I write post-collapse fiction.
Never in a million years would I have expected to get such an up-close, horrifying, and fascinating look into the backstory of one of my novels.
That was one of many possible opening lines for my first post-collapse story, written in 2009 as part of a NaNoWriMo-inspired challenge. At the time, the world felt very unsettled to me (OH, my sweet summer child…) and writing about what comes next was both therapeutic and reassuring. Writing about a possible salvaged future worked so well for me, it became the thing that I write.
Since then, I’ve written nine other novels, though I’ve only published one, Ashes Swept. All of them take place in societies that rose up from the metaphorical ashes of our current world. Since my stories are about those societies, and more importantly the people who live in them, I don’t dwell on what led the world as we know it to end. It’s usually climate change, political upheaval, a virus, or sometimes a combination, but I always figure it out before I start writing, even if it doesn’t play a role in the actual story.
As a result, I’ve spent an absurd amount of time researching virus events and global pandemics, so it’s pretty strange to actually be experiencing one. And even though I have every faith our society will survive Covid-19, it’s remarkable to feel like I’m living through an event that could well be the backstory in some of my novels. It’s completely surreal, to be honest, and I think that’s probably my biggest takeaway…
Writers of speculative fiction are supposed to look at the “what if” scenarios. We’re supposed to take the implausible and make it seem plausible, but if you’d come to me a year ago with our present situation, I would have thought it was pretty far out there. It would have been easy to poke holes in the idea that entire nations could be shut down, that movie theaters would go dark the world over, Disney parks would be closed for any number of weeks, and everyone in the world would be under “stay at home orders” while memes about running out of toilet paper became a global in-joke. “Interesting, but pretty unlikely…” I probably would have said. It’s funny how drastically things can change, and how quickly the implausible can become our reality. At the moment, I’m not sure anything would surprise me.
In a time when everything feels uncertain, one thing I know for sure: I’ve sure got a new appreciation for the backstories that lead to the worlds in my stories.
In just a few days, I’ll be joining writers across the world as we embark on the yearly 30-day novel-writing challenge known as NaNoWriMo.
This year is pretty special for me… it’s my 10th consecutive year. And while every year has brought its own unique challenges, this year is shaping up to be my toughest yet. I need to remind myself of the tricks that got me through past years, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you!
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve crossed the finish line all nine previous years, but part of what helped me get there was not putting undue pressure on myself by feeling like it was a big deal if I didn’t. Sure, you want to strive toward reaching that 50k goal by midnight on the last night of November, but the bigger point of NaNoWriMo is starting a novel and putting some work into it. If that means you have 15k words at the end of 30 days, don’t shortchange yourself because that’s still a HUGE accomplishment!
With November being a time for winter preparation and the launch pad for the busy holiday season, it’s maybe not the best time to expect the world to disappear while you hole up for a month to write a novel. No matter how carefully you’ve prepared for this month, clearing your schedule and warning family and friends, I promise things are going to come up. The sibling you never get to see is suddenly going to be in town one weekend. The dog is going to decide now is a great time to sprout a sebaceous cyst. The pipes are going to freeze. You’re going to get the flu. You’re probably going to get a summons for jury duty… ROLL WITH IT. Seriously, it’ll be fine!
You probably have some idea of how fast you write. I can generally knock out 500 to 800 words in thirty minutes with no distractions. All you have to do to stay on top of your daily NaNoWriMo word count is 1666 words. I can usually get there in under two hours. You probably can, too. No matter what happens, just try to hit that goal every day or as close as you can get to it. If you have extra time on any given day, use it to get ahead. Also, you have 15 minutes until the plumber gets here to deal with the frozen pipes. Go knock out a couple hundred words!
This, I think, is probably the most important trick to winning NaNoWriMo. We all want to write amazing novels, but that amazing-ness doesn’t happen in the rough draft. This is the prototype of your novel. It’s the one you sculpt out of clay before you chisel it into marble. It’s not going to be pretty–and that’s FINE! It doesn’t have to be! All that matters is you get the words down on the page. Don’t sweat spelling, grammar, sentence structure, pacing, character development–any of it. Just let it go and worry about that other stuff later.
If you’re pantsing or plantsing (or even if you planned, TBH) and you lose your way, that’s fine! Put your characters on a plane and send them to Paris for the weekend. Drop a torrential rainstorm of alligators down upon your protagonist’s unsuspecting hometown. See what happens if your characters wake up stranded on a desert island with no idea how they got there. No time for writer’s block Dr. Jones! Tangents can save your butt during NaNoWriMo, and even if they end up on the cutting room floor, they often produce little gems you’ll want to save for later.
I hope these tips will be as helpful to you as they have been for me. Best of luck! YOU CAN DO IT!!!
Indie Author Samantha Goodwin, author of the newly released Murder at Macbeth, chats with me about her writing process, writing tips, and publishing.
1. How long have you been interested in writing crime fiction and was
there a particular book, movie, or news story that got you hooked?
I’ve always been drawn to the crime genre, from books and TV shows to murder mystery games! There is such a sense of satisfaction in trying to identify the culprit in an intriguing whodunnit, especially when there are lots of twists and turns as new clues turn up. I’ve always found the best mysteries hook you so well that you end up thinking about solving the crime even when you’re not reading it.
One of the most influential books for me was The Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins. I really loved how the story unfolds through different narrators’ perspectives and the mystery is gradually revealed. That writing approach is definitely something that influenced my own novel.
2. Do you prefer to pre-plan your stories or are you able to let them
develop organically as you write?
I always start with a rough one-page outline that details the overall story arc and then from there on I tend to go with the flow and let the story grow naturally. I definitely find the beginnings the hardest, so much so that I actually wrote my novel out of linear order and finished the second half first which was much more exciting to create as there are lots of twists and turns and unexpected revelations. Then I backtracked to write the beginning to set the scene.
