Welcome to my weekly blog series – Author Interviews.
I love Saturdays because I get to hang out with some inspirational authors on my blog. Over a virtual cuppa and a biscuit they tell me all about their writing life, the obstacles they have faced whilst writing and their motivations for doing something amazing like writing a book.
This week I am really excited as Stevyn Colgan is sat in my red chair. Brace yourselves readers because I have one hell of an interview coming up! I have a feeling his answers are going to leave me speechless…
Hey Stevyn! Welcome to my blog, please have a seat..
Tell my readers about yourself and the book / books you have written
Hello! My name is Stevyn Colgan. I’m a beardy and oddly-spelled Cornishman in his mid-50s living on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border (where they film ‘Midsomer Murders’, worryingly).
I’m an ex-chef, an ex-cop and now I’m a full-time writer. For half of the year I’m one of the ‘elves’ that write the TV show ‘QI’ and its sister show on BBC Radio 4, ‘The Museum of Curiosity’. The other half of the year I’m usually all over the place speaking at events and festivals in the UK, Europe and occasionally further afield. Or I’m working on the next book.
My books in print are: ‘Joined-Up Thinking’ (2008), ‘Henhwedhlow: The Clotted Cream of Cornish Folktales’ (2010), ‘Constable Colgan’s Connectoscope’ (2012), ‘The Third Condiment’ (2014), ‘Colgeroons’ (2015), ‘Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road?’(2016) and ‘Saving Bletchley Park’ (2016), which I co-wrote with Dr Sue Black OBE.
Next year (2017) will see my first novel in print. It’s a farce; a black comedy murder mystery set at a murder mystery festival. It’s called ‘A Murder to Die for’. I’m currently looking for a publisher for the novel after that.
When did you write your first book?
I wrote my first book way back in 1982. It was a typewritten science-fictiony thing and, having re-read it recently, it was pretty awful! But I was only 21 at the time and just learning how to be a writer. Oddly enough, around that same time, I wrote a ‘Doctor Who’ script that was accepted by the BBC so I honestly thought that my future lay in TV or film (even though I was, at that time, working as a police officer). But the script was eventually bumped because the special effects and costumes would have cost too much. Such a shame – Now that ‘Doctor Who’ is so big I’d have been on the convention gravy train forever! I then went on to write a further 17 novels and got better and better but didn’t feel that my work was good enough to submit until this last year or so.
Meanwhile, I’d kind of got railroaded into writing non-fiction. My first published book came out in 2008 and was called ‘Joined-Up Thinking’. I’ve always been a collector of facts and I’m lucky that I have a very good memory so I remember them. It’s why I landed the job at ‘QI’. But a few years ago I started finding connections between things that were surprising … such as the fact that the London Marathon can be connected to the herb fennel by way of the Greek goddess of victory. She’s called Nike – hence the sportswear company adopting it as a name – and her name was shouted by the legendary Phidippides after his epic 26 mile run from the battle of Marathon to Athens. Which is why we call any long endurance run a marathon. And marathon is the Greek word for fennel. See what I mean? The book is full of that kind of stuff as is its sequel ‘Constable Colgan’s Connectoscope’.
How long did it take to write your first book?
‘Joined-Up Thinking’ took me about six months to write and about a month or so to fact-check. These days, it seems to be the case that anything I write takes about six to eight months from first word typed to having a draft that I’m happy to submit to publishers. But that’s just the physical work I’ve writing I’m talking about. I first had the idea for ‘Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?’ back in 2006 and began gathering research and content for it back then. So it could be said that the book took me 10 years to write. However, the physical writing only took about six months. It was published in May this year.
What was your motivation to write your first book?
Just a desire to share some great and surprising facts and connections. Same as my motivation when writing ‘QI’ I suppose. Who doesn’t love the fact that Bruce Forsyth is older than sliced bread? Or that you could have gone to watch the last public execution in the UK by underground train (tube)?
