A sneak peek at “Sympathy for the Devil”

Since April I’ve been writing a novel which I’ve heretofore called a “secret project”, simply because I had no title for it.

Around early August I hit upon a title: Sympathy for the Devil. And at the same time I finished the first draft of the novel. It was a quick turnaround for a first draft: about 4 months, writing in my spare time outside work.

During August I rested the material and started writing some new material for Sympathy, with the intention of matching it up when I started editing. I find this an important exercise when writing – it gives me an opportunity to ‘brain dump’ material that never quite made it into the first rush through the narrative, or which might give clues for editing or character or plot development.

Longer-time readers will know that I occasionally publish rejected material for my books, and I’m repeating that habit here. Pasted in below is a rejected Chapter One for Sympathy. There’s nothing wrong per se with the writing, except for one thing: the tone and voice of the material, and the narrative perspective, doesn’t fit the rest of the book. This rejected Chapter One is written from a 3rd person omniscient point of view, whereas the rest is from a 1st person. And this text includes a confused amount of the unique voice of the main character. On which note, a warning: the main character’s voice is in poor grammar, so you’ll see wrong words in places. These are deliberate, not typos. Spelling mistakes are typos, but poor grammar isn’t.

I owe a debt of thanks to my writing circle for convincing me to reject this material.

If you’re still reading by this point, and want a sneak peek at Sympathy for the Devil, then here you go. This is the real background to the novel, but the material won’t make it into the final edit.

Enjoy,

astro x

Sympathy for the Devil:

[REJECTED & UNEDITED]

Chapter One – 1984 CE, 1945 CE, 61 CE

It started in many places. Three, if you want to focus. But who’s to say they was more important than another three? Let me pick one for you, though, my love. Because you’re new to this and you want to know what’s going on, ain’t I right?

Now how do I know where it started, you’re wondering? Me and all. Well, there’s some things what you just know. Know what I mean?

It started up north in Yorkshire in 1984CE, when Little Ruthie put up her hand and said, “My dad says there’s no such thing as G-d. He says there’s no need for G-d in nineteen eighty four.”

Mr. Sowerby, who was her teacher, held his hand behind his back. Between thumb and forefinger he squeezed the stick of compressed skeletons what he wrote confused facts with about people long since dead. “Does he now? I know your dad. Taught him in this very classroom, Miss Willoughby.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“He,”

“But he does say that Margaret Thatcher is the devil.”

“Really?” Squeeze. “And who is the Saviour, then?” A smile full of pride on his face.

“Mr. Scargill, dad says.”

“That donkey jacketed,” squeeze, but she interrupted again.

“Sir, my dad says Manvers will never be closed. That’s why Mr. Scargill’s got them to walk out. To keep it open.”

“So he’s a picket, is he? Always was a trouble maker. You listen to me. Your dad could have had a proper job, rather than being buried underground ten hours a day hitting rocks. Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t need uneducated oafs. It needs people with O levels and ambition. Britain needs strivers, not miners.”

You can imagine him thinking, There, that shut her up. Ten years old and full of herself.

“Sir?”

“Miss. Willoughby.”

“My dad says Mrs. Thatcher is a complete,”

“We’ve all heard quite enough from you, Miss Willoughby. Let’s return to your religious,”

“When I’m Prime Minister I’ll re-open Manvers.”

Little Ruthie ducked as the chalk flew over her head and shattered on the wall behind her. It made a high pitched chink when it struck the tiled floor, where it rolled from side to side to side to side. Children looked every which way.

“There’ll be no presumption in this class, you hear me? This is a religious education lesson. I am in control.”

O’d faces all around the class. No one had ever seen Sowerby mad.

Little Ruthie looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.

“Enough!” he shouted.

“I’m telling my dad on you.”

“Tell him all you like. If you can get him off the picket line. These strikers care more about coal than they do their families. Now, anyone else wish to discuss the politics of Communists? No? Good. Then please open your bibles to the Book of Job.”

Little Ruthie flicked through the pages. Her eyes was out the window, on the distant colliery where the wheel no longer turned. No fun fairs went to Wath, not any more. The only spinning lights came from the riot vans at the coal plant.

One day, she thought, one day I’ll prove my dad’s right.

