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Not-so-secret agency

In addition to slowly writing novels and taking on swathes of freelance work, I like running roleplaying games, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows by now.

Well, this week I ran a really shaky gaming session, one that wasn’t much fun for either the players or myself. The game was a weird horror RPG called Don’t Rest Your Head, and it wasn’t to blame – it’s a very neat game that you should totally check out. But the session I read was kind of a failure, and after several days of introspection and self-flagellation, I think I’ve worked out why- it’s all about character agency.

(If you’re curious about the game, by the way, you can read summaries of this and other games on my Obsidian Portal page, and my navel-gazing thoughts about GMing on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt. Go on, live a little. Leave a comment, even. It’s so lonely over there.)

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‘Agency’ is one of those terms that writers bandy about, and better bloggers than myself have worked on defining it. But from my point of view, it’s about whether characters – more importantly, protagonists – make meaningful decisions that impact the narrative. That is, do the characters’ decisions (and decision-making processes) matter?

When characters have agency, their decisions drive the story – but more importantly, they make those decisions deliberately, with some degree of understanding of possible consequences and a willingness to accept those consequences if necessary. When characters don’t have agency, they’re propelled through the plot by external events or circumstances – and when they do make decisions, those decisions aren’t any more meaningful than random chance.

Let me put it this way: If a character has to choose between two doors, one with a lady and one with a tiger, with absolutely no information to draw upon about which is better, that’s not agency; that’s no different to a coin toss. If the character has spent time uncovering the secret of the doors, or practised the mysterious arts of tiger-taming, or shoots the door controller and leaves the TV studio, then that character has agency; that character has a chance to drive the plot, rather than being driven around by it.

Actually, you know what? I have better examples, courtesy of the two big-budget, ensemble-cast superhero movies I saw this month, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, because they portray both ends of the agency spectrum.

(No specific plot spoilers here, I promise – but if you haven’t seen these movies yet, and want to, you might want to stop here and come back next week.)

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Civil War is fundamentally a movie about character choices, and the consequences of those choices. The two main protagonists (Captain America and Iron Man, because Cap doesn’t get to headine his own movie for some reason) are faced with situations where they have to decide what they think is right and appropriate – and after thought, discussion and a modicum of punching, they make their choices and they live with the consequences, where ‘consequences’ = ‘pretty much the entire movie’. And they’re not alone in this; almost all of the other eleventy-dozen heroes in the movie pick a side, and we get to see why they make the decision that they do. (Not so much with Ant-Man, but Bobby Newport just does what he’s told.) It’s a film with a very strong foundation in character agency.

xmenapocalypse

Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a film where the plot pushes on characters until they go where the plot needs them to be and do what the plot needs them to do. Many of them are just stuck in place, waiting to be acted upon, or make decisions about action in which there are no real choices or alternatives – it’s all ‘I have to do this or we’ll all get killed’ or ‘sure, I’ll join Team Evil and then not have any further dialogue’. Only a very small number of characters get any real moments of agency, points where the audience gets to see them actively make a decision or change their arc – and those are primarily the characters who headlined the previous films (Magneto and Mystique), or Big Bad Guy Apocalypse. It’s a film with very thin levels of character agency; it has lots of interesting characters that act out of dramatic necessity rather than something that feels real.

Now, I’m not trying to say that one of these films is good and one is bad.

Okay, I am saying that X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t very good, but let’s move past that.

What I’m saying is that agency is complicated, and that a narrative with lots of colour, movement, story, characters and skin-tight body stockings can still be lacking in agency – and that that can make a big difference on two narratives that, on the surface, seems pretty similar in genre/tone/mood/explosion level. And that that difference can be enough to make a story work or fall apart.

I have more thoughts on this. Many, many more thoughts.

So let’s leave it there and come back next week.

April was the cruelest month

So, April 2016. That was a month.

Let me tell you what I did last month (and by that I mostly mean within the last week).

I finished revising Raven’s Blood, fleshing out some relationship scenes and doing what I could to up the romantic tension in the story while still keeping focus on the core themes, i.e. being angry and punching people.

