writing general

Tweaked Plot Embryo

This morning on my Saturday Sprints writing livestream, I showed off a new plotting method I’m using to plot out Secret Project. A couple of people watching expressed interest in knowing more, so I spent the rest of the sprint working on making a blank template, copying it, and then filling it out to show people how it works.

I cannot take credit for any of this. This is an amalgamation of cool stuff other, much cooler writers have done. The biggest influences on my writing and the ideas that underlie this come from:

Dan Harmon: Created the plot embryo (itself based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey ).

Disclaimer: I have not yet checked out Dan Harmon’s work in the original, and my memories of reading Joseph Campbell for university are fuzzy, but I have a fairly good second hand knowledge of what they’re about. 

Racheal Stephens: adapted the plot embryo into a form that makes a lot of sense and expanded it for tragic endings: https://youtu.be/_pZ3ZZd1mms

For more info, Racheal has a free course about using the plot embryo that you can find on her website: https://www.rachaelstephen.com/

The plot beats I use in my plot embryo come from James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle (the single most useful writing book I have ever come across) and Kate Hall’s A Book a Week.

Underpinning everything is the understanding of character arc and overall structure that I learned from a Michael Hauge workshop I attended. Looking on Michael’s website, I think the course is closest to his The Hero’s Two Journeys video.

sheet of white A4 paper with dual plot embryos side by side
Dual plot embryos

Basically, I start with a piece of paper that looks like a startled reptilian—or maybe a prehistoric armoured bird. The page is split into two halves, one for each of my main characters is whatever story I’m working on. In a romance, this would be the MC (main character) and the LI (love interest). In a mystery or thriller, it could be the detective and the antagonist. One is always your main character, but who gets the second embryo depends on what genre you’re writing in, and who, besides your main character, has the most growth and stakes over the course of the story. 

Before you use the plot embryo, you need to have thought about the premise and genre of your story. For example, a story with the premise of a man who is afraid of snakes meeting and falling in love with an Australian zookeeper with an emotional support snake that helps him get past his otherwise crippling anxiety will be a romance. From the premise, you can tell that I have already thought about the characters in this story—Jake, the main character, Steve the love interest and Missy, the emotional support snake. I have an idea of what these characters want, what is holding them back, and how this story is going to end: a HEA. The plot embryo is a map to help us figure out how we get from A to The End. The banner in the top centre is for your title, if you know it, and the boxes in the top right and left corners are for the characters each embryo is for.

We start at the centre and work out. I like having the plot embryos on the same page because I find that they play into each other. Since I didn’t do a double embryo for Jake and Steve, you’ll have to take my word for it—or try it out for yourself. 

The circle in the middle of the embryo is in two halves, left and right. The right side contains the lie that the character believes. For example, Jake is terrified of snakes. He believes that all snakes are bad. The left side is the truth that Jake needs to come into his own as a man who is able to look past his fear and love snakes—and Steve, the snake obsessed zookeeper that steals his heart. The truth that Jake needs to learn is that not all snakes are scary. Michael Hauge really nails the importance of a character’s lie versus their essence. 

The next layer of the circle is split top and bottom. The top represents the familiar. Rachael Stephens does a great job of describing this, but basically, this could be a physical location or a state of mind. Rachael used Darth Vader as an example, and had the top half as Jedi, and the bottom half as Sith/The Dark Side. For my snake romance, I’ve had the top half as Ireland—where snake phobic Jake lives—and Australia as the bottom half, so he will physically travel outside his comfort zone. 

 Before we get into all the little rays shooting out of circles, I want to call your attention to the fact that the embryo is divided neatly into four parts. Each of these parts represents an act within the three act structure. Starting at 12:00, we have Act 1, moving into Act 2-A at 3:00, Act 2-B at 6:00 and Act 3 at 9:00.

These acts are really good for structure—basically ensuring that your pace is moving along appropriately, and you’re hitting the right emotional beats. Act 1 and 3 can be anything from 10-25% of your word count, but whatever length they are, it is important that they are roughly the same size, and that they are not more than 25%—otherwise your beginning goes on and on and your reader puts your book down before they get to the action, or your end drags out and there isn’t any tension. Acts 2A and 2B should be the same size as each other again, and you want 6:00—the mirror moment—to hit the middle of your story. 

This is a major point in the story, where the character abandons their lie and accepts the truth. From here on out, they are moving into their full potential as the person they are truly meant to be (assuming you’re writing a character with an arc that ends positively. Otherwise check out Racheal Stephen’s tragic embryo). When it is in the middle, it feels right. It resonates with the reader more because they’ve been through the struggle to get there, and they’re rooting for the characters success the rest of the journey. To learn more about why this is such a big deal, read Write Your Novel from the Middle and also get a sneak peek at the beats we’re about to work on. 

