Here’s Toby Buckell on his writing process. Jenga with a skyscraper indeed. Read on…
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)
Toby: It varies from book to book, to be honest. But overall, and of late, I’ve turned toward a system of outlining as much as possible before I start the first chapter. As I write, I give myself the freedom to do cooler things than those indicated in the outline, but the outline is there for me to fall back on always.
I make notes as I go along, sort of a conversation with my future self. I make notes on future chapters, adding to the outline, or telling myself not to forget certain things. I also make notes on current or past chapters that will need additions as I go back to revisions. I do this quickly, so as not to interrupt flow and get stuck fiddling.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Toby: I really enjoy the first draft the most. I love the act of creating the book for the first time, and bringing something totally new into the world. The excitement of pulling it all together really drives me.
For me editing is the part I enjoy the least. It’s also critical to the book, it’s where it gets polished into a finely cut gem. But it also paralyzes me with self doubt and fear, due to the fact that I used to struggle with drafts and make stories actively worse at the start of my career. I tend to be scared that I’m making a book worse. I also worry that each change made while drafting will have ripples and unintended consequences down the line. I feel like I’m playing Jenga with a skyscraper when I’m doing revisions.
Learning how to cope with all that to revise and revise my books into better shape has been really important. Even though I dislike that element of writing, it’s incredibly important.
Tamago: What is the longest it’s ever taken you to complete a draft? The shortest?
Toby: The longest it’s taken me to write a book is two and a half years of sole focus. I’ve written a book on the side, for fun, over a three year span, but it was something I just wrote in between the gaps of a couple other projects that were under contract. The two and half year book was my second book. I kept restarting it, struggling to find the right energy and tone and voice.
The fastest I’ve written a book? Three months.
Tamago: Do you participate in a writing group, or do you walk your own path? Why do you choose the approach you do?
Toby: That’s complicated! I used to be in writing groups. I attended Clarion in 1999, and it was a big help in compressing the time spent fumbling my way along the curve to getting my work to publishable quality. I also attended the Cajun Sushi Hamsters from Hell workshop in Cleveland, driving 3.5 hrs there and then 3.5 hrs back once a month. I then switched to a nearer workshop in Columbus, Ohio. I workshopped a lot of my short fiction there.
About eleven years ago, when trying to figure out how to workshop our first novels, I joined a group of writers for the first Blue Heaven workshop, a 10 day workshop held once a year. Charlie Finlay created a model for how to workshop a novel, and I workshopped my first four novels at Blue Heaven and credit to taking me up to a whole other level of skill.
I am no longer workshopping as much. I still go to Blue Heaven, but the focus is less on workshopping individual books and more brainstorming all aspects of a career. And for me, an uninterrupted space of time to jam hard on writing.
I currently am writing without workshopping. I don’t think, by any stretch of the imagination, that I’ve mastered the novel. But I do feel comfortable continuing my experimentation and learning without instant feedback in this period of my career.
Will I return to workshopping? If things line up for it, I still find the quick, incisive minds of peers to be a way to get myself to aim higher and it’s been good for me in the past.
Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?
Toby: That’s always a tough one. I can be frustrated and have a hard time writing something that can still end up working for a reader. I’ve learned that a tough time writing doesn’t equal a tough time reading. And something that was easy to write could be riddled with issues. It’s one reason I found workshopping beneficial earlier on is that it helped me get outside point of view on whether a story was working.
Now I tend to rely on instinct. Often writer’s block isn’t so much an inability to write, but your hindbrain trying to get you to notice something. If I find writing isn’t so much hard, but teeth-pulling hard and blocking me, I tend to stop what I’m doing and take a long step back. It’s usually my subconscious trying to tell me something. Instead of forcing it, I tend to ask myself ‘what’s my instinct trying to tell me needs fixed quick so we can get back into laying track.’ When I reframe block with that attitude, it helps.
Tamago: Has your writing process changed over time?
Toby: I used to write with less outline, more organized notes around a rough outline that got filled in ahead of me as I wrote. With each novel I’ve started to outline more and more. When I wrote my third novel, I’d had a lot of time to spend mulling it over before I started it. I found the words came rather quickly, as a result. And when some friends helped me outline in detail the last third, after I got to the point where I ran out of my own outline, the writing came easily again and I was quite delighted with the structure and pacing of the book.
Keeping that in mind, when I started work on Arctic Rising, I also was dealing with the after affects a heart defect had on my energy levels, so I had to work smart, not hard. So I created as detailed an outline as I could imagine to write the book. I don’t think I could have managed the book if it weren’t for that, as I was perpetually exhausted then.
For the last two books I’ve written, I’ve spent weeks before writing chapter one on what I would have considered in 2004 as utterly insanely, unnecessarily, detailed outlines. Everything I can imagine goes in them. The last one I wrote was a 15,000 word outline. It’s been really helpful.
Tamago: A great deal of your writing involves where you grew up. How important do you think it is for writers to use what they know, even when they write science fiction, adventure, and fantasy?
Toby: People from the Caribbean tell me that even when I’m not writing obviously with Caribbean elements they’re still in most of my stories. I think we’re always dealing with the things we have experienced and carry with us in a variety of ways, it’s just that I’m from somewhere different and it becomes a bit more obvious to people not from that same location. I used to think science fiction and fantasy was insanely exotic and wild on a lot more axes than I do now, because I wasn’t living in the US. Once I moved here I suddenly understood that SF/F authors were using hella amounts of cultural influence that they swim in, but don’t necessarily see. To me it seemed wild and out there.
What I think I do do, however, is try to investigate the invisible stuff around us because, having crossed over, I’m aware it exists and am always trying to interrogate it, pull it out and look at it. And I do tend to find it interesting when writers can look beyond their assumptions and begin to pull in more of that.
In case you think I’m full of crack, I recommend going back and reading a science fiction story written in the 1950s. Can you spot all the cultural assumption buried in it? Then realize that a lot of what’s being written now can look just like that to someone who’s *today* outside of that culture.
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date? Why?
Toby: My favorite project is always my latest one! Or, to be more honest, it’s the next project I’m starting up. I am like a magpie, the new shiny is always the most exciting shiny. Sometimes it can be hard to be on tour and expected to talk about the last book that just came out. “What, that thing? I can do even better tricks now, and plus, I already read that thing, like, six or seven times over. Nothing surprising in there.”
I’m somewhat interested in having a long career so that someday I can look back several decades and attain some perspective. Because I don’t have it on my books.
Now I definitely have favorites in my short fiction. But I feel like a parent being asked ‘who’s your favorite kid?’ I mean, I put so much of myself into every project, and each one was the best thing I could make at the time, it feels like an insult to the me-that-was-writing-that-project to downplay it. He worked so hard!
Tamago: How much research do you generally do for your projects?
Toby: I saw a quote from a writer, somewhere, that said the writing of books was just to justify their horrible research addiction. I don’t think I can even quantify it, I’m constantly hoarding information that might fit in somewhere for some reason.
Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, “hey, I’m actually a writer?”
Toby: There are always baller moments where someone invites you to be a guest of honor, or to speak somewhere. Where your words have gotten someone excited enough to pay you to go somewhere you’ve never been. Those are nice for the ego, no doubt. But the bigger moments come from interesting mail that indicates you’ve had an effect on someone. People who tell you you’ve changed their life in some small, or non-small, way, that really gets me in the feels every time. I fell in love with words because they changed my life. To know I’m doing that, that makes me feel like I’m doing that same thing with my words that words did to me. And that is when I know, for sure, that I’m actually a writer.