Deleted scenes #2 – #4

14 August 2015
Luckily the editing process isn't quite this tedious

“Murder your darlings” – William Faulkner

One of the strangest things about writing a multi-protagonist story (or at the very least, one of the things I wish someone had warned me about before I started writing one) is how much it forces you to write a story in a certain way.

To explain what I mean, imagine I had a book with just one protagonist in it. In such a novel, the hero might get 30+ chapters all to themselves. The whole story is told through just a single set of eyes and thus, over the course of the book, the reader is able to fully follow the hero’s story and understand their plight. This approach allows for a lot of twists and turns and, consequently, a great deal of character movement.

Look at 50 Shades of Grey for example (and wow, how I never thought I use that book as a positive example…). The whole story is told from the point of view of one character: Anastasia Steele. Thus, no matter how much Ana flip-flops in her relationship with Christian Grey (and boy, does she flip-flop), it doesn’t matter. We go right along with it.

Multi-protagonist novels, however, are very different beasts.

When your plot needs an infographic to explain it, you know you're in trouble

When your plot needs an infographic to explain it, you know you’re in trouble

On the one hand, having more characters means that the scope of your novel can be wider (since you have more eyes in more places showing the reader more aspects of your world) but the flip-side of this is that unless you’re lucky enough to have all of your viewpoint characters in the same place at the same time (in which case, why on Earth do you need to have multiple protagonists to begin with?), the individual plotlines for each character become quickly diluted.

When each character has only 5-10 chapters dedicated to them and the reader might not encounter that character again for several hundred pages at a time, it becomes increasingly important to keep each of those characters constrained to plots which can be easily summarised and understood. Your characters need simple throughlines and clear resolutions. There is little room for ambiguity.

So many protagonists... Best make them all stereotypes and give them 3-4 scenes each

So many protagonists… Best make them all stereotypes and give them 3-4 scenes each

It’s a law of diminishing returns: the more complex your novel becomes, the simpler its individual storylines must be in order to avoid your reader getting lost in a maze of byzantine plot twists.

Which is exactly the situation I found myself in with my main character, Abigail Leighton.

Abi’s story was always centered on the theme of identity and belonging. She is caught between the two worlds of the bunks and the nobility, belonging to neither and yet hated by both. Hers is a unique position, and one from which the reader is able to fully grasp the multi-faceted issues plaguing the ship. (Or at least, that was the theory).

Australian model Gemma Ward. Her innocent yet determined appearence informed much of Abi's character

Australian model Gemma Ward. Her innocent yet determined appearance was a big inspiration when writing Abi

Originally the plan was to have Abi break out of the bunks near the beginning of the book (which she still does), betraying her best friend in the process (ditto). Later, she would find that the outside world isn’t quite the land of milk and honey she’d always thought it would be (which is still the case) so she goes back to the bunks, begs forgiveness from her friend and then together they break the unspoken out of bondage and lead a rebellion against the ship, thus creating a third, new choice for her.

The problem was… that last part was too complex. If I had 20-30 chapters dedicated to Abi, I might have been able to make it work. But squeezed into just 10 chapters it just came across as her being indecisive, flip-flopping from one chapter to the next between wanting to be in the bunks, then out of them and then back again. It strained credibility.

Plus there’s the fact that no one would choose to return to the bunks. No one. It doesn’t matter how neat and tidy it made my narrative arc or how much thematic sense it made. The simple fact is that Abi, the character, would never return to the bunks even if you paid her and thus by shoehorning such a face-heel turn into the book I was doing her character a dis-service.

Abi might be many things, but an idiot she is not.

So instead I chose to postpone the reunion between Abi and her friend into the next book where it would happen on more even terms. The denouement of Abi’s story line changed from one of her instigating the rebellion to her actively fighting against it instead. Her story became simpler and easier to follow. A clean arc, shorn of ambiguity which (*spoilers*) ends with her becoming a hero.

Unfortunately, this leaves my original ending somewhat in limbo. There is no place in the novel now for Abi the would-be terrorist or her flip-flopping shenanigans. Thus, I present three chapters to you here. Three deleted scenes which will never make it into the book.

Click here to read deleted scene #2: Back from Exile (PDF)

Click here to read deleted scene #3: The More things Change (PDF)

Click here to read deleted scene #4: Undertakings (PDF)

As with my previous deleted scene, these chapters are far from perfect. Expect to see spelling errors, redundancies and other writerly ticks that would normally get weeded out during the editing process. Despite this, I like these chapters a lot and it’s sad I couldn’t find a place for them in the final mix. But ultimately the need of the story much come first. There is little room in multi-protagonist novels for needless complexity.

I hope you enjoy them.


Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

3 August 2015
Luckily the editing process isn't quite this tedious

Luckily the editing process isn’t quite this tedious

As promised in my most recent blog post, I’m currently hard at work redrafting my novel the Arkship Ulysses for what will absolutely, definitely be the final time. Probably.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the scenes which never made it into the final cut.

As with any long-form piece of work, writing a novel often involves a lot of trial and error. It’s difficult to know exactly where a story is going when you sit down to write it and of course that inevitably results a lot of extra material which never sees the light of day.

