Today I’m joined by author James Brogden, a writer of horror and dark fantasy.
A part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and the Cumbrian Borders, he has since escaped to suburbia and now lives with his wife and two daughters in the Midlands, where he teaches English. When not writing or teaching he can usually be found up a hill, poking around stone circles and burial mounds. He also owns more lego than is strictly necessary.
His short stories have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals ranging from The Big Issue to the BFS Award-Winning Alchemy Press. Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree were published by Titan Books, with his new novel The Plague Stones released in May 2019.
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I’m marketed as horror, though I’ve never really thought of myself as a horror author.
I lean quite heavily towards the fantasy side of things so you’ll find steampunk airships and ley-lines alongside demons and ghosts in my stories. The one thing which remains pretty constant is that I try as much as possible to set them in the Midlands. Partially this is out of laziness (it’s where I live, so less distance for research), partially it’s out of curiosity to learn more about the strangeness of my home, and partially out of a certain bolshiness; publishing is quite a London-centric business, and I want to avoid the default option.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
Graham Joyce and Neil Gaiman, for the revelation that you can unnerve and enchant without having to adhere to simplistic genre tropes.
Clive Barker, for the similar idea that you can be disturbing, lyrical, nightmarish and poetic all at the same time.
Susan Cooper and Julian May for showing me that myths can take living, breathing form in stories.
Christopher Fowler for making me cry with laughter while scaring the pants off me.
Stephen King, obviously, for making it look so bloody easy and so much fun.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
If I’m being left to my own devices I have a set of key scenes or landmarks that I try to connect with a coherent narrative, and see where that goes. That was how I wrote The Narrows and Hekla’s Children, but without an externally imposed deadline the process is quite a bit slower.
Since I’ve been working for Titan, my editors like to see a fully realised outline so they can get an idea of how to market it and make suggestions, which is fine with me because I have no clue about marketing and I’m happy to take advice from other professionals who want to make the book as successful as possible. It also forces me off my backside to actually get the thing done in a reasonable time-frame.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
Well I’ve got faster, that’s for sure. My first novel The Narrows literally took twenty years to get published. The most recent one, The Plague Stones, was probably no more than a year, and the bulk of the first draft was completed over the summer of 2018.
Most of that is because of writing to a contract – as I say, external deadlines really focus the attention.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
I have a mortgage-paying job as a teacher so I basically have two types of writing day.
During term time, when my brain is thoroughly fried after a day of attempting to hold the attention of nearly two hundred adolescent boys, let alone teach them anything, the most I can do after I get home is maybe a bit of work on the outline, wrangling out plot points, making character notes, details of settings and what have you. Creating actual sentences isn’t going to happen.
From about Easter onwards I’ll be writing the first draft by hand in a notebook, and by the time the summer ‘holiday’ rolls around, hopefully I’ve got enough that I can sit down and bash out a full MS to send to the publisher.
I’ll work from about 8 in the morning until lunchtime, run errands or go to the gym in the afternoon, watch Tipping Point and have my tea, then aim for another hour or two in the evening. If after that I come away with 3000 words I’ll consider it a good day.
My deadline for the next book is mid-September. Assuming I deliver that on time I’ll get editorial notes around Christmas, and the process of redrafting and tidying it up will take until Feb/March of the next year, for publication in May.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
The initial idea, wrangling out the plot outline and the main story beats. I enjoy being excited about new ideas and revelations, or new connections between old ideas; things that hadn’t occurred to me; things that make me go ‘Oh that is so cool!’
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
It’s a big collaborative effort. Since I’ve been writing to contract the process starts with me pitching several ideas to the editor, and if there’s one she likes I’ll write up an outline of the whole book. She’ll read that and make suggestions, we’ll negotiate changes (which means I’ll do what she asks, because she’s always right), and then I’ll get down to the actual drafting.
For research sometimes I’ll pick the brains of friends of mine with specialist knowledge, usually over a beer or while hiking, which is much more fun than Google.
I don’t have beta readers to give me feedback as I go – mostly because things will change in the editing anyway. The first person to see the finished book will be my agent, who will give some editorial ideas about broad changes, and then the editor, who might pass it on to several other assistant editors who also have specialist knowledge (such as, in the case of The Plague Stones, medieval history).
Towards the end there will be copy-editors and proof-readers involved to catch as many rogue typos as possible. So yeah, a few.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
There are loads of writing guides which will tell you contradictory things about adverbs, for example, but the main thing is that you do not listen to the little voice inside your head that’s trying to tell you that you suck, your writing is rubbish and you should just stop trying to fool everyone.
That voice wants your writing dead. It wants you to slob out in front of the telly or waste your time scrolling through your twitter feed. Every writer has that voice. Any writer who claims that they don’t have that voice is either lying or so up themselves that you don’t want to take their advice on anything.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
Well you haven’t asked me where I get my ideas from, so thank you for that at least.
Thanks to James for taking the time to tell me about his writing life. It never ceases to fascinate me how much variety there is in different authors’ working practices: proof that there’s no one right way to do it.