Author R. Scot Johns went on tour through the blogosphere in support of "The Saga of Beowulf" during March 2009. His many guest posts and interviews are archived here for your amusement.
The main content of each day's post can be found here under the appropriate tab. Links to the actual site are provided in the schedule below for sites that are still active. Most have an active comments section that you can add to if you like.
2: As the Pages Turn - Author Trivia Interview
3: Book Marketing Buzz - Guest Post on "How I've Promoted My Book So Far"
4: American Chronicle - Interview
5: BlogCritics - Interview
6: Divine Caroline - Talking Books Interview
9: Denysé Bridger's Fantasy Pages - Guest Post on "Romance In Fantasy"
10: Passages to the Past - Guest Post "On Beowulf as Historical Fiction"
11: BlogTalkRadio - Live Interview on Kim Smith's "Interviewing Writers" show
11: The Real Hollywood - Trivia Questions Interview
12: The Writer's Life - Interview
13: The Writer's Life - Guest Post on "How To Publish Your Own Novel"
16: Story Behind The Book - Guest Post on "How I Came To Write The S.O.B."
17: The Book Connection - Guest Post on Norse Mythology
18: Café of Dreams - Guest Post: "What The Heck Is A Virtual Book Tour?"
19: A Book Blogger's Diary - Book & Author Spotlight
20: Fiction Scribe - Interview
20: The Book Fairy Reviews - Guest Post on Digital Fantasy Art
24: Beyond the Books - Interview
25: The Book Stacks - Guest Post on "Writing Heroic Fantasy"
26: Café of Dreams - Book Review
27: Passages to the Past - Book Review
Please contact us if any of these links cease to function.
Periodically, we scour the Internet for interesting authors who would like to play Book Trivia with us. By answering our book trivia questions, we get to learn things about the author no one else knows! So, let’s get ready…let’s play…Book Trivia!
Today our guest author is R. Scot Johns, author of the heroic fantasy novel The Saga of Beowulf. Scot is a life-long student of ancient and medieval literature, with an enduring fascination for Norse mythology and fantasy epics. He first came to Beowulf through his love of J.R.R. Tolkien, a leading scholar on the subject. As an Honors Medieval Literature major he has given lectures on such topics as the historical King Arthur and the construction of Stonehenge. He owns and operates Fantasy Castle Books, a publishing imprint, and writes the blog Adventures of an Independent Author.
Thank you for playing Book Trivia with us, Scot! Here are your questions:
If Tom Hanks, in the movie Cast Away, unearthed a copy of The Saga of Beowulf, how would that help Tom find a way off the island?
He could burn it when a ship came near (although I’m sure he couldn’t bear to until he finished reading it). Actually, the Vikings were a great sea-faring race, so it might provide the motivation to build a ship as they did with little but their knives and axes.
Everyone knows rock star idol Brittany Spears is always in trouble with everything you can think of. In what way could your book help her and set her life back on track?
Reading any book would be a step in the right direction. Reading mine would keep her off the street for months on end (it’s 640 pages long). The Saga of Beowulf deals with issues such as loyalty and courage, love and honor, that might well prove instructive.
You have a chance to appear on the hit talent show for authors, American Book Idol, with judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Kara DioGuardi determining whether your book will make it to Hollywood and become a big screenplay. What would impress them more – your book cover, an excerpt or your best review – and why?
My charming personality doesn’t count? Darn. Any of the three would impress them enough to take a deeper look, but of course, the writing is what would close the deal. All of my reviews thus far have been stellar, and I’m quite pleased with the cover art I did. But I actually wrote this novel as a screenplay first, and it shows in the highly visual style of my writing. More than one reviewer has said that it reads like a major Hollywood movie. It has action and romance, epic battles and characters that actors die for.
Hulk Hogan, the famous wrestler and star of his own reality show, has invited you and your book to appear on his show. One catch. You have to read a passage out of it to convince him you are star material. What part would you read?
For the Hulk I would read the scene in which a hundred Vikings battle to the death against a thousand screaming Frisians. Or, of course, the scene where Beowulf defeats the ogre Grendel by tearing its arm right out of the socket and beating the wailing creature with it. Or the scene where he scares away three Stone Trolls by hurling massive boulders at them. That’s a total Hulkamania scene.
They’ve invented a board game using the theme of your book. What would the title of it be that would be different from your book and which retail store would they place it to make the most sales?
Quest for Valhalla would be the name, and the players would battle to gain the most fame and gold before they died in battle and ascended to Odin’s hall of heroes in the afterworld. A guaranteed hit in every D&D gamer shop around the world.
The Arbor Day Foundation has decided to pick one tree in your honor because of your writing brilliance. What kind of tree is it and why did they choose that tree in relation to your book?
The ash tree, which was sacred to the Norse. The Cosmic Tree, Yggdrasil, is an ash, and its roots connect the three worlds of Heaven, Hell and Middle-Earth, and are watered by the Norns, the three sisters of Fate. It’s the only tree that Beowulf couldn’t easily uproot from the ground with his bare hands.
President Barack Obama has become the author of several books and he has requested your presence at a special hush hush meeting to discuss ways to promote it. Through luck of the draw, you were chosen. What would be the first thing you would tell Barack?
Start writing your next book. If you’re the President you don’t need to market your book. Promotion is only necessary for those of us the reading public doesn’t know.
Finally, you just got word that your book has received the 2009 NY Times Bestselling Book Award and you have to attend the ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. Anyone who’s anyone will be there and it’s your shot for stardom. On stage, you must give an acceptance speech. What would you say and who would you thank?
First I’d like to say that it’s an honor to become a part of someone’s life, if only for a week or a day. Writing is a shared experience that only finds fulfillment in the touching of the reader’s heart. I am greatly thankful to every one of you who read my work and pleased beyond belief that it somehow spoke to you. Thanks to all who bore with me through the long and arduous process that often made me insufferable to live with. I’d like to thank my landlord for not evicting me, and my boss for not firing me. Thanks to everyone who gave me needed inspiration, and most of all thank goodness I finally finished it!
In the nearly five months since I published my debut novel The Saga of Beowulf last October I’ve been working almost non-stop to promote it, with varying degrees of success. Initially I knew next to nothing about book promotion, or marketing in general for that matter, so that my understanding of the process has increased on a daily basis. Since I produced the book myself, I did not have the benefit of a trade publisher’s insights or resources, but I had plenty of ingenuity and initiative to make up for it.
The first project that I undertook was to build a solid web presence for the book, which can be found at fantasycastlebooks.com. This has comprised an ever-growing wealth of resources for readers to enhance their enjoyment of the book, beginning initially with sample chapters to read online or download in several formats, along with audio readings of half a dozen pages, a deleted sequence that I cut from the opening chapter, and a series of author’s notes on the adaptation process that I had intended to publish as an “Aterword” but cut for length. In addition, I posted early developmental artwork I did for the cover, along with a hand-drawn map and genealogical chart of the novel’s major characters, plus a host of study notes for the original Beowulf poem. I have also posted my original screenplay on which the novel is based for readers to download for free. And, of course, I put links to online retailers of both the print and ebook formats. Recently I’ve added a direct purchase option so that visitors can buy directly from the author. As reviews have come in these have been posted on the site, as well as several interviews I’ve done. In addition, I have created a “Press Kit” page with a press release and flyers to download, including high-resolution artwork, bookmarks, and video embedding code.
Related to web presence is my blog, The Adventures of an Independent Author (http://authoradventures.blogspot.com), which gives me a more personal contact with my readers. Here I discuss my ongoing experience in writing and publishing, and post up news and new material as I create it, such as artwork and writing excerpts.
One mistake I made was that I didn’t start submitting the book for reviews until it was already out, whereas I should have sent out galleys months before. But I was wholly focused on the writing and production and never really thought about reviews until the book was out in print. Consequently, it was several months before reviews began to trickle in, but when they did it was worth the wait. So far it’s been rave reviews across the board.
Once the web presence was fully underway I started in on networking, which is the fundamental principle of marketing. I started pages on numerous social network sites, including MySpace, Facebook, GoodReads, LibraryThing, and many others. Unfortunately, these are all incredibly time-consuming, so I haven’t been able to focus on them as much as they demand. What I have done are a lot of interviews and giveaways, both on my own websites as well as those of others. The giveaways have proven quite popular, and gained the book some good reviews.
Next, I created two promotional videos, one of which I posted on YouTube, Google, MySpace, and several other social networking sites, while the other was a Flash video used for a skyscraper ad on Google and MySpace. These provided a lot of web traffic, but I had to accurate way to determine what percentage were converted into sales. It takes awhile to build up a readership, and more book sales derive from word-of-mouth than anything, so I was only hoping to gain some visual presence to start the flow.
I’ve done extensive work in beefing up my Amazon listings with additional material, posted the book on Google Books, and listed it on a myriad of sites and forums such as MyBooksOut and Published.com to get it more exposure. There are, in fact, so many avenues to explore that an author could spend the rest of their life promoting just a single book. But at some point you need to get to work on writing another one, so this “Virtual Book Tour” is something of a final media blitz for this book, after which I plan to get on with the next one.
But in order to keep in touch with my readers, I plan to post my writing sessions for the new book on my blog each day. This will allow the readers to offer their insights and criticisms as the work progresses, and thereby have a hand in shaping the final outcome! Hopefully that way by the time the book is finished I will have built up an audience for it already. One thing I’ve discovered about advertising is that there’s a lot of room for creative marketing!
Being a long-time collector of music, I know how often I run across an artist who is new to me, but has a dozen or more records to their credit. Of course, the first thing I do is go out and get all the albums I missed out on. The same holds true for authors and their audience. Ten years from now readers will still be stumbling across what I have published, and The Saga of Beowulf will be as new to them then as it is to readers today. Only by then I’ll have more books for them to find!
Thank you for this interview, Scot. Can you tell us briefly what your latest book, The Saga of Beowulf, is all about?
Certainly. Quite simply, it’s the first complete novelization of the Old English poem Beowulf. Based on extensive historical research and steeped in Norse mythology and lore, it is the first time the story has been told in its entirety for a modern audience. At its core, the story follows the young Norse warrior Beowulf as he embarks upon a fateful quest for vengeance against the creature that slew his father, setting in motion a sequence of events that takes him from the fetid fens of Denmark to the sprawling battlefields of ancient France, all the while fleeing from the woman he has sworn to love.
Can you tell us what (or who) the inspiration behind writing your book was?
