The Nameless Horror

Of monster outlines and dialogue-only drafts

I found myself trying to describe how I’m writing the current book the other day as part of a discussion about outlines, plans and structure. I couldn’t explain it all that well at the time, but I’ve got a lot more space - and a little more time - here, so let’s give it another try for the sake of posterity.

Scrivener, last week

Having planned it out as usual as a brief list of character/plot beats on post-its, I’ve written it, aside from the ending (which I’ll complete once everything else is tied off) almost as a film script. Dialogue and brief stage directions/description only. Now I’m going back and filling out those descriptions fully. It’s a little like working to an insanely detailed outline, a little like doing a second draft on a finished project that needs a lot of work.

This is largely a question of practicalities; normally, I’d plan, but write things out like anyone else. Nowadays, though, my time is limited. I’ve got a lot of freelance editing work, and I carve off only a limited amount of time each week (Fridays, generally) to work on my own stuff. Because I can go a week between sessions, it’s important that I don’t lose the thread, and important that I don’t think I’m getting nowhere, treading water, and that it’ll take forever to finish.

What this means is that I now have a ‘before’ that looks like this:

(Gabe is sitting in his car, watching the Juneau ferry delicately maneuver into port and tie up at the jetty. He’s talking on his phone to a voice, badly distorted by interference.)

G: I know I’m just supposed to be liaising. The body will be transported back in the next couple of days. We’re still waiting on a full tox report. Obviously everything will be passed on so you’re in the loop. I was just trying to—

V: I can’t tell you any more, Officer Knox.

G: Even just a little, I mean, people here are won—

V: No, I mean, I can’t tell you more. You want to talk to Officer Gillman.

G: She’s handling family liaison?

V: She’s our researcher. Looks after the records.

G: (Surprised; he’d figured this for a much smaller department.) She knew Ms Folguera?

V: She looks after the records. If anyone did…

G: OK. So, can I talk to her?

V: She’s not on shift right now. You should call back (burst of static that nearly deafens Gabe) around midnight, our time.

G: She’s on nights. OK. This goddamn line is terrible. It always this bad?

V: Oh, yes.

And, once written out properly, an ‘after’ like this:

Gulls wheel above the dark blue stack of the Eastern Wings, dodging the plumes of black smoke billowing up at the clouds every time the ferry’s helmsman adjusts its heading and speed as the ship delicately clears the winding channel through the shoals and approaches the wooden piles of the jetty. There are crewmen, empty silhouettes against the sky, either side of its bridge, watching. No one on the deck. Just a couple of trucks waiting shoreside. The twins are there, ready to tie up.

“I know I’m just supposed to be liaising,” Gabe says into his cell phone. The line fizzes and pops brokenly with interference, digital distortion bad enough to render half the conversation he’s already had completely unintelligible. “The body’s going to be transported back in the next couple of days. We’re still waiting on a full tox report. Obviously everything will be passed on so you’re in the loop. I was just trying to—”

“I can’t tell you any more, Officer Knox,” the voice at the other end says, all fuzzed around every consonant.

“Even just a little? I mean, people here are won—”

“No,” the voice cuts him off. “I mean, I can’t tell you more. You want to talk to Officer Gillman.”

Gabe notes the name in the pad perched on his steering wheel. “She’s handling family liaison?”

“She’s our researcher.” The last word is so badly warped that he has to think twice to decipher it. “Looks after the records.”

He’s surprised at that; he’d figured the Muhlenberg County Sheriff’s Department for a much smaller force, one not much different to his own, without the resources to have a researcher on staff, even if she pulls double duty as a regular cop as well. Ahead, the Wings chugs to a halt at the dock. Grant grabs the mooring line and hands it off to his brother to tie the vessel up. “She knew Ms Folguera?” Gabe says.

“She looks after the records. If anyone did…”

“OK. So, can I talk to her?”

