Category Archives: Hows & Whys

First Draft Hell

It’s Camp NaNoWriMo time, and oodles of writers all over the world are in a special kind of first draft hell. As we approach the midpoints of our stories, plotters and pantsers alike might be feeling tempted to throw in the towel.

So that’s what this week’s video is about. A look at the things I tend to struggle with as I fight my way through first drafts (and it usually is a fight–none of this comes easy to me) and how I try to change my perspective so I’ll keep fighting.

Enjoy!


Vlog post: Pre-writing

I got a few reader questions about what I do before I write a book, so that’s the topic of this week’s vlog post (which is late. Oops).

We’re talking ideas, characters, plotting, and pantsing!


My Writing Routine

…such as it is.

I got a question from Charlotte on Facebook about my writing routines (do I have one, do I write every day, etc.) and answered in video form.

Can’t watch? Long story short, I have one… and it doesn’t always work out so well. ūüôā


Author Chat: Celine Jeanjean on Sequels

Hi, everyone! Today it’s my pleasure to host a guest author on the blog. If you’ve been hanging around here, or if you follow me on Instagram, you probably know how much I enjoyed The Bloodless Assassin (formerly titled The Viper and the Urchin) by Celine Jeanjean. The sequel, The Black Orchid, is currently available for pre-order and releases tomorrow, so it seemed like a great time to chat with Celine about the unique challenges presented by sequels.

(Cover art by the excessively talented Ravven)

Writing your first book is hard. The next is another beast entirely.

This post is an edited transcript of our recent chat. As interesting as our tangents about cover art (what is with all of the beheaded hot dudes and drowning chicks, anyway?), reacting to reviews, our dogs, and the current state of publishing were, we’ll try to keep this post on topic. ūüôā

KS: So, Celine, would you like to give us a quick introduction to what your books are about?

CJ:¬†Sure! The series follows Longinus (the Viper) and Rory (the urchin). Longinus is a pedantic assassin with an inconvenient blood phobia. Rory’s an urchin girl with big dreams of becoming a famous swordswoman. They meet when Rory saves Longinus during an assassination gone wrong and then blackmails him so he’ll teach her swordfighting. It’s pretty much irritation at first sight for them both. They argue, they get on each other’s nerves, and ultimately become very close in a very platonic way.

The books are both fun action capers, they’re a mix of steampunk, non-magic fantasy (in that they take place in another world than ours) and there’s quite a bit of humour. And then each story has a darker mystery running throughout, where Rory and Longinus find themselves fighting to save the city.

KS: And now it’s sequel time.When did you start working on The Black Orchid? Was that something you had drafted before The Bloodless Assassin came out? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do?

CJ:¬†I had a completely blank slate after Bloodless Assassin was finished. I always wanted each book to work as a standalone, so I had no particular idea of what would happen next, other than Rory and Longinus would get into some trouble together.¬†Likewise, I didn’t get the idea for book 3 until I was nearly done with The Black Orchid. There’s a bit of an emotional thread running throughout the books, in that the characters grow and change over time, but that’s as much as I know before I start writing a story.¬†Although I think I might know the overall story for book 4 already. That might change as I write book 3, mind you. One thing’s for sure, I have so much fun creating new cities that I think Rory and Longinus will do a lot of travelling as the series develops!

KS: And you gave us a fantastic glimpse of that worldbuilding on your blog not long ago. I can’t wait to see what locations you create next! I find your series process interesting.¬†And it strikes me as brave, because I would totally freak out if I didn’t have some idea what was going to happen next. I drafted Torn before Bound’s release, and Sworn before Torn’s release.

CJ:¬†Yours is a continuous story whereas mine are separate stories with a common thread. I imagine if I wrote something like Bound, I’d plan out the whole thing first.

KS:¬†I really had only a vague idea how the larger story would end when I released Bound. I’m glad I did things the way I did for the series, being able to plant seeds in earlier books that would sprout later, but leaving lots of room for exploration. Each book was a really unique experience for me.¬†Did you find you faced different challenges in writing this book compared to what you dealt with for book one?

CJ:¬†Yes absolutely. One of the challenges I found was dealing with the Worst Case Scenario of writing each book. When I was writing Bloodless Assassin, I kept picturing the worst thing that could happen: that nobody read the book (or that a handful of people read it and left 1 star reviews – I could never decide which was worse). But then I told myself that if that happened, then nobody would actually know about my book, so I could quietly retire it and start again from scratch. That made it less scary because I could see how I’d pick myself up if I failed, so most of the time I was just having fun with Bloodless Assassin.

