How Writers Write

This piece first appeared on Tony Ballantyne’s website, part of the fascinating ‘How Writers Write series’. My thanks to Tony for allowing me to reproduce it here.

ZZZ What tools do you use?

I work on Word on a Dell computer, a twelve year old machine that Keith Brooke gave me. It serves its purpose as a word processor. I’m not into technology: I’m not interested in tech and gadgets. I don’t have a mobile phone or whatever they’re called now. I don’t even have a watch. I carry a sundial around in my backpack.

I plot a novel – in as much as I plot anything – and make random notes freehand in an old jotter. These days I don’t do much planning, just some notes on characters and an idea or two, then I get going. It works for me. In my notebook, which I keep to the left of me when I’m writing, I scribble down anything from a list of phrases that people spoke in the nineteen-fifties (for the series of crime novels I’m writing set then), to a line of dialogue, to a detailed day-by-day breakdown of how may words I’ve written. (I’m anal like that).
ZZZZZWhen I’m working on a project, novels, stories or whatever, I work five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I might work on a Saturday and Sunday if my wife and daughter are off doing things. I walk the hound in the morning at eight-thirty, and get to my desk at nine-fifteen, work for two and a half hours. In that time I write two thousand words, or a couple of hundred under or over. Around eleven forty-five I knock off, take the dog for another gallop, have a green tea and a sandwich for lunch (yeast extract, peanut butter and beetroot, since you asked, or less occasionally Stilton cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, or sometimes Vegemite, tahini and cucumber, or probably once a month cheddar and hot lime pickle), then get to the desk again around one and work till around three-thirty, knocking out another couple of thousand words. Before I married, fifteen years ago, I’d work in the evening too, so that I could produce over six thousand words a day – and I worked at the weekends.
This meant that my early novels (from Penumbra to New York Dreams) were written in around a fortnight, or just over. I’d stagger from my study a gibbering wreck and demand pints and pints of Timothy Taylor’s best bitter. Then, when I’d sobered up, I began the laborious task of rewriting the things.

ZZZZZZI walk the dog for two hours a day. He’s called Uther and he’s a red and white setter. He’s our first dog, and a life-changer. Having children is easy, a joy, compared to owning a dog. That said, he does exercise me. I wouldn’t get out otherwise, and while out walking the beautiful countryside of Berwickshire, around the village of Cockburnspath, I get lots of day-dreaming done. Uther was immortalised in Tony Ballantyne’s fine novel Dream Paris, in a scene which brilliantly encapsulates my relationship with the hound. Here we are; he’s reading his favourite chapter in Jani and the Great Pursuit, about a mechanical dog.

ZZZZZZZWhere do you write?

I write in my study surrounded by over three thousand tomes and air that smells of dog. I love books. I collect them. I collect SF, old and new, and fiction from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. I collect autobiographical books and biographies of writers. I collect the works of Rupert Croft-Cooke, G. K. Chesterton, Peter de Polnay, Miles Tripp, Elizabeth Ferrars, Michael Coney, Charles Bukowski, and many more. I don’t read on a Kindle, onscreen, or anything else like that. I detest Kindles etc. They’re just text, shorn of much of what a book is. A book is a beautiful object with its own history and associations. The abomination of Kindle renders every single book as a homogenised, soulless product – perfect for the homogenised, soulless world in which multinational companies and capitalist moguls would like us to exist.

My computer sits on my ‘desk’, a nineteen-fifties Baird radiogram. I sit back in a armchair with the keyboard on my lap and tap away. My wife says that’s why I have backache. On my desk are bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years. Pens I love. A broken Wallace and Grommit mug. A tin rocket. A rock. A clay bee and a hippo my daughter Freya made. A hole-filled rock I found on Eastbourne beach while visiting James Lovegrove, which I use as a pen holder. Some reference books I hardly ever refer to. A statue of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. A Timothy Taylor beer mat. A clock. On the window sill behind my computer are some plastic dinosaurs, a couple of pigs, a robot salt- and pepper-pot (thanks, Becky), a BSFA award for a short tale, an ancient metal statue, probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, of a man holding his head in one hand and his penis in the other. He looks like how I often feel.

When do you write?

I only ever write in my study, but think about story all the time.

I like peace and quiet while I’m scribbling. I don’t like music when I’m writing. I don’t wait for inspiration. That way I’d never write a word.

I write by the seat of my pants. In the early days, forty years ago when I began writing, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to have detailed notes and plans and plots and lists of characters to shore up my under-confidence. Now I know how to write and I have no fear of writing. I have technique, and trust in that and in my subconscious. They get the job done. I often start with little knowledge of what I’ll be writing , but the old sub-con kicks in and dictates the words.

zzzzzzzzQuestions of style

A novel or story dictates style, narrative viewpoint etc. I don’t much think about things like that beforehand, or about the actual prose style I’ll be using. I follow both characters and plot, whatever is dictated by my subconscious.