The revised manuscript is now with… someone. If they like it, that might go somewhere. Or it might not. And they might not like it anyway. The important thing is that it’s finished, it’s better than it was, I can get back to work on Raven’s Bones and keep this avian death machine ticking along.

My wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did.

It’s an ensemble film with Cap at the heart, but Iron Man located in a nearby organ like the lung, and the rest of the Avengersverse scattered around the viscera and nope this metaphor stopped working. Anyway, it’s a big film with a lot of characters, but it spreads itself thin to cover them all, and most of them only get a moment to shine.

I mean, they’re good moments; the script and direction is very good at character moments. It’s less good with the plot, which kind of collapses if you look at it too closely, and relies on characters that know and respect each other throwing that aside because of mumble mumble facepunch.

Still. Good action scenes and a lot of fun moments. Not as good as Winter Soldier, but way better than the original comics.

And speaking of comics, I finally read last year’s big Marvel event comic, Secret Wars.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did. But I couldn’t, because it just wasn’t very good.

Okay, what else? Music? I’m listening to Carpenter Brut a lot right now, because a friend hooked me up to the video for ‘Turbo Killer’ and it is EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THIS WORLD:

If European grindhouse electro is your jam then the album ‘Trilogy’ is your cream and scones. Trust me on this.

I’m also listening to Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for It Follows, which is creepy as hell and makes me want to see the movie even more, and getting back on board with the Fuck Buttons. Don’t ask me where my head’s at, man, I don’t even know.

I haven’t had the time or energy to read proper prose for a little while, but when I get back on that horse, I’m hitting up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Cam Rogers’ Quantum Break: Zero State. Oh, and that Lauren Beukes book I’m part way through.

Fortunately, I’ll have time for proper reading coming very soon.

On Saturday night I robbed a bank. And it was great, apart from the time I got caught by security guards.

The bank in question is ‘Eureka Futures’ and the robbery was Small Time Criminals, a puzzle-room-like experience run by Melbourne ‘situation game’ company Pop Up Playground. They’ve rented an old bank, with offices and an actual vault, and they give you one hour to get in, crack the security, ferret out the secrets and stuff as much cash and goodies into a bag as you can manage.

Unless you get caught. Like I did.

I’ve done a few puzzle rooms and really enjoyed them, but Small Time Criminals is a step above – a team game that challenges you in new way and gets everyone thinking in different directions. If you’re based in Melbourne and can get a team together, you have to give this one a try.

And finally, I quit my job. My well-paying, mentally challenging publishing job. I resigned at the end of last week, and I finished up today.

It’s a big change. A huge change. But it’s the right change, and I had the opportunity to make it.

I’m looking for a new job, obviously, but I’m hoping to stay free for the entirety of May. I’d like a month to read, write, walk the dog, spend time with friends, drink in the afternoon and generally decompress from nearly three years of high stakes, high tension work.

It’s going to be a strange time. Maybe a difficult time. And maybe one that takes my life in a different direction. But I’m giving it a shot.

…also, yes, writing a lot more in May. Including here. Stay tuned.

The slow sound of terror

I love horror, and horror has been on my mind a bit lately. I’m gearing up to run a short horror game, I have ideas for two adult horror novels and a middle-years series with age-appropriate horror elements, and I’ve been reading…

…um, well, I haven’t been reading much of anything lately, because my head isn’t in the game in the window I have for reading. But when I am reading, my horror options seem more limited than they used to. The genre is changing, the market is changing, and books you could call ‘horror’ rather than ‘paranormal thrillers’ or ‘dark urban fantasy’ are harder to find (for me, at least). That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing; there are cycles, and old-fashioned ghost-stab-blood-in-your-shower-head books will no doubt come back in vogue, hopefully when I have more reading time.

However! This weekend I discovered a whole new vector for horror, one that I can enjoy while also doing some of my other major activities – i.e. walking the dog or standing on the train – and I wanted to tell you about them.

