- Performing research to finding the balance between mood, theme, and story.
- Upholding our writing craft and storytelling methods in the modern world.
- Deciding on point-of-view (POV) and striking a balance between the character arcs.
That’s what’s wonderful about storytelling – there are no boundaries!
Welcome to the twenty-third episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Benjamin Hope about his approach to writing and his new book, THE PROCUREMENT OF SOULS.
Arthur: There are many ways we can identify genre in writing based on the words we use. For example, science fiction might include things like spaceships, planets, warp drives, and protomolecules. Fantasy might include warlocks, alchemy, wyverns and scabbards. You’ve chosen steampunk for PROCUREMENT OF SOULS. How were you able to write the imagery so well to illustrate the steampunk atmosphere and what drew you to write steampunk as opposed to other fiction sub-genres?
Benjamin: In terms of developing imagery for the reader, I tried to strike a balance between providing enough detail for the world to be imagined with clarity; and giving space for the reader to co-create the world as they read. I tend to think that overly descriptive passages have a tendency to turn off a reader’s interest, especially in this sort of genre. As such, although I am partial to a metaphor(!) and enjoy the poetry of language, I did a lot of research into the fabric of late Victorian life (although, I purposefully never date the period in the book, or name the city) – the architecture; the clothing etc – with the aim of bringing an authenticity to the world in which the characters inhabit and also to enable me to make the imagery and description specific and less drawn out. I think a well-placed and specific noun goes a long way in description!
With regards to creating a steampunk atmosphere however, I actually never set out to hit the markers so to speak for a particular genre. I think that trying to write ‘a mood’ can be dangerous or at least cause one to digress from what is the most important thing: telling the story. Genre is a funny concept: like you say, there are often many identifiers within a given story which allows one to place it within a category but I think that most stories transcend genre. That’s what’s wonderful about storytelling – there are no boundaries! That isn’t to say that THE PROCUREMENT OF SOULS isn’t steampunk; there are certainly many aspects of the story that fit this genre which is why I have partly billed it as such: the clockwork inventions; the alternate Victorian London setting; the characterization. And yet, for me, the Victorian-gothic elements of the novel are just as crucial to what characterizes the story: tropes such as the questioning of spirituality; heightened, almost indulgent terror and the concept of the monster – which I hoped to develop throughout with Dr Weimer’s exploits and his subsequent soulless victims; and finally, strange, marginal and unsettling places, such as the vaults of The Guild, and the catacombs of St Villicus’ abbey. Needless to say, I am hugely drawn to both the Victorian gothic and steampunk sub-genres and read a lot of fiction from both. It’s no accident, that my own writing is influenced in such a way!
Trying to write a “mood” can be dangerous, or at least cause one to digress from what is the most important thing: telling the story.
Arthur: In PROCUREMENT OF SOULS, Dr. Weimer is literally extracting souls from our bodies. Where did this inspiration come from? How did you develop the mechanics for soul extraction?
Benjamin: I am fascinated by the soul as a concept and I began by playing about with the rather Victorian question: what if the soul was a tangible thing? From there, I developed my own version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need (albeit a 20th century construct) where the soul sits at the apex of a pyramid with our base needs at the bottom. If the soul is a person’s life-force, then surely it represents a unique and potent energy source. This is what Dr. Weimer seeks to harness and the reason behind the soul extraction. It also proves to be part of the problem behind Magnus Drinkwater’s lack of success when he debates the morality of the use of cerebrospinal-fluid in his own experimentation (which I place, together with the brain, just below the soul), based on this belief system. With regards to the mechanics of Dr. Weimer’s extraction technique, I started, very broadly, with the science of opposite attraction e.g. magnetic fields, and from there indulged my imagination and developed the rest of the process with a self-confessed gothic verve! Something that was important for me though, and something I discussed earlier this year in one of my blog posts, was that, however outlandish and imaginary the procedure, there was a seed of truth somewhere in the backbone of it all. In this case, it was the premise of opposite attraction, but whatever it may be and however remote, I think that it helps the reader to suspend disbelief within the imagined world that is being presented to them.
I am fascinated by the soul as a concept.
