Schlock Talks | Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan

For our second edition of Schlock Talks we sit down and have a chat with Michael J. Sullivan, creator of many worlds, including The Riyria Revelations. Since self-publishing his first book in 2008 he has gained a loyal fan base and in 2012 SF site io9 named him one of the most successful self-published SF authors. Lucky for us voracious readers he is hard at work on multiple projects, some of which should be released later this year.

I heard there is quite a tale to how you got the Riyria Revelations published. Care to share its journey?

Wow, nothing like starting off with a softball question. Truth is it’s a VERY long story and I never know how much detail to provide.  To quote the famous Inigo Montoya: “No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

Theft of Swords – Riyria Revelations, Book 1

I started writing at the age of 8 or 9, just after reading Lord of the Rings, and I became frustrated because there weren’t a lot of other books like that. I never expected to be a writer because my grammar and spelling were so terrible. In high school I wrote stories for my friend and routinely misspelled evil (yes 4 letters was apparently too much for me). They even coined a term “Sulli-speak” and would hold contests to see who could decipher the story first.

When I got married my wife’s income was much more than mine, so I stayed home to raise the children while she made the money to pay the bills. When the kids were taking their naps (or later when they were in school) I would write novels. I’ve had no formal training, instead I’m self-taught by reading other writers and trying to dissect what they did and why. After writing twelve novels and spending ten years I decided I was deluding myself…like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin that would never come…so I quit and dramatically vowed never to write again.

Over the years stories and characters kept coming to me.  They whispered and coaxed but I resisted…pushing them into the far recesses of my mind. Years later (another decade…there might be a pattern) my daughter was struggling with reading (she’s dyslexic), and I wanted to help her out. Since fantasy sparked my love for the written word, I got her the first Harry Potter book, which was all the rage.  She didn’t read it, but I picked it up and really appreciated just how fun it was to read. This gave me the idea that I could write something just for myself (and Sarah and my wife) as long as I had no intention on publishing.

When my wife read the books, she determined they HAD to get “out there.” I refused to get back on the query-go-round (that way leads to darkness and despair) so she spent several years writing queries, getting me my first agent (who tried but couldn’t sell Riyria), landing the first book with a small press, and when they ran out of money for the second book’s press run, she self-published it and the next four in the series.

By the time Wintertide came out (book 5 and second to last), Robin thought New York might be more interested now that I had a small but loyal set of readers.  She had also recently hired a foreign rights agent (because deals were coming in from overseas) and the two of them made up a proposal and sent it to seventeen acquisition editors. Robin I expected we wouldn’t hear anything for a year or six months, but then we had seven (or was it eight, I forget) publishers who were immediately interested and Orbit made a pre-emptive offer. Since Orbit was our first choice anyway we took that deal, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yes, believe it or not that was the “summed up” version there are much longer ones with far more daring but I tried to keep it short, but thorough.

Hadrian and Royce have an intense friendship that is often tested. Were there any reasons in particular that you wanted to make the story focus on a duo of protagonists? Any real-life friendship that you based this on?

I should have something clever to say but the fact is they just emerged together, like Romulus and Remus. It was never a matter of inventing one first then adding the other. I tend to like good “buddy” pairings: Frodo and Sam, Sam and Al (Quantum Leap), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (was Butch’s nickname Sam, because that seems to be a requirement). Oh and Kelly Robison and Alexander Scott (dang, another missing Sam) from “I Spy” (which really dates me).

As a writer it gives me more flexibility because I can have situations examined from two different perspectives. Plus I get to have the traits of one rub off on the other. Besides it’s just so much fun to write them. There are times they are separated in the books due to plot reasons and they each seem less complete without the other.

I can’t say their friendship is based on any real-life experience (does that make me a total loser…probably). Maybe that actually explains where they came from…as an example of something I would like to have, but didn’t. As a writer we get to invent our own imaginary friends without the baggage of years of therapy to correct the disorder. So, yeah I imagined what type of friendship I would like to have and then invented it on the page.

