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Betsy Dornbusch: Five Things I Learned Writing Emissary

Draken vae Khellian, bastard cousin of the Monoean King, had risen far from his ignominious origins, becoming both a Bowrank Commander and a member of the Crown’s Black Guard. But when cursed black magic took his wife and his honor away, he fought past his own despair and grief, and carved out a new life in Akrasia. His bloody, unlikely path, chronicled in Exile: The First Book of the Seven Eyes, led him to a new love, and a throne.

Draken has seen too much blood . . . the blood of friends and of enemies alike. Peace is what he wants. Now he must leave his wife and newborn child in an attempt to forge an uneasy peace between the Monoean King and the kingdom of Akrasia. The long bloody shadow of Akrasia’s violent past hangs over his efforts like a shroud. But there are other forces at work. Peace is not something everybody wants . . . not even in the seemingly straightforward kingdom of Draken’s birth.

Factions both known and unknown to Draken vie to undermine his efforts and throw the kingdom into civil war. Forces from his days in the Black Guard prove to be the most enigmatic, and a bloody tide threatens to engulf Draken’s every step.

* * *

Shh, this one is secret.

The contract for Exile, the book previous to Emissary, had a second, unnamed book in it. I decided to write a sequel because (shh, here’s the super seekrit part) a few years back I had done this really freaky-weird thing that writers aren’t supposed to ever want to do, certainly not without a gun to our heads: I’d written a synopsis.

The book was called Emissary, a story about Draken returning home to the country that exiled him.

I didn’t worry about this aberration too much at the time, and I sure as hell didn’t tell anyone. This was B.C. (before contract) so I was pretty sure the book would never get written. I wouldn’t have to face the shame that I’d actually enjoyed writing the synopsis, that something so wrong could feel so right.

But when it came time to write Emissary I got out the Synopsis-of-Shame and OMG YOU GUYS!! It’s so much easier to write a book when you know what it’s about before you start writing! Who knew?

The slow, good words

Not that the SoS solved all my problems.

The second book I ever wrote, a long time before Emissary, I set a goal of 5-10K words a day. I typed my way into carpel tunnel and a sore back, but my fingers hobbled over “the end” inside of two months.

I spent the following year and change cleaning up the mess I’d made.

And the damn book still never sold.

What I learned, not from that book, not from Exile, or any of my other books and novellas, not until Emissary, that even with a synopsis, I write best when I draft slow, good words, usually inside of a thousand a day. I like to write pretty clean. This isn’t to say I don’t need to revise. And hells yeah I’m jealous when people talk about writing 5K or 10K in a day. But my pace and style are just that: mine. They seem to make me relatively happy with what I write.

Will I change my style eventually? Maybe, when I don’t have two beautiful, brilliant, time-sucking, drama-riddled teenagers at home. Plus, I think process is a dynamic thing. Every book is different.

But I had to embrace a glacial pace while working on Emissary. Which meant I had to learn…

When to Say When

Among Chuck’s readers, it’s likely enough to say I’m a Night Shade Author, but in case it isn’t: two months after Exile came out and eight months after I started writing Emissary, Night Shade, a delicious boutique publisher who made beautiful books, shuttered. When the news hit, my agent and I figured chances were good Exile and Emissary would be tied up in bankruptcy court, like, forever.

Not writing a contracted book that will never see the inside of a bookstore is smart business, and I couldn’t concentrate for shit anyway. Fast-forward a few panicked, social-media-buzzed months, and Skyhorse Publishing and Start Media joined forces to buy NSB. When the dust settled in July, I realized I had a late August deadline for a half-finished book, plus three cons and a vacation scheduled. I hated doing it, but I asked my agent to tell Skyhorse, my new publishing house, for a couple more months. She recommended six. (That was wise. Agents Know Things.)

I got a February date and used every scrap of it on the book. (see #2)

Writing is a Peepshow

And whoa. Was that ever a stressful six months. I’d never written a book with an agent before. Or, you know, editors who plan to give you actual money for your words. And then there are the readers who love your stuff and chat you up at cons and you go home, pretty sure what you’re writing is utter crap and gahhh this sucks, I’m a hack!

Yeah. It’s all about the positive self-talk.

Every time I wrote I imagined my two editors and my agent watching over my shoulder, snickering every so often over particularly bad lines and typos. Sometimes they’d invite reviewers and readers to the party. There were cocktails, black ties, and fancy dresses. Awkward small-talk and jokes at my expense. And I sat there in my pjs, day after day, writing these slow, shitty words with the whole publishing industry jostling me from behind.

Until one day I didn’t.

One day I said fuck it, turned up the lights, blared Closing Time on the hi-fi,   and told them in no uncertain terms to GTFO but leave the whiskey.

Write Big

Once I got rid of the party in my head, I realized I wasn’t actually scared of my editors and agent or readers (much). Mostly, I was scared of the damn story. And that’s the thing that should scare writers. Our own stories should dig their claws in and terrify us witless. They should also thrill us and please us and piss us off and we should get to sigh every so often and think, Damn. That’s a good scene.

Emissary is a big book. It’s a journey story, not only in distance but a journey of memory and emotion, too. It’s got fights, love, honor, and truth. Immense gains and losses. I needed to write some fearless drama. I had to write big.

Thanks to all the other stuff I learned, I did.

I think.

I hope.

At this point it’s not on me to say, because it’s not just my book anymore; it belongs to the world now. So let’s party it up—until it’s time to write the next synopsis.

Thanks, Chuck, for hosting me today, and to Chuck’s readers, for always having such interesting things to add to the conversations here.

* * *

Betsy Dornbusch is a writer and editor. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues such as Sinister TalesBig PulpStory Portal, and Spinetingler, as well as the anthologies Tasty Little Tales and Deadly by the Dozen.

Betsy Dornbusch: Website | Twitter

Emissary: Amazon | B&N | Powells | Tattered Cover