I mean, the woman got armored all up and marched to the gods’ doorstep to demand compensation
Some authors stick to strict writing schedules while others prefer flexibility when managing where and when they write. How have you managed to maintain productivity as you write short stories and novels? Do you have any tips for writers who feel that ‘there just isn’t enough time’ to write?
My advice to writers who feel there isn’t enough time is to give yourself a deadline and try to plan around it. Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself, “This is the deadline for submissions; I need to have the story done by x date to have it ready to submit,” or tell your friends or beta readers you’ll have a story to them by x date and implore them to keep you accountable.
Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself,
My other piece of advice—if you hate pressure and deadlines—is to just try staying inspired. Read books in your genre, do research on your subject matter, write your outline, or write drabbles to get to know your characters. If you’re busy, there’s no such thing as “making time.” But if you’re so invested in your story to the point where it won’t leave your brain until you get the words down, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish even in a short amount of time.
I ended up taking her Norse mythology and Icelandic saga classes too, and co-founded the Icelandic Saga and Scandinavian Clubs with some like-minded geeks.
I think one of the things I love about Norse mythology is that every time I reread the Eddas, I come across something I didn’t realize before and find myself looking for an Old Norse version of the poem or paragraph and reaching for my Old Norse dictionary to look up certain words.
Plus every translation of the Eddas is slightly different, and there are also several different manuscripts that could be used as sources—and if you’ve ever seen pictures of them, you can see that there’s room for error in transcription. The whole thing is like one giant puzzle and you can’t take anything at face value, and I love it.
...every translation of the Eddas is slightly different... The whole thing is like one giant puzzle
You have now had two short stories published in fantasy anthologies: Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow and Between the Tides. Will you continue to write short stories now that your debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, has been signed for publication? Also, do you have any tips for writers trying to break into the fantasy publishing scene with a short story?
Even if your first published story isn’t in a huge magazine or famous press,
Signy Ketilsdottir versus the Sea (as featured in Between the Tides) is the story of a Viking woman living in a remote fjord with a grudge against Ran, the Norse goddess of the sea. Was Signy’s inspiration a specific historical figure, a character from the myths, or from somewhere else?
The anthology Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow highlights stories about lost or forgotten goddesses in Norse Mythology. Your piece Bright One, They Called Her, as featured in the anthology, tells the tale of wandering witch who offers a young girl named Eydis a chance to avenge her murdered family. Within the story there is a tension in framing the traditionally heroic Aesir (i.e. Norse gods) as far less than admirable. Did you choose this alternative perspective simply as a way to freshen up an old narrative or as a critique of the traditional view of the myths?
That’s a great question! I framed it that way because the wandering witch is Angrboda, who doesn’t necessarily feel the gods are all that great, since they took her kids and all. Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands and not relying on divine intervention or the support of others for justice. Eydis also appears as the witch Heid (which is more of a title than a name) in Signy vs. the Sea and will appear again in Gudrun’s story, so there’s a bit of continuity in these tales.
Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands
I am very intrigued by the topic of your upcoming novel, The Witch’s Heart, which sets the character Angrboda at center stage. A somewhat obscure figure in the myths, she is most famously known for her infamous offspring by the trickster god Loki: the world serpent Jormungandr, the ferocious wolf Fenrir, and the chilling half-corpse Hela who is queen of the Norse underworld. What was your approach and process for filling in the gaps of her storyline while writing The Witch’s Heart?
I am so glad you asked! You’re right that Angrboda is super obscure. She’s mentioned once by name in each Edda and both times in relation to Loki and their children together. In most retellings she’s either some sort of creature or just sort of…there. And a lot of people picture her as this fierce warrior women, which is totally cool and also I hope those people aren’t disappointed with me. (I happen to have one such depiction as a poster on my wall because it’s so awesome—just not the way I went in TWH.)
The angle I took with Angrboda was to explore the associations she has in common with or which are echoed in other female figures in the mythology, so I ended up writing them all as the same person. Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure (Odin being the best example of that) so I just sort of took this idea and ran with it.
Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure
Another giantess in the mythology who has associations with wolves, snakes, and death is Hyrrokkin,
And then there are the other seeresses: the Seeress from “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” who mentions Heid, the woman with the “pleasing prophecies,” who was once Gullveig, whom the gods burned three times and who was three times reborn near the beginning of everything.
So I ended up writing Angrboda as all of the above: Gullveig, Heid, Hyndla, Hyrrokkin, the Seeress, etc. and interpreting all their names as one name for the same woman, so the story just kind of flowed from there. My goal was to make this novel slip seamlessly into the background of Norse mythology—which meant not changing the myths themselves, up to and including Ragnarök. But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power… what kind of person would she have to be not to use this power to save her children and alter their fates?
