lead-up to Christmas. So I slump around for a while, unable to muster up the motivation to do anything useful, until shame gets all up in my face and forces me to make a set of late resolutions and get myself semi-organised for a while.
This year (well, last year, I suppose) I thought up a way to transform this post-new-year slump into a more exciting and invigorating time: I promised all the people closest to me that I would give them my novel on the 1st of January. For context, this is the novel I’vewrittenaboutherebefore under the codename Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I’ve been working on for – yep, I think it’s officially been more than half my life now.
So that happened. I half expected it not to. I’d been pushing back the deadline for the handover for a long time, and until recently I couldn’t imagine living in a world where people other than me had access to the stories and places and characters in my head. But now a select few other people have seen that stuff – they’ve experienced the stories, met the characters, frolicked through the places I created. Some have even finished the novel and given me feedback. None of this process turned out to be as scary as I’d expected. I’d expected to be so terrified at the prospect of people reading my precious words that I would run away screaming the moment any of them tried to bring it up in conversation. But in the end it all felt a bit low-key. Pleasant, but low-key – as I should have expected from my pleasant, low-key family and friends.
I don’t know what massive changes I was expecting in my life upon showing the novel to other people. I suppose the most delusional part of me thought that maybe my family and friends would be so hypnotised by mere contact with such a masterpiece that they’d take it upon themselves to break down the doors of every major publisher in the land, demanding that it be read, and after the first page the publishers’ eyes would light up and they would say “Wow, this is amazing – totally fresh and unique! Not even remotely a rip-off of Terry Pratchett or Philip Pullman or George R. R. Martin! This must be read by the world! We’ll publish in every known language, from Klingon to Welsh! And by the way, I also own HBO, do you mind if we make a series out of this?”
But really it’s not a sense of anticlimax that’s got to me. It’s the fact that the thing I’ve been pouring myself into for years is – well, not quite finished, since I still have to do some rewrites based on feedback, but – it’s out there. It’s no longer in my head. It’s no longer my big secret, the thing that made me different from other people, the double life that made me feel somewhat special, special enough not to mind that my actual, single life, measured against other people’s, is something of a disaster. What I’ve been doing throughout most of my adult years (with the possible exception of my time at university) is the equivalent of carrying armfuls of chips (the casino kind – I haven’t quite lost my mind that much yet) to a roulette table and stacking them all on red, awaiting a single spin that will take place at some ill-defined point in the future. Thanks to this singular and risky focus, I have no real employable skills. Or any other kind of skills, really – social skills being a key example.
All I have is this novel. And I’ve been quite openly fooling myself into believing that that’s all I need, that all the other ingredients for a full and happy life will spring forth from it some day. “Hmm, I feel crushingly lonely today. Should I take some risks and go out and try to meet new people? Nooo, that’s scary and I’m rubbish at it, and besides, when I get my book published I’ll get to meet lots of new people, and they’ll be so impressed by my writing skill that they’ll want to be friends with me straight away, and I won’t end up getting rejected.” I’m aware that this isn’t how relationships work, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s the sort of twisted logic that’s been behind a lot of my decision-making over the past ten years.
Since new year’s day, my mind has had little to do other than reflect on all this. (Can you tell?) And that has led me into one of the deepest depressions of my life. I’m questioning everything, primarily my writing skill, upon which a large chunk of “everything” directly depends. I don’t know if my first proper novel is any good, and if it is I don’t know if I’m capable of writing anything that good ever again. I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for a short novel to churn out in the next few months to reassure myself, but rather than reassuring me this process has only deepened my depression, as I run up against various walls – mostly an alarming lack of life experience which prevents me from having anything meaningful to say about the majority of potential subjects. I’m still trying to come up with something that really sparks my interest, but trying to spark your interest when you’re depressed is like trying to light a campfire built with damp wood.
It’s February now, and it’s dispiriting that the gloom has lasted so far into the new year. Today was particularly bad, in a crying on the bathroom floor sort of way. I’m grateful to say my depression very rarely gets as extreme as that, and I’m already feeling significantly better (partly for having written this post). Hopefully today was just an odd anomaly rather than a harbinger of my mind’s future trajectory as all the dreams are stripped away and I see the reality of where I am. If reality always feels like today, I’d rather find a way to sustain the dreams. It can’t be that hard – after all, I’ve been doing it for most of my life.
