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Jessica McDonald: Five Things I Learned Writing Born To Be Magic

It’s like Law & Order, but with witchcraft.

Rachel Collins isn’t sure sarcasm is an actual method of self-defense, but she keeps testing the theory. On paper, she’s an agent for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, but in reality, she’s a ley witch, and as a deputy working for the High Council of Witches, it’s her job to keep the supernatural in line and protect humanity from the things they don’t know exist. It’s dangerous, and not just because a Walking Dead reject might eat her face. If she uses too much power, she could become a monster herself. 

It’s all magical forensics and arresting perps for dealing with demons until Rachel’s brother disappears, kidnapped by someone sending her a very particular message. Defying the Council’s order to stay off her brother’s case, Rachel hides her witchy identity from the demon hunter Sean—which definitely has nothing to do with how hot he is—and strikes a deal to save her brother. Unfortunately, their plan risks corrupting Rachel’s soul, a grievous offense in the eyes of the Council. Now she’ll have to prove she’s not hellbound — or suffer the same brand of justice she used to serve. 

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Diversity isn’t a default

You either nodded or rolled your eyes right now, but hang with me here. We need diverse books. We need them because we have diverse readers, and those readers deserve to see themselves represented in media. I’m a big believer in this, to the point of being an activist. I’ve spoken on it at conferences. I wrote an essay for Invisible 2 [link], edited by Jim C. Hines, on representation of Native Americans in sci-fi and fantasy. I put my dollars toward diverse media as much as I can.

My first couple passes of BORN were very white, very straight, and very male—despite having a female protagonist.

Even for me, the default of straight white male had wormed its way into my writing. What’s worse is that I didn’t notice until I did a fun little exercise where I cast my novel—I picked actors and actresses that I would like to see play all the different characters and put their pictures in a Word doc. When I looked at it—whoo boy. I ended up doing a lot of gender- and race-swapping to make the book more balanced.

It made me think about my writing more critically, to think about the experiences of marginalized people and how those experiences shape characters, and how we as authors can authentically reflect those experiences. It made me think even more critically about media I consumed and how it affected me. It made me put more effort into the characters I created. I learned an uncomfortable truth about myself: That even with all my attention toward diversity, I’d still been so subconsciously influenced that my novel reflected dominant cultural norms. It surprised me, and it’s made me pay more attention in novels I’ve written since then.

Just keep writing—but edit ruthlessly

When I was but a wee research assistant at a trade association in Washington, DC, my boss, the chief economist, was fond of the phrase, “Don’t let the best become the enemy of the good.” Never has this been more relatable than in my writing. As authors, we’re all intimately familiar with self-doubt and insecurity. They’re the dragons that threaten to slay our dreams. We want polished, publishable work done on a first draft, which is pure fantasy. But we want it, and when we write less-than-perfectly, it can intimidate us. Sometimes, it becomes so intimidating that the writing wheels grind to a halt, and that, my friends, is how you get a hundred people telling you, “I wanted to write a novel, but I only got a few chapters in…”

I wrote the first draft of BORN in under two weeks. People asked me how. I said I used the “Dory [link:] method”—just keep writing, just keep writing. I even jokingly wrote a blog post [link:] about my writing process in which Stage 1 was WRITE WRITE WRITE JUST KEEP WRITING IS THAT EVEN ENGLISH WHO CARES.

I have written sentences like, “I watched my watch.”

“Eyes like chips of eyes.”

“Sean looked thought he had not mulling it over.” (Actual line from an early version of BORN.)

Friends, I have written sentences that even I didn’t know what the hell they meant upon revision.

But I kept writing, and by continuing to write, I finished BORN. I finished three sequels to BORN. I finished a YA novel and am a quarter of the way through a crime thriller. Graduate school first taught me this. You can’t wait for the inspiration or muse: you publish or perish. You write or die. (Maybe not literally, but trust me, in grad school it feels literal.) This lesson flourished as I wrote BORN. I learned to write even when I thought it was trash, even when the words came torturously slow, even when all my doubt and insecurity screamed at me like ten thousand cicadas at a metal concert.

I kept writing. And I learned that I could write not just one, but multiple novels.

Now, I’m clearly a pantser [link:], and I also learned a follow-up to this: Revisions are where your story becomes a story instead of merely a collection of words. I learned to be ruthless in my edits. I’d heard to kill my darlings, and I didn’t only slash paragraphs, I axed chapters. If it wasn’t moving the plot, if it wasn’t revelatory about a character, if it wasn’t contributing to the story, it hit the circular file. I also learned it’s a lot easier to kill your darlings if you cut and paste them into a separate Word file. I have fantasies that maybe one day I’ll release “deleted scenes” like on DVDs. But I learned to be cold-hearted when it came to revisions, and I learned that multiple revisions—sometimes multiple structural revisions—were necessary. I hated doing them (see this blog post [link:]) but I learned they made my story more complete and created an overall better novel.

Hone your skills in unexpected places

So I’m going to get super nerdy here. I told you to keep writing. Sometimes, though, you simply can’t muster the wherewithal to write on your novel. Writing is a practiced art form, one that you must do to perfect. You must do it relentlessly. When I got stuck, or more often as a warm up, I’d do side projects. I’d rewrite episodes of TV shows to tell the story from a different angle, or to insert my characters into that world. I did a 30 Days of Writing challenge. I did writing prompts. Sometimes the results were long, sometimes only a few paragraphs, but it flexed my writing muscles and got me geared up for novel work.

