writing

How I write, why I write, what I write

Disembark here for the next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Tearoom at the rear. Please exit via the gift shop…

As mentioned a few days ago Kelvin Knight passed me (and Judith Allnatt, and Stephen May) the responsibility of continuing this blog tour, so whether you like it or not I’m going to give you a little insight into my writing life. If you haven’t called off here before, it might act as some kind of introduction and (hopefully) an inducement to stick around. You could even sign the visitors’ book (or ‘leave a comment’ if you want to be prosaic).

First up, what am I working on?
Lots of things. Too much. Not the stuff I should be. This is the problem with having a butterfly mind and an overactive imagination, when you actually come up against the fact that writing a complete piece (even if it’s 500 words long) requires focus and a bit of (whisper it) work. I’ve had a crime story on the go for months. I was mightily pleased with the idea and I don’t want to rush it and fail to do it justice, but I’m in danger of letting it hang around too long.

There are two larger projects on the go. One is the sci-fi noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo 2013 and finished the first draft of in January this year – Sunrise Over Centrified City. I’d written it longhand as I’d hurt my back and wasn’t carrying my dinky little notebook computer around (and since then I’ve done more damage so I’m still not typing when I’m out and about), so it’s taken me until the end of August to find the time to type it all up so that I could start redrafting. The other is a collection of speculative fiction which I’m hoping to put out fairly soon. It’ll be roughly half and half published and unpublished work, a mix of science fiction, fantasy and things between.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write in so many genres (butterfly mind), I’m not sure how to answer this one. OneMonkey has claimed my science fiction is like Alan Bennett in space (if only! But I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment). I’ve had a recent story in Romance Magazine and my first novel (Wasted Years) has been described as a romantic tale, but I don’t usually read fiction labelled as romance, and I absolutely don’t write anything mushy or soppy (I really hope I don’t. Please tell me if I do). My comic fantasy isn’t always as funny as others in the genre (hence it doesn’t tend to get out into the world. Except All the Room in the World) and my other fantasy doesn’t tend to involve elves and royalty and magic artefacts. There is often (but not universally) a core of northern-ness (northernity?) to my stories, with all that might entail (grit, rain, tea, taciturn characters). And probably an undercurrent of socialism where you least expect it (Wasted Years might be romantic in places, but I still see it as a cautionary tale about the shallow emptiness of greed-is-good consumer capitalism and ruthless ambition. But don’t let that put you off…)

Why do I write what I do?
I can’t not, is the simple answer. If I didn’t write it down it would stay swirling round my head and eventually I’d explode. All writers are a product of their reading, so from Paddington Bear to Anthony Trollope’s finest novels via John Wyndham, Terry Pratchett and Philip K Dick, I select my subconscious ingredients and distil them into something (I hope) unique. I write in many genres because I read in many genres, as you can probably tell from my book reviews and end of year summaries.

And finally, how does my writing process work?
Hmm, most of the time it clearly doesn’t, or I’d get more stuff finished. I don’t have a writing routine (though I went through a long phase of writing during my lunchbreak, when I was carrying my pencil-case sized computer around) or even a fixed way of approaching a story (whole plot sketched first? just an ending, a beginning, a setting, a character?). Chaotic, maybe, but I like to think it leaves me open to chance thoughts and melding of ideas. It could just be poor planning.

I have a TeX file (hangover from years of physics) which I’ve gradually been adding to for the last few (nine?) years, divided into character names, good lines, snippets, titles, characters, and ideas. Anything that I jot down during the day on a paracetamol packet, the back of an agenda or even in a writing notebook (it does happen), gets thrown in there as soon as possible. I’ll do writing exercises in the snippets section to see if I come out with anything usable. Vague half-baked thoughts of ‘what if..?’ go in the ideas section, and even Stuart Maconie caused an entry in the names section a few years back when he tried to say Michael Jackson on the radio and it came out Maxl Jaggle (which I’ve yet to use for a sci-fi character, but someday I will). Every now and then (when I’m in full-on procrastination mode) I trawl through the file and join a title with an idea, a name with a snippet, or just pick one item and go off on a flight of fantasy with it (like in March 2012 when I tried writing a story a day this way). Occasionally, an idea is sparked directly and I just start writing without it ever going in the file.

