Once a month, I talk to another writer about their writing routine. We answer questions such as Are you a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between? , Do you write every day? , Where does your inspiration come from?, What’s your beverage of choice?, and many more! At the end of each episode, the writers recommend their favourite book on writing and share their advice for establishing the right writing routine for you.
This month, I talked to James Fahy, a multi-genre author from the UK.
His book recommendations are On Writing by Stephen King and From Pitch to Publication by Carol Blake. Don’t forget to check out the all-new library on my website for all book recommendations from these routine chats!
To find out more about James, check out his website or follow him on Instagram or on Twitter.
Listen to the Episode
Read the Transcript
Sarina: Hello, and welcome to The Writing Sparrow Podcast. I’m Sarina Langer and this podcast is all about writing, publishing, and marketing your book. You can find transcripts on my website at sarinalanger.com. Let’s get started.
Sarina: Good morning friends and sparrows, and welcome back. It’s the 17th of May 2021. This is Episode 36. Today, I’m talking to James Fahy about his writing routine. Welcome, James.
James: Thanks for having me.Nice to see you, nice to meet you.
Sarina: Yeah. Nice to meet you. As I said, before we started recording, we followed each other on various social media outlets for a few years, we’ve barely talked. [laughs]
James: We’ve just been circling one another like wolves. [laughs]
Sarina: Yes. Circling around Beverly, [00:01:00] slightly.
James: Yeah. [crosstalk] She is the grandmaster of designing this whole– yeah.
Sarina: Yeah, she’s the planet and we’re the moons.
James: [laughs] You’ll give her a big head if she hears that.
Sarina: I’m sure she will.
Sarina: I think she listens. Hey, Bev, good morning.
James: Hi, Bev, in case you’re there.
Sarina: She probably is. I’ve got 15 questions for you about your writing routine. They’re the questions I ask every author. I’m really excited about this, because I love to hear about a good writing routine.
James: Or the bad writing routine, depending on how I answer.
Sarina: Yes. Well, I have talked to a few authors who don’t actually have a writing routine, so to speak, so that’s also interesting to hear about. Because I think quite a lot of writers feel pressure to have one, so I think it’s important to hear that you don’t actually need a routine.
James: Yeah not necessarily one that’s regimented and structured. Some people work on a very strong regimen, don’t they? And some people need a bit more freedom, I think.
Sarina: Yes, lots of different ways to do this, [00:02:00] and all of them just as fine as each other as long as it works for you. Question number one, are you a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between? Let’s go in big.
James: I would think that I’ll have to say that I am definitely a plotter, not to the extent that every single line of dialogue is plotted in advance, but for the structure of the story. My stories, the way that work, there tends to have to be a lot of foreshadowing, because I have to be aware of things I want to happen at certain intervals, either later in the book or maybe two or three books down the line in the series. In order to get myself to that point, I have to know that’s coming, so I can’t just sit down and think, “I’ll write about X subjects, and I’ll make it up as I go along.” That wouldn’t work for me at all. I do tend to be quite– I’ve got like a flow chart of major events. In, for example, the Changeling series, I know what’s going to happen in every book, where in the book, it’s got to happen. [00:03:00] So that’s all plotted out, because I know where every one of my characters was going to end up. I know who lives, who dies, who ends up in a good place, who ends up in a bad place. That’s all sort of prewritten like a prophecy.
The actual journey of when you’re typing it and writing it out, as a lot of people have said before, the characters will take you off in unexpected directions, and it’s more like you’re herding them like sheep towards the points you want to get them to. That’s what it feels like. You feel a bit like a nursery teacher with a lot of unruly children when you’re writing some characters.
Sarina: [laughs] It’s really nice to finally talk to another plotter, because I think every other writer I’ve talked to so far has either been a pantser, or somewhere in between, but mostly pantsing their books. I have tried pantsing the book and it was a disaster if you asked my critique partners, it was an absolute disaster.
James: Really? I think [unintelligible [00:03:53], you’ve got to give yourself a little bit of wiggle room and a bit of freedom. You can plot to your heart’s content and say, “This is going to happen, then this is [00:04:00] going to happen and this.” Then, as you’re writing it, it goes off on a tangent and you’re thinking, “Well, actually, this unexpected direction you’re going in is better than what I had planned, but I’ll eventually lead it back around to where I want it to be.” But I think, for me, if I just went in and thought, I want to write about X subject, let’s just start typing and see where it goes. It would be far too messy. And I think when I got it back from my agents, when I got it back from the editor, they would be like, “You’re spending a lot of time clearing your throat for three chapters here.” [laughs] I think it can work better for me in other art forms. I think in music, you can have jazz, where you’re experimenting and you’re playing with the sounds. In arts, you can throw around paint and come up with something unexpected. But in writing for myself, I like to think that [unintelligible [00:04:48] reading knows where they’re going with the story. Otherwise, I’m not as invested as a reader thinking, “I can’t predict what’s going to happen because even the writer doesn’t know” as you’re writing it.
Sarina: Now that’s exactly how I approach [00:05:00] all of my outlines. I’m [crosstalk] quite happy to finally hear that somebody else does it the same way.
James: We’re both on the same well-planned and well-plotted page.
Sarina: It’s the best way to do it if you ask me.
James: It makes editing a lot easier, I think.
Sarina: It does. It really does. As I said, I have tried pantsing because I thought it works for so many writers, maybe they’re onto something, but it just doesn’t work for me. Again, ask my critique partners, and they will tell you how much of a train wreck it was.
James: It’s an experiment. You’ve got to try different things to find what works best for you.
