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Friday, 1 April 2011

An Interview with Steve Savile

If at first you don't succeed...

An Interview with Steve Savile

On my quest for blokey writers, the lovely Adele sent me the contact details of one Mr Steve Saville, with the words "interview him, he's really cool," attached to the address. Once again, the girl was write about such things.

Steve Saville is a prolific writer who has had one of those bumpy paths to publication that plague most of us - although to be fair, his has been somewhat bumpier than most. Steve has been good enough to share the trials and tribultions of his writing career with us, which I think goes to prove that persistence is just as much a key to your eventual writing success as your talent as a writer is.

Over to Steve:

Hello Steve! Can you talk us through your writing career to date?

Oh my... okay. Erm. That's... well, it's a long story. It would be, wouldn't it? I mean, I write therefore I just about am. Okay, stepping back into the time machine (cue special effects, Tardis woo-wooo dematerialisation noise and we're back) I first started noodling about skipping lectures at uni to stay home and write some dreadful fantasy-pastiche that was Terry-Pratchett lite... then probably around age 20 I went dark. I discovered horror as a genre to read and found I really enjoyed writing it. So I sat down and wrote a story, Coming for to Carry You Home (as in Swing Lo Sweet Chariot... I guess it must have been the year the rugby fans picked it as an anthem) and sent it away to a small press magazine, Exuberance. It was picked up. Earned me fifty quid. I sat down thinking 'this is easy' and wrote a much longer novella, In Darkness, We Sleep and sent it to Frighteners, the Newsfield magazine (the guys who did all of the computer mags in the 80s) and Oliver Frey bought it for 350 quid. I was beginning to think this was 'easy'. They posted a note in Frightener that they were looking for 40,000 word stories to do as special projects, so I wrote The Last Angel (Angel of Pain, Secret Life of Colours... it's had a raft of titles) and subbed it, thinking it was seriously GOOD. I mean it felt right. But it came back in the same envelope unopened, and started to make a few calls. Newsfield had gone bust. My debut story was supposed to be in that issue along side Steve Harris and some other fairly well known 90s horror writers. I believe 30,000 copies were sat mulching in a warehouse back then. So suddenly I was stuck with a story that was an 'unsellable' length.

In that blind arrogance of youth I wrote a letter (more like a mini-book) of about 10,000 words and sent it to 10 literary agents down in London saying I was the next best thing to sliced bread... 9 wrote back within 7 days asking to see the full manuscript. I sent them out the next morning. Three days later Tanja Howarth (who was PD James and Patricia Highsmith's agent) phoned me at home to say she'd read it, loved it, and thought I was the hottest thing she'd found since whatever the last hot thing was. It was all very heady stuff. I went down to London, we discussed plans for expanding the book. Keep making it more magical was her advice - then it went out to publishers. Unfortunately, timing rather stumped us and the landscape of horror changed pretty much overnight with the arrival of Silence of the Lambs. Everyone wanted less 'magic' and more 'real human horror'. But after a lot of very brilliant rejections we got an offer, only this was right around the time paper prices hiked staggeringly and books went from sub one quid to two fifty and three fifty and four ninety-nine in about 12 months, and like so many debut writers I was cut loose. Unfortunately my second novel, The Sufferer's Song, was proving unsellable because it was too big (160,000 words when everyone wanted 80,000) and Tanja and I parted company.

I worked away in a wilderness for a few years, writing another unsellable novel, Laughing Boy's Shadow, which actually got me back into the game, so to speak, when Laurence Pollinger took it on, describing it as reminiscent of a young Chandler... but still, no joy. I was pretty much done in at this point. There's only so much great rejection a boy can take - and I was still young... maybe 24. So I went and got a real job. That didn't last.

I remember chatting to a guy, a really nice writer, who said you know, you should check out Lucy Bator over at Henderson's, they're doing a series of kids horror novels... like Goosebumps. So I gave her a call and we got on like a house on fire. She, however, admitted the horror line was closed, but they were looking for pre-teen romances... could I write one? The writer's mantra is "I can do that". Great, she said. I need a synopsis on my desk by the end of tomorrow, fax it over. So I got my then girlfriend to round up all of her female friends for a night on the town in which a dozen 20 something girls were going to entertain me with stories of what they thought was hot when they were 12... I wrote an outline that I reckoned knocked it out of the park. Lucy agreed. Unfortunately it was too similar to the idea her best writer had done, could I give her ANOTHER idea for the next morning? Of course, I said, I can do that... And did.

