The Nameless Horror

Of Work And The Race Against Children

Something like a month and a half ago, a little more maybe, I started work on YA Alien Book (which has a proper working title, but I don’t want to jinx it and have some other fucker steal it) with the aim of getting as much done as possible before the baby arrives. This is a tight deadline in anyone’s books, especially for anyone who’s also a parent and who has a near-term pregnant other half.

I hit a hitch a few weeks ago, realising that a chunk of what I’d planned was basically as lame as a pirate with two wooden legs, each designed for other pirates of wildly different height. Some reorganising later, and the situation was saved, at the cost of some lost time figuring out how.

And so, last night, I reached the end of the main plotline, all 29-ish chapters of it. I have skipped a handful on the way, and left some others not-quite done, but I nevertheless hit the finale. That’s the bones of the story all in place, whether or not they’ve all been properly fleshed out. This is good; psychologically, apart from anything else, I’m now effectively editing a book, even if in terms of word count it’s only half there. It also means that when I’m trying to work through the fatigue and brain-lock of the next few weeks with a newborn, I’m not going to be struggling to remember what I was trying to do where. (Which happens quite a lot if I’m not careful; there’s a brief hallucination sequence at the start of BURIAL GROUND which I plainly intended to do something with, but promptly forgot all about and never recalled where I’d been running with it. I only left it in because I liked it.)

There are also three sub-stories with other characters, which are effectively independent of the main, although they do cross over in parts. Each is essentially its own short story of (a planned) 6-7.5k words, or 4-5 chapters. Two of those 14 chapters are written as I type this, as is an intro not directly connected with any of the others.

All in all, I’m happy with where I’ve been able to reach in the past couple of months, even if the thing’s only half written and still liberally sprinkled with notes to self telling me what a shit writer I am.

Onwards!

Sure, there are probably somewhere between six and a dozen quite important theoretical astrophysicists around the world who would have been thrilled at the news (after all, the diamond planet fills a gap in the binary pulsar family). But in the overall scheme of things, it isn’t that important. And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live. In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers. Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been. How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

How do you teach a kid to be able to make a sound judgment about what is and what isn’t reliable information? How do you synthesize that into a coherent position that allows you to make informed decisions about your life? In other words, all of those things we think of as school were shaped for a vision of work and productivity and adulthood that was very much an industrial age of work, productivity and adulthood. We now have a pretty different idea of work, productivity and adulthood, but we’re still teaching people using the same institutionalized forms of education.

I Don't Know How They All Do It

Today: I was awake just before 7am with Aidan. By eight, I’d built train track, fed cats, washed up, put on a load of laundry, made him breakfast, and read dinosaur books. After Future Wife - still no sign of Future Offspring making an imminent appearance, FWIW - rose at 10ish, we went to town and I did errands while she dealt with the newly-discovered flat tire on the car. Then apple-picking at her mum’s all afternoon, more dinosaurs, I fixed her mum’s computer, came home, got everyone dinner from a fish and chip shop in the rain (in lieu of cooking, I admit), showered, got him washed and brushed, bedtime story and done. Then downstairs again, clear away train track, have a cup of coffee and QI, buy him some trousers and finally get down to try to write 1-2,000 words post nine o’clock. Tomorrow I’ll be baking apple pie.

Don’t get a fucking Sarah Jessica Parker movie made about me/us, though.

Lessons In Plotting 4: Editing

They say you can’t edit an empty page, that it’s best to get words down first and then hack them into some semblance of readability afterwards. And to an extent, both are true.

And also untrue.

You see, you can edit an empty page. Imagine you’ve just written a page of total balls. Utter garbage. It’s a scene, but not in that, “Hey, what an awesome scene!” way you want - in that “Sir, you’re making a scene” way you don’t. If you know, before you write that scene, that what you write will be such balls (because you don’t have the mechanics of the thing clear in your head, because it ties to something earlier that you’re not sure you’re going to keep anyway, because OMFG YOU HAVE PSYCHIC POWERS DUDE YOU SHOULD TELL ME THE LOTTERY NUMBERS, etc.), and if you know what’ll be coming after, you might as well skip it. It’s rubbish. Pretend you have written it, and that you’ve deleted it. Move on to the next one.

So long as you’re not skipping too much, it’s like you’re pre-editing your writing. Yes, you’ll have to do it from scratch at some point, but it’s less work than doing it badly to start with and then rewriting half afterwards to get to the same level. 50% better, in fact. By the time you’re done with a book, your voice is usually there and your post-written material is likely to be stronger than its earlier brethren.

If you get the hang of recognising ahead of time when you’re about to go typing up Shit Alley and avoiding it, it’ll also greatly improve your first draft standards. Kiss goodbye to deleting and redoing 30,000 words at a stretch. Yes, it will probably stretch out the writing time a little to begin with, but you’ll save more in editing time after.

I vaguely recall, through a haze of opium and Taiwanese prostitutes, Alan Moore talking about his early days in comics when deadlines were exceptionally tight and there was no time whatsoever for anything more than the most cursory tweaks to a script. Your first draft, effectively, had to be your only draft. The notion gives many writers the shudders, but I’ve some (less pressurised) experience of the same thing waaaaaay back in my brick shed shipping journalism days, if some dipshit work-for-hire freelancer couldn’t cough up the thing they’d promised on print day and muggins here had to crank out 1,500 words on comparative marine paint technologies without any time for oversight at all. Get it right first time by knowing when you’re about to fuck up.

This, therefore, shall be referred to as the Comparative Marine Paint Technology Rule. Or the Alan Moore Rule, if you’re weird.