Tuesday 21 July 2020

On writing

In an earlier comment, Hristo Naydenov asked:

I don't wanna be a nuisance, but as someone who wants to write sci-fi, I find it quite difficult to figure out how to start. Maybe the foundation doesn't have to be a truly original concept, but the development that follows has to be. Where did you get your inspiration from? How do you start writing something so amazing? Do you start off based on a single, simple idea, and build as you go, or do you have a big outline that depicts everything that you plan for the book as a summary which you then follow with details?

With apologies for the self-aggrandizement implicit in quoting that remark, there is something worth addressing here. I've been asked similar questions in interviews over the years, and I imagine I've given reasonably consistent responses, but since such things tend to be ephemeral, there's no harm in returning to the subject.

I'm currently working on my seventeenth solo novel for Gollancz and will soon make a start on my eighteenth. I've also written a collaborative novel with Stephen Baxter, and a Doctor Who novel for BBC books. One or two of my novellas, such as Slow Bullets, are approaching the length of short novels. There are also two unpublished novels that I wrote in my teens. That's easily twenty novels, each of which was (at the very minimum) around half a year''s work, and some which took considerably longer than that. I do feel, then, that I have some demonstrable experience in the business of writing novels. Over the twenty-odd years that I've been writing to contract, too, one might have assumed that I'd have narrowed down the process to something that I could repeat with confidence, a formula for work which allows me to build a novel to a schedule and a budget, where the latter is measured in the amount of creative energy that can be reasonably dedicated to the task over a given period, knowing that one intends to write more novels in the future. The truth, though, is that much of the act of creating a novel still feels essentially mysterious and unpredictable to me, and I still enter into each enterprise with trepidation. Over those two decades or so, I've convinced myself that I can, for the most part, finish novels within an agreed interval, and that somewhere along the line my subconscious will furnish a few story elements that were not in mind at the outset. But the generative process still feels a little like jumping out of an aeroplane, knowing that the ground is six to nine months away, and that one or more parachutes will probably open before I get there. But I don't know that for certain: it's just a level of reassurance built up from experience, but which I know could be easily undermined.

Writing circles like to stuff authors into immutable categories: plotters and pantsers. The categories are more or less self-evident. Plotters do all the structural work up front, mapping the book out in fairly high resolution before committing a word to the page. Pantsers ("seat of the pants") just go for it, and see where the journey takes them. I don't think any writer is wholly one or the other, though. I'm certainly not. I've given both approaches a try, at either extreme, and there are merits in both. But over time I've satisfied myself that I need a middle ground: some sense of an outline, while erring on the sketchy side, and a lot of scope for narrative diversions and surprises along the way.

Over those twenty or so books, I've written several that were based on detailed structural plans, with chapter by chapter outlines. Redemption Ark was one, On The Steel Breeze another. Other books, such as Pushing Ice and The Prefect/Aurora Rising had a reasonably detailed outline, though not to the extent of the aforementioned. Chasm City, Elysium Fire, House of Suns, and several others, were written with the barest outline, just the vague shape of a novel in mind as I started out. To me, there are good things and less good things about all those books, but it doesn't feel to me as if the highly planned ones are necessarily superior to the others, although I may have started them with more confidence. But in the instances where I did start with a detailed plan, there always came a point where I had to deviate from it, sometimes quite abruptly. My feeling here is that novels are fractal, and the devil is in the details. No matter how well I seem to work out the story mechanics ahead of time, when I actually get down to the nitty-gritty of getting it onto the page, I find pitfalls that were always there, waiting to trip me up, and for which the detailed outline provided only a false confidence.

