Recently, Elizabeth Tabler had a chance to interview Justin Call about his novel, Master of Sorrows. You can read our review of Master of Sorrows here.
For those who don’t know, could you start off by telling us a little bit about your new novel, Master of Sorrows?
You know, the blurb for the US cover really nailed (it also happens to have a line from your own review of the book right on the first page), so if folks have a chance to read that, they really should. I’ll assume that’s cheating, though, and say this: Master of Sorrows is about a boy who is conflicted about who and what he wants to become. It’s also a coming-of-age story set at a magic school, but those familiar fantasy tropes are also twisted and turned on their head. For example, instead of a school that instructs its students in the art of magic, the Academy in Master of Sorrows teaches its acolytes that magic is evil and must be confiscated, hoarded, and destroyed. Likewise, it starts out as a narrative about a boy hero who is prophesied to defeat the dark lord, but the reality is it’s an origin story for the dark lord himself.
That’s the series pitch, though, and that has led several eager readers to be disappointed by the first novel because the main character doesn’t become a villain by the end of the first volume of the series. Master of Sorrows also deals with a much smaller setting: the magic school, the boy and his mentor, and the ominous fate that looms for a protagonist who just wants to earn the respect of his peers and win the girl he pines after. The book takes place over about a week and all of the events occur within a relatively small setting. It’s also a bit of a “slow burn,” giving the readers plenty of time to get to know the world and its rules, and then as the plot thickens and the story escalates, everything the reader has learned becomes vital to understanding and appreciating the narrative and things start to move at the pace of a thriller. The setting is very grim, but it also has a bright thread of hope woven throughout (more Grimheart than Grimdark, perhaps). Finally, the story is intentionally written as a crossover between adult epic fantasy and YA fantasy, so you’ll find a lot of teens really gravitating towards this book despite the fact that the series as a whole is adult fiction.
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey as an author? Did you always gravitate towards writing, or did you find your way here from other interests such as gaming or reading?
I’ve always gravitated towards learning new words and telling stories since I was a little kid. I even dictated a short story for my kindergarten class that my mother typed up and I illustrated and my grandfather paid to have several copies bound into a hardback book. That sort of planted the seed that I could actually do this – make up stories and write them – and nothing I ever encountered in life has dissuaded me from that opinion. I wrote short stories in elementary school that were always much longer than whatever assignment we had been given (you might see a pattern here between that and my current writing), and I started writing my own fiction stories outside of school when I was about ten or so. I didn’t know what SFF fiction was until I was fourteen and stumbled onto it all on my own, but my interests certainly gravitated towards anything with adventure, magic, and wonder. I considered writing literary fiction when I was a student in high school, but more as a lark than as a way to make a living. I think I also knew that one day I would write a fantasy novel, because I had started writing one when I was a tween, and I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teenager, so developing plots, characters, and stories just felt natural. I continued studying writing in high school and college, but most of my greatest lessons in writing fiction were self-taught or came from books I read on writing. I dabbled in writing screenplays and considered doing that as my job after college, and for a long time I wasn’t sure if that was my calling or if I should instead be writing fantasy novels or designing board games. In the end, I decided to all of the above and just see what worked out for me. I had some small amounts of success in each field, but finishing the first draft of my epic fantasy novel (which would later become Master of Sorrows) was a huge confirmation that this was what I really needed to be doing. I still remain open to publishing and designing more games and writing some screenplays, but epic fantasy is where my heart lives and so it is natural that this has become my full-time job and primary career.
How was the process of writing the second novel in the series, Master Artificer, differ from writing Master of Sorrows?
I wrote Master of Sorrows over a period of about 17 years, although the bulk of the book was written in a period of about nine months. It had to be done that way (at least for me) so that I could understand the wider world I had created and so that I could do all the world building for the rest of the series up front. I also outlined several books for the series at that time (enough material for 12-18 books). Then when I finally finished my first draft of MoS, I had a lot of time to polish things for my editors and get the book in the best shape possible.
Master Artificer was much different because I already had all the groundwork laid out before I began, though that also meant I had about fifteen different outlines for the book when I initially sat down to write it. I also had a better idea of how much material would fit in book 2, but that still didn’t stop me from drafting way too much and leaving out several scenes that I had originally outlined (I’m getting better at overplanning, but I’m not there quite yet). Finishing the first draft of Master Artificer has also helped me see the overall trajectory of the series, so I can course correct for events that I have planned later in the series. Moving beyond the writing process itself, though, I can say that Master Artificer has several new character points-of-view (Master of Sorrows has basically one POV for the whole book), and the setting for Master Artificer is much, much larger.
