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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Author Interview with Stuart Aken

Yes, I know it’s an odd idea: to interview yourself. But there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I’ve been interviewing authors on here for a little over a year now and thought it was time to give myself a taste of my own medicine and discover how easy or difficult it is to answer these questions.
Secondly, I’m away from the computer at present. Since I like to give my invited authors as much marketing and publicity as I can, but also didn’t want to starve my followers and visitors of an author interview, I decided to interview myself. There won’t be one next week, I’m revisiting past interviews on that Thursday, but they’ll be back with a vengeance on 21 July with an excellent interview with none other than Susan Moody (aka Susan Madison). Miss it at your peril!

Hello Stuart, please tell us about you, as a writer.
My bio is already on this site, so I won’t bore you with it again. But, as a writer, I’m driven by compulsion. I must write, or I become even more difficult to live with and my health suffers. Fiction is my chosen field because I love to work with the imagination. Even in my early days, I told stories. And reading has been a passion since I was able to understand the written word. I’ve no particular favourite genre; the stories come to me and choose their own route, generally by the behaviour of the characters. People fascinate me: they are so variable and intriguing.
Two main themes drive much of my fiction: justice and injustice in all its manifestations is one. The other is the innate hypocrisy I find in most organised religion: religion has an amazing opportunity to enlighten, educate and improve the world, but almost inevitably it divides, mistakes dogma for truth, and causes conflict wherever it sits with unreasoned passion.

Your novel, Breaking Faith, is a romantic thriller; perhaps you’d you give us some insight into it in a few sentences.

As Faith stands shivering before the gates of the notorious Longhouse, she has to ask herself why she’s contemplating work with the man her father describes as the Devil’s Henchman. Everything in her past warns her that this move may be dangerous. But that’s the reason she applied for the job in the first place.

Leigh can’t believe he’s invited the local village idiot to interview as his Girl Friday. Her ‘homeless’ style of dress hides any female attributes she might possess and she has the reputation of a simpleton. But, on the phone, she sounded warm and intelligent. The only cause for concern was the way his printing assistant, the woman-hating Merv, might react to a woman working so close to him.

How did you come to write this particular book?

I love walking the countryside; it enriches life and invigorates the spirit. I was walking the steep hills of the Yorkshire Dales, many years ago, and visiting a slightly sinister natural collection of sink holes called the Buttertubs. Looking down in the dank, dark depths of the largest of these, I was visited by the question, ‘Suppose there was the body of a young woman down there?’ From that simple question the rest of the book developed over a period of years. Much of the time, it lay at the back of my mind, absorbing the influences that daily came my way. But, when it was ready to emerge, it did so more or less fully formed. Though, the original had different names for the characters and was told in the third person. The idea to write it in the first person viewpoints of the two leading protagonists came later.

Do you have a favourite character from the book? If so, who and why this particular one?

Faith is definitely my favourite. She’s an innocent; na├»ve through her isolated up-bringing. But she’s also naturally clever and quick to learn. I loved her for that quality of a clean slate on which her experiences of life could be written for readers to witness how they made her grow and change.
Of course, I really should identify more with Leigh. I was a professional photographer for some time and I’ve worked with models. But I was never the type of man he is, having always been a one woman man who understands that love is far more potent than mere sex in a relationship.

Where can people buy your books?

Breaking Faith, Ten Tales for Tomorrow (an anthology of speculative fiction), Ten Love Tales (an anthology of gentle love stories) and A Sackful of Shorts (a collection of short stories I edited for my writing group of professional writers) can all be bought through Smashwords as ebooks in any format, by clicking on the link for each title above.

Breaking Faith, as a paperback and for Kindle, and the other books for Kindle can all be bought here for UK  and here, for USA and rest of the world.

In addition, Breaking Faith, as a paperback, can be ordered from most retailers, using the ISBN 978-1-84923-314-9. And, should you live in the East Riding of Yorkshire, it’s available in all your local libraries to borrow.

What qualities does a writer need to be successful?
The hide of a rhino, to shrug off the inevitable rejections; the perseverance of Hercules, to continue putting down words and writing stories even when no one seems to be listening; the ability to get under the skin of every living person from innocent child to whore, from dying woman to world’s greatest and most brutal bully; and a compulsion to write that’s so deep that you feel incomplete on those days when no words have been written.

