Note to self

Writing: When a scene feels like a jigsaw with pieces that won’t fit, and keeps asking for rewrites to try and make them fit, it can be a sign that something bigger is wrong, e.g. the whole premise for the scene. Of course, something bigger can be wrong without obvious signs, but I’ve found often enough that ‘jigsaw going badly’ is a warning to check the bigger picture.

Just have to remember to heed it, as of course it’s tempting to ignore it and try and force the pieces to fit!


A bit of Knights Out

A bit from the start of WIP novella Knights Out:

‘Then how admirably mad,’ Gwynn amended his opinion. His look had grown a mite abstracted.

‘Indeed. Of course, Mattie sees her as a nice little windfall, though she thinks she could choose a better class of gentleman to get disenchanted with. Bless girls and their little ways, eh?’

Gwynn nodded in agreement, reaching for his cigarettes. He wondered, thumbing open the silver case, if he had not just been offered the solution to a problem that was lying on his mind.

Lighting an Auto-da-fé and inhaling at thoughtful length, he let his eyes drift up the steep hill above the street—with all the humid smog, coloured yellow by the lamps of the city, it was more an impression than a view—piles of bumptious marble and stucco blunted like ancient dolmens, traces of domes and balconies and narrow stairs, the farther up the further lost, drowned in an iodine sea—and on the other side, where the low parapet followed the edge of the terrace, with shabby palm trees spaced along it, the valley was filled with a golden gloom in which cupolas and statues on the roofs below were pasted like specimens pressed in tissue. In the road ahead were unknown companions—looking lost, too, as if they had until recently been part of a larger life form which had come to an incomplete end—shuffling along by the parapet, or groping forward with its support—one or two proceeding humbly but nimbly on all fours, like leggy novelties of the sea bed; not to disregard those over whom the promise of day held no power and who remained with the night, lying down under the palms in the truce and refuge of sleep; a humid breeze stirred the fronds above the stubborn bodies; an early rising bird cried out its heart to a vanished shore. Something beautiful was washed up, naked save for a sequinned mask and a saintly smile.

Of course it was the hour for inspiration to show up, gliding by on hypnagogic wings.

Reeling himself in, Gwynn questioned Jasper: ‘Have any of her recent affairs not ended in murder?’

Jasper gave a shrug of bullioned epaulettes. ‘Mattie didn’t mention any.’

‘Did she happen to say how the room mate rates?’

‘High enough to make her greenish—not that that takes much.’ An note of suspicion entered Jasper’s voice. ‘Planning a tragic love story?’

‘In my mind,’ said Gwynn, waving his cigarette for emphasis, ‘it’s more of a comedy. I don’t suppose Mattie would mind a little help with matchmaking?

‘I don’t suppose she would. Who’s the lucky punter?’

‘No one to worry your pretty head about. Just bring this wondrous Pharice along on a night out and I’ll call it a favour.’

Jasper turned on him with a deep scowl. ‘Aye, I’ll bring her, and kiss your pisspot too. I thought we trusted each other. I must have been thinking of someone else.’

‘Jas, I trust you with all my heart,’ Gwynn protested, laying a hand over the sparkling mineral layer to the fore of that organ, as Jasper continued to look disgusted. ‘I’m only trying to spare you a tedious exposition.’

‘Maybe I like tedious expositions. Who is it, you cagey fuck?’



The Memorial Page at Lightspeed

Lightspeed has reprinted my story ‘The Memorial Page’, and there’s also an Author Spotlight on the story. This issue features stories by Ian R. MacLeod, A. Merc Rustad, Seanan McGuire, Jack Skillingstead, Kelly Barnhill, Ashok Banker and Brian Stableford, and the nonfiction includes an interview with Connie Willis. Ebook editions of Lightspeed, featuring an additional novella not available on the website, can be purchased for $3.99, and annual subscription is $35.88.


Figuring out…

With the yard for the road, neighbour’s fence for the parapet and a ladder for a horse, figuring out how much the characters can actually see. Conclusion: if they’re near the parapet they could probably see down to the river, and if they’re in the middle of the road probably not, which suits me as I don’t really want to do a full view of the city here.

Off to the foundry tomorrow — early start to try and beat the traffic. Supervising welding and patina, and hopefully I’ll come home with some rabbits and ravens.


Staying Fresh

Now and then a scene just comes and hardly has to be altered — it starts fresh and stays fresh. That’s nice of course, but it’s not that common — or not for me, anyway.

I keep multiple drafts backed up and often revisit early ones to try and salvage material as the needs of the story force changes on the writing. I’m all too capable of wandering miles away from a first draft then coming back closer to it after realising I didn’t need to wander so far — but I probably needed to see what was over there in order to decide to come back. (And I might find something useful over there, too.)