How much extra material you ask? Well let me put it this way: the first draft of my novel completed in December 2012 was about 250,000 words long. The second draft, completed December 2014 was 160,000 words long.

Yeah, that’s a lot.

Now before I do this please be aware of a couple of things:

  1. The writing in these extracts isn’t fully polished. This is very much a work-in-progress here so expect to see a lot of repetitions, redundancies and other writerly ticks that the editing process normally takes care of
  2. These scenes no longer have any place in the book. It’s not like you can easily slot them into some place in the novel and have them make sense. Unfortunately things have moved around so much by this point that these scenes no longer fit without significant re-writes to their entry points.

All clear? OK so without any further ado I give you deleted scene #1.

Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

Click here to read Deleted Scene #1: The Black Sea (PDF).

This ‘scene’ (actually 4,000 words long, which is long enough to make it a chapter in its own right) is the telling of an old Earth legend. The story Susan tells Stuart in this chapter is a simple one but it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for because of how thematically resonant it is with the rest of the book as well as with Stuart’s character arc as a whole.

It also tells us a lot about the back-story of this world without being extremely in-your-face about it. I’ve always liked it when the world building of novels is done by the reader as much as it is by the writer and this story is, I feel, a perfect example of this. When you read it you get a real sense for the role of faith in people’s lives and how the citizens of the Ulysses perceive their religion as well as the catastrophe which stranded them among the stars in the first place.

As you can probably tell from the way I’m talking about this scene, I really like it a lot and I honestly wrestled with it a long time before finally deciding to delete it. Despite how much I enjoy it, it is ultimately 4,000 words of what is essentially filler and I can’t really justify that in a book that’s already well over its recommended length.

Anyway, if you’re interested in keeping score, this scene would have taken place during what is now Chapter 24: The Metapath. It even ends in a very similar way.

I hope you enjoy it.


Returning to the Arkship Ulysses

20 July 2015

As many of you know by now, I finished writing my epic SF novel the Arkship Ulysses at the tail-end of last year. I may have mentioned it once or twice.

Needless to say, the whole endeavor was a labour of love from beginning to end. Writing on the Arkship Ulysses spanned nearly 5 whole years – a depressingly long chunk of time to devote to telling a story I’ve had going round my head since I was 14 years old but a necessary one.

712L The Observers web

I have no idea why I keep using this picture to illustrate the Arkship Ulysses. I guess I just like it

The end result was good, although I’d be lying if I said it ended up close to what I originally envisioned. For one thing, it was a lot longer than expected, so much so that I had to cut the story in two and add in a sequel I’ve been trying to plot out ever since. At least 2 major characters were chopped out of the final cut, one of whom was originally supposed to be the book’s hero. There were whole chapters that I’ve even talked about on this blog that never made it into the final edit.

Still, I have to count it as a success overall, not least because it actually received an honest-to-God review online! And believe me: for an unpublished, unknown author like myself to receive any sort of unsolicited attention is a very rare and humbling thing indeed.

A couple of choice quotes from The Finder’s Saga review linked above:

“Burgess story and writing are epic. The chapters are long but the writing rich with description and dialog.”

“I find the plot intriguing and the characters strong, rich and multidimensional. The characters have motivations, fears, hope and all the emotions necessary for a rich story.”

“I find his setting descriptions and the background story believable and essential to the plot.”

Those are all really nice things to say about my work and I’m honestly chuffed to bits and extremely humbled that The Finder’s Saga would commit an entire blog post just to talking about yours truly. One of these days I’ll return the favour man, I promise.

And by the way, reading nice things about myself: Strangest. Feeling. Ever.

Special thanks to The Finder's Saga for the really kind words

Special thanks to The Finder’s Saga for the really kind words. It was very humbling

Anyway, in his book On Writing, Stephen King says it’s often a good idea to let a novel sit for a few months after you’ve finished writing it before you start with the redraft. He says that when you first finish working on a novel, you’re too close to it. You’re too invested in the characters and too close to the story to have any sort of objective opinion about it.

He recommends taking a step back and leaving it in a drawer for a few months while you work on other things.

This book is pretty much my bible when it comes to approaching creative work

This book is pretty much my bible when it comes to approaching creative work

It has now been six months since I last wrote about the Arkship Ulysses. In the meantime I have, in accordance with King’s advice, been doing other things. Lots of other things. Now, finally, I think I’m ready to jump back in to this beast and make some much-needed (and final) edits.

“What edits?” I hear you cry.

Well as it happens I actually made a list of patch notes whilst writing the first draft in anticipation of this day. These are basically moments during the writing process in which I was aware of contradicting myself but didn’t want to go back and fix them in the interests of moving things forwards. The list I’m about to print here probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve read the book as closely as I have but hopefully it will put into context just how much redraft work needs to be done.

