How Writers Write: Anne Charnock

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I met Anne in a bar in Helsinki at Worldcon 75.  We got chatting right away…

What do you use to write?

I handwrite only when I’m limbering up. As a first stab at a new writing project, I take a sheet of A2 paper and draw bubbles of characters/themes/plot. Next, I open a new hardback notebook and jot down my initial ideas, pose questions to myself so that I hone the central premise and my overall aims. At this early stage, I consider the connections between characters, draw approximate timelines and so on. None of this preliminary work is detailed. My outlines are minimal.

Before I draft a chapter, I dash off a few handwritten notes to set the scene. But I’m as likely to ignore these notes as I am to adhere to them.

As for hardware, I work with a MacBook Air linked to a widescreen monitor and a full-size keyboard. I’ve used Macs since they were first launched and I’m not going to switch now!

I draft my novels in Scrivener, which is especially helpful for a story based on masses of research. Scrivener allows me to assemble my research into a set of folders. While I’m drafting my story, I can dip into the research material without opening other applications. Scrivener is also ideal for novels with a complex structure. I can re-order the chapters by click and drag, or temporarily reorder the chapters to check the flow of a particular storyline or character arc.

Once I begin the first draft, I create two Excel spreadsheets. (I love a good spreadsheet, with lots of colour coding). One is a simple log: dates in the left column and chapter titles in the top row. This allows me to record whether each working day is a drafting or editing day and which chapter I’m working on. If it’s a drafting day, I record my daily word count.

The second spreadsheet is more complex and this is the reason I have a widescreen monitor. It’s an on-the-go summary of the developing novel. I set up columns from left to right: chapter number/title, character list, point-of-view character, tense, settings, main plot points in that chapter, and a column in which I note how the chapter connects with the story’s overall themes, and finally a column for the chapter’s word count. In the midst of writing, if I suddenly realise that an edit or addition is needed in an earlier chapter, I’ll add a note in green type to the spreadsheet. It’s always open on my computer desktop.

For my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I needed an additional monster spreadsheet to record, chapter-by-chapter, the occurrence of repeating motifs and themes. The printout stretched the length of my kitchen.

When I’m ready to send a manuscript to beta-readers, I ‘compile’ my Scrivener chapters as a Word document. From that point on, through to final draft, development edit and copy edit, I work in Word.

When do you write?

With my first novel, A Calculated Life, I wrote whenever I had time — over a period of several years. It was frustrating; I had to set aside the manuscript for as long as six months at a time. You know how it is, life intervenes. So I had no idea how long that novel took to write in terms of days/weeks/months. That’s why I now keep a daily log.

I’m fortunate that I’m writing full time and when I’m in a writing phase it’s pretty full on, especially if there’s a deadline. I’m definitely not an early morning person. I’m content to start about 9.30 or 10 am and work through until 6-ish with breaks for tea/coffee/lunch/tea and cake. Sometimes I’ll set a stopwatch and do a writing sprint for twenty five minutes, for variety! However, I do find that when I write quickly, I spend more time re-writing and editing. So I don’t beat myself up if my word count looks meagre.

Where do you write?

I kinda work in a white cube. White walls, white semi-transparent blinds (invariably closed) and a desk with a near-white formica top. The desk is a lovely 1950s Hans Gugelot desk, my pride and joy. This small room is built onto the end of our garage. It’s brilliant to have this space separate from the house. I’m not disturbed by anyone knocking on the door, or by unsolicited phone calls.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I look beyond literature. I go to exhibitions, take a cycle ride, travel to new places. Or I walk around the local playing field to catch the sunset. I’m not sure I’m ‘looking’ for inspiration. Basically, I’m switching off my writer’s brain and opening up to new experiences or living in the moment, as with travel and cycle rides. I try to get away with my husband in our campervan for a change of scene. Sometimes I write while we’re away — I sit under the van’s awning, write in the shade.

How do you write?

No music. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music in the background. Each to their own! I live in a rural area but that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful — raucous birdsong (magpies are the worst), hedge cutters, chainsaws. I keep noise-cancelling headphones on my desk, and I wear them by default.

First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

For my first novel, I wrote in third person limited (free indirect style) and past tense except for two epilogues, which I wrote in present tense. I’m not sure how many readers noticed the change in tense, but I believe it shifted the tone, the atmosphere. Third person limited was essential for this novel because I wanted the reader to see the world through only the main character’s eyes — to witness the world from her limited, almost innocent, perspective.

I now prefer present tense and I think this preference reflects the fact that I don’t outline my chapters in any detail. Therefore I’m discovering the story alongside my characters. It feels more natural. I dislike the contrivance of an omniscient narrator. I don’t think I could attempt that.

My latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, comprises 19 chapters and each has a single POV character: 19 chapters, 16 points of view in total, 16 chapters in third person, 3 in first person. A series of linked vignettes, if you like.

I’ve developed a real liking for first person. But the story always determines my choice. So, for my novella The Enclave I felt two different points of view would be perfect, each written in first person, giving room for the reader to make inferences concerning the gaps between the two characters’ stories.

Follow the plot or the character or just go with it?

Characters come first for me. I often discover their personalities in the process of writing their dialogue.

When the first draft is done…

After working for many years in journalism, I can’t bring myself to blast through a first draft. I edit as I go along — editing as I draft a paragraph, editing the previous day’s work, editing at the end of a chapter, re-editing several chapters at the end of a section, and so on. As a result, the first draft represents an almost-complete novel. I feel I’m almost there. Of course, I may well decide to add a chapter, move a scene, refine a character’s voice, etc. I address all the notes/reminders I’ve made in green text on my summary spreadsheet. Then I embark on the line-edits, fact checking and proofing.

For my latest novel I corralled five beta-readers: three family members and two writers. I’m fortunate that my family readers are pretty damn good, each in his own way (Yes, my family readers are all men!)

For me, it’s hard to let go of a manuscript. I like to be involved up until to the last moment, until the pages are printed.

Lastly, self promotion:

I describe myself as a writer of near-future science fiction or speculative fiction. To be honest that doesn’t feel complete because I’ve also incorporated historical and contemporary fiction in my work. I haven’t totally abandoned my fine art practice — I’m exhibiting a piece of text-art this autumn in a public installation curated by Andrew Bracey. I still gravitate towards journalistic and non-fiction opportunities. For example, I’ve had a feature published this summer on the UK feminist website, The F-Word — Time to Cut the Cord with The Stone Age? — and I’ve been given the somewhat splendid title of ‘interviewer in residence’ for a collaboration between The Arthur C Clarke Award and Ada Lovelace Day. To date the main result of this collaboration is the “Ada Lovelace Conversations” with women science fiction writers. Quick links on my bio page on my website. More conversations are in the pipeline. These have been immense fun and a great learning experience in terms of discovering other writers’ approach to their craft.

I’m currently developing two writing projects, one is underway, the other is still in outline. I can’t talk about either; it’s simply too early.




How Writers Write: Chaz Brenchley

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I’ve bumped into Chaz in a number of places, but never had a chance to have a proper chat.  A real shame, as this article reveals…

How would you describe yourself? Writer, author, novelist, SF, Fantasy, Horror?

People used to say my mystery novels were really horror, my horror was really fantasy, and my fantasies were essentially a mystery recast. So, yeah: I’m a genre writer, but I mostly inhabit the murky areas where one genre blends into another.

What do you use to write?