Sometimes I write one story till I’m finished. Sometimes I get bored, or have a better idea partway through, and I get sidetracked. I have been known to put something aside for a number of years, only to come back to it and finish it in a matter of hours. There are some things I’ve written from start to finish without correcting any of what came before (Sunrise Over Centrified City, for instance). Others have been rewritten continually as I go along, so the first paragraph’s been through seventeen drafts and the last has been through two. Crime stories need meticulous planning so that they hang together (clues and methods and detection and such); that’ll be why I rarely manage to finish them (The Dovedale Affair being a notable exception).

Some days I get lost in the story and bang out a thousand words without trying, other days I sharpen a lot of pencils and tidy my inbox. Or write a blog post.

So there you have it, me as a writer, in a nutshell. If your appetite for my fiction has been whetted (admit it, it has a little bit), check my About (& Publications) page where you can follow links to all the ones that are available for free, then if you like, proceed to the ones you have to pay for…

Time to hand you over to some other creative folks:
Jo Tiddy is a member of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and although she has contributed guest posts there, she doesn’t have a blog of her own and will therefore be a most welcome guest right here.

Mary Colson mainly writes non-fiction for children, but she has fun with fiction as part of Ilkley Writers and will be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in October. Regular readers (or those that know me well) will understand why I particularly appreciated a recent extract in which a cat called Clash belonged to a guitarist named Strummer…

We’re all links in a chain

The ever-exuberant Kelvin Knight has passed me one of his 3 onward batons for the My Writing Process blog tour, having had one passed to him by our mutual friend Van Demal. Being a polite chap, he asked me a couple of days ago (before he publicly named me as a participant) if I was happy to continue the tour, and of course I said yes. Naturally, I sat down immediately to write down the questions and think about the answers. In no way did I get sidetracked by working back through the chain and reading assorted extra posts by the bloggers I found along the way. Regular readers will know of my legendary organisational skills and will therefore not entertain the thought that I may have written only one sentence of a response so far. The very idea.

Bearing all that in mind, look out for my in-depth answers to the following questions next week:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
  3. Why do you write what you do?
  4. What is your writing process?

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Writing in alphabetical order

This month’s exercise at the Telegraph Short Story Club is a 26-sentence story in alphabetical (or reverse) order. These were my first 2 slightly tongue in cheek attempts:

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared. Ben jumped, dropping the packet of Smarties he’d been about to slip in his blazer pocket.

“Caught you,” the man sneered. “Damned kids, thinking they can get one over on me. Every year it’s the same, I’d flog the bloody lot of you.”

“F-f-flog?” stammered Ben, who was shocked but not as frightened as his occasional speech impediment made him seem.

“Go on, hop it before I ring your headmaster.”

Hurrying out of the corner shop before the old man could change his mind, Ben collided with someone hurrying the other way. If there was one person Ben should never have run into, it was Jack Grosvenor. Jack was feared and loathed in equal measure, an arrogant, swaggering bully from the fifth form, manipulative and sly.

“Knightley, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he barked. “Let’s see. Maybe you could make it up to me.”

Nearby was an independent record shop that was slowly going out of business. Our Price records had opened up a few streets away and all the schoolboys took their pocket money there these days.

“Perhaps you could liberate a cassette or two for my listening pleasure,” suggested Jack. “Quickly, I didn’t mean next week.”

Running along the street away from Jack, Ben’s stomach was doing somersaults and he felt like keeping going. Sprinting into the sunset, as it were. Tomorrow he’d have to go to school though, and Jack would find him and make him pay. Under the watchful eye of the record shop owner, Ben sidled down an aisle, watching the watcher rather than looking where he was going. Vinyl cascaded across the floor and Ben legged it, grabbing the nearest tape box while the shopkeeper’s attention was elsewhere.

“What have you done to my LPs, you little hooligan?” he bellowed.

X-Ray Spex were belting out Germ Free Adolescence from a builder’s radio as Jack kicked his heels in the street.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air when he saw Ben running towards him with a cassette box, but then he saw what it was. “ZZ Top, bloody hell.”

And going the other way…

Zaphod Beeblebrox was Alan’s role model. You would have thought he’d have picked someone better, or at least more achievable. Xena, Warrior Princess, had in fact been his first goal, but it had been doomed to failure. When his wife found the costume at the back of the wardrobe she assumed it was for her, and flounced off to Birmingham for sisterly solidarity and a good moan. Vadim next door had been most understanding, helping Alan come to terms with his new life. Until then, Alan had wondered if he might be suppressing his feminine side, hence the aspirational Xena (thus avoiding anything too pink and girly), but the way he took to baking his own pies in his wife’s abandoned pinny he thought that couldn’t possibly be it. That was why he’d gone for a real man’s… alien, on his next attempt.