Despite the fact that this post was mostly written for my own benefit, I will say to anyone else who may have made it this far … I hope, if you have the new year’s blues, or any other kind of blues, that they clear up soon. Everyone deserves to be happy, so if you have any choice in the matter, let yourself. Thanks for reading.
For this post I’m going to try out more of a journal format. Instead of rambling on for ages about one thing, I’ll ramble briefly about a bunch of fairly unrelated things. If it turns out too disjointed and pointless I won’t do it again – just mixing things up because that’s the kind of crazy guy I am.
I’ve been working on Project Snails for three solid weeks! Go me! After a rocky end to last year, I had an equally boulderesque start to this one – was still recovering from Project Ho Ho Ho and writing the credits song for it which took way longer than it should have – but when I finally got my butt in gear and placed it on a chair in front of a computer with my novel open on it, I found a burst of creativity waiting for me. That’s the upside of taking an extended break from something, I suppose. When you immerse yourself so fully in a project, your unconscious carries on working even when you think you’re doing something else.
I’m now at 95,000 words in the latest draft. 100,000 is what I’m thinking of as the halfway mark, though considering how brutally I’ve been cutting stuff during this rewrite, I’ve probably passed the true halfway mark already. Everything’s going pretty well, though one major storyline is having to be so severely reimagined as I go that I feel as if I’m laying down railway track in front of a moving train à la Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. Also, I’m using Scrivener now. It’s pretty good, especially if you have lots of different chapters and drafts which you want to be able to quickly switch between and view side by side. Which I do.
I’m not reading enough. As I’ve mentioned before, writing does this to me. The only book I’ve finished since my last book post is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, so I might as well talk about that now. Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.
I’m watching the first season of In Treatment. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show which is set almost exclusively within the therapy sessions of several different people. The characters seem so real that it feels almost wrong to be spying on them at their most vulnerable, as the show invites us to. Its more intense episodes can leave you numb and in dire need of a hug. But your investment in the characters’ progress and the weekday-based episode structure draws you back. The music is great too.
I had an incredibly unsettling dream last week. It was framed as a trailer for a horror film, though I was actually experiencing it rather than watching it. I was wandering round an underground art gallery which seemed to have no exits but was quite full of people. All the paintings were fairly normal except for this creepy painting in one room which was of a woman with a messed up face (either she had a freakishly oversized mouth or there was just a hole where her face should be). Gentle, sad classical music was playing in the gallery but whenever I looked at the creepy painting it changed to disturbing, chaotic, dissonant strings. I tried to avoid looking at the painting, but as I walked around I kept hearing the music change as the painting entered my peripheral vision. After a while, bad things started to happen – people in the room with the painting started dying, other paintings started to change – but I don’t remember many more details. The strangest thing was that the dream didn’t scare me that much at the time – as it was a trailer, I was more impressed by its scariness than scared by it – but the more I thought about the dream the following day, the more it freaked me out. Posting it here in the hopes of exorcising it from my mind, so apologies if it latches on to yours.
The actual Singing Kettle people apparently saw our dirty Singing Kettle parody. This was mentioned in a recent issue of the Scottish Sun (the article is also online but I won’t link to it because I feel icky enough just being mentioned in a tabloid). The main emotions this conjures up are the customary shock and disbelief that come with my stupid little world making momentary contact with the larger, real world, and some to-be-expected traces of shame. At least they were nice enough to laugh it off, so we can probably stop worrying about being sued now!
And by “we” I mean me and a group of my friends. Mostly me and Gavin. Okay, me and Gavin and Euan and James. Okay, a whole bunch of people, including some lovely people who I don’t even know that well, but who got roped in to help us out. Thank you, all of you, for helping us get it done.
And by “it” I mean the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, a collection of 25 comedy sketches we made for the first 25 days of December 2012. I’ve mentioned it before; it was Project Ho Ho Ho, one of the eleven projects mentioned in the very first post on this blog. Which means it is the first of those projects to be definitively finished. Hooray! If there’s one thing that can make absolutely anything feel worthwhile, it’s scoring a big line through it on your To-Do list.
