Lauren Roy: Five Things I Learned Writing Grave Matters
Night Owls bookstore always keeps a light on and evil creatures out. But, as Lauren M. Roy’s thrilling sequel continues, even its supernatural staff isn’t prepared for the dead to come back to life…
Elly grew up training to kill things that go bump in the night, so she’s still getting used to working alongside them. While she’s learned to trust the eclectic group of vampires, Renfields, and succubi at Night Owls bookstore, her new job guarding Boston’s most powerful vampire has her on edge—especially when she realizes something strange is going on with her employer, something even deadlier than usual…
Cavale isn’t thrilled that his sister works for vampires, but he’s determined to repair their relationship, and that means trusting her choices—until Elly’s job lands all of the Night Owls in deep trouble with a vengeful necromancer. And even their collective paranormal skills might not be enough to keep them from becoming part of the necromancer’s undead army…
YOU GUYS LOOK AWFULLY FAMILIAR
When I originally wrote Night Owls, I wasn’t sure there’d be a sequel. I left the story open-ended enough for there to be one, or for it to stand on its own. So when Ace wanted a sequel, I had to revisit a cast of characters who’d been out of my head and off my desk for just about a year.
It was a wee bit terrifying – what if I’d forgotten their voices? What if I’d didn’t have a good story to tell? There came the Impostor Syndrome, right on cue: Everyone’s going to know you’re a terrible writer. A one-trick pony.
That awful little imp never truly goes away, but I learned that – at least when it came to finding the characters – it was wrong. I thought a bit about where everyone would be a month after Night Owls finished. How would they be processing (or avoiding processing) the events of the first book? The walk between the train station and my office turned out to be the perfect length for me to noodle on how different people would interact with one another. I paired ’em up and watched ’em go, and it was a bit like meeting up with a bunch of good friends you haven’t seen in a while – after the it’s-been-too-longs, it was like we’d never been apart.
Soon enough, Chaz was dropping f-bombs everywhere, Elly was ready to climb the walls, and I even had a plot.
OUTLINES ARE NOT POISON
Oh my god, you guys, I’m such a pantser.
Okay, not entirely true – I will plot a few chapters ahead, and when I’ve written up to that point, I look where the story’s going and plot a little more. If a scene comes to me out of order, I jot down notes. Even without a solid outline, I generally have an endgame in mind. But the squishy middle? I let it stay squishy.
When I was a wee writer, back in the days where I talked more about writing than actually, y’know, writing, I liked to trot out a quote from Stephen King about how outlines were for bad writers. Sweet zombie Jesus, that was pretentious of me. I can look back on those days and count the projects I actually, y’know, finished on no hands. I was lucky if anything got beyond the first 10,000 words.
So when my editor, the lovely Rebecca Brewer, asked for an outline of what would become Grave Matters, I spent a couple of weeks wibbling. Not because I still adhered to that King quote, but because it’s more planning than I usually do. But hey, your editor asks you for an outline, you give her one. She’s a professional. She knows shit’s going to change. It’s okay.
I put my butt in the chair and got it done. Sometimes my brain made sad whirring, clunking noises when I got stuck on a plot point, but part of the writing process, even for a pantser like me, is figuring out what comes next. I called on my RPG-writing and GMing skills, here. I imagined the characters as PCs, tried to figure out what I would do if I were playing them in someone else’s game. What questions would I ask the GM? How would I apply the knowledge I had gathered? On the flip side, if I were running a game for these characters, what wrenches could I fling into their works? It got me past those sticking points, and I was able to move ’em along toward the endgame.
Neat things I learned: Writing an outline did not sap my soul. Nor did it kill the fun of writing the story. In fact, it helped me figure out the next two things…
THAT SUBPLOT’S GOTTA GO
In its original form, GRAVE MATTERS had an extra subplot. It wasn’t a terrible subplot. It followed on from things that happened in the first book, and it helped set up more terrible things for me to do the characters down the road. Writers are mean, you guys.
But it was also way too convoluted. George RR Martin I am most decidedly NOT, and in the 90-100,000 word scope of an urban fantasy novel, there simply wasn’t enough wordspace to pull it off – or, at least, not pull it off well.
So I made with the cutting.
I was a bit scared, since it meant mostly cutting the Jackals from the first book out of the second. Part of me insisted they had to be there, doing evil, Jackally things. Yet, when I pulled their threads out of the synopsis, the rest of the plot didn’t unravel. What emerged, in fact, was a better story, one that made more sense. Bonus – my editor didn’t set the revised outline on fire and send it back to me.
It wasn’t all about excision, though. Another thing I learned while outlining was, I had to put something in. Someone, actually. Book one had three point-of-view characters: Val, Elly, and Chaz. That was plenty, thought I. (see “not-GRRM,” above). Those three, I knew, were absolutely coming back for Grave Matters. I had their shenanigans all planned out.
But looking back at my beats of what-needs-to-happen, I realized I had events jotted down that no one in that trinity would be present for. I could, I supposed, have the character who did witness them explain it all after the fact (which put me in danger of Too Much Exposition). OR. Or! I could do that thing I hear writers ought to do and show the audience.
Just a scene, I thought. Just to try it out, see if it works. I had this warlock, you see, Elly’s brother, who’s been through a whole lot of bullshit and hardship in his life. He’d finally started building a life for himself, when suddenly his estranged sister shows up on his doorstep at the start of Night Owls. How’s that working out for him? For both of them?
Turns out, boy did I like writing from Cavale’s POV. You get a little more worldbuilding, access to another facet of Elly’s background, and, as one of my beta readers pointed out, MORE FEELS.
FUCK YEAH BOOKSELLERS
Okay, I’m cheating on this one a bit. I mean, it’s something I already knew, and I’m utterly and completely biased about the subject anyway, but the last year of my authorly life has only reinforced my love for booksellers. I have a folder in my email labeled “Awesome,” and it’s filled with congratulations from the people who work their butts off day in and day out to get books – sometimes my book! – in readers’ hands. Bookstores, and the booksellers who staff them, are essential, important parts of our community. Any new city I visit, you can be damned sure I’m visiting one of its indie stores. Which always makes checking baggage on the flight home a game of how close to the weight limit can I get without going over but… worth it. It’s been a little surreal to stop in at a bookstore I don’t have a personal connection to and see Night Owls on the shelf, or have a friend tweet a picture to me of seeing it out in the wild.
Plus, booksellers get all the bookstore jokes I’ve sprinkled through the series.
(And hey, if you have a favorite local bookstore, maybe give ’em a shoutout in the comments?)