A brief diversion into COVID blogging

Turns out I have COVID.


Not sure how and when I got infected. All I do know is that last weekend I decided to lighten up a bit and do some ‘normal’ things for the first time in over a year. I had had my first jab, and my second one was due shortly. I should be protected, right?

So, last week I went to a band rehearsal and even went to the pub afterwards. And then on Saturday Donny and I headed into Central London for dim sum and an exhibition at the British Museum. Then the crowning glory of our planned ‘normal’ weekend was to be a (gasp) garden party on Saturday night. It is the journey to this party that is my strongest candidate for infection as the tube was full of people fresh from an anti-lockdown protest cum super-spreader event in Central London. On the Victoria Line journey down to South London I had one of them sat next to me for about 15 minutes. Maybe that was enough. I don’t know. Maybe it was at the party. There were a few drunken hugs, but we were outside the whole time. I don’t know. The second guessing of this whole deal is driving me crazy, so I’ll leave it there and concentrate on the day-to-day reality of living with COVID.

I remember waking up early on Sunday morning thinking ‘shit – have I been putting myself at risk?’ so I did a lateral flow test hungover at about 6.30am. Negative.

So, feeling fine and relatively chipper from my clear test on Sunday I had my second jab on Monday as planned. I had experienced two to three days of side effects from my first jab so I was ready for that. So Tuesday came around and I started feeling a bit spaced out and unable to focus, but that just seemed like classic jab issues.

Then on Wednesday I really did feel mildly fluey. Since I had a massage planned for that evening, I reckoned it would be the sensible thing to do to just have another lateral flow test to be on the safe side.

Boom! COVID,

(Let’s have a normal weekend, we said. What’s the worst that can happen? we said.)


That Difficult Second Novel

So, I’m writing again. Which is good. I think.

After almost three months of fretting and strategizing I actually sat down today and bashed out some words. It wasn’t exactly flowing freely – it was more like trying to pull out a rusty nail – but it’s done.

My drive and ambition to write took a complete nosedive during the Spring thanks to a catastrophic loss of confidence caused by a variety of factors. Not getting any agents to represent me last year was hard, and then the flatlining sales once friends and family all got their copies was also very discouraging. It all just built up to the point where I needed to stop, take a breath, and really think about what I wanted.

Because I love writing. It’s my thing. I love getting words down and crafting and refining sentences. I loved building the world of the first book, and creating these characters that I really cared about. But the first book was fuelled by the (somewhat naïve) belief that I had a good chance of getting it published. Now that’s gone, it’s been hard to find the motivation to sit down and put in the hours for anything new.

It’s not all bad: I have a good idea for the second book, and a really good title, and over the last few weeks I’ve managed to put together a plot and structure that really works and makes sense and should have a decent pace.

But I still have to write the thing, and that’s where the issue lies. I just can’t face the thought of writing and editing another 90,000 word book. It’s too much work. I can’t face it.

So, instead, I’ve decided to break it down into manageable chunks. Book 2 is going to be written in six instalments (of around 15,000 words each) and it’s going to be released for free via various free book sharing lists, sites and services.

I reckon I can handle the thought of publishing six small books rather than one massive one and I’m hoping that the new publishing model will get me some new readers who might be keen to read more and give me encouragement to keep going and get all the instalments done.

We’ll see. It’s an experiment. Could go great. Could be terrible.

Watch this space.


How to course correct when you realise your story is heading off a cliff

I haven’t been able to write for the past couple of weeks due to work pressures, so I thought this weekend was a good opportunity to have a read through the first 30,000 words of Book 2 so far, and see how it’s going.

Turns out that Book 2 is not going well.

I’m afraid to say the entire thing has somewhat veered off the road, and I’m not sure how it happened.

I don’t know whether it’s my writing style, or my approach to structure or what, but so far it’s an uneven, slow moving, unengaging mess with zero stakes, and nothing propelling the narrative. In other words, it’s all the mistakes I made the first time round coming back to say hi.

