Category Archives: How Writers Write

How Writers Write: Ian Creasey

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 always enjoyed Ian Creasey’s stories.  Hearing that he’d just published a collection was enough for me to ask him if he wouldn’t mind contributing this extra post.  I was delighted when he said yes…

What do you use to write?

Ian CreaseyI use a very old version of Microsoft Word.  Every time I get a new PC, I install my CD of Office 2000.  It does the job.  I don’t like learning how to use new software: it’s too much of a distraction.  I’d rather just use something I’m already familiar with, so that I can concentrate on the actual writing.

When do you write?

I prefer to write late in the evening, say around 10pm onward.  By then, it’s usually quiet outside.  I hate noise, and I can’t write when there’s an external racket such as people mowing the lawn and so on.  (The most heartfelt story in my new collection, Escape Routes from Earth, is a novelette called “Danny and the Quiet Police” — it’s about people who hate noise so much that they set up a community called Quiet Island, full of decibel meters and policemen enforcing the Noise Code.  The story’s protagonist is a teenager who rebels against the community; but my own sympathies are firmly on the side of the Quiet Police.)

Where do you write?

Study 1I have a dedicated room in the house.  My house is a standard 3-bed semi-detached, and I use the third bedroom (what people sometimes call the box room) as my study.  It’s small, but I don’t mind — in winter it’s an advantage, because the room heats up quicker and stays cosy.  I usually keep the curtains closed, to reduce distractions from outside.

How do you write?

I don’t like to get all hi-falutin about my so-called “process”, since it only really consists of two steps.  The first step is a lot of brainstorming, which continues until I have a broad outline and I know what note I want to hit at the end.  The second step is to actually write the story based on the outline.

Questions of Style

I don’t worry about style.  I figure that everything I write is automatically in my own style, which is probably a mishmash of influences from Douglas Adams to J.G. Ballard.

Very occasionally a story will demand a particular voice, and in that case I’ll usually find an appropriate source to borrow from.  For instance, my story “The Unparallel’d Death-Defying Feats of Astoundio, Escape Artist Extraordinaire” is a first-person narrative from a showman’s viewpoint, and I modelled his voice upon illusionist Derren Brown (based on his shows and his books).  Not that Derren Brown has ever escaped from a black hole — at least, not as far as I know.  (I wouldn’t put it past him.)

When the First Draft is Done…

When I’ve finished a first draft, I get it critiqued.  I’m a member of NorthwriteSF, an in-person writing group that meets in Yorkshire every three months.  I’m also a member of online writing forums Codex and Critters.

Having said that, it’s a bit of a circular question because I actually define a first draft as the first version of a story that gets seen by anyone else.  Up until that point, it’s what I call a zero draft.  I generally tinker with a zero draft for a while before declaring it an official first draft and showing it to other people.  This is because I want critiquers to point out issues that I didn’t know about; I figure I’m wasting their time and mine if they mention problems that I already knew existed.

What Are You Working On At The Moment?

Escape_Routes_from_Earth_cover_smallI’m in a gap between projects because I’ve just finished putting together my collection, and I’m taking a breather before moving onto the next thing. The collection, Escape Routes from Earth, contains 14 SF stories, all originally published in magazines — half of them in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and half of them elsewhere.

I have plenty more story ideas on file, so it’s just a case of going through them and deciding which of them I want to write next.

You can catch up with my projects at my website, http://iancreasey.com/

How Writers Write: Jacey Bedford

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

This month, Jacey Bedford answers the question…

What do you use to write?

Jacey Novacon 2012-300pxsquWell, apart from the inevitable notebooks that I carry round and have by my bedside, I’ve always used a PC and I have a high spec laptop which I use mostly as a desktop machine even though it’s theoretically portable. When I got my first book deal my writer-friend Karen Traviss, whose output is prolific, advised me to get three things: a large monitor, a good quality keyboard and Scrivener. She was correct on all three counts. With my first advance I treated myself to a Cherry gamers’ keyboard which has a responsive, mechanical click, a Samsung 23 inch monitor and, yes, I went out and bought Scrivener for PC. Scrivener does take a bit of getting used to. Unlike a basic word processor, you can’t just click and go. It probably has more features than the average fiction writer needs, but you can just learn the basics. There’s a word processor element, which is pretty much the same as Word or whatever you’re used to, but it also has a left hand column which shows your chapters, scenes, notes and research. You can save all your bits and bobs there. Before Scrivener I had files full of research notes and characters, but Scrivener lets me keep everything in one place.

When do you write?

I’m a night owl, often writing until three in the morning. When I’m on a roll I’ve been known to pull all-nighters and crawl into bed at 9 a.m. (or not at all). During the daytime hours, my time is rarely my own. I’m a music booking agent, working from home. The phone rings. Someone wants something doing yesterday and I have to scramble. A lot of things happen outside of normal office hours in the music industry, so my timings can be erratic (at best) or even chaotic. But, usually, after about 8 or 9 p.m. everything goes quiet and that’s often when I get my most productive writing done. Needless to say I’m not usually up very early in the mornings unless I have to be.

