A few weeks ago I was asked by author Stevie Turner to join her Writers Blog Tour. Although this involved answering four questions, therefore sounding perilously close to taking an exam, I jumped at the chance. Well, I said yes. That’s as close as I get to jumping.
While I was writing my first full-length novel (A Table In Berlin) I was asked many questions, most often: “where does all this stuff come from?” I think when people who read a lot meet the people who do the writing, there is always a fascination about this issue of whether a writer has to write or risk his head exploding from the weight of unused words. But that’s a subject for another day! Here’s the interview. I hope you find it interesting.
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
I’m writing a novella. It’s called GOODNIGHT MRS DAY and is a companion piece to A Table In Berlin. Interestingly, I originally intended A Table in Berlin to be a novella. But my rationale for this was that it would be shorter and therefore take less time! While both of these reasons may be true enough, I think the best reason to write a novella is that it suits the purpose of the story. There are also commercial reasons, and any writer who does not think commercially needs to consider what their definition of being a writer is. We all need product in the marketplace. It is a quirk of the modern book browser that one of the first things they do on discovering a novel is look for what else the author has published. A new work helps invigorate the previous work. I had actually written the opening paragraph of a second full-length novel, based on some of the characters from the first. In the convoluted way that writers’ minds work, I had some plot areas faintly tossed around when I also had some discussions regarding sales and marketing. At this point, I realised that it would benefit the second novel if I could explore some back story first, and it would benefit the first novel if I could bring something complementary to the marketplace. Now I’m not a fan of ebooks over real books. But one benefit has been to writers of shorter works. You know you’ve got a doorstep family saga when you’re carrying its 500 pages around, but on your ebook reader you have no idea beyond a little message keeping you abreast of what percentage of the book you have read. It’s human nature to baulk at paying almost the same for a novella in paperback form than a full length novel because the lack of pages is so obvious! While there are plenty of bookworms who can devour a full novel in a day, all novellas can be tackled in this way. We are so time-restricted that the idea of starting a piece of fiction that we can handle in one long, relaxed sitting, is appealing.
Goodnight Mrs Day is set in 1961 and expands a little on some backstory from A Table In Berlin, which is set between 1987 and 1989.
2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
This is a tough one. Why? I would find it difficult to put my prose style into a genre and have it sit comfortably. A Table In Berlin developed organically from a simple photograph and a dare on Facebook (that’s very much another story for another day). I was trying to write a female-friendly book from a male perspective but I am a humourist at heart and always have been. There are elements of romantic comedy, sure, but I couldn’t sell it as a rom-com. There is the humour, of course, but it’s not simply a “funny book”. There’s drama, of course, and enough intrigue and mystery to have some readers use the word “thriller”, but it’s not a thriller! The writer Marcus Markou tweeted, after having read it, that he loved it “Comedy/Thriller with heart”. Maybe it’s a romantic comedy drama? Maybe it shouldn’t matter! But I know that it does. If I were to presume a difference to anything else out there of a similar multiple genre, then I would say it was my ‘voice’. My Editor worked carefully to preserve this. One always hopes, when the book is on the shelves, that a reader, within a few short pages, recognises the writer – without having to look at the cover. Mind you, I think all writers could use this as their answer!
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I write to entertain.
I do not aim for the lowest common denominator but, whatever the subject matter, plot and story, my most important wish is that a reader is entertained – taken away from whatever they are doing at that moment, and transported somewhere else. I am fortunate to have English as my native language as I truly believe it to be an astonishing tool. I like to write weird sentences sometimes. I don’t drive for ultra taut prose and I don’t write tightly-plotted thrillers. I like the words to breathe and I like them to be a bit mischievous sometimes, too. I write for the kind of reader who feels the same. My main ingredients are characters. I like to have a few, and I like to get away with letting people know as little about them as possible. And, generally, I write characters who are transient. I like to see people out of their natural habitat. I think this is probably a natural consequence of my upbringing, as I have parents from very different nationalities and moved around a few times – always with the excitement of a new adventure.
Put simply, what I write reflects what I would like to read. I don’t believe in chasing the zeitgeist even though that does sound like a great title for a book. Some people read to be challenged and some people read to be released from having to. As I side with the latter, I write for them, too.
