I'm delighted to bring you the next instalment in our ongoing interview series we have running here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to chat to Devin Madson, an author whose work has blown my mind in recent months. Devin kindly took time out of her hectic schedule to chat about things such as the craft of writing, the publishing industry, and giant penguins!
I hope you enjoy.
Devin Madson, welcome to Smash Dragons.
Thank you! How super fun to be here.
First up, tell me a little about yourself. Just who is Devin Madson?
Well, I am! To be official, Devin Madson is an Australian fantasy author and vlogger. I live in the middle of nowhere with my partner, three kids, the dog we named after the Greek muse of epic poetry and Lilly the blue-tongue lizard. Sadly it isn’t the name I was born with. My parents weren’t thinking ‘fantasy author’ when they named me.
When did you start writing? Can you remember the first story you ever wrote? What was it about?
I started writing waaaay back in my very first year of primary school. The teacher wanted us to write a single page story and I was SO upset it wasn’t allowed to be longer. I actually still have the first story I ever wrote at home where it could be as long as I liked. It’s called The Little Sad Christmas Tree and it proves even seven year olds can be cruel to their characters…
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Or was it something that evolved organically as you got older?
Always. Always. Always. Well initially (when I was seven) I wanted to be a writer and illustrator, but MAN do I suck at drawing. Even my stick figures look wrong.
Tell me about the genesis of The Vengeance Trilogy. Was there one particular moment that started the ball rolling, or was it the culmination of lots of different things?
The original idea, way back in 2007, came from a conversation with a friend about what it would be like to be an Empath, because it wouldn’t just be like ‘Oh, that person feels sad’. It would be far more absorbing, to a debilitating degree in a lot of cases. So I wrote a story about that. It was a shit story and bears very little resemblance to what you are reading now, but years later when I came back to it again I was able to extract some good from it.
The new story came partly from conversations with my mentor at the time, and partly from a pair of Confucian sayings. Firstly that ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves’ and secondly ‘When two tigers fight one limps away terribly wounded, the other is dead.’ I have to thank the wonderful Alan Baxter for the last one, which I gleaned during one of his fight writing workshops at WorldCon in 2010. It left quite an impression on me.
What was the reasoning behind originally crowd funding (via Pozible) your books? What were the positives and negatives of choosing to do this? Would you go down that path again in the future?
Hmmm… my reasoning was that if I was going to produce a book as professionally as a big publishing house then I was going to require funds to do that. Crowdfunding was so vogue at the time and I, rather naively, thought it would serve as a good way to get some promotional traction for my books, too. It doesn’t really work like that. If you start out as a nobody you’re pretty well guaranteed to end as a nobody. The best I can say of it is that it was an experience, but no, not an experience I ever want to have again.
One of the most remarkable things that I loved about your first book The Blood of Whisperers (I'm about to start the second one) was your ability to weave beautiful prose and narrative into what is a large and incredibly detailed fantasy universe. Was this something you were very conscious of when writing, or does it come naturally to you?
It sounds terribly arrogant to say it comes naturally to me, but while my brain darts all over the place while I’m writing, that isn’t one of the things it focuses on. I don’t pre-plan any details, they just seem to be there, fully formed when I need them as though there’s a separate world-building department in the back of my head that throws things at me when I need them. I often feel like I’m just coaxing information from the characters about the world they live in.
What was the appeal of setting your story in a world inspired by Feudal Japan? Why do you think we haven't seen more Eastern inspired speculative fiction?
I’ve always found the Asian asthetic to be very beautiful and inspiring, and perhaps because there are a lot less eastern inspired fantasy novels out there my hands didn’t feel as tied. It allowed me to create my own world, to carve out my own space, without feeling caught to that sense of western medieval realism so prevalent in speculative fiction at the moment.
As to why we don’t see it more, this is probably because authors feel they would have to be more accurate in their depiction and do more research to get it right, but really it’s just the same as everything else. Unless you’re writing historical fiction you’re just pulling inspiration. Perfect accuracy is not required.
How much research did you undertake before constructing the vivid and amazing world of your Vengeance trilogy?
I research in bursts. I’ll go looking for the answer to a specific question and end up reading about something only slightly related for an hour, so it’s quite hard to say how much research I did. In general I research very specific things, like how high blood spurts from the neck when someone is decapitated, and how one folds a kimono correctly. Mostly the research is never used as is, just all gets smashed together so I can pull the finished world from my brain. Rather like a bunch of choc chips held together by made up cookie dough. Mmm cookies.
Characterisation is incredibly important, and it is something I feel you've nailed in books. What makes a good character in your opinion? What are some of the most common mistakes people make with characterisation?
