Writing first drafts is incredibly fun. I get to tell myself a story, and no one else has to see it. I don’t have to fret about syntax or word choice, or even worry about story mechanics. If plot holes appear, or a character does something weird with no believable motivation, it’s perfectly okay. If I come to a rough spot, I can write something cliche and dumb. All those things can be fixed later.
Every time I finish a drafting or editing pass, I like to leave the story to “steep” for a few days before going back to work on it again. I feel like that time away from it allows me to look at it with fresher eyes when I dive in again.
Each first draft I create is different. Some are powerful and ready to go straight to editing after one or two read-throughs and a few minor adjustments. Others are weak, and I know it. They require lots of rewriting and structural fixes before they are anywhere close to good. My current work in progress, Guardians of Caledon, has a solid beginning for a first draft, weakens in the middle, and then rebounds at the end, though it still needs work throughout. It has a few character motivation and development issues. It contains some minor plot holes that I was aware of as I wrote, but I didn’t want to take the time to figure out how to fix them right then and lose the story’s momentum, so I merely noted the problems and kept writing.
All these things must be fixed, but not in the first draft. The first draft is just getting the story out. Fixing problems is for the second draft and the third. That’s when I go in and start to strengthen the plot, fix the holes, and fill in the gaps where motivation is required or unclear. I fact-check for historical accuracy. I improve dialogue and imagery, add color and depth to settings and characters, and generally start to make the story GREAT.
Fixing those issues might require several passes. I may change large chunks of the story in six or seven drafts, or I might be satisfied with the work by the time I complete the third draft. I’m rarely done in fewer than three.
That’s when editing starts. You might ask what the difference is between drafting and editing, and it’s a fine line. What I call second and third drafts and so on is also called substantive editing, which looks at the story as a whole for structure, organization, and logical consistency. I consider the story to be at the first editing stage when I am willing to let my Beta readers have it because I no longer find elements of it embarrassingly bad. There might still be small problems with plot or characterization, for which I will ask for input and ideas, but by the time I finish drafting and start editing, most of the story design flaws are fixed.
Editing looks at the story with a magnifying glass. Now I look for the best way to say things. I analyze whether I am using active or passive voice and use active whenever possible. I try to phrase things as clearly and directly as I can without losing the details and the shading. I read aloud to make sure that the dialogue flows when it’s spoken and that the narration isn’t awkward. Reading aloud also helps to catch repeated or overused words, and forces me to slow down and really SEE what I’m looking at.
Further editing passes look for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that might have been overlooked before now, while still fixing any previously targeted issues that may have slipped my notice. In all, I will usually go over a manuscript thoroughly at least twenty times before I declare it ready for publication, and then my husband and I go over it again as we format it for uploading to Amazon.
This doesn’t mean I will never make a mistake, or let something pass that should have been corrected, but it does mean I work very hard to make the books as perfect as I can for my readers. Writing, editing, and publishing a book is not a process that should be rushed. Quality takes time. I have learned to love every part of preparing the Dragon's Fire Series for publication, and I am very proud of each title.
My mother taught me to read when I was three. I may not have been entirely ready to learn, because I recall a lot of screaming (from me, not my mother.) Regardless, she never was one to give up, and before long, I could read.
I started devouring books. A book of bedtime stories a couple hundred pages thick with no pictures was one of my favorites. It was designed to be a read-aloud, but I read it to myself.
I started writing stories before I could spell. I was about six and a half years old when I produced my first masterpiece, “Stragling Snaks,” (Strangling Snakes.) I wrote stories at home frequently—nothing to do with school assignments—just for my own pleasure.
I excelled at creative writing in early elementary school. My second-grade teacher made a big “TV” out of a box, and the authors of the best stories of the week got to sit in the box to read their work to the class “on TV.” I was an almost-weekly occupant of the box.
By fourth grade, I loved writing horse stories. Teachers tried to get me to expand my repertoire, but by this point, my parents had become strict about the content I was allowed to produce, and while the rest of the class composed ghost tales and made up legends about Greek gods, I wrote what I was permitted to write—mostly horse stories. My fourth-grade teacher wrote in my report card that I had “no imagination.”
When I was eleven, I wrote my first novel on 150+ single-spaced pages of foolscap. I had found my writing passion. Throughout my teen years, I wrote several more books and attempted to have some of them published. One manuscript came close, but after some back and forth communication about it, it was rejected at a senior editors’ meeting.
I kept writing. All of my first drafts were written entirely by hand. Thousands of pages. I’m left-handed, so I always had a blue ink smear on the baby finger of my left hand that I could never entirely wash off.
After I got married, I wrote a novel that checked in at well over 1000 pages. I submitted it to publishers, and that’s how I met my mentor, who I am still working with at StoryShopUSA.
