The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with Anna Stephens

The final day, that’s right day 5, of this mini-series on producing a ‘2017 traditionally-published fantasy debut.’ First off, high five to myself, as I managed to remember the tagline without checking back to correct it (though I typed that sentence first, and there was a nervous moment of checking just to make sure).

Before I introduce the final interview…ee, I’d like to take a moment to thank all of those authors who have participated. Nicholas Eames, Anna Smith-Spark, Ed McDonald, RJ Barker, and of course today’s author, last but certainly not least, Anna Stephens!

Anna’s upcoming novel ‘Godblind’, first in a trilogy, promises religious fanaticism and political machinations set against a grimdark backdrop of black comedy. Yes, this is fantasy people, we’re talking about a book here, not real life – I know in this day and age it’s easy to mistake the two. Likened to Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence, ‘Godblind’ tells the epic conflict between gods and people, and the chaos this causes, all whilst never losing sight of the human relationships at the heart of it all. Oh, and there’s a prophet named Dom who gets his world turned upside down. Poor bastard (<<<stolen from Anna’s site).

So, for the final time in this mini series, I would like to hand this over to Anna Stephens!

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ME: Hi Anna! As I’m sure you know the deal with this interview series, the first question should be no surprise. If you had to choose between a £1,000,000.00, and telling us who you are, what do you do, and what’s special about you as a writer…what would you tell us in 50 words or less?

AS: I’m Anna Stephens and I write gritty epic fantasy, some might say grimdark, set in a world where the gods have direct interaction with their followers and encourage them to get up to all sorts of nefarious naughtiness. As for what makes me special as a writer, I guess it’s persistence – Godblind has been a long time in the writing but I always believed in the story and the characters and was stubbornly convinced it would one day be published.

You know the drill, this time about your debut novel ‘Godblind’ – what’s it about, who’s it about, what’s special about it – 50 words, go!

The Mireces have been at war with Rilpor for a thousand years since they and their gods were exiled into the mountains. But now the veil that keeps the Red Gods out of Rilpor is weakening, and the Mireces know their time is coming. Standing against them is the West Rank, Rilpor’s elite army, and the Wolves – a band of civilian warriors who guard the border and listen to the prophecies of their calestar, who warns them of the coming conflict.

There’s religious warfare, political machinations in the capital, and one very bad scene with a hammer.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished your first draft of your manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

Ha, that was a long time ago! What did I do? I think I sent it straight out on submission and had it roundly and deservedly rejected by everyone. I have a hard copy version of the first (maybe second) draft and it truly is a piece of overblown, bloated, pompous twaddle.

So then I rewrote it, sent it out again, got it rejected again. This continued on roughly an annual basis for what must be a decade. Write, submit, reject, write, submit, reject.

Write, submit, accept. WHAT???

What was the biggest change you made to the story before it reached an agent/editor/publisher?

Which time? Seriously, I’d have to say changing the focus of the entire novel from one character to a different one, and then realising halfway through it’s actually about someone else as well. The very first iteration of Godblind had Rillirin, my female lead, as a princess in the capital. In the version hitting the shelves in June she’s a slave who’s escaped a life of violence and brutality. I think that was probably what made the book a more appealing prospect – no fancy princesses tripping around palaces sighing over pretty boys.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

Like Anna Smith Spark said in her interview, I also made extensive use of the Writers and Artists Yearbook in all my initial submission rounds. In the last round, I started to get some positive rejections, if there is such a thing – “we really liked it, it shows promise, but it’s just not right for us at this time”.

In the end, though, it was the power of social media that brought my agent and me together – Harry posted a ‘Christmas wish list’ for submissions at the end of 2015 and I remember thinking to myself, I’m no Joe Abercrombie but Godblind is in the same vein, so I’ll give it a go. I think I even tweeted him something cheeky along those lines and he responded saying send it through, so I did. He loved the sample chapters, asked for the full manuscript and for some reason at that point I just knew it was going to work out. And it did.

 Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

More battles! More blood! He did ask me to expand on a couple of the huge battle scenes towards the end because he felt that’s where the climax was and there wasn’t quite enough drama. He also wanted me to kill a main good guy, because he pointed out that I couldn’t kill off the baddies but not the goodies – it just wouldn’t work that way.

So I compromised by killing my least favourite goodie, then as I was editing the very end I killed someone else as well, a huge character that I loved. Just killed her. I really shocked myself and I took it back out, then put it back in because, in the end, it was the right way to finish the book. I’m still a bit sad about it though.

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

The very best thing about having an agent is they do all that for you. A few years ago I’d sent Godblind in to Gollancz’s open door submissions period and the lovely Gillian Redfearn had asked for the full manuscript – it didn’t get anywhere in the end, but that’s the closest I’ve come to dealing with a publisher without agency backup.

As to how HarperVoyager got hold of Godblind, your guess is as good as mine. I was still in the process of doing the edits requested by Harry when he phoned me up and said that Natasha Bardon at HarperVoyager had got hold of the sample chapters and wanted the full manuscript. He doesn’t know where she got them from. I don’t know where she got them from. And she isn’t telling. Harry said we absolutely should send the full ms, even though it was still a work in progress, so we did, and she made a pre-emptive offer for the trilogy a couple of days before it even went out on submission!

Since then, it’s sold in Germany, France, the USA, the Netherlands and Poland. Some have taken the full trilogy, while the Netherlands and Poland have just taken Godblind with an option on the sequels depending on how it does in their markets. As exciting, thrilling and downright weird as it was to get the first deal, knowing it’s going to be published in other languages is just surreal. And it means I get even more amazing cover art to ‘oooh’ over.

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

Oh god. Well, I think Godblind’s initial word count for the very first draft came in at something like 240,000 words. Ha! Over the years I whittled that right down. It was about 120,000 when Harry got it and he asked me to put more in, so it went up to 134,000 I think. Then with Natasha’s edit, it came back down again and is now sitting at, I think, 123,000.

I didn’t have an editor before an agent, so Harry gave me the initial edit suggestions, then I worked with Natasha to whip it into shape for publication.

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

The changes from both Harry and Natasha were definitely plot-driven and Natasha had a strong desire to reduce the number of point of view characters I was using. I was giving people POV chapters simply in order to kill them off, but she pointed out that it doesn’t matter if it’s a POV if the reader has never met this character before – they won’t be emotionally invested in their death anyway. It was easier to just change it to an established point of view, or just cut the scene altogether. That really helped me make Godblind a much slicker novel.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding word count? Does the editor help with this?

Cutting was quite difficult, especially when I got the edit suggestions back and some of my absolute favourite scenes, that had been in there for years, were deleted. I argued for a couple of them, but at the end of the day Natasha knows what she’s doing and they needed to go. I’d phone her up and argue and she’d just patiently listen to me, then ask a simple question like “Does it move the plot forward?” at which point I’d curse her because of course it doesn’t move the plot forward, I just really like it. And you can’t keep it in when you’ve just acknowledged it serves very little purpose.

I have kept all those cut scenes in a separate document, though, and I’m determined to squeeze a few into the sequels…

Right, you brought it up, so I’m going to ask (though I was going to ask anyway, and I always ask at this point, as I have with every other interview so far). Let’s talk sequels. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two (and three, and four etc.)?

Harry and Natasha have both seen the outlines for books 2 and 3 and are happy with them. They’ve made a couple of suggestions to flesh out plot lines, and I’ve changed book 2’s outline in response to the editorial and plot changes we made in Godblind. I expect that when I send them the draft for book 2, that’s when we’ll get down to details and do the hard work on where the book as a book, and the book as part of a trilogy, is going.

It may sound like I don’t have control over the direction, but that’s absolutely not the case. I’m just making the best possible use of their brains, intellect, and experience. It would be like deciding to build a house and then ignoring the advice of the architect who’s working with you.