But again, the line never game out, so my teen romances are long gone, hidden on some harddrive I can't access any more.

What it did result in was a phone call many months later to ask if I was into computers because they wanted a book all about this thing called the Internet... I adopted the writers mantra, said, I can do that... and a three weeks later gave them a definitive guide to the internet circa 1995. They intended to publish it in 1997. Needless to say it never happened.

But that led to the first phone call that changed my writing life. It went something like this: "Steve... do you like space and dinosaurs?" "I did...when I was 12." "I've got a job for you but I can't tell you what it is. Want to do it?" "I dunno... do I want to do it?" "I think you want to do it.." and so we danced around it without saying what it was... it was actually pretty cool - adapting Return of the Jedi for young readers, and doing a series of little flip books for Star Wars characters, and doing a FunFax file for Jurassic Park II: The Lost World...

Suddenly in 1997 almost a decade after I started writing I had books out.

It should have been plain sailing from then, right?


Couldn't sell squat for about 6 more years. No matter what I did. I went through a string of agents. One I remember burst into the British Fantasy Convention to say "Steve! I've got BRILLIANT news!" and everyone thought he'd sold my fantasy novel (Bones of Dominion, still unpublished). He hadn't. Spurs had won 1-0.

Then I was quite ill, and during that illness wrote the story that pretty much changed it all, Houdini's Last Illusion, which won the Writers of the Future Award (under the title Bury My Heart at the Garrick). Within a year of that I'd sold a couple of small press collections, and then, through a quirk of knowing people who knew people, got to audition to write for Games Workshop's Warhammer line because their vampire writer had disappeared off the face of the planet...

From there I got fairly lucky in that I got to fulfil a lot of youthful dreams, writing for Dr Who, Torchwood, Stargate, Primeval and other stuff like Slaine, as well as do my own writing. I've been a full time writer since 2005, topped the UK chart with Primeval, hit the German and Italian charts with the Warhammer stuff, and am finally getting to see the reward for all that persistence.

Do you have an agent? If not why not, and if so, why?

I do. And I've had about 11. Nah, that's an exaggeration, but finding a good agent is like trying to find a wife. Actually probably harder in many ways.... you want to get on with them, but you don't want to be their friends, once you're friends they burst in to celebrate football scores instead of book deals... ahem.

You've written a few collaborative works with other authors. How does that work? Does it involve a significantly different approach than writing by yourself? Which do you prefer?

I've collaborated with Bram Stoker Award Winner David Niall Wilson on a Deadwood-esque fantasy about the Devil's Assassin, Steve Lockley (something like 11 times nominee for the British Fantasy Award) on the Sally Reardon Supernatural Mystery series (Of Time and Dust, Missing and Deadlines thus far), Brian M. Logan (an actor and screenwriter) on Monster Town, which has just been picked up by a tv studio in the US, and Aaron Rosenberg on so much stuff my head wants to spin. I really like collaborating because each of these guys brings stuff to the table that I don't have in my own locker. We create something that is neither me nor them but uniquely us. There have been other collabs, like Mostly Human, a straight to e-book venture with Scott Nicholson, Steven Lockley, Willie Meikle and I (four writers, four countries... got to be something for the record books)... in the main each one is very different. With Steve what happens is we thrash out a storyline, he'll write a really rough first pass because his skill is visualising things and chipping out the core story quickly, then I'll get it and fill in the characterisation, the scenery etc until it's smooth and you can't see the joins.

But, obviously, I love working alone as well... it's just fun to work together with people you like, admire and trust.

Tie-in fiction for Stargate, Primeval and Dr Who. How did you score those gigs, and what advice would you give to someone looking to write for established lines like these?

See above, basically. It was a process of luck initially, but in truth it came down to submitting a 100 page sample to Games Workshop, and being lucky that the editor, Lindsey Priestly loved it and thought I was what they needed for the line at the time. Then it was down to barter. I've done X, I'd like to do Y... and approaching the editors in question with cv and begging cap in hand.

