An Interview With Michael J. Sullivan on THE CROWN TOWER
Will there be a sequel to The Riyria Revelations?
It’s possible that there will be more stories going past the events that ended in Revelations, but probably not in the way that most would like to see. I get quite a bit of feedback from readers who would like to see the story pick up directly after (or just a few years later) from where Revelations ended. My propensity would be to go far into the future, when most of the people and events have evolved into myth and legend.
Revelations lives up to its name and as such has a lot of… well… mysteries revealed. It would be impossible to write any series using existing characters that starts after the Revelations timeline without introducing spoilers for the Revelations series. This would violate my first rule, which is to ensure each series exists without prerequisites and doesn’t impact other books. Because the series was carefully designed to end where it did, I feel that “tacking on” to it would tarnish what I consider to be the perfect ending.
Will there be more Royce and Hadrian stories?
I would like there to be, but I’m also very protective of the series as a whole and I don’t want to ruin it by overstaying the welcome. For me there are two factors to consider. First, I must have a compelling story to tell. We’ve all seen series that kept putting out books (or television episodes) long after the magic is gone. I won’t jump the shark and would rather leave money on the table than tarnish something that I’m very proud of. Fortunately, I don’t see this as being an issue, as I already have several story lines that I find compelling. As I’ve said before, my own internal barometer is usually a pretty good gauge.
The second component is demand, and I have no control over this. I wrote The Riyria Chronicles because there were a lot of people who still wanted more even after 685,000 words. For years we lived off my wife’s income, and now I’m glad to repay the favor. I’ll never write a book “just for the money,” but I also can’t afford to write a book that no one will buy. So I’ll be keeping an ear to the ground as Chronicles roll out, and if people want more, then I have plenty of material to draw from.
After finishing a project, do you have problems starting or coming up with the next one?
I’m always amazed when I hear authors say it’s difficult to get them to put their butts in the chair and write. For me, it’s like being asked to play my favorite game, and I wake up every morning excited to get to the keyboard. I have many more tales waiting in the wings than I’ll ever be able to write in my remaining lifetime, so as soon as I’m done with one, I’m happy to jump right into the next. I don’t feel a need to decompress after finishing a novel. In fact, the process being what it is means I’ve usually been doing a lot of editing, and I’m generally champing at the bit to write something new.
How do you decide what to write next?
It really depends. Recently I finished the draft for a science-fiction novel titled Hollow World. The idea came from out of the blue. It wasn’t on my long list of pending projects and ended up bumping some other titles. It started because of a short story I wrote for an anthology. Because of word count limitations, I could only lightly touch on the world and themes in that piece, but the story was so well received by my wife and fellow authors that telling the whole tale became overwhelmingly attractive. I find everything works best when I write books that I want to read, and I really wanted to read this story.
The other factor that comes into play is what the fans want to read. I hadn’t really anticipated writing any more books in the Riyria universe, but I got so many e-mails and saw posts from people who were saddened that it was over that I decided to write some more Royce and Hadrian stories. It was fun to revisit with these old friends and it certainly made me a hero with my wife, who is the series’ number one fan.
Riyria is fantasy; Hollow World is science fiction. Do you plan on writing in any other genres?
A lot of people think of me as a “fantasy author” but that’s really just because it was my fantasy books that were published first. I’ve actually written in a wide range of styles, including literary fiction, suspense, horror, mystery, coming-of-age, and so on. Going back to my long list of projects, those titles on the waitlist are pretty diverse. I would love to continue to put out titles in different genres, since I’m motivated by challenging myself to break new ground. It’s probably not the smart move (as it means building a fresh audience from scratch with each release), but I’ve certainly never been accused of doing things the easy way. Challenging myself keeps me excited about what I’m doing, forces the writing to get better, and ultimately results in a better experience for my readers.
Do you prefer to write series or stand-alone novels?
In many ways series are more interesting because of the opportunity to weave overarching plot threads across several volumes. It’s fun to drop hints and plant some seeds that won’t be fully realized until a future book. Also, it gives me more room for world building and character development, because I can sprinkle a bit of each across several books instead of crowding everything into a single volume.
