Amber Royer is the author of Free Chocolate and Pure Chocolate, out now from Angry Robot Books. Pure Chocolate just hit the shelves and ereaders, and Amber is here to talk about her writing life. Check out the awesome book trailer for Pure Chocolate.
Welcome, Amber, to the Gordath Wood website. Let’s get started.
What was the worst bit of writing advice you ever received? What was your reaction?
Once you finish writing the novel, send it out, and if nobody wants it, move on to the next book. Oh, I took that advice, and I took it hard. I’d send a project to a half dozen people, get no’s and decide that the project was so flawed, I’d move on to the next book. That’s how Free Chocolate wound up in a trunk for years before I decided there was something about the story that I just couldn’t give up on. And why I have 20 plus years of writing experience and fourteen manuscripts, and I’m still new at the “published author” table.
What they meant was, Don’t make your first novel the only thing you ever write. But you have to go through the learning process of making a first draft into something salable. Otherwise, you can write books your whole life, but none of them will be polished and structurally sound. A number of years into the whole submission process, after I’d given up on becoming a published author and then reluctantly come back to try again, an agent (not the one I eventually signed with) told me, “You keep submitting things two drafts too soon.” THAT is the advice that changed everything. I realized how much about the writing process I didn’t know, and how little of the practical side of it had been addressed in the creative writing classes I’d taken for my undergrad work. I started reading writing manuals, listening to podcasts and learning the craft. My favorite writing quote is where Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” I started viewing myself as an apprentice and learned from many, many more experienced writers.
I joined my first adult-level writer’s group when I was still in high school, so I can’t really remember not thinking of myself as a writer. I’m pretty sure the group thought of me as the kid mascot (I remember winning some contest where the prize was a bottle of wine, and not being allowed to keep it), but I learned so much. BUT I think because I was a kid, a lot of people didn’t give me the blunt advice they would have an older writer, and I thought I was brilliant, because I got smilies on my work at critique group and A’s from my creative writing professors. I think that’s one reason it took me so much to publish (see above).
What surprised you the most about your novel and why?
Brill. (This is a little bit of a spoiler, but not terribly so, since he is on the cover of Book 2). When I originally drafted the novel, he was supposed to be just as much of a self-centered jerk as Bo takes him for in the middle of Free Chocolate. Their breakup was supposed to be permanent. But once I started writing it, I realized there was so much more to him than I’d given him credit for. And so much more to his planet’s culture. His sense of honor and determination to do the right things for Bo, even if it didn’t win her back – I hadn’t planned that. And I didn’t accept it at first. I tried to shoehorn that first draft into the shape I had originally envisioned, with Bo making predetermined choices, and that rang false. The manuscript didn’t even make it to critique readers before I realized I had to change it.
Nanowrimo– for or against? Prove your work.
Definitely for. As a writing instructor, I find that the hardest thing for a student to do is complete their first novel. Often, they get caught up in overthinking each step of the process, or get overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. NaNo forces you to get the work done, and then you realize you CAN complete a novel. There’s no guarantee it will be a very good novel, or that 50,000 words will even be the whole story, but you can’t edit what you didn’t write. And even if you don’t “win,” you will have a significant number of words you didn’t have before.
HOWEVER, walking into NaNo blind and deciding on November 1 to just sit down and start typing without counting the cost of the task is setting yourself up for failure. For a new writer, this can be extremely discouraging. Try writing for a fifteen minute sprint. Do this four or five times and take an average. Then multiply this by four, and that’s your average sprinting wordcount per hour. Take 50,000 and divide by your average per hour speed, and add a couple of hours for time taken figuring out plot issues, celebrating epiphanies that take your work to a whole new level, and unexpected “life happens” moments. That’s what you’re committing to. If the number of hours is honestly higher than you have to spare, modify NaNo to a goal that’s just slightly higher than you can realistically reach, so that you can still challenge yourself. “I was shooting for 25K but I only got to 21” feels a lot better than, “I didn’t even get half way through.”
And having a plan (plot outline, character sketches , even literal sketches of your characters) will help you be successful at NaNo too. There is nothing wrong with pantsing your way through a writing project, but that takes more time that writing from an outline, and if you are writing one idea hoping the next idea will come, and it doesn’t, that can put you behind in the middle of NaNo, where that status bar is the most intimidating. I pantsed my way through NaNo the first couple of times I tried it, and I struggled to get to 50K because I got lost in tangents and subplots that led nowhere. It may be just my personal writing process, but I went into NaNo last year knowing the characters and with a workable outline, and I was able to double-Nano (knock out 100K in a month). This year, I had revisions due to my publisher mid November, but I was still able to NaNo 50K into a sequel because I already knew where it was headed.
I’m not a big fan of the “write anything, even if it’s not really relevant to the novel,” approach because the actual point of this isn’t just to have 50,000 random words, but rather to have a project you can be proud of and to edit into a meaningful book. I think this advice to take a scattershot approach is what turns many seasoned writers off from the idea of NaNo – when you have deadlines and marketing to do, you can’t waste writing time.
I also have problems with the “you must include a hippopotamus on the next page” approach, because that’s going to seriously derail most people’s storylines. Again, that kind of exercise is fine when you’re not on a time crunch – most of the writing prompts I give my students are curve balls that may or may not wind up in the book. For ex. “Write a scene where your character goes back home,” or “Write a scene that shows how this character’s life is different several years after a cataclysm that happened in your worldbuilding.” Often, the pieces fit surprisingly well and about 70% of the time students say they plan to add them to the book. But when they don’t there’s no pressure to shoehorn in something that just doesn’t fit.
NaNo is great for the sense of community and accountability that keeps writers motivated. You got this!
Thanks, Amber! And dear reader, if you made it this far, you deserve a Pure Chocolate treat.