Roadrunner – SJA Turney?
Simon Turney and I met over ten years ago as writers with the peer-review group, YWO.com I was drawn into the exceptional world of his writing then, and I’m as much of a fan now. Over the eight years since we were both published, I have written nine books. But Simon has scorched a path ahead of me. He reminds me of the roadrunner…
Of course, it’s well known he is a prolific author.
And yet he has two school-aged children, is renovating a house, has family commitments, dogs, rabbits and many other things besides. Quite simply, any writer seeing his output would think he had control over Time.
To have titles appear on the market with such frequency makes him a reader’s dream writer.
Speaking as a writer, I’m in awe because Life manipulates me, not the other way round. Not only that, I’m an exceptionally organised person who relies on that organisation to see me through my average day. But I want to know how I might change my technique to be as prolific.
I need to know how he does it. So Simon, welcome back!
My first question requires a simple Y/N answer.
Are you an organised person? If yes, how? Research books by Dewey, alphabetical files and so on? Are you anal/ OCD?
Simply: yes. I am a small island of organisation in a family of chaos. No matter how disorganised, untidy or simply strewn-with-toys the rest of the house gets, my office is carefully organised and so is the small area of the kitchen where I make coffee.
I need to be able to find everything. But to be completely organised would take too long each day, so I keep my whole office completely organised apart from two shelves. Anything I receive or create that is not immediately important gets stuffed into those shelves. Then, when I finish a project, I will spend a day going through all that and organising again ready for the next one.
My books get re-organised about once a month when I add the next set of texts to them, and each time I come up with a potentially better system of organisation (though it’s never quite yet hit the spot.) So I think I’m OCD with a small blind-spot of chaos which is what makes it all work.
Can you explain the structure of your average working day?
And here I ruin any reputation I may have built for dedication or focus.
OK, here goes:
Once the kids are packed off to school, the chores are done and I’m showered and dressed (possibly even in that order) it goes:
- Make a coffee
- Correspondence and checking various websites
- Make a coffee
- Write 1,000 words. It’s surprisingly simple. Don’t worry about the precise quality.
- Play 3 levels of Plants vs Zombies to clear the brain. Make a coffee
- Write 2,000 more words. Now the mojo should be flowing. 3 more PVZ.
- Make lunch… and a coffee
- Write 2,000 more words. (These are targets. Not always reached, but sometimes exceeded.)
- Grab a beer. Drink it through 3 levels of Plants vs Zombies
- Run a complete careful edit through all 5,000 words and re-work it to its best quality.
- End of show. Go off and think about other random stuff. Maybe about beer.
Golly! Do you have shares in a coffee plantation?
So… within that structure is there a substructure? (Eg: first 2 hours – MM, second 2 hours –hist.fantasy, third two hours – collaborations, fourth two hours Praetorian and so on) And if so, how do you compartmentalise your mind?
Ah. I have this issue with things. I am far too linear, so I handle things numerically. See above, plus this:
I only write one project on any day. Can’t wind down enough from a project to push two in one day, so any day will only hold one project, character and timeline. I tend to allocate one day in eight to side projects or collaborations, so it can be shifted around to be most convenient for the project or co-conspirator.
How do you fit in social media, publicity, media interviews, agent’s appointments?
If you can find an answer to that one, please do let me know.
Oh heavens, I wish! Mine is at best an intermittent scramble … especially as I am in the far far south of the planet and am working through the north/south timezones…
I honestly have no idea how I work. It just seems to happen. I suspect that’s because I have an excellent wife who is far more pro-active with all publicity than I could ever be. Social media is different, since I tend to interact as the mood and interest takes me. Mind you, there have been times this year I’ve been sooooo busy I’ve missed a lot and had to rush to catch up.
In your average day, how do you prevent life from intruding and if it does, how do you regain your focus?
Life intrudes a lot, though that depends what you consider intrusion.
To be honest, it’s either my wife or my kids or my dogs or the postman. Considering I live in an extremely rural world, it seems to be very busy at times. I have to take interruptions as they come. Some come when the situation is quite simple and therefore I can just smile, answer, deal with whatever is happening in the world, and then leap straight back into the tale. Other times I can be right in the midst of something critical and complex, and all I can do is close the office door, crank up the volume on my soundtrack and lose myself in the story.
What about exercise?
I really don’t get as much as I should. But I walk quite a bit.
And on research visits I walk quite a lot. I have a pathological hatred of bicycles, slightly arthritic joints that preclude jogging, I live a 20 minute drive from the nearest swimming pool and a 2-year nightmare of slipped discs and sciatica have left me unable to consider crunches and weight-based exercise.
I love to swim and I like to walk. I need to do more of both.
I exercise my brain a lot if that counts… And I’m wearing a trench in the floor between desk and coffee machine.
(See? Coffee again. I am secretly worried…)
What about company whilst you work? For me, my dog’s company is essential. He’s with me the whole time. You have two lurchers – are they your muses?
Lord no! I love Seth and Murphy, and often have epiphanies about plot issues while walking them, but while sharing the house with them during writing days, they are sort of the anti-muse. They’re old dogs now and have acquired separation anxiety from my wife.
Thus, when I might hope for simple, quiet writing time when she and the kids are out, instead, Murphy lies in my office door whining, while Seth periodically breaks out in full-scale wolf-howling. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Me being there doesn’t solve it! They just want Tracey. I have learned to block out howling now, in addition to any other talents I might have.
Do you believe in Time Out? Away from your timeframe, away from anything remotely ancient/classic, away from anything connected to writing?
Oh yes, although it’s something of a busman’s holiday.
