Pub Rants

Category: writing

Interview with Shelby Van Pelt

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Shelby Van Pelt, author of the debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures.

In your new novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures (Ecco, May 3), an unlikely narrator—an octopus—steals readers’ hearts. While his wit and charm appeal to readers, Marcellus doesn’t talk. How did you decide the limits of his voice?

Figuring that out was one of the most challenging things about writing this book! At various times while drafting, I played around with allowing him to write (could an octopus hold a pen?) or perhaps chat with the other sea life at the aquarium. But, eventually, I realized I needed his communications to flow one way to reflect his loneliness.

There’s also the matter of where readers would draw the line. An octopus narrator is already weird, at least in a book that’s otherwise realistic. I knew I was not writing a fantasy novel and didn’t have much latitude with world-building; rather than creating a world where octopuses can communicate, I needed to create a communicating octopus that felt at home in the real world.

In your recent LitHub article, “Lessons Learned from a Year Listening to the Fictional Octopus in My Head,” you remind us that “you write…therefore, you’re a writer.” Why is this mantra so important when writing your debut novel?

For anyone who produces any sort of creative work, writing or otherwise, I think there’s this leap when you go from having it be a private hobby to sharing it with others. To selling it, even. To me, at the time, it all just felt so presumptuous. Maybe I even felt a little like Marcellus with his journal entries, firing off words into some sort of void, not sure anyone would ever receive them.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is already making waves since its release earlier this month. What advice would you give to authors hoping for the same result?

Well, I do realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been! But I can’t tell you how many times I really doubted even querying because my book didn’t seem to fit neatly in a marketable category. Finding comps was challenging. It’s an odd book!

So, I guess my advice is: write the odd thing. Or rather, write the you thing, whatever that happens to be. And plan to invest time in your query letter! I spent more hours writing (and rewriting, over and over) my query letter than I did drafting the last several chapters of the book. Capturing the essence of your story in a couple of paragraphs is a huge challenge, and it can take a lot of work to get it just right.

Do you critique or beta read for other writers? What is the value in that?

Absolutely! I would never have finished this book without my critique partners.

There’s this image of a novelist as a solitary creature, sitting in a cabin with a beautiful view, pounding out pages. They’ll emerge at some point with a finished draft, ready to serve up to beta readers. And honestly…that sounds amazing! But as someone with two young kids, that’s not going to be my reality anytime soon. And I’m not sure it would suit me, honestly. I tend to do a lot of critique in real time with my beta partners, exchanging a couple of chapters a week, discussing, then taking time to pause and course-correct as needed. If I did a whole draft without feedback along the way, that thing would be a mess.

I also really enjoy beta reading shorter pieces for other folks in my writing communities. Learning to give and receive feedback is so important, and it’s a skill I try to practice as often as I can.

Finally, what tools in the literary space/community have been the most helpful in your writing process?

I’ll put my plug for writing contests here! Sometimes, a frenzied weekend with a bizarre set of prompts is just what I need to shake off a writing slump. Many competitions also offer formal feedback and/or have a space, like a Facebook group or forum, where you can swap critiques with other participants. It can be a good way to find a writing community.

Classes are also great. I’m a big fan of continuing-education courses, library writing groups, and the like. I’ve participated in several of those over the years. I’m a deadline-driven person, so having regular pressure to prepare material gives me a needed nudge. As a bonus, they’re often reasonably priced, and since anyone can join, there’s usually a nice variety of folks from differing backgrounds and stages of their writing journey.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt was released May 3, 2022. Order your copy today!

This month, NLA interviewed Kristin Nelson’s client Luke Smitherd, author of the recently released novel The Stone Giant.

Your latest novel, The Stone Giant, is book three of your Stone Man series. How do you get readers caught up on what happened in books one and two? How do you gauge when to introduce new antagonists and when to return to past ones?

I wanted the fates of the surviving characters from The Stone Man to form part of the mystery of The Empty Men for the reader…but I also knew I wanted to bring the survivors back for The Stone Giant once the new stakes were well established and answers were required (that, and I’m a sucker for a team-up). The backstory, or in this case the five-year gap between books one and two, is a huge part of the plot of The Stone Giant, and I had a lot of fun dropping the various reveals into the story. Books two through four were heavily plotted out before work was started, and keeping the past-and-present continuity tight over the three or four years I was working on these books isn’t something I particularly ever want to do again! 

