My Interview with Author Michael Sullivan

me: Greetings, Michael. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

Michael: Thanks for having me…I’m excited to do this.

me: It has taken you a long time to get published. During that time, did you make many changes to your book? Is there a significant difference between the self-published version of The Crown Conspiracy and what’s in Theft of Swords—the published one?

Michael: Actually that was something I was frightened about. I have a very complex plot and if you pull on one thread the whole thing could unravel. I also was fortunate to have Devi Pillai (senior editor at Orbit) assigned to my books. She thought they were some of the “cleanest” books she’d seen…and that relates to the story and how it is structured. I had always thought it was a strong story, but having someone in the industry verify that really felt good. Especially as I’ve heard some books need major reworks. Devi only had very minor changes, and they were all “suggestions” and not mandates. From a content perspective both releases are very similar.

The one exception…I added a new “starting section” chapter because originally the story did not start out with Royce and Hadrian (my main characters) and feedback from both Devi and readers indicated that this needed to be adjusted.

So, next to nothing from a “content” standpoint, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t substantial work done on the books. But the majority of it fell into the category of “copy editing.” The book passed through a number of editors and proofreaders and I was very impressed with their eagle eyes and extreme attention to detail.

me: Well, I agree that starting the series with Hadrian and Royce was a good idea. In fact, I was hooked by the humor of the scene, where some less experienced thieves try to rob them.

Michael: Yeah, interestingly enough – that actually was a “cut scene” from the third book. In Nyphron Rising (now the first book in Rise of Empire) Hadrian and Royce have quite a bit of strain in their friendship. Hadrian wants to retire, and Royce is fearful of losing one of the few people he actually cares about so he wants to keep him in Riyria. Because of the strain some of the “witty banter” is missing and the book isn’t “as fun” as some of the others. My wife wanted to add a scene to “bring more fun” into that book so I wrote something very similar to the scene you speak of. But then after she read it she agreed that it didn’t fit Nyphron Rising so back onto the cutting room floor it went. When the problem of a “new start” came up, I realized that this little scene would actually work quite well there.

me: Your wife has a good eye for fiction.

Michael: I agree. She is my first developmental editor and beta reader. All my books are significantly better because of her contributions. She finds all my nasty plot holes, tells me where the pacing is off, and finds areas that just don’t work well. The books would be much different without her and it’s a huge advantage to have someone who can be both supportive and tough simultaneously.

me: So, aside from that, was any of the 5% hard to lose, or do you feel this is the best version of your book it could be? Or are you allowed to answer that?

Michael: I didn’t really lose anything. The edits that were made fell into the “add” category…a bit more detail here…some further explanation there. Orbit also added a comprehensive glossary and index which people had been asking for over many years.

The only thing I took out was a slight modification to a scene in The Crown Conspiracy (first book in Theft of Swords). Previously, Myron killed a man in self-defense. This never did sit well with me, and I took the opportunity to relieve that burden, and Myron was very happy with that change.

As to what I can and cannot say, well I can say anything. I’ve never been a “toe the line” kind of guy. My freedom is extremely important to me and I’ve always been one to speak up, even on controversial subjects. The best way to get on my bad side is to think you can control me, or tell me I can’t do something. Fortunately no one at Orbit has ever brought done anything like that.

me: That’s great. Nice to know that writers can still be writers in the traditional sense. I also liked Myron and missed seeing him in the sequel.

Michael: Myron is my “big gun.” I saved him for the last two books (Wintertide and Percepliquis which are both in Heir of Novron). When Myron returns he is much different than the little monk you know and love. When I say that, many people become frightened because he is a favorite character, but then after reading the last book they end up loving him even more. I’m very proud of his character and the growth he goes through.

Oh, I just realized that I didn’t answer the question about the books being as good as they can be. I would say at the time of release they were. That being said I’m always working at the craft of writing and when I re-read them now I see things I would like to change, but even if I made those changes then re-read them ten years later there would be other things. Writing is one of those things that you can “polish” forever and at some point you have to enough is enough…it’s done…time to move on to something else.

me: I definitely agree there. I never feel my books are perfect, but I guess they’ll have to be whenever someone picks it up. Speaking of different books, I sorta felt tricked into reading the second part, Avempartha which was originally the sequel to The Crown Conspiracy. Was that your idea or the publishers’?

