- Being creative when it comes not only to writing, but finding time to write.
- Understanding the publishing industry will create more opportunities for us writers.
- The importance of making writing a daily habit to better your success as a writer.
And all the while writing, writing and writing.
Welcome to the thirty-fifth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Jonathan Whitelaw.
Steepling his fingers, The Devil prepared to make his pitch.
“Okay, are you ready for this?” he asked.
The Pope did not reply. Not to be undeterred, The Devil pressed on.
“I’m going to make Hell a legitimate business.”
The old man remained silent. For a moment, he thought over the words and then, still dumbfounded, thought how best to put across his confusion.
“How do you mean legitimate?”
I mean legitimate legitimate,” said The Devil. “I’m going to make it a business, a one-stop shop for anybody and everybody who wants to get on in life. Arts, culture, business, anything and everything. It’ll be a school, a place for education, somewhere the mortal soul can go to learn all the tricks of the trade and be a success in this life. Going to call it Hellcorp. What do you think?”
Arthur: Tell me about your writing career. What is the history behind your writing journey? What did you start writing and how has your writing grown and changed?
Jonathan: Gosh, that’s a tough one to start off with! I guess my writing career started as soon as I learned to write! All flippancy aside, I used to love coming up with adventures for my action figures, Lego etc then act them out with my sets.
I wrote my first full MS when I was 17, final year at school. It was 120,000 words of the biggest mish-mash of Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones and everything else I loved all at once. I thought it was brilliant of course, sent it out to agents and publishers who very quickly told me that it wasn’t. In the nicest possible way of course.
I studied psychology at university which I loved – but realised towards the end of my degree that I wouldn’t be pursuing it as a career. Interestingly, my wife is a psychiatrist so you can imagine what our dinner conversations are like!
After some post-graduate modules in creative writing and journalism, I started my first job in politics before moving full time to journalism – where I remain now. And all the while writing, writing and writing.
My first novel – Morbid Relations – came out in 2015. I was doing a long commute for work at the time and bashed out the first draft in six weeks – the product of a very intense two hour journey on a train every day. The final version was completed in a little over two months.
That was three years ago now and I know that my writing style and ways of doing it are very much more relaxed now. And it’s something that I think has helped my style. While the intensity and focus was perfect for Morbid Relations – having a bit more time, freedom and dare I say it LEISURE, certainly went a long way to crafting the characters and telling the story of HellCorp.
But looking back and knowing how much hard work went into both projects is part of what growing as a writer is all about. I love to challenge myself and with every new project I need to find the right balance of intensity, time and spirit for that project.
The best writers, the most successful ones, are those who commit themselves to the whole industry and business.
Arthur: What are the successes and failures behind your new book, HELLCORP?
Jonathan: You know, it’s been really great and gratifying to see so many critics and readers pick up on the relationships in HellCorp. For a book that features The Devil as the main characters, and has God challenge him to solve a murder of a man who took 40 years to die, on earth, without his powers, there was a degree of trepidation about how that would go down.
Everybody knows who or what The Devil is. And we all have an idea of what God is too. So putting them in the same room, seeing the sparks fly (sometimes literally) was a great joy to write. Putting my own stamp on these so familiar characters and ideas was a great challenge. And what came out was something I enjoyed immensely. Some of my favourite parts of HELLCORP are the interactions, arguments and sometime agreements between the two. And having readers pick up on that has been really very special.
And of course there are NO failures, Arthur! I jest of course. I had a conversation with a photographer friend of mine a few weeks ago where we talked about the creative arts and how, like me, he constantly finds fault in pictures and photos he’s taken professionally – even after they’ve been completed and submitted. Writers will always find failures and problems with their own work – it’s an unfortunate side-effect of living with these characters day in day out. You care about them and the story and you always want to do what’s best. Even after it’s gone to print.
For HELLCORP – one character in particular has come up time and time again from reviewers and readers – Alice – The Devil’s secretary. She’s the one who really runs the show and people have LOVED her from start to finish. So a failure, perhaps, has been not to have had her play a much bigger part. I’m not going into spoiler territory – and you might just see a bit more of her in the future.
But you didn’t hear that from me.
Educate yourself in the ways and workings of the industry. The more knowledge you have of how this business works, the more opportunities you can find for yourself.
Arthur: Do you monitor trends in the book market? Before you wrote HELLCORP, what inspired you to write it and how did you know if it would sell? Did you do any market research before writing it?
