Writing a fiction series is like herding cats.

All right, here’s part two of how to make a book! This is entirely about how plans are completely pointless sometimes, and what I do to actually get the words on the page – and then make the words make sense after they’ve been thrown up.

Most of my ‘drama’ was created by sitting there going, “Hmmm… this character/these characters are really happy. What can I do to make them miserable? Good. How are they gonna react? Is that too much? Yes? No? Hey, Shawn, what do you think of this?” Sometimes he offers even worse things, sometimes he says it’s too much. It varies. 🙂

A lot of times I just put the characters in situations and see what they do. Sometimes Shawn and Megg, who know everyone as well as I do anymore, go, “This character wouldn’t do that,” and I go, “You’re right. REDO.”

I have gotten and taken (and passed on as well) a lot of advice for plot development, conflicts, battles, and relationship development from my readers. This is because I ask for feedback all the time. I’ve personally had one romantic relationship in my entire life, never been abused (just harassed), and participated in zero weapon fights (as long as you don’t count LARP, which I do not). However, I’ve read a lot, watched a lot, heard a lot, and have a very active imagination – and I’m very open to suggestions. Not all of them work for what I’ve built, but if I hear a good idea that I just can’t use right now, I write them down to consider later. My books are not built around a vague main character that could be anyone – or that the reader can sit themselves inside of like a ride, so I can’t just bend the characters to places they wouldn’t normally go. Even when put in extraordinary circumstances, like they usually are, they have to stay true to themselves. My editors and early readers keep the train on the tracks.

My preferred location to write: on the couch or at my desk, in the dark with the screen brightness on my laptop turned down, usually wearing a hoodie with the hood up so you can barely see my face. Sometimes I wear fingerless gloves, but my current computer is a gaming computer that gives off heat, so that hasn’t been necessary for a while. I do most of my writing from 10pm-2am, because by then I’ve done enough chores and the girls are in bed. This is a lot harder to do now that I work at 8am, but I’m bad and recently started drinking coffee (yeah, I’ve been a writer for 17 years and just this year started drinking coffee).

I also do a lot of editing on my phone anymore, because I’m away from my computer so much. I read things in Word on my phone, and then copy out lines that I need to fix and paste them into OneNote with my notes about what’s wrong with it. This is synced so I can just grab it on my laptop without having to hook my phone up to it, and then make the edits when I’m at my laptop.

I used to write in notebooks when I’m on the go. I’ve filled several of those half-sized notebooks (they fit in purses better than full-sized ones and are easier to hide). I still carry one, but I type so much faster than I handwrite, and I know that I’ll just have to retype it later, so I usually don’t bother anymore. It’s also easier to get a good, natural flow for things when you’re typing it. It’s not as fast as my thoughts, but it’s a lot closer.

I also have terrible handwriting – mostly a result of my brain moving faster than my hands can move. Related, I have mild carpal tunnel. It was only ever really bad when I was pregnant with my first kid, but if I strain my wrists too much I’ve gotta wear braces for a bit. This is a terrible thing to have for someone who writes, draws, sews, and just in general makes so many things with her hands. It doesn’t stop me though, just makes me whine while I keep doing everything anyway.

I reread stuff I’ve written CONSTANTLY (except The Dark. I don’t read it anymore because the amount of changes I want to make to it are just too numerous – it mentally exhausts me), and I’m almost always making tweaks, edits, and updates, but lately I’ve been reading The Haven and The Hunt to see how the characters were interacting in them, now that I know how they’re going to develop ten years down the line (The Shield/The Streets). Sometimes it surprises me, the subtle things that were in there that I don’t remember consciously choosing to put down. I’m pretty sure I’m just ghost-writing for a bunch of fictional people. I only think I have control over this.

One example is the sexuality of one of my characters. When I first wrote the stuff, I was a Catholic grade school kid. You know, uniform and everything. Obviously, everyone was just straight then, even if it wasn’t implicitly stated. Then I got older, and the characters stayed the age they were – and when I was finally older than they were, it kind of shocked me. I wrote these people in their early twenties when I was thirteen. I’d been through college, and was in the adult workforce now – and the group of people I called friends was more diverse than the group of people in my head that had been my companions for over a decade.

