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I got the privilege to ask Phil a few, super hard hitting journalistic gobbledy-goop. His answers reflect a man who knows how to get things done, despite a life that gets in the damn way...something we all struggle with. Enjoy!
Do you have your own rituals to prepare yourself to write? Mind Sharing?
Hi Casey, first up, thanks for inviting me along. Great to be talking to you today.
Okay, in terms of rituals I don’t really have any. I tend to be someone who grabs time to write as and when I can so that doesn’t lend itself to a set routine. Mostly it’s a case of I’ve got an hour to spare here or there and grab it when I can.
What sort of headspace are you in when you write your best?
When I’m not tired! I have a young family and, as I’m sure you know yourself, sleep can quickly become a distant memory. I’m very keen to get the right balance between time with the kids, my wife and writing. Invariably it is the writing which suffers. I’m generally of the opinion that the edit will save all! This means that I can get away with an okay quality first draft and then get it into a final version I am happy with later along the line. I tend to get into double figures for edits as well as editing as I go along when I revisit the work at each sitting. Possibly not the most economical approach but it seems to work for me. Final edits do have to be done when no one else is around as I read the piece out loud to catch any of those errant typos and pick up issues with the flow of sentences and so forth.
What were your biggest challenges while writing Becoming David?
I was a bit concerned about some of the stuff I had to google in case the police came knocking at my door one day! I am now reasonably expert in how to dispose of a small number of bodies and the decomposition of a body in an acid bath. Not pleasant!
In reality Becoming David is the tale of a descent into madness (though you could argue Richard, the lead character, wasn’t sane in the first place given his homicidal tendencies). So how do you deal with madness in a character who is definitely at the bad end of the ‘what we shouldn’t do in polite society’ spectrum? Effectively it introduces a moral compass where there wasn’t one before. Now most readers want a hero in a story, that person who comes riding in on their white charger to save the day and do away with the villain, the person to cheer for. Except there is no hero in Becoming David. That for me was the biggest challenge. Having a protagonist with no redeeming qualities and making the reader give a damn about them. And the feedback seems to suggest I managed to pull it off which you’re never really quite sure of until all this stuff which was floating around in your head for months is in the hands of someone else.
Are you an outliner? How much do you plan in advance before starting a new project?
I tend to provide outlines if I’m working on a novella but not so much for shorter pieces. Anything around the 5k to 10k mark is stuff I can play around with in my head. I walk a lot of places and find it a great time to get some headspace to plot out story ideas. Invariably I’ve worked out my ending to a short story during one of those walks before I’ve set pen to paper (or whatever the equivalent is for typing). I’ll also work out my entry point on those walks too, how we’re introduced to the characters, story, etc. The rest of it, for short stories, is done on the hoof as I am writing – sort of knowing you’re going from A to B on the map but can take one of fifty different routes to get to your destination.
For novellas I have to plot it out otherwise I know I will box myself in at some point. For Becoming David I knew my opening and I knew the ending. I wrote the ending pretty much as one of the first things I did. To make sure I could get there properly I wrote a brief synopsis for each chapter, things like ‘Richard and David meet for the first time’, ‘Richard finds an intruder in his basement’, and so forth. I also write an estimated word count for each chapter, usually a rough 2,000 words, to give me a sense of how long the book will be. The great thing is these chapter synopses are guidance and can be chopped and changed as I go along. There are characters in Becoming David I had not even considered in the plotting which had to be created as I went along.
In terms of how far do I plan in advance, well it depends. Some things are a few weeks of pondering before I put some words down and others have been ideas I’ve had kicking around for years which suddenly feel right to start working on. Again, it’s back to those walks. There’s none of the distractions of home when walking. All you’ve got is the fresh air for company so you can tease out problems in your concept. Becoming David was a funny one though. Peter Mark May of Hersham Horror had approached me to write a novella and asked for some ideas. I came up with a reworking of the Pied Piper tale which he rightly rejected but that left me with diddlysquat to offer him. So he challenged me to come up with three other ideas and he would pick one. The other two were reasonably generic but the third was Becoming David. I was sitting in my office at home frantically trying to scrape together a third option for him and was scanning bookshelves for inspiration. Somewhere along the line my mind tripped across a cannibal tale, mingled it with Single White Female and threw in the concept of the power of our own conscience. It’s amazing how a deadline can focus the mind!
Describe your writing space.
Anywhere and everywhere. I write everything on my laptop which goes most places with me. Often you’ll see me sitting on a train journey tapping away on the keyboard while the world goes on around me. So I guess I have a changing writing space. One day the calm of an empty carriage, the next the commotion of a young family or similar. And trains are also good for inspiration. I was writing a story with graffiti artists in it and I might have nicked a few of the tags I saw spray painted along the train route I was taking. Other times it’s sitting at the kitchen table or on the sofa with laptop in front of me when the rest of the family have gone to bed for the evening. Babysitting gigs are great when you know your friends’ kids will be in bed all the time as no disturbances! And hotel rooms too. Any time I’m off at a convention or staying overnight somewhere for work I always think of the writing time it affords me.
Do you find yourself drawn to certain themes or reusing particular elements in your work?
Pretty much back to that descent into madness thing. I rarely write about monsters or demons. It’s usually about people and how they react in situations. On one of my walks I had a fly buzz me. It got me to thinking about that nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly. This morphed into an old man swallowing a fly except this man was neurotic about cleanliness. What happens if you have this dirty filthy creature squirming around inside you? What if you think it’s still alive days later, laying eggs in you? Just how do you go about enticing it out?
My good friend James Everington asked me to write a short story for an anthology he is co-editing with Dan Howarth which is out later this year from Dark Minds Press. The anthology is called Imposter Syndrome and has this fantastic line up of authors exploring the whole aspect of the syndrome. I’ve pulled together a story for that one about a washed up actor reinvented in the age of virtual reality – people playing him in VR. But what happens if you play yourself? What happens if you see yourself killed again and again in the game? Just what does that do to your sanity?
I’m planning on writing a novel later this year about a young family moving into a new house and the breakdown of the family unit, issues of trust, what is real, what isn’t, so, again, that whole psychological aspect of what is true and what is imagined.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a novella for a French Folk Horror project I’ve been asked to write for. Effectively it’s a mix of varying Hammer Horror films I used to love as a kid (and still do). A couple find themselves on holiday in a remote French village at the mercy of the locals. It’s been fun to write but there’s a lot of edits to go before I get it quite right!
Otherwise I’ve written a good few short stories this year and there’s three or four due out in varying anthologies before the year is out with a couple for charity. Themes have been around dogs rebelling, a sinister van, the birth of monsters, end of the world, industrial horror and an open themed anthology so it’s been a great year for short story invitations. One of those weird things in life where a few years ago I hit the ‘perhaps I should quit’ mark and now folks are asking for me to write for them; can’t beat that feeling and always grateful whenever someone comes knocking.
After that there’s the novel I mentioned and I also want to put out a collection of my short stories. And somewhere along the line I might find time for that elusive sleep I mentioned previously!
Thanks for making my first interview easy as pie Phil. You're welcome back anytime. For those of you wanting to pick up a copy of Becoming David, or getting more info n Phil Sloman himself, you need only follow the links below.