Through the process of moving Blackwing from unedited pile of words to publishable manuscript, the Gollancz team have been brilliant and supportive every step of the way. In this month’s guest interview, I talk to my brilliant associate editor Craig Leyenaar, one of three editors to work with me on the book.
Please introduce yourself – what’s your job role at Gollancz?
Hello (Ed, I can’t believe you’re making us do this), my name is (don’t you know we like to stay in the shadows) Craig and I’m an (we’re known as the silent assassins for a reason) Assistant Editor at Gollancz. My role (the mystique, Ed! What about the mystique?) is a mix of editorial and administrative. I (okay, I’ll stop now . . .) manage our freelancer copy-editors and proof readers, write cover copy and briefs, look after a number of my own authors, read submissions, work as a second pair of eyes as needed, and do my best to help keep the engine running smoothly while the others sit in the driver’s seat!
To start with, can you tell me a little bit about the debut authors/books that you’ve worked with in the past? Which book that you’ve published are you exceptionally proud of?
I’ve only been with Gollancz for just over 18 months so I haven’t worked on any debuts before Blackwing. Which makes it my first! And is yet another reason why I’m so excited by it. Although, when you start with the best, it’s a little hard to move on . . . It is a unique thing I’ve found, this debuting. There’s nothing quite like it. Working on a debut was a wild ride. Gillian’s first email telling us about it, reading it overnight, feeling that excitement, sharing that excitement with the team, and then finding out we’ve succeeded in acquiring it was a massive buzz. And as the proofs and covers have come through as well as hearing such positive early responses it’s just getting more exciting.
What is it that you love about fantasy/speculative fiction? What jumps from the submission pile at you?
I love the way sff makes ideas real. It’s a limitless framework in which you can play and explore stories, ideas and characters making of them whatever you will. SFF can be anything: crime/romance/thriller/epic/adventure/etc, and calling it a genre almost seems too parochial. It’s open to everyone and only limited by what you can imagine and so is endlessly new and surprising.
What do I look for in a submission? The above is rather vague to be truly useful and when it comes to submissions the big picture stuff always comes later. For me, it’s the voice and the character. They’ve got to be doing something, and care about what they’re doing. If I can’t hear or feel the character then everything else feels very thin. They don’t need to be in the middle of a battle or a chase straight away or at all, but just be doing something that matters to them. That’s the hook for me.
Are there any particular genre themes or trends that you’re excited about seeing develop at the moment?
I’m enjoying the resurgence of the nobler side of fantasy after years of relentless bleak grimdark. But it’s a new kind of fantasy that blends the traditional with the maturity of grimdark so that you can have books that are gritty and rough but the characters (despite their appearances) actually care about things.
Are there any themes or trends that you’re tired of, that might put you off straightaway? Is the market over-saturated with any particular themes at the moment?
Anything too nihilistic or violent for violence’s sake. Every choice should be there for a reason and have an impact on the reader, and not just because it’s shocking. And I find overtly political books difficult purely because I usually agree with the message but don’t think being a ‘message book’ is the most effective way of communicating it. A reader should be taken away by the story and then at the end realise they’ve taken something from it they may not have expected, rather than going in being told ‘you will learn something’. As for oversaturated, it feels like the market is quite full of non-magical fantasy and one of the things I liked about Blackwing was that it was stuffed with gods, magic and general weirdness!
If you were in a game of D&D what class would you be?
Mage. (I realised I truly loved explodey magic when I first played Diablo II and spent ages running around Hell as a Sorceress casting Frozen Orb and literally leaving a carpet of dead demons after kiting an entire level. And then they put a cooldown on it and that brief shining moment of icy glory was over . . .)
If you had to give a writer some advice about their writing without ever having seen their work, what’s your number one tip?
Don’t be afraid to have a distinctive voice. Avoid passivity and don’t try to be too poetic. It’ll come naturally as you find your rhythm.
I expect that there are a number of things that can turn you off a particular piece of writing – but what are the most common mistakes?
Any section (of at least one paragraph) that treads water in the sense that line after line essentially rehashes the previous sentence and same idea over and over again without adding to it.
Also bad dialogue is a big one for me. When it is purely there to tell the reader what’s going on it undermines the characters and makes them feel less real because it’s a conversation you can’t imagine having under those circumstances. Picture yourself saying it and if you feel silly then it’s probably not right.
‘It’s the dragon.’
‘Good. Our mission is to kill the dragon.’
‘It’s a bad dragon. Don’t forget the treasure.’
‘As you know, Mr. B, I never forget the treasure. Just like I wouldn’t forget that we were sent here by the Prince.’
‘Do you have the arrows?’
‘The dragon-killing arrows?’
‘Yes, those. We want to kill the dragon, remember?’
Relating to this is the whole ‘show don’t tell’ piece of advice. If you have to describe everything your book is going to be very very long. Judicious telling can make a book.
In your view, what factors might make the difference between a bestseller and well-written books that makes less than average sales?
That’s a difficult, probably impossible question to answer! But for me it’s something slightly ephemeral: a tone, a way of phrasing sentences and the sideways insight that makes each character really interesting rather than a dry narration of what’s going on. If we knew we’d make every book a bestseller!
What was it about Blackwing that made you excited about taking it on?
The visceral realism of the world and the characters immediately grabbed me. Galharrow was real from the first line of dialogue, but even before that I immediately had a sense of the kind of character he was before reading his name. And along with the epic scope of this blasted wasteland filled with Darlings and Brides and all things strange and terrifying this combination was something special.
And finally, if you were caught out in a zombie invasion and could grab only three things from your home to take with you before it was overrun, what would you be grabbing and why?
I wouldn’t run. I’ve been planning the perfect anti-zombie home for years. Why leave the comforts of home?
You can follow Craig on Twitter @_Lionwalker