After having the pleasure of reading A Kingdom of Exiles by S.B. Nova, I was thrilled to give it a five-star rating on Goodreads and Amazon. I was even more excited to pick her brain afterward about her new release, as well as how her writing process has changed and what literary success means to her.
Thank you, S.B. Nova, for taking the time to be interviewed.
What kind of research did you do for AKOE before you started writing?
I delved into all the faerie lore I could find. Of course, I started with books! And I discovered a long and rich history of folklore and poetry. For example, the ‘Faerie Queene’ by Edmund Spenser, or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Shakespeare. I also read books and blogs focusing on the magic of faeries and ‘natural’ magic. That’s where the ideas for sprites and mirror and light magic came from. These sources were usually written by people who believed in faeries, which was interesting because it exposes which ideas stuck with people.
From there, I branched out and looked into fae stories popular on the Amazon charts. It was a great excuse to read or re-read stories by authors I admire. I was wary of doing this at first. There’s always a chance you will read one interpretation of what it is to be ‘fae’ and like it so much that you struggle to come up with something wholly your own. But it would’ve been foolish of me to ignore those texts because they have a great insight into what modern audiences will respond to.
I also knew I wanted the book to be in the vein of a dark fairy tale. So, for example, the fables surrounding forests, the idea of ‘following the breadcrumbs’, the evil stepmother, the imagery of birds and woodland animals have all made it into the book. The Brother Grimm’s fairy tales were always on my writing desk for this reason!
And because I wanted fae society to be a mixture of cultured and animalistic, I looked into a lot of information regarding animals. Particularly, birds and big cats. I liked the idea that fae were just more advanced animals, not necessarily magical creatures. So, I looked into the hearing range of certain birds, the night-time vision of bats, the ‘immortality’ of certain jellyfish … Oh, and I loved the idea of certain fae having unique sounds or calls. I didn’t go too far with this. I just gave Frazer a particular sound, a chuff, that is found in tigers.
Did you hide any secrets in this book that only certain readers will find?
Probably, the most noteworthy one would be at the very end of the book where I quote a character from Draken. My intention was to always connect the Outcast and the Southern Fire series. Inserting the quote was the first step toward doing that.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I’m thinking specifically about Frazer, since he’s my favorite.
To be honest, I didn’t really have issues with writing male characters. Other than the usual fears of a writer, e.g. How can I make the darkness in Frazer’s character real and relatable and not clichéd? How can I make Cai more than just a bad joke and a waggling eyebrow?
Initially, I was worried about one scene in the chapter, The Past, which I wrote from Frazer’s perspective. I thought about researching how other authors handled this, but I decided against it because he wasn’t just some guy—or male—he was Frazer. And it felt wrong to write with human constructs of gender in mind, or trying to force him into a space of ‘this is how a guy would think.’ Because he’s not a guy. He’s a male fae, who if he was human would be an old man by now! That’s the beauty of fantasy, I guess.
That being said, I did think a lot about how to make Frazer’s voice distinctive. But how to do this stemmed from his background and his personality. So, for instance, I knew his mental processes would be strategic, but also fast. This pattern of thinking came from his time as a palace guard as did his ultra-protective nature. And he would also use one word to say something where Serena would use three. That came from years of silence.
I also have some real-life experience to fall back on, especially regarding Frazer. The relationship between him and Serena was loosely based on a friendship I experienced.
Hopefully, this will all pay off in the next book because I’m going to be writing whole sections from Frazer’s perspective!
How do you choose character names? Specifically, why did you choose Serena?
There were a few reasons I settled on Serena. One, it’s used in Edmund Spenser’s poem, ‘The Faerie Queene.’ Two, it’s a soft sounding name and it means ‘clear, tranquil, serene.’ I would say it’s a very feminine name, in that, you could never use it for a boy. Serena’s appearance isn’t stereotypically feminine, and she definitely isn’t tranquil. And while many authors choose names that signify a character’s particular defining characteristic, I think you have to look hard to find why Serena’s name suits her. But for me, it absolutely does.