Your cover art has been recently revealed, and it’s earned a big thumbs up from the fantasy community. Did you have a hand did in designing it?

Thank you! I’m completely thrilled by the artwork and the response it’s received has been overwhelmingly positive so far.

And no, I had no hand in it whatsoever. If I had, it would not have looked in any way like that. I do stick figures, and even then they’ve usually got one arm longer than the other.

HarperVoyager’s in-house artist, who shares the same name as my main character, read the book and then put his creative experience to the test in designing a cover that defines many elements of Godblind in a way that’s visually compelling and oozes mystery.

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

It can be very ‘hurry up and wait’. There’ll be a real flurry of activity and it will feel like there’s a lot happening all at once and you’ve got deadlines and phone calls and bios to write … and then it all goes very silent for weeks on end and you wonder whether they’ve forgotten about you. And then it will go crazy again. It takes a bit of adjusting to.

Since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in ‘Godblind? (Without giving any spoilers away!)

I’d have to say the female lead’s position in society and experience of the world. Rillirin has gone from the original draft of her being a privileged princess to a broken, introverted, terrified slave who has to learn to interact with the world again and take back control of herself. It’s been a hell of a journey for her and she’s a much more three-dimensional, engaging, emotionally invested character now than she was then.

And since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in YOU as a writer?

I would like to think I’m a much better writer, for a start! I’ve learnt a huge amount from Harry and Natasha and, hopefully, I can continue to put those lessons to good use with the sequels. Of course, I’m now trying to learn how to write to deadline – Godblind was a decade in the making; I’ve got just under four months to deliver the sequel. That’s – supremely scary.

Finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? Or better yet, what’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

Don’t give up. Novels, like clothes, have fashions. A book that was rejected ten years ago might have agents beating down your door tomorrow. If you truly believe in it, don’t abandon it. Bring it out every few years and see what agents think.

But for the love of all that’s holy, rewrite it before you send it out again. You’ll have changed, your prose and characterisation and voice will have changed. Tweak it, preen it, polish it, then send it. Who knows where it may end up?

Anna Stephens is a UK-based author of gritty epic fantasy. She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from the Open University and has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember. She much prefers the worlds she makes up to the real thing, even if most of her characters meet sticky ends.

Anna lives with her husband, a huge book, music and movie collection, and no pets. She intends to remedy this lack of furry friends as soon as fame and fortune strike.

Anna’s debut novel, Godblind, is published through Harper Voyager in June 2017, with the sequels coming in 2018 and 2019.

The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with RJ Barker

Day 4 of the ‘2017 traditionally-published fantasy debut authors’ interview series, and I almost, ALMOST managed to type that for memory. But the first time I typed it I actually wrote day 3, and had to go get another coffee before I messed up the year (oh yeah, I’d also put 2016).

So, a quick recap thus far. We’ve had Nicholas Eames, Anna Smith-Spark, and Ed McDonald, share their experiences. Today, last but one, RJ Barker talks about his upcoming novel ‘Age of Assassins’ first in ‘The Uncrowned Heir’ series. RJ is no stranger to the writing scene, having produced short stories featured for the Gollancz website, and a series of illustrated prose poems. Though, on the note of ‘stranger’, RJ keeps a lower profile than the other authors featured so far, (maybe in homage to his titular Age of Assassins…conspiracy theories abound!), but from what I’ve come across, he’s bloody talented, and being compared to the likes of David Dalglish, that small time bloke (you might have heard of him) Brent Weeks, and the relatively unkn0wn ROBIN HOBB, well it’s safe to say he’s certainly in good company.

So, before I collapse from caffeine withdrawal, over to RJ!

RJ Barker

ME: Hi RJ – thanks for being part of the ‘2017 traditionally fantasy published’ (what was the title again?)….err, interview series. Before we begin, let’s start with some introductions – who are you, what do you do, and what’s special about you as a writer – 50 words, go!

RJ: I’m RJ Barker. I write, be a stay at home Dad and collect strange art. Not sure I can say what, if anything, is special about me, we’re all a mix of our various influences and that’s unique to each person, as such we are all unique; everyone is special and interesting, you just have to find each persons “thing”.

I’m not good at rules, maybe that’s my thing. It’s definitely why I have already gone over fifty words here. This bit here, that I’m writing now? Totally gratuitous. And this bit? Very, very gratuitous indeed. I should stop really. I will. In a bit.

Maybe.

Same sketch as the previous question, this time about your debut novel ‘Age of Assassins’ – what’s it about, who’s it about, what’s special about it – 50 words, go!

It’s about Girton and his master, assassins who are put into a position where they have to stop an assassination and through that Girton is forced, for the first time, to think about himself, what he does and what he really cares about. Also; killer action sequences and massive antlers.[1]

(Ooo, we’re using footnotes! That’s a first in this interview series.)

So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished your first draft of your manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

Read it again. And again. I think I was a bit shellshocked actually because I wrote it (the first draft) in about six weeks and I had a sort of ‘did I just really do that?’ moment.

What was the biggest change you made to the story before it reached an agent/editor/publisher?

I didn’t really change it before it went to my agent. But before it went from Ed (my agent) out to publishers we added an action sequence to the end and (I think) another subplot. Though I might have added that at my editor, Jenni’s, instigation. If that was Jenni, sorry Jenni. I’m not very good at looking back in time, I’m a very live-for-the-moment type and once something is done I want to move on and do the next thing, whatever that might be.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

I already had an agent when I finished Age of Assassins, in Rob Dinsdale (of the Independent Literary agency he is an excellent chap) but we parted ways (for very dull reasons that aren’t even fun and gossipy[2]) and he put me in touch with Ed Wilson of Johnson and Alcock who picked up AoA within a week of getting it on his desk. ‘You’re just the thing I’m bally well looking for, by jove’ is what he said. Well, possibly I am paraphrasing a little there but I do think Ed could play an excellent Major in a black and white WW2 film. He also had a stuffed weasel on his desk (I had/have a stuffed stoat staring at me, both are of the family mustelidae) and he has a picture of Captain Oates (of Scott of the Antarctic fame) staring down at him and we live in the Oates family coach house, so it seemed like it was meant to be.

There was a really weird few months when I was between agents, before Rob had put me on to Ed and I was waiting to hear back from other agents and I was in a sort of limbo. Usually I’d be fine with that, because I have a playstation, but it was a bit different this time. You know you hear about people writing something and knowing, ‘this is the one?’ I’d always thought that was something said in hindsight but in this case I really did feel I’d brought everything together for this book and it would see the light of day. I didn’t imagine it’d go to Orbit though, that was very much an ‘I need to sit down’ moment.

Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

We extended the end sequence because I wrote the book around the idea of a whodunnit and once that’s revealed, in my head, it was finished. But Ed pointed out I’d missed a trick and he was right. And possibly added a sub plot. I’m a bit hazy on that as I said. Someone definitely suggested adding a sub plot. At some point. And it was added. I’m just not sure when.

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

It was pretty painless really, just a lot of waiting. Ed did the work, I just wrote the book. It seems like a bit of a cheat really, I get to do what I enjoy most and Orbit give me money for it. We definitely did not sacrifice any human beings on a secret woodland altar in a deserted church to the Great God Pan as part of my initiation rite to big publishing.[3] That never happens.

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

Erm, I don’t know. It grew a bit when it went to Ed and a bit more when it went to Jenni at Orbit but wordcount is not something I think about a tremendous amount outside of a way of keeping an eye on how much I’m getting done, so it won’t really have been on my mind when making changes. It’s very much a by feel process for me. Jenni is probably thinking about it when suggesting alterations but I’m not. I’m only really thinking about solving puzzles in the way that amuses me most. Because that’s what writing is to me, it’s like a huge cryptic crossword or jigsaw where you move bits around and play with them until it feels the right shape. There’s probably a touch of synaesthesia to how I work.