Sarina: Yeah, and I really admire writers who can approach it that way, to just sit down with sort of a plan, but not really a plan and just somehow get a novel out, but I can’t do it.
James: No. When I’ve done it in the past, I have tried it and I have found like you say when you come back to second and third edit, because the story is now finished, and you know the shape of it, and then having to take out huge chunks where I pounced off in one direction and it fizzled out and didn’t go anywhere– [00:06:00] Editing is mainly for me about tightening up the story.
Sarina: Yeah, it’s the same.
James: Taking out anything extraneous and if I’ve not plotted it well, there’s always far too much to take out.
Sarina: I think if you plot your books, there’s also really no risk of getting stuck at any point and not knowing where you’re going, because you don’t know where you’re going.
James: [crosstalk] -on that point though, the only thing I find negative about plotting everything out is it can feel sometimes like a bit of a chore, because you’re like, “Right, by this chapter, I want to get this, and by the middle of the book, we have to get to here, by the end of it–” So, when you’re typing, you’re thinking, maybe 20% into the book, “Oh, God, I’m nowhere near this point. Now, I’ve got a slog all the way to here.” Then it can feel a bit like you’re sort of going down the train tracks, and it’s a long way off.
Sarina: Yeah, I get that. I mean–
James: It’s still the lesser of two evils for me to.
Sarina: No, completely agree. I have with my current work in progress, it’s a trilogy. For the first time, I have written the entire trilogy before I’ve really properly started editing. And let me [00:07:00] tell you, that has been a chore, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.
James: No, that sounds like– I actually got shivers when you’ve written the whole thing, then you’ve got three books to edit.
James: Editing is the bane in my life. [laughs]
Sarina: I have very recently been at exactly the point that you’ve described where you think, “Oh, God, I’m only at this point. I’m nowhere near this. But yet, it’s still so far away.” No, I agree. That’s definitely quite the disadvantage to it. But I do think that the positives outweigh the negatives for me as well.
James: Yeah, so do I. I think it just gives me a bit more control over where the story is going, and knowing that I’m aiming for something specific, helps me make the story make more sense, the first time around. And then in later edits, there’s less work for me to do.
Sarina: Exactly. I work exactly the same way. What does your writing routine look like?
James: At the moment, thankfully, it’s getting more back to normal. I know we were chatting before, you started recording, and we were talking about how everything has been– This last 12 months, last 15 months, [00:08:00] however long it is now since the apocalypse.
Sarina: It’s been over a year, if you believe it.
James: I know. [crosstalk]
Sarina: It feels like a month, but also like 100 years, but really, it’s just been a year.
James: I know, it’s been forever. It’s been several ages of man, I feel.
James: I’m disappointed that we’ve had so much apocalypse, and then none of us are wearing leather or living in the desert yet. I was expecting [crosstalk] it’s disappointing. But, yeah, this last year, I’ve had two kids at home being homeschooled. My partner has been working from home as well. So, there’s not really been my normal, peaceful middle of the day. Because my normal writing routine is, get the family out of the way in the morning, then I come back, lock myself in a quiet office. And that’s my time to do it until it’s time to go pick them up again, because I do write full time. I do treat it very much like a regular job. I clock in at a certain time of the day, and I clock out at a certain time of the day. How productive I am during that time is completely dependent on [laughs] whatever mood I’m [00:09:00] in. Sometimes, I clock in and then I’m like, “I’ll just type a little bit and then I’ll check YouTube and I’ll just check Twitter, and then I’ll just check Snapchat and then I’ll just–” And I know the day is ruined but other days, I can get into work and right solidly through. It depends [unintelligible [00:09:17], I suppose.
Sarina: Wow. So, how long at a time can you write? What’s the longest that you’ve written at a time?
James: Well, if I’m coming towards the end of a book, my wife says I go into fugue mode.
Sarina: Oh yeah, I do that. I always feel really big burst of motivation, the closer I get to the end.
James: It’s like if you’re running a marathon and you’re tired and exhausted, but then you think, “I’ve got the last mile to go and then I’m done.” So, you suddenly get that surge of energy to just get it finished, and I think that’s the longest times I write is when I know I’ve got a deadline coming up as well. I’ve said to publisher I’ll get it to you by this date, I finished, I’ve got two weeks left to finally edit and then I will literally lock myself away. And from waking up, no one will see me apart from mealtimes. So, I’ll scurry back into [00:10:00] my writing cave like a goblin, finish the writing and then eventually sort of emerge about midnight with bleary eyes and just go straight to sleep. So, I’ve done that a few times.
On a regular day though, I would say I get home from doing all our morning chores about 10 AM, which is obviously why we scheduled this talk for now. I lock myself in, and I work anywhere from 10 till 2:30. It doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but I have to then go out and get the kids. So, that’s my normal writing routine, and I will normally sit and write solidly for that period of time. [crosstalk]
Sarina: And you can get quite a lot of what’s done in that time anyway.
James: You can some days. I try not to be too hard on myself, because I used to be of the mindset that if you sat down, you’ve got to hammer out words, be as productive as possible. Whereas some days, you do, some days as you know yourself, you’ll sit down, and it just flows and it’s a wonderful day, and you’re writing and you’re sort of patting yourself on the back, “Oh, my God, that was a wonderful sentence. I don’t even need to edit that. That’s gold.”
James: And then the next day, you [00:11:00] can sit down and it’s like, you’re typing with your feet rather than hands, it’s just complete trash and you think, “I’ve written not a single word,” and you end up deleting everything you’ve done that day.
Sarina: Yeah, I’ve been there.