The problem with a series is it represents a much higher risk. I’ve been fortunate so far in that I’ve been able to write both series in their entirety before submitting/publishing any of them. This allows me to adjust earlier books as new ideas come up later on. Writing three or more books all at once means an extended amount of time with nothing new released, and there is always the possibility that upon completion I could discover that the work is no good and should be scrapped. In theory I could write the way many other authors do, and release each book as written, but then… no, I really couldn’t do that. So I prefer to write series because of the bigger canvas on which to create, but I will do that only if I can finish the story before publishing. If I have to write and publish in quick succession, then stand-alone books will be the only way for me to accomplish that.
What book would you say was the most difficult book to write and why?
The most difficult book was probably my literary fiction novel, A Burden to the Earth. It’s not that I found literary fiction harder to write than genre fiction. I just didn’t find it particularly interesting except as an exercise in craft. Literary writing requires a scaled-back plot with emphasis placed on prose, complex characters, and multiple themes. And while I enjoyed the challenge and learned a lot, such books don’t thrill me as much. In this particular work, my protagonist is a flawed and disagreeable character that, quite frankly, I wouldn’t like to spend time with. His personality is absolutely necessary for the story being told, but it also means that I’m not as drawn to this book as I am to my other titles. Burden is a marked departure from my other work, and remains the best novel I’ve ever written, but because I could not in good conscience recommend it to anyone, it remains unpublished.
What book would you say was the easiest to write and why?
The last book of The Riyria Revelations, Percepliquis, was simply a joy to write. The entire series had been building during my decade hiatus, and when I finally sat down to write it, the story just spilled forth effortlessly. By the time I got to the final book, I had all my dominoes lined up and it was just a matter of toppling the first one, then watching everything fall into place. I did have a few “alternate endings” and it took me a while to reach the right conclusion—but once the idea came to me, I knew this was the ending I was waiting for… that it was the perfect fit. Pushing back after writing the last lines of that book was extremely satisfying. I actually said to myself, “Damn, that was good.” To be honest, I was a little concerned that I would never feel like that again, given the long buildup that went into that series. To my great surprise I felt similarly when finishing Hollow World, even though that was a stand-alone story.
How would you describe your writing style?
Which one? It can change depending on the project. I adopt the style that best fits the work. As previously mentioned, my literary piece has very well-crafted prose and vivid characters, but an almost nonexistent plot. I also can write in a strong voice, where the narrator becomes part of the story. Then there are the Riyria books. My goal with them was to keep the writing unadorned and have it fade from the page so that the story played like a movie in the reader’s mind. I didn’t want the reader to notice the words, and I had to kill great sentences to avoid the chance that a reader might pause to consider how good, and subsequently how out of place, a particular passage might be.
While the style of the prose varies from work to work, I’ve come to settle on a few consistencies. What I choose to write now are those things I enjoy reading. This generally means that the characters will be likable, the pacing brisk, and the story will move readers emotionally. My goal is to make readers laugh, cry, and possibly learn something new. If I can do all three, then I feel that I’ve done my job. I honestly can’t think of anything else a novel can be expected to do.
What advice would you give to readers looking to find a new favorite author?
In the old days, the bookstore was the source for discovering authors. You could spend hours roaming the aisles and often find someone new catching your eye. Nowadays, not only are there fewer bookstores but shelf space is also in decline. Room has been made for cafés, nonbook merchandise such as toys or games, and the stores are often stocking only a single copy of many books, which means a title might be out of stock on your visit. They are even forgoing bookshelf presence for new authors or those who have not sold well in the past. Even those who are stocked often have a short amount of time on the shelf. If they don’t find an audience, they are bumped by a newer release.
For me, I find Amazon a better place to shop for new talent. While I appreciate that some have issues with them, there is no reason not to use their tools for author discoverability. Amazon benefits from the artificial intelligence that is possible by analyzing millions of purchases. Often the easiest way to find a new title is to go to one of your favorite books (or authors) and look at the Also Bought lists. I’ve found this to be particularly good at finding books that are similar to one another.
