Barnes & Noble Book Club’s reviewer Paul Goat Allen called John Marco’s works some of the best in military fantasy. A husband, a father, and a proud, admitted nerd, Marco can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a writer. His first novel, The Jackal Of Nar, was published in 1999. That launched his first trilogy, the Tyrants and Kings from BantamSpectra. Two more novels followed, then came his Bronze Knight series for Daw Books, the fourth of which, The Forever Knight, released this past Spring. He spends a lot of time on his blog and author site at HappyNerdJohn.blogspot.com and also on Twitter as @happynerdjohn. He’s also headlining Shattered Shields, a military fantasy anthology coming next year from Baen Books, edited by Jennifer Brozek and myself, which also features new Black Company from Glen Cook, new Runelords from David Farland, new Paksenarrion from Elizabeth Moon and an October Daye prequel story from Seanan McGuire, amongst others.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
JOHN MARCO: Maybe the covers. I loved the old book and magazine covers. Made me want to read them.
SFFWRTCHT: I always loved those too. Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
JM: Old favorites are Moorcock and Bradbury. Loved their stuff growing up. Still inspires me. Newer authors? So much talent.
JM: I have to say the Elric books. I loved them to death!
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
JM: Decide is an interesting word. Feels like I always wanted to do it. I was always in awe of writers growing up. Got started just by jumping in and trying. Wrote some awful “novels” as a teenager, plus some shorts. Got serious in my late twenties.
SFFWRTCHT: We all have those awful ones. How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
JM: All self-taught. Read books about writing. Tried and failed and tried some more. Having friends who write too also helps. I made up my mind to get published. It was a decision.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first short stories or novels? What was your first pro sale?
JM: Started with novels once I got serious. Knew I wanted to write books. Jackal was my first sale. Took me three years to write.
JM: Core elements are the same as any good book. Strong characters. Decent pacing. For fantasy, some magic, of course.
SFFWRTCHT: Are there any movies which have inspired your writing?
JM: I love movies you know. So many I pull from–Godfather, Man from All Seasons, Lion in Winter, and more.
SFFWRTCHT: Lukien is the Bronze Knight, beloved by his kingdom, renowned in battle throughout his world. After betraying his king and losing his beloved, he is given a chance for redemption: But how can one man, even an immortal warrior, protect hundreds from a world of potential enemies? Where’d the idea for the Bronze Knight come from?
JM: Lukien is my version of the “golden haired” hero, but with twists. I wanted a strong, memorable character, like Elric.
JM: For this new book, plot came first, but it varies for me. Sometimes I start with a bare bones plot, then create a main character. I usually build the plot and characters in tandem. Doesn’t always work out that way.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re rather known for strong characterization. Please tell us a bit about Lukien and his companion Malator?
JM: Lukien, well, he’s been through a lot. A real troubled veteran looking for some peace. Except he never finds it. And Malator is his Akari-the spirit that keeps him alive. Malator is a friend, but also a task master. It’s a rough relationship. But I like being known for strong characters. Thanks for saying that.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re welcome. I’m quoting Paul Goat Allen, actually. How long did Forever Knight take to write?
JM: Well, Paul was very generous to me in those reviews.
SFFWRTCHT: He’s been generous to me too but that’s why I like him. He’s both critic and fanboy.
JM: Agreed. Paul seems to know a lot and love the genre. Best kind of critic! Forever Knight took about a year to write, I guess. I had some fits and starts due to life events interrupting.
SFFWRTCHT: Ah yes. How are we supposed to write with all this life going on? Tell us about the geography of your world.
JM: Much of the world is European/Mediterranean. Other parts have an Arabic feel to them. I love researching cultures.
JM: Risks–good question. Yes, I think I am more willing now. Have to do what interests me, even risk alienating readers.
SFFWRTCHT: I know you’ve blogged about it recently, but has writing 1st person introduced complications you didn’t expect?
JM: Complications for 1st person. Hmm. I loved it. Was hard at first. Limited the story, but in a good way. Focused me.
SFFWRTCHT: Following the risk theme, what was bigger risk? Young adult in Starfinder or 1st person in Forever Knight?
JM: Starfinder taught me to be more economical with words. I took that to heart.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the Eyes of God which costs Lukien quite a bit and the prior trilogy please.
JM: The Eyes Of God series was all about loss for me, and trying to make up for past sins. The prior series, Tyrants and Kings, was about war and revenge, largely. Two of my favorite themes!
SFFWRTCHT: Are you an outliner or a pantser? Did you follow the surprising ride or have it planned?
JM: Outliner! Always an outliner. I need a map to see where I’m going. But I do take some detours now and then.
JM: The new book only barely continues the old story. Mostly new characters. I call it a soft reboot. It’s very different in style. I want people to read the new book even if they haven’t read the others. They can, honestly!
