I made a mistake when I first discovered Michael J Sullivan. I found his books on Amazon and read some of the reviews of his first book. Despite the overwhelming ratio of positive to negative reviews (14:1), I read the handful of critical reviews and decided not to try his series. Yeah. I know, that was pretty dumb. Lesson learned (seriously).
Recently, I came across his books again, but this time I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and read it. Needless to say, I loved it and I thought it was a lot of fun. Here’s a quote from the book’s epilogue about the nature of the series:
“Eschewing the recent trends in fantasy towards the lengthy, gritty, and dark, the Riyria Revelations brings the genre back to its roots. Avoiding unnecessarily complicated language and world building for its own sake; this series is a distillation of the best elements of traditional fantasy–great characters, a complex plot, humor, and drama all in appropriate measures.”
One of the reasons I was curious about Michael’s work is that he’s an underdog. He’s with a small press, and he’s just humbly going about his business, writing his books and doing his own thing. It felt good to see his success, both for him and for what’s possible for others.
SciFiGuy.ca posted a long interview with Michael J Sullivan in April of this year, so I’m going to link to it and try not to cover the same ground. Michael also has a nice blog and he tweets, and check out all of the covers he designed for his books (below). Here’s my interview with him.
MJS: That would depend greatly on when we were there, as the world in my series changes dramatically over the course of the six books. However if we were in the Lower Quarter tavern during the time of The Crown Conspiracy, it would be a loud bustling pub filled with fiddle music, loud conversations and heels on hardwood. In order to hold a civil discussion, we would need to sit in the back of the Diamond Room, away from the noise of the bar, in the deep shadows of the few table candles. I would be leaning forward playing with the melted wax as it tears off the candle while failing to flag down a waitress for a mug of the dark house ale.
Moses: In that case, I would be scribbling with a quill on parchment, rewriting a troublesome sentence far too many times and blowing all my ale money on scrolls and ink. Hm, I think I like 2010 better.
Back to today. For those who are unfamiliar with your series, The Riyria Revelations, how would you introduce it?
MJS: The Riyria Revelations is a sword and sorcery fantasy story about Royce and Hadrian, an expert thief and a highly skilled soldier, who make their living doing jobs for competing nobles. Through a series of events, they find themselves entangled in a centuries-old mystery. It is a fast paced adventure littered with plot twists and populated with memorable characters. While it makes use of many icons typical to the genre, it is presented in a fresh way that makes it a uniquely fun read.
The series is actually six books, all of which I wrote before the first was published, so I was able to construct a cohesive story arc where secrets hinted at in one book are fulfilled in later ones. At the same time, while one story, I’ve neatly divided it up into separate episodes, so each has a beginning, middle, and end, rather than having the story just stop and pick up in the next book.
Moses: Your series seems to be doing quite well. You’ve got around 80 reviews on Amazon for the first book in your series, and they are overwhelmingly positive. Your books have won numerous awards and been honored in various ways. Now that you are about to release the fifth book in your series, are you able to make a living with your writing, and whether the answer is yes or no, how does that feel?
MJS: Yeah, seventy-eight reviews. 47 five star, 20 four, 5 three, 1 two, and 5 one star reviews, and yet you listened to the six out of seventy-eight who were not pleased and decided not to read it at first. That really doesn’t bode well.
The question of whether an author is making a living wage—able to support him/herself—can in many ways come down to where and how they live. As I tend to live rather modestly, I could be supporting myself nicely if I was still living where I have in the past (Raleigh NC, northern Vermont, suburbs of Detroit). As it happens, I currently live in one of the most expensive places in the country (Greater Washington DC), so my current income wouldn’t cover the expenses here. Sales have been growing steadily so I think people are just starting to hear about it. Being published though a small press means a smaller distribution network but has a lot of other advantages so all in all I’m very happy with where I am and excited to see where the books can go from here—especially after the sixth and final one hits the street in April of next year. My dream of course is to be totally self-sufficient so my wife, who has been supporting me through the “lean years” could quit her day job.
Moses: That’s still great to hear, because you’re obviously doing extremely well given that you are with a small press. Congratulations.
Tell me about your writing and how your approach to writing has changed over the course of this series.
MJS: My writing and my approach hasn’t changed much because I wrote the entire series rather quickly. For example the first two books I wrote in two successive months. The editing process, however, has taken years, and I’ve learned so much about that. I’ve had the honor of finding so many people willing to help me—fans mostly. My first agent started me on that road by pointing out some basic mistakes I was making in the realm of wandering character point of view. At first I had no idea what she was talking about because you see, I’ve never taken a class, read a book, or attended a seminar that taught creative writing. Everything I learned, I learned by studying other author’s works and by writing novels. I finished thirteen novels before starting this series, so I had developed a number of skills, but as it turned out I missed some of the basics. Over the last two years that I have been published, I’ve managed to fill in many of the gaps, but I am still learning.
