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YA and WF author, Emily Colin: How to Write Novels in Two Different Genres

Emily Colin has figured out how to write in two different genres that have little overlap in readership, using the same author name and branding. Recently, I was delighted to have the chance to ask this bestselling author of both women’s fiction and YA novel some questions about the craft of writing. Let’s dig right in!

Your early novels were contemporary women’s fiction. What made you decide to switch to dystopian young adult? (In this way, you’re exactly like me so I’m very eager to hear your response to this).  Did you think about using a different name for the new genre? Do you think you carried over some of your readership from one genre to the other? How does the branding work when you divide yourself among genres?

I still write women’s fiction. In fact, I’m in the process of revising a new women’s fiction manuscript right now. I’m really excited about it! 

That said, I love young adult literature. I’ve been a huge fan of YA lit for years, and after a while, I’d read so much of it, it felt natural to start writing some novels of my own. I considered using a different name for my YA books, but by the time Seven Sins came out, The Memory Thief had already made the NYT list, and I knew that I wanted to include that bit of information on my YA books. If I was writing them under a different name, I didn’t feel like I could. Plus, the idea of creating a whole new set of social media handles and a second website seemed, frankly, exhausting.

I do think, though, that it would be far less confusing for readers if I’d written my YA books under a different name. It’s not like writing contemporary romance and romantic suspense, which are close enough that readership might overlap. Women’s fiction and dystopian young adult fiction are vastly different markets, and although some die-hard readers might read both sets of my books, I don’t think there’s that much crossover. 

If I had unlimited time and energy, I think I would’ve created a brand-new YA persona, but at the time, I knew it just wasn’t feasible. And though my dual literary existence does require some explanation at times, I think I’ve made it work.

Tell us about your writing routine. Do you write a certain number of words a day or a certain amount of time? Or do you write when you feel inspired? How do you keep yourself productive? Do you ever do NaNoWriMo?

Pardon me while I sob into my coffee. Just kidding…

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that what works best for me is to wake up early (which, for me, means by 7 AM) and sit down at the computer for a couple of hours, before the rest of my life demands my attention. When I’m working on a project, I need to do this consistently, or I’ll start to lose the feel of the manuscript, and the urgency of getting it done fades away.

I’ve discovered that I work best in 15-minute sprints. I belong to a couple of close-knit writing groups, and we do most of our chatting over Facebook Messenger. Each morning, usually two or three of us are sprinting. We check in, and then we’ll try, if we’re feeling organized, to sprint together. There’s something about using a timer, making the sprints so short, and having a sense of accountability that really works for me.

When I’m drafting, I do like to aim to hit a particular word count each day. I’ll work backward from the book’s deadline to figure out how many words I need to write each day to stay on track. If I don’t meet my goal one day, I try to make it up the next day. That way, there’s a constant sense of forward progress, and I don’t feel like I’m just hurling words into the abyss.

If I feel uninspired, I’ll usually try to write through it anyhow, hoping that at some point, the magic will kick in. If I really get stuck, I’ll skip to a different scene in the manuscript, one I know I’m excited about writing…sort of like eating dessert before dinner. And then I’ll come back to the original scene when I’m done.

I really enjoy NaNoWriMo. The knowledge that authors all around the world are simultaneously churning out so many words seems miraculous to me. Writing can be such a solitary act, and with NaNo, it’s like we’re all creating something beautiful separately…and yet together. Even if I don’t hit 50,000 words in November, I still love being a part of a creative endeavor that’s taking place on a global scale.

How did the idea for the Seven Sins world come to you? And what made you come out with a book of short stories set in this world?

I’ve always been fascinated by extremes in human behavior. One day, I found myself wondering about the Seven Deadly Sins, and thinking about what it would be like to live in a world where your every action was governed by them, down to the smallest action. I tried to imagine what type of political structure might produce such a society, and honestly, it wasn’t that big of a leap from where America was on the verge of the 2016 election. I thought, what if he-who-must-not-be-named wins? And what if he’s a puppet for white supremacist groups? What if he pulls out of our climate accords? What if he incites a coup, or civil war? What would our society look like then? To cope with my anxiety, I started writing Sword of the Seven Sins, back in 2015. Then, as events unfolded, I felt a little bit like Cassandra. But yes, that’s where the idea for the Seven Sins world came from.