“She’s not on shift right now. You should call back—“ The voice breaks off as a burst of static rips through that nearly deafens Gabe. “—around midnight, our time.”

“She’s on nights.” Stranger and stranger. Hydraulics in the back ramp of the ferry shriek as it lowers to the jetty. “OK. This goddamn line is terrible. It always this bad?”

“Oh, yes,” the voice says as a couple of vehicles roll out, a thin trickle of foot passengers alongside.

(Example taken from what I’ve worked on last week, so it’s all first-draft quality.)

This approach has had definite up- and downsides. On the upside, some of the dialogue in this book is tighter and more expressive than I’ve written in ages. Overall, I’m really happy with the characterisation and sense of colour in what’s here, and having the thing mapped out like this has meant I’ve been excited to get through it first time around and still excited to flesh it out on the second, knowing the underlying structure is solid.

On the downside, in places it’s actually made direct description more redundant than I was expecting, and consequently I’m not sure I’m going to hit target word count. I have a backup plan - and, for God’s sake, always have a backup plan - to add extra material without having to add padding, but even so this one’s a lot harder to call than anything else I’ve ever worked on.

The story is good, the setting is gold, and I’m loving work on it despite the challenge involved in writing what’s almost a cozy, just very bleak and, at times, weird, having more fun than I’ve had since writing THE LEVELS way back when (not coincidentally the last time I was completely unconstrained by any outside influence at all). I just don’t know if the way it’s written will leave enough of it to make a properly meaty novel first time out. It’ll be good. Really good, I think. But there might need to be more of it.

It’s also patently nuts, and it’s taken a while to find a voice for the description having already sorted those for the dialogue, and then to keep a consistent tone throughout. Not necessarily harder than adding in extra material in later drafts in a regular book and having the whole thing hang together consistently, but certainly a challenge. It’s not a technique I’d necessarily recommend to others.

On the other other hand, it’s a damn sight easier than constructing an outline more detailed than a collection of post-its, and it’s still enabled me to spot potential structural and pacing issues before I’ve written thousands of words of material that then needs to be scrubbed. Given how much I hate outlining, that’s a definite plus.

(Partial) review: THE CARTEL

Very, very busy of late with editing work and a deadline on a bunch of magazine pieces, but I’m slowly emerging from under the pile.

One thing that has reduced somewhat - which is a shame, since I’m making a much better fist of it than in previous years - has been my reading. This is only partly, though, a result of workload, because what I’ve been trying to read has been…

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

The Cartel

First off the bat, Winslow (this is the first book of his I’ve read; I’ve previously skimmed THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, so I knew what to expect style-wise, but otherwise came in blind) is both clearly an excellent writer, sparse and lean and effective, and equally clearly very, very well-up on Mexico’s drug trade and the sheer misery involved. The storytelling is tight and the sense of veracity never wavers.

I gave it up halfway through a couple of weeks ago.

THE CARTEL is a vast, sprawling novel that follows both the putative pro/antagonists, DEA agent Art Keller and drug boss Adan Barrera, and a whole slew of other characters involved one way or another across northern Mexico over the course of the early 2000s. The novel it most reminded me of, of all things, is A GAME OF THRONES, in so much as the scale is very broad, the cast list is very long indeed, and most of the people the reader sees will probably end up dead.

This, though, was the problem I had with it. The book is (roughly speaking) broken up into separate character POVs as the overall story follows a linear timeline. We’ll see Keller and his two Mexican counterparts conducting a raid they hope will give them Barrera, say, and then we’ll cut for a lengthy chapter following the rise, fall, near-death, and rise again of a half-American guy working the trade in Nuevo Laredo and his swearing revenge on the brutal Zetas we’ve seen murder his friend. Then cut back. And then to Barrera. And then to another guy in another place also betraying or being betrayed and dying or nearly dying and swearing revenge or trying to run. Sometimes we’ll cut back to a character we’ve seen before, sometimes we won’t. Eddie, the half-American, is a running figure, although the middle section of his story is very much told in summary. Sometimes those characters will intersect a little. Sometimes they won’t.

