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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Luke Bellmason Discusses Book Cover, The Writing Process and Kurt Vonnegut's Shape of Stories

Here is part two of my interview with author Luke Bellmason.

You did the cover for Canterbury Tales yourself. It’s very impressive, a rarity for authors. Simple and yet instantly recognizable. Is there a difference, for you, between writing and creating visual art?

Thank you for saying so. I am so critical of my own work and it's almost impossible to judge yourself. I think there is link between all of the creative arts. music, painting and writing and it's aesthetics. It's such a difficult concept to grasp because it's entirely subjective. Two people might agree that something looks beautiful but ten others might not. Who is right? I know when I've done something that looks right image wise, but I can't explain how. I just look at it and say to myself "yes, that's right." When someone else agrees that's very pleasing. I only wish it were that easy with writing, I am never quite sure whether that's good or not. There's a lot less certainty.

I think I must have a visual sort of mind, I tend to visualize everything in the story before I ever write it down. The writing part is the last part, like the events have happened and the words are just the 'reporting' of those events. I did a two year course in visual communications about six years ago and, even though I can't draw that well and have never seriously considered working in the industry professionally, I learned how to present things professionally. How to 'sell' yourself and take a professional attitude to manage deadlines and such. It seems like something so simple now, but before going to college I would start projects and never finish them, or never plan them out to how I would complete them. I'm a lot more workman-like about my writing as a result of that and it's certainly come in very handy to know how to do typesetting and produce stuff for print and all that.

The other great thing I learned at college was to be experimental. You have to do something which will stand out. Everyone has access to Photoshop and computer imaging software these days but they are just tools. There's a great temptation to let the computer do all the work but then you'll simply end up with something which looks exactly like everyone else's.

At college, they would encourage us to go out and photograph 'textures' or to collect unusual objects, or do something else totally random. Then we'd have to incorporate these into our work. It made us think differently and come at things from another direction. I have certainly tried to apply this ethos to my writing.

Like the story I'm working on at the moment, which has the plot line of 'discovery'. The main character discovers something which ends up changing his life and leading him in turn to discover something fundamental about himself. I took the word 'discovery' as a theme and 'discovery' wrote the first draft instead of carefully outlining it like I normally would. The result was a different story to the one I would have written if I'd planned it, probably. I don't actually know this for certain of course. I would be inclined to say I learned 'to think outside of the box' if that phrase wasn't so hideously overused.

Describe your writing process? How often do you write and how long per session?

I write do a lot of my writing at work, in the truck or sitting in the driver's waiting room. I can easily clock up three or four hours of sitting-around-time a night. Having said that, I do have an iPad and waste a huge amount of that time on twitter, or watching TV shows and movies.

I recently set up a very convoluted system for making myself write, which involved writing a text adventure game. Check my blog for more details. It's completely crazy, and I know it's crazy, but it seems to be working. It goes back to what I said about being experimental. Nobody in their right mind would waste time creating a text adventure game to help them write a novel, but doing the obvious and the expected is only a sure route to creating something obvious and expected.

The first four tales took over four years to write, but it allowed me to develop a kind of production line system where I start out with a concept, themes and a plot then go on through drafts on to a final version.

So to begin with I draw up (with coloured lines and everything) an outline for each main character. If you've seen that video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining Cinderella and other classic tales, you'll get the idea. That outline forms the basis for the first draft, which is a really free-flowing exploration of all the ideas I've had for the story. I don't hold anything back, I just chuck everything in. Usually the story has been gestating for months and rolling around inside my head. I like it best when the first draft spills onto the screen in a couple of weeks.

Sorting out the mess of the first draft is the task of the second draft, which is where I try and figure out where the scenes are, and each scene has to advance the plot. This is vital with a short story where space is at a premium, but it also keeps the story moving along and I like to switch up locations a lot too, have contrasts between scenes so the mood changes and the reader gets a sense of following the character through their journey.

The third draft is where I edit down, make things clearer, try to cut out scenes which aren't necessary or merge scenes. It's great when you can double up things too, like having dialogue which doesn't just explain the plot, but also describes a character and maybe foreshadows or sets something up for later. The third draft really has to get the story ready for publication, with line-editing to cut down the word count as much as possible. Someone once told me to 'imagine the editor is charging you for each word'.

Then there's the final draft, where I do the last bit of proof-reading and checking for overused words, like 'just' or 'decide' or 'wonder', which I seem to use a hell of a lot!

I am the worst procrastinator in the world and will do anything to avoid writing, but with this new system I'm hoping plan out my time much more carefully and get the next volume out in a year.

The ideal amount of time I've found for writing is about 90 minutes. You have to decide to make those 90 minutes sacred, keep away from Twitter and the internet. Even so, for the first half an hour is just messing about, getting the brain warmed up. Then I'll hopefully be in the zone for a good hour, before I stop. I stop at the end of the time, even unless things are going really well, because I'll go off the boil and stop producing anything any good.

One of the things I like to do at the end of a session like this as well is to set up the thing I'm going to be doing in the next session. Write the first few lines of the next scene or a few lines of dialogue. So I'm not coming to the work completely cold next time.

What do you think is your weak point as a writer? Or, to say that another way, describe something about your writing you would like to improve.

I often worry about my characters and whether they're all the same, or whether they're all just versions of me. I enjoy writing dialogue but it's so hard to get into a character if you're not sympathetic with them or if they're supposed to be the 'bad guy'.

My main gripe though is my lack of output, the procrastination that I mentioned. But then again, I would not be too unhappy to have written only one or two good books by the time I leave this rock by one means or another.

I used to read a lot of books on writing and listen to writing podcasts and go to writing workshops, but in the end I think you can overdo it. One tends to end up with analysis paralysis, where you end up doing nothing because you think everything you're writing is bad. There's a sort of bad writing hypochondria where you recognise every example of bad writing and think 'yes, I do that.' You can easily convince yourself you're writing is shockingly bad and that has the effect of stopping you from writing, which is the opposite of what you should do of course, which is write more and more until you get better.

Or, you could do what I do and just have your story told by a narrator and then blame all the bad writing on him.

Lastly, how many volumes are planned for Canterbury Tales? Have you thought about what you’d like to write after the series is finished?

There will be two more volumes of the tales to come, making up the total of twelve tales. Volume 2 should be out next year, with volume 3 following in 2015. Then I'll probably collect the three volumes together into one book, and I'm thinking that maybe I should add some new stuff for that version.

There could be an infinite number of follow ups, but I'm a big fan of ending things before they go stale. Leave your audience wanting more and all that.

The book after was planned so long ago, well before the Canterbury Tales were even conceived. But it's going to be a better book for the fact that I have honed my story-telling skills on this project first. I'm really aware of learning all I can from this project to build up to writing the next one.

It will also be based on video-games and the culture that surrounds them. It'll have two levels going on, a little like the Canterbury Tales has; firstly the group of players in an online game and also the events and characters they play in the game itself. It will also tie in with what I said about online games and the character's stories emerging from the players themselves, rather than having pre-written and scripted things in the game.

I'd love to explore the iteration between the players and their characters in a system which could potentially generate and manage an entire fictional universe drawn from all the world's literature and culture on the internet. A sort of automated AI storytelling machine which injects new stuff into a video game all the time. Such a game would be endlessly playable (not to mention highly addictive.)

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