And it started in London in 1945CE, where it carried on decades later. And sometimes for startings, names ain’t so important, not now and not after.

“Let’s see,” said the girl. “Is it really Mr. Churchill?”

“He’s with someone. Who is it?”

“Shh, shh, he’s gonna speak.” The girl craned her neck.

“He’s done us ever so proud,” said someone nearby.

“It’s his victory what’s freed us,” said a woman close to the girl.

“We should all say that, eh?” said the girl. “Shout at him, ‘It’s your victory!’”

“’It’s your victory.’ I like that. Here, mate, you hear what she said?”

And so on through the crowd.

Winston Churchill took the balcony of the Ministry of Health, abet by two colleagues. The skies were finally clear. That nice Mr. Hitler’s bombs and doodlebugs and V2 rockets were silent, his scientists fled to America to dream of space and rocket ships.

“Here he goes, shh shh,” said the girl.

On different sides of the throng of people, two men dressed almost identically started pushing their way in. They thought very similar thoughts and were headed for the same point in the crowd. Each was in a smart wool suit, fedora, Mackintosh coat. Even in the crowds they cut a dash, while their eyes and elbows cut a swathe. One was tall, the other short. From a distance that was the only difference.

“G-d bless you all. This is your victory!” said Winston Churchill from the balcony.

“No, it is yours!” shouted the crowd. People looked around at each other. They’d done it, said the thing all together. There was that spirit, still working together, singing the same message. They all cheered. It was a new dawn, a new day. Britain was a community, working together to defeat National Socialism. Now Britain was victorious, triumphant.

Churchill looked down at the crowds of people: nurses, labourers, soldiers, children.

“It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land,” he continued. “In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

In the crowd, the two men pushed, separately, through hugging friends and wormed through strangers bonded over that singular moment of triumph.

“Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. G-d bless you all.”

Applause. Cheers. Hats thrown in the air in that way what don’t happen no more. London in celebration, a nation glued to its valve-radios and memories of steamer ships and Victorian colonies. Flags flipped back and forth, hearts swelled with pride, relief and grief and loss.

In the crowd there was a surge, and it pushed a gentleman against the girl.

Further back, another gentleman looked on, eyes flat. He tipped his hat and turned: it was too late. He would have to wait. He disappeared into the crowd, melted away into London and the world and future plans.

She, the girl, looked round, briefly, at the contact. People pushing didn’t bother her. It was a crowd. Besides, she thought, it was gentle and felt nice. Sort of cosy, like. And she knew the cues, the signals, how her profession worked.

Churchill carried on talking, but the girl had places to go. There was money to earn, bread to put on a table. She turned and looked up into a smile and a twinkle.

“Quite the speaker, isn’t he?” said the man behind her. Nice hat, she thought. Nice suit.

“Did you hear what he said?” she smiled back. “We all done our best. No one ever said that before. Least not to me.”

The man looked into her eyes, “I wonder if a victory gin would be appropriate?”

“For you or for me?”

“For us both.”

“Sauce. Don’t even know you.”

“Perhaps,” and he leaned until his breath stroked the fine hair on her earlobe, “today demands the spirit of triumph, rather than the spirit of propriety.”

She looked at him, her hands fiddling with a purse, irises never quite settling in one place. “Where was you stationed?” she asked. “Gotta know you’re respectable, ain’t I?”

“North Africa, originally,” he said, and pulled back, adjusting his hat.

“Rommel and Montgomery?” she weren’t quite sure who they were. Surviving the Blitz and keeping up with what was happening over in France had taken all her time. But everyone knew the names, and it had always been enough to strike up a conversation with other clients.

“Something like that,” the man smiled. “What’s your name?”

She tugged his tie, gently, gently smiling, “No names today, Mr. Desert Fox. Gin and triumph only. Alright?”

He offered his arm, and they fought their way out of a cheering crowd.

They drank in a little place he knew, and then went to a quiet back street hotel where they saw in the dawn.

By the morning he was gone. Despite her insistence that the night was a celebration, there was still a pile of money on the dresser. “Bloody men,” she whispered.

A knock on the door, “You’ve had your fun. Ten minutes, then I call the police. Back to normal, missy. This is a respectable place.”