Here are the main issues:

The world of the book is way too complex

The alien immigration camps are a multi-layered and complex interplay of old grudges, new problems, class structures and human incompetence. I’ve got twenty-three different alien species in this mix as well. It’s a rich world, but I’m trying to put it all on the page, which means there is a lot of stuff happening in every scene, all of which is holding up the narrative. Hence:

It’s taking WAY too long for anything significant to happen

With my original plan for the structure I had a smaller mystery which my heroes were looking into, but then in the process of that, they stumble across the real mystery. The trouble is that I’m 30,000 words in, and they are still only just realising that the smaller mystery is there at all. This isn’t good! They should be neck deep in the thrills and spills of mystery solving by now. Instead, they are having long conversations about how things don’t seem quite right. Yawn.

Consequently, my characters have zero incentive to do anything

My two main characters have landed in this prison camp and have spent the entire book so far reacting to things rather than shaping the narrative. During my re-read, I realised with a jolt that my characters currently have no reason to leave their rooms other than a contrived idea of ‘finding out what’s really going on’. I have to fix that.

The Plan

First step is to pare down what I show in the book. There’s all this complex activity happening in the camps, but I should only show the aspects of it that directly impact on our heroes. I need to take out any scenes that don’t directly impact the plot, and get rid of some planned introductions of different species. They can wait their turn. Perhaps in book 3.

The main change I need to make is to increase the stakes as early as possible. I need to make my main characters active participants as soon as they arrive, and make the camps a much more dangerous place for them to be from the off. That way they have a clear reason for everything they are doing, beyond just being curious.

So I’m back to editing – a lot earlier than I planned – but it’ll make the opening much stronger, much more exciting, and a much stronger foundation for all the thrills and spills I have planned.


30K – The Lexicon of Love Scenes

The moment I have been dreading is almost here. I can hear its hot and heavy footsteps in the distance, lumbering towards me with an unstoppable force.

At some point very soon, I’m going to have to write my first ever love scene.

Actually, it isn’t my first ever love scene, because in Interplanetary Homesick Blues I originally had a love scene between Cal and Droov which took place on the floor of Phyliss’ ship. I took it out though, as there was too much going on to give the romance space to breathe, and decided that if I was every going to write a second book, I would put it in there.

But now I’m writing the second book, and I see a very logical moment heading my way in about 4,000 words where a love scene would be a perfect culmination of the events of the book thus far.

And I am terrified.

I just don’t want it to be shit. Love scenes walk such a fine line between emotion and cliché, sincerity and accidental hilarity. They are so intimate and precious and yet we, as readers, are the audience for this moment hearing every word, seeing every nuance. How do I stop it being uncomfortable for the reader to get through?

I guess I’ve done the difficult part already, which is create two good characters on their own arcs who will crash into each other emotionally. So it won’t feel like it comes out of nowhere. And I think I can handle the emotional side, with the interplay between what the characters are thinking and feeling, and how that then manifests in how they behave.

I think what I am essentially asking is ‘how hot and heavy do I make this?’

I don’t want this to be porn, and I don’t want it to be so explicit that people feel awkward lending the book to each other. But, at the same time, I don’t just want the characters to start kissing and then have the camera pan away artfully. There has to be a middle ground where you have these two characters, who know each other intimately, suddenly grappling with this whole new aspect of their relationship. That’s interesting, and potentially hilarious (in an intentional way) and I want to lean into that if I can. But it’s going to be hard to nail the tone, and it will likely take a few drafts before it is not terrible.

But maybe that’s OK. Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about getting it perfect in the first draft. Maybe I should just start making a move, and see what happens.

That’s how this romance stuff works, right?


25K – Slow, slow, quick-quick slow

It’s taken a hard two weeks to write the last 5,000 words. Work pressures have been high, and not left me with much in the way of brain power to keep writing after a full-on day of IT intensity.

