Monday, 20 October 2008

Quotients, Balances

This is going to sound arrogant and horrible, so imagine me saying it in gently ironic tones: I don’t find writing a Doctor Who book all that difficult. Douglas Adams had that quote about how writing was about sitting there until your forehead bleeds … I prefer former BBC political correspondent John Cole’s line that the hardest part isn’t getting words on a page, it’s keeping your bottom on the seat. It’s very easy to get distracted, particularly when it’s oh so easy to justify watching a DVD, popping out to Borders or just staring out the window as ‘research’.

John Cole made his remark in the pre-internet age, if anyone now can imagine such an epoch. Now you can be quite happily sat at your computer with the document open and still be involved in displacement activities.

As a productivity boost, can I recommend the Morning Coffee Firefox extension? It automatically loads a bunch of websites in the morning. So you get to check Outpost Gallifrey, Lifehacker, Penny Arcade, Unreality, your friends’ sites and so on all in one concentrated burst, then you get on with your day.

I am, apparently, a fast writer. A fair few professional writers say they manage about a thousand words a day. Now … this isn’t anything to get hung up about. If you write five hundred words a day and they’re good, that’s pretty handy. Most people have actual jobs and friends and family, that sort of thing, so it’s hard to make time to write at all. If you want to be a writer, you have to work out a way to find that time, of course. The Eyeless is 55,000 words long, and that’s at the lower end of novel-length. A thousand words a day is two months with a few days off for good behaviour, assuming you're doing nothing else.

My record is about 15,000 words in a day – the first great surge of activity on The Dying Days, where I had a really, really clear idea of what I had to do (and, more to the point, a deadline of five weeks to do it). All cylinders blazing, the first burst, or with a real mastery of the material, I can do something like 6000 words in a day. My record the other way … well, I’ve thrown away a chapter, so probably something like -5000 words. With books that completely fail to take root – my Prisoner novella, my Great American Novel that I’ve been writing for three years now and refer to, dreadingly, as The Whale Oil Book - I must be averaging less than ten words a day. On the whole, I reckon I write about 2500 words a day on average. The best trick I’ve found is to try to do a novel at the same time as a non-fiction book – they don’t really feel like the same kind of thing when you’re writing so you can displace from writing to … writing something else.

This time I had a couple of extra challenges.

The first was the length. As Pascal said … no, hang on, I quoted him last time. You know what he said.

It became very clear to me that The Eyeless couldn’t be paced at quite the way my other books had been. The Gallifrey Chronicles, to be honest, is probably more frenetic, but it had a lot to do. The pace of Doctor Who TV stories just kept speeding up. Watch The Web Planet and it’s hard to shake the idea that Tennant and Donna would get to halfway through episode three by the opening credits (virtually every ‘sting’ that comes just before the opening credits now would have been the episode one cliffhanger even in the eighties). It’s no coincidence that the ‘typical’ story started at six or seven episodes long, dropped to four, was dropping to three in the late eighties and is now fifty minutes. There’s just as much ‘story’ in, say, Planet of the Ood as a Troughton six parter, probably more.

As a digression … it’s interesting that while TV is getting shorter and punchier, novels are getting longer and longer. Technology allows this – word processors let authors store more (the completed Eyeless book would fit on half an old floppy disc, it barely registers on a flashdrive), it allows editors to edit faster. Books get emailed, not posted. An author doesn’t cross out mistakes or have to retype pages, or have one manuscript that they can’t, at any cost, leave on the bus. It’s pretty amazing to think that in the Target book days, someone at a printers was fitting together little metal letters to make up each page in turn, then running the press, then rearranging the letters on the frame to make the next set of pages. All of this means that these days a long book costs about the same for everyone as a short one.

Long story short (see what I did there?), if I’d paced The Eyeless like an old Past Doctor book, it would have felt like a short, light, slow Past Doctor book. The book starts out with quite a slow build, establishing the setting. I very quickly found myself splicing scenes together – instead of two scenes where the Doctor walks down a corridor, then into a room and starts talking to someone, we have what The West Wing production team took to calling ‘pedalogues’: the Doctor and someone walking down a corridor, talking as they go. The advice scriptwriters get is to start the scene as late as possible and finish it as soon as possible. I found myself doing that a lot.

This is all great for the book. It’s very focused, there’s not much you could mistake for padding. It was quite tricky, though – not least because if you’re writing with everything tightly packed like that, it becomes very difficult to change things around when you need to.

The other issue was that this was a book marketed as YA. I’ve discussed that already in my September posts. In practical terms, although I was very determined just to write a Doctor Who book, not paralyse myself by endlessly second-guessing what ‘Cardiff’ wanted or whether kids would like it, I did have ‘older children will be reading this’ in the back of my mind. I knew my Philip Pullman, and figured that if Young Adult books allow kids to not just go around with knives, but to stab God with them, that the ‘ratings’ issue wouldn’t be too much of a problem. But I did want to read up on what was popular, mainly – I have to admit – so I could use it as precedent (‘Justin, in Silverfin, a girl pins Bond down with her thighs and a eel squirts out of a dead man’s mouth *, so it’s clearly acceptable for the younger readers … ’).

