Author to Author: with Jeff Salyards
Paul Tobin: First… since some readers of my blog might not be familiar with your work, give a brief, “this is who I am, and this is what I write.” And I utterly apologize for this question, because I despise it myself, but it’s as unavoidable as hangovers at a convention.
Jeff Salyards: That is despicable, Paul. But as you say, unavoidable. Unless I distract you with smoke and mirrors and sidestep the question altogether.
OK, I’ll give it a whirl. . . I’m the father of three adorable and completely mischievous girls, editor by day, husband all the time, and novel writer whenever I can find two minutes to rub together. Which is usually at night when the house is mostly quiet. Except for one cat chasing the other one around with the crazies, knocking things over.
My debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, published in May 2012 by Night Shade Books. Scourge is the first in a series of indeterminate length (at least three books, possibly more, but most likely not 36).
PT: We’ve chatted in the past about how I’m amazed you can find time to effectively write with three young daughters in the house. I’ll just take this opportunity to accuse you of being a warlock whose powers twist the very fabric of time to bow to your whim, allowing you spare moments to craft your stories.
JS: I don’t appreciate you outing me like that. At all.
PT: I’ve gone through my life under-appreciated. It’s part of my charm. So… what’s your overall plan for the Bloodsounder’s Arc, and will you follow it up with other arcs, or move on to other characters/worlds?
JS: I’m contracted for at least two more books in the series. I have a feeling it will go four, but I’ll have a better idea after Book II is done. There’s something about a trilogy that is awfully appealing, and I see why authors often stick with that formula. You have less room to get lost in the thickets, and you’re also less likely to allow yourself digressions or tangents that detract from the overarching storyline/plot. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m mostly talking out my rear here, having only just gotten the debut out there and never having finished one series, let alone multiple series of varying lengths to compare. There’s a strong possibility I have no idea what I’m talking about. There are trilogies that meander or have pacing issues aplenty, and there are longer series that maintain a tight focus and don’t waste a word.
Maybe the number three is just inherently attractive? Plenty of folks ascribe all kinds of religious or cultural significance to it. But four is pretty solid, too… there are four seasons, most chairs have four legs, and animals, too.
I’m digressing in this short interview, so I’m sure I’ll do the same, regardless of how long the series runs.
After Bloodsounder’s Arc, though, I’m not sure what’s next. I like the Joe Abercrombie model (writing a trilogy/base series, and then several stand-alones in the same world with some crossover characters, but generally independent of each other). I’m sure it will just depend on my enthusiasm as I go, how readers respond to the rest of the series, and what stories I have to tell.
PT: I’ve long suspected that people love trilogies largely because it’s so easy to say. How many books in this series? Three. It’s a trilogy. How many books in that series? Five. It’s a… it’s a… there’s five books in the series. I’m myself working on two series right now. One of them is indeed a trilogy, though it’s more of three books in the same world, rather than three installments of a larger story. And I’m also working on a series with a continuing story, a middle-readers series called The Mysterious Worlds of Kirby Steinberg, and like your Bloodsounder books, this one is of… indeterminate length. I’m working on the fourth book right now. Is it the end? No. I don’t think so. I think there’s at least one more. Maybe two more. Maybe three more. I still have my old role-playing dice here on the desk in front of me; maybe I’ll just roll a 12-sided dice and consider that the answer.
JS: Always a good solution for any dilemma!
PT: Like you, I’d like to keep the series as short as possible, though… for your “lost in the thickets” reasoning. On the ongoing series, I have a file that’s already over 50,000 words in length, and it’s just notes for what needs to happen, and notes for what’s already happened so that I don’t lose any threads. Each new novel only adds to that weight.
JS: I don’t know how guys like George R.R. Martin do it, frankly. Even with forums and Wikipedia I still lose track of his characters, houses, plotlines. Sure, the delay between books doesn’t help, but that scale is simply massive. And he’s hardly the only one with sprawling tomes and endless casts. I think that’s one reason I opted to go more intimate than epic in my series. Scared out of my gourd of those thickets and logic bombs and mistakes.
