Four months ago, a wonderful new fantasy book was put out, much to the delight of its rapidly growing fanbase. Orison, by Daniel Swensen, was published by Nine Muse Press and has received strong reviews from readers, as well as a growing clamor for a sequel. This swift-paced draconic “jewel” heist revolves around a trio of characters tottering between redemption and earthly damnation, while powerful forces set the chessboard for a high-stakes war.
Since I had the privilege of reading Orison through its myriad drafts, I asked Daniel if he would reflect on the writing process and give us some insights on how he crafted such a phenomenal debut novel, along with lessons learned and – just maybe – a sneak peek at what is to come for our beloved characters. He graciously consented to an interview. Here is the result:
What was your most unexpected expectation about publishing Orison? You know – that one subliminal expectation you didn’t think you had until it was in readers’ hands, and then you realize that you really expected _____________ to happen (or not happen).
This answer may sound like a bit of a downer, although it isn’t to me. But at first, I didn’t feel a big sense of accomplishment when Orison finally released. People were saying “oh, how great that you finished it, you must feel so proud,” but I mostly just felt relief and a sort of weariness. That, and I was already looking forward to the next book, thinking about where I would go with it. Sometimes it still hits me that I finally got a book out there, and I’m so gratified that people enjoy it, but my first and predominant feeling on publication was “okay, what’s next?” And I could feel that sentiment growing through the final revision process, but I didn’t really allow myself to think about it until it was in the hands of Nine Muse Press and out of mine.
What is the most surprising feedback that you’ve received from readers regarding Orison?
One of the most surprising and gratifying things is that so many people took different things from the book. Everyone likes a different character. On some level, I think I expected that almost everyone would be behind Story as the protagonist, but more than one reader said that she didn’t resonate with them as much as the others. There are Ashen fans, and Wrynn fans, and Dunnac fans, even Camana fans. That last one is particularly surprising because she has so little “screen time” in the book, but I’m really happy that readers found her interesting and wanted more.
One reader started a thread on social media asking what people wanted from the next book, and everyone who participated had a wildly different answer. Everyone wanted to see more about “their” character. That made me feel like I’d been successful at making each character compelling, while keeping the narrative mostly focused on the main character of Story.
Another interesting bit of feedback was on the pacing. Everyone had different opinions. Most said it was just right, or at least a big asset to the book. A few said it was too fast. A couple said it was far too fast. And at least one person said it was too slow, which just made me laugh. I don’t think I could physically have made Orison move any faster than it did. The next one will slow down a bit, but not by too much.
What mistakes did you make during the journey – any step of the writing / editing / revising / publishing journey – that you would warn your 2013 self about, if you could?
As my editor and beta readers both know, I ended up rewriting Orison from the ground up. It was originally a Nanowrimo novel from 2007, which I thought I could just gently revise into being ready for publication. But the plot was improvised, it was far too action-heavy, and a good number of the characters, though I loved them dearly, ended up being unnecessary to the plot.
So when I decided Orison was the first novel I wanted to publish, I had to tear it apart and create an entirely new setting and characters in order to make the story work the way I wanted. So in some ways the “mistake” was pantsing the novel to begin with, and then trying to shoehorn all that improvised material into an outline. It made a ton of work for me, more than if I’d just scrapped the whole thing wholesale and written something different.
But that was an incredibly valuable experience. I learned a lot about plotting, pacing and storytelling from going through all that work, and I think my next book will be much stronger for it. All the same, the next book is heavily outlined and planned in advance, so I don’t anticipate having to write an entirely new novel when I dive into revisions. Which suits me fine!
If I would warn myself about anything, it would be the life-sucking experience of line-by-line revision. That was grueling, and though I’m proud of the end result, it kind of ate my life for a month or two. But there’s not much getting around it.
It has often been said that a writer must draft multiple different manuscripts before crafting their “breakthrough novel.” Where does Orison fall in the Swensen creative lineup? Do you think there was a way to produce Orison earlier?
That is a tough one, and something I wonder about from time to time. I thought long and hard about writing a follow-up to Burn, which I know a lot of people wanted (and still want), but ultimately decided I wasn’t ready just yet. Before deciding on Orison as my first full-length work, I wrote a full-length novel called Rite of Ravens that I thought was going to be my best work ever. Then I wrote a sequel to that, the title of which I don’t even recall now. And then I scrapped them both.