Where do you write?

messy officeI think it’s really important to have a space which you don’t have to share with other people, or clear for other domestic usage. I have an actual office in the front of the house, the oldest part that dates from around 1800. It’s a house with many additions. In 1880 part of it became a shop (now closed). My office is the old draper’s department and still has plain, darkened, pine-lined walls and marks where the shelves used to sit. I claimed it as work space more than twenty years ago. It’s very basic, but you can hardly see any of it for shelves, books, files, stacking boxes, and filing cabinets. Any spare wall space is covered in posters, maps and photographs. It’s not posh, but it is comfortable. It’s messy and organic, and I love it.

I can look out of my back windows across green fields which lead up on to the bleak Pennine moorlands of Yorkshire. I don’t really need to go anywhere else to write. I’m not someone who ever seeks out coffee shops or libraries as work space, I need my peace and quiet and this old stone house works well for me. Prising me out of here is difficult.

How do you write?

In silence. I can’t write with music or radio on in the background. Perhaps it comes from my years in the music industry, but I have a deep distaste for musical wallpaper, or background sound-wash. Music is for listening to as far as I’m concerned.

I’m a burst writer. I’ve been known to write 10,000 words in a day, but I can’t keep that up for long, but if I can clear the decks of distractions I know I can manage a steady 50,000 words in a month. Of course, distractions always intrude. The day job will never leave me alone for long.

Questions of Style

I don’t have any set style. My preference is for clean, invisible prose that lets the story shine through. Every story, every character within a story, has a voice and as an author you’re always looking for ways to make that voice individual and appropriate. Much depends on how the stories beg to be written. My Psi-Tech space operas are third person, past tense, with a limited number of viewpoint characters. There are sections, as my characters are transiting through foldspace where everything is weird, so those sections are written in third person present. Present tense is a challenge, and can be very effective, but I’d hesitate to use it for a whole book. My historical fantasy, Winterwood (due in February 2016) is a first person (past tense) narrative. Telling a story from a single viewpoint requires a much tighter focus.

When the First Draft is Done…

garden 01I always like to share a first draft with a few trusted beta-readers. I’m one of the organisers of Milford, a week-long SF writer’s conference which focuses on peer-to-peer critique of works in progress. A lot of my books, the first chapters, anyway, have been subjected to MIlford critiques, often tough, but never cruel. Always fair. A couple of years ago a few of us who met at Milford formed Northwrite, a small critique group that meets face to face once a quarter. We can also call upon each other for beta-reading duties when a draft is finished.

When I have a completed first draft I send it to my editor at DAW and then cool my heels for a few weeks. She phones me with comments and suggestions and points out all my logic blips. The redraft usually takes two to three months, depending on the extent. After that there may be a third, much smaller, polishing edit. It’s never easy to let go, but when you’re working to a publisher’s deadline, you don’t really have much choice. I guarantee there are always things that hit you in the face once you have the printed book in your hands and you wish, wish, wish that you’d done something differently, but a book is always a snapshot of what you thought worked well at the time.

What Are You Working On At The Moment?

Crossways 248x400Crossways, a sequel to Empire of Dust, came out from DAW in the USA on 4th August this year. The Psi-Tech books (I suppose you can call them space opera) are set about five hundred years in the future, after the Earth has been knocked back to the Stone Age by a devastating multiple meteor strike, and is now in a Renaissance with Africa and Europe as the main powers. Almost being wiped out was the kick up the backside humanity needed. Space colonies abound and platinum, essential to space travel through the Folds, is competitively sought (and fought over). Megacorporations have grown to be more powerful that any one planetary government. My characters, Cara and Ben, are implanted with psionic technology.

Untitled-6In the first book, Empire of Dust, I mostly deal with Cara’s story and its repercussions. She gets on the wrong side of the megacorporations and in particular her ruthless ex-lover. The strap line is: Is anywhere in the universe safe for a telepath who knows too much? In Crossways Cara and Ben’s fight against the megacorps continues, but something is stirring in the depths of foldspace. The strapline is: A hunt for survivors turns into a battle for survival. DAW has asked for a third Psi-Tech book. In Nimbus I’ll be dealing with whatever is lurking in the Folds. I’m still thinking up a good strapline for that one. I’ve written two and a half scenes so far, but I know where the story is heading.

