Margaret Carter interviewed me in July, 2017. Her format is a Yahoo group, accessible only to subscribers. Since I don’t want the interview to be lost, I am reproducing it here.
One person leaving a comment before 7th February will receive a free electronic book. I’ll choose the winner randomly.
What inspired you to begin writing?
Margaret, this question is subtly different from what I usually get asked, like “How did you become a writer?” The word “inspired” has made me think.
Even as a teenager, I was idealistic enough to want to make a difference, to be of service to others. I only ever got into schoolboy fights to protect someone from bullying, and without meaning to be, I was a “lame duck collector:” kids in trouble cried on my shoulders. The worst was when they had girlfriend problems — I didn’t have a girlfriend, and was sure I never would!
So, I studied science, intending to be a physicist, but halfway through first year at university I realized that technology was wrecking our world, and we had way too much of it, and we needed to understand people rather than things. This was why I switched to psychology. And this was why, many years later, at 35 years of age, I retired for the first time. My wife and I decided to become self-sufficient and earn the barest minimum of money. I explain this in my essay How to Change the World. We joined a rural alternative community, Moora Moora, which is still going.
Building my own house with my own hands was an essential part of this. Almost all the house was from free materials like earth and rocks, and recycled windows and things.
Now at last we come to writing. I was making mudbricks (adobe to you) when a deputation of kids arrived. They needed one more player for a soccer game, so they dragged me away. My muddy boot slipped, and I ended up in hospital. Bored out of my mind, I wrote my first article about building, for Earth Garden magazine, and have ended up as their “building expert.” The result was my first book in 1986, in cooperation with the magazine’s publisher, Keith Smith. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and went through four editions. My second book was Woodworking for Idiots Like Me, which sold 60,000 copies and is a series of short stories, each with a woodcraft lesson. This was my transition to fiction.
What genres do you work in?
Um… almost any. It’s easier to say what I do not write. I hate horror. There is enough of it in reality. I don’t like being preached at, so I don’t preach at others. And I think the romantic myth (you find a perfect partner, who can make you happy forever) is incredibly damaging, so I don’t write romance. I write everything else.
Mind you, horrible things and genuine love happen in my stories, because they are part of life, but they are there when necessary, and are tools rather than for their own sake.
As well as the “how to” books I’ve mentioned, I’ve written three psychology self-help books and a multiple-award-winning biography. My fiction doesn’t fit into other people’s boxes, but is a healthy hybrid of contemporary, historical, realistic, science fiction, paranormal, crime, adventure, and heaven knows what category. Your visitors might be interested in reading a few of the short stories at my writing showcase, and others at my blog.
Do you outline, “wing it,” or something in between?
I think there is a natural progression. Inexperienced writers are well advised to plan things out in detail. I describe how to do this in the March, 2013 issue of my newsletter, Bobbing Around.
Even many highly accomplished writers use a detailed plot before starting to write. However, most find that their intuition comes into play and becomes more fluid. The plot is still there, but the author is actually not aware of it. The way it feels to me is like in real life. New people introduce themselves. I get to know them as they do things, talk, react to each other and the situation they are in. The only difference is that I also know their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, memories. I can BECOME any one of my characters.
The first book I wrote entirely organically was the award-winning science fiction story Sleeper, Awake. I found out about each person, and each episode, as they happened. This is far more fun than the plot approach, as long as things don’t stray into lost subplots, characters with no role, episodes that go nowhere.
All the same, it is still essential to keep track of facts. Character dossiers are very useful if you have a large population of them.
A dossier is a list of facts you have found out about a person, good to have to avoid accidental changes like a plumber in chapter 2 turning up as a printer in chapter 37. However, you should NEVER include a dossier into the story. When I meet Sally Smith, she doesn’t hand me her life story, unless perhaps I am interviewing her for a job. It should be the same in a novel.
A time line is also very useful. Here is an example.
What have been the major influences on your writing (favorite authors, life experiences, or whatever)?
All my writing, from 1980 to the present, has been environmental. My motivation is to create a survivable culture, and one worth surviving in.
