Three-time winner of the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, British author Adam Nevill is no slouch when it comes to putting the frighteners on his readers.
To celebrate Adam’s arrival as part of AutoCrit’s author comparison database – letting you compare your own writing style with his – we got hold of him at his Devon homestead to talk about his career, his approach to writing and editing, and what it was like to experience the dream of many an author: having your work adapted as a major motion picture.
Let’s bring you in with a standard introduction. How would you describe yourself as a literary persona, so to speak? For those who may not have read your published work, how did you get your start, and how has the journey been so far?
I’m an author of horror fiction. I’ve had a powerful urge to write from the age of 16 but only began in earnest, with writing as a purpose for life, in my mid-twenties. Before that time, I hadn’t read or lived enough – everything I wrote was pastiche.
I wrote music reviews for papers and magazines for years in the nineties, and played in bands, while also working on my early fiction. In the late nineties, I began getting series fiction novels published by Virgin Books (I cut my teeth with erotica) and my horror began appearing in the early zeros, short stories and a first novel. I took a creative writing masters in 1997, my point of no return.
Ramsey Campbell pretty much brought me into print as a short story writer and his UK publisher, PS, published my first horror novel in 2004. But I had to wait until 2009 until traditional publishing showed any meaningful interest in horror and newer horror writers. By then I’d finished my second and third horror novels that, ironically, ended up in a publishing auction. But, I spent ten years writing my first three novels around full-time work (and had written nine erotica novels too that were published to strict editorial guidelines – good training). Since 2009, I’ve written another six novels and enough short stories to fill three collections. I became self-employed and, more or less, a full-time writer in 2009. As well as my trad’ published books, I also set up an indie imprint for my own work in 2016.
My journey was an old school one and fraught with difficulty, disappointment, despair and elation – decades of reading and practicing the craft, beginning at a time before the internet and in a publishing landscape that barely resembles today’s. It took me 10 years to get an agent and nearly 15 years to be published on a trad’ publisher’s midlist. Everything I have done has been part of a long game, which hasn’t ended. I’ve now hit 25 years as a professional writer.
Elements of your hobbies and interests often twist into your stories, for example the black metal band antagonists of The Ritual. Does your imagination tend to kick in when you’re indulging in personal interests? Do you have recognizable triggers for your muse? Things you like to do to stoke the fire, so to speak?
I’d say my imagination is continually fired by my interests – in music, film, art and books, hiking, camping, sea swimming – and informed by them. But the bulk of the backgrounds and locations in my stories have been produced by lengthy research, often into areas and subjects new to me.
To get me into the zone, I read good writing. Poetry, non-fiction, essays, fiction; it can be anything. I also play transporting music.
How much would you say your own fears or concerns inform the scenarios you create, and do you write with the goal of making yourself uncomfortable first and foremost?
I don’t contrive any effects; imaginatively, at the very least, I invest myself into situations I find disturbing and difficult and uncomfortable, or terrifying. If I’m not affected by my own stories, no reader will be.
Adaptation to film often feels like a holy grail for many authors, and you had your own taste of that success with David Bruckner’s well-received adaptation of The Ritual. How was the experience for you, and were you connected at all with screenwriter Joe Barton?
The experience was wholly positive. I was kept in the loop and shown most of the screenplay drafts and asked to expand upon parts of my book, if necessary. I was also invited to the shoot and cast & crew screening.
I learned so much and met many talented and driven people. It really opened my eyes to a new world. But I can’t take any credit for the film – I was pretty much just the author of the book.
Have you considered stepping into the world of screenwriting, yourself?
I did so two years ago and now have two original screenplays in development and also working as a producer on a few adaptations that I, sadly, can’t talk about. So, about one third of my working life has been in film of late. Again, a long game; I’ve always wanted to be in this situation with these opportunities, but it’s taken me 20 years to get the chance.