Which of your characters have you had the hardest time leaving behind once the novel was complete? Which character was the easiest to pick back up?

Maria was probably the hardest to pick up again by far, because the events of The Empty Men change her so much; likewise with many of the other protagonists. They’re very different people now. (But Brigadier Straub was easy as pie.)

How do you get to know your characters?

I get to know my characters—as cliché as it many sounds—as I go on. Then on the second draft I lean into the elements that have come out organically through the first draft.

Describe a scene from one of your novels that was particularly difficult to write. Why was writing it so difficult?

The scenes that are difficult for me to write are always logistical issues, especially with sci-fi. I know what I want to happen, and the effect required, but how do I describe something magical or otherworldly in a grounded way? I’m a real stickler for detail in that regard so it has to be right.

When editing, what aspects of critique do you apply to your novel? What aspects do you feel require the context of the whole manuscript? 

As you can probably tell by this interview, I talk too much. Editing is all about trimming for me. After that it’s all about checking that the characters appear on the page the way they do in my head, and—to answer the context element of the question—that the way they change (or don’t) through the text is consistent with the (usually awful) events and/or crazy things they’ve encountered.

The Stone Giant by Luke Smitherd was released March 29, 2022. Order your copy today!

For twenty years, I’ve worked with extremely talented writer clients. Having done so, I’ve learned that talent and mastery of craft cannot fix a story if it’s not the right story the writer should be telling. Here’s why. 

All writers need to learn this one simple lesson: Give yourself permission to “fail.” In doing so, you might actually discover the story you should be writing. Here are two real-world examples of the power of letting go. 

Scenario 1: When Marie Lu first conceptualized and wrote the opening chapters of The Young Elites, the story concept just wasn’t coming together. After the two of us had multiple brainstorm sessions and Marie tackled several revisions, she finally realized that the story was being told from the wrong POV. The minute she figured out that it was Adelina Amouteru’s story (who was only a minor side character in the initial concept), everything clicked into place. The rest is history for this New York Times bestselling book, the first in a very successful trilogy. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: Marie is incredibly talented, but numerous attempts at revision were not going to fix the fact that she initially had the wrong POV character. All her writing mastery wasn’t going to transform those opening chapters into the right story. If a project isn’t coming together, try a radical shift in POV, first person to third, change up the narrative timeframe. Established authors do this all the time. If the right story emerges, you’ll know by how readers respond to it. But also know that the magic doesn’t happen every time, which leads me to the second scenario. 

Scenario 2: My wonderfully talented author Rhiannon Thomas (A Wicked Thing, Long May She Reign) had a fantastic concept for a young adult fantasy. She wrote a brilliant first 75 pages, but from there, she simply could not wrangle the story into shape despite a number of attempts. Subsequent chapters didn’t showcase her writing talent. After multiple revisions, she bravely set this story aside to tackle something new. Her current work-in-progress makes it is absolutely clear this is the story she is meant to write—her voice shines on every page. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: It’s okay to “fail” because in doing so, the real story you are meant to write might emerge. If you’re in the query trenches and not getting requests for full manuscripts, or if the requests are coming in but are then followed by passes, be brave. Set it aside and write something new. Too often I see queries in my inbox from writers who have revised a manuscript I declined to read years ago. What if they’re spending year after year working on revising a story that isn’t allowing their writing talent to shine? That means the right story might never get written. For me, that is the real tragedy.

I remind aspiring writers that, for many of the clients I represent, I rejected the first work they sent to me. It wasn’t the right story. They didn’t give up. They “failed” and then found the story that actually needed to be written. Then a career was born. 

You have the power to let go and do the same. 

