How do you get the ideas for your novels?
The idea for The Illborn Saga was something which had been in my mind for a very long time. The central premise for the series was born many years ago (decades ago, in fact!), long before I had the available time to write the books. I fleshed out the idea for the series over a period of years, occasionally returning to expand my notes whilst daydreaming about one day sitting down to actually write my epic!
I find that the best ideas come to me when I am not trying to force myself to create something (i.e. usually when I am doing something else). I am quite disciplined though in then capturing those ideas, so that I can return to them later and sift between the good and the not-so-good! It therefore helped that I gestated the ideas for The Illborn Saga over an extended period, so I could refine the story into something which I believed would be exciting, interesting and deliverable.
By the time that I had started writing Illborn, I had a very detailed planning document for the first book and for the whole series (covering characters, plot, lore, world etc).
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I tend to write for 3 to 4 days a week across Monday to Thursday, doing c3.5 hours in the morning, and 2-2.5 hours in the afternoon (during school hours). I am probably slightly unusual in that, when I have written a chapter, I always immediately do a first edit to improve and refine it before moving on, so whilst writing the “first draft” of the book I probably work on a ratio of 2 days writing to 1 day editing.
I have a small back bedroom in my house which has become my office, and I do all of my writing there using a laptop at a desk. I need peace and quiet to work (no music, no external disturbances), so I stop writing when my children return home from school and the house gets noisy!
What makes a great character?
For me, lots of elements will go into creating a great character.
One factor is that the character feels realistic, and that they think and act as if they could be a real person. I think people will have a stronger emotional connection to a character if they can empathise with the character’s choices and actions in the context of that character’s background and experiences, even if they don’t agree (or, indeed, strongly disagree) with those decisions and deeds. For me, empathy will be born from the realism of the character’s actions and choices, and from a consistent and believable development of the character over the course of a story.
The second is that a character will have flaws, to a greater or lesser degree. I find “perfect” characters to be a bit dull, because they will soon become predictable. Flaws, even minor ones, can lead to problems which can lead to conflict, and great stories often feature conflict.
On the same theme, I prefer characters who are neither perfectly good or perfectly evil, but who instead sit somewhere between on a spectrum of moral greyness. Again, this adds to the unpredictability of a character’s actions and decisions, and for me makes them more interesting to follow.
However, despite all of that, a “great character” is also in the eye of the beholder; someone’s favourite ever character might be another person’s most loathed, and a character which one person finds interesting might seem bland to another. Therefore, as an author, you have to go with your gut and ask yourself; do I find this character interesting? If the genuine answer is yes, then press on. If you doubt it yourself, then you should probably think about changing something.
What is your writing process?
I am a detailed plotter. As I mentioned before, I started the series with a detailed planning document. For each book, before starting writing the book I have a high-level storyline set out in bullet point format, setting out key scenes, events, character moments and development etc.
When writing, I then create an even more detailed bullet point plan for the next 6-8 chapters, so I have sight of where I am going (key scenes, events, decisions etc). As I then write, I am fully prepared to be flexible if I see a better way to do something (so long as it gets me to the same anticipated end-point), but generally I work to that plan.
In terms of actual writing, I am a very slow and meticulous writer. I have to work hard to get the best words down on the page, and then I do multiple edits as I go along, including reading out loud to myself several times over to check for fluency and lyricism. Indeed, I find it much easier to identify and correct text which is awkward and stilted by reading it out loud. In total, I probably do 7 or 8 rounds of edits. My wife also edits every chapter for grammar and vocabulary, and I have a small group of trusted beta readers who get involved towards the end of the process.
What elements of fantasy make you like reading and writing in the genre?
I have loved fantasy since I was eight or nine years old. I just love the fantastic escapism of the genre, the way that it allows your imagination to soar away to distant places and times. The oft-quoted George RR Martin quote (“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”) sums it up far more eloquently than I ever could.
The fantasy genre, and the epic fantasy sub-genre in particular, is incredibly appealing to me because of the awesome scope of what it can allow you to achieve as a writer. Where else can you create a whole world, or even a whole universe, and then build the lore and peoples within it? What other genre allows a writer to have so much license to create awe-inspiring and breathtaking moments? For me, the epic fantasy genre allows me to tell a story which can be epic in scope, but wonderfully intimate at the character level.
In summary, I love the fantasy genre. I always have, and I always will!
If you could be any fantasy character, who would it be and why?
That is a very tough question! Going back to the books I loved in my teenage years, I will pick Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Unlike many characters from fantasy stories whose stories end in tragedy, things turn out pretty well for Aragorn, who ends up living together with Arwen as king and queen of Gondor and Arnor for “six-score years in great glory and bliss”. Defeating the forces of Sauron followed by one-hundred and twenty years of happiness and glory; that’s a pretty decent life, all things considered!
When did you start reading? And what books/series did you read over and over again?
I have been reading novels from the age of 7 or 8 onwards. My earliest forays into fantasy were the Fighting Fantasy Choose Your Own Adventure books. After that, I moved onto fantasy novels including The Hobbit and the Narnia books, and then in my teenage years read many fantasy series including The Lord of the Rings, the Riftwar Cycle, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the Shannara Chronicles, and later the Wheel of Time. By the time I was an adult, I was hooked on fantasy for life!
I tend not to do many re-reads. I think I have read The Lord of the Rings three times, and a handful of other books twice, but other than that there are very few books I have read more than once. I probably read 15-20 new books a year, and whenever I come to sit down and choose my next book, I always tend to decide to read something new rather than revisiting older books.
Having said that, I have been very tempted recently to go back to books which I loved in my teenage years (particularly Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Wheel of Time) to see if I still feel the same way about them.
What are some of your favourite recent reads?
I finished Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series last year (I read it over 3-4 years), and I was blown away by how superb it was. It is now in my all-time top three fantasy series, and some of the books in that series are truly spectacular. I also finished The Faithful and the Fallen by John Gwynne last year, which is an excellent modern series with a classic feel.
I am a big Stephen King fan, and my favourite novel of 2022 was actually his book 11.22.63, which was a wonderful read. Any book which has thrills, love and time-travel is likely to be a big hit with me!
What do you enjoy doing outside of writing and reading?
I love hiking and cycling, as my chief ways of keeping fit, particularly when these pursuits take me out into the countryside. I also enjoy piano, computer games (including fantasy games!), board games, watching sport and spending time with my family. I also gain a lot of satisfaction from volunteering for good causes.
If you only had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring author, what would it be?
My advice would be; write what you think you would love to read. If you do that, you will be writing a story that is born from your own love of reading and writing, and as long as your own reading tastes are not too niche you are likely to find an audience out there.
Are you working on any new books or other projects at the moment?
I am currently writing Book Three of The Illborn Saga. I will not be working on any other writing projects until The Illborn Saga is complete!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Tommye. Some really interesting and challenging questions!