Nik Abnett: Five Things I Learned Writing Savant

His mind can save the world, if she can save him from the human race… 

The Shield is Earth’s only defence. Rendering the planet invisible from space, it keeps humanity safe from alien invasion. The Actives maintain the shield – no one is sure how – but without them, the Shield cannot function.

When an Active called Tobe finds himself caught in a probability loop, the Shield is compromised. Soon, Tobe’s malady spreads among the Active. Earth becomes vulnerable.

Tobe’s assistant, Metoo, is only interested in his wellbeing. Earth security’s paramount concern is the preservation of the Shield. As Metoo strives to prevent Tobe’s masters from undermining his fragile equilibrium, the global danger escalates.

The Shield must be maintained at all costs…

* * *

Just how obsessive I can become.

I’ve never been a writer who writes every day. I know that’s what writers are supposed to do… I’ve seen the rules. I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re going to write, you might want to make your own rules.

I’ve always written in fits and starts, but when I get started I can’t stop. That might have been one of the things that prevented me from finishing longer pieces of fiction before I wrote ‘Savant’. I used to force myself to stop.

The writing starts slow, but, boy, when I hit my stride there’s no stopping me. Literally, nothing stops me writing. If I wake up clear-headed, I might even write all day without once thinking about getting out of my PJs. And when I say ‘all day’, I do mean sixteen or eighteen hours a day, sometimes for weeks. Towards the end of a book, I can write fifteen thousand words in a session. The hoovering doesn’t get done, and I forget to eat, but it turns out, that’s OK, because the faster I write, the faster it’s all over. I also discovered that I live with people who can fend for themselves, perfectly well.

What comes before informs what comes afterwards.

Not only do I not need a plot before I begin a novel, I don’t want one. When I began ‘Savant’, all I had in mind was a theme. I wanted to write about unconditional love. If I’d plotted that book, it would’ve been very different from the one I ended up with. Of course, having so little at the outset meant I had to be patient with the process. I spent a lot of time going back, changing things around, and rewriting the first third of the novel. But, during that period, the characters grew, the world emerged, and the theme took a new turn. The book evolved during the writing process, and that, for me, at least, feels like a good thing.

Not everybody will understand what you’re doing, but that’s OK.

I learned this over a long period of time, longer, probably, than it needed to be. The first few people who saw ‘Savant’, including a writer, a reader, a publisher and my first agent didn’t get it. I assumed that meant it wasn’t good. When the book fell, almost by accident, into Jonathan Oliver’s hands, he was the first person in six years to get excited about it.

That I had a novel in a folder on my desktop for six years was my own fault. I should have shown it to more people sooner. Have a little confidence. Trust what you’re doing. Knock on doors, and keep knocking.

Keyboard skills are important.

I learned to touch type when I was eight or nine (don’t ask). I can type a hundred words a minute, accurately, when I’m in full flow. I hadn’t realised what an asset that could be until I was churning out scads of words every day of the last week or two of writing this novel. It’s pretty tough to write fifteen thousand words a day. I couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t able to type. I guess It’s like driving a car; if you want to go faster or master tricky manoeuvres, it’s a good idea to be well practiced in handling those pedals and that gearstick.

There’s irony in the fact that we all use keyboards, all the time, but few of us take typing classes.

You can’t write for an audience.

Or, at least, you can, and I do, regularly. I’ve written tie-in fiction, but there’s a certain discipline in that: knowing the IP, plotting, re-plotting… It’s about giving the client what he wants.

Writing independent fiction isn’t like that at all. If I’d had an audience in mind while writing this book, I think I would’ve been missing the point. I wrote the book I wanted to write. I told the story that I wanted to tell. I did what mattered to me. I gave no thought to the audience… Any audience. I didn’t think about impressing an agent or a publisher, and I didn’t think about the reader.

In the movie, ‘Field of Dreams’, Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, hears a mysterious voice. It tells him, “If you build it he will come.” This is regularly misquoted as “If you build it they will come.” And, it’s misquoted for a reason.

