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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Interview with Rachel Aaron (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Aaron
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Bach
Read Paradox Trilogy completion interview with Rachel Aaron/Bach

Rachel Aaron has been a regular author with us at Fantasy Book Critic, we happen to adore her books and also there's the fact that she's a fantastic person to boot. In this interview, she swells on some of the myriad details of her Heartstriker series. Plus she also exclusively reveals the title to the last book in this saga. So read on to find out what will be happening next plus lots more tidbits as well...

Q] How hard was it to write “One Good Dragon Deserves Another”? I recall you mentioning on twitter that you had to do several re-writes for this book? Could you talk to us about how and why your plans changed?

RA: Oh my God, this book…

I’ve been writing OGDDA on and off since before Nice Dragons Finish Last came out. My first draft (I have nine of them) is dated March 2014, which officially makes Heartstrikers 2 the most time consuming book I’ve ever written. It’s definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked on a book, and frankly it’s a bit of a writing miracle that (1) I actually finished the thing and (2) it doesn’t suck.

As is always the case in writing, the fault for this most epic of screw-ups falls squarely on my shoulders. When I first wrote NDFL, I had what I thought was a clear view of where the series was going to go. When it actually became time to act on those plans, though, I quickly realized that the direction I had in mind was not at all the direction the first book was pointing toward or a place where the characters wanted to go. A truth I learned multiple times as I ran into brick wall after brick wall trying to write these new scenes.

For example, my original plot centered on an escalating series of events that culminated with Justin being defeated by a human on national television. This embarrassment would cause Bethesda to command him to kill the human publically to redeem his honor, a task Justin couldn’t do because (1) she was actually better than him, and (2) he liked her, forcing him to ask Julius for help.

Now, this was a good plot in theory, and parts of it are pretty hilarious, but it didn’t connect to the main Estella plotline at all. Worse, it let Justin take over a story that isn’t about him. This is Julius and Marci’s story, and the way I had things structured turned them both into passengers in their own narrative. Also, Justin (funny as he is) just isn’t a character I care about as much as Julius or Marci or Chelsie or really any of the other Heartstriker siblings. So right from the get-go I was going in the wrong direction, and it’s a sad tribute to my progress as a writer that I was able to maul through nearly 200,000 words of draft scenes before I realized this.

Once I figured out what was going wrong, I started trying to save and re-purpose the scenes I’d written. This was a terrible idea in hindsight, though I can’t blame myself too much. Like I said, some of the scenes were really good, and even for someone who writes as fast and much as I do, 200,000 words (roughly 2 finished novels) is a lot of work to just throw away. After a few more failed drafts, though, it became painfully clear there was no salvaging this plot. It was well and truly dead, and if I was going to have a prayer of saving this book, I was going to have to start fresh.

This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my career. By this point, I’d been working on the book eight hours a day for eight hard, bitter months. I’d already missed my self-announced publication deadline of January 2015, money was drying up, and multiple failed drafts had left me with a sour resentment for the whole Heartstriker series. It was a dark place, and I very nearly scrapped the whole project just to get the albatross off my neck.

But every time I started to seriously consider admitting defeat, the Julius and Marci in my head wouldn’t let me. None of my characters would, because angry and tired as I was, the story wasn’t done. If I quit, then the story I started this series to tell—that you don’t have to be a jerk to get ahead, that niceness and kindness and ingenuity have intrinsic value—would be lost forever, and I just couldn’t do it. It also didn’t hurt that the fan feedback I got for Nice Dragons was the best of my career. If I gave up, I’d be letting everyone down: my fans, my characters, myself, everyone.

There is no amount of writing pain that is worth that level of failure. I simply could not live with myself if I abandoned these books, so I put on my big girl panties and got back on the dragon. My husband and I put our heads together and replotted the entire series. Nothing was safe or sacred. We redid the worldbuilding and magic and character arcs, we even redid the ending of the meta plot. Everything got a renovation from the ground up, and it was a very good change.

The Heartstriker series I have planned now is deeper, stronger, and has more to say than the original ever did. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but I think the project that benefited the most from this experience was me. Starting over and pushing through this project has been the most difficult and humbling experience I’ve ever had as a writer. Years from now, when I look back on my career, I think refusing to give up on this book will stand out as one of the watersheds of my life. It was my own knife test, the moment when I could have turned away and given up (or taken the easy way out and published what I had, good or not), but I didn’t. Against all odds, I made it work, and best of all, I ended up with a book I’m very proud of.

This last year has been awful and humiliating in a way I never knew writing could be. Clich├ęd as it might sound, though, pushing through those failures forced me to grow as a writer and as a professional in a way the successes never could. I wouldn’t wish my experience writing One Good Dragon Deserves Another on anyone, but I do think I came out stronger for it, and for that I’m grateful.

That was probably a lot more answer than you asked for, but it feels really good to get it out. Thank you for putting up with my oversharing!

