Why do you write?
It’s been a compulsion all my life. It just came out of nowhere as soon as I could talk, the urge to try to make words on paper, to tell stories using those words and images. On my website (simonhiggins.net) on the ‘About’ page, is a photograph my late mother took of me, locked in intense concentration, working on my first illustrated novel. I was 3.
What drives you to do this?
It’s some kind of instinct, like whatever it is that drives birds to fly without having to attend lectures that tell them, ‘Hey, you were designed for flight.’ Weirdly, at times in my life I have just sensed that I was entering a season of ‘input’ where I was not meant to write for some time, but instead to have experiences that would equip me to write later with enhanced power and conviction. Those intuitive creative leadings proved valid, as 13 novels and publication in a variety of languages indicate.
How did you come to writing?
I wrote throughout primary school and high school, then went into a long ‘input’ stage, where I felt I was living life, gathering power, appreciating reality, tasting of human experiences, all so that later I would actually have something to say that was uniquely my own. Too many people stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before them, living big lives, and rehash their stuff, usually not very convincingly. After several careers, lots of travel and a tough 10 years in law enforcement, I literally woke up one morning with the knowledge that it was time to become a professional writer.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I was tactical and sneaky, which you have to be if you want to break into this tough industry (yes, it’s art, but it’s also a ruthless dog-eat-dog business, so get used to that idea). I am all about attempting ‘firsts’ to grab platform and attention and garner credibility. It’s risky, but heh, fortune favours the brave, right? So I wrote my first Young Adult novel using what I, and few others, really knew: the darkest psychology of the world of policing. Doctor Id, I have been told by people whose degrees are in children’s literature, was the first realistic—and terrifying—novel about a serial killer to be written for young readers by an ex-detective who had personally encountered a serial killer.
And it worked. The book, which my daring publisher Mark McLeod (then of Random House) warned me would either put me on the map big time or get me black-listed with every guardian and gatekeeper of young minds in Australia and New Zealand Education, turned out to be a big hit and even won Notable Book of the Year. It went on to be published in Italian and serialised in Japan, as well as scouted by TV and film producers. I was then on my way (wiping my brow and saying uneasily, ‘I…I always knew that would work’.)
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
It seems I don’t have to. I’m too obsessive and passionate about creativity. I save all my discipline for my ongoing martial arts training, and the writing side’s inert ambition and forward momentum just seem to take care of themselves. And yes, I am grateful for that, and don’t for one second ever pretend I earned it. I was born, and this is what I am. Lucky, lucky me, I guess.
And yet, driven as I am, of course I need to keep the life exciting, so yes, I am still striving for ‘firsts’, and am happy to report that recently, I pulled off another one. My 13th novel, Darkspear, is (so more experts tell me) the first ever Visual Novel by a western published author combining text, original music, sound effects, animation and high quality art, to be simultaneously published (and available via Google Play and Apple Store) in both Mandarin Chinese and English. By the way, Darkspear is a Young Adult sci-fi romance and I’m thrilled to have been able to bring together a Japanese medium, a Chinese gaming company and western storytelling experience to bring out something fresh and new. If you want to know more, just visit my website (www.simonhiggins.net).
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do?
Aye, that was the rub. That was always a problem until, in time, I was fortunate enough and privileged enough to find fate leading me into a full time creative role. I now live 11 months of every year in China, where I both screenwrite and coach a team of screenwriters putting a TV show on the air for an audience of, literally, millions per screening. Again, I am humbled and grateful for this kind of life, where I get to be part of what is effectively the emerging Far Eastern equivalent of Hollywood, a fast-growing, well-funded and profoundly appreciated part of a rapidly evolving, very international-in-flavour new Chinese culture.
How has that changed from when you were starting out?
Gods, what a contrast! Bearing in mind that yes, I have certainly paid my dues over a 20 year career, well…haha…I wrote Doctor Id while still a licensed private investigator working on a homicide case. Think I slept about 6 hours a night for about 6 months…talk about a long, harrowing pregnancy. But these days, I write and coach writing for a living, full time, and by choice, have the joy of doing it in Asia where the attitude towards professional creative people, particularly writers, is the kind of respect and adulation we only see in Australia towards sporting identities. Cultures that were publishing love poetry 2000 years ago tend to be like that.
