Interview: Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards is the author of Scourge of the BetrayerVeil of the Deserters, and the upcoming third installment in the Bloodsounder’s Arc  Chains of the Heretic.

How often do you write?

As often as I can muster the energy. It can be tough balancing a demanding day job, being a husband, a dad for three girls, a halfway responsible pet owner, and still find time and motivation to write. I know, plenty of unpublished writers are calling me a whiny baby man right now. It’s a wonderful problem to have. Without question. But it’s still a reality that has to be negotiated. There are surely other writers473116_10150658874804240_1948325909_o who have busier jobs, or more kids, or do it without limbs or something, and if so, I hate them. Passionately. Seriously, stop overachieving already and let me believe it takes herculean effort to do even what I do, and that I should feel good enough about it to reward myself with chocolate chip cookie dough.

Are you a “seat of your pants” writer or do you like to know the direction of your novel (or series) beforehand?

I “seat of my pants” most things in life, really. But with writing, I’m at least sort of a hybrid. I map out an outline so I have a decent idea what I’m ultimately trying to do, but I give myself license to deviate from that or even tear it into tiny pieces if I have to (my agent just shuddered somewhere—even if he isn’t reading this, he sensed it. . . “It’s as if a well-crafted synopsis suddenly cried out in terror and was suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”).

For instance, the original ending I had in mind for Veil of the Deserters seemed pretty decent in my outline, but once I started writing it I knew it just wasn’t going to work. So I scrapped that version, let the finale sit for a little bit, and then returned to the pages with a brand new ending that had nothing to do with the original idea. If I had slavishly stuck to my blueprint, it might not have ruined the book or been hot garbage, but it definitely would have been a lackluster ending. I feel a lot better about what I came up with going seat of my pants.

 You write wonderfully in the first person POV, what steered your decision to write Bloodsounder’s Arc from this view?

Thanks. I really appreciate that. When I was first toying with the idea for the series, Braylar and his sister Soffjian were the two characters I thought up. The Syldoon infrastructure and culture (fleshed out considerably more in Veil), the black op sort of intrigue, and the other characters all followed. But Braylar was first and foremost, and my initial impulse was to go with 1st person from his POV or perhaps a limited third person POV from his perspective. It seemed the obvious choice. Too obvious, maybe.

So then I started toying with the idea of having someone else record the exploits, an embedded reporter/chronicler (similar to Froissart’s Chronicles about a chronicler accompanying a military outfit during The Hundred Year’s War). And then I thought—what if the narrator wasn’t part of the company at all, but a total outsider, someone with a radically different perspective and set of sensibilities? A glorious nerd, in other words. And thus was Arki born.

It struck me that would present some really interesting narrative tensions and conflicts, a stark contrast between these hardened and sometimes brutal soldiers and the reticent, naïve, and thoughtful scribe.

It seems to me that many fantasy authors prefer the third person POV, what advantages do you think 1st has in the context of fantasy?

Even though I knew the scope was going to expand throughout the series as more and more history, world building, magic, politics, and character details made their way in, the idea was always to make this a more intimate than epic story. Sure, the aperture widens, but it’s really the Syldoon (and Memoridons in Veil) and their respective interactions that are front and center. So I thought this was ripe for exploring with a 1st person POV. As I mentioned, my first instinct was to tell the story through Braylar’s eyes, but then I thought it would be fun to capture everything that happens from a totally different perspective.

With first person, one of the benefits is that you can have the narrator really work through impressions of what’s happening in a way that (hopefully) reveals as much about the main character as it does the characters and events he or she is witnessing. Now, the challenge is you have to have a 1st person POV the readers find compelling or at least somewhat interesting, with a voice that doesn’t grate or alienate. Fail there, and obviously it doesn’t matter what the story is. The flipside danger is, even if the readers like the voice well enough, the narrator can’t go down a rabbit hole, waxing on about things the readers couldn’t care less about or focusing on things that are peripheral at best, or it doesn’t matter how intriguing the voice itself is.

But one advantage, assuming you don’t screw up the voice or focus, is the ability to really have a different lens into your world, one that might force you to look at things from an unusual vantage point than expected, or the chance to add significant layers or depth or introspection, drilling down deeper than you ordinarily do with third person.