I also learned that my roleplaying hobby could be an important way to improve my writing. I don’t mean tabletop RPG (although I do that too), but online roleplaying, which is cooperative storytelling. It’s prevalent on Tumblr (you can see my nerdiness in all its glory here [link:]) although it’s been around for ages. I used to do it as a teenager, along with writing fanfiction, which I will defend to the death as an important form of creative expression.

Roleplaying works like this: You play a character, and you have a thread—a cooperative story—with another person writing their character. You make a post describing your character’s actions, and your partner will reply with their character’s response. Sometimes there’s a loose plot, sometimes it’s on the fly. What I learned is that people threw things at me I never before considered about my protagonist, and that made me a better writer.

I learned to flesh out things about my characters and my world that I hadn’t thought of before. I learned to write better dialogue. I learned to be better at showing instead of telling. Because you’re writing with the same person, you can’t repeat lines like, “he smiled” or “her eyes shined” if you want to be a good roleplayer. You have to be creative with language. Roleplaying was a way that I practiced writing when I wasn’t writing on the novel, and it made me develop strong habits in description, character, setting, and voice. Not everyone is going to be a roleplayer, but I learned that unique activities like those side projects and roleplaying polished my craft in surprising ways.

It’s how you tell the story

There’s a lot of discussion over whether there are any “new” stories left. I worried about this constantly while writing BORN, where I felt that my plot wasn’t the sparkling unique unicorn required to stand out. I thought I’d better make strong characters, because I was weak on plot. But as my novel went through critiques and beta readers, as I got feedback from agents and editors, not one person mentioned that the plot was unoriginal. In fact, they praised it. Now, let me tell you that when I started BORN, here was my concept: There was a witch and her brother went missing. That was it. I had to figure the rest out along the way. Eventually, I worked something out: it wasn’t about the plot, it was how I was telling it.

Some of our most beloved stories are fairly pedestrian in their plots. There’s the old canard about every story being about either a journey or a murder. There’s the hero’s journey, which we all recognize in Star Wars. The trick, and where good stories stand out, is to take the recognizable and give it a twist. Tell the story in a way that only you can tell it. I learned this could come through characters, but it also comes through in the reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Everyone has that Reason—why this story, why this way. I wanted to tell a story about identity and dealing with something inside you that both gives you power and poses great danger. As a mixed-race person with chronic illness, both of those themes are near and dear to my heart. So my plot—my series of events—was told through that lens, and that lens is what matters most.

I also learned that to make that lens complete, you have to tell the story from every angle. I don’t mean you have to write a book for every character, but sketch out notes. I told myself the plot from the perspective of the villain, the male lead, the protagonist’s brother, the human cop that’s sniffing too close to the protagonist’s supernatural case. This made my world more robust, and made the story more whole. I learned that it takes a village of viewpoints to build a strong story.

People will help you in amazing ways

Other blog posts have mentioned the importance of finding your writer tribe, and I’m going to mention it too, because it’s probably the most important thing you can have as an author. Writing is a solitary endeavor. You feel like Gollum holed up with your precioussssss laptop. There may or may not be weeping in the corner. It’s hard. When I first wrote BORN, I didn’t have a critique group or a tribe of other writers. I had a few friends that I sent it to for fun. Most didn’t respond; one in particular (shout out to Pherin!) became my biggest supporter. She has read every version of BORN, and there’ve been approximately 243,934 of them. She’s talked through plot points with me. She’s been an editor and a cheerleader and a therapist and someone who believed in my novel and me even when I didn’t.

It took me a while to find a good critique group (shout out to Highlands Ranch Fiction Writers!) They also became so much more than critique partners. They are commiserating shoulders to cry on. They are motivational speakers and coaches and comrades-in-arms in this battle against insecurity and doubt. They’ve all helped me in amazing ways, whether it was to read the novel or buy a copy or publicize my Kickstarter or give advice. And that’s what I learned—people will do amazing things for you if you simply ask.

I hate to seem like I’m imposing on others, so asking for help isn’t something I’m good at. But I learned that writers, we stick together. We help each other and we lift each other up and if we can lend a hand, we do. And not only writers, either—friends and family and people you met through work conferences. People are incredible beings with great capacity for giving. All you have to do is ask. This blog post is here because Chuck is an awesome dude and was willing to help me. Jim Hines publicized my Kickstarter because he’s also an awesome dude and was happy to help. A colleague I met several years ago not only pushed my Kickstarter out to his network but also became a backer.

Trust that people believe in you and want you to succeed, and will help you if they can. Trust in the good, kind nature of people. That’s a lesson not just for writing, but for life.

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Writer, speaker, geek. Jessica writes urban fantasy and YA, and is a purveyor of real-life magic. Powered by caffeine, ridiculousness, and charm. Proud indigenous.

A two-time Zebulon Award winner, she is currently working on my sixth novel, a Diné-inspired YA paranormal called SKY MARKED. She belongs to Pikes Peak Writers and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, as well as the crucial-to-her-success critique group, Highlands Ranch Fiction Writers.

Jessica McDonald: Twitter | Blog

Born To Be Magic: Kickstarter