Each of the rays surrounding the circle are where you can write a specific plot beat. These beats I have adapted over the years from James Scott Bell, and most recently Kate Hall. The numbers in the outermost ring of my circle indicate the order that I recommend tackling them, again taken from Kate Hall. Don’t get too hung up on this however—often when I decide on one of these, another falls into place, so I do not stick to this order when making plot decisions. I’ve used JSB of KH to indicate whether the beat is more closely adapted from James Scott Bell or Kate Hall. 

Kate Hall advocates figuring out your big, climatic moments first, those that really get to the heart of your character and their struggle. Basically, in order:

1. Mirror moment (JSB): Character has a moment of lightning like clarity where they realise what is at stake if they fail to free themselves of the lie. Jake calls out of a date with Steve because he is so freaked out by Missy. He looks at himself in the mirror, sweaty and pale and gross, and realises that if he doesn’t do something about his fear, he will lose the respect of the man he has fallen hard for. 

2. Doorway of No Return #2 (JSB but also Michael Hauge): Character takes big, irrevocable action, either committing to final battle with big bad, or giving up and saying it’s all too difficult. The character retreats into the lie. Character leaves the unfamiliar world and retreats to the known.

Jake breaks up with Stever and gets on a plane back to Ireland. He is done with snakes—and Australians—for ever. 

3. Final Battle (JSB and KH and MH—also called the Climax): Character embraces the truth and their essence, and reaches their full potential in confrontation with the opposing force of the story. In romance, this would be the grand gesture—see Gwen Hayes for romance specific beats

Jake rushes back to the airport to get the next plane to Australia only to find that Steve has followed him—and Missy has escaped from her cage. Irish animal control, completely unused to snakes are preparing to catch and destroy her. Jake summons his courage, picks up Missy, calms her and returns her to Steve. He is hailed a hero. 

4. Doorway of No Return #1 (JSB, MH): character commits to a plan of action that will remove them from their familiar world and put them in the unknown. They will have a goal in doing this, but this goal is usually a false goal—what they want, not what they need. 

Jake agrees to take part on a Reality TV show about facing fears, shot in Australia. He boards a plane, prepared to face his fears—but also meet Steve for the first time. 

5: Opening Disturbance (JSB) Hero is going about their daily life, when something goes wrong—an inkling of the conflict that is to come. 

Jake’s friends prank him by hiding fake snakes around his apartment. When he freaks out and kicks them out, the video they recorded of the prank goes viral. Jake is humiliated. 

6: Argument Against Transformation: the character states the lie firmly, and argues their case for it. A good moment to hint at whatever wound caused them to adopt this lie. 

Jake is invited onto a TV talkshow to talk about his snake phobia with snake-expert Steve joining remotely from Australia. Steve is passionate that his snake therapy can cure anyone’s fears. Jake argues that fearing snakes is natural and that his friends over stepped and that anyone would react badly to an apartment of fake snakes. There is absolutely no way he will ever like a snake.

7: Obstacle #3 (KH — the number might not match hers. Basically, this is the third of my obstacles, the biggest one so far). An event that really challenges the main character. They are moving steadily towards their essence, and using their truth to tackle the problem.

Jake discovers that to win the challenge and his prize money, he must strip down to his boxes and let snakes crawl on him for ten minutes. He practices this with Steve and Missy and manages to get comfortable with touching Missy. Also Steve is shirtless and that’s really nice. 

8: Disaster (KH): Another obstacle—and this time, despite accepting the truth, the character fails spectacularly. 

The actual snake pit test. Jake is rocking it, until the producers add more snakes he didn’t know about. Jake freaks out and throws the challenge. He’s angry and betrayed—Steve knew and didn’t warn him!

9: Light’s Out (JSB, MH): The character’s lowest point. They realise exactly what they’ve lost and, now that they experienced life with truth, they cannot be satisfied with the lie they were living before. Alexa play Despacito. 

Back in Ireland, Jake is moping in his snake-free apartment. It is cold—unlike Australia—and there is a big lack of hot reptile handlers around. He is mourning the loss of the first person to believe he was more than his fear, and everything that could have been. 

10: The Q factor (JSB). Named for Q from the James Bond franchise, the main character has a lightning bolt moment. Using knowledge or skills they learned during the course of the story (the pet the dog, or obstacles are a good place to gain this info), they realise there is a solution to their problem.

Alone in his apartment, Jake triggers an overlooked prank snake. He doesn’t even jump. He realises that he is no longer afraid of all snakes. Maybe he’s brave enough for a relationship with Steve after all!

11: Pet the Dog (JSB— also Save the Cat from the Save the Cat method). At a moment of big emotional turmoil and overwhelm, main character does something selfless for someone else. It does not have to be a literal cat or dog.

Jake realises that Steve, held up by the TV crew, hasn’t fed Missy. Despite his fear of her, he drops food into her cage for her. 

