Writing the second book

So, you’ve published your first book—congratulations! That’s a huge achievement. Enjoy that feeling of accomplishment. But not for too long! Your readers will be waiting for the next book, particularly if the first one was the start of a series.

That should make it easier, right? If you’re writing a series, you’ve already introduced the main characters and set up some worldbuilding. Maybe you’ve even introduced a series-long problem for your main character to solve. If you’re really lucky, you might already know what the second book is going to be about. Piece of cake!

Or not.

Take The Twiceborn Queen. The mystery of Kate’s memory loss and what was really going on there, plus a big plot twist I won’t mention in case you haven’t read Twiceborn yet, were the things that made Twiceborn such fun to write. But those things were dealt with in Book 1, and Book 2 was going to be a much more straightforward action adventure as a result. I knew who Kate’s two main rivals were, and that by the end of the book she needed to defeat them. But how? And what was the rest of the story going to be about? “Kate defeats X and Y” is only five words long after all, and I needed about 90,000 words to make the book about the same length as Twiceborn. What were the other 89,995 going to say?

In fact, I was so uninspired that I took a year off and wrote a different book that had nothing to do with Kate and her problems, one that I felt enthused about writing. Meanwhile The Twiceborn Queen hung over my head, making me feel all kinds of inadequate. I’d loved writing Twiceborn! Why did the thought of continuing the story make my brain cells run screaming for cover?

Maybe it’s just me, and other writers don’t have this trouble. But maybe second-bookitis is a thing, and it might be helpful to some other writer to hear how I got over this horrible affliction.

First off I started by listing all the unresolved issues and sources of ongoing friction that remained from Book 1. Twiceborn was a complete story in itself, but I’d left a few loose threads hanging in the larger, trilogy-spanning story. Then I brainstormed for each one, thinking of all the possible things that could happen as a result.

Don’t censor your ideas at this stage! Write down everything that occurs to you, even if it seems like crap. Sometimes that crap will spark some of your best ideas. Try to stretch a bit, and think of some really outlandish possibilities. It’s all grist to your imagination’s mill.

Some of the ideas I came up with were clearly never going to fly, but I highlighted the ones that seemed useable, and at least the beginnings of a story started to emerge. I jumped in and started writing. Things went along quite well for a while, but eventually I got stuck again.

This is the part where having at least one completed novel under your belt really helps. You know you can do this, because you’ve done it before. Cast your mind back to what helped you when you got stuck on the first one. Long soaky baths? Going for walks? Timed writing exercises? Bouncing ideas off a friend? Whatever it was, try that now.

In my case, I remembered the planning stages of Twiceborn, and how much fun I’d had researching some new and different mythological creatures for my shifters. So I tried that again, and came across the kitsune, the fox-women of Japan. I’d read about them as a child, but never seen them in an adult fantasy. The decision to include one led the plot in a whole new direction, and gave me a very important new character.

Even better, it got me excited about writing this book. Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re not bursting with excitement at the start, making it to the end is an even bigger feat of endurance.

So try to get back to that “this is gonna be so cool” feeling. What made you want to write the book in the first place? What was that initial idea that was so good you just had to turn it into a book?

Got it? Good. Now get writing. That’s the other thing I’ve learned. The more you write, the more ideas you get. Ideas beget ideas, and words beget more words. Don’t “stop to think” for more than a day otherwise, before you know it, Facebook, TV and life in general will have gotten in the way and a week will have gone by without writing—and you still won’t have any idea of what to write next. Just keep writing, fumbling your way forward through the story. There’s a quote I love from EL Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Sometimes it helps to have a deadline. Make a booking with your editor to give yourself a little pressure to get it done. If you’re particularly brave, you could even set up a pre-order on Amazon so you have a drop-dead “finish by this date OR ELSE” deadline. (Not for the faint-hearted!)

Hopefully by the time you get to the end you’ll find, as I did with The Twiceborn Queen, that you’re completely in love with this new book, even though a couple of months before you had no ideas and zero enthusiasm. It’s like a magic trick. You’ve created something out of nothing!

Congratulations! You’ve done it again. But don’t rest on your laurels—there’s still Book 3 to write!

Does life end when you give birth?

