How Writers Write is monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.
This month, Stephen Palmer tells us how it’s done…
How Would You Describe Yourself?
A creator of genre novels who got lucky in 1994, being plucked off the Orbit slush pile to have his first SF novel, Memory Seed, published in 1996. Since then though it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride…
I recently had a lengthy phone conversation with a certain lady who knows me very well, and I was trying to get across how my creativity works. She described me as “driven,” but for some reason that word didn’t seem to have the right connotation to me, so we had an interesting discussion, during which I returned to my Earth Sciences analogy: “I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, but I do suffer from writer’s volcano.” A driven person to me is somebody who in pushed, either by internal needs or by external circumstances – but the metaphor is one of pushing. My creativity is like pressure building up inside a volcano.
My themes and interests are varied, but generally they revolve around green and environmental issues, evolution and the nature of the human condition, and how we relate as individuals and as societies to the planet we live on. I’m best known for very far future work – Memory Seed, Glass, Flowercrash and in particular Urbis Morpheos are all set way into the future – but I also do near-future novels, and often they are set in or around Africa, a continent that has long interested me. I’ve also done a few fantasy works, for example the monochrome The Rat & The Serpent (‘Imagine a film shot in black-and-white. Now imagine a novel written in black-and-white…’).
I’m lucky (or unlucky – so hard to decide) that I’m not known for any particular sub-genre, and I’ve found over the years that people either don’t like my work at all or like it a lot. What my readers can always expect however is novels the like of which they won’t have read before. I do like to try different things; and to experiment a little.
What Do You Use To Write?
I use Word on a Mac. I’m a Mac evangelist. I have a G5, and a MacBook for the internet, and for making films with Final Cut Pro. I love Macs, me.
How & When Do You Write?
Twenty five to thirty years ago, when I began to write, I would work in the evenings and at weekends, but now I’m into my fifties I find that a bit of a push. I have a term-time job to pay the rent, buy food, and service my addiction to purchasing ethnic musical instruments, so these days I always begin a novel at the start of a long holiday – for example the two week Christmas holiday, or during summer.
I’ve always been a fast writer, and in the old days I would let it all splurge out, then edit extensively, do completely new versions, etc. The first draft of Memory Seed was written in 1988, but then, four years later, something about the setting and the characters drew me back, and I wrote a much better version. That was sent around to various editors, and I even got a little positive feedback. However, by the time Tim Holman made his offer I had done another top-to-toe rewrite, which was the version he edited into the published novel. I was naïve about everything in those days, and knew little about craft or technique – I did it all intuitively, using my imagination to power it all.
In recent years however I’ve realised that what works best for me is to immerse myself without distractions for as long as possible when writing a first draft; this allows me to concentrate on the novel alone. I live it and nothing else for those days. The winter holiday is perfect – I can do fifteen chapters of twenty in that time (taking a day off to see my family on Christmas Day). By the time I return to the day job at the beginning of January the momentum of that first draft is unstoppable, and I know what’s going to happen, how, why and when. After a while I return to manuscripts written like this to do editing, polishing, etc.
My goal is to get that first draft as right as possible. To convey the excitement and wonder I feel, I find it’s best for me to communicate excitement and wonder in the moment: first time, and often – usually, in fact – not knowing the exact details of plot and character. A second draft of a novel for me is never quite what a first draft is. Of course, this method doesn’t always work. I’ve got a few unpublished novels on my computer that will never see the light of day.
I’m lucky too that my editor at Infinity Plus is Keith Brooke, who points out the inconsistencies, nonsense and mistakes where they occur, but is sympathetic to my idiosyncracies. I think he does have a tricky task sometimes, as one thing I do like to do is use unusual language and prose styles. For example, in Hairy London (published by Infinity Plus in 2014) the words I used were sometimes completely made-up, intended to evoke rather than to describe. For example, an Archimedean floating machinora with heatorix was a hot-air balloon. That use of fancy prose was seen by a few readers as off-putting, but most people “got” that it was part of the wild, absurdist setting, and I genuinely think it contributed to the experience of reading the novel. Keith said that he thought only I could possibly have written it, which was very flattering. But I was lucky I had Keith editing the book, as I suspect other people might have been baffled by it.
Hairy London was enormous fun to write. It was inspired by a short story that I wrote for an anthology edited by Allen Ashley. I wrote the novel with virtually no plan, except for the main theme, the main characters and the setting. I let my imagination go completely into overdrive, with almost no self-editing. That’s why it comes across as vibrantly bonkers: Alice In Wonderland meets Monty Python one reviewer said. But I used some of those word and prose techniques in my new novel Beautiful Intelligence, which, as a book, is diametrically opposed to Hairy London, being a novel about artificial intelligence. I wanted to use something of that surreal style to get across the atmosphere of Africa and the Mediterranean in 2092.
Where Do You Write?
In my studio. I live in a bungalow tucked away at the edge of a small town in Shropshire. There’s lots of open countryside nearby, and often, if I’m stuck on a point of plot or narrative, or just need a few extra ideas and images, I’ll go for a long walk. By the time I’ve returned I have without fail sorted out my difficulties. I’m very much a country man. I could never live the urban life, the noise and commotion would drive me crazy.
Questions Of Style…
As I’ve mentioned above, I like to use language and a prose style to fit a novel. As a result of that some of my work comes across as too mannered, a criticism that I think could be levelled at The Rat & The Serpent and Urbis Morpheos. I’m also keen on my readers doing a lot of the work themselves as they read. The novels that have stayed with me the longest are those where a lot (or most of in the case of Gene Wolfe) of the meaning is hidden, and you have to work it out yourself. That’s certainly the case with Urbis Morpheos, and it applies to the Memory Seed trio also.
I think however that my “mysterious, dense narrative” phase is over now. My most recently completed work is a trilogy – well, one long novel split into three books – which, in terms of character and plot anyway, is I think the most straightforward and readable work I’ve ever done. It’s set in an alternate 1910-1911, and has a strong steampunk vibe, with automata being the central theme. The main character is a fourteen year old mulatto girl with a split identity: The Girl With Two Souls.
I’ve flirted with the first person viewpoint, but I prefer a close third person one. I’ve found that writing in the present tense can bring immediacy to a narrative, and I have used it, but generally I stick to past tense. Most often I’ll have a single main viewpoint, or two, or three. I don’t like multiple viewpoint novels, which personally I find confusing. I like to sit on the main character’s shoulder and follow them about…
What Are You Working On At The Moment?
I have a feeling that The Girl With Two Souls/The Girl With One Friend/The Girl With No Soul could be an important point in my development as an author. I can’t remember the last time something so fully formed exploded out of my imagination. I think my new direction is going to be for less mysterious, dense novels – more straightforward, airy, with an emphasis on a kind of “soap-opera” use of emotional dilemma, plot and character. All the characters in this trilogy are as vivid as any I’ve ever written, I think. The main work is complete, but there is a fourth and final novel, separate from the others, which follows one of the two main characters, Erasmus Darwin, into World War 1. I hope to write that next winter.
After that, I have plans for a work about the fate of life on Earth, set about 800 million years into the future, when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is almost gone, and as a consequence plant life, and therefore animal life, is at its end.
My new novel Beautiful Intelligence will have a novella following it, which Infinity Plus Books will electronically publish as the year progresses. It is called No Grave For A Fox, and it follows up some of the events of Beautiful Intelligence twenty years further on.