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.
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).
When 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.
I 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.
Where 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.
Questions 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?
How many readers?
Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.
How 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.