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I asked what people would like to see more in terms of writing-related work on this blog, and I was told two things by fellow writers: traditional submission advice (querying agents) and in-depth discussion on the process on writing. I will get to the former, but admittedly, that will be a very limited write-up. While I have been through part of the traditional process of publishing a novel, and I have traditionally published poems and short stories, I am an indie author when it comes to novels.
Therefore, I feel like my experiences in speaking about traditional publishing are relatively truncated and would offer less than someone who has been through the entire process; I can offer no more than someone who has also queried agents, though my query letter did earn manuscript requests (but ultimately Dove Keeper, as a gothic horror story not set in contemporary times, was said to be very niche and a hard sell).
Writing advice is also very fickle, as while I always try to coach talk of my books in helpful tips, nowadays I grow uncomfortable giving advice because of the caveats and how personal the process can be. What also comes into play is purpose; what resonates with someone who wants to pursue a professional career versus someone uninterested in writing as a profession or pursuing publication is completely different.
Nevertheless, no matter your plans, I hope this post is insightful in some way. Even if you have zero interest in the book itself, I have links to outlines and other resources. And who knows? Maybe something here will inspire you.
There are spoilers for Dove Keeper below because, when it comes to talking about the process of putting ideas together, some reveals cannot be avoided.
It all starts in high school, but I'll skip the aggressive acne and social isolation. I was writing in high school, and I tended to have very singular, interesting concepts better suited for a more focused prose work like a short story. However, at the time I felt short stories were too limiting, so I mostly wrote poetry and novels. The issue with the latter was that I would attempt to stretch very brief ideas, with not especially extensive arcs or subplots, into novels.
When it came to ideas that did have legs, so to speak, I had no idea how to structure a novel, so they'd fall apart in the third act (if they got there), seemed more like a series of vignettes, and endured many, many rewrites (oh boy, just wait till we get to Rabbit Heart) where nine of of ten stories didn't pan out. No matter what long-form projects I was passionate about, I couldn't finish them. It was hard to determine the issue because when you read, and reading is often recommended to writers, the good stuff just sorta blends in. I don't really go, "There it is! There's that satisfactory rising action!"
It wasn't until I read Lisa Cron's compelling Wired for Story in an undergrad fiction course and watched her conversation with Joanna Penn much later that writing a narrative clicked for me, and I can now plan a work with much less stress and finish them.
Cron's thesis about focusing on the story is the basis of my simplified Three C's philosophy. Story = character + plot; character is what the protagonist wants or a misconception of what they think they need, and plot is what gets in their way in each scene. This friction and the struggles of the character to get what they want or think they need as the plot happens is the story. Story is often conflated with plot, but this isn't the case; plot is a component of story.
When I structure an outline, I tend to set up important plot threads that will change the character, and I use the rule of three (set-up, reminder, payoff) to label the events that happen, normally summarized in a few sentences. If you're interested in what this looks like, I actually did not quite do this with Dove Keeper, though I will show my eventual outline for the story.
Here's a closer view of my more recent outlines, though I should note the events in this outline no longer reflect the contents of that novel's working draft. (For me, the working draft is when the character development and plot structure will be kept mostly intact through revisions. This tends to be the first rewrite, or second draft, though it can a better-than-usual first draft, or the 100th draft.)
Cron's work and process personally work very well for me, but I cannot promise the framework will help you. It completely revolutionized how I view creating a story and what to emphasize. If anything, it's something to think about. And something to consider if you're looking to publish: while I'm not saying you should compromise your passion by writing something you're disinterested in, once you go public and expect people to pay for something, audience expectation is so important and something Cron touches on.
Even if your work doesn't follow a formula because it isn't genre fiction, consider that a story still needs to give the reader something and resonate with them. This doesn't mean the story needs to be super philosophical or revolutionary.
Some of the most compelling stories that had me yelling at a piece of pages glued together are romances. Not that romances can't have social commentary or ask important questions, but often these are pleasure reads, which is fine and needed. Life is stressful. I don't always want to read a gritty and dark novel where everything is violent and terrible. It's also worth noting that high stakes don't have to be the end of the world. That moment where characters are separated at the end of the second act of most romance novels? Do it right, get me to love the characters, and it gets to me!