The girl pulled her clothes on and picked up the money. “Bloody Nora,” and she looked to the window, even though she knew he wouldn’t be outside, standing by a lamp-post, looking up at the window, waiting for a reaction. “Gin and triumph,” she whispered. She left behind the stained and crumpled bed sheets, and entered that new world with a swing in her step and a seed in her belly.

And it started somewhere above Watford, in Northamptonshire, long before it were called that in 64CE. It were somewhere along the Fosse Way, after the sacking of Londinium and Camulodonum and Verulamium. Bodies of Romans strew the land. And the warriors of the Iceni and Trinovantes and the other tribes lay with them, their blood seeping into the mystical land of northern Europe, that land what the Greeks called Albion. Cos sometimes stories don’t start all together. Sometimes you gotta go way back to the roots, ain’t ya?

“We are defeated.”

“My Queen, the Romans are too many and too strong. It’s impossible. Their ships arrive every day with more soldiers.”

“Send word Corslan. Despatch a rider to the Fair Folk. Then tell the tribal chieftans. Those who want to remain may do so. But we will take our armies and those who will come with us, and retreat.”

“My lady?”

“We retreat to Tír inna n-Óc until the time is right.”

“Retreat? But the Romans will spread and take Britain.”

“We will abide. The Fair Folk will provide a champion. When the time is right we will win back Ierne and Albion from the foreign invaders.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Albion will endure.”

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, ten year old Yorkshire lass. Hair pulled back under an Alice-band. School bag decorated with pins for Bananarama and Adam and the Ants.

The streets of Wath-upon-Dearne was decorated with banners, “SUPPORT THE MINERS”.

Policemen walked around in pairs or sat in riot vans, bored, waiting for something to happen. Pissy little mining towns with their upstart miners. Why couldn’t they just get other jobs?

Men in donkey jackets stood at braziers, watching pathetic flames lick at the cold air. The great chimney at the colliery was quiet, its usual belch settled in its belly. The men grumbled about the lack of jobs, and talked about the families what had moved south, to the factories of the Midlands. One family had even moved to the south coast to open a bed and breakfast. Not one of the men could bring themselves to call those who’d gone traitors. But still the word floated in the air between them, missing its lightning rod. Traitors. Traitors. Traitors.

“It’s John’s girl,” one of the men nodded his head at Little Ruthie. “John! Your lass is here.”

John Willoughby was stood in a group of miners, a confabulation.

“Ruthie, come ‘ere love,” suddenly all smiles for his daughter.

Over their shoulders, the coal ramps were still. The site was asleep, the workers was outside and above ground, and the coal slumbered in its bed.

“Bring her along, John. She should see,” said one of the other men.

“You want to come to Orgreaves, Ruthie? We’re going on a demo up Rotherham way.”

“OK.”

“It might be a bit scary. Lots of pigs around.”

Little Ruthie held her dad’s hand. The callouses and ground-in coal dust were home, her tiny hand was soft and clean, now smudged with that solid fuel that burns so well. She could smell her dad a mile away, the pit was in his lungs and his bones.

“Will Margaret Thatcher be there?”

“Trained her well, John!” shouted the men behind him. They laughed and turned away.

“No, she won’t come up here. Them politicians don’t care, Ruthie. We have to care instead. Listen, don’t tell your mam we’re away to Orgreaves, you know how she is.”

“I’ll say I’m at Nanny and Granda’s, don’t worry.”

“There’s my girl.”

A coach pulled up. Men moved and shared cigarettes, small roll-ups which drooped and went flat between their fingers.

Little Ruthie climbed onto the bus, the only girl amongst those grown-up men, strikers, pit workers.

Little Ruthie went on the bus to Orgreaves, her first demonstration.

Ten year old Little Ruthie darted between the legs of policemen and strikers alike, avoiding the truncheons and flung stones.

Little Ruthie hid behind a police car, hating its protection, and watched her dad struck, fall to the floor, blood on the tarmac and flow between its cracks where grass pushed up, ever hopeful.

Ten year old Little Ruthie hated Margaret Thatcher.

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, cradled her dad, John Willoughby, while he held his cut head and looked at his blood on the soil of his country. “Never forget, Ruthie,” he said, all the way to the hospital, and all the way home. “Never forget.”

