Recap and introduction:
If you read the post for Industry interview #1 you’ll know that I have started to arrange some Q&A sessions with some of the people I’ve met in the creative industries in an attempt to answer some questions you might have if you are in the industry yourself or on your way to getting involved.
After last week’s interview I thought things couldn’t get better. Joel Norden answered some awesome questions on getting traction in the industry and being able to network among our peers, including those big names. That’s exactly how I have met my guest speaker, by making connections and networking. It’s so important in the digital age that we live in, and although you might like to be an armchair writer, or an artist in solitude, it’s really important to build relationships with other people in the industry.
So with that in mind, I’m incredibly lucky to have have spoken to an awesome guest speaker from the fantasy field. He has forged an ‘Empire’, albeit ‘Broken’… He has fought wars for a ‘Queen’ although she was ‘Red’… And now he is with his ‘Ancestors’ but not in the traditional sense. I have Mark Lawrence, acclaimed fantasy author of the The Broken Empire trilogy, the Red Queen’s War trilogy and the upcoming Book of the Ancestor. Mark has become a world-renown author, selling over one million books and has won David Gemmell awards, been a finalist in Goodreads Choice Awards and made the Sunday Times Bestseller list.
Interview #2: Mark Lawrence- Becoming a recognised fantasy author
TNA: Hi Mark, thanks for being with me today. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us. You might be able to tell by the introduction that I’m pretty excited to have you here… There’s so much I’d like to cover, but today we’d really like to find out from a successful author’s perspective, how you’ve made your career happen, and how you maintain it. I know that you’re really vocal on social media, and talk directly to your readership via Facebook, but how did they discover you in the first place?
ML: The unsatisfactory answer is that I have no real idea. I joined Facebook and Goodreads around the time that early copies of Prince of Thorns were being sent out, and Twitter about a year after it was published. My publishers have put my FB and Twitter address on the inside flap of my books. I now have the maximum 5000 friends on FB without ever have sent a friends request, around 16,000 twitter followers, and 9000 on Goodreads. From observation it’s activity that draws people in, but it has to be interesting activity, not spamming book links.
TNA: What was it about your novels, that took you from writing for pleasure, to becoming a global success? Is there a format you use? Plot-twist that is guaranteed to work? Or character relationship that engages people more than others?
ML: -Tell me the secret formula!
-There’s no sec-
Publishing success is a collection of many small and moving targets. Rather than trying to aim at them it is better to do your own thing. That way at least you’ll be enjoying yourself. And if you can get that passion onto the page then you may well enthuse a readership too.
TNA: What’s your process on a daily basis? How much is planned and how much just flows out the finger-tips?
ML: I don’t plan or have a process. I just start typing and see what happens. Sometimes elements of the story run ahead of what needs to be written down at that point, and when that happens I will make a few bullet points to remind me when I get to where those ideas might be useful.
Discovery writing is much more exciting to me. Sometimes you can write yourself into a corner, but as a scientist I’m a problem solver, so I enjoy the puzzles I inadvertently set myself.
TNA: If you were head teacher at the ‘Prince of Thorns School for Writers’, and you had five periods to fill what would your curriculum be for the day?
ML: I would make a terrible teacher. Teaching is predicated on the belief that a process is more learned than innate. It’s then broken down into digestible chunks and rolled out for inspection. Certainly practice can make you a better writer, but I’m not convinced that it can make you a writer if you’re not one. Creativity is the key element and I’m not sure that can be taught. I know nobody could teach me to sing. I don’t have the mechanical or mental equipment required. I croak and I can’t tell two notes apart. I do however, like listening to music. The parallel is probably that enjoying reading doesn‘t mean that you will be able to write a book that someone else wants to read.
TNA: I know you have said you felt you halfheartedly approached an agent and were surprised you ended up with a global publishing deal, but for those who haven’t had such instant success is there a method to finding your stepping stone into the marketplace? Would you have ever considered self-publishing?
ML: Becoming an author doesn’t enter you into a secret world. My experience after selling a million books is very similar to the experience before selling any. I tap away on my laptop in my house … well … I didn’t use to have a laptop, so that has changed. Eight years ago I sent off 4 emails to some names on a list. That’s my encounter with the business of agent finding. I haven’t had any further interaction or insight on that front, so I’m even less able to offer helpful advice now than I was then.
It may be different for those who attend fantasy conventions. Possibly chatting to lots of authors and agents around the bar would furnish a wealth of relevant anecdote, but I’ve never been able to do that owing to the caring responsibilities I have for my disabled daughter. I suspect though that even that immersion wouldn’t offer much. Like many readers, I think many agents don’t know what they want until they see it. They are looking for a story that knocks their socks off, and if the agents knew what would knock readers’ socks off before they saw it … they would be writing it themselves or aiming their other authors at it.
I didn’t consider self-publishing at the time. I put Prince of Thorns away for three years after writing it without once thinking of self-publishing. Things have changed a lot for self-publishing since 2007 though, with much easier access to a readership (on the technical side – actually getting them to read any particular book is still monstrously difficult though), so I might look at it differently if I was starting out today.