I had a very traumatic childhood, and how to overcome hardship has always been a theme in my writing. Until the late 1990s, this was ways for the underdog to win, just retribution, finding strength to overcome and thrive. My earliest published novels are The Stories of the Ehvelen, in which peaceful forest dwellers fight a 30-year war of survival against nomadic invaders from the plains. This forges them into the Mother’s sword against slavery, cruelty, exploitation, and the defenders of the wild places. We surely need them today!
My short story collection Striking Back from Down Under is from this period, with 26 stories in which the powerful are humbled. Recently, Chris Herron has produced an audio version of one of these stories, only his Australian accent isn’t. 🙂
Increasingly, though, I am no longer interested in retribution, in getting even, in winning or losing. Rather, I feel compassion for those doing evil, and want to lead them to a better life. This is the theme of my more recent stories, each in quite a different way.
Ascending Spiral is actually my life story, but with enough changes to protect the guilty. Only, I made the hero, Pip, the person I would like to be. He is far more spiritually advanced than I am, but we are both working on it. According to the reviews, the story is a page-turner, as it follows one person through several reincarnations. These are my past life recalls.
Guardian Angel is my most recent publication, and already has excellent reviews. It is the story of a little girl born in 1850, the result of her Australian Aboriginal mother being raped by a white man. She is a child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of Love. Her task is to put love into people’s hearts. Because the story is set in the 19th century, it may superficially seem Christian, but isn’t. It expresses the Lesson of all the great religions. And remember, I hate preaching, so I show it rather than shove it.
Hit and Run is waiting for publication. Until it is out, I am happy to send a free advance review copy to anyone who requests it — in exchange for a review of course. It’s the story of a 14-year-old multiple murderer and an 84-year-old lady who finds herself in a position of having influence over him. The book is her record of the nine months of their contact. She is my teacher and inspiration.
How has your background as a psychologist affected your writing?
Well, “Hit and Run” is an example. I am aware of a great deal of research on what is involved in successful rehabilitation of criminals, and this knowledge was in the background of my mind, without being consciously recalled, as I wrote.
Also, both psychology and fiction writing need a high degree of empathy. Each profession feeds off the other.
In psychology, you are not there to fix your client, but to provide an atmosphere for personal growth, empowering the client to do the fixing. This is only possible if you can have an intuitive feeling of where the client is emotionally, given this person’s life circumstances and background.
In writing, you can only create a three-dimensional character by in effect becoming that person: an intuitive feeling of where Jane or Joe is emotionally, given the circumstances and history.
Please tell us about your editing business.
When I arrived as a refugee in Australia in 1957, I couldn’t even read the street signs. So, I had to work hard at learning English. By 1960, I’d read every book in the school library, and the larger local public library — even the encyclopedias, Shakespeare’s collected works, and the Bible.
As a beginning writer, I paid for a professional edit three times, and learned lots from each.
Also, I have the good fortune of being obsessive: little details matter. I’ll have read my answers to you perhaps 20 times before sending.
In 1999, my book Sleeper, Awake was accepted by a small publisher. It was almost a cooperative. We wrote reviews for each other’s books, and all the editing was done by authors who then got a commission on sales.
The first book I reviewed was by Max Overton. As well as a public review, I sent him a long list of suggestions for improvement. What I didn’t know was that his wife Ariana was the publisher’s chief editor. She immediately invited me to join the editing team.
I’ve kept learning, growing and improving as an editor since.
In 2007, an editing client submitted my name to the Preditors and Editors ratings, and I won. This was because I was publicizing my editing business through a free-edit contest. I had about 60 submissions, and selected the best 10 on merit. Then I required each of these finalists to send people to vote, because success is a combination of quality writing and effective publicity. I then asked all the hundreds of people who voted to also vote for me at Preditors and Editors. Many did.
As an editor, I am often a teacher. My task is to help my client to become the best writer possible, and to improve the particular document we’re working on. This cannot be done through harsh criticism, but rather by finding and acknowledging the strengths, and pointing out all the places where improvement is required.
Please tell us about your newsletter.
