Getting into writing – a interview with Neal Asher

Neal Asher and the Terminator

I was born in 1961 in Essex, Great Britain, and divide my time between there and the island of Crete. I’ve been an SF and fantasy junky ever since having my mind distorted at an early age by JRRT, Edgar Rice Burroughs and E C Tubb. Sometime after leaving school I decided to focus on only one of my many interests because it was inclusive of the others: writing. Finally, after climbing just about every step of the writing ladder, I was taken on by a large publisher, Pan Macmillan, my first full-length SF novel, Gridlinked, came out in 2001, and now in total I have 23 books to my name, also in translation across the world.

Twitter: @nealasher

When did the writing bug bite?

As above, in that short bio, I had many interests when I was young – biology, microscopes, chemistry, electronics, painting, drawing, sculpture, along with reading masses of SFF. Hard to nail down when the bug bit (it’s a long time ago now). I put it down to an English lesson during which the teacher just told us to write a story. I’d been overdosing on the E C Tubb Dumarest Saga at the time so wrote something derivative, but the teacher complimented me on it. After that my English project was writing about the writers I loved and later, maybe age 14 or 15 I started writing some juvenile SF. I left school at 16 and started writing a fantasy and was playing with that for years. I started off writing with a fountain pen, because of course that is was writers do, and then typing on a manual typewriter. I produced a fantasy trilogy and the first book of another trilogy which still languish in my files. In my twenties I decided to get serious and bought writing magazines and books like ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’. I needed to get something published and started writing short stories, meanwhile an agent took on my fantasy (got nowhere). I was actually doing real cutting and pasting then. My first short story was taken by a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1986

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

The moments of inspiration when you just know you’ve written something good. And of course the successes: that first short story whose payment was just a free copy of the magazine, other stories, seeing good reviews, my first book (a novella called Mindgames: Fool’s Mate published by Club 199) for which I was paid £1,000, the next novella and collections of short stories from a small press called Tanjen. Then that day in Dec 1999 when a rather well-spoken chap at Macmillan phoned because he wanted to see the whole book whose synopsis and sample chapters I’d sent (Gridlinked). Later being able to walk into just about any bookshop in the UK and find my books on the shelves. And hell, let’s be honest here: it’s the best job in the world! You do something that makes you happy and it makes other people happy too.

Some writers write once in a blue moon, other write often – you’re the epitome of Prolific, how do you do it?

Discipline. I worked in many jobs before I was published by Macmillan so that established a work ethic. I was self-employed for 13 years prior to that event so there was no one to berate me because I was late to the clocking-in clock and no one, but customers, to criticise my work. That established self-motivation.  Before Macmillan took me on I made myself write something every day. I then started word counting and set myself a minimum limit. When I went full time I set that count at 1,000 words a day five days a week. Later it went up to 2,000 (but wholly fiction) and has pretty much remained there ever since. It’s notable to me now how many enter the writing world without this – published when young, straight from university or whatever – and I have seen many of them either fail completely or systematically fail to meet deadlines. Some of them also don’t understand the concept of business. They feel it is all about the art and yeah, it is, but in publishing it is all about art that sells and you have to work with your publisher on that, not throw a hissy fit when things aren’t going your way.

When do you write?

Five days a week. I get up in the morning and generally start, round about 8AM, reading science articles, sorting blog posts and dealing with email. I then open up what I’m working on and read through and edit what I did the day before. Then I start writing and generally don’t stop until I’ve passed 2,000 words. I say generally because that is a standard I am gradually getting back to. I’ve gone through some shitty life events in recent years which killed my inclination to enjoy anything (death of my wife and the outfall from that). Even so, because I had been sticking to my discipline before that happened I was well ahead of the publisher and had a trilogy to first draft before I even needed to deliver the first book, which gave me … time.

How do you handle success and failure?

To be a success you must be able to handle failure and move on. Most of my failure was before I was taken on by Macmillan: the piles of rejection letters, the small publishers going bankrupt before publishing my stuff etc. Oddly, handling success can be hard too. If you’ve dreamed all your life of being a published SF writer, of seeing your name on those lovely lurid books and of doing it full time, when you achieve your dream it leaves a hole, a kind of depression, because you no longer have a dream to achieve. Hopefully by this time you have achieved a disciplined routine and can carry on as the dream becomes a job. A great job, but a job nonetheless.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

Write write write! And read of course. How do you write a book? I am asked. Well, how do you run a marathon? One day you run a few hundred yards then the next day a bit further and so on. The aphorism ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ applies: ‘One bite at a time.’ Write every day and count your words. Establish a routine, learn to handle failure, don’t stop. My route to success was running at a brick wall with my head until something broke. Fortunately it was the wall.

