The Ruin Saga, by Harry Manners - Analysing a Writer's Process
I first met Harry Manners, as is so often the case, online. Through twitter and KBoards and other places we chatted about the processes of writing speculative fiction and I became a fan of his unique style. His setting is as detailed, well-considered and beautifully textured as any in the genre. I love the direction he has taken with his cover – a very different style from what is becoming the stock-in-trade of the best indie authors these days, it is almost begs you to touch it. I cannot wait to see it on a physical book. Harry is a hybrid author – he has an agent, but is also self-publishing – he decided to self-publish Ruin, and use his agent for future standalone projects.
Ruin is released officially today (scroll to the bottom of the interview to find purchase options) and, to celebrate, I interviewed Harry about his processes, about his editor and agent and about the future.
What was the catalyst moment which made you decide to write for publication?
I think Stephen King said it best. I’m paraphrasing: “One day you’re gonna pick something up in a bookstore and you’re gonna think, ‘This… sucks. I can do better than that. And this got published!’” That’s pretty much how it happened for me. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen. It’s just what I do, my default state. But I never thought I could publish. I wasn’t raised in a literary household, and my parents never read books, nor did anyone I knew—hell, the only books in the house were mine. So being an author seemed as unattainable as being an astronaut, something affluent rich people did from their big desks in their palatial manors.
Then my dad brought home a box of books one day from my aunt. She would have given them to a charity shop had he not thought of me, and taken them off her hands. But they weren’t the kinds of books I’d ever take off the shelf, not my genre. Nevertheless, I read them.
And they sucked. I mean, really, painfully, sucked.
And I knew that though I was only just pushing 17, I could do better. And if these people got their books on the shelves, why couldn’t I?
It’s taken a long five years to get to a point where I feel I’ve made a product I’m proud to bring to the marketplace and share with readers, but I did it, and it’s an incredible feeling to finally be here.
How long do you generally research before beginning the first draft?
I don’t consciously research in that sense. I’ve always had a brain like a sponge, and I can recall pretty much anything I hear once, even if it’s years later. It can get pretty annoying, but it certainly has its perks (some friends call me font, as in font of knowledge, because I spout so much disparate trivia).
What tends to happen is a story percolates in my subconscious over a period of months, during which time I’ll store up related scraps of information in a kind of compartmentalised buffer. At some point it reaches a critical mass, and I’ll just start writing.
From there, I’ll wait until I have a general shape for a story, work out the gaps in my knowledge, and shelve the project for a few days just to verify details and contact anyone I feel might be able to help lay the foundations.
Besides that, I like to get going. I’m not one to sit on a mountain of data before I pick up the pen. I want to get moving.
What are the keys areas you research? Where does your inspiration tend to come from?
Despite the fact that my writing often tends to have supernatural or fantasy elements, I hate logical inconsistency, unrealistic plotlines or soft sci-fi hand-wavey explanations. I need my writing to be as closely aligned with reality as possible, and so I focus my attention on getting the science right, and the facts straight.
With a project like Ruin, I focused on things like the lifespans of preserved foodstuffs, the expiry dates on things like gasoline, and the average rate of decomposition for clothing and buildings. I also took a lot of time to travel around archaeological sites to look at ruined buildings, visited tombs and temples, and tried to get a feel for the hallmarks of a departed civilisation.
One particular example would be my visit to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.
The temple city was built in the jungle in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, the crown jewel of the Khmer Empire, and is surrounded by dozens of other temples and other sites of significance. For hundreds of years they all lay forgotten, hidden by the jungle and topsoil. If memory serves, they were only unearthed in the 1800s.
I took particular interest in it because, supposedly, the area was quite suddenly abandoned in the 16th century—probably by a plague, or drought.
This was exactly what I needed for Ruin. The central crux of the plot is the sudden disappearance of over 99% of humanity, leaving only a few scattered survivors, and endless empty cities, towns and villages.
And that’s what you get at Angkor. But I was struck more by the surrounding temples: you can walk straight off the tourist trail into the jungle, and come across small stone temples and structures covered in vines, unvisited and uncared for, just sitting there amidst the wilderness, draped in sunbeams and the nests of tropical birds.
I spent a lot of time just standing in the middle of one of these hidden treasures. It was just four stone walls with a raised dais in the middle. It didn’t look like anybody but me had been there in months. It could have been a lot longer. It was eerie, standing there and knowing that, hundreds of years before, somebody had gone through the gargantuan effort of raising those stone blocks, and now nobody knew anything about them. They might as well have never existed.
That’s the feeling I kept with me when writing Ruin.
Where were you when you had the idea for the Ruin series?
I was on my way to the beach in August 2009, travelling over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. It’s a lovely suspension bridge that spans the Thames in Kent, nor far from London. Below it is a large industrial estate full of warehouses, shipping containers and the like.
It was a Sunday, and it was completely empty. But there was something funny about it: everything had been left mid-action, as though 5PM Friday has rolled around, and everyone had dropped what they were doing and left. Forklifts held loads suspended in mid-air, halfway between the water and the docking bay; container doors blew in the wind; the warehouse doors were ajar.
It was weird. It looked almost as though, quite suddenly, everyone had just vanished.
That sight triggered some kind of switch in my brain, because right there and then I scrabbled for a pen and paper. It being my then-girlfriend’s mother’s car, there was none, and so I ended up scribbling the rapidly-forming plot for an early version of Ruin on the back of a receipt with a pencil.
And that was that.
How long does it take you to write your first draft?
The Ruin trilogy was originally a single, long book called The Kin of Cain, which ran at almost 1200 pages. It took my three years to finish the first draft. At the end of it, I realised it just wasn’t good enough. It didn’t do my vision justice.