SFFWRTCHT: You do like to “go deep” into series rather than write more broadly. Why do you think that is?
JM: I don’t know. I do try not to overplay the same worlds, but I do like to explore the characters fully.
SFFWRTCHT: Does your process for writing short stories differ from your novel-writing process?
JM: Short stories are very hard for me! I really concentrate on theme in them. Want them to leave the reader thoughtful.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about your path to publication. How’d you wind up at Bantam Spectra? Agent? Slush?
JM: I found my first agent on Compuserve. She sold my novel Jackal to Bantam, after some reworking of it. I have been with DAW ever since. Will likely be staying with them for future books as well. For me, getting published was easier than for most. But staying published has been hard! Hard because I am a midlist author, and we don’t rate very highly with publishers. Always have to wait our turns.
JM: Travel shows are great for generating ideas. Especially Rick Steves radio show. Except that I never actually go anywhere except Lake George and Disney!
SFFWRTCHT: Travel’s big for me, too. I like writing about places I’ve experienced. How much research do you do when writing? Before, after, during?
JM: I research all the time, but it’s superficial, fun research mostly. Just enough to build on. That’s what I love about fantasy. I research just enough, then let my imagination and the story do the rest.
SFFWRTCHT: When you are writing a series, what kind of notes do you keep? Essays on the culture? Bios on the characters?
JM: My notes used to be very extensive. Bios, maps, all that stuff. Still do some of that, but not as much. I also make sketches sometimes, but never show them to anyone. They suck.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
JM: Now I write full time again, so it’s a job for me. I write as much as I can during the day. Night is for marketing stuff. I try to be disciplined with my work. It’s an art, but it’s also a craft, if that makes sense. Need to focus and get it done.
JM: I use Word. I used to write freehand with a pen, but that was many years ago. I need the speed of a computer now. And I need silence! Oh, I’m crazy for quiet. Have to have it. I don’t even like anyone around. I tend to talk to myself when I write, and act things out. I also pace a lot. It’s a lot of fun, really.
SFFWRTCHT: But probably not right for an audience. What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JM: The best writing advice I ever heard was that characters are action. Meaning, strong characters keep pages turning. Worst writing advice? Maybe study the market. People take that too literally, then write clones of what’s popular.
SFFWRTCHT: What advice on longevity and endurance might you give an up and coming writer? Based on your ups and downs.
JM: Advice–god, it’s so cliched, but you can’t give up. This biz is tough for new comers. Beats you up. Need to have brass balls! And that’s from another of my favorite movies–Glengarry Glenross.
SFFWRTCHT: How can a writer best prepare to survive the down times? Multitasking? Many skills
JM: I try not to worry too much about the down times any more. I always seem to wind up on my feet. Part of that is having fans that are amazingly loyal. Some of them are here now. They have stood by me patiently.
JM: Discipline is important. Any writers will tell you that. Also, prepare yourself. Know what you want to say. Do that outline. I would never be able to write without some kind of outline. But that’s just me. Some do, I just don’t know how.
SFFWRTCHT: How detailed are your outlines? Do you use character sketches as well?
JM: The outline isn’t a prison. It’s just a map. Take detours if you want. But again, have a clear thing to say. My first outlines were enormous. Now, not so much. I trust myself more now, and can hold more in my mind.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any tips on how to handle writer’s block?
JM: Oh man, one of my favorite questions! Writer’s Block. Screw that. It’s just a case of not knowing what you want to say. I never get writers block. If I have a problem, I work it out, go for a long drive, or act it out.
SFFWRTCHT: Any suggestions on marketing and platform building? They seem to be more important every day for writers.
JM: I try to do what I can, and what I enjoy. I like blogging. I like Twitter. But I don’t like cons, so I don’t go to them. I like doing some marketing, it’s fun. But almost all of it is up to the writer when you’re not a major author. It’s tough.
JM: No, I don’t do signings either. I know, I sound like a hermit, but I just like staying in my little world and writing. Yes, I do love what I do. Could not live without writing. People are always welcome to contact me or email me or whatever.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you work on one project at a time, or whatever you’re in the mood for?
JM: I work on one project at a time. I wish I wasn’t so linear, but I guess I’m not a good multitasker.
SFFWRTCHT: Have you ever thought of writing a non-fantasy genre book? Maybe a thriller or mystery?
JM: I have thought often of writing a western. If you look closely, you will see those tropes in my work.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a little about your future projects before you go. What can we look forward to from you in the future?
JM: Well, there’s the Shattered Shields anthology! Looking forward to that. Need to start my submission soon, probably something from Tyrants and Kings. Plus I am working on a book now called The Bloody Chorus. Will probably be published by DAW. Then, it’s back to Lukien for the sequel to Forever Knight. So, I’ve got a full plate for a while, which is great.