Category Archives: 5 Things I Learned

5 Things I Learned While Writing INK AND ASHES

By Valynne E. Maetani

maetani-inkandashes-ag15When my sister turned eighteen, I decided to write Ink and Ashes for her. Because I never got to see myself in books other than those with settings involving war, an internment camp, or high fantasy, I wanted her to have a contemporary title with a Japanese American protagonist. I was tired of reading about people like me who were hated just because of the way they look and thought the greatest gift I could give her was a book I never got to read.

Following red herrings and guessing how a story might end has always been a thrill, so I knew this was the type of book I wanted to write. I also wanted a Japanese element which added mystery, and that naturally led me to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

The only problem was that I had never written a book before. Fortunately, writing a book was really fun and easy.

Until it wasn’t.

So here are some of the most important things I learned:

1. Writing is hard. In order to grow, I had to leave my ego at the door. I had to be willing to let my manuscript be ripped to shreds. I had to hear why parts of my story didn’t work. I had to learn where my weaknesses were, so I could discover my strengths.

2. Writing is hard. There were times I hated my book. I hated my characters. I wanted them all to die. But I also loved my book. I loved it enough that I couldn’t give up writing. I was passionate about my story even when I thought my manuscript would never be published. In fact, I was pretty certain my story would never see the light of day. No one had written a book like mine, and so I believed there wasn’t a market for my story. But having an underlying passion for what I was writing carried me through the times that were difficult.

3. Writing is hard. I think some of the hardest scenes to write for Ink and Ashes were the ones where I left a part of myself on the page. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was difficult, but it also meant I was writing a story no one else could write.

4. Writing is hard. But having friends who are writers has made the journey easier. Only writers truly understand why we do what we do—why we torture ourselves and yet love the craft. Writers understand exactly what it means to get an agent, to sell a book, to be on deadline, to write another book. They have been a support system that I couldn’t have done without.

5. Writing is hard. But it is also fun. It is worth the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It has brought joys and opportunities I could have never imagined; introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise; and filled voids that I wasn’t even aware of.

Writing is hard. But it wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise, and I can’t imagine life without it.


valynnemaetaniValynne E. Maetani grew up in Utah and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In a former life, she was a project manager and developed educational software for children with learning disabilities. Currently, she is a part-time stage mom, part-time soccer mom, and full-time writer. Her debut novel, Ink and Ashes, is the winner of the New Visions Award 2013 and a spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Ink and Ashes is now available.

5 Things I Learned While Writing “Nobody’s Goddess”

By Amy McNulty

mcnulty-nobodysgoddessI began work on a manuscript that led to my YA romantic fantasy debut, Nobody’s Goddess, twelve years before its publication. What I wrote then bears little resemblance to what will be published April 21st, but some of the images that first popped into my mind back then became the groundwork for the finished product. It all started with a cavern bathed in violet light, a cavern that made it into the finished manuscript even when characters, the plot and the role of the cavern did not. Writing Nobody’s Goddess taught me a lot of things, but these five are the most important:

1. Stories can evolve. Many authors talk about shelving early manuscripts they wrote, claiming their writing skills weren’t polished at the time or citing a long list of rejections. I believe that even if the earliest work you do on a project doesn’t see the light of day, if you believe in the core of your story, you’ll eventually figure out how to make it work—even if you have to rewrite the story from page one more than once.

2. Write at your own pace. If you can write every day, you’ll get a lot done and improve much quicker than writers who don’t. That said, it’s not a feasible schedule for every writer. It’s been a long journey, but I discovered that I write best when I write every day (or nearly every day) for a few months at a time and then let myself rest for a few months, using that time to edit and outline other projects. I wrote what became the original finished first draft of Nobody’s Goddess in just nine days. (I’d scrapped most of what I’d written on the project before that, although the bare bones of some of it made it through.) I made far more significant progress in those nine days than I had in the nine years before that.

3. Prepare to revise. When I finished the first draft of Nobody’s Goddess, after years of writing aimlessly, I thought the hardest part was behind me. Over the next few years, I revised it significantly for: an agent (which led to me signing with another agent), an editor at a publisher, a second round of submissions with my agent’s help after that didn’t work out, and for my publisher after signing, with a number of smaller revisions with the help of beta readers and editors along the way. It takes a lot to shape your ideas into something that’s ready to share with readers, and you won’t have to go it alone, but you should be ready to rip up your manuscript and rework scenes if necessary. Some of the characters in the final version of my book didn’t even appear in the version we first sent out to publishers.

4. Write what you love. When I first wrote what would in some form become Nobody’s Goddess (then called, embarrassingly, Dreamalgam; at least the next working title, The Veiled Man’s Goddess, was an improvement), I lacked passion for the project because I was focusing on writing a story that didn’t speak to me as a reader. I wanted to write a YA fantasy, and romance was an afterthought; I wasn’t sure it was going to appear at all. I was focused on fantasy and dreams, even though I usually found dream scenes irritating in the entertainment I consumed. Eventually, I remembered how much I adore a twisted kind of romance and decided to scrap the dream angle entirely, instead writing a story I hoped would prove in the vein of Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre or even Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, with a Byronic hero and a heroine who stands up for herself and what she believes in rather than simply caving in to his affections. Because I love those types of stories, going in that direction made writing easier.

5. Focus on scenes that speak to you. If you’re having difficulty writing, think about the scenes you’ve yet to write. If one seems really exciting, go ahead and skip to it. Rediscover that passion you feel for the project as you write that scene, and then go back and fill in the gaps in the plot later. The more organized-minded might not like to write that way, but it’s important you keep writing any way you can rather than letting yourself get stuck because you’re not sure how the next chronological scene should go.
Write to bring the characters in your head to life. Write to promote more diverse reading, with worlds more accurately reflective of the world we live in. Write just because you want to. Most importantly—just write.