In a completely different vein, my first historical fantasy, Winterwood, is due out in February 2016, and DAW has already ordered a sequel to that, too, which will be called Silverwolf. Winterwood is set in 1800, in a Britain with magic, and features Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, a cross-dressing female privateer captain (and occasional witch), accompanied by the jealous ghost of her dead husband, and an annoyingly handsome wolf shapechanger who gets very upset if you call him a werewolf. There’s a mystical box made out of ensorcelled winterwood, and a problem to be solved before an ancient wrong can be set right. Silverwolf deals with the aftermath because, of course, when you make one change in the world, the ripples eddy outwards and the ramifications must be dealt with.

I’ve had several short stories published over the years, details of which can be found on my website at: www.jaceybedford.co.uk. You can join my mailing list from the contact page there, or you can find me on twitter: @jaceybedford, and facebook at: facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer

How Writers Write: Stephen Palmer

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

This month, Stephen Palmer tells us how it’s done…

How Would You Describe Yourself?

spIMG_1640A 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.

spMemory SeedMy 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?

spIMG_1631Twenty 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.

spIMG_1635I’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…

spIMG_1622As 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?

spBI cover artI 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.

Contacts

http://stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com
http://www.vimeo.com/stephenpalmer
@libermorpheos
Stephen Palmer forum at SFF Chronicles
Pages on Facebook, Goodreads and at amazon.

How Writers Write: Jaine Fenn

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.

The series started with Keith Brooke and Neil Williamson, last month  was Ruth EJ Booth’s turn.  This month features Jaine Fenn…

How would you describe yourself?

A writer, obviously.  I’ve done loads of other things – some fun, some lucrative, some embarrassing – but none of them matter as much as telling stories.

Pretty much all the stories I’ve ever told have a speculative element. If asked to pick a sub-genre I’m most comfortable writing in it would be either space opera or science fantasy.

What do you use to write?

Writing on the moveI write in Word, because I’m lazy. I don’t love it, I’m just used to it. I bought a copy of Scrivener, and did the tutorial, and decided it was a Good Thing, but somehow I haven’t got round to actually writing anything in it yet.

Like most writers I also write on paper. Any piece of paper, whatever’s to hand, because if I don’t write this idea down right now I won’t remember it. This leads to notebooks being stashed all around the place, and I still end up writing on things I shouldn’t. The original notes on the mechanics of shiftspace were written on the back of a menu from the Star Castle Hotel on the Scilly Isles; I think I still have it somewhere.

Stephen Palmer When in my garret, I use an ancient desktop PC with NO INTERNET CONNECTION. When out and about, I use an equally ancient netbook, so ancient that some of the keys no longer have letters on them.

When do you write?

A favorite plot walk locationIdeally during the day, for six to about eight hours (including cloud-staring time and plot walks – see below). In practice, because my life has a lot non-writing stuff in it right now, whenever I can.

Although I’m not a morning person, morning can be my most productive time, provided it starts with mild hynopompic hallucinations. My best* first drafts are produced after I’ve already written them in my head whilst half asleep; when this happens I need to go straight from bed to garret as soon as full consciousness returns, and empty the contents of my head onto (virtual) paper.

If my subconscious doesn’t deliver the goods then I need to ease into my writing day, which means reading in bed, then up for some faffing of the sort that could easily become writing avoidance if not got out the way early, and up to the garret when guilt drives me there, normally about 10am.

(*where best = doesn’t require too much rewriting)

Where do you write?

In the GarretIdeally, in my garret. It’s actually a loft conversion, but it’s all mine. I’m really lucky to have a personal space devoted to writing. The fact that it’s only accessible by a wooden ladder and has NO INTERNET ACCESS does wonders for my productivity. I can’t just get up and wander off or check Facebook for cat pictures, though I have been known to distract myself when the words aren’t coming by pretending I’m a gymnast and walking along the beam that runs along the middle of the floor. Also, my desk is directly below the skylite, and you can get a lot of inspiration from clouds.

Deadlines mean I don’t always have the luxury of writing at home, so I’ve learnt to write when out and about, a task made easier by my lap-resty-thingie. If necessary I can write at friends’ houses, in hotel rooms, in gardens, even in the car (though not whilst driving).

I can write in public places, but only by tuning out everything around me, at which point my subconscious assumes I’m alone. This can be a problem in coffee shops and libraries, where behaviour like air-punching, making ‘hah!’ noises and growling can get you thrown out.

How do you write?

Writing al frescoWith music on, if possible. Especially for first drafts. The musical style will depend on what I’m writing, but it can’t have intrusive lyrics. By default it’s dub or ambient for the slow bits and trance or rock for the fast bits.

Plot walks are good for working out where the story needs to go next. I live on the edge of a national park, so there are lots of great local walks, though my default is ‘the standard river walk’. This has some excellent bridges to lean on whilst thinking.

Then there’s the plot pizza, where I take my partner out for dinner at the local Pizza Express (other pizza restaurants are available, though not if you live in a small town like I do), and in return he helps me sort out current plot issues. I’d like to find some way of making plot pizzas a tax-deductible business expense, but I doubt it’d wash with HMRC.

