What does a typical writing day look like for you?
“Typical” rarely applies to me and writing. I’m endlessly in search of a writing process and keep coming back to the frustrating reality that every single book I write has its own process. With some books, my writing day consists of a pleasant 2-3000 words mixed in with various writerly business activities. Other books end up being crazed 20,000 word sprints that run deep into the night. More often, I’m battling some new form of writer’s block that’s masquerading as a story problem that needs me to endlessly ponder other approaches when in fact the problem can only be solved with . . . more writing.
With my most recent novel, I’d put together a massive outline. I rarely outline at that level of detail, but I was excited at the prospect of setting myself up for a smooth writing process. Almost as soon as I put the first line down on the page, scenes grew in unexpected directions, characters changed and entirely new plot lines emerged. By the time I was done, it turned out I’d written not one but two novels.
My one consistent practice these days is to try to write first thing in the morning. Even if all I get is a couple of sentences, somehow things will work out over the course of the day. If I get lost in publishing nonsense like contracts or marketing, I’ll kill that creative spark.
With all that said, I do find that if I write first thing in the morning, I’ll be able to write throughout the day. If I wake up to publishing nonsense like contract negotiations or marketing, I’ll often lose the whole day.
So, for anyone looking for the magical formula, the closest I’ve come is this: write something – even just a few sentences – as soon as possible after you wake up and definitely before checking e-mail, social media or whatever other digital distractions await. That initial burst of creative effort, however brief, can fuel your writing even if your time is staggered throughout the rest of the day.
What elements of fantasy make you like reading and writing in the genre?
First and foremost, I look for stories that spark wonder in me. Sometimes that’s a particular fantasy idea or character, but just as often it’s a narrative voice that captivates me from the first line. Fantasy offers endless opportunities for putting people in unexpected situations and from them drawing out deep emotional intensity. It’s not about the deadly sword fight or desperate quest to find one’s magic, but how those fantastical situations make us think about our own struggles with ourselves and the world around us.
Why do we [fantasy readers] find ourselves connecting so deeply to narratives set in the past, whether they are in a secondary world or the real one?
The past, whether real or imagined, can be a blissfully simple place. Moral complexities have a way of collapsing down to choices between good and evil that are far more manageable than the nuanced – and inescapable – dilemmas of our own world. This isn’t only true of the past or the future, by the way: look at how small-towns like those often in cozy mysteries are portrayed as entirely populated with the quaint, the quirky, and the curmudgeonly. While not remotely like the small rural town in which I grew up, there’s a comforting simplicity to those imagined places. That’s why the challenge for fantasy authors isn’t so much to pretend at “authenticity” (a pursuit I always find somewhat bizarre in stories involving elves, dragons, and magic swords) but to bring contradiction and nuance into our characters – let them feel genuine on their own terms rather than imposing an arbitrary notion of “realism” onto them.
What makes you connect with a character?
A character comes to life for me when the elements of their personality becomes reflected in the actions they take and the conflicts that arise from them. If a character is obsessively ambitious, I want to see how that ambition plays out not just in their quest to become the greatest knight who ever lived, but how it manifests in the rest of their lives. Are they equally determined to be the best spouse or parent or friend? Do they project their need for greatness onto those they’re close to, thus damaging close relationships? Or does their “ambition” only show up when its convenient for the plot?
Something I look for in characters is their personal struggle for decency – whatever that means to them. Lately, fiction seems replete with characters so utterly and unconvincingly cynical that I find them impossible to enjoy. In my entire life, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have a sense of decency and wasn’t, in their own way, fighting to make the world a more decent place. The conflict comes in when those different notions of decency clash against one another. When I’m writing characters, I only feel like I’ve found them when I can convincingly portray their actions as simultaneously heroic to themselves and villainous to someone else.
When did you start reading? And what books/series did you read over and over again?
Reading for pleasure is something that’s come to me in phases rather than a continuous passion. When I was a young kid going to French school and feeling socially isolated as an English kid who barely spoke the language, I’d spend my lunch hours in the school library (remember when we still had those?) reading French novels. Later, when I moved to an English-speaking province, I stopped reading for a couple of years until a friend introduced me to Jhereg by Steven Brust and I got hooked on fantasy.
University sucked the love of fiction out of me for some reason. It wasn’t until I was in an airport with my then-girlfriend, now-wife and saw the cover for Stephen King’s Joyland that I suddenly got the reading bug again.
