Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Interview with fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan

1.) Michael, according to the "About" section of your website, you've had quite the interesting path to writing and publication, one that has had plenty of twists and turns over the years. What do you know now that you wish you had known 10 or more years ago?

That success is possible. There are few businesses that can beat you down like this one. I wish my story was unique, but most writers have similar tales of woe in their own pasts. The fact that it takes a long time to learn to write well was never a problem for me. I was more than willing to put in my 10,000 hours to hone my craft. But the bigger issue is that the whole time you are doing that you have no idea whether that effort is an investment or a total waste of time. For me, I ended up feeling like Linus in the pumpkin patch, ruining my Halloween waiting for something that didn’t exist. It caused me to quit writing altogether for over a decade and if the story ended there I would have been like the character from "Field of Dreams" who got within inches of living out his dream only to have it pass him by. Fortunately, I did start writing again, but this time with absolutely no desire to publish. Freed from that pressure, the joy of storytelling returned to me. By that time changes in the industry had opened up whole new opportunities, and because my wife was adamant about getting the books into the hands of others, I was able to finally find an audience. There is no greater feeling in the world than hearing that something you wrote touched or entertained someone. If I had known in the beginning that I would eventually succeed, I wouldn’t have and would have a lot more stories completed. As it stands, I think I’ll probably die before I get a chance to write all the tales running around in my head.

2.) Which has been your most difficult novel to write? And why?

It’s a novel that hasn’t been published and maybe never will. It’s called A Burden to the Earth and it profiles a man’s descent into madness. This was a piece that I focused on style over substance, and the prose took precedence over everything else. I labored over each word and worked hard to construct each sentence to be “just right.” I still marvel at many of the turns of phrases or descriptions in that story. I’m very proud of the result, but it wasn’t much fun to write. The success of my Riyria Revelations comes from writing tales of adventure with likeable characters … basically the type of stories I “like to read.” I can appreciate Burden on an intellectual level, but in many ways it is the anti-Riyria, and if I had my choice of which book to be stuck with on a desert island, I would much rather have the popcorn than the fine wine.

3.) Beginning writers often think of success as coming from either hard work or luck. Which do you think is more important? Or is it a mix of the two? Or something else entirely?

Ha! I wonder if this question is a plant … have you been reading my blog? I’m actually pretty amazed at the whole “luck” argument and that authors will absolve themselves of much (or sometimes any) role in their own success or failures. Sure over the course of any career some breaks will fall your way and at other times not so much, but to say that you have to “get lucky” to be a success is a cop-out, in my opinion.

If we can define “luck” as “being in the right place at the right time” then you can make your own luck by being persistent. The bottom line is that if you keep putting out quality work over an extended period of time you’ll eventually “make it.” The trick is to keep stacking the odds in your favor by being smart and never taking no for an answer. Years ago, you had to rely on others (mainly agents or acquisition editors) so it was harder, but if one novel didn’t get any nibbles, you could write another one and try again … rinsing and repeating that enough times and you’ll eventually get a “yes.” Today, with self-publishing you are the master of your own domain and the only people you have to prove yourself to are readers.

So going back to what I think the keys to success are it’s actually pretty simple.

1.) Write a “good” book (in this case I define “good” as something that people like so much that they tell everyone they know about it) and will insta-buy any future work you put out.

2.) Prime the pump by getting your book in front of a fairly substantial number of people who love talking about books with others. Let these people become your evangelists to help spread the news through the only marketing technique that works, which is word-of-mouth.

3.) Write more books that fit the bill of #1. Once you have an engine that wants to consume what you create, you have to keep the furnace well stoked with new fuel. The rub of course is whether or not you can write a “good book” especially when such distinctions are completely subjective. My rule of thumb is if you write something that you want to read, and execute it professionally, then the likelihood that you can find an audience with similar preferences is pretty likely.

4.) What do you see as some of the major differences between writing novels and short stories?

I’ve only recently started writing short stories that I consider to be worthy of letting others read. I have a tremendous appreciation for those writers who cut their teeth in the short story realm because I personally find it to be quite challenging. I will probably always be a better novelist than a short story writer because I really like being able to slowly reveal a character’s background, and I need a long run way for some of my red herrings and plot twists. I like enticing a reader to stay awake for “just one more chapter” and revel when they are half asleep the next day. Having 100,000 or more words gives me the freedom to explore such constructs.

Short stories force the author to make very tough choices. You have only so many words to develop an appreciation for the main character and what conflict they are going through. You also need to choose your plot carefully .. .it’s not easy coming up with an idea that can be explored in its entirety in the span of 3,000 – 7,000 words. Quite simply, I’m awed by great short story writers. They have a delicate balancing act and walk a tremendously difficult tightrope. I personally think it takes a far greater talent than novel writing, and that’s probably why I’ll continue to make my bread and butter in long form fiction.

5.) You have teamed up with your daughter Sarah for the online comic Plotholes. What is the story of this collaboration and how it came about?

The idea actually was something that came from Robin (my wife) and I. We often joke about various things that we find funny or amusing about publishing or fantasy writing. My mind seems to naturally distil these musings into very concise ideas. Because of my artistic background it’s easy for me to visualize the concept of a cliff hanger or the impenetrable wall of traditional publishing.

These little notions pop up constantly. For instance, one day we were walking home from the Metro and we passed a tree that was completely devoid of any leaves that was fourth in line of a row of others that were in their full greenery. One of us (I can’t recall which) said, “What the heck happened to that tree?” and the other responded, “It was edited.”

That got Robin thinking about creating a comic strip as something fun to put on my blog. I’m a pretty decent graphic artist, and I am good at combining graphics and text, but I’ve never been a great illustrator. After seeing my first attempt, Robin turned to the real artistic talent of the house, our daughter Sarah and asked her to draw something up. Her version blew mine out of the water. Nowadays Sarah is really busy with her own Ugly Vampire comic so there hasn’t been a new Plothole in a while, but Robin and I have come up with a whole bunch of other subjects that we would like to see Sarah draw one day when she gets the time.

6.) You hear a clatter behind your house. Rushing out the back door to see what has happened, you find your characters Royce and Hadrian in a heap, looking as if they have fallen a short distance and landed atop one another. Noticing you, they disentangle themselves and jump to their feet. Weapons are drawn. What do you do or say?

“Hey guys! Good to finally meet you face to face, but what’s with the pointy things? You’re not mad about the time I … or the other time … okay you’re right. I may have this coming. But let’s try to look at this from another perspective, shall we? After all you forgave Wyatt and he did much worse things than I. What’s that? Oh right, I forgot I made Wyatt do those things. Hmm … well I really don’t have much to say … except that I do have an idea for a new story, and guess who would be perfect for it? You’ll love it! There will be adventure, Montemorcey wine for Royce and the finest ale for Hadrian. Hmm? Yes, there might be a tad bit of danger and yes some pain here and there. But I promise nothing that you can’t handle. After all you’re Riyria for Maribor’s sake! Come on what do you say? Up for a little fun? Great! I’m just going to slowly back into the house and go up to my office. We’ll have you on your way in no time.”

For more about Michael J. Sullivan
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1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Good interview. Thief of Swords is a great title.