The reaction to the newest book in the Exit Unicorns series- In the Country of Shadows- has been very gratifying. I’ve never had a book received with such enthusiasm and emotion. It has been lovely, and the fulfilment of some long ago dreams I had while writing little snatches of things at my kitchen table each afternoon when my girls were small. The idea of actually completing a novel was almost beyond me then, never mind four sizeable ones.
So, of course, the inevitable question which always arises with a book readers love- when will the next one be done? This one is not quite two weeks in the world, mind you, but I think people new to the series may not realize that. When I tell people it takes four years for me to write one of these books, they tend to be a little aghast. So I thought I’d lay out a little of just why it takes me that long.
I am a slow writer, I’ll just be honest about that. The books I write are dense, filled with detail, with stories inside of stories, history (which is as accurate as I can make it, I do my research both through books and on-line archives and through on-the-ground talks with people and interviews with those who have lived through the history I write about) and several on-going story lines which get- hopefully- richer but also more complex as time goes by. That complexity slows the process down, but I would rather keep the complexity and take longer, than sacrifice the depth of the overall story. The truth is I wouldn’t be happy with something less than the best I can do, and neither would the readers.
My audience has grown a LOT since Flights of Angels came out four years ago, and so I felt I owed it to my readers to give them a release date for Shadows somewhere along the line. Because I’m an indie author I’d never had to do this before. I had always simply released the book when it was ready and let my fan-base know about it about two weeks beforehand. The deadline made me buckle down though, as I knew it would. I had to work really hard from August through to beginning of December simply to get Shadows done. This often meant I spent 12-16 hours at my desk each day, including weekends, in order to get the book done with enough time to spare for several rounds of edits and then handing it off on deadline to the formatting people at 52 Novels (who did a bang up job and are just all around terrific people to work with, in case you ever need formatting services). The production phase from completed manuscript to ‘real’ book was four months, and that is tight when you are dealing with all the details yourself. Every decision ultimately comes down to me- even though I do bounce everything off my husband first.
Something else that factors in to how quickly I write (or don’t) is how ready and willing the characters are to talk to me. I remember at the end of Mermaid I had a vision in my mind of Casey giving me one of his looks and simply shutting the door of their wee farmhouse in my face. The message was clear, ‘We’ll be back when we’re back, an’ only when we’re good an’ ready.’ This time is a bit different because there is no time gap between the books being that the first chapter of the fifth book will begin a few days after the last one of Shadows (and yes, that chapter is partly written.)
Some days the writing flows really well, other days- well, other days I gaze out the window a lot and hope the muse shows up for at least a few decent sentences. For me, as a writer, the quality only comes with the time and space needed for the book to breathe and grow and become what it is meant to be. Writing is a very organic process for me and so each story unfolds in its own time—rather like a seed sprouting under the sun rather than being forced under a hothouse lamp.
I usually try to make at least one trip to Ireland during the writing of each book. Being there always re-fills my creative well. If you have read Shadows then you’ll know part seven of the book (which takes place in Wicklow) is a bit of a love song about the Irish countryside. I never would have been able to write that as I did, had I not written it while in Wicklow. There is something about Ireland that is magical, and I always feel like my writing is just that little bit better while I’m there. Last time I spent a month there and I hope to do the same during the writing of book five.
Research is time consuming, but it adds the details that make the whole book come to life in a variety of ways. Even simple things like perusing dresses on Pinterest until I find one that is just right for Pamela to wear to a beautiful party in Paris, can take up a few hours. Or Gypsy caravans for instance-which as most of you know I have a bit of an obsession with- I like to know how they are built, how they are heated, and the practicalities of living in them every day. For the tarot card scene at the end of part three I did a reading myself, with a deck of cards that I find a little spooky, but which were the cards that ‘felt’ right for that scene. I did the reading and then wrote it out so that the reading Yevgena gives Pamela in that scene, was an actual reading. Writing that scene took several days, and that was without going back and filling in the details and fixing the mistakes. I did a lot of research on Native American culture for this book too. Most of what I read didn’t make it into the book, but I think the ‘ghost’ of it does infuse the book in the details that do make it and adds to the overall feeling and mood of the individual chapters in which Eddy appears. Which leads to the topic of secondary characters- they all come with their own histories and enough of their history has to be included so that they too become fully-fleshed people who live and breathe for the readers.
