As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with Hugo-nominated editorial director of Pyr books and the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, Lou Anders.
Philip Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Lou Anders: I would say there are two very common mistakes, and that they are related. The first is in assuming that now the novel is written you can sit back and watch your publisher work for you, and that, sadly, isn’t true. Publishing houses, especially big publishing houses, tend to throw the majority of their marketing efforts behind a few lucky titles, and do the bare minimum for the rest, and even if that isn’t the case (or you are lucky enough to have your book being the one singled out for special treatment), as many books as are published in a year and as many distractions as there are to reading, an author needs to be prepared to market his/her own work aggressively and to spend a good deal of time on outreach. What’s more, we have shifted from a top-down approach in marketing to a peer-to-peer world. A few years ago, you would have been advised that having a website was essential. Now it’s a Facebook page, a Twitter account, appearances on podcasts, etc. You really need to make yourself available in as many social networking platforms as you can. All things being equal, if a reader has to choose between two equally appealing potential purchases, they are going to be more likely to select the book where they feel they already have a relationship with the author, where they see the author as a person they know from online, rather than just a name they’ve maybe only just heard of. So the most common mistake is sitting back and thinking you are done when you type “the end.” You aren’t by a long shot.
The second mistake is not being ready to go on a second book. You really risk your career when you take more than a year between books now, at least before you are established, and in this media-centric world of near-infinite choice, where many publishers (Pyr included) are experimenting with publishing books in a series in consecutive months, waiting more than a year for book two is going to cost you eyeballs. Because plenty of shiny objects are going to intrude between now and then. Finish the book, type “the end,” and then open a new file and start the next one right away!
Athans: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when creating a fantasy hero?
Anders: Everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone is defined by their relationships, their background, their history, their idiosyncrasies, their compromises, their wounds, their victories. Everyone married knows that you don’t just marry your spouse, you marry their family as well, and in the same way, the lone hero who comes from nowhere, has no past, has no associations, has no quirks beyond being “heroic” is as flat as a pancake. All great stories, whatever the genre, begin with great characters.
Athans: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when creating a fantasy villain?
Anders: Everyone is a hero in their own mind. I once rejected an otherwise perfectly good manuscript because it let the side down when it came to the villain, who was such an unbelievably generic dark lord that I couldn’t stomach it. There’s a moment in James Enge’s wonderful Blood of Ambrose where the villain, Lord Urdhven, the Protector, who has murdered his sister and brother-in-law for power, is actually quite heroic, and the novel takes time to reflect that in actuality, probably a great many perfectly good rulers came into power in less than honorable ways.
Likewise, in Tom Lloyd’s The Twilight Reign novels, the ostensible villain Lord Styrax, is quite admirable in many ways, and may only be “the villain” because his desires are set in opposition to our hero, Isak’s, own needs. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt has a wonderful villain, an officer in an empire that combines the best of the Romans with the Nazis, who makes a virtue out of loyalty in a bureaucracy that is sewn with corruption, and even as he opposes our hero’s aims, and represents an invading army, we root for him as he opposes the corruption in his own empire, both above and below his own rank. And, of course, Joe Abercrombie has made his reputation on characters who are neither wholly good nor bad.
Athans: When you’re reading a manuscript from a new author, is it a positive or negative if the novel is cast as first in a trilogy or ongoing series?
Anders: There is nothing better than a series that works and that builds from book to book. And there is nothing worse than taking something on, and knowing that each successive book is going to do less well than the one before it. I think it’s risky for a debut author to “commit trilogy,” and the safer bet is to write the “stand alone novel with the potential of a follow-up.” That being said, I acquire trilogies by new authors all the time, but you have to be sure when placing that kind of a bet.
Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve published? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Anders: I read reviews obsessively. I pay as much, or more attention to bloggers than I do to “traditional outlets,” because ultimately, a book needs readers, not critics (though, ultimately, critics are readers too, aren’t they?) I tend to share reviews with my authors. These days, none of us are more than a few minutes away from a Google Alert telling us that our ears our burning, though, are we? But as for reviews being helpful—I don’t know. I am using them to gauge reaction, not inform the writing. By the time a book has come out and been reviewed, the author is way past it and into another project, and every project is its own animal.
Athans: Can you name a fantasy novel you particularly liked that lacked a strong, motivated villain? Is “man vs. nature,” for instance, a good enough motivator for a protagonist?
Anders: In a word, no. I’m sure you can site counter-examples and I probably can too if I thought about it, but your protagonists must have concrete objectives and overcome concrete obstacles, just as a desire to “be happy” is not as powerful as a desire to win the love of a specific person in the hopes that that will make you happy, so feeling like circumstances are against you is not as powerful as seeing those circumstances personified.
