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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Bestselling Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan wrote books in a variety of genres for over ten years, with no sales, then quit, vowing never to write again. Never wound up being ten years, when, at his family’s urging, he tried again, vowing to write something for them to enjoy instead of something focused on getting published. He started the Riyria Revelations and wrote all six books before publishing the 1st, approaching it like a TV series in plotting, etc. The first, The Crown Conspiracy, was published through a small indie press, Aspirations Media, and sold out its 1st run in fourteen months.  When Aspirations hit financial troubles and couldn’t reprint, rights reverted to Michael again. From April 2009 to October 2010, he put out five of the six books in the series through Ridan Publishing, a small press started by his wife. Averaging 800-1,000 books a month at $4.95 each, his books were showing up on a number of the Amazon Bestsellers lists. Sales skyrocketed with book five’s release and they decided to have his agent approach New York publishers again. Seven were interested and offered six figure advances. He settled on Orbit Books three weeks later. They released the books three months in a row, back to back, and starting in November 2011 were selling 10,000 a month. He’s editing a new novel, Antithesis, a fantasy set in modern times, and has a literary fiction piece, A Burden to the Earth, with betas. He can be found as @author_sullivan here via his blog at http://t.co/UteKb1ZA, on Facebook at http://t.co/WyZBakVk.


SFFWRTCHT: First things first, you have an inspiring success story. Congratulations. I really enjoyed reading The Crown Conspiracy. Where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

Michael J. Sullivan: Thanks – I’m glad you liked it. It’s been a long road. Like many, The Hobbit got me started followed by Lord Of The Rings. Prior to that I really wasn’t much of a reader.  A whole new world opened, and my life was forever changed. I not only read a lot but started writing, too.  Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Stephen King’s The Stand, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter – reintroduced me to fun fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

MJS:  I’m not sure you “decide” such things. I’ve just always made up stories even before I could read/write. At eight or nine, I found a typewriter at a friend’s house and actually typed “It was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out.” One of my favorite days ever was when I found my sister’s old portable typewriter while cleaning out the front closet.  From then on, there was no turning back, and I would type up books, bind them with glue, and even do my own covers. Because my grammar and spelling was so bad, I never thought I could write for a living. I used to spell “evil” wrong!! Friend’s reading my early stories coined “Sulli-speak,” as they needed to try to translate what I wrote into the English Language.

SFFWRTCHT: I think many a career began with such clichés. It’s good to get those “dark and stormy nights” out of the way early. How did you get started learning your craft? Study in school? Learn as you go? Workshop?

MJS:  I think we can blame Snoopy for that cliche. I’m sure that’s where I got it from. No formal training at all. No classes, workshops, didn’t even read books on writing. I just read, dissected books and wrote. Originally studied greats: Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Pulitzer Prize Winners like Updike. I learned a lot by studying what they did. Stephen King, for instance, is great at defining characters, and Ayn Rand was excellent at painting scenes. If you want to learn to “trust the reader” take note of how Khaled Hosseini gives you bits and pieces in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the genres you tried before taking your ten year break?

MJS: All of them…well almost, I didn’t write romance, westerns or erotica. But just about everything else. That included science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, thrillers, literary fiction, coming of age stories. I was away from fantasy awhile reading mainstream fiction. Then I quit writing because I got nowhere – twelve novels in the drawer– no nibbles. Felt like I was waiting for Great Pumpkin – that wasn’t coming. Stumbled on Harry Potter and remembered just how much fun a good fantasy is. It’s funny because most people think of me as a fantasy author, but that’s just because those were the first published.

SFFWRTCHT: So given your success in Secondary World Fantasy, why the change in subgenres for your upcoming projects?

MJS: I don’t see myself as only a “fantasy” writer. I’m a story teller and ideas for stories really aren’t so narrowly defined.

SFFWRTCHT: To your mind, what are the core elements of a good adventure fantasy?

MJS: Same as any other story. It starts with plot. Fantasy has the added advantage of facilitating great adventures…to be transported. My fantasy tastes tends toward going places I would like to visit and hanging with characters that I would want to know in real life. When an emotional connection with characters forms…and you care what happens to them, or think they are real – there’s nothing better.

SFFWRTCHT: So Riyria Revelations all started with wanting to entertain your daughter. But she wanted them published first?

MJS: Yeah, it’s a dyslexia thing. Manuscript format – large pages, double spacing. It’s hard for her eyes to track. She wanted it to look like a “real book.” Plus she loves bending, curling, and beating up on books. They go through the wringer.

SFFWRTCHT: Well, she forced the issue and I’ll bet your glad. Look where it’s taken you trying to please her.  Which came first-plot or characters? Theme? World?

MJS: Yeah, it’s because of my wife and daughter that I am writing today. And it really depends on the book which comes first. But usually plot. Sometimes for literary fiction I’m focusing on a character. Sparks might come from setting (current WIP is future) but I need to know what happens before I have a story. Of the three pillars, I’m probably most focused on plot first, characters second, and use setting primarily as a back drop.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

MJS: Depends on when you start counting. I “thought” about Riyria for ten years before I wrote any of it down. I’ve been plotting my next series for three years. But no writing…just making notes, envisioning scenes, fitting puzzle pieces. Crown Conspiracy took me one month to write. Same with the next Riyria book. The others took six to nine months each. Nowadays I usually can write a book in two to four months. Editing can be another two to three months. So four to seven months total.

SFFWRTCHT: How deeply do you plot before you write? Lots of detail, or just rough idea of where you’re going?

MJS: I always outline – but lightly. I know where I’ll end up but allow for sidetracking. Riyria was always a carefully designed series. I had the whole story but wanted to divide it into individual episodes.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you decide on the geography for Riyria? Did you draw the map to fit what you wrote or vice versa?