Q] The sequel has Marci ascending to a central protagonist position and currently she shares this billing with Julius. Was this a planned move? Which other characters might be getting such treatment for the future volumes?  
RA: I always planned for Marci to play a huge role, but the situation I talked way too much about in the last question definitely moved her story development up in the timeline. This worked out very strong to my advantage, though! Marci is a vital balance to Julius in the story. She gives him a critical perspective on life outside of his family while he gives her someone to rely on and trust when the rest of her life falls apart. Also, they’re just genuinely cute and good for each other! <3

For these dynamics to keep working properly though, I discovered Julius and Marci’s character developments had to move in lockstep. If either leaves the other too far behind, things stop working. Normally, this would be a problem (developing characters in tandem can feel really forced, especially if it’s obviously only one person’s story while the other’s just tagging along), but given how crazy things are getting in the DFZ, the mutual development turned out really natural. You just can’t go through events like what happened in OGDDA without being changed by your experiences!

Will anyone else get this treatment? Sort of. The Heartstriker series is a character drama at its core, and as such, I plan for all the characters in the story to grow and develop through multiple stages as the series progresses. Chelsie, for example, will be getting her own major arc in book 3 (where we’ll finally learn what happened in China!). But Julius and Marci (both as individuals and as a team) are the heart and soul of this series, and the books going forward will always center on them.

Q] Let’s talk about that epilogue; it was a spectacular one which basically upended all that had been revealed in OGDDA so far. Was that planned from the very beginning or more of a spontaneous creation?

This is actually one of the few bits that was always there! I’ve always considered the world of the Heartstrikers novels to be one of three fundamental powers: dragons, spirits, and humans. Dragons and spirits have both made their moves, which meant it was time to bring the human power players into the picture (along with their elevated knowledge of what’s really going on in the world from the human perspective). That reveal was the entire point of the epilogue, and if you liked that, you’re going to LOOOOOVE how things develop in book 3! Let’s just say that Julius and Marci will have a very delicate diplomatic situation on their hands soon.

Q] I believe the 3rd volume is tentatively titled "A Dragon of a Different Color"? Could you please give us an inkling about it?

I’d love to! After the events of OGDDA, Julius’s position in the Heartstriker clan has fundamentally changed, giving him the power and position to enact changes to his clan that were only pipe dreams before. But to actually use that power, Julius is going to have to stand up to a lot of very scary new dragons who, unlike the rest of his family, don’t have to listen to Chelsie when she says “don’t eat him.” He’s playing in the deep end of the pool, now, and he’s going to have to really stand on what he believes in if he’s going to get anywhere.

But all this new responsibility is going to put pressure on the rest of his life, including his relationship with Marci, who is going to have a whole mountain of her own problems due to what happened with Ghost in book 2. Then we’ve got all the scheming dragons scrambling to exploit the changes to the Heartstriker clan, Chelsie dealing with dragons from her past, and a whole new (and unignorably powerful) human faction to deal with!

Yeah, book 3 is going to be a crazy whirlwind of politics, power struggles, and fundamental changes to life as we know it. Also, Bob is making some big moves now that the Estella situation is deal with. It’s going to be a pretty intense book!

Q] How many volumes do you think you would require to complete the Heartstriker series?

After the restructuring, we’re looking at five books total, with the last one (which I’m going to go ahead and title “Last Dragon Standing”) acting as the giant, climactic finish in much the same way Spirit’s End ended the Eli series. But, of course, that’s just what I have right now. Even the best laid plans are just one great idea from being completely redone! That’s what so great about creative writing, though. You can always rearrange things if you get a better idea.

Q] As I was reading this book, I strongly visualized the story and that got me thinking about it being adapted as a TV series? What are your thoughts on that and who would you cast as the various characters?

I’m actually terrible with actors! I’m primarily a reader/gamer/anime fan who watches an embarrassingly tiny amount of media featuring real live non-animated humans. So… I have no idea who I’d cast actually. Though I agree it would make a fantastic TV series. (Studios! Producers! CALL ME!)

I’ll just leave this one open to my fans, who are much better versed in this stuff than I am. Who would you guys like to see playing Julius, Marci, and all our favorite dragons? I’d really love to know if you guys have any ideas for Bethesda. Now that would be some stage presence!

Q] Ghost and Marci seem to have a strange connection which is expanded upon in this volume. Will we get to see the genesis of that partnership in the future volumes?

As I’m sure everyone noticed in my Eli books, I love the idea of the delicately balanced yet respectful partnership between a powerful human and an even more powerful natural force. That said, Marci is most definitely not Miranda, and her relationship with Ghost is way more sinister than any of the Spiritualist/spirit pairing in my Eli series.

One of the big themes in the Heartstriker books is that no one is actually how they appear at face value. Everyone is working their own angle, and Ghost is no different. He’s a major power of the series, and he and Marci still have a lot to go through and figure out before everything shakes out.

