Ghosts and Deadlines

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I’ve been working on a novel with the working title HOUSE OF SLOW ROOMS for the best part of three years. I’ve not been writing it every day, but I’ve certainly been thinking about it every day (which is, some would say, the same thing, or at least part of the job). It has had to take a back seat to a number of more urgent, time-sensitive projects (for ‘urgent, time-sensitive’ read ‘paid’) and because it isn’t part of any publishing contract, it has no deadline, other than those I pin to it. And then reschedule, with depressing regularity.

I like deadlines. I like the sound they make when I meet them. I imagine the sound as the wet splat you hear when Andrew Lincoln kicks a zombie’s head in. I’m pretty good at meeting deadlines and I do love to have a date set in stone that I can work towards. A July 2015 deadline for something else I’ve got to write has provided me with an unofficial kick up the pants for HOSR, otherwise it will go on the back burner for another six months. So I’ve given myself until the end of February to at least knock it into some kind of shape. To at least wrestle an ending out of it, so I can call it a first draft. I’m at the 80,000 word mark and it feels as though there’s not much more to go (although I am retro-fitting a new character and sub-plot, so the word count could swing up into six-figure territory).

Fancy meeting you here…

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Getting certain characters together in fiction without any hint of contrivance is a challenge for any writer. In Sonata of the Dead, my WIP, I’ve got my lead character, a PI named Joel Sorrell, who needs to link up with another character, a woman with whom he will develop a strong working relationship (and maybe more besides). I don’t want them to meet during some arranged get-together because there are many such incidents where Joel has to talk to a number of different people in a formal setting. I want this one to feel random. But what is good random, and what is bad random? I suppose the bad random is cliché. So out goes the collision in a corridor (especially if she’s carrying a mountain of papers), or the mild flirtation in a lift, or an argument over the last taxi in the rank.

I suppose to a certain degree all genre fiction is contrived (perhaps crime fiction above all) which is where suspension of disbelief in readers becomes important, but writers can smooth the path to some extent by clearing out the obvious moments of coincidence, and any laboured or far-fetched sequences. A scene that is hard to swallow will yank the reader out of the well-oiled, absorbing story you’re striving to create.

Getting characters away from each other is equally important, especially if you’re writing a horror novel, but again, you have to manage it credibly… Okay guys, there’s an axe-wielding psychopath out there somewhere… let’s split up!

Next stop… Shudehill

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I have a July deadline. But due to various commitments, my writing time has been cut to two days a week. Luxury, I hear you cry, and you’re right. I’m not complaining. I’m not moaning. But it means I’m having to be a bit more proactive in terms of what I get done and when. The first two days of each week I spend in an office on the Oldham Road working on a Secret Project™. Initially I enjoyed the reading time I was getting – 40 minutes there and back on the Metrolink tram – but since the start of the year, and that summer deadline sharpening its claws on the strop of my paranoia, I’ve used that time to write instead. A subtle little Moleskine won’t cut it, however. Great for notes, not so great for full-on composition. So I’ve given in to my inner writing fetishist and now I take a leather document wallet around with me, filled with good quality paper and – why not, Goddammit? – a lovely fountain pen loaded with an exotically-coloured ink. Once I bested the self-consciousness that came with scribbling away on an A4 pad in a packed tram carriage, I was fine. I’m averaging a good three-to-four pages a day. It’s worth the occasional funny look. And if I mutter at the same time it means I get a seat all to myself…

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It’s nice to be invited to contribute a story to an anthology. It’s difficult to turn down such opportunities; you don’t know if the editor will ask you again. So you agree, thinking, ha, the deadline is months off, all will be neato mosquito

It’s great (though rare) when you have an instant idea that you know will fit, or you find a promising fragment from your ideas folder that, with some persuasion, might match the brief you’ve been sent. What’s less great is being blocked, especially when you’ve emailed to say yes, thank you, I’d love to send you something. Weeks go by. That fluffy deadline making cow eyes at you becomes a Stygian pit ringed with teeth at the foot of a slippery incline that you are now standing on, wearing shoes fashioned from banana skins.

With great relief I’ve just submitted a story for an anthology*. The deadline was the start of September (the invitation came in April), but the editor made it clear he was running late and would be reading for the book throughout the rest of this month.

The story I sent was my ninth attempt.

The previous eight efforts came to nothing and total around 6000 words. The longest piece was around 4500 words, the shortest, just 28. I was close to admitting defeat and telling the editor that my muse just wouldn’t put out for me this time. I suppose I should be grateful that I recognised there was a problem and bailed, despite all the work. Anyway, I decided to give it one more try and finally produced something I’m happy with.

Never give up is the message, I guess. Plough that seemingly barren field because you might just unearth a delicious potato. And those 6000 words will somehow not be a waste, even if I never actually use them for anything else…

*Of course, there’s no guarantee the story will be accepted…