Dan Abnett is an amazing writer. He writes action scenes that play out before your eyes like a movie. He’s funny, clever and he’s my son’s favourite author. Here, he discusses where his sparks come from. I’m exactly the same; so many of my ideas come when I’m sitting in that stasis of public transport.
“My ideas come by train. And bus. Mostly train. Public mass transport, basically. I presume they buy their own tickets.
When I first started writing, even in a vaguely professional capacity, I was commuting in and out of London for work. Daily journeys on trains, on the Tube. It was the only time I got to think, the only enforced free time between a full day at work and a full night of writing. This was, of course, during the Punic Wars, before the advent of laptops or smartphones. Yes, we had pencils. Yes, we did. But there wasn’t much opportunity to sit and write on a crowded South Eastern commuter train. So I’d sit and think instead.
Ideas do come from other places. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and find them on the pillow, and sometimes, sometimes, I actually deliberately think them up. With my brain. After twenty-five years, I have honed the requisite professional skills to actually be able to sit down and, at will, during regular business hours, come up with fit-for-purpose ideas ready to be used in commissions. It’s a learned skill. Like riding a bike. Or cutting keys. Or cobbling.
But some of the best ideas are the ones that come out of nowhere and mug you. Or the ones you find at the back of the drawer (before you look, it’s a metaphorical drawer). Or the ones that apport into the middle of your kitchen floor during an otherwise ordinary afternoon.
Or the ones that arrive by train.
What do I do with them? I seize them! I seize them, I say, and I clap them in chains! …Well, I write them down for later use. I think you know when a spontaneous, unbidden ideas is a corkingly good one, just as you know that if you don’t record its finer points fast, before it fades like a waking dream, it will just be a memory shaped like a good idea, the moulded space in which a good idea once fitted, rather than a working good idea that you can use because all the plugs and adaptors, and the instructions, are still in the box. Before I learned to write things down, to recover them and prepare them for a later use, I lost many because of the foolish notion that I would remember them when I got home or needed to use them. Sometimes I remembered the idea, but not the point, the one tiny detail that made the idea usable and good. Sometimes, all I remembered was that I’d had an idea. I am still haunted by the memory of forgotten ideas from years ago, by the empty shaped spaces. And I have a good memory.
Why trains? I’d say because the world goes by. It’s not a specific and focused inspiration, like a good book or a newspaper feature, it’s just a series of views, a moving panorama of nonspecific life, none of it intended for, or prepared for, observation. It just goes by. There are either subliminal hooks buried in it, or it’s simply enough to have a moving, non-static visual feed to get my brain firing. Like ambient visuals.
I must learn to get on trains more often, to deliberately seek out the resource rather than accidentally use it because I happen to be going somewhere. The endorsements speak for themselves. This summer, I had, at one point, three big jobs that needed to have ideas developed for them so I could submit and pitch. I wasn’t exactly struggling, but the ideas were not coming out cleanly. I had to go up to London for a signing, and on the train ride home – a journey of just fifty-five minutes – I ‘received’, without trying, without effort, all three, one after another.
I wasn’t even thinking about the pending jobs.
From my house, if the wind’s in the right direction, I can sometimes hear trains passing through the local station. Buses grumble by the retaining wall at the end of my quiet street.
I think they’re trying to tell me something.”
Dan Abnett is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning comic book writer. He has written over forty novels, including the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series, the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies, The Silent Stars Go By (the 2011 Christmas Doctor Who novel), Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero, and Embedded. He lives and works in Maidstone, Kent. Dan’s blog and website can be found at www.danabnett.com
and you can follow him on Twitter @VincentAbnett