Author and Odyssey graduate E. C. Ambrose will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She writes The Dark Apostle historical fantasy series about medieval surgery, which began with Elisha Barber (DAW, 2013), continuing with Elisha Magus, Elisha Rex, Elisha Mancer, and the final volume, Elisha Demon (forthcoming in 2018). As Elaine Isaak, she is also the author of The Singer’s Crown and its sequels. Her writing how-to articles have appeared in The Writer magazine and online. A three-time instructor at the Odyssey Writing Workshop, she has led workshops across the country on topics like “Crafting Character from the Inside Out” and “10 Mistakes I’ve Made in my Writing Career so That You Don’t Have To.” Elaine dropped out of art school to found her own business. A former professional costumer and soft sculpture creator, Elaine now works as a part-time adventure guide. She blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at facebook.com/e.c.ambroseauthor or on Twitter at @ecambrose. Under any name, you still do NOT want to be her hero. Learn more at www.TheDarkApostle.com.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
Well, first I have to figure out when I started writing seriously. I’ve wanted to be a writer for a very long time (I have stories I wrote when I was in the first grade). As for serious, let’s say it was the summer of my sophomore year of high school when I went away to writing camp and returned with new determination. I sold a couple of those juvenile pieces, but my first decent sale was after college.
A number of difficulties held my work back: I tended to rely on my first inspiration for plot, which usually hewed to the obvious, or to the most obvious twist on that; I also didn’t work through my character arcs so that the characters became real people. That plus a tendency to disregard feedback will delay a writing career almost indefinitely.
On your blog you mention that you use “rapid drafting techniques to maintain the energy of creation.” Would you discuss this a little more?
I write from an outline, usually a few pages, which begins as a series of notecards. I stay pretty flexible, but having the skeleton on which the story will hang gives me a running start. Then I try to remain in the story zone as much as possible. When I am drafting, I resist any interruptions to the draft, in particular, to the mental zone where the story develops. So I won’t read other fiction or get involved with long narratives outside my own. I also use music as a cue to the muse. I have a soundtrack for each of the books, and when that music is playing, that helps me get back to work, even if I’ve had to make dinner or do some other tasks.
On your blog you also mention how you moved from pantser to outliner. When you started your Elisha Barber series, did you have the entire series outlined? If so, how have you adapted to the inevitable changes that have come up along the way?
Yes, and no. When I wrote Elisha Barber, I didn’t plan for a series, but I had more ideas, so I kept writing them. Five books’ worth, in fact. When I found an editor who loved book one, he didn’t feel that the series arc of the remaining volumes lived up to the promise of the first. He still offered a five-book contract, so I guess he had a good deal of faith in me!
This is the moment I had to shift from pantser to plotter because I had to come up with four more books to extend the ideas from the first into something more epic—and I had to submit this outline to the editors to secure that contract. I compressed the material from three of the original books into the next two volumes, then I got to work brainstorming. I usually work from a lot of research, which gives me some general ideas to play with, some specific details I want to incorporate, a sense for what kind of people I’ll need to include in the story, and sometimes historical events that will influence the plot. I play with all of that raw material until the story starts to take shape.
The resulting outline is not highly detailed. It hits all the high points and the emotional arc of the work, but allows me enough flexibility to bring in new characters and expand their roles, to rearrange events for maximum impact, and to get specific about how things happen.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
The bulk of my work is in the drafting—keeping in mind that I’ve done a lot of pre-writing by the time I get to that point. I’ll have a spreadsheet with important dates and historical stuff, notes about the characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. So the drafting process is pretty quick (for Elisha Barber, 35 days; for the final volume, Elisha Demon, 36 days of actual writing—77 days elapsed from the first word to the last). I then let the book rest for a few months, do my own revision, which takes a couple of weeks, and send to my beta readers. I then work in their concerns (another week or two) and send to my editors. Part of my revision process now includes a scene analysis to see if the scenes are developing at the rate they should and adding to the plot overall as they should be. If not—kill your darlings!
You provide in-depth, detailed critiques for the Odyssey Writing Workshop. What advice do you have for those writers looking for a few trusted beta readers?
You need to find people who are sympathetic to the genre you write in and the needs of the story at hand. I find it helps to have experience with people who are at a more advanced level if possible (this is where things like the Odyssey Critique Service can come in), and also that critiquing the work of other beginners helps enormously. As you must articulate the issues you see in someone else’s work, you are integrating those concerns and their possible solutions into your own work. But that sympathy is key: if your readers are not fundamentally excited by the kind of stories you want to tell, they may not be able to help you achieve your goals for your work. I tend to collect these people. Some I met through a formal critique group, others through workshops I have taken. Now, I have a group of a dozen or so potential beta readers, and I reach out to a few of them for each project, depending on their interests and my needs.
You’ve also talked about endings and how they can leave a reader satisfied or let down. How do you know when you’ve found the right ending for your story?
The ideal ending for a story is both surprising and inevitable. When the reader arrives, they think, “I didn’t see that coming—but of course it makes perfect sense!” The right ending resonates with the themes and images of the work as a whole and usually speaks back to how it began—how the character or conflict was established. The markers for the ending should be clear in retrospect, but not as they arrive in the text. Some of the endings I find most frustrating are the ones where the author had a great ending, then kept writing afterward for another few paragraphs or a few pages. This is what epilogues are for. Find the ending at which your characters have developed and discovered as they need to. Work on an image or line to capture the essence of that story. And if you feel like something else needs to be said, add the epilogue. The best ending for a story is rarely the first or second one we think of. Keep working. What would be the best possible outcome? What would be the worst? What climax and denouement will hit your protagonist’s triggers in the most painful and then most satisfying ways? See—it’s easy!
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Now that I’ve submitted the final volume for Elisha, I am finishing up the draft on a secondary world epic fantasy about shape-shifters and absent gods. While that’s resting, I need to do some revisions on Drakemaster, a historical epic fantasy novel set during the Mongol invasion of China, and involving a clockwork doomsday weapon. I also have my first thriller novel, The Mongol’s Coffin, coming out soon!