Then, when I did finally get the time to actually sit down and write this -- I realised just how hard it was. For me, my writing process is just something that I do, not really something I can explain very well. It's something that is sort of ingrained into who I am. It's like trying to describe the step by step process about how you breathe, the minute you start trying to quantify everything is the minute that you become aware of what you're doing and start suffocating.
I did that for a few months, except with words.
Finally, once I was happy with what I had, I found it hard to actually tag other writers in it. Most of the things you see on twitter or facebook are scams, so when somebody says 'Hey! Do this blog tour with me!' you start asking how much it's going to cost you and whether or not your personal passwords have been phished and sold on to a Taiwanese marketing company.
Which is unfair, because I only did that like, five times. Twelve if you count Nigerian princes and robots that sell you twitter followers.
But after I only got one positive response to my online badgering, I took the bold step of just tagging my friends so I can non-consensually say nice things about their writing.
Because not only am I history's greatest hero, I am also the boldest outlaw in the western world.
Anyway, after nine months. Here's the thing.
First, some nice things about the lady who sent this to me in the first place.
I've known Suzie for ten years and she's always been kind of an inspiration to me, both as a writer and a human being. Whenever I run an idea through my head I always tend to filter it with a 'What Would Suzie Do?' It works. It's made me a better writer, a better person and an absolute beast at winning online arguments. We're the best people.
You would be missing out if you didn't check out her website. Not only does she write some pretty insightful stuff about life in general, she also regularly updates with new flash fiction. I'm a huge fan of this one in particular.
I'm not even biased when I say that her book is genuinely brilliant as well. Normally it takes me a week or two to finish a book, with Suzie's I started reading it one day and then finished it late at night on the next. I was hoping it would be good, of course. But this is so good it baffles me that it hasn't found a mainstream publisher yet. It's weird to see somebody you've grown up with as a writer producing something of this quality. It's a weird mix of pride and seething envy. You should check it out.
Now onto the questions she posed to me earlier in the year.
What am I working on?
When I was first asked to do this, I was neck deep in the final bit of my three part episodic book, Hair of the Dog. That's part of the reason why it took me so long to get around to this blog (that and I sometimes go so long between updates that I forget I have a blog). Endings are hard. Especially the end to Hair of the Dog. There were a lot of characters and side-plots that needed to be put to bed before the book could be truly considered 'done.'
But that one was a story of immoral mercenaries in a world of constant war for profit because there's nothing else to do. Bleakish, but with enough humour and good intentions to offset some of the nightmares. You can find the first part of it shamelessly advertised here.
At the moment, I'm just trying to kick some random ideas that I've had over the years into my best impression of a crime novel. It was meant to be more lighthearted than HotD, but it got really dark really quick. Now 'Private Dick' (working title) has turned from a noir thriller to a disturbing story about occultism, police corruption and betrayal.
You might not realise this from my work, but I'm actually quite a lighthearted person in real life. I'm friends with my parents, I like dogs and children don't make me physically ill anymore.
How does my work differ from others of my genre?
I make a lot more spelling errors and typos.
What? This question asked how I was different, not how I was better.
I guess I spend most of my time as a writer trying to create believable, relatable characters. But then, I'm not the only fantasy author that does this. If you're going to spend time creating a world from scratch, then you need to have some compelling characters to go with it so your readers have some frame of reference. Otherwise you're just explaining things without context, just like I'm about to do.
What I wanted to do with Gallaetha (the world where Hair of the Dog is set) was create a world that was recognisable and 'modern' while still being loaded with fantastical elements. For instance, technology is pretty much up to date (circa 2003 or so) there's television, films, video games and a burgeoning internet system that nobody is taking all that seriously. But magic is also accepted as being very much a part of the world, sort of like another branch of science. There's even a little bit of conflict between traditional doctors of medicine and science, and the mages who can just fling fire around snap their fingers to heal themselves and others.
This has made a lot of quite intriguing contrasts. For example, soldiers still use guns to defend themselves -- but how can they rely on them entirely when there are magic coats which can deflect bullets and monsters who can move like streaks of lightening and hear a gun cocking from half a mile away? When you know that magic can heal your wounds much faster than medicine, where's the danger in going skateboarding, bungee jumping or signing up to go fight in a war? And perhaps most importantly of all, if magic has wiped out most known diseases -- how do you get away with pulling a sick day from work?
