Today I’m interviewing Justin Lee Anderson, who I first met at FantasyCon a couple of years ago. Justin won awards and saw huge sales with his first book and has recently published his second, which is quite different. I’ll let him explain…
Tell us something about your books.
Well, my books are fantasy, but they’re very different.
My first book, Carpet Diem, is a comedy urban fantasy about a hermit who gets caught up in a bet between God and Satan.
My new book, The Lost War, is a low fantasy mystery set in a pseudo-medieval kingdom based on the history, mythology and etymology of my hometown, Edinburgh. It’s the first in a trilogy called Eidyn.
Once I write the sequel to Carpet Diem, called I Don’t Like Mundanes, and books 2 and 3 in the Eidyn series, I have plans for an urban fantasy mystery with vampires and magic, an urban fantasy thriller with old gods, and a futuristic superhero sci-fi.
Apparently you’re supposed to stick to one genre to be a successful writer. I’ve never been very good at taking advice – I just want to tell stories that excite me.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
I think good stories inspire me to write. I want to give people that same feeling I get in a great scene where the hairs raise on the back of my neck and I’m grinning like an idiot.
There’s nothing like that. And it can be any medium, not just books. The last big one I can remember was (SPOILER FOR ENDGAME) when Cap wields Mjolnir. I literally said ‘Yes’ out loud to myself in the cinema.
Stories are important – they’re what make life worth living, in many ways. If you think about the ways we choose to spend our lives, with books, TV, film, theatre and even music, it’s all about stories. There’s something about them that feeds our souls and I think we’d starve without them.
I have a lot of favourite writers. In no particular order, Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Joe Abercrombie, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Jo Nesbo, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Patrick Rothfuss and, in terms of new(ish) writers, I love Anna Stephens and Ed McDonald. They’re all great storytellers.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I start writing in my head. It drives my wife crazy, especially when we’re working on something together (we write scripts together).
I hardly write notes – it all just sits percolating in my brain. I have a habit of leaving it there for too long, but I know that it will be more fully formed once it’s been there a while – especially the characters.
With Carpet Diem, I largely went completely by the seat of my pants when I actually sat down to write. But with The Lost War, I did a lot more planning. I had to, in order to research and create the world. In fact, it was originally two different books – I had a premise for one and a storyline for another – until I decided they were the same story!
But I don’t do a lot in terms of plotting – I certainly don’t do chapter by chapter. I knew the beginning and end, and I knew certain plot beats I wanted to hit along the way – but not how I was going to get from one to the next. What I did find myself doing sometimes, when I was stuck, was to sit down with a pen and paper, and write down every major character. I would write down where they were, what they were thinking, and what they were motivated to do now. That always got me out of a hole when I wasn’t sure exactly where to go next. So, hopefully, the story is character driven, rather than the plot driving the characters.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
It took me over a decade to write Carpet Diem, which had to do with a lot of things. I wasn’t sure where the story was going, for a start, until I literally dreamt the middle section of the book (thanks, brain!), and I was distracted by personal things, writing scripts instead for a while etc. And I also tended to self-edit as I went.
So the first 20k words were probably edited a dozen times before I wrote the next 75k! That was something else I had to learn for TLW – write the first draft without looking back. It was incredibly hard, but I did it, and I wrote it in about six months – much quicker than CD! So the two big ones are definitely more planning and not self-editing.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Long! I am not a quick writer. I have to kind of clear the decks, so to speak, in order to clear my mind of distractions and be able to just sit and write. And I usually need music – but no lyrics.
I wrote Carpet Diem to Rodrigo y Gabriela, but that didn’t work for The Lost War, so I ended up with some soundtracks, like Game of Thrones, some classical music and some ambient atmospheres from ambient mixer.com. In fact, I found those ambients especially helpful for getting into the mood of scenes.
When I get into the flow, it’s great and I can turn out 2.5k-4k words in a good day, but I can also struggle to get to 1k some days – and they always feel like a let down – especially when you’re planning a 150k word novel! I suffer from anxiety, too, so if my anxious brain kicks off and refuses to let me focus, I sometimes have to just accept that and get up and walk away, because trying to force myself to focus will only make it worse. I still find it hard to accept those days, though, and resist them for longer than I probably should.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I’m not sure. I think those days when you’re really in the flow and it feels like words are just spilling out of you like spun gold are great, but I’m not sure there’s much better than getting feedback from readers that they like what you’ve done. Writing, in many ways, feels like breathing clearly, but there’s nothing like someone telling you that something you created made them happy.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
I had a great editor for The Lost War – John Jarrold, who is a pillar of the fantasy community. I was very lucky to be able to work with him. He knows the genre inside out and has a keen eye for exactly what needs work in your story.
In terms of how I made it work? I listened! Always listen to your editor. They’re on your side.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Read your writing out loud to yourself. Good writing should flow. You don’t want repetition and you don’t want stumbling blocks – and these are easier to pick up when you hear it out loud. It should have a rhythm, like music, such that your readers forget they’re actually reading, and just become immersed in the story.
I see some writers who over-describe things or state things in a way that is grammatically accurate but clunky. Always think about your rhythm and flow, as well as the story you’re telling. Get out of the way of your reader losing themself in your story.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
An interesting thing I’ve found, that doesn’t seem to apply to other writers, is that I have to read in the genre I’m writing. For the last year I’ve been reading nothing but straight fantasy, and I’m going to have to go back to comedy fantasy to finish I Don’t Like Mundanes. I just can’t get into the right mindset otherwise.
I’ve heard authors talk about how they worry about accidentally ripping off something else they’ve read, but I am so influenced by what I read that it changes the style of what I’m writing! If I tell you that I was reading some Jo Nesbo during the writing of Carpet Diem, you could probably pretty easily find the section I wrote at that time!
I have several books lined up to get me going: Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser, Oddjobs by Heide Goody and Iain Grant, Here Be Dragons by David P MacPherson and Quentin Cundick and The Web of Machinations by Alastair Pack. Hopefully they’ll get my head right!
Thanks Justin for taking the time to answer my questions. The Lost War is out now in ebook and paperback and it’s in my To Be Read pile. You can find out more about Justin on his website (which he created after reading WordPress For Writers).