How long does it take you to write a book?
It varies greatly. I’ve written eight books during National Novel Writing Month (where you try to write at least 50,000 words in November), so I can certainly write quickly when I decide to. And I’m a very fast typist, so it’s the ideas that slow me down, not the mechanics. But when I’m not working during NaNoWriMo, it can take me a year or more to write a book. Several times I’ve set a longer project aside to write a quick novel in November, only to pick it up again once the month was over.
Q&A: The Natural Order
Editing is what really takes up time. To properly revise a book, you have to get perspective on it, which means letting it sit around unread for a few months. Then, when you and your critique partners single out which parts don’t quite work, it takes a bit of time to figure out how to fix them. With The Natural Order (and several books since), I actually wrote every scene on a notecard and then laid them out on a table so I could play around with rearranging them. Any scenes that didn’t seem to fit into the overall flow of the story were cut, and several were reorganized.
Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
My husband and I are both writers, so we love doing writing-challenge days. We draw up a chalkboard like this:
500 words—tea or hot chocolate
1,000 words—play cards
1,500 words—go for a walk
Each time one of us reaches the next 500-word mark, we get a treat. The ideas can get very creative, such as being forced to sit on the floor until we reach 500 words, or writing blindfolded for 15 minutes after we’ve reached a certain number! It makes the writing go much faster; some of the most productive writing days I’ve ever done have happened this way.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I’ve written 14 novels, and I’m in the middle of writing two more. My favorites are The Natural Order, Lost Magic, Beauty’s Songbook (a Beauty and the Beast retelling), and The Fall of Lostport. I love them each for different reasons. The Natural Order and Lost Magic are favorites because the characters are so vivid to me, and I know every one of their backstories and futures. Beauty’s Songbook I love because of the setting and the fairy-tale atmosphere. And The Fall of Lostport is my most ambitious novel yet, set in the fantasy world I’ve spent years creating.
When did you write your first book, and how old were you?
I started my first novel-length story in middle school, though all the way from third grade my teachers and classmates were jokingly calling the long stories I wrote in class “novels.” That first novel took three years and three notebooks to write, entirely by hand, and it ended up at 120,000 words. I have only written one novel longer than that since, and it's The Fall of Lostport.
What does your writing schedule look like? Consistent or sporadic?
At the beginning of 2017, I made a goal to spend 30 minutes writing every morning before work. It's taken me years to discover that my "golden hours" (my most productive and inspired time of day) are in the morning, before I have a chance to get distracted with anything else, and it's done wonders for my productivity.
Before this, I was not terribly consistent, though I have always been good at keeping to the daily word-count goals during NaNoWriMo. It used to be that I had to visit a cafe to accomplish anything. While nursing a mug of coffee, I could put in a good couple hours, rack up two thousand words, and head home inspired to do more. But we've moved out to the countryside recently, so it's a lot harder to get to a cafe on short notice. These days I have a cute little writing desk in the corner for my morning sessions.
What environment do you write in?
When I’m writing outside of my golden hours, I have to be listening to music (either I’ll play my story’s theme song, or I’ll search “epic writing music” to find an appropriate mix), and I often have to disconnect the internet. I’m very bad with distractions. But when I’m at a café, I can completely tune out any distractions and write for hours. There’s something magical about writing at a café!
Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I’ve done both, with varying success. I’ve jumped into a few NaNoWriMo novels with no outline whatsoever, just a vague idea of where the plot needs to go (I started Millennium Rail, a futuristic dystopian story set in Japan, with nothing more than the image of the flooded railway tracks from Spirited Away).
I’ve also outlined extensively. Beauty’s Songbook is a story told in five parts, with five characters narrating and five chapters (plus a prelude and postlude) in each part. I had every single chapter planned out before I started—which character was narrating, what would happen, and how the overall story arc was proceeding. Beauty’s Songbook is one of my favorites, but when I was writing it, I got bored about 2/3 of the way through because I knew exactly what was going to happen.
