Please welcome Dale Lucas to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Fifth Ward: First Watch was published on July 11th by Orbit.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Dale: Thanks for having me! It’s a pleasure.
I started writing pretty young (not seriously or well, of course, but that’s where it all began). I remember seeing an episode of The Andy Griffith Show when I was about five where Andy’s girlfriend, Helen, sold a book and got a check from a publisher. I remember thinking, at the time, “Wow! People really do that? They make up stories and someone else pays them for it?” We had an old manual typewriter on our back porch, so I immediately found some paper and started trying to type (not so easy with little fingers and no practice, but, hey, points for effort). From that point on, I wanted to tell stories. Even as the years passed and I came across other cool things I might want to be or learn to do (I flirted with archeology and special makeup effects for movies), something about telling stories for a living just stuck with me. By the time I was 12 or so, I was pretty sure that was it for me.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Dale: Total plotter. I’ve tried the whole pantsing thing, and I always run myself into dead ends or just prattle on without an endgame, so I wind up angry and frustrated. I’ve found that planning is definitely more my thing, though even with mountains of planning, the narrative still changes and evolves as you work your way through it. The planning doesn’t solve all your problems, it just keeps you moving forward and lets you know where the finish line is.
I’m also pretty obsessive about my story development. I build my stories in Excel spreadsheets, basically as a combination of lists, timelines and scattered story notes that all gradually coalesce into the shape of a narrative. Sometimes, I’ll do the only version of pantsing that works for me, which is to give myself a short development time—say, a month or two. I’ll brainstorm mightily and work really hard to come up with an outline in that brief span, then I’ll jump into a first draft whether I feel ready or not. That’s worked out well when I’ve tried it. (That’s how I started First Watch, for instance.)
TQ: In addition to being a novelist, you are a screenwriter. How does screenwriting affect (or not) your novel writing?
Dale: Well, it definitely taught me to get used to rejection, indifference and fierce competition (because breaking into New York publishing is rough, but trying to break into Hollywood is brutal). The best things it taught me, though, were story structure, narrative economy and good plotting. Pretty much all of the plotting tricks I use for my prose came from the screenwriting books I read in college. Even if a writer wants nothing to do with writing for the screen, I’d heartily recommend reading stuff like Aristotle’s Poetics, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Robert McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. The things you’ll learn in those books about how to build a tight narrative, show character through action instead of just telling people about it, and getting a handle on how to understand what your work is, how to pitch it and sell it—that’s 100% applicable to writing novels and prose fiction. Even if your inclinations are of a more lyrical, literary bend, learning to undergird your seemingly-formless narrative with a strong spine is invaluable.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Dale: For me, it was gaining enough confidence to feel like I’m really good at it, I think—good enough to get somewhere, anyway. I mean, from my teenage years, I had teachers telling me I was a good writer, and friends assuring me I was a good writer, but when you get into adulthood and you’re trying to take your work seriously, there can be some savage struggles between the part of you that’s hopeful and sure that you’re meant for nothing else, and the part of you that’s pretty sure you’re just one of those vaguely sad people who think they’re a great writer, but who just end up with a bunch of unsold manuscripts in their closet (or on their hard drive). Doing good work, making sure that work improves, and getting that work out in the world can be a real challenge when those voices inside you are always at war with one another. You’ve got to cultivate two different, antithetical personas in yourself—the loving advocate that keeps you working and optimistic and the brutal critic that always wants you to do more, and do it better. You need both to get anywhere, but you can’t ever let one overwhelm the other.
You’ve also got to be ready for the long haul. I’ve been writing seriously, for publication, for about 20 years now. I’ve had a few magazine sales, some almost-sales on previous novels, and some small press publications—but this is my first book from a major New York publisher. Ask yourself if you’re willing to work toward something with zero promise of success and only minimal encouragement, and take 20 years to finally feel validated. If you can live with that, you’ll be fine.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Dale: Basically, all the stuff I grew up with. Star Wars, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter movies, comic books, Ace Paperbacks, Dungeons & Dragons—everything. As I got older, I started branching out and turning into a research hound, but even as real world information started creeping in to give weight and heft to my written fantasies, the fantastic still remained as the foundation. So it’s probably the balance-point and dynamic tension between those two things—flights of fancy given truth and texture by historically-grounded reality—that inspires and informs a lot of what I do.
