Creation: Talking to Mike Shevdon
I want to do something a bit different this fortnight. I’ve collared U.K. fantasy author Mike Shevdon (who may live to regret it) and asked him if we could chat about the process of developing his series The Courts of the Feyre. The third book in The Courts of the Feyre series, Strangeness and Charm, is about to be released by Angry Robot. If you don’t like having advance knowledge of key plot-lines, you may want to read the first novel in the set (Sixty-One Nails) before reading the interview.
Let’s start from Mike’s conception of the world and look at how he developed the story. Then we’ll look at how he sold it. And then we will talk to him about how one novel became four and how that story developed and the world changed and what happened when readers entered the picture.
Gillian: Mike, just where did you start with this? Was there a moment, or was there a series of moments? A big idea or driving need?
Mike: Hi, and thanks for the opportunity to talk about my work. Looking back, firstly I’d been reading a lot of fantasy and finding many of the same stories again and again—disconnected from reality, with characters I couldn’t relate to. This was in the late ‘90s through 2003 which was a flat period in the genre, at least for me. That led to an overall sense of dissatisfaction with the genre as it was.
I’d been a beta reader for some time for another author and had seen the writing and editing process in action so I thought I knew how it was done. I began to think I could do better than the books I was reading. If I’d really known how hard it is, I would probably never have started. I took time to re-read authors I liked with a more critical eye. The contemporary and urban fantasy of the time was mainly open world—vampires acknowledged in society etcetera—Tanya Huff was an exception, but there weren’t many examples where the fantasy world was hidden alongside the real one—few people had heard of Jim Butcher at that point. There also weren’t many contemporary settings in England. There were the Hellblazer comics, some of the Sandman series, but almost all urban fantasy was set in the USA.
I was commuting into London at the time and was aware of how people close their minds to their environment. It was amazing to me how little people actually saw. I began to think of our world as a fantasy setting, and how much better London would be for that than say Chicago or Los Angeles. It set me thinking of how someone could be drawn into that world. I’ve long had an interest in English folklore and old stories and began researching them with the intention of using that as a foundation. In the research I was following a thread on iron as an anathema to magic, when I came across the Quit Rents Ceremony.
For those who are unaware, the Quit Rents Ceremony is a real eight hundred year-old ritual which is performed annually in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It involves the testing of two knives, on blunt and one sharp, against a hazel stick, and the counting of six horse shoes and sixty-one nails. I knew as soon as I found it that it was the centrepiece of my story. I even had the title, Sixty-One Nails.
Gillian: So you had a setting, laid out in the streets before you and in the history behind those streets and in the folklore around you? How did you pull all this together into a novel?
Mike: For me, the first question is a what-if. What if the creatures of English folklore are all around us? What if they live alongside us and we never see them? That sparks a whole new set of questions, some of which generate new ideas and practical problems.
Take the question: Why can’t we see them? The answer is that they don’t want to be seen, and while their magic doesn’t make them invisible, it makes them unnoticeable. You look away, or you half-see something that your mind dismisses as unlikely or impossible. How many times have you seen something and then looked again, finding it leaves you with the lingering impression that you missed something important? Your mind plays tricks of perception on you all the time, or you would be overwhelmed by your senses. It’s not hard to imagine a creature that could manipulate that to its own advantage.
Now add consequences. What does that mean for that creature? If it can manipulate the perceptions of others, what else can it do? How do others see it? What if it can appear how it likes? What does that do to its self-image and its perception of self? Ask yourself this question: If you can look like anything or anyone, what do you look like?
Sometimes you can solve one question with another. For instance, why are there no fossil records of these creatures? Why are there no evolutionary record, no bones, no skeletons unearthed? Where are their remains? Then add the question, If they are magical, what is magic? What does it mean for those who use magic? For my world, I chose to have my creatures holding back power. When they reach puberty it opens within them and they have magic, but once the door is opened it cannot be closed. When they lose the ability to hold back that power, it consumes them utterly, leaving only dust. That in turn has its own consequences.
Arbitrary answers produce problems. If you know how and why something works then you know what could happen in any given circumstance. If you just say magic works because it does, then you have a problem because it has no limit and no rationale. You’re asking the reader to grasp the unknowable, and that’s a big ask. If, on the other hand, you work out why and how magic works and you apply that consistently, the reader begins to perceive magic as a property of the world. They don’t know how it works but they can see that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t and that there is a consistency in that. Human beings recognise patterns intrinsically, and as readers they will know if you’ve done your homework. They might not be able to describe it to you but they’ll know it’s there.
