S. J. Kelley

Official author website

Just keep swimming

I always dislike those blogs that start off with good posts and then randomly go quiet, followed by an apologetic post saying the author has to get back to writing. And yet here I find myself.

The good news is that I no longer have two jobs; my teaching commitments ended last week as I passed in over 200+ graded exams, so that was a great relief. I now only have one student to mentor through the summer, so my workload has drastically reduced — just one full-time job for the next 4 months!

Unfortunately my “life load” has increased… my oldest son was recently diagnosed with a medical condition which requires a significant amount of time and effort to help remedy, and this will persist for the foreseeable future. We weren’t surprised by the diagnosis (and are grateful to have it, as we can now obtain the therapy he needs), but it’s difficult to squeeze the extra appointments and sessions into our schedule. But we do it!

Awhile back, I wrote a post on how I’m trying to squeeze my writing into the early morning or late evening, but I found that if I stay up at night I just take care of random chores that need to be done; bring stuff like dealing with finances, trying to sell off the stuff in our basement, etc. If I went to bed early and tried to get up at 4am, I was still so tired that I’d just hit snooze even if I’d had 7 or 8 hours sleep by that point. I find this tragically ironic, because I always get up for work no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten, so deep down I feel like I just mustn’t be motivated enough to write.

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 3)

I read quite a bit. As I start down the path of writing my first novel, I want to refer to a simple list of things I’ve learned while reading bestsellers. In part 1, I discussed series I consider to be “excellent” (Harry Potter; Hunger Games; Divergent); in part 2, I discussed series which were popular, but were lacking in some aspect or another (Twilight; Mortal Instruments; Percy Jackson; Maze Runner). So, without further ado, I bring you, “S.J. Kelley’s KISS-list to writing a YA bestseller” (in no particular order):

  • Build rich, descriptive, creative storyworlds you can lose yourself in
  • Have characters actively extract information from the storyworld (including politics, culture, etc), rather than passively receive explanations
  • Incorporate symbolism which links to the theme / story culture / goals
  • Divide main and supporting characters into groups which echo the larger storyworld society / culture / politics
  • Outline a strong plot:
    • Series-arcs as well as story-arcs
    • Momentum; urgency; chapters which leave you wondering what will happen next
    • A B-line which is realistic, believable, and substantial
  • Develop complex characters
    • Flaws
    • Minority groups
    • Growth and conflict between who they were and who they are becoming

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 2)

What can I learn from popular YA series? In the first installment, I discussed three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion. In this installment, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but didn’t live up to the hype in some aspects.

When seventeen-year-old Bella leaves Phoenix to live with her father in Forks, Washington, she meets an exquisitely handsome boy at school for whom she feels an overwhelming attraction and who she comes to realize is not wholly human.

Ah, Twilight. I can never decide if I enjoyed this series or not, but it was clearly a great success, and I admit that it was hard to put the books down. After reading it, I want to keep in mind things to aim for and things to avoid.

  • Aim to:
    • Have constant suspense; keep the reader wondering; end chapters with hooks that make you want to keep reading
    • Fulfill fantasies (while Edward was a flat character to me, the ideal is quite attractive)
    • Have strong conflicts: “Us” vs. “Them” (but have them more nuanced and complicated)
  • Avoid:
    • InstaLove: being attracted to someone is not sufficient to develop a substantive relationship
    • Flat characters; everyone should have flaws
    • Long stretches of solely internal conflicts
    • Lulls in plot action

Sixteen year old Clary Fray discovers, after her mother’s kidnapping, that she belongs to a world of Shadow Hunters, a nephilum force protecting humans from downworlders (vampires, werewolves, and faeries). 

I liked the first book of Mortal Instruments. I enjoyed exploring the storyworld, but felt the cultural and political backdrop was too simplistic. While the series went on to discuss some interesting aspects of the magical system, I thought the relationship between Jace and Clary bordered on ridiculous… SPOILER ALERT: When Clary thought Jace was her brother I laughed out loud; it felt like a desperate plot move.

My favourite part of the series was Magnus Bane; I thought he was a fabulously interesting character, and found his bisexuality was portrayed quite well. If the books were about him they would have been better in my opinion!

At some point in the Mortal Instruments series I gave up reading the books. This is unusual for me, but I just lost all motivation to continue. I’m not sure what it was exactly about the series that led to this; it was supposed to be a trilogy, but was expanded to include 6 books, but the story felt done at the end of book 3.

  • Aim to:
    • Include a few interesting, quirky, eccentric characters, but have them closely involved in the main plot
    • Show an openness and acceptance for minority groups
    • Plan the series-arc ahead of time
      • While I want to outline the first novel and start writing immediately, if I outline all books in the series I can drop hints in books 1 and 2 that will make the series as a whole stronger.
  • Avoid:
    • Plot twists that feel forced; hints should be placed throughout to avoid reader recoil
    • Historical information which feels too far-fetched
    • Information dumps from “mentors”

3) Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (rickriordan.com)
The Lightening Thief follows the Greek god Poseidon’s 12-year-old half-human son as he embarks on a fantastical quest across modern-day America to save his mother, return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and prevent a deadly war between the gods.

