Brooke Johnson: Five Things I Learned Writing The Guild Conspiracy

The Guild Conspiracy - 700px

In the face of impossible odds, can one girl stem the tides of war?

It has been six months since clockwork engineer Petra Wade destroyed an automaton designed for battle, narrowly escaping with her life. But her troubles are far from over. Her partner on the project, Emmerich Goss, has been sent away to France, and his father, Julian, is still determined that a war machine will be built. Forced to create a new device, Petra subtly sabotages the design in the hopes of delaying the war, but sabotage like this isn’t just risky: it’s treason. And with a soldier, Braith, assigned to watch her every move, it may not be long before Julian finds out what she’s done.

Now she just has to survive long enough to find another way to stop the war before her sabotage is discovered and she’s sentenced to hang for crimes against the empire. But Julian’s plans go far deeper than she ever realized … war is on the horizon, and it will take everything Petra has to stop it in this fast-paced, thrilling sequel to The Brass Giant.

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SEQUELS ARE JUST PLAIN HARD.

This is one of those undeniable truths that should be carved into stone somewhere. Stonehenge seems like a good bet.

Before I started writing this book, I’d read on various writing blogs and heard from a number of authors that sequels are difficult to write, especially second books in a series. But there is a difference in hearing this difficulty secondhand and being buried waist-deep in the trenches with nothing but a rusty fountain pen and an open vein, fruitlessly carving letters into the mud before the rain can wash them away. I never expected writing a sequel would be easy, but I also had the experience of having already written a couple of books, so I figured it would be no more difficult than those were. Let this serve as a warning: Don’t get cocky. You may have written and published a book (or several!) and think you have this whole writing thing under control, but it’s a terrible terrible lie. Sequels will test you. They will destroy you.

Second books feel like an artless slog. And even when you finally make it to the end, there is an even more horrible truth to be learned: every book from now on is going to be like this. Writing a book isn’t easy. It doesn’t get easier just because you think you know what you’re doing. The more you know, the harder it is, because you recognize just how badly you suck at this whole storytelling thing, and you know that there’s no easy way forward except to trudge right through and hope for the best.

You can hope that you’ll learn something with each new story, that you’ll improve with each new draft, but sometimes, you feel like the kid in art class who mistook a pile of steaming shit for finger paint and now you have a brown mess smeared across the canvas instead of a pretty rainbow. But at this point, you’re invested. All you can do is keep going, shit or not, and make the best goddamn shit-brown rainbow your clumsy fingers can smear onto the page.

And on that note…

TODDLERS AND WRITING TIME DO NOT PEACEFULLY COEXIST.

(Nailed that segue, amirite?)

This novel took me roughly eighteen months to write and edit to completion, the timing of which just so happened to coincide with my daughter’s burgeoning toddlerdom. As a result, this book took twice as many months as the first book to produce, working twice as many hours. Sometimes, I was able to work during her naptime. Sometimes, I could write while she watched an hour of television. Sometimes, I had to work into the wee hours of the morning with a cold mug of forgotten coffee in front of me because it was literally the only time I could focus long enough to get a scene finished.

In fact, this single blog post has already taken me a couple of days to write, scribbled during episodes of Blue’s Clues, naptime, and in the hours between her bedtime and mine.

Writing and editing an entire novel on that schedule is akin to madness.

I just wish I had known years ago just how much having a kid would change my ability to write. I wouldn’t trade my little dude for anything, but man, I wasted a lot of good, solid writing time pre-motherhood. Lesson learned, I guess?

WRITING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE IN MIND IS A GOOD THING… UNTIL IT’S NOT.

Not only is writing a book hard enough on its own—doubly so when trying to write with a toddler in the house—but writing a sequel to a book that is already published and gathering reviews is its own level of torture-hell.

I was about halfway done with the first draft of The Guild Conspiracy when book one in the series came out, and let me tell you… trying to write a sequel while also reading early reviews of your first book is not conducive to being confident in your writing.

(I know, I know… everyone and their great aunt advises against reading your own reviews. Those same people probably advise against looking at your Amazon rankings every day, too. And yay for the authors who can ignore things like sales and reviews and star ratings. I am not one of those authors. I do not get to share in your blissful ignorance.)

One of the top writing tips doled out by writers and publishers alike is to write to your audience. At its most basic level, that just means knowing who you’re writing for and what they like and how to give them something new and different while also giving them what they want to read. Simple, right? Well, with a second book in a series, your audience isn’t this vague, ideal focus group anymore. They’re an actual, living, breathing entity—no longer the people you want to reach with your words, but the people you have reached. You flung the first book out into the world, and there are people who have held it in their hands and turned its pages and read its words. Some of them enjoyed it. Some of them hated it. Some of them think you can’t write worth a damn.

But they exist now, and you want to do your best make them happy.

This is a dangerous road.

Constantly worrying about how a book will be received by readers while you’re still writing it is a one-way ticket to crippling self-doubt. I agonized daily over how certain characters and plot points might be received by the readers of my first book. I second-guessed myself. I tried to please everyone who left a negative review. I tried to please everyone who left a positive review. I lost track of the story I wanted to write and ended up with a book that tried to do too much and accomplished too little.

It wasn’t until several months later, on my second revision of the novel, when the reviews of my first book were no longer fresh in my mind and I’d had some time to mellow for a bit, that I finally reined myself back in and was able to focus on the story as it should have been.

Which brings me to my next point…

NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF YOUR STORY.

Never compromise the story’s integrity for the sake of anything other than your own personal vision for what the story should accomplish. This should be obvious, but after suffering from the kind of crippling self-doubt and second-guessing that comes from trying to write a book for literally everyone but myself, it needs to be said. Loudly.

I could have saved myself a lot of angst and multiple revisions had I only trusted in my original vision for the story and stuck to it from beginning to end. Lesson learned.

EVERYONE AND THEIR GRANDMA HAS ADVICE ON HOW TO FINISH YOUR BOOK.

Literally the only person in my life who did not at one time weigh in on how I should be writing or editing my book was the aforementioned toddler who made sure I never got more than five minutes to write said book.

I am a very honest person. If someone asks me how my writing is going, I don’t plaster on a manic grin and say “fine” while internally screaming for someone to free me from this misery. I usually answer with “oh, you know, I’m actually having a bit of a hard time with the chapter that I’m working on right now,” which understandably leads to whoever I’m talking to giving me their two cents on what I should be doing based on this or that blog article they read, or what they would do if they were writing a book. Which they aren’t. And haven’t. Ever. Because they aren’t a writer.

I appreciate the advice from fellow writers, even if it doesn’t jive 100% with my process, but from non-writers… I know it comes from a place of well-meaning, but telling me to stop worrying about getting the dialogue just right and just move on to the next thing… or, you know if you put this much effort into a new story instead of editing the same one four times, you’d have five times as many books out by now… it’s not helpful. It’s really not.

(I hear this enough from my inner voice. I don’t need to hear it out loud, thanks.)

I struggle with my craft. I work hard at it. I want to improve with everything I write. I don’t want to be the kid who turns in a shit-smeared canvas. I want to be the kid who turns in a masterpiece—even if that means having to scrape away layer after layer of dried fecal matter when I realize my mistake and then starting over with the right materials. (Man, I am really dragging this poop-art metaphor through the whole thing, I guess.)

The point is: Writing is hard. It’s meant to be hard. That means you’re trying to get better at it. And if you learn something in the process, like this here list of things you just read, then rest assured… you’re on the right track.

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Bio: Brooke Johnson is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving author. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes one day to live somewhere a bit more mountainous.

(Note: Brooke is doing an AMA on Reddit today!)

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