Amy McNulty is a freelance writer and editor from Wisconsin with an honors degree in English. She was first published in a national scholarly journal (The Concord Review) while in high school and currently spends her days alternatively writing about anime and business topics and crafting stories with dastardly villains and antiheroes set in fantastical medieval settings. Nobody’s Goddess, the first book in The Never Veil Series, is her debut YA romantic fantasy. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Nobody’s Goddess is available for purchase.

5 Things I Learned While Writing “Written in the Stars”

By Aisha Saeed

saeed-writteninthestars1. You will get criticism. It’s part of putting your work out there in the world.

When I first began writing my novel, a family member asked me what my book was about. When I told her the novel was about a Pakistani American girl who is forced into a marriage against her will, her immediate response was: great, because that’s just what we need, another story to make Pakistanis look bad. That strong reaction really threw me for a loop and worry settled like a seed in my heart. I never considered not writing this novel but I did get worried about how people would react to it. The truth is, I had friends who were pressured into marriages against their will and while yes aspects of this book are not flattering to a culture I belong to and love, I did feel it was an important story to share. The reaction I got about the novel’s premise made me realize I would get pushback and negative responses for writing about a problematic part of my culture. Ultimately, I continued writing it and I stand by what I wrote because while I do address a problem, as a Pakistani American who loves her culture, I wrote this story from a place of love. The novel shows the complexity of Pakistan which includes the warmth of its people, the beauty of its surroundings, and the nuance that abounds. It’s a fine balance and its never fun to get criticism but it’s part and parcel of creating art- it’s subjective and everyone is entitled to how they feel. You have to do the work you believe in anyways.

2. Forced marriages are a cultural problem, not a religious problem. 

As a Muslim I have always known forced marriages are condemned in Islam just as they are in every religion on earth. I did not however know that people thought forced marriages were approved of in Islam until I got asked this question over and over again. The truth is, forced marriages are not a problem limited to Muslim countries, forced marriages happen in many different countries and also take place among different faiths as well. Unchained At Last, a fantastic US based organization successfully challenges this misconception and highlights people here in the United States who were coerced and forced into unwanted marriages. Realizing the link many people would make between the problem highlighted in my book and my religious faith, I felt it was important to include an author’s note to address this misconception. I also made sure it was clear to readers that Naila actually found comfort in her faith and did not blame her religion for the predicament she was in.

3. Writing a book takes a lot of time. Make peace with that. 

I’ve read about how agents brace themselves for the post NaNoWriMo submission surge and tell writers to wait and make sure the book they submit is the best book it can possibly be. They are right. Revising is a labor intensive and exhaustive thing to do. I have lost track of how many revisions I’ve done. For example, Written in the Stars began as a third person past-tense novel. After some time with it though I realized the story would have a deeper sense of immediacy and urgency if it was narrated in the present tense and in the first person by the protagonist, Naila. This required a complete line-by-line rewrite but it was completely worth it because the effect of writing it this way helped the story come to life for me in a way the other format wasn’t doing. It’s frustrating to keep changing things and revising but for me that’s part of the writing journey. I also believe being this critical helps the novel become better and it also helps you become a better writer ultimately.

4. When it comes to writing, particularly writing about marginalized groups, take the time to research and get it right. 

Yes it’s fiction but if you are writing a novel you have a responsibility to do your best to write a respectful and honest representation of whatever it is you take on. That responsibility is huge because what readers are reading may be their one and only introduction to the culture you are writing about. I am Pakistani American and much of my novel takes place in Pakistan but because I haven’t been to Pakistan in some time, it was important for me to make sure the details were accurate. To this end I had many beta readers including my parents. Most of Naila’s time in Pakistan is spent in her parent’s village. That setting is entirely fictional but loosely based on my parent’s ancestral village. For this reason I had them read each line and give me feedback to make sure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Friends also gave me feedback in areas where more nuance could be added and where more complexity could take certain characters from being black and white to more complex. In a world that is still battling racism and bigotry on a daily basis it is so important to not stereotype and resort to clichés and it is also important to portray people, particularly marginalized people, respectfully even if you’re addressing difficult topics. Take the time, even if it delays the manuscript going out on submission, even if it takes going through a lot of people to double and triple check, but get it right.

5. I love writing and I hate writing. 

In the prologue of Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, she says writing is like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I laughed out loud at her description because that is what writing feels like to me. The truth is, writing is something that feels like a calling and it’s something I love to do, but in the same breath I also find writing one of the most challenging and difficult things I take on. I hate the self-doubt and the frustration of going through the first draft [which is my least favorite draft] and wondering if all the work will even amount to anything or if this will remain the rubbish it seems to be. I’ve learned through reading many memoirs of many lovely writers whom I admire that this is normal. For most writers, writing is hard work and it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. I’ve made my peace with it because while I don’t love the act of writing out the first draft, I do love the feeling of finishing writing a novel. I think it’s the act of finishing writing a story I’m proud of that pushes me through the painstaking process of creating.


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Aisha Saeed is a YA author, attorney, and educator and one of the founding members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Her upcoming debut Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Visit her online at www.aishasaeed.com or follow her on twitter and tumblr: @aishacs.

Purchase a copy of Written in the Stars here.

5 Things I Learned While Writing A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR

In A Death-Struck Year, 17-year-old Cleo Berry volunteers with the Red Cross in 1918 Portland, Oregon, during the deadly Spanish flu pandemic.

By Makiia Lucier

lucier-adeathstruckyear1. Sometimes, five drafts just doesn’t cut it.