But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power…
With all that said, I definitely took some liberties when writing the story, and I’m the first to admit that. For example, I made Jarnsaxa one of the Jarnvidjur (the giantesses who inhabit Jarnvid) and made Angrboda and Skadi’s relationship central to the story. There isn't any evidence for either of these things—they just sort of happened as I was writing!
Where can readers stay up to date on your latest projects and learn more about the upcoming release of your debut novel?
I’m still in the revising stages of The Witch’s Heart so there isn’t much to update at the moment. I recently got the first peeks at my cover and I am so thrilled because it’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to share it. Although I’m most active on Twitter, I’ll be updating Facebook and my website as my release date (early 2021) draws closer.
Start Marketing Now
Start your marketing campaign the moment you type ‘The End’. In fact, you might be better off to start marketing your story even before it is finished. The essential first step is to establish yourself online with an author website if you have not already done so; I find that both Weebly and Wix are excellent options for building a basic site that looks professional. If you buy your own domain it may include an email, depending on what package you purchase. If not, it is important to get a professional email through which you can correspond with agents, publishers, and future readers.
Start creating a mailing list early on as this will be your most essential marketing tool once the book comes off the printing press. Most authors I know use MailChimp which is slick and secure; it also happens to be free until you get over two hundred and fifty subscribers. While social media presence is looked upon favourably by agents and publishers, I suggest choosing one platform and focussing on it exclusively.
Start creating a mailing list early on as this will be your most essential marketing tool
Edit, Edit, Edit
I suggest searching through lists of editors provided by writers unions (The Federation of BC Writers has an extensive list of suggestions) or through freelance work sites like Upwork. While editors on social media may advertise significantly cheaper rates, considerations of accountability, quality assurance, and tracking payments leave freelance websites and vetted professionals as the prefered options.
No matter how deeply your story resonates with you, it is not ready to send to agents or publishers until at least a few people have read it with a critical eye. This is difficult to achieve as reading a full length manuscript of 80-100 thousand words is no small task for most individuals. Your spouse or partner is likely invested in your success and so may provide very detailed feedback about things like spelling errors and story inconsistencies.
...your story [...] is not ready to send to agents or publishers until
Write a Stellar Pitch
Writing is, of course, about ideas and characters, about transformation and passion, about discovery and adventure; most of all it is about telling a truly great story. However, agents and publishers are not in the passion business. They are selling books. To customers. For money. It is very important to keep this in mind when you write your pitch.
However, agents and publishers are not in the passion business. They are selling books. To customers. For money.
A few ‘Do Nots’:
A few ‘Dos’:
Set up a Query Schedule
Persistence is key at this stage. A long term investment of time and energy wins over short bursts of query flurries.
In addition to consistency, target your queries and craft each one to suit the agent or publisher your are contacting. Two or three well-researched queries are better than ten generic emails which I can assure you will be duly ignored. I suggest starting with a bit of research on who represents or publishes your favorite authors or those who write in a similar genre similar. Recognize also that there are many (many, many, many) people trying to achieve the dream of publication. Therefore, each query you send must be unique and memorable if it is to be worth sending at all.
Each query you send must be unique and memorable if it is to be worth sending at all.
Start Writing the Sequel
Consider this: What if your book does get published? What if it is a success? What then? If all you’ve done for six months or a year is work on all the steps listed above then you may have sunk your own ship. Once readers hear of you they are waiting for the next book in the series, the next stage of the journey, or the next big idea from their new favorite author. You don’t have another year or two to write that story. Fans, while wonderfully supportive, are not known for being a patient crowd.
You don’t have another year or two to write that story.
You need another manuscript ready for your agent or publisher as soon as your first book starts to attract attention. At this point, you have put so much time and energy into getting the momentum of your writing career started that you must keep it going. And so the cycle continues.
A Final Word
If all this seems overwhelming, I unfortunately must admit that it is. However, one small reassurance is that in writing your next book and the one to follow that, you have already established a fanbase, a mailing list, and an online presence. Getting reviews will get easier as you become known in a wider range of literary circles. Most sequels sell far better than the first book in the series (as long as the first book was well received). Last, but not least, know that while there are many barriers to overcome on the path to publication, no one can stop you from writing your story. So muster your courage and write it.
No one can stop you from writing your story. So muster your courage and write it.
Describe your ideal writing space: Is it at home or out on the town? Is it indoors or out in nature? Do you prefer silence or are you inspired by music?