12: Care Package (JSB)/Beginning (KH). Basically, the main character in their everyday life, with the people that matter to them, doing their usual daily life stuff. A good way to show that no matter how great they think they’re doing, their lie is preventing them from truly being happy. 

Jake is alone in his apartment, watching the viral footage of his freakout. He gets a call from his therapist or shut in sister who has not left their childhood home since she was 15 because of her fears. Jake consoles himself with work, but it doesn’t satisfy him.

13. Transformation (JSB, MH). Main character is living fully in their essence, and has achieved what they need to be happy (assuming positive outcome/HEA)—or near enough (HFN). Bonus points if their transformation had a ripple effect on their world. 

Jake and Steve are happy celebrating their reunion at the reptile sanctuary. After the airport footage went viral, a gofundme was started for Steve’s reptile sanctuary, and they raised a huge amount. The TV show donated the money Jake would have made to it, so they’ve saved the rare snake Steve is obsessed with and overcome their fears to have a happy life together. Jake’s got a snake of his own, so that Missy has company when Steve—who no longer needs his support snake at all times—goes out with Jake. 

14: Kick in the Shins (JSB): Arriving in the unfamiliar world, character is initially overwhelmed by how strange everything is. They make false steps and suffer a setback. 

Jake arrives in Australia and the TV crew greet him with a fake snake. He realises they don’t care about him overcoming his fear. They want good television, and him freaking out is apparently good ratings.

15: Obstacle #1 (KH): main character encounters an obstacle. In the process of overcoming it, they begin to chip away at the lie and glimpse the truth. 

Steve shows up and is kind and understanding—also super hot. But also with him is his emotional support snake, Missy. Jake is too freaked out to approach Steve at first but, as Steve strokes her and talks about how beautiful she is and how she helped him overcome his fear, Jake is coaxed into coming closer and touching her.

16: Obstacle #2 (KH): Main character faces a bigger obstacle, requiring even more of them and leading them closer to their truth. 

Jake and Steve spent a steamy night together in Steve’s apartment. Jake needs to get up during the night, but Missy is stretched out across the floor between him and the bathroom. Jake will have to walk past her alone. 

I’ve put my blank template (it’s hand drawn so apologies for the wonkiness), and a version with explanation and example in pdf format. Let me know if you’ve got any questions or want more detail about anything—I am happy to answer them. 

You can download it here. If you found this helpful, please consider buying one of my books, or sharing my work. Thanks!

Empowering gaslamp fantasy that confounds expectations

Gillian St. Kevern

To stay up to date with my new releases and receive a free book, sign up for my email updates here.

Read by Candlelight: series map

A while ago—maybe a month ago now?—my friend, Molly Matheson asked me what the chronological order for the Read by Candlelight books were, so I drew her a series diagram. I then forgot to send it to her. I was flipping through my plotting notebook, and I just found it. Here it is!

Some notes: 

There is a definite last book in this series, just as The Secretary and the Ghost is the first book. I’ve written the first chapter of The Somnabulist, but then I stopped—I realised I wanted it to be last in order of publishing as well as in chronological order. 

You can see how the stories sort of lead to other stories. This is not always planned. What usually happens is that over the course of the story a character shows up (sometimes a character who wasn’t even in the plot to start with), and demands further exploration (Patrick) or a story of their own (Rosemary). 

Most of the stories form a distinct timeline, but then there are sideways off shoots as well. This reflects the organic nature of this series. I wrote The Secretary and the Ghost as a break from a very well planned series with a definite series arc that I was working on, and allowed myself a lot of freedom. This has led to organic world growth that allows the characters room to grow and breathe, but also lets me experiment and do things that I might not have tried otherwise. An epistolary novel, for example. 

This diagram is by no means comprehensive. This series will no doubt continue to grow and intertwine in new ways—three possible stories surfaced since I drew this. I also suspect that the Christmas Party is going to show up after The Collector rather than before it. We’ll find out when we get there!

For readers who like to read series in order, I’m sure this is very frustrating, but one of the big advantages of being able to jump forward and backwards across the timeline is that it keeps things interesting for me. Instead of having to complete stories in order, I can work on the story that most speaks to me at the time. This is a really good thing because I am not looking forward to writing the banshee story, and if I had to do that before I could continue with the series, well, Read By Candlelight might have ended with The Worst Behaved Werewolf. 

It also means that I can examine the impacts and influences of certain events over time, and view things from different angles. I’m always fascinated how the same event can appear totally different through the lens of different people’s perceptions, and how different facets of people’s personalities show themselves in different situations, or with different people. Adding time to this exploration, just adds another level of interest. As a writer, this series has been incredibly liberating—even if it means that at times (a lot of the time, really) I have no idea what’s coming next. 


No one escapes the Collector.

All Gideon Lawes has left is his scrupulous honesty. Employed to investigate a supposedly haunted house, Gideon vows to uncover the secrets of 32 Belcairn Road. But he gets more than he bargains for in the form of the Collector, a spirit relentlessly pursuing an unpaid debt. 