20160609_085053I was a kid in the sixties, and learned to write with pencils and then biros and then fountain pens, all for values of “learned to write” that encompass so much awkwardness of process and ugliness of result that people kept asking me if I was a suppressed left-hander, and would I perhaps find it easier to do it backwards and upside down? Nope, and nope: I just have no gift for making marks on paper in any way that conveys or retains meaning.

catboxNevertheless: always and always, I meant to be a writer. And I loved stationery, despite my awful handwriting. In my early teens I filled notebooks and journals and exercise books and looseleaf binders with stories and poems and unfinished novels – and then blessedly my big sister wanted to learn to type. She borrowed a heavy office typewriter from one of our mother’s friends, and bought a teach-yourself manual. I am not sure if she ever did actually learn to type, but I did. I spent an Easter holiday when I was fourteen working through that manual, page by page. A schoolfriend hauled another discarded office machine home from the dump and refurbished it, simply as an engineering challenge, and thus I had a typewriter of my very own; and since then, I have typed everything I conceivably could. My handwriting has deteriorated further, for lack of use, and frankly I’m delighted to see it go. That was always an embarrassment, and typing is a delight. I have chronic RSI in hands, arms, shoulders, neck; people suggest dictation software, but they’re missing the point. I am very short of physical skills, and typing is something I excel at. (These days so do most of my friends because computers, programming, Silicon Valley, yadda yadda, but that’s okay: I’m not competitive about it. I don’t need to be best, I just need to be good.)

So, in succession: office typewriter, portable typewriter (when I started selling stories, when I was eighteen: my first paycheque, £36 for a teen romance in ’77, proved to be just enough for an Olivetti in a carrying case), electric typewriter (bought from a town-centre business that was closing down), electronic typewriter (bought with my first-ever bank loan: £625, which was a monstrous amount of money, but half price, and hence a bargain; and it had a one-line screen so you could see what you had typed before it hit the paper!), and then my first PC in the mid-eighties. Oh, how I loved PCs, in those early glory days! I was a DOS power-user; the command line was my proper home.

And then mouse-and-icon GUIs took over, and we’ve never had the same relationship since, my computers and I. We get along just fine, but the romance is gone. Windows made an idiot out of me, and I never recaptured that fiery splendour. Geoff Ryman nudged me towards Linux sometime in the ’90s, and I have repudiated Microsoft ever since – but even so. I can’t get up to speed again with a command-line interface, I lost too much through the bad years.

pcStill, I do what I can. The desktop runs Ubuntu, and I work in Textmaker, a word processing package from those nice German folk at Softmaker. In my DOS days I was a WordPerfect fan, like so many of us writers. When I worked in Windows I used Word, and hated it, and it kept crashing on me; then I fled to Linux and looked around and tried various word processors and didn’t love any of them until I found Textmaker in the early ’00s. It’s lightning-fast, and rock-solid (has it ever actually crashed on me, in fifteen years or so? Not that I remember), and brilliantly compatible with the industry-standard Word formats. I tested it once, with the same long text file on the same dual-boot machine: Word running in Windows took thirty seconds to open itself and then the file. Textmaker in Linux just did it, too fast to measure.

I’m not much of a planner. I always think I ought to be, at the start of major new projects; I’ll buy new stationery for taking notes, or set up a wiki for keeping track of the worldbuilding, or experiment with Scrivener to keep all my ducks in a row. But then the notes never actually get taken, because writing things down is such a pain and I never look back at them anyway; and the wiki grows dusty from disuse; and Scrivener crashes on me twice through the tutorial process and I abandon it because who wants to risk that when the project’s live? So I revert to old habits, and occasionally I’ll scribble something down on the back of an envelope but mostly I won’t, I’ll just hope to remember it; and when I don’t remember it I’ll think of something else. I’ve been working this way for forty years; it’s not ideal, but it seems to be good enough.

Except that I’m going to be working with Ken Scholes on a shared project, and my individual private brain really isn’t going to be enough, so we’ll have to find some way of notetaking that works for both of us. I suggested that wiki again, but I was on a panel this weekend about collaboration, and someone spoke in favour of Evernote, which had simply never occurred to me. Evernote is for shopping-lists, right…?

goes off to research other ways of using Evernote

When do you write?

Every day, every week, from January to March, whenever I can…

Pretty much all the time, if we can stipulate that “I am writing; I’m just not typing” is a valid mind-state. There are always stories, snatches of dialogue, betrayals and revelations going on in the back of my head. Used to be I’d work on one thing at once, but that is no longer the case. Sometimes I’m trying to keep half a dozen half-finished pieces live in my head at the same time. It’s awkward.

20160609_085042When it comes to actually getting those pieces written, I have a history of working very intensively for eight or ten or twelve weeks, and then slackening off until the next cycle. That doesn’t work so well now that I’m married and so forth, because I need to shape my life around priorities other than the work. Even so: I write every day through the week, and one or two days at weekends.

What history teaches us is that I’m good in the morning, slack water in the afternoons and good again in the evening. I used to work through the night and then sleep till noon, but that was long ago and again not conducive to conubial bliss. These days, somewhere between six and seven o’clock, I abandon the study for the kitchen and see about dinner; and I no longer work after dinner.

I’m trying to learn to be flexible and responsive, to grab ten minutes’ worktime here or there if that’s all there is available, but I’m not good at that. I like to have a long session ahead of me, at least a couple of hours if I can’t have all the day; I take time to settle into the creative mindspace. Also, these days, there is the damned internet. Used to be, when I sat down at the keyboard I was automatically in working mode, because that was all the keyboard offered. This is no longer the case, and I am as prone to displacement activity as the next guy, shock horror.

Where do you write?

Desk, coffee shop, wherever I lay my hat…

officeHere’s the desk with slightly fewer books on it, one step closer to the Platonic ideal of deskhood (which it does actually occasionally achieve, down to lemon-oil polish and everything; I’m good at projects, just really really bad at maintenance). Also, art on the walls: one Klimt vulture by Ursula Vernon, and my favourite picture of all time, Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer by Hippolyte Flandrin. I used to have a print of this in every room of my old house in England. When I moved here to California, K had this study all set up and ready for me, complete with required viewing. I also still have a copy of every book I’ve ever seen with it on the cover. Tragically, I didn’t realise the original was in the Louvre till we were passing through the gift shop on our way out. Hey-ho: just have to go back to Paris, then, sigh…

keyboardHabits change with circumstance. For twenty years at least, probably closer to thirty, I wrote at my desk at home, because that’s where the keyboard was. Demonstrably, I do still have a traditional desktop computer, on the traditional desk; and I do still work here. My evening writing happens here, and most of my internet engagement, so most of my actual typing. I’ve used ergonomic keyboards for the last fifteen years or so, but just a few months back I was seduced by the Das: it’s a lovely old-fashioned clicky keyboard with a solid aluminium plate and, as you can see, no letters on the keycaps. Pure anonymous unadulterated black. I love it.

laptopBut, back in the early ’00s, I fell in love with a laptop. Not that I needed a laptop, because I was not one of those writers who worked in coffee shops, no sirree. But this was the most beautiful machine-for-writing I’d ever seen: carbon-fibre, light as a feather, gorgeous matt black all over. I have it still, though it sits in the back of a drawer now. I spent more than I could afford, and thus it became my Laptop of Heavenly Perfection, and I had to justify that by actually, y’know, using it. Which meant actually, y’know, working outside the house.

It was like a revelation. Library? Tick! Coffee shop? Tick! Pub? Double tick – work and beer! Train? Tick! Airport? Tick!

Etc, etc. Apparently I am after all one of those writers who can work pretty much anywhere (though too much noise makes me grumpy, and other people seem to be inveterately noisy), and most of my actual new fiction writing now happens outside the house. Back home I had my regular desk in the Silence Room of a private library; I still miss that space. Here I have the window seat of my favourite coffee shop, those few times it’s available; apparently I don’t mind visual distraction at all, it’s just noise that bothers me. I guess I can look and think at the same time, I just can’t listen and think. And there’s always a seat in the public library, but they don’t have a Silence Room and their Quiet Areas are not policed and hence not quiet by any definition I’d accept. I am considering noise-cancelling headphones (though wearing headphones for the sake of not listening to anything has a kind of perversity about it).

20160608_151638In the afternoons, there’s always the temptation of the wine bar. Two till five is happy hour, because there’s never anybody in. Cold beer and quiet, what could be nicer on a hot afternoon? And I’ll get a hell of a lot more work done than if I kick around at home. Spending money is a great incentive; so is the lack of wifi. I do that as rarely as I can, because money, alcohol, yadda yadda. But sometimes you’ll find me there.

