First up, Stuart, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what got you into writing.
I was born back in 1980, went to university in Hull, where I studied history to PhD level, and currently live in East Yorkshire in the UK, far away from everything except cows, a certain famous bridge, and endless reminders that Larkin Woz ‘Ere, as I believe they put it in graffiti circles. I’ve written three novels of my own to date, the latest of which is my comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams, as well as serving as a ghostwriter or collaborator on more than thirty more.
It’s traditional at this point to say that you always wanted to be a writer. Maybe I did, although one of the things I learned as a historian is how easy it is to look back from just about any endpoint and see an inevitable progression towards it if you aren’t careful. Maybe I enjoyed English at school, but I certainly never thought of writing as a possible career at that point. In fact, I distinctly remember several occasions when I shied away from English/writing related things because it didn’t seem to me like something I could do professionally.
I actually got started with serious (this seems like the wrong word given what I write) writing while I was doing my PhD in history, fully intending to become a lecturer. I started mostly for something to do/think about that wasn’t to do with medieval minster churches and their colleges of canons, submitting occasional articles and silly poems online.
As an historian, what drew you to writing humour in your work, if anything?
I’m not sure the humour necessarily connects back to the history, because for me quite a lot of the writing was an attempt to get away from the history. It’s a terrible thing starting a PhD in a subject and realising that the reason it’s so hard has a lot to do with the part where you don’t actually care very much about the subject matter. It was more about the process of doing research and producing long pieces of writing.
I suspect that the comedy aspect has more to do with reading a lot of Pratchett, and also Tom Holt’s work. Especially Holt’s work, in fact, because I think his stuff was what finally convinced me that you could write funny fantasy without being Sir Terry. After reading his work, I started on Wodehouse, Toby Frost, and a great many other authors whose work eventually persuaded me that writing funny stuff was allowed. Even so, with novel length fiction I originally tried to write quite serious urban fantasy, which my first two novels are. I think I was trying to chase that trend, rather than just writing what I wanted to.
You’ve written poetry, articles, numerous short stories and yes, have a number of novels under your belt, so how did you end up ghosting novels for others?
Unemployment had a lot to do with it. I got to the point where the risks involved in getting into freelance writing didn’t seem so bad, and I signed up for all those bidding sites where you think you’re going to get lots of novel work and then end up writing SEO to make ends meet. Except that slowly, gradually, I did start to get work on novels. It helped that I had a couple of published novels of my own by that point, and some good samples to show people, but even so, I had to take some very poorly paid gigs to try to establish a reputation. It’s very hard work when you’re just starting in that side of things, because a novel is a serious investment for someone, and they want proof that you can succeed.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of ghosting writing a novel?
It’s not set in stone, because the process comes down to how the client wants to do things. I’ve had some who’ve just given me a premise and a genre and had me run with it, while others have produced very detailed plans for each chapter, including who says what and when. Bizarrely, that can actually be trickier on occasion, because it means that I don’t necessarily have the input into the structure that a story might need. Somewhere between that, you’ll have the people who want you to use their favourite ‘by numbers’ structure, insisting that you use the Hero’s Journey or the Syd Fields thing.
In terms of what happens while I’m producing it, generally either I’ll be bidding on a job on a site or someone will come to me and ask me to do a piece. We’ll agree terms, including any NDAs or other contractual details, I’ll get a plan, and then I’ll start work, sending over draft chapters as I go. I like to keep clients in the loop as I write, rather than just going ‘here’s your book’ at the end, because that has the potential to go very wrong. Generally, I’ll revise as I go, producing a good first draft and then however many rounds of editing we’ve agreed. I always like to build in enough time to take things at a reasonable pace and do them well, even though part of my reputation has occasionally been as a ‘fast’ writer. I prefer to make sure that I’m writing something people can be really proud of having their name on.
Payment is generally at the end, or in fixed stages through a job. I don’t generally work hourly jobs, because that doesn’t feel like the right approach for fiction. I also don’t get any share of the royalties. That’s the client’s side of things. The ghostwriting game is all about the security of a defined payment at a set time.
Aside for writing for others, what new projects have you coming up next?
Well, there’s a sequel to Court of Dreams that I keep meaning to do the rewrites on to make it workable, but before that, I’ve recently finished writing a novel length piece that I’ve got out with some beta readers at the moment. I think it’s good, at least measured by my main standard of ‘I’ve deleted it at least three times while working on it’. I think finishing that is probably the next thing. I’d like to write some more short stories, and maybe other things like graphic novels, scripts and so on, but it’s always a question of finding the time. I spend all day writing, so then to go and do more writing on my own time is tricky. Experimenting in another form is even trickier, because at least with a novel, I know that I can get the story across.
How do approach your own world-building when writing fantasy?
I’ll tell you what I don’t do. I don’t start by drawing a map. That is to say, I don’t come up with my world first and then try to work out the story I’m setting there. I try to come up with my world as part of the overall planning process, so it ties into things like character and plot. Some parts of it are easy. I know I’m going to need certain locations, because the story is going to demand them. Other bits will come from the sort of themes I’m playing with, but for me, I always want the room to make things up.
What do you look for in an ideal hero in a Sharp story?
I worry about my heroes. I really do. Half the time, they seem like the least defined characters in the story, when they should be the most defined. I worry that my minor characters are funnier, and then I realise that they are, because the main ones have to have depth and meaning (which is kind of at odds with funny). Mostly, I like to do the everyman thing at least a little. Ultra powerful characters bore me. And obviously, they have to have that room to grow and change over the course of the novel. Which is maybe where things get tricky, because it’s easy to start them off as people you wouldn’t necessarily connect with as an author. Or as people who aren’t strong enough characters.
Are you a lover of classic fantasy or urban fantasy? Thoughts if any?
I’ve read and enjoyed both. I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of that classic style fantasy, from Tolkien to Gemmell and beyond, and I’ve actually written urban fantasy. I think in both cases, they’re such big fields that there’s room for both exceptionally good and very bad things side by side, making it quite hard sometimes to tell what you’re getting. There are people who write these things with such passion and obvious enjoyment, offering some real insights into ourselves along the way. There are also people who just try to hit the markers for the genre. And then there’s me, standing on the side lines, making jokes about all of them.
And, as far as you are concerned, what makes the best fantasy?
Maybe not thinking about it as fantasy so much. It’s a story full of fantastic elements (though why are those there? Are they there because you’ve decided ‘I’m writing fantasy so there must be elves’, or because they’re integral to the story?), but it’s still a story. It’s about writing it like you mean it, and getting across more than just ‘They go on a quest. They fight the baddies. They have a suspiciously complicated love triangle. The end.’ Do something that comes from your imagination, not from someone else’s book.
Stuart Sharp lives in East Yorkshire, where he divides his time between writing, not quite translating medieval Latin correctly, and getting hit over the head with swords. He has a PhD from one of the Three Great British Universities for the second of those. His urban fantasy series is published by Double Dragon Publishing, but other than that mostly writes things with more jokes in. He was quite disappointed to learn that ghost-writing didn’t involve Ouija boards at any point, but keeps doing it anyway. He is easily distracted by…mmm…shiny…