Issue #154 View in browser
October 9, 2020

What's in this newsletter?

  • Recent Goings On
  • For the DenNerds: Witchshadow Preorder Giveaway! + UK Witchshadow Cover
  • For the Daydreamers: How They Write a Novel with A.J. Sass
  • The Mighty Pens begin!
  • Upcoming Events

Recent Goings On

Wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask.

And wash your hands.

I know 99.9999% of you are doing this. But for the 1% of you that maybe still aren't, please. As someone who is immunocompromised with an infant and older parents, PLEASE wear a mask for my safety. And for everyone else in your life that you care about.

Sure, it's a pain. But better safe than sorry, right? PLUS, they've become such great fashion statements!


What I'm Playing

What I'm Reading

What I'm Listening To

For the DenNerds:
Witchshadow Preorder Giveaway!

If you haven't heard the news yet, Tor Teen is VERY GENEROUSLY giving away all seven character art prints to people who preorder the next Witchlands book! Remember that gorgeous art I shared by Nipuni last time? Yeah, you can get physical prints of it!

All you have to do is order a hardcover OR ebook edition of Witchshadow, then fill out this form to get your cards. (They'll ship after release day!)

ALL SEVEN CARDS, Y'ALL! That is just so awesome and I am still amazed (and grateful!) that Tor Teen is being so generous. 🤯

And yes, I know that my international readers are going to be sad they can't get the cards, but don't worry: Good Choice Reading has you covered!

Or preorder here!

AND for anyone who hasn't yet seen the UK Witchshadow hardback cover, behold the beauty below!!

You can snag your copy on February 18, 2021!

For the Daydreamers:
How They Write a Novel:

I am delighted to introduce the next guest poster in the How They Write a Novel series: A.J. Sass!

A.J. Sass (he/they) is a writer, editor, and competitive skater—and his debut novel, Ana on the Edge, comes out IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS! 

A long-time figure skater, he has passed his U.S. Figure Skating Senior Moves in the Field and Free Skate tests, medaled twice at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and currently dabbles in ice dance.

In other words, you know his book is going to be awesome.

Now, onto the main event!

Read the rest of this series: 

Part 1: Ideas + Research

Part 2: Building New Worlds

Bonus Lesson: Geography & Magic Systems with K.K. Pérez

Bonus Lesson: Creating Picture Books with Primo Gallanosa

Bonus Lesson: How to Tell a Story with Daniel Nayeri

Part 3: Creating Characters #1

How I Write a Novel

First, a heartfelt thank you to Susan for giving me the opportunity to talk about my writing process, as well as a big congrats on the birth of your child!

I’m A.J. Sass and my debut novel, ANA ON THE EDGE, releases on October 20 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. I am a fan of virtually all age categories and genres (seriously, you should see my bookshelves). My writing sweet spot, however, is children’s lit (picture books through YA) and I lean toward contemporary stories. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram, talking all things writing process, plus sharing cat photos and ice skating videos.

I’m also a diehard fan of lists: grocery, to-do, life goals, you name it. My desk is littered with loose sheets of printer paper, all filled with entries in various colors of ink. I seriously can’t get enough of them.

So it’s probably not a surprise that I also like planning my novels out on paper when that first spark of inspiration strikes. I haven’t quite gotten to the level where I can say I officially outline before I dive into drafting, but my fondness for lists has come in handy.

While I don’t outline super thoroughly before I decide to move forward with a story, I like to step back and ask myself, ‘Why this idea? Why this specific character?’

Usually, it comes down to wanting to explore something personal: identity, grief, evolving relationships with friends and family, and so on. Often, this comes along with a hazy vision of a character, a setting, or a situation I want to see play out.

That is my spark, the little flicker that gets me excited and eager to write, no matter what else is happening in my life. If I have enough of a sense of character and place, I usually indulge myself and write a scene or two immediately. Those early passages may lead to more ideas, which I write down on—yep, you guessed it—a sheet of paper, listing them out as they come to me.

For my debut novel, ANA ON THE EDGE, my initial spark was a situation I was interested in exploring: How would a competitive ice skater juggle the pressures and expectations of a very gendered sport and a nonbinary gender identity all at once?

That was it. The hint of an idea. Then I was off.

The Initial Spark

Just because I had a sense of the story I wanted to write didn’t mean I had any idea how to execute it from the get-go. All I knew was I felt excited about the concept. Part of the reason was because this idea brought up so many wonderful memories of my own time competitively skating when I was younger. 

One of the things that’s stuck with me through the years is the moment on the ice when I was supposed to be practicing—maybe my coach gave me instructions or I had an upcoming skills test or competition—but even so, my friends and I couldn’t keep ourselves from goofing off. 

