Last month I reviewed Few Are Chosen by M T McGuire and now I'm happy to be able to welcome an author who stills checks wardrobes for a gateway to Narnia to my blog, for a fun Q&A.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST THINK OF BECOMING A WRITER AND WHO OR WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN WRITING?
Blimey, there’s a question.
I’ve always loved stories but I find myself pathologically tempted to tweak them. So many, potentially excellent films and books seem to have a point where someone has to do something totally out of character to drive the plot. Alternatively, the protagonists are just not real people. So I guess my quest, as a writer, has been to write something where the characters are believable and the plot – in my eyes – holds up. Something I would enjoy reading.
My first attempt was when I was 5. It was a series of stories about someone called Charles The Dragon Slayer – yes, even then it was fantasy. He had a really groovy Three-Musketeers-style hat with feathers in... and a sword. Yeh.
However, doing lots of joined up words and letters is hard work for a five year old so I had to keep the descriptions pithy and left a lot to the imagination. I illustrated it, which helped but there wasn’t much plot variation and because it was so difficult to write them down Charles was a man of few words. Even so, he was my first character, I was hooked on writing and things deteriorated steadily from there.
So there you have it. I’ve always been writing something. There has never been a choice. I love it but it’s a compulsion. I do it because I have to. If I stop writing for too long I tend to go a little bit mental.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOKS AND STYLE?
I think my genre is officially called humorous fantasy. I guess you might say it was aimed at teenagers but basically, I’m 42 and it’s written for me. If anyone else likes it, that’s grand.
The style is mainly humorous but the great thing about doing comedy and silly names is that you can get pretty serious without people noticing. I think I can come across as sounding a bit British and formal sometimes. That’ll be because some of my characters are a bit uptight and repressed and talk like Spock – and the influence of ‘Python, of course, which I do enjoy, a lot.
WHEN YOU WRITE DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR ROUTINE YOU FOLLOW, AND WHAT DO YOU FIND THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF WRITING A BOOK?
Hmm... OK here’s my dream routine. Get up, eat, drink a lot of coffee, sit down to write and do so until brain fry occurs. Lunch. Read morning’s work. Editing. Supper, mindless telly with the other members of famille McGuire. Bed.
And here’s the reality. I am a full-time stay-at-home parent with a two year old. My days are splendidly random and surreal, as are my conversations but I only have 4 hours a week to myself. Making headway, especially at times of plot difficulty, can be a challenge. During the school holidays, all writing tends to stop. Those four hours are very important.
What is the hardest thing? Finding the time. Bear in mind, this is a compulsion. Some key scenes need a lot of work. It’s hard to hold all the complicated threads of a long discussion in your head when you can’t work at it for more than an hour at a time. It’s hard to remember who said what to who in scenes you wrote a year ago. Actually it’s often hard for me to remember my own name without cue cards right now so I’m not sure how I do that at all.
When I was working at my writing all day, every day, I never had that problem. Now, I have very little thought collection time. That can be stressing and then, of course, if I stress about it it’s even harder to keep hold of it all. If I really lose my mojo I get insanely frustrated. It’s like watching half of a really good film, popping out to the loo and then coming back to find you’re only going to be able to watch the rest of it in 30 second bursts once a week over the course of the next three years.
When real life gets like that the only solution is to stop writing. It’s no good spanking my mind until it gets to the point when it can’t even be bothered to wander off. Usually I can fix it by drawing writing my blog or marketing my work instead. It always comes back eventually but while it’s gone and I want to get on with the story... Mmm... that’s the difficult bit.
DO YOU START A BOOK KNOWING WHAT THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END WILL BE OR DOES IT TAKE ON A LIFE OF IT'S OWN AS YOU WRITE?
At the outset of a book everything’s a bit blurry – I suppose you could describe it as pixilated. I know the start, I know the end and I usually have a couple of conflicts or events in the middle chalked up, too. I write the scenes that are clear in my head. That process may throw up a couple more, if it does I write those too, then I embark on an interesting journey to join the dots.
Music helps. A lot of it’s a case of listening to a song that inspires me and writing down what I see or finding a song that goes with a scene or ambience I want to create and doing the same thing.