My first initiation into the world of Beowulf came through my love of J. R. R. Tolkien, a leading scholar on the subject. Professor Tolkien’s 1936 lecture changed the way academia viewed Beowulf, much to the chagrin of English students ever since. As an honors English lit student, I was dismayed by the way this oldest of English epics had become the bane of so many. But I quickly came to see that this had little to do with the story itself, and everything to do with how it was presented. Beowulf is written in a language no one speaks, in a form no poet writes in anymore, and is shot through with references no modern audience could understand without extensive study. I took it upon myself to rectify that dilemma, and bring this thrilling tale to life once more.
Is this your first published book and if so, can you tell us your experiences in finding a publisher for it?
Yes, this is my debut novel, but I went about publishing it in a wholly non-traditional manner. Initially I set out upon the standard route to publication, but as I’ve always been a very hands-on, self-dependent individual, I quickly lost patience with the policies and practices that leave an author waiting months between each submission to see how the whims of fate might fare. Being a fan of Emerson and Franklin, I decided to take things into my own hands instead, and started my own publishing company, Fantasy Castle Books, through which I released my book. To this day I’m still waiting to hear back from the third publisher I sent a query to. In the meantime, I’ve sold hundreds of copies of my novel, receiving a far greater share of the profits, and am busily working on my next book, which I have no intention of sending to the trades.
How has Fantasy Castle Books been to work with?
Well, I have to say it’s pretty nice being your own boss! But it’s also a lot of work. I would have had to do the vast majority of my own promotion either way, but in addition I also did my own editing and layout, created the cover art, built the website and all the content on it, including videos, audio excerpts, press kit and marketing materials, set up my own ad campaigns, and even fill and process orders placed through my direct buy network. It demands a lot of effort, and takes up every spare moment of my life, but I love having absolute control over every aspect of my work, and I wouldn’t change it now for anything.
Do you have an agent?
No thank you. Don’t need one. Don’t want one. They no longer serve a useful function, so far as I can see. With the advent of print-on-demand technology and internet retailing, there is no longer an economic need for these industry gatekeepers. The reading public can – and should – determine for themselves what is of value, and what is not. In a true capitalist economy, it is the consumers who must decide what deserves their investment, both of time and money. Word of mouth is the best and most effective promotion and filtration system in the world, and just because an agent decides a book is deserving of publication (or vice versa) doesn’t mean the reading public will agree. I once had a purported fantasy book agent respond to my query for this novel with just this: “364,000 words, are you kidding?” To which I replied: “Have you never heard of Robert Jordan?” That was the last query I bothered to send out to an agent.
Can you tell us how long it took you to write your book?
The Saga of Beowulf took ten years to create from start to finish. But I went about it in a very circuitous way. Initially I spent several years studying and researching the original Beowulf poem. At the time I was working as the manager of a retail video outlet, and it occurred to me that there had never been a film made of this epic adventure. I then spent several more years working through something like seven drafts of that and sending it off to Hollywood. Unfortunately, in that time two other scripts had sold, both of which have come out within the last few years, to mixed reviews. But for me this was a blessing, as it got me back to writing fiction, which is why I had gone to college in the first place. So I set to work on the novel, after having already spent some four or five years of serious interaction with the story. It proved to be a long and complicated affair to turn the script, which was tight and confined, into the 640 page narrative it is today. But in the end having first written it as a film gave the novel a stronger visual sense than it might have had otherwise, and I think a forward momentum that makes it feel much like “reading a movie,” as more than one of my reviewers have put it.
Do you have any words of inspiration for other writers who would like to be wearing your shoes?
This is the best time for writers to be working in at least a century. Although the trade publishing industry in on the verge of collapse, what it signals for we authors is a new beginning, the advent of an era when writers can again commune directly with their readers, without the need of a meddling middleman. The reigns of power are shifting from the mega-corporations to the individual, where it belongs. This is truly the dawn of a new age, when even authors writing in the narrowest of niches can reach their target audience, wherever they may be.
I understand that you are touring with Pump Up Your Book Promotion in October via a virtual book tour. Can you tell us all why you chose a virtual book tour to promote your book online?
In practical terms, where a brick-and-mortar bookstore appearance might net you a potential audience of anywhere from a few dozen to perhaps a few hundred at the very best, on just one day, a single blog stop has a literally infinite reach, around the world in every house that has an internet connection, and for as long as the page is archived on the net. Not only that, but the cost is minimal by comparison. No plane fare or hotel expenses. No eating out or tight adherence to a schedule. No dress code, and best of all no sitting in an empty store when you could be at home writing!
What’s next for you?
My sophomore novel, The Jester’s Quest, is in the preparation stage. This is a book that I began some years ago, but left unfinished when the Beowulf project overtook my life. The Jester’s Quest is an adult fairy tale, and is intended to be an illustrated book, almost a graphic novel, but not quite. My current plan is to post my writing sessions on my blog each day, so that readers can follow along as the book progresses. This should theoretically begin near the first of April, once this book tour is completed. So be sure to stop by and see how things are going there!
Thank you for this interview, Scot. Can you tell us how we can find out more about you and your new book?
On my blog The Adventures of an Independent Author I write about my ongoing experience in the world of self-publishing, and as mentioned, will also be posting some of my writing there. But I also have a great website where there is a host of free resources for your enjoyment of The Saga of Beowulf, from extensive author’s notes to early conceptual artwork and bookmarks you can download, plus promotional videos and audio excerpts and chapters you can read online or download, a Norse Rune Decoder (you’ll see why when you have read the book!), interviews, reviews, a study guide, and a great deal more. So be sure to stop by for a visit!
Thank you for this interview, Scot. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
Thank you for having me. I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years now - half of it on The Saga of Beowulf – although for six of those years I was taking writing courses and English Lit classes while working full time to put myself through college, so that there was little time for free writing. Since then I’ve written in whatever spare time I can find. During the day I work as a book sales rep for a division of Readers Digest, but at night I’m an author. This has put a damper on my social life, to say the least. But one must suffer for their art, they say.
Do you write full-time?
It certainly seems like it. But in truth my writing time is quite sporadic, consisting entirely of scattered moments snatched on evenings and weekends. I’ll go months without finding any time to write at all, and then I’ll just let everything else go and immerse myself into my writing, spending every waking moment on a scene or section until I feel it’s right. Then I’ll leave it be awhile and let it simmer until I get caught up on pressing chores or the drive to write consumes my life once more. It’s a very schizophrenic method, but it seems to work. My hope is to one day be able to approach writing like a normal job, if that term can be applied to such an inherently abnormal occupation.
At what point in your life did you make up your mind you were going to become a published author?
In 1989, when I was 28, I woke up in the middle of the night with a lucid dream still vivid in my mind. Instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, I grabbed a pen and started writing. The next day I went out to a thrift store and bought a broken down old manual typewriter and set it up on a table in my attic, and from that point there was no turning back.
What was your favorite book to read as a child?
The Lord of the Rings is the earliest book I can remember really making a serious impact on me. Before that I read a lot of classic children’s tales, from Robin Hood to Peter Pan. I recall how I devoured The Once & Future King and went in search of every book that I could find on King Arthur. Mythology was a big inspiration as well, as it is for many boys. But Tolkien changed my reading habits. For many years I read The Lord of the Rings with the coming of each spring, and spent the rest of the year delving into ever longer works, from Don Quixote to Atlas Shrugged.
What is your favorite book at the present?
I don’t really think of things in terms of favorites, in books or music or movies, at least in the sense of one outweighing all the others. There are far too many works of art in so many diverse styles to choose just one. I’m forever astounded by the endless stream of wondrous things creative people keep dreaming up.
If you could trade places with one author who you have admired over the years, who would it be and why?
William Shakespeare. Who wouldn’t want to know what was going through his mind on any given day? Or see King Lear performed for the first time? Or feel the fire of Juliet’s passion and Hamlet’s wrath? To create just one Macbeth in a lifetime is more than most authors can hope to achieve; but to write a dozen just as brilliant is miraculous.
Can you tell us a little about your latest book?
Certainly. Quite simply, The Saga of Beowulf is the first complete novelization of the Old English poem Beowulf. Based on extensive historical research and steeped in Norse mythology and lore, it is the first time the story has been told in its entirety for a modern audience. At its core, the story follows the young Norse warrior Beowulf as he embarks upon a fateful quest for vengeance against the creature that slew his father, setting in motion a sequence of events that takes him from the fetid fens of Denmark to the sprawling battlefields of ancient France, all the while fleeing from the woman he has sworn to love. It spans the gamut from swashbuckling adventure to anguish and torment, from cowardice to bravery, as our hero strives against the whims of fate to make himself a legend.
What was the inspiration behind your book? Why did you feel a need to write it?
My first initiation into the world of Beowulf came through my love of Tolkien, a leading scholar on the subject. Professor Tolkien’s 1936 lecture changed the way that academia viewed Beowulf, much to the chagrin of English students ever since. As an honors English Lit student, I was dismayed by the way this oldest of English epics had become the bane of so many disenchanted readers. But I quickly came to see that this had little to do with the story itself, and everything to do with how it was presented. Beowulf is written in a language no one speaks, in a form no poet writes in anymore, and is shot through with references no modern audience could understand without extensive study. I therefore took it upon myself to rectify that misfortune, and bring this thrilling tale to life once more.
What kind of research did you have to conduct to write your book?
The research phase for The Saga of Beowulf was extensive and ongoing. It began in college when as an honors student I undertook my own translation, and continued as my knowledge of the poem and its provenance grew greater. Not only is there great debate surrounding much of the content of the poem, but our knowledge of the time period it describes is very sketchy. My research ranged from the wealth of modern academic scholarship to primary sources that reference the events or characters in Beowulf, quite a number of which are historical in nature. The most difficult aspect of this adaptation was piecing together all the disparate elements of history and myth into a cohesive timeline of events. Like the works of Homer, there is a thread of truth that runs through Beowulf, telling of the tragic feuding of the Nordic clans and the ill-fated raiding expedition that led to the downfall of the Geats. These elements have been overlooked in every retelling of this epic story until now.
What message are you trying to convey with this book?
There are many themes that run through The Saga of Beowulf. Foremost among these is the conflict of loyalty and honor, of cowardice and bravery, and where true honor lies. These are themes that resonate for every soldier today, and will continue to do so for as long as conflicts rage. In addition, there is a question posed concerning just how free an individual actually is in the making of the choices that affect his life. That query isn’t necessarily answered, but it’s one that has resonated in the mythology of many cultures through the ages, embodied by the Norse in the figures of the Norns, the three sisters of Fate that weave out the course of each man’s life. Yet foremost among these themes is the message that I feel the unknown poet of Beowulf was trying most to get across, which is the age-old tragedy that violence begets more violence. This is seen most clearly in the blood-feuds that bring on ceaseless wars for reasons that have long since been forgotten. The original poet was saying to the Geats that if they continued on the path their warriors were treading it would be the end of them all. And he was right, for the Geats are no more.
Why did you choose your particular genre?
