Death Of 1000 Cuts – Talking Chop #2: Nikesh Shukla

Bonjour. *tips hat* Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

Today we have the second in our series of interviews, Talking Chop. Here’s Clare’s First Law: the quality of puns in a title and the standard of content are inversely proportional. Meaning, of course, that these chats with authors, agents, editors, etc, are splendid and rewarding. The focus in these interviews is on the nerdier, fiddlier aspects of craft, especially self-editing and redrafting. Death Of 1000 Cuts is all about sharpening your critical eye so you can make pre-emptive improvements to your own work, and you won’t make some agent down the line do a little rage-cry when she or he reads your sentences.

Don’t forget I’m always keen for aspiring authors’ first pages of novels or short stories, to dismantle and analyse in Thursdays’ In The Barber’s Chair feature. Send me 250 words, max, with just your name and the title, via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. By doing so, you’re giving me permission to publish and ‘robustly engage with’ your work. Would love to read what you’ve got.

Last week, we spoke to CJ Flood. This week, we’re very lucky to speak to author, screenwriter and retired MC Nikesh Shukla.

If you want to check out his writing (which you should, because it’s great) then you’d be quite the buffoon not to splash out a measly quid on his new ebook novella, The Time Machine. Each sale includes a donation to the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. You’ll be materially making the world a better place, and you’ll have a cracking new read about loss and cooking. Go on. Take the plunge. Be impulsive for once!

Hey Nikesh. Could you begin by introducing yourself and your latest project?

Hi, I’m Nikesh. I’m a writer and ex-rapper. I say ex-rapper like I was going places (I wasn’t) and writer because I’m not only an author of novels. I’ve written for Channel 4, I’m working on Radio stuff and I like a good blog. I’m currently in various stages of development with two novels, and two scripts. I guess, the main one to talk about is Meatspace, my second novel. It’s done, it’s with my agent, my agent’s doing the stink check currently… does it stink of roses or shit? I’m hoping neither because I’m ambivalent to the smell of roses and I don’t mind the smell of my own shit. But others might take offense.

Do you have a set way of working when it comes to revision? Or does it change case-by-case?

It changes case-by-case. Whatever writing I do fits in and around my dayjob. So I have learned to be effective in the hours of writing/editing I give myself a day (which is about 3-4 hours Mon-Fri, on par with normal writers, I guess, just with a dayjob in the middle). Also, as you get better as a writer, which is a lot about confidence, the confidence of finding your voice and knowing how to nail it, finding the story and ensuring you’re telling the story you’re meant to be telling, your first drafts improve. So I think the editing process for me is always going to feel a bit different. The important thing is to always go forward for me. Because I fit writing in around a dayjob, around watching HBO boxsets, being married and cooking Indian food, I have to feel like I am progressing, which means never going back, especially when the first draft is happening. I mean, when you’re editing, you may have to revisit the odd thing behind you, but I have to always move forward. That’s the only consistent thing about my editing process. The rest of it is feeling confidence that I’m telling the story I’m telling.

Does redrafting a novel require different skills to redrafting a short story? Or is editing a novel like editing a sequence of short stories?

I think it takes proportionately a longer period of time to nail a story than it does a novel. I mean, say I spend 90 days writing a first draft of a novel and 5 days writing a 3,000 word short story, I think the period of time getting the short story right is longer (proportionately). This is because there’s a level of preciseness and conciseness in the short story that requires as much care and attention as a novel. With a novel you can find the voice and write within its confines for a long period of time, so when you come and revisit it, you’re in the groove, you know where it’s going. With a short story, a good one that gives you the middle of a story, lets you work out how it starts and ends, a short story that contains a fragment, you’re less inclined to get the voice right the first time. It needs a lot of finessing. And I’m not a careful writer. I overwrite. I love pages of dialogue. Ums and errs are important to the cadence of my characters. And I love a good meandering simile to pigeon-hole my pawns as I move them around the chessboard of my fictional world, like a mad hatter eating coffee cake out of his own shoe (see what I mean), so I find the short story a lot more difficult to feel happy with. So they take a lot more time. They get reworked a lot more than a novel.

I guess I have the same question about scriptwriting. Is the cross-training useful? Or does it take a while to switch modes?

I think the bad ticks I have in my writing cross over both. They are such separate artforms though. There’s something to be said for underwriting a script, for not writing in every beat, every slow deliberate move a character makes, putting in the pauses and the subtext, because you have to provide a skeleton of a script that people can visualise without feeling hampered by what you’ve written, because they can only picture it your way. That’s the thing about scripts, they’re so collaborative and also, a script is only about 20% of the process. It’s the most important part but when you add the actors, the directors, the way they look, the set, the scope of someone else’s vision, it’s best to be more invested in the storytelling than the delivery mechanism. You spend a lot more time on storytelling structure than you do in a novel. In a novel you spend a lot of time building up the universe because you are the actor, the director, the costume guy, the gaffer (whatever he or she does) and the set dresser.