With Black Orchid, I have readers now, and those readers have expectations. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, and I’m incredibly grateful, but I’ve found that this time my Worst Case Scenario is much harder to ignore: the idea of people who loved Bloodless Assassin reading Black Orchid and putting it aside, disappointed. I found myself second guessing what I wrote a lot more. Writing a book 1 in a series is far more freeing because there’s zero expectations, so you can literally just have fun with it. With book 2 there’s definitely a whole lot more pressure. Thankfully I did manage to set it aside most of the time so I’m not quite a basket-case yet.

And then from a more ‘technical’ standpoint, I found that with a sequel you have more of a balance to tread. You want to have the stuff people seemed to love in book 1 but at the same time make book 2 a unique thing that’s not just a rehashing of book 1 (I’m looking at you, bad Hollywood sequels). And part of that for me was trying to make sure there was as much of a sense of discovery in terms of the setting in Black Orchid as there was in Bloodless Assassin, despite it taking place in the same city.

KS: I think we may be kindred spirits. We have the same worries/paranoias. ^_^

CJ: Did you find publishing book 2 harder than book 1?

KS: I think the hardest thing about writing the middle book in a trilogy was making it its own story. None of them are intended as standalones, but each book needed a complete story arc and a definite challenge for each character to overcome, and Torn had to bridge the gap between the beginning and the series climax.

Do you have any advice for authors embarking on the sequel experience?

CJ:¬†I think for sequel writing, the most important thing is keeping reader voices out of your head – even if it’s very positive stuff. One thing I fell prey to while writing Black Orchid was at some point consciously trying to please readers. I wrote this whole (rather large bit) which was totally created on the back of some very nice reader comments — because I really wanted to give them more of the stuff they’d liked. And it was totally wrong for the story and I had to cut it all out. That’s not to say it was worthless, it might even be transformed into a little side novella, but I realised how important it is not to let people into your head as you’re writing.

KS: That’s good advice!¬†I think that was one place where having a definite idea of where my trilogy/story was going helped me. People wanted certain things to happen, and I already knew “no, that’s not going to be a thing,” or “I think this person will be happy about where this goes.”

CJ: Yes, that would really help. Probably a big advantage of trilogies over standalones
Did you know how the whole thing was going to end by the way, from the start?

KS:¬†I knew a few big things, but not exactly how they would happen or how everyone would get there.¬†I’m glad I knew the things I did so I could get those ideas started in earlier books and build to them rather than throwing concepts in at the last minute, but I’m also glad I got to explore and be surprised.

To wrap up:  What do you think makes a strong sequel? You mentioned bad movie sequels. How do you avoid that?

CJ:¬†For me a bad sequel is a sequel written for the wrong reasons. Bad Hollywood sequels for me stink of business men rubbing their hands at how much money they’ll be able to make from it. A sequel has to be written with as much artistic integrity as the first book, and if the story was done at book 1, then it needs to stay done at book 1.

KS: Thanks so much for taking time to chat with me about sequels! I think we’ll need to do this again some time. Unleash all of our ideas on all of those other topics on the world. ūüôā

CJ:¬†Thank you so much for having me, this was fun! We should definitely do it again, if only to cover some of our many, many tangents! ūüėČ

Here’s the link to The Bloodless Assassin (which you should all definitely check out–one of my favourite indie books from the past few years), and to the sequel, The Black Orchid. You can find Celine here at her site.

Thanks for joining us!

-K


Writing Regrets: The Fear of Failure

I don’t do a lot of advice posts here. I don’t feel qualified. I’m happy to answer questions in private and chat about writing until you want to duct-tape my mouth shut, but for the most part I keep posts to talking about my work, releases, and whatever else is going on in my life.

Today, I’m going to make an exception.

We’re not going to talk about how to write, how to outline, how to create characters, or how to find an editor. Today is just going to be me sharing one big regret from my life as a writer in the hopes I can encourage someone else to not make the same mistake. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I think it might help someone out there, so here goes.

Ready?

I wish I’d had the courage to write shitty books.

Does that sound strange? Let me explain.