I like to think of The Saga of Beowulf as a work of “historical fantasy,” that is, a tale with fantastic elements, but in a real world setting. Beowulf is generally viewed as a fantasy story, as it contains such mythological creatures as dragons and trolls, and human characters with superhuman traits. But it also has this grain of historical fact that runs throughout, and like the tales of Robin Hood and Arthur, is set in a real-world time and place. Certain of the story elements can, in fact, be seen as legendary rather than fictitious. That is to say, there is a basis of actual fact that has been blown out of all proportion, but is based on truth nonetheless. Hence the term “historical fantasy.”
How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection is something we all deal with in every aspect of our lives. Writing is no different than, say, going on a date. Sometimes there’s chemistry and sometimes not, and much of it is simply beyond your control. Life’s like that, and a great deal of what makes up a person’s character is how they respond to all the things in life that just don’t go their way. Like any interaction, the author-reader relationship is a two-way street, and one must simply understand that the other person has their own perspective and interests which will not always match your own. Ultimately, what really matters is that you’re satisfied with your own work. Strive to achieve your best in those areas you do control, and use constructive criticism as a tool for growth.
Do you ever get writer’s block and what do you do when that happens?
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a creative block as such. My greatest obstacles have had more to do with practical matters and logistics in a story, such as how to get fifty characters moving between five separate locations all in the right places at the proper time. I can always think to something for my characters to do, given who they are and what their situation is, and if I can’t then it’s just a matter of working out what it is that character is after.
Do you blog? If so, what can you tell my readers about the advantages of blogging as a useful tool in book promotion?
Yes I do, and I highly recommend it as a very useful tool, both for yourself and for your readers. First of all a writer writes. The use of words is the basis of the author’s craft, and like a painter or pianist, the more you practice your craft the better your command of the medium will become. Blogging is very much like writing a diary, with many of the same advantages, such as expressing your thoughts or helping to organize your life. But simply getting the words flowing, if merely as an exercise in grammar and syntax, can be reason enough, regardless of what you write. Then secondly, blogging is a way to stay in touch with the world on the other side of your computer screen. One of the foremost difficulties facing authors is how to find and stay in touch with their audience. Writing a blog is like a daily message in a bottle tossed into the online sea – and one that goes out in a million directions all at once. You never know who might find it and reply.
Do you have a website? Do you manage it yourself or do you have someone run it for you?
I built my own website from scratch and maintain it entirely by myself. I think it’s very important to have an online presence for your work, aside from a blog, which represents you as a writer. The website for The Saga of Beowulf, for example, has sample chapters, extensive author’s notes on the adaptation process, a deleted sequence, hi-resolution artwork and bookmarks you can download, a study guide, audio and video, reviews and interviews, and much, much more. There’s even a “Norse Rune Decoder” for deciphering two Rune-Spells I left untranslated in the book.
How do you deal with a bad review?
I’ll let you know as soon as I get one! So far all of my reviews have been excellent. But I imagine it harks back to what I said about rejection. Take it as constructive criticism and learn what you can from it.
What’s next for you?
My next book is called The Jester’s Quest, and will be an illustrated novel, almost like a graphic novel, but not quite. It is the story of a fool who falls in love with a princess and sets off on a journey to prove his worth. A fool’s errand, you might say. My current plan is to post each day’s writing session on my blog, so that readers can follow along as the story progresses, and offer any thoughts and comments they might have as we go. It should be quite a lot of fun.
Thank you for this interview, Scot! Do you have any final words you’d like to share with my readers?
Keep reading! A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and books are the barbells of the wise. Be sure to check out my blog, The Adventures of an Independent Author, or stop by my website at fantasycastlebooks.com for a host of freebies you can download. And stay tuned for The Jester’s Quest, coming soon to a blog near you!
Scot will be on virtual book tour in March ‘09 to promote his latest epic fantasy novel, The Saga of Beowulf. We interviewed him to find out more about his exciting new epic fantasy.
Q. Thank you for this interview, Scot. Can we begin by having you tell us why you chose epic fantasy to write?
A. I’ve loved epic fantasy ever since I was a kid and first read Lord of the Rings. I grew up reading tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur, but Tolkien just captured my imagination in a way that thoroughly immersed me in another world. After that it was nothing but epic fantasy for quite awhile. But I’ve also always had a fascination for historical adventures, which is what drew me to Beowulf. One of the things I love about epic fantasy is that it’s generally set in a pseudo-historical distant past, with medieval villages and pre-technological societies that contrast highly with our own. It’s partly based on that romantic notion of a simpler time when people lived more closely with the earth, and it speaks to our own remote past, out of which the human race has clambered to reach its present state, for good or ill.
Q. Did you outline before you wrote your book or did you just go with the flow?
A. I outlined extensively. Given that The Saga of Beowulf is an adaptation, I had a pre-ordained structure that I had to work within to some degree. And since my objective was to bring the story as it’s told in the original 10th century poem as completely as possible into a contemporary medium, I adhered to it as strictly as I could, given the dictates of the modern novel format, which are altogether different than those of Old English poetry. I began by thoroughly outlining the structure of the original story as it exists in the poem. Then I created a timeline of events, a chronology of scenes that placed the story in sequential order, since the latter portion of the poem really jumps around, referencing three or four events in a span of a dozen lines.
It should be mentioned here as well that I did an enormous amount of research throughout the writing process, as many of these internal references are to historical events and people that are mentioned elsewhere in historical documents and sagas from the early Middle Ages. These are what really prompted me to develop this ancient tale into a full-length novel, as there is far more to the story than is actually given in the poem itself. A single line might reference an event or person who was known to the poet’s audience, but which has long since been forgotten, save in ancient scrolls and chronicles. Once I had the basic bones of the story laid out I wrote a 40-page synopsis, broken down into scenes and sequences, developing the ideas that would link it all together, fleshing out the motivations of the characters, and inventing the many people that were needed to fill up the story world. The Beowulf poem is really about a handful of warriors of noble blood, with almost no mention of the common populace that make up the vast majority of any culture, so I had a lot of space to play in and a lot of work to do to fill it up. Ultimately I created a cast of 188 characters, of which some fifty or so are major players, though some of the others are merely mentioned or only put in brief cameo appearances. But there are 188 entries listed in my glossary of proper names.
In order to keep all these characters straight, as well as the various clans and countries to which they belong, I made a chart that ran some six feet across the wall above my writing desk, with all the major characters listed down one side, and each scene listed from left to right. Then I simply filled in the grids with color-coded highlights everywhere each character appeared, so that at a glance I could see how they were interacting and keep my pacing balanced properly between them as much as possible.
Q. Who was your favorite character in The Saga of Beowulf and why?
A. That would be Wiglaf, the scullery boy on Beowulf’s ship and crew. Wiglaf’s the real unsung hero of the story, with a great character arc and personality. He’s inventive and resourceful, and courageous where even the mightiest of these brawny warriors shows fear. But most important is his loyalty, a common theme that often dominates this world of oaths and endless blood-feuds, but isn’t always lived up, particularly by the “noble” aristocracy. There are also several of the smaller roles that I’m very fond of for their comic value, like Groot and Snorri, and the never-silent Otto with his hope of one day owning pigs and sheep.
Q. Who was your least favorite character?
A. That’s a far harder question to answer, because as an author you’re attached to all your characters to some degree. And, again, a theme that runs through this work is that there really is no black and white: heroes have their flaws and weaknesses and villains often have good reasons for their actions. But probably the character to whom I gave the least ambiguity in this respect is Ongentheow, the Swedish king. He’s the most unlikable of a great many characters with rather questionable ethics, and because of that I had the least pleasure writing him. I generally tend toward internal struggles in my characters, and he’s just a bit too one-dimensional for my taste; but that’s what the role demanded: just a really evil bastard. So, of course, he makes a great villain. He’s this pink-eyed albino king with pure white hair, and his only goal is total domination, like so many ancient conquerors. He’s very much a tribute to Michael Moorcock’s Elric.
Q. Can you tell us about the setting and why you chose it?
A. I set the story in its original time and place: the early 6th century in southern Scandinavia, as well as an ill-fated trek to continental Europe for which there is a fair amount of historical evidence. This was very rugged time, with a relatively primitive society still living through the last vestiges of the Iron Age. They were great artisans and craftsmen, and had developed a high degree of skill in forging metal weapons and armor, as well as finely wrought gold and gem-encrusted bronze and silver jewelry. But they were still a pre-literate society, with a writing system used only for marking graves and carving names on iron blades, although their poets composed complex tales and passed them on entirely by oral recitation. The Norse were also great woodcrafters and shipwrights, carving incredibly intricate designs into the doors and hulls of their halls and ships. Sadly, very little now remains to show us how they lived.
Q. What was the hardest part to write?
A. The 600 pages between the first page and the last. Seriously, though, the hardest sequence was The Fall of Heorot, almost entirely for logistical reasons. It’s the most complex section of the story, with simultaneous events taking place in six or eight locations in two countries, many of which are interlinked with characters moving from one to another, all of which had to happen in a logical sequence while keeping everyone busy and showing up where and when they were supposed to. In the poem, there is a “prophecy” (as academics like to call it) that the Danish hall will one day burn at the hands of Ingeld, the husband of the Danish king’s only daughter. There are several passing references to this by the Beowulf poet, but the actual event doesn’t occur in the story, it’s only alluded to in somewhat veiled language that hints at treachery among the royal clan. External sources supply some of the story, and I’ve drawn on the fragmented tale of the Fight at Finnsburg to flesh it out as well.
Q. What was the inspiration behind the story? Where were you when you came up with the idea?
A. I went to college to study writing after I had tried my hand at putting down on paper a fairly lucid dream that I had had. Naturally, I took a great many courses in English Lit, and came across Beowulf more than once. Given my interests, the focus of my major had quickly become the history of western literature, which for English begins with Beowulf. I had been introduced to this oldest of English epics through my love of Tolkien, who was a leading scholar on the subject, so it wasn’t new to me. Because of this I decided to probe deeper and ended up learning Anglo-Saxon English and undertaking my own translation of the poem. At the time I was working as the manager of a video rental outlet, and it occurred to me that there had never been a filmed adaptation of this great action adventure story, due in great part I’m sure to the many special effects it would demand. So I spent several years completing a screenplay, during which time, of course, two other scripts were sold and those films made, leaving mine out in the cold. But I had wanted to be a novelist in the first place, so I simply used my script to build the novel on. The great benefit of this was that by that time I had come to know the characters quite well. In addition, it gave the book a very visual style that it might not otherwise have had. Several reviewers of The Saga of Beowulf have commented that it’s a lot like reading a movie.
