Writing interview: On writing ‘Godblind’ with Anna Stephens

2017 is THE YEAR of fantasy debuts. That’s not to say that other years have been any less impressive, but I have read 4 fantasy debuts (currently on a 5th – that being ‘The Court of Broken Knives’*) all to be released in 2017, that have blown me away. Honestly, these guys and gals are pulling out all of the stops, and they’re only just getting started.

One of these debuts is Godblind by Anna Stephens.

Both the story behind, and the story within Godblind fascinated me.

Firstly, the story behind. Here you have a multi-pov books with so many plot lines, twists and reveals, that as the reader it keeps you guessing and gawping. But as the author, I can’t begin to imagine how you go about crafting something so intricately interwoven as this, without fucking it up and stabbing yourself in the thumb with a bloody knitting needle. Godblind was first ‘finished’ in 2004 and was rejected 36 times before being picked up by Harper Voyager.

Which leads me nicely to the story within Godblind. In the author’s own words, ‘Godblind is a gritty epic fantasy about a religious war conducted on the back of an invasion and the people – lords, commoners, warriors – who get caught up in the maelstrom and are forced to kill and die to protect what’s most precious to them.’

So, when I approached Anna for an interview, I knew that I was about to embark on an adventure, one of 13 years in the making. I’d already spoken to her about Godblind’s path to publication in the ‘production of a traditionally published fantasy debut in 2017’ interview mini-series, but I knew that there was more to be told.

The answers that came back were a real eye-opener for me, as someone on the outside of the industry looking in. But I had a lot of questions, about Godblind and its author, and the story behind both book and the being who brought it into…being, so there were a lot of answers. The interview got preeeetty big, but all of it was, as some say, ‘gold’. With that in mind, I cut the interview into two – one on Godblind primarily, and one on the process of writing (both the story and in general).

This blog, for the most part, was established to explore writing, publishing, and the people behind it (authors, agents, editors etc.); and because of that, I’ve decided to post the writing interview, here, first. The other interview (the one focusing on Godblind) will appear around the book’s release date on the 15th June.

 (*Big shout out to the other Anna from Harper Voyager – Anna Smith Spark, who is publishing the aforementioned ‘The Court of Broken Knives’ in June. Yes, not 1, but 2, kickass Grimdark debuts from not 1, but 2, badass leading ladies, from not 1, but 2 ,<i’ll stop now, I promise> Annas, published by Harper Voyager. TALK ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN JULY…I mean, June.)

 

Image may contain: people smiling, one or more people and close-up
Anna Stephens – not to be allowed near hammers or nails at ANY time…

 

ME: Hi Anna (Stephens)! For those that have yet to come across you, in 50 words or less, introduce yourself.

AS: I’m a lover of all things fantasy and speculative, whether that’s books, movies, TV series or the inside of my own head. I’ve written all my life, and always dreamt of being published. I’m a (currently lapsed) martial artist and a literature graduate.  And I fight crime. Maybe.

ME: How did you get into writing? What made you want to write? And how long have you been writing for?

AS: One of my earliest vivid memories is of my very first day at school, meaning I was four. This was after the time I got told off by the nursery teacher for trying to push a little boy off the climbing frame. I didn’t get any biscuits that day…

Anyway, at my first day at school we were all given a piece of cardboard with our names written on it, with ten sheets of tracing paper over the top, and we have to trace the letters we could see through the tracing paper – learning to write our names.

And I was fascinated. I was absolutely engrossed in this task – every single morning, ten times tracing our names. I can still see it, clear as a bell – while all the other kids played and argued and shouted and drank their milk, I sat quietly writing my name. I don’t know if that was where my obsession with words began, but it’s probably a good bet.

And then there were the bedtime stories my Mum used to tell me, and the books we used to read together as a family. I don’t think there was ever a time when I wasn’t reading, once I could read. And all that fuel, in a young sponge-like mind that sucks up everything it hears or sees … really, there was no way I wasn’t going to write.

So I guess I’d have to say, forever. Or at least since the age of four.

As to why I write, that’s simple – I have too many ideas in my head at any one time. I have to purge them onto paper or I’ll combust. Plus, the inside of my head was always more fun than the outside.

ME: You’re a qualified proof reader, correct? Did you want to pursue that line of work first, before pursuing writing, or was it in aid of becoming a published author?

I am, yes. It was something I seriously considered doing, alongside writing. Every job I’ve ever had has been alongside writing, never instead of it. Every job is a “until I make enough money as a writer to give it up” job. Ohh, I hope my boss doesn’t read this.

Now I work four days a week in communications for a law firm, and seven days a week in books!

AS: And did it (learning to be a proof reader) help when it came to writing Godblind?