The girl quit her old job. Not that there was a boss to tell. She just stopped turning up at the regular places.

The man had left her more money than she earned in three years. Five. She bought a house, decorated, bought plants. Started a small allotment. Dig for victory! still rang in her mind.

She took up sewing work.

Well, she had to. She knew almost immediately that the gin and triumph of victory in Europe had become motherhood and hope. The other girls told her about back street doctors, about women who had gin and coat hangers and hot baths and towels.

“No. It’s a new start,” she told them.

And forty weeks later, she gave birth in that small house, and as the midwife was tidying her room, the man walked in and sat down. Bold as brass. Nary a word nor letter in between before and then.

“Mr. Desert Fox,” she said, hair slick to her forehead. The baby was clamped to her nipple, gumming it, blind, a maggot squirming in swaddling. “Had a feeling you’d be back.”

“Wild horses and all that. So, boy or girl?” He took a seat from the opposite side of the room and put it next to the bed. No other introduction or by your leave. No explanation. Straight in, treated the place like it was his. Which.

“Girl,” said the girl. Woman now. Mother.

“She’s perfect,” said the midwife. “Don’t mind me, I’ll be on my way. I’ll pop in tomorrow, see how you are. Good day,” a professional nod to the man. She saw similar things every day. A baby boom, she called it. The Victory Effect, others said.

“You left me alone at that hotel,” said the woman, mother. She stared at her daughter’s face, the gummy eyes.

“Duty called.”

“It’s OK. Thank you for,” she looked at the walls of the house and around. “What shall we call her?”

Straight away, “Lucy. The light bearer. The morning star.”

“Morning star, I like that. Here, Lucy, meet your father.”

The man held his daughter and looked into her face, “Lucy. You’re going to run this country one day.”

“You can hold her a bit longer,” said the woman, “I need my sleep. Do you mind?”

“Of course not.” The man walked away with the baby and left the mother to sleep.

When the midwife returned the following day, she found the woman still in bed, propped up on pillows. Her face was serene. Possibly the most beautiful face the midwife had ever seen. Not for her natural beauty; she was plain at best. But for the look of deep contentment and peace which had settled over her.

Shame, thought the midwife. The bed sheets was already turning black, the blood dried to a resin.

“Haemorrhage,” the midwife shook her head. “Where’s little miss? She’ll need a wet nurse.”

But the baby weren’t anywhere to be seen.

“My lady. We have what villagers will come. Some of our warriors have chosen to stay.”

“Very well. And the Romans?”

“Sending heralds to the other tribes. They will soon know of our defeat.”

“Queen Boudicca is never defeated.”

“No, my lady.”

Queen Boudicca looked over a stone fence at the rolling green of Albion. “I have a final mission for you. This is your life’s work.”

“My lady?”

“My son. I’m appointing you as his protector, Corslan.”

“I’m honoured. But,”

“I am not going with you. I am the last of the Iceni. Britain goes under Roman rule. But promise me one thing, Corslan, Steward of Britain.”

He said nothing, instead standing straighter and looking to the horizon.

“These islands, Albion and Ierne, will soon be over-run with Romans and their gods. The Fair Folk have agreed to grant you the power of Tír inna n-Óc. We will absorb the Romans, they will become British, and we will win the slow victory. But others will come behind them. New people, new gods. Defend our lands, Corslan, defend Britain against the darkness, against chaos, against anyone who does not hold our values.”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“And when the time is right, put my son on the throne of this land.”

“And what about you?”

She reached out, a muddy hand in a misty field on a young captain’s shoulder. He became a Queen’s knight, “I will become myth. Legend. We shall not meet again. But my spirit will be in this land evermore.”

Corslan kept his gaze on the horizon, “The morning star is risen.”

“Sunrise approaches. Take our people. Protect my son.”

“He shall take the throne, Queen Boudicca. For Albion.”

“For Albion.”

[end]

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Backpackers – deleted material

This week I returned to my completed novel Backpackers and re-wrote the prologue and first chapter.

It seems like a strange thing to do, considering I had strongly believed it finished and in its best possible form. I have sent it to a score of publishers. Oops.

