Anthony Ryan is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and short stories. His works feature on many fantasy ‘Top 10’ lists and he is a New York Times bestselling author.
More than that, Blood Song, is one of my favourite books of all time.
I discovered this book when I was browsing in a bookshop one day, at least seven years ago now. Little did I know that I had found a favourite new writer – as well as one who would have a major impact on the fantasy genre.
Blood Song, his first novel, sold 40,000 copies in the first six months, back when he was a self-published author. Since then he’s been pretty prolific and his new book, The Pariah, is already receiving rave reviews.
I was so grateful to discover that Anthony Ryan had agreed to answer some of my questions for this blog.
Being a writer myself (as I know a lot of people who follow me are) and a big fan of his books, I’ve asked lots questions ranging from his writing process, getting published, his published work, and what he’s currently working on.
So without further ado – here’s the interview!
You have created quite a few fantasy worlds now, ranging from the ‘swords and shields’ epic style fantasy of The Raven’s Shadow/Raven’s Blade to a more steampunk world in the Draconis Memoria trilogy. How do you go about creating these worlds? Do the worlds come first, or the characters?
(I know GRRM started Game of Thrones and after a couple hundred pages he had to go and write a history of the world and detail out the various religious orders. So, I was just wondering how your world-building differed?)
For me character and setting seem to evolve in parallel and I’m not always able to parse which came first. For the Raven’s Shadow/Raven’s Blade books, I’m pretty sure the character of Vaelin came first but the world he inhabited was informed by who he was and vice versa. He hung around my head in various incarnations but it wasn’t until I realised he was a brother in a militant religious order that the story and world started to come together.
Speaking more generally about world-building, I find it’s important to have an extended period where the ideas percolate before actually writing anything down. A lot of the details don’t arise until I start writing the book proper, however, I’ve usually got a fair idea of the important elements before I start: i.e. the most salient events in the pre-history, what type of culture predominates, how the money works, what kind of religion they practice (if at all).
I make some notes before starting the first draft, but they’re pretty fragmentary. The Draconis Memoria books were a bit of an exception because the world and story were so complex that, to make sense of it all, I needed a written chronology of events covering the thousand years before chapter one.
I also make lists of names based on various naming conventions – its a good way to delineate the various nations or ethnic groups in your word to give them different sounding names. Having a list also prevents you coming to a grinding halt during the first draft whilst you try to pry a new character name from your head. The same goes for place names which, of course, also informs the geography of the world. I draw my own maps but don’t finalise them until the book is complete, relying on a basic pencil sketch during writing.
What is your favourite perspective to write from? 1st/3rd or omniscient. (I’m going to assume it’s not second – but maybe I’m wrong) Why is this?
I don’t have a favourite perspective as I find it equally easy, and difficult, to write in first or third person. I haven’t yet written in omniscient as I think seeing the world through the eyes of one character at a time adds to the immersion of the reader in the story. It also has a lot of dramatic potential in revealing twists and so on. I haven’t yet written anything in first person present tense. I might one day, though the prospect is pretty daunting. Also, the notion of writing something in second person really doesn’t appeal though others have definitely pulled it off to great effect.
I know you like to plan your novels before you write them, however, you have said that you are happy to change as you go along. Do you find now that you are a full-time writer (and writing more frequently) that you are more or less likely to go off plan? How do you know when it’s right to deviate?
None of the books I’ve written have gone according to plan, at least in terms of the precise shape of the plot, although they almost always end the way I envisaged. I haven’t noticed an increased tendency to deviate from the outline, but I’ve always done so to a greater or lesser degree that changes with each book. I like to think I could probably write a book with no outline at all, but to be honest the prospect scares me a little, not least because I usually have a contracted deadline to meet these days.
In terms of knowing when to deviate, if you have a decent sense of story it should be obvious when the idea you come up with later is better that the one you wrote down months ago. I do find the act of writing the first draft is a great idea generator in itself, most of my best ideas arise during writing rather than planning.
Something I specifically like about your books is your prose. How do you go about your line by line editing? Some writers talk about the rhythm of their sentence structure, others like their work to be sparse and edit out the unnecessary. Where do you fall on this?
For me, improving prose is something I do instinctively rather than spending hours pondering the right placement of verbs or punctuation. I guess it’s a consequence of doing this for so long. However, here’s some general rules of thumb which new writers might find useful:
- Vary your sentence length – a paragraph which has seven or eight sentences all roughly the same length will often cause the reader to lose focus.