Q. Do you plan on writing more epic fantasy novels?
A. Absolutely. I have several planned, including a new historical epic. But my next project, The Jester’s Quest, will be a classic fantasy adventure, almost like an adult fairy tale, fraught with magic and mayhem and a pantheon of very peculiar characters.
Q. Thank you for this interview, Scot. Can you tell us where we can find out more about you and your wonderful new book?
A. Thank you so much for having me, it’s been a pleasure. I write a blog called The Adventures of an Independent Author in which I discuss the ongoing writing, publishing, and market process as I experience it. In addition, the Fantasy Castle Books website has a wealth of additional material and resources for your enjoyment of The Saga of Beowulf, including sample chapters and audio readings, a deleted sequence, developmental artwork, videos and high-resolution images to download for bookmarks and wallpaper, reviews and interviews, and a host of others. So go enjoy the adventure!
When Hæreth says to Beowulf, “I will love you always and forever,” the young Norse warrior takes her at her word. But when she weds the hero’s aging uncle to become the Queen of Geats, the brooding youth boards ship and sails away as fast as churning oars can bear him. So begins the epic adventure that will turn a boy into a man, a warrior into a king, and bring about the downfall of a nation.
Romance in fantasy is often tragic, an unattainable ideal, whose consequences loom so large that entire kingdoms are destroyed as a result. Few examples are so poignant as the love of Lancelot for Guinevere, whose adulterous affair behind the back of her husband King Arthur would bring about the fall of Camelot and plunge Britain into the Dark Ages for some three hundred years. Likewise, Greek mythology is fraught with examples of tragic love, in which abducted maidens are changed into birds or flowers, and bold heroes brave the dangers of the underworld to rescue them, only to be doomed themselves.
But ideal love can overcome as well, and in romantic fantasy the obstacles and perils loom far larger than real life. Maidens must be rescued from dragon-guarded grottos or the towers of enchanted castles, all for the hope of a second date. Don Quixote traipses up and down the countryside in hopes of proving his love of Dulcinea, a woman to whom he has never even spoken. But no lengths are too great, no trials too much to suffer for this ideal love, the mere idea of which is enough to sustain the smitten Knight when food runs short.
Often in modern romantic fantasy it is the women that take matters into their own hands, or evoke an innate power previously unknown. But even in the oldest tales this is not uncommon. Scheherazade, for example, in the Thousand and One Arabian Nights has no intention of sitting idly by as the sultan has his way with her then takes her head. Brünhild in the Nordic sagas is a Valkyrie shieldmaiden of renown, and not to be trifled with. Likewise, Hæreth, in The Saga of Beowulf, is no idle maiden, but holds her ground and fights with a broadsword as well as any man, even when her hands are tied.
When Beowulf returns again to Geatland, his first action is to rescue the missing Queen Hæreth from the vile clutches of her abductor, for her marriage to the King he learns was not by her free choice, and she is in grave danger. “I knew that you’d come back for me,” the Queen intones as they embrace. “Then you know me better than I know myself,” the repentant hero replies. Standing atop the rocky Trollhight, awash in the passion of their reunion, they kiss amid the aftermath of battle, in full view of Hæreth’s husband, the uncle of Beowulf, and King of all Geatland. The battle may be over, but the war has just begun.
Until quite recently, the epic tale of Beowulf has generally been regarded as a work of fiction. Composed sometime prior to 1000 A.D., the sprawling 3200-line Old English poem tells of Beowulf’s heroic exploits as he battles trolls and ogres, serpents of the deep, and meets a fiery death again a treasure-hoarding dragon. Clearly these are elements of mythic nature, grown to legendary proportion in the telling. There are elves and giants cursed by God, sprites and wights that rule the night, and the ever-present hand of Fate that weaves the thread of human life.
And yet, mixed in among this fabulous assemblage of inhuman creatures and the subsequent super-human adventures, are references to other battles, wars and feuds that humans fought, in realms where actual mortals dwell. We are told in scattered passages of blood-feuds raging between the Swedes and Geats, of tragedy and treachery among the royal house of Danes, of mead-hall sieges and Viking raids. These events take place within a world that is at once remote and yet familiar, known to us if but in name, in lands we walk today. These are the stories of our own far-fathers, told by those who saw them fall.
Ironically, the very first editor of the poem, Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, asserted in his 1815 edition that the unknown author of Beowulf was, in fact, an eyewitness to the events described within, and the presenter of the eulogy at the hero’s funeral. This unfounded assertion may have inadvertently derailed serious academic study for years to come, and yet, it was only two years later, in 1817, that Frederik Grundtvig identified the Geat king Hygelac of Beowulf with its Latin equivalent Chochilaicus in the near-contemporary Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours. In that 6th century chronicle of early France, Gregory tells of a fatal raiding expedition that resulted in the death of the Hygelac at the hands of Theodoric’s son, just as it is told in Beowulf. This is further corroborated by the mention in the poem of the “merewioingas” as an enemy of Geatland, these being the Merovingian kings of France. The name of Hygelac is given in two further extant sources, in one of which it is told how he was slain in battle on an island in the Rhine. This has since become the crucial link for dating the events of Beowulf, which places the death of Hygelac in circa 515-530 A.D.
In 1881, excavations began on the famous burial mounds of Vendel and Old Uppsala in Sweden, within which were discovered ship burials of the very kind described in Beowulf. Using modern dating techniques along with chronicles of Swedish kings and Old Norse sagas, it is believed that these belonged to Ongentheow and his eldest son and grandson, Ohthere and Eadgils. Likewise, many other names from Beowulf are found in other sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon warrior Hengest, Ingeld of the Heathobards, and Hrothulf, Halga’s son, whose exploits merited a story of his own in the Old Icelandic Saga of Hrolf Kraki, in which we are provided with the missing name of Hrothulf’s mother Yrsa in the seemingly corrupt line 62 of Beowulf.
Just who the Geats were is unknown, but it is generally believed that this clan of Beowulf’s bloodline equate with the Gautar of southern Sweden who gave their name to modern Gothenburg and the Göta River. Debate still rages over the many historical details strewn through Beowulf, but it is no longer argued that these events are based on fact, obscured by time as they might be. Like the stories of Homer or of Robin Hood, the lure of legend has consumed the grain of truth that once gave birth to these ancient tales of famous men: men that walked this earth and bled their lives into a poet’s pen.
In The Saga of Beowulf I have made every effort to present these historic “facts” in something akin to the manner in which they might well have unfolded, while not ignoring the overwhelming layer of myth and lore that makes this oldest of English epics so enthralling and entertaining. For more on the story behind the story of The Saga of Beowulf, please visit my website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com, where you will find a wealth of resources for your further enjoyment of this epic historical adventure.
How would you convince seven shipwrecked individuals on a deserted island to buy your book? If Rhett Butler, one of the characters from Gone With the Wind were to change his famous line from “Frankly, My Dear I don’t give a damn” to Frankly, My Dear I think you should read this paragraph from this bestselling novelist. What paragraph do you think he is referring to? Find out all this and more today when The Real Hollywood Book Chat welcomes author R. Scot Johns author of Beowulf, a heroic fantasy novel.
Hello R. Scot,
It is my pleasure to have you appear on The Real Hollywood blog. I hope you find this interview fun and entertaining! Let’s start with our trivia questions and see how much fun you can have.
1. Gilligan’s Island Trivia – Taking a three hour boat tour, you find yourself shipwrecked on this tiny little remote island where 7 people were also shipwrecked. How would you convince this varied audience to read your book? Remember on this island besides The Skipper, his little buddy Gilligan and MaryAnn, is the smart Professor, the rich Mr.& Mrs. Howell who have the money to make your book into a movie and Ginger the movie star who might have a starring role. Please talk to the audience not to me.
Great! We’re stranded! Way to go, Gilligan. At least we’ve got my novel to read. That should keep us busy for awhile. Except for the Professor, since he’s already read it twice. Now the rest of you can catch up! Skipper, you should love this story, with its sinking Viking ships and raging ocean storms! MaryAnn will love the tragic romance and Ginger, you could practice lines by reading the parts of the many strong and seductive female leads. Mr. & Mrs. Howell might like to invest in this epic action thriller which is sure to be a major hit in Hollywood! Or maybe you’ll just like to read of all the gold and jewels the Norsemen threw around, or the golden hoard the Dragon guards. Gilligan will like the comic roles of Groot and Snorri, or the ever-hopeful Otto with his dreams of owning pigs and sheep. There’s a little something here for each of you, but only this one copy, so you’ll have to share!
2. Wheel of Fortune – you have been asked by the Wheel of Fortune writers to create a word puzzle spelling one of the books characters his/her name. Which character name would you want on the Wheel of Fortune puzzle board and why?
Ongentheow. Just look at all those letters! And who ever chooses “w” anyway? Besides, they would have to have read my book to know the answer, so if they got it they would deserve to win.
3. Gone With the Wind – If Rhett Butler were to change his famous line from “Frankly, My Dear I don’t give a damn” to Frankly, My Dear I think you should read this paragraph from this bestselling novelist. What paragraph is Rhett referring to? Tell us how it fits into the novel?
“What good is honor to the dead?” she asked, the tears now welling in her eyes. “How will brave words protect me when you are no longer there? Will the fame of your great deeds keep me warm in the cold of winter night, or stave off the onslaught of invading nations? Your name means nothing to me, Beowulf. It is only your life that matters.”
But Beowulf only sighed with lowered eyes and turned away, his countenance weighed down with thought. “I cannot argue with you, Hæreth,” he said. “My strength is in my arms, not in my tongue, and you are far wiser than I.” He heaved a sigh. Then turning to her once again, he looked into her eyes, and there was confidence in his, as if a resolution had been made. “Still, I must lead my people in the way I am best suited to. I must rule as I must live, and as I live, so must I die, as all men must.”
“Then perhaps you are wiser than I, after all.”
“That I doubt,” he laughed. “Yet I do know what I am, and knowing that, I know what I must do.”
“As I knew you would,” she said, her soft voice breaking as the tears streamed down her cheek. “I love you, Beowulf.”
“Then believe in me,” he said, drawing her to him with his determination.
“I have never believed in anything more.”
This passage speaks to what Rhett Butler tried so often to express to Scarlet, of their mutual attraction even when they disagreed. Perhaps this is another way Rhett tries to get Scarlet to see his side, while still expressing his love for her. In the novel this scene occurs as Beowulf prepares to battle the fire-breathing dragon that has ravaged the land. The weight of his responsibility weighs heavy on them both, and she would have him stay while knowing he must go.
4. Hollywood Book Walk of Fame – A bookstore in Hollywood, California had decided that books should have their own walk of fame. So they have lined the sidewalk in front of their store with book molds in the sidewalk. Your name is to appear on one of these book molds. You give an acceptance speech at the ceremony. What would you say and who would you thank?
