Simon Ings is an author, editor and regular tutor of our online courses. He has written eight acclaimed books including The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water as well as the science fiction novels Hot Head and The Smoke. We’re thrilled that Simon is the tutor on our upcoming three-month online Writing Your Novel course (apply by 17 Oct).
We caught up with Simon to find out more about his approach to teaching creative writing, and to discover his top tips for aspiring authors…
You are an integral part of the CBC tutor team and you’re teaching several of our Writing Your Novel courses this year. What is your favourite part of teaching creative writing?
Well, you’re asking me this question just as we come out of lockdown, so my entirely predictable answer is, talking to other writers on Zoom! Anything to give me the illusion that I’ve left my flat.
But it is those one-to-one interactions that are the most valuable for me, I think. A large part of my writing life is spent reinventing what I do. A workflow and an approach that worked with one novel won’t work for another, and sure as shot won’t work for the short story collection, and so on. So it’s hugely valuable for me to be talking through different approaches and different methods with people, helping them choose what to focus on and what to leave for another time. It keeps me flexible in the way I approach my own work. It’s all too easy in this game to find yourself doing the wrong job well.
Much of your fiction lies within the science fiction genre and tackles large themes, such as AI, robotics and space travel. How do you go about finding inspiration?
I never reach for inspiration. It’s a fool’s errand. I start from an image, a situation, someone I know, a memory, happy or otherwise, and build from there. Why do I write science fiction? That’s just an accident of upbringing; it’s the literature that set me alight when I was a kid. The questions I ask when I write are the same questions any other novelist asks: What does this person want? What does this person need? What’s in their way? Some science fiction writers adore technology and science to the point where they want to illustrate it or feature it or play around with it in their work, as a kind of intellectual puzzle. I love reading puzzle literature — Calvino, Dick, Lem and so-called ‘hard’ SF — but I have no ambition to write it. I’m more at the Ballard/Moorcock/Disch end of things.
Your novel, Wolves — which has recently been re-printed — follows Conrad who finds himself increasingly drawn into an augmented reality world dreamt up and altered by others. AR is technology that exists now. How much do real life scientific discoveries impact your fictional writing?
The thing about trying to write about real people, in the real world, is that nothing stays put. Reality isn’t handed to you. It’s not a free gift. It has to be hunted down. It has to be chased. If, these days, you write a ‘realistic’ novel that doesn’t mention climate change, I would argue it’s not very realistic. (Amitav Ghosh has written an excellent book about this, by the way, called The Great Derangement.) Similarly, a political novel in which politics has not been utterly, possibly catastrophically, transformed by social media can no longer, so far as I can see, be counted as a serious political novel.
When I wrote Wolves I was editing the arts pages of a magazine. Half my life was spent listening to artists worrying about climate change. The other half I spent watching artists noodle about with new media. The collision was absurd enough, and poignant enough, to catch my eye. Years on, and the more noodly university presses are churning out books about ‘apocalyptic media’. Ah, academia!
Many people have drawn comparisons between the pandemic and science fiction/dystopian narratives. Do you think the recent events will influence any of your future writing?
Well, they may have to, to the extent that every normal is a new normal. I certainly wouldn’t set out to write ‘about’ pandemics, any more than I would set out to write ‘about’ spaceships or ‘about’ dinosaurs. Novels exist for us to formulate and resolve questions that we can’t pose in any other form. If you want to write ‘about’ something, do some proper research and go be a journalist.
Do you think great world building is essential to science fiction?
No, it isn’t. Readers are not empty buckets into which we pour our lovingly crafted ‘world-building’. They’re performers of our stories, and it’s our job to nudge them into dreaming the wildest dreams of which they are capable. The most vivid alien worlds I know of were created by Franz Kafka, who described hardly anything. Top tips? Stop thinking about what exists in your fictional world. Start thinking about what changes, and what those changes mean.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you – how did you stay motivated during lockdown?
I’ve acquired, after years of trial and error, a good balance between work that offers immediate satisfaction (say, a piece in a paper that earns me a set amount, for a set amount of work) and work that’s more in the nature of a vocation — work that I would do regardless (the novels definitely come into that category!). I write between a thousand and two thousand words a day, usually in the morning, and I’ve learned never to write myself into exhaustion. Occasional pieces and reviews I leave until the last possible minute so I (have to!) bring a laser-like focus to them. (I hate not having deadlines.)
Lockdown? That was easy for me because I’ve spent years in a room on my own, working. The difficult part has been dreaming up scenery. After a year chained to this desk all my houses and streets, dogs and people are coming to me straight out of Central Casting.
What novel do you always recommend to others?
And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?
Be kind to yourself. The writer you were yesterday did the best job they could with the tools and information available to them. Today, you will take up what they did, and add your own efforts and insights. Tomorrow, Future You will do the same. This is how stories get to be much more clever and profound than the people who wrote them.
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