Questions of style

Like a lot of writers, my default setting is third person viewpoint, past tense. This is mainly because that’s what editors expect, rather than a conscious preference, and I’d like to experiment more. I’m currently working on a piece for an anthology which is present tense and mixture of first and second person; that’s what felt right for this particular story, and because it’s a commissioned piece, I don’t have to stick to convention.

Process-wise, I’m both panster and plotter. Being lazy thing means I tend towards panster (and it’s more fun), but the necessity of spending more time rewriting than the original first draft took is teaching me, book by book, to get off my arse and plan properly in advance.

When the first draft is done

Obligatory vanity shotI hate first drafts. Mostly. The times I don’t are when it all flows like magic, like those excellent morning sessions I mentioned above. The rest of the time writing first draft is hard work at best. Sometimes it’s like shitting a melon whilst trying to nail jelly to the ceiling.

I belong to a writing group called Tripod (so named because three of us founded it, in Woking near where the Martians landed), and they’ve been ritually disembowelling my first drafts for over a decade and a half now. Once they’ve pointed out the errors of my ways it’s on to rewriting, which is the part I love. In rewrites I get to pick the pearls out of the dross, and find out what the story really is.

Lastly, self promotion:

Once I’ve finished the short story for Maelstrom’s Edge I’ll be back to the current novel, which is volume one of a science fantasy duology called Shadowlands. My Hidden Empire sequence of space opera novels is published by Gollancz there’s also a Hidden Empire novella, The Ships of Aleph, and short story collection Downside Girls, both published as ebooks by Tower of Chaos press. Having said it’s all space opera and science fantasy, the next thing I’ve got out is an alt. history short story set in an sixteenth century Peru, in the fabulously named Mammoth Book of Tales from the Vatican Vaults.

More Information

Jaine Fenn’s Website: http://www.jainefenn.com/

How Writers Write: Ruth EJ Booth

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.

The series started with Keith Brooke.  last time featured Neil Williamson.  This month it’s BSFA Award winner Ruth Booth’s turn…

How would you describe yourself? 

ReadingWell, I’m an award-winning fiction writer and a poet, usually of speculative sort. From time to time, I’m a critic/reviewer – of music (alternative) and, recently, books too.

But writing isn’t all I do. I’m a live gig photographer. I sing, I’m told, though I need a new outlet for it. I’m teaching myself to play the ukulele, since a piano’s out of reach right now. There’s more besides. So how would I describe myself? Not nearly busy enough, quite frankly.

What do you use to write? 

Right now I’m typing this in Word, on my old refurb’d 17” laptop – and this is a rare case of typing up before I’ve made any handwritten notes. Mostly, ideas start out on paper first – I’m not sure what it is, but I find I think more clearly when I handwrite, rather than typing straight onto a screen. Nearly all my review/opinion pieces start life on paper – git big swirling threads of thought running all over my A4 notepad (in the margins and everything!), clauses knotted in gaps between the lines of ten-year-old’s scrawl, later trimmed and woven into something more coherent for the screen. Fiction, it depends on the project, but you can guarantee at some point, I’ll hit that sticky wall*, and I’ll have to handwrite myself free of it.

Notebook (3)There are at least two notebooks on the go at any one time – the little one for when I’m out and about (which also doubles for my to-do lists), and the A4 workbook for general Work-Things-Out projects. I’ve learned that where I have a notebook FOR ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY, that’s a guarantee I’ll never use it. So fiction tends to vie for space with public lecture notes, review plans, career stuff, poetry and geometric doodles of stars and weird spiky things. It’s hell to archive, but it works for me.

On my laptop, I generally work in Word, with occasional bits and pieces in Notepad if I’m experimenting with a section of something. Poetry is nearly always written in Notepad first. Aside from that, there’s the memo function on my phone, a netbook in my parents’ study, but… honestly? I’ve been known to write notes on bar receipts if I’ve nothing else to hand.

When do you write?

On an ideal week, I’ll have two hours writing time a day. Times vary. Generally it’s a free hour before work, and at least one after, but I run or cycle three to four times a week, so that shifts it up to the evening. It’s not that I can’t necessarily do both first thing – oddly, I can usually solve a story problem within the first ten to fifteen minutes of a run. Still, the aim’s for two sit down hours a day every day – more, if I can manage it, on a weekend. That’s 16 – 18 hours a week, if I’m lucky.

Where do you write? 

Box Room (2)Most days I’ll pick one of three or four places to write. There are two cafés in town with mains power where I get most of the grunt work done – one for morning jaunts, one for evenings. When I’m at home, I like to use The Library at the back of the house, which is just a quiet and cosy space to work in. There’s also the box study with my lovely giant table and big flatscreen monitor, but I prefer that for non-fiction and photo editing work.