When the first draft is done I’m unutterably depressed for a while. Life seems pointless. The rush of creation is over, the endorphins run dry. Now comes the hard and dispiriting work of rewriting. While writing the first draft, I convince myself that the book or story is great, even exceptional. Then I finish and realise it isn’t – but it has to be made better. That’s bloody hard work. And I make lots of continuity errors and other ballsups which need fixing. Hey-ho.

How many redrafts?

Many.

How many readers?

Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.

ZZZZZZZZZHow easy is it to let go?

It’s bloody fantastic to say au revoir to something I’ve been working on for months. I’m delighted to see the back of it.

At the moment I’ve just finished the first draft of Murder Take Three, the fourth book in the Langham and Dupré series of crime novels set in the fifties. So I’m at that depressed stage of creativity, the rush over. Plus my wife and daughter are away in Haworth visiting my mother-in-law so I’m rattling round the house with the dog, eating curry and sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself and staring balefully at the mound of the ms I’ve just printed out and shaking my fist at the bloody thing and threatening to rip into it with a red pen and cut it by nine thousand words and turn it from a sow’s lughole into a silken purse.

Also, the damned thing isn’t contracted for. I wrote it on spec, which I don’t normally do, as the idea came to me and I like the characters of Donald Langham and Maria Dupré and Ralph Ryland, the Cockney detective. I just hope Severn House want it.

Next, I’ll be rewriting the second half of Binary System, an action-adventure novel about a woman stranded on a very alien planet, and how she survives. The two halves of the novel will come out later this year from Solaris as e-books, and next year as a real paperback book which you can hold, fondle, smell, read, and slip onto the shelf. Then I’ll be writing the fourth Telemass novella for PS Publishing, then a play for Big Finish, a few shorts stories, and later this year a big SF novel I’ve just sold to Solaris.

How would I describe myself?

Writer, curry addict, secularist, liberal, Leeds United fan, a man who increasingly finds the world a bewildering hell-hole, bracketed as we are by the appalling Mr Trump on one side and the religious fascists of Daesh on the other. No wonder I escape into my writing whenever possible.

Cheers!

~

 

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Binary E-Book

cbb78ac8-8745-4011-8d67-d2eda470717fOut mid-September from Solaris E-Books is the novella Binary. The second novella in the duology, System, will follow early next year. Together they will form the real, solid, paperback novel Binary System, out from Solaris later year. They’re both available for pre-order now.

On what should have been a routine mission to the star system of 61 Cygni A, Delia Kemp finds herself shunted over ten thousand light years through space into an uncharted sector of the galactic arm. The only survivor of a catastrophic starship blow-out, Delia manages to land her life-raft on the inhospitable, ice-bound world of Valinda, populated by a race of hostile aliens, the Skelt. What follows is a break-neck adventure as Delia escapes from the Skelt and travels south through a phantasmagorical landscape as the long winter comes to an end and the short, blistering summer approaches. The Skelt will stop at nothing to obtain Delia’s technical knowledge – but what Delia wants is impossible: to leave Valinda and return to Earth.

Binary is a thrilling action-adventure novel in the spirit of Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series.

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Michael G. Coney

C-Mike_SepiaOver the course of the next year or two I’ll be posting infrequent reviews of the short stories of one of my favourite science fiction writers, Michael G. Coney. If my records are correct, he published sixty two stories in his lifetime: some remain unpublished, and it would be nice to see them in print one day. I’ve read most of his output in the short form, and hope to read all of them in the next couple of years or so.

Coney became a fine short story writer, just as he became a fine novelist after a few early, entertaining books.

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 1

“Ultimatumbra” (Vector 52, Winter/Spring, 1969.)

Coney’s first story appeared in a special fiction issue of Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association, along with stories by Robert P. Holdstock, J.G. Chapman, and George Gibson. I suspect that Vector was not a paying market, so “Ultimatumbra” cannot be counted as his first professional ‘sale’.

It’s a slight story, and quite unlike the kind of plotted, character-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from Coney. It’s a first-person account, in the form of journal entries, of a sixteen year-old’s dawning awareness of his world and the world Outside. The unnamed narrator has lived for fifteen years in the “square room. Square walls, square ceiling. A hollow box, a cube of nothing among eternal, infinite solidity.” He lives with his mother who ventures outside every day to gather sticks for the fire, and they eat from cans stored in a big cupboard. He’s fascinated by his own shadow and muses on the world of the room he knows, and the unknown world Outside. Come the day he turns sixteen, and his mother allows him out. What he describes confirms the reader’s assumption that this is a post-apocalyptic scenario: “And other shadows on the walls, thrown by nothing I can see, always there unmoving, photographed for eternity.”

