Fourth Time’s a Charm

I’ve finally finished my debut novel and I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. But it’s involved far more work than I would have ever imagined.

The delay in getting it into production has been a mixture of work related stress, lack of time to work on it, plus my many doubts about my ability. You see, this isn’t my first novel. Depending on how you count it, it’s actually my fourth (or maybe three-and-a-half’th!) So, what happened to the others?

For that, we’ll have to go back to the beginning.

I’ve always wanted to write stories, ever since I was in school devouring every book I could get my hands on. I’d take every possible opportunity to turn class assignments into an opportunity to write a story. This was frowned upon by my teachers and I certainly wasn’t encouraged in my “literary” efforts–quite the opposite in fact.

So I put the idea away and tried to do other “normal” things though it was always latent. I was part of an early games company start-up and as well as programming, 3D, and the other duties (we did everything in those days!), I was always the one writing backstory, creating the world environments and fictional histories.

Jump forward a few years and I found myself commuting to work by train. This journey was supposed to take around forty-five minutes but in reality was usually closer to double that. So that was two or three hours a day of mind-numbing boredom. Something had to be done.

I could have put in extra work for my job, but as I wouldn’t get paid for that or receive any other benefit, that wasn’t going to happen. (If I could have done job work and had a shorter day because of it, I’d have happily taken that option.) So, after some thought, I decided I would try my hand at writing.

I had no real plans at this point as to where it might lead. It was simply a distraction from the miserable journey. While I was stuck on that smelly uncomfortable train, my mind could escape into outer space, exploring new stars and different worlds.

After a few months of this, disaster struck. In a bizarre accident involving a pair of shoes, a shopping mall, and an escalator (no, this isn’t something from Hitchhiker’s Guide and I wasn’t drunk at the time), I ended up with a torn calf muscle. This begat a deep vein thrombosis, and the DVT, in turn, begat a pulmonary embolism, and I ended up being rushed to hospital almost dying. That’s some pretty serious begatting.

So I was laid up in hospital, living on a diet of oxygen and blood thinners, (mmm mmmmhhh! Rat poison!) wired up like a Christmas tree.

Hospitals are strangely timeless places. As I couldn’t really move around much and there was a very real prospect of not getting out of there alive, I found I needed the diversion that my writing had given me during my commutes. My wife brought in my little laptop, and I went back to work.

I finished that project while I was still in hospital. I was so eager to write the last part, I was up until about 2 AM putting the last section in and went to “celebrate” by doing a circuit of the corridor outside the ward and chatting to the night-nurse! To my great surprise, I found I’d written a novel.

That was one of the biggest days I’ve ever had.

Of course, there were some problems. And lots of questions.

Such as, what did it mean to “finish” a novel? I knew the generally accepted word-count and I’d hit that. But what else?

I knew about “editing” in a general sense, but that was all. All of my favorite writers (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke) seemed to write their stories, send them off, and they got published. There were several pieces I read that actively frowned on the idea of editing. I also had the vague idea that writers wrote, and editing–well, that was something that editors did. So I did a spell check, skimmed through the grammar to make sure there was nothing too awful and sent it off to Tor.

They still haven’t got back to me 🙂

As my early passions included science and math, I’ve always been a very questioning person–something which was also often a source of irritation for my school teachers. When I don’t understand something I research the topic, I find answers for myself. So I started to investigate what it meant to “write” something, what was really involved. And that was an eye-opener for sure.

For one thing, I quickly learned that for all the hundreds of books I’d read, I didn’t really know anything about writing. How do you develop a plot? How do you create characters? What about structure, voice, mythic qualities? And editing? Hell, you could spend your life just learning to edit alone. First drafts, second drafts, structural edits, line edits, proofreading, and a whole raft of other things I’d never even heard of.

I started to delve and found myself buried in a morass of conflicting information. Some people said you write this way, some that way. Some said you have to plan everything, some that you plan nothing. There wasn’t the same access to information at that time as now, so I bought books on writing. Lots of them and devoured them too'Change the old guy to a young, hunky lifeguard patrolling a trendy beach in a speedboat and you may have something.'.

