Anne Lyle: The Terribleminds Interview

It’s time again to give the mic to another wonderful writer — this time, Anne Lyle, writer of historical fantasy and Angry Robot author — and submit her brain for processing at the Terribleminds Institute For Penmonkey Dissection. You’re going to want to keep a keen eye on Anne, and you can do so at Twitter (@AnneLyle) or her website: AnneLyle-dot-com. (Er, by the way, that image is not Anne Lyle. That’s Mal Catlyn, the star of Anne’s upcoming fantasy series.)

This is a blog about writing and storytelling, so before we do anything else, I’d like you to tell me – and, of course, the fine miscreants and deviants that read this site – a story. As short or long as you care to make it, as true or false as you see it.

I can’t write fiction on the spur of the moment – I hate writers’ workshops for that reason. I would flunk Clarion, or have a nervous breakdown. You want a story, go to my website. There’s a free short story there (only one thousand words), previously published in an anthology to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial. Me, I have a novel to write…

BZZT. Wrong answer! You’re not getting out of telling us a story. We’ll totally check out that story at your site (because it’s worth checking out), but I ask again: tell us a story. Doesn’t have to be fiction. Doesn’t have to be long.

OK, non-fiction I can manage.

When I was 19, my boyfriend and I went on holiday to Greece, as many students do. We camped on a beach on one of the Cyclades (I think it was Mylopotas, on Ios), and one morning we were shaking out our sleeping bags when I rubbed my eye and my contact lens fell out. Disaster! I’m very short-sighted, and I didn’t have any glasses with me, so I was faced with the prospect of squinting my way around the rest of the islands.

As we knelt sifting desperately through the sand, I heard a jingling sound. I looked up, and my heart sank. Coming towards us along the beach was a herd of goats, followed by the goatherd. All we could do was stand there whilst two or three dozen goats trotted across the area we’d been searching. Understandably we gave up at that point.

My boyfriend suggested we go for a walk along the coast, and we did so. We even took our camping stove and stopped for a cup of instant coffee. Eventually we returned to our camping spot. Still annoyed at this serious inconvenience to my enjoyment of the trip, I lay on my side and sifted idly through the sand – with no success, of course.

A few minutes later, my boyfriend tapped me on the shoulder. “Look what I’ve found!” he said. Yep, it was my lost contact lens, only slightly the worse for its adventure.

Hand on heart, that’s God’s honest truth. Since I’m an atheist, maybe that doesn’t mean much. Still true, though.

How would you describe your writing or storytelling style?

I’d describe my novels as fantasy noir meets fantasy-of-manners: down-to-earth and gritty (but never gruesome), laced with dry wit and a dash of romance, in the broadest sense of the word. I make no pretentions to literary greatness (though I love playing with the English language); mostly I want my readers to be so enthralled they can’t put the book down!

What’s awesome about being a writer/storyteller? And: what sucks about it?

What’s awesome is hearing that someone you’ve never met stayed up all night reading your book. What sucks is waiting for a yes/no from agents, editors, etc. It’s up there with being chained to a mountainside having your liver pecked out by vultures every day. Seriously.

Care to describe your path to publication? Everybody’s got their own way through that tangled jungle, and wondering if you have any unique insight to share.

Like most writers, I’ve been messing around with stories as long as I can remember, but you know how it is: career and/or family happen along, and you tell yourself there’s plenty of time…then suddenly you look back and realise you’re no closer to realising your dream than you were a decade ago. That happened to me about nine years ago. Hadn’t finished a single novel; had written and submitted maybe one short story (not my thing, as I said above). That was when I vowed I would not be in the same position in another ten years’ time. I was going to finish at least one novel, send it out and, gods willing, get it published.

Of course RL never lets up, so it was 2006 before I made any real headway. I did NaNoWriMo for the first time, and it was just what I needed to give me a kick up the backside. I’d been a pantser until then, but NaNoWriMo forced me to, if not outline, at least to brainstorm lots of scene ideas that formed something resembling a plot, because I was terrified to the soles of my writerly boots of running out of ideas, running out of steam, facing the Big F. FAILURE.

I made my 50k, and in the New Year I started revising. And continued revising. And did NaNoWriMo again. And carried on revising that first novel. In 2008 I did a workshop at the Winchester Writers’ Conference with Juliet E McKenna, and after critiquing a chapter of my work she recommended I start attending conventions in order to network. I’d never thought of going to a science fiction convention, to be honest – I thought they were full of guys dressed as Klingons talking about their computers, and frankly I get enough geekdom in my day-job! However I took her advice and started with NewCon 4, a small convention in nearby Northampton. I had a great time, and not a single cosplayer in sight! (No offence to cosplayers – I’m a former tabletop/live action RPGer myself.)

The following year I went to FantasyCon for the first time, and also signed up for Holly Lisle’s online course “How To Revise Your Novel” – because my 2006 manuscript had been part-revised so many times it looked like an Igor from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Time was running out on my original goal, so I set myself a hard deadline: that I would have my novel finished, polished and on submission by mid-September, in time for FantasyCon 2010, so that I could enjoy the convention guilt-free. I made it, sending out my first queries to agents the week before the con.

