My Writing Process


Today’s blog is part of a writers’ blog tour, so the format is predetermined. I was nominated to write this by Ryan Attard, author of the wild, action-packed “Legacy” fantasy series. Ryan has two books in the series out now, “Firstborn” and “Birthright.” His blog on the subject of “My Writing Process” can be found here. 

1. What am I working on? At present, I’m marketing “The Obsidian Mirror,” which is my debut novel. As a new writer (OK, I’ve been writing my whole life and write for a living, but I am newly-arrived as a novelist), I don’t have an established reader base, and I’ll have to work hard to build one. I expected this and I’m eager and willing to put in the work, but I have not been able to turn my full attention to the next novel, which will be the second in the “Obsidian” series.

As those of you who have been hanging in here with me for a while know, “The Obsidian Mirror” is based entirely on New World mythologies, legends, folk tales and traditions. Supernatural beings—they may have been called gods or folk heroes or even demons—are active in today’s world. I call them “Avatars,” more or less to avoid the whole religion thing. There were thousands of different religions in the ancient Americas, and I wanted to be able to draw on any of them without getting too embroiled in theology.

The second story in the “Obsidian” series will be set in Hawaii. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when an ancient Avatar such as Coyote the Trickster ventures from his native land to another land where he and his cohorts never had any influence. Hawai’i may be part of the United States now, but the ancient Hawai’ians had their own traditions that owed nothing to the mainland Americas. I have plans for Coyote (also known as Chaco) in particular, but he’s not going to like them much.

Fred the mannegishi will also venture to Hawaii with Sierra, but his experience will be radically different from Chaco’s. As I was writing the character of Fred, he always reminded me of the Hawaiian menehune; Fred is small, green, and mischievous, as are the menehune. Well, it’s time that Fred met some menehune, and we will see what happens. (I honestly don’t know any more at this point.)

The underlying theme of “The Obsidian Mirror” is threat to the natural environment. I plan to continue that with the next book, but my focus will be on the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a continent-sized area in the Pacific that contains millions of tons of particularized plastic swirling around in the ocean—and Hawai’i is right in the middle of it. Marine birds and animals consume this plastic confetti, often with fatal results, and the plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the water. “Plastiglomerates” have been washing up on Hawai’i’s beautiful beaches—chunks of plastic fused together with volcanic rock, sand and coral. Next time you have a fun day at the beach, please be sure you take all the sand buckets, bags, plastic shovels and toys home with you, even if they’re broken. Otherwise—it’s off to the great Pacific Garbage Patch! (Unless you’re picnicking by a different ocean, in which case, please do the same.)

I won’t get preachy with all this. If the story isn’t fun to read, it won’t be read.

When I’m not marketing the first book, I’m trying to find time to do research on ancient Hawai’ian culture for the next book. I may have to actually travel to Hawai’i to accomplish some of this, but no one ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Basing my work on New World mythologies, legends and archetypes is the most unique aspect of my work. I don’t mean to say that no one has ever done this before, but my observation of fantasy is that it leans heavily on European traditions such as swords, sorcerers, vampires, elves, faeries, cloaked adventurers, and so forth. As a matter of fact, that’s why I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror” in the first place. In early 2007, I finished reading an epic fantasy by Robert Jordan. (It was one of the “Wheel of Time” novels.) I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but found myself pondering the whole Eurocentricity of fantasy. My freelance writing business was slow at the time, so I began writing the story largely as an experiment. Much to my surprise, my characters became so vivid and real to me that they did not allow me to quit until I had finished the entire book and rewritten it about three times.

That being said, I am as intrigued by the mysteries of European traditions as anyone—especially when it comes to Celtic folklore and legends. Ethnically, I am pretty much a mutt, but I’m as much Scots-Irish as anything else, and these stories resonate with me. I’d like to write something based on Celtic tradition someday, but I would need to develop my own personal twist on it.

Back to what makes my work unique—I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that I have developed a distinctive “voice” as a writer. Key to this voice is humor, which I use much like salt in cooking; drama, action, and suspense are so much tastier when served with a good dollop of humor.

3. Why do I write what I write? I have wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. In many ways, I have always been a writer; that’s how I got through school, and I built a career in public relations and marketing communications on my writing ability.

