Monday, 3 June 2013

'...I'm just putting the film in my head down on paper...' Chatting to the fabulous Peter Johnstone.

Hello again, friends. Pull up a chair and help yourself to a chocolate finger 'cause we have a guest today - Mr. Peter Johnstone; author of the excellent 'Echo', saxophonist, salsa dancer, spotter of people playing games on Facebook etc. etc. Make room, people, make room...


Welcome, Sir. Thank you very much for stopping by. Let's just wait a mo for the applause to die down... first question... If aliens attacked, you had to flee your home and you are allowed to grab just one item on your way out of the door (your family are safe so don't worry about them) would you take your Sax or your Ipad?

So many things to consider here. The iPad is lighter and easier to carry, but it's a bit fragile and wouldn't be of much use if it came to hand to hand combat with an alien. The sax, however, weighs a couple of kilos and could do some damage with a good swing.
Perhaps I could earn my keep in the post-apocalyptic world as a travelling musician. But the noise from the sax might attract unwanted attention and I might be unpopular if the aliens came looking.
I'm a writer who can play the sax, not a musician who writes so, when the aliens come, it'll be the iPad in my hand as I scurry for cover.

Good choice! Have you always wanted to write?

A grammar school education did its best to suppress every drop of creativity but, at university, I started several aborted novels, none of which got very far as I hadn't thought through the story and what I wanted to say.
Echo came after reading a string of good novels, but none of which quite hit the spot. I realised that the only way to get the perfect novel, for me, was to write it myself. The final version of Echo is very similar to the first draft as it was never intended to see the light of day. I wrote it for me rather than for an audience  and, once it was finished, it was meant to sit on a hard drive until I accidentally deleted it (which is what happened to all the previous stories).
Echo 2 is different. I'm very conscious that other people are going to read it and, as much as I try to ignore that, it does impact on what I write. E2 is a much harder book to write. Particularly the sex scenes.

Ahem...Okay, so you already know that I loved 'Echo'where did you get the story idea from?


Find out more HERE

The story is driven by the characters. Echo and York already existed before there was a story to put them in. I did a creative writing course with the Open University and used them in several of the assignments. I wanted my characters to be believable and sympathetic, but not perfect. In fact, I view them as anti-heroes  In book one I allude to something Echo had done which, here and now, would make her a war criminal and I go into more detail about that in E2. But she's also vulnerable; trained and psychologically conditioned to be the perfect assassin but lacking some of the interpersonal skills that you'd expect of somebody of her age.

Each of the books has (will have) a theme. Echo was about duty versus desire and the need to belong. E2 is about identity; who are we, what tribe do we belong to? In E3 I will be exploring what makes us human. It sounds deep but I suspect that most people didn't actually notice that Echo had a theme.
I have to admit that I stole a lot of the underlying concepts. Anybody who's read Robert Heinlein will see massive parallels with Friday Baldwin - a genetically engineered artificial person. Interestingly, I was half way through writing the book when I read Singularity Sky by Charles Stross and realised that he'd got there first. Not only is his female protagonist a secret agent, enhanced in a very similar way to Echo, but she also had floating luggage - I abandoned that idea right there, although I'd actually stolen it from Terry Pratchett rather than Stross. It was a real Oh @@@@! moment.
My other thievery included Space Marines armour from Warhammer 40,000, and the Citadel is a thinly disguised Broadsword mercenary cruiser from the Traveller RPG. Sorry.
Once I had all that, all I needed was a plot. I think that's question 6.

It is you have ESP as well as EAA (that's Excellent Author Abilities in case you're wondering...)? Never mind...when Ridley Scott gets his act together and makes the Echo movie, who do you see in the lead role?

When I write, I'm just putting the film in my head down on paper and it's definitely a Ridley Scott movie.
I trawled the net for pictures to illustrate what my characters look like and I found a great one for York. It turned out to be John Travolta with a shaved head and goatee. That works quite well as York, in my head, is probably a similar age to Travolta (although I made him a bit younger in the book to reduce the age gap with Echo).
For Echo, I'm thinking possibly Lena Headey. She can project the combination of vulnerable and hard that I'm looking for. I love the scene in 300 when she murders Theros. Hard as nails when she needs to be.

Ooooh, that's good - yep, I can definitely see those two taking on the roles of York and Echo. Do you use social media to promote your books? If so, what has worked best for you?

I've got a blog which I should update more often - I write about writing, about my writing and sometime post teaser chapters. I use Twitter to point the world at large towards the blog and currently, one tweet results in one sale.
I also have a Facebook page, but most of the people looking at that are people I know and have already promised to buy the next book.

When it comes to writing, are you a planner or more of a 'go with the flow' kind of guy?

Echo started out as a set of twenty mind maps, each one setting out what happened in a single chapter. That worked fine for the first few chapters and then I started asking "in this situation, what would the character do?" By then I'd lived with Echo and York for more than a year and I knew them well. So, I let them have their say and suddenly the story started going in directions I didn't expect or intend. Everything that was on the mind maps eventually appeared at some point, but there were big diversions.
E2 has a small set of scenarios written down; there would be a bar fight and some ship to ship combat, but I didn't bother with a plan for the whole novel. I knew how it finished, who would survive (not everybody makes it) and the underlying theme. York had a mission, and I decided to let him get on with it. This approach made the first ten chapters quite difficult and I didn't really enjoy that part. Eventually I got into the swing and, as I started to colour in some of the minor characters, I found it became easier and more interesting.
For E3 I'm going back to the more rigorously planned approach as I've got accidental loose ends to tie up. The AltSpace creatures reappear and Artificial Intelligence will be central to the story.

What do you think of the whole 'Indie/Traditional' debate?

I really enjoyed writing Echo, then I got an additional kick from seeing it on Amazon and then another massive buzz when somebody bought it.
The traditional publishing model gives a small number of people a chance to offer up their work. It's said that everybody has a novel in them and the indie route allows everybody who wants to have a go, to do so. Some of it isn't to my liking but, if I've only paid 99p, then I don't feel badly done to.
I do feel a slight pang of jealousy when I see pictures of you signing real books in a real book shop but then I'm not sure I'd have the bottle to do the same thing. What if nobody turned up?
With indie publishing , if you want to write a novel, then the only barrier is you.

Amen! I think I would have 'control issues' if I was traditionally published - I like knowing that I have the final say in the cover, title etc. etc. although I've made a lot of embarrassing mistakes...let's change the subject... Do you believe that Earth is the only inhabited planet in space?

No. Statistically it's highly unlikely and we're finding new planets in the Goldilocks zones of distant stars all the time. I think that we haven't heard signals from aliens because humanity and other civilisations exist for a relatively short time in the grand scheme of things. Blink and you'll miss us.
One day, signals from another world will arrive, but we'll be long gone.

Damn! I'd really like to be around for that. Oh, well...can't have everything. What do your friends and family make of your writing?

My kids haven't read it yet (as far as i know), my dad said it was OK (we're Yorkshiremen and that's as demonstrative as we get) and certain parts (!) have been read out at work accompanied by merciless teasing. I do regret the polka dot pants.
I did have a conversation that went:
"I've read your book."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"I don't really read science fiction, and it was a bit violent. I wasn't expecting that."
Personally I'd have thought there should be no surprises of that sort from a book with a spaceship on the cover and a blurb that says "Echo murdered her way across the galaxy". But, hey, I made £1.37 whether she liked it or not.

Indeed! When is the next book in Echo's story going to be out (I need something good to read!)?

I've just finished the first proof read and corrections. It will be going out to the first readers next week and, depending on their reactions, it could be on Amazon in a month or so. I still have to decide on the title. That's really important as Cathy Helms won't be able to do the cover until I can tell her what it's called.

Can't wait! Thank you, I really enjoyed the chat and yes, you kept me off Facebook for the morning - good job, Sir!

Right, folks. Our time is up for today. Stack your chairs neatly in the corner and can someone help me with this folding table? I can never co-ordinate folding the legs in and dropping the Oh, well. I can see you're all in a rush to get back to your computers and find out more about Peter Johnstone so here's where he hangs out online.

Best wishes



Peter Johnstone - writer

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