Highlights

  • The importance of the first sentence and scene of our books.
  • More ideas on promoting our writing work.
  • Switching genre and age group to meet your own prose and writing voice may help us writers succeed.

I rewrite the opening pages of all my manuscripts more than any other part of a work-in-progress.

Welcome to the forty-first episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.

In this episode, I chat with historical fiction author K. M. Pohlkamp.

From APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE:

“My target focused upon me. His hand shook, reaching out in a misplace plea for aid. Instead, I raised my goblet in a final toast while he turned purple. He glanced towards his spilled glass, and then studied my face with new understanding. With his last remnants of life, he pieced together what I had done. Those little moments made the act so delicious. And as his body collapsed upon the floor, I added one more success to my mental tally. Murder just never got old.”

Arthur: The opening lines of your book APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE are fantastic. They establish not only a great opening scene, but the motivation and desires of the main character. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t take chapters to understand while drawing the reader in immediately. How did you craft the first chapter and this scene? Was it original to the first draft, or did it come later?

K.M.: Thank you for such kind words and for hosting me today!

I’m not going to lie, the opening chapter of APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE took a lot of work but I love how it came together. The scene and chapter are the same in essence to their first drafts, but you’re reading about draft 50. (I wish I were joking.)

I rewrite the opening pages of all my manuscripts more than any other part of a work-in-progress. The first sentences are critical, especially in today’s fast-paced society which forms snap judgements. The first lines have to capture a reader’s interest immediately, provide a sense of the main character and the story, and entice the reader to keep going. Knowing the entire book will be judged by the first lines is a lot of pressure to put on so few words.

The best advice I ever read regarding the first chapter was to start in the middle of action. And not just any action, but a scene which is either key to the plot or essential to the character. I want my readers to be immediately swept into the world I’ve created.

I want my readers to be immediately swept into the world I’ve created.

Arthur: Your primary conflict for APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE is a great driver for a story, and I’m fascinated by your inspiration for writing the book. And the primary character’s belief that she can continue to sin because the confession forgives it. Many writers get halfway through their books and realize they don’t have sufficient driving conflict to move the story onward. Did you have this conflict and motivation established before you started writing the story? Or did it come after?

K.M.: The entire concept for the novel (Lavinia’s conflict between her lust for murder and faith) came to me in a church pew after listening to my priest’s homily about the dangers of a cycle of sin and penance. How after we sin (or do something wrong) we feel remorse which eventually fades and often we repeat our mistakes. Of course my priest was not talking about murder. I stretched that concept in to the core message and conflict of APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE and built the rest of the story around that theme.

I am a planner. No, that would be putting it too lightly. I am an obsessive architect. We planned our last Disney vacation to 15-minute increments. As a result, my outlines and research documentation can rival the word count of my novels. But I believe this planning helps me avoid the “lack of tension” pitfall.

I agree that many books struggle to have sufficient conflict and motivation. Planning the entire story and character arcs before I ever write a word enables me move and insert plot points to maintain pacing and tension. It also enables me to identify potential weakness and holes before investing time writing.

Every author has their own process but I have found this strategy works for me.

I am a planner. No, that would be putting it too lightly. I am an obsessive architect.

Arthur: How have you promoted your work? What has been the largest return on your investment (time or otherwise) for marketing and promotion?

K.M.: I promote my work anywhere and everywhere I can. I have so little writing time that my biggest struggle is balancing marketing and writing. Marketing is a never-ending task and there can always be more done. I could always write another letter to a blogger, or respond to a tweet, so there has to be balance.

I believe the best return on my investments of time has been creating relationships with my readers. I respond to every tweet, GoodReads and Facebook message directed at me. I take time to thank readers for their reviews and spreading word about my book. The return I’ve received is not necessarily monetary, but knowing my writing touched some one or made them think is incredible motivation to keep going. I’m inspired by the quote from the Broadway musical Title of Show: “I’d rather be nine peoples’ favorite thing than 100 peoples’ ninth favorite thing.”

