An Interview with Alec Hutson, Author of The Crimson Queen

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Alec Hutson is a Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off ’17 finalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Raveling series. While a new face in the SFF community, his work is already making waves as a bold new example of Epic Fantasy’s rise in independent fiction. I sat down with him recently to discuss self-published fantasy, his experience living in China, and the shifting landscape of SFF fiction.

MARTIN: Alec, Your Raveling series has garnered quite a bit of buzz as of late! Not too long ago, all the positive feedback surrounding the first book in the series (The Crimson Queen) convinced me to buy a paperback copy of my own. And I have to say, I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this world you’ve created! So as a newer writer, and a self-published one at that, what’s your reaction to all the positive feedback?

ALEC: Well, thank you for the kind words. I have to say the success of Queen caught me pretty much completely off guard. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy book, but I never really seriously entertained the notion that my writing would resonate with others or that my book would achieve a small measure of success. When the positive reviews started coming in and the book began selling at a reasonable clip I was pretty shocked. It was like I was in a dream, to be honest. Along with the surprise, I did feel a small measure of satisfaction regarding the nature of The Crimson Queen – I would consider it very much a book in the mold of a classic high / epic fantasy, and a kind of book that it appears to me that traditional publishers have almost stopped publishing. One of the reasons I self-published was because I simply didn’t see many debut books in the mold of Jordan or Feist being trad published today . . . with the exception that sometimes a book like this does so well self-published that it is eventually picked up (like The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington) Queen’s success in self-publishing *I think* is partly due to the fact that there is a large number of readers who still love classic fantasy, and their reading needs are no longer being well met by the big houses.

MARTIN: So for those here who haven’t yet read the first book, what can they expect from this world you’ve created? What sort of realms, magic systems, monsters and civilizations lie waiting for the curious reader?

ALEC: It’s a classic high fantasy world, with parts of it modeled after different Earth-analogous cultures. For example, one of the main empires is based off of Tang dynasty China (or, at least, the romanticized version that exists today in modern Chinese media), another is a more Classical-era Mediterranean empire, and others are cobbled from several different civilizations. For magic, I really prefer a ‘soft’ magic system – no formulas or complicated explanations. Hopefully, this preserves some of the wonder. Monsters also exist in the world, though they don’t run rampant over the country-side like in D&D. I have a race of ancient creatures called the Ancients who slumber in the deep places in the world, and I was going there for a Lovecraftian vibe. I tried to create my own creatures rather than rely on some of the fantasy archetypes. Basically, I wanted to pay homage to all the classic aspects of fantasy that I love – the magic, the world, the monsters – but put my own little spin on it. Comfort food, but filling.

MARTIN:  It’s interesting you bring up unique creatures and worldbuilding elements, because I kind of feel that this is the path fantasy as a whole is taking. Hero’s journey stories are obviously never going to go away, but the way we tell Epic Fantasy is bound to change over time. And I notice in more modern fiction that there’s a shift away from the Dungeons and Dragons mold of “oh look, here’s these archetypes you can find in the Handbook/Monster Manual,” and more of a focus on new and unique creatures and worlds. I even talked with some editors in trad on this, and they seem to agree. How do you as a writer, feel about this genre shift?

ALEC: I think it’s a good thing. Personally, anytime I browse a fantasy book and see ‘elves’ or ‘orcs’ it’s a pretty good bet I’m not interested in picking it up. Usually, it shows a paucity of imagination, and if the same recycled races are in a book, most likely the plot isn’t going to surprise me. That said, there are exceptions. Two of the best books I’ve read this year included archetypal fantasy races – The Gray Bastards, which had orcs and centaurs and elves, and The Kings of the Wyld, which was a great nostalgia trip with basically every entry in the old Monster Manual.

MARTIN: It’s also worth noting that you participated in the SPFBO last year, and made it as a finalist. As a self-published author, how does it feel knowing that resources and awards like that exist? Do you feel that the self-publishing landscape is improving for SFF authors, and what advantages do you feel they have over trad publishing?

ALEC: It’s fantastic knowing that something like the SPFBO exists. Mark Lawrence is a saint for putting up with the headache it must be to herd those cats every year. And yes, I do feel like the SFF self-publishing landscape is improving. I’m seeing more and more authors choosing to self publish good books and ignoring trad publishing entirely. And it has massive advantages. Perhaps the biggest reason I self-published was that I looked at trad publishing and I saw virtually no classic high fantasy debuts being published, despite my feeling that there was still a massive market for it. This was back in 2016 when every new debut competed to claim the title of darkest grimdark. I do believe that the big houses decide ‘this’ is popular this year or this season and group-think publish only a few types of books – perhaps the kinds of books that the editors and agents want to read, and I don’t really think they represent the average fantasy reader. Or, at the very least, there are massive groups of readers undeserved by the books coming out of New York and London. Which is why we’re seeing self-published taking a larger and larger chunk of the overall reading market – I believe the most recent numbers put self-published fantasy at something like 35% of the entire pie, which is pretty incredible if you ask me. There’s also, of course, the advantage of speed, and that self-published writers can earn a more fair percentage of the money their work brings in.

