Steven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur.
He has published two novels, both with Picador Africa – Entanglement and Stepping Out. His third novel, Meyer, will be published in 2014.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
My first novel Entanglement started as a film script, which took me about 3 months to first draft. When I decided to turn it into a novel, the plot and dialogue were already in reasonable shape, so the real job was to build expository, internal dialogues, deepened descriptions and the like. So the whole process took about 9 months. Then I cajoled knowledgeable family and friends to read the first draft (my wife, Kate, is an editor), so there was about another 3 months of polishing. I did this in spurts, sometimes at sentence level, sometimes at paragraph level and sometimes major restructuring. The advice I got from knowledgeable amateurs and professionals was sometimes rejected and sometimes not. Defend your work if you feel strongly about it.
2. What research do you do for your book?
My first book is about a grumpy physicist. I know a fair bit about science (I am an MS, and am an avid science reader), but there was some additional research I did about quantum mechanics and scientific method. There were also conversations around music and US politics and insanity, but I had enough background from my own reading to suffice (no, I am not insane). The protagonist’s girlfriend is a psychologist – I sent her interactions with patients to a psych friend, who made some corrections.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
Never less than 500, sometimes as many as 3,000 on a long day, if the muse is sitting on my shoulder.
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
The latter. I start with a character that interests me, and let the plot coalesce around him. In my second book Stepping Out (now on shelves), I had no idea how it was going to end even when I was half way through. My third, Meyer, was without an ending until I was 80% through. It is an odd and magical process. If I was forced to plot up front, I never would have been able to write a book.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I do not find it challenging. I love every second of it, the process of writing comes easily. What is sometimes difficult though is to step back and adjudicate whether a section is Nobel prize-worthy or just embarrassingly bad. I can swing between these two poles in minutes.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I rarely get it, except for the at the 40,000 word slump, which has happened on all three books. But that is because I was forced to start thinking about plot. It lasted no more than a week or two.
7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
First novel – just the manuscript, and a recommendation from an important friend, luckily (Kevin Bloom). I have also now started writing an elevator pitch (somewhat like the back page blurb, but a bit longer). Of course, if there is praise from reviewers and writers for previous novels, this is also packaged.
8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
Write every single day, even if it is for only 30 minutes. Find any gap you can, including on the toilet. Oh, and manage your expectations. Assume the worst. The stats for ratio of submissions to publication is frightening, both here and overseas. You can always self-publish if the majors reject your manuscript. Your goal should be – write the best book you can, and expect it to be read by a maximum of two or three people, including your partner and parents. The rest will be gravy.