My main consideration is where’s going to have the right kind of quiet at any one time – and these days I need my comfort tea if I’m going to get some proper work done. The extent to which music’s a distraction or white noise really depends on the tunes. There are a handful of go-to bands/composers I use when the café soundtrack’s not doing the trick. More important is how I think of where I’m working – it can’t be somewhere for playing games or watching TV. If it’s not a neutral space – if it’s not somewhere where any distractions or background noise can be dismissed as not-for-me – then forget it. Work’s not going to happen.

How do you write?

Library (3)Word counts don’t work as well for me as time limits do. I’ve been using the Pomidoro method in the last few months (25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, in two hour bursts). It’s worked particularly well with this found documents story I’m working on, constructed from a series of archival pieces and audio transcripts. This way, I’ve a set period to focus on one bit, with no temptation to polish each one until I’m sick of it.

As for planning or pantsing, it’s really a question of what I’m working on. With criticism, I like to have a clear idea of my argument before I write it up, but fiction’s not so prescribed. There’s always a notebook beside me as I type – that’s more for working things out in my head than writing to plan. Unless the word count’s particularly tight, plotting’s usually something that comes along after the first draft, to work out what’s missing, where an extra beat might be needed, that sort of thing. Not so much planning, then, as restructuring.

A caveat: Since I’ve mostly written short stories so far, this might all change once I start working on novel length fiction. On the other hand, the longest thing I’ve worked on so far just poured out of me one day and didn’t stop until 18,000 words later, so we’ll see.

Questions of style. First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

Most of the time I’m writing in third person limited or first person, past or present tense – but that’s not to say I won’t one day come across a story that demands to be done in, say, second person omniscient. I’ve got to confess, I had to really think about this question, which may suggest I’m not that conscious of making those choices, at least beyond the extent to which they come with the story. Trite as it sounds, generally, there’s a voice that leads – and I follow that.

How many redrafts? – How many readers? – How easy is it to let go?

Redrafting’s a tricky thing to put a number on. Occasionally, it’s taken a complete draft of an entirely different story to get to the crux of what I find interesting about it – so the finished result ends up quite different to what I first imagined.

Easier to pinpoint is how many rounds of readers a story gets – and if all goes well, that’s generally two. Sadly, I don’t have the advantage of being part of a writers group, but I’m lucky to have a number of writer friends, who I can rely on within reason.

I’ve not been writing that long, so knowing when to let go is a discipline I’m still developing. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve two contradictory impulses when editing. The first is riddled with perfectionist zeal – but if I’ve worked on something too long, the other goes “OUT THE F**KIN WINDOW” and promptly chucks it in a huff (aka The Defenestration of Blargh method). I’m slowly working the both of them out of my system, not least for my own sanity. You’re always going to see the flaws in a finished story. But, arguably, if you did reach some mythic, mist-shrouded pinnacle of artistic perfection, wouldn’t that be a reason to stop?

What are you working on at the moment?

Award 1Let’s see… There’s the story about mining and music that’s told through a collection of audio transcripts and archival documents. There’s one about robots and rose gardens and what we leave behind. There’s another about what happens to the fictional worlds we create as children. That’s just for starters.

Recently, I’ve been writing more stories set around where I grew up in the North-East England – such as ‘Good Boy’, in January’s Far Horizons. Poetry’s been the biggest creative surprise of the last six months, which started as a whim, and grew a will of its own. Whether any of this will make it to print, we’ll see, but it’s been immense fun exploring a new way to write.

In the meantime, Fox Spirit’s Fox Pockets: The Evil Genius Guide will include a story of mine about a rather unusual college graduation. There’s also another project that I’m really excited about, one that’s quite different from anything I’ve been involved in before… but I can’t talk about that right now.

In short – everything up in the air and all to play for. Then, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why writing keeps me hooked.

  • Am pretty sure the writing wall is covered in treacle. Certainly feels like you’re wading through that on the tricky days, anyhow.

More Information

Ruth Booth’s website: http://www.ruthbooth.com/

How Writers Write: Neil Williamson

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.

The series started last month with Keith Brooke.  This month it’s BSFA award nominee Neil WIlliamson’s turn…

How would you describe yourself?

waterstones readingI’m not fond of trying to describe myself. Other people are usually so much better at it, even (especially) when they don’t agree. I’m a writer and a musician. If pushed to define musician I’d go with piano player, cabaret performer and songwriter. If pushed to define writer I’d tend towards fantasist, but with plenty of science fiction and a little supernatural horror on the side, as well as a stubborn streak of what we used to call slipstream back in the day. I like having the whole genre paintbox to play with.