But of course, I didn’t aim to be a marketing writer at the age of eight. I wanted to write fiction because I read everything fictional I could get my hands on, and I thought writing fiction was the most amazing and wonderful thing anyone could do.

I majored in English Literature, so I thought I should be writing “literature”—something profound. Something that might eventually wind up on some college sophomore’s reading list. I attempted this a few times and quickly gave up in despair.

For some reason, it had not occurred to me to write the book that I wanted to read. You will more frequently find me curled up with Diana Gabaldon, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman or Tom Holt than with Faulkner, Saroyan, Shakespeare or Melville. When I started writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I finally set out to create a book that I would enjoy reading—which is probably why it worked.

4. How does my writing process work? I think this has changed, because I learned a lot about writing a book from creating “The Obsidian Mirror.” And the next time, I will outline the plot FIRST. When I started the story, I was writing on a whim, so I didn’t bother with plotting it out or doing character backstories, or creating walls full of stickies with timelines and so forth. I just wrote it, and that created some difficulties.

My most challenging problem was finishing the book. My second major rewrite had taken me past the end of the original version, but I got to a point in the story where I could not see how it would end. I knew how I wanted it to end, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from where I was. I had written myself into a corner. It took probably six months and many earnest and frustrated attempts before I located where I had gone wrong and corrected it. The book just about finished itself from that point—I think it took a week.

So, long story short, I will create a plot outline for the next book. Beyond that, my process is: just write. I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett set himself the goal of writing at least 400 words per day. Every day. Holidays, weekends, sick or well. That struck me as a wise discipline, so I take the same goal for myself when I’m in writing mode. Usually I write far more than that, but 400 words is the minimum.

I write whether I’m feeling inspired or not. When you write for a living, as I do, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. You just do it because it’s a job like any other job. Waitresses, accountants, lawyers and phlebotomists do what they do with or without the muse of inspiration. (Note for short story: waitress meets the muse of table service!) I write whether I think every word is golden, or whether I think it’s trash. That’s what editing is for.

I do not edit as I write. I wait for it to “cool off” first. That’s true for my marketing writing as well as fiction. You can’t edit your work effectively if you try to do it while in the throes of composition. You have to walk away and come back later when you’re fresher and more objective.

With the exception of my difficulty finishing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I have never had writer’s block. This is because if I start writing and I think it’s basically shit, I force myself to continue. Eventually, the process of writing gets the creative juices flowing, and then I’m over the hill and far away with my characters. I can always go back and fix the shitty parts.

Finally, every writer needs an editor. I paid a well-regarded fantasy writer to edit my story, and she was worth every penny. I also paid an editor friend of mine to proof and edit the final manuscript. (I didn’t pay her what she is worth, but I did pay her.) When you write something and then go back and read it, I don’t care how good you are, you will tend to see what you thought you wrote instead of what you actually wrote. This inevitably results in typos, missing words, and sentences that read as though you were just coming off a 10-day bender on ‘shrooms. A good editor is worthy of h/her hire.

Of course, once the story is finished, you have to find a publisher (unless you self-publish, which has become more respectable these days). And once it’s published, you have to market it, because unless you’re Neil Gaiman, your average publisher these days is not going to fly you first-class to every bookstore in the nation and run ads in The New York Times Review of Books. The author must market his or her own books through social media, bookstore appearances, reviews and so forth, seeking for that elusive audience. But that doesn’t have anything to do with writing, though it has everything to do with making money at fiction writing.

So nothing is wasted. I’m glad I learned about marketing before I wrote a book!

I am supposed to nominate two other authors to pick up this blog tour. I invited two, but only heard back from one: the inimitable Sorin Suciu. Sorin wrote a wondrously funny urban fantasy called “The Scriptlings.” I defy anyone with any sense of humor to avoid laughing out loud while reading this tale, which is full of sly references and geeky humor. His “magical system” will delight anyone with even a passing acquaintance with computer programming. I have never met Sorin Suciu, but he comes across even in email exchanges as engaging, kind, smart and funny. I don’t know what Sorin will write, but I can flat-out guarantee that you will enjoy reading it on his blog next week.