How Writers Write: Tricia Sullivan

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 first met Tricia Sullivan on a panel at Loncon 3. A fascinating panelist and excellent writer, here she gives an insight to the creative process…

How would you describe yourself?

trish1I’ve been a science fiction novelist for twenty years. More recently I’m an astrophysics student and mother of three, and I work part-time doing other bits and pieces.

Where do you write?

trish2Right now I’m standing in the hall window at my laptop. Behind me is a wall with two big flip charts covered with the multi-coloured scribbles that pass for structural work on my new SF novel This is the Sea, which is midway through its first draft. The laptop lives here when I’m working on the Plot Wall.


trish3I had a much bigger and more complicated Plot Wall for Occupy Me. With three flip charts studded with multi-coloured post-its, a corkboard covered in index cards, and about seventeen different colours, it was a thing of madness. I took a photo of it to show a workshop of young writers just how many unseen gears and levers there may be lurking behind the sentences of a novel. But I’ve lost it. The new Plot Wall is not as funky (yet).

But do you actually write standing in a hallway?

trish4No, but I do most of my thinking on my feet, away from the computer. I guess it’s a bit of a cliché by now that many writers, especially novelists, are keen walkers. I also run, but I find that if I’m going at any sort of speed at all I can’t really think about anything except, you know, not dying. Walking is much better for thinking.

I go out in all weathers, for as long as time permits. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful, rural area.

I like to take in the detail of my surroundings. I’m fascinated with the way the shape and the meaning of a thing can change depending on scale and perspective. I like to look at things that are very small from very, very close up and imagine what it would be like if they were gigantic in relation to me. Science fiction is well-known for painting on the broadest of possible canvases. The thing is, though, there is ‘plenty of room at the bottom’, too .

One of really big ideas in Occupy Me came from looking closely at the structure of wood and seeing termite holes. It sparked something. I was all like Mike Myers going, ‘Yo, let’s have Space Termites! And dude, they can time-travel!’ (kidding)(sort of).

Yes, but what about actually putting words down?

trish6Oh, words. I do most of my drafting on a laptop in our sitting room, in the beanbags or on the rocking chair, which is no longer used for nursing babies but if you want to sit there you have to depose the cat. The beanbags look kind of like Jabba the Hut, don’t they? They’re super-comfy.

What about process?

trish7I keep lots of notebooks, of course. I start the serious writing in Word and keep a ‘daily work’ file for every writing session because I skip all over the place—I never write a first draft in linear order. It’s a giant pain, but it’s my way.

At some point I put all this mess into Scrivener in the form of scenes. I arrange these and then add to them and cut lots and add and cut lots more. I may colour-code plot strands a bit because I like the illusion of control this gives me. I’ll work and cut and rework and rearrange a few more times in between stints at the Plot Wall and jags of crying and sending whining e-mails to my writer friends. Very occasionally there’s Drink. Chocolate figures prominently in my methods.

trish8I use headphones and specific music for each book, both to drown out household noise and to kick the brain into gear. Occupy Me was mainly written to Heavy Horses, Steve Roach’s Dream Tracker, and All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser. So far This is the Sea is being written to the eponymous Waterboys album and Enya.

Upcoming work?

trish9 Occupy Me is out 21 January from Gollancz. It’s designed to break your brain and rebuild it in fun ways. I also have a story in Improbable Botany, which is a new anthology celebrating the tenth anniversary of Wayward Plants, a very cool urban green project based in London.