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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.
Good Oral Technique
You’ve written the first draft of your story and it’s goddamned amazing. Of course it is, they always are. But then the doubts creep in. It’s dreadful. Holy moly, this is the biggest stinking pile of horse excrement on the planet. What on earth was I thinking? And that’s fine. We’ve all been there and we all know that edits upon edits will be required and the polishing will happen over the coming weeks. You might put the story aside for a period of time to come back to it with fresh eyes and then edit it. It gets sent out to an editor and a whole host of other folks to really hone it and get it perfect (which it is). And now we’re back to that feeling of elation because you’ve written your book and it’s a damned fine book. High fives all round. And now the book is out and you’re selling it to folks and some well-meaning individual has arranged for you to go and do a reading at a convention, or a launch for your book or to a writer’s group or in fact anywhere you have to stand up in front of people and read your work aloud! The well-intentioned, helpful, promotional bastards! This isn’t what you signed up for. You wanted to write books in the comfort of your own home away from other bipeds. Now you’ve got to add another string to that bow we call talent and wow people with just how well you can read out loud. And you get to see the reaction on their faces as you do so and they’ll be judging you all the time. But they might buy a book too. And they might tell their friends to buy your book as well. So here’s some thoughts from me about how to approach this.
Firstly, let’s go back to that whole editing process. This is where you first practice reading your story. At some point in the varying rounds of edits make sure you read your work out loud. It will feel weird. Unnatural. Peculiar. But it will make your work so much better. On a basic level you will pick up all the typos which might have slipped through the net. On a different level you will get a much stronger feel for the beat of your story, the rhythm of the words, the ebbs and flows in the emotional journey of the piece. Phrases which read fine on the page sound different when read out loud. Try it with your latest work in progress. Go and pick up a random section and read it somewhere no one else can hear you. I’ll wait.
Excellent. I’m hoping that proved useful. Now for the next bit you’ll have to go and borrow a child. Preferably find one of your own otherwise nieces, nephews, a child of a friend (always ask the parent’s permission and return the child unharmed afterwards). Read them a story. Not your own. Find a story they like having read to them. Sit down and read to them. This is the safest zone in the world for reading to other people. Kids have this look of wonder and joy whenever anyone reads to them. Try it. I’ll wait again.
How was that? I know you varied your tone when reading but I bet you did voices too. Kids love it when you do voices. And it’s fun to read to kids which means it’s fun to read out loud which means you’re pretty much set for going and doing that reading you’ve got booked of your own work in front of those potential readers. Cool.
So this is a bit nervier than the rest of things. And that’s understandable, most people feel nervous reading or speaking in public, especially when you’re putting the words you’ve slaved over for months in your own private domain on display. Now, if you’re at a convention the likelihood is there will be alcohol there. Some folks like a drink for moral fortitude and comfort. If that’s your thing then do not have more than one or two drinks for two reasons. One is your bladder. You do not want to be doing the wet pants dance mid-reading. You want to be calm and relaxed. Two is you do not want to be that writer who slurs their way through a reading.
Now earlier I said folks were going to judge you. They’re not. I lied. Flip the picture and put yourself in the audience for another writer reading their work. You want to listen and support that person and maybe buy a book off the back of it. And that’s what 99% of everyone else is there to do for your reading. Pretty much everyone there has got your back. So that’s good. That’s empowering. And that gives you confidence. And the other thing which gives you confidence is the prep.