My ideal writing space is at a cafe with a unique/good atmosphere (not any chain place like Starbucks) with a good wifi connection, outlets, and not many people. A place that is open late or even open 24 hours is preferred since I get most of my writing done after 8pm at night. As for writing with music, it really depends on the story. In one WIP I’m working on, it’s of a more serious nature with a lot of action and dramatic moment, and I love writing it while listening to music. But my other WIP is more lighthearted with a lot of humor, and it’s easier for me to write that in silence.
My ideal writing space is at a cafe with a unique/good atmosphere (not any chain place like Starbucks)
Every writer gets to a point in their story where the writing process gets really tough. Maybe ideas aren’t flowing like they did or maybe other demands are being made of your time. What is the hardest part of writing for you and how do you manage to get through it?
I’m a creature of habit, so the hardest part of writing for me is having to do so in an unfamiliar place or when there are changes going on in my life. I don’t usually struggle with writer’s block but sometimes a new environment can throw off my inspiration and in those instances I do have to force myself. I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t force yourself if you’re not feeling it, but for me, I think it’s necessary under certain circumstances. Even if the outcome isn’t the best, it’s always something I can go back and edit. And I always feel better when I’m being productive, regardless of having to force myself or not.
I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t force yourself if you’re not feeling it,
Your story L’Ange de la Mort (The Art of Revolution) is a smashing success as a Wattpad 2018 winner with over 180 000 reads. Do you have any advice for new authors interested in utilizing Wattpad as a platform to kick-start their career in writing?
Join book clubs. Read works by other authors. Get involved with the forums. Enter wattpad user run contests.
Finally, take chances! I didn’t think I would ever get much attention for my story because historical fiction is not a popular genre on wattpad, but I posted anyway. I also thought I would never win a watty but I entered anyway, and ended up winning. This year, I entered a second book into the wattys thinking I would never win, and won a watty a second year in a row for that novel, too. So never self reject and take chances.
L’Ange de la Mort is set amid the splendor of Versailles, France in 1789. Young Gabriel de la Marche, a french courtier determined to protect his younger sister from the corruption of court life, encounters a group of assassins determined to level the aristocracy. What was your approach to weaving historical and fictional elements into this tale of deception and intrigue on the eve of the French Revolution?
Ha, this is something I still struggle with, but I like to think I’m getting a little better! I think especially for young adult (which is what I write) it’s important not to bog down your story with inconsequential details that have nothing to do with the plot or characters. I write for everyone, not just for people who are already fans of historical fiction. At the end of the day, my story is about the characters and their interactions with each other, and the historical setting is nothing more than the backdrop. I focus on my characters first and foremost and then weave in the information depending on my characters’ individual needs. There is tons of information I’ve learned with my research that I will never need or use simply because it isn’t relevant to the story. But this is something I am constantly working on to improve.
I focus on my characters first and foremost and then weave in the information
Few historical settings can rival the opulence of late 18th century France. While this is a feast for the reader’s imagination, it is also a daunting task for the writer. What sources did you find most helpful for period-appropriate dress and decor while writing L’Ange de la Mort?
First, I love watching documentaries. I’ve seen a ton on Versailles itself
Before writing The Gatewatch, a fantasy adventure inspired by the Norse myths and Icelandic sagas, I took a trip to Norway which radically influenced many of the scenes and locations in the story. You recently announced a trip to visit France to research for your next book. What locations are you most excited to visit and what sort of things will you be looking out for?
I’ve since been to Europe and had an amazing experience. I wasn’t able to go to all the places I wanted and will be going back within the next year, but unsurprisingly my favorite place I went was Versailles. I took part in a private tour of the palace which was pricey but 100% worth it, and then spent two days exploring and writing in the gardens which was magical! I also went to the Louvre and got a good amount of inspiration from walking around the town of Versailles itself. During that trip, I went to Amsterdam as well, which inspired a historical fantasy novel set in Amsterdam during the 17th century that I’ll be starting next year. I’m counting down the days until I can go back to Europe and do more hands on research!
...unsurprisingly my favorite place I went was Versailles. I took part in a private tour of the palace which was pricey
Where can readers find out more about the exploits of Gabriel de la Marche and how can they stay up to date on your latest books?
Right now, I’m only on wattpad but am actively looking for a literary agent and will most likely be making an actual author site once I have one.
Interesting first question for me, because I actually sort of hate sandwiches.
Writing beverages!! I could partake in any type of writing beverage and instantly be put in the typing mood. Coffee, hot chocolate, frappuccino, smoothie, apple cider, they are all on the same level of preference.
This is a tough quick-fire question! It’s hard for me to call any one character absolutely despicable, because there’s always something under that layer of not-niceness. I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are. If you take a moment to step in their shoes, see the world through their lens, you may understand how they justify their actions. It doesn’t excuse them, but it does create sympathy, and how can you despise someone you pity? But if I had to choose one, I would pick Maven from the Red Queen series. I don’t want to be 'spoilery', but he did some really messed up things to people he had claimed to love and it made me really upset. I will say though, he has that complex backstory that makes you sympathize with him and some readers actually like him and ship him with the main character - he did not win me over that much.
