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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Andrew Stickland talks about the inspiration behind his new book, The Arcadian Incident, and his creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Andrew Stickland about his life and career, what inspired his new book, The Arcadian Incident, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Right now, I’m a freelance writer and full-time parent, although if I’m honest, the parenting is pretty easy these days, and actually almost as much fun as the writing. I have a law degree that I’ve never used for anything, and a long list of previous jobs that includes working in a comic shop, being a theatre lighting technician, copy editor and proofreader, occasional journalist and, of course, a stay-at-home dad.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I began writing when I was sixteen. back then it was all poetry, and it was pretty bad poetry at that. One day a wonderful local poet called Gerry Wells came to give a talk at our school and I was able to talk to him afterwards about my own work. He was incredibly supportive and recommended a couple of places I should submit to. One of those places was a small local magazine that published one of the first poems I submitted, and from that point on my only literary ambition was to get a solo collection published. I was lucky (and persistent) and five years later I achieved my goal.
When did you take a step to start writing?
When I was in my late twenties I read one of those articles somewhere that gave a list of all the things you should do before you were 30. One of them was write a novel, so I thought I would give that a go. At this point, I had two poetry collections under my belt, so moving on to writing a novel didn’t seem too much of a stretch. Actually, it was.
I think back then I was writing no more than a couple of hundred words a day, and not even every day, so the thing dragged on and on for about a year before I had a completed first draft. It was mediocre to say the least, somewhat derivative, and will almost certainly never see the light of day.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Technically, twelve years, although this is a little misleading as there was a significant gap between completing the novel and getting the publishing deal and I wasn’t exactly giving it my full attention for various reasons. From first idea to polished second draft took about nine months. I then decided to turn it from a stand-alone novel into the first part of a trilogy, and ignoring all the sensible advice I was given at the time to get the first one published first, I wrote the second and third instalments pretty much back-to-back because writing was so much more fun than trying to find an agent or publisher.
Fortunately, when I did finally find my publisher, they were sufficiently impressed with my manuscripts to agree to publish the entire trilogy – at something like six-month intervals – so in a sense you could say that my timeline is more like thirteen years for three novels, which sounds a lot more reasonable.
What made you want to write The Arcadian Incident?
As a little child, my eldest son was always an avid and precocious reader. One day I was talking to him about books, I explained that I was a writer, and rather rashly promised to write him a book.
At the time (being mostly still a poet) I imagined writing something along the lines of The Gruffalo and I though that was definitely doable. But it never happened. Nor did it happen once he’d move on to things like Horrid Henry. And then before I knew it, he was finished with Harry Potter, was basically reading anything you put in front of him and was still wondering when his dad’s book was going to put in an appearance.
Finally, when he was ten years old, I decided the time had come and said I would write it that year. I asked him what he would want the book to be about and he shrugged and said, ‘maybe spaceships, maybe pirates’. So that’s what he got.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Arcadian Incident?
Commitment, definitely. When you write poetry and feel inspired, you can knock something out in an hour. It may not be brilliant, and it may not be polished, but it can be finished, and you can move on to something else. With a novel, you have to maintain that level of commitment for days, and then weeks, and then months. And that was something I really wasn’t used to. When you’re only writing 500 words a day, the plot of a novel hardly moves along at all, and you reach the end of a long day to realise you’ve done nothing but write a single conversation. Those were the days when it was most tempting to think, forget this, I’ll go back to writing poetry and have something to show for my day’s work.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
I have two protagonists. Leo is a fifteen year old boy, Skater, a fifteen year old girl (although for my first few drafts they were thirteen). Leo was the easier to write myself into because of personal experience from my own childhood. He’s not me, though there are definitely elements of me in there. But there are also elements of my older brother, my own sons – even though they were younger than this at the time – and also a couple of friends from school.
Creating Skater was much harder, but also more rewarding. I have no sisters or daughters to take inspiration from, so I guess what I ended up doing was creating the daughter I thought I would have liked to have. So in that sense there’s still a lot of me in there, I suppose. But I have to admit that there’s also a fair bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline Jones and Frank Miller’s Carrie Kelley (Robin, from The Dark Knight Returns) in there as well.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The main antagonist is an eighty-five year old, super rich, megalomanic businessman who wants to become president of Mars. Honestly, reading the news provided all the source material I needed – though I would like to point out I had already created Carlton Whittaker long before Donal Trump stole my idea! And for back up, there are scores, even hundreds, of similar characters scatter throughout the past fifty years of film and tv.
