Issue #149 View in browser
April 10, 2020

What's in this newsletter?

  • Recent Goings On
  • For the DenNerds: Bloodwitch Delay +  Another Teaser!
  • For the Daydreamers: How I Write a Novel, Part 1
  • Upcoming Events

Recent Goings On

These are bleak times. I know people who've lost family to the virus, and people who've lost their jobs. I have no wise words to help you or anyone else through this, and no adequate words to express how sorry I am for your losses and your fears.

I hope all of you can stay safe and healthy. And please, please, please, if you are in a domestic situation that has left you feeling unsafe, reply to this email. I will do whatever I can to find you the resources you need.

What I'm Playing

(Comfort food.)

What I'm Reading

(Yes, still.)

What I'm Listening To

(Perfect for Iseult + Safi)

For the DenNerds:
Bloodwitch Paperback Delay + Another Teaser!

If you haven't already seen, the US Bloodwitch paperback got delayed. Instead of a May release, it will now be releasing July 14, 2020.

I'm sorry friends! These are such uncertain times, and books are getting delayed left and right for various reasons, ranging from paper shortages to printer closures to bookstore closures.

The UK paperback, however, is still releasing May 14, so be sure to preorder a copy of that!

In an attempt to add some positivity to the boo news of a delayed paperback, I've got a fun teaser to share with you! 🎉

it's from the next Witchlands book, and is actually a short story that Iseult tells Owl.

Throughout the novel, Iseult recites stories to help Owl through hard moments—or sometimes to help herself. Every tale begins the same way: Long ago, when the gods walked among us...

So happy reading! I hope you enjoy this story of the Moon Mother and her little sister.

Read the teaser here!
For the Daydreamers:
How I Write a Novel, Part 1: Ideas + Research

"How I Write a Novel" is one of those topics I frequently get asked to cover, and since it's a rather large undertaking, I have kept putting it off...

But now that many of you are suddenly faced with time and perhaps a desire to try your hand at novel writing, it seems like the right moment to finally lay it all out there.

Plus, Camp NaNoWriMo is currently running, and it's not too late to join!

Over the next few newsletters, I'll lay out the basics of how I take an idea and turn it into a full-fledged (though not necessarily good) first draft.

But three disclaimers before I get started:

  1. This isn't a workshop and my aim isn't to teach you how to write a novel. I have hundreds of free resources from which you can the learn nuts and bolts of craft. This newsletter series is more of a step by step introduction to what I personally do.
  2. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are people in the world. Literally. Everyone has a different way of doing it, and there is no wrong way. As such, I urge you to look at other posts on the subject too! Read books, follow other writers, and constantly try new things.
  3. If you aren't feeling creative right now, that is 100% okay. If I weren't under deadline, I would not be writing right now. Many of us are just trying to get by, and suddenly having free time doesn't mean we suddenly have "free inspiration" too. Our creativity is deeply linked to our mental health, and at the moment, most people's mental health is taking a beating. Don't feel guilty if that's you. You can always start your novel a year from now. Or ten years from now. There's no right or wrong time.
Multiple Ideas

First things first, to write a novel, I need an idea. Maybe it's a single name, like this one taken from my idea notebook: Jack Ovalltraids.

For me, that name evokes something punny, something fantastical, something light.

Or maybe the idea I'll start with has a full-fledge introduction with voice and everything. This is also in my idea notebook:

It started with a cough. The right temperature. The right host. The right excess of antibiotics to overload the system and weed out the weakest bacteria.

People imagine evolution as a slow moving beast, and on the macro scale of mice and men, it is. But when it comes to the microscopic world constantly teeming around us, evolution needs only days—hours, even—to unfold.

Natural selection, genetic drift, random mutation. The three requirements for a species to advance, and on that unfortunate day on the C75Z-45E shuttle to Mars, the three requirements were met.

The bacteria jumped hosts, from a middle aged pathologist on her way to a conference on bacterial resistance (oh, the irony) to a marine headed home on shore leave.

The marine became patient zero.

He became the first host for the slag.

Or at least, that’s what everyone thinks now. They don’t really know. There are no bodies to analyze, no tissue samples to assess. All there is is footage from the shuttle’s CCTV.

Footage and me.

Do I know where that idea was going? No. I don't even remember when I wrote it (though it feels very relevant now). But the idea is there in my notebook and waiting to be used.

As is the name Jack Ovalltraids.

