In our second ‘The Write Advice’ post we get into the real crux of planning and drafting with Derek Prior, author of both the Shader and Legends of the Nameless Dwarf series. In this interview he shares with us his basis for planning and drafting novels as well as the epic task of revising and adding to past editions. We even get a sneak peek at two works in progress which is sure to keep the fans straining at the bit!
This is a long interview but seriously worth reading and is an incredible insight into the world of planning and redrafting by an accomplished author.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I’m originally from the South East of England, but I’ve lived in West Wales, Australia, and now Florida. I’m a former mental health nurse, personal trainer, musician, and actor. These days, I divide my time between writing, editing, weight training, and my new obsession, MMA.
I self-published my first novel in 2009. Since then I’ve written nine novels, two novellas, and a couple of short stories. My most successful books have been the Shader series, an epic fantasy about a conflicted holy knight, and the four-book series Legends of the Nameless Dwarf.
Carnifex: A Portent of Blood (Legends of the Nameless Dwarf book 1) has recently been selected for the American Library Association List of Top Genre Fiction. It’s also been featured by Black Gate Magazine, Kirkus Reviews Magazine, Fantasy Book Critic, Bookwraiths, Smash Dragons, and Mid-West Book Review.
Last year, Carnifex and Geas of the Black Axe (book 2) were commended by nine out of eleven big 5 publishers. The deal breaker was that single race stories apparently haven’t sold well over the last few years. The news that the books were considered good, or even great by some, but that dwarves were currently out, was a big disappointment. Fortunately, my fall back plan was to self-publish, and I already had everything set up and ready to go. The upside is that dwarves do indeed sell, at least in the ebook and audiobook markets. Carnifex, narrated by the talented Paul Woodson, has swiftly become my bestselling audiobook of 2016.
Over the past year or so you have been working hard on re-writing your Nameless Dwarf and Shader series’ of books. What exactly did you and you why did you decide to do this?
It’s not been so much re-writing as expanding and completing the story arcs. The Shader books began as a complete re-write of my first novel, The Resurrection of Deacon Shader, following some editorial feedback from John Jarrold. I began by revising the original, then halfway through had a whole host of ideas that would massively improve the story and its telling. I therefore rewrote it as a trilogy: Sword of the Archon, Best Laid Plans, and The Unweaving.
The Nameless Dwarf story was originally a spin-off from Shader. Readers loved the character of Nameless, and so I decided to write a short story with him as the lead. The Ant-Man of Malfen was about 5000 words long and ended up being published in Pulp Empire Volume 5.
After that I started receiving fan mail about the story and ended up expanding it into a novella with multiple points of view. It was released as A Dwarf With No Name. I also planned out a five-novella series that would basically continue Nameless’s story after he departs from the Shader stage.
When I compiled the series into an omnibus edition, The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles, it became a bestseller on multiple platforms and out-earned all my other books put together. I then began to receive emails from fans who wanted the whole story, starting with the oft-mentioned origins, when Nameless (before he lost his name!) committed terrible atrocities against his own people after discovering a sentient black axe.
I put off writing this material until I was taken on by my agent, Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary. We discussed which books to pitch to publishers, and I suggested Nameless, simply because The Complete Chronicles was my most popular book to date.
We then agreed that I would need to write not only the origins story, but then connect that to the Complete Chronicles by rewriting all the Shader material relevant to Nameless, and a final episode that happens to him off-camera in the Shader books.
This was a massive undertaking, and I was due a break from writing as I had just completed a follow on to The Complete Chronicles called Return of the Dwarf Lords. So, I had already taken the story forward, but now needed to go back.
After grumbling and moaning for a day or two, I received a bottle of Glenmorangie from Mitchell Hogan, author of A Crucible of Souls, and set about writing Carnifex: A Portent of Blood. I continued straight on into Geas of the Black Axe. I was assisted in this by my editor-wife who went through the Shader trilogy and separated out all the Nameless Dwarf scenes and compiled them for me.
Next, I drew up an outline based on the Shader material and the bridging scenes, plus the completely new final section, which linked to the start of The Complete Chronicles.
