I discovered Richard Harland years ago when a friend recommended ‘The Vicar of Morbing Vyle’ to me.  Ever since then, I actively have sought his writing out.  Try finding the Ferren trilogy – it isn’t an easy task, but I did and thought they were brilliant and very underrated.

When I thought of doing these interviews, I had Richard Harland on my list as one of my must haves, but did not know how to track him down.  Fortunately for me, I got a point of contact from Spohie Masson.  Richard responded very quickly and had some great answers to the questions, of which I will let you read now.

What genre would you like to write a book in (that you havent yet)?

Well, it’s not exactly a new genre since all of my books are some kind of fantasy – but grand-scale epic fantasy. I’ve written science fantasy (the Eddon and Vail series), gothic fantasy (The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade), animal fantasy (Sassycat), and steampunk fantasy (Worldshaker and Liberator). I feel I’ve come home with steampunk – it’s what I’ve always wanted to write, and I’m still writing the next steampunk books to follow Liberator. The one thing I’ve never written is really large scale fantasy, a whole world with many characters spanning several volumes. But I’ve been planning a particular world for over ten years, I believe I’ve finally developed the skills to hold a multitude of characters and events together on that scale – and that’s my big ambition. An epic fantasy quartet!

Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?

Neither. My only ‘formula’ for plots is what I like reading myself – a story that builds up and up and up to a huge climax, and a story that maintains momentum all the way through, where there’s always a need to keep turning the pages. I have a sort of technique for maintaining momentum through the middle of the novel – a technique I call ‘overlapping waves’. I’ve described it in my free 145-page guide for SF/fantasy/genre writers, at

www.writingtips.com.au.

It’s not a formula, though. I truly believe every story has its own shape, its own different potential for overall build up and rolling waves – and it’s the writer’s job to dig out that shape and let that potential blossom. I know Liberator has a very different shape to Worldshaker, and the next steampunk novel I’ve just finished is different again. That’s why writing is so exciting – it’s a new challenge every time!

But I wouldn’t say stories ‘come to me’ as any kind of ‘whole’ either. Short stories often do, because the narrative I need for 10-40 pages is so much simpler, I can hold it all in my head at once. Whereas, for me, a 300-400 page novel needs an amount of story that  could never arrive in a single hit of inspiration. My stories for whole novels accumulate gradually, one inspiration added to another added to another – usually over years.

When you start a new story, do you have a title for it?  Does that trigger the story?

Sometimes I have a title in my head from the start – like “Ferren and the Angel”, like “Sassycat”, like “The Black Crusade”. Maybe “The Black Crusade” was there so early that it even shaped my idea of what would happen. (An unusual case, because I took the phrase from an M.R.James short story called “Count Magnus”.) But normally, no, my novels aren’t triggered by a title.

If I don’t have a title in my head from early on, it can be a real pain trying to find one. I hope I’m a natural storyteller, but I’m not a natural with titles. “Liberator” was set as a title in the last pages of “Worldshaker”, but “Worldshaker” itself went through ten years of planning as “Leviathan”, then five years of writing as “Juggernaut”. Only at the last moment did it become “Worldshaker”. But now it seems as if that was always meant to be its title – it’s great when that happens.

One harsh fact about being a professional writer is that you don’t always control the title of your novel. For publishers, the title ties in with marketing – and that’s where they expect to get involved. I’ve negotiated a few of my titles with publishers, though I’m glad to say it’s always been a negotiation and I’ve never been forced to accept a title I didn’t like. But it can happen!

So maybe it’s a good thing to be flexible over titles, rather than pin your novel to the one title it absolutely has to have. Better to maintain an open mind and stay creative, so that you can keep producing fresh possible titles that are still yours and still satisfying.

Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?

Yes. Nowadays I have editors and publishers giving me feedback, of course, but I really believe in getting feedback from many sources, many different types of sources. I belong to a critique group of professional writers, the ROR group that includes Margo Lanagan, Marianne de Pierres and others, and we meet on regular retreats where we critique one another’s full-length MSS. Other writers’ responses are great for opening up the imagination to new possibilities, alternative ways of having things happen. Of course, the other side of creativity is that sometimes writers want to create their own novel and not yours!

I also make a point of finding sample readers – up to ten, and as fas as possible within my target audience. Ordinary readers with no axes to going, no agendas to pursue

their reactions are the most reliable, but they have to be probed and questioned. Not for praise if you’re looking or praise, you’re not serious about getting feedback. I look to learn what does or doesn’t work in my story, so that I can go away and do something about it. (Which includes making more use of some things that seem to work better than I expected.)