John saw the raw potential in me and trained me to write well. He taught me how to take a story idea and flesh it out using active voice, engaging the reader’s senses so that the words jumped off the page like living things. He taught me how to hook a reader and how to write realistic dialogue. We worked on developing plotlines and using plot gimmicks and plot plants to give readers “wow!” moments. I worked one-on-one with him for about four years, produced a number of different titles, and learned a great deal.
I took a hiatus from writing in 2002, just before the birth of my second child. I couldn’t keep up, couldn’t find the quiet focus time, couldn’t justify the hours of selfishness required to produce books. Some people manage to write with small children, and my hat is off to them. I don’t know how they do it.
Fourteen years later, in 2016, a story started teasing me. It played in my head for about seven months while I determined NOT to write it down. I knew how stories consumed me once I started them. My youngest child was now almost ten, my oldest, seventeen. I still felt that I didn’t have time for writing amid all my other responsibilities. But the story won, and on a rainy evening at the end of July, I sat down and started typing what I was sure would be nothing more than 70 pages of silly romance.
Two and a half years after starting that story, I published the fifth in my series, completing the adventure of the Dragon’s Fire that my silly romance had grown into. And I’m still writing. There are so many more stories to tell. When I finish telling stories about Caledon, there will be something new to write. All my life, when I’ve finished a book or a series, I’ve thought, “I can’t do any better than that.” Then I think of something new, and away I go with it, and it’s better than before because age and experience generally improve writers.
I don’t regret taking 14 years off for my young family, but I’m glad that I’m making time to write now. Caledon has increased my confidence, taught me many valuable lessons about myself, and improved me as a writer and an editor. And I’m loving every minute.
Sometimes I only get an hour a day to write. Sometimes I get no time at all. But making time to do what I love is so important. I’ve found a piece of me that was missing for 14 years, and I’m not going back.
Clean Fiction: a story free from excessive foul language, violence or gore, and graphic sexual content.
Modern literature is full of all of the above. Countless times, I’ve checked out the first few pages of a book to be slammed with F-bombs and lengthy and graphic descriptions of murder, torture, violence, and sex.
Book covers, too, throw “unclean” images in your face. Finding a cover for Myrhiadh’s War was particularly challenging. Searching through potential artwork on my favorite website, I almost became convinced that every female archer in the world plies her trade wearing a bikini. I had started to despair of finding an appropriate cover when I came upon the image that now graces Myrhiadh’s War, and I bought it in a hurry. She may have been the only decently dressed female archer in the collection.
I don’t think a story has to be wrapped in filth to hold a reader’s attention and be an intriguing, edge-of-your-seat book. A writer’s frequent use of multiple swears merely indicates that they don’t have a sufficient grasp of the language to use it skillfully. Sexual matters can be handled without requiring intimate details. Excessive gore is unnecessary.
I don’t think that a clean story has to be wrapped in faith, either. Many modern “clean fiction” offerings are overtly religious. If a reader is looking for a story where the problems are generally solved by the miraculous intervention of God, fine, but in my opinion, a lot of Christian novels contain cookie-cutter plots and predictable endings. A few are nothing short of sermons masquerading as stories. I’ve read truckloads of them. I even read one where the main character stated that she was so happy being engaged, she’d love to be engaged forever. That’s eye-rolling, unrealistic purity.
When I was a child and teen, I was allowed to read only religious fiction. I was expected to write it, too. Every story I turned out had to have a Christian message said my parents, said my church, said my friends. I got tired of it. I was ready to break out of that pattern and try something new and fun.
I think there’s a place in the market for clean books that aren’t blatantly spiritual—where characters who don’t attend church faithfully or pray about everything solve their problems with intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness.
Not everyone wants to be preached at every time they open a book for entertainment, but neither do they want to be sworn at and assaulted with bloody, gory, sensual details. There has to be a balance: a sweet spot where believable characters solve problems in an exciting, unpredictable way without inappropriate details. And that’s where the Dragon’s Fire Series fits.
I have received criticism from some people who disapprove of this series’ content—most of them cite religious reasons for shunning it. Some of them have read the first book, some of them haven’t. Frankly, my books are less fantastic than those of C.S. Lewis, a mainstay author for many religious readers. If you’ve read Tolkien or Rowling, you’ve delved much further into fantasy worlds and magic than the Dragon’s Fire Series will take you. Nonetheless, my critics are entitled to their opinions, informed or not.
I’m also entitled to mine. I won’t write things that I would be embarrassed to read aloud. So you won’t find anything stronger than an occasional use of “damn” or “hell” in my books. Stronger language is left to the imagination, such as when Lauryn writes “three exceedingly uncomplimentary words” on a piece of paper she gives to another character in The Curse of Caledon. Descriptions of suffering are kept minimal and are not especially graphic. Sex scenes are almost non-existent, and what is described is not intimately detailed.