Can you talk to us a bit about how you’ve found working with an agent and editor in terms of revising your work? How important are those relationships?

Of course I can. I’m blessed with having the best sort of agent. My agent Jamie Coleman will tell you exactly what’s wrong with your work but he’ll tell you in a way that still makes you feel like you’ve done something good. That’s why I’m with him. He’s very good at objectivity, not being too close to the story to ensure that it’s fictionalised enough. He said, when I first signed with him, ‘I’ll work you hard’ and my god, has he. Without him, I would have died under second novel syndrome. I had two failed attempts at a second novel and I was suffering a bit. I signed with him and it’s been invaluable having him around because he gets what I’m trying to say so he’s good at ensuring I do that in the best possible way I can. And he’s funny as hell. He’s one of the funniest people I know and that’s important when you’re writing comedy.

My editor for Coconut Unlimited, Gavin, and I worked on the novel on Google Drive. That way we were both completely in tune with what the other was doing and thinking in real time. This is an important part of the process because you write a book, you think it’s great, you get beaten down trying to get it signed, your confidence is low, you get it to a publisher, they tell you how amazing the book is and then when the editing starts, you immediately think, what’s with all the changes, I thought you said it was amazing. It took us a while to get the book right. But he was operating from being able to have the distance to know what would make the book the best it could be. And also how far I was willing to go to make it that. If he suggested a change, and I didn’t have a way of justifying it, it got changed. If I did, it stayed but the thought was put in my head that I hadn’t nailed that bit.

So, yeah, they’re both invaluable people. Mostly because they’re fresh eyes. And kind uncles telling you everything you’ve done wrong in a soothing way, because the message is clear, ‘I don’t want your apology; I just want you to do it better next time’.

What’s more fun for you – the flurry of creation in a first-draft, or the slow sculpting of second and third drafts?

The initial flurry. I start knowing how it begins and how it ends and the fun bit is connecting the two. Writing for me is like solving a puzzle, how to get from the beginning to the end? And the rush of that, coupled with my approach, which is get the first draft down at all costs, fix the shoddy bits later, the feeling seeing the word count increase, it’s bloody electric. Then, once you have that volume, trying to make it good afterwards? That’s a massive pain.

You wrote an awesome blog about the Shukla Test, your own variant on the Bechdel Test. It inspired a lot of thought-provoking internet debate, and has moved into common parlance. Do you think these sorts of tests are useful to a novelist/screenwriter revising their work? Or is that superficial? Will a conscientious, self-aware – or even just a good – writer produce work that naturally passes? Does it matter if a novel or movie fails, or is it more a case of drawing writers’ and audiences’ attention to cultural biases?

It’s moved into common parlance? That’s messed up man. How arrogant of me to give it my own name. It should really be The Apu Test. I kinda wrote the thing as a joke because I realised Fast and the Furious 6 was the most racially diverse film I’d seen all year. I wrote it because it’s an issue that always bothers me. I didn’t grow up in an all-white environment, so I feel uncomfortable with that being television and film’s norm of the prism through which the world is seen. I don’t think it’s a thing that writers should worry about unless they only write ethnic and female characters to perform a function based on their skin colour or womb, you know? It’s important to me to see the world onscreen reflect the world I exist in. I think, more than anything, it’s less about writing specifically ethnic parts, it’s about the actors and actresses having access to the parts that are ethnicity-free like white people do. It’s less a problem for writers, but you know, writers, throw the audience a bone and maybe call one of their characters Sanjay or something. Cos Sanjay’s get involved in bank heists too (I mean this illustratively and not as a direct accusation of any Sanjays in the world).

Finally, please tell us about an awesome book you’ve read recently that we need to rush out and buy.

Yeah of course. I have read my friend Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, which is a really special book. It’s spooky, tense, sad, really bloody sad and peppered with the type of insight and description and sense of tone and place and person that makes a writer jealous as hell. I’ve also read the brilliant Sam Lipsyte’s new short story collection, The Fun Parts, which is his usual brand of funny loser doing horrible things to other funny losers. It’s hard work because everyone is flawed and nasty to each other and kinda pathetic. But it’s also brilliant. I recommend you read each story one at a time instead of mainlining them all. I’ve also read a draft of my other brilliant friend, James Smythe’s new sequel to The Explorer, which amps up the tension, the sense of helplessness and the expanse of space, and the messes with your head. It’s brilliant. I think it’ll be called The Echo.

If you want to read more Death Of 1000 Cuts entries, you can and should – click here, dummy!