Today's post is a Codex Blog Tour
interview with Brad Beaulieu
, whom I first met about seven years back at the Writers of the Future workshop, where both our stories had taken 2nd-place quarterly prizes in the contest. Since then, Brad's sold numerous stories to some of the top science fiction and fantasy magazines, include Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show
and Realms of Fantasy
. He's also just co-launched an online audio magazine about science fiction and fantasy literature called Speculate!
This year, the first novel in his Lays of Anuskaya
series from Night Shade Books comes out in April. I caught up with him to ask him about his book and his development as a writer.1. Like many of us, you've written several novels that haven't sold (at least yet). What made the difference with The Winds of Khalakovo?
I think there are a lot of causal factors that led to the sale of Winds
. First and foremost, it was simply better than my other novels. Winds
was my fourth novel written (not to mention a nearly complete first draft that I set aside to write the prequel). I also had nearly two dozen short stories written, with about sixteen of them sold, most to professional markets. I had made writing a study for years. Because I didn't have a background in writing, I knew my work was cut out for me. So I attended not just conventions, but conferences as well, which focus more tightly on the craft. I went to several workshops, including Viable Paradise, Writers of the Future, Orson Scott Card's Literary Bootcamp, and Clarion. And beyond those instructor-led workshops, I also went to Starry Heaven, a peer-to-peer novel-writing workshop. I kept in contact with close writing friends and critiqued their work, and had them critique mine. I joined several online writing groups, including Critters and the Online Writing Workshop.
I also wrote every day. Sure, there are days here and there where I might not get any words out (one, maybe two days per week), but even then, I'm brainstorming. I'm fleshing out world or character or backstory or plot. One of the things that Chip Delaney told us at Clarion was that it's not sufficient to simply write. We get better by building good writing habits and de-emphasizing bad ones. I've tried consciously to first learn what my bad habits are and then consciously work on them to root them out of my writing.
This is a pretty long-winded way of saying that I worked hard at my craft over the years, and I think it showed in Winds
. But as anyone who's been around writing long enough can tell you, writing a good book isn't enough. You need to get it in front of editors as well. And so you also need to work on your credits and your pitching skills. I didn't end up getting an agent before I sold Winds
, and so selling it--or more accurately, getting that initial offer--was up to me. I had submitted to several major houses before, and over the years I'd come to know some of the editors personally, and so they were more open to finding one of my manuscripts on their desk than they would have been years ago. And for those editors that I hadn't spoken to much, I would like to think that they'd heard my name through my short fiction sales. At the very least, I had those short sales to list on my query letter, which would let them know that they're not dealing with someone who'd just finished their first piece of fiction.
In the end, strangely enough, I sold Winds
through a pitch I made directly to Jeremy Lassen at the World Fantasy Convention in 2009. This goes back to "honing your pitch skills." I approached Jeremy at the Night Shade booth during a slow period and pitched Winds as "Song of Ice and Fire
." Jeremy asked if I had an agent. I said no. Night Shade doesn't typically take unagented manuscripts, but he said he liked my pitch enough that I could send it his way. I got the offer from Jeremy four months later. Had Jeremy heard of me before then? I'm not sure. I haven't asked him. But really, selling a book is a lot about creating a strong work, but also increasing your odds through a number of other channels.
Some of it is also luck, I'm afraid to say. I had a finished manuscript at the precise time that Jeremy was looking to expand his stable of writers. Night Shade had been doing well and wanted to expand, and one of those areas was in epic fantasy. I'm grateful that I got the offer from Night Shade, but I'm also glad that the book filled a need of theirs. Had I pitched Jeremy six months earlier, he might not have been ready for it, and might have declined. Had I brought it six months later, he might already have filled his slots for the next two years, and so again might have declined.
So, there are lots of reasons, I think, behind the sale of Winds
. The lesson here, I suppose, is to know what things you, as the writer, can control, and to work on them over the course of your career.2. What are the biggest differences for you in writing your second novel in the series compared to writing Winds?
There's a maxim in the writing world (not always followed, I know) that you don't write book two until book one is sold. The thinking here is pretty straightforward: you can't sell a book two; you can only sell a book one; so the time it takes to write a book would be better spent in writing a completely new story. This made sense to me after I'd heard it during one of the early conventions I attended (ConJose in 2003, I think), and I've always stuck to it. I've written one book that was truly a standalone, but the three others I've written, plus the one I started earlier this year, were all planned series, but I always set the second book aside to work on something new after I was done. The most obvious advantage is that by the time you finish two books (or three or four) you'll have more poles in the water. But there are other advantages. For the young writer, you can become a bit complacent with a second book. You're relying on the same characters, the same world, and sometimes the same plot. But if you start a new book, it challenges you. It strengthens those writing muscles that would not otherwise have been strengthened. It's the same line of thinking that supports the "write short stories" maxim — write lots of stories and you will naturally become a better writer; write the same story and you run the risk of growing more slowly.
The short of it is: I've never written a sequel before. I'm breaking new ground in my writing by tackling book two of my series, and I thought I'd jot down a few observations.