I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Are you at home or out in public? Do you typically write thousands of words at a time or just a few hundred each session? Do you write on a schedule or are you flexible?
My writing schedule is controlled chaos. Working a full-time job and managing other adult life things makes it hard to designate specific time to writing. What I do is more of a general weekly writing goal of 5,000 words a week. I write during my lunch break, waiting for my oil change at the repair shop, waiting in a long line at the bank, when I have a free evening at home - you get the idea. Sometimes I don’t make that goal because life happens, but I don’t beat myself up for it, I just partition the extra words between the following two weeks to make it up. Right now I’m not following that schedule though as I’m focusing on short stories, so my writing time/amount of words on the page is even more sporadic than it was when I was writing Creatures Most Vile.
Little did I know I would soon fall in love with writing. One thing I have been my whole life is a lover of books, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until I was 21 that I might actually love writing books, too.
So now that I’ve caught the bug, I find I have lots of stories to tell. Stories about girls who find themselves misunderstood and ridiculed by society, girls who fight for their right to live their lives the way they choose, free of retribution.
You are in the process of querying agents and publishers. How have you found that process and do you have any tips for writers who may be getting close to finishing their current manuscript?
Querying is one of the most difficult things I’ve done to myself. I am willingly putting a piece of myself out into the world for strangers to judge and, in my case, reject. That is one of the hardest things to cope with during the querying process- people constantly rejecting something you love with all your heart and poured endless amounts of work into.
So my biggest tip for writers about to start querying is prepare your heart. Be ready for rejection and have some coping strategies to get through it. Most importantly, always keep in mind that rejection is NOT a measure of your talent or self. You’re work is amazing and you are amazing for putting yourself out there and taking this big step towards sharing your creation with the world. Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
My coping strategy is to turn that rejection into fuel to move forward. I have a rejection goals checklist, for every rejection I put a sticker on the board. My current goal is to reach 30 rejections by the end of the year. Those stickers show that I’m not giving up on my dream by turning my rejections into milestones, rather than failures.
Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
Your first novel, Creatures Most Vile, is a YA fantasy rife with terrifying monsters that stalk a young woman named Anora who is navigating the difficulties of trauma and struggling to support her family. Where did you find inspiration for this harrowing tale?
The initial inspiration came from a dream... When I woke up, I wrote the dream down and used that as my base for the story.
The suspenseful scary setting and monster inspirations come from my lifelong interest in all things horror. I'm a big fan of monster movies especially, because I love seeing imaginative takes on biology. Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Issues surrounding mental health have been given increasing attention in recent public discourse. Through Anora’s story are you trying to address any particular mental health concern or spark a conversation on a particular issue related to that topic?
Yes! The main theme and conversation I want to address is the downplay of mental health in society.
Anora suffers from PTSD and anxiety from growing up in a world constantly under threat of attack from voracious monsters. She has witnessed countless massacres, including her father’s death, and has nearly met her own grisly demise more times than she cares to count. When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society. They write it off as a simple fear she’ll get over with time and throw her right into the thick of training without a second thought.
When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society.
This is a problem that many people with any form of mental illness face. I suffer from anxiety and had situational depression in the past. I’ve heard comments like “You’re overreacting/ being dramatic”, “Just calm down”, or “Get over it” more times than I should. Downplaying and disregarding any form of mental illness needs to stop. Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
In speaking with other fantasy writers I find that one of the most common difficulties in building a fantastic world is handling and defining the role and use of magic. How does magic work within Anora’s world and how did you define its boundaries and limitations?
Magic is very rare in Anora’s world. The only manifestation of magic is through rare, supernatural abilities. I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population that allows the person to manipulate specific aspects of the environment. In Anora’s case, she can manipulate specific elements: water and air. She can manipulate them individually or in tandem to create weather. Others are born with a manipulation of earth or energy, while others can manipulate more organic materials like muscles, nerves, and brain matter (IE mind control).
With the biological element to how these powers work, there is a finite well to their power that limits them from being super crazy powerful beings. The explanation behind how it works is super science-y and I won’t describe here (I don’t go into full detail in the book either, it’s mainly to satisfy my nerdiness).
There are no magical objects, but there is some imaginative tech developed to help people survive in this creature ridden world.
I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population...
Where can readers keep track of Creatures Most Vile on its march towards publication and where stay fans stay up to date on your most current projects?