I always fear that redrafting will produce a laboured product — maybe an odd fear for someone who likes fancy language, but there’s fresh fancy and stale fancy. The reader’s going to find it how they find it, but it has to seem fresh to me. I like to keep dialogue pretty close to its original state, if plot permits. Sometimes the characters come up with lines that are obviously better, but I seldom feel compelled to extensively revise dialogue. But I almost always rewrite descriptions, sometimes many many times. Sometimes the right words don’t come until I’m tired or doing something else. And I find that action scenes can ask for a lot of revision, though that’s a bit different as it’s as much about choreography as aesthetics. When I was writing TEC I did a fair bit of climbing around on furniture trying to work things out.

I’ve been redrafting this story a lot. Additions to plot give me no choice. However much the story may be improved, I always feel a certain regret for the lost first draft. But onwards and upwards. I’m enjoying it.

Back to dialogue for a moment — I was having trouble writing some lines. Then I imagined Yul Brynner saying them, and some better words came. Whether it was the added persona or the cadences of a distinctive voice, something helped. So next time I’m stuck with lines I’ll borrow an actor.


Knights Out

Some readers might remember a story I was working on a while back, about Gwynn and Sharp Jasper and a bet.

Well, I went back to it this year. It’s now called Knights Out: or, A Significant Ornamental Feature. It’s going well enough that I don’t feel like I’d jinx myself if I mention it. I think it’ll be about 30K words. There might be enough plot for a novel, but I don’t think it should be one.

It’s set in Ashamoil before The Etched City, and the tone is lighter. I started writing it as an exercise in plotting, and since my favourite kind of plot is a complicated farce like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, that was the kind of thing I attempted here.

I’ve learned a few things while writing it:

  1. I can write without hearing characters in my head. I used to feel like I had to follow them and not make them follow too much of a predetermined story, and sure I like writing that way; but I have trouble doing it at more than short story length. But actually, yes, I can have them follow a plot, too. As long as their planned actions aren’t OOC, they shouldn’t be either, and they still have room to improvise in dialogue and smaller actions. It’s really in dialogue that I tend to ‘hear’ them (obviously, because they’re talking).
  2. Writing a rough but complete first draft is a good tactic for me. It might change a lot, but it lays a foundation.
  3. Plot can be filled in. If something absolutely has to happen, there can be any number of reasons why it happens.
  4. Some characters write themselves, and which ones do can be surprising. I already knew that. But if a character isn’t self-writing, they can still be written. It might take more time, but it’s doable.
  5. To persevere with a long piece of writing I have to enjoy it. The characters have to be having some kind of fun, and/or I have to enjoy hanging out with them. Which makes sense because I’m the same as a reader. I read non-fic for information, fiction for entertainment. That doesn’t mean I only want to read trivial fiction. But there are approaches to writing that I find more entertaining than others, e.g. writing the serious as black comedy. Grotesque and gothic approaches, e.g. Carson McCullers, Patrick White, Yukio Mishima, also work for me.
  6. I rather enjoy writing plotty stuff. Who’da thunk it?


First things first: Writer, historian, educator and culinary adventuress Gillian Polack now has a Patreon — check it out!

Other stuff —

Read lately and recommend:
Dying for Strangers: Memoirs of a Special Ops Operator in Iraq by Brennan Morton
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq (enjoyed it for atmosphere and description, not so much the characters)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (not a fun read, but it has stayed with me and probably affected me more than most books do)
The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars by Maurice Dekobra




“Beach Rubble” review at The Black Letters

Emera at The Black Letters recently reviewed Beach Rubble, a story reprinted in my collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote. It’s a lovely review, and it makes points that send me into reflection on my own work. It’s always a treat when a review shows me things I hadn’t noticed about my writing — in this case, amongst other things, how much I use the element of water. I haven’t been writing much lately, but perhaps I should try mentally slipping into some kind of wet environment and see if I can’t find something there…oddly, what I see first at the bottom of the pond or river I dive into are a pair of embroidered satin shoes, tea rose pink, laid neatly side by side and even stuffed with paper as if they were in a wardrobe. The paper is quickly gone and replaced with a fleshy interior, a foot with a waving turret of tentacles, a nudibranch, shoedibranch – imagery, not narrative, but thank you water – I will draw them of course!


Digging to China

” …writing is sometimes like going around poking at lifeless things to see if they move. At least for me. Other times, it’s like digging to China, while simultaneously trying to reduce in oneself the sense of any enormous undertaking or burdensome obligation of really having to get there.”

— Screenwriter Carole Eastman (1934-2004)