Drawn by chance into the lives of cheerfully generous Fairweather and darkly ironic Holford, Gideon discovers things about himself he never imagined. With the Collector closing in, Gideon must choose between destroying the friendship he values most or sacrificing his self-respect for a lie. Whatever Gideon chooses, the Collector will claim another victim.

The Collector is book nine in the Read by Candlelight series of gothic novellas wearing paranormal suspense and mystery around an evolving ensemble cast. Pour yourself a strong cup of tea and pick up The Collector today.

Empowering gaslamp fantasy that confounds expectations

Gillian St. Kevern

To stay up to date with my new releases and receive a free book, sign up for my email updates here.

Writing Update & ARC Team call.

Apparently I look like a writer. How do I know this? I showed up to a meeting of the Friends of Ngaio Marsh today, and someone said “[Gillian], you look like a writer–would you take notes?” Approximately two seconds later there was a motion passed to make me a committee member, followed immediately by a motion to promote me to secretary–and here I am—secretary!

Weird fact: I have taken the minutes at all but two meetings that I’ve attended. Apparently I exude good note-taking vibes. Which, I do, so…truth in advertising?

I could share the minutes of the meeting with you today, but I’m not sure that you really want to know all the details of the heritage house tour, so instead a writing update. I’ve mentioned that I’ve got three upcoming releases: The Charity Shop Rejects Live in Concert (For the Love of Christmas #3), Life After Humanity (Thorns and Fangs #3) and Dead Wrong (Thorns and Fangs #4). Gentlemen Don’t Murder is currently with an agent, awaiting feedback. And I’m on chapter ten of an expected fifteen chapters of Morgen Prince (Deep Magic #4). 

You may be thinking ‘That’s a lot of books.’ You’re not wrong.

I don’t know when I came up with the idea of releasing a book a month in 2018, but I did, and so that is the plan. I already regret it, but the point of goals is to challenge yourself and I am definitely feeling challenged. The big freelance project is the major cloud raining on my parade right now, but I’m going to try and avoid taking on any Freelance projects over December and instead try to enjoy the holiday season and my family, without making myself insanely busy.

This may be more of a challenge than releasing a book a month in 2018, but hey–dream big, right?

As I prepare to write more books, I’m going to need help making sure that the works I produce stay up to scratch. If you’re interested in donating your time as an Advance Review Copy (ARC) reader, please drop me an e-mail at gillian.stkevern at gmail dot com letting me know that you’re interested! I’d honestly really appreciate it. This would involve reader the book and leaving an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other online bookstores. If you’d like to help, but can’t commit to reading right now, then taking the time to leave a review on any of my other works would work just as well. Thanks in advance!

September DONE/October TO-DO

September seems to have gone by like a steam-roller. This month was unrelenting with hurricanes, volcanoes, and a national election here in New Zealand that will probably not be resolved until mid-October. When things get insane, I find myself needing more quiet time off social media simply recharging my batteries. At least I got a lot of work done!

I’ve already shared the big news—Dead Wrong is complete and I submitted it to NineStar this afternoon. I’m bizarrely happy with it. Bizarrely happy because it’s rare that I feel this positively about anything I’ve written after submitting it. Usually, the moment I hit ‘send’ on that Submission e-mail, I immediately remember every niggling doubt I had while writing. Author friends, can you relate?

September Goals: 

  • Edit Gentlemen Don’t Murder. Done! Submitted it to my editor friend and betas, waiting for responses. 
  • Complete Dead Wrong. Done! YAY!
  • Freelance Project #3 Still working on this, but this is my client behind schedule, not me.
  • Regular blog updates  Whoops!
  • Submit work to agent Not done–moving to October.
  • Work on craft Not consciously worked on. Will have to do better!

Overall, I’m pretty happy with what I achieved in September. There were some unexpected things that popped up. Freelance Project #3 doesn’t really give a good idea of how much freelance work I did, and from one day babysitting a week, I’ve gone up to one day and two half days. Despite all this, I stayed on track with my primary goals and even got some reading for fun in.

October Goals:

  • Banging the Supernatural (And Other Poor Life Choices #1) – revise draft.
  • Freelance project #1
  • Freelance project #2
  • Read 4 books on Craft/Marketing
  • Plot my Nano project
  • Mindfulness Habit
  • 9 Blog Posts

October’s going to be an even busier month than September… Wish me luck!

The Biggest Scoop in French!

While in Rotorua, I got a Facebook alert that three people I didn’t know were talking about me. Now, I’m not Facebook famous, so three people talking about me all on the same day was pretty unusual. I wondered what was going on, and voila—I found out.

As scoops go, this was pretty grand. Plus grand, in fact.

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Confused? The Biggest Scoop is coming out in French October 25th!