Rather predictably I have fallen foul of the lesson that we all need to learn as writers – rest your material before you proclaim it finished. I knew this, but I was so intent on finishing the book and getting it to publishers before I went back to full time work that I blinded myself.

Lately, on my long commutes to my new job, I started running the book through my head, thinking about it, testing parts of the story. And I realised that the opening chapter was letting it down. The changes I’ve made aren’t enormous – it essentially amounts to a re-structure of the material, to bring some of the tension and conflict at the end of the chapter right up front, and cutting out 6 pages, and writing in 6 pages of fresh material.

The material I cut out was a “darling”. Most writers will have heard the editing advice, “kill your darlings”. My darling was the original short story which spawned the entire Backpackers novel. I had kept it in for a year, because it was the seed, and it helped set out part of Cath, the protagonist’s character. She’s a story teller, a mischievous fun loving party girl. What I realised was that the diversion into the short story (which is presented as a story that Cath tells) diverts the story from establishing the conflict it needs. The reader is set up with too many stories to think about.

But! Not wanting to lose it, I thought I would upload the material here and allow people to download it for free, specifically so that writers can compare the kind of material I cut out, and see how that applies to their own writing.

Here is the Backpackers – old opening file.

Contacting agents

I recently finished my 2nd novel, Backpackers. It’s a road journey / coming of age story, about a 20 year old Australian girl who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. She leaves her home to backpack around south east Asia, and her experiences there highlight her inner struggle to cope with life as a single-parent child.

Now that the book is finished, critiqued by my writing circle at every step of the way, and with feedback from some amazing readers(*), I’m about ready to send it to literary agents.

This is the second time I’ve sent a manuscript to literary agents. Last year I sent an early draft of my scifi novel, planetfall, to two agents. That was a test run, really. I didn’t know if the novel was ready – I hadn’t really developed my internal editor that well – and I was lucky to receive lengthy feedback from one agent giving positive feedback, but asking for it to be developed a little more.

This time I feel more confident about my manuscript. Backpackers is a stronger book. It’s really benefited from being critiqued at each stage of the writing, and I’ve really benefited from opening up my writing process. planetfall was written in its entirety before I showed it to anyone. Backpackers had just 3 chapters written before I showed it to others. And I received some very awkward questions which made me question deeply my main character’s relationship with her father, which lies at the core of the book.

Contacting agents is now a more confident affair. I have no idea if they’ll like it, but I at least am proud of the book. It made me cry while writing it, and cry each time I edited it. I was pleased when readers wrote back with the same comment – that they cried at certain points, that the book had emotionally affected them. There is no greater compliment I can think of, that something I wrote affected people busy with their own lives, enough to prick their eyes to tears.

And so to agents. I’m reading through their websites, despairing at the ones who insist on printed submissions, and delighted with the ones open to email submissions.

I’m currently developing my synopsis and cover letter. And when I have a few more readers’ comments in, and a final polishing edit, I’ll be ready to submit Backpackers to those who can make or break. But whatever those agents decide, I am proud of my little book about young adults travelling in exotic climes and experiencing the growing pains that make us rounded, mature adults. It’s fun, traumatic, exciting, tense, emotional and ultimately affirming.

I hope one day you get to read it, too.

(* many of the readers were sourced on Twitter. They are people I don’t know other than through their tweets, which has meant more objective reader feedback than friends may give. I would like to pay credit to those who volunteered to read a stranger’s book and give honest feedback, and by dint of this, point out how amazing Twitter is when used properly.)

Updating the storyboard

The previous blog post was all about editing. How I have several editing passes, which includes typing up from written notes, reading on screen, printing out and going through with a red pen, and the final vocal edit – reading the work out loud.

I think I also wrote about going back to some more character based blogs – about specific characters from planetfall book 1. I will go into those in the next week or so. However, while it’s on my mind (actually, on the desk in front of me) I want to go back to storyboards.

For anyone new to the blog, I draw out a storyboard which describes the overall story structure: key points in the plot. I have no idea what happens in between. As I write I feel my way between those plot points, and that’s where the fun is.

I also write in long hand quite regularly, in Moleskine notebooks. Every time I start a new notebook, I copy the storyboard into it, so that I always have it inside the current notebook to refer to. Sometimes when I’m copying I realise that small details have changed within the storyboard. Sometimes these changes are large, sometimes they are incidental.