What writing issues did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
Constant fact-checking was the big issue with my non-fiction books. There is something called the ‘half-life of facts’; a chap called Samuel Arbesman wrote a great book about it a couple of years ago. Facts change constantly as new knowledge becomes available. For example, when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, dinosaurs were lumbering thickos with brains the size of a walnut and boring grey-green skin. Fifty years of research has revealed them to be the ancestors of birds and, just like birds, they were dynamic and smart and colourful. Many of them had feathers. It was amazing to find out that some facts changed even during the six months I spent writing of the book. And when the paperback edition came out, I had to update even more.
Did you go through any bad writing patches during writing your book – what kept you going?
I’m going be really annoying here (particularly to other writers) and say no. I’m very lucky in that I rarely have writers’ block – if anything reigning the ideas in is more my problem – and I am very driven. I write every single day even if it is just a blog post or a guest blog post. I think it’s important to write every day – like any muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets and the better you get at using it. I guess my biggest problem, and something many writers can relate to, is finding time to write. You just have to learn to be very strict with yourself and make time. I don’t play video games, I don’t play sports and I don’t watch a massive amount of TV. Instead, I read and I write; I’ve sacrificed one set of pleasures for another because there aren’t enough hours in the day for them all. And I have managed to find time to write some 25 books – published and unpublished (so far) while holding down a 40 hour working week for 32 years and bringing up three kids (and now making time for two grandkids). It’s all about priorities. Beyond my family and friends, I’ve made writing my priority – it’s that important to me.
Are you a plotter or do you just write / see what happens?
With a non-fiction book, I will think about individual chapters and how they relate to each other; even with non-fiction I like to tell a story with a start and a finish so that the book is easier for the reader to follow and enjoy. For example, with ‘Why did the Policeman cross the Road?’ I was writing a book about how to improve society by re-building communities and by using modern crime science and behavioural economics and there were lots of examples to include. So I added an element of autobiography and the book progresses as my police career progresses so that there’s a distinct timeline from start to finish. I then slotted the examples and anecdotes into the most appropriate places.
With fiction I plot a little more but it is generally no more than a basic outline of the story from start to finish. Much of the ‘magic’ seems to happen as I write. The toughest job a writer has is nailing that first draft to the paper (hard drive?). Getting those 80,000-120,000 words down can be tortuous but it has to be done, one word after another. But once it’s done, you can start the fun part – editing! All of the best things in my books seem to emerge during the editing process and it’s not unusual for me to re-draft a book anything up to 15 times before I’m happy with it.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
The best thing is … being a writer! I get up in the morning and I can’t wait to get started. My first thought – well, maybe second after ‘Bacon and eggs or granola?’ – is ‘What will I write today?’ Writing is my number one passion and doing it gives me more satisfaction than almost anything else.
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
Money! Most of my frustrations are actually with the publishing industry which has become horribly risk-averse in recent years. Sadly, by plumping for safe bets like TV tie-ins, celeb autobiographies and the like, the money for authors’ advances has all but disappeared. Every half a million quid paid to an already stinking rich premiership footballer or pop star is another 25 advances of £20,000 that won’t be made available for struggling authors to live on.
It’s never been easier to get a book published but it’s never been harder for a writer to earn a living wage. Some of your readers might recall this Guardian article last year.
Apparently 60% of Britons say that being a writer is their dream job. And yet most writers don’t even earn the living wage. The most recent figures I’ve seen (2013) suggest that the top 10% of writers earn over 50% of the total income from the industry. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% of authors were those who earned less than £10,500 PA and accounted for just 7% of the amount earned by all writers put together. And 17% of all writers did not earn anything at all during 2013.
It’s why most writers still have a ‘day job’ – mine happens to be ‘QI’, so I’m lucky there, but that only pays me for four months of work. The other eight, I have to do what I can to pay the bills. THAT’s the worst thing about being a writer – feeling undervalued for what you do. But it’s the same in all areas of the arts. Only a few make a decent living from it.
Have you ever considered quitting writing, and if so how have you worked through this?
