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Rebecca Zahabi: Five Things I Learned Writing The Collarbound

Rebellion is brewing and refugees have begun to trickle into the city at the edge of the world. Looming high on the cliff is the Nest, a fortress full of mages who offer protection, but also embody everything the rebellion is fighting against: a strict hierarchy based on magic abilities.

When Isha arrives as a refugee, she attempts to fit in amongst the other mages, but her kher tattoo brands her as an outcast. She can’t remember her past or why she has the tattoo – only that she survived.

Tatters, who wears the golden collar of a slave, was once one of the rebels. He plans to stay in the shadows, until Isha appears in his tavern. He’s never seen a human with a tattoo, and the markings look eerily familiar . . .

As the rebellion carves a path of destruction towards the city, an unlikely friendship forms between a man trying to escape his past and a woman trying to uncover hers, until their secrets threaten to tear them apart.

1. Trust the muse.

When I started working on The Collarbound, it wasn’t the story I had planned on writing. I didn’t intend to write a trilogy, I didn’t intend to start the story in a tavern, I didn’t intend to write a dual magic system of mind and flesh. It was all happening in an epic fantasy setting, with rebels and mages and giant glowing lightborns flying in the sky, yet it was focused on people, nearly entirely character-driven. As I delved into the manuscript, I worried who on earth would read this slow-burn character exploration, this piecing-together of backstory through mental battles, dreams and mind-games. Yet it was the novel that got me an agent, and a mainstream editor.

Trust the muse. It knows what it’s doing. Or at least, trust that what you love and what fascinates you will be fascinating to others, and that they might love it too. If you care, if it’s what your soul is singing about, write it. Other people will care too.

2. Make it worse.

But doing what you love doesn’t mean going easy on yourself. Quite the contrary. I would recommend always making it harder, for yourself, for your characters. No looking for the easy way out. No glossing over the hole in your magic system. You’ve spotted a gap, a way the magic can be abused or circumvented? Characters will as well. Let them exploit it.

For example, if mindlink means mages have to stand still when they occupy each other’s minds, as they’re focused on the mental worlds, then what happens when someone works out how to project mental images while throwing a punch? Or say the fleshbinding magic allows people to share sensations – it’s all very well that the grizzled characters think of this as a way to share pain to avoid succumbing to torture, but what does it mean when someone comes up with the idea to share pleasure? How does that change the way the first date goes? Actually, what does it look like coming from a culture that has had centuries to explore that idea and become familiar with it?

3. Names are hard.

While we’re on creating a new culture, one aspect I bumped against was names. I hate naming things – I tend to do that last, so characters and places are often called ‘XXX’ in the first draft. Naming is hard to get right. If you get it wrong, it can carry certain cultural associations. It can belong to the wrong language group, making people wonder why this fantasy term sounds like Anglo-Saxon or Latin; it can place your fantasy world in a certain cultural space which isn’t the one you wanted it to land in. People will make different assumptions about Anwen, Arushi or Anita, just from her name on the page.

To avoid this, research is your friend. When writing the khers, a species of red-skinned, horned, nomadic humanoids, I studied the roots of an old Tuareg dialect. By looking at the language’s origins, finding words which had then split into several other words and spawned offspring to create various new languages, I was hoping to find sounds and names that were hard to place, that didn’t carry associations for the reader. For the two other main languages in The Collarbound, I based myself on Proto-Germanic and Sanskrit words. The result was distinct cultural sonorities: the Sunrisers had terms such nasivyati, stana, rohit; while the Duskdwellers had names like groniz, baina, raudaz.

Another workaround which I found useful was simply to translate words, or blend existing terms together. Languages are flexible, and you can play with them by merging words together: mindlink, fleshbinding, lawmage. Or invented words can be made to sound just right: lacunant, for people who suffer from a lacuna in their mind. Or why not simply call the cliff at the end of the world the Edge, or the high-perched castle full of mages and seagulls the Nest? It can work just as well.

4. Tropes are your friends.

The thing with writing is, you have to both zoom in and zoom out. The language is important – it’s all words, words, words, as Hamlet would put it – but the structure of the story is important as well. Knowing your tropes means knowing the building blocks of your story, and how to play with them. Sometimes a trope is a shortcut, a way to tell the reader that yes, this character is the comic relief, the foil to the main character. Nothing too bad will take place while he’s around, but beware the moment he’s seriously hurt, because it will spell serious trouble.

Once those tropes are established, they become ways to play with the reader, surprise them or tease them: how about we take ‘the rebel hero fighting the evil empire’ trope… But we’re firmly from the point of view of people living under the empire’s rule, and the horror they feel when the rebels destroy everything they’ve ever known. I love playing with known stories, twisting them into unexpected shapes, testing what they become if told from a different angle. Or telling a story in the wrong order, or after the facts. Sure, this character is a classic fantasy rogue hero, with too many skills to count, but it’s been years now, and what’s left of the adventures is mostly trauma, and he would like to live quietly in his tavern off his teaching job while pursuing romance, if you please.

5. You’re putting in a lot of stuff you’re not aware of.

I once heard Jeanette Winterson say that fiction is a lie detector. I think that’s particularly true of writers – we put stuff in our stories, convinced they’re things we invented, only to find out that they’re things we believed, or lived through, or worried about. I found myself writing about a mixed-race young girl, cut off from one of her cultural identities; about a White-passing man from a faraway land; about languages and mixed identities, trying to live at the threshold between three cultures; about violent revolutions failing and what we might do instead to make this world a better place. And then a friend, or a relative, points out that I’m mixed-race, White-passing, that two of the three cultures I’ve been influenced by – French and Iranian – both have violent revolutions which end with a worse dictature taking over in its wake, in 1789 and 1979 respectively.

It seems so obvious in retrospect, I’m not sure how I missed those themes while I was writing the manuscript. I was convinced the story was about two mages making friends or sometimes failing to, exploring mindmagic and fleshbinding powers, and fighting off the violent rebel army of Renegades – and it still is all of that, of course, but a lot more is hidden in there that I hadn’t realised I was putting in.

Maybe that’s why, in the end, it’s important to write what you love, what the muse whispers to you in your dreams. Because it’s what moves you, whether you realise it or not at the time. Because looking back on the book will be like looking into a mirror – and hopefully, you’re not the only person who will see themselves reflected there.


Rebecca Zahabi is a mixed-heritage writer (a third British, a third French and a third Iranian). She started writing in her home village in France at age 12 – a massive epic where women were knights and men were she-witches which set out to revolutionise feminism. Since, she learnt how to actually write, and has slightly re-jigged her expectations of what she can achieve with a keyboard and a blank page. The plan of taking over the world, however, has not changed.

After honing in her craft in a variety of genres – playwriting, short stories, an attempt at Icelandic sagas – she hopes to write novels that can make a difference. She is currently working on Tales of the Edge, an ambitious trilogy blending magic and structural violence.

Her début adult novel, The Collarbound, was longlisted for The Future Bookshelf program at Hachette UK before being acquired by Gollancz, and made it to the top 10 Sunday Times bestseller list.

The Collarbound: Bookshop | Amazon