Smooth-talking, super-confident Zaphod had been the stand-out character for Alan, when he’d read the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all those years ago. Regrettably, he was more of an Arthur Dent by nature, and the change in approach wasn’t easy. Quite how all those slick suits at the posh bar next to the station managed it, he wasn’t sure. Pheremones, maybe. Or the size of their wallets. No matter how hard Alan tried to throw himself into being cool or wild he couldn’t bring himself to do it. May I buy you a drink, he’d say. Like Zaphod would bother asking! Killer chat-up lines just weren’t compatible with the thickness of glasses Alan needed to wear, and it was about time he faced it.

Jenny had been watching the man with the bottle-bottom specs all evening. Intrigued by the loud suit and cocktails which didn’t seem to go with the rest of him, she decided to go over and liven up her night.

“Have we met before?” she asked, leaning against the bar next to him.

“Gosh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Funny, I could have sworn you looked familiar. Excuse my mistake.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Can I join you anyway?” asked Jenny. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said Alan, wishing it was something cooler and wondering what Zaphod would do next.

If you feel inspired (and really, how could you not) do come and join us.

Don’t give up the day job

Huffington Post ran an article on The Bizarre Day Jobs of 20 Famous Authors, so of course I sidled over to have a look, hoping that some over-hyped, pompous writer had once been in charge of artificially inseminating llamas or something. However, the reality was both more mundane and more peculiar. I will grant you that oyster piracy (Jack London) is a bizarre way of making a living, but engineer (Dostoyevsky), barrister (John Galsworthy), surgeon (Arthur Conan Doyle)? Some of them are pretty well-known facts, too. Disappointing. Maybe what we actually need is a list of jobs that seem peculiarly fitting for particular authors, though perhaps it would be as well to restrict it to the dead just to be on the safe side of libel…

The thing about day jobs, bizarre or otherwise, is that your average writer gets masses of inspiration from them. Office politics. Legal jargon. The way llamas stamp their feet when you get too close. Although it’s sometimes a pain trying to fit writing around work and everything else with a claim on your day (like reading Huffington Post articles or catching up with 3 days’ worth of Twitter-feed) I do think it keeps you more in contact with (at least a portion of) the outside world.

Speaking of which, that bookaday thing is still going, but it’s getting a bit specific now (I guess there’s only so many open questions about reading you can come up with). It’s now at We Love This Book and as usual I’ve come to it late. I’m not going to go through the lot, but I will make the following comments: Do people buy books for the cover (4th)? Surely every reader gets sparked off by a different book or type of book (21st). Lots of books make me question everything, that’s how I know they were good (29th). And if I had a cup of tea for every time I’ve been likened to Arthur Dent (14th)… I’d have several cups of tea.

Conversations with the past

What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could go back (assuming you’re over 16 as you read this)? My first thought was ‘read Neuromancer’ but when I thought about it, I’m fairly sure I was told about William Gibson at, if not 16, then not much older than that, and I didn’t listen. Or rather, I stored the name at the back of my mind, never happened to see a book by him in a library or second-hand bookshop, told myself for a couple of years that I didn’t read sci-fi, then finally got round to him in my late 20s.

My next thought was ‘don’t feel obliged to keep reading a book you’re not enjoying’ but then I can think of a couple of books I’ve loved, that didn’t impress me during the first few chapters. If I took my older self’s advice too seriously, what might I miss out on?

A fairly safe one would be ‘don’t let the doubts set in about writing’. I used to write stories all the time, and when I was 18 or so and confident of my own undeveloped abilities I even sent a couple off. They were of course rejected, and as I got a little older I experienced the horror of realising I’d sent out some pretty poor material. Instead of using that as a spur to learning the craft, looking at what I thought was wrong and trying to improve it, I decided I’d been presumptious. I wasn’t a writer and never would be, and it was best to admit that, sit back and enjoy reading other (real) authors’ efforts. If I’d kept going, I might have reached the level I’m at now a few years sooner, when I had more time and energy and less in the way of responsibilities and competing activities. But then I wouldn’t have written the stories I have written, and my experiences would have been different. So maybe I should let the sixteen-year-old me get on with it and make the same mistakes I did. I wouldn’t have listened to my older self anyway.