I’m a perfectionist*. As we’ve discussed before, this doesn’t mean I’m a type-A personality who’s driven to do my best at everything. That wouldn’t be so bad. No, my perfectionism means that I expect myself to be good at everything from the get-go, without practice. Know what that leads to?

A whole lot of quitting. I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. I quit ballet, figure skating, t-ball, and guitar lessons. I wasn’t good at them right away, I had no concept of how to enjoy the experience of being challenged, I didn’t like feeling like a failure, so I gave up.

This is a horrible way to think.¬†It’s stagnant. It relies on natural talent and coasting, and it rejects things like critique and learning from mistakes¬†because it doesn’t want to believe anything needs to improve. Failure is terrifying, and to be avoided at all costs. Failure means you’re NOT GOOD ENOUGH, and to try means to risk finding out you’re an imposter.

*shudder*

I’m not proud of it, but it’s the mindset I seem to have been born with, and one I’m still learning to fight.

So that brings us to writing. I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since I penned fanfic-ish (okay, direct rip-off) versions of my favourite stories in first grade. It was fun. I had a great imagination.

But I wanted everything to be perfect on the first draft. If I needed to work at it, that meant it wasn’t good enough, and therefore I shouldn’t bother. Criticism and suggestions for improvement made me defensive, and instead of trying to improve my work, I trashed it. Oh, and I expected my work as a first-grader to be as good as a published adult author’s.

*cough*

Fast-forward to my twenties. I wanted to get back into writing. I started with short stories that I showed to very few people because I suspected¬†they’d tell me they weren’t as good as they could be, and my ego couldn’t handle that. I believed that I had natural talent. That’s fine. Faith in oneself is essential. But I wanted that to be enough. I expected the first book I wrote to be a masterpiece, ready to have publishers swooning all over it, ready to catapult me to fame and fortune.

And I thought anything else was a waste of time.

So in between battles with depression, exhaustion from my day job, and later dealing with more depression (and babies/toddlers/small children), I started a few books.

I never finished them.

Why? Two reasons. First, they started to look like they wouldn’t be great, so I gave up. Second, I had this weird belief that I was somehow wasting ideas if I wrote them before I was good enough for them.

As though I couldn’t scrap them and re-write.

As though I couldn’t revise.

As though writing a not-quite-there-yet book and putting it under my bed to collect dust was shameful, because I wasn’t good enough.

I hated the thought of spending years working on something that wouldn’t be the Best Thing Ever. It seemed like a waste of time. I saw no reward in effort, in climbing a learning curve that exists for everyone but that I thought I should be somehow above.

Feel free to laugh. Really. I wish I could, but all I can do is wish for a time machine so I could slap some sense into to that younger me.

This is probably the worst attitude one can bring to writing: That we are above average, gifted, superior, and above criticism. It’s shooting yourself in the foot before you begin the race, then insisting you don’t need assistance. It’s a sure way to make sure you never make progress in anything.

The funny thing is, writing books that would never have seen the light of day would have been the opposite of a waste of time. Yes, it might have felt that way back then. We all want to believe that every bright, shiny idea that passes through our brains is a gift from the muses, that we are special snowflakes who will just drift to brilliance and fame because we deserve it.

But the fact is that you have to work for it. Years of writing (and finishing) bad books would have helped me write good books sooner. Maybe having a few full novels shoved under my bed would have prepared me to get Bound ready for publication in less than the 3.5¬†years of revisions it needed. Maybe I’d be cranking books out faster now because I’d know more about my process and how to make things work.

I wasted so much time giving up because first drafts weren’t perfect and because (surprise, surprise) writing is FRIGGING HARD. Yeah. It really is, and not all effort is rewarded equally–or financially. But if you push through, if you finish a bad book or two, you will learn so much more about the craft and about yourself as a storyteller than years of stalling and waiting can ever teach you.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not wish I had published a few bad books. I’m actually glad self-publishing wasn’t so promising and cheap back when I was first thinking about writing, because I know the temptation would have been there to publish books that weren’t remotely ready. Back then I was scared to let people see my work, but probably would have published anyway on the strength of my arrogance, and the reviews would have killed me. I don’t think throwing everything we write out there,¬†letting the chips fall where they may, and revising stuff later is a good career strategy or respectful to readers (I know, some disagree with me). There are enough bad books out there, and I’m glad I was forced to wait until I had something of good quality to offer.