Here’s a thing about me – I can’t listen to audiobooks, or similar spoken-word performances of texts. Prose is a visual medium for me – I need to see it, read it and process it in the optic centres of my brain to get enjoyment out of it. Hearing prose read aloud, even if you get actors in to read dialogue, leaves me cold at best and irritated at worst, because I can’t see the shape of the words; I can’t sense the weight of the lines on the page. I know this makes no sense, but it’s how I’m wired.

However! This aesthetic blindspot does not extend to audio drama, radio plays and other narrative works that were designed from the start to be listened to. And thanks to a minor aside in another show, this weekend I discovered three narrative podcasts that tackle long-form horror narrative in interesting and different ways. And so far, they seem worth a listen.

First and best – Limetown, which I described on Twitter as ‘like Serial, but about the Roanoke disappearances’. This is a limited-run podcast (about 10 episodes, most about 30 minutes or so) that applies the style and production of investigative journalism podcasts to a fictional crime – the disappearance of the entire population of a small Tennessee town, and an investigation ten years later that blows the case wide open.

Limetown manages to play it subtle while still being an obvious genre piece – there are markers and hints in the first episode, but it doesn’t over-egg the pudding and turn into a Twilight Zone episode. (At least, not so far, but I’m only two sessions in.) The production is top-notch, the voice-acting good to excellent, and the actual writing remarkably strong; the folks behind this know how to work with words.

There’s a second season coming, and possibly a novel or TV show in the works, so get in early before everyone’s into it.

Next up is the Black Tapes podcast, recommended by  Twitter-peep Filamina Young. So far this one’s reasonably interesting, but hasn’t grabbed me as strongly.

The premise is solid; it’s a semi-journalistic podcast, the kind of thing you’d get from studios like Gimlet or Radiotopia – something based on research, interviews and stories. Specifically on the case files of Dr Richard Strand, a paranormal researcher who remains highly sceptical that the paranormal exists at all. But in his black tapes, the show’s host and researchers keep drawing out questions that aren’t easy to answer.

It’s a good setup for an ongoing, episodic show – each ‘cast can look at one case file, explore it to some kind of conclusion and then move on to the next while adding a little bit to the overarching metaplot/mythology of the series. So far, though, the idea’s been a little stronger than the execution – some of the tropes and twists in the case files smack too much of the plot hooks we were throwing out in World of Darkness RPG sourcebooks in the late 90s. A bit dated, a bit obvious, a bit too derivative.

But hey, I’m only 3-4 episodes in, and it could lift its game a bit – and the production, sound design and voice acting are solid. I’m keen to keep listening, if only in the hope that the writing rises to meet the rest of the work.

Finally, Tanis – which was the one I was iffiest about, but rattled me to the extent that I had to stop listening to it while I was home alone tonight.

Tanis is from the same stable as Black Tapes, and has the same semi-journalistic feel – and on reflection, I really like this approach. It’s writerly without being just about prose; they call it a docu-drama style, and I’m not sure that’s the right use of the word but who cares.

Anyway, Tanis is about conspiracies – all the conspiracies. It explores the idea of mystery, and about finding the truth about ‘Tanis’ – which might be a city, a god, a state of mind or something else again. Tanis moves, Tanis changes, and in trying to uncover the truth, the show touches on a variety of classic conspiracy and weirdness tales/tropes, stuff of old that I recognise but that feels refreshed by this take on stitching it all together.

Tanis suffers a little from a lack of definition – it’s still not clear what Tanis is meant to be, or why the podcast exists – and some of the writing doesn’t quite click in the first few episodes. But most of it does, and it feels dangerous in a way that Black Tapes doesn’t – like it might not call up ghosts and demons, but it will still draw some kind of unwelcome attention. Like it’s a door into a world that takes advantage of open doors.

I’m only a few episodes into each of these shows, and they could all fall apart – but I’m willing to buy the ticket and take the ride nonetheless. And I don’t think they will.

Anyway, that’s what I’m listening to. Listening while thinking about the possibilities of diagetic storytelling. And wondering if I could pull it off myself. And wondering what else is out there.

