Becoming An Author & Building My Writing Universe
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Check out my latest "Getting To Know Me" video on YouTube.
If you prefer reading to watching a video, below is the full transcript:
Welcome, folks and friendly fiends, to part two of the “Getting To Know Me” introduction series. In part one, I answered the thirteen questions in the “AuthorTube Newbie” tag and gave a brief introduction to my channel. If you haven’t seen part one, there is a link in the description below (https://youtu.be/AaLzp_9GRkU), but let’s attempt a quick recap, shall we?
My name is Elise Night, and I am a self published author who writes paranormal science fiction adventures. I am an introvert with chronic anxiety and a fear of the camera. My oddly traditional hobby is hand embroidery. And I am a big fan of science fiction, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance. This channel is a Frankenstein experiment to stitch all of my interests into a single living, breathing, monstrous creature bound to confuse the YouTube algorithm beasties.
With that tidily out of the way, on to today’s topic: Becoming a self-published author and building my writing universe by defying the “be original” myth.
Okay, what better place to start than at the beginning.
Through some mishaps and several unfortunate events, I found myself in the position of being unemployed and living in a part of the States where my particular career skills were not coveted. I had been considering writing for a while and finally had all the time in the world to give it a try. However, I have to warn you that I do NOT recommend starting a writing career under these circumstances. It is the perfect chemistry for debt and depression, and I highly recommend that you avoid this tragic formula at all costs.
Anyway, my former career was in franchise management, which gave me all of the tools I needed to take a very strategic approach to building a writing career. It’s not exactly the romantic creative dream writerly types envision, but it was a wise step for me. I adapted the skills and knowledge from my previous career and did a lot of research into the business of writing. I knew that it was best to write in a series, which gives readers more of what they love and gives the author a library on which to capture loyal readers, because the sad reality of modern world, folks, is that everything–even art–revolves around CRM. While doing my research, I learned that it’s also best to be consistent and reliable, and not to confuse readers by publishing in a jumble of different genres. I knew that I wanted a cohesive brand, and I didn’t want to keep recreating franchises every time I started a new series; partly because I’m lazy, and partly because it’s just a wise investment. I wanted to write in a single universe that gave readers a variety of different but similar experiences.
Determined to define my brand, I sat myself down and wrote out all of the things that I enjoyed and that I needed in this universe to keep it exciting and fresh for me to write. First and foremost, I needed an element of paranormal. I love vampires, shifters, and witches–which, frankly, has been my personal core aesthetic since my gothy teens. But I also love nerdy space-based science fiction. I seriously cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched Stargate, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, but it has been far more than I should admit to in public. And finally, I need a bit of romantic tension between my characters. Not just because I can be a girly-girl who likes romance, but because that’s life. We work, we grow up, we fall in love, we have children. Romance is a key component to life and I’m not going to exclude it just because I like to write science fiction.
So, I had defined my my weird cross-genre mash-up of a brand. I had taken some refresher courses in creative writing, because–quite frankly–it had been a while since I had last been in school. I binged a ton of writing videos. Check, check, and check. So…now what?
Well, I had been noodling around with my two main characters, Eva and Luhcean, for a while. I knew who they were. I had created their life histories. And I knew where I wanted to take them. You see, Eva and Luhcean were my insomnia sheep. Yeah, while other people count fluffy white sheep to go to sleep, I had spent hundreds of nights creating these two soul mates while trying to fall asleep, and usually failing. After months of this, I had created two very defined characters. You know that world building saying, that the reader only sees the tip of ice above the water’s surface, but the writer has a giant iceberg of details beneath what is seen? Yeah, there is an entire planet of information beneath what I have shared about Eva and Luhc. And though I may have had a wealth of character details to work from, for a very long time they were nothing more than two people in a blank room. I didn’t have a world, a plot, or even a real premise where they could come to life.
Here comes the fun part, right? Building new worlds, magic systems, and odd new creatures. This is the step where our imaginations get to run wild and we get lost in the minutiae of being creatives. This was the part I had been so excited to drown in. But when it came time for me to give my characters a world to live in…I had nothing.