A Death-Struck Year was the first book I’d ever written, and when I submitted an early draft to agents, I thought it was beautiful and perfect and that it would sell immediately. I was so proud of myself; I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away when he finally started that fire. But it was far from perfect. Before being sent off to the printers, the manuscript would have to go through six full rewrites and several additional copy edits. Even the original title, A Beautiful and Death-Struck Year, was chopped up. It was a shock, but now that I think on it, I’m glad I didn’t know in the beginning how much work was involved. A part of me wonders if I would have been too afraid to even start.

You can see a horrific, graphic example of an early draft here.

2. Patience really is a virtue.

There’s an incredible amount of waiting involved in the publishing business. Who knew? Certainly not me. Once you submit your queries and/or manuscripts to literary agents, you have to wait for their response. Later, when your agent submits to various publishing houses, there’s even more waiting. And every time you send a draft off to your editor, you have to bide your time, sometimes for weeks, sometimes more. There are many words I can use to describe my road to publication: thrilling, eye-opening, surreal, awesome. But speedy? Definitely not.

3. Stealth writing; I did what worked for me.

There are writers who are perfectly comfortable discussing every stage of their process in real time, but I’ve found that I’m not one of them. When I began writing Cleo’s story in the fall of 2010, I told no one except my husband and one friend. My daughter only found out because she lives with us; little pitchers have big ears, after all. I did it because I had never written a book before. I had no idea if I would finish the manuscript, let alone publish it. And much as I love them, I didn’t want to field questions from well-meaning family and friends — Did you find a publisher yet? When is your book coming out? If there was the slightest chance that I was going to fail, I wanted to do it as quietly as possible. Keeping my story close until it was finished is a decision I’m still happy with.

Author Makiia Lucier
Author Makiia Lucier

4. Research can be fun. No, really.

One of the great pleasures of writing A Death-Struck Year was in the amount of research required. Does that sound strange? It’s true. I think research plays a critical role in the creative process. You never know when some obscure historical fact will send your imagination spinning. An article about a theater being turned into an emergency hospital, for example, or an old photograph of a house with windows shaped like giant keyholes. But what I also learned is that I can get so caught up in the research, I put off the actual writing. It’s something I have to constantly work on, remembering that research is necessary and fascinating, but the only way to actually finish a book is to, you know, write it.

5. Public speaking will not kill you.

How does an introvert make peace with book publicity? School appearances, bookstore readings, webinars where hundreds of people have registered to hear you speak — these can be nerve-wracking for writers who, like myself, are largely solitary creatures.

What I’ve learned is that preparation is key. Several days before I was scheduled to appear before a group of students, I invited some friends over to the house, opened a bottle of wine (okay, two bottles) and practiced, practiced, practiced. A walk through does wonders for shaking off the jitters. Not all of them, of course. I think public speaking for me will always cause the occasional sleepless night and shaky voice and sweaty palm. But it does get easier as time goes on, the more you prepare, and it absolutely will not kill you.


Makiia Lucier grew up on the Pacific island of Guam, not too far from the equator. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a master’s in library studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she studied literature for children. She’s had plenty of jobs, mostly in libraries, and currently resides in the small college town of Moscow, Idaho.

A Death-Struck Year is now available.

5 Things I Learned While Writing A TIME TO DANCE

In A Time to Dance, a novel in verse set in contemporary India, a young dancer loses part of her right leg and re-learns how to dance.

By Padma Venkatraman

venkatraman-atimetodance1. Go “Method”

Veda, the protagonist of A Time to Dance, looks like me (she’s of Indian heritage too) — and doesn’t (she’s differently abled).  Yes, her “voice” often spoke in my head, but when she wasn’t haunting me, I wanted to do all I could to understand and empathize with her experience of losing a limb.

I invested in a pair of crutches and spent a good deal of time hobbling up and down the basement stairs on them, with one leg scrunched up. I even bound my leg loosely on some days so I would be forced to hop on one leg.

The inspiration for the gripping scene in “Nails and Spears” came one night after I’d spent a grueling day trying to make my way around the home on one leg without crutches (crawling, basically), and then forcibly sending my leg to “sleep” (because people I’d interviewed said phantom pain felt a little like pins and needles).

Going “Method” the way actors do, to “get into character” is painful and time consuming. But for me, for A Time to Dance, it was worth the pain.

2. Play Party Tricks

Or, maybe the real lesson here is read, read, read. As part of the background research for A Time to Dance, I read V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain. Ramachandran describes experiments you can do to experience something similar to an amputee feeling a “phantom limb.”

These experiments also work quite nicely as party tricks. For a while, whenever someone came home, I experimented (played this party trick) on them. I watched their expressions, noted their feelings, and of course made them do this experiment with me as the subject, too.

The end result? One of the women who’d had an amputation and kindly agreed to read my novel draft and give me feedback,  kept starting at my feet when I met her. Then suddenly burst out, “You’re two-legged! How did you know so well what it feels like to have Phantom pain?”

Is that a compliment, or what! I felt so honored and so humbled when she said that.

Author Padma Venkatraman
Author Padma Venkatraman

3. Interviewing is listening, not asking questions

As I wrote A Time to Dance, I interviewed numerous dancers, musicians, scientists, doctors, prosthetists (people who manufacture and fit patients with prostheses), and of course, people who had had amputations.

I started off with a sheet of questions, but soon realized that interviewing is not about asking the right questions. It’s about creating a bond of trust and then allowing the other person to open and up and listening, as well as you can, to what they share with you.

4. Be bold

Few novels explore a character’s spiritual awakening and growth — one of the main themes in A Time to Dance.

At first, this didn’t scare me at all. But sometime in the murky middle of writing the novel, I got cold feet for a while. Because I realized the reason why hardly any protagonist questions and learns about spirituality.