What do you use to write?

papernotesA pocket notebook for notes on the go. And my trusty wee Asus netbook for the actual writing. On the netbook it’s Word for short stories and Scrivener for novels. Word has always caught a lot of flak, but it does the job perfectly well. Scrivener I like for long works, but I only use a certain amount of its features because the netbook’s screen is tiny.
Short stories are written into a pre-formatted template, with any story notes kept in the same file until the end. Novels, obviously being larger, require a bunch of different files: character notes, plot outlines, timelines, snagging lists of bits that need to be added at some point but not right now. These can be in Scrivener or separate doc files, text files, spreadsheets, emails, whatever’s at hand.

For later on in the process, I’m still a fan of the print-out-and-scribble school of editing. Scrawled margin notes, emphatically scored out paragraphs, whooshy connecting lines. It’s all so much more colourful and dramatic than Word or Scrivener editing tools. Additionally, though, it allows me to second guess the changes I was so confident of a few days ago before I commit to them.

Recently, I went even more hands on by resorting to printing out all of my plot points and cutting them up and physically rearranging them in front of me. What can I say, you go with what works, don’t you?

When do you write?

pintlaptopI have a regime that fits my writing in around my day job, home life and other creative pursuits. I had to establish one because there are so many things going on that nothing would get done otherwise. So, on weekdays I leave early and write for an hour before going into the office. Then at lunchtime I pop out and steal another hour. That adds up to ten hours a week. Weekday evenings I usually do not write: when I’ve not got a gig or a rehearsal, I usually don’t have the mental energy for it anyway, and I actually enjoy spending time with my bidey-in too. On Saturdays and Sundays, though, I try to spend three to four hours getting a good chunk of work done. So most weeks I’m doing 20-25 hours of writing. Which I don’t think is too bad.

Where do you write?

tealaptopThe weekday session take place in one of the many popular chain coffee establishments. These places seem to be purpose built for writers. Chair, table, power, wifi, selection of beverages, occasional moral support from interested serving staff. What else do you need? Somewhat obtusely, it’s my habit to drink copious amounts of tea in these sessions. This is for two very important reasons: it takes far less time for baristas to prepare which means more time for writing…and I fricking love tea.

The weekend sessions can be in a variety of local places. There are a few good cafes in our community, and there’s one in particular in which I’ve become part of the furniture. To change it up, I occasionally opt for the craft beer pub across the road instead, because…hell, craft beer? I got into the habit of using outside venues because our upstairs neighbours used to be pretty noisy, but we’ve new neighbours now, so I’ve recently “moved back in” as it were. I still find it easier to write outside of the house though, partially because the café environment is what I’m used to. It’s the office, it’s where the work gets done. And it doesn’t have a TV.

I am prone to distraction, though, so one vital ingredient is isolation music. I’ve got a Spotify playlist consisting mostly of film soundtracks that does the job very nicely.

How do you write?

Handwritten notesThis is something I don’t often really think about or analyse to be honest. With short stories, I have ideas, and note them down and when I have enough notes I…just go for it. That sounds insultingly simple, doesn’t it? Partly that’s because I’ve been a short story writer for many years, and have got used to creating on that scale, so the process is something that just happens now.

Novel writing is relatively new to me (I’m finishing my second one right now), and the process is similar except that for novels there are more notes. Many more notes. One of the things I found interesting (both frustratingly and rewardingly so) about writing The Moon King was that the deeper I got into writing the novel, the more ideas about the way the world worked suggested themselves. I went through several iterations where the plot changed quite substantially because I’d written myself deep enough to understand more about the world and the characters. I kept snagging lists of notes of stuff I needed to go back and change on the next draft. Sometimes these were tiny changes, sometime they were big. It seems like an inefficient approach, but the point is that I couldn’t have sat down and thought it all out in one go. I needed to write the place, to live there with the characters to discover these things. So far Queen Of Clouds has been the same. The longer I spend in it, the deeper I go, the richer the world gets, and the more times I have to go back and ripple it all through the story…sometimes changing the story itself pretty substantively. Hopefully it makes for a better book at the end, but it’s a slow process. Who knows, maybe I’ll get better at it once I’ve been writing novels as long as I have short stories.

In terms of drafting and redrafting, I used to be an inveterate polisher. Every word, line, paragraph had to be at least good before I could move on. Now I just don’t have time for that. Getting the story down is much more important. If I can’t think of the right adjective I’ll throw three in that are roughly in the ballpark and sort it later. I’m not sure about a detail or a character name or a piece of action, I’ll leave a gap and write myself a wee note to fix it in the next draft.

I don’t work to a daily word count, but I do give myself deadlines. That seems to work pretty well.

Questions of style. First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

Whatever suits the story. I’ve used all of those in the past (and why did you leave out second person?). I personally tend to avoid omniscient viewpoint. It can be done brilliantly, but also very badly, and I’ve no great facility with it, so I leave it well alone.