Okay, The Real Beginning
I started a part of would be Dove Keeper in 2011. I conceived of a gothic horror story a little like the video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent where a young, scarred woman wakes up in a lavish castle bedroom. The setting is mid-fifteenth century France. The woman has no memory of who she is or why she is here. She goes around the castle and sees strange things while dealing with her aloof father, sees a dinner that is also something of a Black Mass, and then she discovers she is Joan of Arc brought back to life by her old companion-in-arms Gilles de Rais (warning: child abuse and death), and she must stop him and save the children he's imprisoned underneath the castle.
However, I couldn't get the story off the ground. I tried a short story, a script, a text-based game, but nothing worked. I only got a few sentences here and there written. I would show some of my attempts, but they're, like, super bad.
Okay, here's a selected portion.
Jehanne awakes after her story is complete. A long nap after the pangs of a slow death is not as refreshing as it should be. Her worth has already been penned in bloody ink, cast out in the wind like her ashes in the stained Seine. As her life ends, the unraveling begins, the bleaker side of the religious indulgence flung into the greased coffer.
The lives of the marshal and the martyr are ones that mix together in a sticky contradiction. Two souls marred, forged in blood and fire: one of simplicity, and another of sheer decadence. The tale is smelted with dark hedonism, the bodies of many.
Years Later . . .
Imagine a college sophomore at three in the morning. But this isn't just any morning. You have to write a poem by noon on that same day and print out thirty copies for your poetry workshop class.
You haven't written a poem. It isn't until three a.m. that you remember you need to write a poem at all.
While this shocks others, I never really gave much thought to the executioner thing. I think the immediacy of the history, such as the fact that Anatole Deibler was alive until just before World War II and the guillotine was around until the same year Star Wars: A New Hope came out, was something I was ignorant about. I knew the names Louis and Anatole Deibler, but it was never something I took too seriously because it felt distant.
The complications of the issue of the death penalty is not new; the guillotine was abolished and brought back at least once. While I won't go on at length, I do not support the state being able to execute people, especially since some of those deaths are of falsely accused people and some involving lethal injection go horribly wrong and are torture.
However, on a visceral emotional level, I completely understand how vengeance and the idea of someone dying for hurting and killing others is appealing. Such as in the case of the white supremacist Charleston church shooter, I can't say I slept terribly after he received the death penalty. On a policy level, still, I oppose it, but I am captivated by the range of responses the issue receives from readers.
Such concerns weren't quite on my mind when I started doing research on the Deiblers and the guillotine. I was interested in the domestic life of an executioner, or Monsieur de Paris. I had no idea what it would be like because it felt abstract. Was Anatole Deibler married? Did he have children? In the process of research, I discovered something: Anatole and his wife Rosalie lost a son who was less then two months old because the pharmacist gave them an incorrect medicine dosage.
Instead of thinking about Anatole's POV, I thought about what it must be like to be both an executioner's wife and losing a child. How does Rosalie feel about her husband's profession and proximity to death? When I discovered they had a daughter, Marcelle, I also wondered what it must like to be a woman in an executioner's family at all, whether married to him or one of his children. While an executioner was maligned and ostracized, he was also, in many ways, a paradoxical celebrity: his clothes and perfume set trends, and yet he was reviled. This is well-documented in books and newspapers.
But what of his wife and daughter? What were their lives like? How do they relate to each other, especially given that Anatole and Rosalie lost a child? What is it like raising a child after having lost another?
I wrote a poem about Rosalie dealing with her grief. The reception to the topic and execution (no pun intended) was good.
Here is the poem:
April 10th, 1899—Before I can tell my husband the auspicious news, my dove dies.
She lies wing-up in her cage like a headsail, and I clean out the seed and pellets--
wrap her body in coarse parchment and tie the bulk with twine.