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

Jenni’s guide was not to top out over 140’000 words which I wasn’t that worried about as I tend to write in a reasonably sparse way. The main plot didn’t really change at all, it was more fleshing[4] out the world and certain scenes (and possibly a sub plot). Then, as I was already well into Book 2 when I began editing Book 1, I took the opportunity to do a bit of set up for things I wanted to do later. And I made a very last minute change to the folklore of the world which I think was a bit of a surprise to Jenni, but a good one.

Or maybe her poker face is just very good.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding word count? Does the editor help with this?

That makes it sound a lot more technical than it is. As I said, I don’t really think in terms of word count, only in terms of getting whatever it is I want to do done in the least amount of words possible. Because I am lazy.

For me, in a book you have to do what’s necessary to make it work and I think, even if the book ran over a specified word count, if that was what was needed Orbit wouldn’t risk damaging something good simply to fit an arbitrary number. It’s more about taking away what isn’t needed for the book, rather than aiming at a wordcount. The book will be the size it needs to be in the end. I’ll skip the editor part of this question because…

Let’s talk book. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two (and three, and four etc.)?

…I’m going to answer it here. Ed sold the book as the first in a trilogy so I supplied a (very) rough outline of books 2 & 3 with it. But as to what I’m doing it’s pretty much been left up to me.

The editorial process is a very collaborative one and Jenni is very good at what she does, which is encouraging and honing what I do[5], rather than pushing me toward something Orbit want which might be a worry for people when you become involved with such a big commercial publisher. It’s felt very hands off, with just the occasional nudge to keep me on track. But it is my track, Orbit have been really good about that which I suppose speaks volumes for their confidence in the book. And me. Shocking really, especially now they’ve met me. I really am quite ridiculous[6].

Your cover art is has yet to be released . Have you had a hand did in designing it? Can you share and early teaser details with us?

My tastes in art are quite, well, left of field. So it probably isn’t the best idea to have me involved in the design of cover art. I know Orbit believe the book has a very ‘across the board’ appeal so the cover will reflect that. Mysterious and melancholic. There, that’s the best taster I can give, I think, but I’ve not seen final version yet.

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

I knew nothing about publishing, my only interest has been in writing stuff. It’s all been remarkably easy and pleasant to be honest with you. I’ve liked everyone I’ve met and enjoyed the process of going through it. My, that sounds anodyne doesn’t it. Maybe I should make up some scandal.[7]

One thing that has surprised me is foreign rights sales because they came as a complete surprise. Orbit are publishing the English language version worldwide but Ed keeps selling the foreign language rights to the book as well. Which feels a bit like cheating really as I get paid but I don’t actually have to do anything. More importantly, it’s quite heartening to find that the story I’ve told appears to have quite a cross-cultural appeal. It’s harder to doubt what you’ve done when editors keep saying, yes, this is good. I do still do doubt though. A lot.

Since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in ‘Age of Assassins? (Without giving any spoilers away!)

So dull, but there haven’t really been massive changes. It’s mostly felt like honing what was already there which is probably another way of saying that Jenni (and Lindsey my American editor, though I don’t have as much direct contact with her) is(are) really good at what she(they) does(do).

And since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in YOU as a writer?

Again. I’ve not really changed much apart from the fact my stupid boots are no longer second hand and we’ve doubled the amount of questionable art we own. I’m still sat on the couch writing, eating crisps and wondering if what I am doing is any good.

Finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? Or better yet, what’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

“Whatever works for you is what works.” It is the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given and is worth more than a thousand books on writing, to me. Of course, books on writing might be what works for you so…

 

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<Insert generic assassin picture here as cover is TBC…oh shit, I’m typing this and everyone can read it, can’t they? Bollocks.>

 

RJ Barker lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for. He grew up reading whatever he could get his hands on, and has always been ‘that one with the book in his pocket.’ Having played in a rock band before deciding he was a rubbish musician RJ returned to his first love, fiction, to find he is rather better at that. As well as his debut epic fantasy novel, Age of Assassins, RJ has written short stories and historical scripts which have been performed across the country. He has the sort of flowing locks any cavalier would be proud of.

His debut Age of Assassins is scheduled to be released in the UK on August 3rd 2017 by Orbit, and is now available for pre-order in all major book stores, online and on Amazon.

Footnotes:

  1. Exactly fifty words, because I also dislike being predictable.
  2. Oh, okay then. Rob was breeding dinosaurs (illegal, obviously) and part of my contract with him was that I would let his dinosaurs eat my legs if Rob’s regular delivery of meat was ever delayed. Anyway, it was, I refused. It came close to litigation but in the end the dinosaurs were illegal so I knew he’d never push it that far and he said he was actually getting a bit bored of dinosaurs anyway and was looking at going into breeding Nudibranches (a type of very colourful, but often poisonous, sea slug) as they took up less room. I don’t know how he fed the dinosaurs that week in the end, though I have heard that the SF author Mike Brooks (one of Rob’s clients) has a metal left leg.
  3. In East Anglia.
  4. Not real flesh from a sacrifice to the Great God Pan that did not happen.
  5. And definitely not acting as high priestess in human sacrifices to the Great God Pan in a deserted church in a quiet woodland in East Anglia while the assorted directors of the big publishing houses chant ‘one of us!’ while you are ordained with the sacred ink of the white goat.
  6. The prosecution rests, M’lud – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTnw8tR21c&t=200s
  7. There was a footnote here that I removed because it took the above nonsense way further than I intended and was FAR TOO DARK. Feel free to imagine what it may have been though.

The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with Ed McDonald

Day 3 of the ‘2017 traditionally-published fantasy debut authors’ interview series, and that tongue-twister of a tagline is still not getting any easier to say/type, let alone remember!

After setting the pace with Nicholas Eames on day 1, and hot on the heels of Anna Smith-Spark on day 2, today, I’ve invited Ed McDonald to talk about his upcoming novel ‘Blackwing’ the first part of ‘The Raven’s Mark’ trilogy. As a swordsman himself, and with comparisons drawn to the big-daddy-of-heroic-fantasy David Gemmell (my personal favourite) and Joe ‘LordGrimdark’ Abercrombie, I for one am expecting big, gritty, epic things. Add to this the fact that he’s a medieval historian, a lecturer, oh and another comparison but this time to the Mad Max Movies, I for one think there’s more than a few things that Ed can teach us about the darkarts of a ‘2017 traditionally-published-‘… you get it.

Now, before I twist my tongue into submission, and have to tap out on my own keyboard (which I guess I’m doing either way, as I’m tapping on my keys to write this…woah, a bit of an existential crisis going on here, folks) I give you, Ed McDonald!

2017_01_07_ed-mcdonald_185

ME: Hi Ed! Thanks for joining the fold. As per the usual, let’s start with some introductions – who are you, what do you do, and what’s special about you as a writer – 50 words, go!

EM: I’m a medieval historian and historical martial arts enthusiast with a love for all sides of the genre. I live in London with my wife, where I work as a lecturer. I’ve had my heart set on seeing a novel published since I was a kid.

Same sketch as the previous question, this time about your debut novel ‘Blackwing’ – what’s it about, who’s it about, what’s special about it – 50 words, go!

A disgraced, alcoholic bounty hunter tries to resolve a mathematical paradox to prevent the republic being annihilated by immortal creatures from beyond the apocalyptic wastes. Betrayed by princes, forced to endure the scathing looks of the love of his life – who hates him – everything goes to hell pretty fast.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished your first draft of your manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

Before I launch into that, I think that it’s worth putting a context by saying that Blackwing wasn’t the first manuscript that I finished. There were at least four or five books that I finished over the decade prior to starting Blackwing, so I was already quite used to the process.