Tonight I was copying the storyboard into my current Moleskine and realised that, as I’d been writing from my memory of the storyboard and writing what seemed natural to the story, I’d drifted slightly from the storyboard I’d established some months ago. Here is a pic showing the difference between the original (left) and new (right) storyboard for a particular key plot point:

Storyboard image

Original and new storyboard frame

Now let’s tackle one issue first: I can’t draw, and you shouldn’t expect to understand exactly what you’re looking at! So let’s describe this slightly. In both pictures you see a figure falling through the sky (the shared stick man figure). You can even see some sort of animated speed lines (the two lines going up, with cross hatching across them). This much is the same. So what’s changed?

This scene is key to the books. It shows the “planetfall” which the main character in book 2 takes, and from which planetfall takes its name. (And so for me there is huge pressure to get this scene right.) Originally, on the left, the protagonist was to fall over a verdant planet, swathed in grasslands and prairies, with a river glittering below, a blue snake across the landscape. You can see hints of this in the curved shape in the left hand panel’s upper right area. Small squares along the river’s side are suggestions of buildings, conurbations.

In the right hand panel this is gone. As I wrote, as the protagonist approached this planet, as it made planetfall, the river, the grasslands, the buildings all disappeared. Now there is a crashed ship (the black blob, with the broken lines behind it a gouge in the planet’s surface) to which the protagonist is making planetfall.

This changes things.

The subsequent panel in the storyboard shows some issues around the buildings identified in the left hand panel. Now this has to go. The action has to transfer to this crashed ship.

But can the action remain the same? What was supposed to be in those buildings? Whose buildings were they? Alien or human? And the ship, whose is it? Again, alien or human? Why is there no river now? If there are no buildings, does that mean there is no oversight? If there is no oversight, does that change the scene’s dynamics?

There are consequences to the decisions made in writing. Not all of these decisions are deliberate – the writing often decides where it’s going.

Now I have to follow this path and find out where it goes. As I copy up the rest of the storyboard, I have to think about how it changes. Does it change? Should it change? Does a small change in this panel have any effect beyond the subsequent panel? Or is it a wrinkle that will be smoothed by the overall story structure?

More, perhaps, soon…

(And next time, I promise to get back to some character-based blogging.)

 

Editing planetfall

The last blog post was a little light relief, a short description of the pens and notebooks I use when I write. (But hey, you got some photos with it.)

This blog post follows up on that, and will lead back to the technical issues of writing creatively. I’ll get back to writing about particular characters in planetfall after this blog post.

I normally start writing long hand. Not always, but most of the time. I do this for several reasons. First, writing can be quite lonely, and writing long hand is best done in a cafe where I can be surrounded by people (ha! and look mysterious and author-ly). Second, when I’m trying to find those first few words, the mechanical nature of moving my hand back and forth across the page feels more interactive than having my fingers hover over a keyboard, watching that blinking sentinel of a black cursor on a white laptop page glare at me. Third, I like to draw.

Now let’s explain this drawing thing. I can’t draw like an artist. There are no secret sketch books filled with pen-and-ink compositions waiting to be discovered. No, in that sense, photography is my creative, visual outlet (see my photography on Flickr). Ever since I was a teenager writing in English Language classes, I have doodled first before starting to write. I’ve written previously about storyboarding planetfall, which combines my habit of doodling with my approach to starting writing.

When I start to write a sentence in a fresh writing session, I often sit and doodle. But these days, in my Moleskines, I doodle without touching the page. I wave the pen nib over the paper and sketch invisible patterns. I see blank lines form traces over the yellow-ish page of the Moleskine, and as quick as they’re formed, they fade. This, combined with the hubbub of background chatter, forms a sort of audio-visual white noise, quietening competing thoughts and dimming distracting inner eye pictures. At some point while waving this pen-as-magic wand, the nib will be attracted to the page, the doodling loops will form the recognisable sigils of letters, I will see the scene in my head, and it will download to my hand and onto the page.