MARTIN: That’s something I’ve taken note of as well, and while you and I both love a lot of what’s coming out of established publishing (I too own Kings of the Wyld!), I kind of feel the same way about the Epic Fantasy genre in particular. The self-pub scene has seen some fairly big releases that are Epic fantasy, with Queen being one of those. As a fan of fantasy — not necessarily a writer — what would you ideally like to see coming from that scene in the future? Are there any sort of cultures, myths or Epic Fantasy subgenres you feel are under-served by trad that could see a rise in self-pub? Wuxia, or Space Fantasy (ie Star Wars), something like that?

ALEC: WuXia is actually the perfect example, and more particularly – I believe I’m getting the term right – Xianxia. I think with the rise of gaming readers today have an attachment to the idea of character progression or leveling, and we can see this is LitRPG, which is another subgenre that trad seems blind to. In Chinese Xianxia books the main character starts out weak, but through a cultivation of qi or another internal energy they eventually develop into powerful warriors. They go from losing fights to the schoolyard bully to throwing mountains at the gods. There are a few websites of poorly translated versions of the popular Chinese stories, and they have a growing following. Will Wight’s excellent Cradle series (this is the most addictive self-published fantasy I’ve read) is, I think, a really great version of a Xianxia story, and shows how it can translate to the West. I’m toying with some ideas along this line for my series after The Raveling. I live in Shanghai and have met several Chinese SFF writers, and one of them is keen to collaborate on a project together. I’m not sure if it will happen, but co-writing a Xianxia style-story that’s aimed at both a Chinese and Western audience with a local Chinese writer could be pretty cool, and it might be the first such collaboration ever in fantasy fiction.

MARTIN: So your most recent book, The Silver Sorceress, was recently released. Without spoiling anything, were there any cool elements you enjoyed writing in that one? Maybe a sneak peek for those of us who read/are reading Queen?

ALEC: As in Queen, my favorite chapters in Sorceress were those written from the villains’ perspective. I like stepping inside the heads of the antagonists because it both humanizes them for the readers and perhaps provides context or justification for some of their actions. And villains are just fun to write.

MARTIN: On your Amazon page, you mention you live in Shanghai, and grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore? I mean, that right there kinda sounds like something from a novel! Do you feel any interesting events or places from your life helped with worldbuilding?

ALEC: Probably not my early life, as that was spent in a quiet Northeast coastal town. Though there is a fair bit of history where I live – my family has lived on the same land since 1600 or so, and the family farm where my cousin and her family now reside has been in the family since 1641. According to an old copy of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not it’s the oldest continuously owned family farm in America. Also, my hometown – Newburyport – was mentioned in an HP Lovecraft story. So perhaps I’ve always had an affinity for cosmic horror having grown up there. The biggest influence on worldbuilding for me was living in Asia for the past 15 years and traveling around to places like Angkor and Bagan and Tibet. There’s so much rich culture here, and it all becomes grist for the worldbuilding mill.

MARTIN: So normally this is the part where I ask a crazy question to see what creative response my interviewee comes up with…but right now? I’m just curious about the food in China! What are some of your favorite regional dishes and street foods? The intersection of food and culture is always one of those things that really fascinates me, and I’m just dying to know what’s out there!

ALEC: Oh, good question! As most folk know, American Chinese is completely different than real Chinese food. Real Chinese food is absolutely terrific and quite varied. It’s hard to choose individual dishes, so I’ll run through my favorite cuisines.

1. Sichuan. This is the most popular cuisine in China. Famous for its numbing peppercorns and fiery dishes. I suggest everyone eating at an authentic Sichuan restaurant once in your life.
2. Hunan. The really spicy stuff. More hot than numbing.
3. Xinjiang. This cuisine is from the northwest area of China, and the people here are actually Turkish. Lots of lamb and fried bread.
4. Dong Bei. Comfort food. Heart dumplings and noodles. The northeast of China.
5. Cantonese. Fresh ingredients and natural flavors, and dim sum is amazing. Dim sum in Hong Kong from one of the Michelin starred cheap restaurants will change your life.

My favorite street food is called jian bing. It’s kind of a breakfast crepe – here’s a very accurate video of what you’d see on just about every street-corner in China in the morning:

MARTIN: And as an added bonus, what would your main protagonist’s favorite Chinese dish be?

ALEC: I think he (Keilan) would like something hearty and rustic, maybe some di san qian (potatoes, peppers, and eggplant in a garlic sauce). Or for a special occasion some guo bao rou (fried pork in sweet sauce).

