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.

3 thoughts on “The production of a fantasy debut: Interview with Anna Stephens

  1. Pingback: Michael Everest

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