Choose the section you want to read and practice at home or wherever you feel comfortable. Find out from the organiser how long you have for the reading slot. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Longer? Time yourself so you know how long it takes to read a page, two pages, three, etc. Get your pacing right. Not too quick, not too slow. Just a comfortable pace. You’ll read quicker in front of an audience which is just nerves. Learn to pause at appropriate points. And when choosing a section to read choose one which really showcases your writing and has some action, or drama, or emotion or comedy in it. Something to make the audience go ‘I want to hear more from this story, let me go buy the book’. You’ll also need to rehearse an intro. ‘Hi, my name’s Phil Sloman, this is my story Becoming David about a serial killer whose victim comes back to haunt him. In this scene David has…’
So over to you. You’re at the reading. Take two or three deep breaths to calm the nerves (it really does help to relax you: http://time.com/4718723/deep-breathing-meditation-calm-anxiety/). Sit or stand. Up to you. Do whatever you feel comfortable with as long as people can see and hear you. When reading vary your tone just like you did when reading with those kids. Variation in tone helps to engage the listener. Only do voices if you’re comfortable this time! Speak clearly and speak out to the audience not to your feet (practice this when rehearsing at home). Use a microphone if there is one (and make sure someone checked the mic is working beforehand!). Look up from your book at times and scan the audience. A passing glance to different parts – no need for eye contact and not long enough to lose your place. Just to show you know they’re there. Use those pauses you practiced to do this. Engage the audience. If you stumble over a word or two don’t panic. Pause and pick it up again from the same point. Don’t worry about time – you’ve rehearsed timings so know you’re fine. Get to the end and then thank the audience for listening and prepare for potential questions as they give you a well-deserved round of applause. You’ve got this and I can’t wait to hear you read.
Phil Sloman Bio
It was December of 2014, just a week or so before Christmas. Six months earlier, after a long stream of dates and hook-ups on OK Cupid, I had resigned myself to remaining alone for the rest of my days. It wasn’t a sad decision, I just knew that I had seen what was there, experienced a great deal of it, and other than a few fleeting, lonely moments, I was quite well all on my own.
This way of being was disrupted by a sudden message on Facebook from an old high school friend, Lindsay, asking if I would like to go see a movie. I said sure, not thinking anything of it at all. While playing pool with my buddy, he poked and prodded me with quips about her wanting me, that it was a date, etc. I called him a fool, but it got me thinking. Did I want another first date?
I had been married previously for one whole year, and I didn’t want any more dates, so if I would consider this at all, I was going to take Lindsay to a horror movie. My ex-wife hated them, and it drained me. I refused to entertain any notion of letting another person in, if they weren’t going to want to watch horror with me. If Lindsay didn’t want to see one, then my decision was easy. I asked to go see The Babadook, and she accepted right away.
Now we are married, as life loves more than anything to say, “Fuck your plans.”
Amelia HATES her son but does not see it. The hate for someone she should love is her shadow, and is manifesting itself in her life in confusing ways. We can watch her frustration, as even listening to the boy for a few minutes makes us want to punch the kid. The irony here, is that her boy probably grew up the way he is because Amelia herself is a spastic mess, and has been for the 7 years since her husband died.
Enter the book – and by the way, an anagram for Babadook is A Bad Book. It is unclear to Amelia from where the book came, but we can see that she made it herself. Graphite on her fingers, construction paper and scissors in the background, and mentioning at a party that she had written some “kids’ stuff.”
The movie does a fine job of making the audience think that the Babadook is connected to her insane child, and not Amelia herself. Then she hears banging on the door. The book is back, after previously being destroyed, not pasted together. The drawings are now of a mother killing her child, and then herself. Amelia is falling apart.
The banging sounds, the way the camera creeps up her covers, the Babadook trying to jump from the ceiling into her mouth, and the literal words, “LET ME IN!” all refer to the fact that the shadow self can’t be dealt with, without first acknowledging its existence. Or to put it another way, letting the darkness in.
Jung says that the transition between a person oblivious, and one with comprehension of their shadow is a very rocky one, and most people can’t do it. It is just too hard to accept some things. All of the things that Amelia sees and experiences, the suits, insects, phone calls – all of this is her shadow attempting to break into her consciousness.
Now, without going through the entire movie, let’s fast forward to the end. Amelia looks at the Babadook and a bright light shines, ending the horror. This is a literal interpretation of Carl Jung’s theory. He said, “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.”
When Amelia finally confronts her shadow, it becomes one with her. She has accepted her hatred for her son, and can now realize how much she truly loves him. But, the shadow doesn’t disappear. Those aspects of ourselves still linger after we have confronted them, and just like any part of us, must be fed occasionally so that we can thrive.
Going down to the basement and feeding the creature is Amelia accepting that sometimes it is ok to hate her kid, because sometimes her kid is too much. By letting that hate exist- feeding it -she can then return to the love she truly feels for him.
The Babadook is a marvelous film on its own, even if you don’t get into the philosophy of it, and if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you go back in time and not read this, as it is full of spoilers. Silly rabbit.
Now, I’m going to go home and have sex with my wife.