HOW I WRITE: Neal Asher
Here’s the thing: a book is an elephant. Well, really what I'm referring to here is the aphorism ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ Gazing at a blank page and thinking: 'Right, now I am going to write a 140,000-word book' can be both terrifying and depressing, so one must break it down. When I first went ‘professional’ I applied the work ethic I’d acquired over many previous jobs, which was basically: get up and do it.
My target all those years ago was 500 words a day, but over time this steadily increased to the 2,000 words a day 5 days a week I was doing a few years ago. I also learned that it is good to stop right on that target (or nearby). Even if the writing was going well or I was in the middle of an easy action scene or I just knew what I was going to write next. Stopping right in the middle of something made it much easier to get started again the next day.
I would be at the PC by 8am, deal with emails and other internet stuff before opening up the book file. First I would read through and make corrections to what I’d written the day before. Then I would simply write the next 2,000 words.
Another thing I would do is record, in another file, each section in a chapter between breaks. I would encapsulate this in just one short sentence. This file would then come in very handy for writing a synopsis later on. Usually I would expand these sentences into a two of three page synopsis, break that down into a shorter version for the publisher, then key off that to write a blurb for the back of the book.
When I first took the word count up to 2,000 words it would take me all day to write them. I’ve found that over the years this got easier and easier. Sometimes I could clear them in just 2 hours. The result of this, a couple of years ago, was that I wrote the draft version of a trilogy for Macmillan before I even had to deliver the first book of it.
But of course that writing is not all of it, else I would be producing a damned sight more books than I do. Next comes the intensive editing. Yes, I was editing as I went along – chopping sections out, swapping them around, rewriting, correcting – but the initial aim is simply to get those words down. Plot threads and characters have a tendency to proliferate in my books and often this needs a lot of work. I have excised whole plot threads from books. One I took out of Dark Intelligence I turned into a story called The Other Gun which was published in Asimov’s Magazine. Sometimes characters need to be completely removed, or I meld them with other characters to retain the purpose they serve in the book. Sections also get moved around and have to be adjusted to fit the timeline.
When I finally send the book into Macmillan it is not because I think it is perfectly polished, but because I find myself starting to make changes that are not needed. It then of course goes through their editorial process, and once again I am editing, and again, and again. By the time the book is finally published I’ve read through it more times than I care to count. By the time you read it I’ve probably written the first draft of the next one.