Action-thriller author Matt Gemmell is fascinated with how small choices can have a profound effect on our lives – a fascination also reflected in his debut novel “Changer”, published last year. In our interview, he talks about why he switched professions a couple of years ago, never looked back since, and still does not regret the time he spent in software engineering.
Please tell us something about you and what you are working on.
My name is Matt Gemmell, I’m a writer of action-thriller novels — amongst other things — and I live in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, with my wife Lauren and our eight-month-old labradoodle puppy, whose name is Whisky.
For a number of years, I was a consultant software engineer for various clients, including Apple, and I did a bit of tech journalism on the side. I also released a lot of open source code for iOS and the Mac, as strange as it is to think about that now.
I’m currently working on TOLL, the second novel in the KESTREL series of action-thrillers with a fringe science twist. The first book, CHANGER, came out last year.
In your previous life, you have been working as a software engineer. How did you come up with the idea to become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about eleven years old, but my life took a different path for the next twenty-five years or so. I’m glad it did; I met my wife when we were both at university studying Computing Science, and I very much enjoyed my years of programming, but I just gradually started to realize that I wasn’t quite so passionate about it anymore. Dabbling in tech journalism helped remind me how much I love writing (I’ve maintained a blog for the last fifteen years), and three years ago I decided to try doing it full-time. I absolutely love my job, and I’ve never looked back.
What is your advice to others who toy with the same idea?
Well, the reality is that it’s extremely difficult. Writing brings its own challenges, of course, but the especially tough part is actually supporting yourself while you do it. I’d advise having a substantial financial cushion before you get started, and to begin in your spare time. In the majority of cases, it’ll take a long time before you have enough writing-related revenue streams to live on. But we do it for the love of it, naturally.
I can also attest to the importance of having a regular schedule: set aside some time to write each day, and try to stick to the same slot whenever you can. Everyone’s different in terms of when they can be creatively productive. It might be early morning, or late at night, but you’ll quickly recognize when you usually feel in the mood to write.
Oh, and my own personal advice is to outline everything first. Some people dislike planning and prefer to just dive in — the pantsers, as they’re called — and maybe that’ll work for you too. But not me. I really need the structure of an outline to work from.
What do you like about being a writer? What are the downsides of the profession?
I like almost everything about being a writer. It feels like the most natural thing I’ve ever done, which doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult — it absolutely is, all the time, and in many different ways — but it’s the kind of difficulty that feels like a challenge instead of a hardship. I enjoy telling stories, as you’d expect, but I think my favorite aspect is pushing myself to create the most immersive experience for the reader. It’s a blend of plot, structure, style, pacing, and plenty of other things.
It pains me, almost physically, when I read something that’s clumsy or stilted, or that kicks the reader out of the narrative. I love striving to avoid those problems. I think that readers will give you a lot of leeway in terms of the story, but inelegance of technique is immediately like a grain of sand in their eye. I don’t claim to be great at keeping the reader’s attention and avoiding those speed bumps, but I do love trying as best I can to pull them along for the ride.
Aside from the difficulty in building a sustainable career, I think the main downsides are probably the obsessive elements that tend to be part of a novelist’s personality. Nothing is ever fully finished, and there’s a cycle of self-doubt and even periodic shame about making up tales. I think you just have to learn to accept the ups and downs, and trust that in the end you’ll produce the best thing that you could. After that, it’s up to the readers to decide.
Your first novel “Changer”, published last year, was received very positively. Where did you learn how to write novels?
I’ve been delighted with how well CHANGER has been received. I was terrified when it first came out, but I’m a lot more settled about it now. I think we learn to write fiction by doing it, and keeping a critical eye on our own style and voice as we go. I also think that the best preparation you can have for writing is doing a lot of reading. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, and it changes how you look at the world. I get ideas by just seeing everyday experiences in a slightly different, speculative light.
I like the analogy of imagination being a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets, and gradually you find that you can do things with it that you couldn’t before.
