Interviews – Sammy HK Smith

From Sammy, at Sammy HK Smith.

June 2012

1. We have the blurb, we have the review from David Muir, fancy sharing a little more about the story?

The Star Wraith is an apparent ghost ship. Every species in the galaxy has reports of ships encountering a capital class vessel, without power or life support. These reports end abruptly as the ships move in for a closer inspection, and are never seen again. The descriptions given in every report lead to the conclusion that it is the same vessel every time.

Every attempt by the galaxy’s various militaries to locate the Star Wraith has met with failure. Either the dispatched ships simply find nothing, or they, too, disappear.

For the Terran Military Alliance, the situation becomes increasingly serious as tracking the sightings reveals that the Wraith is getting closer and closer to human space. Out of options, the Alliance turns to a simple bounty hunter for aid.

Travis Archer has a history with the Alliance that has earned him a reputation for being unpredictable, eccentric in his methods, and dangerous (sometimes even intentionally). These unorthodox methods, the Alliance hopes, will actually give him the edge over this unknowable enemy.

Once Archer has put a team together, they track down the Star Wraith and board. It all seems a little too easy, and as they fight their way through the Wraith, they discover why. Someone has lied to them, and Archer isn’t about to forget what they’ve seen and obediently complete their mission. Instead, the team seizes control of the Wraith, and determines to find out what is going on.

They quickly find themselves wanted by their own Alliance, hunted by assassins and terrorists, and right in the middle of a 16,000 year old war.

Archer is forced to face an aspect of his past and his ancestry which he thought he had buried long ago, but which now could be the only thing that can help him protect the galaxy from total destruction.

And there’s a robot in it.

2. While I’ve only managed to skim through the book, your love of fantasy and sci-fi is apparent; the writing is fresh and sharp, but can you tell us of any difficulties you came across writing the book?

The biggest difficulty that comes to mind is when I got writer’s block. I assume that’s what it was, anyway – I’d never had it before, and haven’t had it since. I needed the team to leave the room they were in, to continue their pursuit of two assassins. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get them to budge. Thanks to their stubbornness, I gave up writing for over a year!

When I started to feel like writing again, and came back to it, I had no idea why I’d had a problem. I suppose after being left sat in a room for a year with no food, the team learnt their lesson and decided to what they were told. This is perhaps why I shouldn’t have children. Or cats.

That wasn’t the first or last time I stopped feeling like writing. I lost interest several times throughout the process. To put it in perspective: because of how many times I stopped writing, it took about six years or so to finish the first draft of the book. It then took about four months to write book two.

I also for a long time had difficulty taking the editing process seriously. It took quite a while before I finally got it into my head that, no, it won’t ‘do’. Thankfully, once I did so, it was pretty easy to properly edit.

Then, of course, there are the smaller problems, such as deciding what needs cutting out. As a writer, you don’t want to cut anything out of your precious creation, but you know you have to. Some big chunks were surgically removed, moved or replaced. The biggest loss was, perhaps, the prologue. It gave insight into how humans had come to leave Earth and live on Orion. It was, however, irrelevant to the story, a darker tone than the rest of the book, and potentially dull. Removing it ultimately improved the readability, and the information there was spread throughout the rest of the book.

3. One thing I’ve certainly noticed is your unique style of writing and the way you clearly balance the authorial voice with the narrative. Have any authors or writers influenced your writing style?

I think both Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (from the Dirk Gently novels far more than Hitchhiker’s Guide) have sunk into my brain somewhere and could very well influence it a little bit. But I don’t aspire to write like them or try to mimic their humour or anything like that.

I write like me. I don’t try or want to write like anyone else, and the way I write is mine alone. I think. I do what I want, and that has managed to include not letting any other writing particularly influence me, because then it wouldn’t be entirely my writing! But of course there’s little that doesn’t influence us in some small way.

In another way, though, Iain M Banks influenced me right at the end, for the last two edits of the book. I had been focused on not using too many adjectives, keeping paragraphs at just the right length, keeping sentences short and snappy, and half a dozen other such things. Then I started to read one of his books – I forget which one (anyone following this blog tour may notice a pattern with my memory!). In one single sentence I counted something like fifteen adjectives. That same sentence ran on for an entire paragraph. Some of his paragraphs lasted almost entire pages. There were about three pages of just describing the area. In over fifteen pages, nothing whatsoever happened beyond someone looking out a vehicle’s window.

Now, obviously he’s Iain M Banks – he can do whatever the hell he wants, and he’s a brilliant writer. But the point is, he reminded me that my universe is my universe, and my writing is my writing. To sit and focus on the technicalities like I was, would, if anything, degrade my writing into something pretty generic and…not mine. So thanks to him, I went through and removed only what I felt needed removing, not what I had read had to be removed and reduced.

