Author Interview: Michael J. Sullivan

Welcome to another fine Monday morning and to another brand new author interview!

Michael J. Sullivan

We spoke to Michael J. Sullivan, author of the Riyria Revelations, featuring the inseparable thieves Royce and Hadrian. Michael started out by successfully self-publishing his books and was then picked up by fantasy publishers Orbit. It’s the kind of success story that writers dream about. Want to know more? Read on…

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Michael, welcome to Fantasy In Motion and thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me. I love doing these kinds of things.

If you had to pick one, what would be your favourite book/author?

Wow, you don’t make the first question easy. It’s so terribly hard to pick just one. I think I’ll go with Watership Down by Richard Adams. I love the relationship between Hazel and Fiver and it is a great example of a classic heroic fantasy. All my favorite books share two common elements:  characters I would love to have as friends, and a grand adventure that I would like to experience firsthand. Watership Down certainly fits both of those requirements.

Which fantasy authors have really stood out for you in recent times? What do you think gives them that edge over others?

I think fantasy is starting to come into another golden age, and there is a ton of great books finding their way onto shelves and into ereaders. In the past, the genre was dominated by a few core series from a handful of authors, but over the last five or six years there have been some talented new voices hitting the scene.

Brandon Sanderson is producing an impressive body of high quality work. His first book in the Mistborn series does an amazing job gripping you from the very start. He also has created some of the best magic systems to be found anywhere. I appreciate the amount of thought and planning he puts into how magic works in his world, and his ability to put a new twist on an old theme.

Patrick Rothfuss does an excellent job with narrative writing. I like the way he dangles mysteries and entices the reader with hints of things to come. It’s particularly well done since we all know that Kvothe will survive any perils he came across in the past. I’m actually most interested in the modern timeline which he doles out sparingly. I find it very reminiscent of the shark in Jaws, seldom seen but never forgotten.

Mark Lawrence should be an author that I don’t like at all. His Jorg is a very unlikeable character and I don’t want to live or even visit his dark and grim world. As I mentioned, I generally like a good escapist adventure, and have often complained that a lot of the genre has become serious to the point of being morose. Lawrence’s book is all that and more, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it.  That fact is a testament to Lawrence’s writing skill, and anyone who can make me stay with a book so far outside my general reading preference is doing a lot right.

When you approach planning in your own writing, do you fly by the seat of your pants or set everything out in detail?

Can I answer neither? Early in my writing career I was a pantzer, but I found that to be far too inefficient. Throwing away entire chapters, or discovering a book has to be scrapped because I wrote myself into a corner, is no fun. Now I always develop an outline before writing. Early on this is done completely in my head as that is the easiest way to make revisions. Once I have a firm determination of where to start and where the book will finish I do an outline, but it consists of little more than a few bullet points per chapter, or sometimes just a few notes on a scene that I’ve already imagined in my head.  At this point there will still be holes, areas that will need filling in at some point, but the story has enough structure that I know I have a direction to go in.

Even though I have an outline, I don’t discount the serendipity that comes from discovery writing. I’ve had minor characters promoted to major roles just because they came out so well, and I always listen to my characters when they refuse to go where my outline says they should. In many ways it’s like taking a long road trip. Before setting out I may have planned what cities I will stop at to eat or sleep, but if I find something of interest along the way, I may stay longer and explore a back road. In some cases it may lead me to a different ending, but I always know where I’m heading before I change directions.

How important do you think it is to research a project before writing?

Research is a constant process, but there is a fair amount of time that I spend early on before the writing begins. I may even do research on several projects at the same time. For instance, I’m learning about various aspects of earth science (for a scifi novel I’m writing) and I’m also reading a great deal about the technology and societies of the bronze age for a series that I won’t be starting until later this fall. I read and retain facts that I may have read decades ago, and these veins are tapped when they align with a novel that finally comes to the foreground. So in many cases I do research even before I have a book conceptualized.

I use research for two different reasons. First to have an understanding of what I’m writing about, but more importantly it usually sparks creativity. For me it’s not like doing research for a high school paper where you are trying to find facts to support a hypothesis. It’s really more about discovering something I didn’t know before and seeing how I can incorporate that new knowledge in my storytelling.