When I had a draft that I was happy with I researched the agents of the writers that I felt my work most resembled, and then sent it out to 12 of them. Most were UK based. I picked them from The Writers and Artists Yearbook and only targeted the specific agents looking for fantasy writers. My plan was to always have 10 submissions out at any one time, writing them off if I hadn’t heard back in 4 months.

What was the biggest change you made to the story before it reached an agent/editor/publisher?

This is a difficult question, because there have been so many iterations.

I started Blackwing around February 2015 and finished it in January 2016. In its earliest completed form it was 165,000 words long, which I didn’t realise until I got to the end (I keep all my chapters in separate Word files, and the estimate Word had been giving was out by about 30k so I found that I was 35k words over. I managed to cut it to 150,000 words before I sent out submissions. However, even by this time it was radically different from my initial idea (I’m not sure I could really call it an outline). Initially the book was supposed to be divided intwo two roughly equal parts, half in a city, half on a journey. I was 90k words in before I realised that the journey hadn’t started yet and I was desperate to finish in 120k words because when I finished a previous novel at 280k words, a kind agent had pointed out that no publisher or agent would take a debut author on with that kind of book.

I got a bite of interest from one well known agent around March 2016, who liked the manuscript but wanted me to cut 50k words. I duly did this over a couple of months and got it back to him by May. He held onto it for 3 months and then turned me down. I resolved that when I got home from work I would send out another 10 samples.

The day after he turned me down, I got a call from Ian Drury at Sheil Land. He’d had my paper submission in his ‘to read’ pile for 8 months. The amount of submissions he gets is that ridiculous. He called and asked for the full manuscript, and less than a week later I had an agent.

I don’t know that I can describe a single big change because there were many, and I don’t know where one starts and the others end. It’s all one. Cutting 57,000 words is probably the single biggest that can be separated.

At what stage did you feel ready to approach an agent?

Once I’d drafted it several times I focused like mad on the first 3 chapters/50 pages. I obsessed over them, had four people read them, listened to their feedback and then perfected them. My beta readers made really important suggestions, and some of them majorly altered the rest of the book.

When I felt it couldn’t be any better – and by this point Chapter 1 had been rewritten from scratch 5 times – I was prepared to send it out.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

I knew that Ian was Mark Lawrence’s agent, and I wanted him to be my agent. I sent a hard copy in a hand-written envelope, with ‘FAO Ian Drury’ on the front. I think that if you don’t target the right people you’re wasting your own time, and the agent’s.

Of the first 12 samples that went out I had 4 requests for the full manuscript. Four rejected, and four never came back to me. This sounds like a good hit rate, but it’s worth considering that the previous five novels I wrote involved me sending out a whole bunch and never getting a nibble.

Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

Yes, I was asked to change a number of things. Some were small details like the names of minor characters. One was actually something that I suggested in our first meeting, he liked the idea and so we went with it. Oh, and the title we have now is not the original title either.

I consider all the changes to be improvements!

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

I don’t think that my experience of this is reflective of many other writers’. It’s fair to say that things went nuts. I genuinely went through a brief spell where I wondered whether it was all a terribly elaborate joke, or that I was losing my mind.

Within a fortnight of Ian taking me on, he’d secured multiple book deals, including foreign language translations. Blackwing went kind of crazy like that, and I am well aware that what happened to me is not at all normal – quite the opposite. Maybe there was just something funky in the air, or maybe I hit the right market at the right time. The book actually went to auction in multiple territories. At the end of some frantic bidding, I had deals to write a trilogy.

It’s still a bit of mystery to me too – Ian is a wizard as far as I’m concerned. I write the words, he makes everything else happen with a wand and I don’t actually see any of it – ultimately I don’t need to, he’s the expert there. I think it’s better that way.

At the current time Blackwing is going to publish in the UK and USA in 2017 and then in Russia, Hungary, Germany, France and Spain probably in 2018 or 2019.

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

I never considered asking someone else to edit my book before it went out for submission. First to Third draft: 165k.

Fourth draft: 150k

Fifth draft: 108k – the version that Ian picked up

I then was lucky enough to work with three editors, two at Gollancz in London, and one at Ace in New York. They asked me to put things in rather than remove them. Everything that I put in was written fresh – I didn’t add back in anything that I’d cut.

Final draft after editing: 118k

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

Mostly the changes were just adding in extra detail. I’d been ruthless in cutting out almost all exposition. Some things they wanted me to clarify that I’d never really thought about before. Most changes were just about clarity, though.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding word count? Does the editor help with this?

Editors are brilliant and spot all the stuff you can’t. They never told me to cut or add any words, but then I think that one of the reasons that Blackwing sold the way it did was that it was very polished and streamlined by the time they saw it the first time.

Let’s talk book. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two (and three, and four etc.)?

Zero! Unless it’s subconscious. I provided a synopsis for books two and three before the first book sold (the synopses were requested by the publishers). They’re happy enough to just let me get on with writing it at the moment. I’m currently halfway through book 2, but I’ve also written half of book 3. So that’s weird.

Your cover art is phenomenal. How much of a hand did you have in designing it?

None I’m afraid –  I can take no credit there! I did discuss and provide lots of my ideas (which were requested, and Gollancz bought me lunch to discuss it), but ultimately I have to respect that they know their markets better than I do.

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

How lovely everyone is. No seriously, they’re all lovely. So lovely I’m waiting to see them all tear off their human masks and reveal the insectoid creatures within, like in Dr Who.

Since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in ‘Blackwing? (Without giving any spoilers away!)

The entire reason to write the book was so that I could have one moment where there was a big formal duel, and the protagonist, Galharrow, would have to make a choice about whether or not to take someone’s place and fight for them. The whole duel plotline got cut entirely, never to return.

And since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in YOU as a writer?

I appreciate more that for me, revision is probably more work than the writing. I used to think in word counts, but they don’t mean a lot anymore. That’s just my process though – I’m horribly inefficient. I write chapters multiple times. In the sequel I’m writing, I’ve now changed one character’s age, background, race, gender and agenda multiple times. I need to change it again. I develop ideas as I go, and that usually means they suck until I get a few chapters on and I have a better one.

Finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? Or better yet, what’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

The more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the better your odds. Aim to improve and make sure you put in the time to generate sufficient words that you allow yourself to do so. It took me 1.5 million words to stop writing clichés, to stop imitating and to find an original voice which – I hope – I finally managed to do.

Ed McDonald has spent many years dancing between different professions, cities and countries, but the only thing any of them share in common is that they have allowed him enough free time to write. He currently lives with his wife in London, a city that provides him with constant inspiration, where he works as a university lecturer. When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.

His debut Blackwing is scheduled to be released in the UK on July 20th 2017 by Gollancz, in the US on October 30th 2017; and available in German, Spanish, French, Hungarian and Russian (so far!) translations from 2018.

 

 

The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with Anna Smith-Spark

Following on from my interview with Nicholas Eames yesterday, I’ve invited Anna Smith-Spark to talk about the ‘production’ behind her fantasy debut ‘The Court of Broken Knives’, book one of ‘The Empires of Dust’ series. Anna’s already making a name for herself amongst the fantasy community, and her novel, pitched as a favourite for fans of Mark Lawrence and R Scott Bakker, promises to be an explosion of grimdark epic-ness. Back this up with the fact she’s represented by Ian Drury, Lawrence’s agent, and the twitter tag of @queenofgrimdark twitter handle sounds like a challenge to all would be contenders. Heck, if the crown fits, wear it. Or as Jorg Ancrath proves – take it!