So I scrapped it, and started again, this time dividing it into three distinct arcs.
I began with Ruin. That took me around nine months for the first draft. Right now, I’m writing the second, Brink. I’ve been going around six weeks, and I just topped 65,000 words—around hallway. I’m thinking I’ll be done after three months or so.
How many times do you edit that draft yourself?
At least four times for anything I ever write. But with Ruin, I did at least six full passes before I shared it with anyone, then two more complete edits after I heard back from my editor and beta readers.
A little obsessive, you might say. But it was worth it.
What is your writing background and how have you developed your craft?
I have no formal training whatsoever, but like I said, I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pen. And I believe that’s the only way anyone can learn to write: you just have to sit your arse in a chair, and do it.
And, in truth, you have to write a whole heaping pile of crap before you ever write anything worthy of seeing the light of day. And, damn, I’ve definitely done that. I’ve heard that some writers stand by advising a novice writes a million words of drivel before they get good enough to publish; that sounds about right to me.
Do you use a professional editor? If so, for what – developmental editing, line editing or copyediting? Or a combination?
I always use a professional copyeditor and a proofreader. I’d never release anything that hadn’t been under the eyes of somebody who made a living of bludgeoning bad writing to death with a claw hammer.
Sometimes I use developmental editors, too. This is usually only when I’m pulling my hair out over something I just can’t fix, but I’m not yet at the stage where I want to inflict an early draft on the lovely, kind souls that are my beta readers.
Recently, I’ve been dealing with a new editor who has a great energy and enthusiasm, and I’m really digging what she adds to the creative process. With that in mind, my future projects may see more developmental edits.
How do you choose your editor?
I just mentioned the energy and enthusiasm of the editor I recently met. That’s the clincher for me. I need to have a creative rapport with an editor. I get the most out of somebody I can bounce ideas around with, even if it means throwing out everything I’ve sent them up to that point.
Of course, having a literate editor helps, too.
Tell us about the cover design for Ruin – how was it put together and what input did you have?
I wanted to go in a different direction with my cover. There’s a lot of beautiful cover art out there—and some god-awful stuff, too—but I wanted something that would stand out. For that, I got in contact with a great graphic artists whose work I loved, Levente Szabo.
He’d done a few mock-up covers in his portfolio for classic works of fiction, and I was blown away. I heartily recommend checking out his stuff (http://www.briskgraphics.com/).
I asked him if he would work with me on developing some covers for my books, and he very kindly agreed. We worked up the whole trilogy at once, and I had several design options to choose from—all of which were stunning. Levente worked off a précis of the plot-lines, and main characters, and a little back-and-forth via email. We then fine tuned them over a few weeks, and in the end we had a set of covers that I was wholly in love with.
You’re represented by an agent. Tell us about how that happened, and what does it mean for you?
I got my agent the usual way: endless submissions, and a truck load of rejections. I shopped an early version of Ruin around for around two years before I finally found my agent. At first, she was enthusiastic about the project, but her list was too full to take me on. Later that year, however, she approached me again, and we worked up a contract.
I stressed that I intended to become a hybrid author, planning to self-publish novellas and short story collections, and other things often neglected by mainstream publishers, while traditionally publishing novels and such. I was thrilled when she loved the idea, and signed up!
From then on we shopped it around publishers—and got some interest from a few houses, some independent and some major. But, ultimately, though they liked Ruin, they weren’t confident in commissioning a full trilogy from an unpublished writer.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to self-publish Ruin, and use my agent for future standalone projects. With luck, Ruin will give me a presence in the marketplace and establish a readership, which I can then use as a stepping stone into the traditional publishing sphere.
What marketing do you tend to do to increase your public face?
I’m pretty active on twitter and my blog, and do what I can to promote fellow authors’ work. I run a journal on my website/blog about my writing life, and give a little of the inside scoop on the indie publishing process. That way, I get a direct line to my readers.
How do you see the landscape of publishing developing over the next 24 months?
Things are moving so fast, these days, even the great sages are scratching their heads. But as far as I can tell, indie publishing is finally on the cusp of outgrowing the dogma and prejudice so long placed over its head as second-rate.
People are finding real success, now, and at an ever growing rate.
I feel traditional publishing is going to have its last puff at the top of the pile, and some are going to come crashing down. But at the same time, I think they’ve definitely still got a strong role to play in publishing; just not the domineering gatekeeper position they’ve held for countless decades.
I see a lot more writers going the hybrid route, self-publishing and doing their own promotion and editing and development, and teaming up with publishing houses to help with the promotion and distribution.
But, like I said, it’s anyone’s guess.
What is your next work in progress?
Right now, I’m editing a novel I wrote during my first year in university. It’s a cli-fi (climate-change sci-fi, a fast blossoming sub-genre) novel, Our Fair Eden, set around fifty years from now, when climate change has rendered tropical rainforests uninhabitable, and lands that had once been deserts have become new paradises. The UN has come together to create colonies in these new oases to preserve civilisation in the face of growing international tension, as a safeguard against all-out war. But in one of these isolated colonies, things have gone awry: an eerie autocracy has taken hold, and strange things are going on behind closed doors.
Besides that, I’m writing the first draft of the sequel to Ruin, called Brink. If all goes to plan, it’ll be released early 2015.
Harry Manners is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. A Physics student and obsessive reader, his debut release is the epic post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy, the Ruin Saga. He lives in Bedfordshire, England with his family. When he's not writing, he studies Physics at the University of Warwick, reads a ton-load of books, and generally nerds out—for which he is staunchly unapologetic.
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