Thinking of your approach to writing fiction – especially in the novel format – are you a stringent planner? What’s your personal process for getting your proverbial ducks in a row before you start, and how much of the storytelling is free-form once you get rolling?
I do a lot of research, not online, always with non-fiction books on a subject, or subjects, connected to a compelling idea for a story. I have general ideas about set-pieces, plot, characters, all constantly forming at the research stage. But never a precise outline, or anything like that. The stories tend to emerge from the actual process of writing – one thing prompts another, a weird causality.
And then, I rewrite. Draft after draft for at least a year, sometimes longer, losing a lot, revising everything.
For my new novel, I have taken a new approach. I am adapting one of my own screenplays. So, I have a meticulously structured narrative to begin with, thought through from the inside-out. But, and it is a big but, in no way can a screenplay inform you how to write a novel of itself. So, on how to write the story as a novel, back to square one. The arduous process is the same.
Coming up with ideas and stories is something I have found to be innate, effortless. Figuring out how to actually write these stories, and then writing them to my satisfaction, is the tricky part and never easy; the writing process is always fraught and the writing ever changing until I am eventually satisfied with every sentence in a final draft – satisfied but never fully assured. Each book has been a huge investment of time and emotion and mental energy and over half of the readers, that I know of, seem to really enjoy the books. Plenty don’t enjoy them.
As good as it has ever been for me and I consider this much a blessing.
You’ve developed a reputation as a proficient courier of the British folk horror feel, and much of your writing plays within the realm of the occult and esoteric. Which techniques do you think you employ that so successfully generate that distinctive atmosphere? Do you make conscious choices regarding descriptive language and what to point out, specifically, in a scene, for example? Or does it all come somewhat naturally as you write?
I read the best in my field, study how they create certain effects. I put myself there imaginatively, make the scenes multi-sensory, immediate.
On language, I strive not to overwrite, watch adjectives; strive to be precise with nouns and verbs. Strive for clarity – not easy. And begin to find a sentence’s rhythm, a paragraphs internal rhythm, as I rewrite. Same every time. My first drafts are appalling. Unless I continually revisit scenes with fresh eyes – 4 to 6 weeks between drafts – I cannot possibly see what is wrong with my writing. Some descriptive writing just appears formed, most has to be revised several times.
There are commonalities between my books, but they are also written differently. I have written each novel differently; I don’t have a style I consciously repeat. It might sound odd, but the stories themselves need to dictate point-of-view, syntax, all the facets of writing. There will be an individual voice in there somewhere, but the structures and expressions have changed so much from book to book that, creatively, to my eye, I have a divided self.
Moving on from the writing, let’s talk editing. Love it? Hate it? You’ve been clear in past interviews that sometimes you’ll wind up excising five-figure numbers of words from an early manuscript, but would you say that’s a common occurrence?
It’s necessary and ultimately the most rewarding part of writing. I have a strong internal editor that I have developed for years, like an instinctive muscle memory, or second persona; reading and practice are the only ways of evolving such an internal resource.
But despite its ruthless efficiency (I still tend to lose around 20K words per novel now and have done since No One Gets Out Alive) I never really know what a reader’s reaction will be. But, I cannot kid the internal editor. Try as I might to convince yourself something is okay, I will almost always end up changing it. Unless they are 50-50 decisions and I just cannot decide.
I find these dilemmas split readers and editors evenly too. At that stage I might be in the realm of taste.
Open any great novel and you discover instant authority of tone, expression, meaning; the writer knows what they want to say and exactly how to say it.
Are there any particular things that, as an author, you know you need to look out for during editing? Pacing issues, perhaps, or overly expository dialogue? Do you keep what you know of your own strengths and weaknesses in mind when attacking an early draft?
Unclear meanings is primary. Can I see, hear, smell, taste that?
Is the dialogue convincing; are character’s motivation and actions truthful?
If the pace seems to flag, or even stop, why? Even if things aren’t happening, there needs to be tension.
Does the story work? Am I telling so much? Is this too passive? Is this even the right POV?