TNA: Relating your field to mine, I’ve always found that doing the projects/genres/topics I enjoy yield the best natural results. For me that’s fantasy and sci-fi and I’ve always found that because I enjoy it, I am more inclined to do more of it, therefore gaining practice and appreciation for it. Is that how you feel you’ve found your place and excelled?
ML: I’ve certainly only ever written things I wanted to write. The chances of commercial success are so small that there seems to me no point in investing all that time unless the act is itself its own reward. And while it isn’t impossible to write a book that you personally don’t like but that others will … I am sure that it is much much harder to do.
TNA: I like to try and compare creative roles; like learning to play guitar (which I’ve never mastered) as a reference point for trying to write. I found my best way of learning, was by learning covers, and the same for art, by studying and sketching other people’s work. I found that what I gained was foundation of mulched up knowledge from different sources that as a whole influenced how I worked. Is that similar to absorbing works of other authors for you?
ML: I learned to write by taking part in writing groups and critiquing other people’s work. Most folk join such groups to splash down their own writing, and it is very hard to get them to give feedback on anyone else’s. It’s a club where everyone is shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” But you learn much more by looking at what other people are doing. It’s far easier to see mistakes and problems in something someone else has written than in your own work. And it’s easier to see those issues in the efforts of less accomplished writers. George RR Martin and Stephen King make it look easy. You can’t see the mechanics under the hood. But look at the stories written by fellow members of an amateur writing group and you can see their failings front and centre. And then you start to spot those same failings in your own work. At which point you start learning to avoid them.
So the TL:DR is that I learned much more from “bad” writers than from good ones.
TNA: My favourite question to ask is always; if you could go back and tell yourself a few dos and do nots that you wish you’d known at the start of your writing career what would they be? What did you do ‘wrong’ or what was a real waste of time and effort, that could have been better placed elsewhere?
ML: A perfectly reasonable question and one for which I don‘t have good answer. I don’t feel that I wasted any time or that there was much I could have done differently. I guess maybe if I had made an effort to get Prince of Thorns published immediately after I had written it then I might have been seen as standing beside Joe Abercrombie rather than as an “inheritor”, but then again it might have been the success of his books that made my path into print relatively easy, and if I had tried and failed in 2007 I may have just given up.
There are too many imponderables for me to feel that I have any worthwhile advice for the Mark of ten years ago.
TNA: Now you have a solid readership, how do you maintain it? Do you spend lots of time engaging people on social media? Do you sometimes feel like you’d rather just hide away so you can get stuck into the word count? For me I go through fits and spats of being really creative and wanting to just do art, then other times I really enjoy connecting with people and get carried away doing interviews with superstar authors… How do you find the time to keep your readers engaged between releasing new novels?
ML: I only do social media because I enjoy it. It makes a nice break between chunks of writing. I’m not able to travel, so it gives me the chance to see what readers think of the books I’ve put out. I’m far from certain that social media has real impact on book sales. I know of a number of authors with genuine and larger social media followings than I have and who sell rather few books. People follow them because they are entertaining individuals. People keep buying an author’s books because they are good reads. These are separate things with an unknown degree of overlap but one that is, I suspect, much smaller than most believe.
TNA: I do love the fact that you broadcast if you get a negative review. It’s both refreshing and often quite amusing. Is that a way of coping with negativity? Or is it your way of addressing faults you can identify? I know how painful it can be to hear critics, because as a creative you can pour your heart and soul into something.
ML: Honestly, it’s more to do with being entertaining. People enjoy it. Nobody following me is going to not read one of my books because someone gave it a 1*. The anger and outrage in some 1* reviews is amusing. It’s publicity.
I’ve never changed anything I do because of a review. I don’t write by committee.
TNA: How do you feel the fantasy genre is moving? We have seen real interest in screen adaptions of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter; all epic sagas. Even the Hobbit was ‘spread feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread’ across three films. Is it all about the epic? I know you’ve written short stories too, is that something you’d like to do more of and compile into a printed work?
ML: If anyone has an idea of that it’s going to be publishers with their access to sales statistics. As an individual your idea of how things stand is warped by where you hang out. In some forums particular authors or subgenres are made to look central to fantasy, but when you stand back you see quite how small are the ponds in which those fish are swimming.
Dystopian fantasy like The Hunger Games massively outsells George RR Martin who in turn massively outsells all the rest of epic fantasy. Vampire fantasy and paranormal romance massively outsell the kind of fantasy I write. YA fantasy is a far bigger market than fantasy written not for YA.
Short stories are deeply unpopular with modern readers. That doesn’t stop me writing them, but there’s no money in it.
TNA: Thanks for talking to me today Mark. To finish up, what’s coming up for you in the next year?
ML: I guess like every year since 2011 what’s coming up is that I have one new book out!
This year it’s Red Sister at the start of April. You should buy it!
TNA: Thanks again Mark. If you enjoyed this interview and you’d like to stay informed of Industry interviews and much more please sign up to the newsletter in the side bar to your right, and ‘like’ The Noble Artist Facebook page here.