A guest post by Rachel Hartman
Author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale
Random House, Books for Young Readers
Q: Could you describe what the evolution of your writing process has been like from the start of writing Seraphina to working on Shadow Scale?
To wit: I don’t know much about process beyond how it is pronounced and that it is never the same twice.
When I was younger and foolish-er, I thought that if I could pin my process down, or cork it up in a bottle, then writing would become easier. I’d have a formula, or a magical incantation, and if I followed it to the letter, I could write any book quickly and efficiently. As you may have gleaned, I’ve had no luck with this whatsoever.
Writing, it turns out, is more like having children: after the first, you certainly know more than you once did, but the second child comes pre-set with all kinds of surprises. If the first loved to be swaddled, the second screams whenever you try it. You’ve got an entirely different person to deal with now, and sometimes all you can do is recognize that the old rules no longer apply, and that it’s time to improvise.
To quote Neil Gaiman, who heard this advice from Gene Wolfe: “You never learn how to write a novel. ...You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” That is exactly right. I would merely add that not only is each book different, but the act of writing the previous book changed you as a writer. You’re a new person yourself, writing this new book. You really can’t step into the same river twice.
How was my second book’s process different from the first? Some things were (and are still) the same. I still write best first thing in the morning; I still drink barrels of tea. Other changes were a direct result of Shadow Scale being a sequel. Having the first book set in stone meant I could no longer employ my favourite problem-solving strategy, which was jettisoning anything and everything if another, better idea came along. Now there were precedents set in stone, and I couldn’t contradict them. That required a significant mental adjustment.
The greatest challenge, though, was that I had to learn to enjoy writing again. Seraphina took me nine years and four major (ie. torch the plot and start over) rewrites. The book I ended up with was worth it, but I came away from that experience extremely burned out. I probably should have taken some time off, but now there were thousands of readers I could disappoint, and I worried about that. I felt like I had to keep running through the pain.
I wrote and wrote, but I didn’t want to be present for it. I personified a witticism that’s been attributed to many different writers: I wanted not to write, but to have written. It was a terrible place to be. My ideas dried up, and I became paralyzed with anxiety and depression. Writing, which had always been my therapy, was suddenly the source of stress.
I had to find another art to be my therapy, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a wonderful, welcoming community choir. From there, I’ve joined a second choir -- a madrigal choir, which is just a little beyond my ability level -- and I’m loving it. It has made such a difference to me to have a place I can go where nobody expects me to be brilliant, where I can practice an art I deeply enjoy without all the ego bound up in it. Having fun singing reminds me of why I started writing, the playfulness I used to incorporate into the process -- and can incorporate again, using music as a model for myself. Singing was the way back to enjoying writing, and I am so grateful to have found that path.
So that was my process for Shadow Scale: I sang, and singing reminded me what writing was supposed to feel like. I learned to love writing again, which was the opposite of what I’d gone through with Seraphina. I’d begun the second book burned-out and hating it, and by the end I’d fallen in love and would have willingly spent more time with it. Despite all the heartache we went through together, I feel truly happy with this sequel.
I’ve just begun a third book. It is not, to be clear, another episode in Seraphina’s life. Seraphina’s story is wrapped up at the end of Shadow Scale. What I’m starting now is another duology, the adventures of one of Seraphina’s younger half-sisters, mentioned briefly in the first book. This book is revealing itself to have yet another personality and I’m finding things that never, ever worked for me before -- writing sprints! keeping track of word-counts! -- are suddenly helpful and effective. I’m having giddy fun (which is new for me, and makes me a bit suspicious!), but I’m trying not to worry about it too much. For now, I plan to relax and enjoy the ride. I could end up anywhere, and that’s an intriguing thought.
Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and talk to us, Rachel! We loved reading about how your writing process has evolved, and what it was like falling in love with writing again!