I consider the books suitable for ages 13 through adult, though I am aware of a nine-year-old who loves the Dragon’s Fire Series, and my oldest known reader is 82. Just as storytellers of old gathered entire villages around fires at night and regaled multiple generations with tales of magic and adventure, the Dragon’s Fire Series is a modern version of that classic genre, suitable for almost everyone.
I don’t wrap my historical fantasy stories in filth or faith. I deliver exciting plots, believable characters, and realistic situations solved by ingenuity, intelligence, and perseverance; fun to write, and fun to read. I make no apologies for that. I’m filling a gap in the modern fiction world—clean, but not religious; just great storytelling.
When a person decides to self-publish, they dream of having an overnight bestseller. The reality is that sales are slow, marketing is expensive, and advertising doesn’t always work. Fiction books are a hard thing to market, because nobody needs them, and thousands of them—some well-written and some less so—are flooding the market now that self-publishing has become so affordable and accessible. The abundance of less-well-written books makes readers understandably skeptical of the quality of anything independently published.
Once an author has published a book, she has to find readers. Everyone has friends, and some of those interested/supportive friends will buy the book. Selling to that inner circle is easy. The hard part is breaking out into the wider world of people who don’t know you. And that’s where readers can really help an author whose work they enjoy.
The first way to help is to buy the book—or books, if you like the stories and enjoy the author’s writing style. The next way to help is to tell everyone how much you loved the book. Word-of-mouth is THE BEST way to advertise books. You have many resources available to you to tell your friends about the fantastic story you just read.
Not comfortable talking about the book? You can write about the book! Write reviews. You don’t have to give five-stars unless you feel the book deserves it. Any review is helpful, so long as it’s fair. Your critique doesn’t have to be flowery or intellectual. It can be as short as saying that you liked/loved the book, you recommend others should read it, and you are looking forward to reading more from the author. Leave reviews everywhere! Goodreads is an excellent place to review books. Book retailers’ websites (like Amazon,) and your social media/social media groups, are also good options.
Lend your copy to friends. People are willing to spend a few dollars on food or drink they’ve never tried, but they are far more reluctant to try a book by an author they’ve never heard of for a similar price. Allowing them to read your copy might open their minds to the idea of purchasing the rest of the titles for themselves. Some readers are reluctant to lend their book, thinking that it will hurt the author’s sales. Yes, lending the book does reduce sales, but the early stages of an author’s publishing journey are about getting people to read the book, trust that the author can deliver a good story, and want more. Sales are secondary. If I get 10 fans who love the story for every copy I sell, I’m happy.
On that note, consider donating a copy of the book to your local library.
Follow the author on social media—whichever platform(s) you use most often. (Yours Truly is on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter!) Your friends will see that you follow the author without you having to say anything directly. Like, comment on, and share posts from the author’s accounts. People will see it! It’s as simple as a click, and maybe a few words of your own about how much you liked the book.
Sign up for the author’s mailing list. I cannot stress this enough. My mailing list is the best connection I have to my readers. Amazon does not share your information with me when you buy one of my books, and social media limits the posts that you see. Mailing list subscribers get exclusive content, like advance viewing of text and back cover copy, cover and other images, as well as background and inside information about the books that I don’t share anywhere else. They get all the news about sales, contests, and events, with no fear of missing anything important. In addition, if I need to move my books from Amazon to a different vendor (for example), or my website goes down indefinitely, my mailing list subscribers are guaranteed to find out where I’ve gone, where they can find my work, and how they can contact me.
One mailing list subscriber requested an autographed copy of a book for a family member, and another, fearing a missed title, got direct information about book availability. I respond to every reasonable request or inquiry personally, and I consider every subscriber on my list my friend. So if you’re not on the list, get on the list! You can sign up right on the homepage of this website—I require only your email address—and you’ll receive one or two emails per month from me.
Lastly, consider giving the book(s) as gifts to others who might enjoy them. Christmas is coming—you can shop from the comfort of your couch! Books make a great gift for any occasion: birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, going-away parties, housewarmings, thanks-for-having-us-for-dinner-this-was-cheaper-than-wine, and “just because.”
YOU are my best marketing resource, and I am grateful for any assistance you can give me. Word-of-mouth is THE BEST form of advertising. Nothing beats you saying, “I loved it. You should read it.” And every time you do, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Last October, after a little more than a year of writing, I had five interconnected historical fantasy novels ready to share with readers. With a great deal of excitement and trepidation, I launched the first in the series, Dragon’s Fire. The Rose of Caledon followed at Christmas, and Myrhiadh’s War two months after that. The Brigand’s Promise needed some rewrites due to a plot hole, and I released it in June of this year. The Curse of Caledon, the fifth book in the series, ended up needing extensive rewrites due to a date miscalculation, but fortunately, the changes did not affect the previous titles, and the manuscript is currently undergoing editing for release in the very near future.