Where do you write?
Like the Shakira song, ‘Whenever, wherever’. Perhaps because I’ve been writing so long now, I just don’t seem to need a designated space or controlled environment, which is handy. Somehow—possibly this at least partly comes from a long history of martial arts training—I can lock everything else out and write quite comfortably on planes, in bullet trains, airports, my office at work, or at home, with pretty much equal clarity. And when that inevitable screaming baby or squabbling couple suddenly appears right in front of me, yes, of course, I then whip out the earplugs.
How do you arrange your working space and what are your essential writing tools?
My MacBook Air (quick branding plug, so sponsor me, guys) is all the ‘virtual workspace’ I need, that and a backup drive. My Swedish-made Thule laptop case (more sponsorship, please?) becomes my instant and portable desk, and I use a touchpad to control my cursor, not a mouse, so it’s all very compact.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
That most of the people in positions of power in publishing, endlessly propagandise that they are all about art, but the reality is, they are mostly about money and career and it’s an industry. If you want to write for a niche audience with total freedom and develop that following yourself, these days you can by self-publishing and using the net cleverly. When I started out, last century, that was barely possible and only through spending a great deal of money yourself on publicists or being lucky enough to be selected for ‘front shelf’ promotion by a publisher. The internet has changed everything, as I thought it would, so a lot of what I didn’t know back in the day isn’t really a problem or limitation for writers starting out now. But just be aware, if you want commercial publication, particularly with big houses, and you want to break into the US market (which I have) then you’d better learn to talk in hard-nosed and well-researched terms about what your work is like, whose books it can be compared with, and how palatable it is for filming and generating sequels. Truth be told, they are not that interested in the ‘art’ or ‘inspiration’ side of it, except if the way you tell that will sound great in interviews and the fabric of your arty side will snare good reviews, which to them are just another tool for grabbing wider sales. Commitment to artistic integrity in 21st century mainstream publishing? Get the 50-Shades-Of-Grey out of here!
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
This is the point where I am supposed to tell you I still read a lot, but that would be a lie. I have read thousands of books in my long life, but these days, working across mediums in TV screenwriting and Visual Novel scripting, and coaching a team fielding a major TV show in China AND travelling a lot both internationally (England last year, Malaysia the year before, Vietnam next year, and Australia every year in between for an annual ‘home turf tour’)… the only stuff lately I get time to read is my own (editing) and my team’s. I won’t always be this busy, and one day will get back to reading greedily, mostly high quality spec fic and historical adventure literature.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Can’t help you with this one. I’ve never experienced it. I have the opposite problem, a constant flow of ideas, connections and creative hunches, which at times, I have to struggle to get down somewhere on paper or screen, or just plain staunch. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, which by the way, can lead to just as much frustration, I suspect, as writer’s block, going on what colleagues have told me. Which idea to invest in? Which path to take? How to prioritise the many synopses?
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Be clear on how serious—or not—you are about making this a career, as opposed to a part time job or hobby. If you are hungry and determined, inventive and relentless, you can make it as a full time writer in some wing of the world’s creative industries. But don’t expect it to be easy, quick or fair.
At times, you will be let down, mislead, or just plain ripped-off. But if you’re tough enough to go the distance, this is a profession that can bring endless satisfaction, delight and yes, even income. Confucius (you just knew I was going to end with something Chinese, didn’t you?) famously wrote, ‘Make something you love your job, and you’ll never have to work again’. The great sage wasn’t wrong, but he also knew the quality of discipline because he was (as most people don’t know) not only a social philosopher but also a reputed martial artist.
To anyone choosing the writing life, and also willing to go the hard yards, focus and evolve, I sincerely wish you publishing success, career good luck and lasting prosperity, and I look forward to seeing your work on shelves, screens and devices one day soon.
Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author. Originally a policeman, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. His 13 novels include crime, speculative fiction and historical adventures. His bestseller Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast (2008) was published in the US, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently screenwrites in China.