Mark Abernethy: Australian thriller author

Mark AbernethyMark Abernethy is an Australian author well-known for his suspense and thriller novels featuring the Aussie super-spy, Alan McQueen. He has written four novels and two non-fiction books. His latest is Counter Attack, the third book in the Alan McQueen series.

In 2007 Golden Serpent was published, introducing Alan McQueen. The sequel, Second Strike, was released in 2008. He has also published a book on the life and sudden death of Michael McGurk.

Based in Sydney, he has been a journalist, speechwriter and a senior editor at Australian Penthouse magazine.

Click play to listen. Running time: 48.29

Counter Attack

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Mark, thanks for joining us today.

Mark
No sweat.

Valerie
Tell us, what inspired you to come up with an Australian super-spy?

Mark
Well, I suppose there were two stages to it. The first stage was probably that my entire original first burst of reading when I was child was Ian Fleming, and then Alistair MacLean. For me, that started when I was about nine years old when I had read Dr. No for the first time. Ever since then I have been interested in thrillers in general, and espionage thriller, in particular. It was just a basic interest of mine.

Then as an adult, and a journalist, and a ghost writer, I used to ghost write business books for people. It just occurred to say one day, “Why are all our spy heroes, in the thriller genre, why are they all British and American?” I just sort of said aloud this faithful thing, “Somebody should write a story about an Australian super-spy, who’s theatre of action is sort of more Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. If it was done probably that could be very entertaining.”

The next thing I knew I was starting off on writing this book called Golden Serpent just straight out of my brain as a story, and it got picked up. That’s how it got inspired, really. I was interested in the genre. I couldn’t understand why an Aussie spy hadn’t been made into a fiction character.

Valerie
Would you secretly want to be James Bond, or Alan McQueen?

Mark
I don’t think so.

Valerie
No?

Mark
My level of danger… sort of walking from my writer’s desk to the kettle to pour myself a cup of tea, that’s about as dangerous as I want to get it. This is a fictionalized person based on people I’ve met, people I’ve been introduced to, research I’ve done. It suits me that somebody else is out there doing this stuff rather than me.

Valerie
Now you also work as a journalist, and have for quite a while, when did you decide that you wanted to write as a journalist? Was it difficult to transition to write an entire book?

Mark
There’s probably two transitions you’re talking about there. The first, I was at university trying to be a lawyer. I had already dropped out once. I had come back for a second time to do this law degree, because my father is a lawyer, my sister is a lawyer, and all of this sort of stuff. Having come back for the second time, I had to be honest with myself. I thought, “I’m just not interested in this. It just doesn’t interest me.” I realized that what I really liked was all the art subjects I was doing. In particular the writing side of it, the essays. That’s what I was good at, actually writing.

My first transition was to apply for a journalism course. This is back in New Zealand in the old days. The polytechnics, the journalism courses were intensive half year ones. Then you went off to work for a newspaper. They were called induction courses. I went and did that. I was sort of probably a bit of natural. I really liked journalism. I was basically good at it.

The next stage about trying to go from being a journalist, a reporter, a writer, serving magazines and newspapers, and turning around and writing fiction for a publisher was a massive cultural change.

Valerie
Yes.

Mark
I didn’t go to any writers’ courses. I didn’t have any mentors or teachers. I just wrote these four sample chapters that a publisher liked. Louise Thurtell at Allen & Unwin arena, she just liked these chapters and wrote me a contract, and said, “Finish this book.”

So, it was a huge learning curve. I wrote that first book, Golden Serpent, in around eight weeks.

Valerie
What?!

Mark
Yeah, that’s what people say. I’m not meant to go around repeating that. It gives people the wrong idea. But, I’m what’s known as a fast writer. Once I get set on something I can do two chapters a day, and just really go for it.

Valerie
Wow.

Mark
Yeah, but that’s not by way of boasting. That’s just how I write. The idea of writing a book for two years and loving crafting a manuscript- I just couldn’t do it that way.