So, without further adieu, I introduce, to you ladies and gentlemen, the Queen of Grimdark herself, Anna Smith-Spark.anna-smith-spark-author-photo

ME: Hi Anna! Before we begin, let’s start with some introductions – who are you, what do you do, and what’s special about you as a writer?

AS-S: Hello Mike. Who am I? Argh…. My name is Anna Smith Spark, I write grimdark epic fantasy in the Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker kind of vein. I’ve got a BA in classics and classical history, an MA in social history and a PhD in English Literature, all of which have contributed to my writing somewhere. I have Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia and dyspraxia – I mention this not because it’s particularly relevant to anything, but because all three are very hidden disabilities and it’s important people see that it’s possible to have one or all of them and still, you, know, manage to have a life and success and that.

What’s special about me as a writer? Double argh … um … I’m heavily influenced by both Philippa Gregory and Conan the Barbarian? I write (dirty) poetry in multiple invented languages? I swear more than anyone else I’ve ever read? Ummm ….

Same sketch as the previous question, this time about your debut novel ‘The Court of Broken Knives’ – what’s it about, who’s it about, what’s special about it?

‘The Court of Broken Knives’ is the first volume in the ‘Empires of Dust’ trilogy. We open very traditionally, with a group of sword bros in a desert, in their midst is a strange, troubled young man with a Past … then we sort of start really looking at that. The novel is very much about the complex relationship society has always had with violence – if you read the Greek myths, or the Arthur stories, the glory of war and the horror of war are inexplicably bound up together, people relish and glorify violence even as they condemn it, and the novel is trying to explore that. I’m also very influenced by writers such as Mary Stewart and Mary Renault, who look at the human psychology behind the great myths and heroes.  I suppose the central question is about power and desire – why do people happily follow someone into battle, even knowing what they will have to do and what it might cost?

Broken Knives has been described as lyrical, even poetic: my father is a poet and I grew up with poetry (I’ve even had a few poems published, at www.greatworks.org.uk); there’s certainly a strong poetic element to what I write. I’ve referenced a lot of classical and dark age history and literature (the Iliad, Beowulf, the Eddas) and folk tradition. But there’s also a lot of dark humour, I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett and Blackadder and the cynical, irreverent view of history and myth they share. And some filthy jokes!

I once joked I wanted to be reviewed as ‘Joe Abercrombie meets Leonard Cohen in a particularly filthy public toilet’. I think that probably sums it up.

 So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished your first draft of your manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

I submitted my novel to agents virtually as soon as I’d finished it. In fact, I submitted it far too early – it wasn’t until I’d done some redrafting following an editor’s critique that I really understood what I was trying to write and who the characters were. People will probably hate me for saying this, but, yes, I got a top flight agent with the first draft of the first book I ever wrote.

Things got harder after that, though…

What was the biggest change you made to the story before it reached an agent/editor/publisher?

My agent suggested some very minor changes.  My editor then wanted it bigger and more epic – and I was very happy to oblige!

At what stage did you feel ready to approach an agent?

As I said, I approached an agent virtually as soon as I’d finished the last sentence. This was too early, really. But I just had a mad confidence in the book.

Honestly, I’d not recommend this approach to people looking to get an agent. I was very gung-ho ‘oh I’ve written this great book I need an agent’. But getting an agent is I think harder than then getting a publishing deal – and you only get one shot at it. If an agent thinks you have something but the book then doesn’t get bought by a publisher, the agent might tell you to rewrite your book ten times, resubmit it to publishers, tell you to write something else. If an agent rejects you, they don’t want you coming back to them.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

I approached the agent I did for personal reasons – he also represents Mark Lawrence, whom I knew vaguely online and whose books had a huge impact on my life. I was suffering from profound depression, I’d given up even reading fantasy, then I saw the cover to Prince of Thorns and, um, fell in love a bit.  The Broken Empire trilogy brought me back to reading and then writing fantasy, to be represented by the same agent (and publisher) is an honour I don’t think I’ll ever stop marvelling at.

But you don’t really chose an agent (unless you’re very, very lucky and very, very, very good). Usually you apply to several, most ignore you totally, maybe one rejects you nicely, one sees something the others didn’t and takes you on.  The important thing is to only apply to agents who you think will ‘get’ your work. And to apply EXACTLY as they tell you to on their website / in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.  Agents get a lot of people sending them stuff. If your cover letter isn’t right, they won’t read further. This isn’t because they’re evil. This is because someone who can’t be bothered to write a cover letter in the style they want probably isn’t a great bet.

Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

My agent wanted very few changes. There are always lots of suggestions and improvements at every stage, obviously, but I didn’t have anything major. The biggest thing was to make one of the characters more sympathetic. I had a long conversation about this with my agent while I was at work. I was sitting at my desk in an open-plan office discussing morality with the guy who discovered Jorg! It was certainly a bizarre moment in my life.

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

The author has no involvement in submitting to publishers. None. That’s what your agent does. It’s agonising – there are no deadlines you’ll hear back by, there’s nothing you can do. You just have to sit and try to pretend it’s not happening and you’re completely fine about everything and you never really wanted a massive three book deal anyway, publishing be damned, while checking your inbox every ten minutes for months. Then one day you get an email out of the blue saying it’s on.

Or, if you’re me, you get an email to your work email address ten minutes after you’ve left for a long Christmas holiday, you have a nightmare Christmas with family sickness, give up completely on even thinking about being published, come this close to vowing you’ll burn every word you’ve ever written and never write again as long as your child survives the night, then get back to work and discover it’s on ON YOUR BIRTHDAY!!!!!     

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

I didn’t have a beta reader, though my dad and a couple of friends read the draft before I submitted it to an agent. I don’t use beta readers and never will.

The word count did change quite a lot. The original manuscript my agent took on was quite short (c.100,000 words), my editor wanted it longer and more epic. So I basically combined book one and the first half of book two. The book was then very long (c 180,000). With editing, this then came down to c.150,000 words.

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

The drop from 180,000 to 150,000 seems like a big change, but actually a lot of it’s just stripping out what I think of as the authorial ‘workings’.  I think with all authors, there’s lots of stuff we write that’s completely necessary to be written, to help the author themselves really understand what’s happening and why, but that the reader doesn’t want or need, that just gets in the way. It’s not ‘fat’ or ‘bloat’, necessarily. But it ultimately ends up needing to come out. Like all twiddly the bits that help the author keep the timeline working – they’re absolutely necessary at the time as the writing happens, but then your editor points out you don’t need them and they just go. Same with minor characters’ backstories – you need to really understand them. The reader probably doesn’t.

And there is that vanity thing, the big epic twenty minute guitar solo that’s so so so so so much fun to write, the ‘and now I’m going to really let rip’, and then your editor just steps in politely and unplugs your amp. But that’s why I write big epic fantasy novels. And that’s why I have an editor.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding word count? Does the editor help with this?

I wasn’t told ‘make it X thousand words longer/shorter’. The editing report just says ‘get to the action here, we don’t need a four page description of what they have for breakfast first’. You look at the report. You look at your epic four page guitar solo it’s not a description of breakfast, it’s a complex metaphor for why Donald Trump won the election, and those five paragraphs describing a slice of fried bread are just sublime. You look at the report again. You cut the entire four pages and rewrite ‘they had quick breakfast and then started out’. That’s 2 k down just like that.

Occasionally, the report might ask you to expand something, usually for clarity. Typically, this is something like ‘we last met this character two hundred pages ago hanging from a mountain ledge by one finger. It might perhaps be worth reminding us who they are and explaining what’s happened to them since. Especially as they seem to have mysteriously changed their hair colour and lost the final ‘e’ from their name’. You briefly contemplate just pasting your five paragraphs about fried bread in here as it’s so much easier than having to go back and write something new.

Let’s talk book. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two (and three, and four etc.).

