Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today sees the return of sci-fi / fantasy writer and publisher Robert B Marks to talk more about his writing. You can read our interview about his publishing here. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello again, Robert. Please remind us about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Robert: Well, I’m 35 years old, a writer, editor, publisher, and researcher, and I was one of those people for whom writing is a calling. Quite seriously, I didn’t choose writing – it chose me. By the time I was in my third year of my first university degree, I was winning fanfiction awards, and by the end of 2000, I had scored my first book contract (an e-book titled Diablo: Demonsbane for Pocket Books).
Morgen: What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Robert: I’m definitely a fantasist in my heart, although I’ve been leaning a bit away from the more epic fantasy and into the more gritty and realistic fantasy, a la George R.R. Martin. I’ve also written some science fiction – one of my SF short stories, For the Digital Green Fields of Aldamar, was published by the Escapist a couple of years ago, although they took the word “Digital” out of the title when they put it up.
I am, however, slowly but surely working on writing my great grandfather’s World War I story (he was in the Imperial Russian Cavalry), and one of these days I would like to give the Lewis Chessmen something resembling a Pillars of the Earth treatment.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Robert: Well, my first book was Diablo: Demonsbane, which was published by Pocket Books in 2000 as an e-book, and published in proper print in the Diablo Archive anthology in 2008. After that, I wrote The EverQuest Companion for Osborne / McGraw-Hill, which was a book about the history of that game, the community around it, and its social issues published in 2003. Following that, I co-wrote A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour, which was used to start my publishing company in 2007 after it went into contract negotiation hell. And, add onto that over 300 non-fiction articles and columns, along with some national defence research on strategic communications.
Morgen: You’ve self-published – what lead to you going your own way?
Robert: This latest e-book is self-published (well, sort of – I own the publishing company that published it), and that was in large part to try to get some exposure to my writing while two finished novels of mine make the rounds at publishers. Unfortunately, while fantasy publishers were buying up manuscripts in the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, I was in the middle of agent problems, and as a result my work didn’t get onto the right editors’ desks in time, which left me a bit out in the proverbial wilderness, and building a career as a non-fiction writer. So, hopefully people will read The Traveller on the Road of Legends, like it, and I’ll be able to start building a new audience.
Morgen: Let’s hope so. Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Robert: You know, I don’t actually own an e-reader – I’m a luddite when it comes to that. The funny thing is that I was there for the very beginning of the e-book market. I was even the author of one of the first big major e-book releases. And, now that I’m making a return to longer fiction, I’m doing it with an e-book. I think that’s rather fitting, when it comes down to it.
When it comes to my other books, and the books that I publish with my little publishing company, Legacy Books Press, just about all of them are available in a form of e-book, one way or the other.
Morgen: Did you choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Robert: For the longest time, when it came to the titles, I didn’t, and as a result I consider it very important to have that input. I’m fairly sure that in retrospect The EverQuest Companion was hurt by having a title that sounded too much like a strategy guide. Now, it’s the sort of thing I fight for.
Morgen: I’m a big titles fan and great ones do grab me. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Robert: Right now I have two of my own books on the go, and at some point I may be able to stop being outpaced by continental drift on them…one is titled Viking, and it is a novel telling the story of Ragnarok. The other is titled The Colour-Blind Tailor, and it is the World War I story of my great grandfather.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Robert: I wish that I managed to write every day. Unfortunately, while I don’t suffer from writer’s block, I do sometimes suffer from a lack of motivation. When you’re running a publishing company, sometimes working on defence research, and doing other editing and writing jobs, you sometimes realize at the end of the day that it’s been about five or six months since you actually sat down and worked on one of your own projects for a change. That’s happened to me a few times.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Robert: It’s a bit of both, really. I do tend to work off of an outline, and while the details can vary, the actual overall story doesn’t tend to go too far off-script. However, when writing the outline, there is this moment where the story comes to life, and all of a sudden I’m not making the story up any more, but instead just recording what happened in it. It’s a very hard thing to describe, and an amazing thing to experience.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Robert: I think what makes a character believable is having an inner life. A character needs to be focused on more than just what is happening in the plot – the reader needs to see that this character has a past, has hobbies, cares about things other than what is happening in the story, etc.
And, my way of creating names has changed a bit. Back when I first got started, I think I ended up creating a number of rather silly names based on what sounded fantastic. I’ve since moved back to something more realistic, basing names off what we see in the real world. Part of this changed between the first draft so long ago of Traveller on the Road of Legends and the final draft, and as a result at least two of the names of key characters ended up being changed, and they work far better now.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Robert: Frankly, my first drafts are crap.