Never. Even if I never sell another book or article, I can’t imagine that anything would ever stop me writing. It’s what I do. I’ll always write for fun and personal satisfaction whatever happens.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I’m pretty disciplined. You have to be because life is so full of distractions (Ooh look! A squirrel in the garden!). I go into my office at 9am and work through to 11am where I have a 20 minute break for tea, Twitter, Facebook etc. Then, I shut the social media down and work through to 1pm where I have an hour for lunch. The afternoon is a repeat of the morning with a break at 4pm for tea and biscuits. Then I work through to 6pm before leaving the office and shutting the door, knowing that I’ve put in a six to seven hour working day. I might doodle in a sketchpad or make notes in the evening while watching TV but the working day is over. Then I’m likely to be in the pub with Mrs C and/or some friends. I take the weekends off, mostly.
That’s an ideal week, mind you. Sometimes I have to go shopping, or fix the garden fence or paint the kitchen … that’s life! but even then, my mind is working on the next plot twist or a particular description of a character all ready for when I can sit down and write. I always have a notebook with me (How does ANYONE work without a notebook! I have shelves of them, all full of ideas!) and the voice recorder on my smartphone is invaluable. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve had while walking the dogs or mowing the lawn. Things change during January to April when I’m five days a week on ‘QI’ and I do most of my personal writing at the weekends … if there’s time.
Do you suffer from procrastination and if so how do you handle it?
Definitely not. I can’t afford to. Like Neil Gaiman says: ‘If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.’ It’s so true. The process of writing is putting one word after another until you finish that first draft. Nothing writes itself. If you get caught up in procrastination or endless plotting, planning and research, you’ll never be a writer. I just get on with it and don’t agonise over every word; even if I don’t like what I’ve written at the end of the day, there’s always another day to fix it. And I’ll be another 2,000 words closer to a completed first draft.
Which is more important – plot or characters and why?
Both are important, of course. For me personally, the plot just edges into the lead; you can have the most fascinating and well-drawn characters in the world but if the plot is a dog, you’ll lose the reader. Conversely you can get away with less well-defined or original characters if you have a brilliantly thrilling or hilarious or compelling plot. A poor character can detract from the plot and the enjoyment of reading but will almost always be forgiven if you can’t put the book down. Just recently I re-read Douglas Adams’s ‘Hitchhiker’ quintrilogy (?) and it struck me that the main characters of Arthur Dent and Trillian are barely described. We learn what we learn about them solely from what they say and what they do. But the plots are so startlingly inventive and funny and the writing so beautiful that it really doesn’t matter.
What have been your 3 biggest learnings during your writing career?
1. Books don’t write themselves. If you want to be a writer, get on with it. You may never get a book deal. If you don’t it’s their loss. However, you might get a book deal … but only if you write!
2. Do it for you. Write because you love writing. If you don’t love your work why would you expect others to love it?
3. Be proud of the fact that you have done something that 99% of the public will never be able to do. You’ll hear many, many people say to you, ‘I think I’d like to write a book one day’. They won’t. Because they haven’t.
How do you manage social media as a writer?
I switch it off when I’m writing. When I’m not writing I chat to people. Twitter is great for multiple conversations although it has got a little doomy and gloomy of late and the levels of bitchery and trollishness are annoying. I sometimes use social media to crowdsource advice or opinion. I certainly use it when a new book is out. I published my last two books with the award-winning crowdfunded publisher Unbound. http://unbound.com Social media plays a huge part in that process both for pulling in the funding and for promoting the book once it’s published.
Do you have any tips or advice for budding aspiring authors?
1. Get on with it! I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘aspiring author’. Surely, if you’re driven to write, you write don’t you? If you want to write badly enough, you’ll find the time. All the professional writers I know and have met –and that’s a lot – had to struggle to find time to write. But they all did it because they were driven to write. They needed to write.
