Stacey Filak: Five Things I Learned Writing The Queen Underneath

Yigris is a city divided by more than just ideals. Above, ruled by a patriarchal and controlling society has long relied on the matriarchal Under, home of thieves, whores, and assassins for more than just financial gain. When the rulers of Above and Under are both murdered on the same day, their heirs apparent must work together to save their country and themselves. 

Gemma, the new Queen of Under, faces loss, betrayal, grief and a transformation into the queen she must be. Tollan, the young King of Above has an even more personal crisis. He’s fallen in love with Elam, a young man trained as a sex-priest in Under, while his city burns and a war threatens to consume them all.  And if that wasn’t enough, his mother, a pirate queen who abandoned him years before, has just sailed into port. 

My instincts are crap.

The first two manuscripts that I wrote when I finally got “serious” about writing, I went with my gut. Every character, every interaction, every setting, every bit of those books was created entirely by instinct. And then, I did the thing and sent the book out to agents and crossed my fingers and prayed to every god that would have me. And invariably, the response I got was “The writing is great, but the story is pretty basic. I’ve read this before, and it’s not what I’m looking for on my list.” So when I started writing TQU, I made a conscious effort to go against my gut. I pushed aside my ingrained tendencies and inserted a hefty helping of the exact opposite of my gut instinct. It wasn’t just my heroine that got a makeover. The heroes became men who had feelings, who learned to express them, and weren’t afraid to appear soft. They even cry, on occasion. If I was leaning towards using a trope, I turned it on its head. My whore-with-a-heart-of-gold is a man and a priest. My sexy heroine is a plus-sized woman who isn’t ashamed of her body or speaking her mind. And the prince is neither equipped to become King, nor is he a man seeking a damsel in distress. I chose to embrace the opposite of my instincts, and in doing so, I created something different. Something new. In choosing to approach the book in this manner, I was forced to face my own ingrained culpability in the systemic -isms that perpetuate in our society. I was forced to examine why I felt compelled to write a certain scene or a certain character, and what life would be like in a society where things don’t look the same as they do in our world. And though the exercise sometimes chaffed against my usual mindset, it opened my eyes to limitless possibilities, and I hope that Yigris is better for it.

Backup, Backup, Backup!

When I was 65,000 words or so into the first draft of TQU, my laptop crashed. I was writing in Scrivener at the time and I was unaware of the incompatibility of Scrivener to with Google Drive. So, while I thought I’d been backing up effectively, when I logged back onto my traitorous laptop, I learned different. The manuscript was gone. 100% erased from my hard drive, garbled nonsense in my Google Drive. And suddenly, like the revelations of a hundred prophets, I knew that if I’d finished that book, it’d be published, and all my dreams would come true.

I wasn’t a very pleasant person, that day. I was basically a one-woman soap opera, running through the entire range of human emotion all at once. If I’d had super-powers that day, I expect it would be my Super Villain origin story. So obviously, I panicked. I contacted every person I knew that had ever touched a computer and finally, a friend of mine said that I should call Google directly. After about 12 hours, several shots of liquor to calm my nerves, and the assistance of an incredibly understanding guy who worked at Google named Hutch, he was able to help me access a plain text, unformatted version of the manuscript. He emailed the file to me and told me to print right away, because he couldn’t guarantee that the manuscript wouldn’t disappear entirely. I printed out the 200+ pages and sobbed like a baby. Hutch had saved my future bestseller.

I spent a month retyping and reformatting the manuscript, and for obvious reasons, I started using Dropbox. (I also stopped using Scrivener because I had nightmares about it for a while. One day, I’ll be brave enough to give it another try.) In the end, those prophetic panicked thoughts were right. This was the book I would sell and debut with. It was the book of my dreams. And I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that had I truly lost that manuscript, I don’t know if I could have done it again. It might be that Hutch saved my writing career.

Writing isn’t about how you write, it’s about what you write.

When I first started writing TQU, I was a stay-at-home mom, with three of my four kids in school full-time. I had oodles of hours to write. Sometimes whole days, spread out before me like a picnic blanket, waiting for me to dig in. And I was one of those writers who believed, down to my bones, that I would only be able to do the publishing thing if I forced myself to write. Every. Single. Day.

By the time I had finished a first draft and a couple rounds of revisions, my youngest was in school. I had sent it out into the interwebs to hopefully snag an agent, and it was time for me to get back into the world of the employed. So I went back to work. At first, I worked part-time, and I signed with my agent about 6 months after going back at work.

I hadn’t written a useable word in six months.

Then we revised and sent it out on submission and waited, as you do. For me, it was about a year before the whisper of an offer came through. Then another several months doing an R&R, and finally, after nearly 18 months, an offer. I still hadn’t written a damn thing.

And there I was, having just accepted a full-time promotion and having sold my debut novel (yay!) and I started to think, ‘Maybe I’ve only got this one book in me.’