Transitioning from journalism and ghost writing business books for people to suddenly writing fiction was a huge change, but one I’m really glad I made myself do. It’s been very rewarding in many different ways.

Valerie
If Golden Serpent took eight weeks, have your other books since also taken a similar length of time?

Mark
Well, they could have if I had wanted them to.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
No, that’s kind of pushed out. It’s more like about twelve weeks.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
On the first novel I was so-

Valerie
Keen?

Mark
I was keen. I was freaked out. This thing that I had always wanted to do, to write commercial thriller books, novels, was suddenly thrown on my lap. It so happened that they wanted to have the book in time for a certain release, so I had to have it done before that Christmas, I think was 2007. I can’t remember, 2006/2007. I had a ghost writing assignment to finish before that.

So, I couldn’t even think about it. I had to race through finishing the business book. And then I had one day off where I went, I think I laid on the beach down at Coogee for a day just thinking, “How am I going to get through this?” The next day I went and sat down and completed Golden Serpent in very fast time.

Valerie
Presumably that’s in first draft, it took eight weeks to get to first draft. Is there a great deal of editing and revision after that?

Mark
Oh, yeah. Yeah, there is. I kind of like that, probably because of my journalism background, and the fact I’ve been an editor, and what have you. I’ve seen it from both sides. I’m quite relaxed with the idea of manuscripts coming back to me with notes, and with edits, and with queries about, “Do we really need this chapter?” For instance.

On that first manuscript that came back we chopped out an entire chapter. A manuscript that I had sent off with 150,000 words got whittled down to 134,000.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
It had a cut of 16,000 words somewhere along the way, but I was fine with that. That process actually makes it a better read, which is what’s it’s all about. I sort of smile wryly when other authors tell me about their great ego battles with publishers about how they’re not going to change this, and they’re not going to change that. I just see it as a challenge to make it better for the reader, really.

Valerie
Obviously with these books you go to exotic locations and you write about other places that you’re not necessarily living in, or not necessarily familiar with.

Mark
Yeah.

Valerie
How do you work all of that in and get it to be credible? Do you do a lot of research? How does that work for you?

Mark
I do a lot of research each book. I’m looking at the stack of files at the moment, actually. They’re just manila file folders. They’re just filled with notes, little interviews I’ve done with people.

I ring up government departments a lot and just ask them things. I just say, “Well, if was going to do this, what would I need?” “If I was going to get into this building…?” All of these tiny details that people like about my books just come from me actually finding out what it takes to get into the RGKC building in Cambria, or what you need to get onto an Australian Army base in Darwin; just small bits, and pieces, and details.

I collect a lot of research. I also talk to a lot of people. I think that having a journalism background has really served me well. If you’re a journalist for more than ten years you become a professional listener. You really learn just to sit back and let somebody else tell you the story, and I’ve found over the years that from surprising avenues people have revealed that they’ve had something to do with this, or something to do with that.

I just sit and listen, and try to work out how this sort of demimonde, this sub-world, especially around Southeast Asia, how it actually works, and what some of the issues are, to deal with it when you’re an Anglo-Saxon from Australia how do you fit into that world? How do you get what you want without being killed?

Valerie
The research process is almost like a license to be able to find out any information that you want, isn’t it?

Mark
Yeah.

Valerie
It’s great.

Mark
It is great. You find that a lot of people just shut you down immediately. My second novel was called Second Strike. It was a fictionalized account of what may have been behind the Bali bombings. I was trying desperately to get the final report that the Australian federal police worked on with the Indonesian national police, only to be told I couldn’t see it.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
Things like that. You just have to roll with that. You just have to decide, “Well, just because somebody is not going to cooperate with me on that level doesn’t mean I’m not going to write this book.” You just have to find another way to do it.

Research can’t be everything. It’s not you’re writing a white paper for a government department or something. You have to have a break point where you say, “OK, that avenue won’t allow me all the facts, so I will charge on anyway and alter my plot slightly.