I worked 8-10 hours a day, seven days a week for four months to pull all the material together. It then went through numerous self edits before I sent it out to my six amazing beta readers. My wife, Paula, undertook the terrifying task of content editing Geas of the Black Axe (over 185,000 words at the time) with instructions to be brutal with the cuts. She and I were both dreading me reading through her edits, but there was no need. The cuts improved the pace and readability immeasurably. Many of them I would have balked at making myself, but they were exactly the right choices.
While the series was with my agent, I decided to give Shader some similar treatment. I wrote two origins novellas, Ward of the Philosopher, which deals with Shader at age seven, and The Seventh Horse, which recounts his final battle as captain of a cavalry unit, prior to leaving for the other side of the world and a life of what he hopes will be quiet prayer.
I then began cutting all the back story form the Shader books and writing it as part of one continuous narrative. I got about 50,000 words into it before I had to move on to other projects. But it’s still something I aim to finish at some point in the next few years. My goal is a continuous story arc from The Seventh Horse to the end of The Unweaving, with about 80,000 words of new material, and with Ward of the Philosopher as an appendix. The finished mega-book will be called Templum Knight, and that will bring Shader’s tale to an emphatic end.
What did you find were some of the challenges you came across when taking this project on and could you have made the process any easier in retrospect?
I assumed there were going to be huge issues with continuity and fact checking, but, perhaps due to the inordinate amount of time I spent writing every day, I suddenly found myself with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Shader and Nameless Dwarf books, and if I did need to check any facts, it was easy hunting them down using the “search” facility on Pages, or by browsing through the print versions.
What was surprising was that going back into Nameless’s past wasn’t at all restrictive as far as the writing was concerned. Obviously, certain key incidents had to take place, but as I was planning, and even during the writing, the characters started to come alive and pull the story in unexpected directions, all of which complemented the references made to this period of his life in the later books.
The process was much easier than I’d feared, and once I got into a daily routine of revising previously drafted scenes, then continuing with a new one, it no longer felt arduous. Consistency in routine is, for me, the key to getting novels written. I have developed an ability to lose myself in the particular scene I am working on without fretting about getting to the end of the story.
Physically and mentally, though, it took its toll. After four months of continuous work, I was exhausted and wanted nothing to do with writing for a very long time. Of course, that lasted about three days, and then I was back working on new projects!
How have your fans and readers responded to these new releases and what sort of feedback have you had?
The feedback for the Legends of the Nameless Dwarf series has been phenomenal. Fans have hailed them as the best books I’ve written, and Carnifex in particular has had great reviews from magazines and blogs:
“Prior weaves a fully realized world in this rich fantasy, from history, political structure, and family life to work, food, drinking (lots of drinking), and romance.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Carnifex is a masterpiece of sword and sorcery storytelling. A visceral yet thoughtful epic.” — Bookwraiths Reviews
“Gritty, tense, and brutally tragic. High quality storytelling with great characters and a relentless plot.” — Mitchell Hogan, author of A Crucible of Souls and Aurealis Award winner.
“…by the end I did care about those people–all of them, including Carnifex, were flawed but fundamentally decent people. But I had read The Nameless Dwarf, and I knew what was coming, and how it all ends. That knowledge made the book both hard to continue reading and hard to put down.” — Black Gate Magazine
“And holy shit… the battle scenes. THE BATTLE SCENES!!! People don’t actually realise how hard it is to write a good battle scene, but Prior makes it look easy. They are gripping, violent, and brilliantly choreographed.” — Smash Dragons
“A Fantasy Adventure of remarkable scope, populated by many memorable characters. Maybe D. P. Prior’s finest work to date.” — Ray Nicholson (Amazon Top 1000 reviewer)
“Whenever I have high praise for a book, I usually like to find at least one aspect of the writing to challenge, but this one’s got me stumped. I guess I could complain that it ended all too soon, but then there are three other volumes to enjoy…” — Laurence Scotford
“It’s not often I’m left speechless but this was one of those times. WOW!!” — Ebookwyrm
The fantasy community has been very receptive. I’ve been interviewed all over the place. I recently had a great time as Reddit Fantasy Writer of the Day, where I got to discuss the books with some very well-informed fantasy readers.