Alec Hutson’s latest book, The Silver Sorceress, is now available on Amazon. For more of his work, please visit his Amazon page and website. For those of you who’ve already read his books, please be sure to leave a Goodreads review if you haven’t already. Also, consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about great SFF, writing and more cool stuff!

 

How to Overcome Your Novel’s First Draft

So at long last, I finished my first draft. It was a long process, messy, unbearably dull and frustrating, but I finished it at long last! So the celebrate this milestone, I decided to share some of what I’ve learned through this process. I’ll also be writing a follow-up to this specifically geared towards writers of speculative fiction, which goes into more detail about worldbuilding and such. I assume most of my readers are here for fantasy, but I’ve tried to make this post as general as possible, so writers of all stripes can hopefully find something useful.

So here’s what I learned while writing the first draft of my fantasy novel!

Stick to it, no Matter What

Okay, so I get it. This is like, the bog-standard advice one is given when looking for first draft tips. It’s almost as generic as the phrase “just believe in yourself,” or those dry-ass Cheerios you give to babies.

The thing is though, as someone who’s gone through like, four different first drafts that never made it because I gave up halfway through, I understand the appeal of looking at a barely-coherent trainwreck of a manuscript and saying “egh screw it, the next one I write will be better.”

Will that actually be the case though? Perhaps, but in all likelihood, by the midpoint of that “better” draft, you’ll be hatin’ life all over again, and repeat the cycle anew. Because no matter how objectively good your first draft really is, in your mind, it’ll still be Son-of-the-Mask-tier-bad. Everyone’s like this, even Hemingway and he’s better than you.

On the other hand, if you stick with it, you’ll at least have a basic framework that you can polish up and turn into something slightly readable for the second draft. For example, I once did a cyberpunk hard sci-fi short that I later rewrote as a high fantasy one. Almost nothing from the first version of the story made it into the second one, but having the basic skeletal framework of a narrative to work off of made writing the fantasy version a thousand times easier.

So just to recap here — thanks to writing out a first draft, I was able to write a second draft that was a complete and total tonal, thematic and genre shift, and yet readers still liked it. It came out alright. If I can do that, then you can polish up your story, or even make a new one out of the flaming clown car wreckage of your old novel. Again, no matter how good it is, you will think it’s horrible beyond repair while you write it. And chances are it is.

It’s kind of like those rice crispy treats and pipes and wood planks the Cake Boss uses to support those monstrosities he creates (is Cake Boss still a thing? I only use Netflix, so I dunno). I mean, if Buddy just stopped there and left the rice-krispy-treat-and-plumbing-tape sculpture at some event, everyone would scream and run. But when you add the sponge cake, and the fondant, and the buttercream ribbons, a few hours later the rice cereal mound is now a beautiful Squig from Warhammer.

Your first draft is basically that rice crispy treat nightmare. It’s unspeakably ugly, but if you don’t prepare those foundations, you’ll never finish your novel/pastry monster. Tell the Negative Nancy in your head to put a sock in it and trudge on anyway. Because heroes don’t quit.

Outlines are Everything (ESPECIALLY in SFF)

You need an outline. There’s no ifs or buts about it, you need outlines and supplementary notes, especially if you write Sci-fi & Fantasy fiction. Anything that involves even semi-rigorous worldbuilding requires notes, character profiles, a lengthy list of places that don’t exist, magic or tech systems, the menu for that one diner on Vance-VII your scuzzy space-faring bounty hunter hangs at…the whole nine yards.

Now some of you who are “pantsers” are probably soiling said pants right now at the thought of all these outlines and notes. And again, I wanna stress that this is coming from the perspective of a fantasy novelist, so if you do cozy mysteries or middle grade science detective books, then maybe this doesn’t apply to you as much. I doubt Chocolate Chipped: A Hawkinsville Bakery Murder Mystery requires anywhere near the amount of lore that The Wheel of Time does. But you still need to outline all your characters,the Hawkinsville Sweets n’ Eats shop, Mrs. Darcy, our intrepid baker/PI, and why Sheriff Patters’ body was found in a vat of cookie dough.

That doesn’t mean you have to organize all your ideas like Martha Stewart and have neat little notes and index cards and all that jazz, though. If that sounds like Chinese water torture to you, then there’s all sorts of alternate ways to outline. A quick google search will net you all manner of different ways you can visually organize your ideas, whether it’s corkboards, flow charts, or complex Rube Goldberg machines involving hamster wheels and electric wires. You name it, someone’s done it. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you get your plot structure and story elements written down and accessible.

Outline-wise, I came up with one simple rule a while back, and it’s helped me a lot. Because I’m kind of an idea guy who’s always coming up with new things a mile a minute. And left to my own devices, a settling’s lore might drastically change for better or worse if I don’t pin it down and get it written. So because I have this problem, and because this problem is more of an issue in SFF writing, I came up with a simple rule that’s helped me ever since:

                                  Your ideas aren’t real until you write them down.