Valerie
On the flip side of that have you found sometimes people to be surprisingly candid about things?

Mark
Yeah. Yeah. For instance, special forces soldiers, Aussie special forces guys, the SAS, or the RRRR commandos, they’re very, very cagey and they’re very careful about who they talk to, but if you can get them talking, they’re very interesting.

A lot of the sort of little humorous episodes, little humorous asides that happened amidst the action in my books are taken from some of these soldiers’ stories. The sort of thing that happens in the field when everyone is totally stressed, tired, and in a lot of danger, and they’re really a bit over it, the kind of little pranks they play on each other are the really interesting bits to me.

Yeah, I have been surprised how frank some people have been with me. Sure.

Valerie
You say you’ve been, since the age of nine, reading these sorts of books, and now you’re writing them, what’s the appeal? What’s the thing that you love about it?

Mark
That’s a really good question. It’s not the first time it’s been asked. It’s pretty hard to put it into words. What I do know is that up until that age I had a high, according to my mother that is, I had a high reading age, but I didn’t like to read.

All of the books back then, for me- people were reading things like The Hobbit, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Swallows and Amazons, all of this sort of thing. I didn’t really become a reader until, as I say, in the same year I discovered Ian Fleming, and Jules Verne.

If you put Ian Fleming and Jules Verne together and you ask what do you see in that kind of material? Excitement, adventure, character. I suppose character being put to the test. Can somebody remain an intelligent problem solver under enormous stress? The greatest stress that any of us will ever face is the threat of being killed imminently. You know? The threat of a violent death is guaranteed to raise your heartbeat. How do people react under that? What do they do? Do they go to water? Do the stand up? Or, do they become more cunning?

I guess that’s what has always appealed to me from the very first. As I said when I read Dr. No, I just remember thinking, “Wow. There’s a writer out there who knows exactly what I’m interested in.”

Valerie
When you read those sorts of life threatening situations, or adrenaline filled situations your heart does go faster, and you do get into it. But, writing is a much slower process. What’s does it feel like writing those sorts of scenes and passages?

Mark
Well, it should fill you full of adrenaline.

Valerie
As well?

Mark
Yeah, you should get a bit short of breath. You should be trying to write faster. You finger tips should be getting sore. If you’ve got the right pace- I think when I look at, say, a thriller or a suspense writing, which isn’t quite getting me in, it’s using because the pacing is wrong. It’s usually the pacing.

So, if I’m writing a scene that’s coming to some critical point and there’s bullets flying everywhere, my hero is about to die, or his friend is about to get shot, or something, I just go right into that scene and just- I write as if I’m there.

Valerie
So, you kind of know in yourself whether you’re on the right track, because you feel it internally?

Mark
Yeah, I think so. That’s how it works for me. It’s the same for some of the slower scenes where my hero is dealing with his wife, or he’s worried about his kids or something. You know? If I’m not feeling that as well while I’m writing it, then I’m probably not doing a very good job. I’ll sort of go away and have lunch and come back to it, or I’ll scrap it and start again, or I’ll walk around in circles for twenty minutes and just really think what I’m trying to say, and whether it’s worth saying, actually.

Valerie
Tell us a bit more about Counter Attack, your latest book.

Mark
Counter Attack sees Alan McQueen, who works for Aussie SIS, which is our offshore spy service. He’s sort of been semi-retired, but as happens in all of the spy agencies they let people semi-retire, but then they sort of lure them back with contractor work. You never really retire from these places.

So, we see Alan McQueen turning 40. He’s asked to run what he thinks is a simple job in Singapore. They’ve found a spy in Brisbane. They lure him to Singapore to try to turn him, but then there’s an assassination, a very sudden and brutal one.

So, he comes back to Australia, and he’s wondering how he ever got lured back into this world. He thinks he’s lost it. His next assignment is basically to go and find out whether somebody in the Saigon consulate in Aussie- what’s he’s up to. He’s wondering around.