I wrote The Biggest Scoop for the M/M Romance Group on Goodreads 2015 Don’t Read in the Closet event. The prompt was submitted by Josephine. It was my first YA, and it was incredibly fun to write. One of those stories where the characters (Milo) just take over the story (Milo), going places you never really expected them to go.

When I wrote it, I was still teaching in Japan, and when I reread it recently, I was surprised how nostalgic it made me for my students and my classrooms. My students constantly surprised me with their inventiveness and sheer enthusiasm for life, and I wanted The Biggest Scoop to reflect that.

Then, early 2016, totally out of the blue, I got an e-mail from MxM Bookmark. They are a French publishing house specialising in positive LGBTQ-romance, and they were interested in The Biggest Scoop. I was tremendously flattered, but given that The Biggest Scoop was produced with the help of volunteers from the M/M Romance group, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to sell it. We worked out a compromise. Once the production costs have been covered, all profits from The Biggest Scoop—or I should say, Le Plus Grand de Tous les Scoops—will be donated to a charity supporting homeless LGBTQ teens.

I could not be happier about this (also my grandma is totally impressed).

If you missed it the first time round, The Biggest Scoop is available for free along with an incredible range of stories from the official M/M Romance DRITC site. Here is the original cover (by cover artist extraordinaire Bree Archer) and the blurb:

online-TheBiggestScoop

The Biggest Story Milo’s ever found is one he can’t tell.

Everything is going wrong for Milo Markopoulos. The future of the school newsletter is in jeopardy, he doesn’t have a single friend among his junior classmates, and his film script has just been rejected again. Worse, he has only one day to find a story that will satisfy newspaper editor, Candice. Enter transfer student, Taylor. Good looking, responsible, and possessed of a mysterious something that has him turning heads on his first day of school, Taylor is the story Milo is looking for — too bad Taylor has plans for a quiet high school experience.

Despite their many differences of opinion, Milo finds himself developing a close journalistic relationship with the future class president. But Taylor’s success might put an end to their burgeoning friendship. What will happen when Taylor is no longer Milo’s story? How far will Milo go to save the newspaper?

Written for the 2015 DRitC event hosted by the M/M Romance Group on Goodreads, The Biggest Scoop is a YA story that focuses on the development of the main characters. Sweetly romantic, the story is freely available in a variety of formats from  the M/M Romance Group.

Rainbow Gold Reviews Trans Aware Event

I spent most of August chasing my tail (RWNZ conferences will do that to you). Now that I’ve got some time to catch up, I wanted to point you towards the Rainbow Gold Reviews blog. In response to President Trump’s actions, they decided to host a week long event highlighting trans authors and books with trans characters. They got such an overwhelming response the event extended into two weeks—two weeks of guest posts, interviews, book reviews and giveaways. Sadly, I’ve left this too long for the giveaways I’m sure, but I highly recommend checking out the event.

I’ve already highlighted Elliot Cooper’s contribution, but there are some very cool contributions. I love the honesty of Jenn Polish’s Transition on Trains: On Being a Non-binary Author,  and in Victor Alexander’s interview. I’m in there too. Gatsby, a side character in The Wing Commander’s Curse, happens to be trans—and happens to be serving in the military. Timely! Honestly though, I think I gained more than I gave. Reading the guest posts and interviews challenged me. I’m in awe of the honesty and courage of these very talented authors.

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In order of posts, earliest through latest:

J.S. Fields: Interview.

Angel Martinez: Guest Post

L.A. Witt: Having her Back. Book Review by Dana.

Jeff Adams: The Inspiration behind Hat trick Book 3: Penalty Shot.

Francis Gideon: A Winter in Rome. Book Review by Eloreen.

Jay Northcote: Interview and Starting From Scratch: Book Review by Bethany.

Aidan Wayne: Grounded. Book Review by Wendy.

Missy Welsh: Why I Wrote a Romance Featuring a Transman.

Joe Cosentino: Books of Inclusion.

Gillian St. Kevern: Interview

Christopher Hawthorne Moss: A Fine Bromance. Book Review by Dana.

Jenn Polish: Transition on Trains.

Elliot Cooper: Are Your Books Trans Enough?

Julie Aitchenson: Guest Post.

G.R. Lyons: Life in Transition.

Allan Hunter: Identifying as Genderqueer rather than Transgender

Fifi Frost: Trans-trap. Book Review by Wendy

Anna Martin: Guest Post. The Impossible Boy: Book Review by Bethany.

Francis Gideon: Hopeless Romantic. Book Review by Dana 

Victor Alexander: Interview

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A Year of Fear: Writing Full Time

August last year was a big month for me. I left behind eleven years of teaching English in Japan and came back to New Zealand. I had limited savings, no job lined up, and was entirely dependant on public transport/the generosity of my family for getting myself places. I gave myself one year to write full time, and then I would look for a real job. The one year limit was my way of dealing with my fear of the unknown, and of failing. A year was a really long time, and it made me sound as if I had a plan. And if it didn’t work out, well, it was only an experiment. A year’s sabbatical.

