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!
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.
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.
(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) 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. 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 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, 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.
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.
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…
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.
- Exactly fifty words, because I also dislike being predictable.
- 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.
- In East Anglia.
- Not real flesh from a sacrifice to the Great God Pan that did not happen.
- 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.
- The prosecution rests, M’lud – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTnw8tR21c&t=200s
- 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.