Ep 337 Meet Chris Flynn, author of ‘Mammoth’.

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In Episode 337 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Chris Flynn, author of Mammoth, a novel narrated by a 13,000-year-old extinct American mastodon. Plus you'll discover 21 ways to promote your book, and how to deal with your inner critic. We also have 3 copies of The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Make Small Changes That Make a Big Difference by Jen Gale to give away.

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Show Notes

21 simple ways to promote your book

Excuse me, do you mind stepping off my shoulder?

Writer in Residence

Chris Flynn

Chris Flynn is the author of The Glass Kingdom and A Tiger in Eden, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The AgeThe AustralianGriffith ReviewMeanjinAustralian Book ReviewThe Saturday PaperSmith JournalThe Big IssueMonster ChildrenMcSweeney’s and many other publications. He has conducted interviews for The Paris Review and is a regular presenter at literary festivals across Australia. Chris lives on Phillip Island, next to a penguin sanctuary.

His latest book is Mammoth, published by University of Queensland Press.

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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Chris, thanks for joining us today.

Chris

That's my pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie

Congratulations on your latest book, Mammoth. Now this is a book with a difference. And the minute I found out about it, I was so intrigued. And so many people were saying, “Oh, have you heard about this book? Have you read this book?” And it is unique. So I'm just gonna let you kind of tell listeners, for those of them who haven't got their hands on a copy yet, what it's about.

Chris

Right, it is essentially set during the night before a 2007 natural history auction, a real auction that happened in New York. And the creatures that were up for sale were a variety of dinosaurs and megafauna fossils. And so the book has these creatures talking to each other, the night before the auction, telling each other how they died, when they died, who dug them up, why they were dug up, and what's been happening to them since. So it jumps back through history to the end of the Ice Age. And then roundabout the start of the 19th century, when the mammoth, the lead narrator, was dug up and what happened to him over the subsequent few years.

Valerie

Now, this is such a clever idea. And one that makes, before you read it, makes you scratch your head and think, “How in the world is he gonna pull this off?” How in the world did you get this idea in the first place?

Chris

It came from a variety of sources, really. Firstly was the real life auction, when I heard about it, it piqued my interest because there was a Tyrannosaurus skull up for sale. And that was fought over by some celebrities. Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio both tried to get it. Nicolas Cage ended up getting it for $276,000. He hung it on his wall for a few years, and then it turned out to have been stolen and exported illegally from Mongolia. So he had to give it back.

And this was in its in itself a sort of auto curious news story. But then I read, at roughly the same time, I read that in 1800, just after the American election, President Jefferson was doing pretty much exactly the same thing. He was looking for mammoth bones, and sending these pioneers out into the wilderness to try and find them. He even thought they might still exist. And for the same reason, to basically appropriate this symbol of power from the animal kingdom, to show what a big man he was, to show how strong America was, how great it was. And so it really speaks to the patriarchal notion of stealing and commodifying creatures from the natural world in order to appear macho.

So I thought, oh, there's a good story here. Maybe I can link these time periods. And it took me a while to work out how to do it. But once I realized it should be the animals telling the story, then it was, it wasn't all plain sailing, but it was a lot of fun from that.

Valerie

But that's the thing, your interest is piqued by these incidences, and you… But it's a long leap to, “Oh, the mammoth should narrate the story.” Can you tell me how that… Did it hit you like a lightning bolt? or how did you basically come to that conclusion? Because I would never have come to that conclusion.

Chris

No. Well, I didn't initially at all. I didn't really know how to approach the story. I was quite wary of it. I could tell there was a good story to be told here. But I didn't really know how to do it. And I had a couple of goes at it, early drafts where I had the story written from the point of view of one of the pioneers who's out looking for the bones. He's been hired to go out with this band of miscreants to dig up these creatures. And it's sort of a bit grim and Cormac McCarthy-esque and it just ran out of steam, really. It didn't really go anywhere.

So I didn't really know how to do it. I actually thought, “Oh, maybe it's not possible or maybe I'm just trying to put too many things together.:

But at the time, I was working part time at the RSPCA and the animal shelter and working with injured animals every day and becoming quite aware of their internal life and the way that they communicate with each other and with other species such as us. And I had a little epiphany one day, it did just kind of hit me one day, I thought, “Ah, why don't the animals tell the story?” And that way I can have them as observers of our behaviour. And it removes me from the equation quite a lot, removes the humanity from it, and I can talk about humanity through them. And once I worked that out, it was then a little bit daunting exercise of working out what kind of voice that they would speak in.