But neither of those ideas is big enough to fill a novel.

In fact, in case you haven't noticed, novels are long. Like long. My shortest published novel is 89,000 words. My longest published novel is twice that.

This is why, when I'm starting a new project, I'm often combining multiple ideas.

A friend of mine always says you need two sticks to make a fire, and it's the same with ideas. One is never enough to fill a novel. You need at least two (and honestly, you likely need many more than that).

For example: The Witchlands was first sparked by time I spent in Croatia. I wanted to create a fantasy Adriatic and fantasy Republic of Ragusa. But that idea was just a vague world aesthetic—it had no characters, no story. And so it sat for 4 years before I found a second idea to mix into it: a Threadwitch and her best friend, a Truthwitch.

Even with those two ideas though, I didn't have enough to fill a massive sweeping series. Which is why I spent a full month padding out my ideas with new ones.

And how did I do that?

  • Research
  • Filling the creative well

There are so many things that are important to research before writing.

Not only is research a great way to add new ideas to your story (more on that below), but it also lends your book a sense of accuracy and grounding. No one likes to be pulled out of a story because we read something we know just isn't possible. And since what I know is going to be different than what you know...

Well, research is the way to fill in those knowledge gaps!

And of course, from a representation standpoint, research is critical.

Note: If you are writing someone who is not like you—not just as a main character, but in any role in the story—you need to do your research. And I don't just mean a wikipedia read. I mean talking to people like your character(s), interviewing people, asking (and paying) them to help you assess your overall premise, and reading everything you can about people with that different identity.

If that doesn't sound like something you want to do, then quite honestly, maybe writing isn't for you. If you're only writing for pleasure and for yourself, then it's fine! But if you plan to share your work and get published...Well, then at the bare minimum, you need to make sure you respectfully represent people who aren't like you. Be that a different gender identity, race, or religion...Be that someone with a disability or mental illness you don't have...Be that someone who is in any way marginalized. Do your homework. Thorougly.

Back to research-as-inspiration. I personally find one of the best ways to flesh out fledgling ideas is to get on Wikipedia and go. (Or go to my local library, but I wouldn't advise that right now!!)

It's so easy to lose yourself in the various wiki links, descending deeper and deeper until you're not even sure what topic you started with. A Wikipedia binge was how I wound up with the Twenty Year Truce in the Witchlands (based on the real life Twelve Years' Truce).

It's also how I settled on 1876 Philadelphia as the setting for my steampunk series. I knew I wanted the late 1800s, but I didn't want Victorian England. When I discovered the Centennial Exhibition, I knew right away that it was perfect spot for a necromantic zombie takeover. 😏

Filling the Creative Well

Beyond research rabbit holes, I also rely on other sources to flesh out my ideas—creatives sources that help fill the "well." Some ideas get used, some just get added to the massive well for later consumption.

One of the first places I turn to is Pinterest, for visual inspiration. It helps me build characters, imagine my worlds, and even get scene ideas.

One of the images featured on the board below shows up almost identically in Iseult's book. I wonder if you can guess which one...😉

And, going back to the creative well, one of the pins I added to my original Truthwitch board in 2013 inspired a scene idea that I just adored. But I didn't actually find a use for that scene idea until 5 years later, when I was drafting Bloodwitch.

Here's the pin, in case you're curious. ❄️⚡️

Point is: nothing is wasted. Compile, collect, fill the well!

I also rely on music a ton, both during the ideation phase as well as during drafting. I build massive playlists that evoke the tone of the world and characters—and sometimes, I even have specific songs that become the "soundtrack" for specific scenes.

For example, it wasn't until I heard Two Steps from Hell's "El Dorado" that I finally saw how the opening scene of Truthwitch would unfold. And now, whenever I need to get in that Safi/Iseult/Witchlands headspace, I can play that song and I'm instantly there.

I also get so many ideas from other forms of story. You all know I'm a big gamer, and I honestly cannot begin to guess how much games have impacted and inspired my writing.

For exampleAeduan was partly inspired by one of my favorite characters from a game I'm sure you've never heard of: Kian Alvane from Dreamfall. (It's a great series! I highly recommend!)

The physical setting of Dishonored 2 inspired me for a graphic novel I'm working on. The small scene-level world details of Dragon Age pushed me to use setting as a tool of foreshadow in the Witchlands. 

And of course, it's not just games that help me expand my idea banks and fill my creative well. It's books, it's movies, it's TV. EVERYTHING is fodder for our creative brains!

