I was recently interviewed by Hannah Kate for her book programme on North Manchester FM. The interview lasts around 2 hours and is one of the most in-depth radio interviews I’ve done so far. If you have some time, you can listen to it here:
Over on Patreon, I’ve shared the first chapter of an unfinished novel. But, unlike most of what I share on that site, you don’t have to be a supporter to read it. I set the visibility to public to give non-supporters a taste of the kind of content I’m sharing, in the hope maybe they’ll sign up.
Okay, so you want to write a book. But what’s it going to be about? Here’s a quick tip to get your creative muscles warmed-up.
Open a spreadsheet (or use a Sharpie and a roll of paper, whatever works for you), and write the numbers one to fifty in the first column. Done that? Okay, now the fun starts.
We’re going to write one idea for every one of those fifty numbers. It doesn’t matter how good they are. This isn’t the time to be critical. This is the time to be creative.
Start with number one and write the first thing that comes into your mind. I like to frame these as ‘What if?’ questions, but you can use whatever format you prefer. So for me, the first few ideas might be,
What if cats developed telepathy?
What if grass became poisonous?
What if a ghost found itself haunted by a living person?
What if sand had an agenda?
What if everybody in the world suddenly developed the ability to travel in time?
As you can see, some of those are fairly random. But we’re not here to judge. The purpose here is to fill those fifty slots with the most off-the-wall creative ideas we can come up with. Only when we’ve done that will we go back and see if any of them start to suggest stories.
And if one suggests a partial story, try mixing it with another off the list. Sometimes you have to smash two story ideas together to achieve a critical mass.
Using my list above, imagine a story about a telepathic cat who helps a ghost that feels haunted by a living person. Or a world in which everybody could travel in time, but the food chain had crashed because grass had become poisonous.
Not all of your 50 ideas will be good, but some will be workable, or at least suggest interesting possibilities when smushed together with other ideas from the list. At worst, you will have spent fifteen minutes clearing some of the crap out of your brain, leaving you free to come up with even better ideas next time around…
When answering questions at conventions and workshops, I’m invariably asked about my routine. People want to know how, where and when I write. Do I do it in coffee shops or at home? Do I use Scrivener or a notebook? Do I write in the mornings or evenings? To help answer those questions, and maybe give some sort of insight into my creative process, I’ve decided to write this account of a typical working day.
I rise at 6:20 am. I never sleep restfully, so I always struggle awake feeling like something washed-up on a beach. I get out of bed and go downstairs to make my wife a packed lunch. She leaves for work at 6:50 am. Then I feed the cats and make lunches for my daughters. When they leave for school at 8:00 am, I run a hot bath and spend half an hour soaking in bubbles, reading a book. This reading time is important, as it helps my brain ease into fiction mode. It gets the storytelling impulse fired-up, and I often have many of my best ideas while in the bath.
When dressed (I don’t work in my pyjamas like some novelists I could mention), I’ll fix myself a light breakfast. This morning it was houmous on toast. Then I’ll make a cup of tea and be at my keyboard by 9:00 am.
My office is an extension on the back of the house. It used to be a granny flat, so it has its own toilet and shower. Bookshelves fill one wall. The window looks out at the garden. And my desk-a solid old wooden one that I’ve had since I was a teenager-rests against the other wall. I keep copies of all my published books beside the computer, to reassure me when I need it that I can write and have written. I keep my BSFA Award on the shelf above the printer for the same reason.
If I’ve had a brilliant idea in the bath, I’ll open Word and start typing immediately. If not, I’ll check my email, Twitter and Facebook first. Twitter is important to me because it helps me stay in touch with friends and the latest goings-on and gossip in the industry. It serves the same function for me as an office watercooler. I have various private lists set-up which enable me to quickly check what’s happening with industry news feeds, editors and agents, other authors, and booksellers.
The other great thing about Twitter is that it lets me interact with readers. As I work alone at home for most of the day, it’s great to get feedback on my work, even if it’s just a quick, ‘I liked your last book.’ It keeps me going on those days when I feel as if I’m shouting into a void.