PT: Scourge of the Betrayer was an interesting read, because it focused so entirely on character, rather than delving much into the grand and greater scheme of the plot you’re developing. Was that a conscious pacing decision on your part… to build character and then unleash them into the greater story once they were solidly established?
JS: Thanks. I think. “Interesting” can mean a lot of things. But yeah, that was an intentional decision, for good or ill. I kept the narrator (and therefore, the readers, since he’s essentially the surrogate) in the dark about major plot points for a lot of the book. Which meant the characters had to shoulder the load as far as holding reader interest went. I gambled that they would be intriguing enough, and the dialogue fun enough, that readers would be willing to ride along to see how things played out.
This choice obviously was a little chancy. If readers didn’t find the characters engaging enough, they’d bail. And if the plot revelations didn’t justify them sticking around, the readers could be pissed. So, there was risk of alienating or frustrating the audience, but I also figured if readers felt like I pulled it off well enough, they’d be hooked enough to want to stay along for the long haul.
PT: “Interesting” was indeed a compliment this time. I’m a picky bastard when it comes to books. If I don’t like a book, I’m more than willing to toss it across the room. When your book came in, it arrived with eight others. Only two books were read to finish; the rest were cast about and discarded. When I read comics, I’ve been known to tear them in half in a fit of “this is pure sh*t!” rage. The only thing that keeps me from doing that with novels is…
A: If they’re good enough to make me want to keep turning pages.
B: Novels are thick and I don’t have the circus strongman ability to tear them in half, so I’d just look silly attempting to do so.
And, yeah… your characters and your language were enough to keep me charging through the pages. I’m curious how much of the overall plot you’ll be kicking about in the second book. How far along are you in the process?
JS: I’ve really still in the early stages, about 15,000 words into the first draft right now. But yeah, more characters get introduced in Book II, more stuff gets explained, more world-building gets. . . built. Arki (the lovable nerdy scribe) is still clueless about some of the goings on, but he learns things at a much faster clip in the second book.
PT: Are you an author who builds a meticulous skeleton, or are you unleashing the hounds and then dealing with the aftermath when revising?
JS: I’m not an author who is particularly meticulous about much of anything. My usual m.o. was to make things up on the fly, improvise, and hope for the best. But I’ve written myself into enough corners or dead ends over the years by failing to plot things out even a little, that I’ve sort of adjusted the approach. I still don’t do any exhaustive outlining, but I do try to have a solid idea what the narrative and characters arcs are, when the major beats happen, what the big set pieces will be, before I really dig in.
This still give me some room to follow whims or instinct a little, to see where it takes me, but forces me to at least acknowledge when I’m leaving the path I set out for myself, and to question just how smart that’s likely to be. I love happy accidents when writing, discovering things I never anticipated. But I don’t like discovering the last 80 pages need to be completely overhauled or scrapped altogether because I didn’t put in some effort to map things out a little ahead of time.
Still, I’m far more likely to fly by the seat of my pants.
PT: I like your analogy of “leaving the path.” It’s so easy to do, and it’s not WRONG to do, but there is always a price to pay. Most often, it’s well worth it, but I can remember at one point sitting at my computer with a 35,000 word section of a novel highlighted, and being very aware that it was where I’d gone off path and become stuck in the mire. Still, it represented a month’s worth of effort, and it took a LOT of strength to hit the “delete” button. You have any specific horror stories of going off the path?
JS: Hitting the delete button can be horrible. In my original version of Scourge, there was a lot of backstory that was revealed in a cloyingly clever way—during these sections, Arki only recorded Braylar’s narration, not his own questions or observations, so the reader would have to puzzle out the missing half of the dialogue for large chunks of the book. That version was about 80,000-90,000 words longer, and too cutesy (and annoying) by half, but of course I didn’t recognize that until I was submitting it to agents. It called for months of pretty heavy-handed revision, mostly involving culling, culling, culling, then stitching the remainder back together again.
Killing your darlings, especially hundreds or thousands of them, is brutal sometimes, and makes my stomach hurt super bad. I don’t know how genocidal despots do it, really.
