My Writing Process


So I've been writing since I was 14, and I've learnt a lot about writing (as you can imagine). These have come from all sorts of sources, initially books (both instructional and from reading fantasy fiction) and advice from other writers I met, and then after the YouTube boom I've gleaned a lot of fantastic stuff from there as well. Some channels I recommend are:

Hello Future Me

Just Write

Brandon Sanderson (in particular his educational lectures)

Overly Sarcastic Productions (their Trope Talk series)

Resonant Arc (though they focus most on video game stories a lot of elements carry over into novels)

Tale Foundry

From a combination of all of these things, I've now standardized a lot of my writing process, so this post will go through how I construct a novel, from initial idea to finished, published product!

Step One- Ideas and Outlines

As you may have read from my author interview, the original idea for The Binding came when I was taking some blood samples to the lab during my first hospital job. I had a scene emerge in my mind—a girl sitting alone in a forest, because she wanted to protect her heart. I took this concept and expanded it, creating the Binding spell, laying down some rules, and then went on to develop Eliza as a character. All this I jotted down in a Word document as a series of questions to help flesh things out.

I even did an illustration of the scene!

Once I had a clear idea of what the general themes would be, I then wrote out the outline for the story. I am very much a planner type of writer, and I find it easy to follow an outline rather than write and see where things go. The outline isn't set in stone, however, so if a character interaction changes the direction of a story I will adapt and re-outline. I had to do this for The Goddess's Blessing (the last book of the trilogy), which changed the second half of the story entirely from the original.

Step Two- First/ Second Draft


With the outline complete, now comes the hard part- the actual writing! This means putting rough chapter markers in the original outline, and then fleshing everything out. I do tend to refine quite a bit- which is where I will write 400-500 words and then go back and tidy it up a few times. A lot of authors warn against this as you can get stuck in the same scene for ages, but I've found this method good for me, as I can do this relatively quickly and move on. This saves time later with the first edit, and allows me to focus on expanding things like characterization (which is one of my weaknesses) rather than the technical parts.

I also highlight or make a note of areas I can't quite figure out and will need to come back to. I keep the notes in a separate Notepad document.

This is also the bit where I can re-write the outline if the story seems to be going in another direction. This helps me keep things flexible without abandoning structure altogether.

Step Three- Editing

The bit most authors dread, but I actually find the first edit quite fun! This allows me to inject more characterisation, spruce up dialogue and cut down on unnecessary filler words ('just', 'even', 'eyes widened' are particularly bad ones for me). I quite like Brandon Sanderson's tip where you only focus on one thing per edit (so one edit for technical issues like word choice/ sentence structure, one edit for characters/ dialogue, one edit for plot points etc).

So edit 1: adding more character thoughts/ reactions, smoothing out/ refining dialogue and ensuring a consistent voice, removing filler words, removing too much 'tell' areas, also writing down a list of overused words

Edit 2: world/ geography consistencies, temporal consistencies (how long it takes to get from one place to another), adding in additional relevant worldbuilding or removing irrelevant details

Edit 3: checking for accurate word choices, checking my list of overused words and cutting these down (I use the 'Find' option in Word for this), making sure I'm using consistent hyphens/ spellings/ capitalisations

For each run-through of the story I'll also try and correct any typos I come across.

At this stage it's also good to send the story to some trusted beta readers who can give external feedback to point out things you might not have thought about.

Step Four- Polish

This bit I find the most tedious, as at this point I'll have read through the manuscript so many times. For this I take a slightly different approach to editing.

Once I'm happy that the story itself has been trimmed and tided and the plot and character elements are as good as they can be, next comes the technical part- to catch grammar/ spelling errors/ typos. I start from the last chapter and work backwards, using an e-reader to read the text aloud. I use Free Natural Reader and Balabolka for this- both are free to download.

This is really good for catching typos and tense changes, and is better than reading aloud yourself as the e-reader will always read what's on screen, whereas your brain may insert or inject words that aren't there. Don't be tempted to set the reading speed too fast- you should get it to match the tempo of your own reading speed.