The short stories came from the desire to keep readers engaged between books. I knew there would be a year between the release of Sword and Siege of the Seven Sins, the second book in the series. So I thought, how about if I release a short story on my website every month? I did that for several months, released an additional short story in the anthology Unbound: Stories of Transformation, Love, and Monsters, and then wrote a story that was unique to the collection. It ended up being a wonderful experience, because it gave me the opportunity to delve more deeply into the world and get to know my characters better. Two of the stories in particular inspired a major plotline in Storm of the Seven Sins, the third book in the series.

Do you have a writing community–other writers who support you and vice versa–or do you write in solitary splendor? Who gives you early feedback? 

I have a fabulous writing community, which has evolved over time. Since I didn’t get an MFA or participate in a formal writing program, I didn’t have the benefit of developing close-knit bonds with other authors. I started to doubt I ever would. Even when I wrote my first novel, The Memory Thief, it was something I did in complete solitude, other than a wonderful class I took with Caroline Leavitt through UCLA Writers’ Extension. The novel sold to Ballantine Books, it hit the NYT list, and I still didn’t have a community. I felt as if I’d skipped a crucial step in the process, like maybe it was too late.

The writing community I have right now wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Pitch Wars. In 2017, I met a fellow mentor who was interesting in forming a peer-to-peer mentoring group, and we started talking regularly. That group no longer exists, but from it came two spin-off groups of authors, both of which I’m still a part of. The members of these groups live all over the world, but we chat on a daily basis, supporting each other and lifting each other up, as well as sharing our challenges. If I get stuck on plot points or need feedback on pages, these lovely folks are always my go-tos. I’d be lost without them!

What is the best thing about being a writer? What’s the worst thing?

I think the best thing about being a writer is also the worst thing. You have this incredible freedom to invent stories, to make things up and then have the privilege of seeing them on the page. If you’re very, very lucky, these stories reach readers, who let you know how they feel about your books. Every so often, your words have a chance to impact someone in a difficult moment, to change their lives forever.

This is wonderful, of course. But it can also be daunting. There are so many stories to tell, and it’s hard to choose which one to focus on first. You may spend time and energy and money on a manuscript, only to decide it isn’t working after all. Or the story of your heart, the one that means more to you than anything, may not resonate with readers. 

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that once you release a book into the world, it no longer belongs to you. It’s as much about what readers bring to it as it is about what you, as the author, intended. That can be wonderful, or…not so much. But it’s all part of the process.

How do you bring a character into the world–do you have a strong sense of them before you even begin or do they introduce themselves to you as you write?

It really depends on the character. Some characters exist in my mind before I write a single word. I build the story around them, even before I know what the plot’s going to be. And other characters walk onto the stage of the story and take me completely by surprise. Gentian, in my novella Sacrifice of the Seven Sins, was one of those characters.

Do you outline your whole story or do you develop it as you go along, writing out into the unknown?

I used to simply sit down and start writing, with only a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go. Back then, I thought if I used any kind of outline, it would suck all of the fun out of the story, and I’d wind up feeling like I was writing a book report. But then, I wrote my second novel using this approach, and it was a disaster. The thing was over 600 pages long, and the plot meandered like a drunk dude lost in a maze. Needless to say, the manuscript never saw the light of day. I came to realize that my natural strengths as a writer lay in dialogue and characterization; those came easily to me, as did any and all scenes involving kissing. ☺ But plot and stakes were another story. In order to make sure my story had enough conflict, twists, and turns, I was going to have to take another approach. 

There are all kinds of tools out there for outlining your novel. I use a blend of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, adapted by Jessica Brody in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and the ideas that Lisa Cron puts forth in Story or Die. Essentially, I use a Save the Cat! structure, but before I sit down to write, I make sure I can answer certain key questions about my main characters. For example: What do they want and why do they want it? What will happen if they don’t get it? What’s in the way of their attempt to reach their goals? What’s their deepest flaw, and what happened to make them this way? What core misbelief are they nurturing, and how is it connected to their flaw? How do they need to change at the end of the novel, in a way that will heal their flaw and correct their misbelief? Only after I’ve answered all of these questions do I sit down and start to complete the outline.

Sometimes, I find that elements of the outline elude me. If this is the case, I outline until I come to a sticking point, and then I sit down and start writing. Usually, whatever’s troubling me will become clear after I’ve gotten several scenes down on the page. 

Which of your favorite characters would you like to have by your side if you had to make an ocean crossing in rather a small boat–and why?

Eva, for sure. It’s handy to have someone by your side who can turn into a seal on a moment’s notice and tow you to safety.

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