No, this will be a good day, I assure myself as I cradle her tiny body
and bury her beneath the roses.
The sun glints on our prized silver chalice when my husband returns home from work.
I spread my arms open. “Dearest, welcome h—”
“I killed my first woman today,” he states, washing his hands in the basin.
I knit my brow, fold my hands over my apron. “I thought women couldn’t be executed.”
He exhales, shoulders slouching. “The law made an exception today.”
Bruises plague the wrinkles under his eyes like smeared kohl.
I grasp his shoulders. “But the guillotine is swift. You couldn’t—I’m sure it didn’t hurt.”
He turns. I knit my hands over his and settle them on my belly.
Beaming, I add, “We should dwell on life.”
Normally, he tells me about the criminals while caressing my hair:
the time of death (to the second), the day of the week, how they acted
when they awoke on their last day. The glasses of rum, when they’d complain of a chill.
In his books, they’re the red-rimmed crosses—the condemned.
He can remember the first through the three-hundredth.
Tonight, he extinguishes the nightstand candle without a word.
November 13th, 1899--
Our son is dead.
My husband weeps at night, but he won’t show me his tears.
He leaves the bed, paces, smokes his pipe.
My bones leaden, as if I’ve gazed into the jaundiced whites of a Gorgon.
My hands tremble as I clean, and I knock the chalice off the cabinet.
It clinks on the wood floor, and I crumple and sob.
He sweeps in and clasps me as if I’m his blood, his heart.
He does so with his chest to my back, so that we can’t see one another.
Years ago, I was warned that his family name is cursed—a bloodline of deathbringers.
Rosalie, my mother chided, who would want to marry a hangman?
Anatole Deibler. He would stand unsmiling for the photographers.
They would clamor and applaud, inspect the heads and bodies
that rolled from the bascule to the buckets.
But see, my family comes from a hangmen dynasty too.
And I kissed the blood off my husband’s psychic pall when he came home.
My mother warned me—but no, I loved him. I love him.
Our son is dead.
November 14th, 1899—My newest dove dies.
I fling her out onto the cobblestones.
I wanted to expand this topic into a novel. In truth, I was uncomfortable writing straight-up historical fiction because I tend to strongly prefer stories with strange supernatural elements or, at the most realistic, magical realism. Or something so gruesome and dreamlike it feels unreal ,like a Flannery O'Connor story. I had nothing outside of a cool concept, no sense of the characters' motivations or the central conflict beyond Rosalie's grief and maybe tension with her nephew.
It, like the Jehanne story, went on the back-burner.
Let's backtrack a bit. In 2012 and 2013, I lost both my grandfathers. These two events were extremely traumatic to me, along with other experiences I won't elaborate on. My paternal grandfather died of colon cancer that metastasized over the years until it was terminal.
In my first semester of undergrad, my maternal grandfather died more suddenly. I still can't go to that Dunkin' Donuts where I first found out he was in the hospital. I still remember our last phone conversation, me holding his hand while he was in a coma. There are other things, too, I went through that I'm not yet comfortable speaking about. All this was inside me, unspoken I was accused of being so stoic and not caring enough, of not being affected enough. Like I didn't care, just moved on because I didn't cry enough. But I was so affected and devastated I was frozen.
Suffice to say, around this time I experienced a sharp decrease in mood and constant anxiety so potent I would become physically immobilized. I would have this constant pain in my lower right rib, and it felt like a rock was there, and others times it felt like a wound continuously leaking and draining me. I stopped menstruating for a year after being regular for eight years, something that was dismissed when I spoke about it.
I felt alone. In places I thought I belonged, I was shunned. I was lost, exhausted, and miserable. I felt like a failure abandoned to contend with grief. In a good bit 2014 and throughout the summer of 2015, I spent innumerable hours in bed with this agonizing weight in me.
While I wasn't writing Dove Keeper at this time, it is important context for how I approached the trauma I explore in the novel. Writing, especially from Rosalie's POV, was cathartic and meant to be a source of empathy for those going through similar struggles of grief and anxiety. In Rosalie's chapters she sometimes speaks about something leaking out of her or a weight calcifying in her.
