Friday, February 24, 2012

Guest Post by Apryl Baker (Author of "The Promise")

Random Thoughts by Apryl Baker

Hi, guys, thanks for having me and I just wanted to share some things with you.  I get asked a lot of questions and I thought I’d just answer a few of them here for anyone who is trying to write their first novel or break into print. 

The biggest question I get is how did you come up with your story?  The Promise, book one of The Coven series, is what I refer to as my little Post It Note idea.  I was driving home one day listening to Theory of a Dead Man’s Not Meant To Be, and I passed this little community called New Salem.  I got this image in my head of a girl sitting beside a gravestone.  I couldn’t get it out of my head.  I kept asking myself, why is she sitting there all alone looking so sad?  When I got home, I grabbed a yellow sticky, wrote the idea down, and then stuck it to the wall beside my computer.  Over the next couple days, I kept getting ideas, writing them down on stickies, and before I knew it, I had the outline of a novel in a wall of orange, yellow, and pink.  A good idea is great, but you still have to make it work. 

To me the most important part of any novel, whether it’s set in a past or modern reality, an alternate reality, or a completely new world, is that it has to be believable.  Many people ask me how do you do it, how do you create something you know isn’t real and make it seem as real as the air you breathe?  It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the simplest.  Contradictory I know.  It comes down to research.  You have to know what you are writing about.  If you have a good grasp on what you are trying to accomplish, you can do anything with it. 

Witchcraft is what my novel, The Promise, centers on.  I had to create a place where it was as common for teens to be having meetings on spell crafting as it was for them to be hanging out at the mall.  I literally went to the mall every Saturday for a month straight and sat in the food court watching teens, listening to how they talked to each other, their mannerisms, and watching how they interacted with each other.  It was an eye opening experience.  I had no idea.  I wanted my novel to be as real as I could get it in relation to how the characters were in comparison to modern teens.  The mall experience played a big role in that.  If you are not a teen writing a teen book, I’d recommend spending a couple Saturdays at the mall.  It’s well worth it to the aspiring young adult writer.

The Salem Witch Trials also plays a huge role in the book.  I read just about every book I could find on the subject.  I studied web sites, spoke with curators at museums, and learned more about that horrible time in history than I could ever have wanted to.  I hope I managed to get some of the tragedy of that time in the words and emotions in The Promise. 

I remember when I went looking for books on Wiccan and/or witchcraft initiation ceremonies, my first stop was my local library.  The attendant behind the information desk was a lovely elderly woman who was seventy if she was a day.  When I asked her if they had anything on the subject, she looked at me as if I’d grown horns right then and there. She answered me in a very soft, very stiff voice, “No, we do not have anything on any such thing.”  She still gives me odd looks every time she sees me.  Suffice to say, I stuck to things I could order online as far as books went on that particular subject.

Armed with all this knowledge, I went back and filled in the gaps in the story I’d started writing a while back.  Because I lived and breathed the subject, my characters did too.  The best advice I can give anyone is to jump in head first and learn everything you can.  Once you do, it becomes as easy as breathing to make it sound real, because it sorta is to you for just a little while.  If you believe it, if you write like you believe it, then anyone who reads it will too.

The hard part is to be able to put all this background in without having it sound like an information dump that will glaze over the readers eyes and make them skim pages.  What I did was broke it up a bit.  I used various ways of letting the reader know.  My biggest trick is diary entries.  I let the reader see the past through her sister’s eyes by way of a diary she found that explained so much and gave her even more questions.  I also used dreams.  There is a part in the book where the main character, Cassie Jayne, actually goes back into the past on the day of the burning, via a dream.  She hears and see’s everything trapped inside the conscious mind of one of the witches that are being burned at the stake.  You get to feel the pain, anguish and fear because she does.  You get to experience her terror at the feel of the flames licking her skin.  All this is done via a dream. 

You have to find unique ways to show the past, to show the reader the character backgrounds without a monotone of information.  The best way to do this can also be done via dialogue.  You can learn just as much by characters talking about each other as you can by droning on and on in paragraph after paragraph of information. It’s the show VS tell argument.  I’d rather see it through dialogue or actions than I would read about it.  It makes it interesting for the reader and keeps the attention of so many teens who are used to the fast paced world of now, now, now or I lose interest.

I am a huge, huge fan of old noir mysteries and I incorporated my love of mysteries into my writing.  For me, the buildup has to be gradual and in the beginning the more answers you find, the more questions you get.  That is what I did.  For every answer Cassie found, it made her question everything more.  It has to be subtle, you can’t just throw it in people’s faces.  I drop hints of answers in most chapters, just enough to make you start to think on your own, but in the end, the answer to the mystery is so shocking you gasp and think, I never suspected.  To me that is what a good mystery does and hopefully I did that with The Promise.

After I’d done all this, edited, polished, edited, polished, and prayed it was good enough, I began the agent hunt.  Agents are like the elusive white whale.  You know they’re out there, but getting one can be next to impossible.  I’ve come to believe it’s sheer luck.  When your novel lands on an agents desk, if they get to see it mind you – I think sometime the assistants sit there and go, eeny meeny, miney moe – I think the agent has to be in the mood to read that particular type of story.  It’s either that or they just are afraid to take a chance on something that isn’t old and tried and true.  And that is just my opinion mind you, no slight or slander meant to agents in general.  It’s how I rationalize all those rejection letters.

So you send your brand spanking new novel out into the world and hope for the best.  You will get rejection letters.  Prepare yourselves ahead of time.  Most agents will tell you what they didn’t like about the work if they requested it or a partial.  Look for things that are common, go back to the novel, rework what doesn’t work and try, try again.  Make a list of agents, list A – your top choices, and list B – your second choices.  Always query list B first so you can take their advice and make your book the best it can be for your list A agents.  It’s always best to test the waters first with a second or third choice.

I went with a smaller publisher for my first book.  I started researching small publishers as opposed to the bigger houses.  Yes, it requires more work on my part as far as promoting, but the smaller publisher will work harder for you.  You also get more profits from your books as well.  For me it was a good fit at the time.  I went with Black Matrix Publishing because after talking with the owner and the editors, it was just a really good fit for me.  Do I want an agent and a bigger publisher?  Maybe in the future, but for now I’m happy where I am and my book is doing extremely well simply because of all the hard work that is going into the promotion of it.  I’m not sure I’d be given the same attention at the bigger houses, at least not for my first book.  So all in all, I’m happy.

The best advice I was ever given was to find a good writing group.  I was directed to by an agent.  Those guys are the best resource I have.  You have to be able to take criticism, but if you can, the people on that site will take your work, shred it and then help you whip it into shape.  I would not be where I am today without the support of the friends I made on that site.  They are always the first to grind me into the dust and the first to shout for joy with me when I get it right.  They took a mediocre book and turned it into something amazing and I owe them more than I can ever possibly repay them.  For anyone who is trying to write their first novel, hone their skills, or take an old novel and revamp it, I’d highly recommend that site to anyone.

Thanks so much for listening to my ramblings on the makings of a novel, or at least the key features for me.  I appreciate your time and hope that I’ve at least helped a few people out there who are scratching their heads and wondering how in the world do you do that?

Most of all, my parting advice is to just have fun.  It should never be work, it should be something you love to do.  If you love it, then so will everyone else.

~Apryl Baker