Keeping this in mind has forced me to take notes when I come up with ideas I’ll need later. To make visual concept boards of locations, armor, settings, foods and cultures so I can reference them as needed. And in the end, it’s helped me stay organized and consistent with my work. Worldbuilding is hard stuff, and especially when you’re writing genres that nerds like to read, you really need to put in that extra effort to make sure the make-believe logic of your world is consistent. Because not doing that could mean you get Red Letter Media’d by some blogger or youtuber who picks apart all the little inconsistencies in your book, and I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.

Again, depending on what genre you pick and how much of an “enthusiast” market it has, your level of outlining may vary. Would-be Tolkiens will need stacks and stacks of notes, while thriller writers may just need some characters, locations and a basic beat sheet/chapter outline written down. But either way, you need to write stuff down. As much stuff as you can stomach, and maybe more. It’s busywork and it can kind of suck at times (unless you’re a massive dork like me and you find that stuff fun) but in the end, your homework, outlines and notes will pay off.

Manage your Influences

So this one might just be me, but I’m throwing it out there in case anyone else is like this. Personally, I find that the media I consume while writing fiction ends up impacting what I write. This includes video games, TV, movies, and other books.

Now again, this may just be me, and you might be fine watching Winnie the Pooh before writing a groady crime thriller. I cannot however, and I mention all this because maybe the media you consume might be affecting you without you realizing it. This also goes back to the “use an outline and stick to it,” thing, because sticking to said outline is easier when you really get in the spirit of the thing. Now if you feel this doesn’t apply — then cool. By all means, ignore  everything in this section. But in the off chance you think it might…just try to manage what you watch and read, it might end up making a huge difference in how you write.

Write (Almost) Every Day

If you’re just starting out writing, following through with it can be really difficult. And even as someone who’s written in just about every other medium, I found myself struggling to finish my draft. The soul-crushing, brain-through-six-miles-of-broken-glass process of writing a story that’s borderline unreadable and might be anywhere from 40%-80% scrapped is…well, a daunting one, to say the least.

As someone who’s also been through this process at least 2-3 times, I can also safely say that it does NOT get easier the further along you are. If you can actually make it past the 2nd and 3rd draft, then yes. Based on my past experience with other mediums, I think once you acquire a knack for it, it gets easier to do. As of now, I could probably bang out a comic book script in my sleep, for example. But it actually gets harder and harder as time goes on, and the closer you get to your novel’s end, the more tempted you’ll be to simply half-ass it so you can be done forever with this nightmare of a story.

The only way you can reasonably keep this process up is to make it a habit. To type at least 2000 words every day into the word processor and only ever stop for bloody, screaming emergencies and birthday parties. Notice I didn’t say holidays. Yes, I even write on Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July. I do so while working around the usual celebrations (I’m not a monster — I celebrate with my family, but also work either really early or late after said celebrations are over).  If you fail to meet a deadline, you must punish yourself in a humane, but uncomfortable way. Maybe drink your morning coffee without sweetener, or do 200 push-ups, or sit through a full episode of Jerry Springer. Something to get you to think “oh yeah, writing that crappy first draft is at least better than this.”

Also, try to keep yourself accountable to someone other than yourself. I tend to post my progress on drafts on my Facebook, and seeing other, published authors like and comment on these posts has helped keep me invested in the process. It’s kind of a reminder that yeah, I’m not just doing this for me. You need to be like frickin’ Goku training constantly to improve your craft, or else you’ll end up like Gohan in Dragon Ball Super and stop being the Strongest Person in the Universe because you gave up like a frikkin’ nerd. Or in your case, stop being an active writer. Which would suck. Like Yamcha.

 

 Don’t be Yamcha.

Go Get Some Pizza When Everything’s Done

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t have to be pizza. Or food at all. You know that Spider-Man game that came out on PS4? Congrats, go ahead and grab that now, and play it for a few days, or hit the movies if something good’s out. Congrats, you earned it.

Writing fiction can be legitimately stressful, nail-biting or worse — dull and boring at times. And most people who start writing never actually finish their projects. As of now, I’ve finished the first part — the first draft, but that’s just like, one third of climbing Everest. But helping yourself to little victories can make all the difference in wanting to continue. I heard once (I think in a podcast somewhere?) that Brandon Sanderson would open a MTG pack after completing an especially difficult chapter, as a sort of reward. And honestly, I can kinda see why. Anything that helps train your mind to associate writing with something good can help increase morale quite a bit. Granted, I wouldn’t go so far as to eat an entire candy bar after every chapter (please don’t), but doing something nice for yourself as a motivator can really help you move along, even through the bits that make you want to jump in the sea and die. It kind of ties in with the “punishments” in that this is the carrot and those are the “stick.” When you do good, treat yourself within reason. When you mess up, or get lazy, correct yourself (again within reason).

