Your novels could be described as adventure stories set in Africa. What is the key to writing a great adventure, or what do you personally enjoy in adventure stories?
I think that first and foremost you have to enjoy what you write and you should probably write in the genre you most enjoy reading. When I first started writing seriously I found I really enjoyed it, and that I was entertaining myself as I wrote.
I don’t have a plot when I write – I literally make up a book as I go along. To me it’s a bit like reading a book, very slowly. I figure that if I don’t know what is going to happen next (and I don’t), then neither will the reader (hopefully). I like books that surprise me, so I think that’s a key thing I strive for in my writing.
I like books that are fast paced, so I think the tempo of a story is important, but as opposed to a 100 per cent action yarn I think a good adventure should pause at the appropriate times to let the characters reveal themselves.
You have mentioned that you admire the “simple, clean prose” of fiction like Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. What advice do you have for new writers hoping to write simple, clean prose?
The important thing, I think, is to be yourself and not to write how you think your chosen genre should be written. When a writer tries too hard to describe something, it shows. I could no more write a lengthy, adjective-laden, passage of purple prose describing a sunrise than I could pilot a rocket to the moon, and if I tried I would crash and burn horribly.
I trained and worked as a newspaper journalist for several years and in that industry flowery descriptions earned you a kick in the bum. At first, when I started writing fiction, I think I tried to overcompensate for what I considered an inability to describe things. When I read it back, I thought ‘this is crap’. Why use a hundred words to describe something when one might be just fine?
‘Simple, clean prose,’ as written by Ken Follett, allows the story to be seen and heard without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. The story’s the most important thing in the sort of books I write – not the magenta and mauve of the golden orb’s firstborn shafts of light.
What makes a great first chapter of a novel, or what is an example of a great first chapter and what makes it stand out for you?
A little old lady who came to one of my book talks said to me: “I like a book where someone is killed in the first chapter, so good on you.”
I’m not entirely sure someone gets killed in the first chapter of all of my books (although I have a terrible memory, so she could have been right), but I do think that the old cliché that a first chapter should ‘grab’ you, is perfectly valid.
I like a bit of action up front, but I also think a first chapter needs to point you in a certain direction. It might not be the right direction in terms of the plot, but the intro needs to put you in driver’s seat, engage gear and pump the accelerator a couple of times, so you can feel the rumble of the donk in your guts and want to floor it.
I’ll go back to Ken Follett on this one for an example. I’ve leant my well-thumbed copy of The Pillars of the Earth to someone, but I can just about remember the first line of the first chapter off by heart (it’s that good). It’s something like: “The children came early to the hanging…” Whatever the exact words were, you just knew that book was going to be a cracker.
The first line of my new book, The Delta is: “Africa was dying of thirst before her eyes.” And yes, someone does get killed in the first chapter.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through when writing one of your novels?
I start writing my novels the day I arrive back in Africa. My wife, Nicola, and I spend six months of each year in Africa and that’s where I write the first draft of a novel (it takes me the full six months).
Typically, I have little or no idea what the book is going to be about up until about a month before I leave (like now, which is just over a month before I leave). I have an idea of where the book is going to be set, because I try as hard as possible to make sure that I travel to the countries where my book is set while I am writing them. So, the story is partly guided by my travel plans.
I think of a start – a situation – but I never write a plot or outline. I find plotting too restrictive and if I sat down and tried to write the blueprint of a book from start to finish it just wouldn’t happen.
And then, quite simply, I start to write. I let the story tell itself (ie make it up as I go along). I surprise myself, particularly when I start thinking a couple of chapters ahead and realise, when I come to write them, that I didn’t really know what was going to happen after all.
I never, ever review a page or a chapter after I have written it. Ever. I do not stop writing until I have finished the book. The only exceptions to this have been my fifth book, ‘Silent Predator’, and the one I have just finished writing (my eighth novel, due out in 2011). In both of these books I stopped short about 15 pages from the end because I simply could not work out how the story was going to end. I went back and did a first edit on the rest of the manuscript and, eventually, thought up the endings.
The downside of this type of writing is that the first draft can be a bit of a shemozzle, with lots of inconsistencies. If I reviewed chapters as I went, or tried to cobble together a plot, the end result might be technically more correct, but, more likely, the book would never be finished.
What kind of activities does your research for novels involve, and how does this make a novel better?
I am very lucky because traveling and living in Africa, a continent I love, forms the basis for all the research I do.
I have only written one historical novel so far, African Sky, set in WWII on a pilot training base in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). I fell into the classic trap of doing too much research up front and becoming too wrapped up in it. I was so genuinely fascinated in researching the period, the aircraft and the history of the story that I lost sight of the story. That book took me longer to write and edit than any other, and a good deal of the research material I put into the story had to be cut.
I like to write descriptions of places when I am in them, so that gives me an excuse to travel, and gives me some informal structure to my plot and writing. I look, listen, absorb and write.
If I need to know something that is not immediately at my fingertips I make it up or write (check) like that, in bold, in the first draft, as a reminder to myself to do just that. If, after the first draft is finished and I have done my first edit, that (check) is still there, then I go and do the appropriate bit of research and fill in the blank.
For what it’s worth, I would advise other writers that the internet is pretty useless and a waste of time as a research tool. You can waste hours looking for a particular fact or reference. What I do find the internet useful for is contacting people. If I want to know how to fly a helicopter or stitch a gunshot wound, or what it was like to be a mercenary in Sierra Leone I get online and find someone who has been there and done that. I have emailed many people over the years asking for answers to research questions and I have never, ever had anyone turn me down.
What kinds of fiction do you enjoy reading most, and do you have any favourite works of Australian fiction (other than your own)?
I like mainstream, mass market thrillers. As well as Ken Follett I like Nelson Demille, Bernard Cornwell, Gerald Seymour, Michael Connolly and my new favourite writer, Don Winslow. My favourite Aussie authors are Peter Watt, Katherine Howell and David Rollins (and yes, they are all published by Macmillan, like me). Other great Aussie reads are debut novels by Steve Horne, The Devil’s Tears, and Grant Hyde’s Lords of the Pacific – I’m really looking forward to seeing more from both of them.
You also write non-fiction books such as War Dogs, co-written with Shane Bryant about explosive-detection dogs and their handlers in Afghanistan. Do you find that your non-fiction writing helps develop skills for your fiction writing and vice versa?
I actually find them pretty separate and that I use different parts of my brain to do fiction and non fiction. Fiction, by its nature, has to be more creative and in that respect it can be quite limiting. I set what I think is quite a cracking pace when writing fiction – 2000 words a day for six days a week. It might sound like a lot, but it’s only five or so pages a day. I couldn’t possibly ‘invent’ more words than that.
By contrast, I can produce around 4000 words – sometimes more – a day when writing non-fiction. I’m telling someone else’s story, so the challenge is most definitely not to make things up, but to be faithful to my subject and his story.
I don’t think that having worked as a journalist helps me write fiction at all, but it definitely helps when writing biographies. One of the things you learn as a journo is how to get people to open up and, hopefully, how to tell the truth (please don’t laugh).
Having said all that, I think a good biography must be more than just one man or woman’s story. You have to be able to paint a picture of the time and place in which their story unfolds, so it helps to be able to show the reader where and how things transpired.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I have just submitted the manuscript for my eighth novel to Macmillan Australia. It doesn’t have a title as I have a terrible track record thinking up names for my books. It’s set in Africa and is a bit of a sweeping saga following three families over the course of about 50 years, up to the present.
I have to start writing a ninth novel in about six weeks’ time and I really don’t have much idea at all what that will be about!
The Australian Literature Review