PT: Myself, I have a whole list of writers I consider as influences, but I don’t actually write like any of them. Is it that way for you, or do you find yourself with a certain level of emulation?
JS: I’m sure I unconsciously emulate some of the writers I love. Which is why I tried not to read a ton of fantasy while writing Scourge of the Betrayer. I didn’t want to mimic or be derivative, intentionally or accidentally.
But in general, I’m with you. I don’t write at all like a lot of my favorite writes, who I’m sure shaped me over the years. I love Cormac McCarthy, for instance, but we’re pretty dissimilar prose-wise. And even in the case where some comparisons seem valid, it had less to do with any effort to emulate and more just random similarity. As an example, several early reviews have compared Scourge to some of Joe Abercrombie’s work. I’m flattered, and I do really like his stuff, but I didn’t even start reading any of his books until after I’d written the majority of Scourge.
And my favorites run the gamut in genre and style: Cormac McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Don DeLillo, Octavia Butler, Richard K. Morgan, Bernard Cornwell, K.J. Parker, and on and on.
PT: Same here. The range of my favorites is all over the place. It even includes musicians, comedians, etc… all of whom I think have had an influence on my works. Not so much from an aspect of “ahhh, I see how to compose a sentence!” … but rather from, “That was invigorating. I now feel like creating.”
JS: Totally agree. Music, plays, movies, comedians, comics, boxes of cereal—inspiration is where you find it, right? And I get mine all over the place.
PT: Where do you write?
JS: I have a desk and makeshift office in my house.
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
JS: In a medieval-ish tower. With an arms and armor collection on one floor, tapestries, a fireplace, casks of good ale and wine, plus some modern amenities like heat and stealth outlets and sockets.
PT: I’m not entirely sure that “casks of good ale and wine” are all that conducive to writing, but otherwise that sounds great.
JS: Work is the curse of the drinking class.
PT: Authors are always interviewed about the right things to do… give me your thoughts on the WRONG things to do.
JS: I could give you a LOT of thoughts about the wrong things to do. At least, the wrong things I’ve done or been tempted to do. Writing, like most arts, is pretty subjective. There are very few ironclad rules that work for everyone, or pitfalls everyone should avoid—what I consider a misstep or wrong move, someone has probably already done successfully somewhere.
Here are a couple:
WRONG: Trying to write a book to keep up with the hot new thing or trend. By the time you finish and find a publisher, and your book finds its ways into reader’s hands, the trend has probably cooled considerably. But even if you write like the wind and self-publish and could manage to get your lesbian libertarian leprechaun story out there while people were still gobbling that sort of thing up, odds are it wouldn’t have a ton of heart of depth. Writing what compels you, what you love, what you want to read, those work pretty well. Writing to cash in, to ride the crest of a new wave, is wrong, at least from where I’m sitting.
WRONG: Perservating about lousy reviews. Facing the blank page can be a scary proposition sometimes, even when you’re feeling confident. But if you keep replaying the rotten reviews in your head, it can be paralyzing (or at least one more unnecessary hurdle to overcome). I know some writers claim not to read any reviews. I don’t go that far—I read them, and I think if a number of critics point out the same flaw in your writing, it might do to pay attention. But I think it’s a mistake to fixate on any reviews for too long, good or bad.
PT: Agreed on both points. And… I’m one of those writers who don’t read reviews, not unless they’re personally sent to me. My wife sometimes hunts some up purely for publicity angles, but otherwise I stay away. I LOVE reading good things about me, and appreciate it when people take the time to write, but bad reviews can put me off my game, and even good reviews can do that, to some extent… basically because I start trying to gear my writing to the favorable comments. That’s just as much poison in the end: a writer has to write from the gut, the heart, the groin, and from everywhere but a comments’ section.