Putting it All Together
The Jehanne story and the executioner family story were always separate in my mind for a long time. Two cool ideas in a long list of ideas I'd never gotten much done with. In late 2015, however, was adamant about doing something about the executioner family. One can't just waste being connected to guillotine operators.
So, going off the fact that I like having weird and supernatural elements in my stories, I decided to look at French fairy tales for inspiration. Hmm, "Beauty and the Beast" is a favorite of mine, but it doesn't really seem to fit in any way. And then there's . . .
. . . "Bluebeard."
And the inspiration for "Bluebeard" was . . . Gilles de Rais.
Aha, a connection, and a lightbulb!
But the Jehanne and Gilles de Rais story takes place in the 1400's! A five-hundred year gap is hard to reconcile. What is they were in the twentieth-century? I want Marcelle, or Marcy, to be a teenager, so . . . World War I? How is Glles de Rais still alive to resurrect Jehanne?
Writing the Story
With Dove Keeper, I was more focused on the atmosphere and Gothic style than the structure of Cron. That's come later in the final draft. I wanted to capture that old and decaying atmosphere while showing that more modern setting creeping in. I wrote these long, sprawling chapters that were unfocused, but the general plot came into being, and I knew I wanted the conflict between Rosalie and both her nephew and daughter, and eventually her husband.
Originally, Jehanne wasn't a POV character because I feared it'd detract from the mother-daughter relationship at the story's core and that the reveals and weird manor going-on would be too easy to figure out if you saw things through her eyes. However, I came around when I realized having her, let's say, less-than-perceptive POV helped when put against Marcy, who immediately catches on to things like Moreau and Gilles' relationship and Gilles' strange mannerisms. It offers a stark difference based on the two girls' experiences and knowledge.
A big change in the final story was what happened with Anatole during the story's climax. I had no idea what to do with him, so he went to the manor with Rosalie and . . . did nothing! But adding the police taking him away really upped the stakes, since Rosalie is then truly alone and, at her lowest point, must motivate herself to save Marcy.
Also, I was surprised and a little ashamed at how, at first, Mlle Clair didn't even have a name or backstory; she was just supposed to be a maid who appears around Jehanne to help her and feed her exposition. But then she and Moreau became their own characters, and Clair especially has had more than one reader rooting for her as their personal favorite character.
Basically, this draft was a mess, but a promising one, and I had a friend named Kelsey, with a background in editing and working with a publishing house, read the Frankenstein's monster I had created and sewn together. Her directions, particularly about how to organize the story, pretty much saved it. I originally had fourteen long chapters, but breaking them up assisted the pacing greatly.
Writing the Working Draft That Would Eventually, Through Much Effort, Become the Final, Final Draft
Here is the outline I made for Dove Keeper before I started the final draft. It is not exactly accurate to the finished story, as some beats are changed or absent, and the complete story has twenty-seven chapters plus a prologue.
It is worth noting that this is the first time in the process I created an outline for the novel; it's actually the first time I made a comprehensive outline for a long-form work . . . successfully. This isn't how I outline anymore, but I hope it may give you some ideas. I tried to organize and label through highlighting so the through-line was visible, and I could also visualize any gaps.
Writing the working draft was fun. A passion and energy really kicked in. In the first draft, I was afraid of making Jehanne too fiery because I thought she'd be too unlikable in her brashness and momentary insensitivity.
During the dinner with her, Gilles, and Marcy, she's mostly passive and quiet. That completely changes. I go all the way with her, maybe too far, and indeed I have been accused of having none of the female characters be people the reader can empathize with because they are Extra and Too Much, but they feel so real and dynamic. I did consider whether I should pull back in my final read-through as I cut things out, but I ultimately decided, based on reader feedback, not to change much about the characters themselves.
Without rehashing too much of things I've spoken about before, I did query Dove Keeper, but it was too niche. Even though there were agents who loved it, they said because it was historical horror and not contemporary, it wouldn't sell. That's perfectly fine. While I respect traditional publishing, I feel like I pursued that path because I was afraid of disappointing people who said I was "too good" to be indie--even though I always wanted to go indie because I love all the design and marketing elements.
