Red Star Falling is out now

Well, m’readers, Red Star Falling–book one in my Agents Temporal series–is now available from that large Luxembourg-based company we all love to hate. Thanks to everyone who helped me get this out the door.

The mysterious organisation known only by its initials: Meta.

The missing 100,000 roubles of the 1907 Yerevan Square Expropriation and its smuggler, the Georgian outlaw known as Soso.

Meta Agent Singular, Saskia Brandt, on a mission from the future.

The north face of the Eiger—treacherous, unclimbed, enshadowed—waiting for the money, the outlaw, and the Agent Singular.

Agent Singular: Particular. Special. One-shot.

Saskia Brandt returns in this action-packed story from the writer of bestseller Déjà Vu.

Red star falling cover

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Three

I heard back from my editor yesterday. He’ll be taking a look at my finalised manuscript on the bank holiday weekend (next week). Ahead of those edits, wondering what they might be, I thought it would be useful to post another instalment of my writing journal.

In the last excerpt, I had finished the first draft of the story, which came in at 15,000 words. I next turned to the problem of dealing with an editor.

Thursday, 4th April

For my next trick, I’ve been in contact with an editor. A few things are rolling around my head on this subject. First of all, the cost. It’s expensive.

As I’m going to publish this short story (calling it a novella, now!) to the Amazon Kindle—i.e., in electronic format—it needs to be in good shape. That means editing. What does an editor do? Well, there are different types of editing. There’s nothing about these types that a writer can’t do alone (indeed, many writers edit the work of others, too), but they usually find it difficult because they lack perspective. The editor gives a kind of ‘sanity check’. They work as a professional, experienced sounding board. I liken them to record producers. They don’t fundamentally change the text itself, but they lend it a certain perspective that can be helpful. They suggest deletions, additions, and so on.

Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to get my work into the best shape possible. If my story were a boxer, this would be about hiring the best trainer.

Friday, 5th April

It’s a struggle to make the story as alive as it can be; what is the best way of presenting it?

I’ll need to increase the tension in certain parts. I’ll probably do this by setting the characters against one another rather more. The final scene, in particular, is a bit too friendly.

I go on to write:

There’s a character I’ll probably delete, and another I need to be very careful about. His identity is

(Redacted.)

For that [redacted] to work, his motivations need to seem consistent during the initial read (when the reader thinks [redacted]) and also when the reader goes back over their memory of his actions and thinks, ‘Aha!’ My model for this ‘Aha!’ moment is the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects. That is to say that I aspire to create the same effect.

Good luck with that.

During this stage, the story tends to dog my thoughts and give rise to that faraway look that friends often comment on. The story is a multi-piece jigsaw puzzle where I’m allowed to change the size of the pieces as well as their arrangements. There’s no way this can happen consciously. You have to let your unconscious percolate.

One more thing is happening. As I become more familiar with the story—dream about it, ponder about it during idle moments—I think of certain metaphorical connections that could be made. For instance, I’ve decided that Saskia should be ‘awoken’ at the beginning of the story by a vase of flowers falling over. Not entirely sure, at this stage, whether the flowers should be red or white. Anyway, it complements the ending of the story, where [redacted].

Sunday, 28th April

I often recall something that Steve Jobs said about designing a product. Good design, he claimed, is about leaving things out. By eliminating what is not great, you leave the great bits. I’m often reminded of this when I read student work, like an essay. I’ll look at a paragraph and think, ‘You should have left that out,’ because the other paragraphs were written at the top of your game; they work well. Only leave in the stuff that works well. If something doesn’t work—a character, scene, metaphor—then you can try to fix it, but must always remember that deletion is also a fix.

Structurally, I’ve decided not to include some flashbacks (of the future, where the main character comes from). This should give the story a tighter, more focused feel. You can’t have too much focus.

I’m aiming for this story to work in the same way that a third act works.

The final draft was 20,000 words. That’s the version I sent to the editor.

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Two

In this second part of excerpts from my writing journal, which outlines my thoughts while writing Red Star Falling, I’m assembling the first draft and thinking about the revision process.

Saturday, 30th March

So the theme today is a somewhat technical. I’m trying to get myself out of plot knots that I’ve become ensnared in. For this story, I’ve given myself a general view of what goes on—a high-altitude version, if you will—and relied upon my unparalleled writer’s brain (sarcasm alert) to figure out the fine details during the process of composition. This is one way of doing it; it’s also a way of creating panic. That said, the panic is probably necessary. What it means is that I must solve problems as I go along. It makes me focus much more. They aren’t really difficult problems, to be honest. They’re problems like ‘Character A needs to do X because otherwise things will be boring; but why would Character A do that?’ and selling them to the reader.

