We are very fortunate to have been consulting with fantasy author Sebastien de Castell on the Novel Factory software, getting his advice and feedback on how to best make the software serve a professional, full time writer. And in addition to that, de Castell kindly agreed to be interviewed for the benefit of the Novel Factory community, to share insights into writing and his experiences.
Sebastien has a new book coming out soon: The Malevolent Seven – an irreverent dark fantasy about wizards gone bad – which we highly recommend you check out (we’ve already ordered our copy!). Click here for more info – or scroll down to find out more about this exciting new book beneath the interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing background and achievements so far?
I’m a Canadian novelist with the classic “fourteen different careers before writing” background that so many authors seem to share. The point of departure in my case is that I was never the obsessed writer determined to become an author from childhood. In fact, I never really attempted a novel until my career as a touring musician was falling apart spectacularly and I needed a new creative outlet. As is my habit when life gets confusing, I went to the public library where I came upon a set of cassette tapes by an author named Ralph McInerny called “Let’s Write a Mystery”. I managed to find an old cassette player and went through his bizarrely informal process and wrote my first novel. It was an absolutely terrible mystery that no one should ever be forced to read, and I loved it. I swear, that one experience of writing an entire novel from start to finish completely changed my life because it reshaped my brain so I could envision and hold onto big, complex ideas and projects. Most of the promotions I had in subsequent years came from that experience.
It wasn’t until years later that I wrote my second novel on a lark during the annual 3-Day Novel Writing Contest. I had no outline, wasn’t even sure what I was going to write until I got up that morning, and had a music gig halfway through. Somehow I wrote 44,000 words during those three days, slept better than I ever had before, and wound up with a swashbuckling fantasy novel on my desk. Years later I decided to revise it and the length ballooned to just over a hundred thousand words. That book, originally titled “Three of Traitors” and later renamed “Traitor’s Blade” got me my first agent and my first four-book deal.
Traitor’s Blade was published by Quercus in 2014 during the height of the Grimdark craze. Despite not being Grimdark at all, the book turned out far more successful than any of us anticipated. While writing the rest of the books in the quartet, I also wrote the first in a YA magical fantasy series called Spellslinger that was bought in an eight-book deal by Hot Key Books in the UK and Orbit in the U.S. The usual assortment of award nominations (mostly losses, of course) and media outings were all fine, but the real excitement for me was when those series were bought and translated by publishers in other parts of the world. All told, my books have been translated into fifteen languages and both my series have been optioned for film and television.
So, I suppose the lesson is: when life gets you down, go to the library and find a weird set of cassette tapes to set you onto a new path.
Can you describe your writing process?
If you spent any time with me while I’m working on a novel, the term “writing process” would seem laughable. Sometimes I plot, sometimes I just start writing. After I’m a quarter of the way through a book I’ll often go back to the beginning and polish every sentence to build up steam to get into the next act. I’ll draw diagrams, write journal entries, make spreadsheets, then abandon all of them and just go back to writing. In short, I’m a mess. The only positive thing I can say about my approach to writing is that somehow it’s produced more than a dozen reasonably successful novels and given me a fabulous full-time career.
People talk about being “plotters” or “pantsers”, but I think what I really am is a “prospector”: I go digging for story and I don’t care whether it comes out of a formal process or “the muse” or a stale chicken sandwich. The skill I’ve tried to develop is to recognize when I’ve written a sentence or scene that feels meaningful to me. I keep searching for those until at last I’ve got the manuscript for a novel in front of me. I take a moment to appreciate that most wondrous of feelings, then I go back into the mines to dig for more.
One of the things I appreciate about software like Novel Factory is that it gives writers a place to put their writing in whatever structure suits them best – or no structure at all. Even though I rarely outline (or rather, any outlines I attempt fall apart as soon as I start writing), I do look for structure as I go along because when something feels off to me, it’s often because that internal structure has started to get bogged down.
What’s your daily or weekly writing schedule?
It really varies depending on what else is going on. If I’m travelling a lot for a book tour, for example, I’m probably not going to be pressuring myself to write some arbitrary amount per day. Sometimes, however, I have to force myself into a writing schedule to get myself back into the groove.
The one method I’ve found in recent years that works really well for me is to write the first draft of a novel in exactly one month. I’m not talking about the NaNoWriMo process that sometimes seems built around the idea of writing a “crap” draft – I really don’t have time to write something I don’t believe just for the sake of it and then hoping I can motivate myself to do the hard work of making it good later. What I’m talking about is writing and living the novel over the course of a month. I tend to write in four acts, which means I can treat each week as an act. I know that on Monday I’m going to be launching into a new act and so the chapters have to have that feeling of freshness and setting out on a new phase of the story. By Wednesday/Thursday, I need to get deep into the major conflict of the act. Once I hit the weekend, I’ve got to push to a climax for the act and then the turn that will push me into a new act. Since almost all months have more than 28 days (damn you, February. Why must you be so inconvenient?) I use those last two or three days to write my epilogues and make any tweaks to earlier chapters.