Fictionally speaking, you could be forgiven for thinking so, at least in the fantasy genres. Sure, there are older female characters, some even powerful: queens, sorceresses, seers, etc. But how often do you find a fantasy where the main character is a mother?

Off the top of my head, I can think of … umm … none. (And if you know of any, please point me at them in the comments!) You can find strong female leads, particularly in urban fantasy, which is great. I love to see strong, competent women take starring roles. But they’re nearly all single young women. Some of them have partners, but nobody has kids.

It’s as if life somehow stops when women give birth. And, sure, I can see how fitting kids into the life of a busy demon-slayer or white witch could be tricky, and why authors choose to free their characters from such complications. But it makes me feel as if, being a mother, I’m invisible, or that it’s not possible for me to have any adventures any more. Only young women are interesting enough to write about.

And hey, I get it, I really do. Being young and single is more glamorous than being a middle-aged taxi driver for a brood of children. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with stories about kick-ass young single women, or that I don’t enjoy them, because I do. I’m not trying to insist that authors should write stories about middle-aged mothers if they don’t wish to, or suggesting that there’s anything wrong with their choice not to.

But life with children can be complex and beautiful and interesting. It’s not all soccer practice and dirty socks. Love comes in many flavours. Romantic love and the bonds of friendship—even the bonds between siblings—are well represented in fantasy, but the relationships between parents and children aren’t often explored. And yet they are such a big part of many people’s lives. It seems an untapped area just waiting to be explored.

So after I had my big moment of inspiration in the bathroom of the local cinemas, I had some decisions to make about the story that would eventually become Twiceborn. I had a woman changing disguises to evade pursuit. What was she carrying? Who was following her and why?

As the idea developed I decided to throw in memory loss, since I love stories about amnesia so much. Dragons too—I love dragons!

And I also chose to make Kate, my main character, a mother. In the end I chickened out on making her middle-aged. She’s only twenty-nine, so she still qualifies as young and glamorous, but she is most definitely a mother. Love for her son drives a lot of her actions and has a huge influence on the outcome of the story’s main struggle. There is nothing so fierce as a mother’s love for her children, as the dragons of Sydney discover.

There’s a little romance in the book too, as well as the love between friends and siblings, but Kate’s love for Lachie is at the heart of Twiceborn. What will a mother sacrifice for her child? What won’t she?

Twiceborn is available now at Amazon. For all the kick-ass mums out there!

Twiceborn is out!

How long have I been writing? Depends on what you count as writing.

There was that little Easter story I wrote and illustrated for my mother when I was about seven. So cute! Or the three exercise books I filled with the story of the Romney children when I was in fifth class. It was a blatant Enid Blyton Famous Five rip-off, but despite all those words, I never finished it.

My next big writing spurt was in Year 8. I had a fabulous English teacher, who was very encouraging of my writing. (As it happened, his name was Brian Caswell, and he’s now a well-known writer himself.) I actually managed to finish a book that year. By then I’d progressed from Enid Blyton rip-offs to Georgette Heyer ones. I shudder now to think of it, but to his credit he read it with a straight face and urged me to keep writing.

So I did. But, being me, the finishing part was a real problem. Sure, I started lots of novels over the years, always with much enthusiasm. I even remember declaring 1994 to be “the year of the novel”, but that teenage Regency romance was the last one I finished until 2007, when the ducklings were at last old enough for me to be able to string two thoughts together in a coherent manner again.

It was also the year I discovered NaNoWriMo, which has been a huge motivator for me ever since. I completed the first draft of a contemporary romance that year, and was hugely proud of myself.

But of course, “first draft finished” and “publishable quality finished” are two very different beasts. I did NaNoWriMo again every year except one, and produced many more first drafts, but I didn’t revise any to a publishable stage until this year, 2014.

That novel is Twiceborn, and the ebook is available now on Amazon.

Or to put it another way:

OMG I PUBLISHED A BOOK!!!

I’ve been waiting such a long time to say that.

Twiceborn cover reveal

I’m very excited to be able to show you the cover for Twiceborn at last. It was done by Yoly at Cormar Covers several months ago, but I didn’t want to reveal it till I was almost ready to publish.