Honestly? Not at all.  I wrote the ending to the whole trilogy before I got the book deal (at work, actually, but we’ll draw a veil over that … ). But it is one big story, not separate stories in the same world, and I submitted a synopsis for the trilogy as a whole. Presumably, if they’d hated the way the story progresses, they wouldn’t have bought it.

And it’s a good storyline!

I’ve got a lot better as a writer since I’ve had an agent and an editor, I’ve learned a huge amount about how to shape a story. So in that sense they’ve shaped books two and three a great deal. But in terms of plot, not at all.

 You’ve recently been able to showcase your cover art to the world, and it certainly fits the grimdark-epic bill! How much of a hand did you have in designing it?

Thank you! I adore the cover, it’s absolutely beautiful.  But I had absolutely no part in designing it. Or in writing the cover blurb (apart from the actual line quoted from the book, obviously – but I didn’t chose that as the special quote for the back either). My editor asked me for my thoughts, and for a list of covers I really liked.  I told her I wanted a big sword on the front and I gave her a list of covers I particularly like – all of which have swords on the front. That’s it.

Oddly enough, Peter at BookNest.Eu put together a mocked-up fan cover for Broken Knives to go on his ‘most anticipated of 2017’ list, based purely on the title and the back cover blurb. It was a picture of a sword on a dark red background. Obviously there’s just something in the title that demands this …  

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

I was fairly familiar with the publishing process, it’s all laid out in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. And I’ve been involved in publishing in a very different context in my day job (I’ve drafted documents and leaflets that have been published for an external audience), so I basically knew the drill.

Since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in ‘The Court of Broken Knives’? (Without giving any spoilers away!)

The biggest change? Hmmm… Actually, there was one scene where one of the POV characters does something a bit out of character. It made relationships between people unnecessarily complex later on. I really struggled with this, trying to account for it, lots of agonizing by people, speeches in their defense. And then my editor just suggested I cut that scene.

And since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in YOU as a writer?

I’ve got better at writing novels.

That sounds very flippant, but there’s a huge difference between pouring out a story that’s burning inside you, and writing a novel for others to read. It’s not that I care any less, or that it’s not as enjoyable or as personal or as much about my soul and my thoughts and dreams. But I’m better at pacing, at constructing a plot, at engaging with the reader, at thinking about what others might think and how I can then respond to that. It actually makes it more interesting to write.

Finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? Or better yet, what’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

There is no conspiracy.

A lot of people see the world of agents and publishers as a closed shop, assume people get book deals because they know people or have some special magic trick. But agents and editors make money by publishing books that sell well. Finding exciting new talent is basically their job. They’re not actually sadists deliberately cutting down talented wannabe writers. They wouldn’t make any money if they did that. If they reject you – honestly, truthfully, there’s probably a reason for that.

The special magic trick is to play by the rules.  The rules are all set out in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and on agents’ and publishers’ websites. It’s all very simple, and comes down to only submit in the format the agent or publisher requests, with no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. If you see a job advert that says ‘send your CV by this date’ and you send in a letter without a CV a week later, it doesn’t matter that your letter clearly shows that’s the job you were born to do, because you look like you don’t care.

It’s the same thing with agents and publishers. I was too scared to even open the WAYB for years, thinking it was some secret terrible thing written in hieroglyphics that basically pissed itself laughing at you. It’s not. It says ‘write a cover letter, write a synopsis, spellcheck before you send, here are the addresses’. Scary, huh?

But there are also a lot of people wanting to get published. And agents and publishers are human beings with human concentration spans and too much work and messy personal lives and all the rest of it. They have to filter, reject stuff without much more than a glance, make decision about what they’re going to focus on, like we all do at work every day. It’s possible if my agent had had a stonking head cold or a bad journey to work the day he’d opened my sub he’d have glanced over it, binned it and I’d never have had even a polite rejection from him. Joe Abercrombie’s agent wasn’t interested in me simply because he wasn’t looking for any more fantasy writers at that point. Of course there’s luck involved. That’s life. There’s always some element of luck involved. So if you do get a rejection, don’t give up and never write again. Maybe write something totally different. Or self-publish. Or write short stories for open subs magazines. But don’t give up.

And let’s be completely frank here. Writing should be fun. A good book … you can tell the author was genuinely just enjoying writing it, just relishing the pleasure of words strung together and a story told. If it becomes purely about getting published, you’re probably not writing well anyway.

So: enjoy it, be realistic, obey the rules, have confidence, never give up.

Which is the least grimdark thing I’ve written for months, damn it. Just imagine I’m now swearing copiously and writing a massacre scene.

Cover

Anna Smith-Spark lives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website http://www.greatworks.org. Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.

Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault.  She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player. She can often be spotted at sff conventions wearing very unusual shoes.

Her debut The Court of Broken Knives is available to pre-order now, and is scheduled to be released on June 29th 2017 by Harper Voyager.

The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with Nicholas Eames

2017 is set to be the year for traditionally-published fantasy debut novels, in recent times (say that five times fast!). That’s not to knock 2016, 15, 14…though 2016 has a lot to answer for, but for entirely different reasons not linked to fantasy novels; unless there’s some really weird butterfly effect going on here, and somehow grimdark has perverted our very existence, to culminate in the most heart-wrenching, gut-watering, pants-pissing travesty…

…of two accountants handing out the wrong envelope.

I digress.

The 2017 line-up of traditionally-published fantasy debut novels is impressive. All at once, names, faces, and BOOKS have appeared from the woodwork (the desk, geddit?). I’ve already fallen in love with the first one out of the gate, Nicholas Eames’ debut Kings of the Wyld. He’s set the bar pretty high for other contenders, but with others including Anna Smith-Spark, Ed McDonald, R J Barker and Anna Stephens, it looks like a close race.

As an industry-outsider looking in on the publishing biz, I’ve always been fascinated by the work going on behind the scenes, to produce ‘the next big thing’. Not just the work put in by the authors, the agents, the editors, the cover artists etc. etc. etc. The work that the story puts in, how it grows, changes, and evolves over its life time, from eureka moment of conception to ending up in a reader’s hands.

So, with that in mind, I asked some of the 2017 traditionally-published fantasy debut authors (this is getting no easier to type than it is to read, I promise you!) to share their, and their stories’, experiences in how they got to where they are now. And first up, because he was first up for release, he’s the first one I reviewed, and because he’s the first one I asked (read: told), I’ll be talking to Nicholas Eames.

ME: Hi Nicholas! Thanks for volunteering…more, voluntold as I might have coerced you into this. I’d like to pick your brains on the modern-production of a fantasy debut. For those of us who are on the outside of the industry, the process of taking a book from words (well, a Word.doc) to a fully published novel is a kind of black magic.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished your first draft of the manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

NE: Firstly, there IS a fair amount of black magic involved.  Many sacrificial chickens gave their life so I could take a stab at a writing career (moment of silence).  MOVING ON, when I finished Kings of the Wyld (then called The Band) I sent it to my most trusted and critical beta reader, who told me it needed a better ending, so I went back to work for three days.  After that, I probably quaffed a scotch and started crafting a query letter.

At what stage did you feel ready to approach an agent?

Funny story. I actually had an agent interested enough in a rejected novel that they offered to look at this one.  After much back and forth, however, they passed.  Regardless, their input was invaluable into making KOTW into something my eventual agent saw promise in.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

Funnier story! I was serving tables at the time, and one night Sebastien deCastell (of Traitor’s Blade fame) came in. I told him what a huge fan I was and (as aspiring writers will) told him about my own work.  We stayed in touch, had coffee once so I could pick his brain about publishing stuff, and when that first agent passed, Sebastien graciously offered to pass it on to his–with no promises, of course.  A month later, his agent was mine as well!

Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

She asked that I slim it down from 116k to 100 or so, which wasn’t too difficult a task.  Also, she asked me to plot out a series, since she figured (correctly) that that’s what publishers were looking for.

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

That part is actually similar to seeking an agent.  Namely, you just…wait.  And wait.  And wait.  The only difference (for me, anyway) is you’re expecting good news instead of bad.  I think the industry term for this is ‘being on submission’ and basically you just keep busy while your agent shops it around.  And one day, if you’re lucky, your agent calls with an offer.  As far as jumping through hoops goes…as a debut author (or even an established one) you’ve got to trust that your editor and publisher know their business better than you do.  So if they ask you to do things like, say, change the title from The Band to Kings of the Wyld, you’d be wise to listen!

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

Agent first, editor after–and the word count fluctuated quite a bit.  The first draft of KOTW was pretty bare bones.  I’d spent years before writing this sprawling, exhaustive epic, and so set out to write something with little-to-no exposition whatsoever.  I ended up at 116k, which, at my agent’s request, got whittled down to 102k.  Once Orbit bought it, I was asked to flesh the story out, to deepen the characters and add many of the details I’d skimped on the first time round–all changes I was happy to make.  The final word count is around 144k, I believe.

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

Both, I think.  Not only did a larger word count enable me to add a little more depth to each character, but it also allowed me to elaborate a bit more on the setting itself.  Some authors (myself included) often world-build meticulously before beginning a book, but in this case I built nothing at all.  There were the characters, their story, and nothing else mattered.  It made for a fast and fun read, but lacked the immersion many fantasy readers (again, myself included) enjoy, so I was grateful for the opportunity to expand on the setting, which in turn helped to inform the characters when it came time to revise and edit.

Also, I like to think that publishers realized readers want bigger books.  For a while books seemed to be getting smaller and smaller (though the price stayed the same!) and I, as I reader, took offense to this.  There’s something to be said for telling a story concisely, of course, but fantasy readers like to be immersed, and immersion often requires longer, more detailed books.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding? Does the agent help with this?

Cutting is usually no problem–at least not after a first draft.  There is always stuff you thought was solid gold at the time, but turned out to be nothing more than shiny, shoddy aluminum.  One thing I was asked to cut a lot of was the humour–not to remove it entirely, only to make it less ridiculous, so that the sombre, more sentimental parts of the book could be taken more seriously.  In the end, we compromised: at least three (hopefully) hilarious moments remain that were marked for excision, but I was determined to keep, including something I call ‘the boner scene’.  For better or worse, the boner scene remains part of the book!

You mentioned book two when we spoke about this originally. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two (and three, and four etc.)?

Not really at all, except to insist that it be able to stand alone from the others, as per my contract!  I love this, by the way.  Despite the fact that there is a very definite arc that will run through all three books, each story, and its setting/characters, will be very different.

Your cover art is phenomenal. How much of a hand did you have in designing it?

The short answer is: not even a single bit, but the long answer is waaaay better.  The cover art was done by Richard Anderson, who was a lead artist on Guild Wars 2 (a game I played for the art) and is responsible for most of my favourite fantasy covers.  That said, I tend to despise fantasy book covers, because I expend a lot of effort trying to convert non-fantasy readers to into fantasy readers and our genre tends to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to that (“I promise this book is good, even though the cover depicts a wizard riding a skeleton riding a dragon riding a dwarf!).

Anyway, my AMAZING editor knew all these things about me, and one day she called me out of the blue and told me they had secured Richard to do the cover of my book.  To say that I was excited would be an understatement.

I had a little input on the lettering, but ultimately the design team at Orbit handled that.  And now, when I look at my book…well, I stare at it the way a mother does at her newborn child.  It (and the map inside it, by Tim Paul) is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

Hmm.  I think I expected it to be more formal and less fun.  Then again, I may have just gotten lucky.  The folks at Orbit are so passionate about what they’re doing.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the U.S. headquarters in New York, and was able to see what fun, energetic people they are.  And NERDS!!!  HUGE NERDS!!!   But so am I, so that’s a bonus.  From what I’ve seen (on twitter) it’s not just Orbit.  At the end of the day it’s a business, yes, but this whole industry is filled with dreamers.

And finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? What’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

Don’t be afraid to give up on your dreams!

Wait, you say, what?

What I mean is this: if the tack you’re taking isn’t working, try something new.  I worked for about ten years on a book that will probably never see the light of day.  It’s not a bad book, but it suffers from so many mistakes common to first time writers. It’s verbose, overly-complex, and too serious for its own good.  I’d read so often that most authors have a book (or many) like this, but I thought, as people tend to do, that I was the exception to the rule.  I wasn’t.

By the time I came up with the idea for the book that became Kings of the Wyld, I’d learned so many lessons from the process of writing and re-writing the book before, but none more important than this: don’t try to emulate your favourite authors.  Find your own voice.  It’s in there somewhere, but every writer you’ve ever read is clamouring around in your head as well.  Ask them, kindly, to shut up, then get to work!

Kings of the Wyld.jpgNicholas Eames was born to parents of infinite patience and unstinting support in Wingham, Ontario. Though he attended college for theatre arts, he gave up acting to pursue the infinitely more attainable profession of “epic fantasy novelist.” Kings of the Wyld is his first novel. Nicholas loves black coffee, neat whiskey, the month of October, and video games. He currently lives in Ontario, Canada, and is very probably writing at this moment.

Kings of the Wyld is now available from all major bookstores, online and Amazon.

 

Review: Kings of the Wyld

Kings of the Wyld
Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

THE GOOD: Larger than life heroes kicking ass and (re)taking their names as the greatest mercenary band to tour the Wyld; more monsters than a Dungeons & Dragons careers’ fair; a high stakes adventure of friends, fiends and f*** ups; more heavy hitting battles than a greatest hits collection; and a hall of fame page-turning performance to make the Bat Outta Hell sit back, buckle up, and hold on for the god-damned ride of its life.

THE BAD: It had to end? Seriously, I have one hell of a book hangover after this. Though, and in favour of fairness, if I had to (nit) pick a downside to this cracking debut, it’d be elements of info dumping early on – but don’t let that stop you reading this story, as I’ll explain why it didn’t bother me below in the main review.

THE UGLY TRUTH: Good old-fashioned fantasy heroes, the loud, the proud, and never to be cowed, knocking back whiskies in a sticky-floored, dim-lit dive bar, moshing with every monster known to Dungeons & Dragons; all whilst Terry Pratchett hosts a lock-in of Rock-n-f***ing-Roll tribute bands belting out ear melting hits better than the original act ever did on stage, because they’re doing it for the love of the music, and they love what they do. But if I had to sum Kings of the Wyld in one sentence: They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

‘Kids these days…they’re obsessed with mercenaries, Clay. They worship them. It’s unhealthy. And most of these mercs aren’t even in real bands! They just hire a bunch of nameless goons to do their fighting while they paint their faces and parade around with shiny swords and fancy armour. There’s even one guy – I shit you not – who rides a manticore into battle!”

“A manticore?” asked Clay, incredulous.

Gabe laughed bitterly. “I know, right? Who the fuck rides a manticore? Those things are dangerous! Well, I don’t need to tell you.”

Saga was once the greatest mercenary band to tour the Heartwyld. Golden Gabe the charismatic frontman, Clay ‘Slowhand’ Cooper the ever-reliable warrior, Moog the magnificent wizard, Matrick Skulldrummer the loveable rogue, and Ganelon the killer. But every star fades with time, and the five members of the band have retired. Since there last circuit, everything has changed. The world’s a new place, and Saga and its members are memories of the old ways, the way things used to be – which provides ample opportunity for plot twists, world building, and of course, madness and mayhem, in this rip-roaring rock’n’roll headbanger from debut author Nicholas Eames.