What I found, though, is that for all the good writing, each of those chapters plays out like a vignette of its own, and there wasn’t enough of an overall narrative thread to keep me going with after every jump. I know Keller and Barrera first appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG, the first part of Winslow’s history (both, in theory, are standalones), but in this I really couldn’t see much of either of them as characters.

Keller’s introduction is great, and promised so much - the threat he’d be facing from Barrera, the way he’s been pulled out of a very different life (he’s a monk and a beekeeper, of all things) to return to his old one - but the reality is that other than wondering whether Aguilar and Vega, his two Mexican colleagues, can be trusted, there’s very little for Keller to do and very little actual sense of threat, danger or urgency hanging over him. Barrera must be stopped. He’s trying to stop him. It’s not easy. That initial promise never turns into anything (in the first half of a gigantic book, anyway).

It’s much the same for Barrera. We see why he hates Keller. His ambitions are clear. But after an equally strong opening section, he’s just sort of there, a presence whose decisions influence the shape of the individual vignettes, but for whom it’s hard to feel anything much at all. He’s not as evil as the Zetas, not directly, anyway, and remains mild-mannered whatever’s going on. Which is a fine basis for a character, but not one who can hold a story together with such huge gaps between his appearances.

The supporting characters are largely drawn just fine, and the various horrors they endure are very believable and deeply unpleasant, but there’s not enough about them for me to what to find out what happens to any of them. One bunch of drug guys is fighting another bunch of drug guys, and they’re all brutal and horrible to one extent or another, and… that’s sort of it. And because the scope is so broad and the scale so large, there isn’t a real sense of anything personal enough to identify with and want to see through to the end. It took me much longer than expected to reach the midway point, and after a couple of days putting off picking it up again I found myself trying to come up with something, anything, I wanted to see resolved, that I could predict and wanted to see played out before I called time on the story. I couldn’t think of a single thing.

It won’t be my last Winslow book - as I say, the writing itself is great, and t’s had great reviews elsewhere so I imagine this is purely a personal thing - but I think the sheer size of this one put too much distance between me and what I was reading for me to care that much.

Low prices, zombie memes, and consumer research

Joe Konrath is tackling ‘zombie memes’ with Barry Eisler, which to his way of thinking are arguments in the ongoing rumble of indie-vs-trad publishing that should’ve been laid to rest long ago.

So far, so no problem - whatever floats your boat, or not - but the second, most recent of these, “Low Prices ‘Devalue’ Books”, misses the point of the claim it’s aiming to debunk quite dreadfully.

The basic premise of the argument, as it’s usually applied (and by “usually applied” I mean “at least as referenced by the entire first page of Google results for ‘price devalues books’ aside from Joe’s own if you want to double-check”), is that if readers become accustomed to $0.99 (or lower) prices for ebooks, higher prices will be seen as rip-offs, and that sales will slowly collapse for anything more than a couple of bucks (which is where the majority of trad-published fiction lies, though that’s not entirely relevant to the basic concept; the same risk applies to all). That as more and more ebooks are sold at discount rates or bottom dollar, consumer expectation will come to settle on that as the ‘normal’ value of an ebook, rather than, say, the nine or ten bucks of the modern paperback, and the expected ‘fair price’ of a book will drop, eventually, if taken to the extreme, below the point where writing is a sustainable profession. The proverbial “race to the bottom”.

Joe largely ignores this, falling back instead on his old warhorse of maximizing revenue via ‘sweet spot’ price points (drink!), publisher desires to hike prices and harm consumers (drink!), or whether a book’s “value” shouldn’t be how widely it’s read instead and nothing to do with cost (which is a reasonably sound argument on its own, but is tangential to the actual meme as it’s used).