Rise of Empire – Riyria Revelations, Book 2

I remember reading somewhere that you were heavily into ‘literary’ fiction when you started writing, but then switched to fantasy later on. Why did you switch?

Ah, you see, I told you there was more, and I didn’t even look ahead. My writing career has two distinct eras: the first…when I was writing to “become an author” and the second when I was writing “to please myself.” During the first my goal was (a) to learn to be a great writer and (b) to publish, because (b) would no doubt follow (a). I read books that were highly regarded by “those in the know,” but to be honest, most really didn’t appeal to me. I could appreciate them for what they were, and the skill at which they were crafted, but if given the choice, I’d rather read: The Stand, Watership Down, or other tales of adventure and friendship.

During that time, I took each book apart piece by piece, like disassembling a clock to see what makes it tick, and then I would write my own works based off of what I had learned. If I were to rate my literary writing I think it was very good, maybe even excellent. To this day, I can read passages from the ending portion of that period and marvel at the choice of words, the meter, and appreciate the quality of the writing. But all that being said…they wouldn’t be the thing I would rush to read, nor feel compelled to tell everyone I know that they “must” read them. Bottom line, writing in that style seemed more like “work,” which I define as: doing something I would prefer not to in order to earn money to pay the bills.

As I mentioned, when I returned to writing, I changed my attitude completely. I was writing, “what I wanted to read.” I wasn’t answering to anyone but myself. I didn’t have to tailor the books for agents, publishers, or the reading public at large. I loved the freedom, and writing became my favorite pastime. I woke each day excited to “play my favorite game,” and so what I do now never seems like work. The fact that I get paid to do it still baffles me…but I’m not going to complain as it gives me more time to concentrate on it (because of not having a day job), and I can give my wife what she gave me for years…the freedom of not having to get up and go “work for the man.”

Truthfully, if you were in a bar fight and could only choose Hadrian or Royce to get your back, who would it be, and why?

It would be Hadrian, no question. We’d both be more concerned with getting “past it” as quickly as possible so we could return to drinking. Hadrian would opt for knocking someone out rather than slitting a throat. Royce’s way might be “faster” but then we’d be on the run and the Guinness would be abandoned. Besides, after some of the things I’ve put Royce through, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have “my back.” He’d see it as an opportunity for payback without actually bloodying his own knife.

Heir of Novron – Riyria Revelations, Book 3

Any advice to aspiring writers?

Wow, can’t you give me another short one like the bar fight? Seriously there is so much to say to authors. I could fill pages and pages and only hit the top of the iceberg. If I were to try and find the two most important things it would be these:

First it is that it is so much easier to be a writer now than the past. Before you had only one path, and because traditional publishers only have so much bandwidth, few could enter through those gates. But nowadays, there are all kinds of opportunities: self-publishing, small presses (that are actually making money now due to changes in technology), going traditional, starting out traditional and going self, starting out self and signing with traditional, doing a little of both (hybrid). The key to each of these paths is the quality of your work. If you produce something that people love so much that they tell everyone they know about it…then you’ll be a success no matter which path you take. With a quality product, it’s easy…just keep putting it in front of people until word-of-mouth starts to spread, then go back and write more to keep the readers well fed and everything else will take care of itself.

Second, the only way to ensure failure in this business is to stop trying. There is a lot of talk about how “lucky” person A or person B got. And yes, sometimes people get a break, and good for them, but you can’t count on or control “luck.” The good news is even if you don’t have luck you can still make it if you have skill, talent, and perseverance. Of the three, you have 100% control of perseverance. It’s the people that pick themselves up after each disappointment (which there will be plenty of) and go on to write something else that will increase the odds in their favor. Skill is something that you can constantly work on and constantly improve. When you get done writing your “masterpiece” set your sights for the next book to be even higher.  Continue to read, and learn, and practice, and never settle for “good enough.” As for the last of the three, talent is something that you probably don’t have much control over. In this context I think of talent as the ability to create something completely out of nothingness. My wife has great skill at editing, but no talent for creation. She can improve her skills through practice and training, but the talent will remain, to a large degree, what it has always been. The good news is you don’t have to peg the dial with all three. I’ve seen exceptionally talented writers, with moderate skill do well…and highly skilled writers who are only marginally talented. Both kinds have produced books that have sold well and people enjoy. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you are lacking in one or the other. Instead, keep persevering…write that next story, and the one after that.  Work on improving your skill.  It may take time…a lot of time…but if you keep at it there is a very high likelihood that you can achieve success.