I’ve never had any formal education on crafting long-form fiction, but only if you don’t count having read a hell of a lot of it. I wrote a huge number of short stories, and even began a couple of novels, during my teenage years. Several hundred thousand words, on a word processor, all then printed out to edit or store. I still have a box file of all that stuff. Some of it is terrible, but some of it isn’t, which is probably the best a writer can hope for.
Can you tell us little bit about the book, and how you came up with the idea to write it?
CHANGER is about a physicist who’s drawn into a race against time — and a chase through Europe — to prevent an impending disaster that will cost millions of lives. His allies are an elite EU special forces team codenamed KESTREL (the title of the book series), and they’re up against a very dangerous man with an unnatural ability, who wants to hasten the disaster for his own purposes.
The novel sits on the line between the mainstream genre of special forces-type thrillers, and the world of weird science, conspiracy theories, unusual abilities, and that sort of thing.
I love reading adventure tales, high-stakes action, and anything that’s a bit out of the ordinary, so that’s the type of story I wanted to write. The KESTREL series is very strongly focused on Europe and the EU, because we have so many beautiful and incredible locations, a rich set of cultures and histories, and much of the action and thriller genres tend to be set in North America — or at least with American protagonists.
It’s the first of a series, but each book can be read on its own, and they don’t need to be read in order. The core idea for the story came from my own long-standing fascination with how the choices we make in a single moment can have a profound effect on the rest of our lives. I only met my wife because I applied for a summer job at the Department of Computing Science at my university (Glasgow), between the third and fourth years of my degree. I saw an email about the job, thought about it for fifteen minutes, and more or less flipped a coin to decide whether to apply. In the end, I did, I got the position, and I met the young woman who’s now my wife. If I’d missed the email, or been in a slightly different mood that day, my life would be unimaginably different right now. That’s a concept that I still grapple with. At least in a certain way, CHANGER is about what could happen if you had a small window of opportunity to change the choices you’d made, but at a cost.
You self-published your novel and offer a membership program to your readers. Do you prefer that over depending on a publishing house?
I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. I didn’t submit CHANGER to publishers because, as a first novel, I really needed to get it out there. It can take months, years, or forever to be picked up by a publisher, and my goal was more to have something to show for my drastic switch in careers; I wanted there to be an extant artefact that validated the time and effort, and all the questions I still had for myself. I’m also very fortunate in that I have a reasonable readership and social media presence already, from my years in the software world, and so I wasn’t quite publishing something in absolute obscurity.
The downside of self-publishing is that there’s a lot more to do (including editing, arranging for cover design, preparing paperbacks and ebooks, getting the book onto the various stores, and so on), and you also take on all the marketing responsibilities yourself. It’s another four or five jobs alongside the writing. But you get to set your own schedule, and to maintain control. I think it’s a decision that each writer has to make individually; there’s certainly more cachet to being published, and it’s an inseparable component of the dream of writing for many people. I do at least think that much of the stigma of self-publishing has vanished in recent years, though there’s still a noticeable quality gap when you browse titles on the big online bookstores. With published work, almost everything meets a certain minimum standard of professionalism; self-published writers have to make that choice themselves. I put a lot of time and work into showing respect for my readers — in terms of the story, the art, the typography, and so on. I think it’s the very least that you owe both the reader and yourself.
I’m open to the possibility of submitting future manuscripts to publishers, for books not in the KESTREL series. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other.
What is a typical day in Matt Gemmell’s life like?
Our puppy tends to ensure we’re awake by 7AM, which is very useful. I usually have breakfast immediately while my wife works out, then I start my workout while she gets ready and has breakfast, then takes the dog out for his morning walk. I work from home, so I have dog-caring duties throughout the day — it’s very handy that our gates open out onto a park.
I try to be at my desk by 10:30, and I work through until 18:00, not including a lunchtime walk with the dog. We go out again to meet my wife on her way home from work (we all do a lot of walking!), and I tend to do a bit more work after dinner, from about 19:30 onwards, but I often set aside a couple of hours for reading. My weekend schedule is almost the same, though my wife does remind me to take some breaks once in a while. As will be evident from my Twitter account, I also take copious breaks for social media.