James: I’m not consistent really. I have a consistent time that I sit in the office, but as for how productive I am during that time, it does depend on my mood, how much sleep I’ve had. How close I am to a deadline is the main motivation.
Sarina: [chuckles] This probably does answer my next question already, but do you set yourself specific goals like a number of words you want to write every week or how much time you want to spend writing a day?
James: I have to set time, but I’ve never done word counts, and I don’t check how much I’ve written as well. Which I always find surprising, because you do see that we follow a lot of writers on social media, a lot of people talk about, “Oh, great writing day. I did X amount of words today.” Or, “I hit my target.” I know that can be a good motivation for some people, but it’s never been the way I’ve really worked. If I’m starting a new project, I can be very intimidated by [00:12:00] how little I’ve got into the book. I generally don’t settle into a book until I have done at least sort of 50 pages. Once I hit that 50-page mark, I feel like I’m into my stride. But that first 50 pages, I’m very nervous thinking, “I’m never going to get enough down to get this book going.” I have put little post-it notes over my screen in the corner, so I can’t see what the page number is because it stresses me out. [laughs]
Sarina: I do that. I put washi tape over of it.
James: Yeah– [crosstalk]
Sarina: Especially when I edit and it’s a hard edit, I tend to put washi tape over it, so I can’t see how much is left. Then normally, at the end of the day, I’m positively surprised rather than constantly checking it and thinking, “Oh, God, I’m still on the same page.”
James: Yeah, I do exactly the same thing. One thing I would say, I try and write a certain number of words per time, but I do try and finish a scene. If I’m writing the scene, before I clock off and go along with my day, I tried to get to the end of that scene, I don’t like leaving writing for the day in the middle of a conversation or in [00:13:00] the middle of a sentence, because I might not be in the same mood when I come back for the next day. Then, it’s hard to pick it up with the same energy you left it with. So, I will sometimes go over my allotted work time to finish the scene so I can start the next one in chunks. I try to [crosstalk]
Sarina: [crosstalk] Do you write every day including weekends? Or, do you take breaks?
James: I don’t write at weekends, again because I write full time– I don’t have another creative answer with this. This is in my brain, my full career, so I literally treat it like a Monday to Friday job. The weekends are my sacred family time. I’ve got two small children and a dog, and we have to make the most of weekends, especially at the moment, because everything’s just opening up again, we can finally go out, which is nice. We’re not sick of staring at the same four walls and each other’s faces. We can go out and have what we call weekend adventures. Every weekend, my youngest, both have drama school on Saturdays, so I get the morning off while they’re out at drama school. [00:14:00] Then on Sundays, we tend to always go out for an adventure somewhere, whether it’s into the city or off to some park or off into the malls or what have you. But I don’t tend to write and give my brain a rest. [crosstalk] during the week because then I feel guilty if I have a day off in the week thinking, “But you just had two days off, you should be working now. Other people are back in the office, you should be in the office too.” Guilts me into doing it better, I think.
Sarina: I think as long as you still do even just a little bit of research or thinking about your book, you’re still kind of working on it just in the background. It all adds up, it all helps.
James: Yeah, definitely. Like you said, I’m always in research mode or even if we’re just driving along [unintelligible [00:14:44] or so, “What are you thinking about?” Thinking about my book, I was just planning this next scene, as you can get quite annoyed saying, “Just come back. You’re not supposed to be doing that.”
Sarina: It’s easier said than done though, isn’t it?
James: Yeah, you just drift off and have whole conversations of dialogue and [00:15:00] then you think, “I must remember that. I’ll write it down when I get home,” and then I never do.
Sarina: No. [chuckles] How’s your writing routine changed over the years? And if so, what have you changed and why?
James: I think the main thing that’s probably changed since I’ve first started writing full time, is I become a lot easier on myself, and a lot more relaxed. I think when I first started, I was able to quit the real world, or the regular 9 to 5 my world. And I thought, “Right, I’ve managed to earn the right to do this as a living full time. So, I have to be super productive every day. Bang out as many words as possible, work till I’m dropping, burn the candle at both ends.” I don’t push myself as hard. I’d rather enjoy it and not feel like some days– some days, you log on and you think, “I’m just not in the mood today,” for whatever reason, and it feels like a chore. I’ve learned that if I force myself to try and get that words on paper, when I’m in that mood, [00:16:00] it’s just going to be absolute dross, and I’ll end up deleting it the next day anyway.
I’m quite happy now to say, “Oh, I’m not in the mood today. I’m not feeling it. We’re just going to have a day off. And then, we will come back to it tomorrow. And then, it works out better in the long run. I feel it’s more relaxed for me, but I do try and stick my deadlines if I can do.
Sarina: I do think it’s important to remember that if you’re really not feeling at one day, it’s fine to take the day off and do something else.
Sarina: As someone who has burned out quite badly once or twice, I’m definitely now more at a point where I can say, “Well, actually, I’m not really in the mood today, or maybe I’m already quite tired. I’d rather wait, and maybe write tomorrow instead.” Then I know that I feel much better again the next day because I have had that little break.
James: Yeah, and your writing is going to be better for it as well, because if you’re forcing it, it’s not going to be good writing. You’re going to come back and read over it and go, “Not only did I not want to do the writing that day, but everything I wrote was complete crap.” [00:17:00] That’s what I generally do if I force myself. So, I’d rather wait until I’m in the mood. I think it’s just striking the balance of making sure that you are in the mood more often than you’re not in the mood.
Sarina: Yeah. And I think once you’ve built a habit, it’s much easier to be in the mood for it on-
Sarina: -well, any day, but not talking about procrastinating for years at a time.
James: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever had writer’s block or anything terrifying like that.