Neal Asher Books

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

I grew up with paper books and they are my first love. But lovely though they are, I look around my house and note that they do fill up a lot of space. I’ve no objection to ebooks (besides the torrent sites and piracy) and have a Kindle myself. Very useful when abroad and very useful in many other situations. I’m not inclined to put one above the other.

How did you gain a publisher?

When I was starting out the method was to send a synopsis and a couple of sample chapters, with a covering letter by post, with return postage. I was doing this for years. It was disheartening to learn that these submissions went onto a slush pile at the publishers and were only read when someone could spare the time. I also learned that the big publishers received hundreds every month out of which maybe one or two would be taken on each year. I kept doing it anyway and as I built up a collection of reviews from the small press stuff I was having published I included them too. I think (maybe) what helped draw attention to Gridlinked was an excellent review of my small press short story collection The Engineer which I included that time around – on top of everything else. Even then publishers were using agents as a filter so I was lucky to be taken from the slush pile. With the Internet, and ebooks, in full swing now I’m sure the route in is completely different. One only has to look at the route Andy Weir’s The Martian took to the bookshops.

Tell us about The Skinner.

The Skinner is my second book. I am now writing my 23rd or 24th book. I’m not sure. I lose count because should a novella or collection of short stories be classified as a book? Should the count be of books written or books published? It’s one of my favourites. Here’s the blurb:

To the Line planet Spatterjay come three travellers: Janer brings the eyes of a Hive mind; Erlin comes to find Ambel – the ancient sea captain who can teach her to live; and Sable Keech is a man with a vendetta he will not give up, though he has been dead for seven hundred years.

The world is mostly ocean, where all but a few visitors from the Human Polity remain safely in the island Dome. Outside, the native quasi-immortal hoopers risk the voracious appetite of the planet’s fauna. Somewhere out there is Spatterjay Hoop himself, and monitor Keech will not rest until he can bring this legendary renegade to justice – for hideous crimes committed centuries ago during the Prador Wars. 

Keech does not know is that while Hoop’s body roams free on an island wilderness, his living head is confined in a box on board one of the old captain’s ships. Janer, the eternal tourist, is bewildered by this place where sails speak and the people just will not die, but his bewilderment turns to anger when he learns the agenda of the Hive mind. Erlin thinks she has all the time she will ever need to find the answers she requires, and could not be more wrong. And so these three travel and search, not knowing that one of the brutal Prador is about to pay a surreptitious visit, intent on exterminating witnesses to wartime atrocities, nor do they know how terrible is the price of immortality on Spatterjay.

As the fortunes of the recent arrivals unwittingly converge, a major hell is about to erupt in this chaotic waterscape … where minor hell is already a remorseless fact of everyday life – and death.

When can we expect another Neal Asher book?

As has been the case over the last 17 years one or more will appear every year. I recently started a new trilogy whose title is Rise of the Jain (the Jain are an ancient hostile and xenophobic alien race – I liked the dichotomy with Jainism, a religion whose adherents will no hurt a fly). The first books of this – The Soldier – will appear early next year. Maybe in March. I’ve written the second book to first draft (the possible title is The Ship) and am now a couple of chapters into the third. But hell, if you haven’t read my stuff then don’t start there – there’s plenty of others to choose from!

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Some other notes for writers: 1. Writing to a set limit (mine being 2,000 words) makes it easier to start again the next day. If you know where you are going in a piece and write to the end then it is harder to start again. If you stop at a set limit, even though you know what to write next, the following day you get straight back into it. 2. When writing a book open a contents file listing what happens in each section of each chapter with a concise sentence. This helps you keep track and from it you can write a synopsis – expanding each of those sentences, shifting stuff around to follow the plot etc. You can get from this a better understanding of the shape of your book. … But this is only if you write like me. I don’t plan a book – I just write it. 3. Good luck!




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