So yeah, check these three shows out. I think there’s something very cool here. And if you know of another podcast that presents horror narratives in this way, rather than a straight prose reading – or indeed ‘casts in other genres, ‘cos it’s not like horror is unique in this – please throw up some links in the comments.

(However! You don’t have to mention Welcome to Night Vale, because we all know about that and I lost interest a couple of years back. Sorry to be an arse about it.)

And with that, it’s time to run from the writing shed back to the house, to grab the dog and hope that he will protect me from the consequences of the elevator game.

Oh man, the elevator game. I gotta do something with that.

House hunter-gatherer

I had some definite plans for another chunky blog post, this time about why all the old superhero cartoons I’m watching on Netflix are in fact really great pieces of storytelling that totally justify me goofing off.

But then we got an email from our landlord, asking us to move out.

The last five days have been a blur of real estate apps, 15-minute viewing appointments, drive-bys past jumbles of blue concrete cubes that are what pass for apartment complexes these days and wondering whether we can find a place large enough to keep all or even most of our books. (And other stuff, but mostly books.)

So my energy for blog writing – and for novel writing, which I need to get back on track – is kinda low right now. I mean, I could probably come up with a post about five story ideas around house hunting, including the ever-popular ‘we rented this great place but it’s haunted and the wardrobe is a doorway to Murder Narnia’, but I just can’t be stuffed tonight.

In any case, this is your ‘we are in a holding pattern, please come back again soon’ announcement. Hopefully I can stop thinking about storage solutions relatively quickly and get back to the burning issue of how awesome Kevin Conroy’s Batman is.

He’s pretty great.

Maybe he can rent us a place.

A tally sheet for the new year

Things what I have done thus far in this year of our Lord 2016

Gone back to work. Which is something taking up a lot of my focus and energy right now, but – crucially – not all of it.

Played more Pandemic Legacy. Oh man, those poor folks in South America. They never asked for [CENSORED DUE TO SPOILERS BUT LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN’T GOOD].

Become kinda hooked on Parks and Recreation. Everyone was right, that first season was rough and mean and not funny. And everyone was right, the following seasons are SO GREAT YOU GUYS and I love all of them even Jerry and one time I got a bit teary watching it but it might have been because I hadn’t slept in 36 hours but anyway it’s great.

Committed to a program of walking 10 000 steps a day, as measured by my phone’s pedometer. Okay, ‘program’ sounds more complicated that it needs to. I have a dog, I use public transport, I go to various meetings rooms at the office – by the end of the day it pretty much takes care of itself. But now I have an external driver, which is something that works well for me as a motivator to do things I was doing anyway.

Sheltered from the blazing sun.

Listened to a bunch of podcasts and also The Jezabels and Halsey on repeat.

Went to my first ever Android: Netrunner store tournament and got completely rofflestomped by people who actually know how to play it competitively instead of just casually with friends. Which is fine! Losing is about as much fun as winning, and a better way of learning how to play next time. But still, I’m going to have to do some heavy lifting before I get good at this game. Or even mediocre.

Took the dog for a haircut.

Went to the wedding reception of two lovely people that I hope move back to Australia sometime soon.

Formed a little writers’ group with three other like-minded folks who are also writing YA and genre novels. We have our first actual meeting this weekend, which is mostly just brunch and chatting about what we want from the group. After that… we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s a way to help each other stay on target, improve our skills and generate those kind of external drivers I was talking about earlier.

Submitted Raven’s Blood to a publisher – more, a publisher who actually asked to see it. That’s a pretty sweet egoboo, believe you me, even if they eventually decide to pass on it. It’s weird and confusing and gratifying and nice when people know who I am. Even more when that’s a positive.

Read The Accidental Creative, which is all about improving work practices to generate strong ideas and get things done. Some potentially useful ideas in there, for both my day and night jobs, so long as I can work out how to implement them. Thinking about that at the moment.

Mourned. As did we all.

Things what I have not done thus far in etc etc

Enough work on Raven’s Bones.

But that will change.

Dismembering the year that was

Folks, can I be real with you for a minute?

2015 was kind of a rough year. In a lot of ways.

