I am the first person to admit that I overuse dreams in my novels. I don’t know why – I suppose I think in terms of a story, they make more sense than random bits of exposition or overly obvious and dramatic symbolism. I’m of the school of thought which is it’s only symbolic to your character if, y’know, it means something to them, and if something means something to you, you’ll think about it a lot, right?

Anyway. The point to this is that exposition, and meaningful symbolism, can be super tricky, and it sometimes feels easy to throw in a flashback or just have a character explain something. The problem here is that often, these parts of your story feel bolted on. They aren’t streamlined or decorative – they’re scaffolding with green netting on. And your reader can see it really clearly. It’s the same rule as ‘your characters shouldn’t look in a mirror and describe what they see’ (although I am guilty of this, and I’m trying to argue it out in a particular series as a thread through the books? Ugh, it doesn’t even sound convincing to myself). In fact, every author has done this at some point. You’ll have something really crucial* to say, and no way to say it except for info dump.

*Note I say, really crucial. It’s important for you to be able to determine what is interesting and what is necessary. If you’ve done your worldbuilding and characterisation right, sometimes you’ll know something awesome that you think everyone must know, when in reality, it’s just pretty filler.

I like to utilise dreams and flashback for this. It’s one of the benefits, I’m finding, of first person. It’s far more natural for someone talking in first person to go off on a tangent and explain something than it is for a third person omniscient narrator to just start describing how the sewage system works in the depths of Mars. You can, of course, use dreams and flashback in third person, but it always seems clunky and awkward. Remember, your reader is way more intelligent than you give them credit for, and they can see through badly crafted plot devices. Your exposition needs to feel natural and fluid, in the same way that an action scene does, and it needs all of your skill to work. Don’t assume that just because it’s a flashback or a dream, it doesn’t need nice description. In the same vein, don’t just simile all over it like vomit. It has to sound like part of your story.

I’m currently working with a character who has severe mental health issues, probably something like PTSD. He has voices and flashbacks often of awful things that have happened to him. In terms of his character, it makes sense that he sometimes dreams of terrible memories, or thinks fondly on those that have meaning for him. It’s really nice, weaving these together in tangent with his story and building an atmosphere with these. If you’re playing with flashbacks and dreams, it’s really important that they aren’t sledgehammer/nut and that they help to add something to the plot. Garrick’s memories often jump in when he’s stressed, or anxious. His voices give a terrible insight into how messed up he is. His dreams focus on things he loves, like autumn, and foxes. It helps to give that wistful, nostalgic, fragmented feeling that I feel when I think of Garrick, and which has built him from boy to man.

I find flashback works best if a character has spoken about it to another, or right at the start of a chapter, otherwise, it feels too… bleh. Dreams need to have some sort of thread, rather than being a step-by-step ‘now, reader, this is SIGNIFICANT’, like real dreams are.

But remember, if you stray too long from the main plot, your reader gets lost. Use these things sparingly.

Here’s the second lot of thoughts I’ve recently had about editing, and they centre around the concept of re-reading and accepting your old work.

It’s very easy to hate everything you previously wrote. Myself, I started writing as a child. I know for a fact that many things have happened to me since the age of twelve that are not just about conventional education – I have had experiences and I have read more and I have different ideas and stories. My skill has improved, like any skill you spend years perfecting. My style has changed, slightly (which is always kind of odd – you always think your style sticks, but I’m a much more serious writer of late than I used to be).

The reason why people hate on past work is because all you end up seeing is mistakes. When you re-read, especially something you’re familiar with, it’s easy to scan over the nice bits and obssess on the errors. My old work is littered with tautologies and adverbs that are completely redundant, and I can’t get over some of the naive plots I created. Often, this is where a lot of writers fail. They get so caught up about all of the things that are bad about their work – and forget that there’s potential in there.

Any writing is like a rough gemstone. No diamond comes out perfectly crafted. A master has to hone and chisel it to make it perfect.

These are things you should learn when you re-read.

  1. You’re determined! You finished writing the thing! Good job on seeing it through!
  2. Find one thing you’ve done really well in that story. Are your characters funny? If you laughed out loud, you did well! Comedy is hard. Look at you being funny and all!
  3. Did you cry? Oh man. You’re cold. But hey! You can make people feel emotions! That’s a skill!
  4. Your character’s only barrier this chapter may have been a sandwich, but you know that conflict creates stories! Sandwiches are a start!
  5. Hey, look at that dialogue. Dialogue is a pain. But there’s a section that works really well!
  6. Hmm. You put a lot of backstory in there. At least you focused on making a well-rounded world and characters! Some people find that really horrible.
  7. Yeah, you really hate that bit. You’re better at this now. You can fix this!

