Fantasy Writer Spotlight February 2014: A.C. Smyth Interview

Crowchanger by A.C. Smyth
Debut novelist A.C. Smyth sat down (digitally) with me to discuss her path to publication, her feelings about fanfic and NaNoWriMo, and gave some details about her first novel Crowchanger Please welcome our February, 2014 Fantasy Writer Spotlight: A.C. Smyth!

You can purchase Crowchanger here: Crowchanger by A.C. Smyth.

Philip Overby: First off the standard question: when did you start writing and what attracted you to it? Any big inspirations for you in the fantasy genre past or present?

A.C. Smyth: I’d consider myself quite a new writer. I was a really early reader, and have loved books all my life, but when you’re good at maths and science at school (as I was) you tend to be labelled as logical, rather than creative.

I wrote my first piece (other than “stories” at school) about 4 years ago. I used to hang out in a chat room dedicated to one of my fandoms. The two people I chatted to most were both fanfic writers, and talked about “character arcs” and “three act structures” and other arcane things. I read up so I knew what they were talking about, and gradually started to suggest ideas, point out plot holes, and so on. Eventually I must have been suggesting so much that one of them said, in effect, “Will you just write your own stuff, already?” Within a couple of years I’d written 15 or 16 fanfic stories, in two fandoms, ranging from 1000 words to 65K words. But they were gradually using more and more original characters, and getting further and further away from canon, so I figured it was time to create something of my own.

My initial favourites were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, like most fantasy fans. I also loved The Phantom Tolbooth, Alan Garner’s books, that sort of thing. When I was a bit older I discovered people like Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Katherine Kurtz, Roger Zelazny and Robert Silverberg. More recent favourites are Brandon Sanderson, Jacqueline Carey and Scott Lynch. I’d have said George RR Martin up till A Feast for Crows, which was the most boring book I’d read in a long time. I’m looking forward to reading Patrick Rothfuss.

PO: You mentioned you started off writing fanfic. Since fanfic tends to be a polarizing subject, what is your stance on it now that you’ve written an original novel? How would you feel if your work was turned into fanfic?

ACS: I know some people get their knickers in a knot over fanfic. Yes, a lot of it is dreadfully written, but every now and then you find an absolute peach of a story. More and more authors are “coming out” as having written fanfic, and I don’t just mean that most famous of Twilight fanfics: 50 Shades of Grey. Mercedes Lackey, for instance, apparently started off in Lord of the Rings fanfic. Seanan McGuire still occasionally tweets that she’s writing a fanfic. And did you see Mary Robinette Kowal’s fanfic of Patrick Rothfuss? It was awesome! It’s still people being creative. We don’t criticise beginner guitarists for singing “Hallelujah” or “All You Need Is Love” rather than composing their own songs, so why are we so sniffy about fanfic?

And if anyone wanted to write fanfic of my stuff–bring it on! I’d be gratified if anyone felt enough for my characters that they wanted to give them some additional adventures. I couldn’t even complain about slash, really, given the relationships in the book!

PO: Another equally polarizing subject is NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month that takes place every year in November. Some think it’s useful and increases motivation and productivity, but others feel like it’s a waste of time to just produce a hurried mess (I fall into the former camp). What have your experiences been with NaNoWriMo?

ACS: NaNoWriMo is what it is. I think the main problem with it is the expectation it builds that (a) you can write a novel in a month (50,000 words isn’t a novel, to me) and (b) that it will be any good. I’ve seen so many people on the NaNo forums at the beginning of December asking how to upload their books to Amazon. They really believe their work is ready for the world. And indeed that the world *wants* their work.

My first book (which became the second in the Chandris series) was my first attempt at anything original and a NaNo novel. In reality, it was a train wreck. A 65K word brainstorm. It took a lot of work, and a structured course on novel revision, before it even came close to being a proper novel. It didn’t have an ending I was even remotely happy with until the sixth or seventh pass.

If NaNoWriMo is useful to people, then that’s great. I tend to find that I have a post-NaNo crash in December when I hardly write anything, so in that respect it would maybe be better for me to do 1000 words a day for two months, than 1667 words a day during November and nothing in December. This year I got around that by editing another piece during December, so I didn’t waste a month.