Athans: How important is the “one scene, one POV” rule to you? How do you advise authors on managing point of view?
Anders: I’d say that it isn’t about whether you break the rule, it’s about whether you are breaking the rule knowingly or out of ignorance, whether you are breaking it expertly or ineptly. Authors like Kay Kenyon and James Enge handle multiple POV very well. You can do anything as long as you can pull it off, but that’s the tricky part, isn’t it?
Athans: Are you more inclined to one sort of fantasy world (the created world ala Moorcock’s Young Empires, the mythological world ala Tolkien, historical fantasy ala Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, etc.) over another? Do you feel that there’s a bigger readership for “more accessible” fantasy, and in your opinion, what is more accessible?
Anders: I grew up on Moorcock, Leiber, Burroughs, and Tolkien. I loved Middle Earth, Newhon, the Young Kingdoms . . . Secondary world fantasy will always have a special place in my heart, and, in fact, I’m rediscovering the joy that Fritz Leiber brought me then in the world of Laent that features in James Enge’s stories of Morlock Ambrosius. That being said, I don’t think it’s where your story takes place, it’s the skill with which you tell it. Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull is set in 1588, in England and Spain, and is an utterly gripping fantasy adventure (as are the books of Naomi Novik). Good stories, well told, are what matters. Whether you obsessively build maps, or disdain them as Joe Abercrombie and M. John Harrison do, what you do in them is what counts.
I will say that the word “accessible” is tricky. Do I think there is a bigger readership for entertaining fiction than there is for navel-gazing? Why yes. I wonder why that should be . . .
Athans: In your opinion, how “trend-driven” is the fantasy genre?
Anders: Have you seen the sea of tattooed woman’s backs on book covers lately? But the problem with chasing trends is that by the time you write, sell/acquire, edit, package, and produce a book, the winds may have changed. Write the best story you can write, the winds will come back around to it eventually if they are currently blowing in another direction.
Athans: What’s the one most important thing an agent can do for an author?
Anders: Get him read.
Athans: Do you read unsolicited submissions? What’s your best advice for an unpublished author trying to get his or her work in front of an editor or agent?
Anders: I have a policy against unsolicited, unagented submissions, and I ask agents to please query first with an email containing a very short synopsis. I am reading for very specific things, and I can save everyone a lot of time if I am sent a one-to-three paragraph description first. Although I do tend to get unsolicited, agented manuscripts in the post, these go in a pile by my desk and do not get the same speed of response that something I have given prior agreement to read will get. The reason for this, least it all sound harsh, is that I get pitched perhaps 1-3 times a day, and I am a very slow reader!
As to how to get your work in front of an editor—get an agent. And as to how to get an agent? I would say that you will help yourself enormously if you join and participate in the SF&F community. Not only is there a great deal of learning by osmosis to be done, but you will already be part of the industry you are looking to become part of. All business endeavors benefit from relationships. Publishing is no different. This does not mean that if you buy an editor a beer he/she will buy your manuscript! But that if you want to learn about the business you are trying to break into, going to where that business is conducted might be a wise move. Likewise, despite the dwindling sales of the traditional short fiction print markets, it is still possible for a writer to break in through short fiction sales, as well as to build a reputation that will help land a book deal.
Athans: Are self-published novels, or their authors, ever taken seriously by the mainstream publishing industry?
Anders: Yes, all the time. In fact, I have two novels in the Pyr list that began life as self-published books. However, these are exceptions, not the rule, and in both cases, I sought out these books after the authors had already made a name for themselves in professional venues (in the one case, through short story sales to Asimov’s and elsewhere, and in the other, in comic books written for a major comics publisher). So, you can find dozens of stories of self-published material getting picked up by a major house. However, that being said, if you write me and ask if you can send me your self-published novel, the chance is I will probably say no.
Athans: What is the one novel every aspiring fantasy author has to read?
Anders: It isn’t The Lord of the Rings. I can’t tell you how many people pitch me with their brilliant fantasy concept, and when I grill them on who they read, it’s Tolkien and no one else or since. If you want to sell fantasy in today’s market, then you need to have read George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, David Anthony Durham, Brent Weeks. Look at what’s selling now. Read what’s selling now.
Athans: Give me some general words of warning for the aspiring fantasy author.
Anders: You have to be better than brilliant. There are so so so so many fantasy manuscripts doing the rounds out there. And the problem isn’t that it’s all drek. It’s that it’s all average, competent, but not exuberantly good. Your writing needs to make an editor leap up out of his/her chair. This isn’t a question of whether you hew close to the traditional forms or strike off on your own. The common element between Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville is that they are both damn good writers, even as one hews very close to Tolkien/Arthurian archetypes and the other goes much farther afield for his plots and creatures. Good writing outs.
And so does good editing—thanks, Lou.