Interview with Anna Stephens – DARKSOUL
Hi Anna! For those who haven’t met you yet – as there’s no forgetting Anna ‘The Hammer’ Stephens – in 50 words or less, tell us about your debut Godblind!
Godblind is an epic tale of war, religion and the corrupting influence of power. The Red Gods have decreed their followers, the Mireces, must conquer Gilgoras, beginning with their ancient enemies in Rilpor.
It’s a story of politics and power, religion and revenge, and the choices people make in extreme situations. It’s about crossing lines and how far individuals are prepared to go for those they love, and about heroism and hope in the most unlikely people and places.
And a hammer.
Godblind came out just over a year ago; what’s changed in that time?
For me? Pretty much everything. A distant dream that I’ve been working towards for most of my life has been achieved, and I’ve been contracted to achieve that dream twice more with Godblind’s sequels. Hopefully, that will continue with more contracts, more books, and more opportunities to defer ever getting a real job again. I’ve been to conventions, I’ve spoken in front of large groups of people about my work (and not been laughed at or booed – apart from when I deserved it), I’ve been to a foreign country because of Godblind (Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden) and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few heroes and make a ton of good friends.
For my readers? Hopefully they read a book they enjoyed and are looking forward to reading the sequels. For the people who didn’t like it, well, at least you bought it. All counts towards my sales figures.
For the world? Well, probably best we don’t get into that – I don’t think we have enough time. Let’s just say that in general, what Lanta did with her hammer is a bit like what several world governments have done to their countries.
Rewind 13 years ago – which, in your own words, ‘feels like forever’ – you’d just finished the first draft of the story that was to become the book. Has it all turned out to be what you expected? If not, what’s different?
Is the book what I expected? Not in the least – thank the gods. The first draft of Godblind was hysterically awful, so I’m delighted that the story, the characters and my ability to write went through an exponential improvement over the years.
Has the experience of being published been what I expected? Again, not really. Despite having worked towards publication for years, I actually didn’t know very much about it. It’s not really that it’s secretive, it just doesn’t get mentioned by authors very often. So I didn’t really know what to expect. Having sold Godblind to four territories in pretty short order, I had a couple of delusions of grandeur that were rightly shot down with a big gun, and since then it’s been a case of hit my deadlines when at all possible, then wait for responses and keep myself busy in the meantime with other projects.
While publishing isn’t quite what I envisioned, I still wake up every day genuinely excited to be doing what I’m doing – and, quite often, terrified, neurotic and violently ill-prepared. It’s a funny world, knowing that you wrote a piece of your soul in 124,000 words and people are reading it and judging it and judging you by extension – and mostly that all they take away from it is the hammer scene. Which, by the way, only appeared in a draft about five years ago – it certainly wasn’t an original concept.
Back to the present – book two, Darksoul, is due out on 23 August. Did you approach writing it differently than with Godblind?
Well, yes. I didn’t have 13 years for a start! I had nine months. Because of that, I wanted to work to a strict outline and … well, things didn’t go well. I didn’t manage my time well enough to be able to show Harry, my agent, a draft before it went off to Harper Voyager, meaning that no one but me had read it. And it … wasn’t good.
My editor made some suggestions and asked me to rewrite it quite extensively, and then asked me to change the ending. And then asked me to change the ending again, with some further suggestions. So there was a lot of rewriting, and a great many crises of confidence, and a delayed publication date as a result.
It really knocked my confidence, I’m not going to lie, but in the end, with a lot of help from – oh, from you Mike!! – plus from Harry and Natasha (my editor) it’s turned into something that I’m really proud of. The story needed all those rewrites and all that input, and the result is that it’s a much, much leaner and more exciting – and heart-breaking, and dark – novel than the version I submitted last July.
Now that I’m working on Book 3, I’m really trying to keep all those lessons in the front of my mind. I’m also determined to let Harry read it and make suggestions before it goes to the editors, too. I’m not making that mistake again!
What was the hardest part about writing Darksoul? You posted a very honest and personal blog on the editing process recently, which was both heartfelt and insightful.
That blog post was both really cathartic and an apology to the readers who were expecting Darksoul to drop on 31 May, its original publication date. I also decided early on that I want to make this experience as honest as I can for any writers out there who are working towards publication and may find my journey helpful.
Mark Lawrence said on his Grim Tidings Podcast interview that he just drafts the book, reads it once and sends it off. I present as the very opposite of that approach, so anyone who thinks they’re Mark Lawrence and then discovers they’re not – you can be Anna Stephens instead! You poor bastards.
But for me, the hardest part of Darksoul was realising that I’m not yet the calibre of writer who can produce a fantastic first/second draft without input from others. And then dealing with that sense of absolute horror that maybe my first book was a total bloody fluke and I’m never going to be able to replicate it. And then getting over that and getting back to work, despite the doubts.
I may never be that writer, but I’m a better one than I was a year ago. And next year I’ll be better than I am now. Writing is an evolution and sometimes you head down a weird evolutionary side branch that gets annihilated because it missed a genome or something, and you end up back on the main branch again and … I have no idea where this analogy is going. Each book makes you a better writer, that’s the gist.
