Q & A with High Fantasy Author James Barclay

th_ebf486218337267c1b432845a3df25be_1302558799_magicfields_cover_artwork_1_1[1]Q. I notice from a review on your website of Elves Once Walked with Gods that you wrote and then abandoned the first sixty thousand words and began all over again. It was also a point that you made when you came to talk to us that a writer shouldn’t be afraid to make cuts and re-writes. How long does it take you to write a first complete draft? And then how long to edit it?

A. Yes, I did indeed and it was a very painful moment. The fact was that I could feel as I was writing it that the pace was slow…turgid…and I was getting bogged down in unnecessary detail and chasing plotlines that led nowhere. While it would have been possible to edit that draft, the danger was that it would lead to uneven pacing, leaving in sections that didn’t really fit and trying, basically, to correct what was a failing draft. But that’s something you learn to recognise and, horrible though it was, I knew that to write the draft I wanted, I’d have to start again – go back to the plans and work out a new course of action.

A first draft will tend to take me about six months once I’m happy with the planning and structure and the blank page one is waiting to be filled… editing, well, it’s a never-ending process really but you have to let it go eventually because publishers need the manuscript. For me, editing will certainly go on for two months and then, when my editor has read the draft and made comments, I’ll go through the process again for another three weeks. These are approximate times but all in all, I like to go from blank slate to edited draft in a year maximum.

Q. It seems that all writers have a different work ethic. What is your writing day like and is it that you insist on silence as you submerse yourself in another world?

A. Absolutely – every author I know works in a different way. I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to do it full time (having worked in the City for ten years). I try to keep office hours because that’s what I’m used to. So once the children are off to school and I’ve walked the dog, I try to be in my office by 9.30am latest and then work til lunch, take an hour, then work on til 6pm.

I used to write on the way to work and back every day on the underground so I’m used to dropping into writing mode wherever I am. It means I don’t need silence; indeed, I don’t like writing in silence and will have the radio on or a playlist, depending on my mood and whether I’m drafting, planning or editing.

When I went full time as a writer, I asked other Gollancz authors for advice and the piece from Rob Grant stuck with me. He simply said ‘Get dressed in the morning.’ That was spot on for me as it’s a way to get into office mode. The danger of writing in your dressing gown is that you never really feel you’re at work. That’s just me. I know at least one author who begins her writing day in bed with her laptop. Mind you, she doesn’t have children…

Q. There are many different types of working day within our membership. As a published author, what advice can you give us to coping with the various distractions that are likely to crop up and try to foil our achievements?

A. That’s a harder question than it sounds because I’m still prey to those same distractions even though I’ve been published since 1999. Having a publisher deadline certainly helps to focus the mind but in the absence of that, the fact that there’s cleaning, gardening and shopping to be done, plus the test match, great TV and everything else out there to watch is a constant niggle.

I’ve come to believe that if I’m being distracted, it’s because something’s wrong with what I’m supposed to be writing and I’m avoiding it. So I’ll look at the scene I’m trying so desperately (and successfully) to avoid writing and confront the problems – it could be the scene doesn’t fit, or is dull or is unnecessary and should be dumped in favour of something new.

But, there are always days when writing is slow or non-existent; days the words refuse to flow. On those days, and you get to know when they’re happening, I’ll drop into a different project, write a different scene entirely or just walk away from it. The key is not to make a small obstacle into mountain. If the words don’t come, walk away and come back another day…the answer will suggest itself in the end.

Q. It seems that over the years you have carried out a tremendous amount of research. Plus, you owned up to keeping all your notes. How do you catalogue and keep it all and what if the form of the research is not tangible – a feeling gained from somewhere, an atmosphere or smell of a particular setting or something someone said?

A. I think it sounds more impressive than it actually is. I’ve been writing a long time and inevitably, I’ve had to learn and research things I’ve used in my writing over the years. Some of it just sticks in the mind and can be instantly recalled but plenty can’t.

What I tend to do these days (and I used to use card files ages ago) is have a research folder in the Word folders I have for whichever book I’m doing, rather than a central research area, so to speak. It’ll contain quotes, page references for texts, web addresses…anything I need to get the information I want as quickly as possible. And of course I have plenty of books on the shelves to dip into. I try to keep it simple – too much written down becomes a wall and I find that aide memoires and knowing where to find what I need work well for me. Also, having read a text and noted useful areas, going back to read it when I want to use research in a draft can often uncover new things, or the fact that I’ve misunderstood something the first time round.

In terms of intangibles, I always have a word document where I write down any snippets – bits of conversations, a facial expression, that sort of thing. For sensory notes, I’ll note familiar scents, for instance, things I can recall easily. Or a setting where I discovered a new scent, anything to enhance recall. Noting feelings is no different, to my mind. It’s all about writing down physical triggers, facial reactions, things that will help evoke what you need.

Q. Your descriptions of the rainforest, the creatures that dwell in the trees and on the floor is quite detailed. Have you travelled much and actually visited the rainforests?

A. I didn’t visit rainforests before I wrote the Elves books (or indeed Elfsorrow in The Raven series which has events in a rainforest). I read a great deal about the flora and fauna plus watched programmes – documentaries and fiction – that had rainforest settings. I’ve been to rainforest since and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done in the books, which is a comfort. One thing I wish I’d known was about the fierce humidity and how it saps energy and strength if you’re not acclimatised. It would have added yet more to the struggles of humans from a temperate climate but you can’t get everything right. Still, it’s locked away now so if I use a rainforest again, I can make it better.

th_ebf486218337267c1b432845a3df25be_elveskaturahires[1]Q. You made some comments about the attire of the Elf on the cover of Elves Beyond the Mists of Katura and a member of the audience also commented on the weapon that he was holding. How much say do you have regarding the cover of your books?

A. I have input into the covers but not the final say. It’s a process of negotiation. For instance, the Elf on the cover of ‘Once Walked With Gods’ has long hair and I pointed out that none of my elves has long hair because, frankly, it’s a problem to have flowing locks in a vine-filled, tree-crammed rainforest. But, we went with it because long hair can give great movement to an image, which it did in this case, and hence give it greater impact.

I had a lot of input into the cover of Beyond the Mists because the Elf on the cover is from a very specific calling – the Senserii – and carried a very specific weapon – an Ikari – which only they use. So what you see there is pretty much what is described within. I was delighted with it.

The way I work is to discuss what I’d like with my editor who then briefs the cover artist. The artist will also have read some of the book to get an idea of atmosphere and style. By the way, my favourite cover is the latest version of Ravensoul (the last in the Raven series). It’s by a renowned fantasy artist called Raymond Swanland and captures perfectly the mood of the book and the state of mind of the character (Sol, reluctant King of Balaia) depicted on the cover.

Ravensoul

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