The theme of ‘selling’ is certainly one that I keep coming back to. The story itself might be mundane, but it can give the impression of being a cracking story if it is sold well. A magician will have only a small staple of tricks—misdirections, etc.—but they can be sold as things like mind-reading and levitation. That’s why you can paraphrase a story like Hansel and Gretel and it sounds like a piece of crap. In selling it, in putting it together as a story that the reader can almost experience, almost touch, you create something like fiction. So much of my ‘problem solving’ is really about doing up with solutions that the reader will ‘buy’. Not to have the characters be clever but seem clever. Much the same applies to the writer, I’d suggest.

Sunday, 31st March

The struggle continues. Since I finished the writing session last night, I’m bugged by the little universe in my head. The story has reached the point where several interesting things have to happen simultaneously. To be specific for a moment…

Redacted!

Last night in bed, and this morning in bed, I’ve been thinking over the mechanics of what needs to happen.

In my last session, I left Saskia…

As the Fonz says, redactamundo!

I did that according to Hemingway’s principle that one should always leave something in the tank for the next session. That is, you should always be able to pick up where you left off.

But once I’ve written the next bit—which is fairly easy—I’ll then hit the murder-wall of the coming action scene, where all things come together. I know I’ve written good action scenes in the past, but it does, at moment, seem difficult to scope out.

As ever, the best way of getting the thing done is to do it. Let’s rock. (Pun-tastic!)

Wednesday, 30th April

Well, I’ve finished the first draft of the short story.

Came in at about 15,000 words.

The idea now is to let it mellow—but not too much! The first draft works, essentially, as a rough map of the final territory. It now needs to be finessed in a couple of ways. The first is a ‘developmental pass’. I’ll need to read through the thing in its entirety and check that there aren’t any major errors of geography, motivation, and so on. Next, I’ll do a ‘research pass’, where I’ll ensure that visual descriptions, etc., are accurate. Finally, I’ll finish the text itself; this will involve re-writing the story from the ground up. I’ll probably start with a blank document and have the original open to one side.

Developmental pass

This comes first. It’s about a high-level overview. Here, I can change structure to maximise things like pace, clarity and parsimony—but however it’s described, it means producing a structure that is the best way of telling the story. In a sense, when you change the structure, you change the story, but there’s a distinction between plot and story. (There might be a technical one; but I’m using my own distinction here.) The story is what the text is about; the plot is what happens, and in what order. What is the story about? This is a question I don’t like to ask beforehand, because it stifles the creative process. It’s important for me that I don’t really know what it is about to start with. This needs to be discovered during the writing. In the case of Red Star Falling, I guess the story is about a woman going…

Redacted.

Research pass

This is quite good fun, though there is a pervasive anxiety that I’ll uncover a crucial detail that renders implausible a key aspect of the story. What I need to do in this stage is identify locations, the weather, sound patterns, smells, fashion—anything specific to the situation of the story that I’ll need to mention or imply. Red Star Falling is set in Switzerland in 1908. It begins in a mortuary and finishes on the Eiger Nordwand, or ‘north face’. I’ve been looking up descriptions and pictures of Edwardian mortuaries and dropping them into an application called Evernote. I’m not sure how much of the detail I’ll need to use, but I want to have it at my fingertips.

It might be worth saying something about the interaction between the research process and the first draft. I’ve learned, over the years, that the story-based element is quite independent from the research-based element, even though they may appear to the reader (and the amateur writer) to be tangled inextricably. The problem for the writing process is that you’ve already got a ton of stuff rolling around your head. Essentially, you are trying to simulate an independent reality in your head. The less you need to think about research the better. If you write peripatetically, the flow of the story will suffer, and it will be very hard to write. It’s better just to crack on. So, these days, when I write (and this is true of the draft as it stands today), I’m writing the letters TC (standing for ‘To Come’) whenever I need to write something that I would need to look up—time of dawn, name of a minor character, or street, and so on. This means that I can crash through and get the draft finished. However, it’s not easy, because you’re well aware that what you’re producing reads like a goddamn lubberly mess. (It doesn’t help that prose is shot full of cliches, either, but you’ve also got to postpone beauty to a later draft.)

Finalising the text

This will be laying down a new bed of prose that is all-guns-blazing, possibly overblown, and certainly purple. It’s when I’ll start to think: What is the absolute best way, aesthetically, to describe a night/mortuary workbench/lake lit by moonlight? The draft will probably be much longer than the first draft. Decisions of tone, pace, and all that will need to be made. Then it will be drafted a few more times. Probably, that’ll involve printing the thing out, correcting the language, and doing it again.

The fun you can have. Next time, the journal will look into issues like the cover for the book.