At what point did you decide you wanted to work with words?
I decided I wanted to be a writer of stories at the age of eleven, when my cousin and I ‘sold’ stories we’d written in the school playground. Words weren’t a necessary part of the equation. I suppose I started to think I might be good with words when English teachers praised my creative compositions in High School. Good with written words, that is … I was terribly shy when it came to spoken words!
For a while, I was a poet and writer of literary short stories—fairly successful, even reading from my poems at the Opera House! But words were also my greatest bugbear. I agonized over them and repeatedly bogged down over them. I’m a much happier writer now I’ve learned to let the words follow the story.
How would you describe your job to a complete stranger?
Hard work shot through with flashes of glory. The flashes of glory being the moments when things fall into place, a character takes off, a scene jumps into my head. But I couldn’t really describe it to a stranger, I can’t even describe it to my wife. Only another writer can understand at the private rollercoaster going on inside while I’m sitting quietly at my computer!
What's your background - are there degrees that prepare you for this?
I have a truckload of degrees, and none of them prepared me for writing at all. A BA Hons from Cambridge, an MA from Cambridge, and MA Hons from Newcastle (Australia), a Ph.D. from the Uni of NSW—so many fancy ribbons! I was an academic who lectured in English and had books published on language theory, but so far as fiction writing goes, that’s all from a completely different compartment in my head. It’s almost a schizophrenia: the analytical side of my head is very philosophical, the creative side of my head is very visual. The analytical side has never helped the creative side, but the creative side certainly helped the analytical side by supplying the experience and raw material for my 145-page guide for fantasy and genre writers. (Up on the web for free, at www.writingtips.com.au.)
What’s the first thing career related you usually do each day?
I start writing each day after breakfast. Although I mentioned my computer before, I actually use pen and paper, then type up on computer every ten lines or so. I just launch straight in from where I left off the previous day, and soon enough the flow of the story takes over and carries me along. I refuse to answer email in the morning—too distracting!
Can you describe an “average” working day for you?
Yes, my ‘average day’ follows a very regular routine. Regular routine was one great discovery that got me over my 25 years of writers’ block. I start writing straight after breakfast, as I said, and continue through till lunch at 1.30, or sometimes a little after lunch. I’m a slow writer—I rarely make a thousand words in a day—nut I’m very very consistent.
After lunch, I take a break and do email, promo work, and usually, to clear my mind, some jobs around the house that have nothing to do with writing. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, I pick up my notes and start mulling over the next episode I’ll be writing tomorrow. I call it ‘pre-filming’: that is, I picture what’s going to happen, how it feels and looks, until the best version unfolds in my mind like a movie.
Usually I make a few notes, but the important thing is to have it in my imagination and then sleep on it overnight. I fully believe in that old adage, sleep on it! In the morning, all the other not-quite-so-good versions have fallen away, and it’s as though the events of the story really happened. My only task is to record them!
What's the one thing - piece of equipment, toy, security blanket – that you can't be creative without?
I try to avoid ritualizing any ‘security blankets’. I used to have an obsession with a particular lucky green pen—it was lucky, because it always seemed to produce answers when I got badly stuck. I took to saving it up for special occasions, really bad blockages, because I could see the column of green ink shrinking in the tube! But, like all pens, it ran out in the end. I tried another green pen, then another and another, as though the magical effect was all due to the right kind of green ink. No use! I had to wean myself off that obsession, and finally succeeded. Since then, I’ve tried to avoid ritualizing objects or pieces of equipment!
What gets you fired up?
Fired up in the sense of inspired? I’m not sure … I used to wait for inspiration to come, which is why I only ever produced a tiny trickle of poems and short short stories. Now I know that the inspiration you need for a novel is bigger than a day’s writing, bigger than a week or a month’s writing. It’s a long, slow-burning form of inspiration. As long as I keep the world and story-so-far in the back of my head, I can start writing every day out of habit—and the inspiration will soon come surging back.
Maybe I could give a better answer to what un-fires me, what causes me to lose inspiration. That happens when I spend a period of several days away from writing, and the world and story-so-far leak out of my head like a dream in the daytime. When I start again after a longish break, it’s like starting from scratch—torture and misery! I far prefer to do without holidays!
Who in the industry most inspires you?
You mean, someone whose successful career is an inspiration to me? Well, having wasted so many years with writer’s block, I love authors who began their writing careers late in life—like George Eliot, Elizabeth Jolley, P.D. James. And, since I’m in the fantasy business, I love the eccentrics who created whole worlds and stories without even thinking of an audience—just because the world was there to be created and the story was there to be told. I’m thinking of writers like Tolkien, Richard Adams, D.M. Cornish, who worked away for years long before their creation ever began to assume publishable form.
What in the industry do you despair about?
Don’t get me started! One thing that depresses me is the ever-diminishing shelf life of books in the bookshops. Once, six months seemed too little; now, six months looks generous. Given the time it takes to get around to buying a book, then reading it, then recommending it to someone else—how is word-of-mouth ever going to take off in 3 or 4 months? A movie that runs for a week has a better chance of building favourable word-of-mouth. And yet a reputation built on word-of-mouth is the only kind of reputation that matters long-term.
With Worldshaker just released, I’m in a Mervyn Peake mood, so I’ll nominate Peake’s duology, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. I’d be careful about recommending them, though. They’re wonderful but very, very slow—you need to read 200 pages just to get started.
I could say Peake again, but for the sake of variety I’ll say China Miéville. Perdido Street Station and The Scar are marvelous books (but also very slow!)
What’s the best thing about your job?
For me, the best thing is getting fan mail from readers, who’ve loved my books and made them live in their own imaginations. It’s so amazing to discover that what you created in your own imagination has crossed over into somebody else’s.
What’s the worst?
I seem to be riding a wave of success with Worldshaker at the moment, so I’m not thinking much about worsts. I’m even enjoying doing promotion, which I used to dread and shrink from (I said I was shy!)
What are the top three skills you need in this game?
Maybe these don’t count as skills, but the holy triumvirate for a writer are talent, luck and determination. Talent is the bottom line: it may not get you started, but it’ll keep you going up and up afterwards. Luck, because you need the slots to fall into alignment many times over—to get published at all, to turn a published book into a success, to turn a success into a best-seller. Determination, because, no matter how talented you are, you’ll have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing into the slots fall into alignment.
What advice would you give a young writer looking to break into the field?
The advice I give on www.writingtips.com.au is, firstly, to have a long-term plan and keep to it for at least 5 years. Don’t expect instant breakthrough! Secondly, take pleasure in the writing process itself, enjoy your characters and the swoop of your story. Awards, reviews and accolades will go up and down, but the satisfaction of a storytelling job well done—nobody can take that away from you!
When do you know you’d made it?
I don’t believe there’s ever one single moment of ‘making it’. Not for me, anyway. There’s always another hill to climb, another bigger project, another level of success. That’s why it’s important to enjoy the satisfactions along the way!
For me, my biggest breakthrough came when I finally managed to get a whole novel finished. After 25 years of writer’s block, after 30 unfinished MSS gathering dust in my cupboard—it was sheer joy to have a novel that I could be proud of from beginning to end. That was 16 years and 15 published novels ago, but the experience still buoys me up. I’ve never quite lost the feeling of being blessed!
What do you hope your work achieves?
The enthrallment of many readers!