Lots of things, everything – I look for it all.
Still related to editing: what would be, say, the three strongest tips you would give to an author staring down their first full manuscript draft?
The writing and writing well and effectively has to come first. It’s not enough to have ideas, a plot and characters. Study writing, find a good mentor, like a poet who has some mastery of language. Yet, to my eye, the actual writing is the most overlooked aspect of new writing now – many people write too much, too quickly and publish the equivalent of first drafts; they don’t look over their shoulder. Are they writers or literate adults who have had a go and produced words on pages, culminating in a file?
In a world where book supply now massively exceeds demand, when we have sailed beyond peak books, word and title counts should be the last of anyone’s priorities. But if your writing is of sufficient quality and resonates and you have mastered authority of voice (that the reader probably won’t be aware of because they’re engrossed in your story) a book has a chance of getting word-of-mouth.
I think this may soon be the sole factor that sustains and builds readerships (beyond the front lists of big publishers). Open any great novel and you discover instant authority of tone, expression, meaning; the writer knows what they want to say and exactly how to say it. That is rare and it takes a long time for most to achieve that authority.
Unless you know how to rewrite – really rewrite, not tinker – I can’t see many writers ever achieving their potential. Some writers are exceptional story tellers but their writing is unaffecting, and they still do well. I don’t read them, but that is a matter of taste.
I suspect many new writers want to be in that category – but telling great stories is just as hard as writing great sentences. Readers too, have different levels of sophistication and that is a huge factor in reader responses. But, to my taste, I want to be transported by good writing and all it delivers; I want an intense or deep literary experience.
To create one of those experiences, you have to learn how to rewrite. To my taste, I’d rather read great writing and an inconsequential plot, to good storytelling with average to mediocre writing. But that’s personal preference.
I was an editor for 11 years and read thousands of submissions – as an author I now get about 200 ARCs and PDFs sent to me each year; I see a lot of new writing (but I don’t read all of the ARCs!). I haven’t encountered that many good writers, or books that I can even finish, at submission stage. I dare say they are nearly all published now as eBooks.
But the fundamentals of narrative craft and good writing can be taught and learned. Becoming better should become an obsession. Quality control, not word counting, should be the goal.
You’ve written multiple novels and multiple short story collections. Do you have a preference between the short or long format? What do you appreciate most about the difference in craft between the two?
I prefer writing novels. Always have done. Though I always strive to retain the effects of horror short stories in longer works.
As for differences, the approach to your actual style and writing should probably be the same. Obviously, the latter requires compression; different means of showing time passing.
What do you think you’d be writing if it weren’t for horror? Is there any alternative genre in which you have an especially strong interest? Could we perhaps see an Adam Nevill line of children’s books?
I write what I feel compelled to – even if I’d written thrillers or literary/speculative fiction, it would have still tried to conjure the effects of good weird and horror fiction. Same for children’s books, though not so disturbing!
What’s next for you? Is there anything on the way through the pipeline right now we should be excited about?
My next novel won’t be published until late next year. I am about to begin draft two and I have a very long way to go. But I have a new collection of horror short stories out this Halloween, stories I have been writing since 2015: Wyrd and Other Derelictions – something different, not traditional horror stories; horror stories told in a different way to what readers might expect.
Thanks for asking!
Our sincerest thanks go to Adam for taking the time out to chat with us. Using our unique digital profiling, you can now compare your writing style directly with Adam’s inside the AutoCrit editing suite. Get started and see what all the fuss is about by creating your Free Forever account now.
Adam L.G. Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is the author of nine horror novels. Of these ‘The Ritual’, ‘Last Days’ and ‘No One Gets Out Alive’ were the winners of The August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel. He has also published three collections of short stories, with ‘Some Will Not Sleep’ winning the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Several of his novels are currently in development for film and television and, in 2016, ‘The Ritual’ was adapted into a feature film.
Adam lives in Devon, England. More information about the author and his books is available at: www.adamlgnevill.com