Writing about spirituality without religiosity is tough. It’s incredibly hard to write it well. What’s more, even if you do it well, it’s risky, because it’s not a fast-moving action-packed type of story, the kind of story most readers (young and old adults) gravitate towards, these days.

Luckily, I was strong enough to keep going and committed enough to Veda to tell that important aspect of the story. And one of the greatest rewards was the magnificent review a remarkably perceptive teen wrote of the novel, at LitUp reviews in which it’s clear that she loves the novel because of the depth it achieves through the exploration of spirituality.

5. Aspire to Achieve Agapé

Veda, in A Time to Dance, reconnects with the world after the tragedy in which she loses a limb. She becomes more compassionate and starts to share her gift with others as a dance teacher. She opens up enough to let romance into her life. And, as she grows, her love of dance deepens. She awakens to the power of her art and understands that dance isn’t about winning awards. Dance becomes, to her, a way to touch something spiritual.

I don’t write for external recognition and validation. But Veda isn’t a saint, and I’m no saint, either.

I’m ecstatic, elated, honored, humbled, pleased, proud, that A Time to Dance was released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ. And what amazing reviews each of those was — I was moved to tears by each one of them.

And some of the other marvelous reviews the book got — online at LitUp reviews and in newspapers such as the Denver Post — also made me weep with joy. Because it feels like out there in the ether, there are some people who really, truly, “got” the book, and love my work.

But then, I keep reminding myself — and I hope I’ll never forget — that for me, as for Veda, art is and must remain a way to stay in touch with something above, beyond and vaster than my puny self.

I’m not sure I’ll ever lose the immense relief and gratification and sheer joy that I feel whenever my work is sincerely loved and praised. I even admit I yearn for even more recognition and even greater honors and awards than my work has already got.  I admit I think my work deserves and I hope it attains far higher levels of success, even though I feel incredibly grateful for all the blessings people have showered on me and my work thus far.

But, despite that rather materialistic craving that overcomes me every now and then, I know I need to nurture the deeper aspect of my love of writing.

Ultimately, I love writing the same way Veda loves dance. Writing is my art. Even if (heaven forbid) no one ever published my work again, I’d still keep on writing. Writing is my life.

So I never google myself or any of that. Instead, I try to stay centered, and write for and from that centeredness.

Because when I write, despite all I’ve said, I realize the books are like gifts given to me. I’m lucky I can transcribe the voices I hear in my head — and those voices aren’t “mine.” Stories possess me.  I don’t own the world of words.


A Time to Dance is now available. Find out more about Padma Venkatraman at her website.

5 Things I Learned While Writing “There Will Come a Time”

In Carrie Arcos’s new novel There Will Come a Time, Mark, a Filipino American teen, struggles with grief after the death of his twin sister.

By Carrie Arcos

arcos-therewillcome1. I can write under a deadline.

Writing There Will Come a Time was such a different experience than writing my first book, Out of Reach. With my first, I had all the time in the world because I was writing it for myself, and secretly hoping to publish it. I took my time, sent it to beta readers, and made sure it was as good as I could get it before I started sending it off to agents. Once I signed with my agent, she and I did another revision together before it was bought and then there were the revisions after that.

I sold There Will Come a Time on a proposal with the first three chapters and a synopsis. When it was bought, I had only four months to complete it. I said yes, of course, but inside I wondered if I could produce something as good as my first book this way. What helped was having the synopsis, the blueprint for me to follow. I am happy to say that I’m just as proud of my second book as my first. I also now have the confidence to know that I can write just as well under a deadline.

2. I’m stronger than I thought.

In the midst of writing the first draft of this book, a strange thing happened to me. The whole right side of my body went numb. It was a kind of numb like someone was cutting off my circulation. I was referred to a neurologist and after a series of tests, including a spinal tap that went wrong and sent me to the ER, I was given the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. This was shocking and upsetting. It brought up a tremendous amount of fear and dread for my future. I researched and educated myself on the disease, and have come to feel differently about it now. In those early months, however, I wanted to retreat into my room and lie down in the fetal position.

But I had this deadline. I was deeply involved writing a story of a boy who was grieving the loss of his twin sister. Even though our circumstances were different, I think I was able to write about grief in a more intimate way because of the grief I was experiencing. I felt a little bit like I was in the maze with Mark and we were trying to find our way out together.

I learned that courage comes from facing things that scare you. And that strength, rather than being a huge powerful force, is more like a quiet flame. It builds the more you fan and tend to it.

Author Carrie Arcos
Author Carrie Arcos

3. I can get in the head of a 17-year-old Filipino boy.

When friends learned that I was writing a story from the perspective of a seventeen year old musician, Filipino, skater boy, they looked at me a little oddly. I know they were thinking, what could a white woman my age know about that? This is the awesome thing about being a writer. I can get inside the head of anyone I want. How do I do this? Research. It’s how authors can write about the 1600’s or about the criminal justice system or about 1976. Male authors have been writing female characters for years, so I didn’t even think anything about it. I had a story to tell. I wanted to tell it.

A former student, and a boy who used to skate down my street every day without a helmet or pads inspired Mark’s character. He was also inspired by my hometown, Eagle Rock. I wanted the story to reflect the environment of my own kids and my own friendships. To write Mark, I asked questions, hung out with teens, and spoke to friends who were from his cultural background, since it was outside of my own.

While researching, I was saddened to learn that I could not find a single YA book with a Filipino protagonist. There are two collections of short stories from Filipino authors writing about their own youth, but this was all I could find. This sealed the deal for me that I needed to tell Mark’s story.

