Author Interview with Spencer Russell Smith

Spencer Russell Smith is a graduate of Boston University, where he studied music composition, and the author of the breakout Awakening the Lightforged Trilogy. He is an avid reader of the Sci-fi and Fantasy genres. When he is not reading, writing, or composing music, he is probably being dragged down the street on a “walk” (full sprint) by his stumpy rescue dog, Cabo. He makes his online home at www.spencerrussellsmith.com. You can connect with Spencer on Twitter @SRSmithAuthor, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/spencerrussellsmithauthor, find his music at spencerrussellsmith.com/music, and you should send him an email at mail at spencerrussellsmith.com if the mood strikes you!

Where are you from?

  • I grew up just outside Los Angeles, CA, but now I live in Massachusetts with my wife.

Why do you write? 

  • Mainly because I just have stories inside me that I need to tell. I also write because reading has always helped me see the world and the people in it from new perspectives and helped make me a much more open-minded person. I hope that my writing will do the same for others.

What do you write about? 

  • The main genre I write in is Epic Fantasy, but within that, I write about characters, cultures and topics that interest me, or that I want to learn more about. I find the process of getting into a character’s head (especially if they are nothing like me) fascinating, and I love researching history, language, and different cultures to draw from in my writing.

Do you have a specific writing style?

  • I try to be as deep in the character’s head as I can, but never write in first person. Though I do aim to give my prose beauty in certain spots, I tend to write in a very simplistic manner. My goal is to effectively convey what is going on to the reader, and though more flowery prose has its place, I often find that it gets in the way, especially if, for example, I wanted to highlight just how gruesome certain aspects of war or even isolated violence can be.

What are obstacles that come in the way of writing? 

  • My day job is the biggest obstacle. When I wake up at 4 or 5am in the morning, I get astounding amounts of writing done. When I wake up at a more normal time, it’s a bit harder. Research is also a big obstacle, as I want to make sure that whether I am drawing from a particular culture, or writing about specific social issues or a type of mental illness, I don’t want the end result to be surface-level or reduced to a stereotype.

What’s the most memorable thing asked/said by a reader about your work?

  • There are three that really stick with me. The first is: “You can’t make this free.” I was writing a companion novella (at least, it was supposed to be a novella) to my debut trilogy Awakening the Lightforged, to give to my mailing-list for free as an exclusive “Thank you” for signing up. My wife is wonderful enough to help me with my initial review process when writing, and at a few different points while reading it, she told me it was too good to give away for free. By that point, it was long enough to be considered a novel, so I agreed with her.

The second and third were from my editor’s feedback.

  • “Awakening the Lightforged…is reminiscent of the works of Brandon Sanderson in its well realised magic system and well-structured worldbuilding.”
  • “The sensitivity with which you handle the same-sex relationship…is a credit to your story. That the same-sex relationships are as strong as any of the heterosexual relationships we encounter…show a depth of understanding and a desire to have wider representation within fiction itself.”

How long have you been writing?

  • I started writing little fictional stories for myself when I was 12, but I didn’t seriously start writing until I was about 14, attempting to publish my first book when I was 16. I didn’t publish it, but I learned a lot from the process. I took a break from writing in college to focus on school, but after that, came back with renewed focus, and a drive to constantly improve my writing ever since.

When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?

  • I will always cite my first viewing of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as what put me on this path. Christopher Paolini’s publishing of Eragon also helped me see that it was possible to start writing and write something people wanted to read at such a young age, but seeing something as amazing as “The Lord of the Rings” sent me diving into Tolkien’s work and the world of writing. I even wrote my college essay on how “The Lord of the Rings” changed my life.

What is your work schedule like when you are writing?

  • It varies. I have a day job, so I try to get most of my writing done before my work day starts. If I can’t, I’ll use my lunch break to get a bit of writing done. Sometimes I’ll do a bit of editing or admin work after I’m done with my day job, but usually I’m a bit mentally exhausted by that point, so I try not to do anything then to make sure I can trust the quality. When I’m writing, I’m usually working on 3 different projects at a given time, with one or two of those being prep work for a future project. That way, I can switch between projects if I get a bit fatigued on one. I aim for about 3 hours of writing per day, and track my word counts. 2 of those hours are usually devoted to prose, with the remaining one devoted to outlining. On a good day, a full three hours usually means about 4000 words of prose and 3000 words of outlining. I usually average just over two hours of writing a day, as sometimes I won’t be as focused as I would like, or life gets in the way, but I wrote 1 million words last year, and I’m hoping to do the same or better this year.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

  • That I over-outline and plan WAY in advance. Seriously. My outlines are sometimes as long as my actual novels, but it’s something that works for me. Also, planning things so far out in advance. Though I can “force” a story if needed, I don’t like the process, and it leaves me a bit exhausted and less excited to write. If I plan things out in advance, I can work on them bit by bit over time to help keep myself from burning out, I can make sure I know where my story or series is going before I start writing the first words of the draft, and I have more time to refine the story, characters, and world. Because of this, I have more outlines for books than I will be able to write in a lifetime, and I know how many books I should have done in five years’ time (A LOT) and what I should be working on at that time.

