“What if Bilbo Had Worked for Smaug?” and Other Highlights from Scott Warren’s r/Fantasy AMA

Fantasy author and illustrator Scott Warren took some time out of his day training US Soldiers to answer a few questions about his latest book, The Dragon’s Banker. Read on for some writing advice!

On his top 3 author inspirations:

Terry Pratchett and Steven Erikson without question for my fantasy work. John Scalzi for my science-fiction.

Of those three, I think Terry Pratchett has had the overall biggest influence not just on my work, but in who I am as a person. The City Watch saga played a non-trivial part in helping me develop my own personal code of ethics as I came into adulthood and Vimes/Carrot were two sides of a coin I very much needed. It’s no coincidence that my first stab at writing fantasy followed a group of constables in a melting-pot city of traditional fantasy races.

On why he decided to write a fantasy book about banking:

The fact that it’s out of nowhere is what makes it so much fun. There are already fantasy books that feature economics (Baru Cormorant, and Dagger & Coin which I still need to read) but none that mashed them up against faerie tales with a light-hearted approach. I think quite a bit of it is the Terry Pratchett influence showing through.

On small presses vs. big publishing:

I started out intending to only ever self-publish as a hobby, but I submitted my second book to an open call for small press and ended up launching with them. Both were positive experiences, but definitely had some drawbacks.

The biggest issue with traditional publishing (and the reason I stayed away from pursuing big trad houses all together) is that the more you expect to get from a publisher in terms of marketing, editing, etc.., the more control they will expect you to give up (rights, cover, distribution, scheduling, censorship). It’s even possible for your book to get caught in the middle of industry disputes that you have nothing to do with (See: The Vagrant). In my view that exchange is not always equivalent, and may not be worth it. It helps that writing is not my only, or even primary source of income. However, take this with a grain of salt as I have never actually gone that route, and any authors that have please feel free to weigh in.

On good writing advice:

Someone actually did give me some tips back in the day that I still use! The first tip I heard I took to heart, and later learned was a Neil Gaiman quote: “When someone tells you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

You cannot, I repeat cannot dismiss critiques or try to explain to a critique partner or reviewer why their opinion is wrong or misinformed, etc… You certainly can’t explain it to your readers. But you can recognize that they don’t have the full picture. You can strive to improve your work so the next reader never has that incorrect impression to begin with. That’s the true power of critique and revision.

I like to do Post Mortems of my books on my blog, usually a few months or a year after the release where I go into what my goals were vs reader/reviewer reception and how I plan to adjust my work in the future to better succeed at aligning those tracks. I don’t even know if anyone reads them, but it helps me focus my thoughts in one place.

The other tip was actually an art tip, but it translated to writing nicely. “Always paint with the broadest brush possible.”

And that’s how I write. I do broad strokes. Most of the detail is implied and I let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting for me. I only explicitly detail what I want the reader to focus on. And you know what? It works! People almost always praise the detail in my books, but you’d be hard-pressed to give a physical description of any of my characters beyond one or two defining traits. I actually take that to the next level in The Dragon’s Banker. The main character is wealth-obsessed, so most people he meets are literally broken down into what jewelry or finery they’re wearing and very little else. So many new authors get caught up and end up not finishing their first book because of all the nitty gritty details of their worlds and characters and histories that ultimately don’t matter at all.

On his writing process:

Each of my stories usually starts with a spark of insight, usually in the form of a what if question. What if we followed the story of the masked secret police instead of the roguish hero? What if instead of robbing him, Bilbo had offered to work for Smaug?

From there I go into a plot map on a big whiteboard that goes through each of the story beats. It’s important for me to always be able to see everything tied together visually throughout the process. The big thing I’m doing here is deciding on the main conflict and how it comes about and resolves. If I don’t have this, I actually find it very difficult to keep everything cohesive. After that I do outlining, then a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. I am an outliner, but the best sign of strong characters is when they take on a mind of their own and you have to adjust the outline accordingly.

The writing process itself is pretty straightforward. Every day I carve out 1 hour for creative pursuits, be it writing, drawing, or other projects. When I actually hunker down and start to crank out pages I try and stick to a minimum of 750 words per day, which typically takes between 45-90 minutes depending on how much I’ve thought about what comes next before sitting down. My novels aren’t terribly long so a rough draft is usually done in 3-4 months. Conditions don’t particularly matter. Thus far this year I’ve written in the back of Blackhawks and C130s, on cots, in 115 degree heat, on a desk improvised from two footlockers and a pelican case, and several places where I didn’t have room or power for a laptop and resorted to using my kindle fire as a word processor.

 

You can read the rest of the AMA here.

 

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