As for the rest of the characters and how I chose them. It was a mixture of methods. Frazer’s just came to me. I wanted a soft, musical name for Liora. For Cai, I used someone I’d known for inspiration. He was a real joker too and someone that put others at ease. I also loved the idea that Cai would be annoyed by people using his full name, Caiden, which is somehow much more serious. And I loved the idea that he had those two sides to him. And Wilder was inspired by his personality and the poem at the beginning of the book.
What scene was the hardest to write?
Such a difficult question! The first chapter, the Blacksmith’s Daughter, was hard because on the first couple of drafts I fell into the trap of trying to impart too much knowledge and backstory too fast. Thankfully, I had help and was able to correct it!
But to be honest, the one scene that comes to mind immediately, and that I was never 100% sure of, was actually a moment between Frazer and Serena in ‘Because Of You.’ I found it so difficult because it deals with suicide and what that means to Serena and Frazer. It’s a very emotionally charged issue, and I did not want Frazer’s advice to come across as out of character or clichéd. He’s not one for platitudes. I don’t know if I hit the mark in this scene. I can only hope!
Can you share, without too many spoilers, what you edited out of AKOE?
Lots and lots! It might be simpler if I list them:
- There was more to the sex scene. Serena was going to perform a sexual act on Wilder. I cut it because it felt too much of a leap given her lack of experience and confidence.
- There was going to be a scene where Adrianna stole a canoe.
- I had a section in The Cage where Serena compared the look in Gus’s eye to that of a wolf she’d once seen caught in a lambing pen. But it dragged the pace and maybe was pushing the whole red riding hood analogy a bit too far.
- Serena bit Wilder at one point.
- More information on the fae army ranks.
- More about Colt the armorer.
- There was going to be more about how the lands to the east were unable to enter into Aldar territory, but it complicated things way too much.
- The stuff on Serena’s mate was a little more detailed.
How did publishing Draken change your writing process for AKOE?
When I published Draken, I’d never had a review or sold a single book. My expectations were all over the place. And due to this lack of experience, I tried too hard to edit myself and be all things to all people.
It also took time to develop and discover my author voice underneath all that insecurity. And now, I know that I’m a very expressive person. I love words and I like describing things in ways that I considered beautiful. I also tend to think in terms of metaphors because how things connect and intersect fascinates me. I’ve heard this called purple prose and other less flattering things. That kind of advice stopped me from unleashing myself in Draken.
When I started AKOE, the decision to write in the first person was helpful in freeing me up artistically. And since releasing this book, I’ve heard my writing style described as becoming more lyrical in tone, bordering on poetical. I don’t know if I’d go this far, but I think the most important change was that I just cared less what other people thought of me, so I wrote the book from a deeper place of truth.
How long on average does it take you to finish a book?
About a year. Although AKOE is a loooonnnnggg book. 500-700 pages depending on the format. So, that time might shorten in the future.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I’ve heard writers use the term, so I definitely believe it’s a real thing. Personally, I don’t experience it in the way that it’s described. At least, not for extended periods. I do tend to struggle with the words in the first two hours of writing, but that usually passes as the day goes on and my mind shifts into gear. Perseverance is the only solution I’ve found to these uninspired stretches.
There are certainly times when I know my mind and body is burned out and I can’t/don’t want to write. Usually, that’s after the first draft or after I’ve published. But it doesn’t last forever. So, I just wait for the words to come back or a sign that I’m ready to begin again.
How many unpublished books and half-finished books do you have?
I don’t have any. Although, I have lots of rough sketches/plans of the next books in the Outcast and the Southern Fire series. I also have another series planned called ‘Merlin Rises’ that is also connected to the first two series’.
How many hours a day do you write?
It changes depending on which stage I’m at in the writing process. I find writing from scratch more mentally exhausting, so I can only manage 4-6 hours before burning out. But editing … that usually takes me up to 8-10 hours. Toward the end is always the worse, I think because the adrenaline kicks in and I end up working for however long I can before my body shuts down.