Eventually you will start making a habit of it, and it’ll come easier. At least it did for me. Which is not to say it still wasn’t difficult at times (towards the end I had to force myself to get through it because it was such a flaming trash fire), but hey. Pizza. And if you don’t pull your weight, no soup pizza for you!

Again, I get that some of this stuff is pretty basic, but at the end of the day, it worked. Which is why I decided to write this piece shortly after the draft was finished. All this stuff is still very fresh in my mind, and in the off chance it helps someone, anyone, I’ll feel it was all worth it more so than it already is.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I have another draft to begin soon, and that one’s twice as long, I suspect.

On the one hand, I’m kinda excited. First Drafts are by nature, worse getting your teeth pulled by clowns. Clowns who use the laughing gas on themselves instead of on you. The second draft though, I hear is even worse than that, if you ask certain people. So

 

Three Things I Learned I Learned While Writing My First Draft

As I type this, I’m so utterly mentally exhausted, I feel like I could sleep for a thousand years or more. Over the last couple months, I’ve been working hard on the first draft of a currently-unnamed fantasy novel, and am rapidly reaching the part where I plot out the fabled Second Draft. This legit feels like it’ll be one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever achieved, and it’s honestly taking every bit of willpower I have not to just gush about the concept here and now. Sadly, it’s far too early in development to do so, though I do have some concept art I’ll be sharing at a later date. Fun stuff!

Right now though, I just wanted to talk about my first draft journey,  where it’s taken me as a writer, and what I found out about myself and my craft along the way. Which…sounds a lot more dramatic than it really is. But like I said before, this genuinely feels huge to me, and this is coming from someone who’d had work (shorts) accepted by publishers before. This project is my baby, a world I’ve been building for 5+ years, and a genuine joy to work on, even through the sloggy bits.

While working on it, I learned a lot of valuable things, chief among them being:

My Genre and Voice

Initially, I set out to make this project a grimdark sword-and-sorcery story set in a sort of Gothic Horror fantasy setting. But when I actually tried to write out the book, I found that grimdark and gothic horror just don’t come naturally to me, at least in fantasy. I can do elements of it sure, but not wholly. I find that at least for my personal writing style, grimdark is to my fiction what bacon is to a burger. A little bit gives it more meatiness, but add too much and it’s just…well, greasy.

I don’t even know if that made sense, and I think I’m just hungry. For burgers. Specifically from Carl’s Jr because dang it, you make a good western bacon cheeseburger. You can keep those fruit loop donuts though, those look nasty.

Anyway, what was I talking about again? Ah yes, fantasy subgenres. So it turns out, I think I write High Fantasy best, but there’s a caveat to that — it has to have horror elements to work. Again, the bacon on the burger. I did a previous short story that tested pretty well with beta readers that was basically high fantasy with Lovecraftian elements, and people kind of dug it. So when I decided to make a full-blown book, I was like “Ha! I’ll add MORE horror elements!” But ultimately, I feel it works better with a balance, and you need the high optimism to really make the scary bits scary. Thus, Draft 2 will likely be totally different, and sadly won’t feel like a Castlevania level, but should be pretty cool in its own right.

Magic Systems

Okay, so now that I’ve actually written a draft after reading Sanderson’s Mistborn books, I feel like I totally get why the Sanderson-style magic system is a major thing in current fiction. Like I said before, when I started working on the first draft, my goal was to homage Robert E. Howard and classic swords-against-wizardry type stories. The type of stories the Stranger Things kids probably read before diving head-first into 80’s game night.

In practice though, I found myself often wishing I had a magic system to pad out certain scenes and add more character development. There were times when I was practically saying aloud, man, this scene would be so much more awesome if the protagonist had a special power I could have him talk about or use. And even cooler than the powers is of course, the weaknesses. The kryptonite, the bits where the MC has to macguyver himself out of bad situations, or can’t use his neat magic system because if he uses Tacomancy under the light of a full moon, the Taco Bell Chihuahua will drag his soul down to the ninth circle of Hades and…oh hey, there’s food again.  I should really eat an apple or something before I post.

But yeah. Long story short, magic systems are awesome because:

A) They add something totally unique to your story a la Airbending, Allomancy, or the lightweaving from Blackwing. It fleshes out the world and makes it feel like its own, unique thing as opposed to Tolkien or Conan or Game of Thrones with a DLC reskin.

B) It adds meat and pagecount to your story in an organic way, and helps add an element of character growth and development a he/she learns to use [INSERT MAGIC SYSTEM HERE]

C) It makes your readers wonder ‘what would I do if I had those kind of powers,” which is the SIGN OF A GREAT BOOK. All of us as kids at one point tried to throw a kamehameha, or cast Wingardium Leviosa, or use the Force, and anything that makes the readers theorize about what they’d do in that setting is like a hook you sink into them. Magic systems are like, the BEST way to accomplish this, besides really solid worldbuilding and characterization. A good High Fantasy book should ideally have all these elements.

