Friday, 23 March 2012

Author Interview: Michael J. Sullivan


Theft of Swords (The Crown Conspiracy & Avempartha)
Rise of Empire (Nyphron Rising & The Emerald Storm)
Heir of Novron (Wintertide & Percepliquis)

Short Stories:

The Viscount and the Witch


> What is The Riyria Revelations about?

The Riyria Revelations is a classical epic fantasy about two unlikely heroes who find themselves caught in a series of ever escalating adventures. There’s no ancient evil to defeat, or orphan destined for greatness, just two rouges in the wrong place at the wrong time. Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his ex-mercenary partner Hadrian Blackwater make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles until they are framed for the murder of a king. Told through six individual episodes, the series starts out simply and grows in complexity as Royce and Hadrian find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy that reaches beyond the mere overthrow of a tiny monarchy.

> What drew you to writing fantasy? 

I actually write all kinds of novels: science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, literary, coming-of-age, just about everything except romance and erotica. I’m known as a fantasy writer because The Riyria Revelations were the first (and to date only) books to be published, which is a bit ironic as when I started, I had no intention on publishing them. I wrote these books for my daughter, who was struggling with dyslexia, and the reason I chose fantasy was because it was the genre that had gotten me interested in reading when I had been her age.

> Your novels had a long and interesting publishing history - being on the internet for free, publishing the first book with a small press, self-publishing five of them and finally publishing all six books in three omnibus editions with Orbit Books. What did all of this teach you about the publishing industry?

I think it demonstrates that the world of publishing has changed, and there isn’t a single path to success. I actually did well in each endeavor. I sold out the entire print run of the small press I started with, sold more than 70,000 copies when self-published, and I’ve received a higher than average advance, gone through multiple print runs (I think we are up to nine reprints), and have obtained over a dozen foreign translations as part of my switch to Orbit. In the old days, the only route that led to any possibility of financial reward was big-six publishing, but now there are so many more options.

There are some people (on either side of the indie vs. traditional debate) who claim their way is the only way, but I don’t believe that. I think each path has its own pros and cons, so the important thing is for an author to recognize which one best aligns with their goals, and to recognize that those goals may change over time. In today’s publishing climate there are more opportunities than any time in the past, and it truly is the best time ever to be a writer.

> With all the changes in the book industry, would you go the self-publishing route again?

Sure, I love the freedom that I had with self-publishing. For some it is just too much work, and I understand that perspective, but for someone like me, I enjoy being in control of the cover, title, price, and all the other aspects of the books. Plus, you can’t beat the income potential that comes from self-publishing because the author receives 100% of the profit instead of 6% - 10% of list price for print books, and 25% of net for electronic versions. Plus a book can get to market much faster when self-published.

I think Orbit did a great job with The Riyria Revelations and would prefer them to do all my books, but what if they don’t like what I write going forward? Or what if my books don’t sell well enough to cover their costs? Or we can’t agree on price or timing? The one thing I can be sure of, is that books I write will be “put out there”…one way or another.

> What were your literary influences for The Riyria Revelations?

It’s funny because people often see influences that don’t exist. For instance, often my books are compared to Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but the truth is, I’ve never read any of those books. On a subconscious level, Royce and Hadrian probably owe some of the dynamics of their friendship to the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the television series I Spy with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Both of these were favorites of mine when I was growing up.

One conscious influence pertains to the way I structured the books. J. Michael Straczynski had written five years worth of scripts for Babylon 5, even though he had only been signed for a limited number of episodes. Likewise, I wrote all the books in my series before publishing the first. What’s great about that is you can have individual episodes but also weave threads of a larger plot that spans multiple books. Discovering a small clue, and suspecting that it will have more meaning later, is one of the things I really liked about that series and I applied a similar technique for The Riyria Revelations.

> What made you want to be a writer?

I’ve always been a storyteller, but didn’t pursue a career as a writer because my grammar and spelling were atrocious. When we started having children, my wife and I decided that one of us needed to stay home to raise them, and since my income was much lower than hers, it made sense for it to be me. I needed something to occupy my time when the kids took their afternoon naps, so I decided to get serious about my writing, and correct my deficiencies. I spent about a decade studying the works of authors such as Steinbeck, King, Rand, Hemmingway, and Updike, while writing a novel each year. When I couldn’t get anything published, I actually stopped writing for more than a decade, and as I mentioned, when I sat down at the keyboard again, I did so with no intention of publishing.