Jonathan: I’m asked by a lot of aspiring writers for advice on getting published. One of the best bits of knowledge I can pass on is education. Educate yourself in the ways and workings of the industry. The more knowledge you have of how this business works, the more opportunities you can find for yourself. And above all else it’s good practice to get to know an industry that you aspire to be a part of.
As such I like to keep on top of all the industry moves and changes. The Bookseller is an invaluable resource for the daily goings on in publishing. And I make sure I read it every day. Informative and above all else interesting, it helps a writer like me who represents his own work and familiarises me with what’s going on.
Being a writer in the 21st Century is about so much more than just the writing and your project. The best writers, the most successful ones are those who commit themselves to the whole industry and business. That includes market research and staying on top of everything that’s happening, not just in their genre but the industry.
I enjoy all these parts, all these facets of being a writer. And for my own part, I think it ultimately makes for a better end product – in this case HELLCORP. Having a supportive and endlessly energetic publisher in Urbane has also helped greatly. Without their help I know that HELLCORP wouldn’t have become the novel it is.
Habit is the right word.
Arthur: What is your writing workflow? Is it a daily habit? When do you do your best work?
Jonathan: Habit is the right word. I’m very lucky to get to do something I love so much for my work. It’s not always the case for everybody in this world. And I truly am so grateful and privileged to be able to write for my living.
To that end, I make sure I write something every day. The best advice I was ever given – and something I like to pass on when and where I can – was ‘you can’t edit a blank page.’ It’s a very simple philosophy I live and write by. And it means that I’m always writing something. Whether that’s 1,000 words, 10,000 words or 50 – new project, existing one or even just an idea. It feeds the habit and it reminds me that this is what I’ve always wanted to do.
You can’t edit a blank page.
Arthur: When you get a new idea for a story, how do you decide if you’re going to pursue it over another? How do you do know if one idea will be more successful as a book or short story with your audience versus another?
Jonathan: Again, a really, really tough question. I’d like to sit here and say that I get a gut instinct – like all good maverick cops-on-the-edge (said in my best Clint Eastwood impression). But realistically I think it comes down to luck. That and my long-suffering but incredibly supportive wife. She’s my muse and oracle all in one, honestly I don’t know how she does it. I can spend a day, week, month even coming up with what I think will be the next blockbuster novel. And she can scith it down with one or two curt words.
I make it sound more dramatic than it actually is, and probably a lot more crueler. But she’s been a wonderful supporter of my writing career and is always able to tell me honestly what she likes and thinks of my ideas.
My view of writing has always been a relatively simple one. If the story is good, no matter how you tell it, in poetry, prose, short story or play, it’ll always be good. And that feeling, that reassurance that the core story is there usually decides how far I take the project.
For HELLCORP for example, I’d always fancied having a crack at crime fiction. There are so many great writers doing good work in the genre, I found it difficult to imagine me doing myself and my work justice. There are also a load of anti-hero detectives and cops with various problems in literature and TV/film. So I got to thinking – who’s the ultimate anti-hero?
From there the whole concept grew and grew and before I knew it I’d written 10,000 words, a synopsis and had formulated an end. I guess with HELLCORP I just got lucky – it all fell into place without having to think too much about it.
If the story is good, no matter how you tell it, in poetry, prose, short story or play, it will always be good.
Arthur: What kind of books and stories do you consume? Do you think consuming more stories and content helps your writing?
Jonathan: I love science-fiction and fantasy. I’ve devoured as much as I can since I was old enough to read. In fact, I remember very vividly getting a copy of Timothy Zahn’s brilliant HEIR TO THE EMPIRE when I was around 8 years old and being totally hooked. I loved and still do adore Star Wars and the space opera and I’ve grown up on that as a healthy diet.
Crime and thrillers are always good too. I also enjoy novels and work that crosses genres. HELLCORP ticks a lot of boxes and I’ve been apologising both to my fabulous publisher Urbane and bookshop owners for the headache I’ve given them in placing it on the shelves. It’s as much at home in general fiction as it is crime, sci-fi/fantasy and horror.
I’m also an avid reader of non-fiction, specifically politics, ancient history and mythology. As a journalist I like to stay read up on the heritage of my profession and the work of fellow hacks who are doing important work – especially in an era that’s not particularly kind to the profession.
I think consuming stories is a big part of what being a writer is. So much inspiration and influence can be taken from fellow scribes. And it’s always humbling and a great honour to be in turn complimented by a fellow writer who has taken in your work.
Consuming stories is a big part of what being a writer is. So much inspiration can be taken from fellow scribes.