Guess what? I’m nearly there! Twiceborn is buffed and polished as shiny as I could make it, and it’s now off at the formatters getting a fresh lick of paint. It’s almost a Real Book!

Are you ready?

Here it is in all its glory:

Twiceborn small

Isn’t it gorgeous? I feel like a proud parent showing off baby photos, only this baby doesn’t have forcep marks on its face, or a weird pointy head. Or jaundice. Or any of the other not-so-photogenic features my real babies had. And unlike Baby Duck, the insides of this baby are all present and correct too.

Let me remind you what the story’s about:

 “Still grieving her beloved son, Kate O’Connor’s just going through the motions. She doesn’t care that strangers often shadow her on the unorthodox courier jobs she does for a friend. She doesn’t even care what’s in the packages till the day she returns from a special rush job with no memory of the event. But it must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her – and he’s just the first in line.

Dragged into a supernatural war of succession between the daughters of the dragon queen, Kate discovers a Sydney she never knew existed, peopled by all kinds of strange half-human creatures. To have any hope of surviving she must uncover the explosive secret hidden in her memory – but first she has to live through the night.”

Can’t wait to share it with you!

Book covers and headless bodies

How do you feel about headless bodies on book covers? Not as in decapitated and spouting blood, but the kind of cover where part of the model’s head is cut off by the top of the book.

Like this:

 

Or this:

Love ’em? Hate ’em? Never even thought about ’em?

There are some people (and Drama Duck is one of them) who will pass over a book if the cover shows the model’s face. They don’t like the image interfering with their own imagining of what the character looks like. I don’t know how many of these people there are, but there are enough to have spawned a trend in cover design for obscuring the model’s features. Sometimes that’s done with shadows or positioning the head at an angle, but quite often the top of the face is just chopped off.

I like both those covers I showed you, but I must admit I’m more of an “eyes are the windows to the soul” kind of person – I like to see a face. Not that it influences my buying habits at all. I’m usually drawn to colours first anyway, and if I stop for a closer look it will be the blurb and a sample of the writing that decides whether I buy or not.

But now I’m working with a designer on the cover for Twiceborn. The great thing about self-publishing rather than going with a traditional publisher is you get complete control over what your cover looks like. Trad-pubbed authors get little or no say in their cover design, and are sometimes stuck with covers they hate.

But having to make all the decisions can also be the bad thing about self-publishing! Headless or full-faced? Which do you prefer in covers? Or isn’t it important to you? (I could well be over-thinking the issue, I realise. Maybe most people really don’t care and I should just take a deep breath and move on.)

What do you think, Internets?

Getting closer

blurb-small

My novel Twiceborn is another step closer to finding its way into the world. Yay! Do you like the new supermultigrated blurb?

I’ve just finished a big revision job: going through and adding more details.

I’m a lean writer (sadly that’s a metaphor – my jeans are getting too tight again. Damn things must have shrunk in the wash …). My natural instinct is to get to the point, not waffle on about the scenery or what people look like. Of course no one wants to read five pages describing the view, but all my beta readers agree that I go too far in the other direction.

So what started as a 60,000-word first draft, which became a 72,000-word revision and then an 82,000-word revision, is now fast closing in on 88,000 words as I flesh out the world and the story of Kate and all the other characters I’ve grown to love. (Well, some of them I don’t love, but that’s okay. You’re not meant to like the bad guys!) By this time next week this final revision should be finished, and Twiceborn will be off to a professional editor.

It’s getting closer! Close enough to start getting excited, though there’s still a lot to be done. Close enough to start imagining what it will be like to hold a book in my hands that has my name on the cover.

I could get used to this authoring stuff!

 

Would you read this book?

Okay, suppose you’re looking for a new urban fantasy to read. Would this blurb entice you to pick up the book?

“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line. Suddenly Kate’s running for her life, but if she doesn’t remember what happened soon, more than her life will be at stake.”

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m working on the blurb for my upcoming book, previously only known by the highly imaginative title “Dragon novel”, but now tentatively titled Twiceborn.
I feel as if that last sentence needs work. It seems to kind of fade off, but I don’t want to give too much away. Blurb-writing is harder than it looks!
Here’s another, slightly longer version, with a different last sentence:

“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line. 