How long does it take to write a book?

  • That’s a complicated question. I tried pantsing or discovery writing when I was younger. It didn’t work that well, and I spent a year writing a fifteen-chapter book, with incredible amounts of “writer’s block” popping up to halt my progress. Mild outlining after that resulted in a lot of editing, which was not a process I enjoyed.

    Now, I am a heavy outliner. For one book I wrote that ended up being about 90,000 words, the full outline was about 86,000 words. So about 45 hours of writing prose, and about 29 hours of outlining. However, that outlining was done at a leisurely pace, getting a little bit in over the course of a few months, which really gave me time to think about the story and the characters and make some significant changes each time I revisited it that improved the story. The last 19,000 words of the outline were my scene drafts, which I did in a week, and because of all that outlining, I knew my story so well that I completed the first draft in two weeks of writing. After that, I took a few days to go through it, write out the questions for my wife to review, and then once she gave me her feedback, it took another three or four days to incorporate that, and once I got my editor’s feedback, it took only a few hours to review and incorporate his advice. That resulted in a 90,000 word novel I was proud of, written in less than a month. It honestly has taken me more time to format the book and produce some of the art to go with it than it did to edit that novel.

    At the other end of the spectrum: I needed a new reader-magnet after I decided I would sell the companion novel rather than giving it away for free. That reader-magnet ended up being a 21,000 word novella. It took me a month to outline, write, and edit it. Maybe that’s still pretty fast, but it didn’t seem so at the time for a work of that size.

    After all that rambling, it probably takes me about two months to write a novel that is around 100,000 words, though I stretch that first month out to make sure I don’t get burned out, and that I have more time to think about the story and the characters.

Do you have suggestions on how to become a better writer?

  • Write. Do it every day. For at least five minutes. The more you write, the better and the faster you will become. Watch YouTube videos on writing and story analysis. Not the ones that say “Writing tips” or “How to write a book” but the ones like SavageBooks and Lessons From the Screenplay and Hello Future Me that examine why stories work or didn’t work, and learn from those. Study the craft of story and writing. Prose deserves some study, but not as much as most people give it. You need to learn structure, what tropes are and how to use them, the beats of your chosen genre, and how to market your book. That last one will make you a better writer even if you choose to traditionally publish, as it makes you think about your story in a different way than you’re used to.

What challenges do you come across when writing/creating your story?

  • Research, making sure I get enough/good enough sleep to wake up early and write, narrowing down the scope and focus of my writing, the tiny setting details, ensuring that I don’t just write the same characters and arcs over and over again, and ensuring that I can keep everything focused and consistent through the longer works like I’m writing now.

What do you think makes a good story?

  • For me, it’s all about the characters, which I think is true for a lot of people. Most plots have been done before in one way or another, and when someone can come up with a really good plot twist or a new spin on an old trope, that is fantastic, but it’s the character and the character’s journey that really does it for me. At the end of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, there are incredible battles and some truly epic moments. But one of the scenes that brought me to tears was a man learning to laugh and to hope again after all he’s been through, rather than a character doing something really cool with magic or snapping victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Also, structure. I know a lot of people think structure is “cheating” or “formulaic”, but they need to get over that. Structure won’t make a good story by itself, but it can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Learn structure inside and out. Once you’ve written a few books following the structure to a T and know it inside and out, then you can start breaking the “rules” and playing around with the structure of your story.

What does your family think of your writing? 

  • None of them read fantasy, and my mom has dyslexia so the names are hard for her, but she and my grandma have both read my short story and love it, and my dad and my uncle have started on my novella and novel and like them a lot. My mom and my sister are probably my best marketers, and take the book with them everywhere, telling everyone about it. My wife and I get calls from my father-in-law daily asking “What’s the name of Spencer’s book again? Throne of (something)? Throne of Darkness? Thanks, bye.” Both my own and my wife’s side of the family have been nothing but supportive, and my wife is my biggest supporter. She challenges me to be better and interrupts her own reading schedule to read my books and essentially acts as an editor for them. (After my wife goes through the book and I incorporate her feedback, my editor has had very few remarks to give).

Do you see writing as a career?

  • Yes. Most artistic careers like writing that a lot of people see as a pipe dream seem to favor those who stick it out and put in the work. While I would love to have Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin-levels of success, a successful career as an author to me just means that I make enough from writing that I can quit my day job and have more time to write. I do hope I hit that point soon, though, because I have so many stories I want to write that I’m genuinely uncertain if I will be able to finish them all in my lifetime.

Do you have anything specific you’d like to tell the readers?

  • Book 2 comes out on October 31st, 2022, and there are many, many more to come! If you enjoy my work, please leave a review, post about it on social media, tell everyone you know who you think might like my writing, etc. so that I have more time to write, and can get you more books even faster!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

  • I first considered myself a writer after I completed my first book in 2009. It wasn’t a good book, but it was a finished project that I had completed, and I felt like writing was something I could really do. I first felt like an author back in 2017 when I posted some short stories online under a pen name and people wanted more.

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