Leah Rhyne: Five Things I Learned Writing Heartless

Jolene Hall is dead – sort of. She can walk, think and talk, but her heart doesn’t beat and her lungs stopped breathing ages ago. After Jo is abducted and subjected to horrific experiments, she wakes up to find her body is a mosaic of jagged wounds and stapled flesh. Jo has a choice: turn herself in to the authorities, or team up with her best friend Lucy and her boyfriend Eli to find a way to save herself. To Jo, the choice is clear.

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Dreams can be AMAZING.

HEARTLESS was based on a dream set in my college dorm room. Standing in the threshold between my bedroom and the world stood two girls. One was giggly, beyond hysterics. The other was…weird. Odd. Stiff and awkward.

She stepped inside. “I’m dead,” she said, her voice husky. “Can you tell? Can you smell me?”

For months, I couldn’t stop thinking about that dead girl! What had happened to her? Why was she dead? What was she? She was too smart to be a zombie, too solid to be a ghost.

Finally I began writing, and realized: Jo, the dead girl, was Frankenstein’s monster. Ish. Part robot, though, and falling apart. An experiment gone terribly wrong. A book was born, all from a single dream.

Writing can be a gorgeous escape.

I wrote HEARTLESS in the middle of summer.

In Charleston, South Carolina.

It also happened to be the hottest summer I’ve ever experienced. Like, face-melting, drought-inducing, make-you-angry-when-you’re-outside, three-shower-a-day kind of hot. Ridiculous hot. Temperatures soared well above 100 for more days than I care to remember, and with the coastal southern humidity, heat indices were…well, they were painful.

How’d I cope?

I set my book in the coldest setting I could trust myself to accurately describe. The mountains of New Hampshire, in the dead of winter. I’m a Jersey girl originally, and I know cold. I know snow. Every night that summer, I’d walk myself and my characters through snowdrifts and blizzards. Through frigid air that burns your nose and lungs. Through frostbite. Through frozen tears.

By bedtime, I’d be shivering.

It was a heavenly escape from Hell in South Carolina…even while I wrote about a walking, talking corpse.

Real life can inspire, even in speculative fiction.

HEARTLESS is made up. Obviously. Unless you know something I don’t, part-robot-girls don’t exist. Yet…

That said, I relived college while writing it. Jo wasn’t exactly my alter ego, but her best friend was my freshman year suitemate. Some of my favorite parts of the book are their interactions. Their conversations. Some actually happened. Some didn’t. But their voices were stolen from real life. Their meeting in the bathroom between their rooms was exactly how I met my suitemate. Exactly. She was (still is) bigger than life, and I loved spending time with her again.

Music is not always the answer.

Many writers use music as inspiration, creating create playlists for their novels, selecting songs for their short stories. I love that. I wanted that!

When I began HEARTLESS, I knew how I wanted her to feel: like how The Black Keys’ album, “Brothers,” sounds. A little dark, a lot gritty, and also, often, funny. I played the album while writing, over and over and over again

You know what happened?

I got sick of the damn album.

For me, music is just music. It’s not a creative spark. I’m not an audio person. But that’s okay! We’re all different! I have other cues, other inspirations. What works for me may not work for you. And that’s okay. We can all go our merry ways, using our own methods, and at the end of the day, we can all be writer-friends! Yay friends!

Reincarnation happens in many ways.

HEARTLESS is a little genre-bendy, blending horror, sci-fi, and a campy, dark humor. After she was written, I queried her to agents and a few small presses. Sadly, back then, she just…didn’t fit.

I’d have let HEARTLESS die. I’d have let her go. But my brother and husband both loved her. “Whatcha doing with that Jo book,” they’d ask. “When are you going to publish her?”

So I reincarnated her for the first time. I self-published. I found an awesome editor and a kick-ass cover and I put the book on Amazon. I sold some copies, got some nice reviews, and thought I was done with her.

Until Jason Pinter at Polis Books found her. You see, I’d submitted a different book to him, but he stalked my web site and found my Jo. He liked her. With a little work to pull out all the f-bombs (I curse like a sailor), he thought she could be a super-fun YA novel.

Jo and HEARTLESS found another new life at Polis Books. I’m still riding the coattails of that life, to see where they take me. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s reincarnation.

* * *

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who’s lived in the South so long she’s lost her accent… but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Alien(s), and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King’s The Shining or It, Leah now spends her days writing tales of horror and science fiction.

Leah Rhyne: Website | Twitter

Heartless: Indiebound | Amazon

12 comments

  • A great deal of my stories are based on all my effed up dreams. I wish I could be so creative while I’m, you know, conscious.

    This looks like a great story. I’ve added it to my list!

    • God, me, too! If I were that creative when awake…there’d be no stopping me! (I think. I hope. Anyway…)

      Thanks for adding my Jo to your list! <3

  • Hi, I’m relieved and glad that other writers use dreams as a basis for a book. I’m not saying its cheating (but it feels like it some days) but it’s hard sometimes to tell people that your idea for a book has been conjured from a dream.

    I can’t say where i heard the phrase but its guided me through my writing: “A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask yet.”

    When we bury ourselves into a book sometimes that random converging of ideas that our brain does at night provides some real cracking inspiration, the secret is learning what is worth listening too and what isn’t.

    • I love that. An answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask yet. That’s lovely! Thanks for sharing!

      I also agree….some of the dreams aren’t worth listening too. My rule of thumb is if they stick with you, then it’s probably worth it. If you forget it…definitely not. 😀

      Thanks for reading!!!

  • Love this! (mostly because that’s exactly how I get through hot summers myself, writing about cold climates till my characters get absolutely sick of all the rain and negative degrees C. Soz guys.) Also adore how you refer to the book as ‘she’ so much, I’m adding it to my to-read! :’)

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