Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grant year, week 33: unscrambling the egg

This is a momentous day -- it marks the last of my official 'grant days'. I still owe the grant some time (from where I was on a grant day but then ended up having to look after sick kids etc), but in terms of actual grant money, it's all gone.

Do I regret taking three days a fortnight? Do I wish I could have a 'do over' and take a block of three months? Not really. I think the project gained something from having day-to-day stuff filtering into it. It took longer but I realised that although I thought I'd 'planned it out' the planning was only fairly superficial, and I needed that time to work through some of those issues.

And I still am working through some of those issues! The past fortnight I've been working on Skin Deep all day, every day (save for a few days where the kids were sick). At the start of the year, I wanted to have something structurally sound by this point. I'm not quite there, but over the past two weeks I've been working with the editor to resolve some structural issues, and I think that the book will be better for it.

At the moment it's... well, you know when you set to tidying study/junk room. One thing leads to another and you find yourself, in the middle of the day, with a room with all the cupboards empty. Piles of rubbish near the door. Stuff you want to keep but aren't sure where to put it in another pile. Books stacked up beside the bookcase in the rough order you want them. You know that eventually things are going to work out. You know pretty much exactly where you want everything to go. But in that moment, standing in the middle of the room that looks like a bomb has hit it, it's a little bit daunting.

That's where I am now.

I think that at the start of the fortnight I had a manuscript that was okay, structurally. But what I have now has the potential to be so much better. It's going to take me a bit of time to get there, but I'm confident I will get there.

I realise that this isn't the most efficient way of writing. But I've learnt lessons along the way and I've also learnt things about my book that I wouldn't have if I'd written it faster. There are happy accidents that occur when you decide to rip out a storyline, or merge two characters, or keep the core of a scene but change the setting. Ideas collide in ways you never would have thought of.

I'm still aiming to have something structurally sound by early October. Something that's worth sending to beta readers by early November at the latest.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Grant year, week 32: editing

I decided to take a two-week block of time off my day job to work on the second draft. This hasn't worked out as well as I thought it might, but there's been at least one major breakthrough that has made it worthwhile.

We've been hit by sickness, which has meant that writing days have had to be postponed. So I haven't got as much done as I would have liked to.

The editor and I have been batting emails back and forth. The editing process hasn't been exactly what I was expecting. I've drawn a parallel with what I thought counselling would be like, and how it actually was. Before I went to counselling, I thought I would go in there, tell the counsellor all my problems, and then the counsellor would say, 'You've got to do this, this and this'. In reality, counselling (well, my experience of it anyway) is more about being asked questions, and then talking through it to find your own solutions.

And this is how editing has been. So many questions. There were the questions the editor asked. Things that didn't make sense to her. Some of these I knew the answers to, but many I hadn't even thought about. And then there were the questions that these questions raised. Writing is like making a whole heap of decisions. Each decision takes the novel in a slightly different direction and closes off the other alternatives. You start with a book where pretty much anything can happen. But by the start of the third act, you have to tie up all the loose ends and deliver the pay-off.

At times, I thought the questions would never end. But I reached a point where all the questions related to one particular storyline. And I looked at the storyline and realised it was hardly attached to the rest of the book at all. So... the storyline has got to go! (Although, I may build it into book two).

And this is the other aspect that I've found working with an editor helps. In previous projects, I've found that the tendency is to pretend these problems don't exist. I have talked myself into believing that the gaping hole/elephant in the corner doesn't exist, and that if I could just paper over it enough, no-one would notice. But editors notice. That's their job. And so you admit that the fault is there and get on with fixing it.

I don't know if I'm going to hit all my deadlines this year. I still want to have something structurally sound by October, in case I make the cut for the Hachette thing. But I'm less confident the book is going to be of 'beta reader' quality by that point.

I would still like to have Skin Deep in the hands of beta readers by the end of the year. Some lovely summer reading for them!

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London: recollections from a decade ago

London riot police, November 2010

(Photo: Hozinja/Flickr CC BY 2.0)

About 10 years ago my wife and I lived in London for about 18 months. For much of that time we lived in Bow, in the East End. Even back then London in general and the East End in particular seemed in decline/in decay and it there was the general impression that it wouldn't take much to prompt a complete breakdown.

In the middle of winter, we'd often have groups of teenagers huddling in the damp, freezing stairwells of the estate we lived in, and I can remember wondering what sort of home life they must have for this to be preferable. And not just home life. There must've been literally nothing else for them to do.

There was a general feeling of apathy at one end and fear at the other. Any attempts to improve the community were quickly quashed. We lost count of the number of times the glass was smashed out of the phone boxes on the edge of our estate, until they just didn't bother trying to fix it anymore. Someone tried to open a slightly trendy cafe across the road, and within a day someone had smashed the plate glass windows. After it was fixed, the glass was smashed again. The cafe closed down shortly after.

One night, my wife was walking home from the tube. She saw a group of kids (early teens) trying to smash a light in a railway underpass. She asked them to stop doing that. They followed her home, yelling abuse at her and joking that they should rape her.

Whenever I tell people this story, they remark that it wasn't a smart thing to do, telling them to stop. And maybe not, in the context. But maybe if more people stood up to these kids, London wouldn't be where it is now. You should be able to try and maintain order in your community, without fearing for your safety, right? Londoners are relying on the police now, but clearly that's nowhere near enough.

Another time, my wife was on the bus and there was this old woman yelling abuse at a black man. Really nasty stuff. And everyone just sat there, staring down, not wanting to get involved. It took my wife to say something before anyone else would.

Shortly before we came home, one of our flatmates was mugged on the steps, coming up to our flat. They stole her Christmas shopping. She made a complaint to the police. Our flat was egged. A brick went through the window. I don't know what, if anything, happened to the muggers. But whatever it was, it certainly didn't make us feel any safer.

The thing was, we could leave any time we wanted. There was this guy on the next floor up, he was in a housing commission place. He had no choice. He was stuck there.

And I think about those kids, sitting in the stairwell. Trapped there. Nothing to do. No options. Living in a community that's falling apart and that's not going to get any better.

What have they got to lose?


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