The Geomancer


April Author Round Table

It's time for another author round table! Joining us this time are Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Scarab Path), Pierre Pevel (The Alchemist in the Shadows), and Joel Shepherd (Haven), all of whom are two or more books into a series.

Pierre Pevel
Adrian Tchaikovsky

Joel Shepherd

-How much do you pre-plan before you write a book? How much does that change, if at all, when you're writing a series? How much of an idea do you have of where the series is ultimately going to go before you start?

Adrian Tchaikovsky: I write up a complete book plan, chapter by chapter - otherwise I find I lose focus or miss important bits out - this doesn't mean I actually stick to the plan necessarily - it tends to go off the rails from about halfway, and I rewrite it as the plot develops, but the basic structure tends to prevail.  As I get further into my series, more edits and alterations tend to become necessary, too - as well as balancing the elements within the book, I need to balance the elements within the broader plot arc.

Pierre Pevel: I do an enormous amount of work before actually beginning to write a novel. I take notes, I make information sheets, and above all, I imagine the plot from A to Z. I have trouble writing if I don’t know the story I’m trying to tell. In fact, that’s all I should be doing when I’m writing: just telling the story. Otherwise, I feel uncomfortable. 

This preparatory work is even more important before writing the first volume in a series. Because that’s when I’m inventing everything, conceiving the universe for my books, and making decisions which may only become truly important in two or three years’ time, when I’m writing the third volume in the series. So I roughly know which direction the series will go, and how it will end. For the Cardinal’s Blades series, I already knew right from the beginning the closing stages of Book 3.

Joel Shepherd: I pre-plan enough to know the broad structural outline -- what happens and when, and where the main conflicts are. But the smaller detail I leave to resolve itself, because a lot of that stuff will change as you write the book. I like to have in my head some big, dramatic moments, crescendos you might call them, which occur at various points in the plot. Then it's a matter of writing out the rest of the plot to try and hit those marks. But I'm usually pretty sure of the big picture -- where it's going, how's it all going to end -- before I start writing.

-What was the initial idea that sparked your series?

AT: INSECTS! Seriously, I wanted to write an epic fantasy that was also some way off the stock Tolkienade. I could go on forever about insects as metaphors for human nature - Kafka, Capek, Pelevin etc., but basically I like insects, and a world where the people have insect aspects is entirely logical and natural to me. The other main point was the technology - when I had the idea for the Apt/Inapt split, that essentially kickstarted and supercharged (to use Apt terminology) the entire plot - from the first scene in Myna with the Wasps attacking with mechanized ramming engines and aircraft, all the way to my projected final book.

PP: At the time, I wanted to write a cloak-and-dagger novel, which would be a tribute to Alexandre Dumas and which would portray Paris in the 17th century. But I didn’t know how to approach this. I kept looking for an angle and I couldn’t find one. One day, I got fed up with pacing back and forth in my office and I did something I never do: I sat down in front of my computer and I started writing without knowing where it would take me. I thus came up with the initial draft of what would become the first paragraph of The Cardinal’s Blades: an evening scene with Cardinal Richelieu writing at his desk… and a small dragon curled in a ball close by. That’s how I came up with the image of a dragonnet! Quite naturally! And then I immediately understood that I was on to something: musketeers and dragons. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it sooner? After that, I went back to my usual methods and did a huge amount of preparatory work. A lot of time passed between that first paragraph and the moment when I resumed writing the rest of the book.

JS: A Trial of Blood and Steel was sparked by a number of different things. Firstly I don't read enough fantasy that has gritty, realist plots that are driven more by characters and their decisions than by magic or prophecies. The big exception right now is probably George RR Martin's Game of Thrones, which Trial of Blood and Steel has been compared to by a lot of reviewers -- though I should point out I wrote Sasha well before I read Martin's work. I think fantasy's a wonderful genre for intense character conflicts because the plots have so much that pivots upon the decisions the characters make.

But I think the initial idea that sparked the series was the main character, Sasha. She's a female warrior in a male world, and obviously in a lot of chauvinist societies, that wouldn't be allowed to happen. So the first problem became, how to let it happen, without watering down her society with any modern political correctness... which I think I achieved, because Lenayin is one of the least PC places I can imagine. Ultimately it's a society that respects individual strengths more than conformity, which is what allows Sasha to be what she is. And that process of creating Lenayin lead to its relationships with the other lands surrounding it, and eventually spread into the entire world.

-What does your typical writing day look like?

AT: I'm probably letting the side down by saying this, but the typical writing day is going to work in an office for my regular nine to five job, coming home, family time, putting my three year old to bed, then sorting out emails, admin, whatever edits are currently on the go, and at about 10pm I get down and write something - the one major point being that I write 1-2 pages every day while I have a book in the works, no matter what else I have on. But life is very busy right now, with all that going on.

PP: I’m almost ashamed to tell you this. I get up very late, around noon. I make myself some tea and then I immediately sit down to work, until 8 pm in the evening. After that, I try to have a social life. Then I return to work, but for less important tasks than during the day: re-reading, correcting the text, etc. I go to sleep around 4 am, after reading a few pages of a good book, or watching a film or some episodes from a TV series on DVD.

JS: I'm working on a PhD at the moment, so I don't have a typical writing day. I fit in my fiction writing where ever I can, morning, night, whenever.

-Outside of research, what kind of books do you like to read?

AT: I am a dedicated fanboy. My fiction reading is almost entirely fantasy and science fiction. Favourite authors include Gene Wolfe, Peter S Beagle, China Mieville, Mary Gentle. I get through about a book a week, on average - reading on the train to and from work, and before going to bed.

PP: Above all, crime novels. I like Elmore Leonard, James Elroy, James Lee Burke, and in particular, Donald Westlake (who in addition to being an extraordinary novelist writes the best closing chapters in the business). I also read historical novels when they take place in the period that interests me, the 17th century. I don’t read much fantasy, Terry Pratchett being an exception.

JS: Given my university work at the moment, I've been falling way behind on my fiction reading.

Thank you to the authors for joining us, and special thanks to Tom Clegg, Pierre Pevel's translator.


  1. I particularly am struck at how very different the three series-writing authors are in their craft. There truly IS no royal road to geometry, as it were.

    Well done.

  2. One of my favorite questions (so you will probably see it often!) is asking how much writers have worked out beforehand, whether they use an outline or plunge ahead, because the answers are all so different. Thanks again to all the authors for taking the time.