Right next to Dickens! Awesome. First I’d like to say that it’s an honor to become a part of someone’s life, if only for a week or a day. Writing is a shared experience, from the mind of the author to the reader’s heart. I am greatly thankful to every one of you who read my work and pleased beyond belief that it somehow spoke to you. Thanks to all who bore with me through the long and arduous process that often made me insufferable to live with. I’d like to thank my landlord for not evicting me, and my boss for not firing me! Thanks to everyone who gave me needed inspiration, and most of all thank goodness I finally finished it!
Thank you Scot for stopping by The Real Hollywood blog today. I wish you continued success on your virtual book tour and who knows your book might just make it to the silver screen.
Welcome to The Writer's Life, Scot. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
I’ve been writing for about twenty years now, give or take. Unlike many authors, I never really wrote much when I was a kid, although I’ve always been an avid reader. But in 1988 I had a dream that changed my life, and I’ve been writing ever since. It was one of those wholly lucid dreams where you wake up but you’re still immersed in the dream world, with every detail firmly in your mind. So vivid was it, that instead of rolling over and going back to sleep as I probably should have, I grabbed a pen and paper and started writing madly to get it down before it disappeared into that mystic void from which such dreams are spun. The next day I went down to the youth ranch and bought a beat-up manual typewriter and set up a table in my attic, where I started writing The Jester’s Quest, which will be my next book.
Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?
After writing some five chapters or so of The Jester’s Quest, I decided that if I was going to make a serious effort at writing a novel I needed to learn the tools of the craft. And so at 28 I went to college for the first time and studied English Lit and creative writing for the next six years. During that time I was introduced to Beowulf more than once, and having already read it once due to my love of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, who was himself greatly inspired by this oldest of English epic tales, I delved deeper into it, eventually learning Anglo-Saxon so that I could do my own translation from the original language. For some reason the story really spoke to me, whether for its poignant themes of loyalty and courage, or the conflicts of clan and kin, of love and honor, or its timeless warning that violence begets more violence, it was a story that I felt deserved a vastly broader audience than the endless procession of disinterested students who grumble and groan over it at midterm.
What kind of research was involved in writing The Saga of Beowulf?
Aside from undertaking a complete translation of the 3200-line Old English poem, I studied the history of academic criticism of the poem from its first partial transcription in 1705 to the present day. But more importantly was a thorough study of the contents of the poem: of the story that it told, and the discovery that part of it was true. The overlying structure of Beowulf is a mythic folk tale of Nordic origin, complete with marauding monsters and a fire-breathing dragon. But underneath this is a story of a people searching for their place in history, forging a civilization from the cold, hard rock of northern Europe. This led me from the 6th century Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours, in which the death of the Geat king Hygelac is recounted, to the later 12th and 13th century Icelandic sagas, including Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, from which we learn the tragic tale of Yrsa, unwitting wife and daughter to her own brother Halga.
How much input did you have into the design of your book cover?
100%. I created the cover art myself, using Corel Painter and Photoshop with a brand new pen tablet that I purchased just for the purpose. Although I’ve done art for many years using traditional medium like watercolor and pen & Ink, this is the first piece of entirely digital artwork that I’ve done. I did sketch the basic design in pencil first, including the title font design, but the rest was done entirely in the computer.
Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?
I imagine it’s always a bumpy ride, unless you’ve already achieved celebrity some other way. The truth is I didn’t spend much time courting publishers and agents – I sent out some fifty queries to agents and just three to publishers, the last of which I’ve still not heard from to this day. But I decided instead of waiting endlessly for someone else to determine how my life would go that I would take matters into my own hands. I’d already done all the work myself up to this point: the writing and the editing, the cover art and illustrations, the layout and typography, and of course, the proposals with their requisite marketing analysis. And so, in the grand tradition of Twain and Franklin, I started my own publishing company.
For this particular book, how long did it take from the time you signed the contract to its release?
It was a little more than a year of waiting from the time I sent my first queries out until I started working on establishing my own publishing house. Once I bought my ISBN block and registered by DBA there was no turning back. From that point it was about three months before I saw my book in print.
Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/she is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?
I think agents are a thing of the past, just as the major trade publishers are heading rapidly toward their downfall. That’s not to say there aren’t good agents out there, or that they can’t be really useful. But the playing field has changed, and will continue to do so for some time, with POD technology and eBooks on the brink of taking over a major portion of the industry. It’s my firm belief that ultimately it should be the readers who decide what should remain in print, and what is utter rubbish, not some overworked flunky intern who bases their decision entirely on the first two sentences of a manuscript that took its authors years to write. I completely understand the overwhelming state that agents and editors find themselves in on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean that we authors should entrust our careers and futures to the hands of someone who at best only has the time to give a cursory glance at the work we’ve crafted with the blood and sweat of own hands. The last response that I received from an agent who purported represented fantasy fiction said simply this: “364,000 words, are you kidding?” I wrote back: “Have you never heard of Tad Williams?” I’ve never sent another query since, nor likely ever will.
Do you plan subsequent books?
Absolutely. I have several planned, including a multi-volume historical epic that will span ten thousand years of human history. But, as I have mentioned, my next project will be The Jester’s Quest, a classic fantasy adventure fraught with magic and mayhem and a pantheon of very peculiar characters, revolving around a poor fool who unluckily falls in love with the king’s only daughter.
Are you a morning writer or a night writer?
I write when I can, but I prefer the evenings, because it takes my brain a good long while to get itself into gear most days. But as I have a day job, much of my writing is done late at night and well into the wee hours of morning when I really should be sleeping. Sometimes on weekends I’ll get a pot of coffee going and write for twelve hours straight before realize I never had breakfast. Those are the best days, though not so much for my stomach.
If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?
My own chain of bookstores in every major city throughout the world, each equipped with an Espresso Book Machine and coffee bar. Then a jet so I could fly from one to the next and chat with readers every day. The EBM is a wonderful invention that I’m very excited about, and if you haven’t heard of it, you can find more information on my blog. Basically, it’s a kiosk-type machine, much like a Redbox, with a touch-screen interface that’s linked to Ingram’s database, and with a swipe of your card it will print and bind your book to order in just five minutes flat. There are now about a dozen of them in use, primarily in libraries and universities around the world, but I’m hoping they will find a larger market, as my book can be printed from them.
How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?
Self-promotion is really the only kind of promotion most authors get, and I’ve done quite a lot of it over the past few months. I’ve done interviews and giveaways, submitted and received reviews, built a website and write a blog; I network on MySpace and Facebook, have accounts on LibraryThing and GoodReads, as well as many others; I’ve done extensive work in beefing up my Amazon listings with additional material, posted the book on Google Books, and listed it on a myriad of sites and forums such as MyBooksOut and Published.com; I’ve made a promo video and posted it on YouTube and Google and several other sites as well. I had bookmarks printed up and give them out to everyone I meet. I run a GoogleAd campaign off and on as I can afford to, as well as MySpace ads and a banner ad here or there. There are, in fact, so many avenues to explore that an author could spend the rest of their life promoting just one book. But at some point you need to get on with writing another one, so I decided to do this blog tour as something of a final media blitz before turning my attention to the next book. I’ll keep blogging regularly, and in order to keep in touch with readers, I plan to post my writing sessions for The Jester’s Quest on the blog each day. That way, not only will I keep promoting myself as an author, but my readers can be involved in the development of the next book. One thing I’ve discovered about advertising is that there’s a lot of room for creative marketing!
Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?
Read. Read all the time. Read voraciously. But most of all, read critically. Learn to distinguish good writing from bad in others so that you can see it in your own. Be highly critical of everything you read, and most of all yourself. And when you write something good, reward yourself for it, then get back to work.
Thank you for coming, Scot! Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?
A: You can find my blog, The Adventures of an Independent Author, at http://authoradventures.blogspot.com, and my publisher website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com. There’s a ton of stuff there to check out, including free downloads of sample chapters and video, as well as wallpaper and bookmarks you can print out, and a wealth of other fun stuff – including a Norse Rune decoder, which those of you who have read the book will understand the reason for! The Saga of Beowulf can be ordered directly from either of these sites, in both print edition – including autographed copies! – or four eBook formats for immediate download. It’s also available through virtually every online book retailer, including Amazon in print and Kindle formats. You should also be able to special order it through your local Barnes & Noble or your favorite independent bookstore.
© R. Scot Johns 2009
There are many options and opportunities for self-publishing these days, with the continued development of Print-On-Demand technologies and internet marketing strategies, but here I will lay out as simply as possible how I went about it, and why I chose to do so.
Using Print-On-Demand, or POD for short, a single copy of a book can now be printed to order, and delivered to the distributor within 24 hours. What this means for the independent self-publisher is that large initial press runs - with their equally large initial costs - are no longer necessary, nor are stocking and shipping of the inventory by the author.
Because POD presses are computer-fed, they can continue to run non-stop 24/7 while spewing out an endless stream of data, somewhere amidst which can be any number of your own pages. And because they are not printed until a book is sold, the cost of production is simply subtracted from the selling price and the author/publisher is given what is left. The book is shipped directly from the printer to the distributor and thence to the buyer, with the author never even seeing the product in between.
There are a great many companies that offer publishing services to authors, but there is only one that you should really consider if you wish to be a true self-publisher, and that is Lightning Source. Lightning Source is a sister-company of Ingram Books, and because of this you not only get POD production services, but automatic distribution through a listing in the Ingram database, which gets you automatically placed on Amazon and B&N.com, along with many other e-commerce outlets. No other POD service can offer you this kind of immediate visibility, and I can tell you it is absolutely key to the success of your book.
The biggest difficulty facing self-published works is their lack of marketing. Getting listed on Amazon is critical, and although there are many ways to do this, an Ingram-sourced listing is the best because it offers you the greatest wealth of bells and whistles to get your book seen and ranked in product searches, and without good visibility you will have no sales. There are many marketing options available on Amazon, but for now I will only say that Amazon will be your foremost ally in your effort to create a successful marketing campaign. Believe me, they want to sell your book as much as you do! And, of course, if you’re also aiming at brick-and-mortar stores, Ingram is where they get their listings, although getting them to stock it on their shelves is another matter altogether.
The steps you’ll need to undertake to get your book in print are as follows:
1) Establish yourself as a Publisher
You do this by purchasing a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker in the U.S. or Nielson BookData in the U.K. You can buy a single ISBN for $150, but unless you never plan to write another book you'll want to get a block of ten, which costs only $275 and gives you your own publisher identifier - the set of digits that are all the same within the block of ten. You'll want to start this process as early as possible, at least a month or two before your publication date. Congratulations! You are now a publisher.