Inspiration isn’t a place, it’s a process; if I need to think, I’ll go for a walk. Usually with an end in view; back in Newcastle I used to walk laps around the city, because I couldn’t think when I was sitting still, but these days I tend to be going somewhere. With the laptop in the backpack. We’re up to the second edition of techno-heaven, the Laptop of Utterable Delights, even slimmer and lighter than the last, tho’ I don’t love the form factor quite so much. (I’m getting used to widescreen, necessarily, but like US letter paper, it’s not right…)

How do you write?

Much of this I seem to have said already, but I like silence or at least quiet when I’m working, or else consistent background murmur that I can tune out. I envy my friends who can work to music, and I’m intrigued by those who construct separate playlists for separate projects – but I find music a distraction. So of course is the internet; those times I can avoid it, I do better. Probably I should investigate wifi-disabling software, but – like those headphones that cut off sound rather than supplying it – it seems strange to step backwards, away from something so useful.

As above, I don’t have notes to work from; I don’t plan or outline or plot ahead in any way. A book is a journey, and I think it works best when it’s as much a surprise to the author as to the reader; it’s a journey undertaken hand in hand, stepping into the dark. Someone once said that being asked to write a synopsis of a book he hadn’t written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country he hadn’t visited. Me, I like to start with a title, a first line and often a last line too, a sense of where we’re going; it’s a journey and I like to know the destination. How to get there and in what company, I sort out day to day

Questions of style

catThe narrative voice of a story depends utterly on the story, its character, the effects I’m after. Of course I have my own voice – and I am not a writer who believes he should be invisible to the reader; I don’t do transparent prose, I like a strong sense of a narrator, authorial presence – and you can mostly spot a Brenchley by the rhythms, not the words. Nevertheless: each story is an individual artefact. First or third person, I’ll use either, depending. Present tense I mostly keep for shock value, because it tends to read artificial at full length – though there are no rules, and I did just finish a short story that is present-tense throughout.

Other people’s process is always weird, almost by definition, but I really don’t understand those writers who say they’re plot-driven. Plot is just what people do; for me, everything comes from the characters. Put a person in a situation, and plot will follow.

But honestly, I barely think about these things any more. I’ve been doing this so long, it’s pretty much second nature now. Title, first line, and I’m away. (I really, really like having the title first. If I know what it’s called, I know what it’s about, and I can write to that title from the get-go, so that it’s embedded. Finish a story without a title attached, and there are just so many options, and none of them will be truly rooted. I hate that.)

How many redrafts?

As few as possible. Growing up in the age of typewriters, where a new draft meant retyping every word, I learned to get it as right as possible as early as possible. Barring editorial interference, my first drafts are pretty much the story I end up with. I’ll fiddle endlessly with individual words and phrases, for I am all about the polish; but I rarely rewrite at any macro level unless required to. Having said which, I have a half-finished novel about Kipling on Mars which is so irretrievably broken I’m basically going to go back and write the whole damn thing again. I never do that.

How many readers?

I often say that I’m old-school, the last of those for whom writing really was a lonely business. We didn’t have creative-writing classes and MFAs and critiquing groups and beta-readers and such; before I was published, I barely met another writer. From choice, I still follow the ivory-tower model: I write a thing, and polish it, and send it direct to agent or editor. These days my wife does read everything at first-draft stage, but that’s okay; she tends to think better of my work than I do.

How easy is it to let go?

Letting go is easy; by the time a story’s been through edits and copy-edits and proofs on top of my own early rereading and polishing, I’m glad to see it gone. By then I’ve long been into the next thing, or the one after that. I don’t love them again until they’re actually in print.

Lastly, self promotion:

I have a Patreon! I am writing English girls’ boarding-school stories to the classic model, only set on Mars! I have also been writing grown-up stories in the same milieu. Basically the rubric is “If Mars were a province of the British Empire, so-and-so would so have gone there”, where “so-and-so” is a remarkable list of remarkable people: so far Oscar Wilde and T E Lawrence and more, and I’m working as I say on Rudyard Kipling. But I am a lifelong fan of the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer; and if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have had a sister-foundation there. So I’m writing it. “Three Twins at the Crater School” is half-finished, with a few short stories on the side, available to all my Patreon subscribers

But it’s not all Mars all the time, tho’ it can seem so on occasion. I just finished an SF bar-story for a David Bowie memorial anthology, and I have a space opera attack novel that I am totally failing to fend off (which is really Iain Banks fanfic, and why not?), and Ken Scholes and I are going to do great things together, and and and…




How Writers Write: Eric Brown

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

Eric Brown is my oldest SF writer friend.  When I met him in the year 2000 he was still coming to grips with the twentieth century.  Let’s find out how he’s dealing with the twenty first…

What tools do you use?

IMG_0681I work on Word on a Dell computer, a twelve year old machine that Keith Brooke gave me. It serves its purpose as a word processor. I’m not into technology: I’m not interested in tech and gadgets. I don’t have a mobile phone or whatever they’re called now. I don’t even have a watch. I carry a sundial around in my backpack.

I plot a novel – in as much as I plot anything – and make random notes freehand in an old jotter. These days I don’t do much planning, just some notes on characters and an idea or two, then I get going. It works for me. In my notebook, which I keep to the left of me when I’m writing, I scribble down anything from a list of phrases that people spoke in the nineteen-fifties (for the series of crime novels I’m writing set then), to a line of dialogue, to a detailed day-by-day breakdown of how may words I’ve written. (I’m anal like that).

IMG_0719When I’m working on a project, novels, stories or whatever, I work five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I might work on a Saturday and Sunday if my wife and daughter are off doing things. I walk the hound in the morning at eight-thirty, and get to my desk at nine-fifteen, work for two and a half hours. In that time I write two thousand words, or a couple of hundred under or over. Around eleven forty-five I knock off, take the dog for another gallop, have a green tea and a sandwich for lunch (yeast extract, peanut butter and beetroot, since you asked, or less occasionally Stilton cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, or sometimes Vegemite, tahini and cucumber, or probably once a month cheddar and hot lime pickle), then get to the desk again around one and work till around three-thirty, knocking out another couple of thousand words. Before I married, fifteen years ago, I’d work in the evening too, so that I could produce over six thousand words a day – and I worked at the weekends.

This meant that my early novels (From Meridian Days to New York Dreams) were written in around a fortnight, or just over. I’d stagger from my study a gibbering wreck and demand pints and pints of Timothy Taylor’s best bitter. Then, when I’d sobered up, I began the laborious task of rewriting the things.

IMG_0688(I walk the dog for two hours a day. He’s called Uther and he’s a red and white setter. He’s our first dog, and a life-changer. Having children is easy, a joy, compared to owning a dog. That said, he does exercise me. I wouldn’t get out otherwise, and while out walking the beautiful countryside of Berwickshire, around the village of Cockburnspath, I get lots of day-dreaming done. Uther was immortalised in Tony Ballantyne’s fine novel Dream Paris, in a scene which brilliantly encapsulates my relationship with the hound).

I write in my study surrounded by over three thousand tomes and air that smells of dog. I love books. I collect them. I collect SF, old and new, and fiction from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. I collect autobiographical books and biographies of writers. I collect the works of Rupert Croft-Cooke, G. K. Chesterton, Peter de Polnay, Miles Tripp, Elizabeth Ferrars, Michael Coney, Charles Bukowski, and many more. I don’t read on a Kindle, onscreen, or anything else like that. I detest Kindles etc. They’re just text, shorn of much of what a book is. A book is a beautiful object with its own history and associations. The abomination of Kindle renders every single book as a homogenised, soulless product – perfect for the homogenised, soulless world in which multinational companies and capitalist moguls would like us to exist.

Where do you write?

IMG_0667My computer sits on my ‘desk’, a nineteen-fifties Baird radiogram. I sit back in a armchair with the keyboard on my lap and tap away. My wife says that’s why I have backache. On my desk are bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years. Pens I love. A broken Wallace and Grommit mug. A tin rocket. A rock. A clay bee and a hippo my daughter Freya made. A hole-filled rock I found on Eastbourne beach while visiting James Lovegrove, which I use as a pen holder. Some reference books I hardly ever refer to. A statue of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. A Timothy Taylor beer mat. A clock. On the window sill behind my computer are some plastic dinosaurs, a couple of pigs, a robot salt- and pepper-pot (thanks, Becky), a BSFA award for a short tale, an ancient metal statue, probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, of a man holding his head in one hand and his penis in the other. He looks like how I often feel.

