We’re thrilled to introduce Greg Chivers, who has just become the 40th former Curtis Brown Creative student to get a book deal! He’s signed with Voyager, the science fiction imprint of HarperCollins. We caught up with Greg to talk about his novel The Crying Machine and how he spent his time getting it ready for publication after completing one of our London based novel writing courses.
Your novel, The Crying Machine is a science-fiction/speculative novel – what inspired you to write in this genre? What are the major influences on your work? I’m a lifelong sci-fi fan, but I never made a conscious decision to write in any genre. All I wanted was to create a world in which strange and mystical things could happen, but seem quite normal – part of a ‘real’ world, rather than some wacky alternate universe. The easiest way to do that was to set events in the future. It gives total creative freedom.
A lot of my influences come from crime fiction (Elmore Leonard, Dashiel Hammett) and Indiana Jones movies, rather than sci-fi, but if you cut me open, you’d find Frank Herbert’s Dune etched into my soul.
What do you think are the most exciting things going on in SF at the moment? I love that Netflix are making series out of books like Altered Carbon, which brings them to a whole new audience. I’m in awe of clever, genre-busting fiction like Max Barry’s Lexicon. Station Eleven showed everyone that beautiful writing transcends genre, and someone should erect a statue to Emily St John Mandel if they haven’t already.
Your novel features a striking and unusual female protagonist – could you tell us more about her? And do you have any tips for writers whose central characters are the opposite gender?
Ha! I was terrified presenting a female protagonist to a room of ten women (and five men) on the CBC course, one of them Charlotte Mendelson, no less! When she said my opening chapter showed real empathy for what it is to be a woman, I almost fell off my chair.
I think Clementine (my protagonist) made my job a lot easier, because she often struggles to understand what’s expected of her as a woman in a very male world (The Middle East), and she rejects it when it doesn’t make any sense to her.
I never write anything differently because a character is female. A character is who he/she is; they want what they want. Their decisions have to make sense to them. That might not be a very good tip, but it’s what I’ve got.
As well as writing, you work as a TV producer on non-fictional science and history TV shows. To what extent does your knowledge from working on those shows impact the fiction that you write, and how? My work has a massive impact. I have huge reserves of subject-matter I use as inspiration. Years of scripting voiceover has also shaped my writing style. The lines have to be performed by a narrator, so they have to follow the rhythms of spoken English. Simplicity is key.
How did you start writing? And is there anything you wish you had known before starting to write your novel? I wrote another novel before The Crying Machine. It will never see the light of day. Even though I was a very experienced, professional storyteller in another medium, my first attempt was not good enough. I was pretty frustrated with myself, and with the world at large. I now understand failure is an essential part of the process. If there’s no risk of failure, you’re not really being ambitious, and if you’re not being ambitious, what’s the point of it all? I fully expect to fail again. Future failures may or may not correlate with being published/not published, but they will happen, and I have to be able to cope with them.
What was the most important thing you learned on the course? I wasn’t as mad as I feared! This sounds daft, but it was very important to me. After a couple of months inhabiting your own tailor-made reality, you’ve got no idea which way is up. It’s so helpful to have that gradual exposure of your work to the real world.
And are you still in touch with your former course-mates? Most of us are still in touch via e mail, and we manage the occasional workshop. There’s been talk of a group writing retreat too.
Can you walk us through your timeline from finishing the Curtis Brown Creative Course to getting your publishing deal with Voyager? I finished the CBC course at the beginning of March 2017, by which time I’d done a first draft. I spent three months editing, and sent my first submissions to agents at the end of May. Heard nothing for ages, then in the first week of August I had a sudden flurry of agent interest, which culminated in a couple of offers of representation. I signed with Will Francis of Janklow and Nesbit, and spent three weeks making a couple of rounds of changes to the manuscript for him.
He worked really hard on the submissions, but for four months we mostly had glowing rejections (and a few mystifying ones) which do your head in a bit. The really heart-breaking ones were when an editor loved my book, but couldn’t sell it internally to colleagues. That happened three times. It wasn’t until the end of January we got a substantive offer. When it came, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I believed in my work, but I never imagined such a big publisher would be interested in my weird book.
Finally, what’s next for you and your writing? I’ve written two thirds of a first draft of a sequel, and about 10K of another idea that was haunting me. In an ideal world I’d get the sequel nailed over the next month or so, but my immediate priority has to be the publisher’s edits for The Crying Machine. After that, who knows? I’m still new at this.
The Crying Machine will be published by Harper Voyager in the UK September 2019.
Greg took part in a novel-writing course taught by Charlotte Mendelson, applications for the next London based Three-Month Novel-Writing Course taught by Charlotte close this Sunday (April 8th) at midnight – and there’s on fully-funded scholarship available.
If you’re not in London, you can apply for our online Three Month Novel Writing Course with Suzannah Dunn (deadline for applications is Sunday 8 April), which includes two online ‘agent days’.
If you’re writing a novel for young adults or children, take a look at our Three Month online course with Catherine Johnson
We also offer shorter online novel-writing courses for all-c0mers. Find out more about our courses here.