Reading backwards also stops you getting caught in the 'rhythm' of the story, as this can make you overlook thing as you've already read it so many times.

Once you've self-proofed, this is when you should send the manuscript to a trusted editor so they can check for any other remaining errors. Different types of editor edit for different things so make sure you pick the right type.


Step Five- Formatting

This step used to be a huge headache, but now I have ready-made templates from my previous books it's super easy. Definitely learn to use Word's Styles Feature, as this makes it much quicker.

Once you've made the corrections from the editor, it's time to make the book publishable.

Ebooks and paperback books have specific formatting (to make sure there's no misaligned text or random blank pages) and these need to be adhered to, to make sure the books look right. Different distributors also have different formatting (Amazon vs Smashwords) so make sure you have separate templates for each.

A new site has come around called Draft2Digital which is another way you can format your books. I used them recently and their user interface is quite straight-forward.

Step Six- Cover and Synopsis

Fortunately I am an artist as well as a writer, so this saves me having to hunt down a cover artist. Of course making a cover is still time-consuming and needs to be the best it can be, to attract readers. To know where to start about covers, I recommend David Gaughran's free course, where he covers not only this but pretty much everything you need to know about self publishing.

And then comes the synopsis- the bane of most writer's existence, but oddly enough I don't find it too much of a hassle. I put this down to being a doctor- I have to document patient stories in their medical notes succinctly and in summary, so it's something I'm quite used to!

It also helps to read the synopses of other books in your genre to get an idea of what tone to go for.

Step Seven- Preparing for Publishing

And so the last step involves checking and re-checking to make sure the books are ready to go.

On Amazon KDP, there is a preview tool to check ebooks and paperbacks, and you can also order proof copies of paperbacks to check they print properly and that the cover looks good.

A look inside the proof copy of The Goddess's Blessing

Once these are all ready, you're ready to go live!

If there are any errors Amazon picks up, they will notify you so you can make the changes. But if all goes well, your book will pop up on the market place, ready for your readers to devour.

And so these are the steps I take in my writing process. Of course this isn't the only way to do it and there are thousands of other methods out there. Are you a writer? What works for your in your process?

My Top Five Favourite Fantasy Settings



Fantasy has always been my favourite genre, and one of the things that appeals most to me are the expansive worlds. Writers can be so creative and build entire societies, cultures and people that are just fascinating to dive into. I'm no exception of course, having created the world of Azaria for my novel series.

Of course, Azaria wouldn't be what it is without inspiration, so here is a list of my top five fantasy locations. They cover a variety of media, so without further ado...

1. Gaia (Final Fantasy IX)



Gaia is the main world on which the video game Final Fantasy IX takes place. It is made of four major continents- Mist, Outer, Lost and Forgotten. The Mist Continent, as the name implies, is engulfed in a strange substance known as Mist. This has been harnessed into fuel, and so technology and transport is very steampunk. Lindblum is a great example of this, being the biggest and most advanced of the nations:

Then there's Alexandria, which is steeped in much more tradition and has a history of empire and war.

One of the most unique nations is Burmecia. This is situated in an area where it never stops raining, and is inhabited by humanoid rat-like people.


What appeals to me most about Gaia is its mix of old and new technology. It's steampunk at its finest, and yet it also allows for magic and greater supernatural powers to co-exist (such as the summons). I really adore the blend of science and magic, and is definitely something that will inform one of Azaria's future settings.

2. Thedas (Dragon Age series)


I was only introduced to the Dragon Age cames relatively recently, but the world of Thedas definitely held my interest. It's much more gritty and grimdark than the settings I tend to prefer, but it lends itself well to the story it wants to tell. There are a mix of countries, each with their own conflicts and agendas, but there are also greater threats, such as The Blight, which require co-operation to keep under control, and even the Chantry, the church that wields as much power as any of the nations.

The first Dragon Age came takes place mainly in Ferelden, which is an England-based country, ruled by a monarchy. It has strong medieval vibes, with not much in the way of technological advancement and feudal systems, and dogs are popular pets. It's the little details like this that make the setting fun, and somewhat relatable (since I live in the UK).


