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.

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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.