I write about how women can be strong and men can be strong, and neither of them has to take away from the other. I’m passionate about writing women as strong without being wimpy – which is cool, especially as I have a young audience, as well as adults.
Mel Welcome to the beautiful Aiki Flinthart. Today we’re going to Fantasyland – Aiki has published eleven middle grade and adult fantasy novels, and she specializes in writing fight scenes.
Aiki I have been training in martial arts for about 18 years. I’ve actually been writing my whole life, but early on they were dreadful romances (which will never see the light of day). I started writing fantasy because my son is dyslexic and he was really struggling with big fat books like Harry Potter – he just couldn’t get through them. So I wrote a series of five books for middle graders – portal fantasy with kids getting sucked into a computer game set in 80AD.
My sneaky goal was to hide some real history in there. The kids have to go through five levels in five different countries, all set in 80AD. Those books were really quite successful – they’ve had about 400,000 downloads.
I realized I really didn’t know what I was doing. I went away, and learnt a lot of things, and wrote some more books – and now the ones that are coming out are stronger, better written. But the older ones keep selling really well, so there’s something about them.
Mel 400,000 downloads of middle grade novels is amazing. We’re talking digital. Aiki is an indie publisher. Other than Amazon and your own website, where can we buy your books?
Aiki They’re in all the major retailers – so iBooks and Kobo and Barnes and Noble and a couple of others. You can print on demand as well. If you go into a bookshop they’ll order it in for you.
Mel You have to know an awful lot to be able to write fantasy novels and build two worlds.
Aiki The research involved is incredible. The latest one that’s coming out is actually a science fiction/fantasy set on a future colony world. My background is in geology, so I decided to do an alternate world – a different world. You’ve gotta really science the heck out of those things. You do your hard science research, and for historical stories you have to do your historical research. Someone out there will pick up on every mistake, I guarantee. I was trying to teach kids something so I wanted it to be as accurate as possible.
Mel You also have 15 years’ training in martial arts, knife throwing and archery.
Aiki Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, there’s a huge disparity between the big-selling authors and the rest of the world. Most of us need to have full-time or part-time jobs. I run a full-time business. Luckily my son has grown up, so in the evenings I have time to write. My husband is very supportive.
Mel You’re an indie publisher. You’ve had 400,000 downloads and you’re still not making a full time living?
Aiki No, unfortunately. Early on I had them up for free and put money on them after that. I do get money, but it’s not as much as anybody thinks. Amazon and other retailers take a percentage. When you’re only selling books for a small amount, there’s not a lot leftover.
Mel This is where the indie publishers or indie authors have the advantage – the more books you have, the more the money adds up.
Aiki The modern trend in indie authorship is to put out a lot of books as fast as you can. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s going to work for fantasy. Fantasy novels tend to be longer. The three books in the Shadows series are each 80,000 words. Iron is 140,000; its two sequels are around 120,000. It’s quite hard to put that volume out quickly. But that’s how authorship works – you just keep putting books out. To be honest, I’d rather do a few that are really good quality. I can do that, because I’m not dependent on it for a living.
Mel Why did you choose indie over traditional publishing?
Aiki With the 80AD series, I made some very halfhearted attempts to get them traditionally published. But I didn’t know what I was doing with query letters or sending them in. I didn’t even really bother – I just put them up myself and they went nuts. Maybe I should get publishers to look at what I’m doing. The Shadows series had a publisher and agent interested.
But to be honest publishing contracts these days aren’t that great. They don’t give me anything that I couldn’t do myself, and they don’t do marketing much anymore because they can’t afford to take risks on unknowns. There wasn’t a huge benefit for me in going with the publisher, except that they would do some of the time-consuming stuff. But I’m a bit of a control freak, so I stuck with the indie route.
Mel I’ve had a look at your blog, Warrior Woman. One thing you say is that as a writer you need to find the middle ground between paralyzing lack of self-belief and ignorant overconfidence.
Aiki When you first start writing, you think you know what you’re doing and you just pour out the words. Then you get negative feedback and you start reading you don’t know everything, and you don’t know what you don’t know! And suddenly you go, “Oh my God, I can’t write anymore.” You can get trapped in this cycle of trying to be perfect – so many writers tend to be introverted perfectionists. You have to find that middle ground, where you’re still writing, and you’re still learning. You need to be comfortable with the fact that it’s never going to be perfect and let it go.