Arthur: How do you approach description? Do you have any thoughts on how to describe an action, such as a person getting in or out of a car?
Jonathan: It all comes down to the type of story you’re trying to tell. If I’m writing an action thriller, then getting in and out of cars can be done in very specific ways, for many different reasons. Stealthily, recklessly, with great haste, with perfection, it all depends on the scenario, character and setting. I’ve even been known to have people get in and out of cars via the window. But we won’t go into that just now.
The same goes for any description really. When I first started writing, I used to use a LOT of description. That epic I wrote when I was 17 – it was probably 70% description of worlds, creatures and people, right down to how many nose hairs they had.
As I’ve evolved as a writer I’ve learned to take the foot off the gas when it comes to describing EVERY SINGLE DETAIL. Some writers can get away with it – they paint such wonderful, descriptive pictures with their words. But it doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still go into detail when it’s required, the Pope’s office at the beginning of HELLCORP and the subsequent apparition of The Devil for example. I like to speak with readers and get their impressions and visions for parts, characters and settings for my work though. It’s a fun part of being the writer.
My journalism keeps my mind sharp and my writing keen and lean.
Arthur: Do you have any writing techniques or exercises which help you improve your craft?
Jonathan: Being incredibly jealous of other writers.
Seriously though, I’m quite lucky in that my “day job” is that of a journalist. I can spend eight, ten, twelve hours a day writing. And while it’s often completely different to the type and subject matter of my fiction writing, I can drop straight into my projects almost immediately after a shift.
I often liken it to sports. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey players and athletes limber up for hours before and after their competition. It usually takes longer to do this in total than the sum of their match. My journalism keeps my mind sharp and my writing keen and lean. And it works for me – to write all day and then all night too. Like I said before – it’s a habit.
As a reader I know what I like. As a writer I know what I like. They aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Arthur: Katherine Karch has a couple of great articles on engaging our readers by using words which indicate the passage of time, or character movement and interactions. Do you have specific tools or words you use to engage your readers early in the story? How do you hook your readers from the beginning?
Jonathan: For HELCORP that was easy – have The Pope fart fairly early on. I knew when I wrote that intro that it would make people sit up and pay attention. And believe me, since HELLCORP came out, that’s ALL people have said to me. Some negatively of course, which is to be expected, but mostly good I’m glad to say.
The opening chapter and introduction of a story is really tough to do and it’s the part of writing that I both love and loathe in equal measure. As a reader I know what I like. And as a writer I know what I like. They aren’t necessarily the same thing.
I’ve always been of the view that the opening of a novel should grab the reader/viewer by the jugular and not let go until the very last page. This is, of course, coming from somebody who writes thrillers and a lot of action. So it’s perfectly appropriate. For a romance novel or work of literary fiction, perhaps not.
I love a set piece and I love a book that has you page-turning. Being able to get those two factors into the opening sections has always been a goal of mine. I’m normally a very quick writer and can hammer out tens of thousands of words in a relatively short space of time.
But time and time again I’ve found the part I sweat the most over is the opening.
To quote the late, great crime writer Mickey Spillane: “Your first chapter sells the book; your last chapter sells the NEXT book.” He sold more than 225 million copies of his books. I guess you can’t really argue with that.
A novel should grab the reader by the jugular and not let go until the very last page.
Arthur: What is a future writing project you hope to complete one day, but perhaps aren’t ready to write yet? What is keeping you from starting? What do you need to improve to start it?
Jonathan: I’ve got an ideas book absolutely bursting with projects I want to start, finish and keep going. It’s just finding the time.
As I mentioned before, I love a good space opera. And I’ve got a few ideas for one of my own. Much like I did with HELLCORP and the crime genre, I’ve always felt a little intimidated by the daunting task of creating a full universe with characters that I know can do it justice. And to do that I need to be in the right frame of mind, with all the acquired writing talent I know I’ll get to eventually. Like Clint Eastwood waiting until he was the right age to make UNFORGIVEN, I’ll do the same for my space opera.
On top of all of that there is the little matter of The Devil and HELLCORP. Again, without too many spoilers, I thoroughly enjoyed writing and creating this character. And I’ve got a few ideas, scrapes and scenarios I’d like to see Old Nick get himself into. A follow up is with my publishers at the moment. So we’ll see how it goes.
Thank you, Jonathan, for an incredible interview. Tons of great insight. Be sure to check out Jonathan’s book HELLCORP, it’s a fantastic reading experience.