Ask the Author: Keith Willis
What would you like readers to know about you?
I’m an author of “a certain age”—or, in simpler terms, probably (quite a bit) older than you. I’ve always been a storyteller, and I have a degree in English Lit from Berry College, which has the distinction of being the world’s largest college campus. I went under the theory that in order to write well, one must read lots of books that have been written well. However, I found it wasn’t so much the “classics” that inspired me, as the “genre” literature I read along the way (more about that later).
While I’d always had this dream of writing (and publishing) a novel, I didn’t actually start writing seriously until 2008, when I was 51 years old. My son had moved out to go to college, I was in a relatively comfortable place, and I came to the realization that if I was going to realize that dream, I’d best get my butt in gear. If it wasn’t now, it wasn’t going to happen.
I’d had a couple of story ideas kicking around in my head for a bit, and I decided to dedicate the time to work on them, and see if I had what it took to bring them to the page. After a year and a half, and several fairly major retoolings of my story, I had the basis for what would eventually become Traitor Knight.
Of course, writing the book was just the beginning. Then came the querying stage (86 rejections), and more major revisions, based on agent/editor feedback (approximately 63 iterations of the book before it came to it’s almost-final form). That was a 3.5-year odyssey, before I finally clicked with my publisher (Champagne Book Group) through Pitmad, a Twitter pitch contest. And the rest, as they say, is history, with three published novels in the Knights of Kilbourne series, and a fourth on the way.
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it?
My books are best described as swashbuckling fantasy/romance. They’re really an homage to the old Saturday matinees of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, with lots of adventure, intrigue, romance, and humor. Or, for more modern audiences, you might say they’re what you’d get if The Princess Bride and P.G. Wodehouse had a baby… Dashing knights, indomitable damsels, and a dragon with a most inconvenient case of hiccups.
Traitor Knight tells the tale of Morgan McRobbie, who’s been set on a clandestine mission to unmask a turncoat on the king’s council. Morgan is posing as a traitor himself, and when he manages (by luck rather than skill) to rescue Lady Marissa duBerry from a dragon, instead of swooning and murmuring “My hero,” she despises him because of his reputation. It’s a classic enemies-to-romance tale, wrapped up in a classic fantasy world complete with dragons, Dwarves, and magic. Plus, lots of political intrigue, a good old fashioned rooftop chase scene, and even, dare I say it, A Murder… *cue ominous thunder* before the good guys win out, as of course they must.
What has been your inspiration for writing it?
Believe it or not, my initial inspiration for Traitor Knight was actually an old (very old) Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Knight Knight Bugs” (the only one to win an Academy Award). Bugs has to retrieve the Singing Sword from the Black Knight (Yosemite Sam) and his dragon, who has let his fire go out and caught a cold. Note: sneezing dragons = big problems…
And that gave me the old “what if” all stories actually start with. What if the only reason my hero gets out of the first chapter alive is because the dragon he has to battle comes down with a case of hiccups? What if the damsel in distress can’t stand him? What if he’s involved in something he really hates (Morgan is a man of extreme honor, so posing as a traitor is really hard on him). And things just kind of took off from there.
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write?
I think my favorite part of Traitor Knight was the opening sequence—Morgan’s battling of the dragon, and his subsequent interactions with Marissa. I had no idea who these people were when I started out, or why they were where they were, or what either of them wanted. So, it was a journey of discovery for me as well as for them. I am a certified pantser—I start off with an inciting incident, and let my characters tell me the story from there. I’ve no idea where it’s going, or how we’re going to get there. Learning about my two main characters in the opening chapters was a lot of fun for me. Not to mention that I really like my first line:
“A clamor of rooks exploded through the trees, nearly drowning out the woman’s scream.”
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
Umm, I don’t think we really have time for this… <grins>
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by Tolkien’s LoTR. The way he tells the story, and the way he uses language, were definitely an inspiration to me. But I think I was even more influenced, early on, by writers like Rex Stout, Robert Heinlein, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse. They taught me about voice and storytelling. Later on, my influences were Terry Pratchett, who showed me that humor does indeed have a place in fantasy; and Michael J. Sullivan, whose use of modern language and subversion of fantasy tropes was a definite inspiration.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
This is another “you sure you’ve got time for this?” question…
First, there’s no expiration date on your dreams. It doesn’t matter when you start writing, young or old. You’re never too young, and definitely never too old—I’m living proof of the later.
Second, acknowledge that there are only so many stories to tell, so the one you’re relating has likely been told before. The difference is, no one has ever told it in quite the same way you will. Come to understand your own voice, and embrace it. That’s what will carry you through. Also, and this is just my theory, character outshines plot every time. People don’t fall in love with story lines—they fall in love with the characters you’ve created, who happen to be embroiled in that story line. If you can craft interesting (not necessarily equated with likeable) characters whom your readers will come to root for, that’s more than half the battle.
Third, read. Read widely, both in your chosen genre, and outside it. You can’t tell good stories if you haven’t read good storytelling. Figure out what they’re doing that keeps you wanting to turn the pages. Because that’s really what it’s all about—making the reader want to know “what happens next?”
Fourth, be ready to put in the work. Writing isn’t just coming up with a great idea. I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with. Writing is actually sitting your butt down in the chair (or bed, or couch, or wherever you find it easiest to write) and pounding out words. And then going back and fixing those words into something that resembles a coherent story. And then doing it all over again when it doesn’t work. Over, and over… It’s a process, and it’s not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin.
Fifth, believe in your story. Sure, you’ll get rejections long the way. No one’s work resonates with everyone, and in the beginning it’s likely it won’t resonate with much of anybody. Don’t let that stop you. Keep working to make it the best it can be. Be willing to accept (constructive) criticism and incorporate it. Be ready to roll your eyes at the folks who say, “Oh, writing a book is easy, I could do it if I wanted to…”
Sixth, be willing to actually send your baby out into the world when you think you’ve gotten it as good as it can be (it still isn’t—it’ll need editing, and tweaking, and revising some more, in all probability). But if no one else reads it, that kind of defeats the purpose. And if your goal is to see your book in print (digitally or in hard copy), you’ve got to be willing to send it out to the folks that can help you get it there. Unless your goal is to self-publish, an absolutely viable option, but a whole ‘nother topic, and one I shan’t endeavor to tackle. But either way, you’ve got to be willing to actually get your story out there into the world.
And finally, realize that even when you’ve published your book, the journey isn’t over. Because now you’ve got to figure out how to get it into the hands of all those eager readers that don’t know about it. Marketing and promotion is a function of the writer that so many don’t consider up front. Your book isn’t going to sell itself, and you need to come up with a strategy for getting the word out to more than just family and friends.
Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. Thanks for having me! Happy writing!
To find out more about me, visit my website https://www.keithwillisauthor.com/ . If you’re in the New England area, look for me at your local Renaissance Faire (see pic). You can find my schedule on the Events page of my website.
To purchase digital copies of any of the Knights of Kilbourne books, head to Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0874KY48M?searchxofy=true&binding=kindle_edition&ref_=dbs_s_aps_series_rwt_tkin) or Champagne Books http://champagnebooks.com/store/166_keith-w-willis.
To purchase autographed paperbacks (or some cool dragonish items), visit https://www.keithwillisauthor.com/shop
Find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kilbourneknight (@kilbourneknight), or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TRAITOR-KNIGHT-191368320972613