Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready for another stop in Otherworld (and there was much rejoicing)! We haven’t taken a nice little vacation like this outside of Tellest for a few Wednesdays, but now we’re back, and ready for action.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been conducting an interview with an incredible writer and storyteller, Stuart Aken. He is a workhorse of an author, churning out adventures and tales the way you or I would tie our shoes. I had the opportunity to get a deeper glimpse at his work on his latest book, Joinings: A Seared Sky, a colorful, robust world that rivals some of the classic fantasies you may have read.
Tellest: The world of A Seared Sky is more colorful than traditional fantasy. You feel like you’re in almost this deadly, tropical paradise. How did you determine the setting for this story?
Stuart Aken: Thank you. I’ve read a good deal of fantasy set in cold climes and, to be honest, I’m not a lover of the cold! I have a tendency to empathize with my characters as I write, so I decided I’d rather set them in a place where the climate was kind and any temperature extremes were in the higher ranges, rather than the cold. That’s not to say there isn’t a touch of frost from time to time in certain scenes, however. Also, because the story revolves around the theme of hypocrisy in religion, I wanted a climate where there was good reason for people to be naked or minimally clothed. This fitted with my invented religion, and allowed me to develop various scenarios to illustrate the often weird attitudes that exist about nudity, largely the result of prudish religious outlooks.
T: Speaking of that religious backdrop, you don’t really see that kind of thing used to this level in very many fantasies these days. You’ll have an injection of it here and there, but religion is at the forefront in Joinings. What made you decide to land a lot of your focus on that?
SA: Religion is the main theme, but story is the main concern. I was raised in the Christian tradition and, at one stage, was so enamored of a local priest that I thought I might become one. However, life and experience quickly taught me that much of religion is show and superficiality and I turned to nature for a sense of spirituality: I think humans have a basic need for a spiritual element to their lives. Music, painting, literature and the other arts fulfill this need for many, of course.
I left school following the death of my mother just a couple of days after my 16th birthday and I then continued my education whilst working in different jobs and learning through a combination of experience and reading. What I quickly discovered was that the major faiths exist for two basic reasons: for the established hierarchy, as a mechanism to control the population, and for many adherents, as a means of escaping the difficult decisions in life; when others can be accepted as responsible for moral and ethical decisions, we can absolve ourselves of guilt and blame them for any failings. It was this element of hypocrisy I saw as governing many lives and causing social damage in the world that drove me to focus on this as a theme. But, as always in my writing, I mostly want to tell an entertaining story.
T: Your story has these very evocative descriptions, particularly with food. Are you, by any chance, related to George R. R. Martin?
SA: I do love food, but I’m not related to George. I want readers to experience everything the characters encounter. Taste is often neglected in story telling, as is much that isn’t visual, so I tried to inject some of the other senses to evoke a deeper and more fully realized atmosphere.
T: In all seriousness, you’ve got this eloquent way of putting words to page. Does your ability to excel with descriptive passages come naturally, or is that something you had to work toward?
SA: Well, thank you for that. I think my writing style stems largely from the way I go about constructing a story. My characters come first, as a rule. Although, in this fantasy trilogy, I actually started with the map and then did a huge amount of research about society, geography, history, religion, costume, sailing and various other topics that appear in the tale. Because I vicariously ‘live’ the story as I tell it, I try to express activity and description through the eyes of the narrative character at the time. There are eight different character viewpoints in ‘Joinings’ and I try to feel the story from their perceptions as I write each section.
My rule is always to get the story written first and then to go back and start the editing process. That way, my writing ‘policeman’ doesn’t get in the way of my creative self. I write relatively quickly but in short bursts because I use a lot of emotional energy in ‘living’ the story.
As I write this, I’ve just finished the final ‘read-aloud’ edit of book two in the series and started the ‘read-aloud’ edit of the final book. The editing process, which is thorough, can take almost as long as the initial writing, but I prefer to work this way, allowing the characters to drive the story, rather than working to a plot.
T: You mention that you had to do a lot of research about all these topics. Whereas a lot of folks might just write from a place of limited familiarity, or express their interest as best they can, learning the ins and outs of certain subject matter can have a huge impact on what story we’re telling. Did you end up with any surprising revelations or twists from what you had originally expected of your story?
SA: I’ve always read widely. I’d exhausted the children’s section of our local library by the age of 11 and had to beg the librarian to allow me to take out adult books (not normally allowed until age 14). When I was an older teenager and serving in the Royal Air Force, I had a job that often left me with spare time and I used to read 3 books a day. I read every single book in the camp library. So, I have a fairly wide knowledge of a lot of subjects; a useful tool for a writer.
My research gave me details of geological formations I could imagine as I wrote. It added factual information regarding life at sea that I’d already learned of from such sources as Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Ra’ and ‘The Kon Tiki Expedition, and the brilliant, ‘Survive the Savage Sea’, together with some personal knowledge picked up as a frequent guest of a couple of teachers who owned a 27 foot sailing yacht. From the religion point of view, I discovered that a surprising number of faiths include a ‘flood’ myth in their history and that sacrifice, sexual punishment, beating and torture are fairly commonplace events. Creation myths underpin almost all religious faiths, but they vary quite widely. However, the one really consistent element I came across was the internal contradictions that exist in religious texts. I’ve read both the Bible and the Qur’an from cover to cover and dipped into many other sacred texts, so I had a fairly sound basis for my own imagined setting.