So I’ve reduced my ambitions to 500 words a day and 3,000 words a week. A bit more manageable, and also means I’m able to focus on quality rather than just churning out my daily allocation of words.

One issue at the front of my mind is pacing. With the last book, at the 25K mark I was well into the central mystery whereas in the new book I’m still putting my characters through the mill and dealing with a lot of character stuff. The plot proper will kick in shortly, but is it all too slow? How will I know?

The short answer is, when you are in the middle of the writing process, it is very hard to gauge the pace at which the story is moving. How do you know which parts are too slow (or too fast) without having the context of the overall arc of the entire finished story? I’m sure more experienced novelists develop an instinctive feeling for the pace of story during the writing process. However, for a newbie like myself I’m just going to plough on at the pace I’m going, writing all my nice character moments, and hope that I won’t have to cut too many of them during the first edit!


20K – Find the strength to keep going

The novelty has definitely worn off.

Four weeks into this book, and the initial sheen of excitement and discovery had fizzled away. Now I’m just left with a never-ending stream of words and sentences that I’m responsible for churning out, like a one-man literary sweatshop.

I know it’s not like that, and I know writing is a privilege. But right now I know exactly what Dorothy Parker meant when she wrote:

“I don’t like writing. I like having written.”

When I’ve done my chunk of words for the day, I do feel a sense of satisfaction and, yes, relief that I’m done and can put it down for another twenty-four hours. But when I’m in the middle of a writing session or – even worse – when I’m sitting down to start writing, all I want to do is distract myself with the internet.

I think it doesn’t help that right now the story is all encounters, moments and conversations that have the effect of gradually pulling Cal and Droov apart. As they each find their own tribes within the camps, all the shared experiences that brought them together are diminishing. It’s kind of sad and slightly upsetting seeing this friendship (which I spent so long building in book 1) begin to drift apart.

Ah well. Next week we should get back to the fighting and explosions.

It’ll all work out in the end.


15K (actually 16.5K) – The Babykilling Begins

My original plan to was write my first draft and then edit afterwards. The thinking was that it makes it a lot easier to feel like I am making progress if I can see the wordcount climbing quickly because I am not spending hours going over the same words again and again. But as you may have read in the previous post, I had a real problem with my first act so I needed to rewrite early.

The good news is I’ve just reached the end of my first day in the book, and a lot has happened! I’ve introduced tons of new alien species, three key characters, transplanted in a decent action scene (originally planned for day 2), described some interplanetary street food (probably in way too much depth) and even threw in a space whale for good measure. Who doesn’t love a space whale?

The bad news is I’ve already consigned about 1,500 words to the scrap heap as part of the editing, including an entire character I had plans for (but realised was a bit useless). It’s a good thing to have done, but it is a little dispiriting word-count wise. It’s also meant I’ve actually written over 6,000 words this week rather than the planned 5,000. I think from now on when I need to remove something, I’m going to copy and paste it to the end of the doc so I can keep the story sharp, but also feel like I am still cranking out the words.

I also need to be bit kinder to myself. Lockdown is rough, and my mental health has been bad. Putting the pressure on myself to write every day and keep a really demanding job going is a bit much. So I may not make my wordcount this week, and that’s OK.


10K – Old Habits Die Hard

The biggest editing challenge I had with Book 1 was that in the first few drafts, the plot didn’t kick in until about the 30,000 words mark. The whole first third of the book was nothing but world building with my characters reacting to things, which didn’t make for a great reading experience. I needed to chop large passages and re-organise everything to help the book feel pacey and exciting from the beginning.

With Book 2 I knew I couldn’t possibly make the same mistake as:

a) I had done all the heavy lifting of the world building in Book 1

b) I had planned the story ahead of time to ensure the story would be well structured.

So imagine my surprise when I reached 10,000 words on Book 2, and realised the book so far was – you guessed it – nothing but world building and my characters reacting to things.

What the hell happened?

Book 2 takes place in the world of the alien refugee camps, and it’s a complex world that needs explaining and building. I dramatically underestimated how much I needed to set out up front in order for the story to make sense and hang together.