When I started writing The Rose of Caledon on July 31, 2016, I did not expect the book to become anything I would want to share. I did not expect it to spawn a series, or to morph from a simple romance into an eight-hundred-year mystery set in a fantasy world with elements of magic thrown in. But Caledon reached out and embraced me, and I never wanted to leave. Characters became my friends, and I couldn’t wait for the part of the day when I could sit down and write.
Caledon has been good for me. I’m spending time doing something I absolutely love every day, and I have grown more confident as a person, a writer, and an editor because of my time spent there.
I grew up in a strict, religious family. The legalistic tenets of faith extended to influence my writing—so much so that my fourth-grade teacher wrote in my report card that I had “no imagination.” For years, I wrote what others expected of me, with varying degrees of success. But when I started writing the Dragon’s Fire Series, for the first time in my life, I wrote what I wanted to write without caring what anyone else thought. This formula works. I’m writing these books for me, and I’d write them even if nobody read them (although my enjoyment of them exponentially increases when others love them, too!)
I see my skills improving with every book I turn out. With each new title, the writing gets tighter, and my editing eye picks up on more things that I need to change and correct before publication. And the process becomes more and more fun as I go. I’ve loved writing for nearly 40 years. In Caledon, I’ve found myself as a writer and as a person. And one year after publishing, my journey is only beginning. I have so many more stories to tell!
So don’t stop reading! See you in Caledon...
Once I’m happy with the manuscript, it’s time to tackle the publishing details.
Everyone says not to judge a book by its cover, but then everyone does it. Covers are critical! I purchase my cover art from a website called SelfPubBookCovers.com, and I’ve been thrilled with their selection and prices. I am fussy about my covers, but am not yet at the stage where I can order them custom-made, so I spend a lot of time surfing the premade cover choices and playing with text and layout on various pieces of art. I will not buy a cover unless it speaks to me; it has to fit perfectly with the story I want it to represent, and it has to look like it was designed to go with the other books in the series.
My husband, Cameron, who is a computer engineer, then takes the covers and designs the layout of them, arranging the fonts and the text to look just right.
I am far too fond of cover shopping; I have already purchased the cover for Book Six, and I’m only writing chapter four. I have vowed to myself that I will not buy covers for books that currently exist solely in my head. We’ll see how I do with that resolution.
Cameron designs the maps for the books since I do not have the patience. He has done a marvelous job of bringing Caledon to life with all its different cities and locales. I use a hand-drawn map on graph paper while I write, to keep the times and distances for travel consistent, but it didn’t transfer well to print, as I am in no way an artist, so I’m very grateful for Cam’s skill at everything he does!
Cam also does all my manuscript formatting. I write in Google Drive, and we download it as a Word document, which Cam then arranges to fit the parameters Amazon dictates for the book size and margins. At this point, we do our last editing pass, since we are analyzing every letter and punctuation mark and its location on the page, and we will often notice overused words that slipped past us in earlier read-throughs. Cam is impressive at spotting if my indents are uneven or if I have put two spaces between words instead of one. He formats all the “documents” within the text—letters and treaties and so on—as well as the chapter headings and the page numbers. I don’t know what I’d do without him. I’d probably cry a lot.
Once the words are all in place, and the headings and footers and page breaks are correct, and we’ve gone through every page looking for words that need to be split to make the justified lines look right (Cam’s patience is essential for that task, too!), it’s time to upload. We usually upload the manuscript for the ebooks and paperbacks several times to get everything just right, because Amazon’s previewer shows up missing page breaks or bad margins. Amazon also usually finds spelling mistakes, which all get meticulously checked before we change or ignore them—Amazon is not a big fan of Caledonian. If we need to change anything, we have to do another upload. We are getting better at polishing the manuscript before uploading: Dragon’s Fire had to be uploaded more than fifty times before we got it right, but Myrhiadh’s War was finished in about seven uploads, for both formats!
Once the uploading is done, the book goes to Amazon for final approval, and within seventy-two hours, (usually less,) it goes live in the bookstore and is available for purchase.
And that’s what goes into every story I put out for you to read—hundreds of hours for each book from typing the first word of the plot outline to the final click of the “publish” button. I love sharing the Dragon’s Fire Series with you, and I hope you’re enjoying reading the books as much as I’m loving writing them!
Once I have written the story, the work begins. Editing. I edit for StoryShopUSA and also take on freelance editing clients, so editing is a huge part of what I do, and I enjoy it immensely. Editing my own work is not as easy as editing other people’s; however, I try to be as ruthless with my own manuscripts as I am with anyone else’s, in spite of my emotional attachment to my stories.
The first part of editing is writing the second and third drafts. At this stage, I’m looking for story continuity and character development, adding and deleting scenes, and fixing the big things. This is often the point at which I choose a title for the work, as well.
