Terrie Leigh Relf: What are your daily writing/creative rituals? How do you prepare your space for these activities?
Matthew A. J. Anderson: Every day, I walk a little “circuit” around my house. Dining, Kitchen, Lounge, Hallway, Dining. If I can go for a walk outside, I do that, but I live in Australia, and it’s too hot to walk under the hot sun for a quarter of the year, so I wander the house and I let my mind wander with me, playing scenes in my mental theatre, repeating moments of narrative so that I can work them out perfectly to make the character and story clear. I do this so that I reintroduce myself to my characters and story every day, so I can figure out who and what they are about. Sometimes, I’ll even think of a new idea, which is why I keep a notepad on me whenever I walk outside, to write down those ideas.
As for my space? The only “preparation” is turning on my computer, or keeping pens and paper handy, but otherwise, I don’t do anything special to prepare my space for two important reasons. Firstly, writing isn’t magic; you don’t need Feng Shui to get it to work. If I insisted on having my room prepared, I’d never work. Secondly, and most importantly, if I feel like my space isn’t working, I can either grab my laptop and sit somewhere else, or I can just go for another circuit of my house to get thoughts moving again.
TLR: Do you have a “day job” in addition to being a writer? If so, what (if any) challenges do you face? How do you rise to those challenges?
MA: I’m afraid not. I’ve been looking for a long time now, but as yet haven’t found one. However, I don’t think “challenge” is the right word. About a year ago, I had a month-long stint doing work experience for a restaurant as an unpaid waiter. For starters, yes, that was rough on my feet, and I didn’t really have time to myself because if I wasn’t doing something, then I was looking for something to do, and running around all day. It was busy work. But it meant when I got home, my brain was underused and my feet were overused. So, it was healthy, to sit down at the computer and get my brain doing the work while my body forced me to stay still. One problem with writing is that it’s a docile activity. If you’re full of energy, it’s hard to sit still; so being worn out helps. For another thing, routine was great for my writing. Morning was time for my girlfriend, then goodbye and head off to work. Work, work, work, then drive home and sit and write for two hours or more, then girlfriend time, then bedtime.
Every day was like that, which meant that I would actually write more when I was busy, since there was structure to my thoughts during the day, rather than some days where I don’t get around to it. If you properly schedule writing into your day, you can’t not write. Remember that.
TLR: Describe a recent writing session in detail. How long was it? What activities did you perform? What did you accomplish, and so forth?
MA: When I have a story plot, I store the idea in a page of my notepad (or a .txt document) as a list of scenes or actions that progress the narrative, sometimes with dialogue. Thematic points or keynotes are written in brackets underneath. This has pros and cons; the pro is that I can work out grand plot holes pretty easily, since I can tell if the outline won’t work at a glance. However, one of the cons of this is sometimes I will accidentally give myself a writing challenge, such as: “They get to the town market and discover cyborgs.”
In my most recent writing session, I was dealing with exactly that. When you get to town, you don’t teleport, you have to drive, or get a lift, or catch the bus, get a taxi, walk, ride a bike. When I sat down to write this, I realized that cars weren’t invented in this story’s time period (the cyborg anachronism was a deliberate part of the plot; don’t worry about it), so the option that made sense was to walk. However, when you walk in a group, you don’t do so in silence, and I hadn’t prepared dialogue for this scene. I decided to put some of the backstory (which would have happened two scenes later) into this scene to give it some story momentum. Then, they got to town, and I quickly realized I had no idea what a town market would look like in 1800s Nebraska. I chose to do research in medias res, so I stopped writing and googled for some images and history about farmer’s markets back then and there. Shortly, I had a suitable mental image of some wagons with shade-cloths and I went on from there. Then “. . .and discover cyborgs.” If I were lazy, the prose would have been: “The Duke entered the market and saw cyborgs,” but that’s not realistic. Also, more importantly I had also decided (on one of my walks) that the characters should talk to the cyber-townsfolk, since “Wow, cyborgs!” (end paragraph) is a daft scene to have in a story. In the previous scene, the Duke character had fixed the farmer’s leg, so I thought I could continue that. Thematically, it added to the story to have these cyborgs in disrepair, so this otherwise “paint-by-numbers” scene wherein characters leave a farm and get to the market became a character-driven scene where the main characters helped to fix the broken parts of these townspeople.