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I have no idea what I’m doing. Whee!

A year later, I can say that returning to New Zealand was the right decision. Only when I was away from did I realise just how much the stressful situation at my base school was affecting at me. I’ve got my full driver’s licence and my own car. I’ve made a ton of new writing friends and attended two incredible RWNZ conferences. But the biggest most important change has been how I live with fear.

This is the journal entry I wrote when leaving Japan last year:

August 9th, 2016. 

On flight to Auckland, leaving Japan after eight years with [company], six years in [town]. I am writing this not so much to mark the occasion as I am because I need to document my emotions. It has been an interesting week and as I keep going between sadness at saying goodbyes/wrapping up a big part of my life, and excitement for what is ahead, I have noticed that I keep hitting terror, especially when I try to sleep. Last night on the train, I realised I was scared and shying away from the why. I made myself look at what I was afraid of—not knowing what is going to happen when I get back to New Zealand—and felt better, but waiting for the plane to board this evening and talking to Mum via Skype, I realise the fear had snuck back. I need to acknowledge the fear and document it because I suspect this is not the first time I will be making a life choice that scares me and being able to put things in perspective will help. 

Fear was on my mind then, and that’s really interesting because I kept running into fear a lot, those first months in New Zealand especially. My biggest problem was sleeping. I was lying awake, night after night, while my mind cycled through an endless series of worries. My health and energy levels tanked. My usual coping methods weren’t working, so I consulted a professional counsellor about ways I could reduce my stress.

Big surprise! A lot of his recommendations were things I was already doing–goal setting, keeping a journal, making a list of things that I could do to address the things that were worrying me. But he introduced me to progressive muscle relaxation. Turns out that despite no longer being at my school in Japan, just the thought of a certain colleague was enough to make my entire body tense and trigger an angry reaction. By purposefully relaxing my muscles before going to bed I was able to go to sleep—and stay asleep.

I took steps to regain my independence. I started house-sitting and, when I realised that I was afraid of learning to drive, took lessons with a professional driving instructor whose car had a dual brake system (another really, really good decision. I’m sure that gave me the confidence I needed so I could concentrate on the driving). Driving itself was really good for me. It did not come easily at all, and after the first few lessons I felt like I was no longer improving and became frustrated. I’m the sort of person who takes failure personally and quits when things don’t come easily-but I needed that licence. This is where my teaching career came in handy! Having encouraged students to persist learning a foreign language with often contradictory rules, I knew it’s not how easily you pick it up that measures learning. I knew that if I persisted I would get there. And I did. In November I got my restricted licence, in March my full.

But fear is insidious. It found new ground in legitimate worries. The biggest one was money. Learning to drive was expensive, as was paying for fuel and insurance and servicing on my car. The royalties I was earning for my stories were just enough to cover my phone bill, but they wouldn’t stretch to groceries and fuel. Things like replacing tyres and repairs came out of my very depleted savings. I had started working as a freelancer, but my income fluctuated wildly month to month. I wanted to build myself a safety net but my emergency money disappeared as quickly as I could save it. I started stressing over finances and spent a lot of time seeking out new clients. My editing/proof-reading/ghost-writing work took priority over my writing time and left me too tired to write on my own projects, while I struggled to set prices low enough to compete with other freelancers that would still allow me to get by.

It wasn’t until June when I looked back at the first six months of 2017 that I realised how much my financial stress was holding me back. I had plans to write eight stories in 2017. Half the year was gone and I’d written two stories. I made the decision that from now on freelancing would fit in around my writing, not the other way round. Using the journalling methods outlined in The Journal Writing Superpower Secret I’ve kept myself focused and reminded of why my writing needs to be a priority. I’ve also used mindfulness techniques to combat stress, and between the two methods it seems to be working. I wrote a novella in July and a novel in August, and am planning one story a month until the end of the year. I’ve also started applying for jobs. I’m hoping that removing finances from the list of things I need to worry about while make up for time lost with mental energy reserved for writing.

Then there were old worries in new shapes. In Japan, I was very conscious of needing to conduct myself well even outside of school hours, knowing I was viewed as a representative of my company/New Zealanders in a town where everyone knew who I was. I still care a lot about making people happy/not disappointing expectations people have of me. Once I was back home, I spent a lot of time worrying that my relatives looked down on me because I wasn’t earning a big salary, that I had disappointed them. I discovered how deep this fear when when I signed up for the Shave for a Cure fundraising challenge. I was terrified my family would disapprove. Instead, they blew me away with their generous support. I still miss my hair, but knowing that I don’t need to conform to have the support of my family means so, so much more.