Ferris Bueller would die about five minutes into his day off if he took it on Gallaetha. Although that might just be because of all the MCO's (Magically Corrupter Organisms) running around eating people. Cameron might survive, if only because his daddy issues may have made him crazy enough to go toe-to-toe with a verdulak and only lose a leg or something.
Man, I really wanna watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off agan now just to see which characters could survive in Gallaetha.
Back on topic, I wanted to write a world like Middle-Earth, Faerun and Bas-Lag; but age it by a few hundred years so that all the characters are driving around in cars and watching television. Emulating the world that we have, but in a completely fictional setting so nobody can sue me.
I've seen plenty of authors who manage to merge the fantastic with the modern.
There's a whole heap of excellent urban fantasy books out there right now. But these books often set the world on the Earth that we recognise, but then skew it to the fantastic by adding one or two supernatural elements; usually witnessed by an average person. This wasn't what I wanted to do with Gallaetha. I wanted to have characters who've grown up around magic and the supernatural, who even manage to view them the way we view things like smart phones and air travel. Things that may have once been fantastic but are now so commonplace that we take them for granted.
Man, I hope I got to do this idea first. It sounds way better than it did when I first started writing this book.
Why do I write what I do?
I've actually written answers to this question dozens of times, shortly before deleting everything I've written entirely and starting again from scratch. A page full of swear words is not an answer to a simple question, I learned that from my GCSE's.
It's a deceptively tough question to answer. Why does any writer choose to write the things that they do?
I could be really high minded and pretentious with it. Say that Hair of the Dog is a metacommentary on humanity's nascent desire to destroy itself through pointless conflict, but that would be a lie. Also, I'm not sure I really understand most of the words I used in that sentence.
Instead, I'm going to list some of the things I've done and then explain why I've done them in the sincerest hope that his question goes away.
Why fantasy as a genre?
Because I love world-building. Every D&D game I've ever run has been about 90% preparing the world and 10% ad-libbing because I forgot to actually make a dungeon. Fantasy is a genre that really lets me cut loose as a world builder, except with fewer people throwing four sided die at my face.
Why use a modern setting?
The old stand-by applied here, 'write what you know.' I'm not an expert at the modern world (I still don't know what a sub-tweeter is and I've only just started learning to drive) but I understand it a lot better than I do medieval times or the Victorian era. I thought I could portray my world a lot more honestly if I based it on what I know.
Also, if I use a modern setting, most of the work is done for me. I am, if nothing else, utterly lazy.
If you love the modern world so much, why don't you marry it? I mean...set your book in it?
I just wasn't up for all the research that'd be involved. I'd rather build a world from scratch than try to adapt one. Besides, even if you religiously study the history of every country of the world so you can write them honestly, there's still a chance you can get something wrong and end up offending somebody. People get angry when you inadvertantly misrepresent their real homes and real beliefs, and Londoners get positively homicidal if you put a tube stop in the wrong place. I wasn't up for that.
Of course, I didn't realise how much work it took to create a consistent world until it was already too late. For example, you can say that the techno-relgious people of Nymia follow the teachings of a religious text called the shinseiden, or that your main character loves a band called the SRP; then you have to keep a note of these details, because you're going to be referring to them a lot. You can't just switch things up once they're in there otherwise it looks like you're just making it up as you go along.
And I really don't want people to know how much stuff I just invented on the fly.
Why all the characters?
As much as I loved designing the world, I loved coming up with the people that live in it even more. Maybe too much, because I couldn't stop once I got going. I think it's because I'm always more interested in people than I am in places or things. The history of a nation (any nation) will bore me to death, but the story of one historical figure is riveting to me.
Why are all these characters trying to murder one another?
All stories are based on conflict and the most straitforward form of conflict is two people trying to kill one another.
Ooops, sorry, I thought I was meant to be doing away with the pretentious crap.
Part of the fun of having such a large cast was devising reasons why certain characters would like or dislike one another, things they had in common and things that made them radically different. When my characters include a former homeless woman with a penchant for bad jokes; a disgraced soldier with severe survivor's guilt; a billionaire financial investor and war profiteer and a guy who dresses up like a snake -- that's a lot of different perspectives to contrast with each other.
I could go on. Why write something so long? Why all the weird monsters? Why set most of it in a desert?
