Bewildering Stories interviews
Michael E. Lloyd
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Do you use the Internet to check facts? The library? Another means of information-gathering?
The Internet: constantly and thoroughly. Libraries: rarely, in fact only when the Internet won’t do. My own bookshelves: quite a bit! And I’m currently receiving a lot of generous expert advice for one of my new projects.
And wherever possible I visit the places I plan to use for the action of my stories, and do a lot of foot-slogging to pick up plenty of accurate local colour (and blisters). The full Observation trilogy was set in twelve countries and eighteen U.S. states, and I’ve been to almost every one of the specific locations used in that story. My camera, my voice recorder, some very small lined notepads and several sharp pencils are the key tools.
My latest writing projects (more about those further below) involve substantial re-visits to Oxford, Cambridge, London, Paris, and the east coast of England. It will be tough, but I’ll grin and bear it.
The Observation trilogy obviously took many hours of labor. Could you discuss how you go about doing research and, especially, organizing plot lines?
My proofreading eye detects a small error in this question’s text. For “many hours” read “several years.”
I’ve already talked about my approach to research. I’ll sum it up by saying that I try to check out everything I use or mention in my stories, either in person or via reliable sources. I don’t like seeing inaccurate references in other people’s work, and I’m terrified of someone discovering one in mine! I’m sure there are actually plenty of them lurking around, of course. I just do my level best to get it right.
As for plot lines ... well, when I feel I have enough of a concept to make a start on something tangible, I build the big picture from my research notes and thoughts, by writing dozens of keywords and ideas (for action and themes and locations and so on) on small post-it notes. And I sometimes put whole rough sentences on larger post-its, to capture key events and activities. Eventually I’m ready to map out several parallel plot lines against a tentative chapter sequence, in a big matrix on a flip-chart page or two, and then slap each post-it onto it in a potentially good place. Then I keep re-working the whole thing until it seems at least viable. The technique is known as meta-planning.
After that I’m ready to transfer the structure and all the keywords and so on into a WP file (that’s what I call “text blocking”), making great use of different font colours and multi-coloured text highlighting. And now I have my first, very incomplete draft of the story, probably still without a single proper sentence. Then I try to write the first few paragraphs, and the final ones.
From that point on, the plot lines tend to develop in my head as I do more detailed text blocking, and they often get further refined, dynamically, once I’m finally producing “real words.”
Do you ever have a problem with writer’s block?
Sometimes, although it’s not so much being lost for words (!) as recognising the need to stop and work out precisely how something ought to happen, or “how it could have come to this,” or what might be some reasonably plausible “science” behind a rather speculative bit of fiction! I’ve found the best solution is to start wandering around the house or garden and talking it through to myself, out loud, until I’m comfortable. Then I’ll either use the voice recorder to capture the “answer,” or get straight back to my post-it notes or the PC.
But my main problem, which I know is shared by many other professionals, is “writer avoidance.” Which doesn’t mean I’d rather cross the street than have to chat with another author walking towards me. It means I will sometimes do just about anything (including unwelcome house and garden chores) to avoid actually getting stuck into a difficult phase of a piece of work. In fact, this answer was the very last one I drafted in the whole interview.
It works both ways, of course. There’s no better excuse for declining an invitation to do one of those household chores than: “Well, I really do need to finish this chapter today ...”
When do you write? At set times or as the mood moves you?
It’s certainly “as the mood moves me” when devising all the different ingredients of a piece. If worthwhile ideas crop up, I’ll scribble them on paper as soon as it’s convenient, and later block them into a structure with my post-it notes and so on. And it’s “any time / all the time” when I’m on a specific research trip. This is the “muse-driven” side of things, of course: the “10% inspiration” stage, and very un-managed!
Once I’ve started writing an actual text, it depends on whether or not I’ve set myself a target completion date (or even agreed one with my editor)! I’ll cover that in the next question. But whether or not the piece is written to a firm schedule, this is definitely the “90% perspiration” stage!
Some writers say they make it a rule to write a certain number of words every day. Do you do this?
No, I don’t. That’s not a very helpful driver for me, per se.
But if I have a firm date in mind for completion of the “first full draft,” I set a myself a target of an average number of words to be typed in each day between start and end, based on my estimate of likely overall length. In the early stages, the number achieved each day (using the WP’s simple word count function) will include a lot of “blocking text” and chunks of very rough prose. But as time passes it will represent an increasing proportion of “real words.” And if I’ve been lazy or lax in the early days, I just have to work harder nearer the end — like everyone else!