The Haven was already done, but The Hunt and the rest of the series was still fluid, so I decided that I needed to change some stuff up. There was no reason that many of the couples I had yet to establish needed to be the way they were. Two of my early readers pointed out that one of the established couples made no sense, so I completely deleted any reference to their relationship (which I agree was contrived, and not organic), and ended up putting one of those people with someone else – that they were a far better match with. The other half of that split couple, if I ever think she can heal enough to trust someone else, will probably be with a woman – certainly not a man. She’ll never trust men enough to do that.

Also, I had been kicking around the sexuality of one of the main characters of The Haven for a bit, not really able to decide what I wanted him to be. Realizing I had a lack of diversity, I figured, why not make him gay? It actually added a lot of character and color to his story, and explained a lot of things I had made part of his character already.

There’s another pair in The Hunt that was always ‘a thing’ but never to the extent I have now declared them to be. Because I gave the trio in this book so much attention, I had to really dive into their characters in a way that I never had before. Ignoring this was not possible anymore, so as I wrote I was entertained by both the conflict and the unexpected harmony they had. They pretty much hijacked my attention the whole book – especially because at the end of it even I wasn’t sure how to make it turn out.

Also in that book, one of the characters is bisexual. He didn’t start that way. He started off as just a player who flirted with a lot of girls, but then I made him flirt with a guy to pass the time and was shocked to see the outcome. I say this like I was reading someone else’s book… but that’s exactly how it went. I just sat back and said, “Uh, are we doing this, guys? I guess we are… Well, here goes then!” After I finished writing I went back and searched throughout the book to see if I had to fix anything regarding the bi character that I didn’t realize was bi, and to my surprise, all references he had previously made to his sexuality were very ambiguous. He’d always said that he wanted to settled down eventually, but not yet, and had never once declared a gender for the person he was looking for. The only time someone declared what he was, it was someone that was not him, so I just adjusted that line, and voila, he’s bi, like he apparently wanted. Seriously, I don’t really control this, I’m just herding cats.

By the way, my previous publisher questioned the intimacy of Malk and Traphian’s relationship in The Haven and wanted to make them a little more manly. I resisted this, because doing so would detract from what I wanted of them in that book. I also resisted this because it humored me that Malkarai and Traphian were apparently threatening to masculinity, and I am all for threatening the shit out of that, ha. If anyone had any doubts about how tough Traphian is, they’re seriously insecure.

When I first wrote Division 53 in the early 00s (I called it The Dark Series then) the plot was not overarching and unifying throughout the series. It was just a literal series of books with the same setting, and was set up kind of as a set of a trilogy (Dark, Manhunt, Reign of the A*******, with a bonus prequel, Prodigy), a pair (Streets, System), and a single book (Ripper). I’ve since put in a pervasive plot, recurring villains, developed way more of the characters into main instead of supporting characters, split Manhunt into The Haven and The Hunt (+ a lot of things that didn’t exist before), deleted Reign entirely, added two books (The Shield, The Conspiracy), removed the prequel, and made the stories more mature in many ways. 90% of the fights in the series have been written, brand new, in the last two years.

I learned a lot about writing in grade school, high school, and college, but even though I spent a large portion of the high school and college years figuring out how to get published, I’ve learned the most about writing work for publishing and public consumption in the past three years. I’ve learned to let go of things for the sake of pacing, to rewrite and not get so attached to things, and to take all opinions worth a grain of salt, professionals and amateurs alike. This knowledge is why I don’t read The Dark anymore. I know that I need to sit down and rewrite a lot of it to make it stand next to the rest of the books on equal footing. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t as good as I could make it today. I’m trying not to look backward for now. A new version of it can always be released in the future, but I need to tell the rest of the story first.


  1. Kari

    I love that the publisher questioned Malk and Traphian’s relationship. They’re obviously bros! Looking forward to the development of these LGBT relationships. It’s a refreshing element considering the current sociological environment we live in. It will definitely give the series a little more flair, and who knows, it may even help today’s youth to see some of these characters thriving and kicking ass. I should reread The Haven because now I want to know…who’s the gay? I have one guess, but I could be completely way off base.

    1. E.M. Johnson

      I’m glad that that’s how Malk and Traphian come off, because that was definitely my sole intention!
      Every author hopes that what they write helps someone, sometime – and I’m certainly no exception. The people involved in these relationships most definitely kick some literal and figurative ass too – together and on their own. 😉
      Who knows? You may not be! Feel free to reread and guess! I’m not going to say anything else though, because that would ruin the fun. The answer is in The Hunt, so you won’t have to wait long to know for sure! ^_^


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