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Friday, 22 October 2010

Interview with Author, Andy Frankham-Allen

Stephen King wrote, 'Writing controlled fiction is called "plotting". Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however... that is called "storytelling". Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration’. That more or less sums up Andy’s brand of writing. His stories have plots that evolve from the characters and develop as the characters do once a key idea is conceived.
Tell us about your current book titles in a few sentences.
I have two current eBooks; both short stories published by Untreed Reads. ‘Off Flesh’ is a story about a very normal bloke who goes to his very normal work conference, where he meets Mr Wyndham, who promptly goes missing. Mr Jensen foolishly decides to investigate, and discovers a very dark secret at the heart of the conference. The second story is ‘One Mistake’, about a man named Robert who lives a very dull life under his mother’s ever watchful eye. He comes across a notice for lessons in astral projection. He’s introduced to Bernard, an old broken man living in an old broken house. The lesson takes on a very sinister turn when Robert learns how to remove himself out of his body.
What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?
Lack of ego. Everyone has ego, and you absolutely have to believe in what it is you’re trying to achieve with your writing, and that belief includes thinking that your story is the best of its kind. Or at least the best you can do. However. Once the story is written, you must check the ego at the door, since it will be seen and read by agents, proofreaders, editors, all kinds of people, all of whom will have comments to make, suggestions for changes, and so forth. That’s where ego gets in the way. If you’re not willing to accept constructive, and often brutally honest, criticism then you really ought not to be writing.
What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?
Too many ideas. I have this friend who has remarkable potential, and he often starts working on a story. He begins with one idea, but along the way all these other ideas pop up, ideas which he feels compelled to include into his story. Unfortunately, a lot of these idea conflict, and so he ends up with a story that has far too many ideas, leaving the story without any strong direction. This is a mistake new authors often make; putting into too many ideas. They need to single out the most relevant ideas and focus on them, integrate them together into a cohesive whole. And then there’s a lack of understanding of the basic rules of grammar. But I’ll not get into that, or I’ll be here all day. ;)
If you have a favourite character in your novel, why that particular one?
Of the two current stories, Robert Hoard from ‘One Mistake’ is possibly my favourite. At first he seems almost whimsical, stuck in this rut with his mother controlling his life, but he takes it with good humour and doesn’t seem too bothered with changing his circumstances. Yet at the same time there’s this curiosity about him, which leads him directly into the troubling situation at the heart of ‘One Mistake’. Of course, by the end of the story, he’s made a few decisions that will forever change his life and, by extension, that of his mother. How this pans out... well, you’ll need to read the story to find out.
How can people buy your books?
Both of my Untreed Reads eBooks can be purchased at pretty much any online retailer that sells eBooks. Untreed Reads has the single-best electronic distribution of any eBook publisher, with their titles available in practically every single eRetailer out there. My forthcoming novel, ‘Seeker’ (Book One of The Garden), can be pre-ordered from Hirst Books (www.hirstpublishing.com) at the moment (for those interested in such things, it’s a new breed of vampires for a new decade – go on, get your teeth into it!). My Doctor Who short stories, published as part of Big Finish’s official range of Short Trips (in ‘Repercussions’, ‘The Solar System’, ‘Snap Shots’, and ‘Re: Collections’), are unfortunately now out of print, although they can still be tracked down on eBay and various specialist shops. The same goes for my audio drama, ‘Space 1889: The Lunar Inheritance’.
 