How many redrafts? – How many readers? – How easy is it to let go?

Redrafts – depends on the story. Some stories are pretty much good to go right away. Others never quite feel right and I can tinker with them for years before finding a way to make them work. I mentioned that novel writing, for me, seems to be a process of discovery through redrafting, but I’ve not done enough of those to know whether it takes two, or five or ten drafts before a book is generally right.

Readers – I’m very fortunate to be a member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, an excellent and longstanding peer critique group. I’ve also got some wonderful writer friends who I drag into service from time to time, but try not to abuse their generosity.

Letting go – I’m a pretty honest appraiser of my own work. I know when, even if it’s not perfect, it’s at least good enough to do the job I want it to. And I know when, even if people enjoy it, it’s still lacking something. I’m honestly not a perfectionist, but my internal quality controller has high standards.

What are you working on at the moment?

QOC sampleThe second novel, Queen Of Clouds, is finally in the finishing stages. I’ve done all I can with it. Mined all I can from its depths. I’m just lining the words up for hopefully the last time (for now) and then we’ll see what my agent makes of it. And after that we’ll have a chat about what’s next on the novel front. I’ve an idea for a series of short adventure fantasies that I’d like to get into, but we’ll see.

Other than that, I’ve got a near future science fiction novella about surveillance states part-completed and a whole load of ideas for short stories. One of the things I’d like to do this year is go back and try my hand at horror again. I made my first sale to Black Static magazine recently with a supernatural tale called The Secret Language Of Stamps, and I’ve got a few more darkish ideas in production too.

That’s the thing about being a writer. You’re never short of ideas.

More Information

Neil Williamson’s Website: http://www.neilwilliamson.org.uk

How Writers Write: Keith Brooke

Following the interested generated by my posts on How To Write, I thought it might be interesting to see how other writers produce their work.

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.

First up is the incredibly talented Keith Brooke:

How would you describe yourself?

How would I describe myself? I write, I edit, I design. I work in lots of different fields, under a variety of pen-names. Much to my (now-retired) agent’s frustration, I flit about between all these things, with little in the way of a coherent career plan. And I love it.

What do you use to write?

Story Notes
First Draft

Everyone raves about Scrivener so I keep thinking I should give it a go. I’ve even gone as far as buying a copy when it was on sale a couple of months ago. I’ve opened it, and followed a tutorial; I’ve played with creating my own templates to suit the way I work. And then I’ve gone back to Word and text files. It just suits me, particularly now that I have two monitors, so I can have lots of files open and visible at the same time.

I tend to keep notes of ideas on my phone, then transfer them to text files or Word docs every so often. When I’m in the thick of a draft, I’ll usually have a notes file on my phone just for that project, as ideas come at the most unhelpful of times. I’ll also have a Word file for that project’s notes: a short overview; notes on characters, settings and anything else that’s relevant (maybe some scientific aspect, or politics, or history). I’ll also have a more detailed outline to work from, which is very much a work in progress, modified as I go on and the real story emerges. And then there’s the actual draft itself: just one Word document, regardless of how long the story will be. That sounds awfully efficient and well-organised of me, and I guess to an extent it is: an approach refined over three decades of writing.

When do you write?

kblaptopBack when I had a day job I trained myself to write at any opportunity. The first draft of The Accord was written in coffee shops, bars, at an airport, at friends’ houses, in the back of a car, in lunchbreaks at work, and probably other places that I forget now. If I could grab even as little as ten minutes, I could get a few more paragraphs down; more importantly, it meant that the next time I had a more substantial writing session the story was fresh in my head so I could hit the ground running.

I left my day job last year and now it’s more a matter of juggling different projects: as well as writing under various pen-names, I edit, run the infinity plus publishing company, and do various other design and publishing activities. One consequence of this is that each day tends to be a different mix, and it’s rare that I get a day just to write. I do, however, get more frequent and longer writing sessions than I used to manage, which is lovely.

I try hard to keep my writing and publishing activities to normal working hours, so that I get evenings and weekends for other things. It’s flexible, though: sometimes real life intrudes during the week (that’s happening a lot right now), and sometimes writing commitments mean I get up early (sometimes I’ll start at 5 or 6 in the morning) or keep working into the evenings and weekends. I do manage to keep a pretty good balance, though.

Where do you write?

nopower

The Accord was probably an extreme example of writing wherever and whenever I get the opportunity. I do sometimes take my old Netbook away on trips and write on planes, in hotel rooms, etc. Now that I write and edit full-time, though, my habits are a lot more regular. Or rather, they were, and they will be; they just aren’t at the moment.

How it used to be… Up until January, I’d set up office at one end of our dining room table, with a desktop PC, two big monitors and a comfy office chair (I started out just using one of the dining chairs, but that played havoc with my back).