Photo by Pixabay

If the first three months of 2022 are any indicator, the pandemic is still informing what creators are writing about, and the proof is in the inbox. Here are the two very clear directions writers are pursuing:

  1. The world is dire.
  2. Time to escape. 

Big trends showing up in our query inbox

  • WWII is back with a vengeance—although it’s perennial as a historical subgenre and, therefore, never really goes away. But there seems to be a yearning for a time when the world united against a great evil and prevailed. I do appreciate wishful thinking, and with all that is unfolding in the Ukraine, WWII stories are not a hearkening to a time that was simpler, but to a time when the moral compass seemed clear.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction is surging, especially climate-based stories.
  • Dystopian fiction featuring evil dictators. (Ahem: Putin anyone?)
  • Demons, demons, so many demons. We think this might be a way to personify an evil that, at least in some stories, can always be defeated, and in other stories, turned to good or leveraged for the protagonist’s benefit. There is catharsis in the ability to create on the page that which might not be happening in the world.
  • Horror. This is super hot in Hollywood, so it’s not a surprise to see so many horror projects in our query inbox. What we’re seeing most in the horror space? Contemporary stories with some horror edge.
  • Gods-based fantasies in which the protagonist is a god, must become a god, is descended from a god, or must defeat one or more gods. Perhaps this is another way of creating a palatable world to be in.
  • RomComs! The heartwarming, engaging beach read. Yes, bring it on! All of us can use this type of escape, and I know editors are looking, which means we’re looking too.
  • Intrigue in historical settings. Anything set in the past is an escape of sorts—although I imagine writers don’t necessarily think of it that way. 

Other interesting trends

  • Middle-grade stories in verse. Poetry is having a cultural moment. It’s no surprise that’s currently mirrored in current storytelling.
  • LGBTQ everything. There is always room for great stories. Take that, Texas and Florida.

Photo by Jan van der Wolf from Pexels

Interview with Stacy Stokes

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Stacy Stokes, author of the recently released novel Remember Me Gone

What challenges did you face writing about memory and memory loss?

I love keeping secrets from readers, so I had a lot of fun sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout the story for the reader and [the protagonist] Lucy to discover together. The novel is told in first-person present, which allows the reader to experience things with Lucy as they happen. But it also presented a unique challenge—there are moments in the book when the reader knows more than Lucy. Finding the balance between Lucy’s discovery and the reader’s knowledge was tricky at times, but also fun to navigate. 

What inspired the family business featured in the novel?

The inspiration for Remember Me Gone and The Memory House came from an episode of True Blood, the HBO series based on The Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. In the episode, someone hires a vampire to erase her husband’s memories in the hopes of curing his PTSD. I started wondering what it might be like to run a memory-taking business, and, boom! The idea was born. Sans vampires.

The first line of your novel, “People come from everywhere to forget,” is so great! What advice would you give authors on nailing their first line?

A good first line should not only suck readers in but convey something unique about the story that sets the stage for what’s to come. Think about the key elements that make your story special and try to work at least one of them into the opening line. For Remember Me Gone, I wanted to introduce the concept of memory-taking while also working in the remoteness of [the town of] Tumble Tree.

A good way to find inspiration is to look at the opening lines of your favorite books. My all-time favorite opening line is from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scopio Races: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” She manages to tell the reader so much about the story to come in just a few words—it gives me chills every time I read it.

Did you write this story in a linear fashion or skip around as Lucy uncovers answers?

I tend to write linearly, but I always have a few scenes in my head that I’m writing towards, kind of like an invisible road map. It’s also a good motivator for me—there’s a sense of accomplishment when I finally make it to one of the scenes. Without giving away any spoilers, there were three scenes I knew I was building towards—the scene with Lucy’s father at the end of chapter six, the scene with the Oklahoma woman in chapter thirty, and the scene with the mirror in chapter thirty-three. I also had a fairly clear sense of how I wanted the story to end. The rest of the process was connecting those dots.

Finally, has being a novelist changed the way you read novels?

Absolutely! For starters, I have immense respect for anyone who completes a novel. Now that I’ve been through the process, I know how hard they’ve worked to not only get their words on a page, but to get them published and out in the world. 

I also often use the books I read as textbooks to make me a better writer. When a story is working well, I can’t help but ask myself why the plot and narrative are so compelling. What is the writer doing well that I can learn from? The same holds true if I’m reading something that isn’t working—thinking about why helps me improve my own craft.

Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes releases March 22, 2022. Preorder now!

Piecing It All Together

This month, we asked two NLA authors about outlining.

Do you outline before writing a new novel? If so, how closely does the finished novel resemble your original outline? If not, what is your process for piecing it all together?

“This is a process that has evolved over time with me. Early on, I never outlined, preferring the freedom of following where the story took me. I quickly learned that my brain doesn’t naturally follow a story arc this way though, and my drafts were jumbled, very long, and in need of some painful cuts. For a while after that realization, I began outlining in detail, but that inhibited a lot of freedom for my characters to express themselves. Now, I do a skeletal outline: I make note of the bones of the novel—the turning points, the climax, crucial character changes in each act, etc.—and then allow the story to play out in the space between.