James: But that does scare me, because I know a lot of people talk about that and it’s always in the back of your mind, “What if one day I sit down and I can’t write anything? And how long will it last and how will I get out of it?” I’ve never had that issue, but I have had the issue where I’ve just I felt like, “For three days in a row, everything I’ve written is rubbish.” Then, you get proper imposter syndrome and think, “Why am I even doing this? Am I good enough to do this? Should I be doing something else? Should I throw the whole towel in?” Then, a couple days later, you come back to it and you’re in a much better headspace because you’ve had a rest mentally. Then, you write something that you like, and that gives you the [00:18:00] instant boost of, “Yes, I should be doing this. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Sarina: Doing what you’re supposed to do.
James: Yeah. Doing the one thing I’m good at.
James: I literally have to be a writer, because I’m not good at anything else. [chuckles]
Sarina: See, I know that’s rubbish, because I follow you on Instagram, and I see the things that you cook. I imagine you’re a pretty good chef.
James: I don’t know I could be a chef, but I could be a cook. I can be one of those cooks in an old stately home who work downstairs and send the food up, I could do that for a living.
James: I couldn’t work in a busy high-pressure kitchen because I don’t work well under pressure.
Sarina: Oh, God, no.
James: Most of the pressure, I [crosstalk] myself. But pressure from someone else, I go into that sort of reactive belligerent state of like, “This has to be done now.” I’ll take even longer than usual to do it just out of spite because I’m quite childish.
Sarina: Now, I definitely wouldn’t be able to work at a professional kitchen. We watch MasterChef quite a lot. Every now and again, when they go into the professional kitchen, there’ll be someone like one of [00:19:00] the contestants at the end of it going, “Oh, well, this was much harder than I thought it was going to be.” We’re like, “Did you think it’d be easy to work in a really busy professional kitchen?”
James: There’s always somebody crying into the onions in the background and somebody else being screamed at, somebody else with their head in the oven just trying to end it all, it’s far too stressful.
Sarina: No, don’t fancy that. I’d much rather–
James: That’s right. Before I became a full-time writer, I worked for a while in finance. I helped people manage their money, I helped people deal with their debts as well. And a huge proportion of my clients at the time who were struggling with money or had run up debt were chefs.
Sarina: Wow, okay. That’s interesting.
James: It’s one of those professions that I think can be quite a scary profession to be in and you have to pay for all the stuff upfront. So maybe not a chef, maybe I’ll stick to writing.
Sarina: [giggles] Well, you’re very good at writing anyway, so why change?
James: Oh, thank you.
Sarina: I think we’ve kind of already covered this a little bit. I’m very excited that I won’t need to ask this question for much longer, but has lockdown [00:20:00] affected your routine?
James: It did while it was going on. It hasn’t now. Thankfully, I’m back into my normal routine now. Fingers crossed, ready for our last one. I know we’re all hoping we don’t go into any further lockdown again and never say never, but things seem to be moving in the right direction. Lockdown didn’t really affect my routine, it kind of obliterated it. It was a very strange year for me because I had other things happening before lockdown. We moved house into a temporary house where we are at the moment while we’re looking for the dream house that we’re looking for. So, I’m in an unfamiliar place with none of my things around me, like 90% of my belongings right now in a storage pod. So, that’s a strange situation to be in.
Then, we just moved in and then COVID happened, and everyone got stuck and locked in there. Then suddenly, I’m homeschooling my own kids, we had a death in the family to contend with. There are about four or five other dramas all happened at the same time. I know sort of everyone had a terrible year [00:21:00] last year, and it affected people in different ways. But there wasn’t really room for me to think, “Right, no, I’ll go away, I’ve got a book to write.” I didn’t have the head space for it all the time.
But saying that, I did manage to write a novel in 2020, which was delivered in December to my publishers. It’s not out yet, it’s coming out this year, but I was quite proud of the fact that I managed to get a book written despite everything, but it wasn’t easy. I was trying to find 10 minutes right here, 5 minutes right there. Now everything’s more or less back to normal. Kids are back in school, everything’s open. My other half’s work routine is a lot more stable and predictable now. So, I’m getting my sort of office hours back, which is very relaxing.
Sarina: Yeah, it can be quite nice to have that routine. And well done you on still finishing a whole book, despite all of that chaos going on.
James: I think a lot of it was escapism towards the end, is like, “I’ve got to get away from the real world [00:22:00] for a while. I’m disappearing into my fantasy world. Don’t talk to me.”
Sarina: I can see that. [laughs] Moving house a stressful enough as it is, but to then also have all that other madness going on at the same time–
Sarina: –it’s just not the ideal environment, let’s say, for writing anything. So, well done you.
James: Not really., hopefully, it’ll be easier from now on, I think. I think we’re coming to the end of it.
Sarina: Yeah, it’s getting there. What writing program do you use?
James: I’m very old school. I use Word. I’ve heard of Scrivener, I’ve heard of several different other things. I write longhand in my first draft, in one of these. Those who can’t see, I’m holding up my booklet. I do tend to write my first draft longhand. It isn’t legible to anyone but me because it’s in my own improvised shorthand. It’s just hieroglyphs and ciphers. I know what it means most of the time. No one else does, but I tend to do [00:23:00] that because it’s portable, and I can write wherever, so if I’m out with the dog, or we’re out for a walk, I go out walking in the woods quite a lot, disappearing off somewhere, I’ve always got that with me so I can always scribble things down. When I come to type it up, it’s just Word. It’s just always Word for me.
Sarina: Oh, okay. It’s probably because I’m not used to it anymore, but when I try to write anything by hand, I can’t write for long periods of time because my wrist will cramp and it will not have it.