The reason I like this schedule so much is that it ties the progression of the novel to the progression of my own life. I know what a week feels like, so it gives me a sense of pace. I write my rough drafts of each chapter in the morning and then rewrite in the afternoon, making sure the prose is as crisp and clean as it can be. This means I always end up with a manuscript that’s ready to be read by my agent or an editor or a friend, and I can let it go for a while because there’s no spellchecking or revising to be done until I know whether the story works for the people whose opinion I most value. Often that draft captures the essence of what the book will one day be, which makes it infinitely easier when it’s time for the final draft.
Holy crap – maybe I do have a writing process, after all.
How long does it usually take you to finish a novel?
The variation is so ridiculous that the most helpful way I can answer is through a couple of examples:
Traitor’s Blade: first draft written over three frenzied days in 2006. Second draft written over two months in 2012. Final draft written over a few weeks in 2013.
Knight’s Shadow: first draft written over twelve harrowing, confounding months. Second draft done in weird dribs and drabs over two or three subsequent months.
Fall of the Argosi: first draft written in a month. I sent it to my publisher to say “just tell me the parts you like and I’ll shred the rest before I start over”. They turned around and said they loved it exactly as it was. I decided I wanted to make a few changes regardless, which I did over a couple of weeks.
Play of Shadows: first draft written over the course of an afternoon as if it were a screenplay (I was experimenting with doing a different kind of outline). I was really, really happy with the story that was emerging until it turned out that book went through ten drafts. Ten! My publishers had already accepted it and were ready to put it through the proofing process when I then decided to rewrite the entire book in first person instead of third.
Our Lady of Blades: I’ve been working on this book for nearly four years. Every time I take a run at it, I get a little further and then hit a wall. This is the year it’s getting finished no matter what.
Malevolent Seven: I wrote this in February of 2020 just for myself. I wanted to write an old-school sword and sorcery novel with loads of swearing and wizards blowing things up and everything else I wasn’t allowed to do with the Spellslinger series (horrific violence is fine in YA, but swearing is rarely allowed). I never meant for this to be published, but my agent asked to see it and decided he loved it and then so did my publisher. Weird how this stuff works.
What comes first for you – characters? Plot? Something else?
Characters more often than plot, but the two are so inseparable that I’m not sure the categories are all that useful. When I think of a character, it’s something like, “What would it be like to be a travelling, sword fighting magistrate who’d done everything possible to become a hero only to end up reviled as a traitor?” (Traitor’s Blade), or “What would it be like to be a mercenary war mage who knew what he was doing was wrong but couldn’t seem to find a way out that wouldn’t end with him being killed or damned or worse?” (Malevolent Seven). Are those characters or plots? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be able to extricate one from the other.
How do you ensure your characters are all unique and interesting?
I have a somewhat unusual way of building casts and worlds: I begin with a main character and then I make every other character and every aspect of the world something that creates conflict for them. In that sense, every character – even the nice or heroic ones – begins as an antagonist for my main characters. In Traitor’s Blade, Kest and Brasti are Falcio’s best, most devoted friends, yet they constantly challenge Falcio and his beliefs. In Malevolent Seven, Corrigan saves Cade’s life over and over, yet he’s a source of constant problems and doubts for Cade. The more those other characters challenge my protagonist, the more they become unique and interesting in their own right.
How do you come up with your plots?
I have a writing desk with a rounded front edge that’s perfect for banging my head against. I can do it several times without leaving a mark on my forehead. That’s my fundamental plotting technique.
In between the head-banging, I suppose what I’m really doing is the same as what I do with creating characters: I ask myself what could happen next that would really screw up not only my protagonist’s life, but the core of their beliefs. That’s the essence of drama, which for me is the whole point of a plot: to create drama.
What do you consider the most important elements of a good novel?
That’s a great question because it points to the fundamental problem of how we talk about writing these days. Is the most important element of a novel the characters, the plot, the theme, the setting, the prose? No – it’s all of those things. That’s what a “good” novel is: the seamless unity of all the elements of story brought together under the author’s unique voice.
The pieces I find missing a lot lately in the discussion about genre writing are prose and voice. For some reason it’s become fashionable to talk about prose as if it were a coat of varnish you slap on a house after the “real” work is done – as if character and plot were foundations and everything else a kind of decoration. That’s never true for me as a reader. I hate books with lifeless prose. I love a great line of dialogue. Without a strong prose style, how can your book have a narrative voice? In a field saturated with similar characters and plots, voice is often the biggest distinguishing factor that will make an editor take notice of your manuscript.
Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
I consider writing under a pseudonym all the time. There’s a comfort to writing under a pseudonym and feeling as if whatever consequences come from your writing won’t touch you as directly as if they were levelled at your own name. The problem I have with pseudonyms (not for others, but for me) is that we live in an era where people use pseudonyms (or “handles”) on social media to give them the means to say things that are cruel, confrontational and often just plain dumb without consequences. Whenever I see someone on Twitter hurling invective at others from behind the shield of anonymity, I wonder how likely they would be to use those same words in person. Since the answer is almost always, “not likely at all”, I find I have almost no respect for those people. That makes me wonder if, were I to write under a pseudonym, I’d perhaps put out books I wasn’t as proud of having written.
