Process Post: Daughter of Ashes

Dear Readers,

I haven’t ever shared one of these posts before, but Daughter of Ashes has been an important book for me in many ways, and I’d like to give you a peek into the process of creating it, from the impetus and inspiration behind it, to the guts of how it got written. I hope you enjoy!

-M

*****

Crisis

Aesthetic Board for Almeric

Daughter of Ashes came to me at a time when I had just faced one of the most gut-wrenching realizations of my life: I no longer took joy in writing. I am not sure anyone else will understand the terror this provoked. Disappointment, perhaps. Disillusionment. We’ve all had low points, after all. But this wasn’t that. This was like realizing that I could no longer breathe.

I’ve been becoming gradually more and more open about the fact that I struggle with depression, and there have been times in my life when the simple act of existence was so energy consuming that all I could do was drift from one moment to the next, exhausted not only by being, but by the terrible fear that life was always going to be this way, and that it was always going to be this hard. There were times when I was so afraid, so trapped and powerless, that I remember willing myself away to fantasy worlds I had read of and played games in because that was the only way I knew how to survive.

Stories of faraway lands and epic struggles kept me going. I could imagine I had as much courage as Alanna, or as much humor as Morwen, or as much stubborn grit as Shepard. I dreamed myself in Tanaris and Azuremyst, Endor, Terre d’Ange …

And I no longer loved the stories I was writing.

So there I was, sobbing at my computer. As one does. The weird thing was, I was fine.

*****

Navigating

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I really mean it. It was like admitting the one reality I’d been so afraid to face, that my own lifeline was now dragging me under, allowed me to change things entirely.

I began to play. I temporarily set aside Battlemage, a series I had imbued with the (quite possibly contradictory) needs of being a seminal work of epic fantasy, a literary masterpiece, and bestseller material. I knew I wasn’t quite ready to start ramping down expectations on a series I’d spent so much time on, and so I allowed myself to go rogue and break the rules, haring off after a rogue idea that had appeared in the back of my mind.

(Now, ordinarily it makes sense not to go haring off after those ideas. They tend to appear, delightful and seductive, right around the time you reach the messy guts of a manuscript and don’t know which way to turn. Keep following those side projects and you’ll never finish anything. But clearly, the rules weren’t getting me anywhere.)

I realized that I had to re-learn how to play.

*****

Play

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What did it mean to play?

It meant that my usual blow-by-blow chapter outlines went out the window. In fact, it meant that my usual full outline went out the window. At one point, I was looking at this in my word document:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-1-05-50-pmYep.

It meant that I tossed out my usual word count guidelines. I had goals for each chapter, and however long it took me to get there, that was how long the chapter would be.

It meant that I allowed myself to linger on the scents and images of a scene, sinking into the world until I felt as if I were truly a part of it.

It meant that if I got to a scene I’d been envisioning and I no longer felt that it fit, I allowed myself to go with my instincts, telling myself that the worst thing that could happen was that I would lose 30 minutes or so. I never did.

It was a first draft, and I allowed it to be messy. (And lest you think this produced a work of stunning perfection, let me set the record straight right now: it was unbalanced. Characters changed names halfway through. Character motivations got complicated, pieces of court intrigue went suddenly sideways and conversations from earlier in the book didn’t quite work yet. It was extraordinarily messy.)

But I wrote it with a feverish intensity. I didn’t take my computer with me on a family vacation, remembering long nights spent typing after the family had gone to sleep and trying to enjoy vacation activities while sleep deprived, but I was writing anyway. I’d brought a notebook and my husband would come into our room to find me scribbling away at whole chapters. I wrote 16,000 words of the course of a four day vacation – about 20% of the book.

(I really enjoy writing longhand. It seems to unstick me from writers block, and I get a built-in round of editing as I type in what I wrote. I will say, however, that 16,000 words is a lot to transcribe. A lot. I don’t want to do that in one chunk ever again.)

*****

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Of course, it had to be edited, but whereas before I would have begun with a rigid outline and tried to smash scenes in exactly to the word count that would allow for a balanced 3 act structure with pinch points, a midpoint, and well-paced character revelations, this time I stepped back and allowed the existing manuscript to be my guide.

I really wanted to show you a picture of my notes for this, because the process was fairly cool, except that most of them contain spoilers, so … yeah. Maybe I’ll update this post at some point. Suffice to say, I went along with many pretty colored pens and a looooong sheet of paper (okay, lots of printer paper taped together) and listed each scene: the characters in it, where it happened, what happened, and what I thought needed to be fixed. Issues appeared in my head without prompting – there, I’d missed a plot point in discussion; there, I’d written a scene before I had a good handle on the character, and a lot of mannerisms needed to be changed; there, I really needed a lull between two action chapters.

It was a mountain of work, but by now the idea of play had taken hold. I swung into edits with a mood that was about halfway between cheery and completely #$%*ing obsessed. It was like untangling old lace. I couldn’t stop. “Are you working late tonight?” my husband would ask, helping me (as I had asked him to do) with keeping my work hours reasonable. “Oh, of course not,” I would say airily, with all the good intentions in the world, and then sometime later I would surface to find it dark outside and my tea cold and my evening gone.

And yet … I was happy again. I was happy writing. I was happy editing. I was happy tracking down typos and swearing at myself.

*****

A new series …

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And so here we find ourselves. I’m diving into a new series – Rise of Aiqasal – and I am so excited not only to bring that series to life, but also to dive back in to Battlemage, continue on with Catwin & Miriel’s adventures, bring the world of Novum to a close, and explore worlds I haven’t even conceived of yet.

*****

I’ve edited this post as Daughter of Ashes is now out on Amazon!

(If you read on another platform, please contact me – the choice between Amazon-exclusive and wide distribution is complex, and hearing from you helps me choose!)

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