Valerie

So it is a genius solution. Now, you've touched on my next question, the kind of voice that you want the narrator to have or the other characters as well, but in particular, you pick up the book initially wondering, is it gonna work? And immediately, you get the voice of the narrator. How in the world did you… Oh, I mean, there are so many questions, but how in the world did you formulate what that voice was gonna be? I mean, it's a mammoth! No one even knows one or even knows what they think.

Chris

No.

Valerie

So how in the world did you get to this stage?

Chris

I've always enjoyed experimenting with voice in my work. I'm a bit of a bit of a frustrated actor, really. I used to act a little bit when I was younger on the stage, very badly, and would have loved to have pursued that career but didn't have what it took for that. And so I like to get into character as such when I'm writing. But how do you… I've always got into human characters before and written human characters whilst walking around the room as a real sort of oral story and then sitting down and recording it. But this was different, obviously, because these are old creatures. How on earth would they talk?

And it took me a little while, but then I realized that they might talk in the kind of voices and that corresponded to the time periods in which they were dug up. Because they've all been dug up at different times. The mammoth was dug up in 1800. And so he automatically started to speak a little bit like a pompous, well-educated American gentlemen. Whereas the Tyrannosaurus wasn't dug up until – although he's much older – wasn't dug up until 1991. And spent a lot of time in Florida. So he speaks a little bit like Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Valerie

Yes!

Chris

But the voice was, I mean, the voice was an unusual part of the process and quite a mysterious one. It's, you know, you always feel like a bit of a wanker when you're talking about it, but I didn't really want to, I didn't know really what the mammoth would sound like until it was suddenly there. And it wasn't like I sat down Monday morning 9am, thought, “Right, here we go. Time to write the mammoth.”

I avoided it for months. I avoided it for months. But I was sort of aware of the mammoth, leaning over my shoulder, almost standing behind me, observing me. Because I was doing all of this research into the story and into the kind of lives that these creatures might have had. And it was almost like the mammoth was observing me and saying, “Okay, this is good. You seem to be working it out. You know how we lived.”

And then, you know, four o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, just started talking, and I began writing inauspiciously. And those first five pages of the book, we hardly changed them in the end. That's pretty much, those are the first words I wrote in the book. And all of a sudden, there was a thousand words in the voice of this mammoth and I thought, “bloody hell. That's quite a nice voice. I wonder, can I keep that up?”

And that was it. But really, those five pages just gave me the grounding to be able to write the rest of the book. And from that point on, he was just there. I can't really…

Valerie

You spoke about research. Now, did you prior to this project have an interest in dinosaurs or archaeology or this era?

Chris

No more so than anyone else, really. I mean, I always liked dinosaurs. Every kid likes dinosaurs. And I used to go to the Natural History Museum in Belfast and be amazed at the thought of these creatures that are quite hard for, particularly when you're a young human to understand that, wait a minute, we weren't always in charge. There were things that lived here before us that were monsters, essentially, and you wouldn't have stood a chance against them. So that's quite a thing for us to get our head around, you know, as humans.

So I mean, I always liked them, but I never really knew much about it to be honest. The research, I'm not a palaeontologist or anything like that, and not particularly well educated either. So I'm not sure how I was gonna go about it. I just dove straight in, really, and really enjoyed history for what it was.

Valerie

So what did you do in terms of research? And how much did you feel that you needed to research before you could really get into the rest of the writing?

Chris

Yeah, a lot. I mean, I really was, I really didn't want to start writing it until I had done some pretty exhaustive research. But that was interesting too. It was a mixture of knowing generally where the story would go, and then researching what I could on the internet and going as far as I possibly could on the net, and then realizing I needed to revert to primary sources. So I would then get books out of the library, or I would order obscure out-of-print University Press books online, wait for them to come, digest those, and just cover all my bases.