Why do I write this stuff? Ultimately, it's because this is what appeals to me both as a writer and as a reader. To quote Stephen King; 'If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have.'
How Does Your Writing Process Work?
In a word: sneakily.
I often think that the first few words are the toughest obstacle a writer faces. I've found that if I'm thinking about writing, trying to psyche myself into doing it then I just end up building it up in my mind, making it seem harder than it actually is until I don't do anything at all.
So I divised a way of tricking myself into writing. By the time I've realised that I've been had, I'm already writing so I might as well just carry on.
Here's a rough breakdown of the deceits I commit upon myself every day of my life. And I'm not just talking about how I tell myself how handsome I am whenever I walk past a mirror.
1. First thing I do before every writing session is spend a good twenty minutes to half an hour reading. I mean, read a book. Not the internet or a magazine or bathroom graffiti. This stuff can be great fun (and informative, especially the bathroom graffiti). But if you're trying to write a book, the best place to learn how to do it is from actual books. Same thing for short stories or plays or poems -- whatever you're trying to write yourself, read some of it before you start.
If you want advice on how to write bathroom graffiti, I'm sure you can check better sites than this one. Or the third stall of the women's bathroom of The Litten Tree where I've commisioned a mural based around my phone number. Very informative. Especially between the hours of five and nine.
It doesn't matter whether you're enjoying the book or not. The ones you're not enjoying will give you pointers on what to avoid in your writing, and what mistakes you can get away with (especially if you're reading something that was actually published, for money). The good ones will give you something to shoot for (when they're not depressing you). Good or bad, reading a book puts you in the right headspace for doing your own writing.
Also having a book nearby before you start writing is like going to teach a class full of kids with an old school smackin' cane at your side. Even if you have no intention of using it, it sends a message. That message is, shut up, sit down and listen to what I have to say.
If you want advice on how to teach a class full of children then there are no better sites than this one. I'm a great teacher, you can ask some of the co-workers I've trained as soon as they're released into their own power.
2. Next, I make sure I have a cup of coffee and a glass of water on stand-by. I envy the writers who can get by without caffeine. Me, I get distracted by random thoughts and wind up checking the internet for stupid reasons.
3. Finally I open up the draft of whatever I'm working on. I hate reading my own work because I always want to change every little detail, so I always leave myself little notes at the end of every writing session. These usually just briefly summarise what I've written already and what is going to come next. I read through this to see where I'm at, then I go.
Julie Myerson, author of Sleepwalking, sets aside five minutes out of every day to write. Or so she says in her foreword to the Writer's and Artist's handbook in 2010, which is where I stole the idea from. It's good advice, especially if you're busy with your job or your family. Just five minutes, that's all. Doesn't matter whether it's good or bad, just fill that five minutes with words.
Everybody can spare five minutes out of their day to have a go at writing, even if they don't get as much done as they'd like. The trick here is that once you've got going, five minutes will quickly turn to fifteen, then to half an hour. Then an hour. Personally, once I've taken off, I try not to look at the clock or anything else. I just keep typing until I can't think anymore.
By the time I rip myself away from the page for the first time; whether it's to take a sip of that neglected and now cold cup of coffee or to stop and research something -- I usually have a respectable collection of words built up behind me and I can't wait to get back into it.
But like with Ryannair, I don't always take off as fast as I'd like to. Sometimes you don't. But that's okay. So long as I get something done each day I can hold my head up high.
I try to aim for one thousand words a day, every day. I'm not always successful. Some days it takes me longer to get going so I have less time to write. Some days I don't even get past that five minute stage and I only end up pecking at what I wrote yesterday for a bit.
Word counts can be a good starting point if you're just getting going, but you shouldn't let them control you. You shouldn't just fill your page with words to reach some arbitrary number. Just relax and enjoy yourself. This is ironically the easiest way to reach whatever word count goal you set for yourself. If you're enjoying yourself, you don't want to stop, so you write more.
I think you're always going to get days that go slower than others no matter what you do. But I can be pleased with myself if I'm making some progress, even if it's only small.
If I ever do get stuck on something and can't move myself through it, then I take myself away for a little while. Take a walk, go make another cup of coffee, open that book I've been saving at the side of my desk. The answer usually comes pretty quick once I stop obsessing over it. I can't tell you how many eureka moments I've had while brushing my teeth or something.
