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.

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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.