On a side note, I did a school visit at a suburban Southern California school this year. Stepping onto campus, I was surprised to see that the student population was so diverse in that it felt more like an urban school. (Or maybe this highlights my own ignorance at assuming suburban schools are full of mainly white teenagers.) When I told the librarian what my second book was about, she was happy because of Mark’s ethnicity, the school had a high Filipino population, and that it was what she called a “normal” book. I asked her what she meant and she said that she has a hard time finding books with POC characters that aren’t set in urban environments and about all of the difficult trappings of that kind of setting. She used to subscribe to a series of urban tales, but stopped. Her kids could not relate and didn’t want to read those books, but they also longed to see themselves in what they read.

4. It does not get easier the more books you write.

I thought that the more books I wrote, the easier it would become. I’d write faster and be more prolific. I would have a system or something. I’d know what I was doing. Though there is truth that there’s confidence that builds with the more writing you do, it has not made the process any easier. I read somewhere once that of course it shouldn’t be easier because each book is being written for the first time. Each book will have its own challenges and hiccups. What I do know is that I can finish writing a book because I now at the time of writing this have finished four books. So I have learned to trust the process and work through my doubts or the sections that just don’t seem to be working. I know if I keep going, I will find the story. I will finish.

5. I write novels best with a loose outline.

When I say loose, I really mean loose. I am not one of those who outlines chapter by chapter. I usually begin playing around with a character’s voice and then I get the story. I’ve written a novel not knowing the story at all and meandered around until I found it. I’ve also written with a general outline where more of the plot has been thought through and mapped out. Both require time, it’s just with one there’s more time upfront. I would like it if I could write all my books with the loose outline approach. Having an outline definitely helped me keep my deadlines with There Will Come a Time.


There Will Come a Time is now available. Find out more about Carrie Arcos at her website, or follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.

5 Things I Learned While Writing POINTE

In Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, 17-year-old elite ballet dancer Theo Cartwright deals with the return of her childhood best friend, who was kidnapped four years earlier.

By Brandy Colbert

Author Brandy Colbert
Author Brandy Colbert

1. Sometimes you have to give up control.

I have a career in magazine journalism, so I’m used to intense deadlines and having my worked edited before it’s published. In the last few years, I’ve transitioned to the copyediting side, and I’m the last person to see the text before the pages are shipped to the printer each week. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I also have quite a bit of control over the process. Working with a book editor was a whole new game. Fiction is much more personal to me. While the words come from me either way, with fiction I’m creating a whole new world, so I’m much more attached to the situations and characters in that world. I revised Pointe with my editor for many, many months, and we collaborated very well, but sometimes I’d get stuck on a certain word or scene I wanted to remain, when they actually weren’t moving the story forward. It was hard to see the big picture when I was in the thick of revisions, and I had to plead a good case if I went against a suggested edit that would significantly change the story. Now I look back at certain scenes we lengthened or shortened or omitted altogether, and I’m happy I was able to give up that control and listen. My book is much better for it.

2. Honesty is the best policy.

I’ve always liked edgy fiction, but I was too scared to write it at first. Frightened. I thought people wouldn’t be able to separate the author from the work, or that writing “unlikeable” characters would be the death of my career that hadn’t even started. The truth is, writing honest characters with honest motivations is what helped me find my voice. My characters may not always make the best decisions, but they’re the right decisions for those characters at that time. It means I get to know them inside and out—what they’ll do when life is great in their world, or how they’ll react when faced with some of their darkest moments. To me, not being an honest writer means I’m being a lazy writer, and my stories deserve so much more than that.

3. People might not think you got it right—even if you’re a person of color.

colbert-pointeThere’s a lot of talk about diversity in children’s lit these days, and it’s a conversation that we need to keep having until we start seeing more diverse books on the shelves. Along with these conversations comes the fear that authors who write diverse characters (particularly those who are writing outside of their experience) are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Well, yes. But being a person of color doesn’t mean readers will automatically get on board with what I’ve written. My main character, Theo, grows up in a way that resembles some of my own upbringing—she has a stable home life, she’s active in the arts, and she lives in a predominantly white, Midwestern suburb where few people look like her. Theo’s story is part of the black experience, but it’s not the black experience. Just as someone in the black community could totally relate to her, someone else could think I got the character completely wrong. Additionally, one of her best friends is Mexican-American, and while I’ve had several Mexican-American friends, acquaintances, and neighbors over the years, I don’t know if I got his character right. I drew from my experiences with another culture, and tried to remain authentic and respectful to the character and his background. All I can do is hope I got it right for someone.

4. Trust the people who got you this far.

Publishing is a delightful, thrilling, scary business. The highs are extraordinarily high, and the lows can be utterly depressing. I wrote three books before Pointe, and saw lots of rejection in those four years I was seeking representation for my work. When I got The Call from my now-agent, we easily chatted on the phone for over an hour, and I knew she was the right agent for me. When I saw the pre-offer ideas my now-editor had for my book, I knew she was the right editor for Pointe. I’m fairly pragmatic, especially when it comes to business, but it’s harder to remain rational when it comes to publishing. Writing a book is so personal, and that means everything based around it can seem very personal. Emotions run high. My agent and editor take extremely good care of me, but sometimes they have to tell me things I don’t want to hear. And sometimes, that is a real bitter pill. But the thing is, they’ve been doing this a lot longer than me; they’ve seen just about every possible scenario in this business that I’m just starting out in. I admire the fact that they tell me the things I need to hear, things that make me a better writer, person, and professional. Attempting to establish a writing career is just a little bit nuts in itself, and I feel incredibly grateful to have found people I respect and trust to guide me along.