Percy Jackson is meant for a younger crowd, and unlike the first two books doesn’t really have a romantic element. I enjoyed reading them, but wouldn’t recommend them to other adult readers. Similar to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson takes place in a rich storyworld. While J.K. Rowling based many of her creatures on mythology, the mythology of Percy Jackson is much more true to the originals. I think some research into folklore and mythology would add complexity to my novels.

4) Maze Runner by James Dashner (jamesdashner.com)
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade…

Maze Runner was a simple read, but it did an extremely good job of slowly peeling back the layers of the storyworld. In my books, I want my characters to seek out much of their information, and to have as few “information dumps” as possible. Until the very end of the book, I can’t recall a significant information dump in this series!

After discussing points from excellent novels in part 1, and popular but somewhat lacking novels in part 2, I’ve made up a short, simple, and generic list of things to keep in mind when I write my books (see part 3).

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 1)

In starting this journey to Indie Authordom, my first step was “market research” — did the most popular YA novels share any common characteristics? My favourite pastime is reading, so it was a pleasure to go through these books to learn how to plot a compelling story. If you are into the YA genre you’ve probably already read these books, but I’ve included the one-sentence log-line for each for context (obtained through random googling). In this first installment, I will discuss three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion.

1) Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (jkrowling.com)
Eleven year old famous wizard, Harry Potter, is sent to wizarding school to learn magic, but ends up solving a mystery over life and death all with the most evil of wizards, Lord Voldemort, trying to kill him.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Harry Potter ranks among my top favourite books of all time (followed by anything written by Brandon Sanderson). I predict that it will be a long time before any other book has the same rich quality of Harry Potter, but if I were to chose a few simple characteristics, these would be it:

  • Rich, descriptive, creative storyworlds you can get lost in
  • Groups within the storyworld that the reader can form strong positive or negative connections with (Houses)
  • Strong supporting characters
  • A strong series-arc as well as a book-arc.
    • An overarching enemy in the series, with individual lesser enemies driving the plots in individual books.
  • While romantic elements were present in the later books, they were tastefully set as a backstage to the main story line

2) Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (suzannecollinsbooks.com)
In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.

While not as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hunger Games had a gritty, immersive, action-packed style that was helped along by Collins’ unusual choice of first-person present tense. The symbolism in this book was the best I’ve encountered in the genre. I also enjoyed how romance was integrated into the books: Katniss was very practical in her relationship with Peeta, and her goals were central. I felt the movie did the book injustice in this regard, because it looked like just another love story without the calculated maneuvering of the intelligent Katniss.
  • Rich culture and politics linked to and regularly influencing the main plot (in this case, oppression by the government)
  • Symbolism which drastically increased the quality of the book
    • Coal district is lowly, treated like dirt, but coal is also combustible and their district is where the revolution catches fire
    • The mockingjay
  • Realistic romantic elements which take a back stage to the main plot
  • Excellent character development: Responsibility, commitment, sacrifice
  • Gritty, realistic
  • Distinct groups of people (districts)
3) Divergent by Veronica Roth (veronicarothbooks.blogspot.ca)
Beatrice Prior, a teenager with a special mind, finds her life threatened when an authoritarian leader seeks to exterminate her kind in her effort to seize control of their divided society.

I felt Hunger Games was a more carefully crafted and nuanced read than Divergent, but Divergent had superb pacing. While the political setup didn’t feel as rich as in Hunger Games, I felt Tris’s internal conflict was more realistic, and I enjoyed the believable love story element, which was central to the plot.

  • The most believable relationship I’ve encountered in the YA genre
    • Show a connection between the romantic pair; don’t force by telling. It must have substance.
    • See Roth’s description of InstaLove! for her thoughts.
  • Internal conflict can drive many scenes
    • Tris debates what to choose for most of Act I
  • Again, the concept of distinct groups within the storyworld that different readers could relate to (factions)
  • Lean writing; a sense of urgency
  • Strong focus on character development, grounded in the characters upbringing and their new experiences.
Next week, in part 2, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but were lacking in some aspects.