Then I repeat these three steps every day until I'm done with the first draft.
You can probably get to the end of the first draft without writing every day, but it'll take you so much longer. I write every day, but I'm just an ordinary schmuck. I've missed days because I've been busy with my day job or I've been out all day without any breaks. I always feel horrible about missing a day, but it's going to happen no matter how dedicated you are. So long as you always come back to it, you're doing alright.
4. Once the first draft is done, I sit on it for a few weeks to put a little distance between myself and my work. Just to give my brain a chance to cool off. In this time I work on other stuff, blog posts (ha!), short stories, plans for later novels -- whatever. I try to forget about the word beast that I just slayed.
Six weeks is usually a healthy amount of time to spend between first draft and second. This normally gives me enough time to cook up a new idea and get really excited about it before I have to start editing again.
I write the way sharks swim. If I stop moving, I die. Also, like a shark I have a huge liver, a good sense of smell and I don't kill nearly as many people as they say I do.
5. For the second draft I just try to read through what I wrote as fast as I can, I don't change much here, this is really just to get a feel for the story again. If I see a minor grammatical error or a spelling mistake then I'll touch it up there and then. If I see a plot hole, a bad sentence or a piece of dialogue that doesn't ring true then I'll drink.
Like, anything I can get my hands on. Once I've gone through the beer and the wine and the whiskey, I start on the toilet duck and listerine.
Once those are gone, and I'm out of rehab, I make a little note about what needs fixing and move on to the next mistake.
It's like life, just keep fucking up over and over again until you get it right.
6. Then I re-draft, make all the changes from the notes that I made plus any others that I see. No matter how diligent I am, there are always changes that need making.
7. Then I convert the book into a kindle file and I read it through again. This is a neat step because it lets me experience my book the way a reader would. Since readers are at least ten times smarter than the writer (especially when that writer is me) this gives me a better perspective on the story so I can see how the whole thing hangs together. Plus, using a kindle file gives me a degree of seperation between myself and the writing process. Like the mittens I had to wear until I was twenty five, it keeps me from fiddling with myself too much.
I usually just focus on fixing the glaring errors here, the huge plot holes that have somehow managed to slip my earlier drafts and the little grammatical fuck-ups and typos that seem to infest everything I write like termites.
If I can, I'll try to get some feedback from other people here. Sometimes all a book needs is a fresh pair of eyes to look it over to catch mistakes that I've missed. And sometimes all I need as a writer is just someone who says "It's great! Publish the damn thing already!"
Even though that's never happened yet, I still keep dreaming.
Again, there is always so much that needs changing.
8. Then I re-make the kindle file with my changes and read it again...
9. ... and again...
10. ... and again...
11. ... forever and ever until I'm finally happy with it. Once I can't tinker with it any more, then I know it's ready for the world. Or at least until someone lets me know that I misspelled a word on page five.
Then, after I've clubbed them with a whiskey bottle, I drink again.
Really, you're going to have to have a fully stock licquor cabinet or beer fridge if you want to write like I do.
Or you could find your own system of working. If you work to your own schedule, with your own little tricks you'll enjoy it a lot more than if you just copy what some jerk wrote on the internet.
Other Writers to Check Out
Cleo Rose-Nash (@CleoRoseNash): I met Cleo on Twitter and was immediately impressed with her dedication and talent. She takes this craft very seriously and seems like she loves most every moment of it. Her book, Violante's Daughters looks like it's shaping up really well and I look forward to reading it when it comes out. You can check out her site, excerpts from her writings and if you're feeling tough enough, join her on one of her many writing challenges.
Rada Sullivan (@Turkfox): I met Rada on the same online forum I met Suzie. Like with Suzie, I've had the pleasure of watching Rada's writing grow and improve over years. Her first novel 'Regiment 14' is an outstanding piece of work. She cares about her characters a great deal (but not enough to avoid kicking the shit out of them sometimes). Check it out and be sure to see her personal site here.
Dominic Stevenson (@Fantastical_Dom): I studied Creative Writing with Dom at university. I've seen his poetry grow from some personal stories in an old notebook to his first published volume, 'Northern Line' which is due out in 2015. Dom's poetry blends raw, personal feeling with political and deeply humanitarian meaning. It's definitely worth checking him out on his site and keeping up to date with the publication of his first book 'Northern Line.'