TQ: Describe First Watch in 140 characters or less.
Dale: Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings; or, a cop buddy movie in a Middle Earthy-type place.
TQ: Tell us something about First Watch that is not found in the book description.
Dale: One of my favorite aspects of the book—of anything I write, for that matter, since I often try to instill a strong sense of place—is that Yenara, the city where the story takes place, is a character in and of itself. I’d like to think it’s a pretty cool setting, as grounded and mud-caked as the real world, as fantastic as anything in Tolkien, and as layered and haunted and ageless as history itself. So, hopefully, readers don’t just love the characters and get swept away in their story, they’ll also be enchanted (and sometimes a little overwhelmed) by Yenara itself, and want to spend more time there.
TQ: What inspired you to write First Watch? What appeals to you about writing fantasy?
Dale: First Watch came to me in the simplest of ways. I’d just moved back to Florida after some unsuccessful years in L.A., my brain was full of cop buddy movies and blighted urban landscapes and crime lore because of some screenwriting projects I’d been working on and abandoned, and I was so emotionally and mentally exhausted from all that had passed and all that was coming that I think my brain wanted to just have some fun. One day I was sitting at work in my cubicle and it just hit me: two nightwatchmen in a city full of all those classic fantasy archetypes—humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, fighters, magicians, thieves, clerics. It was like picking through wreckage after a tornado and trying to figure out what could be salvaged. Two things I loved just kind of collided and I instantly started chasing the idea and developing it. I think I started writing it about two months after it came to me.
As for what appeals to me about fantasy, I think that’s threefold. First, I like the idea of telling stories wherein normal rules don’t apply. Second, I like the notion of building worlds from the ground up. And third, I like the challenge of building a world where seemingly impossible things happen, but grounding it enough to make people believe in those impossible things. Nothing feels better than creating a world and a bunch of characters whole-cloth, and then having someone read your work and get totally invested in what came out of your imagination.
TQ: Do you have a favorite classic fantasy creature?
Dale: For most of my life, I’ve been partial to vampires, but I’m sort of over most of the vampire lit that’s out there now, so I’ll just say: monsters. I love monsters. Especially the classic monsters born of mythology and literature: the vampire, the ghost, the werewolf, the golem, the shady occultist, etc. Anything that traffics in that stuff makes me happy (so long as the monsters are treated with respect, and not softened or played for laughs—I hate funny, post-modern, self-aware monsters).
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for First Watch.
Dale: From the start, my editor at Orbit, Lindsey Hall, pitched me the notion of the badge being the symbolic icon of the series, and I was on board with that. I went into the process expecting my word and preferences about the cover to count for nothing—that’s what I’d heard from most just-starting-out authors, so that’s what I’d resigned myself to—but after seeing the first sketches, Lindsey took every one of the notes I gave, and pretty much every one of them was incorporated into the design. I was absolutely stunned that they took my input so seriously. That badge on the cover doesn’t actually resemble the badges that my watchwardens wear, as described in the book, but it’s a marvelous way to pitch the whole premise of the series—basically, a fantasy police procedural—to potential readers. And just look at it! It’s bloody gorgeous!
TQ: In First Watch who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Dale: The easiest was Rem, my protagonist, because Rem and I are fairly alike in terms of personality and motivation--though he’s a lot more accomplished and light on his feet than I am. Rem’s a little green and inexperienced, but he’s game for anything, and can bluff his way through any situation. I’m far more reticent and prone to hold back if I’m not 100% sure of what I’m walking into.
The hardest character to write was probably the villain (who I won’t reveal!), because the villain doesn’t get as much page time, yet I still wanted that villain to seem to have real motivations, and a human dimension—not just to be a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash sort. No mean feat.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in First Watch?
Dale: When telling a story, I try to do that, first and foremost: tell a story. To entertain, engage, excite, and delight. That’s the storyteller’s first job. Everything else must be subordinate to it.