It broke my heart, but they just had too many problems, too many loose ends and ever-expanding plot. There were many things I loved about those books, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to them, because so many ideas ended up being composted into Orison. But I don’t regret writing them. To me, those books represent the falls I had to take before I was truly ready to run.
So no, I don’t think I could have turned out Orison out any earlier. Those years of aborted work feel like a necessary stage to me. Ultimately, Orison was a product of me deciding to pick a book and finish it and put it out there, because if I waited for the One Perfect Novel to come along, I’d never get anything published. Ultimately, I needed to get a first book out there, and Orison was it.
I think it’s still a prevalent notion that “true writers” must write in a vacuum in order to really refine their “art.” Others point to social media as a writer’s paradise for connecting, networking, information, etc. Where do you fall in the spectrum?
I feel like I should have a strong, passionate answer to this question, but the truth is, I fall somewhere in the middle. A lot of writers sequester themselves for weeks or months in order to focus on their book, but I get a lot of value out of talking with writers and readers and getting their perspective on things. I have a small stable of advisors to whom I turn when I want help or insight on a story problem I’m trying to unravel.
On the other hand, a lot of authors share their daily progress and excerpts, and I think I’m way too self-conscious to do a lot of that. If I share my writing while it’s in progress, I immediately get caught up in how it’s perceived. At best, people like it and get anxious for more, and that can trigger anxiety or guilt in me, because I’m just wired up like that. And if they ignore it, that’s so much worse. I’d rather share an excerpt with one or two people I know will be invested, who will engage and give me meaningful feedback, not just stroke my ego or click “Like”. It’s difficult to resist the siren song of constant validation, but I have to, for my own mental health.
I am eternally grateful to those readers I managed to find through social media and blogging when I was first trying to establish a presence online. The irony is that the more serious I got about my own writing, the less time and energy I had to put into blogging and networking. I regret not being able to keep up with what my fellow writers are working on, and I wish I had more time and energy to support all of them, but I just don’t. At some point you just have to pick your battles. There’s just no way to do it all. So I do as much as I can, when I can, and that has to be enough.
What is the most recent book you’ve read that absolutely swept you away?
Probably The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. So lush and evocative. It had incredible period detail, and really got into the head of the mythical creatures that were the main characters, which I appreciated. It also managed to approach the “star-crossed lovers” trope in a fresh, complex and interesting way, which is no mean feat anymore. Runner-up would probably be The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It’s the second book in a trilogy, but told from the first-person perspective of an entirely new character, who also happens to be blind. Inventive and beautifully written. The author set up an enormous challenge for herself and met it head-on.
I hear that a certain author is plotting the next adventure for Story and her friends. Can you give Orison fans a teaser of what you have in mind?
What writer doesn’t love talking about their own stuff? I’d be happy to. To me, the whole Dragon’s Principle series is really about power and how people deal with it. Orison was about the pursuit of power, and what people were willing to sacrifice to get it. The next book, Etheric, is about what you do with power once you have it. Story comes away from the first book a changed person, and the second book is about her coming to terms with who and what she has become. She got her wish – to escape from Calushain – and now she’s in a new place, with new friends and new abilities, and has to meet the challenge of defining herself on her own terms. Her power is largely spiritual. The other thing that happens is that her name starts to become known… she’s not an anonymous nobody living in obscurity anymore, and she has to contend with that.
There’s more about the other characters as well. We find out about Dunnac’s family and the conflict that put him in exile in the first place, and what happens when he goes back. So his power is mostly political. Wrynn must confront an old rival from the Praxis School and come to terms with getting his magical power back. As the Empire broadens the conflict with the Red Cities, Ashen has to learn to transcend the limits of his physical power and continue to evolve. (Yes, Ashen appears in the second book. Apparently that was in question!)
It’s looking like a much larger tale in terms of scale and scope, but ultimately still about the same handful of characters and their struggles. And all this will be framed within the same sort of action-adventure approach I took in the first book.
Thanks to Daniel for such a great interview!
I highly recommend you head over to Amazon or Nine Muse Press to order your copy of Orison if you haven’t already!