Interview: Guest Lecturer Michael J. Sullivan (Part 2 of 2)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPublishing veteran Michael J. Sullivan will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the author of 29 novels and uses a wide range of publishing options, including self-publishing, small-press, big-five, Kickstarter, print-only, foreign translations, and audio. He’s sold more than 850,000 books, been translated into 15 foreign languages, and appeared on more than 150 “best of” or “most anticipated” lists, including those compiled by Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Goodreads, and Audible.com. His most recent novel, Age of Myth, hit #2 on the Washington Post Best Seller’s List for hardcovers. Because of his wide range of publishing experience, Michael has taught several courses with Writer’s Digest and been a guest speaker at multiple fantasy conventions, as well as BookExpo America (the largest publishing tradeshow in the world). He’s currently working on his fourth Riyria Chronicles novel. The second book in his Legends of the First Empire series, Age of Swords, will be released by Del Rey in the summer of 2017.


Part 1 of this interview, posted last Sunday, is available here.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

Part of the problem in discussing the writing process is there are so many terms that mean different things to different people. For instance, I don’t re-write (which to me means starting the book over once you know where it ends up), but I do make a lot of changes through editing. There are some books where what was once on page one moved back to page fifty, and I cut some openings altogether. Is that re-writing or editing? For me, I consider that work editing, even though it may require rewriting parts of the book.

Okay, the process is rather long but here goes:

♦ Before I start a book, it’s usually been banging around in my head for a year or more. Not the whole story, just certain scenes or ideas. So step #1 is to get a Moleskine notebook and write down all those bits and pieces. While doing that, I start forming the basis of the outline.

♦ Step two is research. If I’m going to write about Bronze Age peoples, I need to know what kind of buildings they lived in and how to build them. How did people cook before pots and pans? Did you know you could boil water in a bag made from an animal’s stomach? I have to learn all kinds of “daily life” facts. If my book takes place on the high seas, then I need to know the various ranks and customs. I do the research up front, so I don’t have to pause during the writing stage.

hollow_world_cover_145♦ Step three is to make my Scrivener file. In it, I assign names to characters and places (I have a long list that I’m always adding to, and I usually pick from there). I also create character profiles, so I don’t change a person’s hair color midway through the novel because I forgot what I used earlier in the story. Next, I’ll set up my chapters and how many sections each contains and determine who is the best person to be the POV (point of view) to see that scene through. That can, and often does, change. For instance, when I started the book I’m working on now (the fourth Riyria Chronicle), I wrote the first chapter from one person’s POV, and it just wasn’t flowing well. When reading the opening the next day, I picked someone else, and now it has improved significantly.

♦ Then comes the writing stage. I write every morning, no days off. At the end of each day, if I don’t have a clear idea for the next day’s section, I’ll go for a walk to work on that. By doing this, I always have the next day’s scenes figured out (and sometimes many days’ worth). I write sequentially through the book (never understood how some writers can skip around as they do), and as I mentioned earlier, I sometimes will take side trips during the journey or change my ending destination completely.

♦ When I finish the first draft, I have a list of things I need to fix up written in my Moleskine. These are from my side trips or new things I discovered that need a foundation laid. I’ll also examine the story as a whole to see if I can “take it to the next level.” In some cases, that’s led to a twist even I didn’t see coming. This part of the process doesn’t last long. Usually, I’ll spend a week or two on it.

♦ As I mentioned, I edit the previous day’s work at the start of the next day, so the prose is in relatively good shape. At this stage, it’s getting close to being ready for others, but I still have to read it cover to cover and make minor adjustments and fix sentences that are weak or wordy.