But I wish I had those bad books stashed in a drawer. I’m sure I’d be completely embarrassed by them, but I like to think that I’d also be thankful to past me for putting the work in, learning to fail, and letting go of perfection for long enough to actually move toward improvement.

So here’s your advice, friends. If you want to write, WRITE. Don’t wait for your abilities to magically develop to match the potential of this glorious story idea you have (trust me, you’ll have a better one soon enough, and you can always re-write it later). Put in the work writing complete and utter shit. Don’t feel like you ever have to publish it, but finish it and be open to having it critiqued. Be willing to accept the idea that you’re not a gifted genius, and that maybe you have a lot to learn. You can learn. You will learn. But hiding behind “I’m not going to bother if it’s not going to be perfect” will never get you there. Don’t write shit on purpose. Bring your A-game. Just don’t be scared of it not being amazing on the first try.

And then move on the the next thing. I’ve found that finishing each book has caused bigger shifts in my abilities as a writer than anything else, as each new book allows me to apply what I’m learning to a fresh story. I wish I’d finished more, sooner. But you can’t change the past, so what I’m doing now is trying to be open to trying new things, challenging myself, and maybe screwing up along the way.

Happy writing, friends.

*Cool footnote: After I drafted this post last week, I started reading a book called Mindset (Carol Dweck, Ph.D.). Guys, it is talking about me. The fixed mindset is everything I’ve been blabbing about and fighting against for the past few years. I’ll let you guys know how the book is once I’ve finished, but I’m pretty excited. And freaked out. Has she been stalking me? O.o


Writing Resources: For Love or Money by Susan Kaye Quinn

A quick book review today, and one that will be mostly of interest to writers.

Okay, almost strictly of interest to writers.

You might be familiar with Susan Kaye Quinn¬†from her book The Indie Author Survival Guide. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard me mention it (assuming you’ve been around long enough. Hi, new guys!). ¬†It’s a fantastic resource for any indie writer, whether you’re new to this* or an experienced author looking to brush up on how to approach book production and marketing.

That book is the kind of how-to guide that feels like an older sister (a nice one, not the kind who puts gum in your hair) holding your hand and guiding you through the scary stuff.

For Love or Money is a different beast altogether. It’s not about how to write, or how to publish. It’s about crafting the rest of your career after those first few books, about figuring out what your goals are, why you’re writing and publishing, and how best to reach the top of your chosen mountain.

It’s about writing for love:¬†Telling the stories that move you, the ones you’d write even if no one ever read them.

It’s about writing for money:¬†Figuring out the market and discovering your own voice within a tight genre framework.

And it’s about doing both. Ms Quinn writes “mercenary” fiction (strictly for money) under a pen name, and she talks about finding joy in the work she does there. She talks about taking ideas that you love and shaping them so that they fit the market, thus allowing the books you write for love to become money-makers. And she talks about how it’s just fine to have both kinds of books out there.

I enjoyed this book¬†enough that I¬†read it in a day (during a long reading slump, no less). I’ll share a few of the lessons I took away from it, but it’s definitely worth grabbing a copy and reading it for yourself (though you should definitely read IASG first, as this one refers back to it).

My take-aways:

  • Not every book has to be a bestseller. When one book (say, a first book) has some measure of success, there can be a lot of pressure to repeat that with every new project or series. It’s comforting to know that if I decide to work on a project I love that might resonate with fewer readers, that’s okay. Writing for love is healthy, and sales will vary over the course of a career.
  • Writing for the market, aiming to please a larger number of people by writing books that cater to the genre tropes people love, is not selling out. It’s a unique form of creative challenge, and one that can net huge rewards (even outside of the money). There’s nothing wrong with actually wanting to make money off of our hard work, and predicting what will sell isn’t impossible.
  • I have my whole career ahead of me. If I decide to genre-hop instead of staying with a successful world and premise, that’s okay. It may put the brakes on things, but not burning out is just as important as maintaining sales numbers. Playing in another sandbox might keep me happier, and therefore help me do better and more meaningful work when I do return to the genre and world that kicked things off for me.

That’s not all, but those were the things I most needed to hear.

This book helped be choose the mountain I want to climb: writing stories I want to read, shaped to enthrall a large audience… most of the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be a mercenary writer, churning out dragon porn to make a quick buck (though I could totally kick ass at that, guys).¬†Stories that are purely “for love”, i.e. too non-genre-specific to find much of an audience, will go on the back burner until I’m at a place financially where I can afford for them to flop and not have to stress out about it.

