Breaking Breaking Bad

Rather than focus on the novel I’m trying to get published, I thought I’d write something about the other novel I’m working on at the moment.

I wrote three quarters of the first draft a little while ago, and am wading through the redrafting process of the first quarter at the moment. I’m trying a different approach with the redrafting, one that I’ve nicked from Joe Hill, so it plainly works for someone. The idea is that, rather than redraft the whole shebang, you break it down into quarters (and have a read of this chap’s site about story structure if you want to define those quarters – he’s ace) and then, once you’ve redrafted the first quarter, you put it away for a while. Then you redraft the first quarter again and also the second quarter. Then put it away. Then redraft the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter etc etc… The idea being that the beginning will be so rock solid by the time you’re getting to the end that everything should fall into place.

The process was going ok – I’d redrafted the first quarter and set it aside for a while. Now I’ve picked it up again though, I’m struggling to find the excitement in it. Sure, after the crazy world changing events at the end of the first quarter there’s plenty of excitement, and my characters have all the standard stuff they need from the get go – goals, stakes and obstacles – but something was lacking. Fortunately though, I just spent three weeks addicted to Breaking Bad.

Right. So how is that useful? Isn’t it just a distraction from getting any writing done? Well yes in a way, but also it’s incredibly inspiring. I may be a bit late to the Breaking Bad love-in, but it’s gone straight to the top three of my all time favourite shows, alongside Firefly and The West Wing. All different, but all awesome. Anyway, as both my wife and I write, we often spend some time trying to analyse books, shows and films we’ve had a strong reaction to (either negative or positive) and so we spent an evening talking through what made the show work so damn well.

Turns out there are a lot of things that make it great. But the one that’s helped me out is this: Walter White is the obstacle for pretty much all the other major characters. How cool is that? It means that every character is instantly brought into conflict with the protagonist. Sure, there are some external obstacles too, but by and large it’s Walter who causes all the other characters’ headaches.

How’s that useful? In my first quarter my main three characters are school kids still. They’ve all got various obstacles, from religious nutjob parents to abusive homes to starting school for the first time ever at sixteen. One of the three is a bully and the others the bullied. When, after a few scenes, they are brought together by a shared experience they get a common goal, and despite all the external forces acting against them it feels a little too easy from then on, at least until the really weird stuff starts happening and their allegiances crumble. From the outset I’ve known that the characters have different agendas for wanting this goal, but what I’m only now putting into place is that these agendas are directly conflicting. So rather than forming a cohesive trio combating external forces, they are now also in conflict with each other. They are each others’ obstacle to achieving this shared goal. Instantly more exciting. Instantly more fun to write.

Right, I’ve run out of Breaking Bad so no excuse not get novelling. Or rewatching Breaking Bad…

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An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!

@BornToPootle