Now, there’s no question first person POV is really tough to pull off in fantasy that traverses a dozen regions and has a hundred cultures and a thousand characters, or at least not ideal, as it’s limited and exclusive. But for the right kind of story, smaller in scope, a little less epic, I don’t see any reason not to use it, and I think it can work just fine.

 What did you learn from writing Scourge of the Betrayer that helped with your writing of Veil of the Deserters?

Not to quit? Trite, I know, but true just the same. Beyond that, the writing experiences were vastly different, so it’s tough to compare them. With Scourge of the Betrayer, I was writing in a vacuum. No contract, no deadline, no outside pressure to finish, so I lollygagged. A lot. Waited for the muse to pay a visit, and even when she did, sometimes just took her out for drinks or played Scrabble with her instead of being inspired and truly working. I drifted on the book, lapsed a lot, and there were several times I nearly quit.

After publishing the rights to the series, there was no more vacuum, and I wasn’t writing solely for myself, so everything changed. In a good way, but it also altered the approach. I needed to be a lot more disciplined. Which runs counter to almost every bone in my body, but hey.

 What is your favorite fantasy book?

Ooh, that’s a doozy. I have a hard enough time just coming up with a Top 10 list. I don’t think I can single out just one as the all-time favorite. The hierarchy has changed as I got older, as my tastes changed, so even books I frequently reread at one point were ultimately supplanted by something else.

But I’m waffling, so let me rattle off a few favorites I had at various stages. In junior high it was The Lord of the Rings, A Princess of Mars, Robert Howard collections, The Wizard of Earthsea. In high school, it was Magician: Apprentice, Gormenghast, Lord Foul’s Bane, Legend, The Dragonbone Chair, Daughter of the Empire.

In the last couple decades. . . A Storm of Swords is a tour de force, not hindered by the plot sprawling out of control yet, and culminating in some visceral, awful, and still wildly impressive scenes. A Shadow in Summer is pretty amazing, as is most of Abraham’s stuff. Bloodchild and Other Stories is evocative, disturbing, and beautiful. Shoot, there are so many good fantasy writers right now, I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it. And jealous. Damn it.

If you could live in any fantasy setting (other than your own) where would you choose to live?

This is another toughie. And like the favorite book one, it’s difficult to answer. I can tell you which one I would not want to live in. Westeros. But at least I’m married already, so I wouldn’t need to worry about George R.R. Martin playing wedding planner. That said, I’d still be masochistically tempted to live there. Glutton for punishment and all that.

Amber, from the Zelazny novels, maybe. Wonderland would be trippy good fun. Before getting beheaded anyway. Maybe Cimmeria if I wanted to channel my inner berserker. There are so many wonderful worlds and settings out there, it’s impossible to choose (though apparently I’m drawn to the ones that would kill me the fastest).

Any advice for first time writers getting into the fantasy genre?

Plenty. I’m a blowhard. And really good at doling out advice, even if I sometimes/infrequently/never follow it. First, sit your ass in the seat and write. That’s the biggest and soundest advice I can give. It’s really easy to get distracted, give yourself an out, make excuses. I’m the crown prince of procrastination, so this is the voice of experience (that was only accidentally/incidentally earned, since I’ve often deferred doing things that might actually accumulate experience points in real life). You only become a better writer if you write and write and write. No matter how gifted you are, or what good instincts you have, or blahblahblah, if you tell people you’re a writer without forcing your ass in the chair to write, you are even a bigger blowhard than me. Which is not a compliment.

Second, develop thick skin. Which is often a natural side effect of sticking with the first point. The more you write, the more people read it, the more you’ll get accustomed to dealing with feedback, honing your own antennae to figure out what is useful, and eventually learn to critique your own stuff (or be receptive to criticism from a small number of trusted readers) without suffering a massive crisis of confidence or wanting to jump off a bridge. Toughen up, buttercup.

Third, don’t listen to folks who think they know everything (including, and maybe especially, this guy). There are plenty of blogs, books, and sources of writerly advice out there, and some of it’s really helpful. But nothing works for everybody—take what makes sense for how you operate, use it, and discard the rest. Except the writing part. You do have to do that.

 Any closing comments?

I think I’ve babbled more than enough. Wait, let me see. . .Yep. I’m sure of it. So let me close by just saying thanks for inviting me to do this. It was fun.

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