That being said, from the start, I looked forward to questioning some of the things we’ve inherited from our fantasy forebears, in an effort to punch holes in them. The idea that an entire sentient race of beings (like orcs) can be inherently, irredeemably evil, for instance: I categorically reject that. I wanted to find a way to engage with that idea and undermine it, whenever and however possible. Or the idea that another sentient race of beings (such as elves), gifted with beauty, intelligence and nigh-immortality, could withstand the pitfalls of all those innate advantages: the vanity that comes with beauty, the smugness that comes with insight, the parochial attitude and tendency toward corruption that comes with being long-lived and unchallenged in one’s sphere of influence. Likewise, there’s the ongoing question of how all the races in this world manage to cohabitate: how do these four distinct, sentient species—alike enough to interact, but different enough to discriminate, and all totally convinced, by virtue of their myths and legends, that they are the chosen among all the sentient races of the world—manage to share the world without slaughtering each other? All of that gets played out through the worm’s eye view of two guys just trying to maintain peace and order in the course of their workaday jobs (which is a form of social commentary as well: I wanted everyday heroes who had to pay the rent and put food on the table, not world-saving, this-one’s-the-messiah-of-the-prophecy heroes who can drop everything and run off on a quest at a moment’s notice). Hopefully, story always leads, and always delivers, and whatever commentary I’ve sown in is low-key and relaxed: an invitation to a conversation, not a harangue or a homily. I’m definitely eager to find out how readers feel about it.
I see a lot of people on social media or on news sites bemoaning the prevalence of social issues or social justice warriors in what could broadly be termed ‘geek lit’ (which, for me, encompasses fantasy, sci fi and horror fiction, comic books, and movies in the same genres). Why can’t these writers just entertain us? they ask. I don’t want to be preached at! I want to escape reality, not be pummeled by it! I get that…and I don’t. Isn’t fiction supposed to be about expanding oneself? Learning things about yourself and others that you didn’t know? Seeing the world through the eyes of a character who seems totally alien, but who you end up understanding and empathizing with? The very act of reading a story, to me, suggests that we want to learn something new and grow a little—even if we think we just want brainless entertainment. And then, of course, there’s the fact that, even if an author thinks they’re just being entertaining, they’re probably putting their opinions and feelings about all sorts of issues—social, political, religious, whatever—on display without consciously intending to. Every story is about something whether the author intends it or not. So, just be aware of that, control the messaging, and make sure story always comes first. Social commentary is fine as long as it’s not high-handed or pedantic.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from First Watch.
Dale: There’s a scene wherein our main characters, Rem and Torval, are talking of the past, and the things they’ve done that have led them to Yenara. Rem says, “Everyone deserves a choice, don’t they?” to which Torval agrees. And that leads to Torval’s thoughts on the city itself.
“For good or ill, come salvation or perdition, Yenara always offers us a choice. That, I think, is the great gift she has given the world, and the main reason that men still fight to possess her and are possessed by her. Whatever your fate when your mother whelped you, when you come here, it is all erased. Yenara strips us of what we were, and demands that we become what we truly are.”
For me, that’s what the story’s all about, at its heart: finding your place in the world when the place you came from proves too small, or too limiting—a place where you can strip away all your pretensions and test your limits and be who you truly are.
TQ: What's next?
Dale: Well, I’m neck-deep in a second Fifth Ward book at present, titled Friendly Fire, and I’ve got a third lined up following that. Beyond those, I have no clue what the future holds. We’ll have to see how the public takes to Rem and Torval before we’ll know if more adventures will follow—but I’m certainly ready to provide them. And I’ve got a few stories I’d like to tell in other worlds, other times and places. Only time will tell…
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Dale: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to prattle a bit!
The Fifth Ward: First Watch
The Fifth Ward 1
Orbit, July 11, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 416 pages
A watchman of the Yenara City guard has gone missing. The culprit could be any of the usual suspects: drug-dealing orcs, mind-controlling elves, uncooperative mages, or humans being typical humans.
It's up to two reluctant partners -- Rem, a hungover miscreant who joins the Watch to pay off his bail, and Torval, a maul-wielding dwarf who's highly unimpressed with the untrained and weaponless Rem -- to uncover the truth and catch the murderer loose in their fair city.
"A brilliant premise, wonderfully told. A city that breathes, and heroes you can't help but root for." -- Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld
"A glorious tour through fantasy's seamier side. A wilder ride than Middle Earth, and you'll love every minute of it!" -- Jon Hollins, author of the Dragon Lords series