No writer should be compromised, and neither should any artist. Feedback comes in so thick and fast in the internet age that it’s tough for a writer, for any artist, to ignore that stuff. A first time novelist doesn’t need to have that on his or her radar. No one is breathing down anyone’s neck. I know established writers and artists who are forever being told by their audiences what should come next.

The point of the writer must always be the reader. I get that. I say it all the time. Here’s the thing, though: No writer has more freedom than the first-time novelist. Nobody is trying to mould that story; nobody has a vested interest in it, yet. That isn’t true of second and subsequent novels.

I was lucky to learn this while writing ‘Savant’, because I was already in the industry. I tried to take advantage, to write what I wanted to write, and not what others might want me to write, or what they might expect from an SF novel. I urge all first time writers to enjoy that freedom.

Nik Abnett: Website | Twitter

Savant: Amazon | B&N | Kobo

9 comments

  • I had to smile at your fourth point. I thank my sophomore year high school typing teacher in my thoughts quite frequently. Knowing how to type has served me very well for more than 30 years but never more so than when I started writing ‘for real’ a couple of years ago. I highly recommend keyboarding classes to anyone that can’t type that wants to write lots of books.

    • This is so true, and the driving metaphor is perfect! Typing classes in high school and really solid touch typing skills + many years in a data entry job + internet early adopter with many years in chat rooms and writing longer shortform pieces for internet posting (ahem, Livejournal) =near-error-free 110+wpm. I’ve never hit 15k in a day, but I have hit 7k on a really good day once or twice, and at that point the bottleneck is at the speed of type, not the speed of brain.

      (Also, I think without the touch typing skills I would not have done as much participating online early on, which built typing skills and composition skills and editing skills and confidence, which goes back to “write, write a lot, and keep writing.” When I finally started writing fiction in an organized way, I had many millionses of words of nonfiction and correspondence under my belt.)

    • I keep up with continuity while I’m writing, mostly by reading back all the time and making tweaks. I’d rather take longer on the first draft while I’m really ‘in’ it than mess about with a completed text.

      I know lots of people who redraft a lot, but that’s another area where I differ. The novel, as you see it is, essentially, what I had when I finished writing. The redrafting happens along the way.

  • Thank you for this, it’s encouraging that even published writers feel the same uncertainties that we amateurs do. I’ve been writing for myself since I was 11 but only started letting others read my thoughts 3 years ago when I started a blog. I love it and will keep doing it regardless, but have to admit putting myself out there and hearing mostly crickets is disheartening.
    I have come to realise ‘writing’ and ‘blogging’ are two quite different things though, and you confirmed it with your point “You can’t write for an audience”. I squirm when blogging tips include things like using ‘keyword generators’ to find out what’s currently trending. Write about what everyone else is writing about just because it might increase your chances of being noticed? Add to the clamour, regardless of whether it’s something that interests you?
    Nope. I’ll keep doing what my Mum always told me, and that is to ‘write from the heart’.
    … and take on board your ideas about trying to write every day to get the creative juices flowing! I’ve always been a fitty and starty – then-bordering-on-obsessive kind of writer too. :)

  • Touch typing is 100% the most useful skill I ever learned. I picked it up when I was still in primary school and by the time I was sixteen or seventeen I could write 120wpm — not 100% accurately, but I could maintain that speed despite backspacing. Then I injured my wrists and switched to a Dvorak keyboard instead of a QWERTY one, so had to learn all over again. These days I can hit around 110 or 115 wpm, but only for short periods of time, and only on good wrist days. (Three and a half years after the original injury, I’m still not completely free of it.) It’s the only reason I get anything done and, because it means I can get work etc out of the way super fast, it leaves me with more time for naps too. Since I’m a big fan of sleeping and bad at doing it at night, that’s always a pro.

    I will also never understand people from my generation — digital natives — who are still hunting around for the keys and typing with two fingers. Even if they didn’t bother to learn to touch-type the way obsessive nine-year-old me did, surely after a while you’d just pick it up? But apparently not.

    Anyway. tl;dr, everyone should learn to touch-type asap.

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