It is because of this process that I prefer to start writing stories and each fresh writing session by hand. I can get to a similar point on a laptop, but it takes a while. It’s generally only after having typed for some minutes that I can see through the laptop screen – well, let’s get this right, that I stop seeing the laptop screen and letters appearing one by one – to the movie playing out in my head, and can access that download sensation.

Which brings me onto editing.

Once I’ve written in long hand, I return to my flat and type up the writing. This allows me a first pass at editing. While reading the long hand and stumbling with my fingers over the keyboard, I notice missing words, clunky sentences, half-completed thoughts, uncompleted cross-references, areas where the scene is sketched but not coloured in. It is this process which acts as a first edit and a first chance at re-writing.

The second pass at editing comes in a couple of different forms, and neither is my preferred second option. The first way is to have a day or so’s break and re-read recent text on the laptop. This I generally do if I’ve written a new long hand scene knowing I’ve jumped a little bit, and need some filler sections. In those circumstances I will need to re-read the last couple of pages to get back into the scene and what’s come already, so I can properly fill in. Sometimes this fill in can be a line, a paragraph, or several pages. The second way, which I do for everything I write, is to print it and read it like a book, with a red ink Uniball gel pen to hand. I make editing notes as I go along. Quite often the editing notes consist of lines through entire sentences or paragraphs: deleting previous writing is a shame, but it is absolutely fundamental to producing the final text. Often I will change words or phrases, pick up my punctuation (I over-use commas) or write new sections. I deliberately chose red pen as it links back to those early days in school, and allows me to occupy another version of me, a separate, slightly more objective version, one that is modelled on teachers and is expected to criticise.

The third and final pass at editing (before the writing goes to other people to read) is the most critical and also the most painful.

I read the material aloud.

Every single word, every single sentence and paragraph and page.

This is a very powerful tool for self editing. I find it painful for two reasons. First, I don’t like my voice. Second, when I read my work, I can get a pretty good sense of how it would sound to someone else (with my voice included). The presumption of embarrassment of someone hearing nonsense is very strong. Yet this is a strong feedback loop. Once you hear your work out loud, you get a very different feel for it. You can hear the sounds, the rhythm, the way different words rise and fall and complement each other. You can finally hear the tone of your work, which can be fundamentally different to how it sounds in your head.

When we edit by reading, we use a limited number of senses. There is the look of the words on the page, and there are the sounds heard by our inner ears (by which I mean, the mental constructions of our internal monologues) and the spatial feel of the words and story in our head: the space it creates and the form that takes.

When we add real sound to this, coupled with the tangible, mechanical feel of our jaws and tongues moving, we add extra dimensions. The story comes alive (or fails to…) in different ways.

A poet would use the process to match sounds to each other within the metre of their verse. I do some of this, sometimes, if it feels important, although I am no poet and do not always have a sense of lyrical sounds in the text.

The simplest thing I get from reading aloud is how difficult it is to read the words. If my tongue really stumbles over certain word combinations, then it will be harder for someone else to read with their internal monologue. If I can smooth the sentence aloud, I know it will read more smoothly to someone else when they read to themselves. (I have had this direct feedback, unprompted, from a friend who proofread part of planetfall book 1: “It reads like someone’s reading it to you,” she said.)

The process is also important for creating a visual environment. Stories have an oral/aural history. The sagas of old were told around camp fires and in huts and caves in the dark. They had to create an inner, visual world for the listeners, both as distraction from the nightmares that stalked the night outside the protected circle, and also so that as many senses were utilised to help the listener remember the tale. I have a tendency to be a very visual writer, to rely on visual creations of scenes to transmit the story to the reader. If the work isn’t read out loud, if I don’t check how it hooks into those feedbacks between our sense of sound and sense of vision, then it will fail to make the final leap: to evolve that internal silent movie on the cinema screen of your mind, into a talkie; a moving picture with original soundtrack.

Editing is a very important process in writing. The writing starts – for me – with a connection between movement and inner vision. When I type I exploit the same mechanism. When I edit I edit visually. But when I do the toughest edit, I combine as many senses as possible – I add sound to the movement and images. This whole process always leads to significant changes to the text, and most authors at some point have spoken on this. To finish, here are two quotations from people deeply involved in (and far better than me at) the writing process:

Harry Shaw: “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books are not written – they’re rewritten.”

planetfall: genesis

planetfall – correctly written with a lower case ‘p’ and as one word – was borne out of a short story, and like most first-novels went through a long development process.