JS: You’re probably not as hot as your best review or as tragically awful as your worst. Buying your own press, good or bad, can send you into a tailspin, cloud your judgment, or dilute your purpose and internal editor. Writing is all about making an almost infinite number of choices, from the large-scale, macro-stuff down to selecting just the right word in each and every line, and your ability to make those choices can get compromised in a hurry if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder—you begin to second guess yourself, or to think that first draft smells a lot better than it really does. Both are bad.
PT: So… are you any good with a sword? Any childhood stories of adventures?
JS: I was in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) for a number of years, and I was pretty good at whacking someone with a rattan sword. And while that handles differently than a blunted steel sword, a lot of the same principles apply (maintaining range, closing and passing, controlling the tempo of an engagement, wearing armor and handling a shield, controlled aggression, etc.).
A lot of fighters in the SCA were weekend warriors (or monthly, seasonally, or annually), but there were plenty who took it very seriously, cross-trained in WMA (Western Martial Art) groups, studied medieval and renaissance treatises, and worked their asses off to be the very best. The deep end of the pool was very deep indeed, and some of those guys and gals were freaking greased lightning, with prowess that was impressive to behold.
I was somewhere in the middle. Fast, strong, tall, with some decent natural aptitude, but a little lazy, and never applying myself as much as others. I won a tournament, which was cool, and probably could have done really well. You know, if I hadn’t been a slackass. And about the time I was considering really devoting myself to it, and joining a WMA group to boot, I became a dad and decided my free time needed to be dedicated to being a better writer.
PT: I used to help teach martial arts, and I miss it, but my aging body doesn’t. Still, I think it’s good for action writers to understand the mechanics of the actions they’re describing. Do you ever actually stand up and choreograph your fight scenes?
JS: I do. I love a well-choreographed but still believable fight scene. William Hobbs is one of my favorite Hollywood fight choreographers, because his scenes were harsh, unflinching, and still very visceral because they were extremely realistic. Wounds hurt. A lot. Even bad-asses suffer fatigue and make mistakes.
One of the best examples is the final swordfight in Rob Roy. No booming bombastic soundtrack, no cheesy special effects, no entertaining but ridiculous exchange of quips. Just two men trying to kill each other with blades, playing the same game with decidedly different styles, exerting themselves, breathing heavily in that claustrophobic chamber, bleeding, waiting for the right opening or lapse.
Rob tries to win the duel by sheer strength of flesh or will, which serves him well in most fights, but he was badly battered before it began, and facing a faster superior swordsman, he suffers several small wounds, slows down, grows desperate. It’s gripping stuff.
Not nearly as flashy as classic Hollywood fencing (Robin Hood, Captain Blood) or as frenetic or confusing as modern action sequences (Bourne Anything), but to me, it’s superior to most cinematic fights because it captures exactly what a duel to the death would be like.
It’s a clinic on how to choreograph a fight scene. Just wonderful.
PT: Do any of your characters refuse your directions? I ask because my own characters will sometimes decide their own fates, discarding my plans, chastising me for underestimating them, or pulling them away from how they would actually act in a given situation.
JS: Yeah, there have been times characters start doing things that run counter to my grand plans. Some of them are huge pains in the ass that way. Taking initiative, telling me about autonomy and character unions and despotism. My natural inclination is to write them out in the most hideous deaths I can dream up. But a lot of the time, once I take a step back, I discover that they had it right. Sure, the plot might call them to say or do something so that another character can say or do something else.
But when the characters start acting out, it’s usually because the plot or story points I came up with failed to take into account how they would actually behave in that scene or scenario. As you said, maybe I wasn’t giving them enough credit for having complexity. Or maybe I wasn’t allowing them the room to act in a contradictory way, or in a fashion that was destructive, illogical, or not in their best interests. After all, I do sometimes. I’m guessing you do. Why shouldn’t our characters have the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of behavior?
I mean, sure, they’re fictional constructs, they don’t *really* have a vote. As author, you are the Big Dictator, so you can shoehorn them or redirect them however you want. But it makes sense to stay open to the possibility that your initial plan, no matter now good in your head or in notes, might not be as wonderful as the directions the characters are pushing to take things.