Then there is research that is done while writing such as details about people or places that are just an Internet search away. I look these up while writing as it doesn’t break my flow or concentration. I started writing before the Internet when it was much harder to find out little things like the name of the prison where Ted Bundy was executed or the river near Detroit that routinely caught fire in the 1960’s. The Internet is a real productivity enhancement for writers.

Seeing as how you started out going down the self-publishing route (and had great success), what advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of taking that route now?

A great deal is talked about the differences between self and traditional, but I think not enough is made of the commonalities between the two. I often shake my head in astonishment when I hear writers say they are choosing traditional publishing because they don’t want to market themselves. I contend that no matter how you are published the onus of responsibly for building an audience lies with the author. I was very fortunate to have a publisher that provides exceptional marketing support, but I always looked at their contribution as an “in addition to” rather than an “instead of.” You have to realize that the marketing department has many books in a given season and all of them are competing for their limited resources. Not to mention that some publishers don’t do any publicity except for their top titles. It’s important to remember that only you will be 100% dedicated to ensuring the success of your books.

Also in both options you have to write an exceptional book. A poorly written book suffers the same fate in both scenarios – it fails to find an audience. In traditional, it will be the agents and editors that will block it.  In self-publishing, no amount of marketing will make a bad book catch fire. This is because true success is only found through word-of-mouth, and no one recommends a book that is poorly written.

As for the differences, there are two areas that I think are worth mentioning. The first is editing.  From a developmental perspective, it’s really difficult to know whether you’ve written something capable of finding an audience until after the piece is out there. Reading preferences vary wildly and there is no objective standard for saying book “a” is good and book “b” is dreck. I have no easy answer for determining if you’ve written something that will resonate with readers other than to run it up the flag pole. On the copyediting side of things, readers are far less forgiving with self-published works, and so a book must be twice as good to get half the credit. No book is 100% error free, but while a few typos will be largely overlooked in a “professionally edited” piece, the same errors in a self-published book are likely to elicit a much different response. Many will berate minor errors as proof of the preconceived notion of poor editing, So, the moral of that story is you have to be even more diligent when self-publishing.

The second issue is pricing. It saddens me when I see so many authors pricing full length novels at $0.99 and $2.99. It shows a lack of confidence in their work, and I think it sends the wrong message to readers.  I know we all like low book prices, but the race for the bottom doesn’t accurate reflect the value of the work. A good novel takes months, or years, to create and provides hours of entertainment. That is worth more than the price of a pack of gum or a Starbuck’s coffee. I think the market will sustain books priced at $4.95 or $5.99 (I personally sold my books for $4.95 – $6.95 when self-published). That price still offers a deal from the big-six books (typically priced $7.99 – $14.99), but also recognizes that you respect the quality of your own work.

Do you find any particular types of scene more difficult to write than others? Some authors struggle with fight scenes while others fly through them, what about you?

I’ve seen many reviews and receive a lot of letters praising my sword fighting scenes. I’m often asked if I fence myself, but no I never have. To me the trick to writing a good fight scene is to avoid a blow-by-blow accounting of movements and create a drama or a little short story within the scene. Making a fight scene interesting can be a bit of a challenge, but I’m not sure I would classify them as particularly difficult. I think for me it’s probably scenes that involve extensive traveling that are more of a struggle. In many cases it’s important to “show the journey” and not just fast-forward people from place to place, but finding new techniques to keep those passages engaging requires me to think a bit harder about what happens along the way. The trick is to expose something about the characters in what may seem like a mundane scene. For instance, Royce and Hadrian “making camp” is a task they have done hundreds of times, and generally wouldn’t be thought about as a terribly interesting scene. But when a third party notices the coordination of their actions and lack of verbal communication, it helps to develop the characters relationship to one another and demonstrates how they are really two parts of a whole.

What do you think about writer’s block? Do you believe it exists or is it a signal of a lack of research/planning?

I’ve never experienced writer’s block myself, but just as I’ve never been to Paris, I’m pretty sure that both exist. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be blocked, so I don’t really understand what factors cause it, or how best to cure it. Writing styles vary so much from author to author that I don’t think it is indicative of poor planning or lack of research. For some, extensive research or planning could actually exasperate the situation.

