LAUREN ALDER’S ELEVEN BOOK WRITING QUESTIONS, Answered By Steven J Pemberton
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in England in 1970. At the time, my father was a librarian, and my mother was a teacher, so it was probably inevitable that I would grow up loving books. For most of my childhood, my family and I lived in New Zealand, returning to England in 1981. I graduated from the University of York in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I now live in Hertfordshire with my partner, where I work as a software developer.
2. What is the title of your current work (WIP or recently published). and what is its genre?
My most recent published novel is The Reluctant Dragonrider, book 2 in my Dragonrider series. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s fantasy.
- Is this book suitable for children, or is it adults-only? If there’s mature content, what type of mature content does the book contain?
It’s suitable for older children and adults. There’s a romance that turns sexual, but I “fade to black” before the sex scenes. A few characters get killed off gruesomely, but I try not to dwell on the gory details.
- What inspired you to write this work?
The Dragonrider series came into existence in a rather roundabout way. Many years ago, a member of a mailing list I was in (remember them?) had a quotation in her signature block, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.” (This, of course, is a riff on a quotation from Tolkien, “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”) I thought I might be able to get a story out of it. I wrote about 600 words of a man on a hilltop who’d just summoned a dragon and was trying to convince it to help him. After that, I got stuck, because I hadn’t yet learned to wait until I had a few of the story’s key scenes or turning points clear in my head before starting to write. Those 600 words languished on my hard drive while I wrote many more words and many more stories. As I was writing one of those stories (The Mirrors of Elangir), I mentioned in passing that one of the warring nations in it used dragons as airborne cavalry. I realised that if I took my 600-word beginning and set it in the same world as The Mirrors of Elangir (but many years later), I’d be able to continue the story. I now had a setting, some history, and (most importantly) some motivation for the dragon’s behaviour. That story became The Accidental Dragonrider, which is now the first book in the series.
I initially intended The Accidental Dragonrider to be a standalone book, and gave the ending a definite sense of finality. But I try not to close off options completely, and I left a few loose ends and unsolved puzzles to allow myself a sequel if I ever wanted to write one. Then it proved unexpectedly popular, and I decided I shouldwrite a sequel. (I swear this never occurred to me when I was writing, but it turns out there are a lot of people who like reading about dragons.)
- What makes this book special, unique, or interesting? How does it “stand out”?
I don’t think any one feature is unique, though I’d hope the overall combination hasn’t been done before – or not too often, anyway. (I often tell novice writers that if they think their idea is original, that just means they haven’t read enough to realise it isn’t.) I’m more concerned about craft than art – I’d rather tell a story that’s been told before and do it well than tell a new story and do it badly. That isn’t to say it’s impossible to do both, but I’m not arrogant enough to think I can.
One thing that’s fairly unusual (in my experience) for a fantasy with a teenage protagonist (Tiwan) is that both her parents are alive, and take an active part in the story. Her father is trying to prepare her for an important mission (see blurb below) but at the same time protect her from harm.
6. Tell us some key information about the main character(s), both protagonists and antagonists.
Tiwan, the protagonist, is the daughter of Iko, who was the protagonist of The Accidental Dragonrider. She’s one of the few people in this world who can speak to dragons. (Iko is the only other one in the story.) She’s brave, curious and resourceful, and will always try to do the right thing, even though it’s often not obvious what the right thing is. She’s seven when we first meet her, then we meet her again at ten, twelve and sixteen.
Iko, Tiwan’s father, used to be a teacher, and is the person who’s most knowledgeable about dragons. He wishes he could have nothing to do with them.
Revath, Tiwan’s childhood friend and later lover (spoilers!) mostly just wants to be a fisherman, but is caught up with the dragons through his love for Tiwan. He’s brave and strong but somewhat unimaginative.
Makhan is a bully who does his best to make Tiwan and Revath miserable when they’re all children. When he grows up, he joins the village’s police force. He tells everyone he’s protecting them from criminals in their midst. He might even believe it himself.
Athera is a dragon, one of their leaders, who has dealings with Iko in the early part of the book. Like almost all the dragons, he comes across as considering himself to be morally superior to humans and vastly more knowledgeable and wise than any of them. He’ll tell you as little as possible while acting surprised that you don’t already know more than he’s told you. He’s missing a foot, which is unusual for a dragon – they heal quickly and are almost impossible to kill.
Olahin is a younger dragon who seems to have been designated as their liaison for Tiwan. (She turns up whenever Tiwan summons a dragon. It’s not possible to summon a specific dragon – or if it is, Iko and Tiwan haven’t worked out how.) She’s a little more friendly than Athera, perhaps because she appreciates how important Tiwan’s mission is, or perhaps because she hasn’t had as long to build up a dislike of humans.
