Friday, June 10, 2016

William King talks Kormak and Writing

Adventure equals Kormak and Writing
By William King

Sword of Wrath
(Book 8 in the Kormak Saga)

En route to the distant colonies of Terra Nova on a secret mission for the King-Emperor, Kormak and his companions find themselves stranded on a remote island. They must solve the terrible mystery of what happened to the missing population before a monstrous scourge overwhelms them too. And, all the while, a treacherous, sorcerous assassin lurks in the background waiting for his chance to kill.


I'd always dreamed of writing a series of books in the style of the pulp sword and sword sorcery I consumed as a teenager. I wanted to pen the sort of thing I used to find in the spinner racks and library shelves of my youth; short, action-packed novels with well-developed worlds and interesting characterization.

I had written one well-received short story about the monster hunter Kormak that would not have been out of place in Weird Tales. It was a set in a world where medieval humanity rubbed shoulders with the remnants of elder races and Lovecraftian monsters. Kormak himself might be best described as Conan, if Conan's entire family had been wiped out by demons when he was a child, and he had been trained by an ancient order of D&D paladins to hunt the monsters down. He was a hero of the old school, the sort of mysterious stranger who arrives in town, cleans out the villains and moves on before anyone has a chance to thank him.

I had tried writing novels about him before but they had been shaped to fit the templates of commercial fantasy in the pre-Indie era. The sort of stories I had in mind were just not salable in the era of fat book fantasy and a quota of 90000 words minimum. I could not make my vision of what I wanted fit into that length so I put the project on the shelf for years.

Then along came the Kindle. I released the Terrarch series and it did relatively well. It  opened my eyes to the  potential of indie publishing. At the time, I was making my living writing tie-in novels set in the Warhammer universe. I started writing the Kormak novels while I was waiting for the editors to get back to me with feedback about those books.

I wrote the first draft of Stealer of Flesh in about 3-4 weeks. It was a collection of novellas that linked together to tell one overarching tale. I chose the format because it resembled the stories of Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock I remembered so fondly. Also they took a relatively short time to write and I could drop a novella and pick it up as and when needed.

I was pleased with the results. Stealer of Flesh was exactly the sort of book I wanted to write when I first started out. Also it was exactly the sort of book there was zero chance of getting into print through a trad publisher.

I released it with terrible covers I made myself. It still managed to sell well enough to justify writing more.

I came up with a plan. I would write books each of which would explore a different area or facet of Kormak's world, each standing alone and each telling a complete tale. You could enter the series at any point and get something out of it. Most of my previous work had been set in worlds which had been handed to me fully formed, or for which I had been a game developer. For my Terrarch series, I had written a 50000 word bible in exactly the style I would have written a Warhammer Army book. With Kormak I was going to do something different. I was going to explore the world with the hero, making it up as I went along.

Defiler of Tombs dealt with necromancers, and the haunted Northlands of Kormak's world. Weaver of Shadow with elves and the Elfwood. City of Strife looked at the politics of a great commercial city state being overrun by were-rats and sorcerers. Taker of Skulls was Mad Max set in Moria. Ocean of Fear dealt with pirates, plunder and a sea monster the size of a city. Born of Darkness was a monster hunt set deep beneath the palace of a king, and featuring one of the resurrected demon gods of Kormak's world.

All of the books deepened and enriched the background of the world. The world built itself incrementally with every book. New aspects of its history drifted into view. New elements of its geography were revealed. The story has rumbled on for 8 books now with another 3 written and undergoing editing.

I learned a lot, some of which I feel I should have known from the start, some of which was the sort of stuff that can come only from experience.

One mistake I made was to take the pulps as my model. These were written in the era when the majority of stories appeared in magazines and as far as most readers were concerned disappeared forever a month or less after they appeared on the shelves. Every tale had to stand alone. The reader had to be able to grasp all elements of the world from reading that single tale. The stories might have the same hero but they could be read out of order and with no previous knowledge.

I followed the model but I did not have to. It took me six books to realize this. In the age of ebooks, you can always find the first book in a series and read them in chronological order if you want to. Ebooks never go out of print. You don't need to search second bookshops to find lost volumes of series you like. I was even giving away the first volume of the series free to try and entice readers.

From a marketing point of view, my emphasis on single volume story lines was probably a mistake. Modern fantasy readers are accustomed to long intricate plots that flow from book to book. They expect them. Also I did not have any cliffhangers which might push the reader to race out and buy the next volume of the series.

From a writer's point of view, I was starting afresh with every book. The only consistent element was Kormak. All of the other characters had to be introduced. An entirely new setting had to be created for each story. It was a lot of work.

It was also a lot of fun. And the format had some advantages. I could butcher characters with the merry abandon of George RR Martin in a bad mood, if I felt like it, and I often did. It certainly raised the stakes tension-wise, a useful thing when you're writing a single character series. The reader can be pretty certain the guy whose name is on the cover of the book will survive but they can't be sure that anyone else will live, even the people they like. It adds a note of realism.

I had written a number of series before and they had all had ongoing plot lines. I enjoyed writing them. More than that, in some ways, they were easier to write. The stories took on a momentum of their own, and events in earlier books suggested plot developments in later ones. By making each book self-contained, I was cutting myself off from that, and I missed it.

By the time I hit book 6, it dawned on me that I did not absolutely have to make each book stand alone. I could, in the tradition of comic books, have mini-series and story arcs that continued from book to book.

So recently there's been a change of direction. A number of characters have stuck around in the past couple of books and will be around for a couple more. Kormak is headed off on an extended quest to Terra Nova, his world's equivalent of the Conquistador Empire in Mexico and South America. Shape-shifting assassins pursue him from book to book. An ongoing plot involved sinister cults and Lovecraftian Gods is rumbling along in its Apocalyptic way.

What else have I learned writing the Kormak series? The most important thing is that in the new world of indie publishing it's possible to follow your heart and still make a living.

The Kormak books are short-- between 40000 and 60000 words in length. The fantasy genre is typically one where longer works do better. I suspect I could have sold more books if I had written to greater length but that just was not possible with these books. 

Right from the start, I decided I wasn't going to pad these stories to meet a word count. They are the length they are because that was the length the story needed to be. Not every fantasy story needs to be bulked up and on steroids. Most of the books I loved as a kid were not, and they were none the worse for it. That does not mean I don't want to write longer stories. It just means that I don't have to.

There is a freedom available to the indie that you just don't get in traditional publishing. I think that is the single most important development in the industry in a very long time.


Author Bio

Bill King is the author of over 20 novels, an Origins Award-winning game designer, husband, father, and player of MMOs. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and Years Best SF. He is the author of the World of Warcraft novel Illidan. Over a million of his books are in print in English. Blood of Aenarion was shortlisted for the 2012 David Gemmell Legend Award. He lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

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