Malcolm Havard: Guest Post.

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Tell us a little about yourself and your writing.

I am a self-employed surveyor/researcher. I have flitted between working in academia and industry over the last 20 years, finally settling on my current working pattern around 8 years ago. I have never felt comfortable in a conventional job so having a portfolio of different things to do really suits me, however I also chose it to give me more flexibility to write. I was finishing off my first (terrible) novel at the time I made the switch and being self-employed gave me the opportunity to get it over the line. Since then I have got into the habit of treating writing as both recreation and a weird sort of work that I can justify dropping into most days. I have published four novels and a collection of short stories so far. My novels are The Last Mountain a thriller that explores human failings and ambition, Contrail, a 1950s aviation/spy story, Touched, a romantic supernatural story and The First Book of Gabriel, a Pratchett-like satirical comic novel.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started?

I came into creative writing from writing academic works and text books. In 1999-2001 I found myself having to write three huge projects, my PhD thesis (140,000 words) and two text books of 50,000 and 130,000 words. The first was written in formal, academic language, the latter two for knowledgeable but non-academic audiences. By the end of the process I had both got into the habit of fitting writing 3-5000 words into a normal working day and to pitching my output at different levels for different people. I found I had the urge to write more – in fact I couldn’t stop! – and to carry on the trajectory and write fiction for a much wider readership. The volume issue has, therefore, never been a problem, after the text books, 1000-1500 words of fiction is easy. The latter, writing fiction for a wide audience is much harder, it’s a craft that, 8 years later I am still learning!

  • What genres do you write?
  • Too many! I have written thrillers and supernatural romances but am probably settling on two that I prefer most of all, satirical comedy and historical fiction.
  • Why do you write under different genre?
  • I have very wide interests and I think this is reflected in what I enjoy writing. I would also get very bored if I did the same thing time-after-time.
  • Do you get the same readers for both genres? If not, in what ways do you think they are different?
  • No, I get very different readers, which is an issue and underlines why I should specialise in just one or two. An author needs to build up a following and it is easier to do this if the author is not chopping and changing all the time.
  • What do you like to do when you’re not writing, and does it come in useful for your stories?
  • I love the outdoors, walking, running, camping, kayaking and skiing. Walking and running certainly helps me to work out plots and characters. I also travel a fair bit with work and this helps me to observe and to write whilst travelling or waiting to go somewhere. There is something special about writing in a public place, and it’s where I’ve done some of my best work.
  •  What is at the root of your current book/story?I have tried something adventurous with the structure because it is essentially not one novel but two. One half is a conventional third person book with the story told through a handful of viewpoints and has normal length chapters. This, conventional, part is wrapped around and forms the top and tail to the eleven days itself, which is told in close third person from the viewpoint of one of my characters as he is thrown into the maelstrom of Bloody April and is told on a day-by-day basis. My intention is to trap the reader in the story and give them no rest and no relief, just as my character has no escape from his duty. Is there any genre or style of writing you haven’t tried but would like to?
  • Do you have a different persona/name for each genre?
  • No
  • What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
  • Listen to criticism. Even as an experienced writer our own view of our work is too narrow, and our position too close to our words and characters to be truly critical. I had done a lot of writing before I joined the Renegades but I have improved beyond measure by trying to listen to the criticism given to me over the last 3 years. It can be hard, it’s sometimes painful, it’s easy to become over-defensive, but it is invaluable.
  • Is there any genre you’d like to try?
  • I would like to have a proper go at Sci-fi. I’ve dabbled before and I’ve got some great ideas but, on the other hand, I already have written in too many genres!
  • Tell us more about what you are working on .
  • The novel is called Eleven Days and the first draft should be complete in the next few weeks.
  • I am getting towards the end of the longest, most complex and, in some ways, most challenging novel I have ever written. The root is a short story, The Chivalry of the Air that went into the WW1 collection I co-wrote with Jem Shaw, It Never Was Worthwhile. I have a great interest in the Great War and early aviation and I wanted to do a story that captured both the nobility of some of the participants but also the great brutality and lack of humanity that was sometimes required. I read it, like most of the others, to The Renegade Writers group that meets weekly in Newcastle and got a very mixed reaction – many were shocked at what my narrator did at the end of the story! I knew almost immediately that there was a great tale to tell beyond the short story and that I would have to make it into a novel. I think most people thought I was going to tell the story that led up to the act of brutality in the short story but, in fact, I tell the story of the aftermath, which I think is more interesting. Also going forwards in the timeline from the original story enabled me to have one of my characters go through ‘Bloody April’ in 1917, one of the most traumatic times for the Royal Flying Corp when around a third of their total force was lost in just a few weeks.
  • Do you ever like to brainstorm ideas?
  • Yes I share my life with another writer Nic Hale and we frequently share plots and ideas with each other. It really helps.
  • Pitch your latest book to the world at large in 100 words.
  • Eleven Days is set in a past conflict but it tackles issues that are relevant today. One theme is a country’s need for heroes, how they are created and how the truth about what they did is often incidental to the myth that is created around them. My novel also explores the horror of war and how it changes those who endure it, what they need to do to survive and succeed, and how the impact of war affects not only the direct participants but also everyone around them long after combatant has come home.
  • What’s the most important thing you have learned about writing?
  • Editing. I love creation, plotting, world building and character development. I hate editing. It’s horrid. But very necessary
  • Do you have a writing routine?
  • Yes, I write from 8-9am most weekday mornings. I try and leave the previous section from the day before unfinished but knowing where it is going and what bits I have to add in to complete it. That means I don’t have to think much to get started, I am already in the flow before I reach a difficult bit
  • Research a joy or a chore?
  • .A way of life. I find research fun, though I rarely have to specifically research something, it’s more that I know I’d like to write about something and read around it. Often this can be years in advance of actually writing. An exception was The Last Mountain where I needed to research high altitude medical issues prior to the main write. I was pleased how little of the research I actually used – that may seem an odd line but I did not want fall into the common trap of ‘having my research showing’, a temptation that affects too many authors to include as much research as possible given how hard it is to obtain in the first place!
  • Naming characters: do you choose, or do the names come fully formed?
  • They do generally choose themselves. This frequently leads me into problems with characters with names that are too similar – Eleven Days’ two leading female characters are currently called Annie and Alice! The names as they are suit my characters, it will be hard to change one.
  • What are you currently reading?
    Letters From A Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends I really should have read this before I started Eleven Days, but it is a deeply moving book, particularly when you know the fate of the four friends referred to in the title.
  • @malhavardwriter


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