Mr Archer, Whittaker’s main henchman shares the antagonist duties and he was also a dream to write. I simply imaged him as Michael Clarke Duncan playing The Terminator.
What is the inciting incident of The Arcadian Incident?
Leo’s mother, Lillian, is kidnapped. We see this happening in the prologue, so it’s no surprise for the reader, but Leo doesn’t find out for a couple more chapters. That moment, when he’s told his mother is missing, is the moment everything changes for him and his adventures really begin.
What is the main conflict of The Arcadian Incident?
The main conflict would have to be Leo’s struggle to find, and rescue, his mother. But I think any good book will contain many more than a single, central conflict. The Arcadian Incident is not just an adventure story, it’s also a coming of age story, and so both Leo and Skater have plenty of other issues they are trying to deal with along the way. Leo is being dragged from childhood to adulthood much sooner than he ever expected, or wanted to. And while Skater seems to be living exactly the life she always dreamed of, she is forced to realise that real life is a lot more unpleasant and painful than her childish fantasies.
Did you plot The Arcadian Incident in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I made the whole thing up as I went along. And believe me, this was not a good idea. I had a vague sense of where I wanted the story to go, and where I wanted to end up, and I had this naive belief that the characters and situations would write themselves so that, at each step, the following step would seem obvious.
Looking back, this was definitely an attempt to avoid any lazy plotting, where I might make characters do what needed to be done for the storyline, even though real people, in a similar situation, would obviously do something totally different. Which is maybe a noble sentiment, but does lead to a messy writing process. On at least two occasions I wrote myself into a dead end and was forced to scrap several chapters in order to get back on track, and after that I decided to plan ahead. I still didn’t do much – no more than a sentence or so for each chapter – but I did at least know what I should be writing each day.
For my subsequent novels, I made sure I had more of a definite outline. It still never got beyond a couple of sentences per chapter, but this was enough to remind me what I was supposed to be writing, and that not only made for a better structure, it also dramatically increased my daily word count because I didn’t have to spend so much time trying to constantly second guess my own characters.
So no, I didn’t plot my book in advance, but I definitely should have done.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Arcadian Incident need?
My first draft involved a lot of editing while I was writing, so that by the time I was finished, what I had was more like a second draft really. At that point I shared the first few chapters with my wonderful writing group, and based on their feedback I produced a reworked third draft. I completely rewrote the prologue, aded a new chapter towards the end and tinkered with quite a bit in between.
By the time the manuscript reached my current editor, Simon Edge, I think it was on its seventh or eighth version – although the last couple were more for spelling and grammar mistakes and a little bit of inconsistency here and there. He was impressed by how ‘clean’ the manuscript was, and said that it really didn’t need much in the way of reworking. However, we still found a few things that could be improved on, so I gave it one final rewrite. And then it was proofread by the publisher’s proofreader, twice, and a whole load more things were picked up and corrected. And then, finally, it was good to go.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Start small. Learn your craft and find your voice by writing some short stories before you attempt anything as long as a full novel. So many people have great ideas for novels, but a great novel is more than just its plot.
A good novelist will draw their readers into the world they have created, will make them fall in love with the characters, will make them experience the action as if they were there in person, will make them truly believe in the story, not just follow it. You don’t necessarily need to be taught how to do these things, it is possible to learn them for yourself if you’re committed, but good novel writing, like most things, only comes with a lot of practice, a lot of hard work, and probably the occasional failure along the way.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
The Arcadian Incident is book one in the Mars Alone Trilogy. Book two, Escape to Midas, will be out later this year and book three, The War Between Worlds, some time early in 2024. After that, it really depends on how successful these three are. I have already written a fourth and have plotted the fifth, and have plans to go all the way up to twelve, but publishing is a business and publishers need to sell books in order to survive. If people keep buying my books in large enough numbers, I promise I will keep writing them.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m Immensely proud. I will always write, and would continue to write even if I knew I was never going to be published, because I don’t think there’s anything I would rather spend my time doing. But the difference between being an unpublished writer and a published author is huge. And it’s not about the money. It’s about the knowledge that what you’ve written, what you’ve spent years creating and polishing, is now going to be read by hundreds, or maybe thousands of people, many of whom, or perhaps most of whom, will be entertained, and moved, and inspired by your words. This is worth all that effort, and more.
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