Today we have Keith Willis on the blog with us, author of Traitor Knight, releasing September 7, 2015 from Champagne Books under their BURST imprint. Keith was actually afraid his answers would be too long and even suggested I trim them back a bit. As if! There’s a ton of good stuff in this here interview, and I wouldn’t trim a single syllable.
I should probably confess that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Keith since we both entered Michelle Hauck’s In With the New Contest (IWTN) about a year ago. He sent me the first five pages of Traitor Knight, actually asking for critique, and I pretty much fangirled all over his words. If you enjoyed The Princess Bride, there is a pretty decent chance you will also enjoy Traitor Knight. In other words, I’m a huge Keith Willis fan!
Now, without further ado, let’s ask some slightly difficult writerly questions! And don’t forget–there’s a GIVEAWAY at the end of the interview!
- First, let’s talk about your debut novel, Traitor Knight! I’m always curious to know what triggered the idea for a story! How did Traitor Knight come about, and which came first—the premise or the main character?
Thanks so much for having me on Taking 10! And wow, that’s some intro. Let’s see if I can manage to answer whilst in the midst of major blushes here.
So the premise actually came first. Almost exactly seven years ago I was doodling around with the idea of some epic poetry involving fantasy characters. Out of that sprang the notion of the old fantasy trope of Knight vs Dragon—but turned on its head. I’ve always been a bit of a comic, both in person and in my writing, and I wanted something that would strike a more humorous vein. So the idea that the knight only saves the day by virtue of the dragon fleeing the field of combat in the middle of a spate of hiccups appealed to my sense of the absurd. [When I entered the book in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest last year, one of the reviewers said that the opening read like something out of Looney Tunes. He meant it to be insulting—I took it as a great compliment.]
Then I realized that Marissa, the damsel in distress he’d managed to “rescue”, instead of being grateful, actually despised him. It took me a while to figure out why—and it turned out that it was because the main character, Morgan, was up to his neck in a secret mission which required him to pretend to be a traitor to the kingdom and everything he holds sacred. Once I had this figured out, then I had the start of a story.
- What’s one juicy fact about yourself readers may not already know? And please, provide tons of details!
Kendra, my life is an open book. I have no secrets. Well, there was that time with the chorus girl, the armadillo and—oh. Never mind. I just dreamed that bit. All of it… Move along.
The real scoop is that I’m a hopeless romantic. I tear up at heartwarming endings. I love to sing old romantic songs like “Chances Are” and “Fly Me to the Moon” to my wife. I write (bad) love poems. And I read –get ready for it, guys—Romance Novels. Selectively, but I do read ‘em. Because I think there can never be enough HEA’s in this life.
And here’s where I have to plug for Keith’s wife. She’s a school librarian and you should hear him talk about her. He absolutely adores her! Keith Willis is a gentleman through and through, y’all!
- What does a writing day look like for you? Do you have any habits or quirks you can share with us?
My writing day is unstructured, unplanned, and unwieldy. I don’t have any set writing time, and really don’t make it a huge priority if other things come up. I’d love to be able to, and once I retire in a few years I’m sure I’ll make more time to actually say “now I’m going to write for three hours, and don’t bother me til the buzzer goes off. ” But since I still work full time and have lots of various commitments, I have to sneak in writing sessions whenever I can. Normally it’s at 5:00am if I’m not going in to work early or taking a 3-mile walk before work. But I actually get some of my best writing and/or editing done during my lunch break at work. Normally I’ll just stay at my desk and work on whatever writing project I’m in the middle of, but I do love to take pages outside and sit in the sunshine editing.
- Do you do any other writing-related activities, such as contests or workshops? Tell us all about it!
I’m hoping, now that Traitor Knight is (finally) done, that I can get involved in some contests, perhaps as a mentor in Pitch Wars next round. So many people—your own good self right up there among them– have given me so much encouragement and support and suggestions, that I want to pay it forward. And if it weren’t for these contests, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
I’ve been involved in a couple of workshops—our local (Albany NY) SFF organization puts on a Con every year, and for this year’s I volunteered to be on a couple of the writing panels, to talk especially about using social media (contests like #pitmad, #SFFpit, #PitchWars and Nightmare on Query Street) to connect with agents, editors, and other wonderful folks in the writing community. Since this is what worked for me (I got my publisher through #pitmad) I guess I qualify as somewhat of an expert.
- What’s your favorite writing resource—or the one you simply can’t live without?
Two of ‘em.
1) Online Thesaurus—because I tend to overuse words, and desperately need to change things up.
2) Lisa Cron’s fabulous book on writing, “Wired for Story”. Ms Cron provides fascinating insights, based on neuroscience research, into why we like the stories we do and what makes us keep on reading. I read this while in the middle of working on Traitor Knight, and every time I finished a chapter of Cron’s book I ended up making major revisions to my entire manuscript. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their writing.
Gasp! I love Wired for Story, too! Now to show off my hard-hitting journalism skills—try to contain your laughter as I adjust my sleuth’s hat!
- We hear a lot about the intense revisions writers go through with their editors once the manuscript has been acquired. Can you share what the revision process was like for you and Traitor Knight?
