Thanet Writers Question Lee Stoddart

Author and HG Wells Short Story Competition judge Lee Stoddart answers the Thanet Writers Discourse Questions.

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© Lee Stoddart / Thanet Writers / Fair Use / Images Combined

Well…I’m Thanet born and bred. I went to Chatham House Grammar School in the ’80s. I’m a mechanical engineer by training, but got out in the late ’90s and worked for Saga (the over 50s specialist in Folkestone). I spent fourteen years there as an analyst, project manager and, finally, Head of Strategy. So, I like to see the big picture—movements in society, that kind of thing. In the last five years I’ve spent time doing some consulting, as Strategy Director for the group that owns the Radio Times, and co-founded an online educational start-up.

But I quit the corporate world and left all that behind in November last year to focus on writing.

I really feel like I’m back in an apprenticeship right now—learning the skills of the trade from first principles.

Origins

Back in 2013, I’d left Saga and decided I’d had enough of the corporate world. I was in a financial position to do what I’d always wanted to do—unleash my unbridled literary talent on the world. The rest is history. If only.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, as I got sucked into another couple of businesses for a while, but I did start thinking about writing. Meantime, a friend suggested I try my hand at some short stories. He actually told me to “get the hell on with it.” Good advice.

He also suggested I enter the H G Wells Short Story Competition—which, fortunately, I did.

I got shortlisted for the HG Wells Short Story Competition in 2013 and 2015, meaning I became a published author in the competition anthologies. That gave me a huge confidence boost. It meant someone else—someone who knew something about these things—actually rated my writing.

I’m now a committee member and judge for the competition.

In 2015, I drafted my first novel—a Victorian horror, set in Margate. At the time, I felt really pleased with it. There are parts that I still like but I really feel it needs a major re-write now, and I think I’ve taken the decision to shelve it indefinitely and just get on with my second. It’s hard to kill a novel, but at least I won’t get hung up about changing a line, chapter or even character in the future!

In November 2017, I finally bit the bullet and decided I was going to do the writing thing full-time. I’m still finding my feet, playing with different genres and styles, but I often gravitate to horror and speculative fiction.

So, now it’s my job. Currently unpaid, but who knows what the future holds?

Influences

What influences me is a tough question because the answer can only be: everything. I’m an avid news watcher and interested in world politics, business-news, the environment, and particularly technology. I’m really focused on long-term trajectories and I love working through complexity.

For example, where will technology like Alexa end up? Will it be an assistant or a controlling force? Benevolent or malevolent? Who or what could be the power behind it? I guess it’s the strategist in me. The trouble is, it’s easy to end up sounding a bit hackneyed.

I’m very detail oriented—so I want to be exact in my detail and I spend a lot of time researching. A huge fault I have is wanting to include too much detail and too much exposition. I have to temper that.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’m also fascinated by people. I love to watch them, to work out their backstories, their motivations…and their destinations. I hope I reflect that in my writing—or at least that, as I grow as a writer, I will.

My reading influences include a lot of fantasy and science fiction: Terry Pratchett (although I haven’t yet tried my hand at humour), H P Lovecraft (putting aside the turgid descriptions), J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, William S Burroughs…all that stuff. Probably nothing unusual for a lad growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. I also have a strange penchant for Irvine Welsh. His (mainly) vile characters and dialogue wind me in and snare me. Recently, I’ve been trying to read Kafka…

Music is a big general influence in my life. I have a huge music collection (5,000+ CDs) and can’t work without something on in the background. From progressive rock to punk, metal, ambient, opera, jazz. I use it to deliberately influence my state of mind—it’s also so much easier now with Spotify or Amazon mood playlists.

I’m easily influenced by my location. Several of my stories have been a direct result of walks around Thanet, Faversham, Sandwich and Deal. I’m fascinated by our local history and particularly Victorian Margate. I love to weave historical facts to improbable situations. It’s amazing how many synchronicities crop up.

Motivations

I’m doing what I want to do. But, it can be hard.

Along the way, I’ve had a few positive things that give me a glimmer of hope that I might be able to make it as a writer. The H G Wells Short Story Competition listings were a real boost but they were some time ago.

Thanet Writers have been kind enough to publish a couple of my short / flash pieces too (‘Steamed Punks’ and ‘The Wannabe Author’), which means I can now claim to be a paid author. Another important bridge crossed.

I’m also hopeful that I will get into an anthology in the next couple of months. It’s these positive strokes that keep me going. It helps validate my decision.

But the most important motivator is the support and belief of my family and particularly my better-half, Tammy. I couldn’t do this without her.

