7 Questions With Author Sam Browne
Sam Browne is an up-and-coming writer from Portland, Dorset, on the UK’s south coast, having recently released his debut novel, The Swords of Satsukawa, a sweeping, thrilling epic set in Feudal Japan.
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Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Oh I’m a plotter—very much so! It’s a part of the overall process that I’ve come to really enjoy, having gradually refined my ‘system’, if you can call it that. I remember, to begin with, I found that I was trying to cram way too many plot threads and supporting characters into my first novel and ended up having to strip a load of stuff out and re-jig what was left.
Also I kept forgetting things, like what time of day it was supposed to be, for example, having skipped the action from one group of characters to another, somewhere else. Soon enough though, I developed a system of tables, each representing a chapter, divided into ‘sequences’, citing the primary character in each sequence, followed by a kind of flowchart made up of key words/phrases that jogged my memory.
It worked, more or less, and still does… One thing I will say though—no matter how reliant a plotter is on the pre-visualisation of their story, it really helps to be able to improvise, I think. Not everything that works in your head or in note-form is going to work on the page/screen. Sooner or later you’ll find that there’s a kink in the thread that needs working out, and not being able to deal with it on the fly can lead to huge problems/delays, potentially. So developing a knack of switching from plotting to pantsing, albeit briefly, is absolutely a worthwhile endeavour.
What’s your definition of the first draft?
You know, I’ve heard so many people say that the first draft is just a dry run, and that writing something poorly the first time round is ok because you’re going to re-do it all in the second draft… Hmm, not for me… There is of course a real danger of getting bogged down with the finer details and never getting anywhere—I agree with that—and it’s incredibly important to enjoy your writing, treating it as a source of fulfilment and fun, artistic expression—also very true.
But it occurred to me, at a point I can’t now remember clearly, that the better I do it the first time, the less work I’ll have to do the second, or a thought to that effect… So to me, I guess, the first draft is a bit like the foundations of a building—if you don’t make a good job of your foundation, the rest will be a nightmare to build on top of it. And of course the opposite is true! If your first draft is very good, subsequent revisions shouldn’t need to be too extensive.
What should readers expect from your next novel?
A huge improvement I hope! With the writing of my first novel, it was very much a case of throwing myself in the deep end. Having reached a major crossroad in life, I decided that I needed to attain some direction and take the bull by the horns before it was too late, and so I joined a creative writing class at my local college—this was in the autumn of 2014—and immediately started the research and planning process, all whilst learning the basics of the art as I went. Come Xmas that year, I had made a start on the first draft… Of course it was a bloody awful mess to begin with, but I kept pushing myself to improve—as I still do—and I gradually refined my craft…
The process of getting that first novel up to scratch went on until right before printing, because, thankfully, I’d improved as a writer enough to see errors of creative judgement that had eluded me earlier on, and I think if you were to compare the various drafts, that growth is very evident in the prose…
So more than anything, if I were to give readers a good reason to take a chance on my new material, I would say that if nothing else, my next tome will perhaps be infinitely better than my first offering! In terms of story and thematic content, there will be more of the same, to a degree. I’ve got all kinds of ideas, especially for different groups of characters in different settings, but I think it’s important to remember your audience—producing something far-removed from the content of my first novel wouldn’t be fair on those who’ve read the first and want to see a follow-up, be that a direct sequel or simply maintaining the Feudal Japanese setting.
Whichever project I end up finishing next, I just hope that it receives the same enthusiasm from all the amazing people who have taken to my first, because they and their support goes a long way to keeping me positive. I owe these people a lot and I want to pay them back with stories and characters that will move them and be dear to them!
What’s the best advice/feedback on writing you’ve ever received?
I would have to say that the very first major piece of advice I received from my old creative writing teacher was probably the most important. I can’t remember her exact words, but it went something like – “write whatever you want to write, however you want to write it”… This goes back to the point about having to enjoy your writing.
