Ep 328 Meet BG Hilton, author of ‘Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys’.

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In Episode 328 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet BG Hilton, author of Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys. Andrew Daddo has advice on writing funny books for kids. Val and Al share tips on how to guest post with success. Plus, we have 3 copies of Up on Horseshoe Hill by AWC alumna Penelope Janu to give away.

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Show Notes

Andrew Daddo on writing funny books for kids

Why fiction is needed more than ever right now

Why writing fiction and journalling can be helpful

Writer in Residence

BG Hilton

BG Hilton is an Australian writer. He studied creative writing at the University of Newcastle and the University of Technology, Sydney. His interests include Steampunk, Frankenstein, Dr Who, travel, and food.

Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys is out now.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Ben.

BG

My pleasure.

Valerie

Congratulations on your debut novel Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys, which you've written under the name BG Hilton. And it is out now. Very, very exciting. So for people who haven't read your book yet, can you tell us what it's about?

BG

Well, it's a sort of a steampunk adventure story. Steampunk, if you're not familiar with it, is sort of science fiction but set in Victorian times. So sort of very high technology stuff, but it's powered by steam, it's powered by pistons and engines and things like that.

The story tells the story of Edward Decharles who is a well-meaning but not very bright aristocrat who decides to solve a murder. And he happens to fall in with a woman called Gladys Dunchurch who's an Australian stage magician's assistant who's trying to find her missing employer. And the two of them discover that their respective mysteries are somehow connected to a mysterious conspiracy. And there's all sorts of crazy steampunk stuff with flying machines and submarines and things of that nature.

Valerie

Sounds like a lot of fun. How in the world did you think of this idea?

BG

The central idea came to me fairly quickly. I started writing it for NaNoWriMo many years ago. I didn't win. It took quite a long time to write. But someone asked me, “What are you writing a story about?” I said, “In Victorian London, a drunken aristocrat and a stage magician's assistant save the world from space aliens.” And that was just the first thing that popped into mind and somehow that survived several drafts and is still the central premise of the book.

Valerie

Brilliant. Now, there are some people who are into steampunk and know exactly what you're referring to. And for some people it is fairly foreign to them. Now I suppose some references to movies could be… The Time Machine, would that be one of them?

BG

Oh, very much so, yeah.

Valerie

Back when Rod Taylor was in The Time Machine. I remember… And so it's always been on the periphery of my consciousness, and I've kind of known the look. But I happened to stumble into a party of like 1000 people in Austin, Texas, and I was literally the only person not dressed to the hilt in steampunk. I thought I had gone into a wormhole into a parallel universe, but it was utterly fascinating.

Now, can you tell us, because obviously you must be steeped in this subculture and a fan of steampunk in order to write an entire novel about it. Can you just tell us how this came about and what some of the key tenets are for steampunk?

BG

I'm gonna be a little honest here. I've only sort of, I don't do much of the cosplay stuff, I've done a little bit. Basically, it's sort of… It came up, as you say, you mentioned The Time Machine, through the 60s, you start seeing all of those sort of HG Wells, Jules Verne things being reinterpreted for modern audiences. And I think that reinterpretation more than the original is sort of the basis of it, of the aesthetic.

And then in the in the 80s, you'll see more and more of these sort of books being published, although at that time the name steampunk hasn't come about. And then I think in the 90s people were getting more and more into cosplay and that's where the whole dress up element came from, which I haven't done much of but I quite enjoy.

Valerie

But I hear you own a top hat?

BG

I do own a top. I was incredibly broke when I bought that and I could barely justify. It was, I forget how much it was, but it was more than I could afford. And I kept looking at it in this shop until I eventually broke down and bought it and lived on noodles for the next month. But that was, I was a student at the time.

But yeah, I do own a top hat and I do own a waistcoat. And I've been to a couple of steampunk gatherings but I'm not the most sociable of people. So I haven't done a lot of much of that as some other people have.

One of the things I was hoping for when I when I wrote the book was to basically to give myself an excuse to go to steampunk gatherings, you know, so I could set up a stall. And yeah, that fell through.