I was actually pretty fortunate in this respect, for which I’m really grateful. First off, my editor, Nikki Andrews, really liked the story and the way I told it. It seemed to tickle her funny-bone, which was actually the intent. [Minor spoiler here—even though there’s lots of intrigue and adventure and swordplay and buckling of swashes, the entire story is written through a humorous lens. Think fantasy if PG Wodehouse had turned his hand to the genre. *sigh* That’s what I was striving for].
Ok, what was the question again? Oh yes, revisions. When I received Nikki’s first-round editorial letter, she concentrated primarily on mechanics. Point-of-view, passive voice, and lots of sentence structure issues. In case you can’t tell, I like to ramble on in complex compound sentences. Another big problem for me was the overuse of the word “that”—I ended up cutting roughly a thousand “that”s out of the book, and that still left over five hundred. [See what I did there?]. And another major issue Nikki pointed out was my tendency to begin a sentence with “And…” [see what I did there again?]. All the changes she wanted took a month to complete—and that was with me making changes and my perspicacious proofread (my loving, patient and supportive wife Patty) reading through the entire manuscript to catch the errors and faux pas I made when making corrections. But while I was making the mechanical changes, I was also finding things that I could tighten up or cut out or word better…
One I’d submitted this revised version, I was absolutely expecting a second round of edits—this time deep edits, like “get rid of this scene” or “you need to expand this character’s role”, things like that. So I was totally shocked when Nikki sent me an email saying in effect “you did such a great job on this round, you don’t need to see the manuscript again unless you really want to”. She felt the book was as good as we could make it.
There was one final push, when I received the Advance Reading Copy and had ten days to go through all 118k words (again with Patty reading right beside me) to catch any typos or other errors before the book went to final production. That was harrowing, mainly because of the tight deadline, but also because This Was It. Any mistakes at this point were all on me. But we actually got it done in eight days, and I don’t think we missed anything major.
- One of the least written about topics is the submissions process itself. Can you share what that process was like for you with Traitor Knight? How did you stay sane while you were in acquisitions with your publisher?
Ok, so I’m a bit of any anomaly here. I don’t have an agent, and didn’t actually go ‘on submission’ as such. This was very much a do-it-yourself endeavor. I had been busily querying the book (to the tune of 86 rejections) when I discovered Twitter and all the fabulous writers’ contests and support there. I had several partials out, and a couple of fulls, when I started entering contests. Which, as you mentioned, is where we first met. J
Ah, ‘twas #pitmad and the slithy toves… oops, sorry… Anyway, during #pitmad Cassie Knight, Champagne’s senior editor, liked my tweet-pitch enough to request the full mss. I sent it off gladly, but really didn’t give it a lot of thought. I’d gotten a couple of other requests through various Twitter-contests, with accompanying rejections. So it was a complete shock when, about three weeks later, I got an email asking for a promotional plan for the book. That was something no one had ever requested before, and it made me go ‘hmmm’. Fortunately, I’d already considered this some time back, and was able to tweak and fire it off pretty quickly. Two days later, I got another email: “I am happy to offer you a contract…” I was at work at the time, and pretty much raised the office roof with wild ululations.
Now, allow me to digress for a moment—or expand, as the case may be. I did not, repeat NOT, immediately sign the contract and send it back. Not having an agent to work on my behalf, I had to pursue my own due diligence first. I highly recommend to any writer, whether they are considering an agent or a publisher, to do the same. I contacted a number of authors currently published by my prospective publisher to get their impressions. I also ran the contract by my attorney to make sure he didn’t feel I was giving the shop away. It was only once I was satisfied that I would be comfortable in a business relationship that I signed on the dotted line.
So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. A bit different from most, I fear, but it has worked for me.
- What were a couple of your biggest surprises about the publishing process?
I think one of the biggest surprises was that I was able to keep my original title. I’ve talked with so many authors who said they never had a title that wasn’t changed by the publisher. So I was really happy about that, as I feel the title is important to the story—the dichotomy between ‘Traitor’ and ‘Knight’, and the bit of word play between ‘Knight’ and ‘night’, as so much of the story takes place in the dark.
- If you could whisper in the ear of the writer reading this, what ONE piece of wisdom would you share with them?
“DON’T GIVE UP!” That’s it, in a nutshell. This is often a discouraging, disheartening, maddening craft. There are very few other endeavors where you put so much of yourself out there for complete strangers to stomp on your creation. And they will, en masse. But keep going. Take any nuggets of feedback and use them to help make your work better. Make connections with other writers, and find friendship and support in the writing community. Keep faith in the story you have to tell. Just keep on making it better and better and better until one day someone says “I am happy to offer you…”
10. What’s next for Traitor Knight and its illustrious author?
First, marketing. As pretty much any new author comes to realize, most of the onus of promotion is on you. So I’m lining up interviews, and publicity announcements, and readings at libraries—once I actually have print copies we’ll probably try and go on tour around the New England area. It’s a whole ‘nother job on top of the writing (and the day job).
Second, working on Vol. II of the Knights of Kilbourne Cycle—working title Desperate Knights. I had it all done, but myriad changes in Book I are necessitating lots of changes in Book II. I have the beginning, and I know the ending—it’s just now matter of figuring out how I’m getting from point A to point C.
So now it’s totally obvious why I’m a Keith Willis fan, right? Keith’s book is now available for preorder and he’s running a rafflecopter giveaway to one lucky reader! Just click the link below to enter! And don’t forget to preorder his book and, if you’re so inclined, leave a review. Happy reading, y’all!