Joseph Malik (Interview) – Dragon’s Trail and the Art of Writing Realistic Fantasy

There’s a new book I’ve been reading –  Dragon’s Trail, a debut fantasy novel by Joseph Malik. The best way I can describe it is as a modern Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: a modern-day man with some very select skills and equipment ends up making a massive dent in a very old world.

DT’s hero, Jarrod, is armed not with a magic sword or powers, but with modern steel, modern strategies for battle analysis, and a lifetime of combat training from the professional sword fighting / Live-Action Role-Play circles. He’s dropped smack into a medieval fantasy world, with everyone under the assumption that he’s some kind of demon, and given a mission: the enemy is kicking ass under the leadership of a sorcerer who once was a Las Vegas showhand. Jarrod, supposed demon and savior, is supposed to figure out how to deal with this threat.

What really shines through here is the author’s love of realism, even in fantasy scenarios (read his blogpost here about steel in medieval warfare to understand what I mean). Joe Malik, a huge geek who happens to be a former Special Ops guy, apparently intends this to be part one of a bigger discussion – information asymmetry in warfare, modern weapons and the power advantages they give, and how technological progress plays into battle strategy at every level – and it works right from the start.

After reading some of his blogposts, I asked for an email Q&A, and he was kind enough to provide some very lengthy answers. Read ‘Talking Tech In Fantasy’, a conversation he has with one of his beta readers, and skip back here to build on what they discussed there.

Dragon’s Trail looks like a hit. You mentioned you’d been writing this for thirty years, to the point where it wasn’t about words anymore. How do you measure progress on your work? Is there a metric you use, like x number of drafts?

JM: I don’t know if “hit” is the right word, but I’m extremely pleased. It has been generating steady sales, a “slow burn,” for about six months, now, and doing quite well considering it’s a debut release on a small press. Last week it had a great review posted to GoodReads, and all I can figure is that the reviewer has a huge social reach, because sales took off on the same day. It peaked at #18 in Military Fantasy last week, shoulder to shoulder with such luminaries as Tad Williams and Joe Abercrombie, and was briefly under the 10,000 mark overall on Amazon. It was a small but significant proof of concept.

As for thirty years writing this, it has been, and it hasn’t. I started writing this story back in high school, in the mid-80’s. Granted, it’s gone through a lot of changes and I sucked back then. I still have the original manuscript, with comments and corrections from my high school English teacher. I pursued the story as a hobby for a few years, and then got serious about writing in college, and started submitting the novel in probably the mid-1990’s. Rejections led to rewrites in an endless circle for about ten years, and the story developed and I started working on series ideas. Toward the end of that, I quit submitting and just wrote for my own enjoyment. Then I put it away for about five years and pretty much forgot about it, and then rediscovered it five years ago and started a total rewrite. That book became Dragon’s Trail.

I don’t know how I measure progress anymore. My style is defined at this point; I have my voice. Fifteen years of cover to cover rewrites will do that to you. So, I have a standard, but it’s nebulous. You reach a point with your rewrites where you’re like a standup comic rehearsing in front of a mirror, getting the timing and phrasing right. You need to know how the story goes, but then you have to figure out how to tell it so that you can make it engaging. I’m on my first rewrite of Book II, The New Magic, right now, and I can tell that this version is going to hit pretty close to the mark. It’s progressing quickly. I think that ultimately, my editor, Monique Fischer, will be the judge of whether or not it’s ready. Really, my metric — if I have one — is how confident I feel presenting this to my editor.

DT has a ton of information on metallurgy, weapons, weaponsmithing, not to mention battlefield tactics, but spread out like a thriller – as opposed to, say, the info-dumps you commonly see in most scifi and fantasy. How did you work out this style?

JM: Thanks.