PO: Any writing habits that you think are really productive for you? Any that are counter-productive?

ACS: Going into a scene knowing what I want to write is my best way to be productive. I’m not a plotter, by any means, but if I can note down exactly what I want to achieve in a scene, whether it’s to get the plot to a certain point, or to show an aspect of a character, or whatever, then the writing will come more smoothly. I also use an online alarm clock application. I plug in 15 minutes and go hell for leather until the bell rings. I can normally get 500-600 words done, if I know what I’m writing. Then I’ll either let myself go check Google+ or email or something before plugging in another 15 minutes. If I’ve got the end of what I had planned I’ll go for a walk, or do some housework, or something, and let my subconscious mull over my next bit. The most counter-productive thing for me is staring at a blank screen, getting more and more frustrated with myself. To increase productivity I’ll make a note of changes, rather than go and make them there and then and break the flow. So there will be lots of square brackets in my drafts with things like [he needs to mention this in chapter 3] or [think of a name for his best friend’s uncle], or whatever, to ensure when the words are flowing, I don’t get distracted by something else.

PO: What are some things that inspired your book Crowchanger when it comes to characters, setting, plot, etc.?

ACS: Crowchanger is an odd beast. The characters, plot and setting actually came from the second book, which I wrote first.

I really wanted to do NaNoWriMo and to flex my original fiction muscles. I told everyone I was going to do it, so that I couldn’t back out. But it got to October 31st and I still had next to no idea what to write. I knew I wanted a volcanic island, and had been intrigued by what I read about the ash desert on Big Island, Hawaii, so I took that and “fantasied” it. I wanted shape-changers, but not like werewolves, who change with the phase of the moon. I played around with the idea of a sound triggering the change, and had an image of an old man (who became Gwysias) with a crystal pipe. And that was pretty much what I had, going into it. The rest evolved. As I said before, it was a trainwreck, so it took me through to the next NaNo to get it into any sort of shape at all. I don’t think any of the first attempt survives, and the novel I ended up with actually became Stormweaver, which is with my editor at the moment, and due out in a couple of months.

All that work had taken me through to the next NaNo, and I asked a friend who had brainstormed the ideas with me, and had read some of Stormweaver, if she’d sooner I drafted its prequel or its sequel. She said prequel, and *then* sequel. As Stormweaver evolved, the backstory evolved too, so Crowchanger came out a lot cleaner than Stormweaver. It was in decent shape by February. Then I put it out to beta readers, and made some changes after their feedback. I went back and forth between the two for a while, making sure they were consistent, until I could declare both novels finished.

PO: Which characters in Crowchanger did you connect with the most?

ACS: Going into Crowchanger I knew Sylas best, because he is the central character of the series. While I was writing Crowchanger I got very fond of Ayriene, who is the changer who apprentices the young Sylas. She’s lost a son, and blames herself for it. I didn’t want Sylas to become a surrogate son for her, and she tries to keep her distance from him in many ways, but what happens between the two of them is key to the story.

I won’t say I connected with Casian (Sylas’s lover), as he’s a git, and in Crowchanger he’s being set up to be the antagonist of Stormweaver, but he was interesting to write. Some of his Stormweaver scenes I could only write 200 words or so at a time, as he was making my skin crawl so much.

I do like Sylas, though. He’s flawed, which I like in a character. He can be selfish, he suffers badly with self-doubt, and he’s allowed himself to get sucked into a really destructively manipulative relationship. Sometimes I want to shake him, and tell him he’s making very bad decisions, but I hope I’ve made them arise from his character, rather than just happening because the plot requires it.

PO: Some writers speak of “not controlling their characters” or them “having a mind of their own.” What is your opinion on this? Did you ever feel like your characters took on their own lives?

ACS: I know what those writers mean. I don’t ever feel out of control, but there are times when I’m in one of my writing fugues, head down and words streaming from my fingertips, when I go back and read what I’ve just typed and go, “Whoa. Where did that come from?” Sometimes they’ll take me down a blind alley, but sometimes they open up new possibilities. I’m always aware it’s my own subconscious doing it, though, rather than a “muse” or anything mystical like that.