Where do you write?
I do my brainstorming and outlining anywhere and everywhere, especially when I’m travelling to and from my research locations and my mind is fully focused on the job in hand, rather than distracted by all the other everyday stuff.
But I do all the typing on the PC in my “den,” surrounded by my drawings, my world maps, my fish tank, my books and the latest flip chart sheets, and looking out on our garden and the woods beyond. It’s a beautifully tranquil place, most of the time. And there’s never any music playing when I’m thinking or writing: I always get so absorbed in the lyrics of everything I listen to that it’s totally impossible to concentrate on anything else at the same time!
Who proofreads and critiques your work?
Me, my trusty BwS crewmate Agnes Blom (thanks yet again, pal!), me, my wife, me, a range of honest first readers, me, a certain Don Webb, and me. Did I mention myself? Proofreading never ends, and I take it very seriously, as the rest of the Bewildering empire knows all too well! And I read everything out loud to myself in the final stages, to test the musicality of the text and improve it wherever I can.
How did you become associated with Jerry, Don and BwS?
Initially, in much the same way as everyone else involved in this fine little enterprise. I had completed Observation One, but had not managed to attract an immediate million dollar advance from a big name publisher or three. Meanwhile, during BwS’ second year of operation (somewhere around Issue 70), Jerry had put a one-line message on Janis Ian’s website forum, inviting people to come and take a look at the magazine, and maybe submit something for publication (just as Janis already had!). Fortunately I’d kept a note of that offer, and a few months later I sent the first chapter of my novel to Jerry and Don, and they both liked and accepted it, and off we went with the challenge of reformatting it into web pages.
So what specifically do you do behind the scenes at BwS?
Well, once the Observation One serialisation was nicely underway, and I was taking a break from writing and editing tasks, I decided to try and fill an obvious gap in the BwS web site’s facilities, by producing a single unified Index to all its main published works.
First, I developed a spreadsheet of every item that had appeared to date, broken down by category (novels, short stories, poetry etc). And from that I built a set of static web pages (one hundred in all), which became the Title and Author Index. It went live with Issue 150, around the time of BwS’ 3rd anniversary in the summer of 2005. It’s still going strong today, with a total of 3000 works (each of them 4-way indexed) as of April 2009. I update the spreadsheet and some 30-40 individual web pages by hand every Sunday, just before the next week’s Issue goes live.
But my closer involvement with the Review Board did not begin until long after the completion of the on-line publication of Observation One. Don had kindly invited me to join the team some time earlier, but I’d said “not right now” (I was occupied with some other very tough stuff). I did lend a helping hand a little later, when BwS’ resources suddenly became badly stretched, and I eventually started to play an active role in 2006.
The main things I do each week, as the “Crew” previews and votes on all the items in the upcoming Issue, are to check every single hyperlink throughout the Issue’s many new web pages, and then make a fairly intensive proofreading pass through all its texts, highlighting any final corrections needing to be made by a certain Copy Editor, back at the ranch!
What’s it like to be a member of the Bewildering Stories Review Board?
Pure heaven. Better than sex or drugs or rock’n’roll (but not all three at once).
What’s your favorite part of the Editor’s job? And what’s your least favorite part?
I’ll cover both of those questions with a single answer.
I really enjoy coming across particularly well-written and engrossing stories and poems, and being able to rate them highly on their literary merits, without having to labour over the correction of multiple errors of grammar, syntax and punctuation!
What would you like to see Bewildering Stories do that it hasn’t done yet?
Well, as Don knows, I have long suspected that our total weekly readership is still rather low, in the context of, say, the number of human beings presently alive on the planet, or even the number of people who might really enjoy a well-edited and beautifully presented literary publication, delivered to their PC every week at no cost, gratis and for free.
So ideally I’d like to see BwS transform itself, overnight, into a magazine that is a hundred times better known, and is properly appreciated for all it does and all it stands for. If anyone reading this interview feels up to the challenge of leading a new and really effective promotional project with those goals, I’d love them to make contact with Don.
If you could be any character from a book or movie, who would it be?
Wow, what a fabulous question!!
If I had just one choice, it would be Maelene Bay, from the Observations. That could be one helluva lot of fun, and it would certainly be something of a change. I’d definitely be very proud of who I was and how I was trying to live my life.