Mel The advantage of indie publishing is that done is better than perfect because later you can go back and fix it.
Aiki Oh, definitely. You have to treat that as a good thing. I highly recommend that you get books edited and take on board any feedback that’s positive and useful. Everybody gets feedback that’s just nasty and negative, and you just ignore it. But feedback that tells you about something like a spelling mistake is worthwhile to take on board. On the other hand, I actually start my books with a warning to my American readers, saying that everything is written with Australian spellings – get over it! I got tired of them telling me I was spelling things wrong.
Mel I saw that one of your book blurbs said, “If you’re expecting shapeshifters, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Aiki Yes, because paranormal at the moment – especially paranormal romance – has a big trend of shapeshifters and vampires and, you know, there’s still some zombies hanging around. I didn’t go that way, so I thought I should warn people.
Mel I got the impression that your novels are pure fantasy or science fiction that will stand the test of time.
Aiki Well, I’m hoping so! You have to try to do that – minimize the number of current pop culture references. It isn’t easy when the Shadows series is urban fantasy, and there are some in there.
I try to make the heroines tough. One of the things my husband loves about my books is that the relationships in them are equal for women and men. No love triangles; one person isn’t dominant over the other. As a man, he really loves that.
Mel It’s great that kids are getting those messages. Let’s kick in to the workshops you run.
Aiki Yes. I’ve worked with businesses teaching them how to understand personality differences in the workplace, so they could hire people and create teams. Then I realized that you could apply that equally to writing ensemble casts in novels. You need to write balanced personalities. If you’ve got representation of, say, five to eight personality types on your team, you’re appealing to all readers – you’ve got everyone covered. It also leads to brilliant conflict, because a leader who’s really strong-willed is going to conflict with a laid-back, easygoing person.
I also run workshops in martial arts. I teach people things like gun disarms or reactions to techniques that other people apply. It’s hilarious to watch! A lot of it is to do with physiology, psychology, body chemistry – the mental reactions that lead up to a fight scene. There are fascinating differences in how women and men react to and handle violence. I should do a masters in it or something.
I think it’s very applicable to writing. If I was going to write a fight scene, or even an argument scene, knowing about that physiology and psychology allows me to write it more deeply – give it more credibility, make it more authentic. I’ve had people in my workshops who write straight-out romances, with no action or fights at all – but the psychology and physiology leading up to an argument is similar to that leading up to an actual fight scene. It’s all applicable.
Mel How do you structure your fight scenes?
Aiki It’s tricky – I try to make the fight scenes varied so you don’t feel like you’re repeating the same scene each time. My characters also use different types of martial arts. My specialty is Yoshinkan Aikido, but I cross-trained in jujitsu and kung fu. So I pull from a whole bunch of arts and try to use different techniques for different characters, just to get variety. There are also different weapons. In the Shadows trilogy, the main character has a Middle-East Asian knife, which is like a little claw that sticks out from your hand. She has a very thin version that she keeps under her bra underwire, so she can just whip it out. It’s so much fun writing unusual weapons. It’s all about variety and making sure there’s no white room where people are just standing there punching each other. You have to make them trip over or smash into things, and allow them to have internal dialogue – but not so much that it slows the fight down. It’s a really tricky balance to get right.
Most of the feedback I get is that my books are very fast-paced, action-oriented. I had one writer say that there was no way Iron was 140,000 words, that it was impossible. And I’m looking at my word count going, “I’m pretty sure there’s 140,000 words on my page here.” But he was adamant that it was so fast it couldn’t possibly have been that long. I feel like that’s a success, because I want people to be immersed. Even the slower pieces feel like they are moving quick enough that you’re not bored.
The next two books in the Iron trilogy are slightly shorter, because there’s more worldbuilding to set up in the first book. You also need to establish character at the beginning, so you need that extra 10,000 words to immerse the readers in the world without being dull. The other two books are about 120,000 each. You can launch straight into those, because everybody’s already comfortable with the characters in the world. You get to open straight into an action scene – always fun. I don’t write gore, though. It’s partly because I want it to be readable for younger people, and partly because I have nightmares. I can’t watch a horror movie to save myself, and I don’t feel the need for graphic descriptions of eye gouging and blood dripping down people’s arms. It’s not necessary for the story. The story’s about characters and how they feel. That’s what you want the reader to connect to – not how gruesome it was.