In short, it will involve writing one completely new chapter and extending two more as well as numerous other fixes which will mostly involve a lot of CTRL+H work.

writers-block

Note: I will not actually be using a typewriter to make these edits

Fixes needed are:

  1. Make Nathan Hathaway Master-at-arms not Chief of Marines
  2. Don’t kill Tundra until chapter 15
  3. In chapter 14, Rutherford tells Kara that she’s due to move into the Captain’s quarters – not ones that he himself is funding
  4. Change Ramiel Sullivan to Gabriel Sullivan throughout.
  5. In chapter 17, it is taking place on the morning of Earth Day not the evening. People are still getting ready and when he listens to the Captain, he’s talking about how nervous he is about meeting Kara for the first time and whether he really needs to. He’s told it’s mandatory.
  6. It’s Commander Fletcher, not Albright
  7. Stuart when he goes to Oxley: he is publicly thrown out but still secretly helped. Oxley sends Sarah to give Stuart a map. ‘The best nodes can be found here’. And then they share a shot of something (this contains the gene seed for the Metapath). Stuart perhaps vaguely guesses this near the end of the book but it’s not until the sequel that all becomes clear.
  8. Remove the character of Rutherford. Where he currently exists, make it all Nathan Hathaway. Put Rutherford as a far more professional soldier type. Keeping his superior’s secrets and covering up for him out of loyalty. A much better replacement for him in the second book when he takes over as master-at-arms. It’s Rutherford that interrogates Stuart, not Hathaway
  9. Give each department head a cool-sounding naval name. Boatswain (chief of maintenance) for example. Chaplain, Master Shipwright (chief engineer), Wardmaster (medical), Ordnance, pursers (administration), etc.
  10. Show Estavan getting pulled away for interrogation better than currently

As well as generally giving it a spit and polish and cutting its length by at least 5%.

Additional scenes to add:

  1. Before being rescued from the bunks. A scene where Abi is burying her father. Her friends gather around her wrapping up his body and leaving it out for the priest. There’s nothing left to keep her here now, she thinks. Its time she makes a break for freedom. Brent is marveling over Kara. This is the girl the uniforms are all het up over? Dawn reveals her plan to use her. He offers to take her in to show the Gentleman. They’re putting an army together. Plans to attack the ship. Abi rolls her eyes at the words. It’s all show boating, she thinks. Still she gives the uprising her blessing. He’s angry now about father’s death. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.
  2. After visiting the bunks to try and see Dawn. Abi goes looking for what remains of her old life. There is little left. Her old quarters are all in the hands of the Oxleys. She manages to look up Stuart in the directory but his quarters are deserted. They are tiny and a mess. Equations everywhere. Old ship parts he was tinkering with. She finds a small box tucked away under the bed containing the old family crest. She remembers how it used to adorn her father’s chest when he still wore the uniform of master shipwright. Remembers him cold beneath the touch as they laid his body out to be collected by priests. She takes it with her.
    Outside she runs into the landlady who scowls at her. Says Stuart is two weeks late paying his rent. She’s going to kick him out. She thinks Abi is a whore he’s hired. She takes the box of goods from Abi. Abi protests. I’m his sister. But the landlady takes one look at the number on her arm and shoos her away. Abi returns to her quarters alone. That’s when she cries.
  3. Final chapter to resolve everything. The Captain sits in his quarters going over the reports coming in. The ship is a mess, the nobility are at each other’s throats in outrage and he doesn’t know who to trust anymore. He trusts Abi, however, for reasons Abi doesn’t understand. He asks her to help him find a genuine long-term solution to the issue with the bunks. He reinstates House Leighton which his father pulled down years ago. He names her ambassador to the bunks. Abi reluctantly accepts.
work-in-progress

“A movie is never finished, only abandoned.” – George Lucas. Suffice to say, it’s the same with books.

Phew! Well anyway, that’s all for now. I’m going to give myself 3 months to make all of the changes listed above. At the very least I hope to be done by my birthday when I can finally start sending this thing off for submission and working on another novel instead. As always I will post my progress here.

I also plan to start posting some deleted scenes on here which never made it into the final cut. Think of them as Director Bonuses if you will, a nice little extra for those of you who have been following me this far.

Watch this space!


Poetry and I

15 June 2015

Poetry anmagnetic-poetryd I have never got along.

That’s not for want of trying either. I’m a writer: Poetry and I share a lot of the same friends. We hang out in the same places. We work on the same street. For some reason though, we’ve never seen eye to eye.

All through my life I’ve tried patching things up between us. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve knocked on Poetry’s door one day, all smiles and pleasantries with a blank notebook in hand, only to have the door slammed in my face. Poetry simply never has time for me.

And I, in turn, have learned to shun it.

At school, whenever I was asked to read a poem, I would find myself feeling nothing but confusion towards the words I was seeing. It was a strange experience for me, considering the instant and visceral impact that other forms of writing have had on me since my early childhood. Theatre and novels I can get behind. But poetry? “In what way is this supposed to be entertaining?” I would ask my teachers and they would simply chastise me in reply for being rude to their friend.

During my A-levels, I struggled through Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. During my GCSE’s I forced myself to choke down Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Ted Hughes – the heavyweights of the modern era. At university I Cliff-noted my way through Keats and Wordsworth, Byron and Shakespeare and more.