I was inspired to create Lizl in Bloodwitch thanks to Bobbie Draper on The Expanse, and I can trace aspects of Leopold's to Eugenides from The Thief.

And for Sightwitch, I wanted to create something that felt as real to me as all the footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell ...but then mixed in with all the extra world documents you find in games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, Dishonored, etc.

And I can't omit the most important source for ideas in my creative process: other writers!

I have a few go-to friends that I use for brainstorming, both pre-drafting and during drafting.

I talked about this at length in a recent newsletter, so I won't go into it again. Suffice it to say, having buddies you can bounce ideas off of when you're stuck is invaluable. I met all my writer friends online when I was first entering the writing world, and that is still a great place to go!

Research Part 2: Getting It Right

Of course, once the ideas are fleshed out, there are still so many things you need to research! Unless you're writing in a place you know intimately about a subject you know intimately, then there will always be something you have to look up.

For Something Strange & Deadly, I spent at least a month simply learning about 1876 Philadelphia, from technology to fashion to etiquette to slang. I had to, otherwise I would have had to stop constantly throughout drafting to figure out how things worked 150 years ago.

(And even when I had a solid handle on the time, I still had to do a ton of research during the drafting and revisions process.)

For Truthwitch, though not a historical, I still spent so much time researching. I learned about ships during the Renaissance, horses, tides in the Adriatic, and (most importantly) about writing people who aren't like me. I developed languages and cultures and settings. I went full throttle on the complicated magic system, and I drew map after map after map of the Witchlands.

And yes, I consider all that "making up a new world" stuff as research. Why? Because they are inextricably linked.

You cannot build a new world without some research, and inevitably in the course of researching, you will uncover cool new ideas for your world.

Keep Your Ideas Somewhere

I cannot emphasize this enough: keep your ideas somewhere. Be it in a physical notebook or on a phone app, write down every idea that you have.

All of them. Even the ones you think are terrible. You have no idea when they might come back and be useful, and trust me: you won't remember if you don't record.

Oh, you think you'll remember, but I can promise you that you won't. It's like that scene in Inside Out where the workers toss out all the old useless memories (but hang onto the gum commercial jingle). Your ideas will get tossed, so capture them somewhere outside your brain!

I personally rely on a few different "dumping grounds." I use an app on my phone that syncs across all my devices. I have different files for different books, and a master file filled with little ideas for new stories (like Jack Ovalltraids) that I might one day use.

I also have a digital recorder I keep in my purse for when ideas strike and I'm not in a position to write something down. (I prefer a recorder over my phone because I find it easier/safer to just hit a button than deal with a screen. For more on my dictation habits, head here.)

And lastly, I have stacks and stacks and stacks of notecards that I use to both capture ideas and organize the story before I begin drafting. More on that here.

When it comes to capturing actual book components like character, world, plot, etc. (we'll get into in the next newsletter!), I keep a dedicated notebook + several other tools I'll share.


A Note on Timing

There is no right or wrong time for how long it takes to build ideas.

And I'd argue that one of the most helpful ways you can flesh out an idea into something large enough for a novel is to simply let it sit. Think about it from time to time, so your subconscious knows it's important, but otherwise...


I am someone who relies on "simmer time." Ideas need to grow in my brain for a long, long time (I'm talking years!) before they're ready to be drafted. (Just look at all the simmering that had to go in to Sightwitch!)

If I don't let ideas simmer, then I often peter out after 20-50 pages of drafting. Why? Because one idea doesn't make a book. And two ideas doesn't make a book. Even a hundred ideas can't make a book if their isn't connective tissue there.

And that tissue has to grow. At least for me. Other authors can have an idea and hammer it out right away—or even be handed an idea (as happens with intellectual property projects or ghostwriting) and write accordingly. Oh boy do I envy them, but I've accepted that that will never be me.

So don't worry if, even after all this ideation you still don't think you have enough to write a novel. Perhaps the next newsletter will help you expand your ideas even more, and in the meantime, let the ideas simmer!

So there you have it. This is where my story ideas begin, be they brand new projects or books later in a series. I rely on research and filling the well to get me started every time.

To expand on what I've discussed, here are a few old posts and newsletters on the topic:

And stay tuned for the next issue in this How I Write A Novel series, in which I'll break down how I build a new world and develop my characters. 😊

Upcoming Events:

I have nothing planned right now, but stay tuned!

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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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