Michael: The idea to put them out as three, two-book omnibus versions rather than six individual books was Orbit’s idea. At first I was hesitant, but they had a valid point about the difficulty of keeping six books in stock across the country. Also, my books tend to be smallish (95,000 – 120,000 words typically) so putting them together provided the “heft” that many fantasy readers have come to expect.

From a content perspective, I think their idea was a good one. In many ways the first book, The Crown Conspiracy, is just a simple romp and in many ways can be thought of as a prequel. Avempartha is where the bigger sub-plot starts to emerge, and so putting them together does get the reader some exposure to that aspect of the series. I think that some who read Crown might think, “Nice, fun story, but nothing spectacular.” But then by the end of Avempartha those same people may say, “Oh, there’s more to this then I originally thought. I need to know more.” I really liked that byproduct in the combined edition.

One other good thing about Orbit releasing the books as they have, well several good things: a) paper versions are cheaper (about $30.00 total rather than $60.00) and b) the series as a whole had a shorter release cycle. Orbit put out the books in three consecutive months (Nov 2011 – Jan 2012). So the amount of time between the first book’s release and the last was just sixty days. If they had remained as six individual books it would have been six months or more from first to last. This meant that the final book, Percepliquis, which had never been previously released, got on the market much sooner.

Now that the whole series is out, I’m been converted and believe Orbit was right in their approach. The only thing I would change is to have the individual books still available in ebook form because six books at $4.99 seems more palatable than 3 books at $9.99 even though they are exactly the same total price.

me: I definitely appreciate that your books conclude. A lot of fantasy books don’t seem to know how to give closure, but you have no problem with that, and in fact, Theft of Swords had closure twice, which was nice.

Michael: I wrote the entire series before publishing the first book. Writing them all together gave me tremendous freedom. There were times that I would be writing in a later book and come up with a great idea, but to implement it properly would require a minor change in an earlier work. If those earlier books had been released, I would have been royally screwed. Writing the series this way worked out the best way it could have.

me: I know how the anxiety of getting published can make you sick. I have gotten literally sick over it myself. Do you think this is what was happening with you?

Michael: Lol, no, when I started writing the series I absolutely had no intention on publishing these books. So, there was no anxiety. I had spent more than a decade trying to get published and got nowhere. Then I quit writing altogether for another decade. When I started to write again, I only did so because I had convinced myself to just write something that I wanted to read. The books would have never been submitted anywhere if it weren’t for my wife and daughter.

My intention from day one was to make each book an individual episode with its own conflict and resolution. There would be a larger story (several in fact) that wove across all volumes, but those were like bonus material that weren’t essential to get the feeling of closure for the book you just finished. I wanted people to want to read the next story not “have to” in order to resolve cliff hanger issues, which are (in my opinion) a cheap way to get people to read the next book.

me: I agree. Cliff hangers are overrated.

Michael: I think cliff hangers are a “cheap trick” and can really piss off your fans. My daughter had a book she loved, but it ended in a cliff hanger and she never bought the next book by that author…or any others. She felt it was a betrayal of her trust in him, and I can see why she thought that.

From reviews, I sometimes hear people saying I have cliff hangers in my books, but really I don’t see it that way. Yes, there might be a comment or a plot point that makes you go, “Hmm, that’s interesting, I want to know more,” but the conflict of the book that you just read is fully wrapped up. What you came in looking for, you got resolution to. I’ve just provided a little tease about something else for the future.

me: So you wrote all six as a continuing series without knowing whether it would ever be picked up?

Michael: Yes, a technique I would not recommend to others. When I was first married, I stayed home to raise the children, and my wife brought home the money; back then I had written twelve novels and stacked up my requisite pile of rejections. After ten years, I determined that I was just wasting time and quit with a very melodramatic vow never to write creatively again.

It was my wife and daughter who insisted on getting them published, so while Robin sent out query letters I just kept writing. By the time she finally found a publisher they were done.

me: I am a bit skeptical about this story. Do you ever think that maybe you were just tricking your mind?

Michael: No, I’m quite self aware and too smart to fool myself. I don’t get tied up in knots about writing. To me I’m like a kid getting to play their favorite game whenever they want. I write for entertainment, and I’m a happy camper even if no one ever reads what I write. That being said, a story told around a campfire is better with people listening, so I’m thrilled to have people reading the books. But in many ways that is icing on the cake, the satisfaction I get is by writing something that I really enjoy reading.

me: So, why the original apprehension toward publishing?

Michael: Well, more than ten years of getting nowhere has a way of breaking one’s spirit. I wasted twelve years of my life pursuing a dream while all my friends and family developed successful careers. I was like Linus sitting in a pumpkin patch and felt like a fool for waiting for the Great Pumpkin. I finally gave up and went home.

me: Is there any chance that we might see any of the ten books you wrote before the Riyria books?

Michael: There were actually twelve. The Crown Conspiracy was lucky thirteen. Yeah some of them will be released, in fact I’ve already resurrected Antithesis, which was from that original batch. It’s totally different than the original, as I’ve now “found my voice” but the idea of the story remains the same. I also have A Burden to the Earth which was number twelve, and in many ways the book that broke my camel’s back. It is essentially done and could be published after a good copy edit. The problem with that books is that it’s very different than The Riyria Revelations. In many ways it’s almost the anti-Riyria and I’m not sure it would be well received by my current fans. That particular book is literary fiction with a main character that is not very likable. Whether I ever publish that one is hard to say, I’m still trying to decide what to do with it.

As for the other ten stories, they probably won’t be revamped and published. I have too many new stories running around in my head that I’m more interested in. It’s so much more fun to create, then to revise. I have more story ideas than I’ll ever be able to get down on paper before I croak. I just came up with two book ideas today and I have a backlog of ten or more that I could tap if or when I have time.

me: So you rewrote it or did you just edit it?

Michael: Antithesis was completely rewritten, basically taken down to the studs and rebuilt from scratch. I just reused some of the materials. One big issue was the setting. Unlike The Riyria Revelations, which is set in a standard medieval-esque fantasy setting, this book is contemporary, but I wrote it in 1983! So, yeah it was very outdated.

Back in the day, I had submitted it to several places, but they weren’t interested. Now I have started an audience, so selling it would, I think, be easier. Also, I certainly wasn’t as good a writer then as I am now, so it wasn’t worth doing just an edit on it. For many reasons it was just so much easier to rewrite from scratch.

me: But do you think it’s a good read? Personally?

Michael: Yes, I think it is a good read, but it’s not ready for prime time just yet, and that’s why it’s not been submitted to my publisher even though I technically “finished” it about nine months ago. My wife and a few trusted author friends have made some comments, so I probably have another month to get it into a shape that I’m ready to send it out into the world.

me: The hardest thing I find about writing is getting started. I don’t mean I have writer’s block; I always know what to write, I mean overcoming thoughts that you might be wasting your time, that you’ll never succeed. How did you fight those demons of doubt and fear in the early days?

Michael: Most writers will hate to hear that I’ve never really suffered from what most would call writer’s block. I have times where I’m stuck, or realize something isn’t as good as I would like it to be (which I just note for reworking on an editing pass), but I’m never blocked.

As I said, for me writing is fun. It’s a game that I like to play. I would rather spend my time writing then most other activities, so for me I’m excited when I get to write. As to getting started, I do a lot of up front research and immerse myself in background information. I may spend weeks or even years excavating little pieces of stories: things that would make a cool scene, finding a plot point that would be interesting. I collect them all up so that by the time I start the writing process, it’s kind of like a volcano with too much pressure built up. This makes it so that the story pours out of me really effortlessly, so starting isn’t a problem in that respect.

me: Yes, I get the same way, but I was asking about fear and doubt.

Michael: Oh, well yeah I think all authors have fear and doubt and if I believe those that have been doing it a really long time it never completely goes away. Everything I write, I’m convinced the book I just finished is a flop, until Robin reads it. If she gives it the thumbs up then it goes to my beta readers, and it’s only then that I start to breathe again. There is only one book I’ve ever felt one hundred percent confident in, and that is Percepliquis (last book in the Riyria Revelations). That was a case where all the other books built up the conditions for a perfect storm for it to grow out of. I’m not sure I’ll ever experience that again.