I don’t talk much about my day job here, and I’m not going to break that habit, but suffice it to say that it’s been tiring, stressful and demanding this year. The knee injury I took at the end of April left me in pain for months, and painkillers left me drained and unfocused after that. I put on weight because I was too tired and pained to exercise, and I became irritable and moody because I didn’t like how I looked or felt.

And writing… this was not a good writing year. I get home from work of an evening, or roll up on the computer on the weekend, and I’m usually too frazzled, grumpy or flat to write anything coherent or worthwhile. My output has been dismal – even my blogging dropped from twice-weekly to weekly to fortnightly to I-don’t-know-whenever.

Yes, I finished and published The Obituarist II, and I finished the final, polished version of Raven’s Blood, and I’m happy and proud to have done those things. But The Obituarist II has only sold 40 copies so far, because I can’t stomach the effort required to properly promote it. And Raven’s Blood got knocked back – I got knocked back – by an agent last week, and while that’s not the end of the world or anything the news came at the end of a bad few weeks and left me feeling pretty lousy.

I don’t generally get depressed, stressed or anxious; I’m not wired to be unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time. But the gravity of 2015 was heavy, and clinging, and more often than not it dragged me down. Sometimes to a point where I contemplated just dropping the whole writing business as a bad idea that was never going to get me anywhere.

So is that going to happen?

…no.

Screw that.

It’s pretty ridiculous for me to call this a difficult year, when I have friends and loved ones that have endured far, far worse tragedies and losses in 2015 and still kept going. Whatever setbacks and troubles I’ve got on my plate are transient and manageable, and I can get past them and back on target if I make an effort and remind myself that not everyone has that luxury. A little end-of-year whinge on a blog almost no-one reads is a forgiveable level of blowing off steam – but not anything more like that.

As for giving up writing… you know, that would be easy. The idea of not making an effort any more appeals to my lazy, weary soul. What doesn’t appeal is living with that decision – with not doing the only thing I’m halfway good at, the only thing that might let me leave something behind in this world that anyone cares about.

I don’t always love what I do. But it’s what I do. It’s who I am. And a year of doldrums, knee pain and heavy drinking isn’t enough to change that.

So okay. 2015 was a bit shit. 2016 might not be that much better. But I’m still going to plug away at Raven’s Bones, I’m still going to hit up agents and publishers about Raven’s Blood, I’m still going to keep sticking my face in the fan – and every week (or two) (or whatever) I’m going to tell you about it.

Because having the chance to do that… that counteracts a lot of the bad shit.

For the rest, there’s friends, Netrunner and good liquor.

Have a happy new year, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England. See you in more pleasant climes.

Falls the shadow

So a month ago I came back from GenreCon all fired up with big ideas and focused ambitions. No more writing at random! I was going to GET SERIOUS. I was going to follow a PLAN. I was going to put together AN OUTLINE and then probably FOLLOW IT.

I mean, this was some GROWN-UP SHIT, MOFOS.

So how did that work out?

Well.

Or as TS Eliot put it:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

I had a lot of big ideas and ambitions, but in the end my mouth was writing cheques that my arse couldn’t cash, and that’s a metaphor you probably didn’t need and I’m sorry.

See, here’s the thing: you need to do more than say ‘I need a plan’. You actually have to make a plan and follow it, which is the point where I’ve come unstuck. Instead I’ve been sitting at the computer most nights, saying ‘I think plans are swell!’ and then smacking my face into the keyboard in the hopes that it would somehow turn into a 6-figure advance for Raven’s Bones.

End result: I’ve written like a page and a half. And the half is shaky.

It turns out wanting a plan isn’t enough; you actually have to create and follow one for it to work. Which is, god, so hard you guys. That requires actual planning and thinking instead of just pie-in-the-sky tweeting and six hours of Saints Row IV.

At this point I should probably say ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ but uuuggghhh *makes jerk-off motion* no thanks. That’s a bridge too far.

Look, I meant well. I still believe that I need to have a coherent plan and direction for my work. I need to have structures, processes, benchmarks; I need to treat this like a job, because that’s what it is. And I totally intended to follow up on that.

