I’m delighted to be publishing my very first author interview on the blog today. This is the first of a series of interviews I’ll be doing with authors in varying genres, using different publishing models and at a range of places in their career.
Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy of fantasy novels that have been described as perfect for anyone frustrated by the fact that we don’t seem to be getting another George RR Martin book for a while.
She’s traditionally published by HarperVoyager (proving that this blog isn’t just for indies) and talked to me about her writing process and inspiration.
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I write epic fantasy at the grittier end of the spectrum. It’s sometimes called grimdark, in fact. My debut trilogy is concerned with a religious and political war in which gods take an active part. There are heroes and villains and a lot of other people who are neither one nor the other – just people doing the best they can to survive the cataclysm and keep their loved ones alive.
It’s a story of the lengths people will go to in order to protect those they love.
These themes allow me to discuss issues close to my heart, such as the blurred line between right and wrong and the sacrifices people make for others. It also looks at LGBT and gender equality, religious extremism and issues such as PTSD.
The first two books, Godblind and Darksoul, are now published in the UK and US, with the third, Bloodchild, due out in August 2019.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
Inspiration comes from everywhere and nowhere. From a weird dream to current affairs – and there’s certainly enough political instability in the world today to write a 12-book series about! Snippets of conversation, old stories and myths, history, daydreaming, I don’t think it’s possible to pin down any one source for inspiration. I try to be open to as much information as possible and let it all bubble away in my subconscious.
When I was brainstorming ideas for my new series, I wrote a list of my favourite things, a list of issues I wanted to talk about, a list of things that were outside my comfort zone that I wondered if I had the courage to tackle, and the ideas came from which items on those lists I found myself returning to over and over.
As for favourite writers, that list is probably longer than my brainstorming list. I try and read widely, though SFF is my favourite genre. Off the top of my head, I’d say Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, Sharon Penman, Jen Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Shakespeare, Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley and Robin Hobb.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I used to be a pantser for sure, which may be why it took 13 years from first draft to publication for Godblind. These days I do have a plan, though it’s pretty loose. I know the start and the end points, and I have four or five major plot points that I need to hit along the way – twists or reveals – but how I reach those points is up to my imagination.
It hasn’t necessarily worked as well as I’d like – I struggled with my second book a lot – so I might try being more organized for my next book and plotting it more thoroughly. My worry with that, however, is that I won’t feel as though I have creative freedom. And if I’m not enjoying writing it, no one is going to enjoy reading it.
But, it might be worth the experiment. I won’t know until I’ve tried it.
As for how I start writing, my inciting incident always needs to be full of action and movement. Two characters sitting down and having a chat won’t cut it for me. Godblind opened with a human sacrifice (I did say it was gritty!). I much prefer to drop readers straight into the action and let the world build around that, rather than have pages of lore and history.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
I’ve become more disciplined, and I do try and plan more, even if I almost never stick to the plan. I hope I’ve learnt to recognize earlier – i.e. before I hand my book to my editor – if I’ve cocked something up so that I can fix it. With my second book, I completely missed the fact that one of my character’s plot lines didn’t work, so I hope I’ve learnt my lesson there!
I’ve become a better writer. Not just since that initial draft of Godblind all those years ago, but since Godblind itself was published in 2017. Darksoul is a better book than my debut, and I hope Bloodchild is better than Darksoul. I’m better able to put emotion into my work without melodrama or histrionics, and my prose is much, much sleeker than it used to be.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Ooh that’s a tough one. I can usually get a first draft done in about four months. As the new series I’m working on is the first one I’ve planned since getting a publishing contract, I’ll use that as the basis. My process for the Godblind trilogy is lost in the mists of time!
For the new series, as I said I started with a huge brainstorm. That gave me my main character, her defining features, and the main threat to her and her people. From there, I knew that a single threat wasn’t enough to craft a series around, so I built up the world around her homeland and introduced a second threat, which suggested a second set of characters and motivations.