It certainly helped with sentence construction and picking up my own typos, yes, though just the other day I noticed a typo in Godblind’s ARC – Already instead of Alright, and I can’t for the life of me remember if I picked it up in the proofread. If it’s made its way into the final version, I’ll never be able to un-see it once I’ve spotted it!

It does help with sentence construction, even though I write very much in the vernacular. But I’m more meticulous as a result of that qualification, and if it’s an important or weighty scene, sentence or moment, I do spend more time over it as a result.

ME: You’ve mentioned before that Godblind evolved over a number of years. Can you explain how, and why?

AS: Oops, I think I’ve answered that one above!

To expand, however (are you still with me? Anyone still reading this?) I was very fortunate in that Godblind was rejected 36 times.

Yep, you read that right. I’m delighted Godblind was rejected 36 times. Because you know what? After every batch of submissions – between 3 and 6 at any one time – and after every batch of between 3 and 6 rejections, I’d put it away, forget it for a few months until the voices of Rillirin and Dom and Durdil and the others couldn’t be silenced, and then I’d rewrite it.

I never knew why it’d been rejected – I only got form rejections – I just knew that it had. Meaning it wasn’t good enough. Something was missing. Something lacking. Something not quite right.

So, I’d rewrite it to the best of my ability, and send it back out.

On my 37th go, Harry Illingworth at DHH Literary Agency picked it up, and the rest is history. Bullshit, the rest is 12 months of absolute insanity in which I seriously gave consideration to the fact I was lying in a coma somewhere because no way could this be happening to me!

But it is happening, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m also really happy to admit I was an appalling writer when I first drafted Godblind. I’m definitely not one of these people who sweeps the learning curve under the carpet and assumes an air of mysterious competence, pretending that Godblind fell fully formed from my head to the page and never needed a rewrite. There might be writers out there who do that. I’m not one of them.

Writing is a craft. It’s a skill and like any other skill – like martial arts, say, as I’ve got experience in that, too – it’s honed over years and years. The way I performed a karate kata in my first grading compared with how I performed the same kata for my second Dan was fundamentally different. The exact same moves in the exact same order, and yet performed with a mindset, intention, focus and power that’s exponentially increased.

Substitute words for karate moves and the analogy – however tenuous – holds.

ME: What was the hardest thing about writing Godblind?

AS: I can tell you the hardest thing about editing it in line with my agent and editor’s requirements – dropping four POV characters to get us down to a measly 12 – or is it 13? Dalli had a point of view and I absolutely adored her. When I had to lose her POV I was gutted. I actually phoned my editor and begged; she was unmoveable, a rock of denial. It was heartbreaking.

Of course, she was completely right and listening to her was absolutely the best thing for Godblind, but damn it was hard.

Cutting some favourite scenes because they didn’t add anything was tough, too.

Other than that, curbing my natural tendency to melodrama is always difficult. “But what if this happened as well, right after that and just before the other thing? Wouldn’t THAT be dramatic?”

ME: What did you learn from writing Godblind? Either about yourself, or about the publishing world?

AS: Aforementioned melodrama. I didn’t realise I was quite so ridiculous.

ME: If you could change anything, anything at all, before the book is released, would you?

AS: It could be better. Even now, after all these rewrites, despite my agent and editor being thrilled with the final result, I think it could be better. But that’s because I don’t think any author anywhere is ever happy with their work, not 100%.

But that drives me to make sure that books 2 and 3 are better. Or at least, I’ll try to make them better.

ME: Any advice to would-be writers out there?

AS: Don’t give up. If you want genuine feedback, join a writer’s group – don’t ask your family or friends unless they work in publishing, they’ll only tell you what you want to hear.

And don’t ever give up.

On the note of writers – one of the things that has been rather heartwarming has been to see the interaction between authors at events, and online. In particular you, Ed McDonald, Adrian Selby Anna Smith Spark, RJ Barker and Nicholas Eames, amongst many others (MANY – I could go on, and on, and on…) Do you guys and gals have some sort of secret gang with a clubhouse (read: groupchat)? Do you share notes, give each other guidance?

If there is a clubhouse, I haven’t been invited to it. So I’m hoping the answer is no and I’m not the one everyone has to just put up with!

Realistically, we’re all at a very similar stage in our writer journeys; we’re all learning the weird little peccadilloes of publishing, and I suspect we’re all crapping ourselves too. There’s a sort of safety in numbers thing going on – we’re a little flock of fledglings about to be thrown out of the nest, so we’re sticking together because at least then we know we’ve got a few supporters.

Also, I think the fact we’re all writing in similar genres helps – like attracts like. We’re obviously all writing in a genre we love to read, and generally when you’ve got something as wide-ranging as books to talk about, you realise how much else you’ve got in common.

And most us of don’t seem to mind making absolute idiots of ourselves on social media, either. Which helps.

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 on 15th June 2017, with the sequels coming in 2018 and 2019.

 

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