I generally handle site-related admin (including writing my weekly newsletter to members) before lunch, and then start back into my main project afterwards. I read back over the last scene, usually making a couple of tweaks even though I shouldn’t, then grab the next chunk of my outline notes and begin writing.
Which tools and apps do you use?
I’ve written a series of articles about that, but in a nutshell: last year I switched from a MacBook to an iPad Pro, and since then the iPad has been my only computer. I spend most of the day in Ulysses, where I write everything from novels to articles for the site and the members’ newsletter. I use Editorial for writing-related automation like working with templates for MailChimp and such, and my outlining and novel planning is done in OmniOutliner and GoodNotes.
My current iPad is the 10.5″ iPad Pro, and I write with a Magic Keyboard, whether I’m at home or traveling. When planning, I like to use my Apple Pencil to scribble and sketch.
Do you struggle with procrastination, the menace of the independently working creative professional? If so, how do you beat it?
Absolutely. Dealing with it is always a work in progress, and some days are better than others. Having an outline to work with is a big help. So is the idea of stopping for the day when you already know exactly what comes next; it gives you an easier start the next day.
Knowing your own creative schedule is important too; some people can’t work effectively in the early morning, some can’t write at night time, and so on. When you’re getting started, I’d advise trying different times of days until you find something that works best for you.
I’ve also found it helpful to clear my office of any toys (except the internet, though there are temporary site-blocking tools for that too) that might distract me, so any video-games stuff is elsewhere. My office essentially has just my iPad and keyboard, and my exercise bike and related equipment. The one concession is my guitar, which I tend to pick up when I’m thinking through a tricky plot problem.
Oh, and the best anti-procrastination tip I can offer is to set a deadline, and tell someone else about it. Accountability tends to force you to stay on track.
Could you describe the way you’re using Ulysses, your typical workflow?
I wrote about that too! I have a certain project-structure for novels that I’ve refined over years of using both Scrivener and now also Ulysses. It works well for me, letting me keep the manuscript, ancillary content, and also reference documents together in a way that lets me generate the final book easily.
On a day to day basis, when writing (as opposed to editing), I work with chunks of my outline/plan that roughly correspond to chapters. I add those bullet-points to the Notes portion of Ulysses’ metadata sidebar, and write “towards” each bullet point, jumping back and forth between the sheet and my research documents as necessary. I use the Split feature to carry the notes forward into a new sheet when I reach a natural scene-break. I continue in that vein until I have a draft, and only at that point do I go back and start to consider which groups of sheets/scenes should be gathered into a chapter.
I’m fond of tracking the shifting point of view as a way to see whether the story has a sense of balance. I use keywords for that, because they display in the sheet list, so I can see at a glance whether I’ve spent too much time with a given character, and need to check in with the other threads of the story.
What do you like best about Ulysses? Do you have a favorite feature?
I love the focus of it; the lack of superfluous widgets and features. It’s minimalist in presentation, but there’s a great deal of depth there. The fact that it can produce not just fully formatted PDFs but also ePub files, right from the iOS version, is hugely attractive to me. I was a Scrivener user for years and I’m still extremely fond of it (CHANGER was written in Scrivener; TOLL is being written entirely in Ulysses), so it took me a while to adjust to Ulysses’ way of thinking. Now, I understand the benefit of keeping all my writing in one place, so that there’s no decision to be made when I want to write something: it’s always here.
Besides the native ePub generation, my favorite feature is probably the Quick Open panel, which lets me hit ⌘O from anywhere and just type a few words to find and open any sheet in my library. I use it to bounce back and forth between research or reference material and the actual scene I’m working on. I also like how I can create filters within my folder structure, and choose what kind of text they search within: I have a “Requires Attention” filter within each novel’s folder, which lists any sheet with annotations, or certain placeholders I use to indicate that I have to fill something in later.