Friday, December 08, 2006

All My Own Work

I'm lucky enough to have another great interview... Stephen Miles.

Who is Stephen Miles, you might ask? Well, Stephen is a writer and a winner of the Leonard Sankey Award for New Talent in Fiction. A title he and two other winners were controversially stripped of in 2002.

The circumstances regarding that decision - and why Stephen was the only one of the three to appeal against what happened - makes for fascinating reading. You can discover everything in his book All my Own Work... But the process of putting that story into print is almost as incredible as the Leonard Sankey adventure itself!

The more I've discovered of this story, the more fascinated by it I've become, so I do recommend his book. It's published through Lulu via a publisher called Thoughtcat and you can find more about it here.

In the mean time, I've been lucky enough to speak to Stephen Miles about his book. My questions start off a bit confusing. I'd got some of the details mixed up, which is why I didn't go too far into the story in this introduction. Sorry about that!

Q: While the Sankey Award and All my own Work are the things people will concentrate on, you were a writer long before you heard of Sankey. How exactly did you start writing? What sort of writing did you do? Did you have any previous success with it?

A: I've been writing for as long as I can remember. The first story I wrote which registers in my memory is something for an English class when I was about eight, about a small boy who climbed a mountain. Sadly it was all downhill from there until Sankey. And then it was downhill in a different way...

Q: So the Sankey Award for New Talent in Fiction. How did you hear about it? What inspired you to enter it? What do you think it was about your entry that contributed to you being selected as one of the winners? In tangible terms, rather than just raw, pulsating talent!

A: I read about the contest in the Independent. Leonard Sankey had recently died but altered his will at the last minute to use his fortune to fund a competition to encourage unpublished writers. As for why my entry was selected, I'd like to think it was just well written and involving enough to make the judges want to read on. That's about as tangible as it gets.

Q: So out of the five Sankey award winners, three (yourself included) were disqualified for apparent Plagerism. Out of those three, you were the only one to stand up in defiance of these charges. First off, who exactly were you accused of plagerising? Why do you think you were the only person to refute the accusations?

A: I think you mean "plagiarism" :-) but actually that's not what happened with Sankey - you might be thinking of what happened later with my co-writer. The Sankey debacle is a long story, but in a nutshell I'd split up from my wife and didn't know where she was, and had this mad idea that if I won a high-profile competition like this one not only would my writing career be sorted but she would get back in touch. When the stakes are that high you'll consider all sorts of dodgy ways of trying to increase your chances of winning. I didn't plagiarise anybody when I entered the competition, and nor did the other two winners, but I did do a deal with them to try to increase my chances. The so-called plagiarism thing came about when I wrote All My Own Work, which is my story of the Sankey affair from the time I met my wife to the time everything went pear-shaped with the competition. A writer friend did some editing of that story and we fell out over it, the upshot being that I was accused of plagiarising my own book. All very surreal.

Q: Don't you find it odd that 60% of the winners (whose prizes totalled £30,000) were accused of plagerism?

A: As I say, plagiarism wasn't what happened in the Sankey contest. All My Own Work tells the story of how I and two of the other Sankey winners got together and cooked up a scheme which was initially a brilliant success, but then backfired disastrously. I deserved it really.

Q: Things didn't get any better after that! Then you teamed up with somebody to write your side of the story. How well did you know this person? And how did you feel when the copyright issue first cropped up?

A: I knew Richard very well. He is, to be fair, a good writer but we didn't really look into all the ramifications properly from the outset. We're back on speaking terms now but it was ugly for a while. I would strongly advise any writer thinking of collaborating with another writer to think hard about it first and see if you can't just do it yourself. It's very hard to please both of you in the equation and lots of misunderstandings and egos get in the way.

Q: Like a persistant pheonix, All my Own Work rose from the ashes in the form of an online blog. What inspired you to do this and how effective do you think it was?

A: Well I think blogging is great in principle because it gives you a voice and, potentially, a global audience. But in reality there are many more blogs than there are readers, or at least people who have the time and inclination to read blogs, and in fairness a lot of blogs are dreadful. All My Own Blog seemed an obvious thing to do. Originally I was going to publish the entire story online but I was more interested in the traditional book form.

Q: All my Own Work is now published. How exactly did that happen? Did you pitch the manuscript and story to publishers? Why did you pick Thoughtcat as publisher?

A: I did indeed try to get All My Own Work published in the usual way by submitting it to agents and publishers, and had generally positive responses, but for whatever reason none of them wanted it as it stood. Some had suggestions for how it could be improved but it would've meant taking out great chunks of the story I wanted to tell. Thoughtcat is an interesting web phenomenon that Richard is involved in and as part of our deal he agreed to publish it in its entirety.

Q: Thoughtcat is a fairly unique form of publisher, taking advantage of the Lulu POD service. How do you feel about that?