So I sat down and wrote a scene where my main character, Ana, gets challenged by another skater to perform a cartwheel on ice, when both of them should be focused on training. And, of course, they get caught, not just by their coach but by my Ana’s mom—who isn’t even supposed to be at the rink. (Drama!)

I had no idea how this scene related to gender identity or the larger world of competitive skating, no clue if it’d even stay in my novel once I was through drafting and revising (I’m happy to report it did!). This was just what I was immediately excited to write. That’s all you need at the beginning.

Internal Versus External: Two crucial aspects of a novel

After I’ve given myself permission to play in this new world and confirm I want to dig deeper and flesh this idea out into something more novel-shaped, it’s time to grab some paper and get down to business.

For me, there are two aspects to a novel: a character’s emotional arc and the plot. The emotional arc follows a character’s internal journey, from point A to point Z, with all the ups and downs in between. The way I see it, a character should in some way be changed by the end of the story. Maybe they learn something new about themself. Or maybe they see the world in a completely different way. Whatever the case, I feel both elements are worth thinking about before I start writing. 

Where is my character emotionally at the start of the story? Where do I want them to be by the end? What do they ultimately need that they don’t have starting out, even if they don’t realize they need it yet?

Then the external plot comes in, with all its twists and turns that push your character off-course and obstacles that get in their way. In the way of what, you might be wondering? For me, the answer lies in what your character wants (or, put another way, what they think they need). 

The fun part about these two elements is they sometimes conflict. And there are a million and one ways you can approach both sets of questions that would give you a million and one very different stories, depending on your answers. 

I won’t pretend to know how to break them down to best fit what you want to write about. That’s personal, and something only you can figure out for yourself. But I can give you a peek into what I do when I’m at this stage of brainstorming a novel, using ANA ON THE EDGE as an example.

The Internal Journey: What your character needs

Defining what your character needs can be an effective way to help you flesh out their emotional arc—and even if you’re not an outliner, you can still figure out some things up front.

In Ana’s case, I’d decided she* needed to be at a point by the end of the story where she knows she’s nonbinary and has openly embraced that identity. 

In terms of my character’s internal journey, the most helpful things for me to know up front are as follows (using transcribed notes I took when I was developing this story a few years ago):

  1. What Ana needs
    1. To know she is nonbinary and to embrace that identity
  2. Where she is at in the beginning of the story
    1. Unaware that nonbinary identities exist
    2. Uncomfortable with gendered references people apply to her
  3. Where she’s at by the end
    1. Aware of what nonbinary means and that it applies to her specifically
    2. She’s come out and knows she has the support of friends and family

*N.B., I’m using she/her as pronouns for Ana because I ultimately decided that part of what Ana needed was to realize that you don’t have to have everything figured out all at once, that uncertainty is an opportunity to get to know yourself better. (Also, some nonbinary people simply use binary pronouns, just as a heads up.) But I didn’t know this aspect of Ana’s needs so early on in the writing process, which is why I didn’t include it in my above responses. Much like discovering your identity, it’s perfectly fine not to have everything figured out when you’re brainstorming a story. 

The External Journey: What your character wants

Something a mentor told me early on in the revision process for ANA ON THE EDGE is that your main character should want something. What they want might not end up being what they ultimately need, but it’s a good way to get into your character’s head and see how your external plot and setting might interact with or even impede what your character wants to achieve.

So here’s how I approached this for Ana (transcribing more notes because my handwriting was pretty messy on this one as well; my current observations are rendered in italics):

  1. What does Ana want?
    1. To go for gold (somewhat cliché, sure, but it’s a start and it ties into who Ana is as an athlete—plus something I can work on expanding later once I get to know her better as a character)
  2. How far is Ana from getting what she wants at the beginning of the story?
    1. Maybe she won a big competition and wants to level up? (I didn’t have this completely figured out, and it wouldn’t be until several drafts in that I landed on having Ana win a national title at the start of the story, something that she’s both proud of and aware she has to work hard to repeat next season.)
  3. What obstacles does Ana face while trying to achieve her goal?
    1. Finances
      1. Skating is $$$$!
    2. Rink or training-mate rivalries
    3. A mean coach, maybe? 
      1. Except I want a good coach-student relationship so maybe a mean guest coach or choreographer or something
    4. Injury
    5. Illness
    6. Non-skating responsibilities like school or keeping up with friends
    7. Having to perform a program she hates 
      1. Something gender-coded feminine, maybe?
    8. Body changes = issues with technical skills 
      1. If I go this route, it’ll impact the gender identity narrative
  4. Does Ana get what she wants by the time the story’s done?
    1. I’m not sure? 
      1. Maybe leave this open-ended, because over the course of the story her focus has shifted from winning Nationals to being comfortable with who she is?

Some of the ideas I listed ended up not ever going into the story, while others did. All of them could have been incorporated into a story about skating, and that’s why this list-making works so well for me: it forces me to think about the story I want to tell and helps further refine my focus.