I treated the writing of planetfall as a self-education in creative writing. While writing it I tried many different exercises and approaches, failed more than I succeeded, then failed some more, went off on tangents, took breaks, became frustrated, scrapped pages and pages of material and generally found that auto-didacticism is easier to spell than to do.

The short story from which planetfall evolved is about a Mexican man looking back on the Mexican-American war around the time of the Alamo. It was a writing exercise in which I challenged myself to write a short story that had a definite beginning, middle and end, was character based, and which would fit onto one side of A4. The story was mostly dialogue, the Mexican man talking to his young son about what it means to be a man while he shaved his cheeks and shaped his moustache. I put this story to one side and moved onto other writing projects (I think some exercises on colour and motion).

Some time later I returned to the short story and thought it would be interesting to re-write the story from the son’s perspective, this time he would be a grown man thinking back to his father’s advice. I placed the son in a war and wrote a nostalgic piece, the son looking backward, close to death, wanting the protective presence of his father.

Realising that a soldier on a battlefield gave me scope for more writing exercises – the ravaged landscape, the loss of life, commentary on war and its interaction with society – I continued to write. The story became science fiction when I decided a battleground of post-nuclear detonation would add drama quickly. After about 3 or 4 pages, I chopped off the original short story – the Mexican  man with his son – and started thinking about how someone would survive a nuclear blast: you’d need some kind of fancy protective suit for a start. And so secom was born, a material that never made it into the final draft of the first book (at least not in an obvious way).

planetfall evolved quickly after that. There were three characters – Ramirez, Mina and David – a mysterious planet and a scene I visualised as a ‘planetfall’, in which the characters would leave a ship in orbit and fall to the planet below, battling aliens as they went. This scene gave its name to the book. I later named the mysterious planet ‘Fall’ as a temporary joke (planetfall/planet Fall) while I tried to figure out a better name. I never found one. Planet Fall became the central character in the first book of planetfall.

Two hundred pages came out quite quickly, and at that point I took a break to write a short story (“Ayla’s Journey”). I opened up the writing process for this short story to a friend with professional writing experience. She taught me how to edit, about rhythm and flow, and what was good in my writing and what not. A very instructive experience, I went back to planetfall three months later and sat down to edit. Two hundred pages collapsed under my editor’s eye in a cottage on the Isle of Skye, and became 35. From there I wrote out again to around seventy five pages, and got stuck. A sub-plot, a conspiracy theory centring on the planet Fall, wasn’t working. It took a few months before I decided to pull the sub-plot out into a separate story, which would run alongside the main story of the soldier (now a Marine) and act as counterpoint to his first-person perspective story.

I tried writing the two stories side by side, but their different writing styles and points of view soon forced me to stop. I decided to focus on the story of the planet Fall first. That story, in retrospect, was easy to write. Daoud was a character I already had from writing background notes on the planetfall universe and its history. Kate arrived one day while I was in Costa Coffee in Crouch End. Verigua was supposed to be a limited character, borrowed from an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. I will write about these separately.

Each chapter, except for the final one, was written with a particular approach in mind. Some chapters are sense-based: visual, auditory, tactile. Some were very much about movement (a Doctor Who: Confidential episode, in which they discussed up & down movement, was a particular influence), and some were indulgent: abstract, dream-like and experimental (on my part). One chapter was simply written in a short story style as a break from the main narrative (The Tale of Huriko Maki).

The first draft was finished in December 2010 and I started to think about returning to the main story, the story of the Marine’s experience of a great war. As I’d written the story of the planet Fall, I conceived a story structure in which that story would revolve, DNA-helix-like, around the main story of the Marine. It would be capped with a short story (The Tale of the SS Maris One) which would act as the telomere to the story’s helix. However, in early 2011, three and a half years after writing the story of the Mexican, I made the decision to publish this story of the events on planet Fall, the start, the genesis of the war, as the first in a sequence of books. I still intend at some point to release the series as intended, with new, original material throughout to tie it all together.

Until then, you have planetfall book 1 this summer, and planetfall book 2 currently in development. Enjoy.