For me writing is something that I love to do. It’s like asking a child if they want to play their favorite game, so I’m excited every time I sit down at the keyboard. For me it is never a chore. I feel bad for people who talk about having to “force their butts in the seat.”  Life is too short to spend time doing something you don’t enjoy…especially something like writing, which for many people will never be more than a hobby, as earning a living in this profession isn’t an easy task to accomplish. I think that people who chronically feel this way may be more enamored with the idea of being a writer than actually writing.

Have there been any times when you just haven’t felt like writing? How do you overcome those feelings to get something down on the page?

Oops, guess I should have read ahead before writing out my previous answer. 😉 No, I never feel that way now…but there have been times in my past when I have. I have two major stages in my writing and they are divided by a ten year hiatus. In the first stage, When I was “learning to write” it was more of a chore because I spent a lot of time trying different techniques to teach myself how to master a particular aspect. The best analogy I could make is it was like practicing scales, necessary but pretty boring when compared to making music. At that time I was trying get published and so my approach felt more like “work.”  When I returned to writing, I had no intention on publishing, so I just wrote what I wanted to read. I had already developed my own voice so writing was much more effortless. Freed from the pressure of publishing, the joy of storytelling returned and that is pretty much the way I still am today.

As to getting something down on the page, I don’t struggle with that. Because of my pre-planning I always know what I’m going to be working on at any given time. When I do get stuck, a short walk or bike ride usually is all that is needed and then I’m right back at it. I consistently write 2,000 words a day for original material, and can review/revise 5,000 words a day when editing. That’s a pace that I’m happy with and I don’t feel a need to push beyond that.

Could you tell us a little about The Riyria Revelations?

The Riyria Revelations is a six-book fantasy series that starts off with a very simple premise, and grows in complexity with each successive book. I wrote all six before publishing the first and this allowed me to create individual episodes with their own conflict and resolution, but also have some larger mysteries or secondary plots that span the series.  The first book starts with two rogues, Royce who is a cynical thief, and Hadrian, an idealistic ex-mercenary, who are framed for the murder of a king. The heart of the series is the relationship between these two and how they are overcoming their pasts and find themselves in the middle of events that are occurring at a very important time in the history of the world in which they live. There are also two major female leads, who end up being just as instrumental as Royce and Hadrian, but their character arcs are heavily intertwined with the plot and I can’t say too much about them without providing major spoilers.

The Riyria Revelations

Where did the idea/inspiration for Royce and Hadrian’s characters come from?

Many people have assumed that they are inspired by Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but I didn’t even know those stories existed until I was reading a review that mentioned a correlation. The spark came from a “chain story” that I was doing with two friends via mail – you remember mail right? This was back before the Internet existed. One of my friends started a story with two guys walking into a tavern and I morphed them into Royce and Hadrian who I had been thinking about for years.

At a conscious level I did some channeling from one of my favorite movies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Years later I was watching a rerun of I Spy, a 1960’s television show with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, and I immediately noticed similarities to Royce and Hadrian, so I’m sure there was some sub-conscious activity going on there. As you can see from these two references I’m really quite a fossil, so thanks for outing me on that score.

Are you able to say what you’re working on at the moment?

I actually have several projects in various stages. Since finishing The Riyria Revelations I wrote another two-book series which I’m currently in negotiations with Orbit. We have agreed on all the various points and are just working out the details. Both of those books are completed but I will need to go over them for any last minute polishing to meet an August 1 and December 1 deadline.

I also have two novels that are standalones. Antithesis is a contemporary fantasy about a man who becomes the unlikely recipient of a powerful magical ability, without realizing that having it has also painted a target on his back.  I wrote this right after finishing The Riyria Revelations and there are some minor changes I need to do based on feedback from my beta readers.

The work I’m actively writing at the moment is a science fiction time travel novel called Hollow World. This wasn’t something I had intended on writing but rather grew from a short story I recently wrote and released called Greener Grass. I was intrigued with some concepts and ideas that germinated in that piece, and I’m now exploring them in detail in a longer format.

Then there is my “next big series.”   I’m working on it in the conceptualization phase, so a lot of research at this point (this is why I’m reading about the bronze age). I’m hoping to actually start writing that in the fall. The four other novels are meant to give me a buffer so I can write this series as I did Riyria (all books written before the first is released). It will take a year or two to write so my intention is to have these other books being released while I work on it. All told that details my next seven or eight novels so it will have me occupied for quite a while.

Thank you very much for your time.

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You can find out more about Michael J. Sullivan and his writing at his official website:


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