What do I mean by that? I think the problems are always on the level of motivation. In an outline, you can write "they agree to go to Mary's house"  and you're done. But when you come to write it, you're faced with making that plot turn function in a way that the reader will accept as being seamless and plausible within the terms of the story you've already established. Why do they agree? Why Mary's house, and not Steve's? Why go today, and not next week? Resolving those possibilities is, I think, the kind of "hidden" work that is really what writers get paid for. If it's done convincingly, the reader doesn't notice the blood and sweat expended behind the scenes. In my experience (and it probably only proves that I don't go about outlining correctly) no amount of up-front work helps to smooth out these wrinkles ahead of time. In the books I mentioned above, where there was a detailed outline, the work would often grind to a halt for many days while I tried to work my way through what appeared to be an innocuous plot development. For me, the cost-benefit analysis was simple: weeks of planning don't buy me much of an advantage when I'm knee-deep in the novel. So over time I've backed off on the up-front labour and now prefer to proceed with only a rudimentary outline. This can vary from a few scribbled lines on a whiteboard, to a few paragraphs in a document, up to maybe a few thousand words in all. But I don't regard any of it as sacrosanct, and I almost welcome the point where the story breaks loose of the plan, because then I think I might have a chance of surprising myself, and perhaps the reader as well.

None of this gets us close to the inception of the novel, though. Where do they come from, these things? I could give many different answers, and all would be individually true for specific novels, and not generally untrue for any of them.

  1. A reaction against the last book, or the last few books. After finishing House of Suns, which had come on the heels of The Prefect and Pushing Ice, I knew I could not embark on another novel which had airlocks in it. That's why there are no spaceships in Terminal World, and in place of sterile space structures, there's a lot of planetary scenery and relatively rustic set-dressing
  2. A desire to explore a specific theme, necessitated by a novel. When I began Pushing Ice, I'd been thinking a lot about the tensions between our modern view of life in the cosmos (the Fermi paradox etc) and the traditional SF set-up of competing galactic cultures. The book's central idea is an attempt to square those two irreconcilables. I knew I could not tell the story I wanted to tell within the constraints of the Revelation Space universe, so it had to be a standalone book with a new universe.
  3. A visual image which demands that a story be built around it. I have an over-active visual imagination and I'm presented with set-pieces that nag at my imagination until a story begins to accrete around them. Occasionally, these images are triggered by music. In the case of the Poseidon's Children sequence, I saw a woman of African ancestry aboard a huge spacecraft, faced with a terrible, world-shattering decision. That scene, suitably evolved, didn't emerge until the second book but it was the genesis of the whole project, along with the emotional textures stimulated by a recording by the late Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema,
  4. Music (see above). I consume music avidly and it plays a central part in my creative process. The moods or images conjured by a song can be enough to generate a novel, and govern the aesthetic of the whole work. Century Rain was sparked by the emotions encountered while listening to a piece by Goldfrapp. House of Suns, among other influences, was written while listening repeatedly to the song Hayling, by FC Kahuna. You'll have heard it, even if you don't think you've heard it. For the new book, for what it's worth, I have been listening to Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal and Dead Can Dance's Black Sun, repeatedly. These songs were also on repeat while writing Absolution Gap.
There is more, and much more, that could be said, but hopefully these remarks will be of interest to some. If there's a takeaway, I'd suggest that all writers will eventually find the approach that works best for them, and if that's nothing like any other process, it doesn't matter. Categories (plotters, pantsers etc) will only get you so far and the aspirant writer should feel free to discard the advice of anyone (including me) who seems excessively confident in the correctness of their understanding of any part of the process of writing. They're almost certainly wrong.


  1. First of all, I'd like to express my wholehearted gratitude to you for posting this informative and very objective post.

    I expected your answer to the question 'how you go about writing a novel' would include a lot of ambiguity and would lack a definite conclusion because of the nature of the matter in question. But it is incredibly helpful to gain the insight of someone with your reputation nonetheless. It reaffirms what I already thought was the case, and I think that will help me, and other novice authors, to move forward in a matter of full confidence regarding our own personal "way" of doing things.

    I hope you don't mind me asking a few questions:
    • Would you say working with tight schedules and on a contract has an impact on your creativity?
    • Does the pressure stemming from approaching a deadline while still being behind your schedule negatively affect you, or have you found a way to cope with that?
    • I' have heard some authors cite numerous ways of dealing with "writer's block." What would you say are your ways of overcoming that point, if you ever get there at all?

