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:

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