You’re quite a prolific writer, what are you working on at the moment?

Wow another potentially long one…as I always have so many things going at once. Publishing can take a long time from start to finish so I usually have multiple projects at various stages.

On my desk presently is the final printer’s proof for The Crown Tower, a Riyria Chronicles story (prequels to Revelations). The book is coming out August 6, and I have to have my review done by April 2. As soon as I turn that in, I expect to have printer’s proofs for The Rose and the Thorn, another Riyria Chronicle which will be releasing September 17 (my birthday). My guess is those two books will be “finally wrapped” by mid April.

Along with that, I’m also incorporating beta feedback to Hollow World. Soon (another three to four weeks) I’ll be receiving structural edits from Betsy Mitchell (my primary editor on that project). I’ll incorporate those changes then get it off to the copyeditors. My hope is to have that project “wrapped” by mid June…but I have a margin of error built in that gives me until mid-July if I need it. The official release won’t be until January 20, 2014, but I’m running a Kickstarter campaign for that project until April 4th, and anyone who contributes is getting the final book in that June/July timeframe.

Editor’s Update: The project was successfully funded!

I have two projects that are fully written but I’m not doing anything with…and probably won’t for quite some time: Antithesis, which I had intended to come out in March, but which needs more work than I have time for at the present, and A Burden to the Earth (my literary fiction piece), which still needs some more edits, but as I said, it isn’t the type of writing that gets me excited so I’m not sure if I should ever “put that one out there.”

So those five books I consider “past projects,” because while I still have to work on them here and there, they are essentially completed (some months or even years ago), and are just moving their way through the process from “finished” to “published.” My actual “work in progress” is the first book in a new Trilogy (The First Empire) and is entitled Rhune which I started in early February. I’ve outlined the entire series, and, just like both sets of Riyria books, I plan on writing all of them before putting out any of those books for publication. I’m about 50% of the way through book one and even while doing those other projects above, I write 1,000 – 2,000 words a day on it.

There are also “other projects,” but they are in the very early stages that they aren’t worth mentioning. At this point I’m just jotting down notes as they come into my head and if/when it comes time to start them, the first step will be to pull out all the notes and start to organize it all.

There are also some smaller projects, that I’ll be squeezing in here and there when the time comes, such as helping Shawn Speakman do the ebook formatting for his Unfettered Anthology, but he is still waiting on copy edits. The there are some short stories I have to write for the Kickstarter because stretch goals were reached. Those are “fit around the edges” projects that will be worked on after the projects with more definite deadlines are scratched off.

Wow, that looks like a lot. I guess I need to get back to it. Thanks for the interview. It was fun.



After finding a manual typewriter in the basement of a friend’s house, Michael inserted a blank piece of paper and typed: It was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out. He was just eight years old at the time. But the desire to fill the blank page and see what doors the typewriter keys would unlock wouldn’t let him go.

Michael is one of the few authors who has successfully published through all three routes: small press, self, and big six. He has been named to io9’s Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors list as well as making #6 on EMG’s 25 Self Published Authors to Watch. As of January 2013, he has sold more than 250,000 books, been translated to 14 languages.

Be sure to check out Michael’s website/blog for more information about the books and how you can get a copy. If you want to read some great fiction right now, then go check out Schlock’s latest issue, always full of great stories and art. And if you’re not satisfied with that glut of goodness, then be sure to give our latest Pop Culture Destruction a read.