PT: So far, of the interviews I’ve done, we’re at a 100% with “trust your characters.” It’s interesting to me, because it makes writing almost seem like gravity: we’re just here to urge a few things into motion, and then we sit back and describe how they’re colliding.
JS: I like that. I’m stealing it.
PT: When you’re writing, what distracts you the most, and how do you deal with it?
JS: Let’s see. . . sleep deprivation, kids waking up crying (which is directly tied to the first item), the usual mundane stressors (day job, financial, feeling overwhelmed juggling writing, promotion, family). Oh yeah, and Fear.
You’d think (well, maybe not you you, but general all-purpose you) that fear might be the easiest to contend with. I found an agent, the agent found a publisher, and the debut hasn’t been horribly panned. Sure, nobody’s bought the movie rights and you don’t see my name on a bestseller list right now, but by most measures, that’s success. That should be fear repellant, right?
But sometimes, sitting down to write, I’m still confronted by the some of the old anxieties and doubts, plus some new ones. Will the sequel be better, or will I have a sophomore slump? Can I hit the deadline in the contract? Are the choices I made for the story and character the best ones, or should I revisit and consider alternatives? There can be an endless string of these questions, all generated by fear, at least for me. And in some ways, even though Scourge made it out there into the world, these anxieties actually kick up more dust, because now if I fail, it will be super public, as opposed to a horrible manuscript I can just chuck in a drawer and pretend never happened.
And as far as dealing with it, the Fear usually crops up when I’m staring at the blank computer screen, or feeling unmotivated and ready to talk myself out of writing that night. So the only thing I’ve found is to just jump in, force myself to get writing, and give myself permission to write a really horrible or weak or fragmented first draft, as is usually the case.
PT: I was so terrified of the sophomore slump that I wrote a couple novels ahead of time, just to make sure that I wouldn’t be paralyzed after the first one became a reality. Even so, after I was working on actually proofing Prepare To Die! for publication, I found myself second guessing the novel I was working on at the time, the one scheduled to be my fourth novel. It took almost a month before I didn’t feel like there was a vulture on my shoulder, stretching over and staring at what I was writing. Also, I like your advice on giving yourself permission to write horrible / fragmented first drafts. Whenever anybody tells me, “I can’t write anything good!”… my advice is always the same… “Then write something bad.”
PT: Okay… we started off with who you are and what you write. In closing, give us the romanticized version: who would you like to be, and what would you like to write?
JS: I would like to be a full-time novelist. Not super original, I know, but there it is. I know the reality is that very few writers pull that off, but since we’re romanticizing. . . being able to write during the day, then attend every single sporting event, play, or recital my kids do, that would be fantastic.
As far as what I would like to write? I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction, so I’m sure I’ll continue working in those genres. But beyond that, who knows. I don’t have any ambition to write The Great American Novel. But maybe The Sort of Nearly Greatish American Novel. Maybe not. That does sound like a lot of work.
PT: Would it be fair to say that you write what you want to read? And, along those lines, are there fiction genres where you’d like to see more titles being published, and/or where you’d like to expand?
JS: For me, that’s always a good litmus—sure, of course I hope readers pick it up and love it, but if I don’t love it first, that will never happen. That sounds like something Dr. Phil would say. Sheesh.
I love stuff that challenges genres a little, pushes the boundaries. I mean, sure, if you write an erotic Victorian, romance, action, fantasy epic about two incestuous coroner sisters who murder townsfolk to stay in business, store extra bodies in a subterranean lab, only to accidentally unleash a plague of formaldehyde zombies on the Earth, and pause periodically in battling their new unfeeling foes to wax on about the Industrial Revolution, human reliance on technology, and the chasms it creates between us, that might be a tough sell. Well, I’d probably buy it. But still. Hard to know where to shelve it.
So maybe there are limits. But I like to see the success of books that are willing to bravely say, “Yeah, I’m tough to pigeonhole. Bite me.”
PT: And… that just seems like a perfect way to end the interview.
Gingerbread Girl, my latest graphic novel, can be found… here.
My online ongoing Bandette comic can be found… HERE.
A huge wealth of my other work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.