♦ Now we’re at the stage where other eyes can see it, and that starts with my alpha reader, Robin. She’s my wife and an exceptional structural editor. She’ll go through the whole book and come back with a list of impressions: things she liked, those she didn’t, plot holes or problems in motivation (she’s great at those). She’ll also provide suggested changes, but more often than not, I’m able to come up with a better solution. We’ll also have long, detailed conversations on various topics, and in a few days, I have a new list of things to address. I spend about one to three weeks implementing those.

theft_of_swords_145_222 ♦ At this point, the book is probably 90% of the way to the final product, but that last 10% requires A LOT of work (mostly by people other than myself).

♦ Robin will copy and line edit the whole book. She’s polishing the apple and removing some of the wordiness that I missed. I then read through her work, accepting most of it, but reverting maybe 10%. At this stage, it’s ready for input from the “outside world.”

♦ Now the book goes to my agent, editor, and beta readers. Robin runs the beta reading program, and it’s quite extensive. From those three sources she gathers all the feedback and organizes it, so I can quickly evaluate all the input. I go through and make the changes I agree with. Generally, this means only minor tweaks here and there. In one case, a passionate beta reader saved the life of a character who had died, and I was able to spin his “living” into a new plot that I could pull on in future books.

♦ After I make those changes, Robin goes over it again—more copy and line editing polish. Then the book goes to Linda (an editor I’ve used for both my traditional and self-published works). She’s great. Her changes are usually in the accept/reject category, and Robin is so familiar with my style that she can handle 90% of the things Linda points out. She flags any issues she’s uncomfortable dealing with on her own. And, of course, I read the whole book through again. I may make a few adjustments or undo a change they made, but at this point, it’s simply a matter of nitpicking.

♦ Now it’s ready for the publisher’s copy editor (if traditionally published). If I’m self-publishing, I usually have a second freelance editor go over it. Again, their changes are almost 100% accepted by Robin, and I might adjust 5% or so.

♦ Now the book is ready for layout, and at this stage, there shouldn’t be any content changes. Once it is laid out, I read it one final time and might adjust a handful of sentences across the entire book. It’s also possible to find a few typos at this stage, but beyond those kinds of things, nothing else is changed to prevent layout issues.

♦ Finally, the book is off to the printer, and the anticipation starts. Waiting to hear from the readers about how the book turned out is always stressful, so I pour my energy into the next project.

Did I mention it was a long process?

What is one of the best books you’ve read recently? What did you learn from it that you’ve been able to apply to your own writing? 

Andy Weir’s The Martian was fabulous. I loved the way it started, when and how obstacles came up, and the way it ended—a well-put-together book that deserved all the success and good fortune it received. I’m not sure I took anything from it to incorporate into my writing. I have a pretty distinct voice and style, and I don’t change that based on books I read…no matter how much I like them. The main thing I took from that book, which I do anyway, is to entertain the reader from start to finish.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I always have ongoing work, usually more than one project at a time. You see, I write the entire series before publishing the first book, but there is a difference between written and done. Right now, there are five books in The Legends of the First Empire that are in various stages of that extremely long writing process I talked about previously.

aom_145At the time of this interview, I just finished incorporating the beta reader, agent, and editor feedback to Age of Swords (book #2 of The Legends of the First Empire, which will be coming out in June 2017). Now I’m waiting on line and copy edits for that book.

I also just started writing the fourth Riyria Chronicle. I don’t have a title yet. I’m only on chapter four, and that will occupy a great deal of my time from mid-November until the end of February.

Right about the time I finish that, Robin will have her list of changes for Age of War (book #3 of Legends of the First Empire). That story is in pretty good shape (she’s already been through it once), and making its changes will probably keep me busy for March.

Just before editing Age of Swords, I incorporated a pretty long list of changes on the last three books of the series based on Robin’s first alpha read. Given the scope of those changes, there will probably be more once Robin goes through the new version. She should have that updated feedback ready when book #2 goes into its beta. I would like to incorporate changes to all three of those books at once, and until I know how big the breadbasket is, I really won’t know how long the changes will take.

So, as you can see, it’s busy at the Sullivan household. Something that is challenging but also very rewarding.

Great interview by the way. I really enjoyed it.

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