Tuesday

Kindle Author Interview: Stephen Sweeney

Stephen Sweeney, author of The Honour of the Knights, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.

DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about The Honour of the Knights?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: The Honour of the Knights is the first book in a space opera trilogy known as "The Battle for the Solar System". Set in the 27th century, the book follows five naval starfighter pilots who become involved in a top secret project and begin to learn of the true fate of a galactic nation. The nation in question, the Mitikas Empire, is said to have been engaged in civil war for a number of years, with no end in sight. This, however, is not entirely true—something far worse has happened to the empire, something that the Helios Confederation and her allies would prefer to keep hidden for as long as possible. When the first book opens, starighter pilot Simon Dodds is woken by a wounded man who has arrived at his house, seeking sanctuary and bearing a warning. Honour of the Knights is a novel that contains plenty of intrigue, action, well defined characters and a tightly plotted story arc that will grip readers and have them looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.

DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: I like to give my characters real emotions and backgrounds, so that their lives don't seem to exist solely within the pages of the book. More importantly, I give them each a flaw. Everyone has a flaw, some more pronounced than others—it's what makes us human. Simon Dodds, for example, enlisted with the CSN (the Confederation Stellar Navy), in search of dreams of valour and fame. At the start of Knights we find that things have gone wrong for him, being suspended from duty for the manslaughter of two civilians whilst he was trying to save the day. As another example, Elliott Parks, a commodore, is a very capable man, yet often feels that he is inadequate to the rank he holds, worrying that he is a fraud that will soon be exposed. He secretly lacks confidence in a lot of things that he does, but somehow finds a way through it. Chaz Koonan, the newest member of the flight squadron known as the White Knights, is a very quiet man, one who seems to know a lot more about what happened to the Mitikas Empire and who the so-called "Enemy" really are. He is a question mark to the four other members of the White Knights, who are curious as to why he speaks so little.

DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: Primarily, Honour of the Knights and the Battle for the Solar System trilogy is aimed as those who enjoy military science fiction—the sort of reader who enjoys a book with plenty of action, some mystery and easily recognisable characters. I was a big fan of Babylon 5, since the show contained a strongly defined story arc and knew where it needed to go. I wanted to do the same thing with a novel. Essentially, BFTSS is the sort of novel series that I wanted to read myself. To my surprise, Honour of the Knights has actually attracted quite a broad audience, so it's not just for science fiction fans. I also figured the book would be read almost exclusively by men, but I have received tweets and emails from female fans, which is actually very refreshing. This could perhaps be due to the book containing a number of female characters, holding quite high positions within the military and general society.

DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: I first started writing seriously in 2007, joining a number of online forums and discussing various aspects of the writing process. In 2008, I started posting out manuscripts to agents and publishers, receiving (as many, many authors do), a stream of rejections. Eventually, I found out that Battle for the Solar System wasn't really a series that a lot of agents or publishers would be entirely keen on. However, the series meant a great deal to me, as it was a story I'd wanted to tell for quite some time. For a time, I considered writing short stories or other novels, in order to build up a reputation and get my work out there. However, I also had to consider the very real possibility that even after all this writing and submitting, I could spend many years being no closer to acceptance. I have seen a number of writers simply give up because they were unable to get an agent to look at their work. A real shame I thought—no-one ever got to read their story. Not one to give up so easily, I turned to self-publishing.

I started off with Lulu, getting distribution all sorted out and getting the book onto Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. Some time in early 2009, I visited a number of branches of Waterstone's, taking a copy of the book with me and asking them if they'd be interested in stocking it. Each were impressed with the effort I had made and a number of them agreed to stock the novel. It sold well for a self-published novel, with regular re-orders being made at the Brighton branch of Waterstone's, where it had been given pride of place on a table amongst novels from larger publishing houses.

Even so, the sales were slow and eventually began to dry up. I then investigated Smashwords and Kindle, uploading the novel for free on Smashwords around September 2010 and then adding the book to Kindle around mid-October.

There's actually a much more complicated story as to why Honour of the Knights is available for free and so cheap on Kindle, but I'll leave that story for another day (hint: the clue's in the title!) ;)

DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: It's something of a four stage process. I first loosely plot the book, marking out the major events and ensuring I have the beginning, middle and end all worked out. After that, I write a rough first draft, doing some free writing as I go and seeing what character traits and events begin to appear. I make a great deal of notes, and tend to also litter the rough manuscript with a number of remarks about how to complete a scene, if I am unable to at the time. With that done, I start on the actual first draft. The first draft incorporates all the notes and scene changes that I discovered in the rough draft, and makes steps towards the completed book. A read-through of this will reveal things that need changing and expanding upon and that leads to a few more rewrites (usually not a full rewrite, just tweaks to scenes, splitting up chapters, etc). Finally, when I feel the book is done, I commence a proofread, to work out as many typos and errors as I can. It probably sounds like a very long process, and it can be, especially when dealing with a manuscript that is over 120,000 words. Still, it is a good approach, as it allows the story to grow organically and allows your own writing skills to grow at the same time.

DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: I tend to draw a lot of my inspiration from mediums other than writing: movies, games and tv shows were the greatest cues to creating the BFTSS trilogy. Being a military science fiction novel, it was important to be able to draw out the action and engage the reader in those sequences. Screen tends to deliver this far better than text. Having said that, writers such as Iain Banks, Neal Asher and John Scalzi have been high on my own reading list, due to their own command of action and character; character being that most important aspect of novel writing. For fantasy works (which I'm considering in the future), new writers such as Joe Abercrombie, Stephen Deas and Robert VS Redick also display masterful characterisation.

DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: Hmmm, tough question. There are a lot of books that I wish I'd written myself—a lot of them actually stem from the simplest of ideas, too. I'll not say Harry Potter, as that's too much of a cop out. Two books that I've really enjoyed in the past year have been Old Man's War and The Painted Man (known as The Warded Man in the US). Old Man's War is both fun, thought provoking and inventive. It also made me laugh my head off at a number of points. The Painted Man was also a great novel. Again, it's colourfully written and full of great fantasy invention, delivered in fantastic style.

DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: Even before I turned to ebook publishing, I had already created a website for my novel series, filling it with all manner of information: news, character profiles, world profile, details of some of the technology in the books, extended information about the world... that sort of thing. I also created a number of fun little things, such as wallpaper images, generated from the book covers, and presented in various sizes for people to download (from computer screens to iPhones). In addition to this, I also created an online quiz that can test fans' knowledge of the story. Visitors can even create their own questions. A version for Android phones will hopefully be out in April, and will keep in sync with the quiz data found on the website. If nothing else, it increases awareness of the trilogy.

Something else I did was to make the first book in the series available for free—Honour of the Knights is available in a number of places for free (including my own website), and also available on the Kindle for a very low price ($1 or £0.89). One of the biggest problems a new author will face is obscurity—your work might be out there, but if no-one has heard of you, no-one is going to buy it. Honour of the Knights have proven to be very popular in the UK. It has sold over 3,000 copies on Kindle, is often in the UK's top 10 science fiction novels, and has also received a tremendous reception on the iBookstore, being one of the most popular novels available. This is a good indication that The Third Side (the second book in the series) will prove very popular when it arrives in September.

DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: I think the impact and appeal of ebooks has been very much underestimated by everyone. It caught a number of people off-guard, myself included. In 2009, I believed that ebooks would never catch on, making up maybe less than 1% of novel sales. As an indie author, the success of ebooks is very important—paperbacks are expensive things to produce. Honour of the Knights retailed for £9.95 / $20.95, and it was only 348 pages long. It had a hell of a time competing against other novels that were priced at just £5 / $8, and could be made part of 3-for-2 deals. Publishing directly on the Kindle allows me to price the novels at a far more reasonable rate, attracting even those who wouldn't normally read science fiction.

Having said that, I would still love for the series to be picked up by a commercial publisher. There are a lot of benefits to such a thing, including foreign rights, translations and a bunch other things.

DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?

STEPHEN SWEENEY: As far as writing is concerned, the biggest problem that indie authors face is that their novels are full of mistakes and typos. Proofread your work at least twice. Learn to read out loud; that is, say the words as you read them. This will let you find missing and wrong words a lot more effectively than if you're reading in your head, where you mind can wander. The second time you read it, it might be good to read the chapters in a random order, so as not to be distracted by the flow of the story. This is a technique that I'm applying to my future work. On a technical side, when publishing on Kindle keep it simple. The more complex you attempt to make your manuscript, the more problems will show up during the conversion. The Kindle is a very simple device: the novels are presented in very limited HTML (essentially just cut down web pages). Formatting your book will be your biggest enemy here. Stick to basic styling and you'll be fine. If you want to ensure that things are laid out in a particular way, then you might become unstuck very quickly.

DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sweeney was born in Brighton, UK in 1977 to Terry and Emma Sweeney and has spent many years thereafter making up stories about stuff that doesn't exist.

He attended Worth School in West Sussex before studying Environmental Biology at Oxford Brookes University.

He currently lives in London where he works in the City performing various IT related bits and pieces (although he's worse than useless if you ask him to help fix your computer).

When not working he enjoys listening to music, reading, snowboarding (or at least attempting to) and spending time with friends (generally talking nonsense to them in the pub).

His favourite authors include JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Iain Banks and Stephen King (although he doesn't read too much King any more since he's too scared of finding an old decaying dead woman laying in his bathtub, grinning at him).

Visit his website, read his blog, and follow him on twitter.

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