Here at Tellest, we’ve been making strides at bringing other great stories besides our own to readers across the globe. To that end, we’re going to begin advancing in other directions while still maintaining the same great content that you expect from us.
For our first stop in Otherworld, we spoke with M Todd Gallowglas, a versatile writer with plenty of notches in his storytelling belt. Among his books are the well received Halloween Jack fantasies and the Tears of Rage series. He spared a generous amount of his time, and we were given the opportunity to discuss his new series, DEAD WEIGHT at length.
We hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as we enjoyed conducting it!
Tellest: You’re one of the most diligent storytellers we’ve ever seen, and that goes beyond just the written word. With a very deep and expressing web presence, how do you find the time to balance story crafting and engaging with readers and other aspiring authors?
M Todd Gallowglas: It’s a trick, one that I don’t know that I’m mastering at the moment. I found the juggling act a lot easier before my daughter was born in October of 2012. I’m currently the stay at home dad, so I don’t get nearly as much writing done as I used to, which is why my output has been slower. The engaging with people online via my various social media is actually the easy part. I can do that when I have a free minute here and there. With the writing, I need a large chunk of time, because sometimes it takes me a little bit to get into the groove. I get most of my writing done at night after everyone else in the family goes to sleep. Occasionally, I run off to Starbucks when my wife gets home from work and write for a bit before dinner. I’m hoping that as I start hitting renaissance faires and conventions this year, it will kick up a little bit more income so we can afford daycare a few days a week so I can get back to some serious writing output. I really miss the days when I worked on Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate and Once We Were Like Wolves when I had the time to crank out 5,000-10,000 words a day.
T: You mentioned that sometimes it takes you a little bit of time to get into the groove. Do you notice that there’s a specific feeling when you find that groove, or is it just a matter of momentum?
MTG: It’s purely a momentum thing, and different nights it takes a different amount of time to get going. Some nights I shift between social media between paragraphs for a while before I really get going. Other times I’m fully wrapped up in the story as soon as I’ve got my first cup of coffee and finished listening to “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant. A lot of it has to do with how much crud I’m carrying over from the day. Sometimes I shrug it off easily, other times I’ve just got to screw around to relax my mind enough to let things flow.
T: DEAD WEIGHT is clearly going to have a very rich and developed story. Even the first installment, The Tombs, has a lot of backstory that it explores. Do you have an entire concept of where you’re going and where your characters have been?
MTG: Yes. DEAD WEIGHT is a massive jumbled web of nonlinear storytelling. This first installment stands toward the end of one character’s arc and the middle for several others. The second installment begins one character’s story arc, continues several from the first part… you get the idea. I have about half the total story written, with another large chunk in outlines and notes. I know pretty much every major character’s starting point, what their arc is within the story, where each one is going to end up by the time I’m finished with them. I know the catalyst that set the whole Faerie war into motion, and I’m pretty sure how the whole thing ties up. I’ve got the climactic scene and aftermath in my head, but I reserve the right to change that in place of something even more epic… That happened with Judge of Dooms and with the forthcoming A Rise of Lesser Gods.
T: On that note, DEAD WEIGHT has plenty of material, and it starts off with a bang. When it ends, though, it leaves you wanting so much more. With all these huge, long-planned stories, do you find it easier to write shorter, serialized material? As someone who’s also written epic-length fantasy stories with the Tears of Rage series, you have some valued insight in that regard.
MTG: It amuses me when people talk about Tears of Rage being this work of epic proportions. Book one is pretty slim; at 60K words, it’s just about twice the size of DEAD WEIGHT: The Tombs. Book four is about 140K words, which for epic fantasy is still pretty short. I’d originally intended the Tears of Rage books to be kind of a serialized thing, but then the second two required more stuff than I’d originally planned when I came up with some cool twists at the end, which added to the over-all word count. I don’t know if I have a conscious plan with any of them. I’m enjoying the length of the DEAD WEIGHT novellas, but I’m also gearing up for Tears of Rage 5, which will end the first major story arc in that series. I’m hoping to wrap it up at about 100K, but we’ll see.
