This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Mia Marshall, whose latest novel is Lost Causes. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Aidan Brook has spent months living with the horror of what happened when she lost control of her magic. Now she’s searching for a way to manage her immense power, but she only hits one dead end after another.
On the run from a council intent on her death, Aidan, the bear shifter Mac, and the rest of her friends find themselves on a desperate chase across deserts and oceans in search of answers. Along the way, they encounter a living myth and a dual magic with secrets of his own — and they learn that the cure may be more deadly than the disease.
To save her own life, Aidan will need to confront the most dangerous foe she’s ever faced…herself.
Lost Causes is the fourth book in the award-winning Elements urban fantasy series.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Mia Marshall:
I write urban fantasy, not horror. Sure, there’s action and suspense and a few creepy characters, but no blood-stained dark hallways or anything really scary, like clowns.
I didn’t need any of that this time. The book scared me enough for all of us.
Every book I’ve written has its challenges, but you’d think by book four I’d have some idea what I’m doing. Ha. Hahaha. Oh god no.
From the beginning, this story terrified me. The first three books in the series were built around a central mystery. It was a deliberate choice, as I’d suffered most of my life from a bad case of Plot Deficiency and no genre is more plot intensive than a mystery. Left to my own devices, I’d write about an eternal road trip where characters I’m overly fond of banter a lot.
But while I was solving the mysteries in those first books, I added so many threads to the overarching plot that, by the time I got to Lost Causes, there was no room for a separate story. This time, I couldn’t hide in a mystery. I had to confront my previously incurable Plot Deficiency head on and find a story that didn’t hinge on a crime, suspects, clues, and a big reveal — and I had no idea what I was doing.
Then, just for fun, I was diagnosed with an actual illness. The details are dull, as most health details are, but the end result was it caused me to bond to my couch for days at a time. I’m pretty sure I now share DNA with my sofa from that period of my life.
So there I was, hoping desperately that my readers would follow me in this new direction when I didn’t even have a compass, and so damn sick I was only able to write every few days, if that. I floundered, producing a bunch of random scenes with no discernible plot. Sometimes, weeks passed between writing days, and in that time I would completely forget what I’d already written. I’m a pantser, having proved myself incapable of following an outline, so thinking ahead wasn’t an option.
In that first draft, characters changed motivations on a dime, the mythology was more contradictory than any religious text, and dead people reappeared in later chapters. The entire time, I was unable to hold the big picture in my mind. I had no idea what the book’s plot or themes were. The pacing was so jerky the manuscript actually shook in my hands while I reviewed it. It was a disaster, and every day for the better part of a year and a half, I was terrified it would never be anything but a disaster.
I was certain I was writing a mess so hot it could boil water. Plus, it was taking me so long I suspected my readers would have forgotten the series even existed by the time it was released. You know how most writers talk of the highs and lows of writing a book? For 98,000 words, I was on only one side of that spectrum.
And then, the magic happened. My treatment began to work, and I was able to write regularly again. I started editing and discovered that…well, it really was a hot mess. But for the first time, it was a completed hot mess. There was a beginning, middle, and an end, even if they didn’t make a single lick of sense when placed together.
One of the goals when editing is to make as few changes as possible. Keep the story, but change the transitions, clarify motivations, etc. If the book was a house, it would get a new paint job, some walls might get knocked down, maybe even get an extension, but the foundation would remain more or less the same. While my foundation was uneven, with more than a few rounded corners, it’s what I had to work with. I didn’t have time to rewrite the entire book, after all.
Instead, I took all those terrible, awful bits and found new ways to put them together, then I tried to hide the stitches. I remodeled that entire damn house. In the end…well, I pretty much rewrote the book anyway, but the foundation was the same. The story was the one I wrote while ill, tired, and positive I had no idea what I was doing.
When it went to my trusted betas, I braced myself for the worst. And…they told me it was good. Those things that worked against me while writing the book — the unpredictability and uncertainty — had created a story where the reader didn’t know what happened next. Well, of course they didn’t. I’d never known what was going to happen next. The thing that nearly destroyed me while writing it is now what gives this book life.
The scariest part of Lost Causes is now its greatest strength. And yeah, I feel like I’m dangerously close to giving a motivational speech here, but it’s what happened, and I’m so grateful it turned out this way.
And I hope I never, ever have to go through it again.
Mia Marshall is the award-winning author of the Elements urban fantasy series. Before she started writing about imaginary worlds, she worked as a high school teacher, script supervisor, story editor, legal secretary, and day care worker. She has lived all along the US west coast and throughout the UK, where she collected an unnecessary number of degrees in literature, education, and film. These days, she lives in a small house in the Sierra Nevadas, where she is surrounded by a small but deadly feline army.