And, with that in mind, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year about publishing/writing?
Understanding that the middle book in a trilogy has a vital role to play and that withholding all the exciting and big reveals until your epic book 3 conclusion is a really bad idea – it doesn’t matter how great book 3 is if book 2 is so boring no one bothers to buy that third!
It was learning to make Darksoul into something individual and stand-alone inasmuch as reveals, plot, excitement and character progression are concerned. It’s not just the bridge from the first to the third, it’s its own entity and that’s really important to understand and acknowledge.
And realising that difficult editorial conversations are not designed to crush your spirit.
Godblind had over 10 point-of-view characters (or at least it did at the start…mwahahaha!) with a plot that spanned an entire country. Darksoul picks up where the story left off, and (having read a version of it) it doesn’t let up! How do you keep track of everything going on in your books?
Honestly, I found the easiest way to do it was to have a contents page at the front of the document listed by character POV, with jumplinks to each new chapter opening. So if I can’t remember when I killed someone off, for instance, I can check the contents page and work out where they stop having POV chapters. Or if I know something happens in a Dom chapter, but can’t remember where exactly, I can jump to each of his chapters without having to scroll through 400 pages looking for the reference.
That also really helps me to check the flow of the novel – am I bunching together too many chapters about one character, do I have enough chapters about the Blessed One, is the balance between good guys and bad guys weighted correctly etc?
It’s not sexy, but it works.
That, and notebooks, and just knowing the plot inside out. Though with so many changes that happened to Darksoul, even I’m not sure what the hell happens in it. Which is making for occasional issues while writing the last book.
Apart from the world of Godblind and Darksoul, what’s next for Anna Stephens? What can readers look forward to beyond the current trilogy?
Well, I’ve now had two short stories published – in the Art of War charity anthology and in issue 15 of Grimdark Magazine – both based around a new character, mercenary captain Syl Stoneheart. In addition, I’ve got a backstory piece covering an incident in Captain Crys Tailorson’s past for those who like him in the Godblind trilogy. That’s coming out in Unfettered III in September 2018 through Grim Oak Press.
As well as looking forward to writing some more Syl short stories, I’m halfway through a brand new novel that is hopefully the start of a new trilogy. My agent has seen an early version of it and gave it the thumbs up, so my aim is to finish the book once I’ve sent off Godblind 3 to the editors and then hopefully get it sent out on submission.
It’s a very different world from the Godblind universe, but there’s a focus on some similar themes – gender parity and kickass female warriors, opposing political viewpoints, aggressive military expansion. This time I’m pushing myself though with some more challenging terrain and themes and more diverse characters. And for the first time I’m exploring both magic and monsters, which is exciting.
2017 was, in my opinion, ‘The Year of Debuts’ – and whilst 2018 is shaping up to be ‘The Year of Book Twos’ there’s still a lot of promise for this year’s newcomers. Is there anyone that you’ve recently enjoyed reading from the debutants of 2017/18?
I really enjoyed Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God, which was released through Angry Robot in June. Not strictly debuts, but Peter McLean’s first foray into grimdark fantasy – Priest of Bones – was excellent, and Tessa Gratton’s first adult fantasy The Queens of Innis Lear blew my mind. I also loved Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby, which is utterly bonkers – firefighters v dragons!
Of the ‘Class of 2017’ debuts, if you were to have an Avengers-style crossover between your world and that of another, who would it be and why?
Yikes, that’s really tough. I’d like to see Nenn from Ed McDonald’s Blackwing go toe to toe in a dust-up with Major Tara Carter of the West Rank – there’d be blood everywhere, they’d both fight dirty, I don’t know who’d win (I do, it’s Tara, obviously) but they’d absolutely go and get roaring drunk together afterwards.
I’d also like to see how the Blessed One did in the world of Deborah Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy, particularly in the Dragon King’s city of Autalon.
If you could have your books produced in a different format (e.g. film, TV, game, theatre, comic etc.) what would you choose and why?
I try and write ‘cinematically’ i.e. with enough cliffhangers and reveals to make chapters and characters quite visual for the readers, so I’d have to say I’d love to see it on film or TV.
Of course I already have my perfect cast list for most of the main characters (doesn’t every writer?), but I would definitely have one stipulation for the director: something that always annoys the hell out of me in any film or show that has action sequences – the women (and often the men) always end up with a cut on their cheekbone that never bruises. It’s just one perfect little cut that never bothers them.
Now, I’ve had more than my share of fists or feet in the face during my years of karate, and believe me, they bruise. Even if they don’t split skin, they bruise. So that would be my non-negotiable – no pretty heroines at the end of battles, but absolutely knackered, sweat-soaked, battered, swollen beyond recognition warriors, please. Let’s keep it real.
Thanks so much for answering our questions, Anna!
Anna Stephens is the author of the GODBLIND trilogy. Book two, Darksoul, will be released in August 2018.