Creatures Most Vile and I have a long journey ahead of us and I post updates on Facebook, Twitter, and my website. Thank you for your support and hope one day you’ll find Creatures Most Vile sitting on your shelf!
Fantasy brings to mind worlds of pure imagination. As an author this can feel like a nearly limitless power to craft any realm you desire and these worlds are so wonderful precisely because they are not our own. But that feature is also a limitation: the characters within the fantasy world should not (in most cases) have knowledge of our world. A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions, an issue in fantasy which I call the problem of a leaky world.
A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions,
...it is easy to let certain things slip through the narrative that are references specific to our reality; the effect of such a mistake is to yank the reader out of the fantasy world momentarily and break the spell of imaginative literature.
Consider the following cliche which might easily slip into a scene of dialogue between two characters.
“Give them an inch and they'll take a mile!”
The issue with this phrase in the context of a fantasy novel is neither the idea that is being communicated nor the fact that it is a cliche in English culture (as using cliches is just lazy in general); the ‘leak’ is in the specific reference to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel is to directly reference an important part of the real history and development of our culture. This suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement completely by chance. In either case the suspension of reality has been fractured and the reader is dragged back into the world they are trying to escape.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel [...] suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement...
How can this be fixed? The first and perhaps most obvious solution might be to do the same thing that fantasy authors do with languages, towns, cities, and countries: make one up! But if you are to create a system of measurement in your fantasy world then you are stuck with the exact opposite problem. It is not your fantastic characters that are in possession of inaccessible knowledge but your reader who has a lack of inherent knowledge about the fantasy world. To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
This allows the reader to remain in fantastic suspension while the narrator handles issues
The second solution is a bit more challenging but, I believe, lets the reader immerse themselves more fully in the world and, more importantly, in the story. Instead of relying on a narrator to bridge the worlds, the author can look for common experiences between them that could conceivably be shared without any ‘leaking’ of information. Ancient civilizations demonstrate this concept superbly as they developed things like chairs and clothing and swords independently without any need to ‘leak’ information between themselves.
...the author can look for common experiences between [the worlds]
So let us return to the problematic phrase about ‘inches’ and ‘miles’. With the right kind of narrator the units of measure used in the fantastic world can be directly translated to familiar units. Alternatively, the author might try to identify experiences common to both the fantasy characters and the reader. For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths. Spears, common across many cultures, usually reach a bit higher than the average person. A house that is “three spear lengths high” then becomes a description that would give both the reader and the characters in the fantastic world a good sense of its size. For longer distances, such as 30 miles, the author might express the distance in terms of time. If you believe that most people can walk about 10 miles in a day then to say that a group of characters walked for three days conveys a distance similar to 30 miles without needing to use a specific unit of measure.
For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths.
Of course, this is just one brief example of a ‘leaky world’ problem, but it illustrates a pitfall quite particular to fantasy which I believe should be vigorously avoided. Common phrases such as cliches are particularly prone to ‘leaking’ information and should either be avoided altogether, used very cautiously, or adapted to better suit the culture of the fantasy world. By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
The poleaxe is such a versatile weapon, yet the longsword is arguably the most iconic piece of medieval imagery
This last question is driving me crazy! There’s so many people I want to choose… Vladimir the Great, William the Conqueror, Saladin, Alexander Nevsky, Edward III, Geoffroi de Charney… The list goes on. At the end of the day though, I think I would have to say Henry V. Aside from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V is the most iconic figure of the Middle Ages for me. He has such a thrilling story and it all leads to the Battle of Agincourt, which is my favorite medieval battle.
One of the most difficult things about writing is actually sitting down to write. As an independent author with three novels under your belt, do you have any advice for those who might struggle with just getting their story on the page?
The best advice I can offer is to sit down and write. Just write. Get those words onto the page. You can edit and perfect your story as you go, but you can’t do that when you haven’t written it yet. The most common complaint I get from friends and peers wanting to become writers is that they get stuck in the planning phases, or they have this great idea, but won’t sit down to do it. You can figure out your plans in greater detail as you’re writing. Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
Just write. The rest will follow!
Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
When it comes to world-building, I have two key pieces of advice:
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding of the real world aspects of the setting you’re taking inspiration from is massively important. Knowing how people acted during certain events, how political bodies rose and fell, and the technology of the time and how it all worked together is a must-have for thorough world-building, in my opinion.
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding
Second, always ask the question “Why?” when you create a new piece of the world. Why is this empire an empire? Why did these two nations fight? Why does this village exist where it does? Why did the people within the history of the world do the things that they did? The more you ask yourself that question, the more answers you’re going to come up with, and that is ultimately going to fill in the details of your setting.