Then there's the pompous Orlais, modelled on France, with their eccentric nobility and lavish customs. They have an imperial ruling system. They also have quite the disdain for Fereldens, who likewise can't stand the Orlesians (much like the age old rivalry between the French and English). The stark differences between the two nations are revealed the best in the third game, Dragon Age Inquisition.


Thedas also has the city states of the Free Marches (much like the ancient city states of Italy), the Spanish/ Portugese inspired Antiva, and the Roman-empire styled Tevinter Imperium. I really do like the basis in real-world locations, as it gives the setting a dash of realism and makes the conflicts between the nations a lot more grounded. It is quite Europe-centric, though, so it would be great to see something similar done for another culture.

3. The Old Kingdom (Sabriel series)


This was one of the first book fantasy worlds I really appreciated. The Old Kingdom is the region north of Ancelstierre, and the two regions are separated by the Wall. This protects Ancelstierre from Free Magic and the Dead, and is manned by soldiers. But it's not completely fool-proof, as occasionally when the wind blows the wrong way, technology can fail in Ancelstierre, especially near the Wall.

I really like this concept, as in contrast to Gaia in Final Fantasy IX, here technology and magic are opposing forces, with Free Magic being chaotic and unpredictable, while technology (and technically Charter Magic) try to bring order and stability.

I also appreciate how the Abhorsen's House is situated (in the middle of a river), as water is a repellent force for the Dead. The sequel books also let us explore the Clayr's Glacier, which is another unique setting for a people to make a settlement in.

All in all the Old Kingdom is great to explore and delve into, as each of its areas are built to fit the magic system and history, and Garth Nix does add layers with newer books.

4. Edgeworld (The Edge Chronicles)



This was definitely the world that inspired me most for my Azaria books. There are three main trilogies in this series, where the actions of one character leads to consequences that are seen in the next. This is something at the heart of my series, and will become more apparent with the next book.

The Edge is a huge floating landmass, mostly covered in the Deepwoods forest, but its most unique feature are the floating rocks. In the first age, these grow in the Stone Gardens. Smaller rocks can be used in airships to allow for flight, but a natural phenomenon caused a giant one to be created. Upon this, the city of Sanctaphrax was built, and was the seat of knowledge, with particular devotion to meterology. The rock is tethered to the ground by a giant chain.

Beneath the floating city lies Undertown, a much more industrialized settlement. While Santaphrax is full of academics and scholers, Undertown is ruled by merchants, and thus there is much more inequality. The anchor that keeps Sanctaphrax grounded also lies here.

The beauty of this series, however, is that the world changes between trilogies. The first Sanctaphrax proved a giant climatalogical threat that could end all life on Edge, and so had to be evacuated and cut loose. A new giant stone was created, but thanks to something called stone-sickness, it could no longer float and had to be suspended by wooden pillars. These pillars were made by slave-labour in Undertown, as the merchants had been overthrown and replaced by more corrupt leaders.

I love how each part of Edgeworld feeds into the other, and how change in one area can drastically impact another. Considering this was written in 1998, the parallels to climate change are stark, and worth heeding.

5. The Four Nations (Avatar: The Last Airbender)


This is perhaps the most culturally diverse world of the ones I've listed, being the Eastern equivalent of the Euro-centric Dragon Age. While the parallels are not completely one to one, the research that went into this clearly shows and provides a really refreshing worldview.

The world of Avatar has four nations based on the four elements- the Fire Nation (with strong imperial Japan influences), the Earth Kingdom (based off expansive Chinese settlements), the Air Nomads (based off Tibetian monks), and the Water Tribes (based off Inuit/ Alaskan culture). The nations are supposed to live in harmony, but the imperialism of the Fire Nation has caused war for over 100 years. The Air Nomads were wiped out, the Southern Water Tribe has had all its fighters and water-benders decimated, with only the Earth Kingdom able to provide much resistance (and that's with the King beind unaware there's a war going on at all).