Arthur: Did you outline the plot prior to starting the writing?
Benjamin: Not to begin with, no. I had the beginnings of an idea that grew with the writing. Having said that, I did shape a number of plot threads in my head before I began writing anything. Without a semblance of a plot, I’m not sure how one writes with purpose! But this was enough for me to get going for a time. I’m not a great one for writing plot-narratives down in detail; rather, once I’ve begun with an idea, I prefer to develop it in my mind and let steep in its own juices for a while! Then, once I have a clearer arc and details have worked their way to the surface, I jot down comprehensive timelines in note-form. This is one of the only written planning that I do. For me, time-lining is absolutely essential in ensuring the various plots and character narratives hang together. Writing a full-length novel is complex and time-lining is my way of ensuring that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to create the (hopefully!) cohesive whole.
For me, time-lining is absolutely essential in ensuring the various plots and character narratives hang together.
Arthur: How did you decide on your point of view?
Benjamin: I knew as soon as I started outlining and constructing threads of the plot in my head that I wanted to give multiple points of view. The premise of the story is, very broadly speaking, about the exploits of two opposing bio-alchemists and I wanted both of their inner monologues to come through as we follow their respective journeys. The POV shifts to other characters came about organically as I was writing: it felt right that a number of individual’s perspectives were shared. I would say though, that I took a lot of time and due care to ensure that this wasn’t ad-hoc: I was conscious that too much movement in the POV could feel disjointed or chaotic and as such chapters are either told through the POV of one character or it shifts between two key individuals within a given scene. I thought it would be a nice touch to use glyphs to represent the various characters as the reader moves on to a different POV – reading for me is about the experience as a whole and so I hoped not only to help signpost but also to visually enhance the steampunk and Victorian feel of the book.
I was conscious that too much movement in the POV could feel disjointed or chaotic.
Arthur: Joseph Pascale and I had a great interview about our writing legacies living beyond ourselves. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind in your writing?
Benjamin: That’s an interesting question and not something I think I’ve considered before! I think Joseph Pascale’s aim to provide insight into today’s world, especially given that we live in such a hectic and frenetic world of constant change, is a very valuable and worthwhile venture.
I guess with my work, I have my fiction – The Procurement of Souls, and other upcoming stories that I am currently working on – and then I have my blog, which I hope adds something of value to the online writing community. With my fiction writing, my primary aim is to entertain the reader, whoever that may be, today or in the future, but I am also interested in the messages and themes that any given story also carries with it. I think people who think that speculative fiction is literary fiction’s poor relation in this regard are incorrect. As an example, and as I mentioned before, I found myself exploring the gothic theme of the questioning of spirituality and religion within THE PROCUREMENT OF SOULS. Yes, the story could simply be regarded as a bit of a bloody adventure romp but perhaps someone might pick it up and reflect too on some of the moral and spiritual struggles the characters have to face. That would be my hope.
My primary goal is to entertain the reader, whoever that may be, today or in the future.
Arthur: Tell me more about the publishing process for PROCUREMENT OF SOULS. What are the most important lessons you learned?
Benjamin: Preparation and patience! I’m not talking about the content of the story itself necessarily – I think that it should be an absolute given for any writer to invest however much time it takes to edit, edit, edit, receive feedback, and then edit some more. Your novel should represent the best of what you can achieve, so why go to print/publication before you are absolutely certain that it is as good as you are ever going to get it?! It took me 8 years before I finally felt I’d got it to the point where I was happy to publish. But I digress a little. With the publishing process, if you prepare yourself beforehand with the knowledge that it is hard graft and time consuming (and LOTS of fun too!), you’ll be in a good frame of mind when it comes to starting that part of the journey. And actually, like most things, if you tool yourself up and prepare beforehand, you will save a lot of time in the long run.