In amongst all of this you have released the Shader Origins novellas, prequels to the already available Shader series. Why did this come about and how careful do you need to be when doing something like this?
One of the criticisms the Shader books had early on was that the story essentially starts in the middle. That meant a lot of back story was referenced throughout; not lengthy reams of flashback — I never went that far — but it becomes clear that Shader has a long and varied history prior to the start of the series.
I decided, therefore, to gradually remove all of the back story and to show what was relevant as part of a linear plot progression. This meant beginning the story at a much earlier stage. The big project, Templum Knight, was not going to happen quickly, especially with all my other writing commitments, and so I undertook to write some of the key episodes from Shader’s past as novellas. I planned four in total but have thus far only written two.
As with the Nameless Dwarf origins story, the task was a lot easier than it at first seemed. I think many difficulties were bypassed due to the detailed timeline I created for the series years ago, plus the story was fresh in my mind from having recently reviewed the audio files for the audiobook versions.
I have heard some talk about a new project, could you give us a small insight into what you’ve got cooking?
I’m currently working on two books:
The Codex of Her Scars is an epic fantasy in a completely new setting. It has a five-part structure, two point of view characters, layers of history, a plausible, and I suspect unique, magic system, and a new depth of darkness and suffering. I’m loathe to say much more at this point; it’s something of a superstition. I’ve just completed the first section, after an average of fifteen redrafts for each of the ten chapters. I’m now moving on with section two at a much faster rate, given that the world and characters have been established and the chief lines of conflict have been drawn.
I aim to have this finished by the end of the year. It will be going straight to my agent, and then I’ll sit back and wait for as long as it takes to find a publisher.
The second project is Dead or Alive (Assassin’s Legacy book 1). This is the start of a new Sword and Sorcery series, very different in tone to Codex. It features Shadrak the Unseen, one of my most popular characters from the Shader and Nameless Dwarf books. Dead or Alive takes place after both those series and deals with a down on his luck Shadrak being forced to return to the city he once fled after assassinating the First Senator. At one time, he was the undisputed boss of all the guilds, but upon his return, he’s a wanted man, and not just by the Senate.
Dead or Alive is planned for self-publication this summer.
Alongside all of your other commitments you seem to be very efficient with your writing time, what is your process when you start a new series?
I start with a very broadly sketched series outline, which is never set in stone. I then move to outlining the first book, which is a fluid process that takes anything from a few days to a few weeks.
I begin with a concrete opening scene and a strong idea for the main characters. As I make notes or even start drafting, developments in character often suggest more plot elements, and vice versa. I keep working on the first three to four chapters, revising every day, fleshing out the characters, honing their dialogue, embellishing their environment, and often jumping ahead to make notes for later scenes, even later books, as plot paths start popping into my head.
Once the opening few chapters are strong, I look again at the outline, check the key conflicts, the peaks and troughs, give a lot of consideration to the denouement, the resolution, and the condition of the main characters at the end, how this will impact the next book, and how it fits into the overall plan for character and story growth, guided by the demands of genre and structure.
Then I am ready to power ahead, usually completing a new scene every two to three days, always revising the scene I am working on and often one to two scenes back. I’m always going back to the early scenes to work on foreshadowing, and in the latter stages I sift through all the scenes from front to back, then back to front, rooting out repetitious details, ensuring continuity, and improving interior reflection and relevant details.
I’ve learned from experience to make the first book of a series self-contained, just in case. Think, for example, of the first Star Wars movie (I mean Episode IV). The reader should be able to put down the book satisfied by the conclusion, and left with the choice to just leave it there, or pick up the second book as and when they are ready. It also gives me a get out should the first book flop!
Writing new material (coupled with revisions of the preceding passages) occurs at the start of my working day when I am fresh and focused. I tend to write for about two hours, but sometimes discover three or four hours have passed without me noticing. I then finish with that book for the day and do something that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. Usually I train with weights and then work on our land. In the afternoon, I either edit for a client or work on a different book.