What’s your working method?

When I’m in a really good spell, I write the creative stuff in the mornings, as my imagination is more active then. I edit the current work in progress in the afternoons. Emails, blog posts, group participation, and other writing duties have to take their turn in the evenings.
My stories all begin with characters and I do a full page profile of all named characters, using a picture,  as I find it easier to hang personality on an individual I can actually see. Once I have my protagonists and antagonists, I weave a fairly loose web of story threads in which to involve them. I always know my theme before I start and rarely write down the story details beyond a very vague framework. I allow the idea to develop in my subconscious until the characters emerge from hiding. That’s when I start to actually write. I never look back at the day’s writing, unless I can’t recall a particular detail that’s essential to some part I’m writing the following day. Only when the whole story is down on paper (or the screen, since I write on a computer keyboard always: my handwriting is worthy of any doctor) only then do I think of editing. And I leave the created piece alone for at least a month before I start on the editing process. That is a thorough process, which can often take longer than the original writing.

What’s the single biggest mistake made by beginner writers?

I’m going to be honest, and therefore unpopular. The biggest mistake made by many wannabes is to think they can write just because they have a keyboard available. Writing is a craft, sometimes merged with art, always combined with imagination. It requires a minimum level of facility with language, an understanding of the rules of grammar and spelling, which many people seem either incapable of achieving or too lazy or arrogant to bother to acquire. Sorry, but I’ve read too many books that have been poorly written to encourage even more onto the overstocked market, thereby diluting the overall quality.
But, if a writer has the compulsion and the dedication to learn the rules and understand the medium, then the biggest mistake is to expect instant success and allow early discouragements to dissuade them from continuing.

To what extent are grammar and spelling important in writing?

Utterly essential. Words and grammar are the writer’s tools. It would never occur to an untrained, or unskilled man or woman to rewire their house without finding out how electricity works. The same goes for writing: if you don’t know the rules, learn them BEFORE you put anything out there for the public to read, please. There are plenty of peer review sites on the web, where you can go to have others read and comment on your early work. Poor spelling and grammar can render the meaning of a piece the exact opposite of the intention. Writing is communication, and whilst it’s true that language is organic and changeable and can be manipulated, it really does matter that the writer knows how to say what he or she desires to say. I will now descend from my hobby horse.

How much do you revise your MS before sending it off?

3 million times. Okay, so there’s a touch of hyperbole there. I usually start by reading the piece as a reader, rather than a writer. Then I apply essential description that’s been omitted in the heat of creativity. I reduce or remove passages where little or nothing happens. ‘Telling’ is changed to ‘showing’, where appropriate. Then I check for consistency of settings, characters, events, etc. Next, I look for spelling, grammatical and syntactical errors and only then read the whole piece aloud. Any clumsy sentences or difficult passages revealed by this essential part of the process are then dealt with. I then ask my angelic and patient wife to read the chapters as I print them off. She has an eagle eye for spelling and grammatical errors and spots inconsistency with ease; she is also honest enough to tell me where she feels the story flags or fails to make the point intended. At this stage, I usually subject my writing group to several passages to gauge their response. Then it’s time to get the whole MS printed and out there for publication via whatever route seems sensible.

As a writer of different genres, to what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?

I hate to be stuck into some sort of box, along with other works supposedly similar. But I understand that readers, libraries, bookshops and publishers need to classify work in some way and I can’t come up with anything better. So, I put up with an imperfect system in the same way as most of us put up with the imperfections of the government system called ‘democracy’: it’s the best of the available evils.

Many authors see marketing as a bind. What's your opinion on this, and how do you deal with it?

In common with most writers, I’d much rather be writing than selling my wares. There was a time when publishers employed staff to do this and the author was expected to do only a small amount of publicity work so that the next book could be written. Unfortunately, since the advent of the ghost-written celebrity novel, the celebrity book of lies called ‘autobiography’ and the celebrity book of opportunity, publishers seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that authors are the best people to sell their books. They aren’t. Most writers are shy and do not speak well in public; that’s why they put their words into written form.
But, it’s a task that must be undertaken and I do what I must and do it as well and as professionally as I am able. And I loathe every minute spent on marketing when I could be writing.

