How Writers Write: M. A. Griffin

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

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The famously camera shy M. A. Griffin aka Fletcher Moss gives us a rare behind the scenes glimpse into his workspace…

What do you use to write?

Notebooks

This looks chaotic, doesn’t it? But it sort of works. I start with pen and paper and cheap notebooks like the one above. (You can see there are two potential books outlined in this one, their names sellotaped to the front. One, ‘The Nightwardens’, has seen the light of day as ‘Lifers’, the other is foolishly titled ‘Let’s Be Mermaids’, so the less said about that one the better, I guess.)

I begin with free-form note-taking; character names, events and scenes, openings, lines of dialogue, chapter headings and so on. At some point – maybe a couple of weeks in – I begin tentatively working out what might happen in what order. The numbered list up there is a first attempt at sequencing a plot, for example. Each number is a chapter and each chapter, as a rough rule of thumb, will be 2000 words or so. In my copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, King writes about how he structures stories as he’s trying to go to sleep each night; “I tell [them] as I lie in the dark, writing them in my mind just as I would on a typewriter… Each night I start over at the beginning, getting a little further before I drop off.” That’s me too. It can take a month or so, sometimes, to straighten out enough of the start to get going. Sometimes – you can see it in the picture – I try to get fancy and type up huge tables of plot, chapter by chapter, usually to convince a publisher I know what I’m doing. But it doesn’t seem to prevent wholesale redesign half way through, so I’m trying my best to avoid it nowadays.

Once I’ve reached that hard-to-pin-down tipping point, I start typing. I use Word. (I tried Scrivener once, but it reminded me of that episode of Blackadder when Baldrick accidentally burnt Dr Johnson’s dictionary. Johnson comes round with a murderous gang to get his hand-written copy back, and Blackadder, panicking, says “You can’t have it yet. I want Baldrick to read it. Which unfortunately means teaching him to read.” I can see the huge potential in Scrivener, but I haven’t got the time to ‘teach myself to read’, as it were. I’d rather just crack on.)

When do you write?

At the moment, I have two clear writing days a week, and they’re blissful. I’ve heard a lot about creativity and the brain; it’s at its best in the morning when it’s freshest for example but thankfully it doesn’t seem to matter to me. I can get words on a page any time of day as long as I’m left alone.

Where do you write?

Anywhere, but mostly here:

DeskI’d like to point out that I don’t need copies of my own books nearby, they’re for purposes of illustration only. That copy of Shaun Tan’s ‘Rules of Summer’ though, that’s pretty much always on the desk. I recommend checking it out if you don’t know it. For me, it tells you everything about the surreal, magical, threatening world of childhood; rocket fuel for anyone writing for or about young people. I’m not fussy about a writing in a particular place (our host Mr Ballantyne by contrast has a favourite room in a favourite library in Manchester; maybe they bring him sweetmeats and cigars while he works) by the time I’ve put the headphones on and cued up the playlist, I’m transported. I could be anywhere. I’ve always written with distractions around me so I’ve learned to use music to close them all off.

How do you write?

The first draft can come pretty quickly. I’m not agonising over questions of style at this point. I’m just getting it down, telling myself the story as I’ve heard other writers say. 1500 words a day is the point at which I feel the job’s been reasonably well done but I can go for a thousand more if I’m on a roll. I don’t always go chronologically, and this helps. If you’re stuck at a particularly tricky section, skip it. If you know you’ve got a great scene coming up, start there. Sometimes, I skip to a section with a lot of dialogue which can guarantee a decent delivery of words each session. I’ve tried writing the end before I get there just so I can get my quota done – anything but stall at 300 words and stare at a blinking cursor for a dreary afternoon.

Books

Here’s my shelf of wonder. If I’m having a particularly bad time of it, I’ll park myself next to this lot and spend a little time leafing through some of them. The titles often aren’t great, and you need to steel yourself against the evangelistic nature of some of the prose, but there’s plenty to learn once you do. The screenplay stuff is good for demystifying structure; in the case of ‘Save the Cat’ to a point where stories become formulas – not a good way to develop as a writer, but seriously reassuring if you’ve backed yourself into a corner and can’t see a way out. Donald Maas’s stuff always reminds me to raise the stakes even higher. ‘The Writer’s Journey’ has been recommended time and again; I eventually succumbed when writer/director Jon Favreau name-checked it on some podcast. John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’ is a great place to start, as is King’s ‘On Writing’.

If all that fails, I’ll go the graphic novels behind; you might just be able to see Joe Hill’s ‘Locke and Key’ series in the shadows there. A more majestic and inspiring source would be tough to find, I reckon.

Once the writing’s done, I go through it all again to iron out inconsistencies and fill in gaps, and that becomes version 1.0. That’s when my editor begins the work of pointing out all the things I haven’t noticed. There are often large numbers of corrections and culls. Entire sections, whole characters. I take it on the chin. She always ends up being right.

Questions of style

I’m hyper-aware of my failings. Selecting two adjectives when one will do. Reaching for onomatopoeiac verbs and paring them up in a really irritating manner. Over-doing the dialogue tags. Using the word hyper-aware. I could go on, but I’ll resist the temptation, the point is being able to ignore all that during draft one and instead trying to cull it all later.

When the first draft is done…

That’s when it goes to my wife Jo who has the unenviable task of hacking through a story that makes virtually no sense. “Why does this guy do this at this point?” she’ll say, and I’ll get stroppy and bluster, “It’s obvious isn’t it?!” Then I’ll calm down and realise it can’t be clear and it needs fixing. She’s pretty exacting which is of course what’s needed. I make corrections, go through my editor’s always extensive questions and suggestions, re-write it all again and send version 2.0 off. Five or six cycles of this, and things are starting to look considerably better.

I dream of delivering a fully-formed, ready-to-publish manuscript. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?

A little bit of self-promotion

Lifers is out in April, courtesy of Chicken House (UK, Germany). It’s out in the US towards the end of 2016. It’s a contemporary sci-fi thriller set in Manchester around about tomorrow night. There are urban explorers, missing children, insomniac kids, a secret government project, a shoestring crew of maverick scientists, and a couple of sinister devices known as Kepler Valves. Not to mention a prison called Axle 6 from which our poor protagonists have to escape…

Now Lifers is done, I’ll be continuing work on a tale about an alien beastie trapped in the hull of a shipwrecked research vessel. Not sure about a title yet. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Let’s Be Mermaids’…

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