2) Get BISAC/BIC Classifications
These are the subject categories under which you want your book assigned. In the U.S. you'll want to go to bisg.org and in the U.K. to bic.org.uk for the official listings from which you can choose the ones you think best fit. In the U.S. you can also find categories at the Library of Congress catalog. These will be drawn upon in many places where your book is listed, such as Amazon, who uses them for search and ranking classifications.
3) Complete your Cover Art and Layout
Okay, your book is written, now you need some cover art and layout done. I did my own, but there are many options when it comes to both. Just make sure the cover looks professional and sharp, so that you can read the title clearly and it stands out on a web page. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but unless your cover really rocks the book will never reach the judges.
4) Get Advance Reviews and Comments
Another thing you'll want to do well in advance of publication is obtain some reviews. Send your manuscript out to anyone you know who might write a fair and legible evaluation of your work, particularly if they have any legitimate credentials related to your topic or to literature in general. This is critical to generating some initial buzz, as well as giving you material to post in your Amazon listing and on the back cover or initial pages of the book.
5) Get a Lightning Source account
To set up with Lightning Source you will need a business name, as they only deal with publishers, not individual authors. Even if, like me, you're just a one-man show, you're still a publisher to Lightning Source, so be professional. Enter your Publisher Prefix from your ISBN block, and list yourself as the “owner” of a Sole Proprietorship. You'll want "Publisher Direct Ordering" if you ever want to purchase copies for yourself at wholesale, and you definitely want "Wholesale Distribution." This is what will get you onto Amazon and other online e-tailers. You can also sign up for eBook services if you like. Lastly, you'll need to provide a bank account to which Lightning Source can deposit your earnings and from which it will withdraw your title setup and listing fees. There is no cost to set up a Lightning Source account, only for book submissions.
6) Submit your Title Data to Lightning Source
Before submitting the actual manuscript you need to establish a listing for your title, which is a fairly extensive process requiring the input of a lot of data, after which Lightning Source will provide you with a custom template for your cover art, which will include a barcode on the back with the ISBN you have assigned to it. You do this using the New Title Setup link from your account page. Here you’ll list the publication date, choose your retail price, enter the discount you’ll offer to retailers, and add a short description of your book. For more detailed information on how to determine your price and discount, visit my blog at http://authoradventures.blogspot.com, where I go into it in more depth.
7) Create PDF files and submit them to Lightning Source
Once your text and art are finalized you will need to create two files: one containing all the interior material and one the outer jacket art. These both need to be in PDF format, and for the cover must comply with fairly tight requirements of size and quality. Lightning Source has several tutorials and templates to guide you through the process, but it can be fairly daunting to the uninitiated. Once you have these files, go to the title page that you created in the last step and upload them to Lightning Source. After a week or so the files will be approved (or rejected with instructions on what to fix), and a proof sent out. When your proof arrives, check it thoroughly for any errors, with a ruler in hand to measure margins and header spacing. Now is the time to catch any discrepancies that might creep in. Once you're certain all is well, go to your account page and approve the proof. As soon as you do your book will be available for ordering, and Amazon will soon be selling it by the truckload, even if there’s only one copy on the truck!
The epic 10th century poem Beowulf is the oldest existing literary work in the English language, and yet few speakers of the modern tongue would be able to pick out more than a handful of words throughout its nearly 3200 lines of verse. Year after year throngs of distraught Lit-101 students are subjected to extracts in bad translations, leaving the vast majority with a less than fond remembrance of the effort, and little desire to pursue the story further.
Fortunately for me, I was in the minority in this respect. I had gone to college at the age of 28 to learn the craft of writing, a non-traditional student with an outlook altogether different than the hoards of degree-seeking teens whose goal was merely to get through. I fell in love with Beowulf. It captivated me. Something about this ancient folk tale from the cold northlands called out to me, and so I followed.
At the time I was working as a counter clerk in a rental video outlet, and one day it occurred to me that there had never been a film made of this classic work. By then I was several years into my study of the poem, learning Old English that I might read it in its original language, and reading every academic essay concerning it. Thus, I felt I was ideally suited to undertake that task. And so I set to work.
Unfortunately for me, so did Neil Gaiman. After several more years of work, as I was sending out my script to agents and producers, I was to discover that not one, but two filmed adaptations were already in the works, rendering my screenplay obsolete.
Yet, as I had wanted to be a novelist in the first place, I didn’t let this hinder me, but took it as a sign to press ahead. Thus began the adaptation of my adaptation into prose. What I feel came out of this was that the novel has a heightened visual aspect that it might not have gotten otherwise. Throughout the screenwriting process I had imagined vividly exactly how each scene would play, and although the book has naturally more in it than the script, its characters were brought to detailed life long before I ever wrote page one.
Like many fantasy authors, I’m a devoted fan of Tolkien, and it was through him that I had my first real taste of Beowulf. I had read professor Tolkien’s 1936 dissertation on the poem, and read Gummere’s translation as a result. During the reading of the poem that first time I woke up in the middle of the night with a wholly unrelated story running through my mind, a lucid dream as vivid as if it were the story of my own life. So compelling was it that I got up at 3 a.m. and started to write it down, working diligently until the sun came up. That next day I went out to a thrift store and bought a beat up manual typewriter that barely worked, and decided to become a writer.
That was nearly twenty years ago, and just last fall I finally published my first novel, the culmination of ten years worth of work on Beowulf. I have yet to finish writing down the dream I had that night so long ago, as the journey it revealed is still unfolding.
For detailed notes on the adaptation process I underwent in writing The Saga of Beowulf, or to read sample chapters, please visit my website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com, where you will also find a wealth of resources to further your enjoyment of this epic tale.
Like most fantasy authors, I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. Unlike many of them, however, it was the academic work of Professor Tolkien that inspired me as much as his creative endeavors. Like most adolescent males I was, of course, familiar with the names of Thor and Odin from an early age, run across in fable tales and myths from illustrated children’s books or Saturday morning cartoons and adventure movies. What I didn’t know at first was that the names of Gandalf and more than half the Dwarves of Thorin’s band that I had read of in The Hobbit, derived from that same Nordic tradition.
Not until I delved into The Lord of the Rings and scoured thoroughly its many appendices did I begin to have a sense that there was more beyond the book itself that Tolkien himself had drawn upon for inspiration. From the Eddas has come the list of names that gave us Dwalin and Balin and their kin, and indeed, the race of Dwarves themselves. And thus began my fascination with Norse mythology.
Although the Nordic mythos has much in common with the classical Greco-Roman cycle, drawing as it does upon a proto Indo-European stock, there is in it a fatalistic outlook that is well at home in those cold, harsh, northern climes, an aspect that lends to it a host of cruel and ruthless elemental beings: where Greek myths give us nymphs and satyrs, the Norse tales sing of Frost Giants and Fire Drakes. The Icelandic sagas, that great repository of ancient northern folklore, present us with an endless litany of trolls and ogres and other foul demons, matched in each by equally hardy heroes, both human and divine. The Nordic myths are fraught with sorcery and spells, elves and enchanted treasure.
It is from the Volsunga Saga, for example, and its later Germanic retelling in the Nibelungenleid, that Tolkien drew his inspiration for the story of a mighty Ring of Power, a talisman whose curse of lust and greed is passed to anyone that wears it. This tragic tale would also provide 19th century composer Richard Wagner with the materials for his epic Ring cycle.
In the Old English poem Beowulf, a story set in 6th century Scandinavia, we find a dragon sleeping in a subterranean grotto on a pile of hoarded gold, awoken to fiery wrath by the pilfering of a jewel-encrusted cup by a solitary thief. Not the talking dragon Smaug we fans of Tolkien know so well, but his direct precursor. Indeed, in Beowulf we find a sword blade that melts under the corrosive touch of demon’s blood, a dark haired, dark eyed councilor who corrupts his king with poisoned words, and a confrontation with a mead-hall door-guard, all of which bear a marked resemblance to events in The Lord of the Rings. None of which is surprising, given Professor Tolkien’s status as one of the foremost scholars on Beowulf.
It was this, in fact, that led me on my ten year quest to bring the epic tale of Beowulf to a modern audience in my own heroic fantasy novel The Saga of Beowulf. As Tolkien relied heavily on Norse mythology and lore, and Beowulf in particular, in the creation of his Middle-Earth saga, I drew inspiration from Tolkien’s work in order to bring Beowulf to life once more.
I started writing The Saga of Beowulf ten years ago. Back then I had these grand visions of going on a worldwide book tour when at last my debut novel rolled in thousands off the presses. There I would be, in Italy or France, surrounded by a mammoth stack of the masterpiece that I had worked so long and hard to pour my heart into, with lines of adoring fans waiting hours to get an autograph, or just to say hello.
I suppose that’s not an uncommon expectation for many first-time authors, and for most of us it will remain a dream forever unfulfilled. The long and hard part is true enough, but the lines of fans remain elusive.
Regardless of the quality of an author’s writing, or if it ever makes it into print, the completion of a debut novel is a mammoth undertaking, and I salute every writer who achieves that goal. Whatever happens afterwards, none can say the writer didn’t try. But the truth is that few among that class of authors who can claim the name of “novelist” will see their labors transferred into print, and fewer still will sell enough to justify a second book. This has as much to do with economics as it does with skill or craft.
The fact is that in this day and age of mass production it is prohibitively expensive to publish and market the vast majority of books, and a great many that are selected are doomed to meet an untimely and ignoble death in the remainder aisle and the recycled paper factory. There just isn’t enough money in the budget of the major trades to give each new title the promotion it deserves. On average, the top five percent of published titles receive ninety-five percent of the advertising budget in a given year. To send an author out to bookstores all around the world, or even in a single country, with travel costs and per diem, is strictly limited to those whose works are guaranteed to sell, and thus recoup what otherwise would be a major loss of needed revenue to print the books that just don’t sell.
Where does this leave the rest of us, the authors of genre works and quirky tales that fall outside the mainstream of commercial fiction, the niche subject specialist or independent writers telling stories of an esoteric bent? If we somehow do succeed in finding a small press to take us on, or even in convincing a major trade to throw a bone our way, it’s still left up to us to be the authors of not just our books, but of our careers and lives. We’re given a handful of promo copies and roll of posters if we’re lucky, and sent on our merry way. “Don’t come back until you’ve made a million!” they might say as we’re scooted through the door.
Short of filling up the trunk of your beat-up four-door and taking on the cost of touring from town to town on your own to peddle your wares like snake-oil salesmen, there is little in the way of promotional support for independents such as we. But this is where I have to say that it’s a wondrous thing to be living in the 21st century. Where the costs of almost everything – including book production – have risen to the point where only mass conglomerates seem capable of wielding the necessary monetary muscle, the internet has greatly leveled out the playing field with respect to marketing.