I like to give the characters free rein so it’s an interesting journey. I always get stuck at some point, sometimes, for months. That aspect can be very frustrating and I’m sure if I bothered to plan properly it wouldn’t happen. I like the spontaneity of flying by the seat of my pants though and eventually, if I keep plugging on, it all starts to slide into focus. Suddenly, I know where it’s going and it doesn’t read like a draft any more. It’s happening now with the next stage of the K’Barthan Trilogy. I’m nowhere near finished but I can see it beginning to clarify and I’m buzzing around, bouncing off the walls like a very cheery wasp in a bottle.
ARE YOU SELF-PUBLISHED OR TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED, AND WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST AND WORST THING ABOUT THE ROUTE YOU HAVE TAKEN?
I’m self published. The best thing is that I am, the worst thing is that I waited too long.
I didn’t mean to do my own thing at the outset. I bought the Writers & Artists year book and compiled a list of agents but since I write humorous fantasy I was left with a very short list. Most of them were the huge ones who would never take a punt on a rookie author but just said they accepted everything because they’re mega and – on paper – have the facilities to do so. Many refused simultaneous submissions and it took me a year to get polite no’s from four of them – although fair play to the last lot who said ‘no’ in a straight 24 hours.
Fantasy, especially humorous fantasy, is quite a big a gamble for the risk-averse and it seems there are few industries more risk-averse than UK mainstream publishing. Furthermore, my target readers are thin on the ground among the gatekeepers. Fantasy doesn’t traditionally appeal to Oxbridge graduates, with 1st class honours degrees in English Literature, who are into literary fiction. Although it would be lovely to think somebody out there, in the know – one of the gatekeepers – would like my work I’m not holding my breath. Indeed, I suspect the only way I’ll attract an agent is if I make it big and somebody has to do it. Even then I can imagine that, for whatever poor schmuck lands the job, it will be like having to stick pins in their own eyes... Hmm... actually, thinking about it, a few years ago I rang Philip Pullman’s agency to check their lists were open. The woman who answered the phone was absolutely horrible to me (MTM guffaws evilly). If I make it. Let’s hope it’s her.
On a more serious note. There are some compelling arguments to self publish.
One, money. It costs less and the author gets more.
Two, marketing. Unless you’re Dan Brown, I gather there’s not much difference, with regard to workload for the author, between being published or self publishing.
Three, control. The way I see it, once you’ve written a decent book, which is by far the hardest bit, you have two choices:
Self publish and get the book out there and read, if only by a small group of readers. At least this is dynamic. If the readers like the book they may well recommend it to more readers and the author can work on selling it, too. Sure that’s a slow process but there’s movement and tangible (if small) results.
Put in several years of graft selling the book to an agent and hoping the agent can sell it to a publisher. No guarantees with that one. Eight years on there’s a very real chance of ending up back in the same place – thinking about self-publishing, only from a lot further behind all the authors who got on with it at once.
In summary: I could spend several years chasing a dream which might come to nothing or I could get on with building that dream, now.
I’m not one for sitting around. I took the ‘now’ route, obviously.
I had a lot of help from any number of kind people; small publishers, other authors and the general public on forums, on blogs or face to face. They were all great, in fact the best bit of the whole process was the number of people who are prepared to help a newbie in this game for no reward other than good karma. I am hugely indebted to all of them and if you’re thinking about taking this route and want to publish a paperback too, Aaron Shepherd’s Aiming at Amazon or POD for Profit are both good books to read. Even though they mainly concentrate on the US market a lot of the general advice is sound.
IF THIS ISN'T TOO MUCH LIKE ASKING A PARENT WHICH OF THEIR CHILDREN THEY LIKE BEST, WHICH OF YOUR CHARACTERS IS YOUR FAVOURITE?
Hmm... Tricky. I have a real bug-bear about books where nobody is likeable. It means I’ve over-compensated.
I am very fond of The Pan of Hamgee because he’s growing up so fast as the series goes on. He’s turned into his own man, I really have no control over what he does. He’s witty and smart and quick and that’s definitely nothing to do with me. He was a bit character who walked in and took over and he seems to have a developed a life and personality of his own.
I love Ruth because she’s feisty and intelligent and doesn’t take any crap. She’s got a nice dry sense of humour too. She comes to the fore in the second story and she’s kind of how I’d like to be.