On the very first evening, I strolled into the bar and stopped to talk to fellow Cambridge-based writer Ian Whates, and he introduced me to Marc Gascoigne of Angry Robot Books, saying they were looking for new writers. At that point, I was of course aware of Angry Robot, but since I was focusing on agents initially, I hadn’t researched them in detail. I chatted to Marc over a drink (a stiff whisky for Dutch courage, as I recall), pitched my book, and he asked for chapters. After the convention I poked around on the internet and was really excited by what I found. I was aware that publishing was going through massive changes, but these guys really seemed to be taking it in their stride. They were, and still are, innovative and passionate about genre fiction, and to say I was keen to work with them would be the understatement of the decade.

About a month later I got an email from Marc to say that he and Lee really liked my work but thought the book needed more magic. To be honest I had expected as much: I’m not terribly interested in writing wizards-with-fireballs fantasy, so I deliberately dialled it back to see how little I could get away with. Not that little, apparently! Anyway, we bounced some ideas back and forth – Marc is a great sounding-board – and eventually came up with something we both felt excited about. In January this year I sent them the full manuscript plus two synopses, and within three weeks I had an offer on the table.

I had also continued querying in the meantime and, long story short, ended up going to John Berlyne at Zeno to ask if he’d like to negotiate the contract. John already represented a couple of other Angry Robot authors, and he also seemed to really “get” my work, so I felt he was the ideal person for the job.

In some respects I’ve been extraordinary lucky: selling a first novel within six months of submission, to a great publisher via my choice of agent, is a long way from the norm. The moral of the tale, though, is that you make your own luck. If I hadn’t set myself that deadline and been ready to pitch to Angry Robot at a moment’s notice, I wouldn’t have been able to take that opportunity and run with it. And of course you still need a damned good book!

Deliver unto us a single-serving dollop of writing o advice that you yourself follow as a critical tip without which you might starve and die atop a glacier:

“To make a silk purse, first you need a sow’s ear*.” In other words, get on and write that first horrible, crappy draft — because how else can you edit it into something fit for publication?

(* David Michael Kaplan, in “Rewriting: A Creative Approach to Writing Fiction”)

Should authors feel constrained by genre or should it be freeing? Explain. And show your work. And juggle these chainsaws. Okay, not so much with the chainsaws.

“Genre” has two different meanings (IMHO). Firstly, there’s the one I think you mean in your question: the content of the story. Does it have SF elements? Fantasy? Mystery? Historical? Or is it some kind of crazy mashup – WTF, as Angry Robot like to call it.

Secondly there’s the marketing category, which boils down to “what the reader is looking for”. A romance reader is looking for a very different reading experience to a fan of epic fantasy – one wants to vicariously enjoy the sensation of falling in love, the other wants to escape into an imaginary world – so a book that includes both romance and fantasy gets shelved depending upon which elements dominate and therefore which readers’ tastes it will appeal to the most. If the main plot is a romance and it just happens to be set in a fantasy world, then it’s probably going to be classified as a romance. If two of the main characters in a heroic quest fall in love as a subplot, it’ll be shelved with the fantasy books.

Fiction has always mixed things up a bit – romance, for instance, gets everywhere! – but it’s becoming increasingly common as readers get  bored with the formulae that ruled mid-20th century publishing. They want life in all its messy glorious diversity, and writers can take advantage of that to breathe new life into old clichés. Hence the proliferation of new sub-genres: paranormal romance, steampunk, fantasy noir. It’s also far easier in ebook stores to place books in multiple genres if there really is crossover potential.

I think, though, that it’s the agent’s and editor’s job to define the second type of genre – who are they going to sell this book to? Of course the writer must be aware of the market too, but first and foremost you have to write what you love and throw in all the things that move you – and only then worry about marketing categories. Besides, what’s hot now may be old news by the time you’ve written a novel good enough to interest an agent, so aiming at the current market is rarely a good strategy for unpublished writers. It’s different, of course, for established pros, who have all the contacts in place and may be able to knock out a book in a year or less.

As for my own work… The fantasy novels I grew up on were mainly the traditional quest variety, but I also enjoy SF, historical crime, classics (Jane Austen and earlier), and in TV and films, swashbucklers, 1930s noir, romantic comedies…and all of those influences make their way into my writing. Hence I sometimes describe the Night’s Masque books as “alternate history fantasy rom-com spy thrillers” :)

Favorite word?

Yes. (As in, from an agent or editor!)

And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Hmm, difficult. We Brits tend to swear a lot, so it’s hard to pick a favourite. I think maybe “bollocks”. It’s forceful, but mild enough to use in any but the most polite of company. Plus my husband’s favourite curse when he’s really pissed off is “bollocking bollocky bollocks”, which always cracks me up!