That might not be entirely accurate. For years I had been reading a plethora of paranormal and urban fantasy books and I had been watching every science fiction show or movie released. I had a mountain of reference materials to draw from. But that’s the problem, right? As writers we have an abundance of ideas. Shiny new ideas pop-up around every corner. I have more ideas that I could possibly tackle in a single lifetime. But at the same time, there’s the very real dilemma that we are all drawing from the same well of ideas. Vampires have been vampires for centuries. Every culture around the world has a type of vampire myth, or creature myth that resembles something from another culture. From Egypt to England and China to Aboriginal Australia, there are hundreds of myths about gods and monsters that have survived for generations. And all of these histories and myths have influenced current entertainment. We can’t help it. Almost like osmosis, these things seep into our brains and years later they rise to the surface in the most innocuous ways.
I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “ There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.” Maybe he was right. Or maybe there are original stories out there. There are plenty of brilliant minds that come up with unique tales, creatures, and adventures that awe and inspire us. But there’s also the possibility that those inspiring tales are just based on things that we personally haven’t absorbed yet. That doesn’t make them original, it just makes them new to us. Then there are the amazing stories that feel original, but at their core it is the same traditional heroes journey that we know and love, just put through Twain’s kaleidoscope. All we have to do is look at any Amazon Bestseller chart to see hundreds of books retelling the same fairytales in new and different ways.
I don’t know about other new authors, but for me, this idea that everything has been done before by writers and voices much more creative and far more talented than me…well, it was a little paralyzing. The expectation that every work should be profoundly original is daunting. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a new author. For quite a while I doubted if this was even something I wanted to do. I tend to be a perfectionist, and just the idea of failing at something is almost as painful as having already failed. But, at this point, I had lived with Eva and Luhc for so long that I couldn’t let go of them.
I remember the day that the Common was born as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was sitting at the little writing desk we had set-up in the mudroom at the back of the house. It was late afternoon, the time when everyone in the family was newly home from school and work, with energy and excitement that is rarely quiet. I was cranky, having spent the entire day dwelling on my future failure, and suppressing the urge to yell at everyone to take the volume down a notch. The various wikipedia research pages seemed to be mocking me, and I couldn’t stop repeating to myself “how am I supposed to be original? Nothing is original.” And then my brain just…stopped.
What if that was the story? What if nothing was original because they weren’t actually myths at all. What if everything was true…not in an alternative reality, parallel timeline, urban fantasy way…but in an aliens are real but we’re not supposed to know about it kind of way. Which sounds a little conspiracy theory-ish in retrospect, but at the time my brain was on a roll. What if vampires, shifters, valkyrie, giants, witches, and even little green aliens were all real, they just lived in different solar systems, and in another part of the galaxy? What if all of these myths were family stories told by the descendants of demon, siren, and fey refugees who had come to Earth long ago? What if they were still coming to Earth? And so the Common was born.
My first task was to create an origin story. In the Common, our universe was created in a similar event to the Big Bang theory. An all-knowing presence came into existence and then promptly imploded under the weight of it’s vast knowledge, shattering into millions of tiny sentient shards that were mere fractions of their original unified form. In an effort to regain their original knowledge base, these beings began to create the matter and souls of our universe. Our galaxies were little petrie dishes of experiments for the Creators to learn, grow, and become more. The Milky Way galaxy contained the experiments of a group of Creators that were a family of sorts, and the Common was created by their youngest offspring. This young Creator believed that they could gain the most knowledge of existence through the process of evolution, and created Earth for this purpose, isolating and shielding humans from the rest of the Common to protect the experiment. But eventually the Creators abandoned their toys and mischief and mystery ensue.
After my overarching origin story, it was time for more detailed world building. I spent months creating a universe of solar systems that existed on a common plane of space and in a relatively small sector of our galaxy. But the species that inhabited these systems didn’t necessarily hold to what we understand today as their origins. When it came to dividing up myths into various species, I took the telephone approach.