Bobbing Around is now in its 17th year, and has perhaps 1000 regular readers. I write some of the content, and link to material I find interesting. Over the years, it has resulted in many internet friendships I highly value. It is one of my tools for attempting to change the global culture from one of greed and conflict to compassion, decency and cooperation. People may find it challenging, annoying, inspiring, informative — but never boring.
What is your latest or next-forthcoming book (or both)?
I did a new experiment in May, 2017: self-published “Guardian Angel” through Kindle Direct Publishing. This was one of Amazon UK’s entry requirements for a contest with a big prize. It was actually a confidence trick: thousands of bunnies like me self-published through KDP without any chance, because the hidden rules ensured that anyone outside Britain had approximately 0% probability of winning.
The synopsis, two extracts, and a few early reviews are on my book page.
The theme of the book is that there is only one race: the human race. Male/female, old/young, nationality, background, language are all incidentals. We are here on this planet to learn the ultimate lesson of unconditional love to all. This is presented through heartbreaking suffering, exquisite joy, the adventures of a little girl who conquers racial hatred through her reaction of dignity, and repaying hatred with love.
Actually, “Guardian Angel” skipped ahead. Hit and Run was accepted by a publisher, and I’d hoped for release on my birthday in February, 2017. Unfortunately, we got stuck on cover design, and I am still waiting. As I said above, in the meantime I am gathering advance reviews. Here is your chance for a free book.
You can read the first chapter, synopsis and several reviews at my site, and request a free copy for review.
The story looks at why some teenagers become violent, and what to do about it. When you get inside a criminal’s mind, you might find yourself reacting with compassion rather than judgment.
What are you working on now?
Publicizing “Guardian Angel!”
Also, in 2011, my wife decided I was too old for the frontier lifestyle, and dragged me down to a suburban existence, a bike ride from shops and medical facilities. We need to sell the house we’d built in the 1980s. The buyer first needs to join the co-operative, which takes time, so we have rented it out to a succession of lovely people. Unfortunately, something happened each time, and we still haven’t sold. Meanwhile, 30-odd years of wear and tear, and 5 years of damage from lively little boys has accumulated, so I am now doing renovations. I’m too old for physical work, but it has to be done.
And the editing work keeps coming in. I’m in the middle of a fantasy novel, and have received a query today.
But also, I do have writing projects in hand. One is a user’s guide for people living with depression. Another is the sequel to “Guardian Angel,” with about 12,000 words written. And when I am too tired to do anything else, I am revising one of my unpublished stories.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
First, creative activity is one of the seven requirements for a good life. Your readers may be interested in the first chapter of my book on depression, which sets them out. So, even if no one ever sees your writing, the activity itself is one way of staying sane.
Second, writing fiction is a good way of learning about human nature. Of necessity, a writer becomes an observer. And, as I implied above, getting to understand people is a way of nourishing your empathy, which leads to growth.
Third, writing is both a craft and an artform. Anyone can write, just like anyone can cut meat. I wouldn’t trust a surgeon to cut my meat without extensive training in the craft of surgery! The best way to learn is to write, then seek honest feedback. Online or face to face writers’ groups, entering contests, beta reads by people who know how to write, and paid edits are examples. Only, some critics are harsh. You need to separate yourself from your work. If someone calls you an idiot because you put a comma in the wrong place, this says negative things about the critic, not about you.
Finally, to succeed at writing needs expertise in a second artform: publicity. You might want to read the “Frugal” series for writers by Carolyn Howard-Johnson for instruction.
What’s the URL of your website? Your blog? Where else can we find you on the web?
Most of my internet activity is now at Bobbing Around, where I have several essays, interviews, occasional blog posts, short stories, and my monthly newsletter.
My writing showcase is http://bobswriting.com.
Psychology is at http://anxietyanddepression-help.com.
My environmental site is http://mudsmith.net.
All of these are linked to each other, so you can skip among them.
Margaret, thank you for the honor of being at your blog, and for the questions that induced me to open up.
I have an ongoing policy: anyone who buys one of my books anywhere, in any format, has earned a second (electronic) book for free. The available titles are listed here. Emailing me a review qualifies as evidence.