Explain: “Bollocks” is bad, but “Dog’s Bollocks” is good? Do I have that right? Why are dog bollocks — which I believe are a canine’s testicles? — a good thing?

That’s correct. Dogs’ bollocks must be good – otherwise why would they constantly be sniffing each others’ and licking their own? [cdw: best explanation ever.]

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I think you know this one already! G&T, made with Bombay Sapphire gin and Fevertree tonic. Wedge of lime optional.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, game: something with great story. Go!

The film “District 9.” I love the fact that it’s both an edge-of-your-seat actionfest and a moving character story that has a lot to say about people. That’s something I aspire to in my own work.

Where are my pants?

Underneath your trousers, I hope!

Got anything to pimp? Now’s the time!

My fantasy novel “The Alchemist of Souls”, comes out from Angry Robot Books early next year. The setting is an alternate history 16th century  – when Europeans went to the New World, they found non-humans (dubbed “skraylings” by their earliest discoverers, the Vikings) living along the eastern coast of North America in peaceful alliance with the native humans. The skraylings have both magic and a natural resistance to many human diseases, which has made conquest rather less easy than in our world.

The story takes place in London in the summer of 1593. Swordsman Mal Catlyn is plucked almost literally from the gutter to act as bodyguard to a skrayling ambassador to England, but protecting this foreign dignitary from assassins turns out to be the least of his problems. Betrayed by his friends and befriended by those he once considered enemies, Mal finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict between humans and skraylings that could cost him and his twin brother their lives–and maybe their souls.

It’s not all gritty and doom-laden, however! Much of the book is set in the seedy underworld of the Elizabethan theatre, and I’ve had a lot of fun with that, and particularly with taking the Shakespearean clichés – identical twins, girls disguised as boys, mistaken identity – and putting my own spin on them. Issues of gender and identity fascinate me, and the Elizabethan era is a great setting in which to explore that.

“The Alchemist of Souls” is due out March 27, 2012 in the US, and a few days later in the UK, and is now available to pre-order from all good bookstores. Of course there will be ebooks versions as well as the paperback, and probably an audiobook eventually. Visit www.nightsmasque.com for more information!

What’s next after “The Alchemist Of Souls?”

I’m contracted to Angry Robot to write three novels in the Night’s Masque series – yep, the dreaded fantasy trilogy. Way back in 2006 I planned this first book as a standalone, but during revisions the characters blossomed and there was no way I could cover their stories in a single volume.

So, I’m currently writing the sequel, “The Merchant of Dreams”, which will be out in winter 2012/3, with the third (as yet untitled) instalment about eight or nine months after that. Although each book stands alone in terms of the challenges the heroes face and overcome, the three books do form an arc, so whilst I’m writing one book I’m planning the next – it makes it easier to foreshadow things (oops, giving away trade secrets there!).

After that, I don’t know. I have another fantasy project on the backburner, but there’s also the possibility of more stories set in the Night’s Masque world, maybe in the Americas or in Europe in a later era. So many ideas, so little time…

14 comments

  • Wow, sounds pretty interesting. I’ll have to pick up a copy of “Alchemist of Souls” when it comes out. I’ve also heard some good buzz about the the Night’s Masque as well so I’ll have to check that out when I get the chance.

  • Sometimes I feel like I need to apologize whenever I come on here.
    But thanks, Anne, for unwittingly giving me some free advice. All I had to do was fire up Google and look up “NaNoWriMo.”
    Yeah, maybe I should have heard of it before.
    But I signed up. I’m a-gonna do it. I have until November to decide which of my 4 dozen or so story ideas shows the most promise, and then do some half-assed research (my favorite kind!)

  • Good on you, Anne, for making it happen. I’m a bit older than you, but I’ve also reached that point where “I’m going to write someday” has become “It’s not gonna write itself, chica.” Thanks for sharing your short story with us, too. It’s delightfully quirky!

  • Toni – wanna bet? I’m a lot older than I look. Though it’s getting harder to find enough virgins’ blood with each passing year… :)

    Go for it – you’re never too old to be a writer (unless you’ve been given less than two years to live, in which case you might be pushing it, given the glacial pace of publishing!)

  • This is the most inspirational interview yet. At least for me. I feel like I’m the same, right at the whole, “I’m finishing this novel or else!” stage.

    I also wrote it during Nano in a, “If I don’t write a novel, how can I call myself a writer?!” sort of mentality. I also signed up for HTRYN…though I admit it was too complex a system that I havent finished the course yet.

    All that’s left is going to conventions! That and of course, polishing the draft as much as possible.

    Thanks for sharing your story! It’s really inspiring and your novel sound really interesting, definitely something I’ll probably love.

  • Hi Anne,

    I remember when your announcement was made in Publisher’s Lunch, and I was so glad you hooked up with Angry Robot because I remember you saying you had very strong ideas about e-books and how they should be sold and marketed.

    The artwork looks great, and the novel sounds fantastic. Looking forward to it.

    Dave

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