Q&A: Writing epic fantasy with Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan is the author of 17 epic fantasy books and writes nonfiction under the name Robert J. Ryan. He will chat about how he world-builds, how he writes persuasive blurbs, and his new nonfiction how-to book for authors.

Q. In your Facebook profile, there is a young man standing and facing a faraway, mystical land. What is that from? I find it really compelling.

A. That’s from one of my early epic fantasy covers. I like it. It really captures a feel of epic fantasy – of a quest – and I may keep that for nonfiction too. The motto of my nonfiction books is to seek out correct knowledge and best practice. That’s a quest too.

Q. Cool. We will talk about your nonfiction in a moment, but for now, I’d like to ask you some Q’s about your fiction. What is the title of that early epic fantasy cover?

A. That’s from Lore of the Letharn, which was book 2 of my first series.

Q. Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start publishing? Have you always been indie published? And how many books do you have out in what genres?

A. I started publishing in 2013. (But I’d been writing since 1983).  My aim had always been the traditional route, but then I kept hearing about indie publishing and started to look deeper and deeper. I’m something like 17 books in now. All those books are in epic fantasy.

I write what’s starting to be called Noblebright. It’s the opposite of Grimdark. There’s no explicit sex or language. Violence is never central to the stories, but I try to keep things real when it does happen. There are battles and so on, and I try to show what that would really be like. As best I can.

Q. Great! Who or what inspired you to write epic fantasy?

A. I never read books as a kid. Then, when I was about 13, I read The Lord of the Rings. It changed my life, and I knew what I wanted to do. Not an uncommon story for epic fantasy writers…

Q. LotR. Yep. No surprise there. And you grew up in Australia? Not New Zealand? 🙂

A. Yep, I’m an Aussie! I think I’d love New Zealand, but I’m not a fan of the Peter Jackson movies.

Q. I loved the older movies when I was a kid. And…I love your covers. Who is your designer, and what kind of process goes into producing them?

A. I’ve used several designers. I started off with illustrated covers, because I thought that was the thing with epic fantasy. But then I learned that what happens in traditional publishing doesn’t always work best in indie publishing. Currently, I use Damonza. He does photomanipulated covers.

The process is very different from designer to designer. But generally, I give a brief to hit the nail on the head for epic fantasy. The cover must convey that, and better still if it conveys subgenre too. After that, I like to give the artist free rein. They’re artists too, and they know what they’re doing. Also, I don’t try to get the artist to convey a particular scene out of the book.

Q. What is the going rate nowadays for illustrated covers? Ballpark is fine.

A. I just know that they could cost an arm and a leg when I was looking into some paranormal covers. My illustrated covers were from quite a while ago. I think it was about $450 US dollars, which was actually very cheap for that kind of thing. Nowadays, I’d expect something like $1000 for a good illustrator. Probably more.

Q. Ha. Not bad. Really, they are pretty. Okay, so we will segue into your recent nonfiction release, Author Unleashed. Can you tell me what inspired you to write this book? And what it is about?

A. Essentially, what inspired me was going through the hard slog of figuring out how to write and then market fiction. It isn’t easy (as you know). As I went, I realized that there was some really good information out there…and some really bad information out there.

Author Unleashed kind of bubbled up from frustration at seeing so many people given harmful advice. Especially from what I call the “fast-buck hustlers”. The indie world is full of them.

The first book in the series is a kind of advanced primer. It touches on all the major aspects of indie publishing. But it covers very advanced strategies.

Q. I had a chance to read it, and it felt like a different approach. I will admit I geek out on buyer psychology, and you cover that quite a bit. Like how a blurb or cover makes people buy books. And I believe you said it was because of your political background?

A. I used to be a persuader for a living. Not in politics, but in Government departments. Basically, I was a copywriter.

Q. Ah, yes. A persuader. That is a good skill to have. I liked what you said about compelling copy inciting emotion in a reader. Cute puppy ads, that kind of thing. What other advice would you give to an author who wants to level up on their blurb-writing.

A. Step one is to realize that writing blurb copy is a specialized skill. It’s not fiction. It’s not editing. It’s copywriting. Step two is to acquire the skill. It’s not really that hard, as long as you find a good source of information. Emotion is certainly a key. People buy a book because of how a blurb makes them feel not because of what it tells them.

Q. I love that! That makes total sense. You talk a little bit about rapid release, and as you know, I am particularly interested in that topic. Are you a fast drafter? You seem pretty prolific at any rate.

A. Buyer psychology 101. But the real key is to be authentic. If not, then people will turn away in droves.

Q. I am trying to understand how an epic fantasy writer could write a story fast, with all that word-building. How long are your stories, btw?

A. I think rapid release is pretty key to success. It’s not the only way. But it sure makes things easier. I’ve had fast releases and slow releases…and this much is true. If you can gain visibility you sure want that momentum to keep going. Once gone, it’s near impossible to get it back.

Q. Agreed.

A. My books come in at about 55,000 words. The first book of a new series is always the slowest to write, because that’s where most of the world building is. After that, follow up books are a lot faster.

Q. Wow, our hour went by fast. What would your early writer self be excited about in your book Author Unleashed? The top topics you wish you’d known back then?

A. I think my early writer self would be impressed that I managed to go full time at this gig!

It’s hard to separate anything out, because nothing stands alone. It’s not enough to write a good blurb or have a good cover, or get your keywords right or understand Amazon Advertising.

I think the real insight is to understand how all these things are links in a chain. They work together. In the book, I have a chapter called “Continuity Fuels the Sales Engine” and it’s true.

What I wish I knew way back then was how to bring it all together as a well-oiled machine. All the hard work in the world counts for nothing if it isn’t directed by correct knowledge.

Q. Love it! Last question…your book is for advanced writers. How would one know if they are “advanced”?

A. I would say that it covers some really advanced strategies. Things you won’t see discussed on internet forums. But the best place to learn is at the beginning. All it takes to step from “beginner” to “advanced” is the right know how.

But if someone wants to learn the basics, I recommend seeking out a trustworthy source of information. Something like Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran.

Q. Sounds great. Hey, I have a request. Can you send me a pic of what is very typically “Aussie”? I enjoy traveling and would love to experience your country vicariously.

A. Here’s a (not very good) picture from my backyard. It’s pretty Aussie. Very dry at the moment.

Q. How fun! Thank you so much Robert, for your time. I really appreciate it and wish you the best with your books.

A. Thanks Jewel. It was a pleasure!

Check out Robert J. Ryan’s fiction here. Find Author Unleashed here.

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