The first thing I noticed as I was starting to brainstorm and plot was that I was very aware of how much I was pushing the plot and characters to change. I'm not saying that I'm pushing them to unreasonable lengths. I'm merely saying that I've been aware of the pitfalls of writing a sequel for years, and so I was very mindful of how much or how little the story and the characters were changing. With that in mind, I was careful to judge just how much I *did* want things to change, and then I could nudge the story in the right direction. It isn't all about change, either. I fell in love with this story for a reason, and I think people that end up liking it will probably like it for the same reasons as I do, so I don't want to change everything. I want to keep those elements that make it unique and make it come alive while perhaps looking at it in a different way. For example, there is a fringe element of a people that are ruthless in their attempts to push the Royalty from from lands they feel are theirs. I've always believed that everyone is a hero in their own story, but I didn't have much of a chance to pursue that angle for these people in The Winds of Khalakovo
, so in The Straights of Galahesh
, I've worked the story in such a way that one of the heroes in the book is dropped into the midst of these people, and he begins to see that they are not so one dimensional as he had come to believe. So the thing that I like so much from Winds
– the cultural clash that leads to much of the conflict — is now being examined in a different way. It forces Nikandr to examine his own understanding of them, and come out of it a different person.
There was a strange transition that occurred as I started to write The Straits of Galahesh
in earnest was that Winds
became, not a book that I was still working on, but source material. The window in which I could make changes to the ms was closing early in the writing of Book 2, and now it's completely closed. That's strange, not being able to tinker with it any more. By and large I've lost control of the project, and in lots of ways that's good. It's time for it to be out in the world, because there are very few things I would do with it even given the chance. But I know that as things come up in Book 2, I'll wish I had the chance to go back and revise something in Book 1 so that it's set up better, or set up *at all*. I sometimes envy Tolkien the fifteen years he took two write The Lord of the Rings
. I'm sure he went back through all of the books as things came up, adding, tinkering.
The other thing I'm noting is how damned rewarding it is to be working on a novel under contract. It's been a long haul up to this point. Basically ten years. So to go from wondering whether something is good enough to knowing a novel has a home is quite a change. I'm trying not to let myself rest on my laurels, though. I'm painfully aware that, whatever success Book 1 has, Book 2 might not enjoy the same level of success. And so I'm trying hard to simply stay true to what got me here. Stay true to my voice. Stay true to the story. And I try to challenge myself toward art as much as I'm able. I'm sure, if I can do those things, it'll all be fine in the end.3. What's the biggest surprise for you in the book publishing process so far?
Hmm. This is an interesting question. There are lots of things that have been exciting so far, but that wasn't what was asked. I haven't been surprised by a whole lot, because, over the course of learning how to write, I've also paid close attention to the publishing process. Before Winds
was sold I had already understood, at least from an educated layman's perspective, how books are pitched, how they're considered in-house, how they're bought, and roughly the process they go through until they're available on shelves.
I would probably have to say the slow loss of control is one of the things that's most surprising. I knew, intellectually, that the author gives up control over the course of getting the book ready to publish. In the beginning, you work with your editor on the broad brush issues of the manuscript. Then you take out the fine-tipped brushes. You still have a fair amount of control here, because it's your book and you know it best, but then again, the editor knows their stuff, so you have to try to see things from their perspective, and it's a bit more serious now than advice from a fellow writer during the course of getting your work critiqued. I would like to think that I would weigh advice from both editor and fellow writer in the same way, but let's be serious--the editor has more pull, and frankly, more investment, in the book. So as a writer I need to give their proposed changes more weight.
And then you come to the copy-editing phase, where all the broad brush changes are done and you're now looking for the small (though very important) errors that inevitably dot the landscape of your manuscript. At this point, you've pretty much lost the ability to make any serious changes to the manuscript. You could pull the fire alarm and pull back if you really needed to, but in general you wouldn't. You'd get a black eye from it, and a label as a prima donna--certainly inside the publisher's walls but probably beyond them as well.
And so the process continues. Once the copy-edits are done, ARCs are printed. This is the final stage to make any changes. The galleys are nearly ready for the printer, after which it's really too late. So this slow process of giving up your baby, while not unexpected, is surprising in the amount of stress it produces internally. You wonder whether it's really ready for prime time. Will people like it? Will they catch this somewhat clumsy paragraph or sentence or word choice? Should I change it or just leave it? A million questions and second guesses run through your mind as you approach the finish line, and though it's terribly exciting, it's also enough to make you want to pop the cap off the Tums.
And it isn't merely the manuscript where you lose control. It's in the cover art, the cover design, the front and back matter, the interior design, the blurbs, and on and on and on. Writers often don't have a lot of control over these ancillary things. They have some, to be sure, but not a lot, and any small amount of control you do have leaks away as the publication date approaches.
So, that's my answer, though I will say this: even though it produces a lot of stress, I put it in its place. These things are a natural part of the publication process, and I have faith in my editor and publisher to make the right choices. And besides, the tension is far outstripped by the excitement that's been building within me over the months. I can't wait for the release date, when it's all up to the readers. I can't wait to share what it's taken me so long to get down.