James: I know what you mean. It is some muscle memory thing. It’s like any exercise– I mean, we’ve only just started going back to the gym after a year of them being closed. We went on the running machines, and we used to able to run for like an hour solid with no breaks with a nice pace, myself and my other half, and I think I did 10 minutes on my first time and I was coughing up lungs, collapsing.
James: None my muscles worked and I was just cramping everywhere. It’s the same with longhand writing. I think if you do write a lot, [00:24:00] or if you draw or paint, you build up a stamina to it, I think. [crosstalk]
Sarina: How many notebooks do you fill per novel?
James: Oh, my God. I think my first book, Isle of Winds, which came out five or six years ago now, I think the page count for the finished book is around 390-400 pages. It’s not a huge book, but I think I filled 11 notebooks when I was longhanding it. But this does include scribbles and diagrams, and I tend to draw floor plans of anywhere, so that I can get a visual of a certain scene, so that I know where to place the camera when I’m describing and so on. Or, I’ll draw little character sketches, or just go off on tangents. It does read a bit like a serial killer’s diary [laughs] full of [unintelligible [00:24:49]. They’re not the sort of thing that if I became super famous and died and they auctioned them on eBay, people would not want to buy them because it is fill of absolute nonsense. But yeah, [00:25:00] about 11 books from the first book and more for everyone. I’ve got shelves and shelves of them. I’ll probably never open them or look at them again, but I like to keep them.
Sarina: When you then transfer everything that you’ve written by hand onto words, do you copy it word for word? Or, do you already do a bit of editing here and there?
James: It’s more of that, that’s not my first edit, because obviously, as you’re typing up, you’re reading through your handwritten notes, and you’re sort of– I tend to read it out to myself while I’m typing, so I’ll literally be narrating the story from the page out loud to myself, mumbling like a strange person in an empty room and typing it. So, you do find phrases that don’t scan well. As you read, you might be thinking, “Oh, it would be better if I said this.” So, that’s sort of my first edit, really getting it onto the print, the type page makes it a bit easier.
Sarina: It’s quite an interesting process really, I think for writing. Maybe I should try that for a short story. Something that’s not too much of a commitment.
James: Yeah. Maybe not for a trilogy. [laughs] [00:26:00]
Sarina: No, maybe– Definitely not. [laughs] Never again.
James: Let’s do a few short stories or poems or limericks just to get yourself used to.
Sarina: Yeah, maybe. I love having notebooks anyway, so I’ll probably still have a spare one somewhere. And if not, as you said, the shops are opening, so I can easily go get one if I wanted.
James: You can. I find a lot of people buying me notebooks. I think if people know you’re a writer or in any way connects with writing or drawing, it’s like the perfect present. For someone who doesn’t know you very well, like “Oh, we’ve got you this.” It’ll be a book. “Well, it’s another notebook.” I would never be happy to get one because I always use them.
Sarina: See, I would find that quite difficult. My friends haven’t bought me a huge number of notebooks, which I actually quite like, because when I want to buy a new notebook for a new work in progress, it needs to be the right notebook, if that make sense.
James: I know what you mean, yeah.
Sarina: It can’t be any notebook, it needs to fit what I’m doing. It needs to feel right or it’s just not going to work.
James: That makes sense. People might say, “That’s a bit control freak [00:27:00] of you.” But I completely understand. It has to be the right color, the right binding, the right feel of paper.
Sarina: Yes. You know what? Those people will be correct, because I am a control freak. [chuckles]
James: There’s nothing wrong with being control– we are two plotters sitting here, being plotters unapologetically.
James: It’s okay to control what you can.
Sarina: Well, exactly. What are three important things you need to have when you’re writing? Of course, some of your stuff right now is in storage, so you might not have those things.
James: Yes. I would say, obviously pen and paper because I tend to write and scribble notes as I go along. Copious amounts of coffee, which I don’t have at the moment, because at the moment, I’m drinking instant coffee, because my beautiful, beautiful coffee-making machine is in storage, I keep occasionally going to visit it because I keep going to have to go to the pod to get [unintelligible [00:27:51] out. And every time I go, I stroke the coffee machine, “Soon, my darling, we’ll be reunited.”
[00:28:00] And my other half just rolls her eyes in the background, “Oh my God, stop. Leave the coffee machine alone.” I really missed that. Normally, so that’s something I always have to have. At the moment, I drink instant coffee and like this one I’ve got here, it’s just gone stone cold, because I haven’t drunk it. The other thing I have to have ideally is silence. I don’t write to music. I don’t ever– I’ve got my phone with me now, because I’m not writing, I’m in interview, but normally, my phone will have to be on charge in a different room, because I have got that busy fingers distraction where I could be typing and I’ll just check, and I get a message, and I’ll just go on social media and fall down a rabbit hole and waste my entire afternoon, so it has to be nowhere near me.
Sarina: I use an app for that that locks me out of all other apps. So, if I try to use my phone for something, it says, “No. [crosstalk] Go away.”
James: I couldn’t feel the pressure. I feel pressured now. It’s good enough for me that’s just out of the room. [crosstalk]
Sarina: There’s a bit of pressure with this app because it’s called Forest and you basically grow a virtual [00:29:00] tree. If you leave the app to use Twitter or anything else, your tree dies.
James: Oh my God, so ghoulish. [laughs]
Sarina: But to be honest, it works really well because I don’t want to kill my tree.
James: Well, whatever works. Yeah, that definitely works.