I’d also like to be both the glorious idealist Elizabeth Bennett and her immaculately flawed Mr Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice. And I’d just love to be the aggravating but so-desirable Emma Woodhouse, but definitely not her most perfect Mr Knightley! You see now why I adore Jane Austen?
Regrettably, I think I actually am poor old Alceste in Molière’s Le Misanthrope. “Not as pretty as all those others,” observes Maelene with characteristic bluntness. But that’s life.
Almost every writer is inspired by someone else. Does anyone inspire you?
How long do I have to answer that?
From songwriting: Janis Ian and Corinne Bailey Rae in particular, for their ability to capture the universal in the most personal of lyrics. From literature: Molière and Voltaire especially, for their uncommon wit in the beautiful language. From public life: two past British Prime Ministers, for their common sense and resolve. From family: my wife and daughters, for their humanity and their many talents. From private life: three highly respected friends, for their quiet selflessness and leadership. And several others.
Every one of these great people is actively honoured in my work; the nods to them are sometimes patent, and sometimes hidden deep between the lines. Being able to recognise them in this way is, for me, one of the greatest pleasures of writing.
If you could ask any other writers to dinner, whom would you invite, and why?
It would need to be at least a month-long dinner, to give everyone I’d want to invite all the time they needed to talk properly with everybody else. They’d all be fine raconteurs as well as great writers, of course. But many of them have passed on, and I don’t have a large enough room or table for it anyway! Although, like Voltaire in Venice, I did conjure up something of the sort in For The Conference; and in one of my works in progress there’ll be an even bigger “happening” along those lines, in a Parisian literary café ...
But seriously, the guest list would be huge, so there’s no space here to say “why” I’d invite each one. I’ll let them simply speak for themselves. They’re all very good at that ...
Rabelais, Cyrano, and Voltaire. Isaak Walton (The Compleat Angler). Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens. H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. Laurie Lee. Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and John Cleese. Colin Wilson, Harold Bloom and Bill Bryson. Lynne Truss, Jasper Fforde and my wife. And representing BwS: Carmen Ruggero!
And I get to mention some great modern singer-songwriters at last! Janis Ian and Corinne Bailey Rae would both be at the dinner table, of course, but I’d also invite Carole King, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, and Suzanne Vega. I think those seven glorious ladies would have plenty to say between them.
To balance things out a bit, we’d be joined by Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Bob Marley, John Lennon, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan would be very welcome too, as long as he promised not to wear his tux.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Fishing’s my main relaxation — it’s a wonderful combination of fresh air and focus! I also do quite a lot of reading, but never enough — especially with my various BwS jobs, which between them occupy many hours each week. I kept up my light aircraft flying until quite recently, but I’ve stopped for the time being, at least ... too many other demands on funds! And I do my share of the gardening, when I have to!
There’s a much fuller illustrated profile of me and my hobbies over at my own web site.
That monstrous fish you’re holding in the picture in your bio: where in God’s name did it come from and what happened to it after the two of you parted company? Did it win a prize of some sort?
I caught it in 2004, in one of my favourite little lakes not far from Cambridge. It’s a Northern Pike (Esox lucius), tipping the scales at a little over 20 pounds (9.5 kilos). And as soon as it was weighed, measured and photographed, it went back in the water to be caught another day, and hopefully even heavier. It’s still my “personal best” fish, but I won no prizes for catching it ... the present British record pike is a lot bigger, at around 46 pounds!
What is your current or next writing project?
Right now I’m working on the research and structure of two separate stories. I expect them to develop to novella size or maybe longer.
One of them is planned to be a serious but humorous take on Quixotic delusion and existentialist ideas. I’m presently thinking of it as not so much a black comedy as a grey French farce! That’s the one that’s taking me back to several cherished big cities for lots of up-to-date local research.
The other piece is going to be a supernatural story of children and their childhoods in a fast-changing world. The research and techniques needed to develop that one are proving to be a combination of personal recollections, plenty of invention, and a lot of speculative thinking!
Finally, I’ve wondered from time to time if there might be value in a sort of Companion volume to the Observations, along the lines of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Companion(s) and similarly entertaining reference tomes. But as soon as I take that idea just one step further, I realise it would be an immense labour to do it fully and properly, and there are simply far more important things I still want to write about. So that’s one for “when I have nothing better to do with my time”!
My thanks to Don and the entire Bewildering Stories Crew for posing so many fascinating and penetrating questions. I’ve very much enjoyed answering them all.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael E. Lloyd