When do you write?

IMG_0670I only ever write in my study, but think about story all the time.

I like peace and quiet while I’m scribbling. I don’t like music when I’m writing. I don’t wait for inspiration. That way I’d never write a word.

I write by the seat of my pants. In the early days, forty years ago when I began writing, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to have detailed notes and plans and plots and lists of characters to shore up my under-confidence. Now I know how to write and I have no fear of writing. I have technique, and trust in that and in my subconscious. They get the job done. I often start with little knowledge of what I’ll be writing , but the old sub-con kicks in and dictates the words.

Questions of style

A novel or story dictates style, narrative viewpoint etc. I don’t much think about things like that beforehand, or about the actual prose style I’ll be using. I follow both characters and plot, whatever is dictated by my subconscious.

When the first draft is done I’m unutterably depressed for a while. Life seems pointless. The rush of creation is over, the endorphins run dry. Now comes the hard and dispiriting work of rewriting. While writing the first draft, I convince myself that the book or story is great, even exceptional. Then I finish and realise it isn’t – but it has to be made better. That’s bloody hard work. And I make lots of continuity errors and other ballsups which need fixing. Hey-ho.

How many redrafts?


How many readers?

Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.

How easy is it to let go?

IMG_0673It’s bloody fantastic to say au revoir to something I’ve been working on for months. I’m delighted to see the back of it.

At the moment I’ve just finished the first draft of Murder Take Three, the fourth book in the Langham and Dupré series of crime novels set in the fifties. So I’m at that depressed stage of creativity, the rush over. Plus my wife and daughter are away in Haworth visiting my mother-in-law so I’m rattling round the house with the dog, eating curry and sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself and staring balefully at the mound of the ms I’ve just printed out and shaking my fist at the bloody thing and threatening to rip into it with a red pen and cut it by nine thousand words and turn it from a sow’s lughole into a silken purse.

Also, the damned thing isn’t contracted for. I wrote it on spec, which I don’t normally do, as the idea came to me and I like the characters of Donald Langham and Maria Dupré and Ralph Ryland, the Cockney detective. I just hope Severn House want it.

Next, I’ll be rewriting the second half of Binary System, an action-adventure novel about a woman stranded on a very alien planet, and how she survives. The two halves of the novel will come out later this year from Solaris as e-books, and next year as a real paperback book which you can hold, fondle, smell, read and slip onto the shelf. Then I’ll be writing the fourth Telemass novella for PS Publishing, then a play for Big Finish, a few shorts stories, and later this year a big SF novel I’ve just sold to Solaris.

How would I describe myself?

Writer, curry addict, secularist, liberal, Leeds United fan, a man who increasingly finds the world a bewildering hell-hole, bracketed as we are by the bigoted Trump on one side and the religious fascists of Daesh on the other. No wonder I escape into my writing whenever possible.

My website is at:


How Writers Write: Chris Beckett

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I introduced myself to Chris Beckett at an Eastercon in Blackpool:  I wanted to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his short stories.  Here he tells us how they are written…

What tools do you use?

IMG_0581I write on my fairly aged laptop, using word. There was a time, long ago, when I found it hard to write directly onto a keyboard – which would then have been a typewriter– and liked to write by hand first, but now it’s the opposite. I’ve pretty much lost the knack of writing by hand, for anything other than short notes, and my handwriting is bad to the point of illegibility, even to me.

I do not plan things out in detail in advance. I just don’t know how to do that. I start with only the vaguest idea of a plot, and slowly batter it into shape, as characters start to come to life, and my fictional world starts to generate interesting possibilities. I do sometimes take notes on scraps of paper, usually just a list of things I don’t want to forget in that day’s writing. I also from time to time compile things like lists of minor characters as word files, so I can refer to them if I need to remind myself. When writing Dark Eden, I also used Paint to draw a couple of maps. (I had a pretty clear map in mind for the other Eden novels but found I was able to hold it in my mind.) A few times with short stories I have plotted the whole thing out, but even then they change in the writing.

I’ve just started using my phone to make voice memos when I’m walking, so as to stop myself having to endlessly rehearse ideas to prevent myself from forgetting them. That said, I am fairly relaxed about forgetting things. My son told me that Tom Waits (I think) said that he never worried about forgetting ideas because if any idea was any good it would reoccur. I agree with that.

When do you write?

IMG_0580I no longer have a ‘day job’, and it’s six years since I had a full-time day job. I try and write every day, for at least four or five hours, assuming that I haven’t got something else on. When something is really bubbling, and also when I am at the copyediting stage (work which is easy to pick up and put down), I’ll also write odd hours when I can fit them in.

Writing seldom comes easily to me (although editing I love), and when I sit down to it, it usually feels like the last thing I want to do, much like going for a run, or a swim, or anything that involves effort! If I waited for the spirit to move me I’d wait forever, and the only way I can make it happen, it is to make myself sit down and bang something out.

Oddly, given my reluctance to actually get on with it, I am incapable of not being a writer. There have been times in my life when I’ve thought, ‘Maybe it would be better if I gave this up and made something of the rest of my life’, but that thought simply cannot find any traction at all.

Where do you write?

I usually write at my kitchen table which is fairly well-lit and from where there is a view of the garden. We have a small study in our house but I haven’t used it since I stopped writing on a PC as opposed to a laptop many years ago.

FullSizeRender (2)I also quite like working in a café (no café in particular), where there is hum of background conversation. It’s company of a sort, it’s nice having someone else make the coffee, and social convention prevents you from getting up, pacing around and checking whether there is anything nice in the fridge at regular intervals. I remember I discovered the benefits of working in a place where other people were talking as a 19-year-old first year student, when I wrote my first (unpublished) novel. I started by writing in what was called the Undergraduate Reading Room (a kind of annexe of the library), but I found it suited me better to sit in the small common room there, where you could buy nasty (in a good way) black coffees from a machine and (in those days) smoke equally nasty cigarettes, while other people came and went. (I don’t smoke anymore, but I still love the hit of coffee. It is my favourite of all drugs.)

I don’t work in a cafe all that often, though, because conditions have to be optimal. I love the background white noise of people talking but if I can actually hear what they are saying I eavesdrop and that becomes distracting, particularly if I find the people irritating. Also, intrusive background music irritates me, although I can cope with something tinkly and emotionally bland like (to my ears) most jazz.

Another place I love to write is on a train. When I was working part-time in Norwich, I used to regularly have a 3-hour return train journey there, and sometimes I’d get more done in those three hours than in a whole day at home. Provided there’s space, and a table, and not too much noise and mess, I love trains. A table to myself in a train, a black coffee, the world going by outside: it doesn’t get much better as far as I’m concerned.

FullSizeRender (4)I suppose a lot of the work of writing takes place when you are not actually sitting at a keyboard at all. I don’t have any special way of accessing inspiration, but ideas come to me when I am travelling from a to b, or running, or swimming, or out walking the dog. I live in Cambridge and one of my favourite places to walk with him is the fairly nearby Thetford Forest. For a time it became rather a magical place for me, a place where I could almost routinely expect to free myself of the mundane and connect with the world of my imagination. Magic only lasts for so long in any one place, however, and now it’s just a place for me again, even though still a very pleasant one.

The other place I go is books. I sometimes have to remind myself that reading a lot is not an indulgence but actually part of my job as a writer, just as part of an athlete’s job is to exercise and get a good diet. I mainly read non-fiction. I don’t want to make fiction out of other people’s fiction.

How do you write?

Some people write with music in the background. I couldn’t stand that. How can I make up my own world with someone else’s imagined world blaring through my head? (But then I am very easily distracted and can easily be overloaded by sensory information. Sometimes I think there is something wrong with me!)

