Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reining Back - The Last Free City

Word-count on The Last Free City stands at 73,000 words. In structural terms, I reckon I'm probably at the end of the fourth act: the scene is set for the climactic convulsions to come. Some of the characters we've come so far with will be dead at the end of the fifth act (even if I'm not sure which, in every case); for the ones who survive, life will never be the same again.

What is down on the page is not bad by first draft standards. There are some good scenes and I'm pleased with the development of the protagonist's character. The "Action Stats" are picking up too:


The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 40% Intrigue: 17% Reflection: 19% Romance: 20%

compared with the last stocktake:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 30% Intrigue: 28% Reflection: 19% Romance: 23%

Nonetheless, it's time to take a step back. I've produced 73,000 words in 52 days (and that includes a week's holiday). At the start of the fifth act, though, I need to spend some time working out exactly how things are going to end up. Final set-pieces are about plot more than character (with character already established, it's now about letting them play out): they need a clockwork mechanism if they are to work satisfactorily. Blundering through the first 80% of the novel, finding the story as I go, has been quite effective, but it won't work for the final act. Now I need to plan what happens, and how it happens, before I set to work writing it.

This approach has several benefits: I stop beating myself up about the jerky nature of my progress; I get to watch the rest of Euro 2008 with a clear conscience; and—most importantly—the draft will be better as a result.

So, how do things stand at the moment? I can already see things which need to be fixed in revision. There is too much dialogue, which is fun, but narratively it’s junk-food. The second draft will need more roughage, more of the descriptive prose holding everything together.

I also need another viewpoint character. The story of Todarko, our shallow, self-obsessed protagonist who just happens to have an unusual facility with words (before you ask, this isn’t autobiographical… he’s a wow with the chicks too, at which point all comparisons with the author must cease) can’t quite carry the whole narrative. He’s too unsympathetic at the start—and I need him to be that way—and there are points in the story where not enough happens to him. By giving a larger role, and occasional viewpoints, to the one character carried over from The Dog of the North, I freshen the reader’s experience, create a continuity between the novels, and convey information in a less obtrusive way. This second narrative will not be a huge proportion of the novel—maybe 20%—but it’s a much better way in to the political intrigue which underpins the story’s structure.

There are many other smaller areas which need attention. Too many of the minor characters are just ciphers at the moment; one of the major ones scarcely appears at all, and the local colour is somewhat muted. Most importantly, the main female character is too passive: I haven’t given her enough to do.

None of this is any way disheartening. I have 73,000 words of coherent story backed up in a million places; I can see what’s wrong with it; and I know, in most cases, how to fix it. Sometimes it’s important to know when to stop, and a few days mulling over how to get to the end is just what’s needed at the moment.

* * *

My periodic Google searches on The Dog of the North led me to discover this interesting site, Rising Shadow, which lists all forthcoming publications in the field of sf/f. It seems admirably comprehensive, and an excerpt from July’s list gives us:


Imagine the excitement of jostling so close to the master, Jack Vance! I don’t know who Elizabeth Haydon is, but it’s probably as well that she’s there to stop me invading Vance’s space. (Incidentally, The Vance Reader contains Emphyrio, one of Vance’s best novels – this is a recommended purchase!)

Rising Shadow also lists publications further ahead including—bizarrely—The Last Free City for 2009. Somebody obviously scrutinises the internet very closely… Even setting aside the trivial considerations of finishing the book and having it accepted for publication, I don’t think we’ll be seeing it on the shelves in 2009, but I appreciate the sentiment…

* * *

And just in case anyone’s forgotten: The Dog of the North is published three weeks tomorrow. Gulp!



9 comments:

Matt Curran said...

Hi, Tim

Yep, we really are writing in tandem here. I passed the 73,000 word mark last night (before I was hampered by broadband problems which took the rest of the evening to resolve). I have been tempted a few times to take a break from the intensity of writing The Black Hours, but I should get a week’s pause for breath at the end of the month.

But then I don’t have a book coming out in July!!

I don’t know how you do it. If it was December now I wouldn’t be able to keep a thought in my head, let alone keep my concentration on the current writing project. How many times do you Google yourself a week?*

Cheers

MFWC

(*I confess to Googling MFW Curran once every two days. More than that when the first book came out… Sad, huh?)

Tim Stretton said...

I only Google myself once a week or so - but I do have a permanent Googlesearch running, so it tells me when I am mentioned. It's a bit hit and miss, though, so I do the odd manual search too...

I will be much worse on Amazon sales rank, where already I stand at a giddy 171,000 on pre-orders alone (past experience from the self-pubbing leads me to believe this is 3 or 4 copies...)

David Isaak said...

I never Google myself at all.

That's because Tim taught me about Google Alerts. Now I'm auto-googled.

David Isaak said...

And I never, ever look at my Amazon ranking. This isn't modesty or self-effacment. It's simply that I really can't figure out what the rankings mean. The more you learn about them, the less you can understand the real story.

I once listened to a seminar about how to drive yourself to Amazon bestsellerdom. There are quite a few Amazon bestsellers out there that made it into the top 10...for one day. The tricks include all kinds of free prizes and goodies, but only if you order on a certain day. I understand there are Amazon betsellers that have made it there selling less than 1000 copies--but selling 900 0f them on a particular day.

Obviously this sort of thing works better if you're selling nonfiction, preferably craft or self-help. I'm not sure what a fiction writer can offer as a prize for buying on a certain day. (Matt: free demon with every order?)

But the fact that so many people are gaming the system--and the risk that your book might come out on the same day as the release of a new Grisham, a new King, and a Nora Roberts--makes me uninterested in Amazon ranking. Which is good: it gives me one less thing to do wasting time on the web.

Tim Stretton said...

I don't pretend to understand the Amazon rankings either.

When I self-pubbed "Dragonchaser", it hit the top 12,000 for a day before rapidly declining into obscurity. As far as I could tell, it was based on 3 or 4 sales from new friends I'd made on a creative writing course, all bought very close together.

The impenetrability of the rankings makes them all the more alluring--like trying to propitiate an angry and capricious god who works in the most mysterious of ways.

Alis said...

Tim - thanks for this insight into your writing techniques. I wish I could be as sanguine as you about leaving things to fix in the second draft. Though I'm getting better, I've still got a horrible tendency to try and fix things as I go along which has a tendency to get me lost in the maze of my own book.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I've never been quite this ruthless in not looking back before. I'm surprised how easy I'm finding it. In some ways it helps that there's so much wrong with the first draft--it reduces the temptation to make the second draft just a lick and polish of the first.

That said, I usually find the text is not as bad when I come to re-read it as I think it will be.

For me the most important thing in the first draft is momentum (notwithstanding my current deliberate break). With limited time to write, I'm keen to avoid the futility of cleaning up passages which end up being dropped anyway. So it's on to the very end before I look back over my shoulder!

David Isaak said...

Ah, isn't it kinda cool and funny?

When you read a finished novel, you wouldn't think the author--no matter what her or his professed 'process'--had a moment's hesitation.

You look at a book by someone who slammed it out and then revised a thousand times, versus someone else who hesitated over every word, and in both cases they look as if they knew exactly what they were doing.

It's kind of wonderful that there's so many roads to the same place. Easier than, say, being a member of Cirque du Soleil...

Tim Stretton said...

David, in the days before blogs I'm sure fewer people realised that writers had a 'process' at all, let alone that different writers worked in different ways.

The advent of blogging has given the kind of writers no one is normally interested in (e.g. me) a platform to outline their methods and failings.