For September’s Featured Guest Interview, we had the opportunity to interview epic fantasy writer Brian McClellan. McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy put him on the map, with his first novel Promise of Blood winning the Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer. Within the Powder Mage world, he has also written eight short stories and novellas over the last few years, expanding the world he created in 2013. His newest series, Gods of Blood and Power, is set to make its debut in 2017. Want to know more? Then cozy up with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy reading this honest and lighthearted interview with Brian McClellan!
Please tell us about your hobbies and interests when you are not writing.
I have far too many hobbies. I like to cook, bake, and make my own jam. I do some gardening. I also have a crippling computer game addiction, which manifests itself in whole weeks spent playing games while my next project slowly percolates in the back of my head.
When did you first decide you wanted to write?
I got pretty heavily into Wheel of Time fan fiction one summer when I was fifteen or sixteen. I discovered creating these little adventures was a ton of fun, but I also quickly realized that I wanted to do my own worlds and began to toy around with that over the next year or two. It wasn’t until I was in college that I decided I wanted to do this for a genuine living.
Can you tell us about Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp?
The boot camp was a lot of fun. It was one of my first experiences in taking a week and focusing on nothing but writing. I was forced to just sit in front of a computer for a couple of days, pounding out a short story, and then go through a round-table review process with a bunch of peers. I met a lot of friends during that time who I still keep in contact with, and who have gone on to have wildly successful careers in the field.
How did Card’s Literary Boot Camp influence your style of writing?
I don’t think it influenced my style at all, really. It taught me a bit about dedication and focus, and the idea that sometimes you just have to force out the work, “writer’s block” be damned.
Who or what inspired you to write your latest Powder Mage novel, Sins of Empire?
The next series, beginning with Sins of Empire, is my full trilogy that was sold without having written a single word of an actual story. It was really inspired by my desire to not have to go back to a day job, and have some future security as a writer. I wanted to be under contract, and to prove I could work that way, and I was lucky enough that Orbit took me on for more books off a mere outline. That’s probably not at all what you meant by that question, but it’s the truth!
How much value do you place on creative writing degrees when it comes to writing?
This is a tough question. On the one hand, a degree means absolutely nothing to the reader. They don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. They care that you wrote a good book for them to read. On the other hand, a creative writing degree is proof that you have the dedication to really be in this for the long haul. I think it can help get extra attention from editors and agents, and the work you had to go through to get that degree will help give you the knowledge and discipline needed to be a professional author.
What do you do to overcome writer’s block?
I’m in the enviable position of being a full-time author, so I have more personal leeway than others might. I can take a couple months off and spend time on my hobbies, taking notes here and there and letting ideas develop naturally until I have a real ah-ha! moment. That being said, I do have real, genuine deadlines—and missing those deadlines means I can’t pay my mortgage. So there are times when a deadline looms and I have “writer’s block” and it just doesn’t matter. I have to write.
What advice can you offer to authors starting in the fantasy genre?
Try to be original. Of course, nothing is ever truly original but you can do your best. Avoid elves, dwarves, and dragons. Please don’t write about farm boys that are secretly the son of a king. Do something new and interesting.
Are there any major influences in your writing that effect your creative flow such as places, people, music, etc. ?
For me, it tends to be history and historical figures. In Promise of Blood, Field Marshal Tamas is a mix of Wellington and Napoleon. The setting is heavily influenced by the French Revolution. Whenever I’m getting down and having a really hard time writing, I go and read up on history or listen to a podcast or something like that, because our history is full of so many crazy, interesting things that something is bound to inspire me sooner or later.
Is there a particular character you identify with in your books? If so, who and why?
There’s a little bit of me in all the characters, but I think that’s natural for any writer. The one I like specifically is Borbador. He’s the most fun to write, and I feel like he’s the easiest head for me to get inside. If you narrow it down to just the viewpoint characters, I think I identify with Tamas the most (which is a horrible thing to say, considering he’s not a good person). He’s old, he’s tired, and he’s sick of everyone’s crap, and I like that.
What importance do you place on cover design and why?
Cover design is one of those plethora of intangibles within publishing. We know a good cover can sell a book, and we know a bad cover can repel readers, but I’m not sure that anyone has actual data on this. I doubt even the best cover will make your book a bestseller on its own—the story has to back up what is being promised on the front. But a good cover design will catch the eye and bring people over. It’ll make them pick the book up, read the back cover, and maybe read the first chapter.
I think—and again, I have no data to back this up—that a terrible cover can absolutely tank a book. If 95% of people look at the cover and dismiss it as amateurish, that’s a lot of people who won’t even put eyes on the first page. This may sound elitist, but a bad Photoshop job tends to make me dismiss the book out of hand. If the publisher or (in the case of self-published works) author can’t be bothered to give us something cool to look at on the front, it’s probably not worth me looking inside.
Please tell us about your writing process. Are you a planner or a pantser?
I’m a mix of the two. I tend to plan out general arcs and character motivations and the world ahead of time. The chapter-to-chapter plot happens as I go—or more likely, will be planned out about 3-5 chapters ahead as I write. It all needs to fit into the overall plan I have for the book, but if I have a cool idea as I’m going along I want to be able to use it.
In a genre as large as fantasy, do you find it difficult to create something ‘new’?
I don’t think so. There are new, interesting books coming out every month. Every story is going to be influenced by those that came before, and I’m sure we could talk about storytelling and Jungian psychology for years. The key is putting your own twists on things, and presenting an adventure that has the right mix of new and familiar to draw in the reader and make them feel comfortable.
How did you feel when you first received a review from Brandon Sanderson?
Brandon was a teacher of mine, so the first review I got from him would have been for the final exam my first time taking his class. It was something to the effect of “You obviously have some ability, but you’re really unoriginal.” As you might have guessed, my earliest forays into epic fantasy had things like elves, dwarves, and dragons, and Brandon’s advice to drop all that stuff is something I try to pass on to people now that I’m published.
Getting a blurb from Brandon for Promise of Blood was something else entirely. It was so cool to have accomplished what I set out to do ten years ago, to get that kind of approval from someone I’d looked up to for years.
When it comes to editing, what would be your three most important tips for authors?
Don’t hesitate to cut stuff—characters, chapters, even whole plot lines. Be realistic with yourself, and remember that everyone starts off pretty awful and only gets better by changing the things they do badly. Finally, that if you want to be a professional author, remember that the world has absolutely no patience for the suffering artist. They want fun, interesting, or thoughtful books and they want them now. So write them.
What has been the hardest part of the publishing process for you?
I have very little discipline. I can get my books out, because I’m good at binge-writing (and when I do I can work very quickly), but being a pro requires you to be consistent and I’m still working on that. Hopefully it’s something I can master over the next few years.
What importance do you place on using social media to promote your work?
I think social media has helped me and my fans spread the word about my books. I don’t think they would have been nearly as successful without supportive community on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. Being a part of those places can give you an edge, just like knowing the right people at an agency or publishing house but, as in those cases, it’s not the be-all end-all of a successful writing career.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
You can find me at my website, www.brianmcclellan.com, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BrianTMcClellan, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/briantmcclellan. You can also grab my first book on Amazon.