A long time ago…

May 19, 2013

A long time ago (but not necessarily in a galaxy far far away), the Christmas of 1983 to be precise, my parents took the brave (and horribly expensive) decision to buy me a computer. A Commodore 64. I was 12 and I was utterly delighted, even the the fact that I would have to share it with my sister (three years my junior) couldn’t take the shine off it.

My 30-year old C64, loved as much now as when I was 12

My 30-year old C64, loved as much now as when I was 12

My parents did add a certain tarnish to that shine when they confessed years later that they were worried about my gambling habit and had bought me the computer in the hope that I would go out less! I was horrified of course, especially as I didn’t have a gambling habit, which indicated they really didn’t know me very well at all. They had mistaken my trips during the summer holidays to the nearby village/Seaside resort of Seaton Carew to do battle on behalf of the Rebel Alliance (Star Wars sit-down machine) and as a brave futuristic tank commander (Battlezone) as being exactly the same as that of the people who feed coin after coin trying to line up 3 cherries and drop a few quid out of the machine.

Star Wars

Star Wars

Of course, even at the age of 12 I could reason well enough to understand that any machine which has written on it that it guarantees to pay out 72% of what it takes in, is effectively fixed and therefore was of no interest to me at all (then or now). No, my idea of winning was to appear on the first page of high scores of both Star Wars and Battlezone, so that as subsequent players fed in their 10p pieces, the initials JMH would briefly enter their thoughts and they might wonder who that player was and how did they achieved such an amazing score (because I did).

 

Battlezone

Battlezone

Occasionally I would be “in the zone” and I would indeed end up in the top 10. Once, on Battlezone, I even got the very top score. Never has a few glowing lines on computer screen meant so much to a teenager.

Of course, one could argue that, irrespective of my parents’ reasoning, I still owned a C64…

Ownership of aforementioned C64 lead to my life, from that moment on, splitting neatly into 3 strands:

1) Playing games

The C64 was a beautiful games machine and while I owned a reasonable amount “shoot-em-ups” I eventually filtered my games collection down to the open-ended Elite (by Ian Bell and David Braben), my collection of SSI Fantasy Roleplaying games (such as “Shard of Spring“) and Infocom adventure games such as Zork.

2) Programming

I loved to tinker and when my school also got a couple of C64s and therefore a large collection of (expensive) supporting books, such as the “Programmer’s Reference Guide” then I started to design games of my own.

The C64 programming language was not fun and it turned out that I do not have a natural flair for coding, but I stuck with it and eventually produced a roleplaying game of my own. It used a mixture of graphics (like the SSI games) and text input (like the Zork games) and it was opened ended (like Elite) and it was mine, all mine…

It was also rubbish. It was slow, buggy and eventually repetitive, but I loved it, because it was mine.

3) Writing

GEOS

GEOS

When I bought my Floppy Drives for my C64 I somehow I ended up with a new operating system for it called GEOS. It came with a proper WYSIWYG Word Processor called geoWrite. Of all the the things I have grown to adore about that time in my life, this, on reflection, was “the big one”. I wrote all the time. I wrote with purpose and conviction and at some point, aged around 17, I realised that one of my stories had gotten away from me and that I had just written word and after word after word and had done this approximately 180,000 times.

This was the story that eventually became “Three Brothers, Three Swords” (3B3S) a story I never actually quite got to the end of. It was the story I joined WordWatchers almost 20 years later, with the intent of finishing (having started to rewrite it as a 3rd Person Narrative (as the 1st Person Perspective had become too difficult and was the reason I’d stopped writing it in the first place) a few years earlier).

“Three Brothers, Three Swords” is of course completely rubbish. It was written by an angst-ridden teenager and is stuffed full of clichés and huge great chunks of it could, at best, be described as “inspired by” The Lord of the Rings, and, at worst, sub-conscious rip-off. It’s complicated, unfocussed, has too many characters, too many sub-plots and I was writing it for me, for the simple pleasure of writing so it meanders gently through the world I created (I still have the hand-drawn maps I made) like a tourist guidebook pointing out the best bits to visit…

I don’t think in the late 1980s there was such a term as “Young Adult” and certainly nobody seemed to be writing books for “us” specifically. How times have changed. So “Three Brothers, Three Swords” isn’t dead, but it’s certainly in deep cryo-sleep waiting to be re-booted (as JJ might put it) – with 180,000 words of dot-matrix print-out to work through, I’ve certainly got a lot of raw material and if I chip away enough of the bloat a reasonable YA novel may yet emerge. But not yet, not for a long time I think.

So, we finally jump to the modern day, although we have to whizz back to about four years to a point where I’ve been in WordWatchers for about a year and it’s clear that while I’m writing (short stories mainly) I’m not doing anything on 3B3S. At this time Katherine Webb was a full member WordWatchers and had joined with an impressive back catalogue of five novels, the sixth being completed during that first year she was in the group (her seventh novel of course became the well deserved success that was “The Legacy”). I was somewhat ashamed of myself, daring to call myself a writer when I had one uncompleted novel under my belt which I had been clinging to like a rotten corpse for 20 years…

Katherine said three things to me (to be fair she said many things (and still does)) and none of them were anything the group hadn’t said to me before, but they were delivered together as one neat, concise package: “Give up on Three Brothers, write what you like, write what you know.”

Of course, I did nothing of the sort, I continued to procrastinate with the best of them and then I unexpectedly got sent to a conference for a week up in Edinburgh. A city which I fell in love with immediately. Work had also booked me into a managed apartment, rather than a hotel. I was alone, I had no distractions and I had a work laptop. I started to write. Actually, that’s not quite true – I started to plan.

The first thing I did was map out the rules for a computer game called Endless Possibilities, the game I would have designed had I had the skill, had the Internet existed and had home computers had more than 1MHz CPUs and 64K of memory when I designed my own computer game all those years ago.

