Frequently asked questions
What is your stance on ebook piracy?
I'm in several minds about the issue, and it's really too complicated to sum up. Any published writer would like to make some money from their work. Same here. It takes between five and fifteen years (on average) to train a good writer - just like a good surgeon.
As much as we love what we're doing, writing is a job. For us, it's usually the second or third job. Writing is expensive. Somebody has to pay for the books we need for research, there's bills and rent to pay. All these aren't "free". A book takes me between six weeks and 18 months - in that time, I do very little else. The amount of time, energy and skill that goes into it can probably only be appreciated by another writer. If a writer doesn't make enough from their writing to make it worthwhile ("worthwhile" can mean a nice dinner with friends on the proceeds of a story), many will consider quitting. Or actually quit. And it's not just the money - it's also the fact that we constantly see our books stolen and people on the internet behave like bastards.
For example, "Deliverance" was online at a pirating community one week after it was released. It felt like a kick to the gut. It's even worse when somebody posts on a forum "I love Aleksandr Voinov's writing - can anybody send me "Deliverance" or upload that for me, please?" My response to that is a gut reaction. Here's somebody who says they love what I do, but at the same time, they are brazen enough to steal from me - by taking something "for free" that I have not made available for free. I would very much like to decide if I give stories away for free, thank you very much. (I have given away years of work just for the hell of it).
If you like what I do, please pay for it.
At the same time, I believe in the future of ebooks and I don't believe in DRM (digital rights management). I used to prefer paper releases, but truth is, paper is expensive and cumbersome, and many books are only available for a short time in a limited regional market (or, try to get one of my paper novels in, say, Japan - good luck). I have since talked to people that have problems reading the small print, or are blind/partially-sighted, and I believe in including as many readers as possible and not discriminate based on eyesight, location, or anything else. I believe books and stories should be available in whatever format works best for any given reader. I also believe that readers should be able to read the ebook on their phones, laptops, desktop computers and ebook readers, without expiry date, just like they could read a hardcopy anywhere they want. What I do not believe in is that stealing shows "love" or "support" for an author.
Where do you get your ideas?
In Soviet Russia, ideas get you. Honestly, though, ideas and characters seek me out rather than vice versa, and I know it's serious business when they won't leave me alone for days or weeks. If I'm running low on ideas, I read a lot of non-fiction, take a long shower, go for a walk, or do something else.
How do you do your research?
I buy a lot of books. Thankfully, London has a lot of excellent bookshops, ranging from Foyles to Waterstones on Piccadilly to Blackwells. I often wander there after work or during lunch and have a look whether they have anything I need for the current project. Then there are used bookshops, and a lot of information is online, or I can ask friends and contacts for some bits and pieces. Being curious and shameless are definitely plusses. The main challenge is to read all those books - I probably have thousands rather than hundreds. Then I immerse myself as deeply as possibly into any given era or profession. By now, I have a solid collection for general history and several encyclopedias that give me a good starting point.
What do you do when you get stuck?
Flail and panic for a while, then I ask my friends to see what I've done so far and talk to them about it. While that is going on, I write something else. I know that my subconsciousness is working on the problem while I do something else, so I try to leave it cooking. Sometimes, fiction is like a chocolate souffle - don't open the oven before it's done, so I always try to stay away from it and give it time.
What is the worst part about writing?
Letting go. When I finish a novel (strangely, short stories are easy to let go), I fall into the pits of despair. Every time. I wonder if "that was it", that was the last novel I'll ever write, if I'll ever do something remotely as good, if I'll ever have such great characters again, and I pity myself a lot. A writer during post-partum depression is no fun. This can last between one and six weeks, and then, suddenly, there's this next project. I hear voices again, and the whole thing starts anew. You'd think after about thirteen novels or thereabouts, I'd know by now that I'll always write. But the despair is just as real now as it was when I started out.
Do you need any specific things to write? Lighting, place, position?
I write with music, usually something loud and rhythmic. Industrial, heavy metal, dance, R&B, rap works fine. I like reasonable peace and quiet otherwise, so I can be a bit of a hermit. That's for writing. I can do outlining and making notes whenever, whereever. I'm not picky, and I've outlined very nicely in cafes, on the bus, in front of the TV or during university lectures. I can zone out completely.
How do you get so much done?
I'm a speedwriting freak that gets totally obsessed about what I'm working on. I don't watch TV, and my social life is about a few other writers and much of it happens on the internet. But yes, having few other hobbies and being ruthlessly efficient certainly helps.
I have an idea for a new story/sequel/prequel/etc. that I want you to write; will you write it? We could split 50/50.
No offense, but I have enough ideas to last me the next 150 years or so. Also, coming up with an idea costs you five minutes, writing the book costs me between 6 weeks and 18 months. I'd like to say "sure, pay me half a million, up-front", but fact is, I'm the god-awfullest ghostwriter ever. I got several jobs offered like that, gave one a shot, and couldn't do it. I can only write what I care about, and chances are, you're going to care a whole lot more about your idea than I ever will. But I'll happily recommend you creative writing books that can start you off on your own path - if I could learn how to write a story, so can you. And if you come up with the next idea, you don't even have to approach anybody else. Just write it yourself. It's fun, honest (apart from when, of course, it isn't).
Okay, then, I think I want to give this a try. What do you recommend for a writer just starting out?
A very good start is Stephen King's "On Writing" - contrary to many people who tell you how to write, he's actually making a (nice) living out of it. I also recommend all books by Noah Lukeman ("A Dash of Style" is 100% brilliance) and Donald Maass ("Writing the Breakout Novel") - those two are literary agents, so they see a lot of really bad books and put their money and reputation on the line for those books they believe in. When I started out, I found the books by Sol Stein (for example "On Writing") useful. Read widely, and as if your life depends on it. Read as many different genres and styles and authors as you can.
Then, find your own best way to write. There are so many "rules" to writing, but in the end, you have to find whatever works for you. Listen to your own heart. Whatever works, whatever gets stuff written, works. Don't let anybody impose any stupid rules on you. Find a critique partner and/or a writing group to discuss your writing. Don't join a group that does nothing but eat cake and chat (been there, got nothing done). You want to work on your texts and get better. Find supporters - people that believe in your writing and build you back up when you've been torn down. You will get torn down. Give everything you do your best shot. We grow on our challenges. If you have a cracking idea, go for it. Be tenacious, work hard, keep believing. Bring patience, this is a long path you've started. Good luck.
What happens next in X's story?
If I knew, I'd tell you. I'm bad at keeping secrets. Truth is, it's only fixed when it's on the page, and only really fixed when the publisher produces the text. Up until then, everything has a degree of flexibility, and before it's written, I tend to just play with different scenarios.