I soon realized what I’d written was essentially a very rough draft. And I mean rough in the sense of a butchered bird house made with stone tools, no tape measure or square. It was written with no more than an instinctive knowledge of story, amassed from decades of reading voraciously–not a bad thing but not necessarily good either. In the true spirit of Hemingway, my first draft was shit.

While I was doing all of this investigating my writing hadn’t stopped. The buzz from finishing the project was still so great that I’d already started work on another story. This time I knew it was going to be a novel when I started. Hell, I’d just knocked out over seventy-thousand words while I was dying. How could I miss? 🙂 So I wrote and wrote and read and thought.

I also realized that writing a novel was a long process, which meant extended feedback cycles. So I started to write short-stories too. This allowed me to play with ideas and get a “result” quickly–it also started to teach me about economy of words. As I’d already found, simply producing the right word-count wasn’t necessarily very hard–or effective.

Short-stories also offered a chance of getting published sooner. I could write them, submit to magazines and just maybe get published while working on other novels.

So that was what I did. I wrote short-stories, submitted them, collected rejections, and plowed on with my second novel. At this point, progress was slow. I was working a highly stressful job, navigating the labyrinthine processes of the Canadian immigration process, buying (and subsequently selling) a house, and all of the other things that are part of life.

I learned a lot during this time. Such as how important it is to write regularly. Anybody can put words on a page, but writing a story and especially something as involved as a novel, isn’t something that most people can just do. It takes practice, a lot of practice. How else can you learn how to write unless you’re doing it? Then analyzing what you’ve done and working to improve. Rinse and repeat. If that sounds like a lot of work–that’s because it is.

I also learned that you will never “find time” for writing. You have to love it, you need to feel empty and lost if you don’t do it, because the only way you’ll do this is by making time. Time is life’s most precious commodity. You’ve only got so much to play with, so you need to spend it wisely and if you’re not completely committed and enjoying what you’re doing, then you’re better off finding something else that will make you feel that way.

I finished the first draft of the second novel and put it away. Something else I’d learned is that you have to distance yourself from what you’ve written. Because if you don’t, you can’t look at it with the cold, fresh eye that you need to in order to edit effectively. And duly started on my third novel.

As I worked through the early stages of the new project I realized that one of my problems was that I never planned anything. I simply decided what I wanted to write and started banging away. This was great fun and certainly gave rise to–hmmm let’s call it organic development. The trouble was that it also led back to the problems I’d had with the first novel. Poor structure, weak characters, and other large-scale flaws.

As I added distance to my second novel, I was beginning to realize just how big the problems were. It’s true that anything that’s been written can be polished until it’s at the point where it becomes worth publishing, but depending on where you start, the process could take you as long, or longer, than initially writing the book.

This realization wasn’t exactly appealing, and by now I was approaching the middle of the third book. I’d done more preparation on this one, but it was still too little I realized. And at this point I made a terrible mistake, though I didn’t understand that at the time.

I stopped writing it.

I went back to the beginning and started to try and analyze everything. To plan every detail. Every character, every scene, every beat, and every plot twist. It was a Sisyphean task, but I stuck with it. At this point, my only actual writing content was short-stories. But at least I thought I’d finally get somewhere the way “real” writers do.

After several months of this, I finally had everything planned out (I thought) and turned my head back to actually writing the book. And here’s where I found a strange thing happening. I couldn’t get back into the story. No matter what I did, or how I tried, it wasn’t happening. It was as though having done the exhaustive work on the planning, I’d sucked dry any actual enjoyment left in the project. It was like chewing on week-old gum that had had the flavor chewed out by someone else.

I lost confidence at this point almost entirely. Started to question everything. I still hadn’t been successful with my story submissions, and I started to wonder if maybe I was just deluding myself about my ability.

I’ve been dealing with depression since I was in university, and all of this dragged me very low. Not only that, but the immigration process was taking far longer than expected, and I was starting to wonder if we’d be accepted. I still couldn’t move on with the third story, and the more I read about the craft of writing the more lost I seemed to be.

Then two things happened that changed everything around. Okay, well three things actually.

Firstly, one of my short stories was accepted for publication by the Canadian SF magazine Neo-Opsis. The acceptance came out of the blue by email and completely threw me. I was so amazed that I could hardly think, and the routine of the day was simply a blur (and another story entirely!).