A good character has to be a real person. They need to be flawed and contradictory, they need to have goals and dreams and fears and they have to live all of this constantly, on the page, like a real person, not just sit back and let the author tell us about them.
The most common mistake people make when writing characters is hedging them in with a pre-planned plot. If you’ve already planned what is going to happen and are fitting your character into the story like you’re casting for a play, then an actors is all they will ever be. They can be good actors, but they are still actors. There’s no such thing as plot-based stories and character-based stories, there’s just a story, because plot IS character in action. What happens next at any point in a story shouldn’t be dictated by the plot but rather by what the characters would do next if they were real people. The best piece of advice I have for writing good characters is to let them breathe. Let them write the story, not you.
I'm going to echo a few different people here... why do you keep killing and hurting the characters I love?
Sorry! I don’t generally set out to kill and hurt characters, because I don’t plan, so really they are killing and hurting themselves. Once you choose to write in a world where humanity is portrayed honestly, where people are as capable of cruelty and anger as kindness and love, then unfortunately these things are going to happen. Characters want different things and are willing to go to different lengths to get what they want. Something, or rather someone, has got to break.
Do you have a favourite character in The Vengeance Trilogy?
No, I don’t actually have a favourite character. I have favourite relationships. I know Darius is a big favourite with a lot of people, but for me it isn’t him I love, but rather his relationship with Malice and his relationship with Emperor Kin. There’s always been something magical about having Endymion and Hope in the same room as another example. If I had to pick a single character I would have to say that Hana grew on me the most, but again it isn’t her, but her development that I love, so I guess I’m just really bad at this question.
Every writer has a process that they follow. I'm curious, what's yours? Are you a plotter or pantser? Do you write in a particular space, or use a particular program (like Scrivener for example) when you working on your stories?
Pantser. I am 100% a pantser because plotting messes with my characters. That doesn’t mean I have no idea where things are going. Generally I say “I have a sneaking suspicion that X is about to happen,” and I might note that down so I stop thinking about it, but if it doesn’t eventuate then that’s ok too. As for space, I write wherever I can. I carry my laptop from couch to desk to kitchen bench. I’ve had to learn over the last seven years how to write even when my kids are killing each other. And I write in Word so it’s just about the words. Give me the option to keep notes and character profiles and shit in my file and you’re just asking me to procrastinate. I have notebooks for notes and don’t make character profiles.
You've recently started a new online series where you offer writing advice and publishing tips to new writers. What was the motivation behind creating this series? What's your take on publishing and the industry at the moment? What does the industry need to do better?
I found that I was spending a lot of time talking… ok fine, ranting about writing and the simple mistakes that so many new authors make that are really easy fixes. It seemed not a day was going by without my editor complaining about something or other in the various manuscripts she was working on, and I realized that so much of it is ignorance. I was really fortunate in my writing mentors, but not everyone gets that, so I decided to talk about it and make the information more easily accessible to those who need it without them having to ask questions of scary authors and editors or get the wrong answer from a well-meaning writing group.
The publishing industry is still in a state of flux, but as a whole I think we need to strive for a greater level of quality. And this is across the board, not just big publishers or self-publishers, but for everyone. There is such a huge glut of books it is becoming hard to find something good to read now. People avoid a lot of self-published work for this reason, and self-publishers need to work harder to change that perception. But being published by one of the Big 5 is no longer a guarantee of quality either, because just like the self-publishers they are often throwing things out before they are ready. The Big 5 are huge beasts of companies that have the turning circle of an aircraft carrier and struggle to keep up with change. So they cut the same corners as everyone else and we get books with poor covers, books with less editing, a lot of the same thing over and over again, and promotion starts to fall by the wayside unless you’re one of the premium authors keeping them afloat.
You mentioned that you’re a pantser when writing. In your opinion, what are the positives and negatives to this approach?
The best thing about it is that it makes writing first drafts exciting, because I have no idea what is going to happen from line to line most of the time. It’s a bit like reading a book for the first time, except that you have to type it down as you go and take procrastination breaks. It also means that my characters are free to entirely be themselves and I don’t run the risk of forcing them into actions they wouldn’t normally take. Obviously the biggest downside is the amount of rewrites that are often necessary, because by the time I reach the end of a book the beginning usually doesn’t quite work anymore. But as much as I hate doing rewrites, they have never failed to improve the story, and I often continue to uncover hidden secrets in the story as I go. There’s a particular discovery at the end of The Gods of Vice I didn’t uncover until one of the last rewrites and it totally changed the course of the story from there. A character was being very recalcitrant about sharing that one.
What's the most important piece of advice you've received in relation to your writing?
There are so many, but the most important is probably to not treat your readers like they are stupid. The more work you make them do the more they will love your writing. Don’t dictate to them, instead let them step into the role of a partner and take ownership of the story they are reading.
