Oliver Sparrow was born in the Bahamas, raised in Africa and educated at Oxford to post-doctorate level, as a biologist with a strong line in computer science. He spent the majority of his working life with Shell, the oil company, which took him into the Peruvian jungle for the first time. He was a director at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House for five years. He has started numerous companies, one of them in Peru, which mines for gold. This organisation funded a program of photographing the more accessible parts of Peru, and the results can be seen at http://www.all-peru.info. Oliver knows modern Peru very well, and has visited all of the physical sites that are described in his book Dark Sun, Bright Moon.
What inspires you to write?
The creative urge is one of those deep emotions that latches randomly and often haplessly onto this or that mode of expression. I have to say that I get as much charge from a well-designed graphic, business deal or electronic circuit as I do from writing, but that of those, writing is the pleasure that lasts the longest.
Most of my output has been non-fiction, written for an audience of senior manager generalists. You have been asked to “explain Brazil”. What do they need to know? Why do they need to know it? The perennial aim is always to condense as much you are able of a complex subject into as few words and images as is compatible with reader understanding and patience. To do this, you need a strong notion of their likely initial understanding, both of the subject and the toolkit that you will use in order to dissect it. Is this understanding even correct? Is the balance wrong, being comprised of sound bites and folk-wisdom, views that obscure a more organic insight? Your own role has to be understood, for you must estimate how much trust they will extend. How much evidence will they require? How many nits, picked? This is a long way from academic writing, and a skill in its own right.
Fiction is, in many ways, even less free. If the milieu is familiar – daily suburban life – your task is to entertain within this tiny frame of ivory, finding hundreds of pages of novelty in its blandness. You must follow the formulae without being formulaic. If the environment is marked unfamiliar – as is the world of Dark Sun, Bright Moon – then the issue is not one of delivering novelty. The constraint is in your reader’s patience as you slip them an entire novel cosmology, a starkly unfamiliar society with no links whatsoever to the remainder of humanity and an environment that combines snow, humid jungle and desert within a few days walk of each other. The perils of the expository conversation are always there: “ So tell me, Prince Regent, how do you get on with your Father, King George? George the Third, of course. You know, the one who lost us the Americas.”
Satisfying the creative impulse comes from balancing all of these elements of the ‘fair challenge’. In this regard, miniatures minutely deployed on familiar ivory are really not for me. The creative writing course critique that assesses life in a launderette or relationships between 20-somethings in a fine art auction house offer scant stimulus and less challenge. Yet, neither do the further reaches of science fiction, much as I enjoy reading it. Inspiration demands a stretching, but within the discipline that is set by a broad dose of reality.
Tell us about your writing process.
It’s said that every tenth computer in the developed world has a bit of a novel on it. A typical book will swallow a year to a year and a half of your life. If you do not invest a couple of these months in elementary planning and preparations then, in my opinion, you are very likely never to finish, or to run years over your time budget.
Simply starting work and wandering about, hoping for inspiration is like beginning a trip across the Sahara with a sandwich and a small bottle of fizzy water for companions. Something may turn up, but probably it won’t, or it will be a flight of wheeling vultures.
I have sent a fair part of my life managing large projects, and I approach writing much as I would such a project. I do not actually do what follows, but it may be helpful to set it out in this way so that people unfamiliar with these disciplines can see what is involved.
Projects work from plans, to specifications. There are generally thought to be three useful levels of specification: what are known as the requirement, functional and technical specs. The requirement specification for, let’s say, an oil rig sets out a minimal general description of what it is to do, under what conditions it is to work and what cost and other profiles it has to satisfy. In writing, this stage defines the target audience, the mise-en-scène, the plot engine, the broad plot and the principle characters. (The plot engine is the McGuffin, the structural framework that drives the plot. The hero has the secret papers, the agents of dreadfulness want them back, what the Greeks called agon, hence protagonist, antagonist.)
The functional specification of a project sets out the component parts, how they work together and what role each plays. In a book, this is the forty or so page paragraph-level summary and the psychological profiles of the characters. I prefer to work from abstract psychology to prevent each character being a projection of myself, crudely painted onto people I have met. The proto-fascist Alcavicca in Dark Sun, Bright Moon is, for example, a classical narcissist with overtones of psychopathy.