I like Lord Vernon, the bad guy because he’s a completely over the top pantomime villain and is an absolute scream to write. When I am writing Lord Vernon’s scenes I spend more time guffawing than is tasteful or necessary. In his own rather dark way, he’s a very sharp wit but at the same time, he’s horrible, horrible, horrible.
Finally, I have to give General Moteurs a mention (first name Ford) who, like The Pan was meant to be a bit character but turned out to be too interesting. He’s a very brave fellow and he’s had to endure a horrible back-story.
Long pause... I haven’t answered that have I? Alright, if you make me choose, The Pan of Hamgee.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO READ AND DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER PASSIONS?
Hmm, where to start. OK, reading. I read absolutely anything if a) the blurb looks interesting b) it’s recommended by a friend or c) I know the author. Please bear with me because Mr Spellcheck has left the building but highlights include:- Mark Haddon, Pete McCarthy, Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett (obviously) Nick Hornby, Douglas Adams, Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf), PG Wodehouse, Kalid Hussain (Kite Runner) Alexander McCall Smith, Kassein Baiev (biography The Oath, highly recommended), Graham Greene, Somerset Maughan, Neville Shute, H E Bates... it goes on and on although I don’t have much time to read at the moment. That’ll improve as mini-mi gets bigger and more self-sufficient. I’ll get to read more things with him, then, too.
Hmm... what else... I draw stuff, I’ve illustrated my characters, I’m very, very bad at it but they look pretty much like comic book versions of the people in my head. Just about everyone who has read the book first tells me I’ve got them wrong! I’m not sure what this says but as the inventor I’m going to pull rank and say my impressions are correct.
I mentioned music didn’t I? Yep.
60s film and TV. I grew up (not in the 60s) on a diet of Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the Saint, The Avengers, James Bond the original StarTrek. Combine that with being a kid when the first three StarWars came out and I’m sure you get the picture.
Comedy, anything and everything, especially if it’s a little anarchic. Bottom, The Young Ones, Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Two Ronnies, Chewin’ the Fat, Goodness Gracious Me, Still Game, Outnumbered, Dead Ringers – especially when it’s on Radio 4 rather than TV – The Fast Show, Little Britain, The Big Bang Theory, shows like Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week. Stand-up I’m usually guaranteed to enjoy Friday Night at the Apollo; Michael McIntyre, Darah O’Brien, the second series of Ben Elton’s Man from Auntie, Jack Dee, Lenny Henry doing stand-up, anyone ever seen the set about how he sets fire to his house, calls the fire brigade and runs away? It’s genius? I’ve missed stacks of people off that list but really, we’ll be here all day if I mention them all. Few things beat clever, well thought out stand-up, I used to do it myself, very badly, so I’m always in awe of the people who get it right.
I love cars. If you’ve read Few Are Chosen there’s an outside chance you might have picked that up from the whole snurds thing. I think there might be another hint in the way I’ve anally retentively named them all so we know exactly what they look like in this version of the universe. And yes, even with the two year old I drive a stupid, stupid car, myself – but he loves it as much as I do so we have a lot of fun.
FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT THAT YOU CAN TELL US ABOUT?
The rest of the K’Barthan trilogy. I’m hoping the next installment, All The Wrong Stuff, will be out by September. I have reservations but that’s my aim. I’ve learned a lot publishing Few Are Chosen so I’m hoping the production process won’t take quite as long. The hold up is that I’m not sure where to make the split between books 2 and 3 so I might have to finish the whole thing before I can work it out. That’s a 2 year job.
In the interim, I’ll be gathering my free shorts together into one, or possibly two volumes. I don’t know how to publish things free on Amazon, I’m not even sure you can, so for the convenience of downloading them in one easy hit they will cost the lowest price is at the time – 75p or thereabouts. If book 2 makes it for a September launch, you’ll see those in 2012, if it doesn’t I’ll be publishing those this year, instead.
Thank you very much for interviewing me it’s been great.
A big thanks to MT for fitting me in, not easy with a busy writing schedule and a toddler!
You can get your copy of Few are Chosen on MT's website, Amazon, Smashwords or the Book Depository, in paperback or as an e-book. MT is on Twitter - @mtmcguireauthor - and Facebook If you want to join the mailing list email with Add Me as the subject to firstname.lastname@example.org