By day, Mark Lawrence works as a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, and by night he weaves fantasy tapestries that revolve around killers, kings and empires. His flagship series, the Broken Empire, is published by Ace Books. His short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Fading Light and the upcoming Triumph Over Tragedy, Unfettered, and The Fantasy-Faction Anthology. His latest novel, King of Thorns, has made several top ten lists in 2012, including my own.
Mark is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. He has held classified positions with the US and UK governments, and at one point in his career he was actually qualified to say “this isn’t rocket science… oh wait, it actually is.”
You can visit him at his blog, his author page at Goodreads, or at his book website. He’s also started the Million Dollar Bookshop, a web-page where authors can advertise their books by buying pixels, similar to the Million Dollar Homepage from a few years back. All proceeds from the Bookshop go toward charity.
Thanks for joining me today, Mark. So, first I want to talk a bit about your debut. How many places did you submit to, and how many rejections did you get, before you signed with your agent?
I sent the first three chapters out to four agents off a list at the rate of one a month, then stopped. The fourth one replied some weeks later and signed me up. A couple of months later I had a three-book deal after an international bidding war. A week after getting the deal I got a standard rejection from one of the other three agents and the first two have not yet replied. So technically I got no rejections before I signed with my agent, and one after.
Recently you’ve become involved with the Million Dollar Bookshop. Can you explain what that’s all about?
I set the site up as a spur of the moment thing. I’d been having conversations with authors – from New York Times best sellers to struggling self-published guys – and seeing how hard it is to tread the fine (and moving) line between the necessary and effective promotion of your work, and coming off as obnoxiously pushy. I recalled the Million Dollar Homepage where a teenager made a million dollars selling advertising pixels about ten years ago and thought there might still be an appetite for that if the topic was focused (i.e. books) and the money was going to charity rather than an individual. I directed the drive at children’s charities because of my own experience with them and to maintain a theme. The key idea was that the giving could be direct so that each donor had absolute confidence in the process, and that the space ‘earned’ on the board was a recognition of their contribution. Additionally I hoped the charitable nature of the project would also encourage people to try out the authors featured.
For people without a specific charity in mind I’ve nominated a couple of children’s charities on the site (which can be added to by donors). One of them runs hospices for terminally ill and life-limited children, and I spend two weeks a year at one of their hospices with my daughter, getting much needed and very appreciated respite. It makes me happy to be able to give a little back.
How do you balance your writing life, your day job, and your family when working on a project as massive in scope as Broken Empire?
The Broken Empire trilogy has never really struck me as a project or as having a massive scope. From my side of the page it feels like a relatively straightforward tale, primarily about the person telling it. I wrote King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns (both of which are about twice the length of Prince of Thorns) in a year, mostly after midnight. The majority of my non-day-job time is spent looking after my youngest child who is quadriplegic. I didn’t feel under any pressure. I guess being able to survive on relatively little sleep helps.
Similar to the previous question, in regards to short stories and poetry, is that something you work-in with the novel writing, or is it something you do between books, as you’re going through the “I never want to see that novel again” phase?
Well, to be honest I’ve only written two short stories and one poem since I got my book deal in January 2010, so that side of things has definitely slid! My anthology contributions are primarily from the electronic drawer where I started to put short stories once I got bored with sending them to magazines.
On a good day, how much do you write?
I really don’t know. I’ve never counted my daily tally. I can tell you that on a great many days I write nothing. I guess maybe I might write 5,000 words if I’m at the hospice with my daughter and somebody else is looking after her all day. I’ll have to measure it one day. I’m normally a numbers guy.
Do you spend more time revising and editing than writing?
I don’t spend any time revising and editing. I just write the once. That’s probably why I get a fair amount done in very little time.
Before I hand a manuscript in I’ll read it through and fix the odd sentence. And of course there’s the editing with the publisher but that always seems to go very smoothly. With Emperor of Thorns I’m clicking through the editor’s corrections now. There’s maybe five sentences struck out and three places she wants more words to make a sentence clearer.
This is all good, because I can’t find it in me to change what I’ve written. I often think it would be good to be able to, but when I read what I wrote I am invariably happy with it and not able to think of a better way to put it. This is of course not to say that the writing could not be made better, just that _I_ can’t do it. I am envious of writers who can repeatedly improve upon what they have written – but not envious of writers who get stuck in revision loops.
What’s the hardest part about writing a series?
Well up to now I would have said that there is no hard part. Right now, an hour or two from finishing the publisher’s edit on the last book in the trilogy I’m finding the hard part is saying goodbye to it. It’s a bit sad, and the future is uncertain. But I feel there’s a strength in knowing when to stop and I would rather leave the readers wanting more on book 3 than have them leaving me on book 6 and wanting less.
With everything you know now, having published two novels in a series and a third coming down the pipe, what do you wish you had known going into it?
Tough one. I don’t think I’ve learned anything that I would really need to tell my 2010 self. I have observations that would perhaps surprise 2010-Mark, but I don’t think they would change the way he did things. In 2010, as a veteran of many years of online writing groups, I was sure that writing was all about the quality of the prose. I felt that was what was most important. Discovering that most readers are prose-blind and care only about the story was a surprise. I am not about to stop caring about my prose though, and I don’t feel I ever neglected the story … so it’s not something I wish I’d known.
How has your science background influenced your writing?
No. Well. I do have a drop of science-y stuff in book 2 but it’s something anyone could have come up with reading a sci-fi or popular uber-physics for the layman book.
As a fellow scientist, I know that when I tell people I write fantasy, they look at me and wonder why I’m not writing science fiction instead. Do you ever get similar reactions from people? And do you ever have the urge to write science fiction?
I get that all the time and it prompted my most popular blog post ever: http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/you-cant-have-magic-and-science-wait.html
I have no strong urge to write science fiction right now – that’s not to say I never would, but fantasy stirs my imagination more powerfully.
We hear a lot about good writing advice. What’s the worst writing advice you commonly hear?
I think writers are so varied that no piece of common advice is wrong – it may just be wrong for you. People commonly exhort, “Revise, revise, revise!” and “Your first draft will be rubbish, but keep at it.” Now that’s wrong for me, but it doesn’t make the suggestion poor advice.
I guess the worst writing advice is any that is offered as an absolute. The advice may be good, but the sentiment behind it – ‘this is the only way, no question’ is bad.
Where do you think the fantasy field is headed?
If I knew that I’d lose interest in it!
Where else would you like to take your writing before all is said and done?
Hmmm. I never had any great ambition to be an author, and I didn’t expect to get published. I didn’t expect my first book to be well received, and at each turn I fully expect the joy-ride to end. Not out of some bitter cynicism or a refusal to recognize that I have some degree of talent … it’s just realism. Stick a pin in a writer’s career at random at any point after you can say they have one and statistically speaking you’re likely to be on the down-slope. I’m extremely happy with what success I’ve had and if it ended tomorrow you wouldn’t hear a word of complaint out of me.
Facetiously I’d like some big shot to take up the movie option, I’d like a solid gold mansion, and I’d like the security to experiment without any burden of expectation. Hell, I’d write sci-fi, literary fiction … kids books, just have fun with it.