So you know how the world works, but that’s only one piece of the jigsaw. For me, plot comes next. What is happening and why? What is the incident that sparks the story into life? What is happening that is so damned important? For my first book, this is Niall’s heart attack which creates a change of state. Before the heart attack he’s a zombie. He goes to work, he comes home. He eats, he sleeps, he solves the problems in front of him, but he’s not living.
Gillian: How intensely did you create your main character? Did he live with you while you both explored these new realms, or is he a pure fabrication to you?
Mike: When I started writing Sixty-One Nails, Niall was me, or at least an aspect of me. I think a lot of writers do that to begin with. At some point in the process, though, he separated from me and by the time I’d finished the first draft he was someone I knew well, but definitely not me. In the edits and rewrites he became himself. I guess he retains some aspects of me, but he also incorporates other qualities, faults and quirks that make him unique.
He’s also changed through the books. Initially he was just an ordinary guy and saw himself as such. ‘Nothing special’ would have fitted him quite nicely. When he was introduced to the world of the Feyre he was somewhat freaked by it, but not overly. It was like he always knew somewhere within him that things were stranger than they appeared. Having a heart attack reinforced that—coming back to life was a miracle, and after that everything had an unreal quality. There’s also a little voice in the back of his head that says that none of this is real and any moment now it will go pop, and he will be back in the Underground having a heart attack.
Then there are the things he’s seen and done since then. Niall has killed people, sometimes in ways that both fascinate and revolt him. He questions his own actions sometimes and that can paralyse him. Sometimes I want to slap him and tell him to get on with it, but he has to find his own way to square what he’s done with his conscience. Fundamentally he’s a decent guy and wants to do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes there is only a choice between wrongs. As the books progress, that’s shaping him.
Is he a fabrication? Of course - I made him up. Authors are allowed to make stuff up. Does he exist? Of course he exists. I know him well.
Gillian: What made you choose Angry Robot for your proposal?
Mike: It didn’t really happen like that. I was at Newcon 4 in Northampton and bumped into Marc Gascoigne who I had been introduced to previously as an editor at Solaris. I didn’t know then, but Marc was starting his own imprint which ultimately became Angry Robot Books (ARB). I mentioned to Marc that I had been writing and he said, “Go on then, pitch me your book.“ At this point it would have been good to have a pre-prepared two minute pitch, but it was so unexpected. I had, however, been pitching for an agent—Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Agency—and had submitted a partial to her. I recalled what I could of my query letter and pitched that. These are the words from the query letter that sold it (spoiler alert).
“SIXTY-ONE NAILS - SYNOPSIS
No one helps Niall Petersen when he has a heart attack on the London Underground in the middle of rush-hour. Self absorbed, late-running commuters stream by, muttering about the pernicious influence of drink and drugs so that his dying thoughts are for them. Bastards.
It's not the end, though. It's the beginning.
He is revived by a sharp-eyed old lady who calls herself Blackbird and tells him that she called him back to life to prevent one of the Untainted, a creature from a parallel world, from possessing his newly dead corpse. She welcomes him back into the world with the cold solace that the creature will return to our world to kill both him and his fourteen year-old daughter because they both carry the genes of the Feyre, a dying race far older than mankind who possess chilling and insidious power. Niall greets this news with frank incredulity until Blackbird demonstrates that even she is not what she seems. Far older than she looks, she can change her appearance to become both more attractive and more dangerous than Niall ever imagined.
Together, Niall and Blackbird uncover the cold war being waged by the Courts of the Feyre against the exiled Untainted and discover the secret ritual embedded in the eight hundred year-old Ceremony of the Quit Rents. There is a flaw in the heart of the ritual and only days to go before it must be performed again to maintain the barrier that holds back the Untainted. One of the two knives used in the ceremony is broken and they must find a way to re-forge the cold iron before the barrier between our world and the world of the Untainted falls forever. They must discover the purpose of the six horse-shoes and the sixty-one nails and find the anvil hidden in the tunnels deep beneath the streets of London.
