Friday, 25 July 2014

Interview with T.O Munro, author of Lady in the Helm

So I'm interviewing T.O Munro because he donated money to a children's charity and got his book, Lady of the Helm, a place in my Million Dollar Bookshop





Tell us about your debut novel, Lady of the Helm. I find this kind of question hard myself, but it’s a necessary evil. The ideal is that the people reading this are convinced to give your book a go by a super-excited friend who has just read it and converts them. However, being at the earliest stage in the process, you need to make that happen yourself. Lacking a presence on bookshelves and a big publisher to send your work to reviewers with their implicit ‘quality control stamp’ on it is a tough place to be. 

Lady of the Helm and the rest of the bloodline trilogy have many of the features of traditional epic fantasy, but with complex characters following an intricate and carefully constructed mesh of story lines.  There is the familiar scale of a great threat to the known world and defeating it depends on the actions of a few key individuals.  However, it has I hope more nuanced characters and subtle plotting to fill what I felt were deficits in my own reading experience.

My villains and heroes are not always easy to tell apart, driven by more complex motivations than the mere black and white of good and evil.  One of the leading villains is a favourite character for many readers because of the history that has shaped her and which betrays itself in her actions. The arch villain is bad but not without his own dark humour catching the reader unawares mid-smile with another act of imaginative evil. The heroine’s greatest attribute is more her sheer bloody minded-ness than her skills with sword or spells.  And through it all there are the micro-motivations of individual humans (and elves and orcs) credible personalities plucked from everyday lives into the midst of unfolding catastrophe.

As a reader and a scientist, I like to understand things, to be able to explain them.  Lady of the Helm has a complex plot that is woven very carefully together.  I dislike unresolved mysteries, loose ends and deus ex machinas in my own reading, so in my writing I have tried to get a story that twists and turns and surprises but in an entirely logical and credible way.  A lot of the reviews suggest I seem to have succeeded.  I most want a reader to say “hell I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.”  However, there is always a risk I guess, that the more the reader knows there are plot hand grenades waiting to go off, the more they will be on the lookout for them!    



There are hordes of self-published books hitting the e-shelves every day. How does any author make themselves heard? It seems very daunting to me.

What a good question.  Do tell me when you find the answer.

I self-published not because I doubted the quality of the book, but because I have a demanding day job and finding the time to write was hard enough, still less sending off synopses and resumes to a succession of agents and/or publishers.  I just wanted to get the book out there and self-publishing is the simplest way. But it is a very crowded and diverse market. For example there are books of 25 pages or 38 pages, clamouring for attention alongside novels of a more traditional length.  It is hard for the reader to filter through this to find what they want.

Ultimately all authors rely on word of mouth and a bit of luck. The best thing any reader can do is review an author’s book particularly.  I have got an amazon review from about 1 in every hundred readers, I don’t know if that’s a good ratio or not, but I do know that a lot of my recent purchases have been because of recommendations made on internet forums, blogspots and reddit.

Once the trilogy is completed with “Master of the Planes” later this year I will be able to give more considered thought to marketing!



Describe your book as a cocktail, mixed from other authors, books, movies and the like. Maximum of five ingredients. Shaken or stirred? 

Reviewers have mentioned Lord of the Rings, which fits with the traditional epic scale I was trying to achieve.

They have also cited GRRMartin due to my propensity for killing off characters they were just getting attached to – all absolutely essential to the story I hasten to add, no acts of gratuitous authorial vengeance here, and also I should add locked in and plotted long before I read Game of Thrones.

Like GRRMartin with his Houses of Stark (York) and Lannister (Lancaster) I have plundered British History for inspiration, though no-one yet seems to have realised just how extensively.

There are other fragments of influence sprinkled through all three books.  A prize to the first person to spot the fleeting references to “Bridge over the River Kwai” and “The Railway Children” – neither of them normally considered as influences on the fantasy genre.