I also jotted down a list of all of the places Ana might visit, which in turn helped me imagine scenes where some of the details I listed above might play out. Here’s a scan of the notes I took, which are somewhat more legible, I hope:

A friend once saw some of my lists and said they seemed a lot like mind-mapping, so that may be another way to think about it. And I’m not just creating a static list of possible places Ana could visit. Combined with my answers to the questions above, I’m actively brainstorming why she might be in those places, what scenes could happen there, and also considering how they might support or impede both her internal and external journeys.

Next Steps

At this point, I’ll admit, I do try to create a chapter by chapter outline, but I’ve never been very good at it. My initial “outline” for ANA had 23 chapters. The final book has 35 (plus a prologue and epilogue). But it served as a roadmap, something I could turn to if I got stuck during drafting and use alongside my lists of locations, internal needs, and external wants. It kept me on track.

As you can see, my chapter summaries are not especially detailed. They’re more like prompts to kickstart my drafting process. Once I’ve gotten them down, I transfer them to Scrivener, a writing program I use that allows me to organize my draft into chapters and scenes.

It’s at this stage that I start drafting.

But first, a note: my brainstorming process might seem like a lot of work, and it can be depending on how detailed I get. But at its core, it allows me to ask myself questions that I feel I need the answers to before I can get started on the meat of my story. It helps me consider my story from multiple angles and decide what’s important. Depending on what else is on my plate life-wise, this process can take as little as a day or as long as several years (I promise I’ll get back to you someday, YA Southern Gothic idea from 2017…).

Once I’m done with my lists, the draft begins. My drafting process is generally frenetic. Since I have a roadmap, my aim is to get the initial draft out as quickly as possible, without fussing over word choice or fretting about the awkwardness of my prose. The nice thing about my chapter summaries is that they leave wiggle room for subplots, plus for characters to do things or go places I wasn’t anticipating. Ultimately, there’s still an element of discovery to my drafting. As long as I’m able to circle back to the ending I was aiming for when I set out, I’m gold. (And if I’m not able to, or if I end up someplace else, it might be time to reevaluate my goals for this particular story. Also helpful intel.)

I’ll be honest. Drafting is my least favorite part of novel writing. I adore the excitement of a fresh idea and sketching out initial scenes for inspiration. I love my lists (if that wasn’t already obvious) and I really enjoy tweaking words and making each sentence sing.

But drafting? It’s laborious, a fight against near constant self-doubt, where I question not just my ability to tell a story but sometimes even my understanding of basic sentence structure. My dialogue’s often stilted, descriptions either non-existent or they go on for multiple paragraphs. Rough drafting for me is something I get through so I can do what I love: carving out the story I envisioned during that initial spark of an idea.

For me, there’s no prouder moment than getting to the end, not just knowing I’ve completed something but understanding that I can make it so much better when I revisit it. Because ultimately, it’s not just your character who takes a journey during this process. You’re also along for the ride, for each bumpy road and twisty turn. Every obstacle your character faces you face too. It might take a different shape but this happens for me on every novel. I’m not the same writer I was at the start of my process. Noveling involves change, for your character certainly, but also for you as an author.

Go chase that spark of an idea, however small. Start the process and change some lives, in your stories and real life.

YES!! Change lives in stories and real life! I love it.

Thank you so much for stopping by, A.J. It was a delight to have you, and I hope you have a fantastic release day, release week, release month!

Congratulations on your debut!

And to all the Misfits & Daydreamers who want to snag a copy of Ana on the Edge, head here.

The Mighty Pens Return!

It's here: the Mighty Pens 2020 is officially open to participant sign-ups!

Click here to join this phenomenal community and get the positive peer pressure you need to accomplish your NaNoWriMo goals—all while raising money for Every Mother Counts.

If you're new to the Mighty Pens, it's a charity drive run by me (Kat Brauer), Sooz, and a band of merry volunteers. Participants enlist their friends and family, even strangers, to donate when they reach word count goals during NaNoWriMo. If you raise enough or write enough, you are eligible for prizes, like signed books, author critiques, and so much more!

Most importantly, the money we raise is going to an amazing cause. Every Mother Counts seeks not only to decrease the maternal mortality rate worldwide, making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, but also to help mothers thrive even after childbirth. It's very likely you know at least one person who might have died during birth or after because of a lack of resources, inept care, or worse, discrimination and disbelief. 

It's hard to distract ourselves from doom scrolling and the mini-apocalypse, but this November you can use your time to create—and in turn, make the world a little bit better.

🧡 - Kat

Upcoming Events:

I have nothing planned right now, but some events are on the way for fall! Stay tuned into my social media for announcements!

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Buy my books! 📚
Thank you for reading! Have a fabulous weekend, friends!

Susan Dennard
110 West 40th St.
Suite 2201
New York, NY 10018

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