Welcome to the seventy-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with novelist Gary Murning. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hi Gary. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Gary: I live in the north-east of England and started writing seriously shortly after finishing sixth form college in 1985 due to ill-health. I was born with the condition called Type II spinal muscular atrophy—which basically means I have always used a wheelchair and have limited upper body strength. This together with the fact that I had been pushing myself rather hard meant that I reached a point where I just couldn’t continue with my formal education. I therefore left and, whilst recuperating, spent a lot of time reading. I’d always read, of course, but now I had much more time to explore all the various literary possibilities. I read everything from Stephen King to James Joyce, and many of these writers inspired me to write because they were so incredibly good. Some, however, inspired me to write simply because they were quite abysmal! As many of us do, I read those books and thought, “Hey, I can do better than this.” I couldn’t, of course. Not then. But once I started writing in a committed way, I gradually started to see improvement. There was no going back.
Morgen: Absolutely. It’s all about practice, and reading does make such a difference. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Gary: I’ve tried just about everything at one time or another. I started off writing horror fiction but soon realised that that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. And, also, that it was a genre that didn’t really suit my literary ability. Horror fiction requires certain skills that I didn’t have at the time and which I wasn’t really all that inclined to develop.
Morgen: You’ve got to enjoy what you writer otherwise the reader won’t either. 🙂
Gary: These days, my work pretty much falls into the mainstream / literary genre, I suppose. I like to play with form, where possible, occasionally using genre motifs in a hopefully new way—but, generally, I like to write fiction that entertains and hopefully prompts the reader to stop and think occasionally.
Morgen: But not stop long enough to get distracted and move away. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Gary: My first traditionally published novel, If I Never, was published in 2009 by Legend Press and my second, Children of the Resolution, was self-published earlier this year (it’s very different to my first novel and my publisher saw possible marketing problems, so I took the rather hair-raising but ultimately rewarding step of self-publishing).
Morgen: A lot of people are doing that now, including me… well, the eBook route. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Gary: The first time I saw my book on the shelves was actually in a photograph. My parents had dropped by the local Borders store (the company went under not long afterwards, but I swear it was nothing to do with me!) and, expecting to find at best one or two copies of my novel buried at the back of the store somewhere, they instead were greeted with this: http://garymurning.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/borders-pulls-out-all-the-stops. You’ll note they spelt my name wrong in the display sign, but I reckoned I could forgive them that.
Morgen: Although it was pretty clear on the book jacket. 😦 I know the feeling (I often get ‘Morgan’) but thrilling nonetheless. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Gary: I don’t, no. I did have for a short while—for a couple of months about five or six years before I finally sold If I Never—but it wasn’t the best of experiences. He pretty much took me on because he saw something, as he would have it, “special”. I’d submitted a novel that I’d vaguely thought of as a crime novel. He then told me it was most definitely not a crime novel. What it was, he said, was a brilliant novel. I then did five redrafts in those couple of months at his request as he tried to turn it into a crime novel! Completely wrecking it (as he ultimately admitted) in the process. This isn’t to say, of course, that this one bad experience will stop me from considering working with an agent in the future. I strongly suspect within the next year or two I will probably need one. For the time being, however, I’m managing well enough. I don’t think they’re vital when it comes to an author getting published these days. There are many up-and-coming independent publishers happy to consider work submitted directly from the author. I do think, however, that as an author’s career builds, he/she can only benefit from the expertise of an agent.
Morgen: I think you’re probably right but I think the whole industry is changing because of eBooks so it’ll be an interesting time. Speaking of which, are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process?
Gary: They are, yes. I actually had nothing to do with the whole process with regard my first novel. My publisher took care of all that. With my second novel, however, I pretty much did all that myself and it was extremely pain-free.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Gary: Over the years… we’re probably talking in the hundreds! I’m afraid it’s just part of the process—and I resigned myself to that very early on. The bottom line is, if you want to get published you’re going to have to suffer the rejections. It’s hard (bordering on soul destroying, at times!), but you really do have to learn to file it away and move on. (And, yes, I know there’ll be some saying “oh, yes, well, it’s easy for you to say, you’re published”—but I used to say it when I wasn’t published, for all those years when I was actually suffering the rejections.)
