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.
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.
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.