Are there any pitfalls for writing a sequel that you fell into as a writer, how did you work around them?
I think the greatest pitfall in writing any book (outside of the writing itself) is a question of expectations. Does the reader expect a retread of the previous book (like you might see in a serial thriller) or do they want to be surprised by something that feels entirely different? Ideally the writer can present something that is both familiar and new – “surprising yet inevitable.” I’ve tried to meet those expectations by building on themes from my first book, specifically by introducing new tropes that once again seem familiar to the reader but then I twist those tropes and take them in unexpected directions.
A lot of sequels also run the risk of incurring the “sequel slump” or “sequel syndrome” where the second book feels like filler that just exists to move the protagonist between books 1 and 3 without anything meaningful occurring. I anticipated that problem when I sat down to write Master Artificer and I chose to tackle it by paying close attention to my character development. I didn’t want any characters at the end of Book 2 to feel like the same people that I had left with readers at the end of Book 1, but I also needed to make changes to those characters in ways that felt authentic and well-earned. Having that goal in mind, I can say that if you examine any character who survived Master of Sorrows and made it into Master Artificer, you will recognize that character has changed. The plot points surrounding those changes may vary in intensity or scope, but ultimately they each take the character one step farther along their arc. This is especially true of my protagonist, Annev, whose character has changed dramatically between Master of Sorrows and the end of Master Artificer.
How long is Master Artificer currently?
The first draft of Master Artificer is currently 321,957 words. For those sane, non-writing folks that don’t count the words in their books, I’ll say this: the number of words per page can vary depending on the font and formatting used by your publisher, but most people accept that 250 words per page is a fair scale to measure your page count. By that metric, Master Artificer is 1287 pages (more than twice the length of Master of Sorrows). However, Master of Sorrows was itself approximately 304 words per page, so I think that’s a better measuring stick. Using those measurements, Master Artificer would be approximately 1059 pages in length – which is still super long and almost double the size of MoS … but it’s not double the length and there will still be time for edits (which could shorten or lengthen the final novel).
How did you keep track of all the intertwining narratives and personalities? Did you keep it all in your head?
I use Scrivener to keep track of all that. When I drafted Master of Sorrows, I didn’t have Scrivener, though, so I initially created dozens of separate folders in Microsoft Word and then kept all of the drafts for each chapter within their own separate folder. This became difficult to keep track of, though (especially as story chapters got shuffled around), so I switched over to using Scrivener. Now I break my writing down into smaller chunks by first drafting all the character POVs separately (sometimes out of chronological order for the series but always in chronological order for the character). I also draft my stories in chunks or “Parts” of about 15-20 chapters or 150-175 pages. So I’ll draft all the chapters for all the characters in Part 1, then I’ll move onto Part 2, etc. It’s still mostly chronological that way, but focusing on one character POV at a time is much easier to maintain momentum, clarity, and continuity.
Are there any magic systems or mythologies that inspired you as you wrote Master of Sorrows?
Tons and tons. My master’s thesis touched on this (I wrote the first draft of Master of Sorrows as part of my thesis at Harvard), so I have a lot that I could say about it. Instead of repeating pages and pages of references, though, I’ll simply say that my inspirations have been very eclectic – from role playing games to religious texts, from classic mythologies to ones inspired by modern fantasy authors. I’ve taken a little from everyone and tried to create something wholly my own in the hopes that I can write a story that resonates with most readers without also feeling derivative.
Is there a fantasy novel that you would have liked to have written?
Honestly, no – but only because I think writing a fantasy novel is a very personal experience and know my experience would have differed greatly from the one that actually produced the novels I admire so much. I’m really happy to be writing my own books and my own stories, and I feel grateful that life has given me the opportunity to do so. Having said that, there are definitely some fantasy novels that I really admire and which I sometimes feel envious of their quality, their characters, or their substance. I love the Mistborn Era 1 trilogy, for example, and I really admire how Brandon Sanderson was able to create such a new and inventive magic system for his books. I also adore The Kingkiller Chronicles by Pat Rothfuss and I deeply respect his ability to tell such a satisfying story built on character development, worldbuilding and poetic language. I fell in love with the drow city of Menzoberranzan in the R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy, and I constantly find my mind returning to the mythology and pantheon of gods created by David Eddings in his Sparhawk and Belgarath books.
