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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author Sam Sykes

Sam Sykes is a young writer, who, in his mid-twenties, is one of the more inventive writers working today. He was the first guest we ever interviewed for SFFWRTCHT, and you can read that conversation here. He writes full time and plays dog’s best friend a lot for his two dogs. Kinda like me. His first novel Tome Of The Undergates, first in the Aeon’s Gate Trilogy, arrived from PYR Books in 2010. His second, Black Halo, released in Spring 2011 and now the conclusion, The Skybound Sea, is coming out this Fall and it’s fantastic. In fact, I highly recommend the whole series and blogged about that here: His poetry and short stories have appeared in both books and magazines . He spends a lot of time tweeting as @samsykesswears and also hangs out online at

SFFWRTCHT: Starting out, I’ve noticed a lot of growth over the course of the trilogy. How much are you aware of that? And how much effort is deliberate in trying to improve? Is that a response to reviews? Self-awareness?

Sam Sykes: To be aware of growth is to be aware of one’s earlier flaws. I’m aware of them, of course, and it’s necessary to be. But I think true growth comes from one’s own experience. You cannot keep writing and not get better. It’s inevitable. I haven’t really given it much thought. I only really noticed when I was in the middle of my third, The Skybound Sea. It was pretty thrilling.

SFFWRTCHT: Did your goals for the series evolve over time or have they remained pretty steady throughout?

SS: I’d like to think so. It’d be a pretty boring story otherwise. The goal has always been to write my story. I’ve certainly addressed parts I wasn’t satisfied with.

SFFWRTCHT: In Skybound Sea, Lenk and company gather one last time to find the Tome and confront Ulbecetonth, the Netherlings, frogmen and Abysmyths. Over all, the trilogy is a giant quest story. But there are complicated journey subplots for each character.  Did you write each book with a theme in mind?

SS: Themes, I think, aren’t always up to the writer. We can try to make some, but readers will always have new views. Basically, I let the original vision guide the story at the expense of the characters and conflict. That said, though, the themes are always secondary to the characters and their conflicts.  Characters are always the most important. They drive everything else.

SFFWRTCHT: What would you identify as your greatest strength as a writer?

SS: An utter willingness to embrace conflict.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you ever gone into a novel with specific literary influences in mind?

SS: Well, not really. I’d be writing their story, then, instead of mine. Influence, I think, is unconscious.

SFFWRTCHT: Has your approach to writing evolved in the process of writing this as far as routines, habits, time planning?

SS: In fact, it’s gotten tougher. As I become more aware of how my work improves, I’m more aware of how difficult it is.  Hence, with the difficulty comes a harder time managing the time. And more time is invested. The writing will demand more time as you get better.

SFFWRTCHT: So saying all that, do you start with characters or plot?

SS: Characters define plot. I can begin with a loose outline of what I want to do, but characters will frequently defy it.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music?

SS: I used to! But I find it far too distracting now. I need everyone to stop talking and breathing when I write.

SFFWRTCHT: What, to your mind, are the core elements of good adventure fantasy?

SS: Same as any story. Characters. All else is secondary.

SFFWRTCHT: We have a theme going here. Have you ever reined in characters who strayed too far, or have you always indulged?

SS: I indulge frequently. If it gets out of hand, then it’s untrue to the character and I pull that back.

SFFWRTCHT: Which adventure fantasy writers do you pay attention to?

SS: Whatever happens to catch my interest at the time. I’m a very bad fan.

SFFWRTCHT: You mentioned a basic outline. Have you evolved to plan more or less as a writer now?

SS: About the same, I feel. I’m less obsessed with it, but I do like having it on hand to refer to.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you let everything just hang out in your first draft and fix it later or do you fix as you write?

SS: I fix as I write. But sometimes you need to power through something without it being perfect just to get moving.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think in terms of what is “fun” to read?

SS: Fun is not necessarily mindless. And when it is, it isn’t a story anymore. It’s being mindless.

SFFWRTCHT: The violence is pretty gory and gritty. Has that been a problem for readers?

SS: A few. I actually think it’s gotten kind of gratuitous at some points. In Skybound Sea, it’s gory where appropriate.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever get hung up on a scene that just doesn’t work? How do you move past it?

SS: I take two days. If I haven’t figured it out, I move to a new scene and come back.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

SS: “Perseverance trumps luck and talent.” Best. “Remember who came before you.” Worst. I don’t think writers benefit from paying homage to previous writers, as it were.

SFFWRTCHT: One of the challenges was your use of so many different species of underworld beings. Tell us about your monsters.

SS: Monsters are characters first. All of mine have their own problems, their own motives, their own goals. Abysmyths are ten-foot-tall evangelical fish-headed demons with Oedipal complexes.  Frogmen are disillusioned parishioners seeking solace in oblivion. Netherlings? Angry, vengeful purple women obsessed with violence and led by weirdo effeminate men. It’s hard to go into all of them here. A lot from the Discovery channel. I like my monsters to be based on biological fact. Nothing is weirder than the real world.

SFFWRTCHT: Okay, there definitely are a number of them. Those are good examples. Do you think in terms of how did this creature evolve?

SS: Oh yeah. If I can explain where it came from, then it’s more real to me.

SFFWRTCHT: Has there been any push back on the interspecies romance between Lenk and Kataria?

SS: Oh! No. Most people seem to love it. Especially male readers, for some weird reason.

SFFWRTCHT: Well for one, males probably like it because there’s no sappiness to the romance. It’s a gritty subplot.

SS: All story is conflict. Romance is the greatest conflict.

SFFWRTCHT: You also spend a lot of time exploring the psychology of characters. Is psych a particular fascination for you?

SS: Nah. I know how they work, but not the fine tune of their gears turning, if you follow.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any plans to revisit these characters and the setting in future works?

SS: Ohoho. OHOHOHO. Yeah. We’ve got a new thing in the works. Very hush hush.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there something someone else wrote that you think, “Damn, I should’ve written that?”

SS: No. I just assume everyone who did something I wanted to do stole it from me via time travel.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

SS: Uh, my next series. Toying with a YA. Being a general jackanapes.

SFFWRTCHT: Any plans to do science fiction?

SS: No. Science is a myth. Everything is explained by goblins.

SFFWRTCHT: What are some great books you’ve read recently?

SS: Anvil Of The World by Kage Baker is psychotically good.

SFFWRTCHT: Ah Goblins, so you’ve joined the Jim C. Hines “everything is better with goblins” school of writing then?

SS: Yes. He knows the truth.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you done any more with short stories lately? I know it has not been a main focus in the past.

SS: I’m actually in with a bunch of authors in the anthology Dangerous Women by Gardner Dozois, out soon!

SFFWRTCHT: How crucial do you think cons are for an author, especially a “new” author?

SS: They’re big. Unless you’ve got someone else to do publicity for you (or have your own buzz), you need ‘em.

SFFWRTCHT: What kind of role has Lou Anders or your other editor, Simon, played in shaping the books?

SS: Lou has lent me some truly countless enthusiasms and advice. I love his style of editing.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you allowed any input on the covers? Or was that totally independent? Other than modeling as Lenk, of course.

SS: I had some opinion on Kataria on the cover of Skybound Sea. We had to change her to look more snarly. There’s a really weird picture on Deviant Art of someone’s interpretation of her.  There’s also sketches at my website: courtesy of Mike Lunsford.

SFFWRTCHT: If you’re interested, here’s Sam Sykes’ author page and book ordering on Amazon

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011  Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. A freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction and also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.