The thing is - and regardless of whether writers should have an expectation of being able to earn a living from the craft (I’d argue it’s fair exchange for any human endeavor enjoyed by others, but it’s a debatable point) - there’s a wide and long-established body of research on the core notions of consumer behavior regarding pricing, discounting and perceived fair cost. (See Kalwani & Yim, Kwon, or something like this as an overview, and so on and so on.) The bulk of available research is pretty categorical that, in general, perceived fair value drifts downwards in response to frequent discounting or a period of price reduction - and price reduction over a category of products as a whole - and that it becomes hard to then either raise or else to maintain higher prices than the current perceived fair price while maintaining sales/income.

In short, as ebook prices slide, routine discounting by author, seller or publisher continues, and the market is packed with free or cents-only books, overall price expectations of what constitutes value for money and fair pricing will fall too. (Those sweet-spot prices? They’ll drop over time as well.)

There is support for the notion that certain brands (authors, as they’d be here) can ignore expectations through having a matching expectation of quality (or luxury); that’s equally long-established. However, that’s easier to set up in physical goods, particularly those with a broad existing price spectrum. If I want to launch my new luxury watch brand - or, hell, my line of artisan soda breads - it’s relatively easy to persuade potential customers of the extra worth of my products: I can outline the materials used, the skills and experience involved in the design and manufacture/baking, the incredible, one-of-a-kind end result they’re buying. With words, that’s tougher. Sure, a quality cover and blurb are your first step, but if someone looks at the writing inside, what sets it far enough apart from the thousands of other really good writers - indie and trad - out there? We’re wandering very much into Subjective Taste Alley here.

And, crucially, if we’re making an evidence-based argument, which is very, very hard in publishing anyway, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of showing that any given author (or their “brand”) carries enough gloss, and inspires enough rabid devotion in their fanbase, to hold a consistently high price point with no marked sales drop-off. That there are, as it were, “luxury” authors and “everyday” authors. Even in the wild world of - and this deserves air quotes - “literary” and “highbrow” writing (“Read that? It won the Booker; of course I haven’t read it, oh ho ho”), I’m not aware of any firm data around pricing (generally high, as far as I know) and sales (generally low), and whether there’s any such thing in the grim reaches where we plebs ply our trades.

The issue with a downward drift in pricing as standard is not that it’s impossible to earn lots of cash with it - or to find lots of readers with it - though data from Digital Book World’s annual surveys consistently suggests that it’s very difficult to do so for many authors - as does at least some of the Author Earnings Report data when looked at by DBW’s Dana Weinberg (the regular AERs don’t touch on that in their standard analyses), but that by trying to drive sales/readership, and thus income for work done, solely by discounting, you’re ever so slowly poisoning the well. That those discount promotional prices will eventually have to be your regular prices. That your per-unit margins will be cents, not dollars, and that new writers entering the business with no pre-existing platform will find it even harder than it already is to get themselves read and supported in a way that materially encourages them to keep going, and to get better and to produce more great stuff.

Now, this is in large part due to the nature of the market: there are a huge number of books being written (not a bad thing in and of itself), greater choice for readers than ever before (equally so, problems of discovery aside), and consequently an oversupply of books in general and apparent downward price pressure because everyone knows bargains are what sells, and that means out-bargaining a hundred thousand other people. (There’s a separate argument to suggest that writers - and readers - perhaps shouldn’t, and perhaps wouldn’t, look at the broad spread of the market as a whole but look only at the supply/demand for their own work as a separate entity.) And some of what I’ve just said is, of course, speculation. It involves, as every tedious business press release says, forward-looking statements.

