Writing During a Pandemic

After writing for over a year, I finally finished A Curse of Venom & Scales on the 6th of May. Once I’ve finished a book, I’m usually a bundle of excitement. I almost immediately start plotting the next book in the series, and I gush to everyone who will listen about my upcoming novel.

This time, though, the energy is different. I haven’t gushed. I haven’t even talked about the book all that much, except for a couple of posts on social media.

Folks, if I’m being honest, this is the most I’ve ever struggled to write. This book really took it out of me. At the time, I couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong, but looking back, it’s clear. Writing during lockdown was taxing, and I felt drained. Often. And as an added bonus, personal stress piled up to the point where writing became impossible for a few months.

But so many friends and readers have asked what’s up with this novel, and I feel I have to explain it, which brings us here.

Before I continue, I should say, THIS POST WILL CONTAIN FALL OF THE MANTLE SPOILERS. I’ll try to be vague, but I’m bound to hint at something or give other things away without even realising, so brace yourselves.

With that out of the way…

A Study of Ash & Smoke establishes the characters and world of Fall of the Mantle, and that allows the story in A Trial of Sparks & Kindling to flow fast. We already know the majority of the cast and only a few new characters are introduced, some of which are just mentioned but never seen ‘on screen’. Our characters find themselves in established locations, and because the story unfolds in such a short timeframe, they don’t travel all that much. For the most part, we’re divided between Roicester and Collinefort. Not a lot of worldbuilding required.

On the flip-side, A Curse of Venom & Scales is the setup for everything that follows. New locations, new characters, new stakes. Though many of the new cast members were already mentioned in ATOSAK, this is the first time we see them. With a few exceptions, this is ultimately the cast that will take us through the rest of the series, so it’s important to introduce and establish all of them now, and so we can get to the juicy stuff in the next two books.

Also, Cara is back in Roicester after her time abroad. Sure, we get to explore Roicester in A Study of Ash & Smoke, but Roicester isn’t the same city. The first two books have changed the landscape so much that it must be reintroduced. We also visit old and new places within Aelland, which means even more descriptions.

In many regards, A Curse of Venom & Scales is a fresh start.

I was worried that the slower pace (when compared to ATOSAK) would be a problem, but the fact remains that the first part of this book serves as an opening for loads of story to follow. And introductions read slowly. Once everything is established, the pace picks up again, and so far, my beta team has been positive the story doesn’t drag.

Still, the pressure of writing a not slow and sucky book amps up my anxiety. I want the series to get progressively better, you know?

Which segues nicely into the impostor aspect of writing this book. In many ways, A Study of Ash & Smoke is a really innocent book. I think most readers would be able to tell it’s a debut within the first handful of chapters. Back then, I didn’t know much about the writing craft. The actual writing went incredibly fast, but the polishing took years. I had no idea what I was doing, and my editor had to equip me with the basic tools before the real work even started.

The point is, I learned. I didn’t have to be confident while writing that first book, because I knew I effectively knew nothing.

Writing Book 2 was much smoother. This time, I had the tools to craft a better story, and I knew how to use them. A lot of the feedback about A Trial of Sparks & Kindling has centred around how much the sequel has grown up.

The book is darker, with higher stakes and more definite danger. There’s also more action and flow, and the character development is off the chart. Everything I’d learned could be applied, and lo and behold, I kept on learning. ATOSAK just poured out of me. I wrote it in 7 weeks from start to finish, and the publishing process progressed faster than it had for Book 1. In fact, the greatest delays were Covid-related.

And yes, Book 3 is even more grown up. It’s Cara unleashed, if I can put it that way, and she’s brilliant.

At least, I hope so. The doubt surrounding this book is intense. And not to sound full of it or anything, but I knew A Trial of Sparks & Kindling was better than A Study of Ash & Smoke. The growth was obvious in fewer edits, the feedback from the betas, and readers in general. I knew I’d levelled up in skill.

At no point during the writing of A Curse of Venom & Scales did I feel anything like that. I doubted every chapter, sometimes every sentence, and overall just felt sick about the whole thing.

In retrospect, the why is obvious.

I mean, I wrote this novel during a global emergency. It’s a story about death and plague while we were all living through a scenario of death and plague.