But, at least I caught it early this time – and it’s fixable.

So far, I’ve moved a large chunk of Act 2’s action into the opening sections, which has helped it enormously. Cal and Droov are no longer just looking at things and describing what’s happening. They are now mixed up in the world of the camps from the get go: making friends and enemies and generally making a mess.

This change will likely make this whole first section of the book a bit longer, but it should mean that Cal and Droov are actively involved with this new world, and they discover everything through their interactions, rather than just by having everything described to them.


5K – The Story So Far

I’ve started on the first draft of Book 2, and aiming for 5,000 words a week, which should get the first draft done by the summer (when lockdown might end…) I’m also planning to write a blog article for every 5,000 words to reflect on how it’s going and the choices I’ve made. Could be interesting. Could be deathly dull. Let’s find out.

The opening is fairly linear: our heroes land in a plane and then drive to the alien refugee camps, reflecting on what they see while on their journey.

The key dynamic is the contrast of the different reactions of Cal and Droov. Cal, as per usual, is racked with guilt – he is dealing with the decision he made to avoid the camps and live illegally, and when he sees the poor living conditions in the camps, his immediate go-to reaction is to find a way to somehow blame himself. He’s like me – always finding ways to turn problems inward. Droov, however, is just excited about all the new experiences and people they’ll meet and wants Cal to lighten the hell up.

The biggest challenge has been how much backstory to include. The book is a sequel that kicks off about a day after Interplanetary Homesick Blues ends. How much of the detail do I need to fill in, and how much do I trust that the reader will have read the previous book? I hate prefaces, flashbacks and exposition so I’ve included all the essential points in the dialogue: they uncovered an Ascenti conspiracy, they are heroes, they are getting the VIP treatment. That also allows for some fun character stuff: Droov loves everyone knowing he’s a hero while Cal just wants to disappear.

Next up: Cal and Droov settle into the camps and discover that all is not what it seems to be. 


Nowt So Queer As Aliens

From the very beginning, I knew I wanted Interplanetary Homesick Blues to be a bit queer. As a gay writer, I wanted LGBT heroes at the centre of the action, saving the day and smooching it out.

I followed through with this plan with a super gay first draft – with plenty of flirting, nude swims and even a sex scene with Cal and Droov in Phyllis’ ship. But as I contemplated more during the redrafting process, I realised the plot was becoming so complex, it was hard to keep the story moving along AND help the reader to really care about Cal and Droov’s relationship. There were a couple of really forced Flash Gordon moments – real ‘FlashI love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!’ stuff. Not good for anyone.

What I needed were more sophisticated ways to bring in queer and LGBT themes beyond just having two men occasionally kissing while they saved the world.

The first change was to make Cal non-binary rather than male. This one change immediately introduced a whole theme of ‘passing’ and ‘passing privilege’ that runs through the first part of the book. Celaphynes look like human males so they take on that gender identity in order to blend in. But what have they given up in order to ‘pass’? The loss of Cal’s gender identity is one of the many losses he has experienced in his efforts to live on Earth.

On the subject of gender pronouns, I did try and use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for Cal, but since he shared most of his scenes with Droov, it just became too cumbersome to differentiate what Cal was doing and what they were both doing. But it’s something I plan to revisit.

Passing privilege is also addressed by the Major in the first chapter who questions the morality of Cal being able to live free just because he can ‘climb stairs and use door handles’. Within the LGBT world there has always been tension between those who can ‘blend in’ (straight-acting ‘masc’ men and femme women’) and those whose appearance and behaviour make that impossible. In the book, the same tensions are played out – just with tentacles and eye-stalks.

Droov, however, doesn’t give any thought to such issues. He just wants to shag as many people as he can and his tastes steer towards those who present as male. But I don’t think he could ever label himself as ‘gay’ – he just likes what he likes. It’s us humans that feel the need to put the labels on.