It’s a nasty introduction to the hidden world of the shifters, but the news gets worse. It’s a world at war, and Kate will be a casualty if she can’t remember what happened – but first she has to live through the night.”

Any better? Worse? What do you think?

Joining the ebook revolution: confessions of a former Kindlephobe

Or maybe that should be evolution? It’s not as if people are barricading the streets and firing e-readers at each other. Ebooks are just another means to deliver story, no scarier than listening to audiobooks.

And yet, I was scared.

I received a Kindle for Christmas. Not this Christmas just past – the one before. For reasons I don’t really understand, I left that Kindle sitting in its box for a whole year. I was scared to open it.

I know it sounds ridiculous. It does to me too. I’m a normal competent human being. I quite enjoy learning new things and I’m not scared of computers. Somehow it just seemed too daunting. I’d have to create an Amazon account, and probably give them all this personal information that I hate giving out. (Amazing, I know. I must be one of the few people left in the western world who didn’t already have an account with Amazon.) I’d have to figure out how to drive the stupid thing, and there were sure to be technical hiccups and besides I had so many books to read I didn’t need ebooks as well …

Halfway through the year Demon Duck asked if she could at least open the box and look at it, but I wouldn’t let her, as if it were some bomb that would go off if handled. And all year, every time I walked past and noticed the thing, still sitting where I’d left it when I unwrapped it on Christmas day (I couldn’t even move it – how weird is that??), I felt guilty that this generous present was sitting there unused.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony that this person scared of the big bad e-reader is the same person who wants to publish her writing as ebooks.

Finally, when Christmas had come and gone again, I forced myself to Open the Damn Box Already and set up the Kindle. If this is going to be the year I start publishing, then first I have to at least see what an ebook looks like! And yes, there were technical hiccups, but no, the world didn’t end when I downloaded my first ebook.

In fact, I started to enjoy myself.

I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for instant gratification. And it doesn’t come any more instant than this – decide on a book you’d like to read, click the button and abracadabra! Within seconds it appears on your e-reader, ready to enjoy.

It’s magic.

I got such a childish thrill out of it that I changed the name of my Kindle. Now, whenever I acquire a new book, I get the even more childish amusement of Amazon solemnly informing me that it is sending my purchase to “Marina’s Magic Book Box”. It makes me smile every time.

At the moment the Magic Book Box has about ten books loaded on to it. The first one I read was Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge, which is self-published. It’s a great read, but I can see why traditional publishing might have been reluctant to take it on. It’s a fantasy where the protagonist uses economic means rather than military or magical might to combat the bad guys. I was expecting the typical quest and swordplay, and it caught me by surprise. Refreshingly different, with good characters and snappy dialogue. You can try it for free, and there’s plenty more in the series if you like it. I’ve already bought the second one.

So I guess I’m a convert. I still love paper books, but there’s no need to choose. It’s not an either/or scenario. Paper, audio, ebooks, whatever they come up with in the future – they’re all just the delivery system.
It’s the story that counts.

A is for Arclight: Review of Arclight by Josin L McQuein

Welcome to my new book review project: A Fantasy Alphabet. Note that that is “A” Fantasy Alphabet, not “The” Fantasy Alphabet. I’m not suggesting some definitive list of fantasy books here, merely wending my way through the alphabet choosing, in the main, current fantasy novels that I’m eager to read. (Though I’m not promising they’ll all be new. A few old favourites may sneak in, particularly with some of the more difficult letters!)

To kick off the series we have Arclightby Josin L McQuein, a Young Adult dystopian fantasy. Dystopia is big in YA at the moment, maybe because of the success of TheHunger Games, or perhaps just catching the mood of the times.


Reading the back cover copy, this one sounds almost more like horror:


“The first rule of Arclight: Light is safety. Light is life. The second: Never go outside alone. The third: No one ever comes back from the dark. But Marina did …”

Score!! How could I put it back on the shelf? You know how many books I’ve read where the main character shared my name? Out of all the tens of thousands I must have read in my lifetime? That’s right. None. The Jacks of the world have got it good. Every second damn thriller is about them. But us Marinas? We are a sadly neglected lot.