Writing a novel while working full time (and having a family)

I did a lot of googling when I was trying to figure out how to squeeze writing a novel into my already full day. I work full time, teach part-time, and have two young boys who want me all to themselves when I get home. Most sites seem to advocate writing while the rest of the family sleeps (either getting up quite early, or staying up late), but they seem to be written by people with only one job. How could I squeeze in a full-time job, a family, and another part-time job? My schedule looked something like this:

  • 6:30 am – 7:30 am: Wake up and get ready for work
  • 7:30 am – 5:30 pm: Go to work; work; come home from work
  • 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm: Play with kids, have supper, do bedtime routine
  • 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm: Exhaustion sets in, but day is not done; do laundry; make lunches for next day; piddle around on the internet in an effort to wake up
  • 10:30 pm – 1:30 am or later: Do teaching prep after getting second wind
  • 1:30 am: Collapse in bed
The first thing I had to do was find more time… I had applied for and been offered a second part-time job which would have been great for our family financially (I’m the only breadwinner), but I really wanted to take a chance on my dream of writing a novel. Declining that position meant more time to focus on my book, and while we would have had a better life if I had taken the position, I keep telling myself that I’ll have a happier, more balanced life without three jobs…
Next, for my part-time job I decided to only teach courses that I had taught before, even if that meant not getting a teaching position. This drastically reduced the amount of prep work I had to do in the evenings. I also negotiated some flex time at my full-time job so I could do some teaching prep while still at the office.
With my work schedule as tight as I could make it, I had to figure out how little sleep I could get by on. On my old schedule I was a zombie. After I got to work I was semi-normal until about 1pm, and the rest of the day was a struggle. My kids often got the “I’m too tired” line when I got home. My evening work was inefficient and probably took twice as long as it should have. Creativity did not exist. Clearly, 5 hours of sleep a night was not enough!
After a semi-serious look into polyphasic sleep (not recommended by the way), I decided to just figure out how much sleep I actually needed. Adults typically need 6 – 10 hours of sleep, with 8 – 9 being the average (apparently those who only need 6 hours of sleep are genetically rare; see this cool article on Scientific American). I had been depriving myself of sleep all of my adult life, so I had no idea where I was on the spectrum. The solution? I started going to bed when my kids did (8:30 pm!) to see when I would naturally wake up. The first night I slept until my alarm went off — 10 hours. Not good. No problem, I told myself, Probably working off some sleep debt. But how long would it take to work off 15+ years of it?!
After a week or so of going to bed at 8:30 pm, I started to naturally wake up between 4:30 am and 5:00 am. The more I had used my brain during the day, the closer to 5:00 am I woke up, which was pretty interesting. While I was saddened to learn that I needed 8 – 8.5 hours a night, it was better than the 9 or 10 hours I was estimating based on “catch up” nights following my crazy schedule.
The benefit to getting all this sleep was that I seemed to grow 30% more brain. My thoughts weren’t in a fog anymore, and I didn’t lose time to being inefficient. So even though I was getting more sleep, I got the same amount done. Win-win!
Knowing how much sleep I needed, I had to figure out if I should be an “early to bed, early to rise” kind of person or not. This had less to do with me and more to do with the little sleepless people in my house. My oldest son (5) regularly has nightmares, so he usually comes to our bed sometime between 1 am and 4 am and stays for the remainder of the night. When I tried to get up at 4:30 am, he wanted to get up… I had to tell creative white lies to get him to stay in bed (queue guilt…). On the plus side, my most aware hours were used on the book, which was awesome. Unfortunately I couldn’t guarantee that I would get an uninterrupted 2 hours though, because my youngest son (almost 3) starts stirring around 4:30 am and needs to be settled regularly between then and 6:30 am when he gets up. My partner would normally settle him, but since I’m awake I feel I should do it (more of that guilt stuff…).
With mornings being less-than-ideal, I moved onto evenings, but encountered the same problems as when I was on my crazy schedule: my circadian rhythm has me at my sleepiest around 8:30 pm. I stare at the screen and re-read what I already have to kick my brain into gear, but I never really boot up before I have to head to bed at 10:30 pm. On the plus side, I get a guaranteed uninterrupted block of time… unless my partner wants to chat because I’ve been away all day… great for our relationship, but not so great for my book!
I’m still working out the early/late business, and flip-flop daily on which is better. Right now early is in the lead, because this evening I was exhausted and wrote this blog post instead of my book =P In the end I’ll probably end up smooshing and squishing the novel into life’s nooks and crannies, but it’s nice to think that one day I may settle into a schedule!

Perhaps someday someone will read this

So I’ve started this blog and purchased a domain. I think my plot has to be more developed before I should call myself an aspiring writer, but if hope and enthusiasm are equally important perhaps I could claim the label now.

While the overwhelming statistics state that all that I write here (or elsewhere for that matter) will end up lost in obscurity, I have this delusional fantasy that someday I will be a famous writer who has sold thousands of books. Of course this also makes me insanely paranoid; what if someone pokes around in my blog to see how this all started and discovers that my first entry is grammatically flawed or poorly structured? If that turns out to be you 5 (10? 15?) years from now, please note: this blog documents an informal, personal journey along my path to becoming an Indie Author, and is the one place where I don’t have to be as critical of my delivery!