Saturday, September 5, 2015

Interview with Keith Willis

Another Saturday, another interview. Welcome back to Savvy Saturday with Champagne Books! Today Keith Willis shares with us a little about how he became a writer and his new book Traitor Knight. His book is for sale at our store, Amazon, and Kobo.

CBG: When and why did you begin writing?

Willis: I’ve always considered myself a writer. As far back as I can remember, I was always making up stories (and generally trying to write them down). In high school I would write stories for my friends’ amusement; in college, I tended more towards introspective poetry.

But it wasn’t until I turned 50 that I really began to write seriously. I’d always said I was going to write (and publish) a book one day, and I finally decided that if I was to realize this dream, I’d better get busy. But I really didn’t know what I wanted to write—I love both mysteries and fantasy, and was torn. But then for some reason I got inspiration in the form of the old Knight vs Dragon fantasy trope—but rather turned on its head. In my world things didn’t work out quite as anticipated. So my knight won his battle with the dragon by forfeit, as the dragon had to flee the field of combat with a case of the hiccups. And a damsel in distress who didn’t want to be rescued—at least not by this particular knight. The process (including approximately 67iterations of the book) took roughly seven years. Obviously I wasn’t working on it non-stop that entire time—the first draft probably took about six months. After that it was just revision after revision, in between bouts of saying ‘ah, the hell with it’ and putting it aside to molder for a while. But I kept being inexorably dragged back into that world again. There was always something about these characters that just resonated with me, and I couldn’t get away from them. I had to write about them. Actually, they kept coming to me and telling me their stories, and demanding that I write them down. I guess good characters just do that, huh?

CBG: Do you have a specific writing style?

Willis: I’ve always been a bit of a comic, (often to the dismay of my imminently patient wife) both in person and in my writing. I appreciate stories that have a good bit of humor in them—one of my favorite writers, and an absolute inspiration, is the great English comedic writer PG Wodehouse (creator of Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings Castle).

Also, I especially enjoy fantasy that blends in a humorous aspect—especially writers like Christopher Stasheff and Michael J. Sullivan. When I began to write my first novel, TRAITOR KNIGHT, I knew I wanted an element of humor in the story, along with the adventure, intrigue and romance. I just feel that the humor serves to leaven the story, and often gives it a bit of relief from the constant tension that otherwise pervades.

My writing style overall tends to be a bit wordy—I really have to watch myself or I end up with lots of long compound sentences. For TRAITOR KNIGHT, because it’s much more action oriented, I had to make a conscious effort to break things up into more short, punchy sentences that give the sense of urgency to the story. Varying your sentence structure is really key to keeping a readers interest—too many of either long or short sentences will tend to turn off potential readers. And again, I even with the action-oriented nature of the story, I tried to infuse it with that soupcon of humor that would catch the reader off guard.

When I entered TRAITOR KNIGHT in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest in 2014, 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. And one of my beta readers told me he thought the book read like a cross between Twain’s CONNECTICUT YANKEE and Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales”. So I think I’ve gotten where I want to be.

CBG: How did you come up with the title?

Willis: For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve always felt that a good title was key to a good end product. I’ve always believed that if I could come up with a good title, the book would follow. And that the title must reflect the nature of the book, and give the reader something to think about.

That being said, my original title was PASSION’S KNIGHT, back during in one of the earliest iterations, when I hadn’t really realized exactly what the story was or where it was going. At the time I was focused much more on the romance aspect (with a pretty high heat level). As I dug deeper into the story, I found the romance aspect became more a subplot rather than the major focus. I realized that the major focal point was really Morgan McRobbie, a man with a strict sense of honor who was forced by that sense of honor and loyalty to become (at least in appearance) his total opposite—a may who would betray everything he held sacred. One of the main conflicts became Morgan’s struggle with his own sense of honor in light of what he had to do to protect his kingdom. And thus he became the titular TRAITOR KNIGHT. In addition, I liked the dichotomy of the juxtaposition of the two words in the title—the concept of “knight” (honorable and just), paired with “traitor”. And finally, and this pleased the humorist in me, it was a bit of wordplay as well. A great deal of the story takes place during the night-time hours, thus lending itself to the notion of ‘traitor night’ as well.
CBG: Do you have any advice for other writers?

Willis: “DON’T GIVE UP!” That’s it, in a nutshell. Writing can often be a discouraging, disheartening, maddening craft. There are very few other endeavors where you work so hard to create something from nothing, and put so much of yourself out there on display. Where you allow complete strangers to stomp on your creation. And they will, en masse. I went through myriad rejections of my book TRAITOR KNIGHT over the years that I was querying it—86, to be exact. There were times when I thought about shelving it, but I believed too much in the story. Not that it had anything earth-shattering to say—just that it was a good, entertaining tale that I thought people would enjoy reading. So I kept going. I had faith in my story and my ability to tell it. And I was determined. Pig-headed, my wife would say. But I kept going, kept reworking and revising and tweaking, because I was certain that one day someone would see catch the spark in my book, and all the “no’s” would be offset by that one “yes”.

If you’re getting rejections, it may be that you need to rework things. That’s ok. Make those changes and keep going. Don’t give up on it. Take any nuggets of feedback you garner, and use them to help make your work better. Make connections with other writers, and find friendship and support in the writing community. They’ll help you get through those times you just want to throw in the towel and say “I’m not cut out for this”. And they’ll help you celebrate the successes when you have them. Just keep on making it better and better and better until one day someone says “I am happy to offer you…”

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