I had a chance to sit down and talk with author, Graeme Ing, who just released his latest novel Necromancer. We spoke at length about writing, art and the state of publishing today. Check out his responses to my questions below.
Q: You’ve got a new book out now. Tell us what it’s all about, with full spoilers, being sure to ruin all surprises for everyone. All right maybe no spoilers.
A: Necromancer is a dark fantasy that I hope will turn the Necromancer trope on its head. It’s a first-person tale of a young necromancer trying to save his city against a primeval fire creature bent on destruction. My protagonist is cocky and sarcastic for sure, but he’s still a hero. In essence, it’s a fantasy adventure full of icky creatures (physical or otherwise), betrayals, a secret society, bizarre pacts and yes… some romance. I hope it will keep the reader guessing until the very end.
Q: What’s the governing principle underlying the magic of your world?
A: There are four disciplines of magic: Necromancy, Sorcery and two others that will remain a secret for later books. Magic is an innate ability, often genetic, and if you don’t have the spark within you then you can’t learn it. Powerful Guilds exist to train apprentices to develop this inner power and mold it into specific spells. Most of these spells are very immediate, “shoot from the hip” magic, employing simple gestures but rarely involving a spoken component. No stuffy old wizards chanting from dusty tomes here! I wanted the magic to be streetwise, more like combat magic. Necromancy targets the dead (or undead). The penalties for directing it at the living are severe, and touched upon within the book. Sorcery is the domain of the elusive Elik Magi, a Guild supposedly eradicated a hundred years prior. Theirs is elemental magic, shaping fire, water, lightning, etc. Why are the Elik Magi no more? That sinister tale is woven into the book, so now you have to read it, yes?
Q: What are some of the books that you loved as a child?
A: As a pre-teen I grew up on Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” and “Crystal Singer”, Sheri Tepper’s “True Game”, Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Fritz Leiber’s “Lankhmar” books. The Pern books are still my all-time favorite, but “The Hobbit”, “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, “Rendezvous with Rama”, “Ringworld” all rank high on the list.
Q: What authors did you most try to emulate when you were first starting out?
A: When writing “Ocean of Dust” I channeled Anne McCaffrey, trying to capture the innocence of many of her characters, and the simple but rich style of her work. “Necromancer” pays homage to Steven Brust with a smidgeon of Leiber. When writing sci-fi I have to work hard not to emulate Heinlein or Larry Niven. I think my preference and inspiration comes most from the humbler, more adventurous style, rather than the dense political machinations of authors like Tolkien or George Martin.
Q: Talk a bit about what the indie publishing business is like right now.
A: That’s a complex question. Indie publishing has the lowest barrier to entry ever right now. Every retailer (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo) provides mature tools for formatting and publishing and there are numerous distributors that bridge the gap, such as Smashwords and Draft2Digital. In a single weekend you can format a paperback with cover and internal graphics to rival anything coming out of the large publishing houses, and you can produce an e-book for all formats in an afternoon. If anyone reading this fears the publishing process, don’t. That’s the least of your concerns. It’s free and there are thousands of editors and cover designers you can easily contract with.
The community of Indie authors expands every week and is extremely friendly and helpful. Most will share advice and we all promote each other’s books. It doesn’t feel like a competitive field at all. The Indie focus remains on the reader, to provide them with the best books we can write at a fraction of the cost of traditionally published books. It’s fun to interact directly with readers and hear what they like or don’t like. Everyone wins.
However, the largest challenge facing an Indie author today is discoverability. With over a million books on Amazon alone it is very hard to get noticed, very hard to make your own books stand out among so many. A few authors are lucky enough to hit a bestseller out of the gate and gain tens of thousands of readers off their debut book, but the reality for most of us is that it will take many books to work up to that level, gaining the interest of a couple of hundred or a thousand more readers with each book we write. This is a long tail game not a get-rich-quick scheme, but then becoming an author always was, long before the Indie scene.
Q: One of your strongest suits is character development. I can see every one of your main characters in all your books very clearly in my mind. I’m sure others see something different, but that’s often the sign of a great book. How do you go about creating characters? Walk us through the process.
A: Thanks. Normally, I start with a bunch of ideas about physical appearance, attitude, mannerisms, some peculiar traits, and I let those ideas stew a while. My strongest vision is normally of the protagonist or antagonist, or both. In “Necromancer” for example, I pictured this cocky guy that had a sarcastic and overconfident attitude to life. Once I have such notes for my major and secondary characters I’ll embark on a series or organic exercises best described by the talented John Truby. What is the surface goal of each character – what do they want? What weaknesses do they start with? Tougher to pin down is their psychological need, which lies beneath the surface. How do I want them to have changed by the end of the book, because all characters must experience growth or change from beginning to end. I also use these goals and motivations in each scene to define what each character wants to happen. The best tension arises from opposing goals of course. Even then, I can nuance the scene. For example, instead of Lord Adder arguing with the King to force him to bend to the Lord’s demands, perhaps Lord Adder understands that the King is proud and so instead he subtly directs the conversation such that the King reaches the desired conclusion as if he himself had thought of it. Lord Adder wins, but hasn’t embarrassed the King.