I don’t often start a work knowing the title; it suggests itself as the story progresses. Rose got its title long after the first draft was complete. War had its title from the beginning. Fire stared me in the face for several editing passes before I clued in that the title should be the gimmick of the series—duh! Promise wasn’t assured until I published. The Curse of Caledon was titled from the beginning. Guardians of Caledon (Book Six) had a title from the second chapter.
Once I’m satisfied with the story itself, it’s time to focus on the finer details. Now I will watch for passive language and eliminate as much of it as possible. I look for overuse of character names within dialogue, and for how my speech tags are working. I like to read the story aloud to make sure that the words flow cohesively and realistically, and aren’t awkward as they roll off the tongue.
I continue to look for plot holes and inconsistencies within the story and fix them, even tiny ones. For example, at one point in Myrhiadh’s War, I described how sound was spilling out the open door of the Brass Rebel Pub. I explained how Myrhiadh peered through the window and heard Sam’s challenge to darts. Then she turned around and opened the door to go inside. A few paragraphs had passed since I had mentioned that the door was open, but this was a critical fix. The setting being flawless is just as important as the mechanics of the English or the character development.
Character development is critical. I don’t want a character to do something so unpredictable that it makes zero sense to the reader. The main characters must start in one place and finish in another, and follow a believable path to get there. Ciara starts her story as an uncertain character who doesn’t like making decisions. She is forced to take over the rule of Caledon when Kerrion falls ill, but only comes into her own when she defends her sister from the Mystics. Here we see a Ciara we have never seen before, but we believe her reaction because of her tremendous love for Mya, which drives her to confront the Archmystic. From this moment, she grows into herself until she becomes competent at ruling and everything that goes with it, including circumventing the law.
Once the book has endured a couple of editing passes, it’s time to send it to my Beta Readers. I have four Betas who tackle the story at various stages of writing and editing. One gets the book as soon as the first draft is done, and gets every draft after that. She is my primary “research” checker. She catches historical inaccuracies that jar her, or words that seem out of place, or characters that don’t ring true. My second Beta gets the story at about the third draft. She is my copy editor: she catches mechanical errors and makes suggestions for story improvements. My third Beta is my husband. He is my logical, never-gets-lost-in-the-story-just-points-out-all-the-mistakes reader. He notices if a character is flaky or unbelievable, and he picks up on discrepancies in the setting and storyline. All three of those Betas might be asked to read the story more than once. My final Beta gets the book just before it’s ready to go to print. She reads it and lets me know how she likes it. She comments on twists that surprised her, things she liked about the book, things she didn’t like, and gives me the confidence boost I need to launch the book out into the world.
But just because the book has been to my final Beta reader doesn’t mean I’m done editing. At this point, I feed the book through Grammarly, the app I use to help me catch mistakes, one last time. (Usually, by this time, the manuscript has been through Grammarly at least once already, sometimes more.) I triple-check historical accuracy. At this point in the editing game, a pitcher of lemonade exited The Rose of Caledon (lemons and sugar were too expensive for peasants to drink,) and I extracted a grandfather clock from Myrhiadh’s War (they weren’t invented until about 1680.) Rarely do major changes happen at this stage, but Myrhiadh’s mother, Molly, did not become almost-blind until two days before the book went to press; an unusually significant last-minute change.
The most frustrating thing about editing is that it’s really never done. I could do pass after pass on each book and still find things to tweak and improve. At some point, I have to decide that the story is finished and release it, hopefully with very few mistakes that will bug me when I read it after publication, and even fewer that will bother readers!
With a plot in place, writing can begin. I love writing. It’s my favorite part of writing. I immerse myself in my story while I am developing it. It fills my head waking and sleeping, and can sometimes cause downright embarrassing lapses in memory and attention in public places.
One of my favorite places for developing scenes, storylines, and characters is out in the pasture, mucking up after my horse. Mucking is mindless work. You can wander anywhere in your head and not risk screwing up your task, and no one’s around to overhear you talking to yourself.
I live for the point in the day when I can justify putting aside my housework and other responsibilities and write. My family and I call it “going to Caledon,” and they know that once I’m there, it’s tough to draw me back to the real world again.
I can “see” my characters as I develop the story. They hang out with me wherever I am. They can get downright pushy about wanting me to work on a chapter, even when I have other stuff to do. Sometimes I have to give in and start writing when I really should be doing something else. I ride a roller coaster of thrills and emotions with each of my books and put myself into the shoes of each character as I write their point of view.
I try to limit the points of view that I use in each story. Hearing too many characters’ thoughts becomes a confusing cacophony. I like to use no more than three points of view at most, though I was forced to violate that for The Brigand’s Promise, where I required four to tell the story properly. The Rose of Caledon has only one viewpoint; that of Kate. Myrhiadh’s War and Dragon’s Fire both have two. Less is more when it comes to getting into the characters’ heads.