He goes up into Vietnam, and discovers a whole lot of really unpalatable connections to what was initially just meant to be a reporting on somebody. It explodes. It spirals out of control, basically. Alan McQueen is accused of things by his own side. He is chased around by bad guys, who are retired, rogue, Mossad people. Essentially he has to resolve what is going on, which is essentially a bunch of right-wing generals from the Chinese army attempting to take control of the North Korean missile tests for nefarious purposes.

So, as with most of my Alan McQueen books, with all of them, he usually starts with something fairly routine, but he’s nosy and he’s curious. His character is he doesn’t let anything go. So, he just keeps poking away until suddenly he realizes he’s dealing with a huge conspiracy, and usually there are people on his own side who have got different agendas. They usually try to recall him, so he has to fight against them as well as the genuine bad guys.

Valerie
Do you travel much to Southeast Asia to check out your settings?

Mark
Yeah, not for a while. Not for a few years, but yeah. One of the best compliments I’ve ever had really- I’ve got my own website, so my so called “fan mail” comes direct from that website. Virtually, unanimously people say, “You really captured Asia,” which is always nice to hear.

I kind of enjoy building a sort of ongoing sense of humor about the cultural misunderstandings that happen when Anglo-Saxons go into Southeast Asia, and not on a nasty level, just the slightly different ways that language goes through slightly different customs for all sorts of things. For instance, the simplest one of how when faced with disappointing somebody your average Indonesian will just nod and say ‘yes’. Well, you know?

Valerie
Yes.

Mark
It’s not because they’re being sneaky. It’s just a cultural thing. I had a lot of fun with doing that in Counter Attack, just sort of talking about an Anglo-Aussie gets along in Saigon, where it’s a very aggressive trading culture. You basically, when buying the simplest thing at the markets you have to bargain, and these sorts of things.

I kind of enjoy putting those two cultures together, and having a sort of cultural levity that goes along with the action and the violence.

Valerie
You have to get that right, or people can spot that a mile away.

Mark
Well, yeah. The latest one, with Counter Attack, I actually got on the phone to a couple of people, one of which was one of the Vietnamese cultural people at SBS, for instance. I just rang up and say, “Just remind me, because it’s been a while since I was in Vietnam.” So, I just get reminders on the language, the customs. People are actually always sort of pleasantly surprised to be asked these things, and are more than helpful.

Valerie
Tell us, when you’re in your eight week, or twelve week marathon, tell us about your daily writing routine. Do you have a system, or a ritual? You’ve got to start your way on a certain day? How does it work for you?

Mark
How it usually works is I would usually wake up at about quarter to 7:00. I might go for a walk, or I might not. Have a shower and make some quick breakfast, and do emailing, and make all the administrative calls, and try to be hitting the first keystroke at 9:00 on the dot.

I’m not a sort of half-hazard writer. I like to make it my work. I like to cut it down into shifts. For me, my shift usually goes 9:00 to 12:00 and then 1:00 ‘til 4:00. Then I will write anywhere between, say, two hours and four hours after a meal. Sometimes I might write through until midnight.

Valerie
Wow.

Mark
Other times I’ll write through until 10:00. I’ll usually do three shifts in a day. Each of them lasts around three hours.

Valerie
That’s full on.

Mark
Well, yeah. It works differently to a lot of people. I’ve found myself being asked for advice on these things, when people want to write and what have you. I just usually say that you can usually tell, the sitting around waiting for inspiration style, it doesn’t work for me.

Valerie
No. And, as a journalist I think that you never really had that luxury, so you’re not used to it.

Mark
Well, yeah. Precisely. If you’re background to writing novels is 20 years of journalism, if that’s where you start from, then you already see yourself as a professional. You already see what you do in the same way that a lawyer, or a doctor, or a psychologist, or whatever would see themselves, and that is somebody who has a skill to sell. You’ve got to get organized, you have to decide whether you’re doing it for real, or whether this is just part time.