So many more… So many poets with so many pages of mind-numbingly cryptic jibber-jabber and all of it dull, dull, dull…

Look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-ful. Damn you John Keats you ruined my teenage years

John Keats: look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-full. Little does he know the sheer hell he will make out of my teenage years

However, that’s not to say I hate everything Poetry has done.

I’ve always enjoyed the Raven by Edgar Alan Poe, for example. I like the rhythm of its sentences. I like the feel of it in your mouth. There’s a relentless beat to the poem which drives the reader on. And yes, there is a plot, which is a nice change of pace from most poetry because it serves to keep you entertained. Ultimately, though, it’s not the plot I like about this poem but rather the feel of it.

Read this now and listen to the natural beat that forms. You’ll see what I mean:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

It’s the same when I listen to music. I almost never listen to a song for its lyrics – in truth, I rarely even hear the lyrics. For whatever reason, my brain just isn’t wired that way. Instead, when I listen to music, it’s the rhythms and the harmony that my ear focuses on: the chords, the instrumentation and the underlying structure of the song. This is what’s important. The idea of listening to music in order to hear the message of its lyrics… it’s ludicrous to me.

That’s probably another reason why Poetry doesn’t like me very much. I’m kind of rude to its friends.

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

My second favourite poem of all time is the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carol. I like it because it’s practically a tailor-made example of what I just described above: a poem made up entirely of rhythm and rhyme. The actual meaning of the poem? Well, it is literally nonsense but it sounds as though it means something.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

My third favourite poem is the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Again it has a rhythm. Again it has rules. And again it feels fantastic in the mouth:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Call me old fashioned but I’ve always found myself leaning towards poetry that follows a set of rules. Rhyming schemes, a solid and unwavering metre, neat stanzas, a beat: these things are essential for a poem to be a success in my mind. The way I look at it, poetry has existed for as long as humans have been writing. And for 99% of that time, Poetry has followed fixed and defined rules. We lump those rules into categories and put labels on them. “Sonnets,” we call them. “Villanelles”, “Sestinas”, “Haikus”… There are many names but they all come with a long and proud tradition.

Whenever a poet chooses to write one of these poems, they aren’t restricting themselves or stiffing their creativity – far from it! – rather they are adding to a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. They are entering a dialogue with all of the poets who have come before them, building on what has come before and helping the genre to grow.

I always have the impression that modern poetry has forgotten this fact. I think that’s why I don’t like it very much. When your poetry can take on literally any form it pleases and still be called a poem… well, it’s like calling an unmade bed art.

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn't want it on my wall

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn’t want it on my wall

I know most people will disagree with me. I’ve made my peace with that fact. Poetry is a very popular guy round these parts. He has a lot of friends. Nearly everyone I know has rubbed shoulders with him at least once in their life. They invite him over for tea at the weekends. They buy collections of his greatest hits and write down some of his pithy quotes to pin to their office walls. Those people tell me I’m stupid for not understanding their distinguished friend.

Perhaps they are right.

It’s for these reasons that when I created my anthology of short stories a few years ago I named it Metrophobia, the fear of poetry. It was a little in-joke to myself. I don’t understand it, I said, therefore I must fear it.

But never let it be said that I am one to shy from my fears. Today, I thought it might be fun to share with you a few examples of the many times I have attempted to crack poetry over the years. I am well aware that most of these examples are terrible. As I said before, Poetry is not my friend. I lack even the ability to discern good poetry from bad but I know that my poetry is bad because people have told me that it is and I believe them.

1. Haiku

OK so let’s start with a poetic form that everyone knows. A haiku is a form of ultra-short Japanese poetry. It’s made up of three lines composed of 17 syllables. The lines are arranged in a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.

There are certain characteristics which almost all modern haiku share (this list is taken from the Wikipedia article linked above):

  1. A focus on some aspect of nature or the seasons
  2. Division into two asymmetrical sections, usually with a cut at the end of the first or second section, creating a juxtaposition of two subjects – e.g. something large and something small, something natural and something human-made, two unexpectedly similar things, etc.
  3. A contemplative or wistful tone and an impressionistic brevity
  4. Elliptical “telegram style” syntax and no superfluous words
  5. Imagery predominating over ideas and statements, so that meaning is typically suggestive, requiring reader participation
  6. Avoidance of metaphor and similes
  7. Non-rhyming lines

My example:

Concrete office blocks.
A lonely pigeon takes flight
Into a grey sky

2. Villanelle

OK, so a haiku I’m sure you were already familiar with. Consider that one a warm-up for what follows. Now we’re getting into the real poetic forms. A villanelle (you’re probably thinking “what the hell is that?”) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five three-line stanzas followed by a four-line stanza at the end.

What makes this form interesting is its use of repetition. There are basically two lines in the poem which repeat over and over again, alternating at the end of each stanza before finally appearing together at the end of the final quatrain to drive home the poem’s point.

Because of this use of repetition, the villanelle is a poetic form that deals very well with themes of obsession.