When I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research before I begin writing, but for historical fantasy, I can research as I go. The internet is an excellent source of information. I also have an extensive library of books, so I rarely have to leave the house to find what I need. Sometimes my research takes five minutes. Sometimes it can take a few hours.
The details make the story. For example, in Myrhiadh’s War, Andrew hands Myrhiadh his handkerchief. She uses it. Then she and I both froze. Now what does she do with this soiled piece of linen? Twenty minutes of Google searches later, I had learned that she would not have given it back, nor would he have asked for it, even if the handkerchief happened to be his favorite, silk, monogrammed one. So she stuffs it into her pocket—a total of thirteen words in the book. But very important to the story.
The dates and moon phases in the Dragon’s Fire Series are all correct. Historical clothing is mainly accurate, though I have taken some liberties to design certain outfits in some cases. My heroines do more independent horseback riding in the first three books than would have been common in their eras. The time required to travel between points on horseback, by train, and by ship at varying speeds is accurate. I have been careful to keep track of how far apart cities are throughout the series for consistency. I keep a “dictionary” of Caledonian, so if you follow the stories closely, you will be able to tell what the characters are saying without the benefit of an English translation in the text, or at least you will be able to pick up on words and phrases that I use frequently.
Some writers talk about this weird thing called “Writer’s Block.” I can honestly say that I have never experienced this; or at least, if I have, I have never let it get the best of me. Some parts of a book can be harder to compose than others, but my attitude is, “Write something. Write anything. Come back and change it later,” and I have never been “stuck” in a book.
On the rare occasion that I haven’t a clue what to write in a scene, I will put down a few notes about what I am hoping to achieve. And then I move on to the next part of the book and keep going. Eventually, often with a manure fork in my hand, the missing pieces will come to me.
The Brigand’s Promise had a giant, gaping plot hole that haunted me for months after I finished the first draft. I let it sit while I worked on Book Five and started polishing the first three. When I was completing the editing process on Myrhiadh’s War, the idea for how to fix Brigand came to me, while mucking, of course, and I was able to fill in the hole.
The Rose of Caledon was the first book I wrote in this series. I had the whole story planned out in my head long before I started typing it on the computer. And when I sat down to type, I had no idea how to begin. I knew I could stew over it and never write anything, or I could write something stupid to get me going and start developing this great story that was spinning in my head and needing to come out. I succumbed to beginning the book with “Once upon a time.” You can read the original opening of Rose in my archived blog post from November 2017. It was horrible. But it got me going. And over time and rewriting and editing, the beginning morphed into something that was nothing like what I had first written!
So when people ask me how I handle writer’s block, I say, “Write something, write anything, fix it later.” But I don’t believe that I have ever experienced writer’s block. And I’m grateful for that.
There is little more satisfying than words that flow through my mind as quickly as I can type them onto the screen, and those, “Yes! That’s perfect!” moments when something in the story clicks into focus and comes alive. Writing new scenes that took shape in my head throughout the day is a thrill. I’m working my dream job. I’ve never had more fun writing anything than I’m having writing the Dragon’s Fire Series. And I won’t be stopping anytime soon.
As I start developing a story, I begin with the main character, a supporting lead, and a villain. After that, I populate the story with more characters based on the needs of the primary ones and the storyline.
The characters need to be likable and relatable. No one will believe a character who is flawless, who never, ever screws up, and who always responds to others with humility and kindness—and frankly, I find perfect characters annoying. Each character must have motivations to drive their actions, as well as likes and dislikes and unique ways of approaching a problem.
Each character becomes a living individual who resides in my head during the development of their story. They hold conversations with each other and with me, enact scenes, distract me from daily activities and from interactions I am having with others, and occasionally cause me to tune out what’s going on around me completely. Usually, I can mask that this is occurring; other times, I’m not so lucky and have to admit with some embarrassment that my mind has wandered, while mentally telling my characters to shut up. They seldom listen. They drag me to Caledon at all hours of the day and night and hold me hostage there. However, Caledon is one of my favorite places, so I don’t mind. I am guilty of talking to myself, though I try not to do it in public; I even hold conversations with myself, though if you were to get the opportunity to listen in, you would hear that two or more characters are interacting. Those conversations often make their way onto the computer and into the books. The more thought and internal chatter I engage in as I’m writing, the stronger the story turns out.
Most of my major characters in the Dragon’s Fire Series (with the notable exceptions of Kate and Mya) are introverts, and therefore very much like me. Up until this series, I never felt comfortable making my main character an introvert; perhaps they are a sign that I am finally content with who I am!
Myrhiadh is my favorite character; in almost 40 years of writing stories, I have never created a character I like better than her. Her name means “multi-faceted, having many aspects,” and I enjoyed working through her conflicts as we explored the concept of war together. She played a role in an external war, but at the same time, fought an internal battle with her past, her beliefs, and her inner voices. Myrhiadh haunted me from the moment I conceived her, and she still lives in my head. Even though her story is told and out for the world to read, she’s the one who lingers with me, and she will show up again in future books.
