Russell Sanderson on Writing
I met Russell Sanderson through twitter, and read his blog regularly. He is currently hard at work on editing the first book in what promises to be an epic, steam punk fantasy series. From his blog posts and the sneak preview available on his blog, he could very well be the next big thing in children’s fiction. So watch this space. What follows is his thoughts on the craft of writing, what drives him, and how he writes.
First of all, let me say a big thank you to Sam for asking me to guest-blog for him. I’ve followed his blog a while and have been very impressed with it. I was quite taken aback when he asked me. My first thought was “what the heck am I going to write about?” Well, since writing is the reason Sam and I are in touch, it’s probably the best topic to pick.
Who am I? Well I’m a fortysomething public sector professional by day and an aspiring children’s author and father the rest of the time. This makes for an interesting time-juggling situation where work, family and writing all need space but if any one of them gets too much, the whole complex operation comes crashing down.
I’ve written since I was in my late teens, but it was always sporadic; short stories or articles for gaming magazines. That changed when I had my appendix out in my mid-twenties. I was incapacitated for six weeks and off work. Not only that, but I’d recently moved and had no cable TV. Worse still, I came out of hospital the week that Princess Diana died, so I had the choice of reading (my books were still packed in boxes) or watching the endless media coverage of national grief. Or I could write.
After my operation I’d had a weird dream/hallucination which was so vivid and scary I felt compelled to write it down. That turned into the basis for my first book (a sci-fi thriller focusing on alien abduction,) which I wrote in collaboration with a friend who worked nights. We plotted it out chapter by chapter and then wrote alternate chapters, swapping over and editing each other’s work. At the time I was convinced it was a masterpiece (it wasn’t). I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to get it published before realising it needed more work. Shortly afterwards, my two children arrived on the scene, disrupting my life more than I’d ever thought possible, requiring me to teach on evenings and work during the day, reducing writing opportunities back to short stories and magazine articles.
When the kids got a bit older, I started to find myself with the odd hour here and there. I resolved to get back into writing. I had two problems. Firstly, in the gap since writing the book and re-starting, the X-files came out, making my book idea, relatively original when written, look like a poor copy of the much better TV show. Secondly, my head wasn’t in the same place it was with the first book, so I started another, this one a supernatural thriller.
I boarded out part of my loft, installed an old PC and got started. I had the ideas in my head. I didn’t need a plan. I was inspired. Within a few months, I’d written 80,000 words. I was in the zone. Then I hit a problem. I’d written myself into a corner. I looked at the story and realised that I would have to delete or significantly re-write about half the story to get it where it needed to go. I made a start, but my enthusiasm for it waned as my day job took more and more time and I made slow progress. Then Supernatural hit the TV, covering much the same ground as my book. Suddenly everything was vampires, demons, angels and the occult. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a copycat author. Instead of finishing the book, I slipped back into the magazine articles and short stories.
I did have another idea for a novel, about a sort of Victorian Fox Mulder called Prometheus Wolfe. It was a genre that I didn’t know anything about at the time; steampunk. I wrote copious notes and plot ideas, but never actually started writing the story. Instead, I spent a lot more time reading. Specifically reading to my two sons. It became our nightly ritual. We did The Hobbit, all of the Harry Potters, Percy Jackson; you name it. What was more; I was enjoying these books more than I enjoyed adult fiction. This was what I wanted to write.
I revisited my Victorian story and realised it wouldn’t work as Middle Grade (MG) or Young Adult (YA). Kids like reading about other kids, albeit a bit older than themselves. So it had to be a Victorian child. Problem was, I didn’t think I could get into a Victorian child’s head. I did believe I could manage modern child, though. So Pandora Wolfe was born and it became a time travel novel.
Around this time, I passed my 40th birthday. I realised that if I was ever going to realise my dream of becoming a published writer, I was going to have to be professional. No more waiting for the muse to strike and only writing when inspired. My time was limited. I was going to have to make specific time to write and stick to it. Writing turned from a hobby into an (unpaid) part time job.
I worked for a few weeks converting my garden shed into an office. It was insulated, had power, heating, even carpets and armchairs. I moved a PC in and I was off. Learning from my earlier mistakes, I plotted the skeleton of the novel so I knew where I was going and couldn’t write myself into a corner, then I went for it. Within a year, I’d written The Chronomancer’s Daughter.
I treated my submissions to agents in the same way as my writing. I took it seriously, getting the Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and submitting my pitch. So far I’ve had quite a bit of interest from agents, with several asking for the full manuscript. Obviously my pitch is working but I still need to find the right agent. Recently I had some very helpful feedback. My novel, which I saw as YA, was in fact a MG novel. (Defined by an agent I met as “if it has no kissing or swearing, it’s MG”.) The problem was, it was 118,500 words. Long even for a YA fantasy book and way too long for MG (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only 78,000 words, and that was quite long for MG.)
So I’ve embarked on a word-count reducing edit. I’m now at the end of pass 3 and my book has shrunk to 82,000 words. I still need to lose more but it’s a slow process, like a sculptor trying to make an identical 7 foot statue from an 11 foot one without chopping off anything important. I think this will take maybe another month, then I’ll get myself back out there. If I succeed, maybe you’ll see the book and remember this blog? I hope so.
You can find out more about The Chronomancer’s Daughter and follow my blog at www.pandorawolfe.co.uk
I wish Russell Sanderson the best of luck in his journey to publication and hope he will guest blog for me in the future.