We didn’t know how to navigate the lockdowns, home-schooling, or the opposing opinions shouting into the void of social media. We were caught in a complete shit show in our real lives, and my characters were living eerily similar horrors in Fall of the Mantle, complete with a plague and leaders who didn’t know how to handle it. (Which isn’t a knock on any particular real-world leader, it’s just what happens in the story. I sincerely don’t intend to open a real-world debate in what I want to keep a safe corner of the internet.)

As the external stimuli grew progressively worse, my mental health declined. And as that happened, getting words on the screen became harder.

And I mean, of course it did. I’m not a teacher. I’m not used to being stuck between the same walls day in and day out, and I’m an actual life-sized home-body. But there’s a major difference between choosing to stay at home and not being able to leave.

The rules and arrows stuck on the floors in every store still freak me the hell out. Our rental home doesn’t allow pets, so my then six-year-old child didn’t have any other high-energy beings to hang out with. Just her two run-down parents, trying to make sense of 2020.

And I guess it’s easier to identify the issue because we’re currently reliving lockdown with a side of home-schooling. I couldn’t write back then because I felt like this.

Plus, you know, despite the 5 years it took to turn ASOAAS into something readable, writing it was easy. I wrote the first draft in 8 weeks, and every subsequent rewrite or edit went just as fast. As I mentioned earlier, the same was true for ATOSAK. The total writing time was just 7 weeks, and that book didn’t call for rewrites.

A Curse of Venom & Scales said ‘not I’. The total writing time for this book spans more than a year. Six drafts, over 400k words, of which only half made it to the final manuscript.

And sure, some of it has to do with the fact that a plothole crept up at the eleventh hour, waving it’s little flag. This was a potentially story-killing issue, and it had to be addressed immediately, which led to replotting after 5 drafts had already been canned.

At least that clarified what the issue was, but it set the entire process back by like 8 months, not to mention the new storylines and characters designed to plug the gaping hole in my storybook world. Which, you know, is great in terms of the future. Some of these characters are going to be amazing in Book 4, and I’m really excited to tell their stories.

I mentioned earlier that this book is darker than the other two. Again, it makes sense, considering the state in which Cara and the others leave Collinefort. Lots of grief to navigate there. And though we end the second book on a triumphant note, the characters still have to work through their jumbled emotions and oodles of trauma.

What I’m trying to say is Book 3 starts poorly for our characters. They’re grief-ridden and beyond exhausted, but the danger hasn’t magically lessened. No, this is a new book, so that means new danger on top of the old.

I’ve been open about how emotional I can be on my blog. I’m one of those people who cries at TV ads, and straight up sobs if my loved ones are upset. Your joy is my joy, and your disappointment breaks my heart, too. I can’t help it, it’s in the coding.

So, when my characters live through atrocious things, I do, too. It makes no sense, I know. I mean, ultimately, I’m the one writing these terrible events they have to navigate. It comes from me. Doesn’t mean I’m not sobbing into my keyboard.

And I guess more than the external factors, more than the struggle to write, the plot holes, or anything else I’ve mentioned in this post, the emotional aspect made ACOVAS a nightmare to write. Book 2 already amplifies the pain and stress from Book 1, and Book 3 just adds gasoline to an already raging inferno.

Emotionally, this book killed me. I mean, it says something that I cried constantly while writing the last ten chapters, typed the final words, and had a full-on curl into a ball kind of breakdown. I let the alpha team know the book was finished, and cried in both voice notes. Then cried again while listening to their responses. Since then, the jumbled emotions have turned to relief. Just so much relief.

So, I guess the bottom line about A Curse of Venom & Scales was that it became my own mini curse. Fun.

Still, I think this weird, dark story has its place in the series. If it had sucked as badly as my brain tells me it does, the alpha and beta teams would’ve informed me of that fact. So far, their feedback has been mostly positive. In fact, the alphas both think this is the best book in the series so far.

Maybe it’s too fresh for me to say the same. Time will tell.

I wrote this post because I know other writers feel exactly the same as I do. So many of us couldn’t be creative in 2020 and we’re all recovering from or navigating lockdown fatigue. I also know too many of us doubt or straight up hate everything we write. And the crazy thing is, many of us just never talk about it. We isolate ourselves by not sharing what we’re struggling with. I think if we just reach out to each other, we’d all be better off.

So, if you’re out there and feeling like a failure because your brain is telling you your story isn’t great, or if you’re beating yourself up because you’ve been struggling to create, I’m here to tell you ‘hop on the bandwagon, friend.’ We’ve got room enough for everyone. You’re not alone.

Thank you for reading.

Yolandie

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