Joshua Khan is the London-based author of the epic high fantasy SHADOW MAGIC series.
Joshua Khan was raised on the stories of heroes, kings and queens until there was hardly any room for anything else. He can tell you where King Arthur was born* but not what he himself had for breakfast. With a head stuffed with tales of legendary knights, wizards and great and terrible monsters, it was inevitable Joshua would want to create some of his own.
Hence the SHADOW MAGIC trilogy, published in the US by Disney-Hyperion, and in the UK by Scholastic. Joshua has created a world of ancient sorcery, magnificent forests, dark secrets and really, really big vampire bats.
He lives in London with his family, but he’d rather live in a castle. It wouldn’t have to be very big, just as long as it had battlements.
*Tintagel Castle, in case you were wondering.
When and how did you start writing?
Like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, I was totally into Dungeons and Dragons back in the day (being the 1980’s).
Roleplaying games are one of the VERY BEST ways to learn story-telling, I’d recommend it to everyone.
If you haven’t played it sounds a bit strange, but each person creates a character and the games-master creates the setting and the adventure. Traditionally it’s a dungeon populated by monsters that the characters must explore. However, as it goes by the stories become more and more elaborate, like weekly soaps, and the world-building kicks in. Everything I’ve done on SHADOW MAGIC ultimately feed sources back to the gaming.
The role-playing helped me immensely as a storyteller. You had direct contact with your audience, i.e. the other players. You could tell if they got confused or their attention was wandering, or if they were on the edge of their seats, listening to every word.
I think it was about 2004 when I thought about a career change. I was an engineer and had been for about fifteen years. I’d dabbled in a few alternatives, I love cartooning so first idea was to draw for comics but, frankly, I could never quite reach the standard needed, I’m kinda rubbish at drawing scenery.
Then I had a go at script-writing and attended a few courses. Yet that wasn’t half as much fun as I’d hoped but did light the bulb. I had a go at writing a book. Then reached THE END. And realised I loved doing it. Then wrote another, and another, each time getting steadily better. The writing was never a chore, always great fun and no matter how bad the day had been it was the perfect retreat. It’s what stories have been, haven’t they? A break from the day to day.
I loved writing. I love storytelling and there was nothing more pure story than writing novels. So that was that.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
THE HOBBIT. It was inevitable I’d go on to write fantasy. Big fan of the mythic heroes like Jason and Hercules.
Can I mention comics? I was a slow reader, and I really believe comics helped build my confidence with words. I loved superheroes, still do, and would spend hours and days drawing my own adventures. What was interesting about comics is the learning of what to miss out. You’ve only so many panels per page, so many words to go in, and a certain amount of space for the art. It teaches you to be concise, something you can fail to appreciate you open up a Word document.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
The most key moment was realizing what the story was ABOUT. The theme, if you want to use the terminology from the guide books.
Ultimately, this is a book about girls’ education. I have two daughters and the only way they’ll have the future they want is through education. We take it for granted in the West, school, learning how to read and write, interact with the wider world. But a huge part of the population in the Third World doesn’t have that option, in fact, learning can be dangerous for them.
I didn’t want to write an issues book. I wanted to write a huge, epic fantasy. But Lily’s desire is to control her own destiny, to be powerful and independent. In her world, women are pawns, men hold the power because only men learn magic. That’s not much different from countries around us where girls are denied access to schools, to learning, and remain powerless. So the key moment was the creation of my heroine, Lily Shadow.
SHADOW MAGIC took about two years. It started off as a rambling, highly cliched quest story, with the heroes doing, basically, a sub-Tolkien-esque journey across magical lands to get… I can’t even remember what.
The key moment, beyond realizing the quest motif was boring, was turning the whole plot upside down. Instead of roaming across the world, SHADOW MAGIC would be set in a single building. Something utterly fantastical in its own right. I knew I wanted the book to be about dark sorcerers, the traditional bad guys, and the family name would be Shadow. Then the name of their home popped into my head. Castle Gloom.
But to make the best of this world, I needed an outsider, whose viewpoint would match that of the reader. I’m a big fan of British legends, and they don’t come much bigger than Robin Hood. So my hero, a young boy called Thorn, was very much inspired by the Hood.
Once I knew I wasn’t writing a quest, I knew it had to be a detective story. I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot, and (especially with Agatha Christie) a lot of her mysteries centre around a crime taking place in a isolated location, a country mansion, a resort, or a train trapped by the snow.
The big challenge was placing the clues. They had to be enough to give the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery, but not so obvious they guess the culprit by the end of Chapter 1! That said, there is a deadly sting at the end of SHADOW MAGIC…
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
My evil twin, Sarwat Chadda, recommended I got in touch with his agent, Sarah Davies. He admitted he’s quite scared of her, but I’ve found her warm, friendly and incredibly helpful!
That said, she was very firm on her comments regarding the first few drafts and really pushed me will beyond my comfort zone. All the best bits out of the book are due to her not settling for anything but the very best I could manage. There are, and should be, no shortcuts in writing. A lot of words go into the bin before you find the ones that stick on the page. Sarah’s a hugely experienced editor, and that experience was invaluable in making SHADOW MAGIC rise.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
The kids are in secondary school now, so after they’d had breakfast and left I get down to work. If I’m at first draft stage then I aim at 1,000-2,000 words per day, but nothing over the weekends. Writing is a job, a great job, but there are other, more important things in life. I think I have the tendency to obsess, so shutting the door on the home office is important.
I work more or less through till 3pm, with little breaks, then wrap up and start sorting out supper. Kids are home and it’s time to help (where I can!) with homework. What’s cool is we all share the office. I’ve one desk, the girls have their own. It’s getting a bit cramped with manuscripts and text books covering every available space, and I’m not sure how much longer we’ll carry on like this!
If the manuscript is written and I’m redrafting, then I aim at 20 pages a day. All this excludes pondering time, which seems to be almost every waking moment if I’m not careful. I’ve recently taken up painting and drawing again, and I’ve discovered it’s the BEST way to switch off from writing.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
The steps are simple and apply to everyone.
1. Write. And finish what you write. If you can reach the end, and still enjoy it, you are a writer already.
2. Don’t rush. I was in my forties before I hit the shelves. Life is long and don’t miss out on it because you’re slaving away over the keyboard.
3. Manage rejection. It will be hard as each ‘no’ feels like a knife in the guts, but if you came bear it, and feed off it, you will become a better writer, and happier human being!
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Don’t be afraid to dump it all and start again. The best bits will linger in your fingertips, and the next version will be stronger. I recently spoke to SF Said, a hero of mine. It took him seven years to write Phoenix and, frankly, by the end of it I could barely read for the tears. That level of awesome is down to hard, hard work.
Manage critiques. Not all are equal. Have a variety of readers who offer advice of different accepts. My grammar, spelling and punctuation are shambolic, so I have a family friend who is super-pedantic on these things, but not on plot. I discuss plot with my daughter, actually. She asks the most questions about ms.
Keep a notebook handy. Allow randomness in and a notebook is a great way of keeping track of it.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
GRR Martin. Well, how could any fantasy writer party not include him? It was getting into THE SONG OF FIRE AND ICE that rekindled my love of epic fantasy.
Philip Reeve. Though I have had lunch with him already, but another meal would be jolly nice, at some point.
Angela Carter. She wrote brilliant female fairy tales, and Lily Shadow is certainly inspired by her work. I’d just like to thank her.
I wish I’d created Tyrion Lannister. He totally rocks.