I had a clear idea of how my book started, I’d already started assembling phrases and images and jokes and so on.

It’s always good to read. If you want to be a writer, read more, and read more widely. As I wrote The Eyeless, I relaxed by reading. And what happened is what always happens when something’s working: I’d be reading something completely unrelated to my book, and a factoid or quotation or bit of history would suddenly leap out as something to look at. This happens a lot with me. Either it’s some amazingly powerful unconscious, holistic thing, or I just become completely blinkered and uncritical. I was reading Life, the Universe and Everything when the exact quote I needed appeared, a lovely turn of phrase from Douglas Adams I’d never noticed in the dozen or so times I’d read the book before. It’s in The Eyeless, with all due credit.

I try to give every book its own ‘voice’. It’s hard to describe – it’s to do with pace and the length of sentences. The Infinity Doctors, say, has loads of descriptive passages and dwells on little details. Trading Futures skates over things really fast (there were quite a lot of long, dense books in the previous batch of EDAs, and I just thought people would appreciate one they could gulp down in two sittings). This ‘voice’ is all about the internal logic of the story. In One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre talks about the bullet-deadliness quotient, he’s right and I think there are lots of equivalents in fiction. Kissing someone is far more significant in Doctor Who than having sex with them and their sister would be in Skins. Each story has its own level of meting out justice, the relationship between what they do and the punishment they get. There are Child Spunkiness Quotients, Adultery Forgiveness Quotients, Swearing Quotients, Quip and Eloquence Quotients, Character Disposable Income And Free Time Quotients, Recovery Time From Injury Quotients. You create a world, with rules. The trick is, as Brookmyre says, to stay consistent within those rules.

Some books, I really struggle with finding those balances. If I had to describe the writing process, that’s the word I would use: ‘balancing’. Writing is about making lots of choices – choosing a path, which means not choosing other paths. You have to work out if you’re telling your audience too much or not enough. A lot of this is instinctive, but writing itself is a sort of ‘guided instinctive’ process. You go on your instincts … then go back and make sure.

Finding the ‘voice’ for The Eyeless was fairly smooth. While I would eventually edit a few things down, I pretty much had the first sixty five pages or so done and dusted inside a week. Gosh, everything was going so smoothly. I’d have it done by Christmas at this rate.

By moving so quickly, I had got a little ahead of myself …


Iceduck said...

Love the idea of quotients and balances. Though I like online discussion of books and TV shows, particularly Doctor Who, I've never been comfortable with the medium when it comes to criticism, and I think this post outlines why that is.

Writing's such a delicate process, with so many things that can go wrong, where it's inevitable that it won't hold water 100%, that I don't like fixating on a few niggles that weren't noticed or considered important by the writer. Nevertheless, these are invariably referred to as "gaping plot-holes" by seething fans, and whole stories are dismissed because of them.

(Or rather, they're used to justify the simple fact that the reader / viewer didn't like that particular book / episode. A lot of the NSAs have suffered because of this, I feel, and I'm sure that goes for anything with an online presence.)

Kate Orman said...

My record is about 15,000 words in a day


Garpu said...

I prefer former BBC political correspondent John Cole’s line that the hardest part isn’t getting words on a page, it’s keeping your bottom on the seat.

How very true, especially when one's creative output involves watching a compiler render lines of code into music. Do you ever find your inner critic getting in the way?

Lance Parkin said...


What I particularly like about that is that, by missing the space out, YOU ONLY WROTE ONE WORD.

Lance Parkin said...

'Do you ever find your inner critic getting in the way?'

Peter Cook said there's no such thing as writer's block. You write or you don't write. Someone with 'plumber's block' is 'not a plumber'.

My inner critic doesn't stop me writing. There are plenty of things that stop me writing, but that's not one of them. If my inner critic tried to stop me, my inner accountant would show him some bank statements and suggest he keep schtum.

My inner critic is absolutely ruthless when it comes to things I have written, though. He hates my writing, and isn't afraid to tell me.

When I say I don't find it hard to write a Doctor Who book, I'm not saying it just washes over me and I don't care. I love doing it, I love the challenges, I take it very, very seriously. But the challenges are artistic rather than logistic - I know I can write a book to a deadline, I'm not scared at the prospect.

Pete Galey said...

Interesting stuff. I find my word counts on good days / bad days is similar to yours, though I don't think I've ever got past about 9,000 in a day... I'd be interested to know whether you can write a novel straight through or whether you find yourself flagging at any point. I tend to find at around 30,000 words fatigue sets in and I have to put the project aside for a few weeks (obviously your deadlines will have a say in whether you get such a luxury). This leads me to mentally break my plot down into sections of roughly that length, so if I were writing an NSA I'd be chasing a storyline that divided into two halves; for something longer like an EDA probably three...