THE MODERN POET

Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought
He sits in the dark playing word games all day,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

“Why won’t they read me?” he cries all distraught
“Surely there’s no one who can’t see my way?”
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

He sits and he muses, ‘til ideas are caught,
Scribbles it down before all goes away,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He rejects all the old and all that’s been taught,
“I am a genius,” he thinks, “that’s all I will say!”
Formless and pointless more feeling than thought.

His eighteenth rejection is hard to retort,
There must be conspiracies flying his way!
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He starts once again. “C’est ne pas mort!”
He writes and he dreams, “One day, oh one day!”
If only he could see through his black and white fort:
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

3. Sestina

Here’s another form you’ve probably never heard of. The sestina is one of my favourite poetic forms, mostly because even though no one has ever heard of it, everyone understands it as soon as they see it.

It has six stanzas of six lines each. The thing that makes it special is that the words it uses at the end of each line repeat throughout the poem, rotating around each other in a set pattern.

Like this:

626px-Sestina_system_alt.svg

From the Wikipedia article linked to above: “Because a sestina demands adherence to a strict and arbitrary order, it creates a very interesting effect. Stephen Burt notes that, ‘The sestina has served, historically, as a complaint”, its harsh demands acting as “signs for deprivation or duress’.”

ON MEETING AN EX NOW  BETROTHED TO ANOTHER

I chanced to see that small, begotten ring,
upon her second finger. It was clear
to me that she was gone. And I was pain
inside and burned asunder. She was mine.
If I could but pretend that she was gone,
then all would be okay. But then I’d lie.

We broke apart in truth because she lied,
that I would wait at home for her to ring,
at night, and tell me where it was she’s gone
to stay the night with Jan. “Hon, is that clear?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Your words aren’t hard to mine.”
And then I’d cry all night, my heart in two with pain.

And as the rain did patter on the pane,
I went into my room to have a lie
down and there I wondered what was mine.
Certainly not that gem encrusted ring
that donned your finger thirty carrots clear.
I saw it, smiled and knew that you were gone.

Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone!
My fragile heart did echo with its pain,
That now this creature that I loved was clear
to leave, to drop, to break and mend and lie,
and never even tell me of that ring,
but left me dark with thoughts: “You should be mine!”

But who am I to say what should be mine,
unworthy fool whose compassion has gone,
to pieces long before I saw that ring,
before me, dealing out its holy pain,
to my wounded, shattered ego. Lies!
It seems my path has never been more clear…

No it has never and now it’s clear
To me what I must do to thee and mine
only. There I’ll find you where you lie,
throttle you in sleep ‘til you are gone
and I am safe from fear and hate and pain.
When I am done you will regret that ring.

It will be clear to me then you are gone
forever. Mine, the cause of all my pain,
will lie upon your coffin. And I shall rule that ring.

4. Free verse

Free verse is my most hated form of poetry. Stripped of all rules or patterns, these poems often serve as a dumping ground for pithy sounding thoughts and little else. This is where there shape of a poem is important. This is where a single word or an exclamation point can somehow be turned into a poem. This is where pretentious strings of vaguely connected words hang out, masquerading as divine-inspired utterances. It’s anarchy turned into poetry and I hate it.

Is this poetry?

Is this poetry? One might argue that in years gone by this sort of thing would have served as the foundation of a poem, not the poem itself

Needless to say when I was asked to write a free verse poem during my second year of university I strongly objected. It was by far my most hated assignment during my entire studies. I am not at all happy with the end result. Still, you’ll notice that even though this poem follows no established rules, I still tried to interject some sort of rhythm and order into it, if only to save my own sanity from the lawless cavalier attitude of the genre.

BORDER RATS

Like vermin we scuttle – Border Rats –
each of us more than the sum of our parts.
Each of us hiding, striving to find someplace else.
And why? There are other ways,
but our destiny stumbles through this black and white haze:
and this world holds no passion from when it was made
and we know
that we don’t want this.

As ghosts we toil – Border Rats –
each of us statements of some other truth.
Each of us trying, dying to make something new.
And why? The system stamps down,
our colleagues they flee in the shadows of doubt
for money they run with no thought to themselves,
but we know
that we don’t want this.

And now starving we die – as Border Rats –
and all that we’ve lived for is shattered and burnt.
Nothing is showing, growing from that void that is us.
And why? The system has won,
our legacies fade in their commercial tune,
is there escape from this musical doom?
Oh dear god,
I don’t want this.

5. Found poetry

And finally we come to the one type of poetry I’m actually good at.

Found poetry is great simply because it turns anything and everything into a poem. Some might argue that this is the same as in free verse, where any random phrase can be called poetry, but I disagree. Found poetry is about imposing order onto disorder. It’s about taking that which already exists and pulling the art from within it.

The idea is simple. You take something that has already been written: a book, an article, even a political speech and you carefully select words from it. In this way you create a poetry that never existed before and yet was lying the whole time beneath the pattern of the words.

Like this:

Below is an example with I made based on a text about grammar which my teacher gave me on my first day of university. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the original document anymore so I can’t show it visually like in the example above. In a way that might be better, though. The original work is gone. All that remains is the poetry.