All this s a total change from the way I used to be. I was the world’s worst at listening to other people’s responses. Mostly, I was too proud to even show my writing to other people. Sad, sad, sad! It’s no wonder I had writer’s block for twenty-five years! I had the delusion that I could make my writing so perfect that no one could possibly find fault with it. Consequence – I never finished anything because it never came out perfect enough!

I guess I know better now. Telling a story, generating momentum, developing suspense – all of that is a kind of cooperative act with the reader. A writer needs to know where a reader is at, and the best way to find out is to ask! I’m now happy to show people my writing in a highly imperfect state, because the sooner I get feedback, the easier it is to re-shape what I’m doing.

Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?

I always have a ball-park figure, which relates to what I think the market will bear. I mean, a fantasy novel will generally sell at a greater length than, say, a crime novel; a YA novel is easier to get published if it’s between 60,000 to 80,000 words. (Though, thankfully, in these post-Harry Potter times, publishers will also look at YA fantasies up to 100,000 words.)

So I have an expectation before i start writing – and then I always exceed it. I like to exceed it, because then I can tighten up and compress when I do a re-write. And I always do a re-write – somehow that’s become a necessary part of my writing process. At times in the re-write, I find myself adding material because the story cries out for it – but I’d totally hate to be adding material just because the first draft ended up too short. My natural inclination is to make everything as tight and taut as it can possibly be. No wasted words, and definitely no padding!

Still, I can’t cut a story to a specific word-length. After all the tightening and tautening, the narrative still has its own proper and necessary size. I think a writer has to respect that! In my case, I almost always find that the length I end up with is about 5-10% more than I originally projected.

Do you have a target each day?

Not a word length target. I have many writer friends who can work that way, but not me. I did try once, when I was dissatisfied with the amount I was producing per day

I set myself a number of words I had to reach in the morning before I’d let myself eat lunch. Soon I was going hungry until dinner time then I changed the rules so that I could eat only plain bread and butter until I reached my word count. After several days of going hungry and several days of prison rations, I gave the whole idea away for good! I mean, it didn’t even increase my word count!

Now I set myself a number of hours per day. It varies from 3-4 hours at the start of a novel (thin end of the wedge!) to 6-7 hours by the middle of a novel. By the end of a novel, I usually have to stop myself writing, at a limit of eight and a half hours. For me, that’s a way to keep enjoying writing. Sometimes I do more, sometimes less, but that’s decided by the content and nature of the particular pages I’m writing. Some parts of a novel zoom along, some parts seem to need more mulling over. I just go with the flow. I never look to knock off early as a reward for good work, because then I’d be thinking of writing as a chore.

Alas, I’m still overall a slow writer. But I make up for that by consistency. I never stop writing, all the year round, every day of the week. The pages mount up that way too!

Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?

Ah, I just answered that one! But although I never stop writing, I’ve always had a habit of devoting a few weeks to short story writing between novels. A kind of refresher between courses. But a week ago, I finished the re-write of the next steampunk novel and immediately launched into Chapter One of the sequel. I had it all planned and ready to go, I had the characters in my mind from the previous book and just busting for their next appearance … I just let it rip! So maybe that habit isn’t a habit any more!

Do you have characters running around your head?  Do they dictate events and their histories to you?

I think about characters a lot before I start writing, I have to feel I know them like real people. But they still remain the great unpredictable – there’s a kind of life they can only achieve when the writing’s under way, when they’ve had time to develop their own voices and build up their own thought streams.

Sometimes they come with their own histories from the start, sometimes they reveal their histories en route. It’s true, I’m becoming more and more aware of my characters as products of their pasts – often their family pasts – since a time way back before I ever start telling the novel.

One thing I specially like is when characters stand up for themselves, and force me to change the way I think and feel about them. That happened with Lye in Liberator, who definitely develop her own past history on the way through. I started out thinking of her as a very unloveable character, and yes, she stays unloveable, she doesn’t suddenly sprout a nicer side. Yet she forced me to respect her

by the end, I truly admired her, and felt quite cut up about her death.

My latest published book is the steampunk fantasy LIBERATOR, which is the sequel to WORLDSHAKER. Those are my big international success stories, so, yes, if you can mention them (published by Allen & Unwin in Australia, Simon & Schuster in the U.S.). Shall I send you some covers/incidental art – even pictures of me in steampunk costume? I always think some visual material makes text a hundred times more interesting.

My author website is

www.richardharland.net

or for America

www.worldshaker.info.

There’s also the huge website of free writing tips I put up at

www.writingtips.com.au

My blog is at

richardharland.wordpress.com

And I do have an official Richard Harland facebook page – easiest way to locate is to search for ‘Richard Harland’

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