Of course, I’d like more than nine people to read my work! Connections with bloggers has been a fantastic way to spread word about my writing. My publisher, Filles Vertes Publishing, also provides marketing support. I carry around business cards featuring the book and hand them out to anyone and everyone who expresses remote interest. (A shout out and “thank you” to my parents who do the same!) I look for cross promotion opportunities with other authors and write guest blogs for Tudor history websites.

I’ve also entered APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE into several contests and I am grateful for the success I’ve received. As a debut author, having such third-party endorsements has boosted my sales. I’m especially proud that APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE was selected as an Editors’ Choice novel by the Historical Novel Society.

The best return on my investments of time has been creating relationships with my readers.

Arthur: How have you developed your writing voice and prose? Once your first draft was completed, did you go back and rework your prose, or was it great to start out with during the first writing?

K.M.: Finding my author “voice” was a struggle overcome through years of writing, writing, and more writing. A few years ago, an editor suggested I should switch to historical fiction because I do tend to write prose and provide a lot of description. I am grateful for that advice and have never looked back. Instead of fighting my innate tendency for prose, I switched to a genre which embraces it.

My advice for any author who is struggling is to select a genre which will enable their writing strengths to shine. This may be include switching age ranges as well.

Through trial and error, I also found I am a more compelling writer when I write in first person.

My second piece of advice is to realize the first novel you write is likely a practice novel. I did not want to believe that but it proved true. The lessons I learned from past writing projects enabled me to find the voice and style I have today. Time and quality feedback will help a writer develop their voice.

As far as writing APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE, I am a slow writer. I edit as I go and refuse to not do so. This limits my word count to ~25,000 words every nanowrimo, but I strongly believe it is better to edit as you go than to have an issue ripple through a hundred pages and have to rewrite. Therefore by the time I have a complete “first draft” each page has been edited several times.

The focus of my second draft is to work out any large structural issues and once complete, I usually solicit aid from beta readers. My goal is to identify any big issues or plot holes as early in the process as possible to avoid wasted work. Once I get an all clear from trusted readers, I start polishing like a sculptor, working from paragraphs, to sentences, to individual words. Choosing a finer grit polish with each draft.

Through trial and error, I also found I am a more compelling writer when I write in first person.

Arthur: Do you have any specific writing techniques you employ to hone your craft?

K.M.: One of my biggest pet peeves in books is when a solution to a problem suddenly appears. I prefer to drop hints to things hundred of pages before they may be significant so that all the pieces are on the table before I put the puzzle together.

The right level and selection of details make a book. Details paint a picture in the reader’s head and provide layers for the envelop the senses. However too many details can slow a scene and distract. Every sentence, character, and object mentioned should have a purpose or it should be cut.

Every sentence, character, and object mentioned should have a purpose or it should be cut.

Arthur: You have an awesome perspective on the craft, especially with your science background and work as a flight controller. What is your writing flow? Is it a daily exercise? How do you balance your time between work, life and writing?

K.M.: Balance is tricky for any author or anyone juggling multiple commitments. I do have a full-time job as a flight controller in Mission Control and two children aged four and six. I make it all work because writing is my means to escape and relax. I also work to use my time efficiently. You can accomplish a lot an hour at a time. I often wonder what the other parents would think if they knew I was writing a murder scene while typing away during basketball practice!

I do try to write every day but I don’t and I think that is okay! I disagree with those who say writers must write every day. Sometimes a few days of vacation provides the fresh perspective required to evaluate a manuscript. Sometimes closing the laptop lid gets me through a sticking point.

You can accomplish a lot an hour at a time.

Arthur: How long did it take you to write your initial outline for APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE? How many drafts did you complete before starting the publishing process? Did you have beta readers? How did you find them?

