Monday, 29 June 2009


Another guest. Today I talk to Alex Keegan about, well, writing mostly. What d’ya think? (Feel free to disagree…)

Welcome, Alex. So,why write?
Writing makes me feel alive, makes me think I'm doing more than existing. I express myself, reveal myself, go naked. Writing properly is very sensual (and sometimes sexy).

How do you work? Are you disciplined in the hours you keep or do you prefer spontaneity?
When I am in writing mode I am very disciplined. I believe that volume = greater quality. After a certain number of words, another person takes over and then real work can begin. I ALWAYS write quickly. I believe that the unconscious/subconscious is a thousand times better and cleverer (and more surprising) than the conscious. Writing fast frees the soul, the inner self, the un/sub-conscious.

Art or craft?
Art as a separate entity is bullshit. Art is a sudden change, an appearance, that comes from good craft, great craft. It's easy to prove. Take a great story that you consider art, now change twenty words. What happens? Suddenly it's not so good, not art, merely well-crafted.

Do you like daily/weekly work count targets?
When I am in full writing mode, yes. Less than 1,000 a day (full-time) is hardly a "writer" is it?

Are you a great planner of plot/narrative?
I believe every person who consciously plots should be put in a sack with a rabid cat and thrown in the nearest canal. I sincerely believe that plotter-planners will ALWAYS produce inferior work and almost never "art".

What is the greatest asset a writer can have?
Sexuality and persistence. You need both.

I should explain the first. I don't mean "horniness'. I mean that everything connects back to the primitive, and we have to find a way of expressing that. Desire, need, drives, manifesting themselves through language, create art.

Can you teach people to write?
Categorically YES. I have proved it a hundred times. The first element of teaching is removing fundamental errors. Get rid of stereotypes and cliches, then stock characters and stock plots. Now the writer has to look within. Teach people to go naked and they start to write worthwhile stuff.

In Boot Camp 100 is fairly good, 106 is par, 110 is publishable in a small paper magazine. I believe you can teach ANYBODY who is interested enough up to a level where they consistently average, say 105. That means they score 95 to 115 so about half their work is publishable on paper, and most of the rest on the web. Beyond this level it's not quite "teaching" (in a formal sense) but you can help people "visualise" or "learn to see" or "learn to live and breathe and see as a writer" or guide their reading.

But there comes a point (winning Bridport or writing a Booker novel) when some extra needs to come from the person. A good teacher/editor can still help a Bridport winner, but gradually the effects of teaching are minimized.

After publishing several novels you seem to concentrate on short fiction these days; how would you compare the composition of these two forms?
Novels are a piece of piss to write. Outside the top few hundred novels the level of craft isn't great. EVERY good short-story writer can write good novels. Few good novelists can switch to shorts.

There is a lot more "art", a poetic feel to a good short story. They are tighter, more brilliant. Novels, generally are baggy monsters.

You describe your online writing school, Boot Camp, as 'tough'. Can you tell us more?
We expect people to work. I believe we must write AT THE VERY LEAST a story per fortnight to have any chance of success. Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours minimum to become world-class. One hour’s writing per day, seven days a week, ten thousand hours is reached in THIRTY YEARS. We have to write, write, write to become good.

In Boot Camp we aim to spot flaws not look to praise. My belief is this: If you need me to tell you something is good, then that means YOU DON'T KNOW it's good and that means you cannot repeat what others see as good.

Our marking is very tough but the system works. At the last count, while people were physically Boot Camp members, we had had 131 first prizes. Many BC stories go on to win prizes after the individual has moved on.

Boot Camp is:
Anonymous stories.
Comparable critiques written to a template.
An agreement not to "agree to disagree" over a text. We fight over differences of opinion and that's where a lot learn.

Interesting stuff. Thanks for your time, Alex.

Alex Keegan has published five novels but is perhaps best known for his success as a short story writer. His first collection, Ballistics, was recently published by Salt. He also runs Boot Camp – a tough online writing school.


Tania Hershman said...

Very interesting interview, thanks to you both. I like the idea of "going naked" and writing fast, although 1000 words a day is still a little out of my reach!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Indeed, Tania. To get into the spirit of things, I conducted the interview naked.

I've heard the 10,000 hours for virtuosity before, yet never thought to relate this to writing. Interesting.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I learned to write with this guy, and my files are still stuffed with the stories and flashes I wrote, often at a rate of an express train. It was a very buzzy time, creatively.

Thats four years back, and I suppose things change. It can now take months to write one piece, one part of this novel. I do write flashes as well, other short stories now and again, but then I feel guilty that I'm diverting focus from the other thing.

My own expectations are v v high.

And I STILL find it very hard to walk away and do no writing, just thinking, or reading. If I get to the end of the day with no words out of my head, I hear this voice shouting: 'call yerself a writer?'!

You certainly learned discipline in BC.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi Vanessa

Good to hear from you.

Not sure I necessarily agree with all the points Alex makes, but he certainly is one of the most prolific writers I've come across.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I certainly don't agree with the statement that novels are 'a pice of piss' to write. This one isn't for sure. It's killing me by slow degrees!



(security word is 'canter' - seems appropriate. maybe next time it will be 'gallop'.)