But suppose you want something completely different? Some lament that there are too many choices and it is difficult to find the gems in a sea of mediocrity. But here again Amazon can be a huge help. They now have features such as Author Rank, which will show you the top 100 authors in a given category (the lists are compiled by examining sales and ratings across all books by an author). While this will show many of the big names, even new authors like me or top-selling self-published authors appear on the Top Fantasy Author list. For instance, as of this interview (January 2013), I was on the Top 100 Fantasy Book List for most of December 2012 and all of January 2013. Also, the Kindle store has a Top Rated list for categories such as epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, or historical fantasy, just to name a few. This shows titles that other readers have given high marks to, and my experience has been that these are indeed the cream that has risen to the top.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I think the most inspirational thing I can think of is that the only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying. This is a business that rewards persistence. Many people say you need “luck” to make it, but I think we make our own luck by stacking the odds in our favor. If your first book doesn’t catch fire, write another. Don’t rely on others to get the word out, even if you are published through a large traditional publisher. Take responsibility for building your own audience. Set your sights toward continuous improvement and don’t expect overnight success. Both Stephen King (who considers your first million words as practice) and Malcolm Gladwell (who claims success in any field is achieved by practicing a task for at least ten thousand hours) recognize that it takes time to develop your skills. If you think your first finished novel is a train wreck, you’re right on track. Recognize that it is an investment rather than a waste of time. Think of the time you spend writing as the payment of dues necessary to get your work to a salable level.
What have you learned about publishing that you didn’t know going in?
That every time you reach a goal there is always another (or several others) that lie just beyond your reach. In many ways it’s like hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains—just as you reach the top of a ridge, you find a whole series of peaks that stretch out to the horizon. I’ve been able to tick off many of my initial goals: finish a book, complete a series, get published, find an audience, get good reviews, break the Amazon top 20, earn a living, sell more than a hundred thousand copies, and so on. But I still feel there is so much left to do. I still dream that someday I’ll hit one of the major best-seller lists such as the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, orUSA Today. I’d love to see a movie based on the books on the big (or small) screen. And my next sales goal is to cross the million mark. I have no complaints about where I am now, but I also think it’s good to have something more to strive toward, and the nature of this business means I’m not likely to run out of brass rings to reach for anytime soon.
What is the biggest misconception that readers have about publishing?
I don’t think they realize just how little most average writers make and how few can earn a full-time living from their novels. Most authors I know have day jobs (including those whose names many readers would recognize and even those with multiple titles released). Many debut authors receive advances of just $5,000 to $10,000 per book and those payments can be spread across several years (generally one-third when signed, one-third when the manuscript is accepted, and one-third when the book is published). Also, authors have the additional self-employed tax burden because they have to pay both halves of Social Security and Medicare.
What is the biggest misconception that writers have about publishing?
I often hear writers say that they are avoiding self-publishing because they don’t want to market themselves. This seems to imply that if they are traditionally published that they are somehow absolved of this responsibility. I personally think that the authors who will be the most successful are those who don’t abdicate their role in building an audience. Social networking has made it possible for authors and readers to interact in ways that have never been possible in the past, and this makes it possible for authors to take the reins with respect to getting noticed. I contend that unless you receive a seven-figure contract, then your marketing responsibilities should be the same regardless of whether you are self-published or traditionally published.
Do you prefer traditional publishing or self-publishing?
The publishing landscape has become very polarized in recent years, an incredible change considering it wasn’t that long ago that self-publishing was considered the last resort for the desperate or hopeless. There are pundits on both sides who claim their preference is the only “right” choice, but I see advantages and disadvantages in both paths.
Traditional publishing takes care of production tasks and therefore provides me more time to write. I have a whole team who works on the editing, layout, cover design, and the like, but on the downside it pays a fraction of the amount earned per book when I self-publish. I actually enjoy being in control of aspects such as price, cover design, title, and categorization of the books, but not all authors do. So depending on your perspective, having to take responsibility for these tasks can be a positive or a negative.
Self-publishing offers a very attractive income proposition. Not only am I paid monthly (as opposed to twice a year), I can also sell a book for less and earn more. As I mentioned, it’s really hard to earn a full-time living through traditional publishing, and I think in the future the most successful authors will be those who become “hybrids”: who combine the income potential of self-publishing with the credibility and audience expansion that traditional provides. For me, utilizing both seems to make the most sense.