Once I have a stronger sense of each character, I then pit them against each other in a matrix. What does each character think of every other character? Are they opponents, allies, fake-allies, mentors, or lovers? This is where the deep nuances appear. At this stage neat plot twists come to mind. Like in “Star Wars”, where Luke fights the epitome of evil, Darth Vader, only to find out he is his father. Consider how that changes things, both in their minds and the reader/viewer’s mind.
When you have organically “grown” a character, strange things happen during the writing of the book. This is what authors refer to as your characters having a mind of their own. A smart writer runs with this to see where it leads. Never force the plot. If I have built a character from his needs, goals, weaknesses and fears then his actions will be true to his character. Such deviations from the outlined plot make for some of the most rich and emotional scenes.
Q: Is there anything you wish you did differently in life?
A: Pursued writing from an earlier age. I’ve been writing stories since my teens, off and on, but only got serious in my mid-forties. I wonder where I’d be now if I’d written and submitted to publishers all the way from my early twenties? Perhaps, I would be no closer to my writing dream. Regretting missed opportunities or wishing I’d lived life differently isn’t healthy. All I can do is shape the future, or as Gandalf said: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Q: If you ruled the world, talk about one thing you’d want to fix more than anything else.
A: Being over-judgmental. Perhaps this is solidly a first-world problem, but as a species it seems that we become more judgmental as time goes on, when we should be evolving toward the enlightenment that all people are different, we all serve a purpose and that because others do or think differently does not grant us the right to judge them. Who among us is perfect? Who among us has not made mistakes? This is the human condition and is what makes our world richer in depth and experience. Everywhere I go I see racism, elitism, fascism, one faction or group trying to dominate others. The media feeds upon it and perhaps is much to blame for it. I’m not saying that we should form a herd of cattle or that we shouldn’t offer opinions and critique, after all, I think we’d stagnate as a species if we didn’t. What I am saying is be tolerant, don’t overjudge, and don’t persecute.
Q: Give us your top five movies of all time and tell us why.
A: Blade Runner – the quintessential pioneer of dystopian and cyberpunk. A grim and somehow unaging glimpse of a possible future and the pitfalls of technology. I’m a sucker for noire, harsh lighting and rain. The fusion of western and oriental culture led the way for many later books and movies. A total classic.
Lawrence of Arabia – my favorite of all the epic movies from the 50’s and 60’s. The scope and setting of this masterpiece is awe-inspiring. A clash of cultures set against the backdrop of The Great War, it is choc full of deep characters and their struggle for duty and honor.
Avatar – Apart from the technological masterpiece of James Cameron “filming within” the CGI world, this is every major plot woven into a movie that toyed with every emotion. There’s the disabled hero made whole in the other world, the gorgeous but seemingly unobtainable woman, stranger-in-a-strange-land, the destruction of nature by the “evil” mining corporation, the irony that the “primitive” natives are more enlightened than all of advanced humanity, hero gets the girl, taboo love, hero almost loses the girl… great movie.
Ice Cold in Alex – a simple, underrated, but treasure of a movie about a group of men trying to drive a truck across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. One of them is a German spy. The dynamic between the characters makes this movie, especially when they choose to forgive their sovereign allegiances to work together to survive the harsh environment.
Lord of The Rings – I dare you to find a better example of a fantasy movie(s). Jackson’s interpretation of the books, their cultures and settings, and the incredible special effects make this trilogy some of the best filmmaking ever. You are sucked into the screen, fighting orcs, travelling through Mordor, cringing in Shelob’s Lair, clapping at the victories. It is a perfect example of an emotional rollercoaster that never ceases no matter how many times you watch it/them.
Q: I know you’ve had a long time writing group. Talk a little about what that brings to your writing.
A: These guys and gals are my greatest critics… and support group. Invariably they will rip apart my first draft: Too predictable, shallow, slow, not enough tension… but it’s all done in the name of improving our craft and they constantly challenge me to dig deep, rewrite, make the plot and characters stronger, more exciting. My books are significantly better because of this group and I think I’d be lost without them, or at least some kind of group. It really helps to get different perspectives on my writing at an early stage, so that my stories are more polished when I put them into the hands of my beta readers. We don’t all write the same genre either, providing different viewpoints and approaches to writing. One person excels at feedback on big picture or story arcs, another on line editing, or cutting verbosity, etc. I recommend that every author find a writing group they can trust.
Q: What do you think you can do better in your writing?
A: I think I have yet to capture that deep emotional resonance that makes the reader go “wow” after finishing the last page, that makes them run out and tell all their friends. I don’t even know how to achieve that. Perhaps no author does, perhaps a book sometimes takes on a life of its own. Is it plot, tension, characterization, setting? Yes. It is all of them, along with a spark of something magical. Readers… what do you think? Care to comment on what makes a book truly great?