Not just for the sake of getting a kick out of it in the moment, but to ensure that you’re in the right mindset to produce your best work. Because, if you don’t enjoy putting down whatever it is you’re working on, ultimately that negative energy will show through in your prose, and will inevitably effect the enjoyment of the reader, which would be disastrous, of course.
At the end of the day, if you aren’t entertaining yourself with your writing, then you probably won’t entertain anyone else either… So tell your own stories, in you own style, and you won’t go far wrong!
How do you deal with negative feedback or negative reviews?
Firstly, bear in mind that a person’s opinion is just that—an opinion, a matter of perspective. Aside from things like typos and blatant grammatical errors and such, there’s no definitive right or wrong way to tell a story. There are things that could be seen as being more or less efficient in the telling of a story, but again, these are things heavily informed by personal preference…
I was talking with a friend (a musician) recently about this, and we agreed that, no matter how talented you are or how great your work is, the people who genuinely love and appreciate your work will always be a minority, except in a few exemplary cases.
You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to, and so if you’re putting your work out into the world, it’s inevitable that you’ll get negative feedback—it comes with the turf! Secondly, I think that getting negative feedback can actually be a very positive experience, as long as you maintain a positive perspective. For a start, constructive criticism from someone well-meaning and trustworthy can obviously be a useful tool in your quest to improve, but also, consider this…
A well-crafted piece of art, in this case a novel per se, should ALWAYS broach an emotional response of some kind, even on a very small scale. So if somebody, for example, turns to you and says that they hate your work, then ultimately you’ve achieved your goal—an emotional response! The fact that their response in this case is negative is neither here nor there in truth, though of course it’d be nice to hear someone say they love your work. The only truly negative response to be had is that of indifference, a response LACKING emotion.
Does the genre you normally read have a direct influence on your writing?
Quite simply, no, not in the slightest. But allow me to explain… There are two authors in particular I’m a big fan of—J.R.R. Tolkien and Dan Abnett—who’s MOs I’ve certainly taken cues from, whether that be describing beautiful landscapes, writing memorable dialogue or composing visceral action/combat sequences.
But where my real, deep-seated influences lie are in visual media, more so than literary ones—something I’ve spoken about here and there on my website. I’m a passionate cineaste as well as a devourer of novels, and it’s been from the silver screen that I’ve derived the most inspiration and creative incentive, and you can absolutely see that in my writing, which I’ve been told countless times is incredibly filmic and detail orientated…
The films of Kurosawa Akira(Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress…) especially have been a huge influence on me, and Japanese storytelling in general really, including traditional folktales and modern JRPGs, such as Final Fantasy VII. Indeed, in my head, my stories play out like movies, which I then have to do my best to put into words on the page.
It’s the language I use during this process that really ties into the books I’ve read, I suppose. I love to read work with a strong narrative voice, and I’ve gone to great lengths to develop one of my own in response to that—a key feature of my style, I think it’s fair to say.
Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
As a writer of Historical Fiction, I can say that the research is a massive undertaking! Looking back, I must have spent well over a year digging up and absorbing all of the relevant info I needed, and then some, before I could even start planning the plot or properly outlining the characters…
You see, as I discovered pretty quickly, to be able to give an accurate, believable and immersive portrayal of your setting’s time and place, you need to know far more about it than you’ll ever put into the actual prose. I’ve herded together a small library’s worth of factual books, dealing with subjects and issues that go far beyond those of my novel’s plot, but it was necessary to acquire that degree of insight, even just to feel confident that I could achieve the results I’d hoped to, in terms of world building.
Many hours were spent trawling the net for info beyond the scope of the books I’d bought, or things too obscure or finite to include in any of them. And even after all of that, once the writing of the draft was underway, the research was continuous, an on-and-off process of checking and double checking, finding fresh angles and negotiating lots of fiddly little questions that would pop up when you’d least expect…
All things considered, I’d have to say that researching a novel is just as much of a journey as writing one, or perhaps more so—the novel must ultimately end, but you can never stop learning.
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