WORDS

A word can be combined,
Interpreted, replaced.
A word must be the centre of an act.
For voice, for mood, for aspect rather full.
A word is major clauses numerous.
To indicate, to specify: distinct from something else,
A word should preposition a degree
Of denial. Or connect and express on clause content.
A word lies in a phrase misunderstood.

I like this poem because just like in the Jabberwocky, it almost sounds as though it means something. Again there is rhythm. A beat. And your brain tells you the poem must mean something because it’s so consistent in the way it’s written. Here we have “words”, “voices”, “phrases”, “clauses”… it’s all clearly related (and indeed it is, since it all came from the same page about basic grammar) and yet it isn’t.

As such your brain tries to stretch through all the nonsense searching for some shred of meaning buried inside the words and in doing so it somehow places its own meaning onto the poem.

The poem is literally nonsense, I’ve already established that. It was discovered lurking beneath a perfectly normal piece of academic text. And yet by lifting it out, it now serves as a kind of naked template upon which the reader is able to place any meaning they chose.

For me, that is what poetry should be.

Poetry likes it too. For the first time ever, it’s like we’re waving to each other across the other side of a crowded room. I’ll never understand Poetry and he’ll never understand me. But at least I feel I can mingle with him at a party now and not feel like an impostor.


What next for the Arkship Ulysses?

21 January 2015

A few weeks ago I finished writing a book. As you can imagine, I was pretty proud of this fact.

The book was longer than I originally planned it to be and I finished it well behind schedule, but I still think it’s a pretty good read for a first timer like myself. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest you go right now and check out the sample chapters available on this website.

Now, that the writing part is finished, however, the real work begins.

Leona, 7, poses inside a labyrinth installation made up of 250,000 books titled "aMAZEme" at the Royal Festival Hall in central London

So many books…

Any writer will tell you that getting published in today’s market is a brutally hard business.

In some ways the book industry has never been healthier than it is now – almost 1 million books were published last year in the US alone according to some estimates and new ones are being published all the time on every conceivable topic. At the same time, however, the trade paperback and hardback markets, as they have existed for decades of years, are dying. ‘E-reading’ and ‘self-publishing’ are the buzz words of today’s age. Outside a tiny pool of best-selling authors whose work is guaranteed to sell, the vast majority of writers find their work homeless and unloved, doomed to wonder the fringes of the slushpile for all eternity. Just more noise in a market that’s already screaming its head off.

Believe me, I am aware of these facts. They are depressing, sure, but I made my peace with them a long time ago.

The trouble is, sitting back and analyzing a situation from afar is one thing. Getting close and personal with it is something else entirely. So, for example, I can look at something like the Artists and Writer’s handbook and I can see that almost no agents or publishers are interested in science fiction. I can look at the current books sales for science fiction and see how poor they are. I can look at the list of best-selling science fiction books and notice how little there is from the last 20 years…

And yet, I still have to try. After all, I promised myself I would.

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500So let’s get down to business: all publishers and agents ask for 3 things when submitting them work.

First of all, three sample chapters. Done. Finished. Easy as pie.

Next, a one-page synopsis. This is a brief 600-word summary of your entire book boiled down to its core elements. In my case, my book had to shed a lot of weight to get to this target. I’m literally covering several chapters with every sentence here. I don’t even mention one of the main characters at all and in my attempt to boil the plot down to an understandable core, it loses almost all of its themes of religion and faith which are some of the core concepts of the book. I won’t tell you how long this took to write. The answer is too depressing.

You can find the finished synopsis below. Spoilers for anyone planning on reading the finished book:

The Arkship Ulysses is all that remains of a once-vast fleet of ships that fled the Earth a thousand years ago. Today, the ship is a shambles: overpopulated and barely functional. Its Captain is a lame duck and its crew has devolved into a pseudo-feudal system of powerful families vying for power.Abi Leighton, a young girl with a sharp mind and an even sharper temper, once belonged to such a family. For the last five years, however, she has lived a life of disgrace as one of the so-called Unspoken. She works like a slave, she lives in squalor, and, due to a ship-wide food crisis, there is talk of an uprising all around her. She is determined to crawl her way out of this hell hole and back into civilization where she belongs as soon as possible.

When she meets a beautiful girl named Kara, in whom the nobles seem to be paying far too much attention, Abi thinks she might have found her golden ticket. Abi watches over the new girl, slowly gaining her trust by saving her life from an attack by a local gang and teaching her how to survive.

Through this girl, Abi learns of a plot to end hostilities by marrying the Captain – the most powerful man in the universe – to one of the Unspoken. In this way, they claim, the masses will be shown a glimmer of hope that will motivate them to return to work and quit their talk of rebellion.

Armed with this knowledge, Abi uses Kara’s safety to buy her way to freedom. Thanks to her noble upbringing she is able to wheedle her way into a job working as the girl’s personal tutor. She quickly regains money and standing for herself. However, back in society Abi finds herself shunned by the very people she once called friends. There is nothing left of the life she once had and the situation on the ship turns out to be far worse than she imagined. The food crisis is spiraling out of control. It’s obvious that the noble families are plotting something big.