Apparently Brian Jaques was a Huge Influence on my Writing Style

So I went back and skimmed through an old Redwall book, and holy smokes, I think he probably influenced me a LOT more than other writers.

That’s not to say my books feature talking animals or anything, but there’s this sort of cheerful optimism and humor that even when I try (and fail) to write Grimdark, just keeps slipping in. I think Brian was an absolute master at making characters that stick with you, and are really unique and interesting. I still remember that one psycho weasel princess from Triss who smiled when her mother died, or Clooney the Scourge and that flail on his tail, or the weird birds from that same book, or the long-drawn out feasts, Constance the badger, et cetera.

I place a LOT of importance on iconography and place in stories. It’s one reason that despite not being really into YA books or non-secondary world fantasy, Harry Potter sticks out in my mind as a great example of this. You have the four Houses, Hogwarts, a whole wizarding culture, Butterbeer, Bott’s Beans, the Olivander’s Wand-shop…it’s just an endless stream of all these really iconic bits. There’s other fantasy stories I’ve read by contrast, that have massive chapter counts, but never made me feel that same way. That never really put me in that place Redwall or Hogwarts, or King’s Landing or Hobbiton did. And I think going forward, that sense of identity and place is something I’m hoping and praying I can impart in my own fiction. Now that’s a tall order to be sure, and the prospect of living up to such a task is honestly a little (VERY) frightening. But as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

An Interview with Scott Oden, Author of A Gathering of Ravens

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Scott Oden is a historical fantasy author, a fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre, and an avid gamer since 1979. Publisher’s Weekly called his work “…complex as an old tree’s roots, and a pleasure to read,” in a starred review. He’s gained a reputation for combining historical fact with fantastical elements more commonly seen in a Tolkien or Dargonlance book, yet his stories are grim, gritty and frightfully realistic. I reached out to Scott to get the scoop on his books, as well as his thoughts on historical fantasy, getting published, and the works of Robert E. Howard.

MARTIN: So Scott, can you tell us a bit about your writing journey? What led you to become an author, and who or what are your biggest influences in your genre?

SCOTT: I first got it in my mind that I wanted to write as my profession back in 1981, at the age of 14. I recall seeing something in an old issue of my brother’s Writer’s Digest about authors being paid and I was, like, “say what? People pay you for that?” My brother was already a journalist with dreams of writing the Great American Novel, so he had a few books on craft; the rest I gleaned from skimming WD and from emulating my favorite author — Robert E. Howard. I embarked upon a thoroughly inconsequential short story career, after that, ultimately writing 30-odd short stories that earned me nothing but rejection slips over the years. I turned my hand to novel writing, choosing as my debut a pastiche Conan novel I intended to write for Tor Books (they were unaware of my intent, by the way; younger Scott was all about asking forgiveness rather than begging permission). A friend had recently hit the big leagues with his third or fourth novel, so I harassed him for feedback on my three Conan chapters — which had been endlessly written and rewritten over the past years. He took me to task: “It’s decent, but what will you do if you can’t sell it to Tor? Write your own characters, man!” He said a lot more, but that was the gut punch.

So, I regrouped. I went back to the drawing board, and in December of 2000 I started writing what would become Men of Bronze — which is barbarian fiction in the guise of a historical novel. A string of bad life events had left me extremely depressed at the time, so my motivation was literally “write or die”. I do not recommend this route, by the way. It is neither glamorous nor romantic. It is asking for trouble, really. Somehow, though, I pulled it off. Wrote my first novel by Spring of 2002, had an agent by 2003, and sold it in early 2004 to a small start-up publisher called Medallion Press. I have been under contract to various publishers since.

Continue reading

The Messy History of Messers, aka a Window into my Crippling Obsession with Swords and Other Such Things

You Call That a Knife? THIS Is a Knife!

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This is a Messer. It’s a sword…kind of. It’s a knife…sort of. Is it both? Neither? Some sort of weird Schrodinger’s Cat-esque aberration where it’s both neither and both at the same time? Much like the plot of Kingdom Hearts, no one can really tell for sure what it is.

So for now, we’ll just say, it’s a weapon and it’s cool.

The Messer rose to prominence in the late medieval era, created as a slashing-weapon similar, if not identical in function to the Falchion. In Germany, this was by and large the most common weapon used, as they were relatively cheap and happened to skirt a law that allowed only knives to be carried by commoners. Remember when I said this weapon was kind of a weird…knife/sword hybrid? Well, that’s because the Messer is technically classified as a longknife rather than a sword.

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Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2018 is Here!

 

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So this Monday, Phase 1 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2018 kicked off!

This is an event I’m gonna be keeping an eye on for sure, as it’s the best way to learn about the hottest new titles. Last year we got Sufficiently Advanced Magic, Crimson Queen and Where Loyalties Lie. And this year, one of the big recurring keywords in the titles is Dragons. So chances are, 2018’s gonna be a good years if you like the big, scaly bois in your fantasy lit.