To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?
They’re essential. Editors/Agents will not accept a piece of work that is badly written, and by badly written I mean full of grammatical errors and typos. You could be writing the best novel ever, but with bad grammar and spelling no one will be interested in reading it. Within the space of a page (or less), the prospective agent/editor will dump it on the rejection pile. So it is imperative that new authors brush up on their understanding of written English. The English language, both in written and oral form, is the most flexible language out there. It is constantly changing, developing and evolving, but you absolutely have to have an appreciation of it as it stands today. Don’t play with grammar rules until you’ve proven you know how to use the ones in place.
How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
Endless. I’m constantly revising and editing. This is why deadlines are a good thing; I get to a point where I have to stop and send the story off. If not for deadlines I could, potentially, be there forever fixing perceived imperfections in the story, the characters, the prose, and so on.
Where and when is your novel set and why did you make these specific choices?
Both of the current stories are set in very generic contemporary places. There’s no specification of location in either story, since in these two cases the location is not important. Setting ‘Off Flesh’ in a hotel, however, was necessary since it begins at a work conference and such things are often held in hotels. Plus, they’re great places to meet new people and engage in an illicit rendezvous. And we know how well such things work out in fiction, right?
To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?
To the extent where it helps the publisher target the stories when selling them. I suppose it helps an author, too, since each genre brings with it certain rules and ethos, but personally I like to cross the lines of genre, create new sub-genre. Not that I’m the first person to do, of course, since there seems to be a new sub-genre created almost every week. Which I love, since it opens the scope and allow authors to play in new sandpits.
What are your writing habits?
While working on a given project I tend to read material pertaining to it; novels of the same genre, factual books relating to the themes, etc, all to keep my mind on track. I also carry a note pad on me, so I can jot down ideas as and when they pop into my head. For the actual writing I tend to write progressively from scene one to final scene. I’m not the kind to dip in and out; it has to be sequential for me. I always, and I mean ALWAYS, have music on when I’m writing. Again, as with reading, the music will more often than not convey the mood of the project I’m working on. If it’s something dark then I’m likely to be listening to metal and rock. I like to write at least 3,000 words a day when working on a book, but sometimes this is not possible. If I did so every single day of the project I would undoubtedly lose touch with life as it continues around me. Not a good thing for a writer to do.
How do you know where to begin any given story?
Instinct. Most of my longer works tend to start with a dramatic scene set some way into the story; start at a turning point in the story so you drag the reader in. Then you backtrack to the beginning and introduce your reader to the key players. It also works for me, since then I also want to know how the story got to that mid-point.
What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?
Everything! Seriously, it’s part of the package of being an author. We are notorious for finding things to distract us. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since there are times when you just can’t sit down and actually write. For me personally it’s about getting in the zone, and to do so I need to, at first, be distracted. So I resort to dancing, burning CDs for my day job, faffing around on Facebook, watching DVDs, nattering away to friends on IM, taking random photos, and going for walks.
Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?
No writing group per se. Never ever got into the whole writing group thing, but I do have an awful lot of author friends and they are always supportive of me, and vice versa. My family also offer me endless support, that is when they’re not trying to work out how I manage to get all these ideas to actually write! Friends, too. Quite a few people read the beta version of my forthcoming novel, and gave me wonderful feedback.
Is presentation of the MS as important as most agents and publishers suggest?
Absolutely. As I said above about grammar, an agent/editor is not going to spend time on a badly presented MS. By giving them the best presented piece of work you can, you’re showing them how much you have invested in the project. Sending them a sloppy piece of work will just scream that you don’t really care about the project.
How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
A novel will take me three months to write, from beginning to end. That’s the easy part; it’s the revisions, etc, that take longer.
What are your inspirations?
If you’ll excuse the pretention; life! Sounds a cliché, but it also happens to very true. I watch life go on around me, spend hours talking to people. There is no better inspiration.
If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?
The waiting. Once the story is complete, and it’s sent off, you’re stuck waiting to hear back. And once you do hear back, sign the contract, etc, you’re left waiting for the release. I’m not an impatient person... well, okay, yes I am!
Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?
It can be both. I think there is out there those to whom writing is a gift, as natural as breathing. It’s what they were born to do. They wake up thinking about writing, and they fall asleep thinking about writing. I am one such person. As far back as I can remember I’ve only ever wanted to write. It’s very instinctive for me. On the flip side you can learn to write just as you can learn any other skill. But, for my money, you can tell the difference between someone who’s been taught the skill of writing and someone who’s born to write.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on several projects as I do this interview. I’m one third of a way through my second novel, Book Two of The Garden, which shall hopefully be out towards the end of 2011 (Book One is being published simultaneously in print and electronic formats, by Hirst Publishing and Untreed Reads Publishing respectively, late Feb/early March 2011). And I‘m working on various short stories/novellas for eventual publishing down the line. After Luna and Garden 2, I’ll be starting work on a novel called ‘As If You Were a Woman’, but I’m saying nothing about that one yet. I'm also putting together a charity anthology for Hirst Publishing, due for release early next year, that features some of Hirst's best authors, and I'm working on a story for that anthology. Plus, still neck-deep in a secret project, of which I can't talk more about. Yet.
Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?
Research! No, it’s true. There was a time when I hated the research, but now I just love it. There’s so much to learn, new things to discover every day, and being a writer just gives you the excuse to do so. Through writing I get to meet some interesting people, too. When someone learns you’re a writer it’s amazing how many stories you hear. Like the old adage says, everyone has a story to tell. I also love creating new characters, and seeing how they take over and dictate to me how they ought to be. That’s always fun. They soon take over the story, and I pretty much just type what they tell me. I don’t think there’s any aspect of writing I truly dislike. I can be a pretty solitary person, so I don’t even mind the alone-ness of writing.
Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?
They can find me on Facebook by simply typing my name into the search bar. Early next year I shall be developing my own website, but until then my author page on Facebook will keep them up to date.
Update - added after the interview was posted - I now have a blog http://frankhamallen.wordpress.com/
Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
A private study, surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, a nice sound system constantly playing my music, and a large window opening out to a wonderful vista of life.
Where do you actually write?
It varies. With a laptop I can write almost anywhere. On trains, in the garden, or sitting on my bed. I take the laptop with me and write wherever, and whenever, the mood takes me.
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