In an interview with Sarah J Maas, YA author of The Throne of Glass books, she discusses writing fantasy, what inspires her to write & building up a huge online fan base - before getting a publishing deal.
*From the W&A Archive: This article was originally posted in 2013*
What inspires you to write? Are there any books or writers that have influenced your work?
Music—especially movie scores and classical music—is usually my main source of inspiration. But I’m also inspired by art (I adore Pinterest), movies/tv, traveling, and history. As for writers/books that inspired me… Well, there are two books that I read when I was younger that really kindled my love for reading fantasy and my desire to write it: Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. Both of them are set in wonderful fantasy worlds and feature strong, clever heroines. And then there’s Robert Munsch’s delightful children’s book, The Paper Bag Princess, which pretty much shaped who I am as a human being from the get-go (and which I made my parents read to me a bajillion times when I was a kid).
For those who haven’t read the Throne of Glass series, can you tell us a little about it?
In a nutshell, the first book—Throne of Glass, is about an infamous young assassin who is offered one shot at freedom in exchange for participating in a to-the-death competition to become the next royal assassin in a corrupt empire. The second book, Crown of Midnight, continues her adventures.
What inspired the character of Celaena Sardothien, the heroine of your novels?
Celaena kinda just walked right into my head the moment I had the idea for the series. Though I think she was also the product of my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kill Bill, Han Solo from Star Wars, and Disney princesses, as well as my desire to write/read a book where the heroine got to do all the “fun” things that boys usually get to do: kick butt, kill monsters, save the world.
You’ve noted before that Celaena is – whilst a strong and capable character – kind of in a ‘moral grey zone’. Can you expand on that?
Well, she’s an assassin. She kills people for money—and sometimes enjoys it. She knows how to torture people—and sometimes enjoys that, too. But she also loves to read, and adores music and art, and I think it’s ultimately her love of those things that allowed her to keep her humanity—to counter all the horrific training she went through as a child and all the awful things she did as an adult. So, she’s a trained killer, but has a heart and a moral code—which she sometimes twists to get what she wants (sometimes with devastating consequences). Her constant battle between the layers of darkness within herself and her humanity makes her super fun (and interesting) for me to write.
The series was originally a kind of re-telling of Cinderella – and you’ve also co-authored a re-working of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. How much does classic literature play a part in your decision-making when working on a story?
Um, not much. Sometimes I get ideas from folklore or classic novels, sometimes I don’t. It just depends on the story and whatever inspires me. If a story is inspired by classic literature or folklore, I’ll do a bunch of research on it first, decide what parts I want to keep or discard, and figure out how to make it my own. Sometimes I keep very little—sometimes I keep a lot. Again, it just depends on the story.
Fantasy is such an exciting genre – you can create whole new worlds. Do you have any advice for writers when they’re building these worlds? How can you make sure they seem authentic?
Ask yourself lots of questions. If a character is eating a certain kind of food or wearing a certain kind of clothing, ask yourself where they come from. How they got to be eating/wearing it. You don’t necessarily need to explain that on the page, but understanding trade routes, kingdom boundaries, geography, the harvest/seasons/etc., all helps to expand your world. Also, remember that world building and character building often go hand-in-hand: just like you, your character is a product of their world. Sometimes the subtlest day-to-day details can bring your character and world to life.
Do you have a set of rules for your world? Is there a process you go through that helps define these?
I wish I did, but most of the time, I’ll get an idea, write it, and if it makes sense and works with what I’ve already established (often that means seeing if there’s a real-world historical equivalent or something similar), I’ll keep it. If it’s absurd and wouldn’t ever work (things usually pointed out to me by my critique partner or editor), I’ll take it out. It’s pretty simple.
You published Throne of Glass on FictionPress.com first; why did you decide to upload the first chapters there rather than submitting the entire story to agents?
Well, that was in 2002, and I was sixteen, and I didn’t even know I wanted to be published. I didn’t even know if I could write an entire novel at the time. I had no one in my daily life that was reading or writing fantasy, so I just wanted to know if the story was worthwhile—if anyone would ever want to read it. Turns out, a lot of people wanted to read it. But I didn’t consider getting it published until years later—when I had books and books worth of material and fans begging me to get it published.
You acquired a massive following on FictionPress.com – did you do any marketing or self-promotion during these early stages, or was it largely word-of-mouth?
Well, the internet was…different then. Not as big, and social media didn’t really exist in the way it does today. So, no—I didn’t do any self-promo or marketing. All that awesome stuff was a result of my amazing fans spreading the word.
Do you feel that the novel has benefitted from the draft being published online? How did this affect the development of the story?
Um, I think I benefitted from it most of all. Acquiring fans and hearing that people loved the story gave me so much confidence as a young writer—it allowed me to believe in myself, and believe that my dream to be published could happen. Without that, I don’t think I would have ever finished the story.
There were some revisions from when you first published online to when the print book was published. Did you find the editing process difficult?
Of course I did. I think every debut author finds the editing process difficult. For me, I’d been revising TOG for so many years on my own (I rewrote the FP draft word for word, cut out and added in stuff, and just tore it to shreds before I ever sent it to an agent) that working with my editor was both a joy and a relief. It was hard work, yes—but I thrive on challenges, and my editor’s ideas for how to improve the story were brilliant, and totally in line with the story I’d always envisioned.
For readers who are self-publishing their work, what would you say are the advantages and disadvantages facing them?
Well there’s a difference between posting on FictionPress and self-publishing. I think FP is a great place for aspiring writers to get feedback and have fun—so long as you’re careful about protecting your story from would-be plagiarists. I’m sure there are tons of advantages to self-publishing (meaning, putting the work up for sale), but you’re also your own publisher, which seems like a ton of work to me, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever see your own novel in a bookstore. So I’ll always recommend traditional publishing—it’s a harder and longer road, but absolutely worth it.
You use social media a lot to interact with your readership – how important do you think this is to becoming a successful writer?
Honestly, I have no idea what the long-term impact is of social media on my writing career, but I know that interacting with my fans online is one of the biggest highlights of being published. I do it because it’s fun—because I like talking to them and hearing their thoughts and seeing their artwork. If social media isn’t your thing, then don’t do it— plenty of writers don’t use social media and are super-successful (i.e. Suzanne Collins).
Finally, do you have any advice for writers that you’d like to pass on?
Write what you love. Plenty of people will tell you that being published is an unrealistic goal, or what you love to write isn’t “real” literature, but ignore them. Write what you love, and never apologize for it. Yes, it’s a long road to publication, but that’s a good thing. You’ll only make it if you have a story that you love with your entire heart and soul, and the only person that can ever make you stop writing is you. So write what you love, and screw the rest.
If you would like to find out more about Sarah, please take a look at her website.