As far as the serialized thing: I think we’ll see more and more writers, especially indie/self-published writers going this route. We’re becoming a culture of binge entertainment, between Netflix, graphic novel omnibuses and dvd bundles. I think readers are starting to go the same route, especially considering some writers taking so long before putting out the next book in a series, let alone finishing one. I think we’re going to see more and more readers reluctant to pick up a new series until at least a couple books are out, and they’ll be very savvy about how much time a writer takes between each book. Back before I first started this indie writing thing, I imagined the Tears of Rage books I’ve written so far as one MASSIVE volume. Granted, I’ve added stuff in as I’ve written the individual volumes, but yeah, I was in love with the idea of the BIG FAT FANTASY. When I set out to publish on my own, I put myself in the readers’ shoes, and I’d rather have smaller bits on a more regular basis than years between reading about my favorite characters. Sitting down to work on DEAD WEIGHT, I took a cue from Hugh Howey. He’s done pretty well serializing his stuff, so I figured, why not give that a try, and DEAD WEIGHT seemed the perfect story to do that with.
T: DEAD WEIGHT doesn’t pull any punches. While it doesn’t necessarily glorify violence or bloodshed, it isn’t afraid to go after it head on. Would you say that recent trends in books and media have made that easy to write, or were you always unfazed by that kind of real grit?
MTG: To answer the first part of that question: I actually think the recent trend in books and media has made it harder to do grit well. We’re over saturated with it to the extent we’re getting blasé. Here are some examples: I didn’t watch the last season of Dexter, and wish I’d stopped after the season where John Lithgow was the villain, because that season took away a major part of Dexter’s life that tied him to his humanity. I’m not sure how interested I am in further books in A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. Also, I’m not sure how much further I’m going to keep going with The Walking Dead. I started off loving all three. All three are really gritty. The problem with them, and many of the other things like them: it’s just one never-ending trail of suckage. That gets exhausting.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love some grim and gritty stuff. Reading both Glen Cook and Steven Erikson definitely shaped the way I look at fiction, because in some ways, Erikson makes A Game of Thrones look like a Sunday school picnic. On the other side of that coin, Erikson’s work has touching moments of friendship, sacrifice, triumph, and very little “stupid for the sake of plot and continuing the suckage.” Now, we’ve got an immense amount of suckage in the world, especially in area recovering from war and conflict. Thing is, we also have joy. Even in the bleakest places and moments, especially in the bleakest places and moments, we cling to joy.
As far as DEAD WEIGHT goes, I’m just telling a story as honestly as I can. The story happens to take place in a United States during and in the aftermath of a devastating war against the Unseelie Faerie of ancient Irish Legend. To tell this story with any level of honesty, it’s going to have some gritty and bleak moments. On the other side of the honesty coin, it’s going to have moments of warmth, joy, and humor. Ironically, the humor and geek/nerd references in the story are the elements that have received the most criticism. How’s that for a paradigm shift from when A Game of Thrones was shocking people, and now, almost twenty years later is considered pretty tame compared to some of the stuff coming out?
T: So whereas you wouldn’t find yourself hesitating to include a graphic scene, it’s because there’s honesty in your material. And in that same right, there’s bound to be moments where characters rejoice or find some other manner of reprieve. Is that balance easy to keep, even after you’ve thrown your characters into some pretty dire circumstances?
MTG: I never considered it as something I had to consciously balance. It’s just the way my storytelling brain works now. You have to give the reader a chance to breathe now and then, even if it’s just a quick one liner that makes them chuckle for a bit, or throwing something ludicrous into a fight scene like a guy hanging onto a rickety fire escape while buck naked and hoping he doesn’t fall to his death. I think it’s in our nature to grasp for moments and memories of joy and humor when faced with times of great despair. I wish more entertainment across all mediums would reflect this.