That sparked another, far more personal event. I’d been with my wife (girlfriend at that point) for several years. We’d bought a house together and been more or less content, beyond waiting what seemed an eternity over the immigration status. But we’d never taken any steps to “formalize” our relationship. Partly this was deliberate to make sure we were comfortable with each other, but part of it was also because I wanted to tie it into something special. So I’d decided (several years previously and without her knowledge) that I’d ask her to marry me on the day I learned I was published. So, I asked, Amazingly she said “yes.” So now there was a greater sense of disruption in my life, although a wonderfully happy one.

The third thing that happened was that I bought a copy of one of James Scott Bell‘s books on writing. If I remember correctly it was Plot And Structure, though I quickly bought all his other books as well.

These were a revelation for me. They were full to the brim of useful information on every aspect of writing. But unlike most of the other similar books I’d read, his down-to-earth manner demystified the ideas and made them approachable. I started to cautiously apply some of the things I learned in them to my short-stories and found they improved my work. I then took things further and re-analyzed my earlier projects. I could clearly see where I’d screwed up and the gaping holes that were dotted liberally throughout.

Importantly, Bell also introduced the idea that there is no right way to write. Certainly, you can borrow techniques and ideas from wherever you want, but the important thing is that you understand what works for you. It’s a very personal thing, and comparing yourself with other writers or trying to adopt their practices wholesale is unlikely to lead to success. It’s like being a musician. Yes, you can learn to play like famous names, but ultimately success comes from finding your own style.

I found some of the exercises in the books to be fantastic ways of analyzing writing and generating ideas. Bell’s self-editing and revision tools are invaluable in learning how to polish your work and fix things that are broken.

This new found knowledge combined with my short-story publication re-ignited my passion for writing. I also realized I could apply some techniques from my day job using things such as just-in-time design and adaptive development to maintain flexibility but still push forward. And I started to outline a new novel.

This time I built a light framework for my outline. Just enough to enable me to move forward. Whenever I needed more detail than this or got stuck, I’d brainstorm ideas and figure out my way forward again. I’m sure this isn’t the most efficient way of operating, but it worked for me. I also learned to be more relaxed about problems, often deferring them until my subconscious came up with a solution rather than letting myself get stymied by details.

I still had plenty of other things going on. Our immigration application was successful, and we made the move to Canada. That put a big dent in my writing for a while. I had ups and downs, periods where I made little or no progress. But I knew where I was going and kept at it.

Until finally I finished the first draft of book four. It took a long time, but I got there.

When I reviewed it after a break I soon realized that despite my best efforts, the quality was still lower than I’d hoped for. The on-and-off development had taken its toll and the manuscript was extremely messy. I felt the structure and general sense of story was good, but the level of writing was, perhaps understandably, patchy and inconsistent.

But knowing the story was good was a huge step forward from previous attempts. So I started to apply the techniques I’d picked up from Bell and various other places and redrafted, and redrafted.

And redrafted.

Another thing I’d learned during all of this was that writing isn’t just writing. Redrafting or editing is also writing. I no longer looked at the manuscript and cursed it for being so bad. I knew it was bad and why and knew I could fix it.

So there you have it. It took a while to self-edit. I also had it professional edited (Michelle Dunbar), to ensure that I was producing something as good as possible. I also have to give a huge thank you to my wife, who helped review and edit this monster–between us we got there.

Writing a book is in some ways similar to building a piece of software. It’s a long process of refinement and every time you “finish” you learn more (or should) and could probably write the same thing again but better. I learned a lot through the process of writing Mathematics Of Eternity and will strive to constantly learn further as I progress.

Astronaut making sand castle on moon

Perhaps the proof of what I learned lies in the sequel. The first draft was completed in under six months, and as I’m working through the editing process, I can see the quality is so much better than earlier first drafts because it was written more consistently.

If you’re out there struggling with some of these things too, don’t worry. I think it’s something we all go through–a part of the process of becoming an author. Listen to advice and learn as much as you can about the craft of writing, but remember that whatever works for you is right.

I don’t often post very much about my writing process, and I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Christie Stratos from Proof Positive for suggesting this post. I’m surprised it turned out so long!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Email updates


* indicates required

My Books

error: Content is protected !!