I mean a lot of people who write novels, they hold down a full time job. In our world we call it the day job. They’ll hold down a day job, and then they come home and they have something to eat, and then they write for two or three hours. That’s when it does take a year or two to get a manuscript out. Anyone who can do it that way, best of luck to them. I think that’s an incredible effort to keep your focus.

Valerie
Commitment.

Mark
Yeah, commitment, and focus to keep it going that long.

But, I see myself more as a professional, and so I divide it down. I have the added confidence of knowing I can write a novel in eight weeks, which not everyone feels that they can do it. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody either, by the way. You can really spin yourself out. You can get what I would say mentally exhausted rather than physically exhausted. It’s not the best way, that’s why I take longer these days, but if it comes down to it I know that I can do it.

Yeah, I have a routine. It’s usually three shifts a day. When I’m writing I don’t listen to music. I don’t take phone calls. I don’t have my iChat, or Twitter going in the background. Everything is just focused on that one page. I don’t even check the internet, unless I’m doing basic research for the thing.

So that’s how I do it.

Valerie
On that, I heard, now is this true, that you don’t have a TV?

Mark
I don’t have a TV- well, I haven’t had a TV until about ten weeks ago.

Valerie
Oh, and then you got one?

Mark
Yeah, but it doesn’t have cable on it, or anything. I’ve gone so long without a TV I don’t really watch it, unless- the only thing I’ve ever watched on TV is really news, or movies.

Valerie
Right. Yes.

Mark
I’ll watch the news at 6:30, or whatever, 7 o’clock. If there’s a movie on, I’ll watch it. Like, City Slickers was on the other night.

Valerie
That’s an old movie!

Mark
It was on TV. I just said, “Yeah, OK. I’ll watch this.” But, yeah, until about 10 weeks ago I didn’t have one.

Valerie
What’s next for you? Are you already working on your next project?

Mark
Well, what happens for me is that- I have created another hero. Let’s take one step back. Once it turned out that Golden Serpent was a popular book, and the publishers liked it, and the readers liked it, Allen and Unwin essentially gave me a six book deal, of which Golden Serpent was the first. Counter Attack was number four.

For number five I decided to create a new character, who would not be a spy but a former soldier. He wouldn’t be Austrian, he’d be American. This doesn’t mean that Alan McQueen is over.

Valerie
OK.

Mark
This will be in parallel.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
So, that book is coming out, I think, July or August, but it will be coming out under another name of Mark Aitken.

Valerie
Right. So, that people don’t get confused, or-?

Mark
Well, yeah. If my first four novels were Alan McQueen-

Valerie
Right. They’ll buy it and if they don’t get Alan they’ll-

Mark
Yeah, exactly. From a retailing and marketing perspective, that’s how it’s going to go. So, I’ve just finished a book called Artic Floor, and it’s got a different hero, a similar writing style. It’s high octane. Probably even more action than the Alan McQueen books.

Valerie
How the protagonist going to be very different to Alan? Is he going to have a different sort of part of the world that he specializes in? What are the differences?

Mark
Yes. Whenever I’ve lived in North American it’s been in the sort of rural redneck belts.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
Twenty years ago I spent some time in Colorado. Just recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in Ontario, in Canada. I’ve created a character who comes from those sorts of areas, who’s a retired soldier, but as a lot of these special forces people, they come back to normal life, they can’t really earn much of a living, but there’s a lot of private contract work, what used to be called mercenary. So, they go back.

I’ve got a character who thinks he’s retiring back to his dad’s farm, but gets lured out to head up teams doing certain things. They always end up being way, way, more complicated than he thought.

It’s a similar character, except American and younger than Alan McQueen. But, it’s similar thrills and spills sort of approach to writing, I would say.

Valerie
At the pace you write you could be writing multiple books per year under multiple names.

Mark
Yes, I could. And, that’s why I’m a ghost writer. So, I write-

Valerie
So, that is the plan? That is what you do?

Mark
That’s what I do. Every year I have a ghost writing assignment going on, to ghost write a book.