“My stories almost always closely follow my outlines to the three-quarter mark. Then, inevitably, one of my characters has to reveal something HUGELY IMPORTANT to me, and after some groaning and a lot of chocolate, I have to backtrack and layer it all in.”

—Kristen Simmons, author of the Vale Hall series and Set Fire to the Gods

“No, I wish I could! I have tried, but whenever I have outlined, even if I’m already at the halfway point trying to figure out how to get to the end, the finished novel never bears any real resemblance to what I’ve planned.

“I’d like to call my process organic, but really it’s perilous—let’s not even talk about time-consuming. I do my novels in several exploratory drafts, basically writing each draft until I realize that I’m doing something fundamentally wrong—or that so many things need to be changed that I might as well go back to the beginning to incorporate everything I’ve learned so far about the story.

“For example, at the moment I’m writing a mystery set on a steamship. I’m 30,000 words in and I’ve just now had to stop and make a choice about what my main characters were doing when the murder took place. That is, what is their actual purpose for being on the steamship in the first place? 

“Not that I didn’t have a rough idea earlier—more than one rough ideas, in fact. An outliner would have figured out the specifics sooner, probably. But for someone like me, I simply don’t know what should happen until I’m at the point where I absolutely can’t write another word unless I first make a number of story decisions, from the very broad to the very detailed. 

“I’m no good at knowing what should happen ahead of time, but usually my gut has a pretty good sense afterwards if I’ve arrived at the correct story decision. I get the feeling of something clicking into place, of inevitability, of, ‘Ah, so this is what it should have been all along.’

“Now if only I can achieve that in outline form one of those days!”

—Sherry Thomas, author of the Lady Sherlock series and The Magnolia Sword

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rebecca Tozia Tyszka

Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Many writers familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) have a complicated relationship with the number 1,667. That’s how many words one must write each day for 30 days in order to hit the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Some writers blow right past that number every day of the year in their sleep—and, kind of annoyingly, like people who do CrossFit, they won’t hesitate to work their generative abilities into conversation or humblebrag about their daily word counts on social media. For others, that number is too far out there, and missing that goal time and time again becomes demoralizing and demotivating, as does comparing their output with that of those high-daily-word-count superstars.

Should You Do NaNoWriMo?

I bring this up not to discourage anyone from participating in NaNoWriMo. Rather, it’s to encourage you to consider how the challenge can help you grow as a writer. The short-term and extrinsic rewards are definitely worth it: bragging rights, a sense of personal accomplishment, fun swag, and opportunities to meet other writers during in-person and online write-ins. But the long-term benefit is what you’re really after. NaNoWriMo is about creating a brain change. It’s psychological. It’s about fostering the practice of turning off the analytical, judgey, editor part of your mind so that your creative mind can more effectively and efficiently do its job. You need both, but you need to learn how to let them take turns.

That brain change is more important than 1,667.

Yesterday, I came across an excellent Facebook post by my friend, prolific science-fiction author James Van Pelt. With his permission, I’m sharing his thoughts and experience with with setting daily word-count goals with you here.

James Van Pelt says:

“When I finished grad school in 1990, I set myself the goal of 1,000 words a day (because I’d read that’s what Stephen King did). I was teaching high school English full time and raising a family. If I was on a roll, a thousand words could take an hour. Unfortunately I wasn’t on a roll all the time, and that one hour could stretch into four. Obviously I couldn’t get a four-hour session in with the rest of my schedule, so what happened is that if I didn’t think I could hit the 1,000 I wouldn’t write at all.

“This was disturbing.

“At the end of the year I would tally my words. The number was always disappointingly low, and a low-grade self loathing lingered for weeks.

“I’m a slow learner. It took me until 1999, when at the end of the year my total looked like it would be around 35,000 words that I decided the problem wasn’t in my motivation or will power; it was the damned 1,000-word goal. It was just too much.

“I asked myself what I needed to be happier. I was going to be finishing the year at 35,000 words. Would I be happier if I did twice that much? Sure, way happier! The math on a 70,000 word year is about 200 words a day. That’s less than a page. That’s one conversation or setting description or moment of action. I could do 200 words before school started or during lunch/planning period, or during a staff meeting (plus it looked like I was taking notes).