The Avatar (based off a Hindu concept of gods reincarnating into mortal form to address times of strife) is the person meant to bring balance to the world, and in this case it's the last surviving Air Nomad, a boy named Aang. As he journeys to master the four elements and bring down the tyrannical Fire Lord, we get to see the depth of the cultures. None of the nations are monoliths- there are Fire Sages who are on the Avatar's side, the Kyoshi warriors who live independently on their own island, water-benders who live in swamps...there's a great amout of diversity and it really does make the world feel real.

My favourite location is probably the Northern Water Tribe city. It's a canal city built on ice between a glacier, and the form fits function so well.


Northern Water Tribe

Conclusion

So those are my top five fantasy locations, all of which have definitely inspired the creation of my own world, Azaria. What are your favourite fantasy locations, and what makes them memorable to you? I'd love to know!

Why There Isn't Much Diversity In My Books (so far)...and How I'm Going To Change

 

In the last few decades, the issue about diversity in fiction has become more and more prominent. What's diversity, you ask? Well (and this isn't a formal definition), it's about including a broader variety of characters in stories, highlighting the trend that characters tend to be of the dominant or 'default' class (typically white straight male), even in non real-world settings. It also includes the fact that most creators who aren't white or male get overlooked in big projects, which perpetuates the above 'defaults' and doesn't give a true voice to these other groups.

Having characters of colour, characters on the LGBT+ spectrum or even just more women in prominent roles is more reflective of populations in the real world and can shed light onto stories or perspectives which wouldn't otherwise be given a voice. I for one have definitely become tired of the common tropes in fiction and repetition of the same ideas, and this could be a way to open up a world of intriguing possibility.

Alas, even as an author of colour myself, I have a confession to make. It's only been recently that I've noticed in my own work, I've fallen into the 'default' trap. My first trilogy, the Chronicles of Azaria: The Goddess Saga, features predominantly white characters, with very little in the way of other cultures or representation. While I have better representation planned for future books, it's still something that has come to bother me.

Now you could argue why should this matter- the setting is in a made up fantasy world, so the race of the characters should be irrelevant. The story is also much more character focused, so it's difficult to include other diverse elements that are directly relevant, compared to a big expansive epic. And arguably it's worse to shove in 'forced diversity' for the sake of it, rather than making it an organic part of the story.

The character cards for the upcoming books won't look quite so homogenous!

While there is some truth to these arguments, they are not excuses, and being made aware of diversity issues is still important. Not only does it allow other minorities to feel seen and represented (though of course in fantasy settings this isn't directly comparable), it also refreshes the tired old tropes that many, especially me, have become so bored with. With this in mind, I have revamped other settings in my Azaria world, which will play a larger role in the upcoming stories for the series.

The new regions, Bayaan and Nydis, will feature prominently in future Azaria books, and is based off North India/ Nepal

Thus the main reason for writing this post is firstly, to raise awareness, but secondly, to be aware of biases you may not even know you have, even as someone from a minority background. Even though I'm not white, my main characters still defaulted to this, so anyone can perpetuate the trend without realising it. It's only by taking a step back and thinking 'why is this character this way' can you think more broadly and ambitiously. Nonetheless, I am also not for the trend of forcing in diversity which makes it come off as a 'checklist of things to include' and not be woven into the story properly. I've read a few books like this, which only include superficial Western interpretations, and it really does come off as lazy.

Then comes the issue of 'who should be writing this'? There are many who tout that only others of a certain race or indigenous group should be writing about themselves, but I think this needs a more nuanced argument. While we don't want to go down the old colonialism route of 'those Orientals' and perpetuate harmful stereotypes, it's also too restrictive to ban all writers with an interest in other cultures from doing so. The key here is research, talking to and getting viewpoints from people in said culture, and then writing about it sensitively and respectfully.


The main cast of the series features Sokka and Katara (based off Inuit culture) and Aang (based off Tibetan monks)

A great example of this I think is the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series. The world is based off Eastern cultures, and so while it's not a direct representation and there is some mixing of elements, each nation or group are depicted well and respectfully, despite being entirely written by two white men. Each culture also isn't conglomerated together into 'The East'. The story and world building and characters, while not perfect, are masterfully done, and it does show that a lot of thought and research went into even seemingly minor details.