Sarina: That works for me, but I can’t write with music either, and I’m not sure how people can but–
James: I can write with some music. It depends what I’m writing because I’ve got two different genres series going. If I’m writing the Phoebe books, which are the sort of dark, dystopian, I tend to have silence because I don’t really like being distracted. If I’m writing the Changeling series, I can have classical music quietly. [crosstalk] I don’t know why my brain makes that differentiation. [crosstalk]
Sarina: I can have instrumental music. I can’t have anything with lyrics.
Sarina: Video game scores are quite good for that because they were literally written to help you focus. So, I’ve got a few–
James: There’s a quite few online, yeah. I played The Witcher 3 meditation music soundtrack. That’s quite a good one, you can find that on YouTube.
Sarina: The Witcher 3 meditation music [00:30:00] soundtrack. I am writing this down, bear with me.
James: Write it down, because in the computer game, you don’t rest or sleep, you meditate. Somebody has made like an hourlong, all the meditation music in it and it’s quite nice to have one in the background.
Sarina: Well, in that case, I know exactly what you mean. I don’t need to write it down.
James: Yeah, look that one up. So, I don’t mind that kind of music in the background, but like you say, nothing with lyrics, nothing with verses and choruses, because then I end up listening to it, waiting for the next bit, rather than focusing on writing.
Sarina: That’s a really good idea. I’m going to have to add that to my list. I have been tempted to replay The Witcher, or rather continue with my deathmatch playthrough in the add-ons, and I will see you mentioning it as a sign from the universe to get back to it. That’s also my– [crosstalk]
James: I only completed it. I completed the game for the first time ever because I was very late to it about two days ago.
Sarina: Oh, well done.
James: I was like, “I’ve completed it, it’s finished.” But I enjoyed the game so much that I immediately loaded up a new game and I thought, “I’m going to play it again,” [00:31:00] and make all the different decisions.” My whole family looked at me and say, “You have a problem. Step away from the computer.” I’m like, “No.”
Sarina: It’s definitely not a problem. I’ve played Mass Effect like nine times, possibly more. I’ve lost count. You find only playing it for the second time, you’ll find you’re good, it’s nothing.
James: I’m not. I don’t need to seek– there’s no intervention needed quite yet.
Sarina: [laughs] Maybe one day. I think we’ve touched on this a little bit already, but what do you do when writing gets difficult?
James: I used to try and push through it and force myself. I think, “No, I should be able to do this no matter what mood I’m in, no matter what,” because you do read these people saying, “You write every day, you’ve got to write every day, or you’re not a writer and so on.” I used to put that sort of pressure on myself, because I used to feel guilty, that if I didn’t do anything, then I’ve got nothing else I should be doing. It’s not like I’ve got to go off and be a heart surgeon in my spare time or I’ll go off and be a train driver and [00:32:00] come back and write as a hobby. Writing is what I do, so if I’m not doing it, I feel massively guilty that I’m not doing it because I’m just coasting away through the day. If I can’t do it, or having a bad day, I’ll just step away from it now. I find that more productive than trying to force myself because as I’ve said, if I do force myself, 9 times out of 10 when I come back to read what I’ve written, it will be drivel, and I’ll end up deleting it anyway and I think, “I could have spent that time playing The Witcher or growing a small tree,” or what have you. “I wasted the day writing complete nonsense.” So, I don’t know. That’s lazy of me to think that way or if it’s just more relaxed in a way–
Sarina: No, I completely agree. I mean, I do think that breaks, especially when you know that you need a break are more beneficial, ultimately, for your writing, and then you’re trying to push through it anyway. And you do come back to it feeling more refreshed and being in a much better mindset for it. So, I do think it’s–
James: [crosstalk] -you avoid burnout then as well, don’t you? Because [00:33:00] you stopped before you get to the point where you think, “I absolutely hate what I’m doing.” You still want to [crosstalk] you’ve chosen this career, you’ve chosen to do this with your life, and it’s supposed to be the thing you enjoy more than anything else. So, if you’re forcing it and hating it, it’s going to come across in your writing, you’re just wasting your time and your readers’ time.
Sarina: And, of course, the closer you get to burning out, the more you’ll feel like you can’t take the time off, which is probably [crosstalk] really the number one sign that you should just step away for a day or two.
James: Yeah, let’s step away. Just go and have a sleep, go and have a walk. Do anything else other than writing and then come back to it when you feel–
Sarina: Play The Witcher.
James: Yeah, play The Witcher. This is not a very good writing to encourage your listeners to. And we’re two people sitting here writing both encouraging people to stop writing, go and play video games, just turn off your laptop right now. [laughs]
Sarina: Well, I always think you’re not a machine, you need breaks. And if this were any other job, you will get weekends or just any other day off. So, you’re totally fine to take a day off [00:34:00] if you need it.
James: Yeah, I think there is the guilt, because obviously, as a writer, you’re basically self-employed. So, you’re your own boss. I think when you’re your own boss, you have no more tough boss than yourself. [crosstalk]
Sarina: Yeah, no. And that guilt is always there that you need to work all the time. So, that just makes it more important, I think, to take the time off because no one is going to make you take the time off. It needs to come from you, and that can be really hard.
James: Yeah, I agree. You can be your own worst boss, I think.
Sarina: Yeah, definitely. This is possibly the most hated question to ask another writer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Where does your inspiration come from?
James: Oh, I knew it was going to be that. I could tell by your face– [crosstalk]
James: –“Where do you get your ideas from?”
Sarina: I mean, I could have asked you to summarize your book in three words at one sentence but let’s go with inspiration Instead.