And the idea was that I didn't really want to start writing it until I had quite an encyclopaedic knowledge of the little world that I was focusing on. Of course, you know, you have best intentions going in. You think, “okay, I've got it all covered.” But then the story will take you off on a little sidebar and you realize you're suddenly in Kentucky and in a bourbon distillery and you think, “wait a minute, I don't know anything about the origin of bourbon. Now I have to go and research that.” So I would put the story to a halt when I came across one of those unexpected moments and think, “okay, I'm not going to go any further.”

I don't really like to write historical fiction, unless I have my bases covered. So I try to do it as much as I can.

Valerie

But the thing is, it's such a broad topic. How did you, I mean, to get that encyclopaedic knowledge of this area, did you maybe at least narrow it down to a particular sub-area? Because otherwise, people have got PhDs in this, they've studied it for years and years and years.

Chris

I know.

Valerie

How did you know when you got the….

Chris

I did when I realized that the mammoth was dug up in the 1800s, so I thought, well, that's a good place for me to start. And I was then a little bit worried because I thought, well, there's 207 years in between then and the natural history auction, and I don't really want to be writing about every single year. But so I kept it confined to probably 1800 to about 1804.

And there were a few major human events at that time. It was the real beginning of American democracy, the aftermath of the French Revolution, the second Irish revolution. There were a few world things going on. So I was able to cast the mammoth, I mean, some of them he was involved in, others, I just cast him into them. So there's a mixture of fact and fiction going on with what actually happened to him back in the early 1800s.

But I did restrict it to a few years because I thought, if I don't do that, it's going to go on forever. I'm going to never be able to stop writing this book. It's gonna be 10,000 pages long.

Valerie

Yes. But it's not just that time period. It's also research into 60 million years ago and that sort of thing that you had to do. So what did you do to, like, I'm interested in the research process. Surely your brain couldn't retain all of that information? Did you have some kind of system? You know what I mean?

Chris

Hmm. Um. Not really. It was a pretty terrible system. I know. It all feels desperately random when I say it now. But I did read a lot of books about the end of the Ice Age and the early days of mankind influenced climate change whenever our ancestors turned up. They were a bit more advanced than the Neanderthals and used tools and weapons, and basically wiped out all of the creatures that roamed around and started to change the climate.

So that stuff, there's been quite a lot written about that. And there's different theories that went on. But I enjoyed reading those kind of books, because, you know, it's like watching an old caveman movie or something like that. They're loads of fun just diving into that world.

So but there are huge gaps in the book. You know, I spend a bit of time right at the end of the Ice Age, and then jump forward quite a bit. So whatever happens in between, I just didn't want to get into that.

Valerie

Yeah, sure. So can you give us an idea, just really almost like a timeframe of key milestones of when you first got the idea, how long you researched for, when did you write those first five pages and how long it took to the end of your first draft? Can you just take us through a bit of a timeline so we can get an idea of how long things took?

Chris

Yeah. Okay, so this is 2020. The book has just come out. So my last book came out in 2014. But you gotta remember that by the time a book comes out, you've probably already started on the next one. Because the final year…

So it would have been about 2012 or 2013. I had heard about the natural history auction, and then I read some of President Jefferson's correspondence. He wrote a lot of letters and a lot of them hadn't been released. So they released a whole new bunch of his correspondence and I read those, spotted the mammoth link and thought, “Oh, I wonder is there a story here?” But I assumed it was something I wouldn't write until I was a lot older. I thought, well, it probably needs quite a bit of work on it, this one.

So it was in the back of my mind for about a year and I kept looking at sources and ordering books and gradually doing the research in the background whilst I was waiting for my second book to come out. And then once it came out, I started to concentrate a lot more time on research.

So from about 2014 until probably 2017, maybe 2018, just constant reading and research.

Valerie

Wow.

Chris

Yeah. I didn't, I just… I mean, partly it's that writer's instinct of avoiding the work.

Valerie

Yeah.

Chris

Where I think, “I'm working here because I'm reading books.” And if anyone says to me, “Are you working on a book?” “Yeah, sure. I am. Look at me reading.”

So you can fool yourself into believing that you're working. But I was! But just no actual writing.

Valerie

In that case, in that period of research, during that time, about, say, you know, ballpark, how many hours a week were you dedicating to that? To your research?

Chris

I was working as well at the time. So I would probably say probably about 20 hours a week at that stage.

Valerie

That's still significant.

