Monday, November 21

Interview With a Curmudgeon

Not too long ago, a charming Scottish writer emailed me with questions about book promotion. I hope I said something vaguely helpful. Since then he has begun blogging (Report From A Fugitive) and tweeting (@RLL_author). He even did an interview with me! RLL did most of the work. I emailed him a few questions and he did the rest. How marvelous!

Canadian writer Karen Woodward, author of Until Death, thought it would be a great idea to interview me. Wild horses dragged me to tame horses. Tame horses carried me to room 102. Room 101 was taken. Shining her spotlight on the face of the innocent dupe I’d hired to impersonate me, Karen began the interrogation…

KAREN WOODWARD: Please tell me a bit about your book.

RLL: Neon Gods Brought Down by Swords is my commentary on a disease-raddled, drug-addled, country known for its prominent blade culture. That country is a thinly-disguised Scotland. Drugs are plentiful. Violence is everywhere. Justice is in short supply. Lives are cheap. Alliances and allegiances are even cheaper. I try to ensure that my overly-optimistic view of the nation doesn’t get in the way of a rattling good story.

My approach was to squash the sorcery element of the standard sword and sorcery tale, placing science in its stead. Not a new notion. On top of that, the war fought out in the book’s pages was a Cold War. The icing on the literary cake was always this idea that old heroes, from legendary tales, would pass through the modern stuff. Old heroes, and old villains.

The strangeness of the mixture makes for a decidedly odd cake. That’s the beauty of self-publishing electronically. Every type of story is up for grabs. As author-publisher, the e-book writer can tackle a setting that might have limited appeal in a diminishing paper marketplace. So what. Appeal to that limit electronically, then publish the next story. Build a following. Or build several different followings. It’s all on the table, and it’s all to play for.

Is Neon Gods a series? Not in the conventional sense. It’s not a story about quests. I make this quite clear in my notes at the end. A second book would run in the same timeframe as the first, featuring some of the first novel’s characters in scenes witnessed from alternative viewpoints.

However, publishing a series is not my immediate plan. I have a small stack of unpublished novels and short stories sitting there, and I am formatting those for the Kindle before I return to the series. That doesn’t mean neglecting the story.

I’ve written more of book three than of book two, as I must keep a deathly grip on continuity. Yes, I could simply introduce unreliable narrators and leave the audience to sift through inconsistent debris. But I’m in this game to do the job properly.

The novel is an Amazon Kindle e-book. It was important to list story structure at the start, in a series of chapter links. A new thing for me. I want readers to see that the story ends with chapter 32. The book ends with the section ABOUT THIS BOOK.

It’s a warning to wannabe e-authors. If you end the story halfway through the overall page-count, and pad the rest of your book with articles and off-cuts, have the decency to warn readers of this. Aim for transparency. Don’t just dump that on readers as they hit the next page. Bad form. (My story takes up 95% of the publication.)

This peeve dates from all the research I did for a novel on comic books. Comic book readers judge the story by the thickness of the magazine. A sawn-off adventure featuring the main character doesn’t go down well if an unannounced back-up strip rears its head at the turn of a page. What happened to the hero? Who is this third-rate banana, drawn by a filler artist we’ve never heard of?

Bluntly, authors depend on the kindness of stranglers. If I generate a vast audience, I know that’s a vast audience I’ll never meet. Is it possible to respect all these unknown and unknowable people? At the basic level, in applying professional standards to the work.

I am reluctant to discuss the plot in an interview. Always leave ’em hungry.

KAREN WOODWARD: What is the best writing advice you ever received?

RLL: From the pen of C.S. Lewis. Read your work aloud. I must add that I do this in the voices of the characters I create. If they sound different as I’m typing, they will be different in the eyes and minds of my readers. Well, so I like to think.

One of the best ideas I ever absorbed from a writer came from Hans Andersen. He’d travel with rope, so that he could escape from a strange house in the event of a fire in the middle of the night. I’ve only used the escape rope once, thus far. That’s another story.

I’ll amplify on your original question, and give you the worst writing advice I ever received. This happened in school, no surprise, and was uttered by an English teacher. Again, hardly a shocker. “Never use and or but at the start of a sentence. It’s okay to do that in real life, but never in an exam.” The advice was seared into my mind, for all the wrong reasons.