Blackbird becomes guide, friend and then lover, allying with him against an enemy that can rot the flesh from his bones and feed on the corruption, an enemy that can walk through his dreams to haunt him wherever he may run. This is the same enemy that he must meet at the re-forging of the knife. On the banks of the underground River Fleet, deep beneath the streets of London, Niall will be tested in a trial by ordeal to decide the fate of his daughter, himself, and of Blackbird and the unborn child she is carrying.
If he fails then the barrier will fall and the Untainted will return to teach humanity the meaning of power, but if he succeeds will the Council of the Seven Courts show its gratitude for his service or will it take steps to preserve the secrets that have maintained its power for millennia?
SIXTY-ONE NAILS is the first complete novel set in the Worlds of the Feyre.“
I rambled on rather too much, but Marc drew me to a halt, bless him, and asked me to send him the manuscript. I told him at the time that I was seeking representation with Jennifer Jackson, and told Jennifer that I’d sent a manuscript to Marc. Later, Marc told me that he was finishing the manuscript on the way back from London and sat in the car-park at the station to reach the end before he went home, which was a good sign. I remember meeting Marc at a pub for lunch and him explaining that they wanted a two book deal. “You do have a second book, don’t you?“
Sixty-One Nails was always intended to be the first of a series of books set in the same world—the Courts of the Feyre, but at the same time I wanted each book to be a story in itself. I hated 600 page tomes where you reach the end only to find you need the next book and it isn’t out for two years. For me, that robs you of any sense of satisfaction as a reader. I want resolution, I want closure, even if that then opens up new possibilities.
Unlike many writers, I do not have a bottom drawer full of old manuscripts. There is no back catalogue of work. Sixty-One Nails was my first book, and I had no short stories to my credit. What I did have was a fictional world that was very well thought through. I knew how things worked and I knew the characters. I’d already solved a lot of the problems. Putting together an outline for another book, therefore, was not that hard. I already knew where book two would start, and I wrote the beginning and gave it to Marc. He liked it and we had a deal.
I also had the thread of the books. Book one was about Niall discovering and saving the world. Book two was about losing his daughter and finding her again. Book three was about Niall’s daughter and the other children who unexpectedly inherit the gifts of the Feyre. And book four is about bringing the big story arc to a climax and discovering what this has all been about.
Actually it wasn’t quite that clear—there was a possibility of a book five, but that got eliminated in discussion with Marc and Lee at ARB. We settled on four books as the magic number.
Gillian: How did the process of publication work for you? What timelines did you have? How did they mesh with the rest of your life?
Mike: There were a few changes to Sixty-One Nails that Marc wanted, mainly to do with the final scenes and the lead-in to the next book, but also some trimming and changes of emphasis at various points. This was happening over the early part of 2009. There was the usual process of revisions, copy edit, proofing and finalisation. I have to say, the proofing on the original wasn’t brilliant, but then the imprint was new and the processes hadn’t bedded in. There were mistakes made on both sides which got through to the final versions, but everyone worked to improve the process and get the quality right.
Certainly in the beginning I found it very distracting to keep switching from the book I was writing to the book I was revising. I was also working to a deadline for the first time. The Road to Bedlam had to be in by end of January giving me a year to write, edit and revise 120,000 words. That seemed like a long time to begin with, but it’s really not. I made my deadline, but it was a lot of work, particularly towards the end.
When I wrote Sixty-One Nails, I was working in London. I used to prepare on the train in the morning so that I was ready for my day at work. On the way home, though, I would write. It was a good way of winding down from quite a stressful job. I did end up at the wrong station one time, though. I didn’t even realise we’d stopped, I was so absorbed in what I was writing. After that I set an alarm. Over the next few years I had quite a turbulent period. I changed jobs a couple of times, had some periods of unemployment, but I kept writing all the way through. Now that I’m working again I have to fit writing around my job, which can be challenging, especially when you’ve had a hard day. If you want to be a writer, though, you have to write. The clue’s in the name.
Gillian: What about the editing? How did the books grow and change? Tell us about working with Marc.
Mike: About the time The Road to Bedlam was submitted was also the time that Angry Robot Books separated from Harper Collins. At the time it was all hush-hush, but it meant that Marc in particular had his hands full. ARB were still supportive, but they were engaged in trying to keep the business running while they went through the changes. Fortunately for me, Jennifer Jackson, my agent, had given me some great feedback and I was able to work through the edits with her.