When it is going well, then I get entirely immersed. This can be embarrassing if I am on a train or in a café because I mutter the dialogue, complete with intonation, as I try to get it right. When immersed like that interruptions are horrible. As I say, I am easily distractible so it’s hard for me to reach a state of really focussed concentration, and it just feels cruel when I have finally managed to reach such a point, to be dragged out of it by external events.

I don’t make elaborate plans in advance. I’d be very happy to if I could but it simply doesn’t work for me: the story and characters emerge as I write. In order to ensure continuity and build up a head of steam, I will always go over the previous day’s writing before writing new stuff, and not infrequently, I will go back to the beginning and work back through to where I’ve got to as the story starts to get richer and I get more ideas. That’s often where the good stuff comes in.

Questions of style

FullSizeRender (3)I normally write in first person. If I write in third, it will be usually be free indirect style (ie still based on the viewpoint of a particular character). I dislike omniscient narrators. Ultimately stories can only be told from a point of view.

A story includes (a) characters, (b) a world/setting, (c) themes (ideas that the book is exploring) and (d) a plot. I generally start with themes, or with a world/setting that seems thematically rich (which is to say, a subconscious theme). My Eden books, for instance, start with a dark sunless world and the Biblical story of the Fall: theme and world together, which in turn tap into lots of things I want to think about and explore.

The imagined world is dull without characters though, and once you invent characters and place them in the world, you have to allow them to interact with it as their world, rather than making them mouthpieces for your ideas. This is the moment when the story comes alive. Plot to me is the least important element, and I kind of resent its artificiality. Real life doesn’t have a plot, and only rather narrow and driven people act in real life as if they were part of a plot (the reason I guess, that so many plot-driven novels/TV shows/films have narrow obsessive characters, such as workaholic detectives with disastrous lovelifes). Plot is nevertheless very important indeed (particularly in novels) –it’s what gives a story shape and structure– and I have to keep working and reworking my material until a plot emerges from the interaction of the other three elements.

For me, most of the process is unconscious. I don’t have a set of rules, and am intensely irritated when I see courses advertised for ‘How to write a novel’ etc. By all means teach particular techniques, or explore the techniques used by others, but there’s no ‘How to write a novel’ anymore than there’s ‘How to do a painting’.

When the first draft is done

FullSizeRender (5)In the days of word-processing, the concept of a ‘draft’ is much more elastic and hard to pin down than it would have been in the days of handwritten or typed manuscripts. By the time I reach the end of my ‘first draft’, many of the chapters will have been revised ten or even twenty times over, large chunks of material will have been added or deleted, and characters and scenes will have been added, removed or changed throughout the book. That is to say, the nominal first draft will include passages that have already been through multiple drafts.

Thereafter I put the entire thing through many more revisions, but I do find that, without outside advice, I am prone to revise too much and redraft too little. That is to say, I tend to be too cautious after that first stage, about major changes to the structure of the book. This is where other readers come in. I like to get advice from more than one friend, because tastes differ, and if one reader thinks a certain passage could be deleted altogether, while another thinks it’s the best part of the book, that gives you a certain perspective which you wouldn’t have got by listening only to one or the other.

The only novels of mine that have been edited by a full-time professional editor so far are my novel The Holy Machine and the three Eden books (it’s different for my short stories). Wonderfully helpful though friends have been, they are generally a bit too kind, and I have benefitted greatly from the cooler eye of a professional who has a vested interest, as I do, in the book’s success. Ultimately, though, it is my book, and I am not going to let anyone tell me it out to be about something other than I want it to be about.

What kind of writer are you?

I am equally proud of my short fiction as I am of my novels, so I would describe myself as a writer rather than as a novelist. My work hitherto has all been categorisable from a marketing point of view as SF, and I am happy with that: books have to be labelled so readers have some idea what to expect. However, I personally think of myself as a writer who happens to write SF, rather than an SF writer. By that I mean that my motivation is not to expand, develop or play with the genre of SF. My motivation is simply to take the stuff that’s in my head, get it out there in the world, and make something positive of it which I and others might find some use for. It just so happens that I’ve found the tools of SF very useful for that purpose.

Self promotion:

I have recently completed (bar proofreading) my third and final Eden novel, Daughter of Eden, which will come out in October. I’m very pleased with it. I’m pleased with the way that each of the three books is different from the others. I have also written a collection of new short stories which, unlike all my previous published shorts, could not be labelled as SF. I think this collection will come out around Christmas, though whether before or after I don’t know.

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

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?


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.


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’…

How Writers Write: Tricia Sullivan

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I first met Tricia Sullivan on a panel at Loncon 3. A fascinating panelist and excellent writer, here she gives an insight to the creative process…

How would you describe yourself?

trish1I’ve been a science fiction novelist for twenty years. More recently I’m an astrophysics student and mother of three, and I work part-time doing other bits and pieces.

Where do you write?

trish2Right now I’m standing in the hall window at my laptop. Behind me is a wall with two big flip charts covered with the multi-coloured scribbles that pass for structural work on my new SF novel This is the Sea, which is midway through its first draft. The laptop lives here when I’m working on the Plot Wall.


trish3I had a much bigger and more complicated Plot Wall for Occupy Me. With three flip charts studded with multi-coloured post-its, a corkboard covered in index cards, and about seventeen different colours, it was a thing of madness. I took a photo of it to show a workshop of young writers just how many unseen gears and levers there may be lurking behind the sentences of a novel. But I’ve lost it. The new Plot Wall is not as funky (yet).

But do you actually write standing in a hallway?

trish4No, but I do most of my thinking on my feet, away from the computer. I guess it’s a bit of a cliché by now that many writers, especially novelists, are keen walkers. I also run, but I find that if I’m going at any sort of speed at all I can’t really think about anything except, you know, not dying. Walking is much better for thinking.

I go out in all weathers, for as long as time permits. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful, rural area.

I like to take in the detail of my surroundings. I’m fascinated with the way the shape and the meaning of a thing can change depending on scale and perspective. I like to look at things that are very small from very, very close up and imagine what it would be like if they were gigantic in relation to me. Science fiction is well-known for painting on the broadest of possible canvases. The thing is, though, there is ‘plenty of room at the bottom’, too .

One of really big ideas in Occupy Me came from looking closely at the structure of wood and seeing termite holes. It sparked something. I was all like Mike Myers going, ‘Yo, let’s have Space Termites! And dude, they can time-travel!’ (kidding)(sort of).

Yes, but what about actually putting words down?

trish6Oh, words. I do most of my drafting on a laptop in our sitting room, in the beanbags or on the rocking chair, which is no longer used for nursing babies but if you want to sit there you have to depose the cat. The beanbags look kind of like Jabba the Hut, don’t they? They’re super-comfy.

What about process?

trish7I keep lots of notebooks, of course. I start the serious writing in Word and keep a ‘daily work’ file for every writing session because I skip all over the place—I never write a first draft in linear order. It’s a giant pain, but it’s my way.

At some point I put all this mess into Scrivener in the form of scenes. I arrange these and then add to them and cut lots and add and cut lots more. I may colour-code plot strands a bit because I like the illusion of control this gives me. I’ll work and cut and rework and rearrange a few more times in between stints at the Plot Wall and jags of crying and sending whining e-mails to my writer friends. Very occasionally there’s Drink. Chocolate figures prominently in my methods.

trish8I use headphones and specific music for each book, both to drown out household noise and to kick the brain into gear. Occupy Me was mainly written to Heavy Horses, Steve Roach’s Dream Tracker, and All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser. So far This is the Sea is being written to the eponymous Waterboys album and Enya.

Upcoming work?

trish9 Occupy Me is out 21 January from Gollancz. It’s designed to break your brain and rebuild it in fun ways. I also have a story in Improbable Botany, which is a new anthology celebrating the tenth anniversary of Wayward Plants, a very cool urban green project based in London.

How Writers Write: Michael Cobley

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I was introduced to Mike Cobley at the first ever convention I went to, in Glasgow in 2000.  A great conversationalist, it’s always interesting to hear his thoughts…

What do you use to write?

