Kat Howard: Five Things I Learned Writing Roses And Rot

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite artists’ colony—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

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Not everyone needs to go to Hell.

Roses and Rot is a riff on the medieval ballad “Tam Lin.” And one of the things that has always been my favorite part of “Tam Lin” is that every seven years, Faerie pays a tithe to Hell. And boy, do I love a good trip to Hell. I mean, it’s great in terms of story – the tragedy, and the direness of the situation, the impossible task to bring the lost person back safe, the backward glance.

Actually, you should probably skip that one.

But really, it’s one of my favorite tropes. So I tried and tried to make it work out in early drafts. Nope! Turns out, if you disappear one half of one of the most important relationships in your book for like the entire middle third of the text, things go flatter than a soda left out overnight. So for the sake of the story, I said goodbye to one of my favorite plot points.

Write for an audience.

From the moment I knew I wanted to write Roses and Rot, I knew I was writing this particular story for my sister. Now, you probably cannot write a book for my sister (well, you could, I suppose, but that might cross over into weird), but you can write a book for someone. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s your best friend. Maybe it’s a fuck you to the person who told you that you couldn’t write. But writing a book can be hard, and it can help to have a person that you’re thinking of, where giving them that story can help you keep going.

But don’t write for everyone.

It ‘s a truth universally acknowledged that an author with a book is in want of a one-star review. Someone out there is going to hate what you write, because someone out there hates everything. And there’s something really freeing in acknowledging that you’re not here for everyone, you’re here for the people who like what you do. I mean, if what you want is a book about killer robots, or mind-controlled bee assassins, or a lonely astronaut on a quest for one more inhabitable planet, Roses and Rot is not going to be the book for you. (Though, I might want to write about mind-controlled bee assassins, actually.) But if you want a version of “Tam Lin” set at a modern day artists’ colony that has romance and betrayal and sacrifice and magic, it might well be.

Also, did I mention it has a sea monster? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

Romance novels will save you.

I spent one month doing a fairly massive revision of Roses and Rot. Like, throw out almost the entire draft and rewrite it in a month sort of revision. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my career, and it fried my brain. (I ran into a friend at a local Starbucks, and he literally stepped back when I said hi because “it looks like you might bite someone.”) Not just because of the amount of words that I was trying to write every day, but because there are parts of this book that are not at all nice. Things hurt. Not everyone gets out of the story alive. I needed a way to step out of that world, and let me tell you, fun stories with a guaranteed happy ending? Yes and yes. I read Nora Roberts and Eloisa James and Tessa Dare and I think Julie Anne Long’s entire catalogue. Having the comfort of something that I liked that I could turn to at the end of the day’s writing was the best, and exactly what my brain needed to keep writing. Maybe it’s not romance novels for you – maybe it’s binging on a favorite tv show, or playing a well-loved video game. But have something that you can relax with that isn’t the writing, and that keeps you from biting people.

Sometimes you need a sea monster.

I do this thing, when I am stumped on how to begin writing for the day. I think of the weirdest possible thing that could happen. I figure that once I’ve shaken that bit loose from my brain, the stuff that the story actually needs will fall out, too. And sometimes it turns out that the weird bits were exactly what I needed.

In the case of Rose and Rot – set, by the way, mainly in a forested area of rural New Hampshire – I decided that an acid yellow sea monster needed to show up. I was probably going to edit it out later, once I got into the scene and figured things out, but (spoiler, I guess) it’s still there, because having the sea monster show up was a way for two characters to have a needed conversation. Like I said, sometimes the weird works out. Maybe for you, it’s not a sea monster, but whatever it is that you need to start writing, or keep writing, or distract your brain enough to get to the part of the plot that you actually need, use that. And write.

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Kat Howard’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in best of and annual best of collections, and performed on NPR. Roses and Rot is her debut novel. She lives in New Hampshire.

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