3. What would you say is your number one tip for making sure the crime, any clues or foreshadowing, subtext, etc. all hang together in a way that’s satisfying for the reader?
My number one tip would be committing all questions raised and clues introduced to paper in a bullet point format, so you can assess during the editing stage to make sure everything has been resolved by the end of the novel. As a crime author I find that process incredibly valuable as it’s so crucial to make sure that answers are provided to all the questions that occur along the way so the reader is satisfied.
One technique I found helpful was to have the detectives reiterate certain clues and questions to present different sides to the story and make the reader consider which suspect would have the most compelling motive to want the show’s leading lady dead.
4. How do you approach research as a crime writer? Do you have any
Well I am incredibly lucky to have two friends who are police officers so I set up interviews with them in order to pick their brains on how everything would work! Research was really important for the police procedural element of my book, so it was great to hear first-hand how everything would work in practice.
Regarding the rest of the research I scoured the Internet for topics as diverse as how you could commission a bespoke replica dagger and what internal damage a stomach stab wound would cause. I’m sure I’m probably on an FBI watchlist somewhere!
5. Do you have any writing rituals or things you always do before and/or during writing sessions?
I handwrite everything as I find my ideas flow better! It’s great because it means I can write anywhere, my favourite location is outside on those rare sunny English days. It is however, not the most time-efficient way of writing as then I have to spend time typing everything up as I go along and start editing!
6. If you were to ever write in another genre besides crime, what would it be?
I absolutely love reading dystopia books, so it would be interesting to explore that genre. I think it’s so great to have that sense of escapism of experiencing another world.
7. Finally, what is the biggest piece of advice you wish you could go
back and tell yourself prior to starting your writing/publishing journey with Murder at Macbeth?
Believe in yourself, and surround yourself with positive people who will spur you on. Writing groups and online communities are great for when you need advice. I started my author Instagram account quite late during the editing process after I had already finished writing the bulk of my novel and I wish I had connected with other like-minded authors earlier on as I have found them incredibly inspirational.
Also don’t worry about getting it right first time. One of my favourite writing quotes is from Shannon Hale who said, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
Murder at Macbeth is just the kind of book you’d want to read relaxing by the pool in the summer or curled up under a blanket on a cold winter’s night. It’s the kind of book you can’t seem to put down, even when you know you should be doing other things!
The story is told through a series of police interviews and flashbacks after a small theater production of Macbeth goes horribly wrong. As the story unfolds, so does the tangled web of personal dramas that entwines the cast of the play, including its director. As each character comes to life before your eyes, you start to realize that any one of them could be the mastermind behind that fateful night–so who’s really to blame? Could it be a team effort?
Every time I thought I’d figured out whodunit, new information came to light that shifted my suspicions elsewhere. It wasn’t until close to the end that I was pretty certain who was behind the theatrical crime, and even then I wasn’t sure until the story confirmed it. There were so many wonderful twists and turns in this story, it certainly kept me guessing!
I had an absolute blast reading this book and highly recommend it! The best part of all is that starting today (6/20), the Murder at Macbeth e-book is on sale for 99 cents/99p on Amazon for a week! You can also read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited!
Also, be sure to check back here on Friday when I’ll be sharing an interview I did with the author of Murder at Macbeth, Samantha Goodwin!
If there’s one thing we writers hear constantly, it’s “you should be writing.” We say it to ourselves, we say it to each other, we post it in memes and on sticky notes affixed to our laptops: Why aren’t you writing?
Ninety-Nine percent of the time, this is good. It’s our way of keeping ourselves and each other moving forward. Most of us need that swift kick in the backside, or we’ll never close Netflix and write instead.
But there’s an unintended side effect to this beloved cheer–one that can only be felt in dark, lonely corners–it’s guilt. Those corners are infested with it, like a creepy basement crawling with spiders. And we’ve all been there. No one’s a stranger to the dark, lonely corners, though we retreat to them at different times, for different reasons. I’m there right now.
I’ve been drifting in and out of my dark corner for the past year, popping my head in for a day or two here, a week or so there. Sometimes I wanted to stay a little longer, but the guilt got the better of me, so I kept coming back before I was ready. And maybe for a while that was a good thing? It’s hard to say for sure, but what I realized after so many fleeting, guilt-ridden dark corner visits is this: I wanted to go to my dark, lonely corner, but I didn’t want it to be dark and lonely and riddled with guilt-spiders anymore. I wanted to string up some fairy lights, add some bright fluffy floor pillows, and I wanted to be able to interact with my cherished writer friends without feeling like a non-writing phony.
Because the thing is, I haven’t touched my story in weeks. I’ve been a little stressed, a little anxious, a little tired, a little depressed. When I’ve tried to sit down and write, something inevitably interrupts, as though the universe itself is telling me to take a break. That it’s okay to take a break.
So, I decided to do it. Writer friends, I’m sitting here now, writing to you from my cozy little corner, cheering you on from the sidelines while you do what you do. If you’re feeling like me, grab a fluffy floor pillow and join me in front of my Netflix box. It’s okay.
And that’s just it: IT’S OKAY.
Taking a break isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s chalk full of several essential nutrients that writers like us need. Breaks allow us to:
See? All GOOD things! Nothing to feel guilty about. Your story will be there waiting for you when you’re ready for it.
As for me, I’ll be back soon. I’m taking the rest of the month to hang out in my corner. The plan after that is to dive back into my story during Camp NaNoWriMo, which seems to me the perfect way to come back after a nice long break. Now… what’s next in my Netflix queue?