Valerie

Oh!

BG

Yeah, I know. I'm one of those people that have to sort of force himself to be into social situations. And that was, yeah, that's one of the things that I'm regretting about the timing of the novel coming out.

Valerie

So we're thrilled to be able to support you, even if you can't have actual physical launches and stuff like that. So tell me a bit about when did you know you wanted to write?

BG

Very, very young. Very young. I remember trying to write a novel when I was a teenager. Somewhere I still have the typewritten pages although they're desperately embarrassing to read now obviously.

But I'd never really took it seriously until I went to uni as a mature student. And I took first year creative writing, more or less because I thought it would be a bludge subject. You know, that's easy enough. I did. I thought, well, I can write OK, I can get a pass on that without too much effort. And and they gave me a mark of 84, which is the most annoying mark you can possibly get, you know, just short of a high distinction. And that was why I thought, well, I've really got to try at this harder. And I know that's a really stupid way into it. But that's what got me going.

And then I thought, well, maybe I should try to publish some of these things. And I've had some success with the short stories. And then finally, the novel.

Valerie

So before before this novel came out, and obviously you said you started it with NaNoWriMo and have been working on it over a period of time. On a practical level, I assume you have a day job. And how did you, where and when did you work in your writing time? Is it something that was just whenever? Or did you structure your time so that you had a dedicated duration that you did your writing?

BG

I've never had a very disciplined… I'm an opportunistic writer. When the opportunity comes up to do some writing, I do it then. I started… Between between deciding to write this and actually getting it published was many years and I've had several jobs in that time. I'm a casual teacher now or I would be if the schools were open. But everything at the same time.

So I when I started writing this, when I sat down to write it, I was a single man, I was working part time. And my uni studies had just finished for the year and I thought I've got all the time in the world. About a week into it I'd started seeing someone and then all of a sudden my time was all over the place. And then this was – we're now married and have a two year old daughter – that's sort of the time I'm talking about here.

So yeah, you just got to take your time when you can find it. In particularl if you've got a two year old who won't always stick to the schedule when you want her to. Yeah. So there you have it here.

Valerie

So if you did this over a period of years in a kind of ad hoc fashion, when did you know that you were ready to get it published?

BG

Um, that's a good question. I just… I don't really have a very good answer to that. I just kept going. I was, even after I started looking around for a publisher, I was still sort of reworking. I mean, I think I had… At one stage, I think it was almost twice as long as it is now and it had to get cut back. But even then, I was looking for a publisher and I was sort of showing it to friends and people. One of the bits of feedback I got was a friend who I gave it to and basically didn't read it and said, “That's ridiculously long. I'm not going to do that.” And that seemed insulting at the time but it was very good feedback. Very useful.

Valerie

Okay, well, yes, it certainly is! Alright, so when you started it, in the initial part of NaNoWriMo, did you already know where the story was gonna go? Or did you kind of just have a vague idea and just started writing and see where it ended up?

BG

I had very little idea where it was going. Um… I… One of the first things I realised I needed to do was have a clear ending. I was quite sure what I was doing with the beginning. And once I had a fairly clear ending, it was just a question of getting from that initial part to the end, which was more complicated than it sounds.

Valerie

Oh, it's complicated, yeah! I get it.

BG

Because, so characters who were all sort of careening off each other and going in different directions had to be brought back together. Yeah, in the end, I had to… Ah, am I going to spoil it? No, probably not.

Valerie

No, don't spoil it!

BG

In the end, I actually had to mentally come up with some sort of secret plot for why there were so many coincidences to make people go the way I wanted them to go so that I didn't feel so bad about it, which I sort of hinted at in the novel, but I'm not spoiling anything.

Valerie

So you knew the beginning, you needed a clear idea of the ending. And you kind of had fun along the way writing the middle. So did you at any point plot it out? Or did you, you know, have some kind of, I don't know, index cards or post it notes, or did you just let it meander?