    I've come to realize that one of the best approaches to becoming good at something is learning from others that have already reached a high level of proficiency and expertise. I learned a lot and became better at tennis by watching people like Roger Federer play and analyzing their style and techniques. In the same way, I feel like I'm getting a better head start by reading your books. Once I'm done with every book of yours, I will follow it with Foundation series, then Hyperion. With English being my secondary, non-native language, it can only help to read more and more. Plus I remember you mentioning stealing ideas in the epilogue of the RS trilogy so I might do that as well haha

    Regarding music as a source of inspiration and ideas, I wanted to share something that I only recently noticed happening. I've been listening to a song by Carbon Based Lifeforms called "Central Plain" lately. During the song I often find myself imagining a bar full of augmented and alien characters somewhere on a colonized planet in a different system. I am always reminded of that bar where Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova meet in Chasm City. I can feel how music can paint these vivid sceneries and lead to the creation of something truly fantastic.

    I will keep all of this in mind when I set on this journey. It's an amazing opportunity and a real honor to talk to you about it and get your personal opinion and advice. On behalf of all novice authors worldwide, I thank you with all my heart.

    Be well.

    1. Addressing those questions above:

      There was a period for me when writing was essentially pure play, like any hobby that one willingly enters into, but as soon as you introduce contracts and time pressure into the mix, it becomes something other than play ... not that it can't still be enjoyable on its own terms, or that playfulness is absent, but the professional considerations are always present. It's basically the old conundrum of art meets commerce. But that change began almost at the point where I sold my first short story. Not because I had a contract then, or was obligated to anyone, but because, having invested time in breaking into the SF market, I felt a personal obligation not to squander that investment by slacking off. So for much of the 90s I treated my writing as if it were another career, working as often and as frequently as I could. My wife-to-be had also supported my writing by allowing me the time to be creative, so I felt that it was only fair to take my side of it seriously. Writing to contract does take the pressure up a notch, though. A year goes very quickly when you have to write a novel. I wouldn't feel that it's affected my creativity, in that ideas have always come to me slowly but reliably, and that's never changed. But I have sometimes taken artistic choices which seemed right at the time but which in hindsight may have been the wrong ones, and the pressure of delivery can't be separated from that. However, to move onto your second point, one of the coping mechanisms I think I've evolved, particularly in recent years, is not to allow myself to be so overwhelmed by those pressures. Cold sweats don't make for good fiction, and losing sleep isn't a recipe for sustained productivity. So I try to maintain a mental equilibrium even as I get near the inevitable summit bid of the last few weeks, which is a bit like being in that rarefied air above the highest camp on Everest. You function at a level which is necessary to get the work done, but which you know (and your body tells you) could not possibly be sustained beyond that period. I run regularly and do not allow myself to sacrifice the running for the sake of an extra thousand words a day, because the health/stress-alleviating benefits of exercise far exceed the gains of sitting at the keyboard for an extra hour or so.

      Movving onto your third point - I don't disregard writer's block but for e the problems of that nature have always been confined to a particular project, rather than writing as a whole. So if I'm seriously blocked on X, I can usually still do some useful work on Y, and that's often enough to keep the motivation going.

      Finally, I'm very lucky indeed to have seen Federer playing! He demolished the other guy in straight sets but it was still a wonderful thing to have seen. He will go down as one of the all-time greats.

    2. Amazing insight, thank you very much for that! I'm still a long way from actually starting my first novel, but I'm slowly getting there. Your work has been a most welcome presence in my life. Cheers, Al!

  2. Cool. Thanks for that!

    I've moved away from reading Sci-Fi and moved to reading FANTASY! (I can't believe I'm reading fantasy!)
    Books such as Sanderson's 'The Way of Kings' has really opened my eyes and cleared my mind....Not having to think(worry)about if something is anachronistic(E.g. Would they really still be using diesel engines in the year 2500?! Pandora's Star).

    I yearn for neutral Sci-Fi. Star wars novels come close..and even Star Trek..Maybe if Lovecraft wrote a Star wars novel?

    Your Revenger series was close to this...

    I think you're on the verge of something genius!

  3. Very interesting takes on riffing vs engineering in art. By the way Al, I always guessed at Orbital - The Middle of Nowhere being inspiration to some of your writing. If not, it makes a great soundtrack.

    All the best.