Why bother with Self-Pub or SPFBO, you ask? As it just so happens, I wrote a thing on that a while back, which you can check out here. If you want to check out self-published fiction that’s actually you know, good, SPFBO finalists really can’t be beat.

An Interview With Daniel Greene

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A while back, I came across a Youtube channel discussing a book series I was looking to get into. That book series was the Wheel of Time, and the youtuber is Daniel Greene. A rising voice in SFF, Daniel Greene discusses his favorite fantasy book series, ranging from Brandon Sanderson’s epics, to grimdark fiction like the Witcher series. As a fellow fan, and a writer myself, I reached out to Daniel to get his opinion on all things SFF, Youtube, and more!

MARTIN: So Daniel, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your channel?

DANIEL: When I was a very little kid, I was diagnosed with fairly severe dyslexia. It was so bad I had to get special tutoring for many years. I was fairly embarrassed by having this error in my brain’s processing so I began to overcompensate by reading non-stop. I would go to Barns and Noble, or Borders (remember that glorious store?) and pick up book after book to work on. I guess over the years it slowly transformed from work to a passion. I still remember the first fantasy book I picked up on my own. “The Eye of the World” the first book in The Wheel of Time series. That book changed my life. Reading that series honestly influenced parts of my life I cannot even begin to put into words. I believe I reread the series about eight times by the time the last book came out and three more times since then. In my channel, I will set my biases aside and recognize how other fantasy books can be better than The Wheel of Time in some ways, but in my heart, nothing else will ever come close to the experience I had watching the Dragon be reborn.

I was born and Raised in Virginia but moved around a lot in the last few years. If I stay in one place too long I get this feeling of being trapped, so I don’t plan on putting down too many roots anytime soon. I think that is part of the reason I like the fantasy genre so much. Helps me scratch the traveling itch in a roundabout way.

I also have a bit of an obsession with rhetoric and public speaking in general. Something about it fascinates me. The ability to captivate people by the words you choose and their delivery (cadence, tone, etc,.) seems like a glitch in the human brain. The information is the same, but the packaging transforms how you receive it entirely. This has resulted in me studying everything from Aristotle to stand-up comedy to try and best understand what makes rhetoric so damn important to people without them even realizing it.

Those three things seemed to have come together to be the basis of my channel. 

MARTIN: There’s lots of “lore videos” about games and movies (Vaatividya, Arch Warhammer, etc), but not as many about fantasy novels. Where there any notable Youtubers that inspired you? Or was it something you just personally wanted to do?

DANIEL: I had never even heard of “BookTube” before I started. That community is awesome though and so many people deserve so much more recognition for their awesome content. It annoys me seeing people doing such creative things talking about books and only having 5,000 subs, while other YouTubers will millions of subs…. do what we see in the headlines.

I have been watching Philip Defranco for about 8 years and love that man’s channel. Don’t agree with him on everything (most things), but he always gives a trustworthy perspective I respect. So I would say he is the most influential YouTuber to me in terms what I respect most.

Other channels inspire me to raise the quality of my content. Filmjoy, for example, does stunning work on his movie breakdowns.

KittyG gave me my first sub boost and I will forever love her for that. I was about to quit, then she got me to 1,000 subs, a community was born, and now I have followers I engage with on the regular and encourage me to keep going.

The internet is amazing.

MARTIN: You cover a lot of books on your channel, but one series stands out in particular. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. I recall coming across your channel when I first started reading The Eye of the World, and really enjoyed your summaries and character analyses. But why The Wheel of Time in particular? As someone who’s read a lot of fantasy, what do you feel that series nailed that other books (both vintage and modern) struggle with?

DANIEL: The series was responsible for my baptism into fantasy. I have read it so many times The Wheel of Time is now brain candy for me. When I have gone through hard times, it turns into my comfort food. The detail Robert Jordan put into that world goes above and beyond what I believe any other fantasy author has achieved. Just like Harry Potter holds a special place for so many people my age, The Wheel of Time holds that spot for me.

On a side note, Harry Potter is still great. The recent trend of hating on it is just a part of any fantasy series life cycle. Calling it now, in five years it’s going to be cool to hate on Game of Thrones.

MARTIN: It’s kind of funny you mention that because I’m kind of one of those people that’s not as stoked on Harry Potter. I think it’s really good as a kid’s book and later on as YA, but pales in comparison to adult-oriented series like Stormlight or The Witcher, which it often gets lumped in with. And well that’s like, my opinion, man. Everyone’s got one, and sometimes even beloved series (like say, a certain story about a red-headed music kid) might not click with you. for whatever reason.

So as someone who expresses these opinions sometimes, do you get blowback for them? Has criticizing a really popular book ever felt like stepping into a minefield?