The action comes thick and fast, but so too does the humour. Not to point out every ‘funny’ as film trailers seem to these days (which would be impossible, as there’s so many in this book) but particular highlights for me include: Steve the doorknocker, Kit the unkillable, a staff that turns swords into something else, a kobold’s cock ring (even if only a mention, but my god, what the fu-?), and the melee involving combatants wielding a hammer, a shield and 3 raging erections. As mad as it sounds, it makes perfect sense. Some might even turn their nose up at that last particular mention, citing immaturity or toilet humour, but it’s not. KotW is mature, its grown up, but it’s still got that energy of a garage band breaking out onto the scene.

“Of course I’ll come,” said Matrick. “You shits are the only real family I’ve got.”

One of the main concepts, the whole fantasy meets classic rock, doesn’t get old. It works, and it works so well that you don’t question it. As a matter of fact, unless it’s pointed out to you at the start, you’re not slapped about the head with it. Suddenly, as you read, you’ll have a eureka moment of ‘oh, I see what Eames has done here!’ Its’ brilliance lies in its simplicity, and the fact that it’s interwoven throughout the story, the characters, the world itself. Without spoiling anything, here’s a few examples:

Characters:
• Clay ‘Slowhand’ Cooper holds the (bass)line of the band (Saga) and the very story itself. A stoic warrior of old, armed with his fabled shield Blackheart and whatever comes to hand, Clay reminded me of Steven Erikson’s Fiddler, but with more heart, and Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers, but with more hope. He’s a good man, not afraid to do the bad thing, if it means the difference between right and wrong.
• Gabriel ‘Golden Gabe’ is the charismatic frontman, the cover boy, and the voice (lead singer) of Saga. From the washed-up waste-of-space at the start of the book, to his return to the golden age by the end, his personal quest to save his daughter might be the goal, but his journey of self rediscovery is what gets him there.
• Arcandius Moog the mystical, maniacal, and above all moving keyboard player. A pyjama wearing wizard who supports his own life’s pursuit to cure ‘the rot’ (which claimed the life of his dearly loved husband) by selling Magic Moog’s Phallic Phyllactery. Read that again. Yes, you read it correctly. Moog sells a male performance enhancer that’ll turn you from ‘zero to hero’. I kid you not, you can’t make this shit up…and Eames has, which is testament to his creativity and innovation.
• Matrick Skulldrummer, the party’s ‘lively’ rogue with a penchant for drink, takes the role of drummer (it’s in the name) armed with his twin knives Roxy and Grace. He and Moog provide much of Saga’s comic relief, as well as one of its most heartfelt moments. Like all of them, Matty was at his peak in his yester year, when he saved the Princess of Agria and swiftly bedded his way to kingship. Now, he’s all but captive in his own kingdom, and only Saga can give him a way out.
• Ganelon the axeman. Big, bold and badass, he shreds his foes both as part of the band, or ‘solo’. Lead guitarist if you hadn’t guessed it. We’re not properly introduced to him until a little later on in the story, but when he arrives on stage he’s greeted by raucous applause, not in the least because he all but singlehandedly takes on one of the most fearsome monsters that the Wyld has to throw at Saga.

The World:
• Mercenary groups/parties are known as ‘bands’. Almost everyone with a sword, shield, spear, or a stone/stick/scrap of ambition wants to be in a ‘band’.
• The ‘bands’ score ‘gigs’ via ‘bookers’ who manage their careers.
• These ‘gigs’ for the most part take them on ‘tours’ of the Heartwyld.
• The ‘bands’ are welcomed by parades of screaming fans when they return from their ‘tours’.

Speaking of world building, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my one and only problem with KotW. And it’s not the world itself – hell no, Eames has absolutely smashed it with this; I for one normally turn-off to fantasy realms populated with goblins, orcs, slimes, owlbears, giants, wyverns, and every other usual host you’d expect to see in a DnD manual or one of the many B-grade straight-to-DVD-bargain-bucket movies. But not so with KotW, as Eames breathes new life into the old foes and fiends, either through reimagining or realism. That being said, I’ve strayed from the point – my one problem with KotW and its worldbuilding, is, at times, the execution of introducing the reader to the world. I’m talking info-dumps.

The info dumps are few and far between (and by a third of the way in I didn’t spot any more), and they’re actually pretty good as far as info dumps go, but once I read one, I can’t help but notice others. In a way, that’s a symptom of me as a reader and aspiring writer – it’s been hammered into me so many times that ‘info dumping is bad;’ ‘don’t info dump;’ or my personal favourite, shout out to 2 Unlimited: ‘no no; no no no no; no no there’s no limit (except on info dumps)’. In a way, info dumping stems from, or feeds into, or goes hand in hand, with the old ‘show vs tell’ debate/debacle.

But why don’t I take umbrage with these info dumps? Besides the fact that the info dumps are used to introduce us to a vast and richly populated world (including religion, history, politics to a lesser extent, and biology too – monsters!), I’m also dismissing my nit picking (and this is what I’m doing – in the grand scheme, this book is just that good) due to context. Context, yes. Because I know, from having spoken to the author, that KotW evolved over the stage of its life. Its ‘growth’ is fascinating, especially for an industry outsider looking in. It went a little something like this:

First draft 114,000 words.
Beta reading feedback pushed this up to 117,000 words.
Agent amendments cut it back to 102,000 words.
Publishing house picks-out and chops backstory excerpt chapters, opting to have them sprinkled throughout, cutting it down to almost 90,000 words.
Additional additions/editorial edits pushed this all the way back up to 150,000 words.

So why the uplift right at the end? From what I understand, when Eames secured his book deal with the publisher, he ended up adding whopping 50k words (almost a third of the original’s length). Why though? The pacing of the first draft was pretty breakneck, but also barebones – and by adding to the wordcount Eames had the opportunity to: a) flesh out his scenes a little more, and b) world build, world build, world build. Needless to say, Eames wasted neither opportunity, and the scenes are all the more gritty, emotional, and real because of it, and the world…well, it’s a world¸ a living breathing world, and that’s praise enough itself.

And in my opinion, every single word is bloody brilliant.

Despite my misgivings of the info dumping, looking back, I couldn’t give a damn about it anymore. Every word brought this world to life; every word a charge in a synapse, a beat of a heart. And without them, this book would be just that – a book. Instead, it’s very, very real – or at least I wished it was!

Kings of the Wyld is one of those books that could easily transcend the written word, and easily be a summer blockbuster, a TV series (Netflix, I’m looking at you!), or a video game (Dragon Age style or MMORPG springs to mind). I mean, it’s already got its own soundtrack!

It kills me that I can’t give this book a 10 out of 10. Why? Because Eames cranked it all the way to 11. So f*** it, you know what? 11 out of 10. As the saying goes:

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

But Eames did. And he made it better.
View all my reviews

2017 David Gemmell Awards Longlist now open for voting!

Gladiators from across the globe are gathering. The roster has been written-up, the circle in the sand drawn out. Fifty-nine Legends, seven Debut fighters, and fifty-eight of the greatest showmen and women, will battle it out amongst their categories…and only three will emerge victorious!

The longlists for the 2017 David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy have been announced. The David Gemmell Awards celebrate the finest fantasy that traditional publishing has to offer. Established in memory of the late, great, big-daddy of heroic fantasy, David Gemmell, the awards showcase authors and their works from all across the globe, and across the sub genres of heroic fantasy, traditional, sword & sorcery, high and low – and most importantly, those in the spirit of Gemmell’s work.

The awards are broken down into the following categories, each named after one of Gemmell’s books:
• The Legend Award – Best Fantasy Novel.
• Morningstar Award – Best Debut.
• Ravenheart Award – Best Fantasy Cover Art.

Voting on the longlists closes on the 31st March. Cast your votes on the David Gemmell Awards official website here.