Basically, re-reading should be an exercise in congratulating yourself. Lots of people never finish novels, or short stories. If you finished, that’s an achievement. Everything else is polish.

Comic Books

Batman: like always, I’m still reading my Batman. This run, with the sinister Mr Bloom, is very, very interesting. It’s been a while since any properly new Batman villains have emerged in the comics and I always like to see how they pan out. Bloom is freaking horrible. They’re doing some lovely stuff that’s kind of all based around identity now. If you haven’t picked up Batman before, now is the time to do it.

The Wicked + The Divine: this is once of my favourite independent comics of the last year. 12 gods, reborn, will only live for two years. So they decide to be rockstars. It’s a clever mixture of pop culture, fan identity and mythology that’s an emotional rollercoaster. It shows me the importance of proper research.

Saga: let’s not talk about Saga because it is crippling me.

Sex Criminals: not as weird as it sounds. Well… maybe. But not in that way. They rob banks to save libraries!!

Novels

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman: it’s no secret I love Gaiman. I’m going to do a proper post about it after I’ve read his Humble Bundle rarities. Trigger Warning is a fab collection of his short stories, all dark, all terrifying. And we finally get to find out what happened to the Marquis’ coat.

Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett: I was slow on the Pratchett train, but I enjoy how he manages to mix humour, science and his own unique worldbuilding to create amazing narratives.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post about editing in which I said I had no coping strategies for editing.

This post sets out to correct this.

Contrary to a belief my brain holds, no writing is perfect in the first draft. When it comes out of you, like some awful word-formed baby, it is small and weak and amazing but not real yet, just like real babies. It needs to be nurtured and pruned, and believe me, it’s the worst thing in the whole world.

I like to create. I don’t like to scab-pick.

So, with that in mind, here’s a friendly guide on how I get through editing.

Step One: Rest It

I try not to edit while I write, but sometimes that’s an inevitability. I’m in a pretty good habit of re-reading my previous work, checking it and moving on. But once the thing is finished, it needs to lie and rest. Like roast beef. There is absolutely no point in editing a thing that you’re word-blind to (word-blind: a condition which affects writers, in which they become so acclimatised to their writing they see no fault in it). Go back to it an a few months, or years. You’ll have the benefit of experience behind you, and you’ll have lost your unconditional love.

Step Two: Re-read, Delete

Once the resting period is over, be brutal. As Loki says,

Okay, maybe not everything. But a lot of things.

Lots of writing in a first draft is intended only for you, the writer. It’s what I term ‘scaffolding’. It has to be there, at first, to help the building keep its structure, but, it has to come down eventually (unless your building is York Minster). You have to find the scaffolding. Remember, the only thing that needs to stay is what is necessary for your reader to understand your story. Everything else is what I call bumf. Reduce the bumf. Get rid of tautological phrases, adverbs, and those irritating ‘said’ words.

No, really, trust me. It sounds like a lot. But obey Loki. It will look bare, but OBEY LOKI.

Also, pro-tip: use the handy ‘Track Changes’ function on your Word document thingy. That means that you can see your progress, but also if you make a mistake, you can get that writing back.

It should look like this.

Untitled

And that’s okay. Because then we get to:

Step Three: Roll It In Glitter

YAY! GLITTER!!!!!

The nice thing about editing (the only nice thing about editing) is you can put things back in. There will be points in your work where you see an opportunity to do some better description, or maybe some dialogue that bugs you and needs an extra 50 words. And, because you did what Loki said, that’s okay. JUST MAKE SURE IT ISN’T MORE SCAFFOLDING.

How do you tell if it’s scaffolding? Simple. Ask yourself: does the reader need to know this? Can the reader figure this out for themselves? If the answers are ‘not really’ and ‘yes’, get rid of it.

You can put adverbs back in, but sparingly, like chilli.

Remember: glitter is awesome in small amounts. Too much, and it’s camp and cheesy. Got it? Good.

Step Four: Re-read, Approve

Go back to the beginning, read the whole thing, carefully, and get rid of everything you hate, and tick tick tick everything you love. If you’ve tracked your changes, this is super satisfying.

Step Five: Rest It, Test It

Leave it be. Let someone else read it. Make sure it’s someone you trust and admire, and make sure it’s a mixture of writers and readers. Take their feedback and criticism. You don’t have to agree with everything, but remember you’re precious about what you’ve written. If you find yourself agreeing, even a little, it’s true. If you disagree, find the proof. Thank everyone for their feedback, even if you’re going to ignore it. And take notes on it.