On the other hand, the creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino could have done more to promote creators of the backgrounds within their stories, as there is a bias in the industry. Who's to say that a creator who was a part of the depicted cultures was overlooked for a similar story?

Similar could be said for Disney's Moana- while the depiction of the culture was cetainly a lot more respectful than previous films such as Pocahontas, and there was direct consultation of the ethnic group involved, it still wasn't written by indigenous creators. To some this may seem overly nitpicky, where to others this is a key to the heart of the diversity issues that need to be recognised and addressed.

It's therefore quite difficult to acknowledge internal biases that have built up over time, let alone address them, but having seen the problem in my work, it has really opened my eyes of the simple steps that can be taken to start to improve representation in my own fiction.

So, to sum up:

1. Consider including a wider range of people as characters from different racial groups or other backgrounds, even if not using a real-world setting

2. If you are not a member of said group, talk to people who are and do further research to avoid harmful stereotypes. Also ask what kind of story you are wanting to tell, and if you are simply using the other culture as 'set dressing'.

3. Don't shoe-horn diversity in to get 'brownie points', make it an integral part of the story and its development, which is why thinking about it early is key


I'm looking forward to implement these changes in my future books, and I hope you'll enjoy what it creates!

Clean Fantasy Reads Special Giveaway

 

Hello everyone! Hope you like the new look of the website- I'd been putting off an upgrade for ages, but I'm glad I finally got down to it and revamped it. All the old content on the previous site is still here, just more organised.

Amongst the changes are that I now have a newsletter- if you want to keep up to date with my latest book releases, enjoy some fun fantasy-based anecdotes, and  snag some great book deals from other fantasy authors from time to time, then I highly recommend you subscribe. As a thank you, you'll get the first in my Chronicles of Azaria series novels, The Binding, free (usual price $4.99/ £4.99). Yes, that's the whole entire book, free! You can download it in multiple formats, so it will work on whichever device you use.

As well as that, I also have a very special deal coming up. From 2nd March 2021, I've joined the Clean Fantasy Reads Giveaway. Via an exclusive link in my newsletter, you'll be able to access over 20 FREE young adult romance fantasy books (similar to my own book, The Binding). These range from novellas to full length first series books, so you don't want to miss out!

All of these titles are deemed 'clean'- so there's no explicit content and is aimed for ages 12+. Ideal if you want a break from all the heavy grimdark (both in fiction and in reality). And you may just find your new favourite series...

So if you want access to these titles, just go to the right sidebar and sign up to my newsletter (which will also snag you a free copy of my book, too). The promo ends on 31st March, and I'll send the links out twice. The last one will be 28th March, so be sure to sign up before then.

Outside of this promotion, my newsletter goes out a once a month, so don't worry, you won't be bombarded with spam. And of course you can opt out at time.

So, what you need to do:

1. Go to the right sidebar and sign up to my newsletter

2. Check the confirmation email

3. Get your free download of The Binding as your gift

4. Enjoy updates from me, and from tomorrow get access to more free fantasy books!

How I've Improved My Drawing Skills- by NOT drawing every day!

 

So, I'm sure everyone has heard of this common piece of art advice, often told to beginners. And while there is some merit to it, taking it literally is not helpful and can in fact by harmful, as it can reinforce bad habits. This has certainly been my experience, and so I decided to try something else after months of poor progress. Knowing these additional tricks have helped me improve more in a a year that I have in the last five years, so I think it's worth sharing to see if they may help you too.

 
One of my first Inktober drawings from 2019

One of my drawings from Birdtober 2020

 As you can see there's quite a difference in just one year, but I certainly haven't been drawing daily since 2019, so what made such a big difference?

Well, I will try to share what's worked for me, but of course there is no set-in-stone rule to learn how to draw, and different things work for different people- it also depends on what style you're trying to achieve. However, the following have definitely levelled up the quality of my drawings, which tend to a more realistic slant. Such tips I have gleaned from other art resources online and I am by no means taking credit for them- I will try to link to resources where I can if you want to go more in-depth.