4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?
Well, like any other writer, my process involves a great deal of unpleasantness. The greatest joy in life is being able to call oneself a writer, and the greatest misery is having to prove it.
I have tried to change my writing process, off and on, since the day I first realised I had one. I tried to change it because it was self-evident that a writer shouldn’t write lying on a bed like a recalcitrant schoolboy knocking off his English homework. My parents bought me a bloody enormous black Olympia typewriter when I was eleven or twelve years old. It was only when I sold it, a couple of years later, that I found out all the clever little things it could do with tabs and the like. But I found writing – the actual creating part that comes first – difficult on a typewriter so I always wrote with a pen, whatever ‘writing’ I was doing. When I started to write plays and scripts at school, where others would need to read, I began with the collaboration between pen and machine. I would write (with all the scribbling out and rewriting and so forth) then type it up. But then I might annotate the typescript and ultimately perhaps type it up again.
I relaxed about the issue of writing in bed the day I discovered that Spike Milligan did the same (he also ate Ambrosia Creamed Rice out of a tin, like me). Spike Milligan was probably the single greatest influence on me as a child. I wanted to be ‘like him’ and so to have discovered that he was also prone to flopping about on a bed was just fine with me.
Anyway, before I start the actual writing a number of things have to happen.
1. I must know that I am going to be read. If I do not have some kind of a commission, then I must convince myself that my efforts will be rewarded with a readership. There is no point to writing if there is no reading. My personal opinion only, but this is my blog.
2. I must have a title. I have never, and I mean never, written anything that didn’t have a title first. My whole life. A title is like a suit. When it fits, it really fits. The title is allowed to come after I have gone through the thinking/day dreaming phase, what I call my pre-production phase, but often it is the very first thing I have. I have two titles only, that haven’t even had any day dreaming put on them, since 1977 and 1979 respectively. By the way, pre-production is the only time in the creative process where any fun is involved.
3. I must have an ending. Oddly, sometimes this is literally the last line. It can be enough. I had the last line of A Table In Berlin (which is also a bit sweary) written down on the same envelope on which I had written “a table in berlin”.
4. I must have a target – but this can change and I don’t mind. I like to know how long the piece is going to be, or how long I am planning for it to be at the outset. Sometimes there is flexibility, sometimes there isn’t. Not having flexibility is better.
5. I must start writing. This is the hardest part. And this is how I do it. I sit on my bed and try not to spill the tea. Then I close my eyes. I can either actually close my eyes, or metaphorically close them. I am at the cinema. The lights dim. The curtain opens. The MGM lion roars (sometimes I hear the 20th Century Fox fanfare, the original long one). The screen fades in to….what? Obviously, I know who this is going to be about but maybe that person doesn’t appear yet? Oh, wait…it’s raining? Ahhh…okay, it’s raining! I now have to do something for which perhaps there isn’t a medical term yet. But, in layman’s terms, I have to split my brain into two halves. I’ll call them A and B. My process is now simple. I have to disengage A from B to such an extent that I can get A to imagine what happens next, without B knowing until he has seen it for himself. I have to get B to jump and say, “whoah I wasn’t expecting that”. From there I imagine that my imaginary perfect reader – Agent Orange if you will – is sitting on the corner of the bed and wants to know what’s going on. So I tell him what I saw happen. I tell it to him in my own way and my own style but written down.
6. Once this has been repeated and an entire novel has been written then I celebrate and send it away and have a break before fixing anything that obviously needs fixing. Personally, then I sign it off and kiss it goodbye. Someone will always tell you it’s crap and that you could have done this, that and the other differently. Don’t spend all that time poking about in the embers. You will never write the perfect book. Move on to the next one.
COMING UP ON THE BLOG TOUR
GERAINT ROBERTS, Author of FOREST BROTHERS.
Geraint Roberts writes novels and short stories. His debut novel, Forest Brothers, was set in turbulent Estonia during the 1940s. he is now working on a prequel as part of an eventual trilogy. Geraint was born and educated in Aberystwyth. He attended the University of Leicester to read Mining Geology. He has since worked for a bank, British Telecom, a rehab clinic, a green energy installer and is now working for a steam railway. All are deemed rich sources of inspiration!