For those of you not of a certain age, there was once a game called “telephone” that kids would play at slumber parties. Picture a bunch of giggling girls in sleeping bags on the living room floor, some of them watching TV, some of them doing make-overs on their friends, and everyone eating way too much sugar. One of the girls would whisper a sentence, such as “I like pineapple,” into their nearest friend’s ear. At some point in the night, that person would whisper to the next person what they remembered deciphering over a blaring TV and their friend’s giggles. And so it would go until the message had been passed along through everyone. When the final girl received the message she would tell the entire room what was whispered in her ear, “Chris Pine’s Adam’s apple is delicious,” and everyone would have a grand giggle on how the original sentence was twisted and distorted into something entirely new, which was usually totally filthy and perfectly age inappropriate.
And just like the telephone game, when it comes to myths handed down through generations, I am proposing that everything has been distorted and taken out of context.
When I began adapting a creature’s myth, I used a core aspect that suited my needs rather than follow the pantheon or origin’s of a myth. For example: in the Common, sitting on the border between quadrants two and three, is the system known as Indrana. The Indrani people are all female with the reproductive quirk that they need to breed with other species to continue their race. All females born from this union will be Indrani, and all of the males will be born as the species of their father. Although they all have the same reproductive characteristics, the Indrani have a wide variety of sub-species. In the Common, the Norse Valkyrie, the Greek Sirens, and the Irish Banshee are all Indrani. A family of Valkyrie may have settled in the nordic territories thousands of years ago, thus turning them into the myth humans are familiar with today.
I could have made up names for each of the solar systems and species in the Common, but that would have conflicted with my premise that all of these myths have threads of truth. This meant that I needed to dig around in existing myths, but I also had the freedom not to be precious with history or sacred with religion. Unfortunately, the problem with this version of mythology is that it felt a little too chaotic. Even though I didn’t intend to strictly follow these pantheons, I still felt that my universe needed a unifying backbone from which to hang the myths. But choosing a single culture or religion to represent all of the Common felt in direct opposition to my objective.
But if I wanted to use the explanation that human culture has been influenced by tales and species coming from a variety of more mature systems, I first had to look into our own planet’s history. Since one of the oldest recorded languages is Sanskrit and one of the oldest religions is Hinduism, it would be logical that early man would have played the game of telephone with the rest of the galaxy, creating what is known today as Hinduism.
In the universe of the Common, many of my species and system names come from the Hinduism Vedas. Indrani is queen of the gods in Hinduism devas. My species of witches, who are also a female dominant species, are known as Matri, which in Hinduism are the seven mother goddesses. Kubera is the god of wealth in Hinduism, who also represents the north; while in the Common, the Kubari are a male dominant species with a focus on finance, jewels, and wealth, and who are located in a northern system. The system that houses a species most closely associated with demons is named Naraka, which is considered a place of darkness and torment in Hinduism. Agni is the Hinduism fire god of the southeast, and in the Common Agna, the home of angels who are also closely associated with fire abilities and rituals, exists in the third quadrant which is south east on Common maps. In the Common, even humans are named Prithvi, the Sanskrit name for Earth, which I then altered to Prithya for the name of our solar system. Though in many cases I have made liberal alternations, most everything in the Common universe has some basis in human myths and legends.
On the surface, my universe is not original or terribly unique. Even knowing this, I still had a bit of a stutter this past week when I finally read A Court of Thorns And Roses only to discover the author had made her faerie realm named Prythian. It isn’t the spelled the same, it doesn’t mean the same thing, and my fey realm is titled Sishanafae, but Prithya and Prythian are undoubtably similar. Because at the end of the day we are all drawing from similar wells of ideas. What makes our stories unique is our voice and how we use those ideas.
I’m going to be very honest with you. When I first started writing again I had a period where I was drowning in the world building. Planning my universe had become a safe little place where I could claim that I was writing, but I didn’t have to confront the fear of creating some kind of original masterpiece. Then reality hit, and if I ever wanted this thing to move forward I needed to start plotting. Next thing I knew, I had a file with the word count of a full novel, but it was all outline and plot. And once again, I was stuck in a never-ending plotting stage, which then became an endless drafting phase, and a constant circle of revisions. To this day, every single time I sit down to write it is a constant battle against fear. Fear of being a terrible writer. Fear of not knowing what to write. Fear of writing the wrong thing. Fear of never succeeding.
