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