The key thing is, good intentions don’t count for shit.

 

Right now, I don’t have the time or energy for much more than good intentions. Between a demanding day job, Brisbane-style summertime (WTF MELBOURNE) and a shameful need to interact with other people on a regular basis, I don’t have enough in the tank most nights for more than a few hundred words – hell, a few dozen. I want to treat writing like work – and sometimes work is hard. Harder than I can manage.

So what’s the alternative? What can I do with what I do have in the tank (we’re just shitting the bed on metaphors tonight, sorry) and where can good intentions actually be useful?

The answer, I think, is preparation. And making December into a month where I actually prepare, organise and yes, even plan for a better 2016. One free from false starts, self-recrimination and flesh-eating viruses.

December is when I’ll spend time genuinely planning this book like a proper project, with milestones, metrics and timelines. (I’ve taken the advice of several friends and started reading Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative, which is apparently good for this sort of thing.)  December is when I’ll write more world-building notes – time to flesh out the Lunar Pantheon, name more districts and neighbourhoods of Crosswater, update my maps and character sketches and setting history. And December is when I’ll fine tune my outline, do more research and kick the kinks out of my plot. (All this and Christmas too.)

These things don’t need to be polished, they don’t need to be understandable to others, they don’t even need to be ‘good’. They just need to work. And as a long-time GM, I know all about making shaky, unintelligible, borderline-incoherent notes that nonetheless are enough to maintain a campaign for months or even years.

So there’s something for y’all to look forward to when this book finishes.

And with that, enough self-flagellation; I need bacon and sleep.

Not at the same time.

GenreCon HO!

Let’s start with a little light housekeeping.

My knee is doing alright, and I’m in much less pain than I was a few weeks ago. The surgeons removed a piece of cartilage the size of my little finger out of the joint; apparently it didn’t belong there. Good to know.

Work continues apace on revising Raven’s Blood, although not as fast as I would like (big surprise), and I’m going to need to get my skates on to meet my deadline. One thing delaying me – I’m writing a short story set in the 13th Age fantasy RPG universe, a spin-off and stretch goal for Greg Stolze’s novel The Forgotten Monk. It’s basically The Seven Samurai but with monsters and magic. Sort of. Anyway, gotta finish that this week.

I know it won’t really change anything, and in fact may make regime change less likely next year, and that it’s small and petty to relish the misfortunes of others but SO LONG TONE PLEASE DO LET THE DOOR HIT YOU IN THE ARSE ON THE WAY OUT A HAH HAH HAH HAH

If you had any confusion over my political leanings, I hope they are now clearer.

But let us move past these mundanities to more important things:

The GenreCon program is live!

It’s looking like a great lineup of events, and I’ve already locked in my flights and accommodation in anticipation. Hopefully there’ll be a chance to do some effective networking – i.e. getting drunk and singing karaoke with other writers – in between all these great panels.

Particularly these two panels, where I’m honour-bound to attend and not be too hungover:

Saturday October 31, 11.30 am

Indie Tools for Established Authors

Chair: Patrick O’Duffy; Panelists: Anna Campbell, Viola Carr, Belinda Pollard

Independent publishing is here to stay and an increasing number of authors are becoming hybrids – making use of self-publishing techniques and tools alongside their traditional publishing deals. Why do this? What tools should you embrace? Let’s find out…

Sunday November 1, 10.30 am

True Tales of Indie Publishing

Chair: Emily Craven; Panelists: Carmen Jenner; Mark Lingane; Patrick O’Duffy

Interested in indie publishing, but not sure if it’s for you? We’ve asked our team of indie publishers to sit down and talk about what it’s really like to go it alone, as a writer, and discuss what worked (and didn’t work) when building their indie career.

If you’re coming along, drop by either/both of these and watch me pretend to know what the hell I’m talking about.

(If you’d like to go but you’re not, con Special Guest Kylie Scott is giving away tickets HOLY HELL GET IN ON THIS.)

It’s on! I’m excited! TONES IS SCREWED!

Roll on October 30.