5. It’s not a race. No, really.

My book sold in October 2011 and is being published in April 2014. A lot can happen in two and a half years. I went through countless editorial letters. I threw out whole drafts and completely started over. I saw all of my friends who’d sold their first books around the same time as me start to get their covers, their release dates, their blurbs—and I was still stuck in content edits, wondering if my book would ever be finished. I cried over line edits. My agent repeatedly (and kindly) told me that things could and would start happening for me when the book was finished, that I had to do the work first. So I did it. I worked harder on that book than I’ve ever worked on anything in my life. Then I was finished and—I missed working on the book! But my agent was right. As soon as I turned in that final draft, things started happening. I think a lot about all the work that went into Pointe back when it was just a document I was sending to my editor. My publishing journey was longer than most people’s I know, but every part of this process has been a dream for me. Do the work, indeed.


Brandy Colbert lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Pointe, is now available. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.

5 Things Megan Crewe Learned While Writing the FALLEN WORLD Trilogy

By Megan Crewe

Author Megan Crewe
Author Megan Crewe

1. Challenge your defaults.

The idea to tell a story about a deadly epidemic came to me around the same time as as series of discussions and debates that came to be called RaceFail ’09 sprang up in the internet SF and fantasy writing community in early 2009.  I had certainly been thinking about diversity in YA fiction and my own work before then, but seeing those conversations pushed me to realize how easily I fell into the standard defaults of white/male/straight with my own characters.  Those defaults didn’t reflect the world I live in: I’ve spent my whole life in a city where about half of the people around me are visible minorities and where there’s a huge gay pride celebration every year; I’ve had close friends from all different backgrounds since early childhood.  And yet, partly out of fear of screwing up and partly out of complacency, my first published novel, which was set in an unnamed city based on mine, had a completely white straight cast (to the extent anyone’s race and sexuality was noted).

I didn’t want to do that again.  I didn’t want to make readers feel they didn’t belong in my fictional world.  I wanted to reflect the actual world around me so much more accurately.

And you know what?  Once I made myself aware of my defaults and started questioning them, opening to the idea that there were so many more possibilities for my characters, that diversity started happening naturally.  As I outlined the books that would become The Way We Fall and its sequels, I didn’t sit down and assign characteristics by some sort of metric. I just knew that my main character, Kaelyn, felt like an outsider in her small town partly because of her mixed race heritage.  I realized that her bond with her best friend, Leo, had been strengthened by his understanding that struggle as a Korean adoptee.  I “saw” Kaelyn’s brother confronting their father’s uneasiness with his homosexuality.  That was simply part of who they were.  And the story felt that much more real for it.

I’m still so far from perfect at this.  I still, when I’m coming up with characters major and minor, have to stop and ask myself, “Is this how I really see this person, or am I just falling back on my defaults?”  Those defaults get so ingrained that even when they’re contrary to who we are, they can become automatic.  (I can’t tell you how much it frustrates me that even as a woman, I tend to default on random side characters, and especially characters like doctors, soldiers, and those in leadership positions, being male.)  But I’ve definitely learned that challenging those defaults is worth it–and not half as hard as it used to seem.

2. Attempt journal format at your own risk.

I figured out pretty early on that I wanted to write the first book in the Fallen World trilogy in journal format.  Mostly to blame would be Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, in which the format captured a sense of realism and intensity I knew I wanted in my own story.  It was only when I started the actual writing that I realized what a challenge I’d set up for myself.

On the surface level, journal format looks pretty much the same as standard first person, but it’s actually at least twice as complicated.  With standard first person, which I’d used in my first novel, you can wave away concerns about when exactly the narrative is being told, and how, and to whom; it’s part of the automatic suspension of disbelief.  When you have a character physically sitting down and writing the narrative in a journal, though, those logistics matter.  With every new entry, I had to ask myself, where is Kaelyn when she’s writing this?  How long has it been since the events she’s writing about, and why is she writing about it now, not earlier or later?  What would she think is most important to relate about what’s happened, and in what order?  What would she leave out?

I wrote that book more slowly than any before or after, and I think that’s why!  I never stopped believing it was the right way to tell that story, but I have to admit I was a little relieved when I realized that to tell the rest of Kaelyn’s story properly, I was going to need to switch to regular first person.

The Fallen World Trilogy: The Way We Fall (Book 1), The Lives We Lost (Book 2), The Worlds We Make (Book 3)
The Fallen World Trilogy: The Way We Fall (Book 1), The Lives We Lost (Book 2), The Worlds We Make (Book 3)

3. The story knows better than the author.

From early on in my brainstorming right through to starting the first draft of the book that’s now The Lives We Lost, I thought I was writing a duology.  In my head, the series consisted of “the island book” (where the epidemic starts, and the characters are trapped, simply trying to survive, in their small island community) and “the mainland book” (where the characters head out to try to tackle the epidemic head-on).  I had everything outlined; I was good to go.

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I came up on the halfway point in my outline with more than 200 pages already down and the knowledge that I’d already skimmed over some parts I needed to go back and flesh out more.  The Way We Fall was only 300 pages.  I couldn’t imagine telling the rest of Kaelyn’s story in less than 500.

The funny thing was, when I looked over my outline, it was as if the story had known all along it was actually two.  I had a very clear midpoint where Kaelyn’s main internal and external conflicts shifted and the group’s goals were adjusted in a new direction.  Both halves had a clear emotional arc.  I asked my editor whether she’d prefer to write one long sequel or turn the duology into a trilogy, and when she voted for trilogy, I hardly needed to change my original outline at all to make it work.

My only regret is that this left The Lives We Lost (book 2) with a rather cliffhanger-y ending.  My apologies to any readers who gnashed their teeth over the final page!  I can assure you that was not my original intention — but the story never cares about the author’s intentions.

4.  Expert advice is invaluable.

I did a heck of a lot of research while writing the trilogy, on everything from viruses and epidemics, to winter survival strategies, to US highway routes (Google Maps and I have become good friends).  But as I worked out the details of my specific virus and how the scientists in the story would tackle it, I could see that books and reference websites weren’t going to cut it.  I needed an actual person to bounce my ideas off of, with the knowledge to set me straight if I had my facts muddled.

