Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I’ve written all kinds of things over the years, but the most recent series is sort of a cross between The Three Musketeers and Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, because there’s an elite corps of warrior sorcerers engaged in swashbuckling heroics with a background of intrigue and weird world building. When I’m not writing, I’m editing, both the sword-and-sorcery magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull (our new Kickstarter launches on July 4 of this year) and the new line of Conan novels and stories. I grew up on a steady diet of original Star Trek and lots of classic fantasy — especially sword-and-sorcery – and historicals. More recently I’ve been reading a lot of hardboiled detective and western fiction. I’ve been a martial arts practitioner for almost twenty years and am studying for my third degree black belt in Shotokan karate.
What is/are the story(ies) behind your book(s)?
Many of the characters in the most recent have been wandering around in my imagination for a quarter century, waiting for me to get good enough to tell a story that featured them. Right out of college I tried writing about them but just couldn’t get it right. In my late twenties and early thirties I got two or three books into tales about them, but it STILL wasn’t right, so I gave up trying to publish them and set them aside. Finally, in my late forties the characters still wouldn’t shut up, so I tried one last time… and I found a way to bring them to life.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
I’m inspired by stories of heroes. I don’t mean the sort who are cardboard and flawless, but real people who stand up and do the right thing even when the odds are bad and no one is looking. I’d like to see more stories like that in print and on the screen. That’s not to say that I don’t like a good grim dark tale now and again, but I happen to have taken a lot of inspiration from heroic action over the years, and that’s where my heart is.
How do you deal with creative block?
My biggest problem isn’t creative block, it’s my own writing speed. I have many tales I wish to tell, and it takes me longer than I want to get them right. When I get stuck on a story it’s not because I don’t have an idea I want to write, it’s because I’m not sure what happens between section C and section E. When that problem rears up I’ve developed a number of coping strategies. Usually I try to figure out what everyone wants or thinks they want, what would be interesting to happen, and then briefly sketch out possibilities, almost like talking out loud on paper. Eventually the right way through presents itself.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
There are so many. Weave the background info into the story so the plot doesn’t slow because you’re giving a history or culture lecture to the reader. Watch out for slow pacing. Don’t constantly stop to tell us character backstory – let that backstory be revealed over time. Learning the secret to the character’s background can actually be part of the way to pull the reader forward, a tactic that used to be a lot more common, but is ignored in a lot of modern fantasy. Some of the best stories result from the collision of contrasting motivations between hero and villain. And that reminds me – know the villain’s plot before you start writing! I had to rewrite my third published novel almost from scratch three times because I went in with just sort of a vague idea of the villain’s plan and powers. Never again…
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Titles – those just sort of come easily to me. I don’t know what to advise there. And covers, well, it kind of depends upon what company I’m working with. Sometimes I can suggest some things, and sometimes those ideas are ignored. Occasionally something is developed that I never suggested that works great, or the resulting cover is similar to what I suggested, but far more interesting (like the cover to my upcoming book Upon The Flight of the Queen). I just don’t know what to tell you there.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
On the first few books they could really sting. Now I just shrug and move on. Wry amusement is a healthy way to deal with the irritation, especially when the criticism is laughable. For instance, my Dabir and Asim short stories are swashbuckling mysteries set in the ancient middle-east with elements of fantasy. Many of them have a Sherlock Holmes vibe, where the case is presented when a client turns up and then the adventure launches. Recently a Goodreads reader downgraded their short story collection because many of them start the same way – with someone having a problem visiting and describing it, just as happens in the time honored tradition dating back to Sherlock Holmes. So I was frustrated, but amused as well. How can you educate the people reviewing so that they “get” the form you’re writing in? Write them back and suggest that they familiarize themselves with the genre before they critique? Or that they critique the book YOU wrote, rather than lamenting you didn’t write a different book that addressed their own preferences (your book didn’t address the plight of the whales, or your novel about how two men got to be best friends didn’t have enough female characters in it)? You can’t do that, so you have to learn to cope. One way to cope is to go look at the one star reviews of some book or story you find flawless and perfect. Rest assured, there will be some one star reviews for it. If people can hate something as great as Watership Down then they can surely find a way to dislike what you’re writing.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I’ve gotten much better at outlining, and getting character motivation down, and getting an early draft that’s much closer to final. I’m not a fast study – it seems like it takes me forever to “level up.” But I’m also stubborn, and I never give up writing, so I slowly get better.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
It always feels good when the story is working right, and it’s great when you receive letters from readers. You’d think it would feel great when you finished, but the surprising thing for me is that it’s just momentary satisfaction. Perhaps that’s because I have many more tales I want to tell, and I know I need to shift focus to them as soon as work on one completes. But it might also be because I know that after the initial draft there’s the revision, and after that there will be an editorial pass, and after that the copyeditors will look at it, and after that the proofreaders… it’s just a long process so that it sort of eventually withers away, and by then I’m hip deep in something else.