- Following the rules of grammar will often improve a sentence, so be sure to learn them. By the same token, sometimes ignoring strict grammatical structure will work to your advantage. Experiment to find what works best.
- Brevity is usually best. Long passages of lyrical descriptive prose can produce as much boredom as admiration, especially if they don’t serve the story. Not everyone is cut out to be John Steinbeck. If you can convey the emotion, plot, and meaning of a scene in a paragraph rather than a page, do so.
In terms of drafting – can you go through this process? Some writers have a first draft that is almost complete, other writers only do the bare bones of the story and their editing is a lengthy process. Where are you on this spectrum? How long does it take you to edit a novel comparative to how long it takes for you to write the first draft?
I don’t usually start writing until after 12pm, spending the morning dealing with emails and various admin tasks. I’ll begin writing by going over what I wrote the day before to fix any obvious problems – typos, clunky prose etc – which will also refresh my mind for the current state of the narrative. When that’s done, I write in 20-30 minute sessions until I feel I’ve done enough for the day. Repeat until done, usually in about six months but it can vary a lot. The Draconis Memoria books took longer than most of my other drafts.
I like my first drafts to be as complete as possible so I don’t have to face an excessive amount of editing when it’s done. That being said, all my first drafts require revision before submitting to my editor. Because the first draft is as close to finished as I can make it, I can usually edit to a point where it’s ready for submission in about a month.
You’re quite prolific these days – are you sticking to your 1,200-2,000 words a day, or are you doing more at the minute?
I’m averaging in the 1100-1200 range, so less on a daily basis but I’m also more consistent, which means my productivity has actually gone up despite some obvious distractions over the last eighteen months. I’ve come to the conclusion that, when it comes to productivity, consistency is key.
I’d encourage novice writers not to worry too much about word counts at first. Instead, concentrate on developing the habit of writing on a regular basis and finishing what you start. Once you’ve acquired the writing habit, establish a daily routine that you can maintain for an extended period. Tracking your progress and time spent writing on a spreadsheet will also help in planning your schedule.
I know it took you about 6.5 years to write Blood Song – then 6 months (I think) to write Tower Lord. What enabled you to do this? I know you had another job while writing both books – so it can’t be that you had more time!
It was really just a matter of knuckling down and getting on with it. I would wake up at 7am and spend an hour writing. I would write on the train to work, write during my lunch hour, write on the train home then spend two hours at night, you guessed it, writing some more. I was helped by the fact that I’d had a long time to think about the plot and characters of ‘Tower Lord’. Still, whilst it was exhilarating to produce a fairly lengthy book in so short a space of time, it’s not something I want to repeat. In fact, the experience of writing Tower Lord was the main motivator for me to go full time, along with the fact that I didn’t need the day job money anymore.
Have you ever had writers block? If you ever do, what works to get you back into the writing zone?
I’ve never been blocked per se so can’t speak to how to get over it. I’ve had periods where I don’t write as much as usual and there are always slow-downs during the first draft, mainly due to working out the more thorny plot issues. I find that getting through periods like that requires putting more time in and taking a close look at what you’ve already written. If you’re having trouble resolving a plot point it’s often because you’ve gone down the wrong path or haven’t foreshadowed the event properly. I think I’m fortunate in that the idea factory in my head never has a day off – although sometimes I wish it would. In short, I’ve always got something to write about.
Do you listen to music while you write/edit? If so, what music is on your playlist?
I don’t always listen to music as I find I don’t need it to write, plus I’m usually so immersed in the task that I don’t hear it. I will put the earphones on to block out noise if there are people working on the street outside or somesuch. When I do listen to music it’s usually my ancient iTunes playlist which consists mostly of 90s music and a lot of David Bowie. I’m also fond of comedy music, particularly the Doug Anthony Allstars, though they’re not really suited to writing sessions.
Do you ever write more than one book at a time?
Not yet. I think I’d find it too confusing. Writing fiction requires a deep level of focus and I think working on more than one plot involving different characters would be counter-productive.
Do you ever read reviews of your work? If so, how do you deal with this?
Not any more. When I started out I would read pretty much every Amazon and Goodreads review but, after a while I felt it was having too much influence on how I write. I you try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one. These days I’ll read reviews when my publisher shows them to me or reviewers tag me on Twitter (in accordance with established custom I will, of course, block anyone who tags me in a negative review, that’s just rude).