Chris

Treating it like a part time job, essentially. And doing a lot of reading, some of which I find, you know, quite a slog, because there are some old academic books that are not that easy to get through.

But I'm the sort of person who makes notes inside. I'm one of those terrible people who will write in books. So I have…

Valerie

Ohhh…

Chris

I know. Instead of doing the right thing and having a big notebook, if you ask me to show you all my research, I'm like, “Well, it's all those books over there that have that have got lots of handwritten notes all over them.”

So it was a bit messy. I'm not very well organized with that stuff. But at the same time, I was thinking, “Okay, I'm working on this story. It's a bit nebulous. I'm not really sure what the final format is going to be like.” There was just no sense of the final book at all at this stage.

And, you know, as a writer, sometimes you come up the idea for a project and you think, “Oh, I'll spend a few years researching this whilst I'm doing something else.” And you just don't know if it's got legs. So you're exploring to see if there's a story there. I'd rather do that than sit and write hundreds of thousands of words before I realize, oh, wait a minute, this is a waste of time.

So I was reluctant to write anything until about three or four years into the research. And then I tried doing those early drafts from the point of view of a human character. And it was a disaster. It was a disaster. And I thought, “Ah, this is stuffed. This is just never going to work.”

And so I probably put it aside then for maybe almost a year whilst probably working on something else. And it wasn't then until I had the idea of incorporating the animals' voices more that I dove back into it with gusto.

Valerie

So when you did that and you wrote those first five pages, presumably that kicked you off. What kind of, how long then did you take to the end of that draft? And how many, what time commitment were you devoting to that each week?

Chris

Yeah, well, I was working part time at the animal shelter, which was about 20 to 25 hours a week. So I had quite a bit of time to dedicate to the book.

So once I started that draft, it probably took me about a year to do the first draft in the animals voices, mainly because I had to, I was doing about 20 hours a week on it and I'm fairly productive as a writer. I can get stuff done. I'm the sort of person that gets the work done. And I'm also not too precious about the first draft. I will, you know, I'll try hard, but I won't try as hard as I possibly could, because I'm aware that everything will be revised by me and an eventual editor at a publishing house. So there's no point being too precious about every word of it.

So it's a nice sort of… The first draft was a nice sort of generous draft where I indulged myself a lot, went off on lots more tangents than are in the book, if you can believe that. And really enjoyed it. I have to enjoy the process, particularly the first draft. If I don't enjoy it, then I think it really comes through very strongly in the work if the author is actually hating working on the project. So I was doing that about 20 hours a week probably for a year.

Valerie

Right. And you say you get the work done. Did you have goals, as in word count targets or anything like that in order to keep the momentum going?

Chris

Yeah, I do have the word count thing. I will basically try to do about 1000 words a day on an early draft. And some people might think that's a lot, other people might think it's not much. Everyone's different. But about 1000 seems to work for me. I've narrowed that down over the years. I've tried different ones. I've tried 2000. I've tried 1500, 1250, just to see at what point I start to burn out. Because my creative brain can only really function for a limited number of hours in the day before I just start writing dross.

And so I tend, I've sort of worked out a thousand is probably… I could probably do a little bit more than that. But just so it's not awful, I'll stick to about 1000 a day whenever I'm working. So I'm working on a novel now and I'm sticking to exactly a thousand a day.

Valerie

So I just want to circle back, because you spent three or four years researching, and you said not knowing whether it was going to lead somewhere. Now that's, 20 hours a week for three or four years is a long, is a big commitment, not knowing if it's gonna lead somewhere. So what kept you going? I mean, that's… A lot of people wouldn't do that.

Chris

Well, I'll tell you what kept me going, and I haven't said this to anyone. It's basically because I had given up as a writer. That's why I was able to do it.

Valerie

What?

Chris

Yeah, after my second book came out, I sort of thought, “Yeah, I don't know about this writing lark.” It wasn't… My first two books didn't get much of a response, didn't get many readers. And I sort of thought, “Well, that was good fun, but maybe I should do something else with my life.” So I literally thought, that's it. I'm done.

I actually was at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in a restaurant with a bunch of writers and Krissy Kneen was chatting to me and I said, “Oh, by the way, Krissy, I quit. I've decided to quit being a writer.” And she was appalled because it's her whole life. And I was like, “No, I'm done. I'm fed up with it. It's rubbish. It's stupid.” And I decided to go and do something else.