Now that my full-time job is writing novels, reading has become an incredibly confusing activity. I often find it impossible to read fantasy novels when I’m in the first draft of my own book. At times like those, I might jump into something entirely out of my area, like World War II historical novels about women spies (this is my plug for Kate Quinn’s wonderful books like The Alice Network, The Huntress, and The Rose Code). Then, suddenly, I’ll be desperate to find some new fantasy series I can sink my teeth into and the whole chaotic process starts over again.
I don’t often re-read books, but I confess that there’s something about Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsinger, Dragonsong and Dragondrums) that pulls me back every few years. There’s a raw honesty and sentimentality about those books that reminds me of what made me fall in love with reading in the first place.
What are some of your favourite recent reads?
Lately I’ve had a run of good luck in which a book I would normally never have heard about is recommended to me and turns out to be top-notch.
I was asked to blurb a new fantasy novel called The Keep Within by J. L. Worrad and was blown away by both the complexity of the plot and the compassion with which the author presented his excellent cast of characters.
Recently I was at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver when the proprietor mentioned a YA fantasy called A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos. That title, “A Winter’s Promise”, sounded like the sort of thing I’d usually skip right over on a bookstore shelf, but in fact it’s an incredibly engaging and inventive fantasy novel. There are more fresh and fabulous ideas in that one book than in entire series I’ve read in the past.
What do you enjoy doing outside of writing and reading?
Travel is a passion that never dims. My wife and I love going on trips together, cycling through countries all over the world or getting lost on foot in strange cities. It’s not even about the “sights” per se – sometimes I just like hearing different languages or figuring out how to buy groceries in a new place.
I’ve also been a professional musician most of my adult life. I’ve been performing less these last few years, so at some point I’ll have to decide if I’m serious about gigging or whether it’ll be time to hang up the guitar and learn to play lounge piano or something.
Finally, this year (and I’m only mentioning this here as a way to hold myself to my promise), I’m going to finally learn ballroom dancing. My wife is a dancer and, for reasons passing understanding, she particularly loves dancing with me. I’ve avoided it for far too long, so this year I’m determined: I’m going to keep bloody well dancing until I start liking it.
If you only had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Here’s the thing so few aspiring writers appreciate: by undertaking a novel you’re setting out on an adventure, and it’s wouldn’t be a proper adventure if you didn’t get scared, exhausted, and utterly convinced you’ll never make it to the end. That moment when you desperately want to give it up? That’s when you know you’re doing something worthy of all your strength and courage. Fight through the fear and the weariness. Fight right up until the last page. Why? Because regardless of how the book itself turns out, you’re going to come out the other side a smarter, tougher and more interesting person. The manuscript itself is nothing more than a memento of the journey. Maybe it’ll get you a book deal or sell bucketloads online, or maybe it’ll just be the first of many more to come. Either way, you’ll have done something remarkable that’ll be with you for your entire life. I’ve never met a single person who regretted finishing their first novel.
Are you working on any new books or other projects at the moment?
it’s a busy time for me because I have so many books under contract and many others I’m writing for myself:
- THE MALEVOLENT SEVEN, my irreverent, swearing-filled dark fantasy novel comes out May 11th, 2023 worldwide.
- FATE OF THE ARGOSI, the third Ferius Parfax book that spins off from my young adult series, Spellslinger, comes out in August, 2023 worldwide.
- CRUCIBLE OF CHAOS, a standalone Greatcoats novel featuring my new favourite swashbuckling detective will come out later this year.
- OUR LADY OF BLADES, first of the new Greatcoats quartet, is scheduled to hit shelves in March, 2024. Now I just have to finish writing it.
- PLAY OF SHADOWS has been finished for ages, but it’s coming out in March 2025.
- Also, I have two quirky mystery novels, THE TROUBLE WITH TUPPENCE and COLD STEEL FOR CROOKED HEARTS which top publishers the world over have told me could never be a hit with readers. I’m of a mind to test that theory . . .
- Lastly, both the Greatcoats and Spellslinger series have been optioned for television. This doesn’t mean they’ll ever hit the screen, but it does mean I get to be in some truly bizarre meetings now and then. This really is an obscenely fun job.
About the Author
Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first
dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a
very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer,
teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of
unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or
another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being
a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.
Sebastien’s acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats. was shortlisted for both
the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy. the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best
Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best
New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and is
published in more than a dozen languages.
Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats. You can
reach him at www.decastell.com.