K.M.: I planned the book for three to four months before I started writing as part of nanowritmo 2016. I had a completed draft ready for other eyes three months later in January. This project wrote faster than anything else I have ever worked on. It just came to me and I’m blessed for that. It took me three times as long to write the sequel.

Baring in mind my process I spoke about earlier, how my “first draft” is fairly edited, I think I queried around draft 11. “Draft” can be a very subjective term regarding how much has to change before the number is incremented. I mean I went through the book methodically word by word about 11 times.

I do employee beta readers and believe they are critical. No one can objectively evaluate their own work. Another perspective will see things you cannot. I met my current beta readers through networking with authors. One is a retired fire fighter in Canada and the other is a retired psychologist in California. (A shout out to Dave Wickenden and Robin Rice who both write fantastic books I recommend!)

It is important to have a beta reader who will challenge you and not just provide complements. I want my beta readers to rip apart the manuscript. I want to know everything that makes them hesitate. A beta reader must be someone willing to be honest and someone who’s opinion you trust.

No one can objectively evaluate their own work. Another perspective will see things you cannot.

Arthur: Do you monitor trends in the book market? Before you wrote APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE, did you do any market research before writing it? Did you know if it would sell?

K.M.: I would say I keep an eye on trends. #MSWL can be fantastic for an idea spark. But I think it is more important to understand your genre than it is to write to a trend. Trends come and go and books should have a long life. But there are expectations in genres and it is hard for a publisher or an agent to invest in something that is too far from reader expectation. An author should understand the style and word count that is expected from the genre and only significantly deviate if there is good reason. A 700-page YA book will probably not sell but a 250-page fantasy will probably be unfulfilling.

The most important aspect is to write the book YOU want to read. An author’s passion will come through their writing. A project you are motivated and excited for will complete.

It is more important to understand your genre than it is to write to a trend. Trends come and go and books should have a long life.

Arthur: The ending of APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE was perfect. Did you always know the ending? How did you come up with the ending (without giving anything away)?

K.M.: I’m going to attempt to answer this question without giving spoilers so please ignore any awkward verbiage.

Yes, I knew the ending before I starting writing. I wondered what it would be like to be in such a position and I thought ending a novel written in first person like that would be dramatic and unexplored. I wanted to offer the reader a new experience.

I also knew the ending would be polarizing. I even asked my publisher if they wanted to change the ending before I signed the contract. After final edits with my editor, the publisher had six interns do a last beta read. Reactions to the ending were split and my editor asked me one more time if I was sure of the ending. I am grateful to Filles Vertes Publishing for letting me keep my vision.

I have received a few e-mails from readers saying they wanted to throw their Kindle at the wall. It has probably cost me a star or two in some reviews. But I’m proud to have evoked such an emotional reaction and have received so many more comments like yours. My favorite was from the Discovering Diamonds Historical Review site which said it was “the most dramatic ending” they have ever read.

I hope the ending leaves readers thinking because that is what literature is about.

I hope the ending leaves readers thinking because that is what literature is about.

Arthur: What is a future writing project you hope to complete one day, but perhaps aren’t ready to write yet? What is keeping you from starting? What do you need to improve to start it?

K.M.: I’ve always wanted to write a novel about an oracle but I do not yet have a full concept to wrap around the character. Hopefully someday inspiration will bless me.

I just signed the publishing contract for the sequel to APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE which will be released fall of 2019. I’ve also started work on a historical romance centered around a girl convicted of manslaughter occurring during self-defense. For the first time in a few years I am not writing about a poison assassin and am excited about how this project is coming together.

Thank you so much for hosting me on Interview from the Void. I sincerely appreciate all of those who have trusted me with their precious reading time. If your readers do consider picking up a copy of APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE I encourage them leave a review and join the discussion about APRICOTS AND WOLSBANE on GoodReads.

Thank you again, K. M. for an incredible interview. We can’t wait for more of your exciting and in-depth work. Don’t hesitate to reach out to her on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook or at kmpohlkamp.com.