So I went, got a job at the RSPCA where I was volunteering. They offered me a job. And I said, “Yep, that's it. I'm back in the real world.”

And so when I had the idea for the story, I was like, “Curse you brain. Don't give me any more dumb novel ideas. And this one's so enticing!”

And it seemed like such a bizarre and challenging novel if it was ever going to be written, which I really didn't think it would be. So I just was enjoying the idea of toying with the novel and getting into the history of it, and letting it form without any expectation that I would, that it would not only ever be published, but ever be written. And it was, and I think that sort of letting go and thinking, “Oh, well, I'm no longer going to be an author because that that didn't work out for me,” maybe that helped me.

Valerie

Right. And so you get to the point where you finish that draft, you know, in the voice of the mammoth. What happened then in terms of getting people, like, trying to explain this to publishers and stuff. I mean, tell me what happened then and what people's responses were.

Chris

Yeah, that's the next problem. After years of researching a book that I thought, “What are you doing? You're not really working on a book, are you? You better not be!” And then accidentally sort of writing one and accidentally enjoying it and thinking, “Oh, well, I actually have a book here.”

And then you read that draft and you think there's no way anyone in the industry is going to want a bar of this. This is not the kind of book that gets published, because publishing is so often, and it's a harsh thing to say, but it's so often a very conservative business.

Valerie

Yes.

Chris

And publishers are very risk averse. And they don't like to take chances on things because they're putting a lot of money into manuscripts. And they don't like to take too many chances because they take too many chances, it doesn't work out and they're finished.

So I was aware then that I had this manuscript in its early stages, and I could see how it could be improved with further drafts and how an editor might really enjoy it because they could say, “Oh, well, let's take out this whole section. That doesn't work. But let's write something set in 1805, instead.” You know, there was lots for an editor to get their teeth into.

But I had no idea how people would react to it. And I just assumed people would think, you know, you're off your rocker. This is never gonna get published. And to my absolute shock, when my agent read it, when he said, “I'll absolutely send this round.” And, “Are you sure? You sure this is a good idea? They gonna think I'm crazy.”

But the response was amazing. Pretty much every publisher in Australia wanted to read it. And there was quite a few of them interested in signing it. And I was absolutely shocked by that.

And I can only attribute that to perhaps, perhaps we're at a point now, particularly in Australian literature, where the publishers probably receive a lot of very samey manuscripts, very similar stories, perhaps sort of archetypal, Australian tales, and very good and all, but maybe they're looking for something different, something that they can get behind.

And you got to remember that people in publishing, they want interesting stories, too. They don't want to just churn things out that are all the same all the time. So maybe it just came along at a good time, the odd story.

And clearly there was some reticence from some of the publishers who, you know, it's all very well when you send a manuscript out and the publisher and the acquisitions team are interested, but then marketing take a look at it and they think “Whoa, no way. There's no way we're going to touch this.” And marketing have an increasingly, you know, strong role in acquisitions these days.

So, I wasn't surprised when some people turned it down, but it was nice to see a lot of people were really enjoying it.

Valerie

Yes.

Chris

And then my ultimate publisher, when UQP came along, all credit to them, they really loved it. Instantly enthusiastic for what's a very offbeat, unusual, probably hard-to-describe story.

Valerie

I think that obviously people were intrigued but as soon as you read it is, it comes back to that very strong voice immediately believable because you do wonder, you do wonder whether it's gonna work. And it works from, you know, the first paragraph.

So tell me about, so you're writing, you've got this part time job at the RSPCA. You're committing 20 hours a week or thereabouts. You're aiming for a thousand words a day. What kind of routine did you have for yourself in order to make all of that happen? Was it a set routine? Or were you writing in snatched moments? You know, how did that work on a practical level?

Chris

I'm pretty disciplined as a writer. Generally, as a worker, no matter what job I have, I like to be fairly organized and get things done and not put things off. So when I'm writing, like I am at the moment trying to promote a book plus also write one for God's sakes, what an idiot. I am quite disciplined. So I will sit at my desk, not too early but fairly early, maybe around about 10 or something by the time I get all my other business done, answer my emails. And I will work pretty steadily until probably one in the afternoon. And those three hours, that's when I get my work done. And I don't do any work after that.