Abi bides her time until the day the Captain is due to meet with Kara for the first time. While the eyes of the ship are distracted, she steals an ident card from a high ranking officer and uses it to break into a secure area. There she discovers that the talk of rebellion wasn’t just talk after all: it was an idea planted among the Unspoken by spies working for the nobility. They want the Unspoken to rebel. They want the ship in chaos. And they want it to happen at the exact moment that Kara is being shown to the Captain for the first time.

In a flash, Abi realises what’s happening: someone is going to assassinate the Captain and blame it on the Unspoken, thus gaining the support needed to dispose of them forever. With fewer mouths to feed, the food crises would be over. That person would be a hero, in prime position to take control following the Captain’s demise.

With no time to lose, Abi runs to the Captain’s quarters, arriving just in time to stop the ringleader before he can go through with his plan. However, this victory has comes at a terrible cost. With the ringleader now dead, there is no one left who knows the plan to stop the riot when the Unspoken break out on cue and start ransacking their way across the ship.

Thanks to some fast thinking on Abi’s part, the Captain and his few remaining allies are able to bottle up the Unspoken but it’s obvious that this is only a short-term solution. Abi has saved the Captain’s life but she may just have doomed the ship in the process.

The Captain, not knowing who else to trust, charges Abi with a new task: that of finding a real solution to the food crisis that doesn’t involve killing off one third of its population. Abi suddenly finds herself thrust into the centre of attention, possibly the most important person on the whole ship.

The Arkship Ulysses is the first book in a planned series. It is a 150,000 word fantasy in space, along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Dune or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

The final thing all agents ask for is a cover letter and luckily this part is pretty straight forward. Any agent that’s been in the industry longer than a couple of days will know exactly what they are looking at as soon as they open your envelope so they really don’t need a lot of waffle. All they really care about you is that you’re not a nut job and that you have a book for them to read. Hopefully, I can prove both of those facts in one, easy to read letter.

Dear X,

I am looking for an agent to represent my book, The Arkship Ulysses. It is a 150,000-word epic fantasy in space along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Dune or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that would be the first in a series of books.

The Arkship Ulysses tells the story of the last surviving ship that fled the dying Earth when the rest of humanity died out. After a thousand years of wondering the cosmos, the ship is in a bad way. Things are falling apart, nothing works, the crew are demotivated and its civilian population is starving. Our hero is a young girl who has fallen on hard times. Her attempt to climb back into high society while all around her is falling to pieces forms the backbone of the narrative.

I am an English teacher living in Wroclaw, Poland. I am relatively new to the writing business but last year I had two short stories published in various anthologies. While at university I won the in-house ‘Edner Fuller’ prize for my fiction. I hope to now take my writing to the next level.

I enclose a brief synopsis and the first three chapters of The Arkship Ulysses for your consideration. I
would be happy to send you the full manuscript if and when appropriate. I enclose an SAE but you do not need to return the manuscript.

Please contact me if you need more information. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have or revise the novel as necessary. Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

R J Burgess

Lastly, of course, I need a contact list. Here are the agents I will be hitting first. I’ve chosen them simply because they all a) are UK-based and b) specifically target writers of genre fiction. They are:

  1. Anubis Literary Agency
  2. Michael Berenti Literary Management
  3. Mic Cheetham Associates
  4. Dorian Literary Agency
  5. Sheil Land Associates Ltd.
  6. The Standen Literary Agency

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it!

 


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 23

19 December 2014

Chapter 23: The Metapath

Length: 4,577 words

POV character: Stuart

Synopsis:

For Stuart, it is a time for hard decisions.

Though he has saved the Captain’s life, and rescued the whole ship from certain destruction, now he needs to save his own hide. The strange woman visits him while he is recovering from his near-death experience. This time she is determined to get some answers about who Stuart really is and what he plans to do now he has unlocked the secret to his power.

Notes:

You know, I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. A really long time. In fact, by this point it’s getting on for half my life time.

With that said, you might be surprised to hear that as little as two years ago I had no idea where this book was going. Oh, sure, I told myself that I knew. I had outlines and plans and whole spreadsheets full of character arks. I’d written and rewritten well over 40 chapters worth of material, most of which will never see the light of day (though I am tempted to release some of it here after the book is finished as a kind of bonus for anyone who’s been patient enough to stick around all this time).

Two years ago, I cobbled together something that looked like an ending, ran the whole thing through a spell checker and then declared, “yep that’s finished”. But it was a lie. I was in pain at the time, mourning the loss of a year’s worth of work and desperate to get some closure on that part of my life.

Looking back now, I see that the book wasn’t finished. Not even close. It’s still not finished now.

The truth is, the book was simply too complicated to get my head around easily. You ever hear that analogy about woods and trees? Well, this right here was a veritable jungle and I’d stupidly walked into it with only the most rudimentary of maps. I had characters clashing into each other all over the place, each of which needed to be set up, given a character arc and believable closure all whilst also building the story as a whole towards some sort of cohesive end. I had an upper word limit I was desperately struggling to keep away from (I still am), and all in all it was just a constant logistical battle to keep all the balls in the air and make it look interesting while doing it.