Then I started to write. I wondered, if my computer game existed, who would be playing it and that’s when Richard introduced himself to me. Then I wondered why Richard would spend so much time playing this game and a story started to emerge – about loss, and hiding and denial. And with a story, I needed a supporting cast and so I had friends, family and work colleagues and they had stories to tell too. By the time I left Edinburgh I was 8,000 words in to a new novel.

Over the course of the next few months I could report to WordWatchers I was making steady progress and by the time I got to 15,000 words I did something I rarely do with a substantive piece of work, I handed it over to somebody else. I gave it to Katherine.

She read it and to my astonishment she liked it – but she threw me a curve ball: “I hope Steely is going to feature properly, he’s your best character.”

I checked through my notes and Steely was not going to feature much more than a few Chapters on from where I’d currently got to – he was effectively (supposed to be) a throw-away character, a plot device, nothing more.

I re-read what I had written. It was clear, that some unexpected facet of my psyche had been substantiated on the page. Steely was real and he clearly had a part to play. I started to re-write what I’d already written, which was bad enough, but I failed to readjust my original plan/plot. I still had an end-point, but I was way off piste now.

I battled on for 95,000 words over the next two years and ground to a halt. In the end I gave it to WordWatchers and demanded they did their worst. As ever, they were utterly brilliant. Every plot-hole ringed, every pointless sub-plot highlighted, every unrealistic interaction left high and dry. But they said I had a really good story it just seemed (to them) that I was 2/3rds the way through my intended word count but only halfway through my plot…

They were right of course and if they hadn’t seen the potential in the story I would possibly have killed it off there and then. Instead I foolishly promised I’d finish it by my 40th birthday.

I lied.

My 40th came and went and Endless Possibilities became my Elephant-in-the-room, even WordWatchers stopped mentioning (much).

My well worn Asus 1015PX

My well worn Asus 1015PX

Then in March 2012 I bought myself a little netbook and fell in love with writing Endless Possibilities again (the exact details of this love-up are detailed here). However, I realised that I was stuck with where the story had gotten too at the 95,000 word point. So I jumped to the end, I knew exactly how the story ended and how to get there, so I started from there. For two months I got up an hour earlier than normal (5am), I took the netbook with me wherever I went, I wrote, pretty much, whenever I sat down. After two months I’d written 45,000 words and the story unexpectedly came to an end.

That was a very strange moment (and is captured here) especially as I’d always known exactly how the story ended, but I hadn’t consulted with the inner writer, I was just the person who loved to write (much in the same way as I had done with 3B3S all those years earlier). So, one morning while I was writing away, I finished a chapter and the voice went off that said “Perfect. Stop there.” I sat there for ages because I had so much more to write, wanted to write, but this voice got louder and louder and louder and in the end the person who just loved to write conceded the writer was right and the voice went quiet.

I’d finished the novel…

Except deep down I knew that wasn’t true, but I pretended it was.

I had 95,000 opening words (written over 3 years) and 45,000 closing words (written over two months). There was a ruddy big gap in the story, I’d changed so much as a writer in that time, I had a single story told by two different people and definitely no invisible join between the two sections.

I set off “editing” – I use the term loosely, because it could equally be described as “tickling”. In the first 10,000 words I extracted 1000 I did not need. I figured this would be easy, 10% of a 140,000 word book would get me close to the self-imposed magic figure of 120,000 as being the right length for this story.

The further I read, the closer I got to the obviousness of the chasm between the two sections. I edited less, I panicked more and in May 2012 I stopped. Completely.

I returned to full blown procrastination. I started writing short stories again. Winning one run by Biting Duck Press in June 2012 just compounded the issue, allowing me to justify my avoidance of EP as honing my skills. When a short story of mine got published in a Science Fiction Anthology in November 2012 my complete denial about Endless Possibilities editing was complete. It was obvious I’d moved on.

Except it was obvious I hadn’t.

WordWatchers knew it too.

Finally, in the May 2013 meeting (yes a whole year since I’d actually done any editing of the novel) I promised I’d print the damn thing out and at least read it all the way through as one complete work (no, amazingly, I had never actually done this).

Last week, that’s what I did and I started to read.

Killing chapters

Killing chapters

It appears to be easier to put a pen line through a word, the end of a sentence, a whole sentence, a paragraph and, as it turns out, a whole chapter (twice over).

I have (re)discovered that I really like Endless Possibilities, it gets off to a fantastic start, I am really pleased with the end (there’s a section that, one year after I wrote it, made me cry when I re-read it for the first time, which is a very strange feeling). I was, I think, “in the zone” for those two months of March and April 2012, but there’s a big chunk of 80,000 in the middle that’s messy and self-indulgent. It’s not as bad as 3B3S, I have definitely improved so much since my teens, but there are some bits that have no place in a novel…

I realise that this re-read was just the first pass and I have grasped the low hanging fruit only and once I have taken a step back after I implemented these initial changes there will be many more and each pass will get harder and harder both in terms of what to “fix” and how to fix it.

I am, however, very lucky, because I have WordWatchers and they will not let me take this journey alone.

There’s one other thing of course, and that is fairly simple, I want “you” to read this novel. Love it or hate it, I don’t mind, but I want you to read it and that is the biggest change for me and one reason for that is fellow WordWatchers John Potter, who had never seen EP before and picked up the printed copy and started to read it – he laughed right at the end of Chapter 1, just where he was supposed to. Although unless he reads this he may never know how much of a difference that has made to me, because in many ways, John Potter IS my target audience.

Thank-you.

Rocket Scientist

John Hoggard ex-Rocket Scientist

John

PS The irony of the fact that this blog is overly long and self-indulgent, is not lost on me.

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