As to advice - build your own body of work. More and more tie-ins are being delivered 'complete' from the studios with writers attached in the US, for instance, and then other properties are so hot you've got Michael Moorcock and Ian Rankin doing them... Places like Wizards of the Coast have auditions, check their website for details. Games Workshop run open submission windows- that's the best way in. With one of those you could get into the next anthology... write the best story you can, and you could get into the book line...

Does writing tie-in involve different skills to original fiction?

Yes and no. No in that you still need the basic skill set of any writer, but yes in that you have to please thousands of people who think they know the world you are writing better than you do, and can do it better. There's a shared ownership that you don't face with your own original works. People expect (rightly) that you know what you are talking about, that you are a fan of the show and you get the voice of the characters right. The thing is you can't please everyone, you have to focus on pleasing the people at the show itself, the editors etc. With my Stargate novel for instance, the characterisation was singularly praised by the MGM licensing department but has been savaged by the fans. I watched every episode of Stargate over a 4 week period (that's over 200 episodes of tv) until I knew them inside out, and then wrote the novel. According to the internet it's obvious I've never watched a single episode. You really can't win and you need a fairly thick skin and just need to be sure you've written the best novel you can write for the show.

Speaking of which, can you tell us a bit about your original works?

Well, I've done quite a bit. I'm most proud of two books, neither of which are available in the UK (unless you have a Kindle, that is), Silver, an assassination novel in the vein of Day of the Jackal, but with a religious undercurrent, and London Macabre (only available in Polish currently). Silver's out in Spain, Germany, the US, coming in France... I've released all of my back catalogue on the Kindle through my own imprint BadPress. And in the UK in a few weeks you'll get to see The Black Chalice, which is an original Arhturian fantasy written to kick of Abaddon's Knights of Malory series.

So, why genre fiction?

In truth, I write everything. I've ghostwritten novels in a variety of genres, I've done non-fiction, and am working on a rom-com script. Really, I'm like an idea magpie and flit form shiny thing to shiny thing...

What are you working on right now?

I'm ghostwriting a thriller for a very well known on-air talent in the US, writing Gold the sequel to Silver, and thinking hard about a new fantasy novel, Glass Town, which I think could be very interesting... if I ever get the time to dedicate to fleshing it out fully!

Can you talk us through the positives and negatives of being a full time writer? Do you love the freedom of being a freelancer or do you think you're possibly crazy?

Oh god... I can think of hundreds of negatives - the strain it puts on your family for a start, how it turns you from a writer to a business man chasing invoices and fighting to be paid for your work all across the world, how if you aren't writing you aren't getting paid so you don't eat... mortgage fear when the end of the month looms... but I wouldn't have another job. I am obviously barking mad.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to build a career writing full time (as opposed to just getting a novel published)?

Do it properly. Take the time to learn what you are doing. Think of it as a career - that means long term. Look at the numbers... if you start writing age 30 and write until you are 70 producing 3 great short stories a year (truly great, not just so-so or good) and write one great novel every 2 years by the end of your career you have got 120 GREAT short stories and 20 brilliant novels as your body of work, and that is one incredible body of work that could easily see you accepted into literary cannon. Don't be in a rush. Think of it as a long arduous walk in the desert - you need to take the time, and drink a lot. Ahem.

What is your ultimate writing goal?

I've often joked that if I ever get it right I'll stop writing... so I think that's it. I think my goal is to write a novel and know I've got it right. All of it. That it couldn't be better in any way. And that's the day I'll retire...

And finally, if you could sum up a key piece of writing advice for aspiring writers in one sentence, what would it be?

Be yourself. When you die and Saint Peter's up at those pearly gates waiting to judge you, he isn't going to say "Why couldn't you have been more like Dan Brown... or more like David Baldacci... or more like Terry Pratchett." He's going to say "Why couldn't you have been more like yourself." You have a unique voice. Share it. And that's more than one sentence, obviously, but you get the point.

Massive thanks to Steve for answering my many questions and being an all around top bloke. CHeck out more about his books over at his website here.


Queenie said...

It's heartening to read a story that doesn't go 'wrote book, got agent, got deal'. Very interesting; very instructive. I do have a Kindle, and it now has a copy of Silver on. Thank you both.

Gemma Noon said...

Hey Queenie,

yeah I found reading about Steve's path to publication quite heartening - at least I don't feel like the only one who didn't score a book deal on their first attempt!


Lesley Cookman said...

I am in awe. There are so many terrific writers out there who work so much harder than I do...