I am too much of a control freak to have shaken these ingredients together, they are all stirred to ensure a smooth structured blending of the disparate influences.


What counts as writing success for you?

Readers, readers, and more readers.  Why else would I write?  There is nothing quite like hearing someone is waiting patiently for the last book having stayed up all night to finish reading the second.

Also, I like books that move me, I am a big softie at heart.  I cry at the closing credits of Lilo and Stitch.  What the epic fantasy genre affords is a colossal scale with which to illuminate the struggles of individuals and in so doing to sweat some emotion from the reader.   So success means readers who smile and laugh and cry because of what I wrote.

What I really want to do is write a book that gets turned into a film that has Annie Lennox singing a haunting soundtrack for it – but I think that’s already been done!.


You’re a school teacher by day – do you have an impression of what percentage of your teenage pupils are regular readers of books? How does that compare to when you were their age do you think? 

I do push reading so hard at school.  I’ve endlessly quoted GRRMartin about “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, a non-reader lives but one”  I’ve quoted Professor Susan Greenfield on the value of reading over computer games as being the thing that builds those essential human skills of empathy, of placing yourself in someone else’s shoes.  You do not glibly hurt those who you empathise with, you  learn empathy by being swept up in a written story.

I don’t know that the proportion of teenage readers has necessarily changed, I think the big shift has been from outdoor physical activity to sofa based gaming, from TV watching to internet surfing, from gathering in parks to endless facebook exchanges.

Through all this I think reading has stayed pretty steady, just not in paper book form.  But girls read more than boys.  What encouraged me recently was to hear that, with smart phones, girls at my school were able to download books and read them on their phones on the bus home.  This left them safe from the opprobrium of less literary peers who simply assumed they were on facebook.



What effect (if any) does being a science teacher have on your writing or reading even. Do you come across books where you just shake your head disbelievingly at some unrealistic events or other times do you appreciate science allusions in certain books? 

There is a whole element in my science lessons of decrying the great science gaffs that completely dispelled my suspension of disbelief when reading books.

Wizard of Oz and the green tinted spectacles which turned all colours green, doh! everybody knows that blue and red would look black through such a filter.

Lord of the Flies and the wrong lenses, if his glasses could focus sunlight Piggy was longsighted and would always have seen the rock coming (sorry should I have put in a spoiler tag?)

Toy Story One and using a hemispherical shell to focus sunlight on an unlit fuse.

More recently I have abandoned a book “The Age of Miracles” because, despite its beautiful writing, the flawed science was really obstructing my enjoyment.

And then of course the film 2012 every law of Physics flouted from Newton’s laws of motion, to plate tectonics and back again. How did a film find so many ways to be awful?

My favourite bit of science in film is the concept of the weeping angels in Dr Who, the idea that these beings are quantum locked and can only move when unobserved was such a brilliant leap of imagination to get from a pithy science concept to the scariest monsters since the Daleks.

In writing fantasy you have huge potential to do extraordinary things, but I have tried to keep my magic limited and internally consistent.  I have also come up with my own means of managing that perennial problem of magic, which plagues every story from Lord of the Rings onwards, namely “why can’t they just solve the problem with magical/eagle flight to get where they need to be.”

In Master of the Planes buried in part three there is a piece of homage to two titans of physics, not unlike your passing reference to IKEA in Prince of Fools. I will be curious to see which physicists may spot it and nod their recognition.


I’ve categorised readers into characterophiles, plotsters, and beauticians. How do you divide across these categories as a reader? 

I read that post, and thought it was very good.  That was just after I had read your Thorns trilogy and I wish I had recorded in advance where I would have put you on the scale just to prove that I guessed right.
As a reader I need stories that engage me, that make me care about the people.  You need all three elements for that, so there is a threshold of quality for each element below which my enjoyment of the story is compromised. A great plot with bad writing will just annoy me.  But provided those minimums are met I can be carried away by a book for its plot, its writing or its characterisation.