“This was a doable goal, but it would only work if I didn’t skip days like I did with the 1,000-word goal. So, starting in November of 1999 I’ve been writing 200 words or more a day. If I’m on the road or at a convention, I’ll write at 5:30 in the morning or in the last half hour before going to sleep. What I try to do is not tell the people in my life, “Sorry, can’t join you. I have to write.” I haven’t missed once.

“Different systems work for different people. This is what works for me. I like streaks and they motivate me. I’ve written and sold a lot of fiction since 1999 and I always carry that pleasant buzz of knowing that I’ve written recently, and that I’m going to be writing soon.

“Between living a creative life or thinking that I’ll lead a creative life someday, I choose the first one.”

Connect with James Van Pelt on Facebook or check out his website.

Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Setting goals is important. Studies across all disciplines tell us over and over that people who set goals and then use those goals to guide the ways in which they spend their time are far more likely to accomplish desired outcomes than those who don’t. Furthermore, we know that breaking long-term goals down into digestible chunks is a key to success. As you make a plan for NaNoWriMo, or for next year, or for your next big writing project, or whatever, here are some ways to approach setting goals that are right for you.

Start by observing your writing habit.

Before you set word-count goals, spend two or three typical weeks writing when you can at a pace that feels like something you can sustain. These should be weeks representative of your life in terms of work, family, chores and errands, and other non-writing responsibilities. Don’t choose weeks that you are on vacation, laid up with a broken leg, entertaining your in-laws, or dealing with an unexpected project or crisis. At the end of those weeks, tally your total word count and tally the total hours you spent writing. Which makes you feel more positive about your efforts?

Decide whether to track word count, time spent, or both.

Some writers, like James, have dialed in to a realistic, sustainable daily word count. But there are others who find greater success tracking time spent. You can also track both! If you do, pay attention to the ratio of time to words when you’re drafting versus when you’re plotting or revising. These will not be the same ratios. You might be a writer who tracks word count when drafting and time spent when revising. Whatever the case, having a solid idea of your volume and rate of output under various circumstances will help you over time to develop even more realistic goals.

Practice positive self-talk based on what’s realistic and sustainable.

You’re going to get derailed. You just are. Suddenly you’re not putting gold-star stickers on that progress chart you made back at the beginning of the project or coloring in the “I did it!” squares in your bullet journal anymore.

When that happens, adjust. Instead of thinking “great, now I have to double my output tomorrow, and that probably won’t happen, so then I’ll need to triple my output two days from now, and that’s never going to happen,” take a realistic look at your calendar and set new goals for the next three, seven, ten, or X-number of days. A gold star or checkmark is still a gold star or checkmark, regardless of whether the goal was 2,000 words or 200.

Another strategy: Switch from a word-count goal to a time-spent goal or vice versa. That way, your self-talk switches from the negative “no way can I write 2,000 words tomorrow” to the positive “it’s not realistic for me to write 2,000 words tomorrow, but it is realistic to spend 30 minutes with my fingers on the keyboard before work tomorrow.”

Off track? Look back before looking ahead.

If you feel like you’ve fallen so far behind in your daily progress that you need to adjust your final deadline, don’t make a new plan for moving forward until you’ve looked backward. What derailed you? Was it something within your control, like spending too much time scrolling through social media or saying yes to projects or favors you could have said no to? Or was it something outside your control, like an unexpected work trip or a sick child?

Either way, I have good news. If it’s the former, make a list of all time-sucking behaviors that derailed you, and then make a plan for saying no. No to wasting time staring at screens. No to Aunt Betty who wants you to help her alphabetize her recipe cards. Yes to yourself and your goals.

If it’s the latter, recognize that the hiccup is temporary. Depending on the severity of the crisis, it might not feel temporary, or you might not know when your life will be back to normal, if ever. Again, it’s time to adjust. Do you need a break from the project? Take one! But schedule it. Make a date with yourself, even if it’s only one hour next Saturday afternoon, to keep your head in the game. If you’re used to getting two or three hours a day to write, but suddenly that can’t happen, adjust. Try writing in ten- or fifteen-minute increments. Try writing three sentences instead of three pages. All progress is progress.