LEARN HOW TO LOOK
Drawing every day sounds like a reasonable type of study- the more you draw, the more familiar you get making lines and strokes, and this builds the muscle memory in your hand as well as co-ordination with your eyes. However, if you're just drawing without any prior knowledge or thought, you'll start to remember the wrong things, and this can be hard to undo!

A red-tailed kite drawing from 2018- see how shaky and uneven the lines are? This is because I was guessing at what I was seeing, rather than understanding what I was looking at!
This red kite I drew at the end of 2020- doesn't it look so much more clean and in proportion? A lot of this comes from having learned to understand what I was seeing!

So before diving in, it's best to train your eye first to understand what you are looking at. Some of this will come from the particular subject, so in my case anatomy of birds is important, but this applies to landscape/ figure drawing/ mechanical drawing!

The whole foundation of drawing is built on the idea that you are creating a 3D image on a 2D plane, so you need to know how forms look to give the illusion of 3D. This is accomplished by using 3D building blocks such as cubes, cones, pyramids and spheres to create complex forms.

There are various ways to practice accurate observation- drawing from life, where you can study an actual 3D object with different lighting, and learning how to break structures down into 3D pieces. You can do this via tracing photos, not for simple outlines but trying to break them down into 3D shapes.


Tracing over photos can be very helpful to identify planes, like with this robin (photograph is my own)

My problem was that I would look at a reference and 'free draw'- try to make flat shapes based on assumptions. You can see this very clearly in my first red kite drawing. Then I moved on to measuring, which helped with proportions but still made me have to look at the reference constantly and I was still making errors. What I now do is 'construct'- more on this below.

Tutorials that help with observation:
Istebrak's critique videos
Drawabox.com
Drawing from life (take any simple object at home or a model, get a lamp to cast a light on it and draw it!)

LEARN HOW TO BUILD
Having got a bit more of a foundation as to how forms are structured, you can now construct forms without being too reference reliant. For me, I estimate the length and width of the subject, then use blocky shapes/ planes to fill in the main forms. Everything at this stage is a straight line, no curves, and this really helps identify angles and lengths much more accurately.

A study on 'constructing' an eagle form. This is explained in excellent detail on drawabox.com (the link will take you to Lesson 2 which has a more detailed explanation)

It also makes shading much easier, as you can see contours and plan where light and shadow will fall. I find this most difficult to 'see', which makes shading one of my bigger weaknesses, but using 'blocks' simplifies things and lets me judge lighting a lot more accurately. This way a form can be depicted using shadows rather than outlines, which is more realistic.

Tutorials that help with doing this:
John Muir Laws birds
Proko human anatomy
Ethan Becker

LEARN HOW TO REFLECT
The last thing I've found that really helps is knowing how to reflect after each drawing- it's great to go over old drawings and see how much improvement's been made. It also helps to revisit and see what you could have done differently, and it can be fun to redraw old art.

The first bird drawing I did, redrawn- quite an improvement in only 2 years!


A macaw parrot from Inktober 2019
 
 
A macaw parrot from Birdtober 2020- quite a difference to the first attempt!

It is also helpful to look at what worked- often when trying new things you can get good results on accident which are then hard to replicate. Identifying what made a drawing better than another can help with this.

A bee hummingbird painting fro May 2020- I found a way to get a nice feather texture, and I replicated this with the next drawing, an American Robin that I drew in December 2020:
 

I also found that analysing other art that I enjoy or want to emulate is also a great thing to do. There is no harm in copying a drawing to see how the outcome was achieved (but you should of course never plagerise, and while I would avoid posting at all on social media, making very clear that the work is a study and not your own is super important).

Of course this can be difficult to do on your own, so getting into one of the many art communities can also help with getting feedback!

Resources to help with this:
Proko Draftsmen podcast
Mohammed Agbadi- as well as general tutorials he also breaks down individual artists' styles

CONCLUSION
So, having established these basics, when you draw you'll know what errors to look for. With this awareness, frequency and mileage now become important, as this will reinforce good habits and you'll be much better equipped to spot mistakes.

Have you ever been told to 'draw every day'? Did this work for you, or did you try other approaches? I'd love to know!