My second novel is called The Winter Road and it’s out in November.
It’s been a journey.
I’ll shortly create a page on this site with more cool stuff relating to it, but here’s the cover reveal and blurb over on the marvellous ‘The Fantasy Hive’. The cover, a part of which is this post’s header image, was done by the marvellous Jaime Jones.
As much as I believe I’ve improved as an author through writing this novel, the edits, from my marvellous editors Jenni and Will, illuminated an awful lot more potential in the telling of this story, and with their guidance the novel has improved a great deal from the draft I submitted. Here are a few (more) things I’ve learned from them:
Readers try to remember all the names.
They get worried if they forget a name, in case it was important. My protagonist mentions an awful lot of people in this book, and I named a lot of them. I gave nicknames too to characters that would die five pages later. Yep, what was the point. But more importantly, there are characters that do have some lines, do carry on throughout the book and then depart, dead or otherwise. (Spoiler, usually dead!). Again, these characters should either remain nameless or go. As a writer, ask yourself, more rigorously than you’ve ever done, if you could tweak the novel to remove them but keep what’s important intact, not unaltered, just intact, in meaning and purpose. If you can do that, bin them. Only give names to those who materially affect the plot or protagonist. Reduce the cognitive load on the reader.
Of course, it’s not always possible, so think about how to make the characters stand out. I don’t think I did a good enough job in The Winter Road. I gave description to the characters, motifs (visual or otherwise), but going into the next book, it’s something I’ll think a lot more about – choose the characters that matter, make them distinctive.
Emphasise, early on, what the protagonist needs to do.
I had, in multiple places through the first hundred and fifty pages, taken opportunities for the protagonist to talk about why their mission was important. I just didn’t make it clear enough. That sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. When I looked back at what they were saying, they weren’t saying it clearly enough. I only realised this when I talked my editor through what the protagonist’s mission was about, what my intention was. I could see, as I was saying it, how much of that reasoning wasn’t in the prose itself. When you think you’re shoving motive and other aspects of the book down the reader’s throat, you’re probably still not going far enough. The novel is in my head 24/7, but the reader might have put it down for a week, they’ll be coming back to it cold, time and time again, so subtle anchors that lock the reader back in are needed throughout. Eye opening!
The novel is first person, so the character is of a place, a culture. Their language will have idioms, slang. So when I wanted a name for a tunic, I called it a ‘krittle’. A cap was a ‘kotl’. And I was pleased with myself because these names were derived from one of the nordic languages and I was doing it elsewhere and I thought I’d made it clear. My editor told me not to call a rabbit a smeerp. They’d asked me to edit a lot more of these out than I wanted to, so I had to pick my battles. I believe fantasy novels need colour, need a sense of place, and in dialect and indeed dialogue, you have an important opportunity to get that across. The important thing then is to ensure you’re using the word enough and in a clear enough context early on that readers can parse it and then be comfortable with it later. Like ‘thrannie’ :)
What is this novel about?
I thought, and still think, the novel is about a woman’s life. My editor thinks the novel is about a road. We’re both right, that’s important to point out. We both agree with each other too, about what the novel’s about!
Our views about the importance of the way the end of the book plays out were fairly at odds, because of this subtle distinction. It’s been a tough conversation, I won’t lie. All creatives get this of course, a vision is achieved, then it’s challenged, exposed to vigorous scrutiny. You suffer all the doubt about your vision, that the editors are seeing a possible glory but you’re too blinded by the story you’ve carved to imagine it in a different shape, that your imagination is only its shape. You also suffer all the certainty that you should stick to it, that you’ll be justified by some future critical consensus that the arrow of your intent could have been no further sharpened.
Just breathe. The truth is, you’re both right. My truth, that is. Your truth may vary.
My editors’ doubts meant I had to characterise what I was trying to achieve, shape the justification for this book, elaborate what would be lost by following the course of their recommendations. I had to be clearer and sharper on the worth of my choices.
In the end, a single page sealed an agreement and improved my vision, but only because my editor needed more from me, she pushed me further than I felt I could go. I didn’t feel happy about any of this until the third draft was submitted earlier this month. Now the novel is better than it was. The truth is, we were both right, but only because of her, because of the reflection on the book she demanded of me that I wouldn’t have applied under my own steam.
There is no more sound argument for the value of being traditionally published than that. Nonetheless, the rigour is something I hope to carry forward and apply more autonomously. It’s hard to advise any of you authors out there what to change. I had to go through it to understand. That’s not helpful, and I’m sorry. You’d need to find someone whose opinion you trust utterly and they’ll need to read your book with a close eye, and you’ll need to listen to everything they’re saying, go through all those thoughts that’ll boil up: ‘How could you think x wasn’t capable of that? I clearly showed how they were’, ‘How can that be confusing? I said multiple times why it was like that’, ‘You couldn’t picture them? I gave descriptions’, ‘You didn’t care about the protagonist’s quest?’
Then, when you explain to your friend how you believe you addressed their points, or just plain acknowledge you didn’t and thank them for the insight, you should look at the words on the page, you should be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, draft a few changes in the direction of their criticisms, try them on, have a look in the mirror, as it were. What’ll surprise you is how much better your work becomes.
The other road.
An awful lot’s changed in my life and the writing of this novel spans the whole of that change. Strange how, as with Snakewood, I re-read and can often remember what was going on around the time the words were being penned. (‘Penned’ – there’s a redundant word for these times!)
Of course, I won’t dwell on such change, it’s personal, but now I’m here I find myself with a book of which I’m immensely proud, the story of Teyr Amondsen, a woman who made mistakes and just kept on, a woman for whom just accumulating money wasn’t enough. A woman containing, in part, an idealised me. Perhaps that’s true of all protagonists, though when I think about Gant…
Perhaps it’s the publishing deal that keeps me keeping on, that kept me going when I wanted to curl up in a ball. I look at the completed manuscript and wonder how I got here, how all these words exist in the order that they do.
I give up, almost every week, five evenings and one weekend day to writing. It’s partly the contract with Orbit and partly the guilt of not writing, of not moving forward, getting through the current novel so I can begin to explore the next, and explore too the big project on the horizon I’m hugely excited about.
I’m not telling you this so you can sympathise, I’m not even moaning, honest, guv! But since I finished Snakewood back in 2013, this is what I, and my family, have signed up for. I do it only with their permission.
It’s therefore quite ok, if you too are struggling to get the words done in the corners of your days, to resent it, to be tired of it, to hate it, to be dissatisfied with it because you’re always so fucking knackered when you are banging out the words that you know you could have done better.
Teyr Amondsen says, at one point in the book, “We toil that we may deserve our dreams.” Nothing worth doing is easy to do. As true now as it ever was. There are long valleys and brief peaks on the road. The valleys can be beautiful when they are not being endured, so stand still in them and breathe, from time to time. And if the metaphor isn’t obvious, well, it’s your round anyway, isn’t it?