Does the spread differ when you’re on the other side of the page?  

As a writer I am a plotster.  I want to weave an intricate web of storyline that challenges the characters development and gives me opportunity to write them some great scenes, but the plot is the skeleton, the frame, the context through which I display the characters.  While I hope I don’t neglect the other two, plot comes first.

A colleague quoted Maya Angelou at her retirement do, saying “people will never forget how you made them feel” and I want to plot and write books that make people feel, hopefully something good, but feel something.


What do you do best as a writer?

The features that come out most in reviews are plot lines that surprise and twist and turn, and a certain economy of style with no wasted scenes or words.   It’s really great to see readers expressing unprompted appreciation for the very features I was specifically trying to achieve. So I’m happy with that!


Friday, 18 July 2014

The Generican Hero!


I'm here to talk about the leading man (or woman). Many fantasy books are anchored by a single main character, the lead who drives the plot or is driven by it, the person about who the story pivots.

We all talk about character. We all say we love interesting characters. But is it really true? Do we all love interesting characters, or just particular interesting characters? There's the danger. As soon as the writer moves away from the vanilla beloved of the masses, they will find that although some readers love the new flavor, some don't.

My thesis is that just as there are a great many readers for whom the plot of a story is far and away the most important component, there are readers who really just want a generican hero onto whom they can project themselves.

Those gamebooks that were very popular in the 80s before we had decent video games - the ones where you're the hero and make the choices. Do you:

i) drink the potion [go to page 80]
ii) throw the potion in Largo's face [go to page 142]
iii) dance the polka like there's no tomorrow [go to page 3]

Those were the ultimate in the concept. And now we run pixel heroes across high resolution landscapes at 60 fps.

The thing here is that you don't want:

i) you could drink the potion but as a recovering alcoholic you're loath to try any untested liquid.
ii) your amiable nature forbids you from throwing it at Largo
iii) but you've ALWAYS loved to dance [go to page 3]


The hero is a blank onto which you project yourself. And what's the nearest a book can get to that? It's having the hero be a vanilla good guy who does what we expect/hope for in most situations. Then it's like playing the gamebook and choosing the most popular choices.

For many readers a strong personality actually intrudes on the vicarious pleasure that they get from reading fantasy. If the character has some pronounced trait that differs radically from their own view/opinion/taste/experience it can kick them out of the illusion that's created as you ride along with a conveniently bland (yet brave, courageous, handsome) hero.

If you think about it it's likely that you can recall several fantasy book heroes who if you swapped one with the other, placing them into each other's situations and retaining only their character rather than their memories, would fill each other's role admirably.


What really is the character of many middle of the road fantasy heroes? Sure some may have a quirk or two attached, but 'hates cats' doesn't constitute a character. How many of them are unique and strong individuals who will react in unusual but consistent ways to new scenarios?

So yes - you can actually write an exciting, engaging, and above all popular book with a type 1A hero, good heart, low tolerance for evil, sharp sword at the ready, will defend the oppressed if he has to. A hero who's as interesting as a brick, but can still be used to build a very readable story.


If you go in the other direction and genuinely do create an interesting character there's a pitfall - namely, as soon as you get specific and start to create a real person, there's likely to be a good percentage of readers who just plain don't like them. Some won't like them because the person you've made is not the sort of person they like to spend time with. Some won't like them because you've messed up the blank canvas onto which they want to project themselves. But just as no book pleases everyone, no character is going to either.


Jorg, by Kim Kincaid.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Marketing

Marketing 101

Actually this isn't marketing 101 at all - it's more musing on what impact marketing has.


My personal marketing budget runs to introducing our two kittens to my book and snapping them with a broken camera (it works, you just can't see what you're taking pictures of so I take a lot and hope).

I couldn't help noticing there's been quite a campaign for Joe Abercrombie's latest book. Here's what Voyager started to build!


And here's the finished item being paraded around central London!