In all, I probably spent around two weeks coming up with the basic plot for the series. I then started writing the first book and doing research at the same time, which meant I had to keep going back and changing things when I learnt something important. I know a lot of people research first and then write, but I find I end up getting too far down the rabbit hole if I do that and there’s a chance I’ll never actually start the book. By writing and researching simultaneously, I’m producing work that, yes, might need changing, but the research also helps shape the plot which is growing organically by that stage.
Once the first draft is done, it goes to my agent for initial thoughts and then I rewrite in line with discussions with him, which could be as much as three months to really nail down what I’m trying to say and get the characters buffed up to a good shine. Usually during this time I’ll make some plot changes as the direction characters take and little throw away comments I’ve dropped in start to make more sense. That in turn will flesh out the plot for the rest of the series.
So for my new series, we’re at the stage where the draft is done and it’s with my agent, so I expect comments back in a couple of weeks and that will inform my forward progress on this book and its sequels. Having someone else’s input is really valuable – even if I don’t agree with all the suggestions, just having someone from the outside who’s looked at the plot is useful, as they can often see connections or problems that have passed me by.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
First drafts can be exciting, but they’re hard work. Edits – in line with a professional’s suggestions – can be absolutely harrowing, because it can feel like they hate everything you’ve written, but once you get over that, it’s actually the most fun. First drafts are skeletons put together in the dark; edits are skeletons put together in the light and you get to slap on exciting things like organs and muscles as well.
So I’ll say edits, even though they always take an emotional toll on me and I’m usually exhausted and doubting everything by the end. I know that doesn’t sound like fun, but it’s the most rewarding aspect for me. It’s when everything really starts to come to life.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
Obviously, my agent and editor are heavily involved, my agent from the start and editor once it’s been redrafted at least once.
Other than that, for my new series I’ve sent the first draft to two beta readers, and the second draft will go to another one once I’ve dealt with their feedback. This is the first book I’ve used more than one beta reader for, and it’s because I’ve challenged myself a lot more with this series and I need expert opinion.
For the Godblind trilogy, I’ve got an ex-army friend who reads for me and picks me up on issues around my military tactics and battle strategy. The new series has a different set of challenges and I’m lucky enough to know people who can comment on that. It’ll still go to my army buddy after this round, though, because he’s got a good eye for plot and there is buckets of fighting involved – it wouldn’t be an Anna Stephens book without it!
It can be nerve-wracking getting feedback from betas, and I’m particularly nervous about this new book. I’ve beta read for both of them, so I know the quality of their work and I know them both personally as well, which helps. You can’t just send a book off to a friend and ask for feedback, though – you have to be specific, so my covering email asked questions like: is the worldbuilding organic? Do you understand the characters’ motivations? Where/why did you get bored? Is such and such an aspect problematic?
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Love what you do is probably the biggest. And that doesn’t mean if you’re having a bad writing day you give up; it means love the story, love the characters, and love the process of writing. We all have bad days, bad weeks, bad chunks of book, but remember why you started writing in the first place and why you keep going. If you have to grind out 5,000 words, do it. Don’t worry about their quality, just get past your sticking point and then fall in love with writing all over again.
The second is: finish the damn book. Don’t get 20,000 words in and then go back and rework your opening chapters, because if you do you’ll stay at 20,000 words forever, constantly refining the opening until it’s ‘perfect’ (it will never be perfect). If you absolutely know your opening is wrong, write a detailed plan of why it’s wrong and how you will fix it – and then finish the damn book. You can edit a 100,000 word novel; you can’t edit something that doesn’t exist.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
Writing is solitary and it can be all-consuming. Don’t sacrifice your health or your relationships for it. Get some fresh air; speak to people; eat a salad; get off your ass. Your body and brain will both thank you for it. And you’ll be a better writer as a result.
Thanks, Anna, for taking the time to chat to us about your writing process.
You can buy Anna’s books online and in bookstores, and find out more about her on her website.