Here’s another of my occasional author guest posts. Today I hand over to fellow Unbound author, Shona Kinsella, whose debut novel Ashael Rising has just been published. Ms Kinsella describes her experience with the writing community Scribophile. (I joined Scribophile once, I must confess, and did nothing there whatsoever except read about the karma system and decide it wasn’t for me. But maybe it’s time to go back and have another look.)
Draw up a chair and let me tell you a story. It’s the story of how I went from deciding on a whim to write a book to my debut novel being published by Unbound. It’s the story of the people who helped get me there.
Around May of 2014, I decided to try my hand at writing a book. I sat down at my computer with nothing but a vague image in my head and the name Ashael. Over the next few months I wrote about three chapters and then stalled, overwhelmed by the size of the task before me, and by the fact that I had no clear idea where I was going.
I joined the online writing group, Scribophile. At first I just lurked. It was scary to begin with. Everyone there seemed to know so much more than I did. Like what a dangling modifier is, not to mention a gerund. I read short stories and chapters by some very talented writers. I read lots of critiques written by other people and some of the techniques they talked about scared me off. So, I stopped visiting the site.
I surfed the web and read everything I could find about writing a book. If you’ve ever done that then you’ll appreciate how desperate I was. There are hundreds of sites full of advice for aspiring writers, much of it contradictory. I bought some books on grammar and punctuation only to realise that I use these tools effectively through instinct – I don’t really need to know their names. (That’s why reading a lot is so useful as a writer – you’ll pick up a lot of these things by a sort of osmosis.)
I went back to the novel and messed about with another chapter or two but I felt out-of-my-depth. Eventually I went back to Scribophile, hoping to learn something that would help me move on. Scribophile works with a system of karma points – you have to critique the work of others to earn karma points which you then spend to post your own work for critique. It makes sure that there’s always a fair exchange. The problem with this was that I felt completely unqualified to critique anyone else’s work. I was a baby writer who hadn’t even finished anything, let alone published anything! Luckily my husband pointed out that I was eminently qualified to critique as a reader.
Eventually I found my feet with critiquing and posted a few chapters of Ashael Rising. I got some really helpful feedback but I realised that it would be best if I had a group of regular readers so I joined the smaller Ubergroup (within the site).
I was welcomed into a team with four others, all writing speculative fiction. Each week, we all posted a chapter for feedback and read and critiqued each other’s work. This was what made all the difference. When I joined the team in May 2015 I had written about six chapters and tweaked and rewritten them a few times but I was struggling. So, that’s a year to write the first five or six chapters. I finished the first draft in January 2016 and it’s in large part thanks to my team.
When you’re writing a book in the hope that someday it might be published, but really what are the chances, and you’ll probably have to write several books to learn your trade and it’ll be years and years before anything will even possibly come of it… well, it’s easy to justify taking a few days/weeks/months off. But when you’re working with a team, when you have a commitment to have a chapter available for critique each week, well you write a chapter a week. Getting into that habit helped immensely.
The feedback that I received from my team helped to shape the novel as well. For example, I had to romantic interest for my main character and one of my team pointed out that it would be really unusual for a woman of her age, in her culture, not to have a mate or at least be thinking about it. He was of the opinion that I had to give Ashael a love interest or explain why she didn’t have one. That discussion set off one of the major subplots in the book and turned a minor character into a major one.
Some of the scenes in the book involve the use of magic and although I could picture in my mind what was happening, I found it difficult to describe – especially without using the same words over and over. My team were invaluable in helping me work through these scenes, highlighting where they got lost and suggesting more elegant phrasing in places.
When I completed the first draft, we discussed the book as a whole and they helped me to see that the way the story had evolved while writing meant that I needed to go back and add some chapters to the beginning, showing how the situation developed. I also had to move the ending forward – I had part of book two at the end of book one!
They also helped in a less direct way – reading their work every week made me think about mine in a different light. Each of them are talented writers and I learned a lot from them whether it was chapter construction or poetic phrasing. Each of them influenced me and made me a better writer.
In February 2016, I pitched Ashael Rising to Unbound, hoping to get some feedback on my pitch. Instead they asked for the manuscript. I panicked – I only had the first draft after all – but sent it thinking I might be lucky and get some feedback. Maybe I would be really lucky and they would ask me to revise and resubmit. Four weeks later, they offered me a publishing contract. I have no doubt that was in large part due to the influence of my writing group.
I only hope that someday my feedback will be as helpful to them.
To buy the book
Ashael Rising is available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/ashaelrising