During the plotting stage, I often make up a cast list of the characters I know I will need, including their names, physical appearance, personality quirks, and role within the story. Other characters pop up as I need them, sometimes not until the second, third, or fourth draft. I had written seventeen chapters of The Rose of Caledon before I gave Kate a brother. Once I realized that she needed him, I went back and inserted James where necessary, because he couldn’t just show up without warning in chapter seventeen. A similar situation occurred with The Brigand’s Promise: the first draft of the book was completed a year before I added the character of Brendan—which made a fairly significant plot change in the story! These late-comers get stuck on like band-aids at first; a very noticeable insertion where they were not originally intended to belong. But through the editing process: writing, polishing, rewriting, and polishing again, they graft into the story and by the time the book reaches your hands, they look as though they’ve been there from the beginning.
Myrhiadh’s family is a major driving force for her actions throughout War, and she needed relatives for whom the reader would believe that she felt a tremendous sense of love and responsibility. The closeness and camaraderie between Myrhiadh and her mother and sister had to be evidenced entirely within the first chapter and a half but carry through the rest of the book—no easy feat. Myrhiadh’s mother had no visual impairment until a few days before the book went to press. I added that detail last minute when it occurred to me that some readers might view her as lazy since she was pushing her daughter to get a job to provide for the family instead of doing so herself. While in my view she was busy working at home—housework was extremely time-consuming back then—readers might not be so forgiving, and I needed them to like Molly. So her visual challenge was born, and her dependence upon Myrhiadh increased exponentially as a result, which in turn strengthened Myrhiadh’s need and desire to protect and care for her. A win-win situation for me and the plot!
The Brigand’s Promise presented a unique character challenge. I needed to tell this story from the villain’s point of view. When the villain becomes the main character, he/she has to be likable. How do you make villains likable and still maintain their place as the bad guys? Well, for starters, they have to have a problem and a goal, just like any other Main Character. They have to have some good points. They cannot be altogether repugnant. The reader must understand their motivation for doing what they do and care about them in spite of them—so their wickedness must have limits. Brigand presents a conflict of interest for the reader. We want the good guys to win, but at the same time, we don’t want to see the villains end up on the gallows or worse.
Sometimes I’ll change a character’s name after I create them. Usually, this happens to only minor characters, but Gwyneth from Brigand was originally Aria, a name I decided was too similar to Ava, and might be confusing for some readers. She is the most major character who’s ever had a name change, and I did it about a year after I had written the book. It took a while to get used to the change, and I referred to her in speech interchangeably as Gwyneth and Aria for several weeks, even though the edit in the manuscript was completed in seconds, and Aria was gone. King Rian was at first King Peter. Brendan was written in as Brian and changed when that name wasn’t working for me; partly because every time I typed it, I accidentally typed “Brain.”
One question readers frequently ask is whether or not I model my characters after real-life people. The answer to that is yes and no. If I notice an interesting quirk or behavioral pattern in someone I know, yes, that trait can be transferred to a character. If I see a quality that I particularly admire in someone else, that quality may mirror in a character. And yes, it’s true that if you tick a writer off, you may become a character who gets killed off in some way in a book, under a different name, of course—generally, the angrier you have made the writer, the nastier the circumstances of your death will be. Am I guilty of this? Yes, definitely. Is every character I kill secretly someone who has annoyed me? No.
My heroes take many of their character traits from my real-life husband, who happens to be an awesome guy. My personality is interwoven through almost every heroine to some extent, although the character I most identify with is Myrhiadh, and after her would be Teifi, who you haven’t met yet, but you will! (Her story is coming in Book Six.)
I do make an effort, however, to make sure that no character will be so like someone I know in both appearance and personality that the parallels are unmistakable. No character is 100% modeled after anyone I know. Nor am I going to admit who inspired any characters or who I killed off, so please ask something else!
Another question I was asked recently was, “There’s so much time between the stories! How do you detach from your characters and move on to the next book?” Short answer: I don’t. Every last one of them is still very much alive in my head, and some of them will appear in future books as the series progresses. (After Book Five I’m going back in time because there are still so many untold stories!)
Who is your favorite character so far from the Dragon’s Fire Series? Please share: I would love to hear your thoughts!
The next step in my writing process is to take the idea, however large or small it might be, and turn it into a cohesive story that will follow an intriguing path from beginning to end.
First, the story needs a problem. The main character (MC) must face a conflict of some sort. This conflict can be internal or external; caused by nature, an antagonist, or the character himself.
Stories without a problem are boring. I’m sure you’ve read some; I know I have. You turn page after page as the MC meanders through a pointless narrative, and you’re wondering, When is this story going to start? When is something exciting going to happen to this character? Sometimes you might persist to the end of the book and then feel like you’ve wasted a portion of your life. Other times, you toss the book aside and quickly forget it, and you never recommend it to anyone.