When it came to the third book, I went up to Nottingham and sat down with Marc and Lee over a beer and lunch and told them what I wanted to do. They were great—they picked holes in my plans where they didn’t quite hang together and focused it down into the two books that became Strangeness and Charm and The Eighth Court. They also listened while I explained some of the background to the books and why certain things wouldn’t work. Then they made suggestions and helped me think through some of my own ideas. I think ARB allows you a lot of creative freedom. Clearly they want something that’s marketable and that will appeal to readers, but they’re also willing to take risks. It gives you room to write the book you want to write.
Gillian: I think of novels as having three lives. The first is when the writer gets them all to themselves. The second is when they share them with a very select group of others (beta readers, agents, publishers). The third is when readers read and comment and take the story into their lives (or not). How did these stages play out for you?
Mike: When I started writing, I didn’t know I could. I mentioned before that I had no drawer of past efforts. I started writing because I had a story I wanted to tell—Niall’s story. I wrote some chapters and they seemed okay, but that was only my opinion. I was hardly in a position to be objective. So I sent them to a friend in California who I trusted to give me an honest opinion. He sent me back two words. Send more.
I was teaching myself to write as I went. I had to learn basics—how to punctuate, how to write dialogue, how to show, not tell. It was all new to me. I did sciences at school and creative writing never appeared on my radar until I was in my forties. I read articles, essays, books. I went on Robert McKee’s screenwriting course. I made mistakes—lots of them. I think there were close to thirty separate drafts of Sixty-One Nails, and every one was better than the last.
Initially I didn’t want to share my work, but there comes a time when you have to expose yourself to criticism. I shared the book with my wife and with my son, and they didn’t tell me I was wasting my time; instead they encouraged me. I mentioned that I’d been a beta reader for another fantasy author for some time: Juliet E McKenna. I’ve known Jules since before she was first published and used to read her drafts. Having a wide knowledge of the genre meant I could pick elements out and tell her where they’d been used before. It was a big step to tell her I’d been writing, as up to then I’d kept it quiet.
When I asked her to read it, she gave me a choice. She could read it as my friend or as a professional author. I chose the latter, and I’m glad I did, though the afternoon we spent where she pulled my draft apart was somewhat painful. It forced me to face up to some truths, and to take some risks. I thought I had a finished book, whereas what I actually had was a good start. I went back and rewrote the book, almost from the beginning.
Having braved Juliet, I took my re-written work to beta readers and asked for comments. I formed a writer’s group with a few friends and worked through the book a chapter at a time. I got used to the idea of having people comment on my work without being offended that they’re picking on my baby. My last book went out to beta readers, and my next one will too. Nowadays I include my agent in that group—I’m blessed with an agent who will send me back a list of comments that are smack on the button. My objective with all this is to be able to submit a manuscript to my editor that they can just accept. That’s the target, though it never quite works out that way.
And then you get published and your baby goes out into the wide world where anyone can say whatever they like about it. In my case, a very bad review went out in a nationally published magazine timed to coincide with first publication (yes, I’m talking about you, SFX). You can imagine my reaction. Marc Gascoigne, bless him, contacted me and told me because he didn’t want me to see it unprepared. He told me it was just one review and I shouldn’t worry about it. Easy for him to say, though actually I think he was privately concerned too.
Then other reviews started to come in, and it rapidly became apparent that the SFX review was the outlier. They’d given the book to someone who just didn’t connect with the characters and he’d panned the book, but it was far from representative. I began to get reviews and emails from people who loved the book, the characters and the story. It made up for that one bad review a hundred times over. I kept the SFX review, though. It’s a reminder that not everyone will like what you do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Any writer who says that they don’t care about reviews is being disingenuous. If you don’t care what readers think, why publish at all? When readers take the time to contact you about the book they’ve just finished, or to write a review, they’re giving up their time for you, and that’s a compliment. Authors still rely on word of mouth as the primary means of getting people to try books that are new to them, and a personal recommendation makes all the difference. When readers start to champion your work and promote it through their own efforts, it’s both surprising and wonderful. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Gillian: How has the feedback (from beta readers, from your gent, from Marc and Lee, and from reviewers) changed the way you write? Think of it from the nuts and bolts end as well as from the planning of the four books, perhaps.