Luckily for me, I happened to know a fellow writer who was also a microbiologist.  Jacqueline Houtman (The Reinvention of Thomas Edison) graciously listened to me ramble on about immunity and vaccines, shared relevant articles, and suggested alternate approaches where mine didn’t make sense.  I can honestly say that the resolution of the trilogy in The Worlds We Make would make 100% less scientific sense if I hadn’t had her guidance (and any mistakes that still exist are mine alone).  So thank you again, Jacqueline!

5. Viruses are even scarier than I thought.

I decided to write an epidemic story because I already thought viruses were pretty much the scariest things in existence.  Then I did my research.  And found out that there are viruses that attack bodies and brains so much more stealthily and horrifically than I’d ever realized.  That we’ve been inches away from what would most likely have turned into a brutal worldwide pandemic more than once.  And that it can still take scientists months to identify and understand how a new virus works, let alone create a vaccine.

So let’s just say, I wash my hands even more carefully than I used to.


Get the Fallen World Trilogy now. Follow @megancrewe on Twitter or on Tumblr.

5 Things Tonya C. Hegamin Learned From Writing WILLOW

By Tonya C. Hegamin

new-hegamin-willowIn 1848, an educated slave girl faces an inconceivable choice — between bondage and freedom, family and love.

On one side of the Mason-Dixon Line lives fifteen-year-old Willow, her master’s favorite servant. She’s been taught to read and has learned to write. She believes her master is good to her and fears the rebel slave runaways. On the other side of the line is seventeen-year-old Cato, a black man, free born. It’s his personal mission to sneak as many fugitive slaves to freedom as he can. Willow’s and Cato’s lives are about to intersect, with life-changing consequences for both of them. Tonya Cherie Hegamin’s moving coming-of-age story is a poignant meditation on the many ways a person can be enslaved, and the force of will needed to be truly emancipated.

(Book Description from Candlewick Press)

1. I have to get really wrapped up in the work.

I guess most writers get all emo about their characters but I know now more than ever that it is a vital part of the process. If I don’t feel the character as though I am living through them, nothing will work. I wanted this to be a love story because love changes humans so deeply. Familial relationships for slaves in the 1840s were bleak and unlikely, and so was romantic love. I wanted to know how that would translate for someone who had the choice between the two, a painful place to be in emotionally. I love authors who get me emotionally wrapped up in their work, and usually it’s because of those deep connections that I often read an author’s entire work, at least until I feel a disconnect. Then I know it’s time to break up. It’s like having an intimate relationship with another person’s brain.

tonyachegamin
Author Tonya C. Hegamin

2. Just like being in love, I like beginnings better than endings.

It’s easy to fall in love. I like to believe that all humans are loveable and deserve love. The hardest part is staying in love and knowing when to let love go. Like I said, love changes people, yet we are all resistant to change. So when I’m writing I get caught up in this person I created, in their world. I’m in love with it because I birthed it, I loved it into existence. I don’t want to let it go sometimes, although there are moments I want to chuck it all into a skillfully built bonfire. And then just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, and there’s the temptation to let it all go, I can’t think of how to put an end to this thing I’ve created. I want to live in the world I know so well, where I know there are more discoveries and challenges that I could create and experience, but everything must end. As long as the letting go is treated as a lesson in bravery, gracefulness and compassion, it has possibility. Willow has been with me for years; it was hard to let the ending happen, to tie it up finally. Perhaps subconsciously my relationship with Willow isn’t over; I have dreams of what her children would be like.

3. I really do have to read it out loud. And I really do hate that.

I often tell my writing students to read their work aloud. It helps to vocalize your vision, to feel it vibrate as it hits the air. I sing my poetry sometimes, but I’m a reluctant performer. In fiction there are a lot of words that could always have been sliced, phrases that get clunky. It’s an organic living thing in some respects, so there’s always a new layer or microscopic world view. Things you only see after draft and draft and draft, there’s always things that make you cringe and seem to only surface when you’ve had some space from the work.  Lucky for Willow, I had the blessing of having my dear friend E.B. Lewis, who also illustrated the cover, as an audience. He heard the first pages and demanded more. Then he made me read it to other people. Of course, it was the best thing for me and for Willow.

4. Nobody cares that you’re “writing a book.”

It’s sad but true. Not that people don’t want you to succeed, or that they don’t think you’re a good writer. It’s just that they may underestimate the amount of brain space required to download creativity from the cosmos. No two writers have the same process, so sometimes not even a fellow writer can give one hundred percent of a damn. You have to be ok with that. People in your life need you for different things, and inadvertently they will pull you away from writing, or stroke your procrastinating tendencies. I don’t just mean haters, I mean the people you find it hard to say no to the most because they do genuinely love and need you. You have to care the most about your work, what you’re trying to so artfully express. I’ve tried living in isolation and for a while that works until life happens. I went through some serious life lessons and struggles while writing Willow, things that threatened my commitment to even continuing as a writer because it does require so much raw energy. Unless you’re a narcissist, it’s hard to say NO and to deal with those consequences gracefully, to articulate “loving boundaries” for yourself and others, but it has to be done.

5. Be willing to throw in the kitchen sink.

I like to play “What If.” I make up stories and reasons for everything, it’s a habit. I also have a habit of holding on to memories; I’m an archivist. Doing historical research can be addicting because you can make up stories about small details or re-envision whole time periods just by inserting your own perspective; it’s easy to overindulge. There are so many roads and avenues to take with your imagination but only a few can sustain a novel. There was a point that I had to allow myself to put in any idea, just because it kept me writing. Even if it didn’t go with the original storyline, I just put it down in a journal or made a comment to myself on the margin. I keep multiple journals that have mostly random ideas and notes that might become useful or inspiring. Although Sylvia Plath said self-doubt was the enemy of creativity, I think self-censorship is the worst.