Valerie

What?

Chris

Yep. Yep. So I will work in like a real burst of energy and concentration and get my work done. And then I walk away.

Valerie

What do you do?

Chris

Oh, what do I do the rest of my day?

Valerie

Yeah!

Chris

Yes, that's true. That does make me sound like a complete flake, doesn't it?

Valerie

No, no, not at all. Whatever works for you. But what do you do?

Chris

I will often do other work. So I still do a lot of freelance work. So I might write a review or write an article or conduct an interview with someone. Or, you know, go outside and do some errands. I do live on an island so it's quite tempting, particularly in the nice weather, to go outside and go for a swim or something.

I do quite like mixing my internal life with an external one.

Valerie

Yes, okay. In other words, you have a life!

Chris

Yes, yes, I do. I don't… Yeah, I like to have my writing be compartmentalised as part of my life and not dominate my life completely.

Valerie

Right. Okay. And you live on Phillip Island, right?

Chris

That's right.

Valerie

And I'm intrigued. I just want to come back to, because you said something about it was while working at the animal shelter that you witnessed the way the animals kind of talked to each other or interacted with each other that kind of planted the seed of having the animals, having the voice of the mammoth and the other animals. What was it that you observed? What was it about their behaviour that made you go, oh, what's happening?

Chris

Well, at the RSPCA, I had a very specific role. I worked in the isolation unit, which was where animals who were sick or injured were recovering or sometimes had behavioural problems where they basically detested humans and we had to work on building trust with them. And so you're working very closely with animals who are there for a very long time. Some of those animals were in the shelter for a few years. Well, sometimes that's because of legal reasons that you know, we had to maybe seize the animals from a puppy mill or, or something like that. And we were, you know, conducting a legal case against the breeders. And so we would have to hold on to them in the meantime.

So it was an interesting opportunity to be able to work very closely with animals whom you see every day or three days a week, whatever it was. And so the animals get to know the humans coming in. And you build a lot of rapport with them. And I just became very aware of the panoply of individual personalities in what we call domestic animals, pets, cats, dogs, rabbits, and so on, guinea pigs. And their really strong identities and the way that they would interact with each other to establish hierarchy and territory, but also, friendship. Some very unusual friendships would spring up between animals, sometimes not from the same species. And that was very interesting to observe. And you just couldn't be unaware of their internal life and the way that they would communicate with us, their needs, whether they were not feeling well, whether they were happy. And you just become very attuned to the language of animals when you work with them in such a close proximity. I'm sure zookeepers and so on probably say the same thing.

And so that was a real breakthrough for me because I, you know, a lot of people just think cats are just stupid creatures who just come in for the heat and the food, but when you work with them every day, you get quite a different idea of an intelligence and personality at work.

Valerie

Yes, yes. Okay, so now you mentioned that you are working, because you're promoting this book, but you're working on another novel. Can you tell us anything about that?

Chris

Oh, I shouldn't have said that. Should I? Yeah, well, I've been working on it for a little while. I'm doing a lot of research the past sort of two years. And it's basically, I don't want to say too much, but it is a spin off from the research that I was doing with Mammoth. I discovered something unusual about how the bones of dinosaurs and megafauna were perceived in the ancient world. It's all very well us talking about digging up dinosaur bones in the modern world and either being confused as to what they were as they were in the 1800s, or we now know generally what they are, or at least we think we do.

But you got to remember people have been digging these bones up for thousands of years. And I became fascinated with the idea of what did people think they were in Ancient Egypt or Ancient Greece, when they dug them up? And they often had no clue because it must have seemed… Even the bones of a whale. You dig that up in ancient Greece, what are you gonna think it is? Some sort of some sort of monster?

And so I'm looking at the origin of ancient Greek myths and how they can often, they often come from misunderstanding or misunderstood dinosaur bones.

Valerie

Oh, okay, fantastic. And so how far into it are you?

Chris

Yes. I'm powering through the first draft as we speak. I'm adopting a very unusual work process because I am an idiot and can't just like decide on something that works for me. I have to do it different every time. So I'm doing a draft entirely in verse.

Valerie

Oh! I'm sorry!