Before we get to talking about your book series I want to bring up one of your hobbies: medieval re-enactment. With your hands-on experience in medieval combat techniques I’d really like to know what fantasy writers get wrong about medieval combat. What are the most common misconceptions you encounter in books and movies and how can they be fixed?
I would say, despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games, the most common incorrect portrayal is how armor functions. Armor is unavoidably such a crucial part of the Middle Ages and how the battlefield evolved - and that wouldn’t be the case if it was only mere costuming that wasn’t effective for protecting folks.
...despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games,
When we look at history, the bigger wars usually don’t happen because of something that occurred last week.
I would argue that recent blockbuster hits such as Game of Thrones have really whetted an appetite for complex, large-scale fantasy stories among the general readership. However, that type of fiction is not something one just jumps into. How have you managed to handle the long history of a large fictional continent? Do you have endless piles of notes? Have you compiled A Brief History of Aerothos for your own reference? Or do you keep the entire world locked away in your head?
I began with notebooks, but that was a bad move on my part. I lost too many scraps of paper and threw too many notebooks away! Now, I have all of my official notes on my computer, detailing periods of history, family lineages, and so on. But there’s a great deal of it that is kept in my head, since there’s really too much to formally write down (I’d probably never write books if I did!)
The Halryians themselves found their roots in Greco-Roman history, and some of that carries into the Chronicles with their successors, such as the kingdoms of Valtia and Arathen (very much so in a similar way as to say the Byzantine or Holy Roman empires and how they evolved from the end of antiquity and the fall of the western Roman Empire.) There are some other obvious comparisons in Aerothos as well, such as the Kingdom of Rovaskia being based on Scandinavian culture and the Kingdom of Rhodrien largely reflecting England, Wales, and Ireland.
While Aerothos is primarily inspired by Western Europe, I personally have a deep interest in Eastern European and Arabic history as well, which I try to pull a lot of inspiration from.
While I’m certainly inspired by other fantasy works, nearly all my ideas can find their origins in the real world.
What is happening next in Aerothos and where can readers find out more?
Right now I’m working on Part II of the Chronicles of Aerothos, which undoubtedly has a lot of work ahead of it still. I took a detour from Chronicles to write the Tales books, because I wanted to use those works to try new things and develop my writing. Now that I feel prepared, it’s time to return to the Chronicles and continue the epic story! Part II will be a much darker, gruesome story, as our heroes begin to face new challenges that come after the first season of war. The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
I think James McAvoy would be an excellent Jordan Greer.
You have managed not only to balance work and home life, but also produce a steady stream of online content both on your social media platforms and on your website. Do you have any advice for newer authors who feel like they don’t have enough time to maintain an online presence against the demands of writing and of life in general?
That’s very nice of you to say, and my advice would be to not worry about trying to do everything at once. I love hanging out on Twitter and my website, but at the same time, Instagram is a completely different beast, and Facebook is difficult. There are many things to try and stay on top of when it comes to being engaging and doing marketing, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Focus on one thing at a time, and most importantly: write.
Focus on one thing at a time, and most importantly: write.
On your author website you host insightful reviews of books released by both traditionally published and indie authors. How do you feel the review process has affected you as a writer? Does it change your perspective on writing or make you more aware of what it takes to write a great story?
I started doing reviews because I figured, ‘hey, I’m reading all of these books anyway’, but also because I wanted to give back to the community I was becoming a part of (that’s the #WritingCommunity on Twitter). It definitely gives me lots of great inspiration, and it’s very motivating to read all these amazing stories. The best ones are those that make me almost a bit envious because they’re just so magnificent.
It’s easy to get stuck in a headspace where you think got to do what everyone else is doing, but reading indie books have shown me that everyone has a unique style and voice.
One thing I’ve learned from reading all these books, perhaps particularly the indie books, is that there are many ways to write great stories. Sometimes it’s about the words, sometimes it’s about the characters or the plot, and you don’t necessarily have to do it all. It’s easy to get stuck in a headspace where you think got to do what everyone else is doing, but reading indie books have shown me that everyone has a unique style and voice.
Also: reviews are important! If you find the time to write them and leave some stars online, you’re definitely making someone’s day better, whether you liked the book or not, as long as you’re honest.
The fact that it’s simply the dark side of humanity
What draws you to write about criminals and cold-blooded cases? Is it about the action and excitement or is it more about commenting on the dark side of human nature?
I’d say I’m less about the action and more about the excitement, if that makes any sense, and it’s definitely the dark side of human nature that fascinates me.
The plot for The Consequence of Loyalty came to when I was back home on my dad’s farm, tending his pigs. I asked myself how a crime story would play out if instead of wondering who committed a crime, the question was why? The Consequence of Loyalty is exactly this, because we know who the bad guy is from the beginning, we just don’t know why. I love delving into the human mind like that, shining a light on those dark corners in the back.
