Author interview: Joe Abercrombie

If you've been following the Pulp Idol tips and tricks from authors we included in the pages of SFX magazine earlier this year, you'll have been looking forward to this: here is the complete Q&A with fantasy author Joe Abercrombie, author of the First Law series of books including our recommended Last Argument of Kings. Here, we discuss his advice to newbie writers:

SFX: So, what's your number one suggestion for grabbing the reader’s attention at the start of a story?
Joe Abercrombie:
"I like stories that start in the middle. Drop them into the action, in the midst of the world, and try to explain nothing your characters wouldn't need explaining. Drop them right into the action, maybe. Readers are surprisingly good at piecing it all together from scattered clues. Far, far better to have a reader excited but confused, than one well-informed but bored."

SFX: How much do you need to plan a story? Or can you just sit down and bash one out if you’ve got a good idea?
Joe Abercrombie:
"I'd argue that time spent planning is time very well spent. It may feel as if there's a mysterious creative allure to just starting off and going wherever your pen takes you, but that's bollocks. I'd liken it to trying to build a house with no plans, and just slapping the bricks down however you feel like."

SFX: How do you avoid cliché?
Joe Abercrombie:
"The best piece of writing advice I ever had was from my mother, who said - you must always strive to be truthful, with every word, sentence or paragraph. When you use an image, picture what you're describing and think - does that thing really look like that? When you write a line of dialogue, think - would this person in this situation really say these words? So I guess I'd say that being scrupulously truthful and honest is the best way to avoid cliché. The only way to write well, in a sense.”

SFX: What do you think editors and publishers are looking for in good fantasy fiction?
Joe Abercrombie:
"They want things they like, that are original to some degree, that are exciting, but let's not lose sight of the fact that, above all, they want things they can sell. That doesn't mean that you as a writer should be trying to write with commerce in mind, or anything other than exactly what you want to write. But it does mean that when you're trying to sell it to a publisher, at least, you should be thinking very carefully about how they might be able to make money from it."

SFX: Do you have a tip for overcoming writer's block? Are there tricks for getting you back on track if you lose the flow of the story?
Joe Abercrombie:
"The best thing I've found, if you're not writing anything good, is just to sit in front of it and write something bad. Put in some chair time. Then when you come back later in a better frame of mind, you may find some gems in the rubbish you produced. You may even find what you wrote isn't that bad, and with a bit of sharpening up you have pure gold...”

SFX: How do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing when it seems to get difficult?
Joe Abercrombie:
"The allure of money and power."

SFX: It seems to be a common complaint of authors that characters take on a life of their own, and often deviate wildly from the original plan. Is that true for you, and how do you deal with it?

Joe Abercrombie:
"Obviously, new ideas come to you, and your conception of your characters will shift as you go. Within certain limits that's only a good thing, but if your plan is well-thought out and thorough it should be able to shift with circumstances, and only be the better for it."

SFX: You mention the fact that you don't write short stories? What is it about the longer form that appeals to you most?
Joe Abercrombie:
"The money and the power, again. I think mostly I've never been a big reader of short stories, so I wasn't inspired particularly to do something in that format."

SFX: Does having a deadline help you write, or is it better to have all the time in the world?
Joe Abercrombie:
"I think a deadline is a good thing, on the whole. The best work tends to come within certain constraints - of time, of length, of genre, maybe. Apart from anything else, it's nice just to finish something, put it to one side, and get on with the next thing. A revisit at some distance can sometimes work wonders."

SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out as a writer who?s had nothing published yet, perhaps is getting discouraged by rejections? What should they do?
Joe Abercrombie:
"Think very carefully about what you're submitting and who to - make sure it's in exactly the format the agent or publisher asks for and don't make it too much material - they receive vast numbers of submissions and will generally know within a few pages, if not a few paragraphs, whether they're at all interested or not. Pay particular attention to your covering letter, and rather than explaining why you like the book (who cares?), try to demonstrate what is special about your manuscript or your approach, and why your book is something they need to publish. Never forget you're selling something, and this is your pitch."

"Also, despite the embarrassment factor, tell everyone you know that you're doing it. You never know when a chance encounter somewhere might lead to an opening. It's all a question of luck - the right manuscript meeting the right agent or editor at the right time - but the wider you cast your net the more quickly luck will find you. In the meantime, just continue to write, and continue to send out submissions. Most published writers have a fair few rejections under their belts."

SFX: Thanks Joe!

Find out more about Joe Abercrombie's books at his official website and blog . Abercrombie is number 81 in the SFX poll of your favourite authors - check out our Book Special for more information. And don't forget to check back every week to read more Q&As with authors, editors, agents and publishers.