Indicating that exams had no bearing on real life, as far as that teacher felt. A skewed view. Hardly the meaning she was attempting to convey. There is nothing wrong in using and or but at the start of a sentence. Avoid overuse, to keep your style from being nauseatingly repetitive. I live in a part of the world in which it is grammatically acceptable to place but at the end of a sentence. That’s just the way local grammar developed, but.

KAREN WOODWARD: I understand that you have written for many years, although you have just begun self-publishing. What advice would you give to a new writer?

RLL: You mean a writer of fiction. Writing non-fiction lies in the same solar system, though is one planet over – with its own local conditions. Some of this doubtless applies to non-fiction too. For new writers, the advice is obvious. Read. Discover what you like, and what you don’t like. Learn from both types of writing. I learned as much from crappy books as I learned from excellent ones. (Sometimes I think I learned more…)

Cut loose of the stuff you like reading. Be influenced by it, but don’t become it. Cut loose of the stuff you don’t like reading. Avoid spending your writing time hating that material. You have better things to do with your days. And tastes change, over time, in any case.

Learn beyond writing itself. If you look for inspiration in non-written material, whether painted or sculpted, then that’s a good thing. Have interests and pursuits outwith literature. Apply every piece of experience to your writing. Good or ill.

Read copyright law.

Enjoy what you do, though understand that some of your best material might end up being written while in a foul old mood, with the odds stacked against you, your back to the fiery wall, and time running out.

Be prepared to recycle ideas that fall apart. There’s no call to print a story, rip it up, and throw it away. (Unless it’s truly beyond saving. Even then, I’d think twice. And twice more.) I have stuff to get back to. Fragments. Snippets. Remnants. The ruins of stories. New writers should keep hold of everything. One rainy day, that neglected computer file will be dusted down…

Put the hours in. I know I’m always banging on about that. If stories really wrote themselves, I’d be in the Bahamas right now as this interview saw to itself. That takes me back to reading. Consider the size of a book you liked…

Calculate the number of words. Discover your typing speed. Work out how many hours you’d have to spend, to come up with a similar-sized book – based on typing alone. Now think about the number of hours you can spend a day, typing.

You’ll see how many weeks it’ll take to work through a story similar in length to the one you enjoyed reading. I’ve made that sound like a mechanical process. Well, it is. Discipline is a cliché to writers. Often spoken of reverently, without further explanation.

Get into the numbers. Develop a sense of scale. Set a goal, in words. How many? Do the basic arithmetic. If you want to write 100,000 words at 1,000 a day, every single day, you’ll spend 100 days marching to the last page. Not counting research, editing, medical emergencies, and all the other stuff life throws your way. If you type 10,000 words a day, it won’t take you 100 days. Doing the same job in just over a week is no crime.

Discipline is all about the numbers. Nothing to do with quality, or art, or the creative muse. Discipline has no handy shortcut. I feel inclined to say the same to old writers, just in case you think I’m blaming youth for being young.

If you want to be a writer, write. Stop wanting. Be. (No, kiddies, I’m not a little green alien living in a swamp.) A writer is always on the job. Even asleep. Wake, write the dream down. Type it up. Stuck in a queue? Observe. Play the game of faces, as you shop. That guy’s a rocket scientist. She’s a spy. He’s the stranger, come to town with a grudge.

For reasons of space, Scheherazade-like, the interview ceases. Read the full interview on the blog, REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE.

RLL's book will be available in December, for more details visit his his website: Report From A Fugitive.


  1. Karen. Thanks for the space on your blog. Visitors to my blog will find the first chapter of Neon Gods there, and, on the Hallowe'en page, a bonus short story written for the blog's opening.
    You'll also be able to wade through the full curmudgeonly interview there. Karen has made me out to be nowhere near as curmudgeonly as I am on my own blog. ;)
    To Karen's readers, as if they need reminding, she's doing a great job putting her blog out there. And to would-be writers...start a blog. It will assist your writing.

  2. interesting post. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for posting it.
    Glenda Parker

  3. RLL, thanks for doing the interview! Aw, you're not all that curmudgeony ... not sure that's a word, but I'm going with it. Thanks for the kind words, they are appreciated. :)


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