Knights, Dragons, Turncoats: A Conversation with Author Keith Willis

traitor knight coverMeet Keith Willis. He’s into dragons, knights…you know, normal stuff like that. Keith and I first connected on Twitter last year when we were both looking to get our debut novels published. Keith’s book, TRAITOR KNIGHT, is available for purchase from Amazon as an e-book. It begins with Morgan, the main character, saving a woman from a dragon, which does not earn her gratitude. From there, Morgan goes undercover to discover the traitor who’s threatening the kingdom. It sounds like a fun take on knight tales. I’m looking forward to reading this because it’s quite different from many of the books on my to-be-read list. And if I’m anything, I’m an omnivorous reader.

Tegan: Keith, thanks for taking the time to celebrate your book’s release earlier this fall by answering a few questions.

Keith: Hi Tegen, and thanks so much for having me on your blog. Congrats on your upcoming release! For the record, I’ve already preordered my copy of INCONCEIVABLE! It comes out on November 16, which is my anniversary, and I can’t wait to read it.

Tegan: That’s so cool, and thank you for pre-ordering my book. I bought yours and look forward to reading it! You write about knights…so, are you a knight or do you play one on the weekends?

Keith: No, I’m afraid I’ve never been knighted, although I have been benighted on occasion. And, I’m sorry to report, I don’t play one on the weekends either. My weekends are generally taken up with camping and canoeing in the summer and lots of reading, writing, and Scrabble during the long NY winters.  I’ve just always been fascinated with the romantic chivalric legends—one of my early favorite books was TH White’s The Once and Future King—so I guess it was foreordained that my first novel would be about a knight.

Tegan: How did you get the idea for this book?

A Knight's HelmetKeith: The idea for the book that would eventually become Traitor Knight actually started out as just a humorous take on the traditional knight vs dragon fantasy trope. I wanted to do something a bit different, and I kept getting scene playing in my head where my knight only managed to defeat the rampaging dragon because the beast came down with a case of hiccups (l loved the notion of a hiccupping dragon, I think perhaps from too much Looney Toons in my formative years). Then I realized that the damsel in distress he managed to save was fiercely suspicious of her rescuer, although I didn’t know why at the time—just that she would have rather have been rescued by anyone else. And things snowballed from there, as my characters told me what happened. I had no notion of where things were going, or even of my characters’ backgrounds, goals or motivations when I started the story. In case you can’t guess, I don’t outline or plot things out. Definitely a pantser, all the way.

Tegan: Many of us fell in love with creative writing as children. When did you begin writing fiction?

Keith: I’ve always done a bit of writing, but the most part it was always just throw-away pieces done for the entertainment of my friends, or poems for my wife. I honestly didn’t start writing seriously until I turned 50. At that point I had the opening scene for Traitor Knight in my head, and decided ‘it’s now or never’. That if I was going to achieve my goal of having a book published, I’d best get moving and actually write the darned thing. And it really wasn’t until this point that I really felt I had the time and energy to devote to writing. And my wife was very supportive of the idea, which definitely helps. Although I try not to take too much of ‘us-time’ for writing. I tend to do my writing either early in the morning  or during my lunch breaks at work. I actually seem to get some of my best work done during that time, oddly enough.

Tegan: Do you have a professional life outside of writing? If you don’t mind, tell us about that. (I think readers are sometimes surprised to find out what some writers do for their “day job!”)

Keith: I do indeed have a professional life, also known as The Day Job. While I’d love to spend my days writing or doing something much more fun than working, those pesky bills aren’t going to pay themselves. And I don’t think my writing career is going to be at the level where it’s paying those bills, so for the time being I’ll keep working. As far as what that job entails:  I manage an eclectic group of database content editors for a global information technology firm. So after spending ten years in the banking industry and fifteen years in retail management, for the last eleven years I’ve finally been able to utilize my English degree, at least to some extent.

Tegan: Tell us about your journey to publication and what you learned along the way.

Keith: My journey to publication was a pretty long one. It took almost exactly seven  years from the time I first wrote the opening scene of Traitor Knight until the day it was released by Champagne Books this past September. It took just over a year to write the first draft (which actually was so long it ended up being two books, with Vol. 2 in revisions at the moment). Then came five years of rejection, revision, rinse, repeat.

fingers typingOver the course of my time in the Querying Trenches, I received a total of 86 rejections. The early ‘no’s’ certainly were justified—both the plot and my writing were pretty awful. My initial efforts were plagued by lots of ‘telling, not showing’, and by a lack of conflict within the story—I got my hero up a tree, but then instead of throwing rocks at him, I handed him a ladder. If everything goes the hero’s way, there’s no real conflict, no journey, and no real stakes to engage a reader.