Mel You also run an editing service and offer critique. Why is it important for a writer to have their work edited?
Aiki It’s obviously everybody’s choice – but in my opinion, you can’t get away without at least a structural analysis of your book. When I first started writing, I didn’t even know what story structure was. But because I had read so much as a child, I nailed the structure subconsciously. I was really lucky, because I don’t think I could have rewritten all my early books. It was a different story with Shadow’s Wake. When I applied a structural analysis to it, I realized that I’d missed a key point – I had to completely rewrite and shift scenes to make it work.
Sometimes you need an external eye to tell you, “Your story isn’t working here, and this scene is too long, and this scene isn’t paced correctly, and this character doesn’t have a strong arc.” If you can get that external eye from strong beta readers, that’s a great place to start. But sometimes beta readers love you too much and they don’t want to point out problems in case they hurt your feelings.
As a writer, you’ve got to suck it up and go, “I need some help with this. It’s never going to be perfect, but I’m sure it can be better.” That’s where you need the help of somebody who has more years of experience. That’s all it is, really – just a few more years.
The thing about editing your own work is that you read it so many times you can’t see the mistakes. You also learn a lot when each book’s edited – you can apply it to your next book and make it better again. Each time you require a bit less editing, because you know a bit more about what you’re doing.
Mel Tell us about your latest book, Iron.
Aiki Iron is the first book in a trilogy – the next books are called Fire and Steel. I got the idea when I made the really stupid mistake of sending my husband and son to a weekend blacksmithing course. They came back covered in coal dust and went, “We’re going to buy a forge.” So now we have a forge, and my husband blacksmiths every weekend. I can’t complain, because I have a matched set of swords and daggers now, which is really cool. I’m also a geologist, and when we got the forge, I thought, “What happens if you colonise a future world” – which is a standard science fiction trope – “and you terraform it. You make it habitable, but if that world doesn’t have a history of millions of years of life then we have no iron deposits, no chalk, no coal and oil and all of the things that are associated with millions of years of life.” Then I asked what would happen if you suddenly find an iron deposit – the whole social order would be turned upside down. I really enjoyed writing that. Being a geologist helped with the worldbuilding – it would have been much harder to write something I had no knowledge of, because that requires a heck of a lot of research.
Mel What are you working on at the moment?
Aiki My current work in progress is set in the same world as the Shadows series, but in London in 1486. I wanted to do something interesting and different, and teach myself more about how to write unique character voices. So I’m writing 24 short stories, all set in London – 24 women’s voices, close first person. Several of the women know each other and glance off each other, and there’s an overarching story involving an attempt to assassinate King Henry VII. Together it will form one big novel, but each story will stand alone.
Mel Where are the other Shadows books set?
Aiki The first one is set in Cairns, which is where I grew up. It was a fun place to write, because it’s got such rich tropical sensations. The characters have a very strong connection to forests, so I wanted a location with a good forest they could draw from. The second book in the trilogy moved to Brisbane, and the third one ends up in Florence, Italy – partly because I’d just been there on holidays. There was a museum in Florence whose owner bought all these weapons and armour from all over the world – the Turkish Empire, the Japanese Empire, all of those places. The whole mansion is stuffed full of weapons, flintlocks, knights’ armour, swords – and I just thought, ‘I need to write a fight scene in this museum.’
Mel Why do you release them separately? As a marketing strategy?
Aiki It’s more the lack of time. It takes time to write as well as running a full time business. It takes time to do the lead up and marketing and prep and formatting. It also takes money. You need to buy the covers and get them professionally designed, and get all the editing paid for. I can’t afford to release them all instantly! But they will be close. With traditional publishing you’ll have maybe two to three years between books, but with these it’ll only be two to three months. It’s not a big time lag.
Mel The science fiction genre is almost bigger than romance at the moment, isn’t it?
Aiki There’s not a lot of crossover between romance and science fiction, although paranormal romance is blurring the lines. I’ll have to be honest and say no. I think romance authors are outstripping everyone. But your science fiction / fantasy fans are doggedly loyal. Once they love an author, they will read every single book in the 50-book series that fantasy writers tend to do.