When we first met, in your writing life you were primarily a poet. What made you want to transition to novel-writing?
I recall telling friends how much I admired people who’d shown sufficient determination to write a novel. I’d written hundreds of articles, as well as the poetry, so I knew I could write fluid prose. I set out on the first draft as an adventure to see whether I could produce a story of 80,000 words or so – whether I had the persistence to do so. That was my initial goal: simply to produce a first draft.
Did you have an initial impulse that prompted you to write the story that you chose? Did you begin with a story premise or just an image or an idea for a character…?
My decision to write a novel came first. I then had to decide what to write about. Having read Stephen King’s On Writing, I’d decided not to make a detailed plan. I took a few days off work and, on day one, I sat down at my desk, fountain pen in hand, and wrote a single page of notes. It was about 300 words. Rereading it now, I’d call it a rough synopsis. It contained several ideas, which carried through to what became The Sound Of Everything. Mostly, it was about the protagonist: the pickle he’s in and what he wants instead. After writing those 300 words, I turned to a fresh page and started chapter one. Interestingly, the first sentence I wrote had nothing to do with my initial notes, yet it drew on an image I’d been carrying round in my head for a while, a location which plays a major part in the novel.
It’s interesting to me that an image was central to your beginning – as I too, often work from images and strong hunches. I’ve noticed the importance of landscape too in your novel… what role do you think a sense of place plays in your writing?
Place is very important in the novel and it has been in my poetry, too. The Sound Of Everything is set mainly in a small town on the Welsh border, though there are also a couple of hill-top scenes. Certain locations – or types of location – seem to resonate with what’s going on inside us. For example, someone might feel the freedom of the wide-open spaces on a beach or a mountain, or a sense of being trapped by their daily routine in an urban environment. For someone else, I guess the opposite could be true. For me, there’s some sort of interplay between what one might think of as the magic and the mundane: what we see with our eyes, what we feel inside and, perhaps, what we experience beyond the five senses. Writing about different landscapes helps me access that interplay.
Beyond the five senses – you’ve sometimes described this, I know, as ‘spiritual fiction’?
I’d say it’s a small-town mystery with a spiritual aspect – spiritual in the sense of questions we might sometimes ask ourselves, such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I doing here?’ or ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ Going back to your previous question on place, while my initial 300-word outline related to the external plot, the image that came through in the first line I wrote – sentence one, paragraph one – was concerned with the protagonist’s internal exploration. It was only when I came to working with you on the second draft that I delved down deeply into that exploration – the feelings the protagonist experiences when he starts to open to that side of himself. It was difficult to decide what Amazon genre the finished novel fitted into, but I plumped for visionary and metaphysical. Spiritual seemed to me to be too much associated with Christian fiction, whereas the novel resonates more with Eastern ways of thinking – yoga, for example.
That’s fascinating, that the mentoring process allowed you to delve deeper into the protagonist’s inner exploration. Is that what you expected?
When I found your website, I wrote an email to you to enquire about your one year mentorship programme. Here’s what I said: ‘I’ve just finished the first draft of my debut novel and so I’m a beginner as far as novels are concerned… Completing the first draft, regardless of its merit, has given me a huge confidence boost. I now feel ready to commit to learning the skills that I will need to become a published novelist. ’ I had no idea what to expect from working with you, but I figured it made sense to learn from someone who’d already achieved what I was setting out to do, particularly as I’d never studied creative writing.
One of the key points you made in our first meeting, having read chapter one, was that I needed to show why my protagonist acted as he did, by describing what he was experiencing from his point of view. I’d done that in a few places but, generally, the point of view I’d used was too distant. I know now that you were teaching me a technique to improve my writing, but you also opened a door for me, one which helped to strengthen the bridge between my writing of the novel and the way I’d approached my poetry.
I’m so glad that the new closeness in point of view has revealed a link between your fiction and your poetry. For those who might be considering working with a mentor, what in your view, have been the main benefits of the work we’ve done together?