Q] The Three Sisters are supposed to be the oldest and biggest dragons in existence. I’m just curious as to how colossally big they are? Would they give Godzilla any competition?

Yes. I always envision the biggest, most ancient dragons (such as The Three Sisters) as being like kaiju: giant, city destroying monsters who are the reason dragon myths survived the magical drought. That said, dragons this big are definitely the top of the world. Since Bethesda herself is considered a young upstart, most Heartstrikers (meaning most of the dragons in the series) are relatively young/small, relatively being the key word. Justin—who, though overgrown, is only 24 year old—is forty feet long as a dragon. That’s two city buses! Not too shabby.

But yeah, dragons as a rule are BIG, which is why people are still afraid of them in this modern age of fighter jets and missiles.

Q] Bob is a favorite of mine and in this book we do get to know a bit more of his plans. How integral is he to the entire series and will we ever learn who the pigeon is and what’s their connection to each other?

Quite appropriately for a Bob question, it is impossible to answer this without spoilers. The best I can say is that this series is as much Bob’s as it is Julius’s. (Bob would say totally his, but I don’t think that’s giving our Nice Dragon nearly enough credit). Suffice it to say, all of Bob’s actions to this point have been working toward a very specific end that will become clearer as the series rolls on. Also, his pigeon is an important character and will be properly introduced very soon.

(Also, can I say how much I LOVE having a seer character?! It’s the most perfect excuse to cryptically feed readers important information/have coincidences ever.)

Q] Chelsie was another surprise in this story and I hope that we do find out more of her past. Is there any chance you would write a short story or novella with her as the protagonist?

She’s actually getting a huge chunk of the next book!! I shouldn’t have favorites, but Chelsie’s story is one of the first things I figured out about the Heartstriker world. It’s sad, it’s beautiful, and it’ll throw everything we’ve seen her do up till now into a new light. I’ve been dying to get it out for ages, and I’ll finally get my chance in A Dragon of a Different Color. I am stupidly excited about this!!!

Q] Is J the most recent brood that Bethesda had? How many hatchlings are there in every brood (on average)? Will we get to meet the other intriguing dragons from the Heartstriker clan? 

Yep! J is the most recent clutch and the babies of the mountain. As we’ll see in the very next book, dragonesses can actually control how many eggs they lay per clutch, ranging from two or three to twenty or more. Fewer eggs means the magic for each one is more concentrated, leading to more powerful dragons, while more eggs spreads the magic around, leading to more but weaker children.

Most dragons land somewhere in the middle, laying eggs that are powerful, but not so powerful they become a threat. Bethesda being Bethesda, of course, took quantity over quality. J-clutch, for example, had 22 dragons, of which Julius was the runt and the last to hatch. It’s also worth noting that it generally takes a dragoness at least 50 years to recover enough from one clutch to have another. With a few exceptions, even Bethesda spaced hers out by a century or more, but even that rate is considered absurdly fast by most dragon standards. There’s a reason they call her Bethesda the Broodmare!

(Pause while Bethesda eats the author alive for that comment.)

We’re definitely going to meet a lot more Heartstrikers and dragons in general in the next book. I try not to pile them on all at once since dragons are pretty intense and I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with an endless list of alphabetically arranged names. Also, most Heartstrikers ignore Julius on general principle, so they weren’t even around for the action of books 1 and 2. After the end of OGDDA, though, Julius is going to be getting a lot more attention from his family and from the dragon world at large, and that’s not a good thing.

Q] Thank you very much for your time and for answering all the questions. What would like to pass on to your fans both old and new?

My thanks!

When I decided to self-publish Nice Dragons Finish Last, it was just meant to be an experiment. I thought for sure that this series—with its nice guy protagonist, stupidly complex dragon drama, and unclassifiable mix of genres—was too way weird to ever be a major commercial success. As a writer who never colored inside the genre lines, though, I loved it. The ability to publish the book I loved exactly as I wrote it without having to make the compromises New York publishing requires to fit each book on one bookstore was actually a huge part of why I decided to go indie on this title in the first place. Writing this book was largely a labor of love for me, and I didn’t really expect it to sell more than few thousand copies.

Boy, was I wrong! The response to this series has been overwhelming. It’s sold incredibly well, and it’s my best reviewed series (both in terms of number of reviews and ratings) ever. You guys seriously blew my expectations for what these books could do out of the water, and I cannot express how humble and grateful I am that you’re enjoying it so much.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being my readers! You are the reason I am able to live the dream and write these stories, and I cannot thank you enough for that privilege. You’re the reason I write, and I swear to do my absolute best to keep producing stories you’ll love!


Rhea said...

Oh my god!I'm loving this series...!

Unknown said...

While it irks me to no end that I haven't picked up either NDFL or OGDDA in print, I have to say that Vikas Adam is probably the best narrator I have heard on an audio book!

I'm loving these stories (and I can't wait for the next)! Keep writing and we will keep reading -or listening. :)

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