One needs to be thorough and methodical from the start. As an example, for the e-book edition outside of Amazon, I published using Smashwords. They are an amazing organization and extremely helpful with the whole process but ultimately the manuscript content is down to you and you alone. Ebooks are a whole different kettle of fish to hard copy publishing and I learnt the hard way that there are all sorts of formatting needs one has to grapple with and develop the nous for in order to prepare your manuscript to offer the best reading experience for the e-reader. In retrospect, I would have identified the formatting parameters in the first instance and written the novel in this set-up. This is what I’m doing for its sequel, A NEW RELIGION, that I am currently working on. Actually, the formatting is good practice for making sure the document is Kindle ready and print ready too – so all in all a good idea! It is about the small things that one might not consider during the writing process such as formatting paragraph indentation properly rather than using the tab key, or half a dozen strokes of the space bar; but it’s also about the mechanics such as understanding how to create a properly working contents page that facilitates navigation. The Smashwords founder publishes an excellent free guide which I would highly recommend people read, if they are going down this route.
Your novel should represent the best of what you can achieve.
Arthur: On your blog, you have a great article about the future of books: BOOKSHOPS VS. THE INTERNET: IS THIS THE REALITY? What do you think will be the future of books and stories? How will it impact us writers? Do we need to adapt our craft?
Benjamin: This is a BIG question! I think that there are a number of issues here but one important one is the societal shift brought about by technology that means our day to day interactions with one another are lessening – everything is online now from grocery shopping to banking and those that are out and about have their heads in their phones. Online bookstores are a part of this evolution and although it makes sense (it’s cheaper for the retailer and the customer; it’s faster and more immediate), it’s representative of the wider issue and it does sadden me. Not only because I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to books – the smell of the ink and the feel of the page – but because I think as people interface less and less in the real world, communication and language skills are slowly being eroded. I worry about the younger generations where human interaction can equate to a gif and some text talk, lol. And I think the future of story-telling is wrapped up in this too. Story telling has been an educative tool and cultural glue since time immemorial, especially the world-wide tradition of oral story telling. It’s where all our favourite fairy tales come from; it’s woven into the fabric of society, wherever you may come from. But its founded on the ability to use language and all the riches it has to offer. And written stories are just an extension of this. When we tell stories, we celebrate language and what it is to be human. And it’s true that there is nothing more potent or powerful than words. I’m in danger of digressing again, but in today’s world, you see how this has evolved again – through text talk and ‘posts’ on Facebook and other social media where stories are told through photos and shorthand and people ‘interact’ from screen to screen. Now, I’m not here to rant about ‘the failings of social media and technology’; on the contrary, I think it is amazing in its own way and has a great many uses: I use Twitter and Instagram too. But what I do think is that it’s never been more important that stories are written and that language continues to be used to its fullest capacity. And whether they are shared as hard-copy, audio-files, or e-books, stories and words give us our history and leave a legacy behind us. So, should writers adapt their craft? I don’t think so, no. Rather, I think it’s our duty to maintain and uphold the wonderful age-old tradition that is storytelling and make sure that its here for good!
When we tell stories, we celebrate language and what it is to be human.
Arthur: Have you thought about the audiobook format for PROCUREMENT OF SOULS?
Benjamin: Actually, yes! I trained as an actor so I’m considering recording it myself. I also thought that, as part of the book promotion side of things, that I would release it in parts via a podcast. I have a music producer and composer friend who writes some great instrumental scores – we’ve briefly touched on perhaps collaborating in order to bring the audio to life. I would love to create an audiobook where the steampunk and Victorian gothic elements of the story are enhanced through music too, if only at the introduction to chapters/podcasts. However, with an 8-month-old baby at home, as well as the sequel to complete, I’m not sure it will be something I’ll necessarily have time to do for a little while. If and when I do it, I want to do it right!
If and when I do it, I want to do it right!
Arthur: In my own writing, there are certain stories I’ve written which I could not have written ten or fifteen years before because I didn’t have the skill to accomplish the task. Before writing PROCUREMENT OF SOULS, what did you have to learn as a writer in order to execute the story as effectively as you did?
Benjamin: To write in my own voice. This took me a very long time. When I first started writing in earnest as a very young adult, without realising it, I was simply trying to emulate that of the writers I most admired and enjoyed. The result was frustration and terrible story-telling! Something you have to learn as a writer is to be self-aware – particularly with regard to one’s weaknesses or writing pitfalls. It took me many false starts with lots of different projects before I realised that, if I wanted to write something I could be proud of, I would need to write honestly and let the narrative come from me. Read, read, read, of course; be inspired by other writers, absolutely; but have the courage to let the writing come from yourself. Own your voice. And don’t apologise!