First off, I need to shout out to Monique again on this one. My readers tell me that there’s really no other book like Dragon’s Trail out there right now, at least, to hear them tell it. It’s just a different kind of book, that’s trying to do something new with the genre, and maybe even create its own. I went to a few different editors with the manuscript, and one of them said, even at the pitch, that he wouldn’t touch it. One, who I started working with after he did a killer sample edit, wanted a total rewrite in limited third POV and wanted me to change the characters so that it would “resonate with the YA crowd.” He also wanted all the technical stuff taken out and for me to just give Jarrod a magic sword. So that didn’t work out. When I approached Monique and told her that I had a cross-worlds, epic fantasy, political technothriller written for an adult audience and voiced in old-school omniscient, she said, “Sounds great.” She was critical in toning it down in spots and raising the volume in others. She gets it.

For my part, I read a lot of technothrillers. I read more thrillers than I do fantasy, and I love the geeky stuff. The geekier, the better. In fact, I have a section of bookshelf that’s nothing but repair and operation manuals for antique equipment: turn-of-the-century power drills, vacuum cleaner repair manuals from the ’40’s. I love arcana.

I think there’s a natural crossover between fantasy and thrillers, or there can be. The author of The Marathon Man, William Goldman, is also the author of The Princess Bride. Umberto Eco wrote both Foucault’s Pendulum, which is just freaking mind-bending, but also wrote The Name of the Rose, which is an amazing historical thriller. I actually started writing fantasy all those years ago because I’d read The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising. And to my knowledge, nobody had taken that kind of approach with fantasy — that level of research and narrative explanation — and I wanted to read something like that, so I decided to write it. Goldman kind of went there with the fencing and the worldbuilding in The Princess Bride, which also has that omniscient narrative feel that I love so much; it’s written from the POV of someone who’s telling you the story, which is just magnificent to me.

Anyway, with the fantasy that I’d been reading as a kid, it seemed to me that many authors were getting their details wrong. It seemed to make sense to me to research all of it, and take the thriller-writer’s approach: have the characters be the experts, and have the reader see it through their eyes. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, who my work keeps getting compared to, were masters of this. Infodumps can be entertaining if you tell them as stories in their own right, and I think that’s where sci-fi and fantasy authors screw it up. You can’t just start into the, “Well, as you know, George . . .” There’s an art to it; a finesse. Eric van Lustbader does such an amazing job with the Eastern mindset without ever ramming it down your throat. He just sets you down in the middle of it and folds the world up around you. James Clavell did a wonderful fish-out-of-water thing with Shogun by making the main character a student for a good part of it. Again, though: thrillers, and historical thrillers. Not so much in fantasy, which is weird, because it’s not much of a leap.

Doing the homework for all this, or at least realizing that I’d have to, led me to my approach to research, which is strictly hands-on. It started with foil and saber lessons after school through the local community college. Then I bought an old sword in an antique store, and made a shirt of mail from coat hanger wire, and started whacking at it and shooting arrows at it and making notes. I got hooked on learning how things should work in fantasy; I didn’t realize it would become a lifelong quest. Pretty much, at this point, though, if my characters do it, I’ve likely done it, myself. It’s easy enough to go on YouTube or Wikipedia and research how something functions (at least now; that wasn’t an option when I started all this) but when you learn how to do it yourself, the act of learning and doing creates its own story. All these little stories funnel up into the book like roots, which solidifies the worldbuilding. I think that’s why words like “convincing” and “plausible” keep coming up in reviews for Dragon’s Trail.

This kind of research is much more of a thriller concept, I think, than a fantasy one. In thrillers, you expect the technical details to be right. In fantasy, you expect the details to be the same as every other fantasy book, instead of being right. There are accepted inaccuracies embedded in the tropes, and I sometimes read fantasy just to find these things so I can go out and test them and blow them up. You see that a lot in Dragon’s Trail; you think you know how it’s going to go because you’ve seen this a hundred times, but it turns out that the trope is wrong, and it really works like this. The scene where Jarrod draws the wrong sword against the sheth, and the sword he needs is on his horse. You’d think, from the messages I get about that, that nobody in the history of fantasy has ever pointed out what different swords do. The hero’s sword is the hero’s sword, right? The hero draws his mighty sword and slays the critter. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on the sword. And the critter.