Step Six: Print and Prod

Now, change the font and print it out. Grab yourself a bunch of different coloured pens and highlighters and lock yourself up with no distractions. Read, carefully, and do the following:

Green highlighter: love this

Red pen: delete this

Blue pen: notes for changes

Yellow highlighter: move this somewhere else

Always question yourself. If you have questions, your reader will, too. And be mean to yourself. If you’re mean to yourself, you learn. It will look something like this:

edit 2 edit 3 edit 4 edit 5 edit 6 edit

Step Seven: Re-read, Write-Up

Same as above. Read, re-write.

REPEAT STEPS AS NECESSARY

Sometimes, it’ll be forever until it’s ready. Sometimes, not so much. THE WHOLE TIME, YOU WILL HATE YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING. Don’t give up.

And if necessary, remember:

OBEY LOKI.

Hands up if you’ve left your writing to die.

Me. Guilty as charged.

Whatever anyone else tells you, writing is difficult. It’s lonely and insular and complex (I assume like living at an Antarctic scientific installation). Whenever you tell people you write, they assume that you’re 100% creative 100% of the time, and bombard you with spur of the moment requests either in conversation or in writing.

I’m going to share a secret, guys. I am only good at writing. I can’t speak to humans in a meaningful and productive way, unless I’m totally prepared. I am not a creativity dispenser.

Which is why I guess my writing has died. This is more than writer’s block. This is all the more chronic. This is finding a hundred other things to do rather than writing. This is being so exhausted, you can’t put finger to keyboard. And suddenly, you haven’t written a word for two months and you’re wondering how you’re ever going to get back in there. You hate your characters, and you hate the plot, and you look back over everything you’ve written and wail, ‘I’m a talentless hack! Why am I doing this?’ and your finger hovers over the delete key because it would be way, way better than anything you’ve done up until now.

But there are ways to get around this. It takes time, and a bit of courage and creativity, but you can revive that cold corpse once more.

  1. Accept you have a life, and you’re busy. It’s so easy to feel guilty for being an adult. I mean, when I started writing at 12, I could bash out a novel in 6 months or less. And that’s because I didn’t have to cook, clean, go to work or pay my bills. I went straight from that to uni, where it was my job to write. Then, I went from that to Thailand, where I was hugely inspired. As soon as I started having a career, MIRACULOUSLY, my writing started to dry. My job is no 9-5. So when I come home at 8pm, after being at work for 13 hours, I don’t want to do anything else that is remotely taxing. And that’s okay. Writing should be enjoyable. Give yourself time to do it. Schedule time for it, like every other job you have to do in your week, and stick to it. Even if what you write is horrible. This is about flexing your muscle again, and getting rid of the atrophy.

2. Talk to other writers about what you think is wrong. If you explain your problem to someone else who is creative, in as much detail as you can bear, chances are they’ll be able to help you out. Their ideas might stink, or not work in practise, but it’s really good to try new things. One of the reasons writing dies is because you aren’t taking any risks, and you’ve got comfortable where you are. Remind yourself what it’s like to fail and fix. Sometimes, what will happen is the idea will come to YOU in conversation, and then you can try it out.

3. Write something new. Clean the canvas. I always find that if I embark on another project or short story, it gives me a little bit of confidence of edge that I lost, and I can go back to the other thing with fresh eyes. Write from another character’s point of view, or write a before and after, or do some automatic writing (writing for 5 minutes solid, without stopping or judging yourself). Better yet, get away from the keyboard and write by hand. I always think writing by hand makes you remember you have control over what you’re writing.

4. Go back to the drawing board. Get back into the nitty gritty. Go back to your planning. Re-read your notes. Do some research on how to catch rabbits in the winter or what kinds of wild food you can find when it’s snowing. Edit something else you’ve previously written and practise your craft. Something in there will rekindle your ideas.

5. Make it no pressure. Don’t have the document open all day, staring at it, waiting for it to murder you. Make this your time. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Unhook the phone. Turn the internet off. Open a bottle of wine. Put your pyjamas on. Make it relaxed and fun. Even if you just write one paragraph you’re happy with, that’s more than you originally thought. Honestly, you don’t have to write every day if you can’t. But you should do something related to your writing every day, and it should be low pressure.

I hope that’s helpful for you, because it’s working for me. I’m writing my final novel in the Ash-Brides trilogy, and I’m super stuck – so I started writing from Garrick’s perspective. I like his voice, it’s fun – and I think I might include it in the novel, now. But it’s leading up to the super stuck bit, and I think with Garrick’s help, I might be able to get through this thing.

Everyone should always try to do something new with their writing from time to time. It’s good for you, I promise.

NEXT WEEK: Editing (again) and how I do the thing.

Hello. My bad.

Life, huh? Isn’t it the worst? You have all these well-meaning plans and suddenly, they don’t go so well and everything you meant to do runs away from you.

