They Do Things Differently There

Antony Johnston
Jan 20, 2019 · 4 min read

Originally posted in the 7RQ newsletter, 2019–01–16

Talk about third-hand; there’s an old quote from Neil Gaiman, which I never heard myself but was related to me by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which was in response to someone at a Q&A. The questioner was struggling to write their first novel, and asked Gaiman if, once he’d written his first book, things got easier because then he knew how to do it. He responded, probably to the questioner’s despair: “I don’t think you ever really learn how to write a book. You just learn how to write this particular book.”

If you’re not a writer that may seem absurd on its face, but at least in my own experience I’ve found few things to be more true. While I’m a firm believer that writing more makes you a better writer overall, at no point do you reach a point where suddenly you can dash off a book over a weekend and it will be good because you’ve cracked the formula.

(Yes, yes, Mike Moorcock and Alan Moore. You can’t account for genius.)

This is on my mind because I’m hip-deep in the second Brigitte Sharp novel, a sequel to THE EXPHORIA CODE. And I’ve come to realise two interesting, if somewhat unsettling, things.

First, and this one is very strange; the difficulty of writing different aspects of this book to the first are in complete opposition. I’m generally a plot-heavy guy; I like to think my stories also feature interesting characters, but there’s always plenty of stuff going on, and it’s something I’m very comfortable doing.

While writing EXPHORIA I was very conscious of that, so I made a concerted effort to balance it with an increased focus on character development, and an emotional foundation to Brigitte herself above and beyond that to which I might have otherwise defaulted.

It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you that. The ‘pure plot’ sections — espionage tradecraft, hunting a mole, hacking drones — came fairly naturally. By contrast, those emotional elements — Bridge’s family conflicts, her own inner turmoil, paranoia and insecurity — were much more difficult to write. It was worth it, of course; to my mind EXPHORIA has the best balance of the two elements I’ve yet achieved, though it also showed me I still have a lot to learn.

Then I started writing the second book. It has a plot no less complex than EXPHORIA, there’s plenty of spy stuff, and I had a plan of some emotional beats I wanted to hit, just like last time.

But to my surprise, those emotional aspects of the story, the relationship conflicts and Bridge’s inner voice, have flowed much more easily. In fact I’m finding them easier to write than the plot-heavy elements, which are confounding me at times. I expected this book would be like EXPHORIA all over again, but somehow it’s resisting me. It wants to be its own thing.

The second slightly unsettling realisation was that I no longer recognise half of what I wrote in EXPHORIA itself. I’ve been referring to it occasionally for continuity of locations, characters, and so on… and wound up feeling like I’m reading a book written by someone else entirely.

I finished EXPHORIA a little under two years ago, having started it in summer 2016. A lot’s happened since then, and it’s to be expected that my writing style will have changed slightly in the meantime. That’s happened with every series I’ve written, from the long epic of WASTELAND to the shorter, arc-focused THE FUSE, and the progression is even evident between THE COLDEST CITY and THE COLDEST WINTER. But they always felt like the same writer was behind them.

This… doesn’t. Or rather, it doesn’t yet. Now I’m wondering if I did a lot more revision and rewriting for style on EXPHORIA than I remember. The last few weeks of that book were something of a blur, to be honest. Maybe when I reach that stage with the new book I’ll find myself writing in the same style, after all.

(Whatever that style may be. In the same way that nobody thinks they have an accent, I suspect authors aren’t really aware of their own style. Which raises the interesting notion that someone could write the most cutting parody of my work, and I’d be the one person who didn’t recognise it.)

Intellectually, I know this is all part of the process. When other writers are deep in the woods I always advise them to trust their instincts, get through the rough draft, and worry about All That Other Crap later. Rest assured, I intend to follow my own advice. Nevertheless, I can’t help but step back and think how weird this all is — and it’s not something I hear other writers talk about much. Which makes me paranoid that it’s just me, even though I’m 100% confident it’s not.

Well, 95%.


Writing and Breathing

Thoughts on writing by Antony Johnston.

Antony Johnston

Written by

Creator of ATOMIC BLONDE, THE EXPHORIA CODE, THE TEMPUS PROJECT, etc. Host of ‘Writing And Breathing’ podcast. Newsletter at http://tinyletter.com/7RQ

Writing and Breathing

Thoughts on writing by Antony Johnston. Podcast at writingandbreathing.com

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