Mike: It’s hard to separate out the influences. I learned a lot from writing book one—it shifted my perspective on writing. For book one I started writing and just kept going. The aim was to reach the end, which seemed a long way away. Only then did I start editing.
With book two, I adopted a more progressive style, editing and changing as I went. With less time, a complete re-write becomes untenable. You have to get it right, or at least near-right in the first pass. That means more planning and a cleaner execution. I took more risks with the second book, daring to link things thematically rather than directly through plot. That was enabled, at least in part, because I had a better idea of where I was going.
Book one is seen almost entirely from Niall’s point of view. Book two allows Blackbird’s viewpoint. By the time we get to book three, we have Niall, Blackbird and Alex’s view. Balancing each point of view, having a unique voice for each character, inhabiting different world-views—I don’t think I could have done that in book one.
The characters grew and changed. I began to see the relationship between Blackbird and Niall in a new light. Part of that was the number of readers who were surprised at how quickly the relationship developed. I thought I’d signposted what was going on in large letters, but people took it at face value and didn’t question the relationship, rather they questioned my depiction of it.
I suppose it says something about urban fantasy and romance, but Niall and Blackbird are not the perfect couple. They’re good together, but they rub up against each other. There’s friction as well as affection. The initial attraction starts the relationship but it won’t carry them through. Instead it develops into something deeper and more lasting. Blackbird has her own problems, and her own needs and desires. Add to that Niall’s inability to acknowledge his own feelings and his cynicism after his divorce from Katherine and you have a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship. It’s amazing they got together at all.
All of this is in book one if you look for it. It’s there on the page, but it’s not what people expected. People don’t look to fantasy for complex relationships. They expect boy meets girl and are attracted. Girl or boy is also attracted to other. Relationship triangles ensue. It’s a recipe that’s sold an awful lot of books, but it bears no resemblance to any reality I recognise.
Having set up book one on the Quit Rents Ceremony, I’d created an expectation that the rest of the books would have a blend of factual historical and imagined elements. That was a good thing. It gave me a framework on which to build the series. People started sending me links to interesting rituals and strange events. I began collecting oddities and storing them away for later. We are fortunate in that we are steeped in history—it’s all around us in the buildings, the writing, the maps, and the records.
Each time I write a book, it’s different. The experience is different. It brings its own challenges, problems and opportunities. Writing book four is about bringing the arc-plot which has been signposted since book one to a close. I’m trying not to bring in new characters and I’m aiming to deliver on the promise of the previous books in a way that’s unexpected but satisfying. I guess my readers will tell me whether I succeed.
Gillian: Final question - now that you’re writing the last book of the four, how does the world of your novels feel compared with when you were working on Sixty-One Nails?
Mike: I’m pleased with how well the world has stood up to the test of time. I’m sure there are some inconsistencies, but hopefully they don’t spoil the story. I’m not sure how many characters there are now; upwards of eighty individuals populate the books. If you think just about main characters, there is Niall, Blackbird, Alex, Katherine, Garvin, Tate, Fionh, Fellstamp, Amber, Slimgrin, Claire, Sam, Yonna, Kimlesh, Teoth, Krane, Barthia, Mellion, Angela . . . you see how quickly it’s grown? It’s been a bit like the snowman you make by rolling a snowball so that it gathers snow—the more it rolls, the bigger it gets.
There are places I want to return to, characters I want to revisit, but I just don’t know how or when it will happen. I’m thinking of the little girl, Lucy, in Strangeness and Charm, or Megan, the semi-precious stone dealer in Sixty-One Nails. There’s the hall at Oakham with the walls decorated with horse-shoes, and the Underground. I love the Underground.
How does it feel? It feels rich. I only have to imagine the tunnels below Covent Garden and I can smell Gramawl’s earthy scent mixed with beeswax from the hanging lamps. I can walk around the halls of the High Court of the Feyre and I know which rooms are disused and which are bustling with activity. I can smell the sea on the Yorkshire Coast, and see the tall figure of Greg Makepeace striding between the cars, oblivious of the traffic.
I was asked a little while ago what I did. It was between jobs and I was working on The Road to Bedlam, and I had my head full of names and places and events. I thought for a moment and then answered him. “I create worlds.“ How cool a job description is that?
Books mentioned in this column:
Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.