A: Well, Lulu provide an excellent service and I'm delighted that we're working with them. The quality of the books they produce is superb, their prices very reasonable and their service is extremely quick. I think POD is a very democratic thing and is the way forward for books that don't fit into the mould that regular publishers and agents seem to be tied to.

Q: Now you've got All my own Work in print, what's next? Do you have any more projects you're working on?

A: I'm always writing something or other, although most of it ends up in a sub-folder of My Documents called RUBBISH. You have to write a lot of rubbish to get to the decent stuff. I'm working on a screenplay at the moment but I'd rather not say any more than that.

Q: How do you go about writing? All my own Work mentions the dozens of notepads you used. Was that just because you were on an island, or is that the medium you prefer?

A: I've always preferred to type, mostly because my handwriting is dreadful. It was beautiful when I was at school but as I grew older it became increasingly illegible. There was always a little manual typewriter at home because my mum and dad ran a grocery business and needed it for that, so I taught myself to type at quite a young age. Then computers came along and I got into wordprocessing when I was about 15. It's so normal now but in those days (the mid-eighties) it was still very new. It's by far my preferred method of writing now although I do agree it has drawbacks. Martin Amis once pointed out that because of the "delete" key you can lose text forever that might actually be good, and Stephen King has spoken of the distance that wordprocessing can put between the writer and the words. And then of course there's all the crappy features that word processors have now, 95% of which are completely useless and get in the way of writing. You end up fiddling with fonts and rulers when what you should actually be doing is writing the bloody story. I wish I was able to say that was the reason I drafted the Sankey stuff in notebooks but in truth that was because I was working in a hostel on the Isle of Skye at the time and didn't have my own PC in my room, nor the money to buy one. I used sheets of yellow A4 paper as well because there was a lot of it lying around at the hostel for some reason. It actually ended up being quite an instructive process because I found that slowing my brain down to the speed of my handwriting produced better results. Of course now I'm back living in my own place in London I'm using the wordprocessor all the time and my handwriting has disintegrated again. I print everything on yellow paper now though rather than white, as it seems lucky.

Q: To win the Sankey Award, you had to give a synopsis of your unwritten novel. Is that the way you normally work? A lot of writers (including Stephen King) just 'sit down and type.' Is planning important to what you write?

A: Well the synopsis was a requirement of entering the Sankey contest, because they judged your entry on the basis of your first chapter and then the summary of the rest of the story. In the past I have tended very much to plot my stories very closely before starting to write, but I've found that to be extremely limiting and also it spoils the fun. I've forgotten who said it originally but if there's no surprise for the writer, there's no surprise for the reader either. It's very tempting to write lots of notes for a book because you can tell yourself that "eventually" you will start writing it, but all you're really doing is putting off the act of writing the thing. I have a lot of admiration for writers who can follow their instincts and write without an outline, because they might get halfway into a book before realising it's not working, and have to abandon it. I think the best thing is to write just a few notes and put the majority of your effort into the actual writing. Sebastian Faulks once said that the only notes he had for a 100-page section of his (superb) novel Birdsong consisted of just three words. I've forgotten what the words were but it obviously did the trick.

Q: What's the process between 'spark of an idea' to sitting down and actually writing the first chapter?

A: That's a good question. I think Stephen King has said that he doesn't write the "spark of an idea" down at all, but instead leaves it in his head until it's grown and is nagging at him so much that he can't bear to put off writing the book any longer. Then I think he just starts on chapter one straight off. There's a lot to be said for that approach, if you can stand it. His self-control must be awesome.

Q: What sort of editing process did you use? How different was your finished first draft to what you can actually purchase from Thoughtcat?

A: It wasn't a great deal different, to be honest. It was a straight account of the story, and like I said I didn't want to cut too many things out even if they didn't seem absolutely integral to that story. A book is a large enough canvas, I think, for the writer and reader to be able to share a space and relax in it together for a while.

Q: Got to ask... Who designed the cover?

A: That was done by Thoughtcat. I think they did a pretty good job of capturing the tone of the book and its subject in one image.

Q: What advice do you have for any aspiring writers?

A: Well my gut reaction is "resist the temptation to write too many notes before you start writing", but some writers do this and it works for them. So really I don't think the technique matters much - do whatever works for you. What does matter is finding your own voice, identity and subject. All My Own Work is my first full-length book and I think the reason it worked this time is largely because I was just telling a story I knew well in a tone that felt comfortable. It felt less like writing and more like having a conversation. Of course some of the time I was actually having a conversation with Richard at Thoughtcat but that's beside the point. There's a lot to be said for borrowing the style of someone great like Hemingway or Russell Hoban when you're starting out, to get your foot in the door of writing, but ultimately the important thing is to be yourself and do your own thing without fear of what other people might say.

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