When I found out that I was headed back to Afghanistan three weeks ago, one of the first things I did was load up my trusty Kindle with enough books to get me through the flight over there and plenty of treadmill sessions at the gym. Naturally, Chris Jackson was one of the first authors whose books made it to primetime, though most were already in my archived items to begin with.
Anyway, Chris agreed to do an interview and has some fascinating insights for readers and would-be writers. He primarily writes nautical fantasy, though his landlocked ‘Weapon’ trilogy is nothing to sneeze at either. His action scenes are both visceral and clearly-written and it’s very obvious that he loves what he does. Of course when ‘what he does’ is sailing around the Caribbean in his own boat writing novels with his wife, it doesn’t seem that hard…
-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?
First, let’s define that term “Professional Writer.” That gets thrown out there a lot, and used to mean something different than it does now. Back in the day, it used to mean a four figure advance from a New York publisher. Then that eased off to “any publisher paying you for your work.” Now some people are out there earning more self-publishing than most writers make from the big publishing houses. Once again, times change. In my mind, if you write and make money from it, no matter how, you are a professional writer.
My first inkling to write came in college when I took a short story writing class. Unfortunately, the course was horrible, consisting more of how to critique others’ work than how to write. That pretty much put me off writing. Insert college, a biology degree, graduate school in marine biology, a career in biomedicine. However, when I met my wife in graduate school, we began playing RPG’s. I had played a lot in college, and she had always wanted to, so it was a good fit. We played a hugely detailed campaign of my own creation for over two years. I learned worldbuilding, storytelling, and character creation in those two years. When we were finished, I had a world, and a story. With the permission of the players, and the help of my wife, I wrote three novels that told that story. I knew nothing of the business of writing at the time, but it was a very good exercise. If you can sit down and write 400K words, you have worked through the nuts and bolts.
That work started me on a path that has taken me through fifteen novels. My first efforts were self-published, back when self-publishing had a bad name. I have since moved on through small publishers and finally to gaming publishers (Paizo, Privateer Press, and Catalyst), and have more projects in the works. The experience with small press (Dragon Moon Press) was especially valuable, since it got me into writing nautical fantasy, a natural for me growing up a fisherman’s son and getting into sailing later, though I had been avoiding it for fear of being stereotyped “another Pirates of the Caribbean clone”. The Scimitar Seas novels won three consecutive gold medals from Foreword Book Reviews, Book of the Year competition, and gave me the credibility to pitch to Paizo to write a RPG tie-in novel. That got great reviews, and I am now getting more work than I really want. I am, however, still self-publishing. I also feel vindicated that my Weapon of Flesh series, a non-nautical fantasy story, is actually earning more in royalties than my “professional” publications. Times change…
-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and how do you make sure that your novels have the effect that you want?
The last thing I ever want to do is write a “Great American Novel.” I see myself as primarily an entertainer. The greatest complement I ever received from a reader was “I forgot I was reading.” That was an “achievement unlocked” moment. To achieve that, however, you have to do a few things right.
There are three primary elements to any story: Plot, setting, and characters. Some highly educated literary scholars will tell you that setting is character. I respectfully disagree. Setting is important, and must be rich, detailed, and immersive, but it cannot detract from the story. I despise fiction that goes too deeply into setting. One of the best quotes I ever heard sums it up nicely: “Nobody cares what color the carpet is unless someone is bleeding on it.” Boom! The setting is only important in how it interacts with our characters. Characters are everything.
Whereas plots and settings have limited variability, characters are infinitely variable. Creating “real” people is how you win a fan’s heart. Readers will forgive poor plotting, poor setting, and even poor writing if your characters are memorable and real. If you can create a solid plot, a rich setting, real characters, and write so that people can read without bleeding from their eyes, you’ve got a winner. That’s all I want. Easy, right?
-How would you describe your path to publication (i.e. agenting, self vs. traditional publishing, ebook sales, whatever you feel to be relevant)?