I asked myself how a crime story would play out if instead of
Not only did you successfully publish The Consequence of Loyalty independently but you have accumulated a host of good reviews for your debut novel. Do you have any sage advice for authors who are preparing to self-publish in the crime or thriller genres? Any pitfalls to avoid or expert tips for first-timers?
Take your time. If I could go back and do it again I’d hold back on pressing that publish button so quickly. There were a couple of things I had to go back to fix after the fact, and I learned a valuable lesson.
I’m taking my sweet time with book two now, which is nearly ready for the press, and I’ve written early drafts for several other projects while I’m waiting for beta readers and editors. At some point, yeah, you have to just go for it, but don’t rush yourself.
Take your time. If I could go back and do it again
The Consequence of Loyalty is the first book in The Columbus Archives. Can you give us any hints as to Agent Greer’s future operatives or what we can look forward to in the next installment of the series?
I’ve planned three books in the series. Number 2 and 3 are both written and book 2 is coming soon. Though they’re a series, they function well as stand-alones, and you’re not going to miss something if you read just one out of them, but there’s obviously going to be things that cross over through the series, particularly with Greer’s life and his career in the FBI. In the second book, another one of Greer’s friends are in trouble, and all I’ll tell you is that he’ll do everything he can to save them. Everything.
Early into the first draft of The Gatewatch I had a minor crisis of identity. Who was I to assume that I could write a book worth reading and did I recall enough proper grammar to pass for a 'real' writer? To quell my doubts I began devouring writing advice by respected authors while I pressed on with the story.
Who was I to assume that I could write a book worth reading
I first reread an excellent essay I encountered in university, George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. His pointed message renewed my determination to pursue and eliminate pretentious diction, meaningless words, and dying metaphors. As a writer of fantasy, a genre too often plagued by these particular issues, I found it necessary to thoroughly purge what I had written in my rough draft before proceeding with the story.
While discussing dialogue, Stephen King suggests that descriptors such as shouted, whispered, screamed, roared, wailed, moaned, and whimpered should be used extremely sparingly, if at all. Even worse are phrases like whispered quietly, screamed furiously, or moaned woefully. The reason, of course, is that if you have not made clear from the context of the conversation what the tone of the dialogue is then using a phrase like ‘he shouted angrily' is profanely lazy. King suggests instead that writers invest more energy describing their red-faced, tight-fisted, jaw-clenched characters leading up to the dialogue so that readers can infer their tone from context alone.
Stephen King suggests that descriptors such as shouted, whispered, screamed, roared, wailed,
I took this advice literally and removed any word for dialogue besides said from my rough draft. Though I meant it to be more of a writing exercise than a rule I soon found that my scenes pulsed with an energy that they lacked before. I swore from then on never to use a phrase such as 'he shouted angrily' or 'she whispered tenderly' and to this day I have not used any attribution other than said.
I swore from then on never to use a phrase such as 'he shouted angrily' or 'she whispered tenderly'
For anyone willing to accept the challenge of using only said for dialogue I feel compelled to offer some support. One area of knowledge that I had a decent intuition about but failed to study closely before adopting this rule was the science of body language. Facial expressions and body posture can do more to communicate a character’s state of mind than a paragraph stuffed full of emotive descriptors.
Ekman's Six Basic Emotions (Credit: Adam Murphy)
These traits are so consistent that psychologist Paul Ekman categorized expressive facial movements into six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These expressions are performed unconsciously and are nearly universal. I believe as writers we can reverse-engineer this categorization to craft physical descriptions that are organic and intuitive for readers to interpret.
I believe as writers we can reverse-engineer this categorization to craft physical descriptions
For example, in a scene of courtly intrigue one might expect a line such as this:
“Damned fool,” Darius snarled disgustedly.
I hope you will agree that this line is particularly awful. The word snarled falls flat as it is a gross exaggeration; animals snarl but people do not. It is also confusing as a snarl is an expression of aggression in animals, not of disgust. As if all this was not enough to push this line into irredeemable mediocrity, the use of the word disgustedly shows that the author had neither the time nor the energy to show how Darius felt but instead cut a quick corner by stating it directly.
The word 'snarled' falls flat as it is a gross exaggeration; animals snarl but people do not. It is also confusing as a snarl is an expression of aggression in animals, not of disgust.
To rework this line I would first identify the basic emotion that the character is experiencing, in this case disgust. Disgust has been identified as one of the six basic emotions and is characterized by distinct positioning of the eyebrows, nose, and mouth. By utilizing these facts we could, perhaps, redeem the line as follows:
Darius furled his brow and wrinkled his nose.