I may not have created a literary masterpiece, but I think the book is much better off for that realisation.

4. Do you have any tips for aspiring novelists and writers?

I think everyone needs to do things their own way. When they start trying to follow what others have done, or say, that’s when problems pop up, and if they didn’t pop up for whoever they’re following, they’re stuck.

That said, there a few things I wish I’d known/done or am glad I did. In no particular order:

Always have some form of printed version of your book for your final edit. You will pick up a lot more errors than when you read it on the computer. I thought I was finished, and got my hardback proof copy done. Then when I settled down to read it, I spotted error after error, including even one or two sentences that actually cut off halfway through! I have no idea how I managed that. Of course, every book, no matter how well edited it is, or how it is published, has a handful of errors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to pick up as many as possible. That can’t be used as an excuse!

Have people read it. Not necessarily all of it, but a nice chunk. I had something like 30,000 words (of 128,000) of it up on and I received over a hundred comments on it. Some of them weren’t helpful, but encouraging; others were very helpful indeed. My book, and my writing itself, are both better off for doing so.

Don’t let other people telling you it won’t ever be published put you off. My dad decided to impart to me this pearl of wisdom, and luckily I ignored him. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything people tell you and publish even when you’re being told it still needs work! There are too many bad self-published books around. Self-publishing is not nearly as frowned upon as it used to be, but those awful books do not help. And putting one out certainly won’t help you.

Do plenty of research on every aspect. Know at least the basics of writing – proper grammar and whatnot. I’m certainly not an expert, but what I do know has helped improve my writing a lot and makes the book readable for all but the most stickly of sticklers. Research your intended publishing route. That includes lots of research into every agent you intend to send your work to, to make sure they are entirely legitimate (legitimate ones will NEVER want you to pay anything). Research blogs that will review your book when it comes out, or just before it comes out so you have some reviews already when it publishes.

Know the difference between vanity publishing and proper self-publishing.

Don’t give up on agents or publishers until you actually want to self-publish. Contrary to what some idiots say, not being able to find an agent does not mean your book is rubbish and you can’t write. Especially not in today’s climate (that almost sounds professional doesn’t it?). Find a list of how many times some famous writers were turned down – everyone gets turned down. Two weeks before Shadow of the Wraith published, a well-respected agent sought me out, having read what was up on Authonomy and liking it, and asked me for the full thing. I’d long given up on agents by that point.

Don’t give up at all.

5. Other than this series of books, do you have any plans for other tales?

I have written nearly half of a short story that I can’t tell you anything about. I’m not sure what genre it is, but it’s not sci fi. It is taking a very long time, because I have to be in a very particular mood to write it.

I have a good chunk of a book I was writing years ago before I started Shadow of the Wraith, that I will be going back to at some point. I haven’t yet decided, though, if I will adapt it to sci fi and make it part of the NEXUS series or keep it separate. Either way it will be a thriller.

For after I have finished this series (hopefully not for quite some time) I have planned a fantasy series. By ‘planned’, I mean, I plan to do one. I have a very vague idea for the storyline of the first book, but that’s it.

For between this series and that one, I intend to write a kind of superhero novel.

Other than that, no I don’t! I’m considering writing short stories to go along with this series too, for little adventures Archer’s team have that wouldn’t stretch to a full novel. Like TV episodes. But I haven’t decided anything on that yet.

6. What do you think is the key formula for writing a good tale? The writer’s passion? The story alone? Writing skills? Combination of all three? Do you have a writing formula?

My writing formula is ‘open Word document + fingers keyboard + (wait for something to happen x 6) = book’.

It’s definitely a combination of all three, though. Someone passionate about what they’re writing could wrt d hol b%k n txt tlk and it would be rubbish. The story could be brilliant, but written by someone who’d rather be doing something else, and it’s rubbish again. It could be written by a literary genius, who knows every single tiny thing there is to know about writing, and the story is awful and the only passion shown is for the words themselves – rubbish.

You need to write what you want to write, in the way you want to write it. You need some technical skill to ensure the writing doesn’t overpower the story and lose readers. The only thing that is hit or miss is the story. You might love the story, and so might your parents. That doesn’t mean the general public will love it too. But there’s not a lot you can do about that, because to try to force it into something that they would like, you’ll lose your passion.

It’s unlikely you can be successful without having all three. But skill in writing is fairly objective, too.

Maybe a safer answer would be, ‘I dunno’.

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