But that’s neither here nor there; the argument is whether or not routine low pricing causes a slow drop in perceived value. And the fundamentals of that argument - those parts based on consumer behavior - have an evidence-based background. You can argue freely whether low price expectations - and lower prices - will cause authors to flourish, to struggle, or to find some happy equilibrium in the middle, whether they’re ultimately good or bad for readers. That’s largely guesswork and philosophy and probably doesn’t have anything like a single answer. It’s far harder to argue against the notion that discounting and targeting readership through low price points will inevitably lead to the average (from which “low”, “fair” and “high” are judged) falling slowly but inexorably over time as a result of consumer perception.

That, on the majority of occasions I’ve seen it used, is what the claim is about, not some nebulous “what is a book worth to society?” waffle.

And while we’re here

There’s another “zombie meme” I wish would get an airing, related to this: “ebook sales aren’t a zero-sum game”. It’s true that just because Reader A buys Book X it doesn’t mean they won’t buy Book Y as well, and that the lower the standard price of such a thing goes, the more likely it is they’ll be able to dispose of their income that way. Even at 3-5 dollars a throw, ebooks are cheap, the expense relatively throwaway when compared to other entertainment sources. They take time to read, though, and time is far more limited.

You ride the train an hour a day getting to and from work, and you spend most of that reading, say. That’s your reading time budget, and it’s a lot tighter than your cash budget ever will be. You might be able to afford to buy a dozen novels a week without noticing it, especially at low/freebie sale prices. You’ll still only be able to read one, and then next week there’s a dozen more on the carousel. If you never get round to reading Author Z’s first book, however much you would’ve liked it if you had, well, you probably won’t pick up the next, not deliberately anyway.

Even if you’re measuring a book’s value by its being read and appreciated, not cost/author income, a glut of cheap reading material doesn’t increase reading time beyond the minority who wouldn’t otherwise read because of cost factors.

Joe links to this Mintel release from last year about UK ebook buying and reading. You can draw some extrapolations from the figures there, and they’re less cheery than you might think. 26% of people who bought an ebook in 2013-14 said they were reading more than they used to. 21% of Brits overall bought a fiction ebook in that time (63% of women, 48% of men; presumably “of those who bought an ebook of any type”, otherwise the numbers make no sense). Therefore only ~9% (rough guess, assuming they had a vaguely even gender split) of the population are reading more than they used to, while 32% haven’t bought a book in the past year, only 12% of whom because of the cost, 21% because they don’t have the time, and 34% because they don’t have the interest in reading.

While these are only the reasons respondents didn’t read at all, I think it’s probably a fair extrapolation to say that time (or perceived time) is probably therefore already more of a hard limit than money, and it’s one that’s very much finite in scope. Even the wealthiest reader - or any unoccupied reader in a world of zero-cost books - only has 16-18 waking hours to spend reading, and at some point one author will lose out to another.

Disclaimer 1: It’s very late as I write this and I’m sure I’ve drifted off-point by the end. My apologies for that.

Disclaimer 2: I have ebooks available and they’re free (here) or as near-as-I-can on Amazon and I’m therefore a vicious hypocrite. They’re old material, and I’d rather remove as many barriers to access as possible than figure out the economics of them, so I’m happy with that decision. I’m still adding to the problem, of course.


Like a proton torpedo streaking towards a ray-shielded exhaust port, I’m away. Which also means I’ve been reading. Some has been rereading - Gibson’s excellent THE PERIPHERAL and the also excellent (though I’d be interested in an updated version now 3-man defences are back at least partially in vogue, rather undermining one of its later arguments) INVERTING THE PYRAMID - and some has been delicious, fresh wordmeat. Short reviews follow.

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)

Blood Meridian

Loved THE ROAD. Loved NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Gave BLOOD MERIDIAN up about halfway through. Not because of the violence (which, even if that sort of thing bothered me, is fairly mild, certainly compared to some of that in THE ROAD, even with the odd scalping), not because of the grimness (again, THE ROAD has it beat overall despite the bleakness of the desert), but because I was bored and had nothing invested in the main character, or any of the minor ones.