Pre-surgery update

Things I will be doing this week:

  • Going to the hospital
  • Having things stuck into my knee while I’m unconscious
  • Being brought home from the hospital
  • Sleeping
  • Groaning
  • Lying down
  • Reading everything I can get my hands on
  • Wishing I had more morphine

Things I probably won’t be doing a lot of this week:

  • Writing

So that’s my plans sorted. Will update you further once I’m through this bottleneck and back to work on the book.

Stupid rewriting tricks

So here’s a thing I’ve learned lately – rewriting is hard. Maybe harder than actually writing something in the first place.

When you’re writing  you’re trying to create something from nothing, which sounds hard but is actually easy – if you write anything at all you’ve basically succeeded. Rewriting, on the other hand, is about trying to make that first effort better – so the bar has been set higher and now you need to do more to clear it than just whacking the keyboard with your exhausted face.

I mean, that’s not how I wrote the first draft of Raven’s Blood. Honest.

…anyway, as I struggle through the process of revising the foundation draft – which is taking more time/effort than I had hoped, so there’s not much chance of finishing it by the end of August – I’ve stumbled across a few tricks, shortcuts and principles that have made the process a bit faster and simpler, which is great because I’m busy and also really lazy.

So if you’re neck-deep in rewrites and reader notes, consider these easy ways to reduce the workload:

Automatically uncover your weaknesses

There are a variety of free online tools that will take your raw copy-pasted text and analyse it six ways from Sunday, calculating everything from lexical density and language/reading level to a simple number-of-times-you-said-BLAH count. Dump your text into one of these sites – such as this one or this one – and you’ll get back a breakdown of how often you used specific words and phrases. Now you can go through your MS and mix things up on the rewrite, making sure you don’t say ‘and the vicar unbuttoned his trousers’ on six separate occasions.

The freedom of the blank page

When you’re trying to fit new writing into old writing, or replace what has gone before, the existing text can feel more like a prison or a stern matron than a welcoming home for your precious story. I found that writing the new text into a new, blank document, then copy-pasting it back into the old one, made me feel a lot less constrained by what I’d written earlier, even if I was switching back and forth between the pages every 30 seconds. Sure, once you’ve pasted in the new text you’ll need to do some tweaking to link it all up, but that’s (possibly) easier than trying to steer it towards the target from word one.

Gerund hunt

A gerund, for those of you who aren’t grammar tragics, is a verb that’s been converted to a noun by adding ‘ing’ to the end. Gerunds have their place, but they can turn prose flatter and less engaging because your active verbs – I run, I write, I defenestrate – get replaced by phrases with dull positioning or identity verbs – they were writing, he was writing, I am defenestrating. To revitalise your draft, do a search for ‘ing’ chapter by chapter and check every instance; when you find gerunds bringing down the energy levels, rewrite them back into active verbs.

No beginnings, only endings

One of my alpha readers opened my eyes to this – it’s boring when things ‘start’ or ‘begin’ to happen. Make them happen now! Don’t pad out the time, go straight to the action. As before, do a word search for the offenders, then rewrite to boost the energy. (You may also find, like I did, an unsuspected propensity to use ‘start’ as a noun, as in she awoke with a start. Consider whether this is actually the word you want. It’s kinda boring as a noun too.)

Let it go

Real talk: you are never going to write a final draft, a best draft. You will always find something you want to change and improve every time you look at your work, because you grow and change as an author every day. So you have to let it go, like the Disney Corporation says. That doesn’t mean you don’t work as hard as you can to make every draft better than the last, to be as good as you can manage right now – but the urge to make this draft PERFECT FOR ALL TIME is what will stop you from ever finishing your work. Draw a line. Very good is good enough. Let it go.

That last one is the hard one. It’s been kicking me around.

So yes, finishing this month? Not going to happen, not with the Melbourne Writers Festival – now with a genre writing stream! – starting in a couple of days and a bout of minor knee surgery knocking me out immediately afterwards.

The new target is GenreCon, which is at the end of October. If you see me there – and you should come, it’ll be awesome – feel free to bail me up and demand proof that I’ve finished the