Touchy subject. The path was rocky indeed. The primary reason I went to self-publishing first was due to a bad relationship with an agent. I spent five years waiting for the phone to ring. I could not make the man work for me, and could not go anywhere else due to the contract I signed. This was a “reputable New York agency” which shall remain nameless. The experience soured me for a very long time, but I see my mistake now. Not all agents are bad, but to make them work, you really have to have something to offer. For this reason, I think a first time author should steer clear of agents. There are a lot of places out there that will take your submissions that do not require an agent. Most of the really big publishers do. If you want to go there, get an agent, but be careful of the contract you sign.
Personally, I feel that I now have a more sound foundation of work than if I had grabbed that golden ring on the first try. This may sound like sour grapes, but writers who get a NYT bestseller on the first go have a really steep hill to climb after that first book. Their second book has to hit the top, or they will be instantly labeled as a one hit wonder, and it will be very hard to sell their third. If I ever hit the list, the line will be, “he finally made it.” If my next novel does not achieve that notoriety, I’ll have lost nothing. That said, if I ever make a sale to one of the big publishing houses, I will be on the phone the next day to an agent, just to negotiate the contract.
-You have a lot going on in your action scenes, but they are also very vivid and easy-to-follow. How do you make sure that your readers have a clear picture of what is going on?
First, plan ahead. If this is a big battle, use paper and pencil to map it out. If it’s a fight, choreograph it realistically. Get your ass out of the chair and actually go through the moves in slow motion. I hate fight scenes in which the fighters do things that are physically impossible.
Next, make sure you do your research with respect to weapons, techniques, tactics, etc. Always think from both sides of the fight. If you watch an action movie, and think, “Oh, come on!” during a fight, because someone did something stupid, you know what I mean.
Then, get visceral. A fight is just a dance unless there is real pain and trauma. Make your reader feel the blows, smell the blood, ear the wet pop of a bone coming out of joint…
Most importantly, every fight has to be unique. It is very difficult to write a fight scene that doesn’t sound just like your last fight scene. Work very hard to make each fight memorable. Get into your protagonist’s head during the fight. Know what it feels like to hit something hard with your fist, and that stunning shock of being hit. The technical aspects are less important than the visceral ones, but make sure everything works.
-In addition to your own original work, you also write novels set in both Privateer Press’s Iron Kingdoms setting and the Pathfinder universe. What is it like to write a novel set in someone else’s world?
It is both freeing and applies a whole new set of constraints. That sounds contradictory, but it really isn’t. I am free to focus on character and story and forget about setting, because the game publishers have already created the world, the magic, the weapons, machines, technology, races, monsters, weather, etc. All I have to do is ask, and I get a pile of books to read giving me all those details. For a writer, that’s like walking into a candy store.
The constraints, curiously, are also due to these details the game publishers have created. These are rules you cannot break. They are also touchy about things that alter the world they’ve created. You can’t change their magic, religion, or technology. You can’t blow up cities, or kill heads of state. You can play in their sandbox but you can’t break the toys.
That said, they are really fun toys to play with, and usually great people to work for.
-Could you describe the process of writing novels for a game company from a business standpoint?
Glad you asked that one. Writing for a game publisher is generally “Work for Hire.” That term needs a definition. What it means is, you don’t write a story then pitch it to the publisher. They hire you to write a story. What you can do is pitch them your ability and passion, and a story concept. Unfortunately that means they generally don’t hire someone without some track record.
What “Work for Hire” also means is that the publisher owns the work after you write it. They own every part of it, including the characters. Although it does not generally happen, a publisher can hire someone to write a character created by another writer. Sometimes, you even write characters created by the gaming publishers, as I have with Privateer.
The pay is similar to other publishers, though the audience tends to be smaller than for the big publishing houses. Short fiction is usually a one payment deal; you get paid and hand them the story, and they publish it… Done. That’s all the money you will ever see from that piece, and they can do anything with it they wish. Novels, on the other hand, generally earn the author royalties. The work still belongs to the company (their setting, their product) but the author gets a cut of the long-term profits. Royalties should include any format the novel is sold in, including digital, audio or (be still my heart) film.
-How would you describe your writing process?