Not just here, either. I’ve barely been writing. Anything at all.

But, things are kind of coming back around. I’ve recharged my batteries during the summer holidays and the daze is lifting. The writing daze, the routine daze, the adult life daze, all are sort of realigning. When big things happen, the little things stop, and a lot of big things have happened recently that I’m not going to go into here, but trust me, they’ve taken a lot of my time.

However, I’m reorganising my life. I’ve got a budget plan, and a daily organiser, and routines to start again. One of those is finally finishing Heath of Fire (OH YEAH THAT THING) and getting around to editing some things, both of those I shall be blogging about soon. I’m also going to drop a blog next week about refreshing your writing, which I’ve had to do this week because I’ve been stuck in The Worst Writing Funk Ever.

I’m coming back, guys. This time, for realsies.

It’s been a mixed week. I’ll start with the good stuff.

I think most authors find selling their work very difficult. It’s been said many a time by much better writers than I that your writing is your baby. To unleash it upon the world, full of flaws and memories, is to unleash a certain part of your heart, your mind and your soul that you never quite knew you had put into it. It is a hugely personal thing, to try to push it upon other people, to make other people love your baby. It is bearing your scars.

So the UK Book Launch of Against the Elements was one of those odd moments where it was both hugely exciting and hugely nerve-wracking. Sitting under the lights on the stage, you are, I suppose, the physical entity of your book. My little sister, who the novel is dedicated to, once said that whenever she reads it, she reads it in my voice, the way she first heard it. A lot of people I know tell me that, that when that reading voice pops into their head, it is me. You sit, as your novel, and you share yourself.

I have read Against the Elements more times than I care to remember. There are sections that I love and sections that I cringe at but I suppose all parents have those sorts of thoughts. You wait for your audience, and then you begin, in a small, shaky voice, not quite getting stronger, not yet, just in case you blow your trumpet too loud. Nobody speaks. Nobody says a word. They watch you. And you talk and talk and wonder what they are thinking when they watch you.

You pick the parts you think they will like. Not the parts you want to. Not your favourite bits. Just in case.

And then, once it is over and you’ve gone home and slept and forgotten about it, people begin to comment. Sometimes their comments are constructive (‘I think it could be better if…’) and I don’t mind that, because mostly I agree. Part of writing is accepting that it is subjective, I guess. Sometimes it is a statement (‘I always thought x thing would be more like y thing’) and that, too is fine, because you cannot argue with people’s internal imagery.

What is more difficult to accept is a compliment.

Which is dumb.

Having someone say they enjoy your work is lovely, and yet you always feel a little guilty about it. Like you don’t deserve it. Like you’re the only person who noticed all of those adjectives and horrible pieces of phrasing and you wonder which book they are actually reading that they think is kind of like yours. Then they get specific (‘I love the bit where…!’) and you sit smiling painfully wondering what to say.

Thank you, for enjoying my ridiculous outletting of emotion and thoughts. Thank you. I guess.

It’s strange. You expect the criticism and dusting yourself off. It’s always something that catches you off guard, having a compliment paid. I always believe that once you stop being nervous about something, you stop caring. Maybe that’s really what it is, that I have to believe in the flaws in order to care about what people think about it. I don’t know.

The morning after the launch, I received some dreadfully sad news – a friend, battling with terminal cancer, had passed away.

All writers write about loss. Because loss is a part of life. But sometimes I suppose you get detached from it, because it is something you use in a plot, as a device, something you can explain with words and metaphor. And loss isn’t really anything like that at all. It’s something that happens, and something that bites.

I felt okay for a while. She was no longer in pain. She had fought, and died unafraid. Or at least, I thought I felt okay. You start to feel regret and confusion and eventually it all becomes a blame game or a preventable thing and you cannot understand how loss can be allowed to be a thing.

It’s funny, because I sat at her funeral listening to words my friends had written about her and realised that if anyone should have been able to put pen to paper, it should have been me. But I couldn’t. I don’t think I could now.

Writing is an exercise in describing the indescribable. Connecting surreal experience with real experience and passing it on to others, hoping that the three match up. Loss always makes you realise that there are things to accomplish, works to finish, and somehow, it spurs you on. My wonderful friend may not be here to tie up all her threads, but I can use her loss to create and inspire, and I think she would be pleased with that.

So, the summary? Compliments are somehow more difficult to accept than loss. Oddly enough. I feel that I have come to terms with what happened to my friend, quite quickly. Even though that too is highly personal and emotional, it is a shared experience, something that you feel with others. Having your book out there, having you out there, is solitary and strange, like you’re naked on stage.

I hope I haven’t been offensive, comparing my experience of grief with how people comment on my work. It somehow connects together for me, I guess. Comments are welcome below.