01 tools of the tradeIt all begins with seeds of ideas, notions, and images, and sometimes the seeds need to be planted and left to put down questing roots and extrude sprigs of possibility…for a time. Or sometimes not. Notes and idea fragments get scribbled in notebooks, a kind of ur-narrative mulch out of which jump-off points for the story emerge – or sometimes I’ll have the opening scene firmly in mind, even before most of the rest of the plot, which is what happened with Shadowkings, that moment  with Byrnak and Keren by the campfire in the lee of ancient ruins – that was clearly in mind right from the start.

Eventually the plot will start to firm up, with the larger overview  becoming clear before the lower level details – and all the time I’m working on A4 lined paper pads (graduating from small notebooks and the occasional hastily grabbed envelope on which a neat idea can be captured before it flits away) The outline will go through several stages, usually ending up in one long continuous page made up from several A4 pages taped together, and sometimes with additional material tacked or stapled to the side. Of course, editors would much rather have something a bit more formal so at some point all this has to be boiled down to The Synopsis, and committed to computer file. The Synopsis is always the handy anchor, but the organic, handwritten version usually has all the messy details and side thoughts.

03 sample of notes from AMachinesBy then I’ve usually begun the first draft, which I write in long-hand – yes, on lined A4 pad paper. I used to use quite narrow feint lined paper but I switched to the wider feint when I started to need more room for corrections etc. In the early stage I would have had the opening chapters typed in and printed out, and at some point – perhaps at the halfway mark or later – I might start typing up to try and cut down the typing up required at the end. But then I’ll be on the approach to the finale and all my efforts are devoted to that. There have been times when I hardly typed out any of the MS so that when I finished the draft, I was faced with the mountainous task of typing it all up (usually about 140K words – uh huh).

07 confuserI write on my PC, using Word for Windows – I’ve seen recommendations by other writers for sophisticated packages which can acommodate all kinds of subnotes and indexing etc, but usually they are the kind of lucky writers who can create straight onto the keyboard, which for them is a natural, near transparent word conduit. Not so for me. In 1998 I started working in a call centre, full time as a directory enquiry operator; at that point I had actually been making myself create straight onto the keyboard, but after I’d been at the call centre for a while I found that the last thing I wanted to do after 8 hours banging out numbers on a keyboard at work was to come home and sit down to try and be creative….at a keyboard. I finally packed in the call centre work in 2004, but found my longhand working habit fairly ingrained by then. I can do revision on the screen, but the origination process finds it to be a barrier of sorts so guess I’m a paper-scratcher till I die!

When do I write?

I’m quite a slow writer, aiming at 400+ words a day minimum, so I have to put in the hourse every day. Usually up in the morning, along with my partner who heads off to her work, and the next coupla hours is a steady scaling of the mountain of wakefulness till I hit roughly 11.30am when the not-writing guilt starts to kick in. I pick up the thread of where I’d reached the previous evening, do any spot-revisions that seem obvious, and press on – with tea/coffee breaks – till about 4.30pm when I go to get the evening meal together. Then I put in another stint in the evening, about 6.30 to 9pm, then gather in the study for cigars and brandy…. sorry, in the downstairs lounge for some episodes of current TV faves.

Where do I write?

04 writing desk booksAmid a rambunctious mess of books, cds and dvds! I have two desks now – one has the computer (the wordsmith workstation or, alternatively, the Gateway to Procrastination Hell). Recently as September the local council decided that our house was next up for a full rewiring, which entailed us having to pack all the books and cds and dvds crowding the shelves and storing them in a container I had to hire to park outside the front of the house – it was that or use a town-centre facility, meaning countless car journeys and all the attached aggravation. Anyway, the rewiring took place without too much obvious destruction, but it turned the house into a purgatory of dust, fine dust which hung in the air for days afterwards, ultimately kicking off a hellish sequence of sinus-related allergies and coughs. Dont want to tell you more than you need to know, but it was only by mid-December when my health crawled back to something like it was back in early September. Fun times, it wasn’t.

10 moozik stakEr….yes, I have 2 desks 😉 the computer-tasked one and another a full stride and a half away against the other wall, flanked by book cases, burdened by the same, the place where the serious longhand drafts are created, conjured up from the dazed aether of my mind (cue swirly-delic music). I like the general room lighting to be a bit dim, a bit low, and to have a lamp focussed on the work in progress. For as long as I have been writing, I’ve always lived in close proximity to other people, whether it was in bedsits or flatsharing, or in this house with other family members doing their thang, so music has always been a necessary element of the writing process. In fact, it has always been a necessary element of my life in general, a comfort in times of bleakness, an energising roar of joy (usually while at gigs), a soothing background to relaxing moments, or even a complimentary aural texture to whatever I’m working on. Oh, and a barrier to the sounds that other make, as well, natch. Some music has been directly inspirational, some less than I thought would be – and in fact, I have been at gigs, drenched in the wall of sound coming off the stage, when some unforeseen combination of lyrics and visuals unites in the shadows of the backbrain and presents some fragment of plot or scene….and suddenly I’m fumbling for my pen and notepad and madly scribbling….

Plans, Notes and Style

09 cds to the left of himIn the pre-plot stage I’m usually imagining details of background, history, society, conflict, whatever technical level or types of technology the story requires. And often I find that much of that gets left behind, either discarded or distilled to whatever function they may serve for the story. I stick to the notion that having a wealth of imagined background detail is better than having too little. Nothing gets thrown out at any stage, not until the final edited and corrected proof has been reached – then I tend to more lose track of various notes and ancillary scraps, which my agent thinks I should hold onto.

As for style – in the early years, I was more adventurous about POV and tense etc. 1st, second and third person narratives have appeared in my short stories, while my novels have been in the third person, with the boundaries between viewpoint characters clearly delineated – I know that some writers have a kind of floating omniscient viewpoint, usually from a godlike narrator, which dips in and out of this or that character. This is a technique I’m wary of attempting, probably because I’ve seen it done messily and have no wish to risk inflicting similar unformed narrative monsters on any reader….but then…..until I actually take a swing at it I wont know if I can manage the technique or not. Hmmm.

Back to style – in the short story period, mainly up to 2001, my writing style was a bit more purple than it is now, which I insist is no bad thing – I admire writers who put in the effort to actually describe worlds and environments which are their own creation, rather than Alien World 9B wheeled up from the back lot. Now, some readers  find an abundance of description a barrier, as if the plot is being clogged or dragged down by treacly adjectives, which I can understand – nowadays, I try to choose the telling details rather than a boxful, but also include what William Gibson called ‘the gratuitous move’, something not necessary to plot or character or background, but something necessary to the writer’s actual enjoyment.

Drafts and redrafts

05 the horrible chairWorking in long hand, I feel I’ve got a more organic connection to the words as they issue forth from my pen (a black Bic pen, medium ball tip) – not to say that keyboarders dont feel the same, its just my own personal conceit. I tend to correct as I work, so my first draft is really more like a draft and a half. Then there’s typing up stage, which allows a further opportunity to correct as I go (and always I find myself grappling with sentences and/or paragraphs which seem baffling, leaving me wondering what was in my head when I originally wrote them). The first typed draft counts as V 1.0 (the longhand draft was, of course, the beta), and subsequent drafts I name up, V 2.0/3.0 etc. V 1.0 goes to my editor, and possibly to a couple of close trusted readers if they have time available in their schedules to give it the eyeball. And the impressions, good and bad, come back and once I come to terms with sometimes unexpected problems, I get down to the first  revisions. Rinse and repeat, though only with my editor and proofreader.

What’s Hot Off The Press & What’s Taking Shape On The Drawing Board:

08 preciousssssWell, my newest brain-baby, Ancestral Machines, has just ventured forth, courtesy of Orbit UK (& US), published in various formats between Jan 12-14th, and there is a discernible thrill this time round as this is my first hardback. Feels like a kinda quiet graduation and, damn, it is a fine object to behold! Ancestral Machines is a stand-alone novel set in the universe of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, featuring an ancient and mobile artificial solar system, a smuggler captain and his crew of rascals and vagabonds, and a nonstop series of deranged events and thrilling heriocs. Is this really your homage to Firefly? some people have said (after hearing me say that it’s a bit of a homage to Firefly) to which I can only state, ‘You could very well say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’ (wink wink).

