Creating a Career in Fantasy Fiction - An Interview with Chris Wooding
Chris Wooding is a renowned British Science Fiction / Fantasy / Youth author. He has published 18 books and several short stories. The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray won him the Silver Smarties Award. Garry Lemon interviews to Chris about carving out a commercial career as a fantasy author.
1) English Literature is one the few degree programmes without a clear 'default' career path and you have described 'writing around' your degree whilst at university. To what extent did you see your academic course as distinct from your intended career as an author?
They were pretty much entirely separate. I knew back then that you didn’t need any kind of qualification to become an author, and English Lit. wasn’t promoting my creative writing skills any, beyond making me read a lot of books which I could have done anyway in my spare time. I guess I didn’t take my degree very seriously. I originally went to Uni in Sheffield because they were the only one in the country offering a specialisation in Folklore, but they discontinued it after my first year so I was forced to switch to pure Literature. To be honest, I don’t like picking books apart and analysing them all that much, so I was never suited for that course, but it was something I could do relatively easily so I went with it. By my third year at Uni, classes were just getting in the way of writing; I think I averaged three hours a week attendance.
2) It seems as though you were either lucky or intuitive enough to have done your own careers planning - at what point did you make the association between writing and making a living?
My careers planning was all based around the avoidance of getting a real job. I had an absolute terror of the nine-to-five life when I was younger, and I always wanted to be an author ever since I can remember. But I was realistic about my chances, and I knew how hard it was to get published. My backup plan was journalism. I only really thought I could make a career as an author after my first book got 'picked up' by Scholastic. After that, there was no question in my mind. Luckily, the sporadic way authors get paid tends to suit my lifestyle, so I could weather the first few years when money was not exactly rolling in – and I was at Uni at the time so it was easy to live cheap.
3) Can you describe how you got your first work published?
Ever since I was sixteen, I was writing books and sending them to the publishers’ addresses I found in the books of my favourite authors. Now I know that’s the wrong way to go about it: 99.99r% of those end up on the ‘slush pile’, being read by an office junior, and if your book isn’t the most incredible thing they’ve ever read by the time they’ve got to the end of page 10 they’ll reject it. Eventually I got myself an agent, whose purpose is to filter out all the chaff for the publishers, and she advised me that it was impossible to sell horror books at the time (which was what I was writing). She persuaded me to write a book for teens as I was eighteen. I did what she said, somewhat reluctantly, but it got picked up almost immediately. The hardest thing about any media industry is getting your foot in the door. Once you’re there, it’s all a hundred times easier.
4) Have you discovered any resources or rules which you find helpful in your work?
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a how-to manual for anyone who wants to get published. It explains how agents and publishers work, how you should set out your page (there’s no faster way to get rejected than printing your novel single-spaced on both sides of the paper) and gives you all the addresses and phone numbers you need. That was what I used to get started. I’m not a big researcher so I’ve never needed a great deal of resources. The Internet can get you just about anything you want to know anyway; I have a bad habit of popping up on random forums and asking questions about how hang-gliders deal with wind shear at night and whether an ice moon could exist orbiting a temperate planet (apparently not, in case you were wondering: a guy at the European Space Agency told me that!). As to rules, there’s an old line that says: Don’t get it right, get it written! I like that one. The most important thing is to finish a book before you start tinkering with it. I’m a big re-writer, and I edit my books to pieces, but I know a lot of people who write a lot and never finish anything because they’re too busy fine-tuning what they’ve already done. The challenge of a book is to complete it. After that you can think about getting it right.
5) Are there particular challenges when writing professionally? How do you overcome these?
One particular challenge is holding on to a slippery thread of sanity after 9 years sitting on your own in a room all day. I’ve learned to start working out of coffee shops and so on; it gives me a false sense of company which helps ease the solitude of my job. A lot of writers have problems motivating themselves to work every day, but that’s never been a problem with me because I always really want to tell the story I’m writing. Most challenges as a writer are those you set yourself: challenging yourself to write in a different style or tackle a hard subject or take a risk with something new. But therein lies the fun.
6) You mention on your website (see link below) that your love of reading grew, initially at least, from a desire for escapism from the monotony of your surroundings. To what extent does travel now compete with literature to satisfy the urge to broaden your horizons?
(A complete list of the artist’s projects can be found at www.chriswooding.com)
They don’t really compete, because they exist on different levels. I learned a long time ago that real life doesn’t operate within the technical framework that is part of storytelling. It’s far more random. The old adage ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ is generally made true because if you wrote a book so full of coincidences and illogicality as real life is, then nobody would publish it. I remember I based a character in one of my early books on a friend of mine and I had to take him out because no-one believed someone like that could be real. Travel, to me, is all about being there, learning the tiny things about a culture and a location that no book, no matter how well written, can ever adequately express. Sometimes you just have to go and see for yourself, y’know? 7) Are there any texts that have helped you through particular periods of transition or flux in your life? Not really. It’s music, not books, that tend to be the markers I identify with certain periods of my life. Of course, I had stories in my childhood that filled me with wonder and helped me understand how powerful a story could be. They changed my life because they made me want to learn how to do that to other people. But life and literature are two separate tracks for me. I think it’s necessary to keep a healthy distinction, especially in my field, or I’ll end up thinking my own creations are real and that would be a bad, bad thing. 8) What projects are you currently working on and what do you hope to do next? I’m snowed under at the moment. My new book, Storm Thief, is released in January: it’s a science fiction book for teens and adults, about a world ravaged by probability storms that rearrange anything they strike. At the moment I’m working on Halflight, a weird kind of fantasy/sf novel for adults; that’s out in May ’07. Meantime I’m also working on a horror movie called Nursery, which is really exciting now we have Michael Radford (1984, Il Postino, The Merchant Of Venice) attached to direct. And I’ll be writing my first graphic novel soon too: Grafix, an imprint of Scholastic’s US arm, have just accepted my pitch for a dark fantasy/comedy/romance called Pandemonium. I daren’t think about what I’m doing next, I have to finish what I’ve started first!
About Chris Wooding: Renowned British Science Fiction / Fantasy / Youth author
Chris Wooding spent his formative years in a grim, squalid ex-mining town in the Midlands, where the crushing monotony of his surroundings fostered a need for escapism that he found in books. By the time he hit adolescence he had decided he wanted to become an author. Chris then spent the next few years writing feverishly around his English Literature studies degree and by the time he left University, he was earning just enough to live on. He took up writing full-time at twenty-one. Now twenty-eight, his works have sold all over the world and been translated into many different languages, including Russian, Japanese, Slovenian, Thai, Indonesian and Icelandic. He has also written two movie screenplays, both of which are in development and involving major Hollywood producers and directors.