Do you think this contributes to being a successful author?
I think everyone’s got different methods and the only thing that matters is what works for them. Although, personally, sitting down every day with an intent to write helps me a lot. But I think given my personality having that one strict rule in place is the only way I’d finish a book! I’m not so strict with what happens after I sit down. I don’t have a set word count (that would stress me out way too much), and I don’t have a set time to finish by. I only stop writing when my body signals it’s had enough … or it starts getting light out.
What does literary success look like to you?
Being able to write for the rest of my life, never having to work a second job again, and being part of a tight-knit community. By that, I mean making close, supportive friendships with other writers and also watching a fan base for my books grow. Nothing would give me more pleasure to see people on Tumblr, or wherever, talking/arguing about my books, and hearing from people who loved the characters and go so far as to create their own stuff, e.g. art or specialized covers.
Would saying it looked like having a scented candle dedicated to one of my characters count? Hehe.
What other authors are you friends with, and how have they helped you become a better writer?
Well, my main source of contact with other writers comes from social media. And I haven’t been able to form strong friendships that way. I feel like meeting someone or at the very least hearing their voice is crucial to creating those deeper bonds. But I do have a lot of writers that I talk and laugh with on Twitter, which is really important to me. It’s helpful to hear that they have the same insecurities and experiences as I do.
I’m also part of a couple of Facebook communities. I don’t tend to go to them for writing tips, but they’ve helped me understand how to market my books and how important it is. And I’ll always post my cover and blurb and ask for their opinion.
In regards, to the actual writing, the best advice on story structure I ever got was from the author Joanna Penn. I got the confidence to write sex scenes from Sarah J. Maas, and the best general advice I got was from a close friend (not a writer), who said, ‘Screw everyone else, if you’re going to do something for the love of it, then write your damn heart out.’
We’ve talked about your book reviews recently. How do you handle or combat negative reviews when you get them? What tips would you offer writers who struggle with criticism?
Do you know what? I feel like I’ve heard the same advice on repeat over the past few years. In my writers’ groups or in the chat rooms, it goes something like this, ‘A one-star review is actually helpful!’ ‘It helps you grow as a writer.’ ‘Everyone gets bad reviews, and you can’t please everyone.’
In fact, the best response to bad reviews I’ve seen was a gif of Johnny Depp as a pirate and his answer to, ‘You’re the worst writer in the world,’ was ‘Ah! But you have heard of me!’
All of that may be true, and I wish I reacted to a bad review the way Jack Sparrow would! But … here’s the problem. I’m human. And to be real for a second, bad reviews suck. End of. And if you’re a published author, you’re going to get them. People can be cruel and blunt and they don’t care two figs that they’ve just spent two minutes trashing something that you’ve spent a year (or years) working on.
Now, they have the right to their opinion. But it still hurts. So, are there any magical words that have ‘fixed’ this for me? No, not really. There’s no one thing. I’ve tried ignoring the bad ones—this can help. I’ve tried rationalizing—this doesn’t help. I do think it’s important to learn to recognize honest, constructive criticism as opposed to real vindictiveness. Quick tip—if someone uses caps to spell out whole words, they aren’t interested in helping your writing career. If a person criticizes the book for late postage, or the fact there’s no immediate sequel, they’re an idiot … or a super fan. Haha.
But the best piece of advice I can give is to move on. Be sad. Cry a bit. If it affects you, then that means you care! And don’t ever respond to bad reviews. You can be pissed off. Just don’t fall down that rabbit hole of trying to justify yourself.
Most importantly, don’t let anyone’s opinion (and yes, it is their opinion) stop you … I know this for sure—my heart beats to the tune of words and stories. And no one could stop that. No one but me. So, if someone doesn’t like your book, ask yourself will that be what stops me? Is a stranger’s opinion more valid than my own? Short answer—no, it isn’t.