With most of my novels, I use a combination of the two. I jump in with no outline and a general idea of where the plot is going, and then partway through I run out of all the ideas I had from the outset, start panicking, do a frantic brainstorm session, and come up with the perfect outline for the rest of the plot. Then I make myself a bulleted list of events that will happen in the course of the book, which are highly subject to change as I write, though they keep me from having another moment of panic when I discover I have no more plot left to write.
Do your characters ever run away from you and change the plot without your permission, or do you have to force them to do everything?
Usually the former. I’ve had several stories where the book has changed significantly while I’ve been writing it simply because a character won’t obey the character profile I’ve written, or they start making decisions that don’t fit within the original plot. One even fell in love with the man she had been arranged to marry, who she was supposed to hate! It can make for a mess, but that’s part of the fun of writing. It means the characters have become real for you.
Is there any particular author or book that influenced you while growing up?
More than one! I was an incredibly voracious reader as a kid, and I devoured—and sought to emulate—every book I read. One time I was reading a book where the main character isn’t allowed to talk for years on end (Daughter of the Forest, a beautiful book by Juliette Marillier), and each time I put it down I had to remind myself that I was actually allowed to talk.
Ella Enchanted was certainly one of my all-time favorite books, as well as The Golden Compass. And I read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna more times than I can count. I love fairy tales, and I especially adore any novels that have managed to capture that same fairy-tale sense of magic and wonder.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Lots of things! I have more than enough hobbies to keep me busy. I love reading, crocheting, knitting, traveling (that’s how I first ended up in New Zealand), hiking, baking, and photography.
Do you have a day job as well?
Yes—for many years I worked as a chef, and now I'm a travel agent in the beautiful town of Wanaka, New Zealand. One of the great perks of the job is that I get to do most of the best activities in New Zealand free of charge! My husband and I have been on an overnight cruise, two jet-boat rides, an inflatable kayak tour, and a dinner cruise. Not the DDJ (Dreaded Day Job) after all!
Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate, hands down. Everything is better with chocolate!
Who is your favorite character in The Natural Order, and why?
Leila is definitely my favorite. She’s a bit like me (she likes cooking and telling stories), but she’s a lot more snarky and confrontational. She’s been hurt, and she thinks very poorly of herself, but she still gives everything she has to the people she cares for.
Who was your least favorite character? What made that individual unappealing?
Evvie. I originally started writing the book from her perspective, only to get bored within about three chapters. The worst part was that the beginning sounded exactly like the start of a story I’d written in middle school. It was embarrassing. Tristan was originally supposed to be this dark, brooding character who fascinated and scared Evvie, but then I decided his perspective would be much more interesting. I switched then and there, and never regretted it. Evvie is interesting enough, but I still have a grudge against her.
What else did you edit out of The Natural Order?
I can’t even remember everything I’ve cut out! The book has gone through 9 drafts of revisions, and for the first five or so, things were drastically changing between each draft. First of all, after Evvie was cut from narrating, her initial scenes were gone. Then the story started right before the car crash where Tristan kills his brother, and eventually I cut that scene and the scenes of Tristan at Juvie, because they weren’t the right tone to lead into the story.
A few characters have been axed as well—originally the students were collected by someone named Professor Rowdy, who had a goatish face and a nervous tic. I can’t remember much more about him; clearly he wasn’t very important. And second, there was originally a mountaineer who stumbled across the Lair and fell in love with Evvie, but that later became *(spoiler alert!)* the twins Evvie cares for, since it heightened the tension between the teachers.
What was your favorite chapter or part to write, and why?
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for cozy scenes. I love getting into characters’ heads, so I adore spending time with them and seeing them interact in a comfortable, enjoyable scene. Part of it is because I often feel like I’m living the scenes as I write them, so I get great pleasure from living those moments. I loved writing the section set around Christmastime in The Natural Order, though I ended up cutting a lot of it to keep up the pace of the plot!
What can we expect from you in the future, with regard to this story and other current or future projects?
I'm currently hard at work revising the final book in the Natural Order series. The Fall of Lostport is slated to come out later this year as well, which marks my transition from young adult to adult fantasy. The world that The Fall of Lostport is set in will be the setting for the majority of my future works.
When is the final book in the series going to be released?
I’m aiming to release The Final Order at the end of June 2017.