BG

I initially, I started letting it meander, and then I just realized it was going to get too out of hand. And that's when I started having to sort of organize it a little. And I didn't, I didn't want to organize it too much. Because when I started trying to write a second novel, which I'm still working on, I wrote, I did very clearly write out what the plot was going to be. And then I found that the book was about half as long as I wanted it to be because everyone just went straight from where they were going. So I sort of need that meandering just to give it a bit of character, a bit of depth, rather than just this forced march of characters from plot point A to point B and so on.

So yeah, some sort of combination of by the seat of your pants and planning in advance is what works for me best, I think.

Valerie

Now, in the steampunk world there's certain contractions, certain conventions, certain terminology that you need to a) adhere to to satisfy the steampunk fans and b) keep consistent. So with a) how did, what made you confident that you were gonna satisfy the steampunk fans? And with be b) do you have some kind of document or anything to keep your terms consistent and your ideas in check?

BG

I don't have a document. I had a big idea about… How the steampunk technology works in this was was one of the first things I thought of. The idea is that it's based on a very old fashioned conception of how heat works from the 19th century called caloric theory, where the idea is that heat is actually a liquid that moves from place to place. And you can see how they thought that because it's sort of how it feels when it's moving around.

And so that was sort of my starting point. And so as long as I can make that the basis of how steampunk technology works, no one's going to ask you to go into the details very much.

That was… I know there was a big argument between Jules Verne and HG Wells. Verne insisted that all of his technology had to have clear, he had to clearly understand how it worked, whereas Wells would just sort of wave his hand and say, “it's a time machine.” And Verne would get very cranky at Wells about this and Wells would refer to Verne as an old fuss pot, I think.

But I'm not an engineer. I can't go too much into depth. But as long as I sort of, I feel I can justify it to myself, I think I can sort of skate by on saying, “This is roughly how it works. You can sort out the details in your head if it matters.” I think you've got to, yeah, again, so somewhere in the middle between those two extremes, I think is the way to go.

Valerie

And so you said that you're writing the second book. Is it a sequel or is it a different book? And is it set in steampunk?

BG

Oh, no, it's not a steampunk book. It's a… It started out as a YA novel but I think it's gotten too depressing for that. So I might have to make it for an adult audience. And it's loosely based on the mythology of Frankenstein, but it's not, it's set in the modern day.  It's not really a steampunk novel. There's a big I think a sort of a crossover between Frankenstein in technology. Particularly if you look at those old Hammer movies, they're all very steampunk in their depiction of Frankenstein's lab. But no, I don't think it's exactly steampunk.

Valerie

Tell us about what your writing routine looks like when you're writing a novel. I understand, of course, with your first novel, it was a bit all over the place because of life. Now that you're writing your second one, and you're now a published author, do you have some kind of structure or purpose now to your writing? Like, a certain number of words that you want to achieve in a period or a certain number of hours that you want to sit down at the computer? What does that look like?

BG

Um, it's, I… I don't try to go for a word count because sometimes you can accomplish more in 100 words than you can in 1000. It depends exactly what you're writing. I try to make sort of… The last one, the first novel I was mostly writing on stuff that I already knew the ideas. Whereas this next one, I've been needing to do some research. And so sometimes you've just got to stop in the middle of something and say, I need to know more about this and come back to it then just skip to do something else. Which if I had a more routine situation, I could probably arrange that a bit better. But as it is, I've just got to sort of fit in reading where I can and writing where I can. Sorry, I'm rambling a little.

But that's sort of how I write. I find sort of overwriting to start with and then coming back and pruning it is a good way to do it. Because, yeah, it's… I need in my head all of these details that are going on that the reader doesn't necessarily need. And so if I've overwritten it, if I know everything that's going on, each of the characters that are in the scene then I can just explain the three most important characters to the reader, for example.

When I was young, I used to like reading those sort of 800-page fantasy novels, but I don't want to write one. I don't want to write that sort of level of detail. And I, yeah, sorry, again, I'm rambling. You can do that when you're writing. You can sort of overwrite and then come back. When you're talking you have to sort of… Haha.