I am an outliner. The only fiction I have ever written from the seat of my pants was the Cheese Runners series of SF Satire. I did that because I was having too much fun to outline, writing one chapter a week and making each one a cliff hanger, just to see if I could get myself out of the pickle I’d just put myself into. It was great fun, and a good experience, but now I outline everything. My reason for outlining is simple: I have a crappy memory. If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist or never happened.
That said, I don’t always adhere religiously to my outlines. The ones I submit to gaming publishers pre-contract are more set in stone, but most publishers realize that if you find a plot hole, it needs to be filled.
Once I have the outline done, I write the first draft usually very quickly. Sometimes too quickly. I wrote Pirate’s Honor in 29 days. That was 115K words. I was inspired. Fortunately, I had no day job at the time. We sat at anchor in St. Lucia for that month and did very little except write. The editing took four months, partly because I was writing so fast I made mistakes. The finished product (the draft that went to my editor at Paizo) was pretty clean, however, which is important. If you want an offer for a second book, don’t make your editor work too hard on the first one.
So, in one line: I outline meticulously, write but don’t feel constrained by my outline, and then edit meticulously.
-What steps does an author need to take if he or she is looking to write a well-researched book?
To a certain degree, the Internet is your friend. There is no subject you cannot research on the web. But just as delving the stacks of your library cannot accomplish everything, the Internet falls short in some respects. This is the scary part: you may actually have to go out and *do* something.
Right… I know. Scary.
You thought writers could just sit and write, right? Well, no. This is one reason I think most writers are of a certain age. Not all of us are greybeards, or can even sport facial hair, since there are probably more female writers out there than male ones, if you count all genres. But once again, you have to have some kind of life experience to fall back on. It is really hard to get a feeling for how truly awful someone feels who is really seasick, or what the bilge of a fishing boat smells like, or the odor of a festering wound, the pain of a broken bone, walking on blistered feet, being trapped underwater and thinking you will drown from a website. I’m not saying you should go out and live a dangerous life, but go out and smell a forest, listen to the sound snow makes under your boots, make love, get jilted, get your heart broken, and then fall in love again. You can’t learn how that feels on the Internet.
-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?
There are many! Some are wide open, and some I can’t say very much about, but I’ll give it a shot.
The first book of the second “Weapon” trilogy, Weapon of Fear, will be out this summer, with two to follow, Weapon of Pain, and Weapon of Mercy in about one year intervals. These are my self-published bread and butter, and keep me sailing.
I have another novel from Paizo coming out late this year. Pirate’s Prophesy was submitted in December, and we’ll be working on the next, Pirate’s Curse, which will be a 2016 release.
I am working on a contract right now with Privateer Press for more pirate novels. One at least, maybe more. The novella, Blood and Iron evidently sold well, so we’re going ahead.
I’m currently doing edits on a Shadowrun short story from Catalyst, but it hasn’t been accepted yet, so that’s still up in the air. Cross fingers… I have loved Shadowrun since it came out, and writing in the world is great fun.
Lastly, I have a contemporary fantasy project that I can talk very little about. The cat is still in the bag on that one, but announcements will be made soon… Big announcements… Very happy about this… now I have to shut up before I violate a non-disclosure agreement…
Oh, and perhaps a short story for an anthology that will Kickstart this spring entitled “Women in Sensible Armor” a compilation of female warrior stories from many authors that will exemplify true combat and…you guessed it…no bikini chainmail. That will be edited by my friend and editor at Dragon Moon Press, Gabrielle Harbowy, and the effervescent Ed Greenwood, creator of Forgotten Realms.
So, yeah…I’m a little busy.
– What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out?
This is really a long list, but I’ll try to put it in a nutshell: Write what you love, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t. Beware of anyone who tells you the “rules.” I was told by a NYT bestselling author that I was ruining my career by self-publishing. Vindication is sweet. Times change. Markets change. Learn the business of writing, what publishers want before you submit a manuscript. Lastly, don’t chase trends, but don’t be afraid of trends either. I avoided writing nautical fantasy for fear of following the PotC trend. When I finally wrote a nautical fantasy, I had to make it as far from PotC as I could to feel good about it. Now, look at me, writing good old fashioned pirate stories, and loving it.
As always, thanks for reading. Here are some links for further reading: