Epic fantasy authors David Dalglish and Michael J. Sullivan talk about the thrills and challenges of writing a series. David Dalglish's Shadowdance series launched in October with A Dance of Cloaks. Michael J. Sullivan's latest books, The Crown Towerand The Rose and the Thorn, share the early adventures of his heroic thieves, Royce and Hadrian.
Michael: To start, let’s take a cue from George R.R. Martin and discuss architects (those who carefully plan) and gardeners (those who plant a seed and see what grows). Which are you David?
David: I’m very much on the gardener side. When starting The Shadowdance Series (a prequel) I had only a distant end-point in mind. How I was going to get there, not a clue. What I did know was which characters would be involved, so I just started there. I knew Haern had a crazy father, and I wanted to explore what it would be like growing up under his wing. What would he learn? What type of people would stay in his company? And from there I just let the story build and grow. The gardener analogy also fits because I hack at everything until things seem to be in order and there’s a path from one side to the other. So my garden is more of a jungle, really. How about you, Michael? Gardner or architect?
Michael: I’m actually a bit of both. The Riyria Revelations was designed so that each book told a complete story, with its own conflict and resolution. But they were also part of a larger whole with intertwining threads and many secrets to, well, reveal. I had to carefully plan what pieces of the overall mystery would be exposed when. That’s not to say that I don’t discover things along the way which I hadn’t planned for. The trick is to incorporate those discoveries but to do so always knowing how they will affect the final destination.
David: I’m slowly transitioning to that type of writing (more organized, less seat-of-my-pants), and I’ve found that in some ways it’s trickier, trying to incorporate the new ideas without completely, thoroughly wrecking the overall outline. Keeping track of everything is vital. Is there anything you use in particular, Michael, tools or tricks for writing such a complex series?
Michael: I use Scrivener which is an excellent program for creating character profiles, cataloging places, and even saving graphics like the coat of arms of various noble houses. For timelines, I use excel where I know when each character is born and dies and how old they are on important dates in the series. I have 8,000 years worth of history I’m tracking, but my books show only the very tip of that iceberg. I’m finding all that information helpful right now as my current work in progress takes place in Elan but in its distant past. What’s your approach David?
David: It’s, uh, not quite as organized. I’m only now starting to get a firm idea of when and where things are in my world. Even now, my method’s pretty clumsy. If I reach a point where I need to remember, say, a person’s hair color, I inevitably spend five minutes scanning through previous books featuring said character, trying to find wherever I mentioned it. At some point, I’m going to cave and get something like Scrivener so I can pretend to be professional.
Michael: Well it works well for you, so no pretending required. Speaking of professional, most interviews inevitably ask about influences so I guess I’ll go there next. David, can you share some insight?
David: Each of my various series usually has one particular author/series that strongly influenced how I wrote and what I wanted to accomplish. The Paladins series, for example, began after a lengthy binge read of David Gemmell’s works, whereas The Half-Orcs bears the marks of R. A. Salvatore’s early Drow books. I don’t think I’m fooling anybody when it comes to Brent Weeks’s influence on my Shadowdance series, either. How about you?
Michael: I can’t say I have such a direct influence, but I do owe a lot to J.K. Rowlings. First because she got me to break a 10-year hiatus from writing, and second because she reminded me just how much fun a grand adventure can be. Some think my writing was attempting to buck the recent trend of dark-themed fantasy, but really I just wrote the kind of book I wanted to read.
David: Given that we both started out in self-publishing, close interaction with fans is fairly common. Did you ever change something based on fan feedback as you progressed through the narrative, maybe try to address how people were reacting to your series?
Michael: Well I write an entire series before releasing any of the books, so they are already finished by the time readers see them. This means there is no room for changing within a series. But if you count beta readers, then yes, sometimes. If one person mentions something isn’t working, I might not take it to heart. But when multiple people point it out, then it’s worth looking at. I also ask readers about future works because I’d rather leave a set of characters too soon then to have them overstay their welcome. How about you? Have you adjusted your works?
David: I’ve definitely elevated the presence of certain characters when it became obvious fans were growing attached. Darius in The Paladins, for example, was supposed to die in the first book. I kept him around for the heck of it, and by the end of the second book, I was getting tons of emails from people about how he’d become their favorite character. Come books three and four I made sure he was equal with the original main character in terms the amount of time I dedicated toward his story.
Michael: You know hearing our different approaches reminds me that every author is unique and needs to find a system that works for them. If I could give just one piece of advice it would be that the only way to ensure failure is to stop trying. To wrap this up, what would you like to tell aspiring authors, David?
David: Be fearless in your storytelling, and confident in your voice. If your readers don’t immediately know you are in charge of this imaginary world and the characters within, if they don’t believe you have a story to tell that they’ll absolutely want to hear…then you need to keep reading, keep learning, keep writing, until you know in your gut you’ve reached that point.