Morgen: It does get easier the more you get (she says at a paltry 29). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Gary: I’m currently approaching the end of a novel called The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost. I have another couple of novels to be published before this one, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what people make of Legacy. It’s a novel that’s been a joy to write. Really going to miss the characters.
Morgen: Maybe you could write a sequel or put them elsewhere? 🙂 Readers love series.
Gary: Next on the cards is The Wisdom of Closed Worlds, a novel exploring the 1950s disability landscape in the UK. Residential care for disabled kids, that kind of thing, but in my own, inimitable style! I want to explore a teenage girl’s awakening sexuality under those conditions (some of which were frighteningly extreme and abusive). It’s quite possibly going to be my darkest work yet, in some respects, but ultimately a story of hope.
Morgen: Ooh, I love dark… and agents tell me it’s what they’re looking for. Well, three agents said “crime”. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Gary: I write every weekday, yes—but only for an hour or so. I could probably write four or five thousand words, but my daily target is a fairly reasonable one thousand words. It’s a target I am comfortable with. It suits the way I work. If I wrote more I would be concerned that the quality would suffer. I approach it like a marathon, I suppose, rather than a sprint. My projects tend to be pretty long. 120,000+ words. So I have learned to pace myself.
Morgen: Ouch. The first draft of my chick lit was 117,540 (a figure burned in my brain) which I completed for http://nanowrimo.org in November 2009. I’m not sure I could do that quantity again (especially in a month) as short appeals now but I guess if I have a strong enough storyline. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Gary: I always get in trouble when I talk about writer’s block! I have very little patience with this American import, I’m afraid.
Morgen: Oh, I didn’t know it was American. 🙂
Gary: There have been times when writing has been difficult for me, but I would never attribute this to such a strange condition! Life sometimes gets in the way, crowds the creative process, but to speak in such terms, for me, empowers the concept, and I flat refuse to do that. It can all too easily become a way of avoiding writing, of sounding writerly without writing—and I enjoy writing too much to risk making myself susceptible to such an indistinct yet oddly infectious “disease”.
Morgen: It can, that’s very true. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Gary: I used to write by the seat of my pants, so to speak! Started with the basic idea, as you say, and just let it take me wherever it wished. I found this a pretty hit and miss approach, however, and, so, these days I outline thoroughly beforehand. (Roughly, to give you an idea of just how thoroughly, my outlines usually turn out to be one tenth of the length of the completed project.)
Morgen: This seems to be the general consensus of my interviewees; a bit of both. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Gary: No. Or, at least, not in any organised, formulaic way. Characters tend to occur to me and I carry them about in my head for months before even thinking of putting anything on paper. This is my getting-to-know-them period.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Gary: My father, usually, though not always.
Morgen: Oh great. Handy. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Gary: I’ve been told that my first drafts often have the feel of third or fourth drafts. If I haven’t got, in my estimation, the novel 90% of the way towards being the novel I want it to be at first draft, something’s gone radically wrong. I tend to do minor edits as I go along. More proofreading, than anything else, I suppose. I write a thousand words, check it through, move onto the next thousand. Over the weekend I’ll work through the five thousand words from the week before, making only minor changes (the structural issues have usually been resolved in outline stage—so I suppose that could be thought of as the true first draft), and continue like this until I reach the end. I then take a few weeks away from it before working through it editing and correcting.
Morgen: Sounds like a good plan though. Besides when you say your projects tend to be 120,000 words it sounds like you’ve had plenty of practice. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Gary: A lot. The actual writing, I suppose, makes up less than 5% of the creative process for me. I carry my stories around with me, in my head, exploring possibilities when they occur. I find this pretty vital. When I actually come to write about these characters and their lives, I want it to have the feel of something remembered rather than created. This process helps me achieve that, I think.
Morgen: It’s surprising easy it is not to know your characters inside and out. I’ve often given my writing workshop group ‘picture’ exercises alongside small blank character tables (with name, nickname, nationality, age, job, hair colour, height, favourite music / food, regular saying, relationship, children, siblings, religion, aspirations and quirks) to complete and it really helps. Even if they don’t use it all it gets them inside the character’s head. Although Lee Child doesn’t describe Jack Reacher, he must have an image of him in his head at the very least. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Gary: Computer. It’s difficult for me to use a pen—or even the keyboard—so I use voice recognition software. An incredibly powerful, useful tool. I’d be well and truly scuppered without it.