> If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?

No, I consider myself the most fortunate person on earth and wouldn’t change places with anyone. I found and married the love of my life; I get to play God by creating worlds from my own imagination; I have tens of thousands of people who enjoy my writing, and as Dudley Moore said in Arthur, “I have weekends off and I am my own boss.” I’m very much an individualist and love my freedom, so writing for a living is the perfect career for me. So I really feel as if I have everything I could ever want. Why would I give that up?

> What's the first novel (unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?

Hmm, that might need a clarification as the first book was written when I was thirteen and was called The Wizards Scepter. It took me about three months to write and was the first book in a trilogy. As to the first “serious attempt” at a novel, in other words one that I wrote with the intention of publication, that would be a book which at the time was called Wizards, and I worked on it for about nine months. I actually have recently rewritten that book, and re-titled it Antithesis. Little remains of the original, except for the premise.

> What was the hardest scene for you to write?

No single scene sticks out in my mind. When thinking about this question I contemplated what types of scenes I find easy to write and which ones are more challenging. In general, any scene that I initially find boring is difficult, because I have to work hard to make it interesting. Some of the ship’s scenes for The Emerald Storm were more difficult than others, because it involved seafaring and required a lot of research. Finding the right balance when discussing nautical issues was delicate work…but I’m not sure I would classify that as overly difficult. So what kind of scenes to I struggle with the most? I guess those that involve hand-to-hand fighting. A simple recounting of strokes can be very boring, so I need to create a story within the scene with associated highs and lows. Taking a fight scene and making it compelling requires a higher degree of effort on my part, but that’s about as close to “hard” as I can think of.

> When and where do you write?

I have an office in my house (short commute), and always start my day by writing. I usually get up, have a coffee and Danish, and dig in. I usually shoot for 2,000 words by lunch, at which point I take a break. Afternoons tend to be drowsy times for me, so I only write during that time if I’m really on a roll. Sometimes I’ll return to writing after dinner. But there are many days that the morning session is all I’ll do, and I spend the rest of the time reading, writing a blog, or talking to readers.

> What’s the best/worst thing about writing?

The best part is creating. I love breathing life into characters and coming up with trials and tribulations to put them through. After all, that which does not break us makes us stronger. The worst part is coming upon a negative review. While I enjoy my writing, I have my doubts that others will, so a single bad review reinforces my insecurities. It can halt my writing for days, or even weeks. I’m fortunate to have so many good reviews, but even so, I often need ten or twenty of those to offset the effects of a particularly critical one.

> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

I think there are three keys to success: talent, skill, and persistence. If you have all three there is no doubt in my mind that you will make it. Skill isn’t necessarily something that can be taught, but it’s absolutely something that you can learn. I don’t believe you can have much influence over talent…either you have it or you don’t. But the good news is that if you lack talent, you can still succeed with skill and perseverance. There are many untalented writers, some of which have done very well for themselves. Persistence is the biggest component, and is totally within your own control. The only guaranteed way to fail is to give up, especially now that there are so many different paths to success.

 > Any tips against writers block?

Most writers will hate to hear that I’ve never really suffered from that. Sure there are times when I’m not as motivated as others, but I’m not sure that is the same thing as being “blocked.” My best advice is to put your butt in the chair, fingers on the keyboard, and just write...write anything…even if what you are producing is crap. You need momentum to get unstuck, and you can always discard or fix what you have written after you get the juices flowing again. If you let the block keep you away from the keyboard, then it will be really hard to get on that horse again. So my best advice is to plow ahead, even if it takes you somewhere that you don’t want to go. It’s a better alternative than stagnation.

> How do you discipline yourself to write?

This is kind of like asking a child, “How do you find time to play your favorite game?” Writing is what I do for enjoyment. I look forward to writing, and if I’m prevented from doing so because of other commitments, I get antsy. When I hear other writers say that they have to “force their butts in the chair” or that they are often distracted by the Internet, I find it difficult to relate. For me writing is what I look forward to doing each day, so I don’t have a problem with motivation.

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