Your degree was in history – what periods of history that you’ve studied have influenced you the most? Are there any periods of history that you would like to further explore within your work – or perhaps use as a basis for a new world?
The medieval period is a big source of inspiration for me, as it is for a lot of fantasy authors. The constant dynastic power struggles and interplay between different social orders provides a lot of dramatic potential. The Raven’s Shadow books were set in a late-medieval/early Renaissance world although I mixed in a fair amount from other eras too. I went Victorian for the Draconis Memoria which has always been a fascinating period for me due to its rapidity of social and technological change.
I’ve been thinking for quite a while about a much longer than usual series which has a greco-Roman-esque setting, at least as a starting point. The civilisations that grew up in the Mediterranean basin are a very deep well of inspiration and I’m keen to explore the whole notion of empire on an epic scale. However, at this point I’m really not sure when I’ll get round to it.
On Getting Published
Lots of writers out there (me included) are in the submission trenches right now and some of us are moving towards self-published as our first choice of publication. What advice would you give writers going down both the traditional and self-publication routes.
Traditional publishing remains something of a lottery for novice writers, evidenced by the fact that every writer I know has a different publication story. There’s no one way in and luck plays an excessive role in the process. That being said, I think you can increase your chances if you follow agent’s submission guidelines: e.g. if they’ve asked for urban fantasy don’t send them a 200k word secondary world epic. When putting together a cover letter it’s a good idea to nail your elevator pitch – this is the infamous ‘it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings’ summation which may seem trite and reductive but it can work to capture attention. It’s also important to properly identify three or four relevant ‘comp titles’, e.g. ‘This book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ‘this’, ‘this’, and ‘this’. You also have to write a really good book but that’s easy the part.
When it comes to self-publishing my general advice is that you can’t half-arse it. The book you put out as a self-publisher should be indistinguishable in design and quality from anything produced by traditional publishing. This means, once again, writing a really good book. You then have to ensure it’s been properly edited – paying for a developmental edit by a recognised professional is a good idea, if you can afford it. At the very least you need a line edit and proof read. You then need a professionally designed cover. For fantasy this might also entail hiring an artist to produce a cover illustration. If done well, none of this is cheap but there are ways of mitigating the cost if you’re on a budget. I’d recommend ‘The Six Figure Author’ and ‘The Creative Penn’ podcasts for further info.
I heard in a previous interview that you sold 40,000 copies of Blood Song in the first 6 months (which was prior to you signing your contract) How did this happen? How did you go about getting noticed? I think this is something a lot of new writers can struggle with – the quality of their work can be great but finding the readers is very difficult.
I was very fortunate to self-publish at a time when so-called ‘organic discovery’ was a lot easier. In 2012, if you published something on the Kindle store there was a reasonable chance someone somewhere would read it and, if it was any good, they’d tell people about it and sales via word-of-mouth (or word-of-forum/reddit/social media) would result. This is basically what happened with ‘Blood Song’. I did very little actual marketing and made a number of serious mistakes (not getting a proof-read and doing my own cover) that wouldn’t be forgiven if I was to self-publish now.
These days, the Ebook space is so huge it’s a lot harder to get noticed and indie/self-published authors often rely on an established loyal readership and/or paid advertising to achieve sales. When it comes to marketing, the lessons I’ve learned are probably already well known but worth repeating:
- have a website listing all your books and where to buy them;
- start a mailing list (you can’t start this too early) and build it with free book giveaways and a reader magnet, e.g a short story or book free to all subscribers;
- communicate regularly with your audience and highlight the importance of posting reviews on their outlets of choice;
- publicise via all available free outlets but don’t overdo it – people will unfollow you on social media if all you post is endless pleas to ‘buy my book, it’s great’;
- experiment with paid ads platforms such as Amazon and Facebook but only when you’ve learned how to use them properly – paid ads are a great way to waste a great deal of money for no result if you don’t know what you’re doing;
- if you’re completely new with no established audience, general advice these days is to publish first on KDP Select so readers can try your book for free. Successful self-publishers also tend to have a much higher output than traditionally published authors, one book a year is probably not going to cut it; these days your chances of success are increased by writing in series and publishing regularly.
Without giving any spoilers, what can you tell us about the world of The Pariah?