MJS: Started with map. But then it changed to accommodate the story a few times.

SFFWRTCHT: Your books are often labeled family friendly fantasy. Is that deliberate?

MJS: I have no sex, graphic violence, or foul language – but mainly because I don’t think it adds to the story. I tried to have as wide of an audience as possible, having parents give the books to their kids is satisfying to me. I get emails where three generations are reading the books all at once — which is cool.

SFFWRTCHT: Crown Conspiracy centers around the thieves Hadrian and Royce who are lovable and quite humorous in their interactions. Who came first?

MJS: Interesting, no one ever asked me that before. They truly are inseparable. They have always existed as a duo. In many ways they are kinda one person divided into two. Deficiencies in one is offset by strengths of the other. Also, I think a lot of humor is missing from fantasy these days. Sometimes so dire.

SFFWRTCHT: Well, you wrote them that way for sure. But sometimes one is mutt, one jeff. And Hadrian had more POV scenes, at least in Crown.

MJS: That’s because you really don’t want to be inside Royce’s head.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

MJS: I’m very structured. I start each day with coffee, reading papers (online), and then reading a bit of fiction to wake my mind up. That means I’m at the keyboard by 8:00 or 9:00 and I write until lunch – which could be noon, 1:00, or 2:30. That usually results in 2,000 words – my daily goal. I might do more writing in the evening if I’m really “into” something.  It’s the morning writing that is “my bread and butter” if I do more later on (evening or afternoon) fine…but I see that as extra.

SFFWRTCHT: Me too. Mornings are my best creative time. I can power through a lot. Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music?

MJS: I do use Scrivener. I wrote a blog post on it - http://t.co/0AstDhD5. I also like WordWeb for spelling. One peculiarity is that I have to be completely alone. If my wife even walks through the room, it stops me. I won’t even let the dog in, when I’m writing. Even he would be a distraction. If I’m going to write a very emotional scene, I usually do play music and I have compilations for most of my books.

SFFWRTCHT: There are six Riyria books, at least so far, and the overarching plot is about a kingdom thrown into a power struggle. In Crown, Royce and Hadrian wind up saving the prince and princess but the troubles continue.

MJS: Throughout the series – there is saving done on both sides. Women end up saving the men as much as men save women.

SFFWRTCHT: Any plans to delve more into this setting and these characters?

MJS:  The series was very carefully designed to start and end where it has. And I wouldn’t “tack on” to it. But I do really enjoy the characters, and they have been well received such that I think people want to see more of them. So, prequels or sequels are definitely in the realm of possibilities, and I left some threads in the stories that I could pull from. I’m very conscious about not “overstaying my welcome.” I don’t want to be like one of those TV series that went past their prime.

FFWRTCHT: Are family your beta readers as well? What kind of role do they play or do they in story development? If any?

MJS: Robin, my wife is really much more than a beta reader. She is a full out developmental editor. She’s really good at finding issues with plot, and to keep me focused on character motivations.  By the time she has torn things apart and I’ve put the books back together, then the book is in really good shape. I have beta readers, and will make minor adjustments based on their feedback, but by the time they get it, the book is pretty set.

SFFWRTCHT: Robin runs a small publishing company, right? I know she’s also respected for her marketing tips too.

MJS:  Yes – it was started primarily for me… but she has taken on other authors over the years. Some of them have sold 20,000 copies a month. Five authors have made six-figures.

SFFWRTCHT: How hard has it been to have book six held since Orbit came aboard?

MJS: Harder for the fans than me.  It was delayed for nine months and some freaked out.  But now that that time is past it’s not such an issue any more

SFFWRTCHT: What do you think is the secret to writing good character humor as you have with Hadrian and Royce?

MJS: Really I just write what I hear them saying. I don’t try to “invent” humor for them they are just funny guys.

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

MJS: You know, I’ve never really gotten any writing advice. I operate pretty much in a vacuum and don’t know other authors. I’ve given a lot of writing advice to others, and on that front, I say write what you really want to read. Also, the key is persistence. There will be many times you think it is hopeless or too hard, but you just have to keep going.

SFFWRTCHT: How essential is self-marketing in part of being an author today?

MJS: I think whether self-published or traditional published – audience building is going to rely on the author. I think if you don’t do it … it won’t get done. Marketing departments don’t have the bandwidth. It’s about “connecting” with others not “selling” I like interacting and thanking people for reading.

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

MJS: I have so much going on right now. Seven projects total. As mentioned I’ve signed a new series with Orbit. Book #1 is done. Book  #2 is  going through a major rewrite. My current WIP is stalled at 50%. It’s a science fiction story about a man who travels into the future. Orbit has Antithesis submitted to satisfy an option clause. If they don’t pick it up then I’ll probably self-publish. That is an urban fantasy where an unsuspecting bystander ends up receiving magical powers that were meant for someone else. I’m also behind on my “next” series that I wanted to start in September. (Fall is always my “big project” time. It will be on a scale similar to Riyria, and I want to write all the books before the first is released. I also have short stories coming out in three anthologies in December and January, including Triumph Over Tragedy which raises funds for the Red Cross’ Hurricane Sandy Relief. None of these are “paid” gigs but me donating stories to help out a fantasy forum or a fellow writer. The most high profile of those is Unfettered which is a project a bunch of fantasy writers have donated their time to. Proceeds will be used to repay the medical bills of Shawn Speakman. Two other ones will be to support Fantasy Faction and provide a spotlight to writing challenge winners at sffworld. I have 4 short stories coming out between Oct 2012 – Jan 2013. And I have four books to hold my fans while I write the next “big series” which will probably be a multi-year project.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends(forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.