James Barclay, High Fantasy Author

Report for HWS 13th October 2015

by Lisa Nightingale

Michael Byrne, debut author of the Lottery Boy

Don’t give up writing. Do whatever helps keep you going!

After painstakingly picking over the first paragraph of multi-selling Lottery Boy which took him 3 hours plus, Michael Byrne got brazen. He threw it away with his doubts and questions. Then ‘just wrote it’.

But caution snuck back in. Rejections wrecked the flow of his energy. Lottery Boy got thrown in a drawer.

Ironically, he won a Tesco competition that he wasn’t even unaware he had entered. This persuaded him to try Lottery Boy in the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition. He didn’t win. ‘If Barry Cunningham didn’t want me,’ he says, ‘all was lost’.

Perhaps his apathy had turned super productive though. An agent seized Lottery Boy.

‘Increasingly,’ he says, ‘agents will work as editors with their authors. They are like terriers.’ His agent would not let it go.

Publishers’ showed interest in Lottery Boy, and where Michael might have (in typical, dreamy, star-struck writer style) accepted their offer, his agent remained dispassionate and hung on for a better deal sticking with the book and Michael.

Michael continually pointed out that ‘an agent is invaluable.’

It was Walker Books who bought him and Lottery Boy. ‘Who?’ said Michael. Again his agent was strong and when Lottery Boy sold internationally, he finally called himself a writer.

‘It’s the voice.’ He says. Agents look for a ‘spark. And that is your voice’.


James Barclay, High Fantasy Author

Oct 15 James Barclay Barbara Large 2 _0236 (2) [371321]The high fantasy genre certainly is another world. Be realistic seems to be James Barclay’s mantra. Really?

Author of twelve high fantasy novels to date (the thirteenth comes out next March) James was first published in 1999. He hordes all his research and all his notes. And it shows.

When building a world, James uses our world as a yardstick. ‘Think of what war or religion has done to us.’

  • Know your geography: you need to know how tectonic plates work.
  • Where would your population live: People will live where they will survive. Our earth is a good fact-file – ports will always be well populated due to the abundance of trade to be done.
  • Your economy must work. Create a balance. Or your world will collapse. Remember our world – finance is a reliable source of disagreements.
  • What is your ruling system? A monarchy’s rule is different to that of an elected government. Look at our own world – monarchies can produce tyrants.
  • Religion – ‘nuff said!

Harness all of the above and then ‘Stick it on the wall in your shed’. Use it only for reference.

Your world must ‘hang’ together. Readers know how our world works, but they don’t know yours.

‘No battle plan has no contact with the enemy.’ Help!

Fight scenes, if you are going to use them, must have a purpose within your plot.

Know who is going into the fight. Know who is going to come out. Know their weapons – how big are they, how are they designed to damage?

Fights are noisy, smelly, uncomfortable and gory and fighters are disciplined. ‘Either I kill you or you kill me.’

With big battle scenes, James brakes the rules. Use a second point-of-view. One from high above the battle field that can give you an overview, the second from the middle of the mayhem. Short sentences shift between them or use paragraph breaks.

Try not to make your fight scene too ‘Errol Flynn’. If it does end up that way – use something genuine – a weapon failure or a stumble over a dead body to retain reality. Stay in your characters point-of-view and let them guide you.

Keep it credible – a peasant is most unlikely to defeat an experienced fighter.

Keep the magic credible too. Credible magic?

It is possible to have fantasy stories without magic. Lewis Carrol does it well. But James likes playing with magic.

If your magic system is all-powerful, then the magicians will be in charge. How does this fit with the economy of your lovingly built world? Give your system a flaw

‘No one person should say more than a short paragraph’ James says.

Imagine that you are overhearing the conversation.

And don’t be in a rush to get all your information over in one go. You don’t need to write in all the characters’ umms and errs. We all do it. Give the reader some credit – they can imagine it for themselves.

But dialogue can be a tool. It can give your reader snippets about the characters’ world; the landscape, the geography. It can inform the reader of characters’ traits, flaws or emotional state.

You don’t need to tag every speech either.

But, James avoids giving characters accents. If you are clever, it can work, but it can also be tiring for the reader.

Although the writer can give their characters new traits, – original fairy elves did not have pointy ears; Tolkien gave them to them. Be wary not to regenerate them completely and confuse the reader.

James is not above ripping it all up and starting again. His characters lead him and unlikely heroes begin to emerge. ‘You can’t afford to be proud.’ he says, ‘your first draft will be flabby and too much detail can be dull. Take out anything that states the obvious, unless of course it is integral to the plot’.

Read extensively. He says, ‘It goes in.’

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