But before I do that, I want to take a quick look back at it. For all my self-ascribed creativity there aren’t many things I’ve done that have produced a complete, publicly accessible end product, and this is one of even fewer that I’m really quite proud of. It was also quite an intense experience in that Gavin and I spent pretty much a whole month working on and thinking about nothing else but the advent calendar. There was a fair amount of stress about filming during the days and an unfair amount of staying up into the small hours of the morning to get sketches edited in time. But it was worth it. For someone who’s been unemployed for far too long, there is something refreshing and necessary in tearing yourself out of bed at 5am and setting out into the cold pre-dawn to catch a train to Glasgow and help film a guy running around in only boxer shorts and clown make-up.
Which reminds me, here’s a sketch I wrote:
There! Preserved for future generations to enjoy. Something you might have noticed about that was that it was a bit weird. I seem to have trouble writing normal sketches – the sort where someone walks into a shop and has an amusing conversation with someone else – so most of the ideas I came up with for the advent calendar (many of which didn’t get past the ideas stage) were what you might call “gimmicky”. Here’s another example, based on the constant stream of thoughts inside my head in various social situations:
That sketch is one I wasn’t quite sure about when we were making it. I had the idea for a while but didn’t write it until a couple of days before we had to film it. I kept rewriting the ending but couldn’t work out how to make it punchy, and I started to want to shelf the idea until after the advent calendar to give myself more time to do it justice. But we needed all the sketches we could get, and the filming was already partially arranged, so we bit the bullet and went ahead with the best version I had. Ultimately, I think the actors are great and make it work, so I’m glad we did it. It’s easy to keep all your precious ideas locked away, never fully developing them in case they don’t turn out the way you imagine. The advent calendar provided just the right amount of pressure to make us release some of our ideas into the world, regardless of whether they were perfect. I think that’s a valuable thing sometimes, especially in terms of learning to do better next time. And it clears some space on your shelf for new ideas.
Anyway, let me link to a few others not written by me, to show I’m not entirely self-centred:
Hilarious Pranks! is probably my favourite of all the sketches, though some would say we went too far with it.
People also seem to like Royal Pregnancy, our most topical sketch – written, filmed and edited overnight after the announcement of the royal baby on the 3rd of December.
Though I hesitate to link to it, this terribly vulgar Singing Kettle parody is our most viewed video and one of the few that seems to be continuing to accumulate views. People are disgusting, and clearly I can’t exclude myself from that statement.
And that’s just a scattering of the sketches we made. If you enjoy these, please do go and watch the others (and delve into the older videos on our YouTube channel if you feel like it). One of the most interesting things about this whole project was seeing other people’s reactions to what we did. Even though we weren’t sure of some of them, I’ve heard almost every sketch being singled out by someone as one of the highlights. Which suggests to me not only that we didn’t make too many irredeemably bad sketches, but that we made quite a variety of them to appeal to different tastes. That may be the thing I’m most proud of, and reassured by. 🙂
If you are a writer and you own a whiteboard, at some point you inevitably end up with something like this:
This is a diagram to help me rethink one particularly troublesome chapter in part two of my novel. I’m finding that the most troublesome chapters are the ones without a central nucleus to hold them together. If something major happens in a chapter, it’s fairly easy to structure. You know where the meat of your chapter is, and arranging the more minor points around the edges isn’t too much of a challenge.
But then there are “housekeeping chapters”, where all you have is a bunch of small but essential things you need to get done. For example, you need to build up the relationship between two characters, you need to describe the place they are passing through, you need to reveal a bit of someone’s backstory, and you need to get a certain object into someone’s possession. How can you make these things flow into each other and feel like a coherent whole? What should come first? How can you best end the chapter in a way that fools the reader into thinking something meaningful has happened?