Willow is now available. Find out more about Tonya Cherie Hegamin at her website.

5 Things Laura Lam Learned While Writing SHADOWPLAY and PANTOMIME

By Laura Lam

lam-authorphoto
Author Laura Lam

Shadowplay’s a sequel, so I’m going to cheat and write about what I’ve learned writing both of them, as they’re so intertwined.

I learned:

1. Everything I know about intersex issues.

It took me two years to finally gather the courage to seriously write about Micah Grey. Before that, I was scared, and felt I didn’t know enough. I was 19 when I came up with the idea to have a character that firmly straddled the gender divide. I wanted to write about a girl who disguises herself as a boy, but that’s not necessarily a disguise either. Growing up in the Bay Area of CA, I knew more about gender and sexuality than your average person, perhaps, but I was still ignorant and aware of that.

So I researched, tentatively as first. I learned that “hermaphrodite” is a woefully outdated term that shouldn’t be used. I learned that children, infants even, are often operated on far before they know which gender they’ll identify as. That children are often taught to hide that they’re intersex, that it’s shameful, or never told at all until their teens or even adulthood. I read books, I watched documentaries. I learned as much as I could. And then I put myself in Micah’s shoes, trying to think how I would react to things if I had been raised as he was, with his challenges. And so, even though I was scared, I knew I had to try and tell his story the best way I could.

Micah is Micah. He’s intersex, of course, but that’s one aspect of who he is. I did my best to make him a fully-realised character with hopes, dreams, frustrations, desires. I don’t think I got everything right, but I sure as hell gave it my best and also tried to subvert some things in the sequel that I didn’t get quite right the first time around.

lam-pantomime2. I know nothing about experiencing racism.

There’s a bit more discussion of race than Pantomime in Shadowplay, and I hope I’ve done an all right job portraying it. Shadowplay has a scene where two characters are racially profiled and heckled. Evidently it’s fairly mild as far as racism goes, but I wouldn’t know. Writing that scene was one of the hardest scenes in the book. I’ve never, ever had to experience that in my everyday life. No one’s looked at me with suspicion by the basis of the colour of my skin. The worst I got was a couple of people derisively calling me “little white girl” in high school in California. That’s nothing compared to what so many people go through every day, in mild and major ways. And, obviously, I know that I don’t deal with racism on a day-to-day basis as a pasty almost-redhead in the 94% Caucasian Scotland where I live now, but writing that scene was very humbling. I was basically slapped in the face with my privilege.

3. I need outlines. A lot.

I wrote Pantomime in dribs and drabs over the course of about 15 months. I didn’t really think that much in terms of overall arcs, so the first draft was more a series of linked scenes with a sort-of-story, but not really. Because I’m an idiot, I subbed that draft before it was really ready, and luckily instead of being summarily rejected, I was given a second chance through a revision request. I went through and made a clear, detailed outline and gutted, rearranged, and transformed the story from its dinky little draft to the book that’s on the shelves today. When writing the sequel, I knew I didn’t have the same amount of time, so I made a really detailed outline. The book deviated from it quite shockingly at times, but having that road map was invaluable. Some people are pantsers, but that makes me too anxious now. I need to have at least a vague idea where I’m going and why in the story.

lam-shadowplay4. World-building is a delicate art.

I’ve spent a lot of time dreaming up the world of Ellada and the Archipelago, but figuring out when and how to feed through the information about it was so difficult. Ellada is a pseudo-Victorian society, with high society and etiquette, a corrupt monarchy, and people starving in the streets. It was once a great empire due to their larger cache of Vestige, which is remnants of technology and/or magic left behind by a vanished advanced civilization called the Alder. But are they really gone?

In the first draft of Pantomime, I basically gave nothing away. I played my hand far too close to my chest. I fed through a lot more in the subsequent drafts, but I was still quite coy. I don’t like to give everything away at once. It’s fun for the reader to come up with their own hypothesis and conclusions. But while it was all right to tease in the first book, in the sequel I definitely had to start giving some answers, and figure out the best way to do that. Yet I still have to leave a few mysteries behind. So, hopefully I got the balance right.

5. Lots about magic, illusion, theatre, and spiritualism

Shadowplay is set on the magician’s stage, whereas the previous book was set in the circus. The change in setting had its challenges, but one of the best parts was diving into research about Victorian magic in particular. I watched The Illusionist and The Prestige (along with reading the book). I read some great books, such as Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer (which actually has diagrams explaining a lot of magic tricks), and the Taschen Book of Magic, a GIGANTIC book with huge colour plates and essays on magic. I read about The First Psychic, or Daniel Dunglas Home, who was a spiritualist who was never actually caught out for fraud. I learned of the Fox sisters and their mysterious tappings, the history of magic and the Circle of Magic, a group of magicians working together. I took it all in, stealing little fact here and there and twisting them for my own purposes and my own world. I love doing that.

For more about my research sources, I have a Works Consulted & Resources page on my website.

A final note, and perhaps even a point 6.

Writing these books have changed me in so many ways. I’m a passionate advocate of intersex rights, and diversity in YA. I put myself into so many shoes that I never have to walk in real life: an intersex character, other LBGT characters, characters of different races, or abilities. I think, at the end of the day, writing gives you empathy. You’re always aware that everyone out there is a protagonist of their own story, with their own tales to tell.


Shadowplay and Pantomime are now available. For more on Laura Lam, visit her website, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @LR_Lam or Tumblr.