It's exhausting and at times frustrating, but my love for the process far outweighs any gripes. I learned how to format a book . . . and boy gutters are a pain, but I also absolutely love book formatting!
To go back a little, in April 2018, I felt like I lacked direction with my writing. I didn't know what to do. Then I got very sick with an ulcer and could only eat carrots, oatmeal, watermelon, and Raisin Bran water mush. Now I deal with bad GERD and IBS, which only makes me paranoid that I'll get incredibly sick again; I was ill until May, and still had some issues throughout the summer. I still have issues if I eat trigger foods.
Anyway, having to be in bed all day and being unable to write or do anything made me think about what I wanted to do with my life if I could do something.
I wanted to get Dove Keeper out there for people who might need it. I had no idea if the story would resonate with others, as it's presumptuous to think it'll have the same emotional impact or connection it has for me based on my personal experiences. But still, I felt it was ready, others felt it was ready, so I promised myself once I was better, I'd announce that I'd be publishing Dove Keeper in October, because, y'know, spooky book is spooky.
I got somewhat better, I announced the book, and I formatted the manuscript. I used Microsoft Word, though I also taught myself Adobe InDesign, which is . . . another story. If anyone wants more in-depth descriptions of book formatting, I can do that, but I imagine all the technical stuff is rather dull.
For the cover, I outsourced the work to an artist called Victoria Davies, who is on Fiverr.
I had the book proofread by Kristen Tardio, a wonderful editor, and then I read through the entire thing myself, sentence by sentence. I marked almost every page when thought a word choice needed to be altered or something added. I also took note to look at rhythm, particularly with lists.
For example, look at these sentences:
She had roses, summer snapdragons, and lilies in her garden.
The woods were full of big wolves, bigger bears, and little mice.
There is, on the surface, nothing wrong with these sentences. Correct punctuation and word order. However, when one lists different things in a sentence, it sounds better to go by order of intensity, syllable count, and size from smallest to biggest. In the first one, "summer snapdragons" would be best at the end of the sentence because it has more syllables than the other two words and throws off the cadence. I would argue that the second sentence, while technically breaking the sequential order from smallest to biggest, might work if emphasizing how small and different the mice are from the bigger predators is important. So, breaking this rule of order can work, but it needs to be intentional and well-executed.
I also paid a good deal of attention to avoiding a circular narrative by following the old-to-new knowledge formula. When structuring sentences in relation to each other
When I went to see the movie Us, I saw it at the mall theater. The movie was directed by Jordan Peele. It's a horror film. The theater had great popcorn.
When structuring sentences, typically the last thing mentioned in a sentence is the topic elaborated upon in the next sentence. If you bring in something new (the last part of the sentence) but then go back to old information from the earlier part of the sentence, it feels like the narrative is going in circles and the story isn't progressing. This is "flow." While revising, I made sure that the details in every sentence furthered the narrative and didn't feel disjointed. Look at this version of the passage above:
I went to see the movie Us, a horror film directed by Jordan Peele that played at the local mall theater. That place had great popcorn.
Notice two things. One, when a new sentence comes along, "that place" connects to "the local mall theater." We are moving on from the topic of the movie to the theater because, when the theater is positioned where it is, this is signaling that this is the subject that is new and therefore elaborated upon.
Two, we have two sentences that balance each other out by having a different length, adding diversity to the rhythm of the story. If there are too many sentences with a similar construction, the writing becomes stale.
The Book Now
Dove Keeper has recently been released on audiobook, and its sequel is out. By now, including digital sales in all its formats and in-person book signings, it has sold well over 100 copies. It was a difficult story to get off the ground, but I am so proud and grateful for where it's at now and the people who have believed in this story.
Total Drafts: 2.
Time to Write Before Proofreading: October 2015 to April 2017
Any questions about the process? Feel free to comment or tweet me @emilydeibler!