One of Twitter’s most useful features is the ability to create lists. Using them, you can cut through the maelstrom and focus on the people you really want to follow.
As an author, I have a variety of lists (some public, some private) that I use on a daily basis. These include selections dedicated to book news, publishers, other authors, and so on. I even have one called Local Emergency, which draws together all the police, fire and local news feeds in case I need a quick update on an unfolding situation.
But the one I want to talk about now is the private list I have called Teachers.
(Private means only I can see it).
This list isn’t huge. There are around twenty people on there. But these twenty people are some of the most successful and talented authors on the planet. And I’ve chosen them because I want to learn from them. I want to see what they’re talking about, what they’re retweeting. Find out what’s important to them.
Even though they don’t know it, these people are my mentors. Scrolling through the list is like standing in a hotel bar, listening to them all talking. It’s like the world’s best ever convention, or a university seminar where I’ve selected the guest speakers.
If I’m going to learn, why not learn from the best?
Who would you put on your list? Who are the people you want to learn from, or aspire to emulate? Why not take ten minutes and choose your own list of Twitter teachers?
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 6:15 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 pajamas 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.
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, but I tend to find coffee shop sounds particularly helpful. For some reason, they help me concentrate and focus on what I’m writing.
Figuring out where ideas come from can be tricky. As I mentioned, I get many of my best ones in the bath, or from dreams. But they don’t feel like bolts of lightning from above; it’s more like the feeling you get when you slot that final jigsaw piece into place and suddenly you can see the picture you’ve been putting together for days, weeks or months.
Starting out, I’ll know I want to write a particular type of novel – space opera, alternate history, crime thriller – and I’ll kick around a few ideas. I’ll often start with a half-formed idea. For the first Ack-Ack Macaque book, my initial idea was a murder mystery set on a city-sized airship. I wrote several plot outlines, keeping some bits and ditching others, until I had the vague shape of a story. I had the essential ingredients – the airships, the dream catcher technology, and the main character investigating the death of their ex, who was being carried around as an electronic ghost in their head.
But it was only when I realised I could slot Ack-Ack into the story that it finally came alive.
And that’s how I work.
At the moment, I’m trying to write a crime thriller. I’ve gone through ten different plot outlines, pruning away the parts I don’t like and keeping the parts I do, until I’ve come up with something that’s hugely removed from my initial ideas, but definitely a product of them – the same way a chihuahua is a product of a wolf. It’s an evolution. Each draft of the outline is better adapted than the one that went before. And adaptations that don’t work are left behind in favour of new ones, until at last I’ve created the perfect monster… Mwhahaha!
Sorry. Getting a bit carried away there.
But hopefully you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. For me, coming up with a novel is a two-stage process. First there’s the initial idea, then the refinement of that idea.
Ideas and characters accrue until the whole thing achieves a critical mass and sparks into life – and I know I have a story I can write.
Then I send the outline to my agent to see what he thinks, and he’ll usually come back with some points I haven’t considered. But that’s great, because it helps further refine the idea. It makes sure I have the bases covered.
Sometimes, I’ll write a few chapters before realising I need to change the outline again. Sometimes these chapters are filed in my archive file, never to see the light of day; and sometimes, I can cannabalise the best parts of them for later drafts.
As to where all these ideas and refinements actually originate… That’s the real mystery, isn’t it? I guess everything I’ve ever read, experienced or watched has been filed away in my head somewhere, and occasionally, unexpected connections or associations are made between previously unrelated thoughts.
Sometimes those connections are stupid. But sometimes, as when I absently jotted the words ‘Ack-Ack’ and ‘Macaque’ next to each other in my notebook, they lead to all sorts of unpredictable places.
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.
In my August email newsletter, I’ll be runnning a competetition to win a MP3 CD of the BSFA Award-winning Ack-Ack Macaque. If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning, and subscribe to my monthly newsletter, simply sign-up using the form below.
The truth is, although writing is a full-time career, it doesn’t pay like one. It’s not reliable when you have bills to pay and kids to feed. So, in order to keep making my art, I’m trying what many other creatives are doing right now, and asking my audience for a little help.
If you’ve enjoyed my books or short stories, my Twitter feed, one of my public performances, or any of the articles on this site, please consider helping me continue to write. You can do it in one of two ways:
1) If you’d like to buy me a cup of coffee, you can make a one-off donation of any amount at ko-fi.com/garethlpowell
2) Alternatively, if you’d like to make a regular contribution in return for some exclusive patron-only content (including deleted scenes, special blog posts, early cover reveals, etc.) you might consider supporting me on patreon.com/GarethLPowell from as little as $1 per month.
I hate to ask, but every little helps right now. And hopefully, one day in the not too distant future, I’ll be able to delete these sites because I won’t need them any more.
I saw on Twitter this morning that students are graduating from the University of South Wales today. If you’re one of them, I wish you all the luck in the world.
Twenty-four years ago, on a sunny day in 1993, I graduated from USW – although back then, it was known as the University of Glamorgan. I wore a mortarboard and gown, and climbed up on stage to receive my BA (hons) in Humanities.