That’s just me, of course. There are some very valid reasons to write under a pseudonym. Some people need to protect their identity because they have actual stalkers or abusive ex-partners who might go after them. Some writers come from marginalized or at-risk communities and are writing on subjects that could put them at further risk. Sometimes there are publisher biases (which get blamed on readers) against certain types of writers putting out certain types of books. There was a long tradition of publisher bias against female science fiction authors, just as there has been against writers of colour.
First and foremost, a writer – like any artist – needs to look after their physical, emotional, and yes, sometimes even economic, safety. If a pseudonym is necessary for doing that, then it’s the right way to go.
The grey area for me is crossing genres. I’ve written a couple of mystery novels and part of what’s made me hesitate putting them out into the world is not being sure whether it will “confuse” (again, a publisher term that gets foisted on to readers) the marketplace. There’s also the dreaded “Amazon Algorithm” which, conventional wisdom suggests, will start punishing authors who write with the same name across genres because it causes readers of one genre to see a book in another by the same author, look at it, reject it because it’s not their preferred genre, and then the algorithm sees that as you being less likely to make a sale. Typically, traditional publishers don’t want a fantasy author putting out books in other genres under the same name. On the other hand, I’d kind of like to know if George R.R. Martin wrote a romance novel. It might be just the thing to get me reading the genre.
How do you process and deal with negative book reviews (if you get them)
When someone tells you about a book and says it was the worst, stupidest, most repugnant thing they ever read and they wound up writing a six page negative review of how bad it was, you mostly feel intrigued to the point of wanting to read the first few pages. That’s why the true enemy of the writer is not the dreaded one-star review (which most people instantly see as a book simply not being suited to that reviewer) but the three-star review. The damning faint praise. The “It’s okay” review.
When someone hates one of my books – I mean really hates it, I find the eruption of literary outrage entertaining. I mean, when I don’t like a book, I put it down. I don’t grudgingly, with gritted teeth, force myself to read to the end and then spend the next three sleepless nights composing a diatribe about how awful it was. Mostly, I find that when someone goes to all that trouble, I feel like I’ve done a public service. That person clearly had a lot of unhappiness and anger trapped inside and my book has given them the language to get it all out.
Which is your favourite of the books you’ve written? Why?
Ah, the “which of your children do you love the most” question. I’ll forego the standard “I love them all equally” answer and, for once, force myself not to give three or four to hedge my bets. Let’s say my favourite of the books I’ve written is Tyrant’s Throne, the final book in the Greatcoats Quartet.
The best part of reading back one of my own books after it’s been published or hearing it on audiobook is that sense of distance – like it’s not really my book. I can just appreciate it as a story and think, “Wow, I really like that story and how it was told. I wonder who wrote it?”, then recall it was me and feel a moment of amazement. No book produces more of that feeling for me than Tyrant’s Throne. I swear, I get a few chapters into it and I have no idea how I wrote it. Like it’s somehow too good for my meagre abilities. Of course, then I get anxious over how the heck I’m going to ever write something like that again.
What advice do you have for aspiring fantasy novelists?
Write the book you most want to read boldly. Whatever you love to write about, whether it be sparkly vampires or surly mercenaries, let them be the biggest, most exciting version of those characters you can imagine. Don’t hold back, don’t let the fear of being cliché or unoriginal or anything else keep you from writing boldly. The world doesn’t need you to be tepid and safe. It needs to hear what you have to say, so say it loud.
Huge thanks to Sebastien for taking the time to share his writing experiences and advice with us. Sebastien has a new book coming out soon, which we strongly and wholeheartedly recommend:
The Malevolent Seven is an irreverent dark fantasy filled with mercenary mages of dubious moral character who find themselves accidentally caught up in a battle between god-like forces threatening to destroy the mortal realm. Despite their insistence on not being heroes, they’re stuck trying to save the world – unless someone comes up with a better offer . . .
Click here to order The Malevolent Seven.
Malevolent Seven is a masterful blend of Sebastien de Castell’s unique brand of wry humour, elegant prose, and wonderfully imaginative worldbuilding. I devoured this book and loved every page.
—Nicholas Eames, bestselling author of Kings of the Wyld
With a contemporary style, relentless pace, and a unique and exciting magic system, the Malevolent Seven is an action-packed adventure that not only questions the true nature of heroes but the very meaning of good and evil.
—Michael J. Sullivan, bestselling author of The Ryria Revelations
Like the tremendous Spellslinger and Greatcoats series’, THE MALEVOLENT SEVEN is another example of the brilliant and vivid world-building that Sebastien de Castell uniquely delivers through his incredibly original characters and their riveting adventures.
—– Chad Stahelski, director of John Wick