Chris

Yep. I know. So my first draft is entirely in verse in the form of a Sicilian septet. So, there's 70 chapters, each with 13 verses, each verse has seven lines and they rhyme. And I'm doing that for a reason. It's a mad thing to do, but I'm doing it for a reason, because it's set in Ancient Greece and it's got this sort of Homeric epic poem feel to it. I wanted to challenge myself to do that, in order to give a musicality to it.

So then my next draft will not be in verse. It will be in conventional prose, but it will be informed by the first draft, and hopefully some of the musicality will come through.

Valerie

Oh my God. You really know how to make things hard for yourself.

Chris

I really do. I don't know. And even worse than that, the second draft, my first prose draft of this, which will be the second draft of the book, it will be a reverse prose draft. So I'm starting at the end and working my way back.

Valerie

God!

Chris

And the reason I'm doing that is because, so that by the time I've reached the beginning of the prose draft, the voice will be really strong and well established. So then my third draft will be a conventional approach.

Valerie

Will be in ancient Greek and Latin! Haha. Wow, okay.

Chris

Yeah, I know.

Valerie

I can't wait to read that. Alright, so and finally, what would be your top three tips to aspiring writers who might be in a position where you were that time sitting in the restaurant at the Byron Writers Festival, where you thought, oh, you know, I've given up, kind of thing. What would your advice to those aspiring writers be? Top three tips. Top three tips.

Chris

So someone who's not written a book before or someone who has? Someone who's not written before?

Valerie

Well, actually, who hasn't, who has not written a book.

Chris

Right, who's not written a book, and maybe you've got some ideas.

Valerie

But they're writing. Yeah.

Chris

Yep, you're writing, you're working on ideas. You're trying to work out if you've got enough of an idea for a novel.

There's a couple of good tips, I think, for this. One of them is that you're not always necessarily working on the book that you think you're working on. So sometimes you've got a bunch of ideas. And those ideas are parts of different stories, or sometimes they seem very different ideas, but they're actually part of the same story, but you just can't see it yet.

So I would say if you're… It depends on what sort of, how your creative mind works. If you're the sort of person who's always coming up with little ideas, and they seem very disparate, they could actually be part of the same project and you just haven't worked out how to tie them together yet. So try to look at your ideas, and then take a big step back and try to work out if maybe this is all part of one big project that you're working on.

And maybe not all the ideas will stick. But you might have a character here who's doing this, a character there who's doing that, they might actually be part of the same story, but you just can't see it because you're too far, you're too close to them. You just need to take a bit of a step back and see if those are linked somehow. That's one piece of advice.

The other piece I would say is, don't be so hard on yourself. If you, I mean, I'm doing this thousand words a day thing. But this is, I'm working on my fourth book, and it's going to be published. So I have a publishing deal. So I have to instil a little bit of discipline into myself, in order to get this done. If you don't have a publishing deal, and it's something that you hope to have, don't be so rough on yourself. You don't need to act like Stephen King, you know, when you're starting out. Relax and enjoy it a bit more. You know, shake your shoulders out and have a bit of fun with it. And be willing to experiment and go down avenues and you don't know where you're going. And it might end up a dead end, but it doesn't matter because it's all grist for the mill. It's all part of the process.

Loads of writers will write hundreds of thousands of words before they can see where the 60,000-word story is.

And linked to that is this idea of you need to keep going.

Valerie

Well, yes.

Chris

If you've got a creative mind, then you are, that's a blessing. That's something that a lot of people wish they had, but don't have. And so be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to keep going with it. Just because, I mean, I tried to stop and my mind wouldn't let me stop. And reality sometimes tries to step in and say, “Alright, you know, you need to pay rent. So, you know, quit this nonsense and go and get a job.”

But like you said earlier, sometimes you just find all the snatches of moments where you write. There's a million ways to write a book. Just because someone tells you they did it this way, doesn't mean that's the only way to do it. And doesn't mean that's the way that's right for you. There are literally a million different ways to do it. And I know, as an established author myself, it's frustrating for me knowing that because I seem to be willing to go through each of those million ways.

Valerie

Yes, it seems to be! Alright, this is all really great advice. Congratulations on your book. Oh, the buzz on this book is deafening. So congratulations, and I know it's gonna be, it's gonna go like the absolute clappers up the charts. Thank you so much for your time today, Chris.

Chris

No worries. Thank you, Valerie.

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