After innumerable rounds of revisions, when the stress of ‘will it sell or will it die?’ had disappeared, I finally began to chip away at a new idea. And you know what?

I wrote another book. Sometimes I wrote for eighteen hours on both Saturday and Sunday, every weekend for a month. And sometimes I didn’t even open the document for four weeks. But eventually, it became a book shaped thing, and I realized that I didn’t have to write every single day to be a writer. I have to write when the ideas won’t simmer anymore and come to a boil. I have to write when I’m able to devote my thought processes to the project at hand, and not the one that hasn’t sold, or the one that I need to revise. I have to write when my job or my kids or my yard work or any of the other responsibilities I have aren’t dragging at my thoughts. Sometimes that happens every day, and sometimes it doesn’t happen for a month, but the fact is, just because my life gets in the way sometimes does not mean that I’m not a writer. If book shaped things eventually come out of my brain, then I am, by definition, a writer.

Pick well the hills you choose to die on.

Just like any baby writer, I had no idea the level of revisions that would need to be tackled before my book would ever see the light of day. Despite being told, time and time again, that I’d have to revise until I couldn’t stand the sight of my own manuscript, I just wasn’t quite prepared for professional revisions. And just like all writers, there were plots, scenes and characters that ended up laying on the revision floor – plots scenes and characters that I loved — elements of the story that I thought were load bearing walls. But there was one thing that, for me, wasn’t up for discussion. It was a minor part of the story. Not even a support wall. But it was an element that I had included for the girl I once was, who had never read that type of scene when she was young. A scene that I needed to exist but had never encountered. And my editor didn’t think it belonged. It wasn’t necessarily a YA theme, and I understood that. But I stood on top of that hill, sword (or pen) in hand, and chose not to budge. It was a risk, since I had no reputation or backlist to support my demands. I argued my case, and explained my reasons, and in the end, my editor came to understand my reasoning. When readers hit that scene, they might shrug and wonder what it’s doing in a YA book, or they might read it and know someone that it has happened to, and understand, just a little. And someday, those young women may be older women who experience something similar, and I want them to know that it can happen to anyone – even heroines – and that it can be overcome. It would have been easy to prune that storyline from the novel, but for me, it was a hill worth dying on. It wasn’t a story I wanted to tell without it.

This isn’t your mother’s YA.

Which leads me to my final point. We live in a world where teen activists are leading the charge for common sense gun control. We live in an America where TEEN VOGUE is doing some of the most subversive and hard-hitting journalism in the nation. We live in a society where young people aren’t protected from the outside world – it’s projected straight into their brain, twenty-four hours a day — via the internet, social media, and traditional media. There has never been a more difficult time to be a teenager, in my opinion.

And like most people my age, my first instinct was to call TQU an adult novel. Despite the fact that many of the characters were just figuring out their place in the world – a clear element in YA – my gut argued otherwise. My instincts said that the nature of the story — the sexual content, the violence, the societal messages – were too dark, and too mature for a YA novel. But as I’ve already stated above, my instincts are garbage. My agent said it was YA. My editor said it was YA. Even my kids said it was YA.

And then I thought back to the books I was reading when I was a “young adult.” Books like ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET and THE OUTSIDERS. Books that my mom had thought were a little too mature for me. And then, when I got sneakier, I was reading THE THORN BIRDS and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, books that probably were to mature for me. So, here’s the thing. Young adults have always read the controversial, the dark, and the stories that push the envelope. From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to THE KITE RUNNER, SPEAK to THE HANDMAID’S TALE, YA has always been on the edge of what’s “allowed.” Today, we are seeing some of the most progressive leaps in media happening in Young Adult publishing – books like DEAR MARTIN and THE HATE YOU GIVE, THE ART OF STARVING and THE BELLES. Add to that the fact that today’s young people are vastly more informed, vastly more active in the world, and vastly more affected by the world at large, and you begin to see that the teenagers of today can handle things that I couldn’t have dreamed of at their age. Unfortunately, they’ve already been forced to.

When I first finished writing TQU, my gut reaction was, “I don’t want this to just be a YA novel.” But like I said, my instincts are crap, and the more I learn about the teens of today, the more I want to shout, “Hell, yes. This is a YA novel.” I can only hope that I’ve written something to inspire, encourage, or entertain the teenaged superheroes in our midst, because we’ve left them to do the heavy lifting.

* * *

Stacey Filak was born in a small town in Michigan, where she dreamed of hero’s quests, epic battles, and publishing a book. At least a couple of things have come true. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and four children, and a menagerie of pop-culture named pets. She manages a veterinary clinic as her day job and aspires to someday write something that means as much to someone else as her childhood favorites mean to her. THE QUEEN UNDERNEATH is her first book. 

Stacey Filak: Website

The Queen Underneath: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N