Metaphysical fantasy author A J Dalton drops by to talk about his writing process.
A J Dalton (the ‘A’ is for Adam) has been an English language teacher as far afield as Egypt, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Slovakia, Poland and Manchester University. He has lived in Manchester since 2003, but has a conspicuous Cockney accent, as he was born in Croydon on a dark night, when strange stars were seen in the sky.
He is currently published by Gollancz, with whom he has put out the best-selling titles Empire of the Saviours (2012), Gateway of the Saviours (2013) and Tithe of the Saviours (2014). He maintains the Metaphysical Fantasy website, where there is plenty to interest fantasy fans and there is advice for aspiring authors.
What inspired you to start writing?
Ha! I blame the parents. They had me reading fantasy (Blyton’s Magic Wishing Chair and Roald Dahl) from the year dot. Then my mum got me Raymond Feist’s The Magician when I was 15. After that, it was nothing but fantasy for me. Curiously, Scott Lynch was converted by precisely the same book. Mr Feist clearly has a lot to answer for! My parents also encouraged me to write, and so did the local school. I then wondered if I could turn my passion for reading and writing fantasy into something I did for the rest of my life, so a job. I’ve been pursuing that crazy idea ever since.
What do you wish you’d known about the publishing process?
Yes, knowing a bit more would have saved me many years of heartache, I think. I might even have got the big publishing deal a sight earlier too. First off, I had to self-publish, because no one seemed to want my zombie novel (Necromancer’s Gambit) back in 2008. Then Twilight hit the cinema and ‘dark fantasy’ was born. Necromancer’s Gambit started selling in silly numbers. Based on the sales figures for that trilogy, Gollancz gave me a three-book deal for my new stuff, which started with Empire of the Saviours.
What do I wish I’d known before? Well, I wasted a decade or two submitting as a first-time author to mainstream publishers and not knowing that the material was largely going on the ‘slush pile’ unread. The publishers were getting hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts a week, you see. What I really needed was quantitative evidence of commercial potential (e.g. sales stats, or proven audience size on Facebook, etc) to accompany the chapters of my books (qualitative evidence) that I was submitting to publishers. Hard numbers will make publishers pay attention and convince them to spend time actually reading what you send them – they’re running a business after all. So, I wish I’d known much sooner that self-publishing or writers’ forums are a great way to build the numbers you need.
Beyond that, I wish I’d known how the whole industry worked much more. The problem is, there’s no central information point on such things. I had to work things out by a lot of trial and error, and by asking a lot of questions. I share pretty much all I know on my website, because I understand and sympathise with what other writers are going through. I also advise/steer aspiring authors.
Which authors do you look to for inspiration?
Hmm. It’s important to know what’s current/popular in your genre – as that’s probably what publishers are looking for. It’s also important to know the classics in your genre – as they really set the standard to which you should aspire. So, I read a lot of fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of Peter V. Brett and Mark Lawrence, to get a grip on current ‘grimdark fantasy’. And I still read Raymond Feist and Greg Keyes, since ‘epic fantasy’ is making something of a comeback. If you don’t know your sub-genres, then you should look into that. They’re outlined/defined on my website. Or I have a history of fantasy coming out with Luna Press in April 2017, called The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature (based on my PhD research).
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I would advise aspiring writers to work out what genre they’re writing in from the very start – otherwise, they’ll produce something rambling and crossover, which publishers really aren’t interested in. Then, it’s important to help the reader engage with the lead character by giving that character a moral dilemma/problem that the reader will be interested in seeing resolved. The lead character should attempt to resolve the problem and FAIL. They then need to spend time dealing with the negative results. They should learn from their mistake and grow/develop. Then they should encounter a similar problem/dilemma, one which they are now equipped to resolve. If you follow that sort of model, you will have a tight plot that is compelling. It’s not entirely necessary for the reader to ‘like’ the protagonist, just as long as the problem/dilemma is credible, recognisable, different and challenging. Or your money back.
Tell us more about your book(s).
Well, I’ve got The Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature coming out in April 2017, as I said, which is an overview of (and user-guide to) both historical and modern sub-genres of fantasy. I’ve also just put out a fantasy title called I Am a Small God, which follows the tale of an assassin-god attempting to bring down the various pantheons of gods around the world. Then back in Sept 2016, I did a collection of fantasy tales for Kristell Ink called The Book of Angels. Lastly, if you want a big fat fantasy series, then you could do worse than starting with my Gollancz title Empire of the Saviours. Hey, I did my best!
Why so much? Well, I’m genuinely into the fantasy genre, and amazed by how it continues to develop – it’s creatively engaging. And full-time authors on average these days make less than £11K a year, which really isn’t much to live on. It’s therefore important to have a range of titles out there. Every little helps. But once I get the film deal, who cares!
What are you currently reading?
Sheesh. I’m reading the Booker Prize Winner. It’s The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. Sometimes I dip into prize-winning literary fiction to see what the standard is and whether it can help my own writing. But The Sellout is a tough read. There’s very little that’s compelling in it plot-wise. It’s a bit of a monologue/rant. Yes, it’s an important book, as it describes the American experience for people of colour, but I’m not sure it’s really for me.
What’s next for you?
Now that’s a good question. I’m never entirely sure. I’ve got a few novels and ideas (Lifer, Dragon God, Lundun Child, Warrior of Ages, etc) being considered by mainstream publishers, but it takes forever for them to come back to you. The publishing industry has had a tough time in recent years, and they’re all quite risk-averse. Look at Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. It was rejected by dozens of publishers, but ultimately won the Booker Prize. It seems that even writing a brilliant novel doesn’t mean you’ll immediately get another publishing deal. There’s a lot of waiting around involved in being an author. My agent recently placed a novel for another of her authors – but only after 27 straight rejections.
Oh, I did forget to mention that the follow-up to The Book of Angels is nearly done. It’s called The Book of Dragons and should be out April 2017. Everyone likes dragons, right?