James: Publishers do that, and that’s bad enough. [crosstalk] -it took me seven years to write it and it’s got this many different parts. “Right, sum it up in 10 words for me.” I’m like, “I cannot sum up my [00:35:00] book in 10 words, thanks.” There you go. For inspiration, I don’t know. Where does anything come from? Generally, observation. You can just see something in passing life, which triggers a thought which gets you thinking along a certain path. Or, you could hear a piece of music that makes you visualize something that catches your imagination. I don’t really ever sit down and think, “Right, I want to write about X, Y, Z. How can I force a story around this?” It generally is something that has just been bouncing around in my head for a while, and it evolves into an idea of a story or an image that I’m interested in exploring it. You sort of mold it, don’t you, like clay, until he resembles something like a narrative. But it’s hard to pinpoint where did you start with it, with any story, I think. So, I don’t know, [crosstalk] I don’t know. I just put a gold coin under my pillow, and a small goblin comes, and when I wake up in the morning, it’s left a little note with some story ideas. That’s where I get– [crosstalk]
Sarina: [00:36:00] -writing prompt. I mean, research is great, and I love doing research. But as you said, inspiration tends to come like just from little things, that maybe you’re watching something, and someone says something and that sentence then sparks an idea. But it’s not really something I don’t think that you can go out and actively try to find, because that’s not going to happen.
James: Yeah, something has to resonate with you. Like you say, it can be something you overhear in a conversation, that it just plays around in the back of your mind or something you’ve seen– as you’ve been driving down the street, you see something out the window, that starts a chain reaction in your mind, till it eventually becomes an idea, but I don’t think anyone can pinpoint– You don’t sit down at home, put down your cup of tea and go, “Right, I want to have a thought about this. Let’s write a story about– [chuckles]
Sarina: Inspiration is such an elusive beast anyway.
James: Yeah. [crosstalk] For most writers, for me certainly, and I imagine everyone else, the problem is more that you’ve got too many different ideas that you’d like to explore. And it’s just focusing on [00:37:00] one because when you’re writing a book, or when I’m writing a book, I’ve got about four or five other ideas that I’d like to be writing as well. And that’s why I started off writing two different genres because I tend to write them at the same time. Not strictly, but if I’m writing my Changeling series, if I get a bit fed up with them, I want to break from it, I can literally flip over to the other program, and go into Phoebe set and write some of the Phoebe series or some other different book. That’s one way to give yourself a break without stopping. [crosstalk]
Sarina: Are you working on both works in progress, is this now or do you literally just focus on one and then when you don’t want to work on that for a day, you then swap to the other one?
James: I don’t do it that routinely as in a day on one or any other. I tend to write one, and try and focus on that one, but if I’m having a rough time with it, or if I hit a bit of a stumbling block, “Oh, I just want a break from that. My brain is not in the mood to write whimsical fantasy,” if I’m in more of a sort of dark snarky mood, I might say, “You know what? I could use this energy better on [00:38:00] this. So, I’ll work on the other one for a while.” At the moment, I’ve just finished– Well, at the end of last year, I just finished the latest Changeling book, or books because it’s in two parts. I shelve that in my mind now because I’ve done Changeling 4, so that’s going to be off the backburner for a while. Now I’m focusing on a new book, which is a standalone, which is something that’s not related to either of the series I’m doing, but I’m also working on sort of the first drafts of the next Phoebe book as well. It’s always more than one thing on the go– [crosstalk]
Sarina: Yeah, lots of things happening. Let’s talk about food.
James: Food, okay. [chuckles]
Sarina: Do you snack while you write? What’s your beverage of choice? I know it’s coffee.
James: My beverage of choice is coffee. I do like tea, but I’m not a huge tea drinker. I am if I go out. If I go to restaurants or cafes or hotels, I tend to drink a lot of teas there, but at home, it’s just coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee. Monsoon Malabar is my favorite coffee that I’ve not had for over a year because I have not got my [00:39:00] beautiful coffee machine. Just the smell of it and it’s part of the comfort zone of my office. If it smells gorgeous of coffee, it puts me in that relaxy zone [crosstalk] on the window.
Sarina: I don’t stand the smell of coffee, but maybe I just haven’t smelled the right one.
James: Write this down next to your Witcher notes, Monsoon Malabar.
Sarina: [laughs] Smell coffee.
James: [laughs] And you look down, you’ll be playing The Witcher for a while, drinking coffee you’ve never had before and your little tree will have died. [laughs]
James: And it will be my fault. Food wise, no, I don’t tend to eat while I’m writing. I’m quite strict with my food, not in an obsessive way, but I tend to only at mealtimes. I don’t really have breakfast because I’m one of those people who can’t eat before about 11 AM. I don’t understand people who can get up at 7 in the morning and have muesli or Weetabix. I have tried to, and it just makes me want to vomit. [crosstalk]
Sarina: Better not to then.
James: That’s all. I’ll have a lunch at lunchtime and I’ll have my evening meal in the evening, and [00:40:00] that’s pretty much it. So, I don’t really have food or snacks in the office.
Sarina: I find it takes you out of it a bit as well if you’re trying to eat something at the same time, because you have to stop writing to pick up whatever it is.
James: Yeah– [crosstalk]
Sarina: So, it takes [crosstalk].
James: We could probably do some experiments to try and find foods that you don’t need to pick up. It can just maybe licorice, long licorice sticks that you can just put one in your mouth and comfortable do get in–
Sarina: Like a spaghetti.
James: Yeah, spaghetti.
James: I’m going to try that. I’m going to cook myself a big plate of spaghetti and just put one into my mouth and start typing, and see how much I can get in. Maybe not. [chuckles] But no, I don’t eat.