If I wanted to write something I could be proud of, I would need to write honestly and let the narrative come from me.
Arthur: What is your next writing project? What did you learn when writing PROCUREMENT OF SOULS that you will apply in your next project?
Benjamin: I am currently writing the sequel to THE PROCUREMENT OF SOULS, A NEW RELIGION. It’s curious, as I never started out with PoS with the notion that I would like to write a sequel and yet by the time I came to what I felt was an appropriate close, the world I had created had taken on a life of its own in my head and the characters’ narratives kept on going. I had generated so much further material that I wanted to use that I decided to continue with the adventure in A NEW RELIGION. In terms of learning, I think a big one for me is not to be precious with your work. By that, I mean, if you want the outcome to be the best story that it can be, you have to be prepared to get brutal! You might write whole chapters, or a series of chapters even, that in the end need to be binned or completely re-written. I found this terribly hard at first but it is an imperative part of the process.
If you want the outcome to be the best story that it can be, you have to be prepared to get brutal!
Arthur: What was the editing process like for you?
Benjamin: Long! I think for any writer, the editing process can be the most difficult, but for an indie author like myself where one hasn’t necessarily got access to professional editors, the need for a thorough, methodical and brutal approach is absolutely key. I tapped in to my network of people I trust to give up-front and bare honesty and used this feedback to attack narrative holes, clunky text, and to completely re-draft sections where necessary. And then you go through the process again! It’s cyclical and multi-layered too. I don’t think you can attack everything at once, so I would collate all copy-editing notes and update the manuscript accordingly; I would look at pace or character notes and re-read and edit through one of these lenses; or take a specific plot thread and follow it through from start to finish, altering and tweaking as needed. So, yes, it was long but I also found it thoroughly eye-opening to have such bald feedback from readers and a thoroughly enjoyable experience too.
For an indie author like myself where one hasn’t necessarily got access to professional editors, the need for a thorough, methodical and brutal approach is absolutely key.
Arthur: How do you promote and publicize your work? Is there a strategy which yields a better return on the marketing investment?
Benjamin: I touched on social media earlier and suffice to say I wasn’t on any platform before I began to think about getting my book out there. Now I use Twitter and, latterly, Instagram to connect with others and self-promote. In the run up to my launch day, I did things like creating a gif advert in order to add another dimension. I also blog regularly on my website about the writing process and feed that through to Twitter – I think it’s important that you try to offer something of interest; no one wants to see continuous self-promotion feed and nothing else. In that respect, I’m also conscious of trying to find a balance within my blogs to reach as many different people as possible: some articles are serious discussion pieces; some, offerings of tools and ideas to other writers; some, light-hearted and fun, such as the pieces I ran about erroneous homophones and punctuation.
I have also reached out to a number of bloggers and authors and not only to run interviews or to do reviews. I think it’s important to get as creative with it as you can: one article I’m currently working on is an ‘In Conversation’ piece with another author who I made contact with through Twitter. We’re both sci-fi/fantasy writers but from different ends of the spectrum. We’ve read each other’s work and have been constructing an article discussing the ins and outs of the writing process and picking up on contrasts and themes between our work.
Across all of this, I have been conscious to try and achieve a consistent ‘brand’ for want of a better word. My website, headshots, media banners etc are all geared toward signaling the sort of work I write. In terms of what yields a better return, its too early days to say. In terms of investment however, the biggest cost has been my own time. But I don’t really see it like that. I absolutely love every aspect of book promotion that I’ve got stuck into so far. It’s hard, hard graft, but if you’re an indie author, the onus is on you all the more. And you’ve put in so much effort to complete your novel in the first place that surely you owe it to yourself to work just as hard at the other end.
What an awesome interview, thank you Benjamin. I can’t wait to read A NEW RELIGION and see more work from you. Make sure to check out Ben’s book and his blog. Stay tuned next week for more writing advice in the next episode of INTERVIEWS FROM THE VOID.