Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

M.J. Kuhn: Five Things I Learned Writing Among Thieves

In just over a year’s time, Ryia Cautella has already earned herself a reputation as the quickest, deadliest blade in the dockside city of Carrowwick—not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

For the past six years, a deadly secret has kept her in hiding, running from town to town, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster—the sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms of Thamorr. No matter how far or fast she travels, his servants never fail to track her down…but even the most powerful men can be defeated.

Ryia’s path now leads directly into the heart of the Guildmaster’s stronghold, and against every instinct she has, it’s not a path she can walk alone. Forced to team up with a crew of assorted miscreants, smugglers, and thieves, Ryia must plan her next moves very carefully. If she succeeds, her freedom is won once and for all…but unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are nearly as selfish as she is, and they all have plans of their own.

1. I Am AGGRESSIVELY a Plotter

Although AMONG THIEVES is my debut, it’s not the first novel I have written. It’s actually my fifth. But it IS the first novel I wrote well, and by that I mean, the first novel I wrote using a process that actually worked for me and my writer brain.

Everyone’s writer brain is different. A lot of writers like to find the story as they go, others have a general idea of the main plot points, but kind of play it by ear for the middle parts. It turns out I am basically a fucking robot, and I need… all the details.

I always outlined my projects (with the exception my two ill-advised attempts at wholesale pantsing, which each turned into about 40k words of nonsense that went nowhere. HOW DO SOME OF YOU WIZARDS WRITE LIKE THAT?!), but AMONG THIEVES was the first time I went fucking ham with it. I had a beat-by-beat outline in an Excel spreadsheet with columns for every plot, subplot, and character arc. I interviewed each of my characters with 50+ questions, and had a 30-page OneNote doc filled with research and worldbuilding info before I even put pen to page on the actual first draft.

And the result? The easiest, cleanest first draft I have ever written.

Did I still have to edit the shit out of it? Absolutely. But man oh man, the editing process was nowhere near as overwhelming and brutal as it had been for me in the past. AMONG THIEVES was the first time I felt like the writing process went smoothly for me, and I think it’s because I finally figured out a method that worked for me. That theory was further supported when I used the same process for the sequel, THICK AS THIEVES, and it went even smoother than the first time around.

I mean, who knows how long that method will work for this fickle writer brain of mine, but it’s working now, and that’s enough for me.

2. Too-Smart Characters Are All Fun and Games… Until You Have to Write One

Who doesn’t love a smart, terrifying villain? Okay, I guess a lot of people don’t, but I am obsessed with them. When Game of Thrones was big, I constantly got shit from my friends because Littlefinger was one of my favorite characters. Obviously, I know he was objectively The Worst, but I am just a sucker for the character who is always one step ahead of the game — the one who is pulling the strings.

… And then, with AMONG THIEVES, for the first time, with Callum Clem, I had to actually try to write one of those characters.

Now, I don’t think I’m an idiot, exactly… but a brilliant, devious, string-pulling genius, I am not.

It took a lot of trial and error, some INTENSE outlining, and a lot of research on con artists to get that brilliant asshole of a character coming across the way I wanted him to. Still, to this moment, a part of me is worried that I didn’t pull it off. Moral of the story here: writing characters who are smarter than you are is really really hard.

3. Patience is a Goddamned Virtue

Those who know me well, know that patience is far from my strong suit. Like, okay, for small things, I can be patient, like waiting for food at a restaurant or waiting in line or whatever… but when it comes to big things? Like, oh, I don’t know, realizing my lifelong dream and becoming a published author? I am constantly CHAMPING AT THE BIT. That’s why this lesson was by far the hardest one for me to learn.

I said earlier in this post that I wrote four full manuscripts before penning AMONG THIEVES. Of those, I only queried two with agents and the second one I queried actually ended up getting me signed! I signed with my first agent in 2017… but I had actually started writing AMONG THIEVES in 2016. As luck would have it, I found that agent right before deciding to shelve the project she ended up signing me for. I thought I was ready to query AMONG THIEVES back then… but I held off.

Instead, my agent and I edited the previous project for over a year, then went on submission with it. It never ended up selling, but I wouldn’t trade that year or so of my life for anything. That year of editing a project that will likely never see the light of day is why AMONG THIEVES exists in its current form.

While waiting for the parade of “no’s” on that other project to roll in, I took my editing pen back to AMONG THIEVES, using all the lessons I had learned during a year of working with a publishing industry professional on that other project. By the time that first agent of mine laid eyes on AMONG THIEVES, it was fifteen times stronger than it was when I thought it was ready to query back in 2017.

And I was rewarded for that initial patience. THIEVES sold after only two months on sub.

4. I Could Probably Con You Now… Just Kidding… Or Am I?

AMONG THIEVES, for those who don’t know, is a heist novel. All the characters are cons and, well, thieves. So, while preparing to write this novel, I read a lot of books about con men and art heists and highwaymen… you get the idea. I also read a book called “How To Cheat At Everything,” which literally gave step-by-step guides on how to run some common alleyway scams, like the game with the ball and the three cups, and instructions on how to stack a deck of cards, etc.

It was super interesting reading, honestly! At the very least, I can basically guarantee at this point, I’ll never get sucked into one of the scams I read about. At most… I could probably run a few of those scams myself now. So. Watch out.

5. How To Trust My Writer Gut

BREAKING NEWS: writing is difficult.

But honestly, being a newbie writer is especially difficult, because just as you’re trying to figure out your writing process, or your editing process, or trying to get your foot in the door with publishers or agents, you are bombarded with advice and edicts from other writers and authors. A lot of that advice is contradictory or just won’t work for you personally… so how in the hell are you supposed to know what to do?

Your brain isn’t going to know. But your writer gut will. At least, I’m learning that mine does. I guess to each their own, here!

This answer is a little bit of a cheat, because, yes, learning to trust my writer gut happened a bit through writing AMONG THIEVES and THICK AS THIEVES, but mostly this knowledge is something I’ve gained through the publishing process. When I was offered representation back in 2017, I actually received multiple offers. Of those offers, my first agent was by far the newest and youngest, with the smallest client list.

My brain tried to tell me to go with one of the “bigger” agents. But my writer gut knew they were the right agent for me, and they turned out to be the perfect agent to kick off my career with. Same for my second go-around in the query trenches, when I signed with my new agent, Laura, I felt in my gut that she was the perfect partner to help me in the next chapter of my career.

Through the editing and publication process for AMONG THIEVES, my writer gut strengthened, telling me what edits to accept and change without issue, what things to push back on and question, and what things to just slap a “STET for voice” on and stand my ground. It’s a difficult thing, navigating the world of writing and publishing, and I will not claim to be an expert — I am still a tiny baby in this industry. But I have faith that if I keep trusting my writer gut, it’ll keep pointing me in the right direction.

M.J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered marketing employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with a very spoiled cat named Thorin Oakenshield. M. J. also cohosts the SFF Addicts podcast with Adrian M. Gibson.

MJ Kuhn: Website

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