As for the worst thing, well, that was when my two historical fantasy novels got strong reviews but didn’t acquire many readers. I would have thought a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly would mean people would flock to read The Bones of the Old Ones but the readers didn’t come. To say that frustrated me would be an understatement, but I learned to deal, and luckily the good reviews and an editor who liked my work kept me in the game. Every now and then I get a letter from a reader who’s recently discovered those books and it always brightens my day.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I figure that if I’m not enjoying the story then no one else will. I labor to create an exciting, fast moving story with interesting people going to interesting places for interesting reasons. If I’m pleased, and my beta readers are pleased then I think I’m serving my readers.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
It’s certainly hard to write while you’re sad or angry or depressed. But you have to fight through the obstacles and sit down and find the joy in the writing. You can’t wait for the perfect emotion if you’re going to get those stories told. You just need to step away from the outside world and focus on the ones in your head.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
Sure. Love your characters. Come up with their motivations and the motivations of the opposition and then throw them at each other and watch the fireworks. Read widely. Know not just the genre you’re writing in, and its history, but take inspiration from actual history and read outside the genre. I wish I’d been reading westerns far sooner, because some of the great western writers can write rings around fantasy writers when it comes down to depictions of horse behavior, landscape, and little things like how people actually track their quarry or use their bow.
I find that a lot of times my creation comes from watching or reading other things and thinking, wow, I could do that, but with this twist, OR wow, that was a kind of cool idea, but they didn’t carry it off in the way I found satisfying. Maybe they should have done THIS.
And then of course there’s the important matter of simply sitting down and getting it started, as well as sitting down and getting it DONE.
What are your plans for future books?
I have many plans. Right now the second book of my trilogy is with the publisher and will be released in November, and I’m finalizing a revised outline of book three and will start work on it soon. I’m tinkering around both with the outline of a new series and a revision of an outline for my third historical fantasy. I’m writing short stories that I hope to publish in mini-collections or via a Patreon I’m contemplating launching.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
Like a lot of modern fantasy writers, I was a role-player for decades, usually the game master. I’ve been writing so much lately that I get in a game only rarely these days. More recently I’ve been playing a lot of solo tactical boardgames, like Ambush or various Lock ‘n Load Tactical titles, or DVG games like B-17 Flying Fortress Leader. I really don’t play modern video games. They’re quite immersive and addictive and I don’t want to be so caught up in someone else’s tale that I can’t stop and write my own. But you want quirky. Hmm. Well, I can name any original Star Trek episode after watching only a few seconds of its opening. I have an extensive knowledge of old sword-and-sorcery stories. I have almost an entire shelf of books devoted to Hannibal of Carthage, and another devoted exclusively to 8th and 9th century Arabia. I own fourteen chickens, four ducks, three horses, two barn cats, and two dogs, one of whom is named Corwin. As in the Prince of Amber.
Read more articles on hard-learned lessons about writing and publishing at www.howardandrewjones.com.