I can’t be the only person doing this. There have to be other authors out there doing it. Maybe together we’ll all set a new standard. A lot of hard fantasy writing seems to be wrapped up in the laws of the magic systems, which is awesome, but you still bump into these wild and sometimes laughable inaccuracies in the mundane parts of the worldbuilding. I believe that you have to get those mundane aspects right at the outset, because this develops a level of plausibility and trust with the reader that allows you to suspend disbelief sufficiently to introduce the magical aspects. By the time you get to the flying horses, hopefully the reader thinks, “Well, hell. He’s been right about everything else. Why not a flying horse?”

On that, it took weeks to design a functional pegasus saddle. But introducing it, I just write about the way the character’s legs fit into it and how much it hurts his trick knee, and that’s it. It’s, like, ten words out of a notepad’s worth of sketches and notes. It was originally a full page, down to the tooling and the latigo and the straps and the anatomy of the pegasus, since he had all this time up in the air to study it, but again, things like this come back down to my editor and her mighty red pen. She knew how to make it work. I didn’t.

What was the process of getting the book out there, once it was done? What did you have to do?

JM: The process was, I screwed it all up. I didn’t really think it through, and I didn’t do any research at all. The release of Dragon’s Trail was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.

I was of the impression that the indie market was for books like Dragon’s Trail; lifetime works that had been passed over by the major houses, and that the authors then decided to have professionally edited and released on their own dime. I completely misunderstood what the market was about, I’m afraid. I had no concept of pulps or writing to market or hitting the accepted tropes — hell, I’d written a book specifically destroying accepted tropes. I got laughed off of a couple of forums when I said that I had one book I’d been writing for thirty years.

After the initial friends-and-family spike at launch, I used the typical outlets for fantasy novels: BargainBooksy, Choosy Bookworm, ENT, taking an occasional chance on a Fiverr promotion, and playing with my Amazon marketing. I just took the money the book was bringing in and put it back into promo every month, and considered it all as a loss leader. What this did, unbeknownst to me, was keep the book afloat, and in so doing, it built up enough of a sales history that it appears to have some sticking power now that it has finally found its people. So, it’s successful by most definitions that indie authors throw around, but it’s not like I went out and bought a new Porsche.

I’ve been a panelist and moderator at NorWesCon, a sci-fi and fantasy convention in Seattle, for the past few years, and I think that’s what really kicked me in the ass to finish and publish. I didn’t even tell anyone I was an author all this time; I was invited to the con to speak and demonstrate as an expert on swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, and military strategy, plus all the stuff that I’ve learned while writing Dragon’s Trail. Panel after panel turned into “Fantasy Mythbusting,” with hand after hand going up and people asking why authors and directors never get this stuff right. People now follow me around from panel to panel every year, and it occurred to me that there’s a rabid, under-served readership out there who are sick of books and movies bullshitting them. If I’d really been smart about this, I’d have started an email list three years ago when I started speaking and demonstrating at cons. Huge, huge missed opportunity.

Your top ten for novels? (Note: I always try to ask this from people I come across. They’re generally a good indicator of what kind of mind the other person has).

JM: Only ten? Zoikes.

In no particular order:

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. 800 pages of impenetrable, backwards-talking, hyperintellectual brain-porn. A Tough Mudder course for your language center.

“It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”

Foucault’s Pendulum. The mother of all conspiracy theories.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. No contest, the best writing of the late 20th Century. This is four books, but I’m counting it as one.

Discworld. Really, any of them.

The Martian. My favorite recent novel. A brilliant concept, a hilarious hero.

The Princess Bride.

The Hunt for Red October.

Jurassic Park. Not a particularly well-written novel; I think Crichton’s prose is clumsy and wooden in places. But the concept is genius, even if the science is (now known to be) flawed. What a fantastic piece of sci-fi.

Glory Road by Robert Heinlein. A masterpiece of crossworlds fantasy.

Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter. Another master of the technical thriller.

Thanks for this. I had fun.

A shout out to Joe Malik for being a good sport and an excellent writer. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

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