As to “wasting time” that’s exactly how I felt during that time before I quit writing. When I came back I didn’t care about publishing so that was very liberating. Nowadays it’s a bit different, as I actually support myself, and my family with my writing so I can’t afford to be paralyzed with fear.

me: You allude to the “Canterbury Tales” in your book. Was Geoffrey Chaucer a big influence on your work?

Michael: No, not really, that reference was just a little “tip of the hat” to put in something “cute and fun.” I do that from time to time. For instance, in the scene outside Gutaria Prison, Alric thinks he can open a hidden door by speaking some “special phrase.” That was my tongue-in-cheek nod to Tolkien. But no, those examples aren’t meant to have any significance beyond a little playfulness.

It’s interesting though, that sometimes people give me too much credit for things. For instance I was once reading a review where someone pointed out my “homage” to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber. They pointed to an inn that I named: The Grey Mouse. That, along with the fact that Royce and Hadrian share some similarities to Lieber’s duo, made them congratulate me for my cleverness, even though in that case I wasn’t doing anything like that.

me: I noticed the same thing with the dragon, about the story of how it was killed with a single arrow.

Michael: About shooting it being venerable if shot under the arm? Yep, same kind of thing.

me: Well, I have noticed these things can happen subconsciously.

Michael: Well Fafhrd can’t be subconscious as I’ve never read any of those books, or even knew they existed until after my series started coming out. I know they are classics, and it doesn’t reflect well on me for not knowing about them, but I actually discovered they existed when I was trying to figure out why this reviewer thought I was so clever. I do want to read them, as I’ve since heard my books often compared to them, but I’m afraid it might affect how I write Royce and Hadrian. The series is done, but if people want more stories with them, I want the freedom to revisit and write more. It won’t be until I’m one hundred percent sure that I’ll not write any more of them that I’ll pick up Lieber, so if anyone hears me talking about those books in a “what are you reading now post” it probably is an indication that there will be no more Royce and Hadrian tales.

me: As I was reading, I felt that Prince Alric and Myron were stealing the show. Do you ever feel that character have different plans for themselves than you intended?

Michael: The Crown Conspiracy is in many ways “Alric’s book.” He is the character that goes through the most change and growth. Similarly Nyphron Rising is “Arista’s book,” where she goes through her big changes. Royce and Hadrian are always thought of as the main characters but I designed the series so that their background is revealed, and their characters develop across the whole series. Theirs is a slow burn so they don’t have a single book that is “theirs” but in many ways they play key parts in all of them.

Myron is a show stealer; he is a very beloved character and I keep him in reserve so he only shows up in the first and last two books. But to answer your question, yes, characters have a life of their own, and often don’t do things I want them to. There are many characters, Myron included, that get more screen time than what I originally intended. As a writer, you have to listen to your characters, and always make them stay true to their own motivations. In Percepliquis I really wanted “the party” to go straight from the capital to the entrance to their quest, but it was cold, and late, and my characters insisted in stopping at a nearby town. I really didn’t want to write that, as I was excited to get to the adventure portion, but I couldn’t convince the characters. As it turned out there were some great scenes that came out of that side trip and I was right for listening to them.

me: For my final question: Couldn’t Royce have just tied a raft to a rope and just eased it out until crossing the Nidwalden?

Michael: Gah no, The Nidwalden is much too turbulent a river. You wouldn’t be able to swing out away from the shore, the force will keep you pinned to the shore. I’ve been whitewater rafting many times and I know how much force a river has. Even if you somehow managed that, the boat would be swamped, or destroyed, when it reached the tower. If you get a raft (or boat pinned) against an unmoving object it’s all over. Also the sides of the tower are vertical and even though Royce can scale towers pretty well, he has great difficulty with finely crafted structures made by elves or dwarves. There are no seams to utilize, so it’s very much like climbing glass.

me: Ah . . . the French cover did help to capture that image.

Michael: The French covers are beautiful and probably my favorites. The books have, or will have, fourteen covers (two in English (US and UK) and twelve translations) and while not all of them have been made yet of the ones I’ve seen I think the French are the ones I like the most.

me: Well, that’s all the interview questions I had planned …

Michael: Well thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it, and also thanks for the nice review.

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