Reading this book helped me step back, look at my career goals, and decide where I want to go.

And that’s huge.

Check out Susan Kaye Quinn’s site here for links.

*New to this as I was the first time I read it, that is. In fact, the IASG, Be the Monkey (Konrath and Eisler), and Let’s Get Digital¬†(Gaughran) were the three books that convinced me that indie publishing was the path I wanted to take, and I’m mind-explodingly grateful to the authors of all of them. If not for these books, Bound could still be making the rounds of slush piles, or badly published and nearly unread. *shudder*


Bound A-Z: J is for “Jumpin’ Jehosephat”

Okay, so that title is a lie. No character in the Bound trilogy has ever said “Jumpin’ Jehosephat,” and I guarantee they never will. What we really want to talk about today is cussin’, but that doesn’t start with J.

I probably don’t need to put a disclaimer here, right?

Every author has to make decisions regarding swearing: How much is appropriate, whether it will sound silly if characters in life-threatening situations don’t swear in order to keep a “clean” rating (see the aforementioned Jehosephat). For some of us it’s not a tough decision, at least until our grandparents and people from church start reading our books.

*cough*

Others have to do a bit more soul-searching.

On top of that,¬†some genres offer additional restrictions or opportunities. Writing middle-grade fiction? Yeah, we all know first-graders who drop f-bombs like Samuel L. Jackson (if with considerably less flair), but it’s not considered appropriate to include that kid as a character in a MG book, even as the bully. Historical fiction¬†writers will have to take into account the historical accuracy of slurs and swears. This might sound restrictive, but judging by the insults Shakespeare’s characters tossed out, I’m guessing the research there could be rather interesting.

And Fantasy and Sci-Fi allow us a range of possibilities. This article from Book Riot has a great run-down of the options authors choose. There’s the vaguely-dirty-sounding substitution, the straight-up swear, religious curses based on the world the story is set in, and more.

Anyone who’s read Bound and Torn knows I let my characters swear when it seems appropriate for the situation. As my editor said in his comments on Torn*, “You gave more shits this time, and it worked.” He thought it felt realistic for characters to swear when everything is… well, when the shit hits the fan, so to speak, to not pussy-foot around to keep things universally palatable.

Why use our curses rather than making something fantastical up? Because everything else is translated, too. My characters don’t speak English in their world. If the words “cup,” “hunting,” “dragon,” and “love” are translated, I also translate the swearing when it works. It’s what works for me as a writer, though I do look forward to writing about species that use less-conventional oaths in the future. That should be fun. And there are cases where the world impacts choice of curses. “Gods” instead of “God” for a character who believes in more than one. “Harpy” instead of “bitch,” because that’s really the more vile insult in that world. It’s all about conveying meaning, not going for shock value.

Do some readers hate swearing? Yes.

Do some readers hate “clean reads” that seem awkwardly contrived to avoid realistic language and references to sex?

*raises hand*

It’s all personal taste, and you can’t please everyone. I’ll write what feels right for my stories and characters, as I expect other writers do with theirs. I do think swearing can be over-used to the point where it becomes irritating, or the reader becomes numb to it. I love creative curses, as long as I don’t have to spend too much time figuring them out. But used properly, a well-placed cuss¬†can add a flash of depth or colour to a serious scene, or a bit of humour to another.

“Bad words” are one of many tools available to a writer, no different from¬†metaphors and adverbs and varied sentence length. Just like anything else, we¬†can choose to use them, to over-use them, or to not use them at all to create mood in a scene, establish character, or add impact to a moment in a story.

They just happen to occasionally be a lot more fun than most tools. ūüôā

Fun Bonus Fact: The first draft of Sworn included what I (quite modestly) considered the most perfect f-bomb ever. It came from an unexpected character, and in context no other word would have delivered the same impact or meaning. It was absolutely perfect. I was certain my alpha readers or editor would tell me to cut it, but I had to have it just for my own satisfaction. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the story changed, things shifted around, and that moment was no longer essential to the story, so the Big Bad F-Bomb got cut.

This is what they mean when they say “kill your darlings.” Even when something pleases you as a writer, sometimes it has to go for the good of the story as a whole.

*Paraphrased, I can’t find my notes. Okay, that’s a lie. I haven’t had coffee, I’m lazy, and searching through those notes seems like a poor use of time I could be spending on getting the next book ready for edits.


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