How long have you been a writer?
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer and I’ve always had some kind of writing project on the go, whether it be flash fiction, newspaper articles, sketches, comedy scripts or copy for websites. But I’ve found that I’m not disciplined enough to write novel length stories in my spare time. I’ve only been able to complete such major projects when I’ve taken time off from work and made the writing my job. I finally got the courage to make it my full-time career in March 2016.
You describe writing as your job. Does that mean that you don’t enjoy it?
On the contrary. I think of what I do as a job just to keep myself disciplined, but I would more accurately describe writing as a passion. Yes, it’s a time consuming process, but I love writing. It can have its frustrations when you just can’t quite find the right way to say something that seems simple in your head, but that is more than compensated for by many moments of pure magic. I’m sure that every writer will tell you that there are times where the story almost writes itself or that the characters appear to come up with ideas that you hadn’t thought of.
I’ve had many occasions where I’ve written what I thought was an inconsequential detail into a scene just because I liked it, only to find that it becomes a significant part of the plot many thousands of words later. That always gives me a thrill.
Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?
That’s quite a difficult question to answer. My head seems to be spinning with ideas and possibilities all the time; sometimes these coalesce into a train of thought which may or may not develop into a plot.
For ‘The Last Echo’ I’d overheard someone talking about the stupid things that some people will make up in order to impress someone that they are trying to date, and I started wondering what would happen when the other person found out. Then I looked at the idea from another angle and thought about how it might turn out if it sounded far-fetched but was actually true. I played with a few different scenarios but the basic plot was formed.
With ‘Given Time’ I started by thinking that it would be an interesting challenge to write an anti-hero in the first person. I wanted him to see himself as normal even though he knew that he was doing wrong. I’d been thinking separately about the problems associated with time-travel (I may have seen or read something about time-travel that spurred the thought) but when the two ideas came together I knew how my character could literally get away with murder.
You have described yourself as an ‘accidental novelist’. Why is that?
At the time that I wrote my first book I had taken some time off work and was planning to write a different novel. The idea for ‘The Last Echo’ was strong in my mind but I thought that it would only make a short story, so I decided to write it to get it out of the way before starting on the intended novel. It was only as I began to write and the word count kept growing that I realised that I was already on my way to my first full-length story.
The same thing happened with ‘Given Time’. Once again, I thought that it was going to be a short-story but after I’d reached ten thousand words, and was still writing the first day of a plot that spanned two years, I knew I had another ‘accidental’ novel on my hands.
I’ve now written two novels, both of which weren’t intended as such, while the four or five full-length books that I’ve had plotted and ready to go for some years, haven’t yet made it to paper.
Do you have a set schedule for your writing?
Not a rigid schedule. When I’m writing a first draft, I try to complete a thousand words a day, which can sometimes take just three to four hours and sometimes take all day. All of the creative process goes into the first draft, so even on days when the words flow and I’ve reached my target quite quickly, I’m still constantly thinking about what’s coming next, which makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. From the first word until the last sentence, I’m completely lost in my story, so all the other parts of my life tend to be on autopilot.
Describe your working day.
Ideally, I want to be at my desk at 9am although that’s not always as rigid as I’d like. I decided when I gave up my job to make writing my career that I could only make a success of it if I treated it as work, so I keep to office hours as much as possible. Mornings are spent writing my thousand words which I usually hope to complete by around lunch-time. In the afternoons I attend to all the administration – promotions, blogging, social media, emails etc. Then if there’s still enough time, I’ll do some research for whatever is coming next in my story.
If I haven’t reached my thousand word target in the morning, then I will often put in some ‘overtime’ in the evening to make up the difference. Otherwise, I will get on with some reading or socialising.
I make myself work just five days a week even though I’m often keen to get on with the story, but keeping to that discipline means that by Monday morning I’m raring to go again.
Do you have a preferred method of writing – longhand, typewriter, word-processor or computer?
Definitely computer. I tried writing in longhand and using a typewriter before PCs were invented (that’s showing my age!) but I got frustrated very quickly by all the crossings out and corrections. Even if I was eventually happy with what I’d written, each page looked a mess; but in truth, I’d leave stuff in place that I didn’t like simply to avoid having yet another correction on the page. It was very disheartening. Now I can make as many corrections as I like and the page always looks pristine – I can kid myself that it’s the finished article even though I know that it will still need plenty of reworking.