Look, I’m not a complete dag (quiet, you in the back row!). The book sounded interesting and I would have bought it anyway. I promise you will still enjoy this book even if you are not lucky enough to be named Marina. But it did kind of sweeten the deal for me.

Marina narrates her story in first person present tense (now it sounds like I’m talking about myself …). Sometimes this comes across as a little over the top, as in the opening paragraph:

“Someone’s attention shouldn’t have physical weight, but it does. Hate’s a heavy burden: hope is worse. It’s a mix of the two that beats against my skin as my classmates condemn me …”

But most of the time it has the effect of keeping us firmly with the character, feeling that we are experiencing her story with her as it happens.

And the story is a cracker, with some really juicy twists to it. Even better, Marina has amnesia, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know how much I love stories where the main character has forgotten their life. They always discover such terrible secrets lurking in their lost memories, and Arclight is no exception.

There’s also a love triangle, with Marina torn between two romantic possibilities, which is a popular trope in YA fiction. Normally I find them annoying. No one would really want to be in such a terrible situation, knowing that whoever they choose, someone else they love will be hurt. Yet so many books make it seem desirable.

However, in Arclight, there is a good logical reason for the situation, not just an indecisive teen trying to decide between two hot boys, and it makes the situation especially poignant. Apparently there is a sequel coming. I’ll be interested to see where McQuein takes the story, but this book is complete in itself (unlike some other YA titles which have simply stopped partway through the story and left you hanging until the next book – something that makes me a Very Cranky Reader).

So: where did Marina come from? How did she survive the Dark? Read Arclight by Josin L McQuein and enjoy uncovering the answers. But remember: “No one is safe when the lights go out.”
Next up in A Fantasy Alphabet: B is for Blackbirds.

The road to publishing is paved with a million itty bitty decisions

I’m thinking of changing the subheading on my blog to “Self publishing is like being pecked to death by a duck”. So many fiddly damned decisions to make. A billion and one new skills to master. I can see why so many authors fall prey to the “let us do it all for you” vultures out there. It would be so much easier …
However, we’re not going to slide into self-pity here. As they say, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, so let’s crack out the cutlery and get started.
But as it turns out, there’s no need for the pachyderms of the world to start shaking in their baggy grey skins just yet. Leaving aside for the moment the whole have you written a book yet? have you revised and edited and made sure it’s a good book? thing, the very firstest of all first decisions has me stumped.
What is my name?
You can’t run without legs, and you can’t start platform-building and getting your name known on Goodreads and Twitter and all the rest of it until you settle on your writerly name.
For reasons to do with a paranoid addiction to privacy and the fact that half the world misspells my real name (which is long), I don’t want to use my actual name. I had settled on the name “Marina Finn”, which is close enough to my real name to feel like me while still being short and memorable, when I made a very sad discovery.
There is already an author named “Maria Finn”. She seems to write memoir and cookbooks, so she’s not in the same fields as me, so possibly I could still go with Marina Finn. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to piggyback on her success, or to confuse my books with hers, so I don’t feel right about Marina Finn any more. (Sad face.)
But never fear! There are still options! We love options, preferably with sauce, but when there’s too many we dither in front of the pachyderm smorgasbord, unable to choose.
How about adding my middle initial? Marina K Finn sounds different enough from Maria Finn, doesn’t it? Or I could follow the greats like Tolkien, Rowling and Martin all the way down the initial path to MK Finn. (Could be good if I ever start writing science fiction or thrillers, whose male audiences often look askance at books written by women.)
But if I’m not going to use my real name anyway, why not go the whole hog and make up something completely unrelated? That’s always been a popular choice with authors. For instance, I quite fancy being a Piper. There don’t seem to be any authors called Piper Finn – but the twitter handle’s already taken. How about Piper O’Connor? Sounds kind of young and jaunty.
Or I could revert to my maiden name. I’m actually not keen on this one, though I’m not sure why. Does it seem weird that even as a child I wanted to marry someone whose name started with “E” or “F” because those names always seemed to be in the prime spot on the shelves in the bookshops? It does? Damn, I thought you were going to say that.
I guess I’m leaning toward Marina K Finn at the moment. Piper is tempting but it would feel strange to start answering to another name. What do you think, Internet? What would you do if you were me?