The next day begins with revising what I wrote the day before and then pressing on. I always focus on the task in hand and avoid racing toward the finish. Consistency is the key, usually 1000 to 2,500 words a day, occasionally as many as 5000. Sooner or later, the end draws near, and when it arrives, the serious work of major redrafting and editing begins.
Why do you believe it is important to plan properly before venturing into the beginning of a series?
I’ve never been a fan of pure discovery writing, save as a creative writing exercise. Often what happens is the writer gets confused, tangles up plot lines, misses opportunities for foreshadowing, and makes editing a complicated nightmare.
That said, I don’t like to over plan. My outlines usually start off very simply, and, as I described above, they evolve through an organic process, an interaction between character development and blossoming plot ideas. Always in the background is an overarching awareness of structure, often drawn from my experience and study of classical drama.
One of the pitfalls awaiting series writers is if you go ahead and release book one before writing books two and three. By that time, it’s no longer possible to go back and foreshadow, or to shift elements from book one to book two. You are stuck with what you have written, and often it’s not as good as it could have been if you’d waited to complete the series and revised it into a unified, well-structured whole.
For me, structure is key. Know what kind of book you are writing. Understand peaks and troughs, button points, climax, denouement, de-escalation and resolution. Whatever your plot, whoever your characters, it’s always (I can think of no exceptions, in any case) a good idea to plug them into a structure that accounts for these elements. Readers expect stories to follow conventions, even if the author ultimately subverts those expectations. At least there is still the use of a recognizable structure as a point of departure. Flying by the seat of your pants might feel terribly liberating, but it runs the risk of alienating the reader, whose entertainment, after all, is the raison d’être for writing the story.
Can you give us any examples of when you’ve had to deviate from your plan and why authors should be flexible around making these sort of changes?
I always deviate from my plan, but rarely, if ever, from the basic plot elements I determine at the outset. In some instances, I’ve gone back and rewritten scenes from a different point of view. With The Codex of Her Scars, the intended opening scene, and the first I wrote and redrafted many times, ended up preceded by four new scenes, which meant altering the content of the original scene substantially so that it worked in its new location.
If writers are not flexible, they miss out on the opportunity to let the book develop organically and for the characters to grow and start to come alive. If you have a rigid plan and then try to slot the characters into it merely to ensure the plot unfolds as you designed, the characters invariably become talking heads whose sole purpose is to get the story from A to B. This doesn’t usually make for very engaging reading.
Have you ever ventured into the short story market yourself?
I’ve always been drawn to the art of novel writing, so I’ve spent the past seven or eight years developing the particular skill-set that enables me to do that effectively. Short story writing is a quite different narrative form requiring a different approach and skills. I have experimented with it, as well as with novella writing, but my main focus is still on producing better and better novels.
My first short story was The Ant-Man of Malfen.
A few years ago I was approached by Robert J. Duperre to write a short horror story for an anthology he was editing (The Gate 2). The general theme was isolation and despair. My contribution was called The Indian Rope Trip, which was about a boy trapped in the attic during a zombie apocalypse. I later revised it and launched it as a standalone short called The Attic. As an ebook, this story just won’t stop selling. It’s also been released as an audiobook, narrated by the incredible Elizabeth Klett.
Finally, as an established author and editor, what three tips would you give writers out there that are planning on submitting a piece of work to an agent/publisher/short story market?
My three tips would be to revise, hire a reputable editor and heed their advice, then revise again, but in the following manner:
Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise….
Get some distance from the story, then read it with a critical eye.
Send it to the editor.
Send to a copy editor. Make any corrections. Revise again.
Beta readers. Proof reader.
Read the finished story through yet again, lightly, as a reader. Incredibly, there still may be a few issues you’ll want to fix at this stage.
Then pitch it to an agent, or ask your agent to pitch it to publishers.
Never submit anything that isn’t the absolute best you can make it.
We’d like to thank Derek for taking the time to speak with us and we hoped you enjoyed the interview. If you’d like to connect with him or keep up to date with his work then you can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or his website.