Sarina: Right. We’ve already talked about whether you listen to music while you write, so I don’t think we need to revisit that. And then, which book would you say has inspired you the most?
James: Again, that’s a really hard one. It’s like someone says, “What’s your favorite book?” and if you read quite widely, and you like a lot of different genres, it’s like, “Well, this one’s my favorite book, [00:41:00] if I’m in this mood,” or, “This one’s my favorite book on this certain day.”
Sarina: That’s okay, you can list more than one, I’ll allow it.
James: I’m allowed more than one favorite book. Woo. There are a couple, I think the one that’s influenced my writing the most is, it’s called The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. He is a British fantasy author, and it’s a book that I read when I was a young boy. I absolutely fell in love with it. I think it’s sort of set the seeds in my head for what would eventually become my Changeling series.
Sarina: All right.
James: Because what I loved about that book when I read it as a child is it’s set in our world, but it has a lot of fantasy elements, and there’s a lot of crossover between this magical world and the real world. Some of the settings in the book that I was reading about as a child, we then went to visit those places. They were National Trust properties or they were real woods, and I’d read about them in the story. And then suddenly, I was walking through them and the real world. [00:42:00] And that was quite magical to me.
Sarina: It’s quite special when you can do that.
James: Yeah. So, that’s what I deliberately wanted to set out to do in the Changeling books, is a lot of the places that are mentioned in the book are real places that you can physically go to. I suppose that has been quite a big influence on me. I recently reread it after many, many years, and I did that thing where you read something when you’re a child and you’re scared to read as an adult, in case it doesn’t hold up and it’s trash. [chuckles] “Oh, my God, I’ve ruined my childhood.” But it was still excellent. He’s been a big influence on me, I think.
Sarina: I don’t think I’ve heard of him, but I’ll have to look him up.
James: Yeah, he’s excellent. Alan Garner, he’s called. He wrote a few books. He’s famous for not liking writers, being a writer himself. He has said in various [unintelligible [00:42:47] that he’s a writer himself, but he doesn’t like other writers. He says that writers are the worst people, they’re the most awful people in the world because we’re all self-obsessed, we’re all egotistical maniacs [crosstalk] [00:43:00] but his writing is good. It’s good stuff. Good classic fantasy.
Sarina: A very similar question to that. Do you have a favorite book on the craft of writing?
James: I think I would probably go with, obvious one, Stephen King, Danse Macabre, which he wrote, and he wrote On Writing as well. He’s not my favorite author, he’s not my worst author, but I know a lot of people absolutely adore Stephen King. Some of his books are fantastic, I think some of them are for me a bit hit and miss, or a bit samey book. But his books about writing and about the mythology, the methods of writing and the sort of nuts and bolts of putting it together, I found them quite insightful and it sort of made me think about things in ways I hadn’t done before.
There was a book also on publication called From Pitch to Publication. I don’t know who that’s by, you’d have to [00:44:00] look it up. But that was the first ever book I read when I decided I was going to try and go out and get an agent, go out and maybe make a living out of this. That was a very insightful book on sort of all the pitfalls that new writers fall into, the cliches or submitting the wrong things to wrong people, and so on. The kind of things that editors are looking for and the kind of things that publishers want you to do, and that was quite a useful book. I don’t know who wrote it, I’ll have to look it up.
Sarina: Okay, I’ll have to look these up anyway for the transcript, so I might get back to you and ask you for links.
James: I’ll find them, I’ll make a note of what I’ve told you. I shouldn’t have made them up.
Sarina: That’s helpful. For now, I’ve also got a library on my website with all the books that people have recommended, so it’ll be useful for that as well.
Sarina: And I think my transcriber will appreciate it. Hi, Dax. [laughs] Final question. Do you have any advice for establishing a writing routine? [00:45:00]
James: I think it’s hard to give advice because I think everyone is different. And what works for one person is very much not going to work for another. I could say, follow my writing routine, make sure you have set hours a day, work Monday to Friday, treat it seriously. I suppose be that would be universal to anyone. If you’re going to write, treat it seriously, don’t dabble around the edges. Don’t write and think, “Oh, I’m not good enough to do this.” Don’t doubt yourself. Just get in there and write the damn story. If you write it confidently, somebody is going to love it, so stop thinking you’re not good enough to do it or what if it doesn’t do as well as I want it to, just write the story if it’s in you.
For writing routine, for me, it is a case of striking the balance between trying to be professional about it, having a Monday to Friday, set hours that I sit down and write, but also being flexible in that some days that will work, and some days it won’t, some days I won’t. I will do an hour, then I’ll be burnt out and I want to go out for a drive or out for a walk with the dog [00:46:00] and screw it all. Other days, I’ll get way past the time I normally clock off and think, “No, I’m having a good day today. So, I’m going to keep writing until I burn out.” So, just listen to your own instincts, I think, and find out what works best for you.
Sarina: I think that’s very sage advice, and it’s an excellent point to end on as well., I think. Thank you very much for coming on. Hopefully, it’s been insightful for our listeners as well. Again, thank you so much again. It’s been really [crosstalk] lovely to talk to you.
James: Lovely to speak to you, finally.
Sarina: Yeah, I’m sure we can manage it again at some point. [laughs]
James: Okay. [laughs]
Sarina: So, yeah, thank you so much, and have a wonderful day everybody, and bye-bye.
Sarina: If you enjoyed today’s episode, maybe learn something along the way, hit the Subscribe button. You can also connect with me on Twitter @sarina_langer, on Instagram and Facebook @sarinalangerwriter, and of course, [00:47:00] on my website at sarinalanger.com. Until next time, bye.
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