I have tried writing full days for a 5-day week, and discovered that I burn out on day 4, tired and with diminished mojo. A couple of years ago now, I discovered that if I took Wednesday off, my productivity for the other 4 days was far greater than if I wrote 5 days straight. So now, I have a quite Wednesday out in one of the local towns or a village pub with my wife while the kids are at school and I read books.
So, as I say, a busman’s holiday, but Wednesdays are the time these days when I do most of my reading. I love my Wednesdays and it recharges the mental batteries for Thursday and Friday.
(I’m disgracefully envious of this – the organisation that allows a day off. My writing time is so haphazard because of Life, that my face has just turned a Kermit green colour).
Anyway – onward…
You speak of a dozen different ideas for novels constantly rattling away in your head. Do you find the need to jot them down? Where? Pad, journal or on the computer? How do you file them?
I have a small folder on my PC that contains at least a dozen projects that are planned or part-written. I keep notes when I’m out on my phone, and I scribble things on pads on my desk, and I sometimes use a dictaphone, but I always transcribe any ideas or notes into my folder. I have to keep everything exactly where I need it. Folders within folders, each file and research note carefully named.
When you write, we know you create a ‘proposal’ first and that your proposals can be more than 3000 words. One assumes this then becomes your plotline or if not then fairly close to it. Do you also create a character file, style sheet etc? And if so, what happens to all of those ‘files’ when you have finished a series?
I only generally have one file to work from (unless I’m working with Gordon Doherty, who is FAR more organised even than me.) I start by penning a quick plot on a word doc. Then I will flesh out the plot to become a proper story, adding characters and settings, such that the plan might be 2-3,000 words.
I then go over it again, adding in detail and more detail, then more detail, and finally more detail. Over a week or so I will end up with a plan that can be between 7,000 and 10,000 words. I then carve it up into chapters.
One more look over, and if I am happy with it, I send it to agent and publisher to see if they’re happy with the proposal. If they are, then I’m ready to go. And I need the most detailed chapter plan I can get, because if I don’t have that, from what will I deviate utterly?
Describe your office. A view? Tidy? Number of screens? Do you think it personifies you as the writer SJA Turney?
Ooh. Small. It’s a small box-room.
One wall is all computer desk with two screens on the PC, and my netbook there for good measure. Netbook is for quick reference. Right hand screen is my research screen and jukebox. Left is the writing screen.
On the side of the desk are those two (full of crap) shelves I told you about. On the wall above is a map of Constantinian Rome. Then there’s a window out over the back garden and the fields beyond with a cupboard of books below. The other two walls are solid bookshelf. More or less wall to wall and floor to ceiling.
Oh and chunks of re-enactment kit (swords, pila, helmets etc.) Small, but perfectly formed.
So clearly not like me at all!
Well then, what within your office personifies you the most?
I have Roman swords. I have historical fiction and lots of research books. I have PCs and so much. But the toys I think define me. Here are the toys in my office:
- A scale model wooden replica Roman ballista
- An (almost) complete collection of the Compare the Meerkats meerkat toys
- A half century or Roman legionary & auxiliary playmobil figures
- The Lego Star Wars Imperial Shuttle Tyderium
- A small troop of British redcoat Playmobil figures
- Cuddlies: Quoth the raven, Cthulhu, Floyd the badger and Henry the Moose
- An impressive array of Boba Fett memorabilia
- A miniature American football helmet
- A carved replica skull in a Star Wars bandanna
- A replica Julius Caesar
- A small painted lead legionary figure personally done by a good friend.
The toy collection is fascinating and I foresee a further interview – a psychological examination of the collection and how it defines YOU! But let’s talk more mundane things. Morning tea? Lunch? Afternoon Tea? Pub-time? Or are you one of those writers who can live off the smell of an oily rag and who never needs to have comfort stops during the day. I ask because many women writers have a predilection for tea, chocolate and wine comfort stops.
I eat little. I have 3 digestive biscuits mid-morning during my gallon of coffee.
I’ll have a sandwich for lunch. Maybe a beer in the afternoon. Then nothing until the evening meal with the family. I might occasionally grab a slice of cheese or something, though.
Do you think there will ever be a book in that vast list of ideas, that will quite simply take a year or more and which will have its claws into you so deeply that you can’t divide your time between it and other novels? If the answer to this question is yes, what is the likely subject matter and explain why you think this might be different than any other.
I have one idea that I would happily donate all my time to. It might take a year to do right. It might not. But I would give it what it needs. And I’m hoping to have a go at it in a couple of years, but sadly,
I’m not willing/able to release ANY details of that. Essentially, it would be a homage to one of the best pieces of writing in the world and as so would have to be the best thing I can write.
What would be your advice to a writer who might wish to work at your speed and over a plethora of stories? And if you think I am talking about an old kid who has been round the block a few times, then you are completely right!
Sadly, I have none. To my mind, if you have a brain that seethes with potential plots and untold tales, they will always find a way out. They might have to queue but they’ll come.
And speed? Speed is of minor importance to storytelling. Some very good writers write a few hundred words a day. Others 8,000 words. Everyone is different.
For the record, there are writers who make me feel slow and unproductive. Christian Cameron is one such.
Simon – many thanks for the fly on the wall view of the side of SJA Turney that we have rarely seen. Hinted at but rarely seen. I’m returning for the toy talk. Be prepared!
For all those who want to connect with Simon and his novels, click on: http://authl.it/B01LQZIW7K
Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, Prue. Fun getting to know Simon.
He is a brilliant writer on serious subjects but has the kind of wit I love. Swift and forthright and sometimes very dry.And he conveys that to some of his characters which makes for brilliant dimension.