Valerie
Tell us about that, because when you’re ghost writing under somebody else’s name, or for someone else, or with someone else, you really need to capture their story and almost their voice. So, how do you do that, not obviously the information, but their feeling?

Mark
You have to be a professional listener. Some of the manuscripts that people have shown me in the past that they want me to have a look at and what have you, or pieces of writing, usually you can tell that they have something of a tin ear. You know?

I think if you’re going to write anything you have train yourself to be a listener, rather than constantly telling everybody you’re a writer. Yeah, you really do. You have to be- and that comes into its own if you’re a journalist, and it certainly is crucial if you’re going to ghost write, because as you’ve just so rightly said, it’s not just about getting the information, but it’s getting the voice and the feel out of it, so that it reads like as if the person has written it themselves.

There’s only one way you can do that, and that is to sit down in front of somebody and just really, really listen, and really tune in to what they’re talking about.

Valerie
In terms of your ghost writing projects, do people come to you, or do you go after them, in terms of the things that you want to ghost write? How does that work for you?

Mark
They come after me. So, whether it comes through my existing publishers, or whether it comes through a publisher who heard about me through another publisher, or whether it comes directly from the person who wants to get a project done, but they can’t really write it themselves.

Sometimes what happens is that a high profile person will be approached by a publisher, and the publisher will say, “Well, here’s the contract. Here is the lump of money we’re going to wave in front of you. But, can you do this yourself?” The person will probably say, “Yes,” but they know they can’t. So, they come looking for someone like me, who will basically be introduced to the publishers, and make everyone feel comfortable.

Valerie
Presumably you don’t say yes to all the ghost writing projects you’re approached with. What sorts of things do you like ghost writing?

Mark
I like ghost writing anything where I get to get an insight into and understand somebody else’s world, and somebody else’s profession.

I can’t just go and rattle them off to you, but some of the people that I’ve ghost written are very interesting, very powerful, very successful, very wealthy people. Getting to spend extended hours with these people, and getting an insight into how a whole other slice of life works, and how people behave- the kind of people you read about in the newspapers. You’re suddenly being told a story about how they behave in private. Your jaw is dropping, you’re going, “Really?”

I like that. I like anything where I get to learn.

Valerie
Do you sort of interview them first, and get all of the information, and then start crafting and structuring. Or, do you do it as you go along?

Mark
It depends on what the project is.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
The last one I did, the commitment I made with the person I was ghost writing for was- we had a very short time frame. I’d been given basically I think about eight or nine weeks to turn it around, to do the interviews and write the manuscript.

Yeah, once again… I think what I said to the person is, “Look, usually I do a chapter plan for this, but in this case, because we’re talking about certain theme that I’m ghost writing, I’m going to go away and I’m going to do my basic research for a day or two, just read everything I can find on the internet about it. Then on this day we’ll sit down and we’ll do a two hour interview. We’ll do that twice a week for seven weeks.”

Valerie
Right.

Mark
“And, I’ll write it as I go.”

So, that’s what we did. In the end the publishers decided they didn’t want me as the ghost, they were going to put my name on the book. So, that was called The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Michael McGurk.

Valerie
Right. Yes.

Mark
Which I wrote with Richie Vereker. And, that’s how that started. We had a short timeframe to turn it around. So, we just committed to two meetings a week. I was writing and showing him pages and what have you.

But, other ones, yeah, I’ll get the information first. I’ll do a chapter plan. We’ll plan it out, and I’ll basically work filling out that chapter plan. It works in a slightly different way.

Valerie
When you are ghost writing somebody’s life, or their experience in a particular part of their life, have you done that for women, or mainly men, or both?

Mark
I’ve done one project for a woman, and the publisher pulled the plug on it when we were only about a month into the project.

Valerie
Right.

Mark
That’s because the woman in question moved on from the job she was at, which sort of removed her credential for writing the book in the first place, if you get what I meant.

Valerie
Yeah. But, in that month did you find it different,? Because it is a different energy. It is a different voice kind of thing.