Spiffing! And all credit to Joe, he's been working very hard on his launch, signing books at a ton of locations, giving talks, making appearances. It's time consuming stuff. My personal circumstances preclude me getting out and about like that, and to be honest, whilst I'm not glad about those circumstances I think I would find all that promotion tough. I'm not someone who is comfortable on stage, performing, or meeting large numbers of people. My first ever event in August is going to be interesting - perhaps I'll love it - we'll have to see how it goes.

My wondering here is how much of an impact all this stuff makes. Abercrombie's Half a King has just debuted at #3 on the Sunday Times Bestseller list. That's great going. The question is, where would it have been without all the appearances, the chariot etc? Abercrombie is a very successful author with large numbers of fans, Half a King is reported to be fine book. I'm sure it would have done very well with far less show.

The question for the marketeers is how many places up the bestseller list did the chariot carry their man? How much did it cost? Was it worth it? It's an imponderable. Here I am posting pictures of the chariot and talking about the book - how much is that worth? Put in a basket with all the other people doing the same thing and weigh it against the $$$ invested...

I think it's pretty sure that a terrible book will sink no matter how much marketing it gets. It's less clear whether a great book will float without any.

Book marketing can be a huge deal. Consider The Night Circus that came out at the same time as Prince of Thorns. It won best marketing campaign of 2011. They had circus performers turn up to numerous venues. Here are two rather tall ladies at a UK bookshop promoting Morgenstern's debut.


I remember going into my own local Waterstones (UK book chain) and passing a 7 foot tall shelf mid-floor, stacked _only_ with The Night Circus, face out. Prince of Thorns was in the fantasy section nestled at the back of the shop, 3 copies. And I'm in no way complaining because Voyager gave Prince of Thorns a great push, getting it into the right shops, getting it on a lot of shelves, and managing to have free copies given away with A Dance With Dragons. Clearly that gave me a much better start than many authors' debuts got that year.

And The Night Circus went on to sell millions. Again, it's reportedly a great book and would very likely have done 90% as well with 10% of the push ... but 'likely' isn't 'certainly' and there's the rub.


Anyway, the TL/DR  version is:  
BUY MY BOOK because ... kittens.









Saturday, 5 July 2014

A matter of timing:




Here's the thing - I'm reading these reviews of Prince of Fools and I'm seeing 'hilarious' and 'I laughed out loud' and that's good because I was definitely hoping to raise a smile in several places.

The thing though - the thing is that I'm not a terribly funny guy. Here I am in the cut-throat dog eat elephant world of publishing being told I am funny - but as a kid in a class of 30 damned if anyone would have put me in the top 5 'funny kids' let alone be cool enough to hang with the cool kids. I can't tell a joke to save my life, and my 'witty' lines are lucky to raise a wry smile if I speak them.

So, timing... like most people I'm on the bus home when I think of something cutting/funny I _should_ have said in the moment. Writing changes the timing. It's not _just_ giving you more time though. I don't agonize over my lines. I don't spend hours thinking 'what will be funny here' - I just type out what happens at about 30 words a minute...

Even so, whatever humour I possess seems to morph from shandy to whiskey when written out... text is clearly my medium!

I used to run a play-by-mail game with many players. I ran it for 10 years or so and after a while I started running table-top sessions for some of the players once or twice a year. It was quite a shock meeting them. Some of those who came across the most intelligent, witty, and plain hilarious on paper were awkward, reserved and plain unfunny in person. Whereas some who seemed barely literate and deeply confused on paper were charismatic laugh-riots in person.

Hopefully the contrast with me isn't quite as extreme as some of those cases, but the fact remains, that I'm a very different person on paper. Be warned!

Thursday, 3 July 2014

1 month!

Maybe some authors don't look at their reviews. A larger number might say they don't. Then there are the rest of them who watch them like a hawk thing that's interested in numbers. 