Valerie

Now I know that you say you're not the most social person in that you've only been to a handful of steampunk gatherings. But you've been to enough to, you know, understand the vibe and all of that. And when even just the one that I went to, which I think was next level, these people are so into it.

BG

Oh, yeah.

Valerie

These people take it so seriously, and really go to the nth degree. What do you think is so appealing about this subculture that people just get completely immersed in it?

BG

I think partly it's that sort of, partly it is that sort of level of detail. We are… Design at the moment is sort of very minimalist. You know, I'm sitting here looking at an Ikea set of drawers and it's, you know, I could draw that with a ruler. I think it's that sort of richness of design that is appealing. Even the way people talked in those days, it's a different, it's a richer sort of a language. You know, it's wordier, of course, but there's so many more ways to express yourself then sort of… As I say, I'm a casual teacher. I've gotten used to being communicated with a sort of, you know, grunts and side eyes. But that's sort of, you know, the idea that you could use this huge vocabulary just to say something very simple about what's going on in your day. I think it's appealing in this, you know, very sometimes oversimplified society that we live in.

Valerie

And of course, steampunk has a very specific aesthetic.

BG

Oh yeah.

Valerie

So while you were writing this book, did you have like pictures up for inspiration or movies or movie posters or worlds up for inspiration around you in any way? Or did it just live in your head?

BG

It just lived in my head mostly. I do like some of those old movies. 20,000… 20,000 or 40,000?

Valerie

20,000.

BG

20,000! 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorites and always has been. Which I think is probably, I think the best steampunk movie. But I watch things like that and that keeps you in the vibe.

But no, mostly when I'm at my laptop, I'm just concentrating on the screen completely. You know, people tell me they put up stuff behind their computer to give them inspiration. I don't even notice what's there when I'm in my, you know, writing world.

Valerie

When you're in your writing world, where are you? Like, where's the best place? Or where do you like to write? Does it have to be in a particular spot? Or can you go to cafes? You know, do you write by hand or by computer?

BG

I usually write by computer. My handwriting is just appalling. Even I can't read it. So there's no point writing that way. So I usually sit at my desk, or kitchen table and write. I used to sit in cafes too, occasionally. Obviously not at the moment. But yeah, just somewhere nice and quiet. And once that's going properly, that's when I know that I'm doing good work, when the rest of the world just vanishes. There's nothing there but a screen in front of me, maybe a cup of tea until the tea is empty and I don't even notice that it's gone cold. And that's when you know, that's when I get the best work done. It doesn't always happen, which is why part of the reason I have to be sort of opportunistic. You know, if you plan for that every day it's going to happen. But it only happens, but it doesn't happen every day, then it gets, it does get a little depressing.

Valerie

Have you started other books in NaNoWriMo, as well? Like because you started this some years ago. Did you start other ones in the years since?

BG

I tried one other time. And it's… Yeah, that, I just didn't have the time for it. It really is, writing that much every day is just really hard. And you can't go back and edit which is, which means that if you've decided that, you know, three chapters before one of your characters should have made a different decision, then it's too late to do anything about it. You've just got to keep going in this direction, which is, which I find very difficult. Like I say, I'm… Editing is a very big part of my process. And if you can't go back and edit it, it really bothers me.

Valerie

Yes, tell me more about that. Do you write a certain amount and go back and edit it? Or do you just get out a first draft? Well, what did you do in this instance? Get out a first draft? And then what did the editing process look like?

BG

I have to sort of edit it a bit while it's in first draft. Because like plot editing. I don't, if there's a typo, there's a misplaced comma, there's, you know, I've named someone the wrong name, that can stay in for the first draft. But if I've made a plot decision and I'm not happy with the direction that's taken everything, then I basically got to go back and change it straight away or it will bother me too much to keep going and then change it later.