Marketing is simply a another word for networking, and networking – as all of you involved with social sites will know – is just another word for interacting. Marketing is really all about communicating with people, and who is better suited to communicate but writers and their readers? For we are people who already deal in words. And this is why the Virtual Book Tour was invented.
With so many book review websites and blogs – sites where fans can come together and share their love of stories from the comfort of their homes with people they might otherwise have never met – it seems only natural for authors to become involved. Instead of packing up the ol’ gas-hog and maxing out the credit card on cheap hotels and roadside diners, a writer can tour the virtual world just like their readers do, hopping from one great website to another, posting comments and sharing stories along the way.
This is a major boon to readers as well, who get a chance to interact with writers they might not have met before, in a way that standing in line for an autograph could never let them do. And it doesn’t cost you a dime!
Hello and welcome to Fiction Scribe Mr. Scot Johns!
List five words that define you as a person
A: Bright blue chill mod monkey.
Not a fan of poetry, huh? Just kidding. What inspired you to turn the classic epic poem Beowulf into a novel?
A: The fact that it had never been done before. Initially I wrote it as a movie, because at the time while I was studying the poem in English Lit classes I was also working in a video store, so my thoughts naturally first turned to film. It occurred to me that there had never been a film adaptation of this epic action adventure tale, so I set about writing one. Unfortunately, so did Neil Gaiman, who clearly has more clout than me in the movie industry (which wouldn’t be hard, since I have none). After he sold his script I decided to turn mine into a novel, which is why I was going to college in the first place.
Who, if anyone, helped you create this novel?
A: No one. This was entirely a one-man production from conception to publication. I researched and wrote it, did the editing, typography and layout, and all the artwork for the cover and internal illustrations, as well as bookmarks, audio readings and videos to promote it, the website and blog, ebook formatting and conversion, the ad campaigns and social network pages, and of course I sent out all the review copies myself. Instead of waiting endlessly to hear back from agents and publishers, I started my own publishing company, Fantasy Castle Books, and put the book out using the latest print-on-demand technology. I’m still waiting to hear back from the agents and editors.
What was the most difficult part of turning a poem into a novel?
A: Turning any work of poetry into a full-length prose narrative is never easy, but Beowulf posed particular difficulties on many levels. The poem is a thousand years old and written in a language no one speaks, so I had to translate it first just to understand it fully. Secondly, as with any poetry, much of the language used is fraught with inference and allusion, but due to its age many of the references are to events or elements the audience of the time would grasp, but which have since grown hazy at best or been altogether lost. This required an extensive amount of research using chronicles and sagas external to the poem. Thirdly, there is a great deal of academic argument over much of the content of the poem, due both to the fact that the manuscript was damaged in a fire and is difficult to read in many places, and also because the work itself presents a great many questions, from overarching themes and viewpoints to the meaning of individual words. Was the poet a pagan or a Christian? Was Beowulf responsible for Hondscio’s death? What happened to the Geats? Who’s the woman that laments over Beowulf’s funeral pyre? Scholars have debated these questions for centuries, and will likely continue to do so long after we are gone. And finally, and most importantly to my view, is the fact that the Beowulf story contains a grain of truth among its overlaying mythological folk tale. This is what required the greatest amount of research and work to turn into a cohesive plot that fit the many references scattered throughout the poem.
If you could do it all again, what – if anything – would you do differently?
A: Probably I would put the book out in two parts, and tighten up the opening chapter of the first. The Saga of Beowulf is a mammoth epic, and it seems to intimidate a lot of readers, although I have to say you get your money’s worth this way. Were I to divide it into two volumes it would cost you twice as much to read what you get now in one book. But I was concerned that readers might be put off of approaching a first-time author if they had to buy two books to get the whole story. But many readers simply don’t have time in their lives to undertake such a hefty tome. They want fast-paced page turners that they can get through in a week, and move on to the next. I found this to be particularly true of book reviewers and bloggers who simply have too many books to get through in a given day to want to start a novel of this size. It’s a shame, but a practical fact of modern society.
How long did it take to finish this – from idea conception to published book?
A: Ten years, start to finish. In fact, it could be more than that if you count my Beowulf studies while in college. But from the time I first conceived of adapting it into a modern medium to the publication of the novel last October it was nearly ten years. Of course, several of those years were spent crafting a film adaptation, followed by a lot of additional research when I started on the book. The novel itself was something like six years from inception, give or take. It’s kind of hard to say exactly, because I didn’t work on it consistently, but instead took several lengthy breaks along the way, some spanning many months when I didn’t work on it at all. And even when I was it was in the evening and on weekends when I could. Often after many weeks or months had passed with no time or energy to write I would have to go back to the start and work back through to where I’d left off, just to get all the myriad of details implanted back into my mind. That’s why the first chapter is so damned long.
Was there anything along the way that was completely unexpected – both good and bad?
A: Almost everything was unexpected, since I had no idea what to expect at the outset. In fact, what expectations I did have were fairly unrealistic. On the good side, the story grew into something far larger than I had ever envisioned, and was an altogether amazing journey to undertake. The reviews, too, have been more than I could ever have hoped for. On the bad side, having another version of the film sell wholly took the wind out of my sails for quite some time, and it took quite a while to get over it. But in the end it made the novel better, so perhaps it’s just as well (although I’d still like to see mine made).
What would you say is the most difficult thing about being a writer?
A: Staying home to work alone while everyone else is going out on Friday night or camping on weekends. I often wish I worked in film or theater where I could share their sense of camaraderie. But writing is a solitary endeavor, and the one that I have chosen.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given/learned in your life as a writer?
A: Trust your instincts. Listen to the story, not the critics. The characters know the way. In the end it’s the story that matter, not the sales. Telling a good story is an end in itself. What comes after doesn’t matter. If just a single reader is touched by your story then you’ve succeeded at your craft.
When you’re not writing, what are you doing?
A: Listening to music while I think up what I’ll write next! Actually I like to watch movies and take long walks in the park by the river. I read a lot. And of course lately I’ve been promoting my book pretty much full time. But after this blog tour is done I plan to get back to writing again.
What are you working on now?
A: Currently I’m working on 3D digital art using DAZ and Poser, which I intend to use for a graphic novel edition of The Saga of Beowulf, as well as my next book, The Jester’s Quest.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers here?
A: For those of you who have read – or are planning to read – The Saga of Beowulf, be sure to stop by my website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com, where you will find a wealth of fun resources and free downloads to enhance your enjoyment of the reading experience. And please be sure to drop me a line to share your thoughts, either via the contact page on the website, or on my blog, The Adventures of an Independent Author.
Thank you very much for coming by this blog. I wish you great successes with The Saga of Beowulf.
A: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure!
Originally I had intended The Saga of Beowulf to be a graphic novel. Not the kind the resembles an overgrown comic book, but one with a heavy dose of illustrations in the manner of those early 1900’s pen and inks by Arthur Rackham or Howard Pyle, with a heavy dose of Frank Frazetta thrown in for good measure. I’ve always loved artwork, almost as much as I love books, and seeing the two together is sheer bliss for me.
But as my composition grew, taking on the epic scale of the story it retells, there was less room left for art and more reliance on the imagination of the reader. Perhaps this is as it should be, for there is much to be said for letting the reader’s own mind fill in the subtle details, allowing them to shape the characters and settings to their own peculiar tastes. So it was that of all the many sketches I had done, intending them to grace the pages of my published novel, in the end only one found its way into print.
I did this pen & ink initially in pencil, which I then scanned into my computer and inked in Corel Painter using a new digital pen tablet I bought for the purpose. I had done one test version in actual pen & ink, but discovered while adding in the text that I needed to alter the size and layout of the composition to make it fit. This proved to be one of the many advantages of digital over actual ink. Each of these elements were created on a separate layer, so that I could move them about and manipulate their size and shape. The manuscript, by the way, is an accurate facsimile of the actual Beowulf manuscript, in its original Old English hand, upon which the novel is based. That document, our sole source for this oldest of English epics, was penned in two different hands, the belief being generally held that the first scribe died before he could complete the tale, hence the ephemeral symbolism of the snuffed out candle and spilled ink jar.
But all books must have at least one major piece of full-color art, that which will grace its cover, and fantasy fiction is not the least conspicuous in this regard. I knew I wanted something fairly bright and bold, and my basic inspiration was drawn from a painting by Frazetta called Kane on the Golden Sea, which featured the muscular hero staring out across the bow of a Viking-style warship as they sail toward some unseen shore.
Starting with a quick rough pencil sketch, again I scanned this into Painter and with my digital pen set to a light graphite I worked out the basic shape and perspective, roughing in the detail taken from the famous Oseberg Viking ship housed in the Oslo Ship Museum. The headstock was based, albeit rather loosely on a 5th century example found in a Dutch riverbed (see inset image).
After finalizing the details, I started in on the painting, using simulated oils with a fine camel-hair brush, working meticulously over the course of several weeks to build up texture and detail in layers. Again I created each element on a separate layer, ultimately reaching nearly fifty layers, including the background image. The overall process required roughly 300 hours over the course of more than six weeks of long daily sessions. In the end I ran short on both time and energy, as my prospective publication date drew ever nearer and my summer vacation came to an end.
For the titles I had originally created this header plaque, due to the fact that I had initially thought to use the dragon battle scene for the cover, with the fire-drake emerging from its cave. The logo lettering was drawn and inked by hand, in both a solid fill and outline version, then scanned into Photoshop, where I modeled it with over forty layers to create the jewel-inlaid-in-gold appearance. At this point you can see I was still considering it as an illustrated novel.
However, for the final layout I dropped the faux-stone background and only used the letters, in order to balance the composition and show the background better. Here I’ve added a variation of the lettering for the spine, my publisher’s logo, and a blurb on the back, although the final ISBN block has not yet been comped in on this image. Fantasy art has always played a major role in the initial impact a fantasy novel makes upon the reader, from prompting them to pick up the book in the first place to establishing the tone and imagery which sets them off upon their voyage. It was with that in mind that I decided upon the image of Beowulf and his men setting out across the roiling sea beneath a thunderous, brooding sky. It is my hope that in viewing the cover, the reader will know they’re headed for an adventure.
Welcome to Beyond the Books, Scot. Can you tell us whether you are published for the first time or multi-published? Can you give us the title(s) of your book(s)?
The Saga of Beowulf is my debut novel. It is the first complete novelization of the epic 10th century Old English poem Beowulf, based on a screenplay that I wrote some years ago. At the time I was studying medieval literature in college while working in a video rental store, and it occurred to me that there had never been a film made of this earliest of English action adventure tales. So I spent several years researching and writing one. Unfortunately, so did Neil Gaiman, whose version sold before mine could. However, this turned out to be an advantage when it came to write the novel, as it left me free to explore and expand without the constraints required by adhering to the film’s structure.