Prince of Fools has been out 1 month today (US release), and seems to have been well received.

Here's the breakdown of reviews on Amazon UK



On Goodreads the book's reached nearly 900 ratings in its first month. Prince of Thorns took 5 months to reach 700 ratings! Though the site did have fewer members back in 2011.



This is the breakdown of ratings on Goodreads. Interestingly 10 of the 11 1* appear to be from bot accounts, one of them delivered almost a year ago and the majority before release.



And here's the ratings breakdown on Amazon US.



And of course behind these charts are hundreds of opinions condensed into reviews, for which I'm very grateful.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Audio book giveaway


Competition Closed! You can still enter but you can't win!

Random Winner = #16A (Meg)

Popular vote winner #23 (Edward)
2nd - #22
3rd - #12
3rd - #10
5th - #20
6th - #16B
6th - #17
6th - #13

Following my agent's recent visit I'm now the proud owner of 4 boxed sets of the US version of the Emperor of Thorns audiobook CDs. Whilst the audiobook is available in ecopy on audible for a rather modest price, the CDs only seem to be available from the Recorded Books website at $123 a go.

Anyway - I'm going to give away two sets to the winners of this here competition described below. One will be for the best entry, and one awarded randomly so that there's always a reason to take part.

All you have to do is send me a photo of your favorite line or passage from the trilogy - written on your skin!

Points will be awarded for area covered, number of words, how good your choice of passage is, artistic content, and ... such.

Make like Sageous!

Please ensure that the skin involved is not X-rated skin.

Mail me your entry at empire_of_thorns@yahoo.co.uk


Entries:

#27 Chris


#26 Kate




#25 Douglas




#24 Michelle
 


#23 Edward (the first reported Broken Empire tattoo!)



#22 Robert




#21 Rebecca




#20 Michael
 


#19 Drew



#18 Frank



#17 Tracey


#16B Ellen


#16A Meg



#15 Shannon



#14 Brent (tattoos with considerable personal meaning & resonance with the books)



#13 Lee



#12 Malin



#11 Lee (I'm calling photoshop on this one :)  )



#10 Aaron



#9 Jennifer



#8 Sylvia



#7 Charlie



#6 Paul
(I should note that this was Jorg quoting the bard, and that Jorg said correctly said 'pricking' in the book :)  )




#5 Fiona
(this is photoshopped, but Fiona assures me there was a genuine attempt, defeated by her gag reflex)



#4 Lauren




#3 Lennart



#2 Tullyo





#1 Look at me, winning my own competition ... will nobody stop me?



The axe has landed!


A couple of weeks back to my enormous and enduring surprise Emperor of Thorns won the Gemmell Legend Award for best fantasy novel!

Today my agent Ian Drury brought the trophy to Bristol to hand over to me (the trophy is a replica of Druss's axe Snaga - and if this means nothing to you then go and read David Gemmell's books immediately!).

On the left the Stabbie awarded to Emperor of Thorns by the members of reddit r/fantasy for best fantasy novel 2013 (sheath below). In the middle the Legend Award. On the right the 'mini-Snaga' awarded to King of Thorns for being shortlisted for the Legend Award the previous year.


The head (dangerously sharp) has been suitably inscribed  - the flash hasn't produced a great result here - it looks cleaner and neater and more legible in real life.


Here's me doing my award-wielding author thing and trying not to injure myself. The Legend Award axe-haft is solid metal so the whole thing is surprisingly heavy. It would definitely be a bad day for the typical home-invader &/or lone zombie breaking in. A full on zombie apocalypse though might require the full-sized original that's brought out to impress the audience on award day. 


And here's me showing off big axe and little axe together. Did I mention we went for lunch and had beer? Well, we did.



The Legend Award roster so far!

Andrzej Sapkowski     2009
Graham McNeill         2010
Brandon Sanderson    2011
Patrick Rothfuss         2012
Brent Weeks               2013
Mark Lawrence          2014