Guest Post | Anne Lyle, Tearing It Down to Build It Back Up

As far as covers go, there’s one style that’s nearly guaranteed to do well in the fantasy world and Anne Lyle’s debut novel, The Alchemist of Souls, nailed it. Intensely character driven, with a hint of action and a dash of mystery, it sent all the right signals to readers. Even better, Lyle completely delivered on that promise with an excellently paced historical fantasy full of plot twists.


With a cross-dressing female, several gay men, and a Catholic, Lyle’s characters are all poorly suited to surviving life in Elizabethan England. Lyle does an incredible job of merging these progressive characters with the setting, never making them feel anachronistic (can people be anachronistic?). They’re also just a ton of fun to read about too, making Alchemist of Souls my favorite Angry Robot novel since Zoo City.

All the way from the Cambridge, Anne Lyle…

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In spring 2011 I signed a contract with Angry Robot for a historical fantasy trilogy, having submitted a finished manuscript of one book, The Alchemist of Souls, and the synopsis for a second. Although I had a rough draft of a sequel on which to base that synopsis, there was one small problem. Well, quite a big one actually. The second book was written way back in 2007, when I was still learning how to write novels, and on top of that Angry Robot had asked for major changes to the first book, specifically to add more magic. Since there was even less magic in the sequel, a simple revise and polish was out of the question; in fact I had to plan and write a new book pretty much from scratch. In under a year.

Fortunately I’m no stranger to pulling a manuscript apart and rebuilding it from the ground up, having done a five-month online course focusing on just that*. Of course I was able to keep the principal characters from the first book, since I had to maintain series continuity, and I kept the setting—the city of Venice—because I love it and thought it would keep the series fresh if I moved my heroes to a new location. I was even able to keep quite a few of the story elements, albeit demoted to a subplot. I then took some of the other Venetian characters, tweaked them a bit and wove a new plot around them. I also made sure that the skraylings—my invented creatures from the New World—were in the thick of things, because based on enthusiastic early reviews I knew my readers would want to learn more about them.


What I ended up with is The Merchant of Dreams, another outing for my Elizabethan swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn and his seedy theatrical friends. When Mal has a nightmare about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean, he goes to investigate—and discovers that the skraylings’ ambitions in Europe stretch much further than England.

The book was a lot of fun to write, despite the pressure of a short deadline. For starters, it was a great excuse to revisit Venice for the first time in nearly a decade. I stayed in a refurbished medieval palazzo (albeit a very small one), scouted out several additional locations for the book, and went on a tour of the secret backrooms of the Doge’s Palace, include the prison cells and torture chamber. The more varied settings also gave me a great opportunity to include more female and non-white characters, something I’d been unable to do much of in the male-dominated world of the Elizabethan court. Finally, I made sure to include more magic and swashbuckling action to balance the intrigue and romance, and somehow a good deal more sex crept into the mix as well! The latter wasn’t at all deliberate—I think it’s more a case of becoming comfortable with my voice and more willing to take the characters wherever they need to go, for good or ill.

There were times when I got stuck, particularly in the second half. I usually have firm ideas about the beginning and end, but I struggle when it comes to outlining the entire book in the same detail; for me, the characters are the plot, and they don’t come alive until I’m actually writing their scenes together. Hence my writing process is a very messy one, and I end up producing a lot of material that has to be thrown out or rewritten to fit the evolving story. With each book I’m trying to refine that process to reduce wasted time, but I’m not sure I can ever totally change the way my imagination works. The important thing is that I’ve learned to just push through the blockages and trust my Muse to come up with the goods when they’re needed.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the final installment of a trilogy to write…

* How To Revise Your Novel, by Holly Lisle (http://novelwritingschool.com/home.php)
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You can find Anne Lyle on the web and Twitter. Be sure to visit the former to learn more about the Night’s Masque trilogy. Lyle was born in Nottinghamshire, which for us fantasy dorks should be instantly recognizable as the home of Sherwood Forest. It’s a real place.

Come back later today for an excerpt from The Merchant of Dreams, the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy!

Written by Justin Landon

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.