Mind you, I never planned to have Sylas be gay. I was listening to a conversation playing out in my head (other writers will understand the voices in the head thing), and he said something and ended it “my love”. I stopped short and asked Sylas-in-my-head, “In what sense do we mean ‘my love’ here?” As it turned out, it wasn’t the guy he was talking to in that conversation that he ended up in a relationship with in the final version, but from that moment on, he was adamant he was gay. So, yeah, I guess on that particular detail he definitely had a mind of his own. I was nervous having a gay MC, but I remembered a comment on the NaNo forum. Someone had asked how to write a gay character, and after much well-meaning, but ultimately useless advice, one forum member posted a comment that said something like, “Write an interesting, well-rounded character, then change one thing. Make him like guys instead of girls.” Hopefully I’ve done that.

PO: Do you have plans to explore this world further with sequels or other short stories?

ACS: There will be three novels, for starters. I think the third novel will leave it open for more, if it suddenly becomes popular, but I’ll take a break from it after book 3, as far as novels are concerned. I’ve also got ideas for two novellas. One happens before Sylas’s birth, and has his mother as main character, and one happens between book 1 and book 2. There may be short stories too, which I’d like to do as freebies, or put on a blog, or something. The novellas are stories which are hinted at in the books. Characters refer to them, and we know vaguely what’s happened, but not the details. They are the sort of things that as a fanfic writer, I’d be all over like a rash. So in a way, I see them as writing fanfic of my own stories.

PO: What made you decide to go the self-publishing route? Do you see yourself self-publishing indefinitely or do you have plans to try traditionally published novels as well?

ACS: I never intended to publish at all, honestly. I wrote them to learn how to write novels, and they taught me so much. But people I gave them to loved them. Everyone I gave Crowchanger to came back to me and said, “You said you’d written book 2 already, yes? Can I have it?” And then they’d come back and say, “Anything else you write in this series, I’m on your list, right?”

Self-publishing seemed the better option for me for three main reasons. The first is that in the first book Sylas is 16-17, so the assumption is that it’s a YA. But there’s a gap of 9 years between book 1 and book 2, so he’s 26 by then, and well out of YA territory. The second is that traditional publishers aren’t keen on novellas, and by the time I’d got these first two novels written, I was pretty set on the idea of writing the supporting novellas. Self-publishing gives me the control to publish them if I want to. Third and last, I’d heard so many stories about series being cut off in mid-stride if sales don’t live up to expectations, leaving the author unable to continue, because the publishers still have the rights to the early volumes. So all in all, self-publishing seemed my best bet for these particular books.

I’ve got a YA series lined up for my next project (book 1 is part drafted), and I may try to get an agent for those books. Teens still get books bought as presents, or find them in school libraries, and most seem to prefer real books to ebooks, despite their penchant for technology. So at the moment, I’m thinking traditional publishing might be better for YA. I’m open to discussion on that theory, though.

PO: What advice do you have for someone thinking to write a novel for the first time?

ACS: Do it! But expect to throw a lot away, and to go up a lot of blind alleys. Be open to the idea that you may not have it in the right order. Sometimes changing the order of scenes can make a huge difference to the pacing, and open up ideas you may not have considered. The first third of Crowchanger was completely restructured between the second and third versions. I’d got all the right things happening, but when I reordered them, suddenly it seemed a lot tighter. And don’t rush into publishing. Ask for feedback. You’re not obliged to act on it, but at least consider what prompted the person to say what they did.

PO: Any closing comments for anyone thinking of buying Crowchanger?

ACS: If you like traditional fantasy, with a main character you want to root for, even while wanting to slap him upside his head, then give it a go. I’ve written the sort of book I like to read, and bits of it still give me chills, even though I’ve read it more times than I care to think about. If you enjoy it, please think about leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads, and in particular, tell your friends. That’s what indies struggle with way more than traditionally published authors: just getting their book in front of people.

Thanks again to A.C. Smyth for taking the time to do this interview. If you’ve read Crowchanger and have any thoughts, please share them below!