At the end of the day, writing is hard, whether it’s your full-time job, part-time job, or avocation. Setting goals is important, but so is setting the right kinds of goals for you, at the right time in your life. Be flexible and positive, and keep your focus on what is realistic and sustainable, not for anyone else, but for you.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Novelist

This month, we asked three NLA authors for their best advice for first-time novelists.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet? and Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes

I’m fairly certain people did tell me this, but I wish I had internalized it: There’s very little authors can control in the publishing realm. The two things you can always do, though, are to keep writing and also to cultivate genuine, mutually respectful relationships with other writers and the members of your publishing team. Otherwise, hold it all—the “success” and the “failure”—loosely.

Meghan Scott Molin, author of The Golden Arrow Mysteries series

One piece of advice I think I wished I’d known (or internalized) when I started: One book deal doesn’t mean you “arrive.” Even a multi-book deal. I wish I’d known how many friends would switch publishers, agents, editors, publicists in their first year of getting a book deal. I’m slowly adjusting to the idea that it’s always a battle in one arena or another…the road isn’t smooth sailing. I think better preparing young writers for the “building years” between contracts, the months spent waiting on sub, the heartbreak of an editor backing out on an additional project…it’s all really valuable conversation.

Valerie Valdes, author of the Chilling Effect series

I wish someone had told me that all writing advice is akin to tools you can put in your toolbox. It’s okay to only reach for the tools you need while others collect dust, and not everyone uses the same tools, or uses them in the same way. Even you won’t necessarily use the same tools with every novel, and that’s okay, too. There’s no single right or wrong way to write.

I also wish someone had told me to focus on setting manageable goals that I control, instead of ones that other people ultimately have control over. So for example, “try to write a little every day” instead of “try to get an agent by the end of the year.” The latter is a milestone, and those are worth celebrating, but treating milestones as goals can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Photo by Ann H from Pexels

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Scott Reintgen, author of the Nyxia Triad and the upcoming novel Breaking Badlands, Talespinners series book three.

How much do you know about the plot of a series before beginning the first novel?

Saving Fable was one of the few books I didn’t write with a series in mind. I honestly just wanted to have fun again when I first started writing it. I’d been reading really intense, brooding stories. I was writing something similar. So for Saving Fable, I dove in without thinking about the big picture. I just wanted to have a blast in each and every scene. I really only had the first book in mind, even if the story and world do lend themselves to a series!

When writing a series like Talespinners, what is your process for creating a new antagonist/conflict in each book? How do you determine if the conflict will suit your main character?

For the first book, I just had to figure out who could cause Indira the most trouble in her first year of school. There were a few natural answers to that. In book two, I really wanted to imagine someone powerful that Indira could not take on by herself. The whole point of book two is teamwork, so she needs her friends if she wants to defeat the antagonist. In book three, well, she goes to the literal birthplace of all antagonists at Antagonist Academy in Fester. She’s kind of surrounded there!

In her adventures, Indira encounters many famous characters like Alice from Wonderland at Protagonist Preparatory. What is your method for writing characters from familiar stories? How much research do you do before adding a classic character to your story?

For me, I really want to honor those characters, but also put my own slight twist on them. I think that’s what people are really looking for most of the time. Something that honors the spirit of that beloved character, but that also sheds a new light on them.

What inspired you to write the Talespinners series?

The very first inspiration was that I saw a girl run and leap into a puddle with wild abandon. I imagined her vanishing, and tried to imagine where she went next. That scene never made it into the books, but it’s certainly where the entire thing began.

How do you approach writing a novel for a middle-grade audience?

My approach is to have a bit more fun, and throw in a bit more whimsy. I also kind of assume that a lot of my audience will read up. So I’m not really writing for eighth graders with this series so much as I’m writing for fifth graders. Readers, often, want to reach up into the next category. I wrote Saving Fable with that in mind.

You are an author of science fiction and fantasy, both middle grade and young adult. How do you adjust your writing process to the switch in genre and audience?

It’s mostly tone and character POV. Ultimately, though, I hope the DNA of all my stories is the same. I want to write something wildly entertaining. I want to write with the understanding that my audience could, and might, set the book down at any time if I’m not drawing their interest. So the goal is just to write a great story, no matter the audience.

Breaking Badlands by Scott Reintgen releases September 21, 2021. Preorder the book here!