It’s easy to look at best-selling author Sarah J. Maas and find myself wanting in comparison. This is the curse and the folly of a lot of creatives. I see others doing better and succeeding and I have to admit that I can find it discouraging–which is completely ridiculous. Success isn’t a zero-sum game. But I am constantly combating comparisonitis. And I’ve seen enough YouTube videos to know that I’m not alone.
But the the reality of being a creative is that nothing is perfect. And nothing is a failure. Every writing voice is unique and there is someone out there who will find my voice interesting. Our goal isn’t to be perfectly original, it is to be originally ourselves. In the beginning, that was a really hard thing to come to terms with, and I still have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay not to be perfect. It’s okay to not be Sarah J. Maas. It’s okay not to be Neil Gaiman, or Jeaniene Frost, or whoever happens to be my comparison idol of the week. Because as long as I’m trying to be as good as them, I’m not being me. And what if being me, someday turns out to be kind of good? I recognize that I’m not a great author right now. But with every book that I write, I am getting better.
I could have held onto my early books and worked on them until they were as good as they could possibly get. There is a very valid argument for not publishing crap. There is also a very valid argument that writing a dozen drafts doesn’t always improve a book. Every writer comes to a point in the writing process where we have to decide if it is time to birth our book baby, or to keep it incubating. That decision comes at very different points depending on the writer and what they are writing. A contemporary romance author has a different set of standards and incubation period from a literary fiction writer.
When I chose to become a niche genre fiction writer, I had to come to terms with the fact that several things were very unlikely. I would not be getting a three-movie deal with Hollywood or a multi-season series deal with Amazon. I would not see Common merchandise in department stores across the world. And I probably would never be a New York Times Bestselling Author.
I also had to come to terms with the reality of my genre’s marketplace. As a self-published author, I wouldn’t be able to sell my books for the same retail price as traditionally published books. The self-publishing landscape is also facing a very competitive period. We need to publish regularly and often. This means that for every revision draft I am putting distance between my next release and my last release. And the wider the gap between releases, the harder each release becomes.
I recently watched a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut’s life. In the mid-twentieth century, a writer like Vonnegut could make a living writing short stories and publishing them in magazines. Can you imagine that today? Making a decent living off of five, ten, or twenty thousand words every other month. It’s mind blowing. Today, authors are cranking out eighty to a hundred thousand words every few weeks, and publishing eight to twelve novels a year, sometimes more. You can judge them however you like, but the fact is that many of them are really good books. Lindsay Buroker is an amazingly prolific self-published author, and I dare you to read her Star Kingdom series and not be throughly entertained by Casmir and his crushers.
Personally, I can’t write a book every month. So for each of my releases I need to weigh the risk of publishing something that isn’t perfect against the benefit of maintaining relevance. That’s a hard thing to ask of a new writer. We’re insecure as it is, but now we have to be both writer and publisher, and sometimes the publisher has to give some bad news that the writer just doesn’t want to hear. Sometimes that news is that the key to writing in this day and age isn’t perfection, it’s about creating good entertainment.
Time and practice will hopefully get me closer to becoming an amazing writer. But if I waited until I was eventually an amazing writer, I would miss out on the learnings that come with each book’s release. Plus, if I’m missing out on those valuable learnings, will I every truly become an amazing writer? I’m choosing to bet that readers who will like my little niche of books are also willing to take that writing journey with me. I’m choosing to reject and defy the myth that all writers need to produce original masterpieces of perfection. Because, let’s be realistic, if everything had to be an original masterpiece, Disney wouldn’t exist.
So, that’s the story of how I got to where I am today, somewhere at the beginning-ish of my writing career and looking forward to a long and fruitful journey. That’s also how I came to my new mantra for writing, publishing, marketing, stitching, YouTube videos, and–heck–for life in general, which is: be gentle with yourself and practice a little imperfection.
Thank you for sticking around to the end of this long-winded ramble, and I hope that you’re curious enough to subscribe and take a listen to Uncommon, book one in my Chronicles of the Common series, read exclusively here on YouTube. If you found this little hand embroidery thing intriguing, don’t hesitate to check out my Stitching Sci-Fi series of videos where I talk about my favorite story elements and stitch a design inspired by a science fiction movie or series.
Until next time, folks and friendly fiends, take care and have a cozy Common day.