‘The Pariah’ is a first-person epic fantasy following the exploits of one Alwyn Scribe, an outlaw who may one day turn out to be something more. The world is partially based on medieval Europe at the time of the Hundred Years War, but as is usual for me, I’ve mixed in a fair amount of detail drawn from both earlier and later eras. I’ve tried to reflect the realities of living in a feudal society, especially if you had the misfortune to be born into the lowest tier. As it’s fantasy, magic will feature but this probably the most ‘low magic’ world I’ve created yet.
What themes (if any) are you exploring with this work.
The main themes are finding your place in the world, the dangers of hero-worship, and the dehumanising and ultimately destructive nature of a grossly unequal society. So, all in all a bit of light reading.
Is this going to be a series?? If the answer is yes, how many books are you planning?
This one’s a trilogy. I just finished the first draft of the second book which matches the length of the first. I hoping the third and final instalment will have a similar page count but it’s looking like it might be a bit longer. Still, I’m confident I can wrap it all up in three books.
In terms of creating a brand-new world like this, how long does the preparation work take you (i.e. what work are you doing before putting pen to paper)?
I had a basic knowledge of the medieval period to draw on but needed to read up on the events of the Hundred Years War and the various dynastic struggles. Before researching I thought I had a decent understanding of medieval warfare, but it turns out I really didn’t know enough. Also, a lot of my assumptions about how people fought wars at this time were way off – medieval wars were just as much about money and logistics as they are today and much of the actual fighting took place during sieges. There were also a lot more sea battles than I thought.
To establish the details of everyday life, I also read up on the social history of the time and watched relevant TV documentaries. Thanks to YouTube and streaming services there’s a huge visual reference library to draw on when researching these days.
I really enjoyed both books in the Seven Swords novella series. Are you writing the third instalment? If so, when is this likely to come out?
I finished the third volume, ‘City of Songs’, last year and it’s slated for publication in September 2021. You can pre-order the special edition hardcover from Subterranean Press (https://subterraneanpress.com/city-of-songs).
What do you like about the novella medium compared to the novel? Are there any differences in how you plan a novella compared to one of your novels?
When it comes to short works, I tend to write novellas because I don’t appear to have much ability to write short stories. Put simply, they’re too short for me and I haven’t yet applied myself to learning how to do them well. I find that to effectively tell a story I usually need at least 15,000 words. In comparison to a novel they offer a chance to complete something relatively quickly and ensure the pace matches the length. With the Seven Swords series, novellas offer an episodic means of exploring a longer form narrative – each novella is self-contained and can be read in isolation but together form a much more expansive story.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time… but are you currently writing/thinking about writing another book in Raven’s Shadow world?
I’m giving Vaelin an extended break for the time being. I think he earned it. I will be returning to the Raven’s Shadow world in the future, first with some more short works and full length novels later. I can’t say when at this stage because the ideas are still in a nebulous form. Readers keep asking me for a Frentis-centred novel so that may be something I take a serious look at in due course.
Thanks for answering all my questions, Anthony. Just to end – a few random questions!!
What books are you currently reading? I know you like to read thriller and historical fiction, so are there any books/new authors we should be keeping an eye on?
I’m currently reading an advance review copy of ‘The Hand of the Sun King’ by JT Greathouse which is excellent. I believe it’s his debut and due for publication in August, so watch out for that. Next, I’ll probably continue with Don Winslow’s ‘The Border’ crime trilogy which I think is currently in pre-production as a TV series. I recently read and enjoyed ‘The Black Tongue Thief’ by Christopher Beuhlman and ‘Son of the Storm’ by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, both of which are coming out soon. I’ve usually also got an audiobook on the go and my current listen is Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Hummingbird Salamander’ – I love his prose.
If you could go to dinner with any of the characters you have created, who would it be and why?
Lyrna from the Raven’s Shadow series would be a fascinating dinner companion, though I’d want someone else to taste the wine first. Alwyn, the protagonist from ‘The Pariah’, would be entertaining company but you shouldn’t let him near the silverware. I think I’d probably get on best with Verniers and the various other scholars and historians I’d created over the years. Also, the stories they could tell would save me a lot of time world-building.
This is the end of the interview – thanks so much for reading. If you are unfamiliar with Anthony’s work, please check out his website at http://www.anthonyryan.net – where details of all his books and how to access his newsletter can be found.
If you enjoyed this interview, also please consider subscribing to me. I have more book reviews, author interviews, and Irish mythology posts in the pipeline!