One of the ingenious things about Harry Potter (and there are many) is that there are very few housekeeping chapters, at least in the early books. If you go back and flick through Philosopher’s Stone (I know you have it, don’t lie to me) and look at the chapter names, I guarantee you’ll audibly go “Wow, this is a veritable treasure trove of stuff!” Pretty much every chapter has a strong central concept – some major event or new element of the wizarding world that we’re being introduced to. Maybe it’s just because everything has become so iconic now, but for flip’s sake: we go from meeting Hagrid to visiting Diagon Alley to travelling on the Hogwarts Express to being sorted by the Sorting Hat to meeting Snape … I say we because that’s who it feels as if it’s all happening to, and I don’t have a bloody clue how she does that … oh god, I so want to go and reread Harry Potter now.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. Housekeeping chapters. Ultimately I should probably try to purge them from my book, or at least make them feel less like housekeeping chapters, but for now I’m struggling just to give them a coherent structure. There’s a lot of “Well, this needs to happen before this, but a bit of time needs to pass between that and that, and if that happens before this then I’ll have to cut that bit out, unless I move this other thing to an earlier chapter… aaargh! Okay, that’s it, I’m getting out my whiteboard!” It becomes like one of these logic puzzles:
And this doesn’t just happen within individual chapters. You can end up shuffling the order of chapters around, and that gets even messier – especially if, like me, you switch between viewpoints and the idea of putting two chapters told by the same character next to each other makes your toes curl in abject disgust. That’s when you find yourself walking past stationery shops and thinking “Hmm, maybe I should get some Post-it notes, they’d make this whole process less painful”. And before you know it, you’re waking up in the stock room of W H Smith, high on highlighter fumes and covered in Pukka Pads filled with scribbled plot points and character arcs.
And after all this is sorted out, you discover that while you’ve been focusing all your attention on how to logically progress your story from point A to point B, your characters have turned to cardboard and your style now consists exclusively of sentences like “the man walked through the door”. Time for another rewrite, and time to uncover another set of deep structural problems with your story! Yay! Writing is such a joyful cycle.
I said a while ago that some day I would start working on my novel again. That day is today! Well, technically it was the 1st of July … but I’m still working on it today!
For 3 weeks now I’ve been sitting down to write from 10am-12pm, then again from 1pm-5pm. Basically I’m trying to treat Project Snails like a proper job. I know it’s not, since I’m not getting paid for it (yet), but it’s one of my ways of tricking myself into being productive. So if you hear me talk about “working” in the near future, feel free to mentally sub in a dismissive verb of your choice.
Ten things I’ve learned since starting:
1. Writing all day is perfectly possible. I have to break through a few walls of “Oh god, there’s no way I can do this”, but if I just ignore that feeling and get on with it, it works.
2. However, it does weird things to me. My perception of time goes a bit wonky – one moment time seems to be creeping along at a snail’s ™ pace, but then suddenly it’s the end of the working day and I feel like I’ve only been writing for a few minutes. I also feel a weird kind of exhausted – a slightly amusing detached kind, like I’m looking at video footage of myself falling asleep and going “Ha! He’s so tired, the buffoon.” And almost every night since I’ve started I’ve had very vivid dreams which I defy any Dream Dictionary in the world to decipher. In one, the government was providing a stripper to every house in the country for Thanksgiving (and bear in mind this dream, like my life, was set in the UK). In another, I gave an inspiring lecture on morality to two teenage pickpockets. Then there was the one about pandas leaping into the air to disarm a missile over Edinburgh … I could go on.
3. If I’m struggling with a section, or even just one sentence or word, it helps to switch away from typing the actual novel in the Big Official Document and start scribbling notes in the Big Rambly Notebook. I might talk more about the Big Rambly Notebook in a later post, but basically it seems to be able to solve any problem if you just scribble rambly stuff in it for long enough.
4. If I’m really stuck with the novel, or just want a break from it, it helps to have something else to switch to for a while that I can still count as work – like brainstorming comedy sketch ideas for Project Ho Ho Ho!
5. Wearing a shirt makes me feel productive even when I’m not.
6. I’ve lost the will to read much, possibly because I’m so immersed in my own fictional world that popping out to visit other people’s seems tricky at best and dangerous at worst – almost like I might not be able to find my way back. It may also be because humans aren’t really designed to stare at a bunch of words all day. This makes me sad, since I was greatly enjoying my post-uni freedom to read whatever nonsense I felt like, but hopefully I’ll eventually settle into some rhythm where I can get away with reading a bit more.
7. On the days when I write less, I tend to be more confident that what I’m writing is what I should be writing. On days when I write more (I had one this week where I wrote 4,000 words), I worry that I’m getting lazy or going off in the wrong direction. My mind does love to be contrary.
8. Watching pointlessvideoson theinternet is much more fun if you save it as a reward for yourself rather than doing it all day while soaking in a pool of self-loathing-induced tears.
9. It’s hard to think of interesting pictures to accompany blog posts about writing.
10. If I aim for something to be the best thing ever, it will usually turn out sort of okay-ish.