Next up, that nonstop barrel of laughs known as Dealing With The Tax Return. But in parallel with  that, finishing the submission material for a follow-on book starring my smuggler captain & crew, set again in the HFire universe – I have a working title but I’m keeping it to myself just now, but rest assured that it will be stuffed full of assorted grotesqueries and demented derring-do. Also, I have a coupla short stories that need attending to, and the possibility of maybe, perhaps doing a steampunk novella…or even a couple, if I can get a handle on writing at that length.

How Writers Write 2015 Review

How Writers Write launched in 2015. It was intended to be a series of guest posts where established writers invited you into their workspaces, revealed their work habits and shared their experience. It ended up taking on a life of its own, generating traffic and comments from around the world.

This year has seen contributions from

  • Keith Brooke
  • Neil Williamson
  • Ruth EJ Booth
  • Jaine Fenn
  • Stephen Palmer
  • Jacey Bedford
  • Ian Creasey
  • Alma Alexander
  • Juliet E McKenna

One thing that I think we’ve all learned is this:  everyone writes in their own way. Saying that, there are number of things we have in common. Writers may have different ways of keeping notes, of planning out stories and redrafting, but they all do those things. Budding writers take note!

How Writers Write will continue next year featuring, amongst others, the following very talented writers: Mike Cobley, Tricia Sullivan, Martin Griffin, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown and Ian Whates

I’ve already seen some of the new contributions: they are as varied and fascinating as those we’ve already had.

For the moment, though: thank you to all the writers who contributed, and thank you to everyone who has followed this blog this year.

Merry Christmas, and here’s to a happy 2016!


How Writers Write: Juliet E McKenna

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Juliet E McKenna in the past on Aethernet Magazine.  I was delighted to get this chance to see how she goes about the process of writing…

What do you use to write?

jemck7When I’m starting out on a story, I make preliminary notes with paper and pencil. By the time an idea’s ready to become a book, I’ll be working in an A4 spiral bound notebook which will soon have separate plastic folders tucked inside it with roughly sketched maps and other background material. There’ll be character and plots notes and an overall outline and then I’ll roughly draft each chapter’s events and interactions over a couple of pages before I start typing.

I like the freedom of paper and pencil; I can add arrows to link things together and circle or scribble stars by particular thoughts that I know I’ll want to come back to. Yes, I’m sure there’s software that allows writers to do the same thing on a screen but I’ve worked this way for so long now – since I was writing essays at university – that it’s second nature. I don’t see the need to waste time learning how to do it some other way. And since almost no one but me can read my handwriting these days, I don’t have to worry about data security!

jemck2When I’m researching, I make notes in more spiral bound notebooks or on loose leaf pages which go into a ring binder. I use yet more notebooks for making notes when I’m reviewing a book. Other notebooks are for short fiction. Yes, they do add up, and yes, keeping them close to hand in the study is very useful, particularly when I need to check some background detail for a novel I wrote over a decade ago, or refresh my memory of a particular book.

Once the story’s laid out on paper and in my head, it’s time to open a fresh computer file and start typing. I’m a fast and fluent touch typist so I work straight onto the screen, amending and rephrasing as I go. I’ll quite often start a day’s work by looking over what I wrote the day before and tweaking it as necessary. I use MS Word; it’s what the computer comes with, the software does what I need it to do and publishers can read the files without any faffing around. I work on a desktop with two screens for ease of having multiple files open when I need to – each chapter gets its own file while I’m working on a first draft. If I find I really do need three screens, I’ll get my laptop involved, though that can get awkward when I forget which mouse or keyboard relates to which screen. Otherwise, my laptop’s used when I’m travelling or on holiday. It’s not my main working machine.

When do you write?

I write Monday to Friday and keep office hours, so I’m working from around 9 am to around 5 pm. Not all of that time’s spent writing fiction. Sometimes I’m reading books for research or to review them. I also record television documentaries on historical or literary topics and every so often, I’ll take a day to catch up on those. A writer’s always in search of fresh inspiration and that’s how I find a lot of new ideas for plots and characters. We spend a lot of time on holidays visiting historic towns, buildings and museums and I invariably find those stimulate my imagination.

Then there’s all the administration that comes with running a small business which is what a full time author must do these days. Every so often, I’ll have errands to run in Witney, the local town, or I’ll head into Oxford to use the libraries there. It’s good to get out of the house from time to time.

Where do you write?

jemck1I mostly work in my study, which is the smallest of the upstairs bedrooms. It’s even smaller now with a large desk, a filing cabinet and five crammed bookcases in it. Yes, the joists are resting on load-bearing walls downstairs. I like having my reference books and notes within easy reach, and when my sons were small, I needed a door which I could shut so they knew Daddy was the parent on duty. I don’t have music playing or the radio on or anything like that. When I’m writing, I’m totally focused.

Though I’m not one of these authors who absolutely has to be in their special place or they’re unable to write. I can work anywhere else if I need to. I just prefer to be in my study when I’m writing. When I’m reading for research or review, I’ll head downstairs to the sofa in the lounge with the relevant book in hand and a notebook and pen. A change of pace is always refreshing – and it’s closer to the kitchen and the kettle.

Questions of Style

I’ve written in first person and third person, depending on how close to the characters I want the reader to get. That choice tends to be obvious to me from the first idea for a story. So far I’ve always written in the past tense and I’d need a really compelling reason to write in continuous present tense. It’s not a style I enjoy much as a reader and I find very, very few books where it contributes anything significant to the narrative beyond the author enjoying the stylistic flourish. Though there certainly are some books where it’s integral to the story and its effect, so I won’t say that’ll never change in my work – but don’t hold your breath.

How do you write?

I work from my outline and my notes, though not as rigidly as I used to when I was first writing novels. I’m much more open to changing my mind, particularly as a character develops through the writing process and the internal logic of a narrative acquires its own momentum. A decade ago, I’d stick much more closely to the plan I originally had for the first draft and end up doing a lot more rewriting to get to a final draft. These days, I’ll be more flexible in the first draft and the rewrite will focus far more on language and tone than on revising the structure.

When the first draft is done

I’ll do two drafts of a novel, first and final, because I’ve done so much of the thinking things through in my pencil and paper drafting stage. Ideally, a couple of trusted test readers will read the first draft and I’ll get some time away from the text before I come back for the second pass. When I first started out, the first draft was the bit I loved and the second pass was the hard work. I can’t tell exactly when that changed but these days, the first draft is the humdrum bit I just want to get done and it’s the rewriting and revising that I really enjoy. Honing and polishing.

Fresh eyes are always invaluable. It’s not praise you’re looking for from test readers (though that’s always nice), it’s nit-picking about the details that somehow don’t quite add up and challenges over whether or not a character, major or minor, would really have acted or reacted in the ways you need them to, in order for the plot to unfold. This is how you find out why and where you’ve not quite achieved your storytelling aims. There’s no point ignoring your test readers’ quibbles, no matter how crystal clear it all might be inside your own head,. It’s your job to sort their problems out. Then the story will make sense for any and every reader who picks up the book in a shop or a library and hasn’t got the opportunity to pick your brains about what you really meant – even in these days of Twitter and Facebook.

Wrapping up that final draft is when I’ll find myself working to midnight and through the weekends. I won’t let a book go until I’m satisfied that I’ve done the very best job I can. Once the text’s off to the publisher, for copyediting and proof-reading, that’s fine with me. That particular story’s off on its way into the wide world for readers to enjoy and I’m thinking about the next thing.

Lastly, self promotion:

Southern Fire-smallWhat am I working on at the moment? Well, this past year, a staggering amount of my time has also been taken up with campaigning for reform of a particularly damaging piece of legislation as far as anyone selling digital products online are concerned. Authors these days need the choice of selling their own ebooks direct as well as through the likes of Amazon, Google and iTunes, so I’ve been working hard with the EU VAT Action Campaign to convince the Powers That Be in Westminster and Brussels that they’ve got this one badly wrong. We’ve got them to admit that now and to commit to changing the law. Now we just need them to sort out interim easements since legislators reviewing the regulations will still take a couple of years which small online businesses cannot afford to waste.