How it will be… We’re in the process of converting the dining room into a work area. My wife Debbie needs cake-decorating space (https://www.facebook.com/brookesbakes), so she’ll have a work area for that on one side of the room, and I’ll have a proper desk on the other side of the room.

At the moment… It’s a building site. We’ve knocked down walls and had plastering done, we’re re-doing the kitchen at the same time, and the place is complete chaos. I’m spending a lot of my time doing all the jobs we’re not paying other people to do: emptying cupboards, moving furniture, decorating… And my work? I’m on a cranky old laptop that runs slow and often not at all, with old software and nothing where I want it (I’ve been spoilt by the shiny new desktop PC!). At the moment I tend to work on one of the living room sofas, wrecking my back again (or maybe that’s down to all the lifting – a writing life doesn’t prepare you for all that physical stuff).

How do you write?

First Draft
Memento Notes

I can work in distracting, noisy places, but I don’t choose to have music or TV on when that’s within my control. I usually have ‘net access, but that can be a big distraction, so sometimes I just switch the wireless off for half an hour or so.

My working outlines are a lot more skimpy than they were in the early days – a confidence thing, as much as anything else. As a minimum my outline will have a few key points: opening, ending, and some landmarks along the way.

I’ve taught writing to postgraduate level, and I always make the point that I’m never going to teach people the way to write; it’s all about helping them find their own way to write. Having said that, there are some basic rules that tend to help most people. Foremost among these is that once you have words down on the page you have something to work with: bad writing can usually be fixed, but polishing that fabulous idea while it’s still in your head doesn’t really get you anywhere.

So I write. Often fast, just to get those words down. And often, even when I think I’m writing rubbish, when I come back to edit I see that it’s okay: there’s always something I can work with, at least. I’m disappointed if I don’t hit 2000 words on a writing day, and my peak, fuelled by caffeine, deadlines and desperation, has been more than 10,000. Some people may see that as hacking it out – how can the quality possibly be there, when you write so fast? I see it as honed technique: when I’m working like that, I’m capturing the big picture and writing with a lot of energy and momentum; the rewriting brings refinement and adjustment until I’ve hit the right balance. But if there’s one rule of writing, then for me it’s Get Those Words Down.

Questions of style. First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

pcYes, to all of those. Whatever suits the story. The Accord is my most complex in terms of viewpoint, as it’s told from first person present and past tense, third person present and past, second person present, past and future tense, and then various hybrids of multiple first and third person devised to portray the viewpoint of multiple characters and character-fragments sharing the same brain. It sounds complicated and for the first half of the first draft I didn’t even understand it myself, I just wrote each scene as seemed appropriate; and then, one day away from the computer, it all mad sense to me, the rationale for the different viewpoints and the drift for some characters from an intimate inside-the-head viewpoint to a distanced, more reportage perspective.

Viewpoint and style aren’t things I really sweat over before starting. They usually emerge while an idea is developing, so that by the time I sit down to start a draft the storytelling voice and approach are clearly established in my head. Sometimes elements of style emerge as I start to write (an angry voice, a consciously smooth style, etc), and when that happens it’s just a matter of going back and fixing the early pages – as long as you have those words down, you can fix that later, when the first draft is done

How many redrafts? – How many readers? – How easy is it to let go?

Edit Notes
Edit Notes

Back when I printed actual drafts, each piece would have at least three printings. I’d print the first draft and then edit it longhand until it was barely legible. Then I’d type in the changes, print a clean copy and repeat as necessary.

Nowadays I rarely print anything, so my drafts are far less easy to distinguish. I’ll often edit the early stages of a story to ease myself into writing new material for the day, so the early parts of a novel might be the equivalent of second or third draft even before the overall draft is complete.

After all the revisions, it’s off to my trusty first reader, Eric Brown. We’ve swapped drafts for something like 25 years – a trusted first reader is one of the most valuable tools in a writer’s kit, and Eric is a very good tool. I should probably rephrase that… Neither of us pulls punches when critiquing each other’s work, and we’re both prepared to ignore crits that we don’t agree with. Generally, I’ll act on about 75% of the things Eric spots; then I’ll probably mull over much of the remaining crits, wondering how he missed the point so badly. Then I’ll come back to the draft and probably act on those remaining crits, too, once I see that he’s right.

What are you working on at the moment?

kdpsales

I’ve been doing lots of work for infinity plus recently, with Garry Kilworth’s fabulous historical novel The Iron Wire published recently – this one tells the story of the men who constructed the first telegraph line across the heart of Australia in the 1870s. And Eric’s collection of ten short stories, Deep Future – it’s great to be publishing some of his books these days. My own most recent novel is the big epic fantasy, Riding the Serpent’s Back , a widescreen story of a civilisation’s end days.

More Information

Keith Brooke’s Website: http://www.keithbrooke.co.uk/

InfinityPlus: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/