T: Why do you think those moments of humor and culture references are criticized? Especially with something like DEAD WEIGHT, which is more modern in setting, you’d think that people would be more open to those disarming moments where real life just happens.
MTG: Maybe because it’s new. The only other books I can think of that do this are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, The Dark Tower by Stephen King, and Geekomancy by Michael Underwood. Butcher uses the references sparingly, and in most cases doesn’t go to the esoteric and obscure places I do. Underwood actually uses his as the basis for his plot devices and magic. King does this less with “geek” references than he does literary references across all genres, What I do borders on the self-indulgent, as I even have characters reference my own work. Even called myself out on being self-indulgent on my social media when I wrote those sections, but I didn’t go so far as to make myself a character…but he’s Stephen King, so whatcha gonna do? Anyway, I think the references and inside jokes are jarring because they are unexpected. I think that by the time I get to part six, people will have accepted them for the awesome part of the story that they are, or have moved on because DEAD WEIGHT isn’t their cup of tea. I’m hoping the former.
T: You’ve mentioned in some other interviews that DEAD WEIGHT evolved beyond its original humble roots. It was only intended to be a short story or novelette. At this point, do you think it’s stopped expanding, or have you created a beast of a tale with no means of stopping it?
MTG: The original draft of “Dead Weight” was roughly a thirty, double-spaced page short story. I’d meant that to be it. I left it open ended, but never thought I’d explore it. I like to end my stories with not everything wrapped up in a nice little bow. Life doesn’t work like that. I show people glimpses of the characters’ lives, and then reader and characters go their separate ways. That’s how it was with “Dead Weight.” We followed the platoon of Marines and their bard chronicler on a mission in Faerie.
Then…the story blew up…
As it is, I have created a beast; however, I have it under control. As I said above, I know the catalyst of the Faerie War, and I’m pretty sure I know how the story ends (unless I think of something cooler.) It will all wrap up by the end of the sixth installment, probably between 180,000-200,000 words. That being said, I do have ideas for other stories that take place in the world of the Faerie War, perhaps even another novel, but those are all separate projects from DEAD WEIGHT.
T: You bring up another interesting concept here. Some writers hamstring themselves if they can’t think of their entire story beginning to end. Do you find that not knowing every little detail can be liberating in some ways?
MTG: I do. Even when I do know some of the details, and I have certain parts of a story planned out, I’ll abandon them in a heartbeat if I come up with something cooler. I’ll also gut whole sections, or even characters, if they aren’t working. It’s good to have a road map, but sometimes you gotta be ready to go exploring. If something happens that I’m not expecting, I can be pretty sure the reader won’t be expecting it either. Those are the moments readers bring up most often.
T: You’ve got some experience with storytelling that goes beyond sitting in front of a desk and putting words to page. One of the things that I find most interesting about you is that you use Renaissance Faires as a vehicle to tell stories. How exactly do you go about this, and would you recommend it to other people who are interested in fantasy writing and play?
MTG: I have a stage show called “The Bard’s Cloak of Tales Show.” I get on a stage and for 30-60 minutes entertain people by telling stories. I joke now that I don’t have a storytelling show any more…rather…now I have an infomercial that looks a lot like my old storytelling show used to. I started when I was seventeen, back when I was young enough to understand what I would be putting myself through. I had the tenacity of youth on my side, along with not having a family to support. If I were to try and start this today, I’d never make it.
Here’s the thing: telling stories and writing stories are two completely different talent/skill sets. Yes they are related, but a person can master one while being completely inept at another. I am grateful that I have the ability to do both. I think it helped that I started the storytelling thing at such a young age. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. The traveling and performing thing isn’t easy. Sometimes you have a show where you have four people sitting in front of a stage setting that will easily seat a hundred. It can be a huge blow to the ego. You also have to have a full act and have a personality big enough to handle all the distractions that go on in that kind of environment.