Just to explain how it worked, I’d send you an extract – 6,000 words or so – about a week before our meeting date. You’d then read and mark up the extract before we met. In meetings, which were on the phone as we live 250 miles apart, you’d give me feedback. We’d discuss what you said and we always ended the meeting with an action plan for the next month. Three or four weeks later, I’d send you a new extract ready for our next meeting. Meanwhile, you’d post the marked-up extract back to me. This went on for a year.
The regular schedule was superb because it enabled me to put in a renewed burst of activity every four or five weeks, trying to put into practice what we’d discussed. I’d have to work hard to produce the next 6,000-word extract – sometimes, the same extract as the previous time but substantially rewritten. Then, I’d send it to you and receive almost instant feedback on how well I’d achieved my goals. Rather than slaving over a whole manuscript for a year and then sending it to a beta reader or agent, I’d get ‘mini-reviews’ of my work every month. I believe that accelerated my learning process.
While you were always very positive in your feedback, you always encouraged me to go further. I would usually feel that I’d made huge strides forward each time and you always liked what I’d done. But, after every meeting, I felt I could delve even deeper, because that’s what you asked me to do. That was the bridge with the poetry. When I wrote my poems, I was expressing my truth, as best I could, in a few short words. With the novel, your mentoring helped me to dig down to that same depth in a much longer written work. Of course, I also learnt much in the way of technique. Probably the most important point was the need for the protagonist and other main characters to act in a way consistent with what would be going on in their head: psychological realism you called it, I believe. Why would they act that way after what happened in the previous scene? What was their motivation?
What has changed for you in your writing life in the last year?
The biggest change is that I’m now working on my second novel rather than my first. This time last year – June 2016 – you were mentoring me on revisions to what would become The Sound Of Everything. A few months later, in August, I sent the manuscript to a couple of professional beta readers, followed by further edits and more beta readers in October. Then came the publishing process and a few months brainstorming ideas for the next book. Eventually, I started to write again at the end of April and now I’m 30,000 words in.
Back in summer 2015, when I’d just completed the first draft of The Sound Of Everything, I wondered whether I’d be better to ditch that project and start a different story from scratch. Then I read somewhere that you learn a lot more, about writing a novel, by editing rather than starting afresh. I think that was great advice. My whole experience with that first novel has given me a lot more confidence this time round – that my rough first draft will evolve in a way I’m happy with.
You decided to self-publish ‘The Sound of Everything’ – what was behind that decision?
When I started to read about the importance of genre, I figured I might find it difficult to find an agent. Also, I’d already been down the self-publishing route with my poetry. When I raised the idea with you, you suggested several websites I could look at. One of these was Joanna Penn’s. I found her advice very useful, and I started to realise that many writers now self-publish from choice, particularly if they plan to write several books. It’s a long-term strategy, with less emphasis on the initial book launch and more on building a following.
Can you describe ‘The Sound of Everything’? Tell us about the book…
The book involves two quests: one internal, the other external. I wanted to write a story, which was a bit of a page-turner but also had depth to it – the spiritual aspect we discussed earlier. It’s told from a single viewpoint and includes quite a bit of internal dialogue. It starts with Jack, the protagonist, dashing into an Indian gift shop. What happens to him there, changes the course of his life. Below, I’ve copied extracts from two kind reviews I received on Amazon. I’m sure the book isn’t for everyone, but the extracts are in line with the feedback I’ve received from most readers I’ve heard from.
‘You are drawn into the story from the first page. You gradually learn more about Jack, the main character – why he has moved back to Drimpton, the town where he lived as a young child, and how he adjusts to working there and dealing with the many different characters he soon meets. There are surprises and twists, warmth and touches of humour and wisdom – it is thought-provoking, you don’t want to reach the end, and when you do, you find your mind returning to explore the unfolding themes.’
‘It is beautifully woven from a number of threads relating to the current and past of a town and some of its people as they are discovered by the main protagonist over a few days where he is trying to work out the answers to a number of different (and interesting) issues. It also covers the growth of that lead character as he tries to work out how to move forward from a position in life that he has arrived in because that is where he thought that he would like to be, and then isn’t 100% happy with now he’s got there.’
To find out more about Stuart Warner’s work, visit his website here.