Today I’m posting a Q&A with an all-around skilled and awesome writer, J.P. Roquard. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being a critique partner with Roquard and I can say that he is just as talented as he is Australian. He’s also a dedicated critiquer and has made invaluable suggestions to my writing.
My name is Eric Purcell and I curate this blog. I’ll be answering questions along with Roquard. We’re talking motivations, process, and character.
1. Where do your ideas come from?
Roquard: I’m a chronic idea stealer. Often I’ll see something, or hear something, and think ‘there’s an idea there’. It might be an article in the newspaper, or a line from a song, just something to give me the spark of an idea.
From there, typically, I’ll try to get words on the page, maybe write a scene or two about the idea, see if it’s got legs, so to speak. I usually get a pretty good feeling if there is enough to go on with, or whether to let it go. Sometimes it’ll just end up being that scene, or I’ll try to massage into a short story.
For example, Buckingham Green was actually inspired by the Ween song of the same name. There is a great line in that song: A child without an eye, made her mother cry. Which just got me thinking about why that child would have one eye, and how would she make her mother cry. The rest just blossomed from that initial thought.
And even while I’m typing this I’m listening to Gimme a bullet by AC/DC. Already getting ideas from this line: Gimme a bullet to bite on… I’ll make believe it’s you
Eric: My ideas come from all over the place. I’d say the universe but that would be a misnomer because I haven’t seen it all. Instead, I’ll say they come from my universe. My own sphere of existence in reality.
Sometimes I get an idea after reading a book or watching a movie. It’ll usually grow after asking questions about what I’ve just experienced and just kind of daydreaming how things could be different. How I would do them differently.
Alternatively, music is a huge source of inspiration for me. When I was younger I used to work at a video store. I would bike to the video shop for five p.m. to start my shift and then I’d bike home at eleven when I closed up. Usually I’d have a joint ready for my journey home and I would listen to music biking through the deserted streets of the suburb where I grew up. I can’t tell you how many ideas I got on those rides home. There’s something about biking or walking in a deserted urban landscape while listening to music that really inspires me. The weed is optional.
2. How do you find time to write? Do you set out a few hours every day, or just write when you can?
Roquard: This is definitely a big issue for me. I work a day job and have two young sons. Paying the bills and being a dad takes priority over writing (until my first New York Times bestseller). So for me I have to fit writing in around the rest of life.
I’ve managed to create a little routine by always writing during my commute to and from work. My train ride is about 25 minutes, so five days a week I devote those 50 minutes to writing. When the juices are really flowing this will be six or seven hundred words, but more often than not it’s only three to four hundred.
If I’m going for a big push to get something done, I usually set a goal of one thousand words per day. This means I’ll make up the extra words at the end of the day before bed, although I find writing at night a drag usually.
This approach has worked pretty well. Last year I produced one novel, one novella and dozens of short pieces. I’d guess my output for the year would have been 130,000 edited words. Ninety percent of that would have been produced and edited during my commute. I know that’s not a huge output for many writers, but I’m surprised how many words can be squeezed out of time that I used to spend just staring out a window.
Eric: I work from home these days so I have a very particular routine I abide by. After I wake up I have a shower and eat breakfast. As soon as I’m done my fried noodles or whatever I’ll sit down and start writing. I do a couple thousand words depending on where I’m at and then get some editing in. It’s the first thing I do every day. I feel most creative an hour or two after waking up.
When I was working full time my process was different, but similar. I had to leave pretty early in the morning to get to work so I would write as soon as I got home. It was the first thing I did after work. My writing time was from six until midnight everyday after work. This schedule really burned me out after a year but I got some great work out of it.
3. Do you have any strange rituals or superstitions about your writing?
Roquard: Nope. I tend to be a pretty practical person and I focus on just getting words down however I can. It’s too easy to get caught up in excuses; not feeling it, too noisy, too tired, bad day etc etc. For me, writer’s block is a lack of discipline; not inspiration. Just get the words down, worry about quality later.
Eric: There’s only one ritual I have for my writing process, but it grew more out of practical experience rather than any superstitious belief. I don’t watch TV or play video games before I write. Ever. If I’m going to be writing, I’ll read a book with breakfast and leave the media entertainment for later. I firmly believe that once I stare at a screen for even five minutes my brain adopts a new state and my writing won’t be as good. Reading a book will help me maintain my creative headspace until I’m ready to get some words down so I restrict myself to novels as entertainment until I’m done writing for the day.
4. Do you write to music?
Roquard: You can probably already tell from the answers above that I do. I think this is about the environment I write in more than anything else. The train can be noisy and guitars and drums seem to distract me less than people’s conversations about the latest home renovation reality TV show. I don’t tend to listen to music when writing at night, although that’s also because I’ve always got an ear out for small boys waking up!
There can also be good inspiration in music. In Buckingham Green, the Winged Hussars were directly stolen from the Sabaton song of the same name. It has a ridiculous, over-the-top feeling that really suited the mood I was going for. (And yes, I’m a bit of a metal-head.)
Eric: Yes! Music has been a huge inspiration for almost my entire life. I actually think music is a big reason I became a writer. I engaged in a strange form of play as a child. I’d read Wheel of Time, watch Dragonball Z or something like that, and then put on headphones. I’d act out new scenes in these stories, injecting my own characters, and imagine the events in my mind. Music has been my creative catalyst ever since.
I listen to music that fits the scene I’m writing. If it’s a tender scene, I listen to tender music, sad scene, sad music. For any longer work in progress I will curate a playlist.
I love writing to electronic bass music. Dubstep, drum and bass, glitch hop. I love these genres for writing high concept action sequences.
5. How do you develop your characters?
Roquard: Character is everything in a story. Too often I see people obsessing over worldbuilding and I can’t help but think it’s a waste of time. Popular story structures, like the hero’s journey, or the Harmon method, focus on character journey for a good reason. It doesn’t matter if you’re setting is Europa, or tenth century Europe, without strong character the story is going to be boring.
I’m always looking for ways to deepen and strengthen characters. My approach is to explore a character’s conflicts. What does this character want? What do they fear? What are they prepared to do to get what they want, or avoid what they fear? Understanding these questions go a long way to developing interesting characters.
Importantly, we also need to consider how the answers to these questions differ at the beginning and end of the story? Usually we want a big character change. However, just like with everything in writing, there are exceptions. Some characters are static by design. Sherlock Holmes or Jame Bond are examples of characters who are fundamentally the same person at the beginning and end of the story. In my writing, Anastasia, the main character in Buckingham Green, is a static character. She is defined by a zealous devotion that remains throughout the book. Such characters are most often seen in serialised works, which I guess is part of the reason I’m about to release a sequel to Buckingham Green.
Eric: I think most of my characters grow out of two things; motivation and flaws. Flaws come first for me, because that’s what I’m most interested in. I see the flaws in myself and the people around me as integral to what defines us, and I feel the same about my characters. Most of my early stories were horror with tragic endings so flaws play a central role in the downfall of the protagonist.
When I’m writing a story with a more conventional arc of success and growth, I still focus on flaws but then motivation also takes an equal-footing seat as co-pilot. I believe motivations frame the character in the eyes of the reader. We either invest in their motivations or we reject them.
One thing I’ve been trying to do is give my characters quirks. Unique behaviors and mannerisms that round out their presence on the page. In the past, some of my characters were too focused on the plot. This can make them seem a little unrealistic, so I think quirks can be a fun way to make them more real. Another thing I like is when the character has a complete life outside of the plot. Asking ‘where would they be if the plot hadn’t happened? What would they be doing?’ can be a huge help to making them more round.