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The final fear is tied up with writing. Last year at the RWNZ conference, Michael Hauge who led seminar’s on story structure and the hero’s journey challenged us to take our own journey by identifying the thing which we were most afraid of–and doing it. For me this was really easy. Just the thought of pitching to an agent or hearing my work read aloud and critiqued gave me an immediate fear reaction. Which was odd. I had a few stories published and they were getting positive and negative views, both of which I was handling. I couldn’t be afraid of critique, could I?

Actually, yes! I felt safe writing about my fail!vampires and Morgen train wrecks for an audience that felt more like friends…and  the idea of putting my work before a larger audience scared the heck out of me. I was afraid that once my work was put in front of people who didn’t know me from the DRitC events or Facebook or wherever, that they’d see me for what I was: a clueless wannabe author with literary pretensions and clumsy prose, no idea of what she was doing and over complicated plots. That if I wrote something more mainstream, I’d find out I wasn’t ready for leaving my safety zone. I’d fail–and this time I wouldn’t have the comforting excuse of a really niche genre to hide behind. So I decided in August last year that this year I was going to conference and I was going to pitch a story that would appeal to a bigger audience.

The murder mystery (first draft finished yesterday) is that story. And it’s really funny. Before conference, I really had to fight the story to write it. I was constantly second guessing myself as I wrote. I eventually abandoned it in January. But then we had a family event and for reasons I don’t want to go into, it became really important to have the murder mystery finished as quickly as possible. In the lead up to conference, I wrote 23000 words over eighteen days. After conference, I wrote 49,000 words in six days. What made the difference? I went to conference. I pitched the murder mystery to agents. I heard it read aloud and critiqued in front of a group of writers who I respect myself. And instead of devastating me, it made me wonder what on earth I’d been afraid of.

Disclaimer: I’m sure that there will be all the panic when Gentlemen Don’t Murder comes out. But something really interesting happened to me when I decided that in 2017 I was going to pitch.

I had a year of knowing I was going to introduce myself to agents and pitch a story to them. And somewhere in that year, I stopped introducing myself as ‘a writer, but you don’t want to read what I write.’ When I met people at conference this year, I said ‘Hi, I’m Gillian. I write gay paranormal romance.’ This wasn’t a conscious decision either. It just happened–but it would not have happened if I hadn’t already decided that I was no longer afraid of being a small writer in a big pond. All the fears that I faced were stepping stones to growth.

Was my growth because of the fear or despite the fear? I don’t know, but I do know that acknowledging and addressing my fears then coming up with a strategy is the biggest reason I’m not on a plane heading back to Japan right now. Managing my fear is the best thing I could have done for myself–and I hope you’re encouraged to look at your fear in a different way.

Books that helped me address my fear (links go directly to Amazon):

The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn.

The Journal Writing Superpower Secret: Get Productivity Superpowers, Kill Procrastination and Stop Self-Sabotage, and Then Take Over the World by Michael Forest

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Prosperous Creation: Make Art and Make Money at the Same Time (Growth Hacking For Storytellers 5) by Monica Leonelle

RWNZ 2017: The Highlights

It’s been an intense four days in Rotorua. I got back to Christchurch last night, slept soundly and still woke up exhausted. I’m still digesting everything I learned at conference, but here are a few highlights:

  • pitched to two agents, and had a really good conversation about the paranormal genre with an editor.
  • put two pieces into two seperate Cold Reads, getting feedback on my writing in a public setting, and not wimping out–or being devastated by the criticism I received.
  • caught up with old friends and met knew friends
  • got to know my wonderful roomie a lot more!
  • found myself being more social than I have ever been before
  • getting to meet some of the entrants and judges from the contests I’ve managed
  • some great presentations from some incredible presenters
  • geothermal pools in the hotel
  • Goodie bag with books in it!

and much, much more.

My main take-away writing wise was how important it is to engage readers with emotions and questions in every scene. This probably sounds beyond obvious, but I tend to equate emotion with melodrama and err too far on the side of understated… or even not stated at all!

I also got a huge boost from three solid days of hanging out with motivated, creative, dedicated and successful authors. I’m back into working on the mystery, making up for lost time. I think it will be a few days before my energy levels approach anything like normal… Good thing I came away with lots of reading material as I recover from conference!

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Fear and Loathing in Roto-vegas (not really, but come on–I couldn’t not use the title)

As I write this, I am on a very bumpy plane somewhere above the North Island on my way to Rotorua and the annual Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. I am terrified—and it’s nothing to do with the intermittent turbulence, or the fact that my computer is rapidly running out of battery. No, I’ve been low key anxious even before I got on the plane. Since Saturday, at least. I’m worried about the conference.

It took me until today to realise I was worrying about it. After all, this is my second year at conference. There’s a contingent of locals coming up, and I have friends I’ve made over the last year to catch up with. There is absolutely no reason I should feel nervous—but I do. And I realised that my fears are two-pronged.

Firstly, I’ve been stressing about all the little things building up. I had an ambitious to-do list of things to do before conference, and that has been added to with freelance clients popping up with last minute requests. My writing projects have been left to slide as I focused on the freelance stuff or worse—was so paralyzed by everything I had to do that I did nothing.

