We're excited to have Phil Williams, he is an author of contemporary fantasy and dystopian fiction, including the Ordshaw urban fantasy thrillers and the post-apocalyptic Estalia series. He also writes reference books to help foreign learners master the nuances of English, two of which are regular best-sellers on Kindle. As a long-term teacher and tutor of advanced English, he runs the popular website “English Lessons Brighton”.
Phil lives with his wife by the coast in Sussex, UK, and spends a great deal of time walking his impossibly fluffy dog, Herbert.
Q: Tell us about a great book you've read recently!
Oh good timing, I can rave about Anna Smith Spark’s The Court of Broken Knives, which I’m a few years late to and had on my shelf for over a year but senselessly put off (especially senseless as I met Anna and she made an excellent impression). When I finally opened it, I was hooked from the get-go: it’s a gripping, visceral story, beautifully told. I rarely read books in a series close together, usually with a gap of at least a few books, sometimes even years. In this case I was carrying the second book about before I finished the first, to move straight onto at a moment’s notice.
Q: How long have you been a writer and why did you begin writing?
Since I learnt to write, I’ve written stories. It’s basically an addiction that’s always been there and I can’t not do it. I don’t know why – but I guess it has something to do with accessing emotions in a controlled way, whilst acting like I’m just having fun.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for your books?
To focus on the Ordshaw books, they primarily came from a lot of urban exploring and imagining things at their strangest. I take little ideas from everywhere though; a powerful tune, a curious dream, other people’s bo – no, forget that one.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve experienced in your writing career, so far?
It probably took me about thirty years to realise that simply writing something wasn’t enough. Some people can fluke into an instant success, but for the most part a really successful piece of writing needs a great deal of craft behind it, with a deliberate understanding of structure and, crucially, the reader experience. I think it’s impossible to truly reach your full potential without having a lot of people read your work, so you can start to understand how they read compared to how you write, and only through a lot of probing in those areas can you actually come up with something that truly satisfies both you and the reader. For everything else that I think might help sell books, it’s the ability to write something that connects with others that is most important.
Q: If you could go back and give your younger self a single piece of writing advice, what would it be?
Always ask for help. Even if you don’t need it (because you probably actually do).
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I plot then disregard my plans and pants. I usually have about two or three beats in a given story that I aim to hit, and then go wild seeing how we get there. This works best when one of those beats is the ending or towards the end. Otherwise things get messy.
Q: How do you develop your plots and characters?
Two ways: First, I think a lot, imagining scenes in my head and sort of continually rehearsing them until I get to write them. Second, I take the scenes I’ve written and continually rewrite them until I’m happy. I’ll sometimes completely rewrite conversations a dozen time, and they might come out essentially the same, but it’s part of the process.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenges are for aspiring or up and coming writers, right now?
Getting anyone to care. It’s so hard to get someone to sit down and read anything, let alone a book, you have to practically threaten people with violence to get them to read the thing you wrote. And even then you’ve probably got a hundred other starving artists threatening them with violence already, so you’ve always to be escalating…
Q: Do you believe that having a strong social media presence leads to more book sales?
I’m not sure about direct sales, but I think it’s a must for developing a presence in the community. It’s a solitary pastime and it makes a huge difference to connect with others who understand what you’re going through – which isn’t just for fun, it’ll do wonders for improving your craft and understanding of the market, and from there, your sales.
Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?
The only times I have writer’s block are when I’m debilitated with exhaustion. In which case it’s not the writing that’s the problem. Otherwise, my bigger problem is writing too much.
Q: What is your favourite part of the writing process?
At the mid to late point of a thoroughly convoluted story when all the threads seem to be coming maniacally together, but you’re not sure exactly how it’s going to work, so you print off all you’ve got so far and paste it over your walls and unleash the spiders and start beating the walls with a pipe screaming so they’ll run over the text and you can follow their trails to the True Path.
Q: If you could collaborate with any other author on a project, who would it be and why?
I would like to collaborate with Neil Gaiman because he’s much more famous than me. (And also because I feel like he could deliver a depth of folklore expertise that I lack.)
Q: Can you tells us what you are working on at the moment?
I’ve got a home office with a big desk that’s an old church table of some sort.
Oh wait – that was a genuine misunderstanding! I’ve got two more Ordshaw books on the way, one which is a completely separate story that’s pretty bonkers (in brief: jazz-playing thieves, red-eyed children, swordsmen and gorillas, international spies and a mentally unstable assassin – split across modern Louisiana and the Congo). I’ve got three other books on the backburner and something really special in the way of epic fantasy on the way.
Q: Where do you see your writing career in 5 years?
There’s a humorous exaggerated answer to this, but in truth – successful enough that I’m living comfortably, writing what I want to write, and potentially freeing up time to work on side projects such as screenwriting, games and something to give back to the community.
Q: Have you ever considered writing in another genre?
I have written a fair number of what could best be described as literary novels, but I don’t think I could fully commit to that without making them somehow genre, for the sake of an engaging narrative. I have a few contemporary thriller projects in the wings and would like to write some crime novels. Also a historical fantasy, and maybe some straight historical fiction, given that I used to study history. I’ve also always been curious what would happen if I wrote a romance…
Q: Pen names – yay or nay?
Not for me. Probably should, given that I have books out there side by side teaching children English and packed with violence and swearing, but there we are.
Q: What marketing tips would you give to someone starting out in their career?
Make friends, lots of friends. And keep in mind that nothing lasts, you have to constantly adapt and can take nothing for granted, so always be testing, testing, testing. Also, don’t be afraid to spend money. You’ll never really know what could’ve been if you don’t invest in yourself.
Q: What (or who) are your most significant influences?
Growing up I read a ton of Terry Pratchett, and even shared a few letters with him, so there’s a lot to be said for that. In my teenage years, authors who made a big impression on me were Joseph Heller, Mark Twain and George Elliott (as evidenced by the Victorian societal references in Ordshaw). More recently, I owe a lot to some crime greats that have schooled me on tight, minimal stories with memorable characters - principally Sue Grafton and Elmore Leonard.
Q: Would you be so kind as to give us an elevator pitch for one of your books? Why should readers check out your work?
Under Ordshaw kicks off the Ordshaw series: a poker-pro stumbles upon a dark secret beneath her city, with mad bureaucrats, violent drunks and monsters vying for her attention. In the course of uncovering decades-old mysteries and conflicts, she puts the whole city at risk, and must answer a lot of questions before they get her killed.
It’s worth reading because it’s full of character, twists and thrills – a collision of gritty thriller and fantasy-cum-horror, but Not Quite Like Anything You’ve Read. Also there’s a lot more to come and I need you to buy this one so I can keep writing the others.
Q: Of all the books you have written, which is your favourite and why?
My favourite is almost always the one I’m working on now, as that’s where the potential lies. And I am working on something feels *really* special now. But in terms of favourites that I’ve released, that would currently be The Violent Fae. Honestly, I impressed myself with how it all came together, as the third book in a trilogy that at times seemed to be spiralling out of control. Yet almost every aspect of it satisfied me, not least in seeing how all the characters grew (with thanks to my editor Carrie O’Grady, as some of her touches definitely pulled those bits together). And it has tremendous momentum – whenever I revisit it, once I reach the midway point of The Violent Fae I find it hard to stop until the end.
I should probably be more modest, and you’d find me meeker about all the other books out there, but nah. The Violent Fae is great. Actually, Blue Angel is too.
Q: How do people find out more about you?
You can also like my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/philwilliamsauthor
Many thanks Phil, it's been chatting to you.