What's the most cherished book in your library? Why?
That’s a tough one. I would probably have to say my signed copy of The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett. It is tattered and worn and all the more beautiful now than it was when he signed it for me. It is not only an awesome book, but it reminds me that I had better get a move on with my work because, like him, I’m not going to live forever.
Your third book, The Grave at Storms End, comes out soon. What can readers expect from the final book of your trilogy?
The whole book takes place over eight days, the eight days that will define the fate of Kisia, so it’s not messing around. And even though my editor had to read it many times in editing passes, she still cries. Sorry.
What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
This has to be the hardest question you’ve asked yet! On the whole writers aren’t that keen on talking themselves up because it feels all too much like lying. But if you must have an answer I guess a strength is that I don’t often struggle for words, especially in first drafts. The fact that I’m a perfectionist is both a strength and a weakness. While the fact that I groan and fuss and throw tantrums over the writing of action scenes is definitely a weakness. Action scenes and I have an interesting relationship.
If you could spend the day with one other writer (dead or alive) in order to pick their brain who would it be and why?
So many hard questions! I don’t really have one hero writer that I venerate above all others. There are plenty of amazing authors I would love to spend a day with, but to pick one? That’s hard. I think I’m going to have to say Scott Lynch of Locke Lamora fame. He is a master of unexpected twists and turns, of vivid world building and writes the greatest dialogue of any author I think I’ve ever read. And even more than that he’s had to deal with divorce and depression that nearly derailed his career for good. I was a complete nobody when this happened to me, unlike Scott Lynch, but being able to pick the brain of someone who has been there too would be invaluable. How do you keep writing in those situations?
You’ve been very outspoken (rightly so) about the importance of having a good editor and team behind you in order to produce the best book possible as an author. What should new writers look out for when looking for an editor?
I do shout about editors a lot, yes. But I must admit that the finding of a good editor is not always easy. I was ridiculously fortunate and happened across my gem quite by chance and over the years we’ve become great friends as well as having a professional relationship. But I know I’m in a minority. There are a lot of people out there who offer editorial services, but they aren’t properly trained and have little experience. The SFWA have some great information on how to avoid getting scammed in their Writers Beware pages. It pretty much comes down to making sure they are qualified. Making sure they have experience. Making sure they aren’t overcharging you (or undercharging you because that’s a sure sign they aren’t a professional service). But the very best way to find yourself a good editor is by word of mouth. Ask around. Get in contact with a few, get quotes, send a sample, see if you’re a good fit. Don’t just take the first one you find.
What do you want to see more of in future speculative fiction releases?
More diversity of settings (another reason I adore Scott Lynch) as well as people, and continuing to push for strong female characters. I don’t mean strong here in the ass-kicking sense of having a female doing the man’s job and acting like a man, but rather strong as in well-written. We need less of the tight leather clad warrior woman and more REAL women, who run the full spectrum. Give them moments of great strength and agency, but also allow them true, honest, human weaknesses. Allow them to make mistakes. We seem to get caught up on making sure they are strong and capable and forget the other half.
Oh and giant penguins. Can we have more giant penguins?
Where can readers pick up copies of your books?
At the moment the best place to buy my books is from my website, where you can get all three, but as of this week the first book, The Blood of Whisperers, is heading out into the world and will soon be available in print everywhere! The Gods of Vice should be joining it within a few weeks, and The Grave at Storm’s End a few weeks after that. You can also find the ebooks in all the usual places and an audiobook of The Blood of Whisperers is currently in production, so if you prefer to hear your stories keep an eye out for that.
What are you working on right now? Can you give us a little sneak peek?
Right now I am working on what I call my ‘Epic’. It’s a massive story I’ve been writing off and on for over ten years. It has gone through so many incarnations I couldn’t count them if I tried, but though I wrote The Vengeance Trilogy in that time I never truly shook these characters from my head. So I’m finally going to get their story down properly so they leave me alone. It’s a bit like creative exorcism. And sadly no, I can’t share, because I’m a pantser and am not entirely sure what I’m doing. So everything I have might end up getting entirely changed and rewritten. There you go, biggest downside to being a pantser - you have to keep it all to yourself until it’s finished. Except for beta readers of course, I shout a lot about needing those too.
Devin Madson, thanks for stopping by!
You can buy all of Devin's books over at her website, or online at all good book retailers. I implore you all to make them your next book purchases. I'm halfway through the series, and I've already come to the conclusion that they are amongst the finest fantasy novels that I've ever read. Devin Madson is set for big things, of that I am sure. Also make sure you check out her Youtube series Storyworks. The first one can be found here. They are great!
Until next time, be good to each other and keep on reading!