Level Up by Craig Anderson
What led you into writing?
I’ve been writing my whole life, from as young as I can remember. English was by far my favourite class at school, particularly when I got to do creative writing. I distinctly remember a substitute teacher asking me to stay after class one day to discretely accuse me of copying my latest story from a book. She said there was no way I could have wrote it. It was a very strange compliment! I told my friends that one day I would write books for a living, and I even had a draft of a very early story (although looking back on it now, it wasn’t very good!)
I took a break from writing once I hit my late teens and discovered beer & video games. I did a business management degree at uni, so I got to write a lot, but it was mostly reports or essays about macro economics, so hardly page turning material. Work continued in a similar vain. Spending hours a day in front of a spreadsheet did little to encourage me to go home and write.
Things changed when I moved to Canada in 2008. I was gainfully unemployed for a few months and itching for something to do. With time on my hands and an over-active imagination I ended up writing a novel, or more specifically 90% of one. I totally pantsed the whole thing and promptly wrote myself into a corner. I went back to try and change directions, but somehow ended up back at the start of the book, where I promptly wrote most of it again, with similar results.
After a couple more attempts I decided that I wasn’t ready to write a 90k novel, so I went the opposite way and wrote a boatload of flash fiction. After a few years of doing that, one of those short stories got a little longer, and then longer again, until I had a 30k novella called Getting Lucky. I was very excited to have actually finished something and on a whim I threw it up on Amazon, with a dodgy home made cover and no editing.
If this was a movie I would have sold a million copies and retired to a beachfront mansion as a super successful indie author. Unfortunately (for me!) that isn’t what happened…
So yeah, my indie author career was off to a rocky start financially, but I had other things to keep me busy, namely a bouncing baby girl and a full time job. I put writing aside again for a while, but now the fire was lit.
A couple of years later, when life had calmed down slightly and I was sleeping again, I found myself thinking back to those original characters and wondering what had happened to them. The words came a lot easier this time around, and before I knew it I’d written the sequel (Lucky Shot). Then I had a drunken conversation with a friend of mine late one night about A.I. and bees. Somehow that become another novella, The Colony. Then I published a third Lucky Beggar novella, and before I knew it I was writing all the time! At some point during all of that my wife and I found time to have another baby, so life was gloriously busy.
With so many novellas under my belt I figured I was ready to try something longer. That ended up being a techno-thriller about hackers (Trojan) because apparently I can’t stick to a genre to save my life. I really enjoyed those characters and fully intended to write the sequel right away, but then I wrote a piece of flash fiction about a world that followed video game rules and totally fell in love with it. It was called Level Up.
NaNoWriMo was just around the corner. I’d never done it before, but I had always wanted to. I had tremendous support from a Nano regular (thanks Brian!) and just like that I was 50k into a Level Up novel. That’s when things got really interesting…
How does a typical day look?
We have two small kids, so my typical day starts far earlier than I would like it to, typically around 6am. My wife goes to work early and takes my son, so my daughter and I hang out until the school bus picks her up. We spend that time playing games and making up stories about unicorns (sidenote, I’ve thought way too much about how not fun it would be to be a pregnant unicorn…)
As soon as my daughter leaves I hop in the car and go to work for 8 hours. More spreadsheets!
I typically get home just in time for dinner, bath time, story time and bed time. Then second bedtime, and if my son is feeling particularly boisterous a few more bedtimes for good measure.
Once the kids are tucked in my wife and I usually do the middle-aged version of Netflix and chill, which involves actually watching Netflix and trying not to fall asleep on the couch. My wife is a teacher, so if she has marking to do or other work I’ll get a head start on the writing, but otherwise I don’t usually sit down at my laptop to write until around 10pm.
I usually write in 10 minute sprints and aim for 800-1000 words an hour. If I have a plan the words come a lot easier. I’ll usually write for a couple of hours and then watch an episode of Friends or Futurama before bed – mostly because they are hilarious and short, but also because I can’t go straight to bed after writing for 2 hours. I end up laying there wide away trying to turn my brain off. I’m typically in bed at around 12:30am.
Weekends are surprisingly similar routine wise, with work being replaced by kids activities. Sometimes I’ll squeeze in an extra hour or two of writing while the kids are napping just after lunch, but otherwise most of my writing happens when the rest of the house is asleep.
In what ways do your characters test your abilities?
Honestly, my characters never listen to me! One of the reasons that I end up pantsing so much is because every time I try and plot out a novel my characters refuse to go along with it. I know that sounds completely mental, but it’s true! Whenever they have to make a decision I find myself thinking but would they actually do that? and if the answer is no I end up changing the scene until I can answer that they would. Sometimes it works out great, but other times it is maddening, like I will think of something really cool and interesting that might happen, but then my character gets to the situation and just nopes right out of there, and I am left with this great scene that no-one ever gets to read about. I’ve resorted to kidnapping them or holding them hostage (in the books) just so I can get them to do fun stuff that they wouldn’t volunteer to do willingly.
What’s your setup?
I mostly write with my laptop on my lap, on the couch, with the dog right next to me.
Of course I’m now going to clean all the kids toys and half eaten bowls of cheerios off the desk. Then I’ll pop some random technology on it to make it look like I am a grown up and have my shit together…
What lasting effects have your favourite authors had on your writing and style?
My idol is Sir Terry Pratchett (GNU) and I can’t even begin to capture the influence he has had on my writing, and continues to have. The man was an absolute legend at characters, every single one of them is a masterclass of distinct personality that interact and mingle in authentic and hilarious ways. He made very dry topics absolutely fascinating, and always layered so many different jokes and types of humour throughout that even after I’ve read them all a dozen times I am still finding new jokes and call backs. I still have a lot to learn until I’m half the writer that he was, but it gives me something to aim for. It makes me immensely sad that no new Terry Pratchett books are coming out.
I recently had a reviewer compare one of my books to Terry Pratchett and I’m not ashamed to say I fist pumped the air like a lunatic and teared up. That is quite literally the best compliment I have ever received. Whenever I’m doubting my current WIP I just think of that review and instantly cheer myself up!
The other author I am a huge fan of is Michael Crichton. He wasn’t afraid to write fast paced thrillers about extremely complex topics, and he had a real knack for keeping me glued to the page. I love to keep his pacing in mind when I’m writing. If anything feels like it is slowing the story down unintentionally, i get out the red pen and start chopping. It has also convinced me to trust my readers and not spell everything out for them. They are more than capable of connecting the dots without me walking them through it.
What do you do for inspiration?
I’m a business analyst in my day job, which means I have to learn complex things on the fly and be able to explain them in easy to understand ways. Curiosity is a big asset, as my job often involves me asking why a whole bunch of times until I figure out what has happened.
I find myself doing this exact same thing about any topic that interests me, and then suddenly it is 3am and I forgot to go to bed. Pretty much anything can set me off. When my friend and I started talking about bees I barely knew anything about them, but soon I was watching hours of YouTube videos, chatting with local bee keepers and joining online forums. Everyone was super friendly and helpful, and happy to teach me all kinds of cool facts which I could layer into the story. A 30 minute conversation inspired hours of learning and a 30k novella.
I’m at the point now where I have far more story ideas than I have time to write them. There are at least a dozen concepts scribbled in various notebooks I have strewn around the house, most of which will never see the light of day.
What repeating themes do you find yourself pulling into your stories?
Pretty much all my stories have one thing in common, an underdog. I don’t know why I love that archetype so much, but so far all my MCs have been drastically underestimated, sometimes by others, and often by themselves. Something about it really appeals to me.
The other thing that is universal across my stories is humour. My characters are regularly snarky and engage in lots of banter. No matter how dire the situation is, their first reaction will always be to crack a joke or take the piss. I always say that I want to make my readers smile and then make them think, in that order.
Also, half of my stories include Artificial intelligence in one form or another. My wife actually rolls her eyes if I start talking about A.I. now, she has endured a lot of blathering from me on the topic. I find it so fascinating, that blurred line between man and machine. What makes us us and can a computer ever replicate that. More to the point, would it want to?
How do you wind down?
Writing is my wind down time, but I usually take a break between books to give myself a chance to recharge. I’m a big gamer, I have been ever since I was a kid, so when time allows I will sit down and play through a new game. I don’t play online anymore as I am not good enough, I get totally schooled by the newest generation of gamers and I don’t have the time or the patience to change that, so most of what I play is single player games with a rich story. As I am currently writing in this space I get to call it research.
Exercise wise I play in the local squash league, so once a week I go run around in a small room flailing a racket around like a demented windmill, desperately trying to hit a ball that seems to move just a little bit quicker every year (at least that is what I tell myself, because I don’t like the alternative.)
What sort of challenges do you regularly overcome while world-building?
For me the biggest challenge is keeping everything straight. As I’ve mentioned I am a pantser for most of my books, so remembering who has been where and seen what is a real challenge, particularly when I start going back to previous chapters and changing stuff. All of a sudden I have introduced someone twice, or not at all.
Finding the right balance of detail is also tricky. Some people want you to paint a vivid picture, to describe everything in such intricate detail that they can imagine it down to the droplets of water running down the side of the water cooler. Other people hate that stuff and just want you to get on with the story. They care about what is happening, not where it is happening.
One interesting challenge I have been having recently is that most of my stories are based in the UK, which is where I am originally from. Because my sense of humour is so very British, it feels weird to base them anywhere else. However, I haven’t lived in the UK for 12 years now, and I honestly forget how things are there sometimes. I have to send my drafts back to my UK friends to have them ‘Brit check’ it for me, and I get all the red pen back saying stuff like it’s not called a dumpster here, and swimming costume, not bathing suit!
What’s the most useful advice you could give to an aspiring author?
Write. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter if it is complete and utter crap. Crap on a page is a thousand times more useful than crap in your head, because someone else can help you fix it!
If possible write the whole first draft before you even think about going back to do edits. That avoids the awkward situation where you’ve spent hours getting a chapter absolutely perfect, and then get to the end and realize that your beloved chapter needs to change, or maybe even not exist anymore.
If you don’t have time to write a novel, write a novella, or a short story, or some flash fiction. A lot of my flash stories are 300 words or less, which only took me 20 minutes to write. Set yourself a word count and a theme and stick to it. You learn a lot writing flash, because every single word counts. You’ll learn how to turn 10 words into 7, and 7 into 5. That’s a handy skill to have when you write something longer.
Not everyone is going to like your stuff, and that is ok. Unless you love every book you read then you can’t possibly expect everyone else to. It’s hard not to take it personally at first, but that is usually our old friend imposter syndrome paying a visit. Tell that sneaky bastard to take a hike. I’m not going to lie, the first 1 star review will sting a little, but you should wear it as a badge of honour. It means you finished a story and put it out there, which is something to be proud of. Now stop checking your reviews and write the next book!
Tell us about the book you’re promoting.
Level Up is my latest and most popular book. It asks a simple question, what would the world be like if video game rules suddenly applied? It is silly and lighthearted and contains a squirrel called Nutsack. If that doesn’t convince you to read it, nothing will! You can grab it here.