Robert: Well, that may be a bit harsh. The thing is that any writer is by definition one of the worst editors of his or her own work. When you write something, you’re just too close to it to be able to give it the edit it deserves – you know what it’s supposed to say, and you superimpose that on the work, regardless of if you actually said it. So, I’ll write a story or chapter, think I covered everything properly, and then when I come back a few days later found that I missed something important. So, I try to give every story, short or long, at least two editing passes, if not three, and I try to make sure that at least one pass is done by somebody else, to catch the things I miss.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Robert: I am constantly doing research. I think any author worth his or her salt is the same way. You write best what you know, and if you get something wrong, the people who do know will laugh at you. So, I’ve got a relatively extensive personal library on everything from history to neurology, and that’s not counting the historical swordplay training, mead-making, and re-enactment activities. I’ve actually fought in a Viking shield wall – it’s an amazing feeling.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Robert: My very first novel. It was called Demon’s Vengeance, it was written when I was about 16 or 17, and it’s quite dreadful. There are places that TV Tropes would probably call a “cliché storm”.
Morgen: But you have the experience to see where it’s gone ‘wrong’ and perhaps fix it? Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Robert: I’ve had plenty of rejection letters – and that’s just the numbers game, if you want to put it that way. There are a lot of writers and authors competing for relatively few spots, so you’re going to get rejections before you get accepted somewhere. Still, one of my favourite responses was a rejection letter from Analog – a single sentence personal rejection letter by Stanley Schmidt, one of the most famous editors in the business. It meant that the story had gotten all the way to him before being turned down. It felt almost as good as if I had been accepted.
Morgen: That’s a great way to take it. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Robert: I am represented by the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency, and my agent is Vaughne Lee Hansen. And, I think that an agent is vital to an author’s success, in quite a few ways. The most important thing an agent does is contract negotiation – an agent can get concessions and protections into a contract that an author frequently can’t. So, basically, the agent takes care of the business end, freeing the author to actually, well, write.
Morgen: That’s what we all strive for; to spend more time writing. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Robert: The relative isolation, on all three counts. Writing is solitary work – the most important part of it is pounding out prose on a keyboard. So, you’re free from so many of the annoyances that can sometimes arise when working with other people, which is wonderful. At the same time, you’ve got nobody to keep you company while you work, which can be terrible. And the degree to which you can have mixed feelings about it has always surprised me.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Robert: Don’t aspire – WRITE! And remember that this is a craft first, not an art. Once you get good, the art will slip into your work naturally. Keep writing, get good at it, and never stop learning and living your life while you do it.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Robert: “Show, don’t tell.” It speaks so much about what makes for good prose, while being completely misunderstood by so many writing instructors who treat it like it’s self explanatory when it really isn’t.
What it actually means is to give the reader the information s/he needs to draw a conclusion instead of telling them outright. So, instead of telling the reader that a character is sexy, describe the parts of the character that are sexy and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions. If you do this, the prose will help draw the reader in, and make the story “pop.”
Morgen: Absolutely. I usually give ‘Andy slammed his fist on the desk’ vs ‘Andy was angry’ as an example. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Robert: Well, I own and run a publishing company that publishes a number of non-fiction history books…
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Robert: I play the violin (very badly), I’m into the historical martial arts movement, so I’m training in German Longsword, and I make honey wine. I used to be a Viking Age re-enactor, but I got out of that a couple of years ago.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Robert: On Writing, by Stephen King. I don’t necessarily agree with what he says about outlines, but when it comes to actual prose, I consider it to have the authority of the Bible. I would also tell people to read some Ernest Hemmingway, and pay close attention to how the man uses language.
Morgen: ‘On Writing’ has been the most recommended book in these interviews. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Robert: Right now, the best place would be my Livejournal, http://garwulf.livejournal.com. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for my little publishing company, Legacy Books Press, www.legacybookspress.com.
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Robert: Where is the Maltese Falcon?
Morgen: I know it’s not in Malta. 🙂 Thank you, Robert.
I then invited Robert to include a synopsis of his book…
It is the Road of Legends, the Great Road, the road between worlds. Veiled in mist, it is a pathway where anything is possible, where heroes battle with dragons, and where immortals wander in their endless lives. It is where a traveller can journey into the very stories, myths, and legends themselves.
And, deep in the mists of the Great Road, a madman will stop at nothing to destroy every single one of them. Robert B. Marks, the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, invites you to take your first steps onto the Road of Legends…
Robert B. Marks is an author, writer, editor, publisher, and researcher living in Kingston, Ontario. He holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Medieval Studies and English Literature from Queen’s University, and a Master of Arts degree in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, and has conducted strategic communications research for the Department of National Defence. He is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, the e-book that launched the entire Diablo fiction line; Garwulf’s Corner, one of the first computer games issues columns ever to appear on the internet; The EverQuest Companion: The Inside Lore of a Game World, a book exploring the background, history, and community of EverQuest; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour.
When he’s not working, he is exploring his many hobbies – he plays the violin (very badly), makes honey wine, and trains in German longsword.
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