2. Grow a thick skin. If you can’t do that, you’ll have a very tough time. If you take the traditional publishing route you’re probably going to face a lot of rejections. But if you believe in your work, you persevere. I’ve got enough rejection slips to wallpaper the downstairs loo but I did eventually get a book deal with Pan Macmillan. And after publication – whether it’s with a traditional publisher or you do it yourself on-line – you’re going to get reviews. Some won’t be complimentary. Don’t be afraid to take criticism but also accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and move on. Look at ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ – you either love it or hate it. The writers and performers have had to learn to ignore the haters and get on with pleasing the lovers. That’s their audience. You have to learn to do the same.
3. Keep your options open. I got an agent and a book deal with Pan Macmillan for my first book. But that was never going to limit me. My second book was published by a small educational imprint based in Cornwall. I self-published two books – a very odd experimental work of fiction called ‘The Third Condiment’ and a colouring book called ‘Colgeroons’ (I draw too) with Lulu.com. Then I crowdfunded the next four books with Unbound.com. And for the next book, another novel, I’m back working with my agent and traditional publishers again. Don’t be afraid to mix and match your methods of getting out there. No one is going to read your book if it only exists on your computer. But one word of warning – NEVER give up the rights to your work unless you get paid for it. Retain your copyright at all times because that paid contract and that film/TV deal may be just around the corner …
Do you suffer from writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?
I haven’t yet. Which isn’t bad in 35 years of writing, eight as a professional I guess. Like anyone I’ve had days where the writing has been hard work and nothing seems to go right. But you can feel like that in any profession. Put it away, come back to it with fresh eyes and fix it. Let other people read it whose opinions you trust. I always give my first draft out to a small gang of critical readers before I submit it. They are all friends of mine – some writers, some not – who will always be honest with me. Listen to what they say. Make the changes you think are necessary but write the book that you want to write. And if you do suffer writers’ block – discuss your problem with close friends or other writers; there are countless writers’ groups on Facebook and elsewhere. A problem shared is a problem halved.
Do you ever think of the next book whilst writing?
Always. I almost always have several book projects on the go at once and, although I may spend 95% of the time working on the one I’m currently writing, an idea may pop into my head that doesn’t work in the book but which may work in one of my other projects. During the editing process for ‘A Murder To Die For’, for example, I realised that I had too many police characters so I merged two into one and removed one completely. But she has now become the central character in a different book. Recycling ideas that way is great – nothing is ever lost, only re-used elsewhere.
What do you wear to write?
I’m complete slob! Outside the house I’m usually found in smart shirt, suit jacket and corduroys. But in my office it’s slobbies all the way – a big t-shirt, ‘leisure wear’ with an elasticated waistband and my favourite pair of 20 year old leather sandals. No socks, of course! The other essential is tea. The kettle barely stops boiling. My preferred tipple is black Earl Grey tea, no sugar. Tea is my fuel.
If readers want to get in touch how do they contact you?
They’d be more than welcome to. I’m on Twitter as @stevyncolgan and my Facebook pages are easy to find.
I have a blog at http://colganwrites.blogspot.co.uk/ and all of my books are available from whatever bookshops and/or websites you buy books from.
‘A Murder to Die For’ has now reached 100% of its funding and is going into production for publication next spring. But if you want to pledge on it (and get one of the special limited editions that won’t be in the shops), you can do so here. You’ll also get your name listed in the back as one of the brilliant patrons who helped to make the book happen.
I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com.
Wow Stevyn – I am speechless! That was one hell of an interview – thank you.
Here is the stuff I am taking away from this interview:
- I think we can all learn something from the way you have prioritised writing in your life. I agree finding time to write is one of the hardest things to do.
- Your learnings are fab especially the one about how you should be proud of writing a book because 99% of the public won’t do it.
- I LOVE your tips for budding authors. Yep – we all need to grow that thick skin.
- Throughout your interview there was this ‘just get on with it!’ vibe coming through. We all need to hear this a lot!
- I am loving the elasticated waistband and leather sandals writer look.
Stevyn you have been fab – thanks again!
If you would like to take part in my author interview series please get in contact and leave me a message on my blog.
Have a great day!