Now, I do recommend people research and see if they have any storytelling organizations in their area as a place to get together and do some traditional storytelling. If you can’t find any, head down to your local library and see if they would let you volunteer to do some storytelling. Heck, do both. Telling stories aloud, even reading them aloud will help writers develop a feel for the flow of their prose, especially dialogue.
T: Speaking of the Renaissance Faire, do you find it challenging moving from something that classically embodies fantasy to something a little more gritty and urban, with DEAD WEIGHT?
MTG: Not at all. First off: let’s not get fantasy mixed up with the stories that I tell Renaissance Faires. A lot of my stories come from the ancient Irish traditions, legends, and myths. We invented gritty. The Red Caps in the first installment are from Irish/Scottish legend. Originally leprechauns were called luchorpáns, and they did cobbled shoes together for faerie nobles, only, they did so from the skin of human babies because it was so soft. A group of them tried to drown the king of Ulster once so they could make a puppet out of him and rule the Ulster. Granted, the urban thing is new, but I’ve lived in a few urban areas in my life, including San Francisco, so meshing them together is pretty easy.
T: From some points you’ve made on your story’s blog tour, it sounds like you’ve always been invested in telling these fascinating stories, even when supposedly sound advice has been given to you in an effort to direct you otherwise. What would you say to those other folks who are aspiring, against all odds, to be a fantasy storyteller?
MTG: I always tell people, “Do your thing the way you want to do it. Just learn to do it well.” If you can take something you are passionate about and put skill and knowledge behind it, you might not be as financially successful as someone who does their thing with market trends in mind, but you’ll be happy doing it. If you’re creating anything within any artistic medium, first and foremost you should take joy in it. I got into a discussion once with someone on Reddit and he admitted that he didn’t enjoy writing, but he was pushing through because he wanted to win some major literary awards. First, I don’t think he’s going to win anything without putting love into his writing. Second, and more importantly, if you don’t enjoy it, why the hell would you subject yourself to it? I understand having a crappy job you don’t enjoy to pay the bills, but having a crappy hobby you don’t enjoy just so you can try and win some ultimately meaningless and arbitrary award? Mindboggling. So yeah, “Do your thing the way you want to do it. Just learn to do it well.”
And by “Learn to do it well,” I mean practice. For writing, that means, understand the elements of crafting fiction. Learn to write active, engaging sentences. Learn to love the sentence in all its forms. Figure out people and what makes them tick. Listen to the way they talk. Read great books. Read entertaining books. They aren’t always the same books. Read widely outside the genre you want to write in. If I didn’t do that, DEAD WEIGHT wouldn’t exist. Learn about story arcs, character arcs, and the three act structure. You don’t have to use it, but it will teach you so much about how to work that whole beginning, middle, and end thing.
Biggest thing: Be passionate about your thing while you’re doing it.
T: You draw a lot of inspiration, it seems, from established folklore, myths and legends. From the names of characters to debilitating afflictions, there are little hints here and there about the nature of certain things. Do you suppose this helps to strengthen a story, and perhaps helps to draw in a reader who might be familiar with those older stories?
MTG: Both. In my experience, fantasy readers love the genre because of the little details writers put into their worlds. I also hope that those readers with familiarity with any of the old tales will have a more immersive experience with the stories.
I do draw a lot from established folklore, myths, and legends, as well as from fantasy fiction and many other areas of geek/nerd culture. I want DEAD WEIGHT to feel like it happens in the future of our world, with the Faerie waiting, biding their time so they can sneak back in, snatch our children and leave changelings in their places, and use us as to effect change in their eternal realm. (Bit of a teaser there for the second installment.)
We’d like to once again extend our thanks to Mr. Gallowglas. He was a good sport and a delight to chat with. You can find his latest story, DEAD WEIGHT: The Tombs: A Tale of the Faerie War on Amazon. For more information on the man himself, and more news on his upcoming works, check out his website, www.mtoddgallowglas.com – he’s an author that’s really worthy of your attention!
If you’re the creator of fantasy worlds and you would like to be interviewed for your work, contact us via the link in the menu bar.