Vadim is another of the dragons’ leaders – not so much a villain as one who doesn’t believe the dragons need help from humans, and one who’s willing to resort to underhanded (or underclawed) methods to make sure it doesn’t happen.
- What is your back cover blurb? Or if you don’t have one yet, how would you pitch your work in 200 words or less?
It’s been forty years since Tiwan’s father Iko convinced a dragon to save their village. Now the dragons are back, and they want Tiwan’s help in a war against an enemy in their world’s oceans. But she’s just a child, so what could she do? The dragons threaten to invade the humans’ world if they lose the war. Tiwan reluctantly agrees to go on a spying mission for them, even though she risks being lost in the dragons’ world forever.
- Share a tempting bit of the plot with us. Is there a particular scene that you’re really excited about? Why does it excite you?
The magical artefact that Tiwan needs for her mission is a device that lets her breathe underwater. While she’s waiting for the dragons to send her on the mission, she practices using the device by diving shipwrecks near her home. There’s a scene near the middle of the book where she dives a wreck that’s rumoured to have a lot of treasure, too deep and too far inside the hull for an unassisted diver to reach. She recovers a small chest of jewels, worth more than her family earns in a year. When she returns to the harbour, Makhan is waiting to arrest her, though strangely enough, not because he wants to confiscate the jewels…
I like this scene because, well, magic and sunken treasure, but also because it sets a lot of events in motion for the second half of the book while initially seeming like nothing more than a cool diversion.
- Share up to 800 words of your current work with us (with an intro of up to 200 words to establish context).
This is from about a quarter of the way through the book. Tiwan and her father Iko have come to visit a merchant called Govus. They want to buy a book that they believe contains the location of a magical artefact that Tiwan will need in her mission for the dragons. Govus wants a far higher price for the book than they can afford. He agrees to give it to them if instead they’ll summon a dragon for him. (He’s fascinated by dragons, but has never seen one.) Two dragons, Olahin and Athera, answer the call. (Tiwan and Iko have met both of them before.)
The dragons communicate telepathically (indicated by italics). Only a few humans can hear and speak to them – Tiwan and Iko are the only ones in this story. For reasons they haven’t seen fit to explain, the dragons don’t want Tiwan to go on their mission until she’s sixteen. She’s ten in this scene.
Olahin walked up to the scarp and raised her head to look at Tiwan. Tiwan met the dragon’s gaze, trying not to let her attention shift to her teeth. Athera held back, shifting side-to-side, perhaps seeking the best distribution of his weight on three legs.
Why have you invited us here? Athera asked. You have not yet known sixteen years.
O great dragons, Papa said, we invited you here because this man -he pointed discreetly to Govus—has documents that we need to complete our mission for you. He refused to give them to us unless we proved you were real.
Olahin said, You should have told him that we would kill him unless he did what you wanted.
That’s not how humans do things, Papa replied.
In the time of the riders, it was your preferred negotiation strategy, said Athera.
That was a long time ago, said Papa.
“Help me up,” Govus said to his servants.
If the only reason for coming here was to convince a sceptic of our existence, said Olahin, we can leave now, yes? She began to turn towards the cliff edge, a lumbering movement that seemed to require a lot of planning.
“Stop!” said Govus. He hobbled towards Olahin.
“Sir, come back here, please,” said Papa. Govus ignored him.
Will this one be tasty, do you think? said Olahin, halting her turn.
Before Tiwan could protest, Athera replied, It is an old one, so is likely to be tough and stringy. Besides, it appears to be sick.
“Sir, they’re talking about eating you,” said Papa.
“I think they’re more intelligent than that,” said Govus. He came to Olahin, who stretched out her neck and sniffed at him.
You are right, Olahin said to Athera. Old and sick.
Govus raised his hand and reached out to Olahin. Papa said, “Sir, I really wouldn’t advise that,” just as Govus touched the dragon’s nose. Olahin jerked her head away and shook it, as though trying to hold back a sneeze.
How rude, said Athera.
My apologies, o great dragons, said Papa.
“I wanted to be sure it wasn’t an illusion,” Govus said. He took a couple of paces away from Olahin. He leaned forward and shielded his eyes with a hand, apparently studying the detail of the creature’s scales. He straightened, rubbing his back with his other hand. “Tell them I’ve got a job for them, if they’re interested.”
“I very much doubt they will be, Sir,” said Papa.
“Let them make up their own minds. Ask them how eighty ounces of gold for a couple of days’ work sounds.”
Tiwan tried to calculate how many svara that much gold would make, and ran out of numbers.