My major source of worry, however, is that I’m putting myself outside my comfort zone this conference. I’m participating in the cold reads—where the first two pages of your story are read out loud to an audience including an editor or agent, who stops the reader where they would put the manuscript down and gives feedback on what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also signed up to pitch to two agents and an editor, and that is really starting to intimidate me—which is a sure sign that I need to do this.

At last years conference in Auckland, the keynote speaker was Michael Hauge who is an incredible speaker. After speaking for two days on story structure and how to create emotional resonance using the three act structure, he turned things around on Sunday, challenging us to see how the hero’s journey applied in our own lives. As writers we know that if a character has a cannot-face fear, then we must force them to face it. Michael asked us if there was anything that gave us an immediate gut reaction of fear, and then asked us to come up with a way to challenge that fear.

I discovered that just the thought of putting my work in front of any of the experts at conference gave me that immediate gut twisting fear reaction. Why should that be? After all, even then I had two stories published with NineStar Press, and three stories published through the M/M Romance group. I was used to getting feedback positive and negative through Goodreads and Amazon. Why would this scare me so much?

I think it’s because the M/M Community has been a really supportive group for me. I knew the staff I worked with at NineStar before I submitted my work to them, and I know that my audience shares a lot of my beliefs and attitudes. Basically, the M/M romance reading audience is my safe place.

Once you go beyond that, however, it’s totally unknown territory. And I think that’s what is making pitching to the agents and editors so scary.

What’s really interesting though is how this fear has played out. I’m scared of pitching to agents and editors because they might criticize my work. So my brain has been concentrating and stressing about the small stuff. This means that I haven’t been able to work on pitches for two of the three editors/agents that I made appointments with. ‘Never mind!’ my brain consoles me. ‘You can just cancel them. It’d be terrible to turn up unprepared after all.’ I think this was my brain’s subconscious plan after all. If I cancel the appointments, I’m protected from criticism because I ‘didn’t have time to prepare.’ Which is really insidious, and a great example of the sort of self-sabotage we’re capable of—and further proof that I’m on the right track. I don’t know whether I will have time to work on the last two pitches as I’ve just got one day before conference starts, but I’m going to keep those appointments, even if it’s just to ask questions about what they’re looking for.

Marlborough Book Festival #2: C.K.Stead owns his laurels

C.K. Stead is many things—poet, novelist, writer of short stories, New Zealand’s current poet laureate, academic and critic. Before the Marlborough Book Festival I knew him primarily as a critic, connected through his poetry to some of the iconic New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame especially, though he’s also the foremost expert on Katherine Mansfield. I know that I read Stead’s writing on Mansfield as an undergraduate studying New Zealand literature, but not having any interest in poetry, I didn’t exactly go looking for his work.

Until the opening session of the festival, An Evening with C.K. Stead, I had no idea that he’d written fiction. The fact that in his career he has spanned so many different kinds of writing just astonished me. When we got the chance to ask questions at the end, I asked him why he placed the most importance on his poetry. He said that poetry is the most difficult form of writing because there are so many limitations on it in terms of length and form. While short stories and novels allow you a lot of words to tell the story, in a poem, you’re trying to capture a vision you have. Only you will know if you’ve succeeded. It’s very difficult to get it right, but when you do the reward is even greater.

This literally made me view poetry in an entirely new light. I’ve always thought of myself as a story teller, and poetry as something totally removed from the type of writing I want to do. But imposing a limit on yourself, forcing yourself to really sharpen your writing, pay attention to vocabulary choice and make every word count… That’s what fiction writers do with drabbles.

One of my biggest writing bad habits is my verbosity. I’m pretty much a Victorian novelist about a century and a half too late to the party, producing 120,000 word drafts with lumbering plots and overly complicated plots. (Think I’m exaggerating? The book that is now Life After Humanity has been separated into three separate novel-length stories.)

C.K.Stead didn’t just make me interested in poetry, he made me want to try it. I came away from the festival inspired to try writing something each day—whether a drabble or a poem, something that would work on my craft. I’ve only done this once, but here it is:

 

Frost makes a watercolour countryside,

the field a washed-out green,

faded grass on smooth plains.

Deeper colour at the edges,

where the earth is crinkled.

 

The other thing that really impressed me about Stead was his confidence in his work. He’s eighty-five years old, and has been writing in one form or another most of his adult life. When he speaks about his work, he’s really frank. He says when he reads his old work, some of it is terrible, some of it didn’t work, but occasionally he finds something that he thinks is rather special.

I consider myself a beginner writer, and I think the majority of my writing friends are in the same boat. We suffer frequent self-doubt, second-guess ourselves and our writing, and find it really hard to judge the quality of what we write. C.K. Stead’s confidence was really refreshing to me—as inspiring as anything he shared about his writing.