As I gained experience and got feedback from various sources, those endless rewrites turned the story into something that began to garner more frequent requests for pages or full manuscripts. And while I still was getting rejections, now there were fewer form rejects, and more “Wow, I really like this, and wish I thought I could place it”, or “I’ve take this, but I’ve just signed someone with a very similar book.”

And then came Twitter.

When I initially engaged with Twitter, I viewed it as just another rather time-wasting social medial platform. But then I caught wind of a contest called #NewAgent. I was intrigued, and figured ‘what have I got to lose?’. I entered, and was hooked. I found a community. The writers on Twitter are amazing—supporting, sharing, encouraging, commiserating one another. I’ve met so many great friends through these contests—like yourself—who have helped me to polish my pitches and queries and pages to the point where when I entered #AdPit in September, 2014, I ended up with a publisher.

I got a favorite in that contest from Cassie Knight, who was at the time Senior Editor for Champagne Books. She requested the full manuscript on Sept. 9. While I was excited about the request, I had a number of other fulls and partials out with various agents/editors, so it was really just one more in the mix.

Then on September 30 I got a request for a promotional plan from Champagne. This sounded like it might be the real deal. I sent it in that day, and the next day I received an offer of contract. To say there was dancing in the streets would be an understatement. However, I didn’t just sign on the dotted line. I had agents reading material, and to be fair, I needed to alert them. I also wanted to have my attorney review the terms of the contract, to make sure I wasn’t giving the shop away. And finally, as this was an offer from a small press I’d never heard of, I wanted to research it.

After I signed the contract, it wasn’t all just beer and skittles. I had a lot of work to do. A clean, revised ‘final’ draft. Marketing and cover art data. In May I got my cover art (which I think is amazing), and in July I received editorial notes from Nikki Andrews, my fearless editor.

I got the ARC, with 10 days to review it for any errors. I went through it once more with my wonderful wife and proofreader, Patty, who I owe peacocks, apes, ivory and chocolate—along with all my royalties—for how hard she worked through this entire process. She was the eagled-eyed one who found things like quotation marks going in the wrong direction. Amazing.

And finally, on 9/7/15, the book was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Although if they’d been paying attention, they would have suspected.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tegan: Wow! What a journey you’ve had. Who is your target reader for this book?

Keith: I think anyone who loves The Princess Bride will enjoy my book. Actually anyone who enjoys fast-paced adventure and intrigue tinged with a dash of romance and a dollop of wit will enjoy it. And while the target market is adults, it is definitely suitable for the YA audience. In fact my wife works in a high-school library, and one of the librarians is mentioning the book in all of her orientation sessions, so in essence about 800 kids have heard about my book so far, and hopefully a few of them will read it.

paparazziTegan: How has your life changed since your book was published?

Keith: Well, I can’t say that paparazzi are stalking me or anything like that. But it is a great feeling to be able to tell people “I’ve published my first novel.” And it’s made my life a lot busier. Most authors, especially indie/small press published ones, are their own marketing department. I certainly am, and I’m constantly trying to promote it (while not being obnoxious about it). I’m donating copies, along with lots of swag, to charity auctions. I’m slated to do several book fairs in November, and I have a spot in a village Winter Market/Victorian Stroll in December. And once I actually come out in print I’ll be on tour going to libraries and bookstores in the upstate NY and New England area to do readings/signings. It’s a never ending process, it seems, and my wife has been even better about telling people about the book than I have. I couldn’t have done this whole process without her awesome support and encouragement (and proofreading).

Tegan: Any new projects in the works?

Keith: I have more ideas than I know what to do with. I just wish I had time to write ‘em all. Right now my main focus is book two of the Knights of Kilbourne series, tentatively titled DESPERATE KNIGHTS. It was essentially done, until I ended up changing TRAITOR KNIGHT so much that much of what I’d written for book two was out of sync. So now my goal is to figure how to reconcile those changes and get DESPERATE KNIGHTS finished and ready to submit to my publisher. I also have a number of short stories set in the same universe that I’m collection for a companion volume, and I have ideas and a bit of writing done on book three, working title BEWITCHED KNIGHT.  And there are other projects that I’m in process on as well, like a series of cozy mysteries. As I said, way too much going on for a guy who works full time and has a family.

Keith WillisKeith Willis, is a graduate of Berry College in Rome, Georgia, having earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and French. He’s a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, the Latham/Albany/Schenectady/Troy Science Fiction Association, and the Mythopoeic Society. He primarily writes fantasy/romance fiction with a side of cozy mystery.Keith’s home base is the Saratoga Springs, New York area.

Top image via Flickr by aperture_lag

Knight helmet image via Flickr by Bryn_S

Fingers typing image via Flickr by Key Foster

Paparazzi image via Flickr by Todd Huffman

Author photo provided by Keith Willis courtesy of The Daily Gazette

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