Do you outline your stories before you start writing or do you allow the plot to evolve as you go along?
A bit of both. I start with an idea and work the plot through in my head before I start writing. I need to know where the story is going and, more importantly, how it ends before I commit it to paper. Once that is done, I usually write the first few pages, and the last page as a target to aim for (although it invariably changes by the time I get there). For a short story that’s all I need, but if it starts developing into something longer I will write a rough outline as an aide-memoire but I don’t stick rigidly to it. Often I will change the outline as the story evolves or when the characters behaviour changes in unexpected ways.
How do you approach the research for your stories?
Before I started writing seriously I always assumed that research would be tedious, but I’ve found that I really enjoy it. The obvious place to start is the web – there’s no point in having all the knowledge in the world just a few mouse-clicks away and not exploiting it. I’m acutely aware that there is a lot of inaccurate information, so I never rely on one site for guidance. The problem is that it can be a fascinating journey and it’s very easy to get so absorbed in what you’re doing, that you can easily spend several hours researching a very minor plot detail. The plus side is that, although it is said that you should write what you know, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about what you’ve only just learned. I think that writers are likely to write much more enthusiastically about new found knowledge than something they have known for a lifetime.
Of course there are some things that you can’t research on the net. It’s impossible to get a true feel for a location without going there to experience the sights and sounds, so unless you intend to do a lot of travelling, it’s better to set your story in places that you are familiar with (unless you are creating new worlds for your characters to inhabit).
How many drafts do your stories go through before you are satisfied?
At least three or four, but having said that, because of the way that I work, it’s not really correct to call them drafts. Once I’ve completed the first draft, I read through to mark passages that I need to re-write and to catch as many typos as I can. Then I will put it away for several weeks before going through the same process again, so it’s more a process of tweaking than re-writing. After that I will submit it for copy-editing which invariably throws up many more corrections to be made and after those are completed I will wait a while longer before going through it again. The whole procedure can take longer than the initial writing of the story but there are no shortcuts if you want your work to be the best it can be. As for being satisfied, I’m not sure that it ever happens, but there comes a point where you have to decide that you can’t do anymore.
Which authors and novels have inspired you?
The list is probably endless but here are a few of my favourites:
John Fowles – The Collector. This was the first novel that literally sent shivers down my spine and was probably the catalyst for my fascination with anti-heroes. It also taught me that it can be especially chilling when the offender is portrayed as quite ordinary and even more so when he doesn’t get his comeuppance in the end.
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s many years since I read this novel but it is a testament to the writing and the plot that it feels like it was only recently that I finished it. I was fascinated by the amoral, hedonistic main character who was able to charm his victims right up to the point where he murdered them. I also liked that although he was willing to commit his crimes, he was always fearful of being caught, giving another dimension to his character and extra tension to the novel.
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is the only book that has ever made me laugh out loud from beginning to end. Not just funny, but incredibly clever in the way that it ridicules the stupidity of bureaucracy. Adams had a knack for the surreal and the absurd that many have copied but few have been able to match.
John Irving – The Cider House Rules. I think that John Irving is very much an acquired taste. I had read several of his novels before this one and found them quite challenging in both subject matter and writing style. I’m glad that I persevered because I think that this is a one of my all-time favourite novels. I love the quirkiness of the chloroform-addicted abortionist, compassionately running an orphanage.
Lesley Glaister – Partial Eclipse. I was at school with Lesley. Although we weren’t close friends, I knew her well enough to know that she is nothing like the sinister, creepy thrillers that she writes, where the menace is found in small everyday horrors. Her brilliant storytelling always leaves an indelible mark in your memory and none more so than in this novel, with its twin plots of a woman in prison recounting the events leading to her crime, and of her ancestor who was transported to Australia for attempting to steal a peacock.
Stephen Leather – Hard Landing. I’m currently working my way through the ‘Spider’ Shepherd series of thrillers and I haven’t found a bad one amongst them. I love that he often incorporates real events into his fiction in a way that is totally believable. His novels are fast paced and gripping from beginning to end. Hard Landing is the first novel in the series and a perfect introduction to a fascinating character.
Other authors I admire include Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Stephen Booth, Joseph Wambaugh, Graham Hurley, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Philip K. Dick, William Golding, J.D. Salinger, Dick Francis, J.K. Rowling, Wilbur Smith, Dean Koontz and of course many of the classics; Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, H.G. Wells… The list goes on and on.