Interview: Sean Williams

This interview was originally posted at SentientOnline on the 31st July 2011.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Williams, a New York Times best selling Australian author, mostly known for his science fiction work, and Star Wars books. This interview was centred around questions regarding writing for the National Young Writers Month. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll get the chance to interview Sean again, so it can be more about his books instead.

Since he’s just that lovely, he might just let me.

Q: Starting off easy, there are heaps of writing programs out there, as well as the general Word, Notepad and Open Office. What program do you do your writing in?

I’ve been using Word since the mid-90s. Before that it was WordPerfect. I did briefly dabble with OpenOffice, but my fingers are slow at learning new shortcuts.

Q: How do you plan your writing? Some authors have storyboards, some have little index cards or a dozen A5 sized books…

I start with one file that acts as a repository for all the ideas related to a particular project. This file might be a going concern for months, even years. Notes can range from single words to whole paragraphs of background, character details, dialogue, etc. Eventually, that file reaches critical mass–the point at which I’m sure it contains a novel’s worth of related material. (How do I know? Beats me. It’s a gut feeling.) I copy those notes into a new file, a plot file, and I start rearranging and cutting until I have something that looks like a story. This outline is in bullet points and can run for several pages. It contains the beginning and the ending; it contains a defined structure for the book and key character arcs; it also allows enough space for me to play around in. As I write the book, I delete the bullet points one by one until, ideally, there are none left and the book is done.

Q: Do you find you write better in certain conditions, or at certain times? If so, what are they?

When I started writing, I used to work until the story was finished. With short stories, that could be four in the morning, which is a bit exhausting the next day, and obviously that won’t work at all for novels. So I shifted to mornings instead. I try to get all my writing done before noon so the rest of the day is free for (a) real life, (b) writing-related chores, and (c) more writing, usually in the opposite order.

Q: Some authors sit themselves down and don’t allow themselves to get up from their chair until they’d sat there for x amount of hours, or done x amount of words.  Can you tell us how do you write?

When I’m working on a first draft I aim for 1500 words every day. Once I have that, I am both allowed and encouraged to stop (otherwise I would write all day).

Q: What do you do when you’re having trouble writing?

I just get in there and start writing. That sounds a bit pat, but really this is often what it comes down. Writing is easy. It’s starting writing that can be hard. Once you realise that, it’s quite liberating. If one minute’s effort is all it takes to get you going, then it’s all downhill from there.

Some days, of course, I do get a bit stuck on a particular plot point or whatever. When that happens I put my headphones on and go for a walk. Nothing gets a book ticking along again faster than a brisk stroll (or ten minutes of meditation, if I’m feeling particularly zen).

Q: Have you (or do you) find it hard writing female (or male) characters, and if so have you done anything to make it easier?

I greatly prefer to write female characters, and have struggled writing books written solely from the male pov. Particularly adult males, because I feel out of step with the concerns of mainstream maleness as it’s portrayed by modern media. Not liking sport at all is just the start of it. I’ve had to work on that, but in general, as a matter of principle, I will gravitate towards characters I feel invested in, and to date most of those have been female, or not “typically” male.

Q: Do you have any specific way to get to know your characters well enough to be so passionate when writing from the POV?

Nothing specific. I’m not even sure how I do it. Sorry to be so vague, but it’s one area of writing where I’ve unconsciously resisted any kind of analysis or process. I just let it happen.

Q: Do you have any writing rituals? Certain authors listen to certain kinds of music, others don a special writing hat…do you have any quirks such as these?

There’s a particular kind of music I like to listen to while writing. It’s hard to define in words–“ambient electronic” comes closest, but anything with “ambient” in it automatically sounds a bit shit, doesn’t it? Steve Roach is probably the best exponent of this kind of stuff. There are many artists I listen to as well. I have thousands of hours of it on my hard drive, and as long as I have that playing I can work anywhere. Literally.

Q: What did you do to finally finish your first novel? Was it the hardest novel you’ve written so far?

I was prompted to finish Metal Fatigue, my first published novel, by an editor. I’d sent her the first three chapters and an outline, and she asked to see the full ms. So I had no choice, really. It was either finish the damned thing or give up writing. The decision was simple.

But that wasn’t my first novel. It was actually my fifth. I started writing as a teenager and wrote the first four for fun, so finishing was easy. They will never be published because they’re awful, but anyone who’s interested and mad enough to go to the effort can find them in the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library.

The hardest novel I ever wrote was The Crooked Letter. To date, I still don’t think I got it right–but it was the first fantasy novel in history to win both Ditmar and Aurealis Awards, and it’s just been optioned for a TV series, so what do I know?

Q: How did you get published? Did you submit to a publisher, to an agent, or…?

Submitted to a publisher. Sold three books, then got an agent in order to sell into the US. I’ve never had an Australian agent. Before selling books, though, I wrote and sold a lot of short stories, and having that profile in the market really helped.

Q: What are your thoughts on self-publishing vs traditional methods (agent and/or publishing house)?

Money should flow to the author. That’s the usual line. But in these days of electronic publishing that has been kinda turned around. If you’re prepared to invest in all the production costs required, you can go for it any time you like. I’m not, so traditional publishing models for me. For now. Check back in five years and see what I’m saying then . . . .

Thank you for that, Sean!

If you’d like to know more about Sean Williams, he can be found at these following links:


We hope to see more published works by Sean in the near future!


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