Anyway, that’s how it went down . . . Am I the only person, now, who wishes that books could have an author’s commentary?
TLR: What tips do you have for other writers? This could be anything from a time-management strategy to an inspirational quote.
MA: There are no rules to writing. I mean that. None at all. You don’t even have to use words; you can write a story using the dents on your wall from throwing plates at it. However, that doesn’t mean anyone will read it. And unless you like wasting your time on self-indulgent, nouveau-merde artistic statements, there’s no reason to write a story that doesn’t follow reading convention, since there’s no rules saying anyone has to read it either.
This is important to remember because I see advice all the time that goes “NEVER” do this and “NEVER” do that, like “NEVER kill a main character” or “NEVER put sex in a YA book” or “NEVER put misspelled words in a story” or “NEVER end a sentence with a preposition.” This is my little asterisk to add onto all writing advice you read. Whenever you see never, I want you to see “NEVER” – unless it helps your story. The only rule you need to remember is the rules the reader follows when reading. Not because you have to follow them, but because sometimes, we break these rules on purpose.
Perfect example: Never use clichés.
I’ve seen writers say this all the time, but it’s a fun rule to break. See, the reason we are told not to use clichés is because readers don’t read them; people zone out and don’t think about what “all hell broke loose,” “turned over a new leaf” or “the living end”actually means, because they hear them too often. They see the words and their minds ignore the implication of the words. You can resolve this by hanging a lampshade on clichéd lines and have characters discuss them, have characters encounter them literally – or, my favourite, expand on them. It forces readers to refocus on the lines when you clarify: “let sleeping dogs lie, or they might up and bite you in the arse.” If you know the reason why a writing rule exists, you can break it so as to utilize that effect to the benefit of your story.
TLR: Is there anything else about your creative process that you would like to share? Please do so here!
MA: Keep a pen and paper handy wherever you are. A lot of people ask writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, we get ideas the same place everyone else gets their ideas. As much as I wish I could say writers are smarter than everyone else, or we think more, we don’t – we just think with a certain goal in mind: to write stories. The only difference is, when we have ideas, we have the presence of mind to write them down and the insanity of mind to want to structure that into a narrative and write it out.
Most importantly, writers don’t get whole stories at once (not usually). Personally, I get them piece by piece. It starts with a plot concept, like: “What if someone used Smalltown, America, to test their cyborg parts?” Then I develop the how, the why, and the who, with characters, scenes, and thematic elements that add to the story – as those ideas come to me. It’s not one idea; it’s several that switch and change. It’s kind of like solving a Rubik’s cube that’s broken into pieces. You can twist it and move pieces around the centre mechanism, and you stick on the cubes where they fit best, and you do that until you’ve got one super-idea formed from all the little idea-cubes. Once all the pieces that fit are stuck into place in an interesting way, then I write it. Oh, and I guess there are some extra pieces on the floor . . . I’m confusing myself, now; look, the metaphor’s not important, what’s important is that you write down your ideas, and you find the ones that work well together to make a story. The only reason I have enough ideas to play with is that I write all of my ideas down, collect them together, and keep them organized so that I can quickly slot one idea into another to piece a plot together.
TLR: Thank you again, Matt, for participating in this interview series! Please see his bio below.
Matthew Anderson was born in Queensland, Australia, and first came up with stories as he walked to school, imagining worlds with robotic dragons, deadly teddy bears, alternate dimensions, and mad scientists to pass the time. Until 2012, he was working on his novel and stories alone before he met his girlfriend, a fellow writer, who encouraged him to start sending short stories into magazines. Please read his blog.