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…


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 (

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!

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.

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  • Justin July 26, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Sounds a little like Pat Rothfuss's story. Didn't take you quite as long to get that second book done ;)

    • Anne Lyle July 26, 2012 at 10:41 am

      I didn't have the beard to slow me down. Someone should tell Pat and GRRM… :)

  • Paul Weimer July 26, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I do feel characters CAN be anachronistic.

    Anne's characters do not, to be. She did a good job that way.

    (And see, Anne, you did a great job with this post)

    • Anne Lyle July 26, 2012 at 11:04 am

      It's not the guest post I was worried about (I can write non-fiction in my sleep, practically), it was Book 2 stage fright. And that comes later today…

  • Mazarkis Williams July 26, 2012 at 10:54 am

    … I end up producing a lot of material that has to be thrown out or rewritten to fit the evolving story.” This.

    • Courtney Schafer July 26, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Amen! I'm so relieved to know I'm not the only one. (My “deleted scenes” file ended up being almmost 40K words!)

    • Anne Lyle July 26, 2012 at 11:55 am

      The one for The Alchemist of Souls was probably at least as long as the finished book – there was 45k of NaNoWriMo draft for starters. The Merchant of Dreams wasn't quite so bad, but I still ditched the NaNoWriMo draft plus rather a lot of scenes.

      I'm hoping Book 3 is at least a bit more efficient – I don't have time to write that much excess!

    • Teresa July 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      I hoped The Garden would be more efficient than Miserere, but I ended up dumping over 40K words last summer and starting from scratch. I've seen other writers who wished they could nail it on the first draft. I've given up and decided to roll with it. ;-D

  • Jessica Strider July 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I loved book one. Can't wait to see what the characters get up to in book 2. And Venice is a beautiful city to set a book in (and visit).

    • Anne Lyle July 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Thanks, Jessica! Venice is an awesome city, and one of the few I'd happily live in. I'm really only at home in urban environments if most of the buildings are several centuries old :)

  • Teresa July 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I love your emphasis on the characters and characterization.

    Dead-on, lady. ;-)

    • Anne Lyle July 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks! I confess I don't really understand the plot-driven writing mentality – the idea of mapping out events and then running the characters through them like a bunch of puppets just seems so…boring!

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  • Brian Turner January 15, 2013 at 5:31 am

    “Angry Robot had asked for major changes to the first book, specifically to add more magic. ”

    Strange – I don’t remember any magic in Alchemist – but scary AR would demand it when fantasy seems to be moving very much towards low fantasy – ie, less magic!

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