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.

 

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