So I’m really looking forward to getting back to writing some extended fiction. 2015’s been all short stories for me, coupled with the work needed to turn The Aldabreshin Compass stories into ebooks. That’s been a major project for me and Wizard’s Tower Press, with the invaluable help of some dedicated fans. We’re just about there now, with Southern Fire released this month. The fabulous artwork by Ben Baldwin is the crowning, finishing touch as far as I am concerned.







How Writers Write: Alma Alexander

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.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I was delighted when Alma Alexander got in touch and asked to be part of How Writers Write.  Read on to see why…

What do you use to write?

alma writing 2I began with a pencil and a hardcover notebook. In fact my oldest surviving novel dates back to when I was 14 years of age… writen in pencil… in FOUR consecutive hardcover notebooks… over 200,000 words’ worth of story. And it’s a decent story. Someday I might go back and pick its bones clean of the fluff put there by the inexperienced 14-year-old and put it back together as something that a now-seasoned professional wouldn’t be ashamed to put one’s name to. But those days… are long gone. Once I discovered a keyboard and a screen… there was no looking back. I can type faster than I write, I can type as fast as I think, and that is gold. I have a basic desktop computer which is God Central and holds all my material – but I have a laptop I take on outings and it has seen some memorable prose being pounded out on its keys.

whatcom falls and bridge panoramicPlanning stages… well… that could be interesting. I have notebooks full of scribbled notes I take when reading research books (when the novel in progress warrants such research), I have scraps of paper which I scribbled stuff on when it occurred to me in the middle of having dinner out somewhere, for instance, and which needed putting down on something immediately before good ideas got forgotten. I’ve even nutted out the basics of a book while driving with my husband as a sounding board in the passenger seat (and used HIM as a memory aid). In this context, anything goes, really. And yes, in defiance of everyone who swears it’s stupid or “difficult”, I’ve used Word for YEARS. I’m sure Scrivener is everything some people say it is but my mind rebels against that kind of thing, it has its own boxes and pigeonholes and doesn’t like being shoehorned into those somebody else designed. My mind is my best planning tool. I have an eclectic and often eidetic memory and this is where stories get planned and pre-written. Most people write a terrible first draft – with me, that stays inside me, mostly, and what I first put down on the page is literally draft #2 at least. And I very rarely have to do major overhauls. My subconscious seems to know what it is doing.

When do you write?

office 1 bookshelfThere are days I can do ten hours at a stretch, when something is in the middle of exploding and I cannot let go until the dust settles. There are times that days will go by without my having put down a word of the actual story in progress – but that doesn’t mean that I am not working on it on the down-low, inside my head. There are times that I am on a research reading kick and I don’t WRITE, but every word of everything I read in support of the story is being sorted and catalogued by that weird inner computer that I have in my brain. But on the whole the answer to that question is WHENEVER IT IS NECESSARY and the explanation of that statement is simply IT IS NECESSARY ALL THE TIME. So whatever I am actually doing in any given moment… I am probably, on some level, writing.

Where do you write?

I can write anywhere, really – and I have. I’ve written on planes and trains, in hotel lobbies, in quiet corners of other people’s houses, in the kitchen at parties, in restaurants waiting for meals, with a notebook on the back of a purring cat. Words come, and don’t ask where I am when they get there…

How do you write?

moclips 2015 day 4 roosevelt beach pacific sunset 6 water textureI’ve been on a lot of convention panels which discuss the “pantser vs outliner” question – and all I can say, again, like I’ve said many times on those panels, that I cannot outline anything and then still want to write it when I’m done. My back brain sees a detailed outline and goes, oh, you’ve written that story now, go on to something new. No, I am a true “pantser” in that I tend to find out what happens next in my story… by WRITING IT. Even when I am forced into a synopsis – like when one of my YA series got sold on a sample chapter and a sales synopsis – the books that finally emerged at the end of it all had very very little to do with the sales synopsis I originally submitted. I rebel against being boxed in, in any way at all, and I need to follow the wind when it changes if my story is to have any kind of life to it at all. I dream on the fly. And yet, somehow, it all comes together in the end. It’s like I let loose a cloud of butterflies, and they scatter every which way, but in the end they will settle in their proper place and I will be able to follow my story to where it needs to go, butterfly by butterfly.

Questions of style

office 2I am an instinctive writer, and I am the kind of writer who all too often writes by taking dictation from my characters, so stylistic choices are not something I pre-plan. If I start a story in the “wrong” voice, I”ll soon know it, and it’ll go back to the drawing board for a proper perspective. I don’t really enjoy present tense narrative all that much – I can see where it might be useful but very few people can get away with using it effectively, and for most of the rest it’s just a mess. So I tend to stick in past tense. Voice, though first or third or omniscient POV – that is decided on a book by book basis, and I don’t set out to do any book a certain way. if it needs to be told in first person, it will be. If not, it won’t. I’ll find out when I start writing. In terms of writing style, I’ve been reliably informed that I will never be a Hemingway – that my style is lush and poetic and rich and complex and also that I must have swallowed a dictionary when I was five years old. What can I say? I am in love with language and it shows…

When the first draft is done

office 4I’ve often said that what I love about writing is the WRITING, not the (admittedly essential) rewriting and editing and polishing that comes after. The original act of writing is what makes it alive for me, the creation of the faw story; that is the joy, that is the dream. Everything else, it’s, well, WORK. My first hard-copy draft is read by my husband, an editor with many years of experience under his belt, and the first really “finished” draft is born after I go through the thing that he has read and incorporated his edits and suggestions. Then it goes out to at least one trusted beta reader who hasn’t seen the story before and cold-reads it for context and for flow and for continuity. Only then does it go out to a professional (editor, agent, what have you). But, like I said, my Draft #1 is really Draft #3, because I fiddle and self-edit in my head before I write, and it’s usually pretty clean. “Secrets of Jin Shei” needed ONE pass on the original MS before it went out to the agent, and sold. And that book was written at white heat, 200,000 words in less than 3 months. Letting go… well, it’s a little like taking your child to the first day of school and releasing that clinging little hand and gently pushing this precious thing you’ve created out there into the world, to find new friends, to grow, to live its life. And yes, it’s JUST as hard to let go as you would expect. And you never quite stop worrying about it, afterwards. Whether it’s being bullied, or whether it’s getting enough sleep…

Lastly, self promotion:

moclips 2015 day 4 roosevelt beach reflections 6 sunpathI’ve always got several projects on the boil, but currently I am in full research mode in what is going to be a GLORIOUSLY American fantasy – involving the building of the transcontinental railroad across the continent, the carnie culture, the goldrush(es)… and the fae. I’m hip-deep in history and anecdote and piles of pictorial evidence. It’s going to take a while. But I have hopes that this thing will be magnificent if I can put together on paper what I am seeing in my mind. Over and above that, I”m working on a short story collection, and possibly the next three books in my on-going Were Chronicles (starting where “Shifter”, the third book in the current Chronicles set which is due out in November, leaves off). Over and above THAT, there’s this other historical fantasy that I’m thinking about…

There’s always something going on.

cloak CU p3I’m a novelist and a short story writer and an anthologist; I mostly walk in worlds of fantasy but I recently branched into two unexpected directions at once – humor AND science fiction – and produced this thing called “AbductiCon”, a novel of fandom and a love letter to that world, to the con circuit and the family that I have accumulated there. I took the recently-released book to Worldcon in Spokane in August of 2015 and it got every bit of a delighted reception that I hoped for – people recognise this thing, and their eyes light up when they pick it up. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Look for more about me and my stories on my website ( where you can also find more information on where else on the Web you can find me (Facebook, Twitter, all that jazz). You can also subscribe to my blog, and/or to my peripatetic newsletter, if you so choose. Hope to see you there!