My next step, now I have a little stockpile of stories, is to start submitting them. I’ve put a few in to various publishers and see how we go.

Habits

I like to spend some time in the gym first thing each morning. I know, take a look at the photos, right? Absolute fitness-freak…not quite. But, it’s a very sedentary job and I know I suffer if I don’t, so I make sure I do a bit on the cross-trainer and treadmill every day. Who knows, maybe one day I might get vaguely toned!

I try to be ‘at work’ by 9am latest and I write through until 4pm when the rest of the family come back home and the house gets a bit busy. I’m not a weird-hours writer, but when I get going, I don’t tend to stop—I’m glued to the chair for hours. I’d say that ideal probably happens two days a week. Other days are interrupted by website updates, judging the H G Wells Short Story Competition, keyboard failures, power cuts…you name it, I can be distracted by it. But I do write every day.

I’ve tried working in various places across the house, in coffee shops, in the garden—everywhere has its advantages and disadvantages. For editing, I prefer to be at my office desk with a big monitor and the virtual real estate to spread out. I might have one screen doing some internet research, the other will have the document open.

When I’m trying to be creative—cooking up something new—I’d rather be somewhere else. My office reminds me too much of my past corporate life and it doesn’t get me in the mood. My favourite place at the moment is my ‘writing shed.’ I’ve noticed every successful writer has or had a shed to hide themselves away in. Henry James, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain…the list is endless. So, I need one. Right?

My shed’s actually our little summer house at the back of the garden. No distractions and just enough space for a small desk, keyboard and monitor. Not a big, showy monitor but a small just enough space for Word kind of monitor. No space for an open browser or email means no distractions.

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about the seclusion of his cellar and cracking on with 2,000 words in a day before you even think about a break. That’s what I’m aiming for. Some days I even achieve it.

Inspirations

Well, without stroking his ego too much, my biggest inspiration is my friend and author David Lee Stone (also known as David Grimstone). I’ve known David for close on twenty years, and always been encouraged by his success: dozens of books published, hundreds of thousands of books sold. Really nice guy.

David has spent a lot of time mentoring me and just giving me a lot of advice. He’s an honest sounding post and doesn’t shy away from giving me the harsh (realistic) truth about a tough business. I really value his time, whenever I can get it!

He’s not a bad scribbler, either.

Barriers

Everything and anything! I’m a terrible procrastinator. If I’m not in the right mood then it just doesn’t flow. So, I’ve spent a lot of time working out what puts me in the right mood and working that into my daily routine.

Achievements

I’m right at the start of my journey. This is effectively my third career after engineering and corporate strategy, so my achievements to date are small: two short-listings, two stories published online, website up and running.

But, I have a plan. I’m a strategist, how could I not?

In the short-term, I want to hone my skill and prove I can sustain a living from writing. Now, I’m at a stage in life where I don’t need a lot for that to be realistic.

In the medium-term, I want to get a couple of novels under my belt and get published. I have half-a-dozen in note form and just need to choose one to get in with.

So, come back and ask me in a couple of years’ time!

Advice

Take time to find what works for you. Experiment. Join writers’ groups and go along with your work for critique. Find people at the group who know what they are talking about, will give you an honest opinion, and could be your potential audience. No bullshit or soft-soaping. Listen to them, but choose your own path. Take (constructive) criticism on the chin—you need to be resilient. It can be hard to do that.

I’ve joined a number of writers’ groups. Each has a different style. I get something different from each of them. The critiquing sessions at The Chapel are simultaneously a joy and a terror to me.

Now

I’ve just launched my website, leestoddardauthor.com, and a Facebook page! My hope is that these will document my progress from apprentice to master-craftsman. I guess that’s what all wannabe authors hope.

I’ve put up a few short stories on the website and will periodically pop more up.

Included on the site are my original H G Wells Short Story Competition shortlisted entries. By way of a plug, the new competition launches in late November. You can find out more on the official website.

Next

After I’ve finished this interview? A very strong coffee…

Beyond that, I’m at a juncture. At first, I did some shorts to see if I could even write. Then I launched straight into a novel, which I now believe is right to shelve indefinitely—although I might recycle bits of it. I’m particularly taken with the opening chapters.

I’ve then spent some time building a better skillset writing short-stories. Whilst I like writing shorts, I really want to crack on with my second novel, find a publisher, and get a book out.

So, that’s the plan. Lock myself away in my garden shed over the winter and crack on!

Lee quit the corporate world to write speculative fiction and horror. He has been published twice by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.

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