Tea consumed and Twitter consulted, I then open my current project in Word. Today, I’m working on the first draft of Fleet Of Knives, the second book in the Embers of War series. I’m around 75k words into it, and getting close to the end, which I hope will be around 90k. I have the remaining scenes mapped out in an Excel spreadsheet, so I know exactly where to pick up the story.
All eight of the novels I’ve so far written have been composed in Microsoft Word. It suits my way of working. Maybe because I grew up using manual and electric typewriters. I have the screen set to print layout view, so it looks as if I’m typing on a piece of paper.
I do have a copy of Scrivener, which I use when I’m working on screenplays or comic scripts-I’ve just never felt comfortable using it to write a novel. I prefer to have the whole thing in front of me and write from start to finish. When I’m working on a book, I feel as if I’m creating a thing. A whole object. Not a bunch of components that will only be compiled together at the end.
I find background sounds helpful while I’m working. Music can be good, but can also be distracting. I used to listen to Brian Eno’s ambient albums, but found them too relaxing. Now, I’ll either listen to instrumental jazz-such as the album Something Else by Cannonball Adderley, which I’m currently listening to-or background noise. There are many YouTube videos offering ambient sounds, and I find this one particularly helpful. For some reason it helps me concentrate and focus on what I’m writing.
Around midday, I’ll stop to fix myself some lunch. Usually some soup and cheese. I try to stay away from sandwiches, as I find carbs at lunchtime make me drowsy in the afternoon.
I eat at my desk while replying to emails and checking social media, then it’s back to writing again.
Of course, when I say ‘writing’, I don’t mean I’m constantly typing. There’s a lot of thinking and research involved. An afternoon of hard thinking might look unproductive from the outside, if judged purely in terms of number of words produced, but can be vital to the overall success of the work-in-progress.
‘Writing’ can also encompass a host of secondary tasks, such as producing blog posts, responding to interviews; talking via email with my agent, Alexander; editing manuscripts; maintaining my Patreon page; writing my monthly email newsletter (you are all signed up to that, I hope!); and updating my website.
During the day, the cats provide various levels of company and distraction. One of the kittens is particularly fond of pacing back and forth across the keyboard while I’m trying to type. The older cat sleeps on the sofa in the office, and snores loudly.
Ideally, I’ll work through until the kids come home from school at around 3:40 pm. Then I switch back into parental mode and start working on an evening meal.
If I’m feeling particularly inspired, I might come back to the keyboard later in the evening, and often write from 9:00 or 10:00 pm until around midnight. Then I might read for little while before going to sleep.
I mentioned having a lot of good ideas while in the bath. Well, I also have a lot while lying in bed, on the cusp of falling asleep. That’s why I keep a notebook and pen beside my bed. I’d hate to lose a good idea because I was too sleepy to get up and write it down. With a notebook on the nightstand, all I have to do is reach out my hand and scribble a couple of sentences.
And that’s it. That’s how I spend my time. I’m not saying my routine is the best or that it might work for anyone else; if you asked a dozen authors how they spent their working days, I suspect you’d get a dozen different answers. I just hope I’ve answered your questions and given you a little glimpse behind the curtain.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider clicking on the links below.
I’m giving away a signed paperback copy of my new short story collection, ENTROPIC ANGEL, which features twenty stories drawn from the past twelve years of my career, plus an introduction from the Nebula Award-winning author, Aliette de Bodard.
This competition is open to Patreon supporters and subscribers to my email newsletter, and means you could get your hands on a copy of the book a week or so before it’s officially launched by NewCon Press!
I’ve relaunched my Patreon page. And this time, I’m offering something new. Each month, I’m going to upload a new video about some aspect of the writing experience. These mini tutorials will give an insight into my writing process, as well as be a valuable resource for aspiring novelists who want to know how I approach the process of writing a book, from start to finish.
If you’re an aspiring writer, this is your chance to hear how it’s done, straight from the horse’s mouth. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of my work, this is a great opportunity to see behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the way I write.
These videos are exclusively for Patrons only, so please sign up if you’d like to come on the adventure with me.