What sort of displacement activities keep you from writing?

My part time day job eats into my writing time, but in common with the majority of writers, I have to earn a living from other sources. Beyond that, I’m involved in many writing orientated groups online and I produce this blog; the daily posts take up time, as do the interviews. The time I spend with my wife and daughter is separate and I don’t view that as something that keeps me from writing. But I also tire rather easily, due to my health, and that requires me to rest at fairly frequent intervals.

What support, if any, do you receive from family and friends, or a writing group?

My wife is amazingly supportive; apart from feeding and caring for me, she reads and checks everything I write, and involves herself in other activities like book signings for friends. Kate, in spite of her teenage needs, understands when I need to be left alone to get on with things. My writing group, Hornsea Writers, is composed of professional writers and we meet weekly to expose our work to one another and receive forthright but positive criticism. Their encouragement is always present.

Is presentation of the MS as important as agents and publishers suggest?

If a piece of work is to be sent to a publisher, agent or editor, it had better be as good as it’s possible to make it. Anything less is an insult to the professionals approached and to those who might become readers of the work. It is even more important if the work is to be self-published; there are no checks and balances there, beyond the skill, honesty and integrity of the author.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

All my life. I’ll expand on that. Everything a writer writes is, to some extent, informed by that author’s life to that point. But if we’re talking about the mechanics, then it depends on the circumstances of my life at the time. Breaking Faith took around 18 months to write but it has gone through various different manifestations and the basic idea for the novel came to me many years ago. On the other hand, I have recently finished the second volume of a proposed epic fantasy trilogy. The first draft, which runs to 200,557 words, took about 3 months to write. It’ll take at least that long to edit and possibly longer. Just before I started on this interview, I wrote a piece of flash fiction (500 words), which took about twenty minutes. I’ve yet to discover how long it will be before that piece is fit to be read.

Who or what inspires your writing?

Inspiration comes from many sources and there’s no single author I can point to as a focus for any particular piece of writing I’ve completed. However, I have a particular empathy with the work of William Horwood. I’m visited by ideas at any time, so I keep notebooks all over the house. I have four in total; all Moleskines, and all rewards for letters published in the British writing magazine, Writers’ Forum. Each has a dedicated pen, so I can jot down an idea as soon as it comes to me. Long experience has taught me that putting off the recording of any idea is a sure way of forgetting it.

If there’s a single aspect of writing you find frustrating, what is it?

I love writing. But I really do find the marketing aspect a pain and a bore. I’m no salesman (though I did work for a year as a company representative and I’ve also managed a retail shop, so I have some experience of such things).

Is there a particular feature of writing that you really enjoy?

I love the creative phase. Getting down the story and developing the characters along the way is what most excites me. But I enjoy the editing process as well; there’s something particularly satisfying about creating a sentence that says exactly what you intend. Perhaps I should try some poetry…

Do you believe creative writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?

I think the ability to tell good stories in an entertaining fashion is probably a gift. But I believe that the development of that gift into something that will produce work of a quality acceptable to the world of publication is an acquired skill.

What are you writing now?

I’ve just finished the first draft of the second volume of an epic fantasy trilogy. I need to edit that, once I’ve had a break from it. So, I’ll write some short stories and may try my hand at another romance novel; something different from the fantasy to create whilst I complete the edit.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can visit?

I run this blog, of course. My website – the link is at the top of the page – is full of links to various sites of interest to readers and writers as well as carrying some of my short stories and samples from the novel, Breaking Faith, and my other books.

Given unlimited resources, where would you do your writing?

By the sea. The sea is in my blood; my natural father was a sailor and my mother’s father worked on the docks in Hull. So, I’d love to write from a house on a solid cliff top, in a warm climate, with the sea accessible below and visible from the window, as I sat behind an antique desk in a study lined with books and fine works of art.

Where do you actually write?

At a modern desk in a tiny room, with books either side and the window behind me; it looks out on the fence that divides the house from the one next door, so nothing to view there anyway. Music plays to hide other extraneous sound and the map for my epic fantasy hangs on the back of the door so I can consult it easily when necessary.

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Next week, no author interview, but I’ll revisit those from the past, so you can check out those you’ve missed along the way.
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