J. H Abrams discusses inspiration, technique and rejections with SF Said in the month's Writers Minds.

I met SF Said briefly at a SCBWI London event in 2016 at the Savoy Tup – my first, but not my last. He spoke just as enthusiastically and wisely about the life of a writer then as he does now. You can read a little more about that meeting on my blog. Here he we find out what makes him tick as a writer and a little bit more about his journey to publication. 

1. Inspiration – where do your ideas for a story come from? Hunter or gatherer?

The best way to get ideas is to forget about being a writer, and think of yourself as a reader. Ask yourself: if I could read any story at all, what would it be? Be totally honest. Find the thing you most want to read. Then sit down and shamelessly write that thing yourself. There were no stories about cats doing martial arts before I wrote Varjak Paw. But I wanted to read that story, so I wrote it myself. There were no epic space adventures for young readers that brought together ancient mythology with the most cutting-edge science of the stars, but again, I wanted to read that, so I wrote Phoenix.

If you write the story you most want to read – and do everything you can to make it as good as you'd want that story to be – then other people will want to read it too.

2. Are you a plotter or a pantster – is there method in your process, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

On a first draft, I make it up as I go along; I need the energy of discovery. On later drafts, I do lots of analysis, planning, charting – anything to help me improve my story. There are lots of later drafts. Phoenix took 13 drafts. Varjak Paw took 17!

Varjak Paw by SF Said -David Fickling Books 2003

3. Shed sitter or café dreamer? Where do you write?

I write in my local public library. I love libraries and librarians. I honestly could not write my books without them.

4. Do you have any artefacts, mottos or words of wisdom by your desk?

It varies from book to book. At the moment, I have lots of pictures of tigers, because the new book I'm working on is called TYGER! I wrote a bit about it, and about my writing process, in this blog post.

5. Target word count per day or as and when it comes?

On a first draft, I set myself a very achievable goal. I write at least 1,000 words a day (4 sides of A4, handwritten on nice paper with a nice pen and interesting ink, to keep things fun). I often end up doing more, but that doesn't mean I can do less the next day. It has to be at least 1,000 a day, or I can't live with myself. The words don't have to be any good. I try not to analyse or edit as I go; in fact, I do my best not to think at all. I just tell myself the story.

I do all my editing on subsequent drafts. At that stage, it's not about word counts any more, so I set myself another achievable goal: I always do at least 3 hours of writing a day. I feel happier if I can do 5 or 6, but again, that doesn't mean I can do less the next day. It always has to be at least 3 hours of sitting there and working on it.

The Outlaw Varjak Paw by SF Said -Corgi Books 2014

6. High days and holidays? Do you write seven days a week, or weekends and holidays off?

I treat writing as a job. I show up at the library every morning at 9am and do my work. So I feel it's OK to take weekends and holidays off. It's actually helpful to have boundaries, office hours, times when I can't write. It means I focus better when I do write. I don't waste time, because time is finite. (Before I started doing this, I wasted a LOT of time!)

7. Quill or keyboard? Pen or technology?

On a first draft, I always use a pen. I like the physical connection: it helps me feel the words as well as see them. Also, it's harder to edit longhand, and on a first draft, editing is the worst thing I can do. It's all about momentum. On subsequent drafts, it's the opposite, so that's when computers come in. But even then, when I'm reading through, I'd rather do it on a printout. I see more clearly on paper than I do on screen.

8. Music or silence to write to?

For editing, silence. But for generating new material, I find music helpful. Different books have had different soundtracks. Varjak Paw was written to The Cure. Phoenix was written to Sigur Rós. I think their music sounds like the stars singing, which is something the main character hears throughout the story, so it really helped in that case!

Pheonix by SF Said -Corgi Books 2014

9. Chocolate or wine?

Chocolate, and plenty of it. Coffee too. And tea. Basically, sugar + caffeine = work.

10. Perspiration or inspiration?

I believe in doing the work. I think if you show up every day and put in a shift, the inspiration starts to happen by itself. But if you sit around and wait for it to happen, it generally doesn't.

11. Where do you find the muse? Any techniques for inspiration?

I often get my best ideas when I can't write them down: when I'm going for a run, or having a bath. But this only happens if I'm doing the work, every day.

12. Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head? Have you ever seen them in real life?

I wish something like that would happen to me! But no.

13. If there was one piece of advice or wisdom you could impart to other writers about the craft of writing, what would it be?

It would be the advice I stated with: write the book you most want to read, and make it as good as you'd want that book to be, as a reader. That's not easy, because what you want as a reader is one of the best books you've ever read. So that's what you're aiming for, and it'll almost certainly be harder and take longer than you'd like. Don't give up when it gets hard. And DEFINITELY don't give up if it gets rejected! I had 90 rejections before I got my first book published. So keep going, keep doing everything you can to make it the best book you can imagine – and you will get there in the end.

And look at that number of rejections! I’m halfway there, proof that if you believe in the story you should keep going. Thanks for boosting my resilience SF Said and for sparing some time for Writers' Minds.

SF Said is an award-winning author born in Lebanon and brought up in London. His first book, Varjak Paw was loved and shared in our house, it won the Nestle Smarties book prize and has been adapted as a stage play and opera, there is also a film in development. He went on to write a sequel, then the space novel Phoenix and is now working on a book called Tyger.
You can find out more about him here: http://www.sfsaid.com/

*Photo credit: SF Said headshot: SF Said

J.H. Abrams
J.H. Abrams is an award-winning writer with an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, where Michael Rosen was her tutor. She's also a ghost memoir writer for Story Terrace and a writer of novels for young adults.
J.H. Abrams' work: The Book of Bedtime Stories  Follow J.H. Abrams: Blog

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org Twitter: @Louisa Glancy

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