My creativity tends to be cyclical with the seasons, which isn’t probably all that rare with writers or artists of any stripe. I produce better in late fall, winter and spring. Summer is a bit of a dead zone for me for some reason.
I don’t do any of the things they tell you to do as an indie author- I don’t write several books a year, I don’t write short books that can be read in one sitting (well I suppose you could, technically, but I think your back might protest). I don’t write erotica or thrillers or romance. I realize this might mean I’ll never sell millions of copies of my books but I can’t write anything that doesn’t come from my heart—again this goes against the advice of what indies are meant to do, you’re supposed to approach writing as a business and conduct your career accordingly. However, I refuse to give less than one hundred percent to my writing and to these characters. I owe them and myself that much, and I feel I owe that to the readers too. If I ever ‘phone it in’ the readers will be the first to notice. I want to bring the same passion and commitment to each book, as it is one more section in the overall tapestry of the whole story of Pamela, Jamie, Casey, Patrick and company. And you know, I am pretty fond of them, and want to do them justice even when the things they do might make the readers want to smack them a little. And listening to them, and then crafting good sentences and captivating story lines from what they tell me, does take time.
There’s also the time taken to market the books- again, I am a one woman band here and I have had to figure out how to get the ball rolling so people would buy the books. I have to keep looking at new ways to market or new ways to perk up my ads to make them attractive- some stuff works and some stuff does not, but it all takes up time that, to be honest, I would rather use to write. 🙂
Also, I do like to respond to every letter or message I get from readers. For a long time I didn’t know whether I would ever find a sizeable audience. I have though, and I’m honestly grateful to each and every person who either took a chance on a complete unknown or who spreads the word about these books to their friends and family. It’s a pleasure for me to hear from readers because writing can be a fairly isolating profession, as I’m sure you can imagine. Also because it’s always nice to hear how my books have affected someone in their life, sometimes in ways that truly surprise and humble me.
Then there’s just life- cleaning the house, doing laundry, walking the dogs, paying the bills, getting the flu occasionally, and when he’s lucky, presenting my husband with a home cooked meal.
Now, about that ending…
The final chapter of every book usually comes to me fairly early in the process of writing each book. I don’t know why, they just always do. The last chapter of Mermaid was mostly written while sitting on the roof of a cottage on Cape Cod, where I was doing research for said book, which was mostly unwritten at the time. Suddenly, it was just ‘there’ in the way chapters sometimes are. The final chapter of Shadows showed up about six months into the process of writing the book. As I told someone recently, I left it to stew in the creative cauldron in the back of my head and went on with writing other bits of the book. I wasn’t sure it was right, so I wanted to make certain of it because it threw a lot of what I thought I knew about the book right out the window. Six months later it was still stubbornly persisting, so I allowed it out of the cauldron and wrote it and it felt right. Even though it meant I had to change my perceptions of what the book was about quite a lot. A great deal of writing (for me, I don’t claim to understand how the process works for others) is instinctual. I know when something feels right and when it doesn’t. This ending felt right, though I understand some readers found it frustrating. Plus, I had to stop while you all could still actually lift the book. 🙂
I come from a line of women who cleaned other people’s rooms and homes for a living, despite being some of the smartest, wittiest and funniest women you could hope to know. Not that there is any shame in that profession, it’s just that they wanted more from life but didn’t have the opportunity to do other things, but they in part made sure that I did. They are the ones that told me stories and gave me a love of reading that led to my being a writer. I credit them with my innate stubbornness that has kept me at this writing gig when everything in the universe seemed to be telling me it was time to give it up- I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer. I owe those women the best I can produce too, because I feel them at times, reading over my shoulder while I write.
All that being said, I am working on the fifth book and I have a side project that I am also working on which I hope to release some time between books four and five- it fuels my creativity to have something else on the go besides the main project. I’ll let you know when to look for that. In the meantime there are re-reads and of course, lots of fantastic authors on the shelves of both book stores and libraries.