I was twenty-two years old, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea how to go about it, and no expectation I’d be able to make a living from the angsty poems and overly-melodramatic short stories I’d been churning out for the creative writing classes I’d taken as part of my degree.
As a result, I spent the rest of my twenties in a series of dead-end call centre jobs, and I didn’t really get my ass into gear and start writing seriously until I reached thirty, and realised it was time to stop talking about being a writer, and actually write something.
My first novel was published in 2010, the year I turned forty. Since then, I’ve written six more, plus a multitude of short stories. But I feel I left things a bit late. I could have written a lot more if I’d knuckled down when I left university, rather than letting everything drift for so many years.
So, that’s my advice to you. If you have a dream – if you want to be a writer, artist, singer, actor or whatever – don’t wait. Don’t waste the next ten years promising you’ll get around to your dream once you’ve established yourself in a more respectable job. Don’t wither on the vine. Go out there and grab the world by the throat.
If you want to be a writer, declare to the world that you are a writer. Start thinking as a writer would think. React to situations the way a writer would. The only way to achieve your dream is to live it. Do what you have to in order to earn money, but don’t let it define you. If you get a job in a bank, don’t think of yourself as a banker who writes on the side, think of yourself as a writer who is a banker on the side. Dedicate yourself to your craft, and do one thing every day to bring success one step closer.
This morning, before breakfast, I wrote the following lines:
The Artist’s Prayer
When in doubt, do the work.
When in obscurity,
When the rain falls and everything turns to ashes in your hands,
When you are in love,
And when you are alone,
When the world clamours for your attention,
And when all have turned their backs upon you,
Do the work.
When tired, do the work.
When gripped by infirmity
Or paralysed by fear,
In the company of friends,
In ecstasy or desolation,
During the dark times and the light,
In anger and with compassion,
Do the work.
Most of the time, I’d say I veered towards the aetheist end of the belief spectrum. I tend to put my trust in science rather than belief. And yet I’ve had a few experiences in my life that I’ve been unable to explain.
1). Broad Haven. Some of you may be familiar with the Broad Haven UFO incident of 1977, when an entire class from the local school saw a cigar-shaped flying saucer, and the manageress of a local hotel witnessed a similar craft landing in her grounds.
The incident I’m thinking of happened a few years later – although I wasn’t told about it until some time afterwards.
In 1980 or 1981 (I’m not sure which), my family were on holiday in Broad Haven, staying in a caravan. During the night, my mother and father were awakened by a strange light, and “felt footsteps walking up the bed between them.”
Spooked, they woke myself and my siblings up at 1:00 am and packed the car in order to go home. They told us they were “leaving early to avoid traffic,” which seemed to make sense at the time.
But on the way home, a dense fog lay in the bottom of every valley, and the skies were alive with shooting stars. At least thirty in every minute. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. The heavens seemed to be raining down, one brilliant white scratch after another.
2). Spanish Castle. In 2008, I flew to Barcelona for a conference. While on the plane, I looked out the window and saw a long, craggy ridge topped by a majestic castle caught in a sunset-coloured light. It seemed to be around ten miles away. Yet, I could still see it twenty minutes later. To have lingered outside my window, it must have been huge. We were high in the sky and travelling at full speed. There was no way it could have been real. There are no escarpments that large in Spain. And yet, it seemed so tangible, like a vision of Valhalla. I can’t explain it…
3). Loch Ness. I’m not a believer in the Loch Ness monster. Although the cubic area of the loch is impressive (greater than all the other rivers and lakes in the UK combined), I can’t believe it could have harboured a breeding population of prehistoric sea creatures for all these years.
However, I did see something there.
I was on a boating holiday at the time, and at the helm. Ahead, I saw something which I first took to be the head and neck of a cormorant. But then I noticed that compared to a nearby bouy, it was significantly larger than I would have expected such a sea bird to have been. Then it sank, withdrawing into the water like a submerging periscope, and not at all in the manner of a diving bird.
I suppose it could have been a snake, or an optical illusion caused by sunlight on the water. But to this day, I can’t say definitively what it might or might not have been.
But on the same holiday, we experienced another odd happening. We pulled our boat up to a jetty on the side of the loch. Four other boats were moored to the same jetty, and some fishermen were fishing from the end of it. I got talking to them, and they gave me five fresh trout that they’d just caught. Being the only one in our party who knew how to gut a fish, I sat on the jetty and eviscerated the slipery trout, casting their organs and entrails into the water beside our boat. Then I climbed on board. No sooner had I done so than the boat started rocking. And I mean rocking. Our boat and the two in front of us were bucking around as if caught in a hurricane. But the fourth boat was strangely unmoved, and there didn’t seem to be a breath of wind outside. it was almost as if there was something under us… maybe feeding on the discarded trout guts…?
As I implied earlier, I’m natually a sceptic at heart, and strongly resist any sort of supernatural explanation for any of these occurences. But they really happened, and I can’t explain them, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.