Mark
Yeah, well, I think that’s the trick of just making yourself be a good listener, because if you make yourself be a good listener, then it doesn’t matter what gender somebody is, or what culture they’re from, or how rich they are. You write the story out of their own heart, out of their own voice. You just sort of disembody yourself from the process almost. You become a channel.

But, I mean I don’t have a lot of, sort of cultural shock with females, because I grew up in a house of three sisters. I’ve got a twin sister. So, women aren’t that much sort of alien to me anyway, really.

Valerie
Now back to Counter Attack and Alan McQueen, a lot of that inspiration, as you said, started from when you were nine years old reading Dr. No. These days you’re actually being compared to the likes of Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy. How does that feel?

Mark
Well, that was pretty amazing. Graeme Blundell, who is the crime and thriller writer/editor for the Weekend Australian, he wrote that. When I first saw it I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Wow. He’s unknowingly hit on some real soft spots for me.”

Valerie
Yeah.

Mark
To be said that I write like Aussie, Ian Fleming, was very- and as it happened the publishers wanted to pull that quote out for use on subsequent books as well. So, it’s- yeah. I mean I suppose everybody can think of an author who turned them into a reader, really, who took reading from being a chore that their mother made them do to something that they really wanted to do.

For me that would have been Ian Fleming and Jules Verne, in particular Ian Fleming because of the genre he was writing in.

Valerie
Finally, what would your advice be to people who are listening to this and they’ve got that rollicking book in them, or they’ve got that deep desire to be an author? What would your advice be to them?

Mark
OK, advice.

I think I probably let a few of them slip as we’ve been going.

Valerie
Yes.

Mark
I think the first thing I would say is that you have to make a commitment to what you’re doing. You have to decide that this is it, and that this is the mission and that you’re going to do it. So, you’re going to have to make a personal commitment inside yourself.

Secondly, in terms of actually getting the project done, I would always advocate that you subdivide the project down into smaller parts that are completed. You have to train yourself to know that you’re going to finish it.

Even if you do what I do, and when I get going I measure my progress by chapters. I don’t start a chapter unless I’m going to finish it. That’s just a personal discipline for me. If I start my first keystroke at 9 o’clock in the morning, I told you that last shift of the day could one or two hours, or it could be four hours, and that really depends, “Am I going to finish this chapter?”

So, that would be my advice to people. Train yourself to complete something, and chapters are a really good thing to complete. Most people can do one, even if you’re writing the book after work, set yourself the goal of, “I finish a chapter each week,” and actually finish it. Don’t leave it dangling. Don’t say, I’ll come back to it. Don’t have that kind of bureaucratic idea that someone else will do it, because when you’re a writer only one person can do it, and that’s you.

I would also advise to only ever write what you would want to read yourself. A lot of manuscripts by first timers, they get sort of mired, they get mired in a sense of how important they might be, if you get what I mean.

It’s true. A lot of first timers do it. They think, “Oh, I’m a writer now. So, I have to be sort of really learned, and clever about everything,” whereas that’s not always that interesting to somebody who’s reading it. That’s an ego trip for the writer. You’ve just got to switch yourself around a bit. Sometimes if a paragraph is not working, just look at it with fresh eyes and say, “Would I actually want to read this? Would I find this entertaining?” If the answer is no, then go back and do it again.

On that last point, the ultimate piece of advice that I was ever given was that amateurs write, but professionals rewrite. OK? So, that’s the biggest thing of all. When you see those beautifully crafted chapters by someone like an Ian McEwan, or one of these sort of- or an Anne Prue, when you see that beautifully- just understand from the professional’s side of it that those are chapters that have been gone over and over again. They’ve been rewritten, which is what the good pros do.

So, if you are a first timer and you want to get into it, yeah, make a commitment to complete the project, but make sure that completion means you’ve rewritten the thing over and over until you think it’s really good.

Valerie
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Mark.

Mark
OK. Thanks, Valerie.


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