Moses: One of the things I think you did especially well in The Crown Conspiracy was keeping the reader guessing with mysteries and plot twists. What sort of writing tips do you have for other writers in this department? Also, how did you learn this skill, or was it something that more or less comes naturally for you?
MJS: When it comes to plot development, I hate to say it, but it is just one of those things I can do without much effort. I used to see singer/songwriters on TV who could take any idea and make a great song right there on the spot. I’m kinda like that with stories. It’s kind of like a party trick—give me a few lines and I can usually lead it into pretty interesting places. The down side is I’m usually very dissatisfied with movies and books I go to for entertainment. Mainly because of think “what could have been”. Many times my wife and I debate well if they had just done this or that or the other thing how much better would that be.
As far as advice…I have a tendency to create a plot that works fine. It makes logical sense and all, but isn’t always that exciting. Then I go back and look at it and think, okay, but now if I didn’t have any constraints what would I love to see happen? Usually I can think of something pretty interesting, something that gets me excited, and something I would love to write. Then I try to see if I can finagle the plot to allow for it, and I usually can manage it. Also when I get in a bind plot-wise, I tend to think randomly, in that I flip problems completely around in ways that don’t initially make sense and just run them in my mind and see what happens. Interesting things can happen that way. Do those things a few times and you get unexpected twists.
With the world of publishing changing so much right now, what do you think new writers should be doing to find their way through and what avenues do you think are best for them today?
MJS: I can’t say I am the best to answer that question. My experience is limited in that I’ve never had the pleasure of being published by a big house—at least not in the US. Indications are that the big publishers are tightening their belts and not taking much chance on new fiction talent and that can make a business already nearly impossible to break into that much harder. The good news is that the Internet and print on demand technologies provide options that simply did not exist before. There are a number of small independent p resses that are “thinking outside the box” and this opens up more opportunity for those just starting out. That’s where I got my start. There are also sites like Podiobooks.com where authors often record their books and publish audio versions for free download. This preserves the print rights while building an audience. You can also self-publish with either the hope of making a success outright or, like a startup venture, the hope of doing well enough to be noticed by a big house and picked up. No matter what you do, it is imperative that you promote your book. Again, the Internet gives even the newest author a chance by providing a means to get the word out.
Moses: Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently, whether in terms of the business end of publishing, or with your series?
MJS: Actually, I managed to accidently do most things perhaps not right exactly, but the way I am happy with. Each author has their own particular goals and one of mine has been to be able to tell my story, “my way.” Being the kind of person I am, I don’t think I would have been happy with a big press. I am too independent and controlling of my vision. A small press afforded me the acknowledgment of “getting legitimately published,” of having someone in the industry fork over thousands of dollars because they believed my work was worth it, but also gave me more control. For instance, the cover sketch I got from my first publisher for The Crown Conspiracy was…less than perfect. So, I did a quick painting to show them “my idea” and it turned out they bought it for the cover. I’ve been able to do the covers for all the books since, and that is something I don’t think I’d ever get from a large publishing house.
MJS: That’s tough since I tend to forget what I’ve told to whom, and have been fairly open about my experiences. I have to come up with something to write about on my blog after all. I suppose I could explain what the dedication to “Dragonchow” was all about in my second book, Avempartha.
After writing thirteen novels and trying to get published for over ten years, I finally gave up and swore I would never write creative fiction again. I turned instead to my other creative interest and went into commercial art. After working in the field for a time, I started my own ad agency and did very well. I had moved away from my childhood home of Michigan, first to Vermont and then to Raleigh NC. I still had family and friends in Michigan and to keep in touch, we started playing Internet computer games. We started with Starcraft and Age of Empires, but soon moved to MMORPGs and Everquest.
My wife and I both played for three years or so, and in that time we met a number of wonderful people who we only knew through the game. They were all part of a player created guild and the guild’s name was Dragonchow. From time to time my writing “leaked out” as I recounted tales of our in-game adventures for the guild website. They ended up drawing an audience, so I wrote a little fictional, serialized story starring members of the guild. It was a huge hit, and got me thinking about writing again. (Please note that the Riyria Revelations has nothing at all to do with my gaming experience.) When I did, the members of the guild were some of the first people to read my books.
They read the rough drafts for the first four books, and while I haven’t played Everquest in almost a decade, several of our guild mates are still fans of the series. Wintertide, the fifth book in the series that is due out this October, will be the first book that will be completely new to them. They’ve been waiting a long time to see how the series ends. I hope to make it worth the wait.
Moses: Thanks again for sharing your story with me, Michael.
The last two books in Michael’s series are “scheduled and well on their way.” Wintertide (book 5) will be available in October. Michael also told me that the final book Percepliquis should be finished ahead of its April scheduled release. I hope you’ll check out his work.
If you have any comments or questions for Michael, feel free to post them in the comments and maybe he’ll be able to check in with us.
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