What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?
books000The first book I set out to write was called The Jester’s Quest, which was never published, as I never finished it. After working on it through a first rough draft I decided that if I were going to approach writing seriously I needed to learn the craft. So I stuck it in a drawer and went to college for six years, during which time I became enamored of Beowulf, and spent the subsequent ten years working on both a screenplay and a novelization of that story. However, my intention is to now go back and complete that first book, drawing on what I’ve learned in the intervening twenty years.
For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?
I sent out queries to nearly sixty agents and three publishers. Two of the publishers rejected it, but I have yet to hear back from the third after nearly a year of waiting and a follow-up inquiry. Of the agents roughly half rejected it outright, while about a dozen asked for partials or full manuscripts. Half of these rejected it, and I’ve never heard back from the rest. While I was waiting (im)patiently for replies, I began to learn about print-on-demand technology, and the new possibilities it opened up in self-publishing. Having always been of independent bent with a tendency toward doing things myself, I decided to start my own publishing company, so that I could maintain control over my own work. Beyond researching and writing the book, I also edited and typeset it, did the cover art and illustrations, created and corrected the proofs, undertook all the necessary document filings to establish business accounts both in the US and UK, created ebook versions in five formats, sent out review copies and have done all the marketing myself.
How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?
Rejections never bothered me in terms of my writing or the work itself. By this time I was wholly satisfied with the quality of my writing and knew that I had created something well above the average. What concerned me about the tradition submission process was how geared toward the mainstream (read: average and mediocre) they were. The Saga of Beowulf falls well outside the bell curve, being a fairly intellectual work, written in an upper college level prose, and in a narrow niche genre the vast majority of publishers won’t even look at. But more importantly, I realized rather quickly just how overwhelmed the agents and publishers were with submissions, which allowed them very little time to evaluate each potential candidate. This means that manuscripts must inherently conform to a pre-determined set of criteria to pass their first audition, only one of which is good writing. In general, decisions are made solely on the basis of the query content, and not the work at all, since there’s no time to give anything a thorough read, if it’s read at all. This means that if the story premise is intriguing enough (i.e. it seems potentially commercial), the agent will read a paragraph or two, but rarely more than a page or two, in which time they have to make a decision without benefit of getting to know the story or the characters. I fully understand the necessity of this in the highly competitive, and costly, modern market. It just rapidly became apparent that my 618 page novel would never be read by anyone involved in trade publishing, as they simply didn’t have the time, and consequently I determined to publish it myself. This has since proven to hold true for reviewers as well, who are inundated with free books from authors and publishers, the majority of which they will never read.
When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?
As I said, I started my own publishing company, Fantasy Castle Books. To do this all you have to do is file a D.B.A. and purchase a block of ISBN’s, which gives you a publisher code that is registered with Bowker in the U.S. and Nelson Book Data in the United Kingdom. I’ve given some of the reasons already, but another significant factor was the fact that by publishing the book myself I gain a vastly greater share of the profits from each sale, although, of course, there is no advance, and I have to pay for all expenses and marketing. I had approached the three major fantasy publishers that accept direct submissions without an agent, but as I mentioned, only two replied, while the last has not responded to this day. I might think this was a reflection of the novel’s merits, were it not that the book has since garnered rave reviews across the board. You can read these reviews on both my website and blog, as well as Amazon.com for most of them.
How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
Initially it was incredibly elating to see and hold a copy of my book for the first time, and see it spread out across the web. This was tempered, however, as I held my breath and waited for the first reviews to come in, and of course to see how sales would go. Reading the first review, with its glowing praise, was as much or more uplifting than seeing it in print. To celebrate the novel’s publication I bought a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and savored it while barbequing in my back yard by myself as the sun went down. Then I got back to work.
What was the first thing you did as promotion when you were published for the first time?
Built a web presence. Since this book was self-published there was little chance that it would ever see the inside of a brick-and-mortal store. Because of its size and cost to print, I can’t offer the standard 65% trade discount that bookstores demand to stock a book. This meant that I had to focus all my marketing efforts on the internet, focusing on Amazon as my major retailer. But the first thing to do was to establish a strong web presence. So I built a website and began a blog. The website as developed over time to include a wide variety of fun and useful resources to help readers find and enjoy the book, including sample chapters to download, audio readings and promo video, high-resolution artwork for wallpaper and bookmarks, extensive author’s notes on the writing and adaptation process, a Norse Rune decoder, study guides, and even a deleted sequence that was cut from the first chapter. You can now also buy the book directly from the website, both in print and for immediate download in several formats.
If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?
Possibly. Knowing how the novel as it is would be received by the industry, I would cut the book in half (it has a natural breaking point roughly halfway through), and excise everything from the first chapter that isn’t dialogue or action, saving all the expository narrative for later. This seems to be what agents want, but whether this is the best thing for the story is questionable. But I’ve discovered that there are two distinctly differently audiences that an author must write to: the final readers, and the agents and editors you have to win over to get the book in print, and they have very different agendas. Unfortunately for me, I love long books that develop over time, and which a reader lives with for quite a while. When you pick up a 600 page novel you know you’re in it for the long haul, and are not rushing through to find out what happens next and finish it as quickly as you can. It’s a savoring experience, like fine wine, which grows with you as you progress. But that’s not what trade publishers are looking for, so I would have to drastically alter it from what it is, for good or ill.
Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?
No, I’m still working on marketing this first novel, and haven’t yet started working on the next one. Much of what I’ve learned as an author has to do with things I’ve been speaking of, more from a business perspective than that of a writer. My writing has been highly praised and universally applauded by readers and reviewers, although there’s always room for growth. Quickening my pacing in the early chapters (particularly the first) is something I plan to work on, but again, this is due more to what I’ve learned about the business than it is about the craft. And it’s still up in the air as to whether I’ll even bother to submit the next book to the trades.
Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?
I could have written a much shorter book! That would have sped things up a lot. But going way back it would have made things much easier if I had started writing as a kid, before the burden of working nine to five consumed the better part of my time. Having to write on evenings and weekends only has been incredibly difficult for a work of this length and complexity. I have no “platform” on which to promote myself, which seems to be what major publishers are really looking for. If you’re an actor or a lawyer or someone with a public presence it’s much easier to get your story published. But I’ve worked in the unglamorous profession of a retail manager for most my life; and having never joined any official organizations or garnered awards for anything, I have only my manuscript to offer. I’ve always been an avid reader, but I never wrote stories as a youth. I just decided one day I wanted to write a novel, so I did. I would recommend prospective authors join writers groups and submit everything they write to magazines and competitions to start building their career. But in the end you just have to write what you feel compelled to write.
What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?
It’s hard to top being published itself, but achieving consistently excellent reviews has been the highlight of the whole experience, since it is the readers who ultimately determine the value of your work, and to whom you write. As far as statistics are concerned, having The Saga of Beowulf hit #4 on Amazon UK and #6 in the US in the Historical Fantasy category was pretty cool.
If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?
Rock musician. That’s what I was focused on throughout my teenage years and well into my twenties. I played acoustic and electric guitar in several bands during the seventies and early eighties, and I miss it. Recently I’ve played acoustic guitar in a Neil Young tribute band, which was a lot of fun. But unfortunately I’m a bit of an introvert, and I can’t sing for beans, so my stage presence isn’t exactly stunning, to say the least.
Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?
No. Being an author is much better. There are no ego conflicts to deal with, and it’s less a popularity contest than a work of art. Besides, music is temporal and fades with time, but books live forever. I would like to write for films, though, in order to enjoy again the camaraderie that comes with working in a larger group. I’ve always thought that a film production is very much like putting on a rock show, complete with lights, camera and action.
How do you see yourself in ten years?
By then I’d like to have a half dozen books written and built up a reasonably sizeable readership, enough to provide a meager living so that I can write full-time. I’m not looking for fame or fortune (although I wouldn’t turn them away), I just want to be able to make a decent living doing what I love instead of making money for someone else. I’d like to travel as I research locations for the historical fiction novels I plan to write. But I’d settle for a vacation sometime.
Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
Just keep writing. Write all the time. Write and read. Read and write. In and out. You are what you read, so to speak. Reading is food for the mind, so read what’s good and cultivate an appreciation of good writing. But just keep writing and writing and writing. And send your writing out for publication wherever and whenever you can.
Muscled hunks with shining swords. Dazzling maidens trapped in towering castles. Haunted woods where lurking creatures threaten doom. Such things dwell within the realm of heroic fantasy. There where evil threatens, bronze-skinned warriors will rise to meet the challenge; and where all who came before have failed, they will overcome. The greater the danger faced, the more reward and glory that our hero gains.
This is the idealized world we enter when immersing ourselves into the stories of heroic fantasy. Where in our own lives evil seems to triumph just as often as does good, where justice is evasive and ethics anything but black and white, where corrupt men rise to wealth and power and honest men die cold and poor, unknown and alone, here wrong is always overcome and evil is defeated. It is the world we wished we lived in, the strong and awe-inspiring heroes that we wished we were.
What child has not dreamed of slaying dragons, or played make-believe with capes and wooden swords? But who among these young, untainted minds would play the part of troll or ogre, or the evil overlord whose downfall is at hand? It’s as if the innocence of youth knows well the landscape of this realm that we adults must strive to find. In a sense it’s as if by reading these heroic tales of knights and demons we can regain that sense of truth and honor, and revisit once again the wondrous landscape we had wandered in our youth.
Heroic fantasy has had a long and illustrious career, for in every age the threat of doom has lurked among us. From Achilles to Aragorn, Gilgamesh to Conan the Barbarian, we readers of fantastic works have always loved our epic heroes. The earliest mythologies are fraught with tales of superhuman exploits, events that loom as larger-than-life, one of the fundamental tenets of heroic fantasy. It can, in fact, be argued that heroic fantasy was the first and foremost of literary genres. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is among the earliest known works of literary fiction, composed sometime prior to 2000 B.C.E., telling of the super-human king of Uruk’s epic battles with the demon-ogre Humbaba, of his walking on the bottom of the ocean, and many other great adventures.
Greco-Roman mythology is filled with heroes overcoming fantastic creatures, from snake-haired gorgons to seven-headed hydras. Among the earliest of prose novels is that of Don Quixote, a satire of heroic fantasy, in which our witless hero jousts with windmills thinking they are giants. And who has never read the tales of Arthur and the hero quests of his fabled Knights of the Round Table, filled with magic and supernatural horror from the hands of Merlin and Moran Le Fay? From The Odyssey to Beowulf the hero’s quest has taken us on mythic voyages through wondrous realms of magic and enchantment, where evil lurks at every turn, and only we as heroes can defeat it.