So a problem must be created, and the MC must be the one to solve that problem. It’s dissatisfying to see a secondary character bail the MC out or to have some circumstantial twist occur to make everything all right. (That’s not to say that the MC can never have assistance from others—just that the story should not be taken out of the MC’s hands entirely.) How the MC gets from problem to solution is the main plot of the story, and everything that happens to her along the way to help or hinder her becomes the sub-plots, twists, and excitement. But always that problem has to be before the reader, making them care about the MC and turn the page to see what happens next.
I always want to introduce the problem fairly quickly. I don’t want my MC to wander aimlessly for pages and pages before giving them a goal. Hence, Ciara becomes the guardian of the mysterious Dragon’s Fire within the first few pages of the book. Kate discovers her father’s selfish plans for her and decides not to comply in the first chapter. Myrhiadh is given her task for Zandor before 20 pages have turned. The problems in Books Four, Five, and Six come up within the first few pages of the stories. My reader never has to delve too far into a book before finding something to keep them intrigued. Once that problem has been presented, the story builds upon it, becoming something that, hopefully, the reader can’t put down.
Right at the beginning of the plot, even before the introduction of the problem, is the hook—the initial “grab” of the reader to get their attention and to keep them with me while I introduce the problem. Sometimes, the hook is the problem, but it doesn’t have to be—sometimes it’s part of a subplot or an exciting excerpt from a character’s life that will play into the main plot only slightly. It must belong within the story, however—not just be a gratuitous “thrill” that is never mentioned again.
I aim to hook my reader with my first five words. Sometimes I succeed, as with Book Four’s dramatic opening: “She’s on fire!” (Book Four has two hooks. My Sneak Peek on the website gives you the second one.) Other times it can take a little more than those five words, though they always remain my goal. By the end of the first paragraph, I must have written something to grab my reader’s interest. Book One has a woman teetering precariously on a window ledge, 200 feet above the jagged rocks at the base of the cliffs. Book Two has a five-year-old princess on that same ledge, watching a naval battle taking place below her while cannon pounds the cliff. Book Three has a character imprisoned, screaming at a silent dungeon; she knows why she’s there, but the reader doesn’t. Book Four starts with a person on fire—literally. Book Five begins with a sense of Deja Vu, as we see a scene unfold that we recognize from Book One, but this is Book Five; wait, what???
Once the hook has been cast and the problem presented, the plot must move through its rising action, sub-plots and plot-twists to the climax and conclusion. And a whole lot can happen along the way. I like to have a basic plot drawn up before I start a book so that I have a general idea of where the story is going to go. However, that plot usually undergoes so many changes by the time the story is finished, sometimes the initial outline is barely recognizable in the book’s final form. (See the original plot of Dragon’s Fire below.) I like to say that my characters take over. I’ll be writing, and suddenly, something will happen that was not in the plot, but I’ll go with it, and before you know it, something entirely different is going on, but it works, and it’s fun and exciting, and so I just carry on from there. At that point, I adjust the remaining plot to make it work with what is now happening in the story.
Plots are alive for me. They grow and change, and seldom end up following the original path I set for them. Sometimes, I’ll get tired of developing a plot halfway through, so I’ll abandon it and start the story, not knowing how it’s going to end. The plot grows with the action, and the characters and I figure out where we’re going as we go. Sometimes, the best courses are plotted on the fly.
SPOILER ALERT!!! The following is an early plot outline for Dragon’s Fire, edited for length and readability. This outline is not the plot of the finished book, but it will still wreck parts of the story for you. If you haven’t read the book yet, STOP reading the blog here, get the book, and when you’ve finished it, come back to see how the original plot outline changed.
Bare bones. As it’s outlined here, this would never have made a story. It’s clunky, chunky, and downright awkward in places. But it was a starting point, and you can see the shadow of the final story within it. This was the guideline that got chopped, cut, embellished, rearranged, and set me on track to developing Dragon’s Fire into the book that is getting great reviews today.
It’s fun to look back at what I designed initially and see how it changed and improved. I had forgotten that Adrian started with a different name and that originally, Mya was engaged to Sean Bramston, and not sneaking around behind Kerrion’s back. As the story developed, and I saw what worked and what didn’t, I adjusted details to make things more exciting or to make them flow better. Notice, too, that Ciara doesn’t take a central role in this original plot. Here was the main character who was letting history write itself for her all the way through the story as she bent and bowed to circumstances, and she would have ended just as much a mouse as she was at the beginning. I made changes to bring Ciara to the forefront, developing her as a character and making her solve her problems.
Next time - Characters! (The imaginary people who take over my life, hold conversations in my head, and distract me at the most inopportune times and places.)
Check out my interview with blogger Fiona Mcvie! https://wp.me/p3uv2y-75n