O great dragons, Papa said, the old man wants me to ask you a question. I know it’s a rude and stupid question, and I apologise in advance for that. He wants me to offer you eighty ounces of gold in return for two days’ work.
Olahin partly extended her wings and waggled them up and down. At the same time, she shook her head from side to side. Tiwan remembered Papa telling her that was how dragons laughed.
How customs have changed, said Athera. I never thought humans would willingly offer us treasure. I trust, Iko, that you recall our discussions of the Liberation?
I do, said Papa.
Then you will understand why we refuse this offer, sincerely meant though I am certain it is.
Papa bowed his head. Thank you, o great dragons. He turned to Govus. “They’re not interested.”
“What?” Govus looked at the dragons momentarily, then stared at Papa. He stumbled with the sudden movement, and a servant rushed forward to steady him. “A hundred ounces.”
“I’m sorry, Sir.”
“A hundred and twenty.” The dragons turned to face the cliff.
“It’s not about the price, Sir,” Papa said. “This… it’s just not something they do.”
“I thought dragons had hoards of precious metal and jewels,” said Govus. The servant helped him back to his chair.
“They do, Sir. I’ve seen one. It was the size of your dining room, and if I’d been brave enough to walk through it, the coins and trinkets would’ve been up to my ankles, if not my knees.”
Farewell, humans, said Athera. We will return when Tiwan has known sixteen years.
They ran down the slope – surprisingly fast for something so big – and fell off the edge. Tiwan clapped a hand to her mouth. A moment later, the dragons came back into view, ascending into the distance. Tiwan relaxed. The dragons’ voices came faintly to her.
That one would have been much easier to persuade to our cause than Iko, Olahin said.
Indeed, Athera replied. But we must work with what Fate grants us, not what we wish she had granted us.
There were two bright purple flashes, and the dragons were gone.
- What is the easiest part of writing for you? And what is the hardest?
The easiest part is playing “what if?” to decide on plot and setting after I’ve come up with a few ideas, because that doesn’t feel like work. The hardest… it’s not really part of writing, but I’ll say marketing. If I have to pick something that’s actually part of writing, I’ll say character motivation – making sure it’s believable and self-consistent.
- Finally, if you could offer some advice to up-and-coming writers, what would that advice be?
Firstly, if your main reason for wanting to write isn’t that you love writing, find something else to do with your spare time. It’s not wrong to want to be rich and famous through writing, but so few people achieve it that if it’s your main motive, you’re likely to end up bitter that you wasted years chasing a dream that wasn’t going to come true. If you write because you love to write, then regardless of whether any success comes from it, you’ll have enjoyed the time you spent writing.
Secondly, read a lot, and not just in your chosen genre(s). Mostly, read good stuff, to learn from it, but read some bad stuff too, so you can be confident of knowing the difference. I can usually tell when a writer doesn’t read enough, because they ask questions whose answers they would naturally soak up if they read a lot. (Questions like “How long should a chapter be?”, “Can I use swearwords?”, “Give me a long list of synonyms for ‘said,’ because I think writing ‘he/she said’ after every line of dialogue is boring.”)
Thirdly, write a lot, mostly in your chosen genre(s), but don’t be afraid to experiment. If you want to write fiction that you expect strangers to read and enjoy, you need to write, on average, a million words for practice. Finish what you start, even if you stop enjoying writing it. Many writers abandon a piece of writing when it becomes boring, believing that the problem is that they haven’t found the right story to write. And maybe they haven’t, but every story becomes boring to write if you spend long enough working on it. You simply have to trust that if you keep working on it, your mood will improve enough to make the story enjoyable again.
Fourthly, show what you think is your best work to people you believe are better writers than you. When you’ve finished crying and swearing over how they tore your precious baby to pieces, use what they told you to edit the piece to make it better, and make your next piece better to begin with. I believe there’s a limit to how much you can improve any one piece of writing from where it started – you either reach the current limit of your abilities or stop seeing its flaws. When you reach that point, or perhaps before, it’s time to start a new piece. If everybody you show the story to says it’s wonderful and has no flaws, find some new people to ask about it – not because the current ones are wrong, but because you won’t learn anything from them.
Not all advice is useful. Many writers, when commenting on your story, will try to turn it into the story they would have written. (This isn’t always intentional, and often they don’t realise they’re doing it.) You should pay the most attention to the advice that will help you to tell the story you want to tell in the best way you can. Also pay attention to problems that more than one person points out. There’s a saying, “What I tell you three times is true.” If three or more people independently point out the same problem, the odds are that they’re right, and you should either fix it or have a good reason not to. (“They don’t understand me” is usually not a good reason…)
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