“Damned fool,” he said.
In this case the word used for dialogue attribution is not hijacked to reveal Darius’ state of mind; it simply does its job of identifying who is speaking. In fact, the actual word disgust does not appear in the text at all. Through the description of Darius’ face and our own experience with facial gestures we, as readers, know exactly how Darius is feeling without being whomped over the head with a direct description. Our imagination is allowed to fill in the emotional context, and that is a far more powerful tool than words on a page.
In this case the word used for dialogue attribution is not hijacked to reveal Darius’ state of mind;
Further, we can easily adjust this line to convey other emotions by altering Darius’ facial expressions. If instead of wrinkling his nose Darius flared his nostrils we would know that he is feeling anger (another one of the six basic emotions) instead of disgust. Again, if he had opened his mouth and raised his eyebrows we would infer that he is surprised instead of angry or disgusted.
If instead of wrinkling his nose Darius flared his nostrils we would know that he is feeling anger
Though it is sometimes necessary to use said to identify the speaker I would refine the line one step further by eliminating the dialogue attribution altogether and communicating the source of these words through their position on the page like this:
Darius furled his brow and wrinkled his nose. “Damned fool.”
Though some might disagree with this last step, I have taken to doing this whenever possible. By avoiding dialogue attributions other than said, and even using said only when necessary, I have been able to craft lively dialogue between characters that is not hindered or burdened by unnecessary descriptors. In other words, some things really are better left (un)said.
For sage advice on the craft of writing Joshua recommends Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
What does your writing schedule look like? Is it highly structured or very flexible? Is there a particular location or type of space you like to write in?
I write primarily in the mornings when my son is in kindergarten. But I often end up writing at night if the words are flowing. I’m not at my best in the evenings, but anything to get the words on the page! I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years I’ve tried really hard to make my desk at home as personal and comfortable as I can. I have a stuffed purple dragon on the upper shelf, and I always light a candle from Folklore Candle Co (their scents are literary- and mythology-inspired.) I also listen to lots of folk metal when I write.
"I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years
When I first started writing I was discouraged from writing fantasy if I wanted to get published. However, both you and I have succeeded in getting our works of fantasy published traditionally. Do you have any advice for fantasy authors who are still trying to land that first publishing contract?
Oh goodness, this question is right in my wheelhouse! I struggled early on with finding my niche, and even today I have certain well-meaning family members tell me what I should and shouldn’t write. I cannot stand that type of pretentiousness in literature. Genre fiction authors must fight against it all the time. My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales, or any type of speculative fiction - write what you love, and never listen to “shouldn’t.” I promise that others - even the big publishers - also love what you love.
"My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales,
Your current project, an Urban Fantasy novel called Draugr, is the prequel to a series following the exploits of Leif Halfdan. This sharp-tongued immortal character spends his time working as a historical consultant and local detective. In your novel, he’s called to consult at an archaeological dig in Scotland. What were your sources of inspiration for this quirky, cunning character and the world he inhabits?
Oh, Leif Halfdan is such a special character to me. He carries so much on his shoulders and I feel bad for terrorizing him. But then he goes and pulls a numbskull move, and then I don’t feel as bad. He’s someone who desperately wants to do the right thing, and holds himself - and sometimes everyone else - to an impossible standard. He actually arose as a secondary character in the first novel I ever wrote, which will never ever see the light of day. I ended up falling in love with his rough manners and guilt complex, and thus Draugr took its first breaths. I wrote the first version of the story in six weeks, and knew for certain that this was a story and a character that needed to be shared.
"I tried to go more for a feeling of the mythology and the history, rather than a true retelling.
When I wrote my first full novel, The Gatewatch, it was originally only meant to be an extended backstory for the book concept which I’m now working on. It seems you had a similar experience with your first book Wergild and your current project, Draugr. What led you to make the decision to let Wergild lie idle for a time while you write Draugr?
Funny how side projects can slip past us and become main projects! Wergild was the first novel I ever truly finished. It taught me how to complete a long project. I wrote and rewrote for six straight years, and shed lots of blood and tears over it. But in the end, I knew it just wasn’t the right story to be telling. It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr. There are elements of Wergild that I will take with me along Leif’s journey, happily. I’ll always be grateful for the lessons it taught me.
"It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr."
I really enjoyed the excerpt of Draugr that you posted to your blog! Where can we track the release of Draugr and stay up to date on your future writing projects?
Thank you! There are actually a couple of excerpts on my blog, so readers can get a good taste there. I am currently in the revision process, but I hope to be finished and querying agents by autumn. I am very active on Twitter, and I frequently post progress reports there. I also hope to be announcing a new mystery project in the next two months. Stay tuned!