Of course, because I work using the characters to determine direction and event, there were surprises along the way. For instance, one of the characters was initially intended only to stand on the sidelines, as an observer. But he quickly became central and now forms half of one of the three central pairings in the series.
T: A good deal of the greatest storytellers will still occasionally stutter when it comes to grammar and pace. Do you find that the read-aloud style of editing gives a tale the proper voice when you’re writing?
SA: I spend almost as much time on editing as I do on creating. I don’t read what I’ve written the day before but wait until the entire story is finished before I revisit and start to put right any errors. Each chapter is put through ProWritingAid, an online editing program, after I’ve done my initial on screen edit. I then pass the piece to my wife, Valerie. She has an excellent working knowledge of English and a fantastic memory for detail. She marks the MS with pencil to bring my attention to inconsistencies and repetitions, sometimes pointing out that I can’t really have ‘A’ doing that at this point in book 2 as I killed him in Chapter 7 of book 1! (even the best character management system can have it’s flaws!)
The final edit is the read aloud from a printed script. Editing from the screen misses things. Editing in silence, running the words through your mind, doesn’t highlight clumsy sentences, pace or repeated sentence beginnings, and the tendency is to see what was intended rather than what is actually there. Reading aloud brings life to the text and displays faults and suggests subtle changes that can enliven sentences in a way that silent editing rarely works. The rhythm of the writing is also more fully expressed when reading aloud.
T: What’s in a name? Your characters all have this distant, exotic feel to them. The first glimpse at this is in their names. How did you pick these striking monikers for the people of your world?
SA: Names: we have so little in life, but at least we have our own names. I’ve written blog posts on this, but to summarize: I looked at the way names are structured in English, since that’s my native tongue, and analyzed the incidence of various letters of the alphabet, and how they’re used in combination. I then set about making up names that employed an opposite structure – those letters that are least used and in unusual combinations. Of course, names must be pronounceable, and they need to reflect, as far as possible, the gender of the bearer, so I had to modify quite a lot along the way.
Because I need a set ready to use, due to my writing method, I made up a large number of male and female names before I started the story. In this way I could select what sounded suitable as soon as a new character came on the scene. At that point, I interrupted the story to construct a full character sketch, which I then hyperlinked to the spreadsheet timeline used to keep track of the story. All the names of character and places I fed through a Google search: you don’t want to discover a name is already in use or, worse, that your invented name actually means something inappropriate in a foreign language!
T: Fantasy, in general, can be taxing on a writer. We’ve got so many new people and places running through our heads that it can be hard to remember everything we’ve got in front of us. But with your story, as vast as it is, the list goes on and on. Do you have any tricks that you’ve used to keep track of all the characters you meet and the places you visit? Does that spreadsheet come in handy here as well?
SA: Yes. One or two readers and a couple of reviewers have mentioned the large cast. I got together with my editor, Dan, of Fantastic Books Publishing, and devised a list of characters with hints to help readers remember who’s who. For readers who’ve already bought the book, these are available on my blog as PDFs. And we’ve now incorporated the lists into both digital and print versions for future purchasers.
For myself, the spreadsheet was an essential guide. I have a timeline running across the top, including dates, moon phases and the spread of the celestial event, the Skyfire. The characters are listed alphabetically down the side, with a hyperlink to their individual sketch so I can easily check on physical details and origin, relationships, etc. At the end of each writing session, I filled in the appropriate cells with the activity of each individual, so that I always knew where any of the players was at any given time. I’ve attached a small excerpt of the spreadsheet as an illustration for your readers.
T: A lot of your other work is shorter in form. It doesn’t seem like it was a difficult transition for you to move to this grand epic, but what would you say you’ve learned most from that change?
SA: The story chooses the form. I don’t set out to write a short story, a novel, or a novelette. I take my characters and consider a setting, place barriers in the way of progress and then allow the story to develop through the actions of the characters. Before I published my first novel, Breaking Faith, I’d written six or seven other novels. None of these apprentice pieces have been published, though I may revisit them later and see whether there’s anything worth rescuing. So, I have a history of longer works even though that isn’t obvious from my list of published work.
Actually, my first piece of published fiction was a radio play, broadcast on good old BBC Radio 4 here in UK. It resulted in an approach from a major London agent. For some years I followed his advice and turned out TV scripts. But, although these often reached the ‘round table’ stage, none was ever broadcast, largely because I tend to be a bit too radical in my choice of topic and treatment.
I’m very fortunate, in that I rarely have a lack of ideas and can sit down at the keyboard without an idea and turn out a short story in an hour or so. Whether the stuff’s any good or not is for others to decide, of course! I’ve never suffered writer’s block, possibly because I followed Dorothea Brande’s excellent exercises in her brilliant ‘Becoming a Writer’, the one non-craft book on writing I unreservedly recommend to everyone who’s thinking of taking up the craft.
I’d like to thank you for coming with us on this latest adventure to Otherworld. Stuart Aken’s storytelling prowess is hard to match, and I would really recommend everyone checking out what he has to offer.
Before you leave, you might be interested in seeing the book preview for Joinings: A Seared Sky.