DANIEL: Well, I get loads of constructive criticism for my opinions and I really enjoy the dialog that creates. In the comments, I have the opportunity to get down and nerdy with my community and they often have been able to change how I view certain aspects of various series. I rarely get negative blowback for criticizing a fantasy series, in the sense that people seem genuinely upset.

Even the scathing review I did of ‘The Name of the Wind”, was generally well received, even by the fans. People just like talking books and disagreement just leads to more interesting discussion. Of course, there have been a few people who seemed actually offended by my opinions, but they are usually kids so it’s understandable. The adults who seem upset… they have their own problems they need to work on. I will never understand a grown man or woman getting angry about a work of fiction.

All of that being said, just yesterday I got a comment on my Wheel of Time Vs. Game of Thrones video calling me, “idiot scum.’ So that was nice.

MARTIN: Overall though, it seems the community is really receptive to these videos, particularly the ones where you compare different characters. As someone who’s read a few of these books, it’s nice to see familiar faces compared to protagonists and secondary characters I’ve yet to read about. Even if it borders into spoiler territory, I personally find it motivates me to check these books out all the more.

…Speaking of your “versus” videos, which character match-up was your favorite to make?

DANIEL: One that has yet to be released and would spoil a lot of outcomes for me to say. It will be in the final four of the bracket and deciding between these two literally made me lose sleep. I can’t really say to much more, but I will make a note at the beginning of video when it comes out letting you know it is that comparison.

MARTINAs someone who’s covered a lot of different traditionally-published fantasy series, do you think you’d ever consider featuring books from indie, or even self-published authors? Certain books like Master Assassins have garnered quite a bit of praise recently, as have self-published works like Rob J. Hayes’ Best Laid Plans series. Is that a space you might look into some day?

DANIEL: Unfortunately, I had a few very bad experiences with ‘indie’ authors who had asked me to review their books. Basically, because I did not give their writing a 9/10 or above, one particular author demanded I removed the video and emailed me about every 30 minutes until I did. After I took it down they proceeded to write me a long letter basically calling me an idiot for not thinking they were the next Tolkien. It was about a fifty-fifty chance that the author would act in a way similar to this. I had an author complain I was not reading his book fast enough after having it for less than two weeks, and another claim I needed to read the 600+ page book he gave me three times minimum before I reviewed it.

Those experiences resulted in me just having a default, ‘Thank you, I am flattered, but no.’ response to authors reaching out to me.

MARTIN:  Despite putting in a positive word for indie authors, I guess stuff like this just proves how it’s kind of a mixed bag still. I mean, I personally think it’s gotten a LOT better in recent years, and I still swear by authors like Dyrk Ashton and Rob Hayes. There’s some utterly fantastic stuff to be found in indies. But sometimes you still get those authors who just need an editor and a reality check in a MAJOR way.

Speaking of authors, what advice would you have for anyone wanting to write a fantasy novel (indie or otherwise) of their own? What stories have you as a fantasy reader been itching to read, but never had the chance to?

DANIEL: Just this… do not care what I, or your audience wants to read. Write what you want to write. The greatest reads are the ones that were written with passion. If it feels like you are shaping your writing to what others want to hear, you will not stand out from the massive crowed. You may get some credit for mass appeal, but the books that have shaken up a genre, did not do so by reaching a common denominator. The authors wrote from a place of pure creativity that reflected themselves. This sounds corny, but it is so true. Many authors do want to write something that has mass appeal as, which is also completely fine. That is how something like Harry Potter comes around you make a billion dollars if you do manage to get momentum. But that is much more all or nothing in terms of success in my experience.

I really want to sit down and read the Sword of Truth series, because my subscribers have been so split on it, but I just have not had the time to. It will be fun to see what the comment section terns into. Hopefully well reasoned discussion. The internet is known for that right?

MARTIN: That’s great advice, and something I think a lot of new readers will want to hear. Obviously not every series is gonna be huge, but that’s really for the readers to decide. If no one takes any risks, what’s the point of spec fic?

Also…Sword of Truth. Jeez, I can already picture the flame wars. 

Anyway, last question! And this isn’t a serious one by any mean, but just for the fun of it. If your current top 3 fantasy series were flavors of ice cream…what flavors would those be?

DANIEL: Sword of Truth should be coming sooner rather than later, so we shall see.

To be honest not entirely sure how to answer that one. If pressed, I would have to say, The Wheel of Time is rocky road, Lord of the Rings is classic vanilla, and The Witcher is chocolate chip cookie dough. It has elements of past and presents blended perfectly.

And that’s a wrap! For more of Daniel Greene’s thoughts on the Fantasy genre and books, subscribe to his channel on Youtube. I personally recommend checking out his Wheel of Time retrospective if you’re curious about that series and not averse to spoilers. His VS videos and series reviews are also excellent, and a must-watch for any fan of the genre.

For more author and creator interviews, please follow the Tavern and reblog/share if you enjoyed this interview! There’ll be plenty more in the near future.