The story closes when he returns inside with his mother, and mistakes his own shadow for that of a man trying to get into his room.

“Ultimatumbra” is a squib, interesting only as it marks Coney’s first appearance in print.

Rating: 2/10

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 2

“Symbiote” (New Writings in SF 15, edited by John Carnell, first published by Dobson Books, 1969.)

Coney’s second published story, and very likely his first professional sale, “Symbiote” is set in a future when humankind has devolved to little more than a ‘village idiot’, thanks to the Chinto. The aliens were first introduced to Earth as pets: “As the years went by, the Chinto became more popular, less of a status symbol, more of a universal pet. They sat on the shoulders of their owners; it was convenient. Before long everyone had one.” And, over time, the human race has become reliant on the intelligence of the Chinto, while the aliens – their limbs atrophied – rely on humans for transportation. The Chinto have become the benign dictators of their pack-horse humans, even choosing who individual humans may mate with.

The actual story is slight: Joe is travelling through rural Devon with his Chinto, Tu; he recalls a girl he once met, though he can’t recall when the meeting occurred. He comes to a village wrecked in a storm, and along with a group of humans helps to clear away the debris. But first they set their Chintos down on a raised slab of concrete, from which the aliens direct the operation. However, all the aliens are washed away in the storm, and Joe and the other humans are bereft. He wanders, disconsolate, until he happens across a girl whose Chinto has been stolen by one of the villagers. It is the girl he met earlier, who tells him, “They [the Chintos] said I was brighter than most people. My IQ is 118.” (Joe’s is 86.) “They said I represented a real hope for humanity. They felt very bad about the way people had lost their brains. In a way, they felt responsible.”

The story closes with the girl’s promise that tomorrow she will take him fishing, an independent action that suggests a new start for the human race.

“Symbiote”, while skimpy on actual story, and a little heavy-handed in its imparting of information, is nevertheless an intriguing and original glimpse into the far-future, and a nice take on the theme of (albeit inadvertent) alien invasion. It’s early Coney, and over-written (it should really begin with paragraph four, and could be trimmed of some exposition). It’s also short on what would become Coney’s strengths: character interaction and a complex plot. For all that, it’s an enjoyable read.

Rating: 5/10

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Leaving the EU

It’s a sad day for Great Britain. The small-minded, insular xenophobes have won the day. The Leave voters have brought chaos to the country, and to Europe. It’s never wise to split countries into smaller units which have the potential, in years to come, to go to war. The chances are that Scotland will now leave the union of Great Britain, and maybe Northern Ireland will too. Britain will soon be ruled by a Conservative Party led by Gove, Johnson, or some other Brexit lackey, and the thought appals me. The European Union wasn’t perfect, and needed reforming, but it brought peace to Europe, and I hope it will continue to do so and will not crumble under the demand of multiple referenda in member states, and the consequent rise of the Right.

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How Writers Write

Tony Ballantyne has hosted a rather good series of articles by various writers entitled How Writers Write, and I’ve just contributed one for the month of May. It’s here. I hope you find it entertaining.

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ebtfot-600The e-book of The Fall of Tartarus is out now from Infinity Plus Books. For more information about this, see the e-book section of this website.

 

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Two New Novellas

reunion-on-alpha-reticuli-ii-jhc-by-eric-brown-[3]-3853-pMy latest novellas, from PS Publishing, are out now. Starship Coda is the wrap-up of thestarship-coda-hc-by-eric-brown-[3]-3852-p (1) Starship series, a long short story, or short novella, of 10,500 words. Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II is the third instalment of the Telemass Quartet. Read more about them on the Novellas page of this website.

I’ll be at EasterCon in Manchester this coming weekend to sign copies of both books.

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Murder at the Loch

Murder at the Loch 2My latest crime novel, Murder at the Loch, published by Severn House, is out now

During the bitterly cold December of 1955, Donald Langham is asked by his friend, private detective Ralph Ryland, to assist him on a case. Ryland has been contacted by their old commanding officer, Major Gordon, who has reasons to believe that his life is under threat at his remote castle in the Scottish Highlands.

On arriving at the castle, Langham and Ryland learn that Major Gordon is attempting to raise the wreck of a German plane which crashed into the loch in 1945. However, recent bad weather has put a halt to the progress of the salvage. But it’s not only the weather that is threatening the salvage. Soon after Langham’s arrival, one of the guests is brutally murdered – and the hunt is on to stop the killer before he – or she – strikes again.

Murder at the Loch is the third in the Langham and Dupré mystery series.

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