And that’s the right word for it, I think: a battle. With myself. With my imagination. With my motivation. With the chapters I had already written which would sometimes need to be mercilessly cut and with the tenuous deadlines I kept setting myself which would then fly merrily by unmet.

And the worst thing was, it was a battle I was losing.

So I came up with a Strategy. Part of this strategy involved walking away from the novel for a year and allowing myself to get some distance from it. But the other part was more complicated and it involved trying to combat two specific hurdles I kept running into while writing the book:

  1. I didn’t know where the overall plot was going (though I did know some of the individual character arcs)
  2. Writing in a linear fashion meant that I was constantly switching POV and, consequently, voice. This would lead to an inconsistent writing style at times as characters started sounding very samey to one another

To combat both of these issues I tried delineating the story telling. I figured that by stripping out each of the characters and dealing with them one by one, the main plot would somehow materialize before my eyes. At the very least, I could write around that huge snarl of plot threads, allowing me to make some sort of progress on the novel while I tried to think up a long term solution to the thornier plot issues.

The first character to go through this delineated writing process was Michael. It was easy to work on his chapters since they have always served more as bookends to each part than chapters in their own right.

The next character to be looked at was Estavan, which was also pretty straightforward since he only had four chapters and only two of them impacted on the rest of the story.

Now that the easy characters were out of the way, I next turned my attention to Stuart who had seven chapters to his name at the time (I believe he has more now).

However, once I’d finished writing through Stuart’s section, my grand Strategy came screeching to a halt.

You see, I’d written too much.

When I pasted all the then completed chapters together to see how the book was looking, I discovered a huge pacing issue in the way Stuart’s chapters were laid out. In the middle section of the book he seemed to disapear for huge chunks of the narative at a time. Then at the end of the book, you suddenly couldn’t get rid of the guy. I think I had something like four chapters in a row focused on Stuart. And when you only have seven chapters to play with in total, you know something’s going wrong.

All this was compounded by the issue that I simply couldn’t move any of his chapters earlier in the book since some of the events in those chapters impacted on some of the other characters’ chapters. It was precisely the sort of situation I’d been trying to avoid all along and, I’ll be honest, it bummed me out for a while.

So my Strategy was a failure. The next day I went back to the beginning of the novel and started writing it out in a more typical, chronological order. It made more sense that way and the chapters ended up more sensibly spread out throughout the novel as a result.

I’m sure at this stage you’re probably asking yourself why I told you all of this. Well, it’s because this chapter right here is that bottom-heavy section of the novel I just talked about. In essence it’s something like three chapters’ worth of material from that earlier draft, all condensed down and flattened into just one chapter (plus an epilogue that’s coming later).

Condensing chapters means cutting text. Huge chunks of text. Some of my favourite parts of the novel in fact ended up deleted from this chapter. You need callouses on your heart if you’re going to be a writer.

It’s frustrating too because this is one part of the book I thought I’d finished years ago and now suddenly I found myself forced to wade through it once again. I think part of the issue (other than the chapter’s extreme length) is the sudden tonal shift that I was only just noticing between the breakneck action of the last few chapters followed by this more thoughtful, measured section of narrative. That’s yet another side effect of writing a book out of its correct order. I’ve learned my lesson for the future.

Anyway, hopefully it’s all fixed now and is ready for consumption. I hope you enjoy it.


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 21

25 November 2014

Chapter 21: Breakout

Length: 5,342 words

POV characters: Dawn and Stuart

Summary:

Chaos has engulfed the ship. The unspoken – long the down trodden slave race of the Arkship Ulysses – have risen up as one and are reaping havoc among the God-fearing civilian population for the first time in centuries. The only person who has any hope of stopping them is Stuart Leighton who, thanks to his connection with the ship and the Metapath gene that dwells inside him, has a unique insight into the crisis unfolding below. However, he finds himself frustrated at every turn, unable to work without the support of the woman who is holding him captive who is still suspicious of his motives.

With no tools at his disposal or help on his side, Stuart can only watch as the unspoken sweep through the lower decks. But things are about to get a whole lot worse when the ship’s Master-At-Arms, the arrogant Commander Nathan Hathaway, finally springs a trap he’s been building for months: a trap which involves the Captain and the Captain’s new bride-to-be, and an assassination attempt that will shake the ship’s hierarchy to its very core…

Notes:

Not much to say about this one except to say that I wrote it from scratch over the last couple of weeks so the writing might be a bit rougher round the edges than some of my more polished efforts.

It’s also worth noting why I haven’t updated you for a while on my progress and despite what you might think, for once it’s not due to any sort of writer’s block but rather the exact opposite. I’ve actually been writing like a mad man over the last couple of weeks, getting well ahead of myself and even forging on right to the end of the novel, which is something I’m thrilled to be able to report.

After this chapter only three more remain and they all exist in at least first draft form. A quick read-through, another week of redrafts for them and hopefully this novel will finally be put to bed.

I’m very excited about it.