song of the slums

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Writing Song of the Slums
 

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Revising & Editing

 

PROBLEMS

 

I always imagined that when I'd finished several novels, I'd be able to get everything right first time. Huh! Dream on! The total start-to-finish rewrite has become a standard part of my writing pattern. Maybe the first draft comes out in better shape, but I still can't help seeing so many ways in which it can be improved. The only difference is that I can do it all in one hit, not one improvement at a time.

But this isn't about the rewrite of Song of the Slums - which is on another page - it's about the first draft. And yes, the first draft does come out in better shape first time, I'm sure of it. I have learned something from my previous sixteen novels - namely, to spot the difficulties before they arise. That definitely happened with Song of the Slums, which had a few small hiccups along the way, but no big problems. I mean the problems were there, but I faced up to them and headed them off in advance.

(I really do believe in facing up to problems - maybe because I used to think they would go away or solve themselves in the past, and they never did! I have a section called "Face Up To It Now" in my writing tips websiste - something I've learned the hard way.)

With Song of the Slums, two challenges come from the nature of performing music as the central thread of the narrative. Reading a random selection of musos' biographies and autobiographies before I started writing (Pat Benatar's was my favourite) probably helped me see the lurking pitfalls. Firstly, a musical career involves an awful lot of gigs, and they're all much the same - not when you're caught up in the playing, but when you're watching them as a reader. So I had to use as few gigs as possible, have them mount up step by step, and make each one distinctive and different. Of course, typical musical careers in real life are endlessly up and down, and involve countless wrong steps and endless hard work before success starts to trickle in. Just like the typical writer's career! But I wasn't aiming at the typical, only the possible - my bottom line was to make the Rowdies' career at least believable.

I think I managed it - in fact, I'm sure I did. I saw the movie "The Sapphires" recently and loved the first half … but the second half flagged when the girl group had basically achieved all the success they were going to achieve. There weren't enough steps to their trajectory, and not enough interest in the actual business of musical performance to allow for much development. I think of The Hunger Games as an ideal role model (the book - no doubt the movie's the same, but I haven't seen it). It's the same challenge of a great many similar events, similar contests, each exciting on its own yet liable to become very repetitive overall. But Suzanne Collins ratchets up the tension from step to step, and successfully rings the changes so that every contest happens in its own unique way.

The second challenge of a musical career is that there's no natural goal, no peak, no point of arrival. There are always further, better, bigger gigs (or sales, or awards, or whatever) - even leaving aside the typical trajectory of slow declining popularity. I was lucky because I was already thinking of violent political conflict - an attempted right wing coup - as background to the story. When I saw how to tie that in with the music, I saw how to bring it forward and create my narrative climax. The ultimate success for the band involves music, but is also another kind of victory, the decisive vanquishing of an enemy.

There were two more challenges over getting the right balance between adult and YA. I think of Song of the Slums as more of a crossover novel than Worldshaker and Liberator, especially because the romance element is much stronger and more serious. Serious in the sense that the relationship between Astor and Verrol is definitely not boy-and-girlish in the way that the Col and Riff relationship was. Verrol is a dangerous character - in another type of fantasy novel, he might have been a vampire. I'm not a huge fan of Stephanie Meyer and her imitators, but at least she's opened up possibilities for darker, more intense relationships in books that can still be marketed as YA. At the same time, I wanted to make sparks fly between Astor and Verrol without simply following the romance template. Hopefully, I got the best of both worlds!

Because , will be marketed as YA, I also wanted to keep the length down. Thanks be, the length of YA is no longer pinned to 60k words, but I didn't want it to end up any longer than Worldshaker. Except for that, this novel could easily have been 500 pages. As well as the music-success story, romance story and political upheaval story, there's the mystery of Verrol's past, the governess story, and the story of Astor's family. I had to keep it very, very tight, as if I was writing a short story. Have to admit, that's the sort of challenge I
like!

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