So yeah, plot decisions, I had to keep going until I had that first draft. And then after that, I left the plot pretty much as it was. And then was just working on improving the dialogue, you know, making the descriptions better, things like that. Even when I was cutting down, I was cutting things out of the plot. I wasn't changing the plot overly. Just some… The reason it was very long was a lot of things were over explained. Those could go and leave it to the readers to figure out which usually works, honestly.

I think a lot of reasons… Sorry, I'm rambling a bit again. But a lot of writers, I think, particularly in spec fiction genres, try to, don't accept that the audience will understand it unless they explain it in very great detail. And I don't think that's always necessary.

Um, but yeah, so yeah, I have to get the plot right in the first draft. After that, I can come back and edit the rest.

Valerie

And when you do that, you've got the plot right, now you're satisfied to a certain level that you've got your plot right, and you've come back to edit. What does that actually look like? What did that, in this book, actually look like? Did you do go through the whole thing? And at what point do you check for consistency? Did you put it away for like, a year or something so that you could have a fresh eye? You know, just on a practical level, what did that look like?

BG

No, I didn't initially. When I… Basically, I went through sort of linearly, just start from the beginning, go through to the end. And the first first few drafts… Those few drafts were sort of just taking out extraneous stuff, and then… Consistency is important. Going through that and making sure that everything fits. Right at the very end, just before the book came out, I realized there was a major continuity error and I had to fix it to the very last moment. A character noticed, had read a clue and then I remembered later that she was illiterate so that, I had, that was a very last minute thing.

But you have to… Yeah, so but mostly it's just sort of tightening things up. Reading dialogue out loud I think is an important one because sometimes… Particularly – well, read everything out loud is a good thing – but dialogue in particular, if it doesn't sound right when you say it it's hard to imagine the character saying it.  Sorry, again, I'm rambling, I apologize. But just basically clearing out the dead wood until there's nothing left but that you're happy with.

Valerie

Is your wife into steampunk?

BG

No, she's not. She's not. She's been very helpful but she's not really into the steampunk very much. She did help me pick out some nice steampunk things that I could put on my desk if I had a stall in a steampunk market. Which was very, very sweet of her. But unfortunately a little unnecessary. So well, we'll wait and see. Wait and see.

Valerie

Yeah, wait and see. You never know. And yeah, no doubt the steampunk community we will be back in force before we know it.

BG

Oh sure. They're all busy making plague doctor masks at the moment, is what I understand.

Valerie

Oh of course! Yes. And finally, what is your, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to have their debut novel out one day?

BG

Oh, okay, that's a tricky… Oh. All right, well, make sure you're happy with it before you… Make sure you're happy with it. Don't try to… Sometimes people tell me, “Oh, this is what's selling at the moment. I'm gonna go with that.” If you're not happy with it, no one else is going to be happy with it.

Keep trying. You know, I don't know how many publishers I sent it to before I finally found Odyssey Books. But yeah, just keep trying. And I know it's easy to say, because it is very disappointing when you get those rejection letters in. When I did get the final acceptance in, I thought it was a rejection. And I was reading it and my wife said she thought I was having a stroke. Because I suddenly started sort of gasping and sort of choking.

Valerie

Oh, how wonderful! Not the gasping and choking.

BG

Oh, no. But yeah, it was a big surprise.

And what else can I say? Um… Make sure, find someone who can give you good feedback. Good feedback isn't necessarily feedback that you want to hear. It might be, oh, this is too long and I'm not reading it, even.

Valerie

Yes!

BG

Find someone who can give you good feedback. That might not… I wouldn't recommend giving it to a wife, a husband, a girlfriend or whatever. Just pick someone who… Because when they give you feedback it's someone's voice involved too much if it's not nice. So yeah, pick somebody who gives some good feedback because you'll need it. It's easy to get sort of caught up in your writing and think this is the best thing ever. If someone else reads it and says, “I don't understand what's going on here,” you need to know that.

Valerie

Yeah, definitely. All right, great advice. So congratulations on your book, Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys. If you're going to the bookshop or ordering it online, the author name is BG Hilton, otherwise known as Ben Hilton, and thank you so much for your time today, Ben.

BG

Thank you very much, Valerie.

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