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!


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.



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