Morgen: I used to use it (Dragon) but had the TV on which it picked up too so I switched the TV off but then found I kept on having to repeat so much that I was quicker (and I type at c. 80wpm so I was anyway) – it’s gathering dust in my loft I think now. £100 not well spent. Ouch. What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Gary: I don’t. Apart from the fact that it can interfere with my voice recognition software, I don’t like any kind of distraction whilst writing.
Morgen: Ah yes, same problem as me with the TV.
Gary: Silence is the ideal. (I do, however, like to listen to classical music whilst editing. Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir and 6 Consolations are currently on the playlist, along with Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis.)
Morgen: Oh, I don’t know those. By name yes but… I have a lot of classical but just checked good old iTunes and have neither. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Gary: I do have a love of the first person—primarily because, I think, I like the idea of being in the story, of actually playing a character myself. The frustrated actor in me, I suppose!
Morgen: Is there something stopping you? Maybe a local am dram to start with. 🙂
Gary: I do occasionally write in the third person, though. Some stories simply require it. As for the second person… yes, I have tried it! And I would advise extreme caution where the second person is concerned! At best, it can look little more than a conceit. Rarely works, in my humble opinion.
Morgen: A lot of people say that. I love doing it but yes, you’re right. It only fits a certain style of piece. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Gary: Oh, yes. When the novel requires it. I’m deeply suspicious of those who say such things are “unfashionable” or find some other excuse to prohibit their use. The simple fact is, I will do whatever I think right for the novel. My latest, Children of the Resolution, would not be the novel it is without its prologue and epilogue. It’s a retrospective piece so these tools were perfect for my needs.
Morgen: That’s really interesting because a lot of people have only bad things to say about them. I used to not read them but used a prologue in one novel so I’m open to them now. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Gary: Oh, let me see, about ten or twenty, yes! (I wouldn’t let them see the light of day!)
Morgen: 🙂 They may not be as bad as you think but it sounds like you have your hands full anyway. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Gary: My least favourite would be stopping, I think. Hand on heart, I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of what I do. Yes, there are days when fatigue kicks in and some things can be a bit of a chore, but by and large I feel blessed. I get to make up weird characters and hang out with them! How could that not be fun?
Morgen: Absolutely. I can’t understand why it wouldn’t be either but I know one of my writers finds the whole process tortuous but then she’s a poet so say no more. 🙂 (I don’t do poetry unless I’m pressed to) What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Gary: Write. Read. Write some more. Read even more. Submit. Be prepared for rejection. And persist. Publication can happen overnight, with first novels, but this is the exception that proves the rule—and if you don’t enjoy writing for the sake of writing, it might be wise to consider trying something else.
Morgen: Here! Here! What do you like to read?
Gary: Anything that’s good, basically. Ian McEwan, some John Irving, the occasional Martin Amis, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje—the list is pretty endless.
Morgen: Like the books dotted around my house. The good thing about dogs is that they don’t bring belongings with them. 🙂 I read Ian McEwan’s ‘Comfort of Strangers’ and couldn’t get on with it; I think it would have made a better short story (although it’s a novella so not epic) but his ‘Atonement’… now there’s a great book. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Gary: I’m on Twitter (http://twitter.com/garymurning), which I use extensively. I can also be found on Facebook. I do find them extremely important, Twitter especially. Were it not for Twitter, I think it’s fair to say I would not have built anywhere near the readership I have.
Morgen: That’s really interesting. You are prolific (I do spot you in amongst the crowd :)) but it’s great to know that putting a lot of work in gets some rewards. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Gary: You can find out more about me and my work at http://www.garymurning.com.
Morgen: Brilliant, thanks Gary.
Gary is a novelist living in the northeast of England. His work, largely mainstream fiction, focuses on themes that touch us all — love, death, loss and aspiration — but always with an eye to finding an unusual angle or viewpoint. Quirky and highly readable, his writing aims to entertain first and foremost. If he can also offer a previously unfamiliar perspective or insight, all the better.
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