But I don’t wish I’d written any of those novels. Instead, I aspire to have my own novels placed amongst them.
How long did you take to write Master of Sorrows, from start to finish? I read that you wrote most of MOS on your iPhone. Is that true?
That is absolutely true. I would say at least half of the novel was written using Google docs on my iPhone while riding or waiting for public transit. The rest of it was written at my computer, the way most books are written these days. As for how long it took to write the book from start to finish, I’ll say that the first 200 pages took me about fifteen years to write because I wasn’t in any hurry and I had a lot that I wanted to learn about writing along the way. I also wasn’t writing full-time during any of those years and I spent a good deal of time working on mythology and worldbuilding. The final 400 pages of Master of Sorrows was written in about nine months, though, and then I spent another year or two revising everything I had written. I did it all that way because I have a hard time allowing myself to fail at anything, so I chose to spend my time writing one good book over a long period of time (and learning a lot from it) instead of writing several bad books over an equally long period of time. In the end, we all have to put in our writing hours, but some (like Brandon Sanderson) choose to do it by writing lots of stories in succession until they are good enough to publish. Others (like myself and perhaps Patrick Rothfuss or JRR Tolkien), spend a lot of time working and reworking a single story until that story is good enough to share with others. Having done that, I can say it was a profitable experience … but it’s also not one I care to repeat since I’d like to publish at least one book or short story every year. Once my children are both in school, perhaps I can even write two or three books a year (though I doubt I’ll ever be able to match Brandon Sanderson’s prolific writing pace).
You are the President and CEO of Broomstick Monkey Games, how do you balance writing with game creation? Does the imagination for writing both come from the same place or is the creative process different?
Creating games and writing stories are very different beasts, though they also have large areas where they overlap. Designing magic systems for my novels, for example, feels very similar to developing a game system for my board games. You spend a lot of time thinking about mechanics and balance, how clear the rules are and how intuitive they will be for readers/players to learn. On the other hand, game design and development is very iterative. You try one thing and see if it works. Usually some part of it works but another part breaks down, so you try something different and try to find different ways to solve the problems with the game. One of the easiest ways to solve those problems is by adding more and more rules to cover more and more exceptions, but that just creates an unnecessarily complicated, bloated game. A much better solution is to find some way to cut out rules – to remove ambiguity and improve clarity by using less instead of more. That creates a more elegant game system and it is largely the same process one must follow when writing a story: you write a first draft (a prototype) and identify where the story (or game) breaks down; you find solutions to those problems and fix them (or you think you’ve fixed them) and keep making small adjustments until you are happy with the final product. Then you need to introduce your story (or game) to some respected beta readers (or game testers) and adjust things based on their feedback. The biggest difference between the two processes, though, is that building and designing a board game necessarily involves the cooperation of others. You will playtest that game with your close friends and family and make a hundred adjustments, and then you’ll playtest it with a mixed group of friends strangers and make more changes, and then you’ll share it with some total strangers and ask them to do a blind playtest using only the rulebook and no input from you whatsoever. That means there is a LOT of interaction with other people, which is then balanced by the solitary activity of going home to edit your rules, reprint cards, and make a revised prototype for your next playtesting session. When you write a book, though, you don’t get to experience it with the reader. They read on their own (usually alone) and you’re lucky if you get any feedback (constructive or otherwise). When you sit down to write the book, you do so in a void where no one else understands the world you are making and no one can really offer you any help or advice. Even if you attend a writing group and share your story there, it’s just not the same experience. Game development, as a rule, is a social activity, whereas writing is a solitary one.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently listening to The Blinding Knife on Audible, which is the second novel in The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks (I do most of my reading via audiobook since I can do that while driving or doing house chores). I’ve also got a copy of Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell that I’ve been trying to read for weeks but I’ve been unable to do so while wrapping up my first draft for Master Artificer, and I have an ebook for Neon Leviathan by T.R. Napper that I’m trying to get to as well.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions today. GDM.
Read an exclusive Grimdark Magazine article The Lost Chapters – Devils Bargains.
Read Elizabeth’s first interview with Justin Call by clicking here.