I was recently asked to answer some questions on my experience of novel-writing by a creative writing student from the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Of course, I was happy to oblige – and thought I would share the interview here for anyone who would like to find out more.
Read on for tips on self-publishing, hints for aspiring writers, and a little bit of insight into my writing process.
Oh, and the minor inconveniences of discovering a very important character just in time for the second draft…
Firstly, could you explain a little about your debut novel ‘Castles of Steel and Thunder’?
Castles of Steel and Thunder (COSAT) is a romantic adventure inspired by far north folklore. In the story, Sysa Steel lives a secluded life in Caithness with her enigmatic grandfather Grey. Grey tells Sysa many legends of Caithness – tales which later prove useful when she finds herself disappearing through a faerie mound. On the surface, the book is a young adult fantasy. At its heart, it’s about family, love, and the power of stories in our lives.
What was the publishing experience for this novel like? I understand that it can be really difficult to get noticed and accepted by a publisher, did you face any difficulties like that?
Yes – it can be challenging to find publishers open to taking a risk on new authors, especially in popular genres like young adult fiction. Publishing houses are naturally cautious about taking on books that may not return their investment, and it was difficult to connect with publishers in Scotland who wanted a book so focused on Caithness. I did get some encouragement from one publisher who liked the book, but eventually turned it down because they already had a young adult myth and legend series in their portfolio. That encouragement – along with some generous feedback from the publisher on improvements to the novel – spurred me on to hire a professional so that I could self-publish the book myself.
What scene/part of the book was the hardest to write and why?
The most difficult parts of the book were probably the scenes involving Lavellan, who didn’t actually appear at all in the first draft of the novel. I decided to add him while writing the second draft, so that meant rewriting some of the novel to fit him in. Although that involved a lot of extra work, in the end I think it was worth it, as Lavellan adds an interesting dynamic to the story. Sysa needed someone who challenged her emotionally, and Lavellan adds that extra element of tension to the book.
Contrary to that, what was the most fun scene/part to write and why?
Funnily enough, those extra scenes with Lavellan were also enjoyable to write, as Lavellan is such a colourful character – I loved describing his disparaging words and gestures. I also loved writing about the relationship between Sysa and Grey, which is such a central tenet of the book.
What made you decide to write a fantasy novel? Was it inspired by your own reading taste, certain authors, books, or just a passion for the genre?
It may sound strange, but when I was writing Castles of Steel and Thunder, I didn’t set out to write a fantasy novel. I do of course read fantasy novels – I love writers like Sarah J. Maas and Holly Black – but I also read widely in other genres too. Castles of Steel and Thunder started off with the idea of a girl and her grandfather, who liked to tell her stories, and it evolved from that. I know people can sometimes feel put off by the idea of ‘fantasy,’ but COSAT is really just a family love story, which happens to have faeries, selkies and mermaids in it too!
When I was reading it, I was so captured by the originality of the story – because fantasy is such a huge genre, was it difficult to avoid any “fantasy stereotypes” or “tropes”?
Again, because I read widely in lots of different genres, and didn’t at first think of the book as fantasy, I think it was easier to avoid falling into traps like those. Lots of young adult books focus on romance, and although the book is of course romantic, the biggest love story is probably between Sysa and her grandad Grey. I haven’t read many young adult books that focus on that kind of familial love, so it felt important for me to represent that. Not everyone connects to the idea of a big love story or romance, but I have an inkling many people have had someone special in their lives like Grey.
Do you have any tips or tricks for aspiring writers when it comes to writing, and publishing, for the first time?
My biggest piece of advice would be to read – and to read as regularly and as widely as possible. I’d also advise getting into a routine with your writing so that it becomes an automated part of your lifestyle – in other words, writing every day at a regular time that suits. I’d recommend finding ways to connect with other writers through writing groups or online communities – support from other creatives can be invaluable. Also, allow yourself time to get outside and daydream – then think about how things smell, taste and sound and use that in your work. Keep a notebook to jot down all your ideas and bolts of inspiration – they can be so easily forgotten as we go about our busy lives these days. And on the publishing side, if you decide to self-publish like I did, I’d recommend paying a professional to produce something of the same quality you’d expect from a traditionally-published book.
Do you have a specific writing method? Did you plan heavily with this novel or was it more spontaneous?
As I’ve mentioned, routine is very important to me, and I spend a dedicated amount of time each weekday (and sometimes on weekends) writing over several short periods. When it comes to planning, I tend to have an A4 sheet with a very brief summary of the story detailing the start, middle and end – the challenge is then how to layer that into a full book. My process with COSAT was very exploratory, but now that I’m writing the sequel, I feel my first draft is going to be much closer to the finished novel. At least I hope it will! On that, I suppose time will tell.
Just for fun, if you could be any of the characters in ‘Castles of Steel and Thunder’ for a day, who would you be and why?
Again, probably Lavellan, as he is so different from me as a character. It might be fun to experience some of his mild wickedness, but in reality, I probably wouldn’t last five minutes in his shoes!
Lastly, the book ends with a ‘to be continued’ in your next book ‘Pieces of Sky and Stone.’ Can you give any insight on what we can expect from it?
One thing I can say is that Caithness will feature in the story again – that’s something I’m very happy about. Sysa will also have a few more surprises to contend with, and there will be some new characters joining the adventure. If you want to find out more, you’ll have to read the book when it comes out…
Castles of Steel and Thunder is available to by on Amazon in eBook and paperback formats here.