Moss et al. are great in NO COUNTRY, and the man and boy in THE ROAD are what keep you pushing on, hoping they’ll make it, but the kid here is a blank. He’s a borderline psychopath, unaffected by anything around him (the closest he comes to an emotional response anywhere in that stretch is getting angry when a Mexican tavern owner refuses to give him a drink after he’s swept the floor), and his detachment from events left me equally detached. Without any reason to give a shit about what he experienced, there’s nothing about the story to keep me going - it’s functionally a road trip through Texas, Mexico etc. with no underlying narrative to it; he just does whatever turns up as it turns up, just because.

And yes, people are monsters and times are tough. But without anyone to identify with, who cares?

The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi)

The Water Knife

Times are also tough in the Arizona (and other Colorado River basin states) of the drought-ridden near future, where states war over water rights and Phoenix is the next city to be facing extinction. Thankfully, in former blood-rag journalist Lucy, Texan refugee Maria, and ’water knife’ operative Angel, working for the ruthless ’queen’ of Nevada, there are three really strong, varied characters to experience the slow collapse through, and in the MacGuffin that gets one of Lucy’s friends brutally murdered - ancient senior rights that could see their holder switch off the taps for anyone anywhere along the river - there’s an overriding dramatic driver for the plot.

(Not that those rights are a perfect MacGuffin; I can’t see how anyone is able to claim them just by owning the paper they’re printed on when surely they’re a contract between the parties in question. Small quibble, though.)

The world created by Bacigalupi is harsh, violent and largely entirely believable, and there’s plenty of nuance to the characters and their situations. If I were to gripe, I’m not sure the final set of betrayals and standoffs at the end was entirely necessary - after a lot of such things already - and the climax is perhaps a little convenient on the whole. That’s splitting hairs, though. This is good stuff and well worth reading.

Next up, because I’ve somehow failed to forgotten to copy Jay’s latest onto my phone, is Don Winslow’s THE CARTEL. Apparently, terrible things on the US/Mexican border is a running theme. Won’t have as much reading time soon, though; back from break and back to work next week.

Writers' rooms

Clearing out old files and found this, written to be copy/pasted into a Facebook comment on, IIRC, a link to (mostly, but not entirely) the most staggeringly pretentious load of old toss by writers on their chosen environments. It deserves saving, I think. This, then, would be my entry, in the same style (in reality, I like the pub just fine, thanks) as the originals:

“The Crown hostelry in which I sit has probably been here in one form or another for the best part of a hundred years, and at least two of the barely-functional alcoholics snarling what’s either deep-seated political commentary or jokes about the other’s parentage in what I take to be a fantastic and near-dead language have, I suspect, been in it for most of that time. My desk is chipboard under an unconvincing walnut veneer and I’m sitting on a wobbly chair probably only moments from splintering and dropping me on my behind in a cascade of swearing and spilt drink. There’s a single tealight holder on the table - not a present from anyone, and certainly not antique, but nonetheless possessing an unmistakeable air of mystery: I’ve been in or walked past here on all nights and in all weathers, and never once have I ever seen candlelight. Occasionally my eyes stray for inspiration to the magnificent view of the fruit machine under the TV, and the dead, hollow eyes of Noel Edmonds staring back at me, challenging me, defying me once again to cross into that sacred realm where inspiration and pure words combine, the vast and singular well from which I draw, slowly, delicately, afraid lest each should fall and shatter against the scratched wood flooring, every phrase, every utterance of my award-winning dinosaur erotica.

The alcoholic laughs. Trina, the barmaid, suggests he do something unlikely with his proposition. Bubbles pop inaudibly at the pinnacle of my glass. Noel stares at me, unblinking and unswayed. I compose my fingers on the keyboard.

Challenge accepted, old friend.”

(John Rickards’ latest, ‘Boffed By The Brachiosaur’, in which a failed poet seeking solace in the Amazon gets more than she bargained for, is out now through Morning Cock Press.)