Then you arrive at the technical specification, which for an engineering project comprises the drawings, perhaps a prototype, certainly models; it will define the tolerances to be permitted and identify and cost a roll-out plan. That translates less well into writing, but there are still lessons to be learned from it. You need your story board, ideally illustrated, your chronology and your “who is where and when” assessment of the action. Otherwise, your action may cease when you find one character impossible far away from where you need them to be, too young or still entangled in some other aspect of the plot.
Whiteboard? Software? This is where you talk about your writing process so others can learn from your way of doing things.)
MS Project is helpful, as are Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. MS Word to do the dirty work backed by a non-interpreting word processor such as EditPad Pro. Assorted PDF editing software is essential to handle layout if that is needed from you by the publication porocess. I loath dedicated publishing software as it tries to be “helpful”, like a hungry husband in a kitchen, fiddling about with things you want left alone. I don’t use paper, as it gets lost. I do back up, frequently and onto separate media, as several times bitten has made exceedingly shy.
I have used reader panels several times in the development of the text. Dark Sun, Bright Moon went through fourteen drafts, and was subject to group critique on two occasions. Naturally, you have to organise this for yourself and to pay people to attend.
What advice would you give other writers?
If you are writing for anyone but yourself, try another profession. Writing that is consciously aimed at a commercial target burns you up, and it always sounds false.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I went around the literary agents in London, many of whom were positive about the text but who were unable to help “in the current climate”. I also had discussions with friends who worked in publishing. The clear message that I got was that conventional publishing houses have seen their business model crumble, and so wished to take on nothing remotely risky or new. Cleverly packaged second editions of old favourites are very much what gets you promoted. At the retailing end, bookshops were hauling off a deadly lee shore, and the rocks were coming closer and closer.
If you follow the self-publishing route, you end up with a bunch of books: lovely books, no doubt, your babies, doubtless, but in no sense flying from your attic or garage on spontaneous papery wings. If writing is hard work, marketing is far harder. There are professionals to help. Engage their services. The Internet is a great help in this regard, but it does not self-organise and persistence and connectivity help.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
The book as a physical object will not quickly be replaced by reading machines, however light, however bright. They lack the cuddle factor: fine for airport trash and technical manuals, less attractive when intimacy is engaged. I acknowledge that I may be wrong, or that we may stop reading altogether in favour of other media, but I take comfort from the fact that more people read more books for more hours than ever before in history. That must be pathognomonic for something positive.
That said, the business model that puts a book in a reader’s hand is changing and will continue to change. Amazon’s CreateSpace prints books when they are purchased, and does so with extremely high quality, whatever the conventional publishers may say. Conventional printing has moved almost entirely to low wage areas. Much of the printing and proofing process has been automated, and more will be in future. Right now, it demands familiarity with a dozen software packages – and careful study of book layout archetypes – but that will no doubt change as templates become available.
Readers are not inclined to buy from on-line sources with familiarity and frequency. This has a way to go, however. It is my personal view that the interfaces that have been adopted by Amazon and others do not help readers to browse, and utterly fail to reproduce the book shop experience. For example, publishers – and now on-line design consultants – put great effort into matching the book cover to the taste of the target reader, and as a result we are generally able to pick the book that will appeal to use from a rack of hundreds in just a few seconds. Current on-line vendors do not make use of this important method of browsing.
Amazon, for example, clutters the screen nonsense – ‘readers who bought this also bought toothpaste’ – and they waste enormous amounts of screen real estate on proprietary clutter. You cannot even browse Amazon for the most recent publications in a genre, because you instead get ten pages of books anticipated but not yet published. But all of that will, without doubt, sort itself out, if not in Amazon then in whatever replaces it.
Like the music industry, publishing has received a massive blow to its fundamentals and it has yet to find a model that will work for it. Other industries are similarly in need of a received business model. For example, channel-stream television will soon to be replaced by user-selected or agent-selected items from a data base of program material. Some of these industries will evaporate, their function usurped and carried on by other means. But there will be readers, and where there are readers there will be books.
What genres do you write?
Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
What formats are your books in?
Both eBook and Print
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