Selah Janel on the writing of Olde School
Olde School is one of those books that defied everything for me: genre, word count, process, all of it. I’m proud of how it turned out and I think it’s a fabulous introduction to a series that I hope will just keep getting stronger, but it’s definitely one of those creations that took me by surprise. Which is good, because if we’re all being honest, I think it’s important to recognize that ideas and book creation can come in all forms and doesn’t necessarily have to be one set process. One of the things I really harp on in panels and workshops and the like is the importance of being open. If you try to control something too much, it’s going to be stilted or inadvertently get away from you. It’s perfectly acceptable to go into writing a story willing to make mistakes, write chunks that won’t get used, and be willing to change things up and be surprised. Stories are subjective – there’s no pass or fail, no right or wrong, and it’s important to really experience all the discoveries and frustrations that come with writing them.
When I first started writing the story, I honestly thought it would be a short. I had had a personal experience that frustrated me beyond belief, and for whatever reason my instinctive reaction was not “I feel like a put-upon princess,” but “Rrrrrr I feel like I troll, I wish I had a dungeon…”
Yeah, I know. I wonder about myself sometimes, too.
I also had the idea of a fantasy society modernizing from the beginning, so that and subverting the typical roles of troll and heroine were what got me writing. For better or worse, though, as much as I loved exploring Trip Trap’s diner and the scenes between Nobody and Paddlelump, it wasn’t enough. Beyond that, I felt things were just too gimmicky for my taste and the ending I had in mind was too dark for what the the characters were evolving into. Plus, as my cast enlarged, I realized I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of them. So, I decided to follow my instinct and put the manuscript away for years. Sometimes it’s important to follow that instinct – you may want everything to be golden, but sometimes there’s no way to force it, especially if you don’t have a set path in mind. I thought on it off and on, but it still remained a big block in my mind, something that I just couldn’t get beyond the few pieces I’d already put in place.
Something like six years later, I had just gotten over a health scare, one of those things that was simple to fix but turned my life into an episode of House while I was trying to figure out what was going on. It was not an easy time, but it turned into a lot of positive lessons for me at that point. Beyond that, it gave me the drive to really start writing again and submitting in earnest, and I dug out ‘that troll thing’ while I was shopping short fiction. It was at that point that I figured I might as well just entertain myself and see what happened.
I really can’t stress this enough. At some point you have to forget the formulas and stop writing what you think is popular or what will hopefully make a zillion dollars. The market changes all the time, so you might as well make yourself happy with the end product.
The world of Kingdom City expanded exponentially, and although it was frustrating at times, I kept finding myself going back and adding to the history, adding to the plot, tweaking things…originally I had wanted to keep magic out of it, but once I approached some of the more climactic scenes I got such a great idea, I had to overhaul everything. Thus the mythos of the Olde Ones was begun. Yes, it was frustrating because it seemed like every time I was approaching a resolution, I found ways to make things better. That’s a lot of work, but I owed it to myself to make it something I’d be pleased with, something that honored a lot of the folk stories I’d grown up with, as unfamiliar as they are to a lot of others.
Around that time Seventh Star Press approached me, asking for a series. I wasn’t sure what to tell them, and then I remembered ‘that troll thing.’ It was still hard to give it an exact ending, but I started thinking of further adventures to be had…and realized that all along it had been more than a short, more than a novella, more than one book. It was more than just a bunch of clever ideas and unusual combinations. As I took myself more seriously, I took the characters more seriously and began to give them real personalities and reasons for being the way they are. I began to devote a lot of time to double and triple checking the world-building details – in short, as hard as I was working, I put in ten times the work making sure everything tied together and made. What had started as a weird way to vent had become a love affair – and like all serious love affairs, it became a serious job, as well.
A lot of myself has gone into the book – not just my work ethic and things I like, but my humor, my love of story, probably some sense of the nostalgia I feel for the things I grew up with. A lot of my love of obscure folklore is there, and parts of my personality surface in most of the characters. It was terrifying to include some of the exchanges – I tend to like to fly under the radar at times, and some of the dialogue is so out there, it felt a little like exposing myself to include it. I’ve written horror, but putting it in the context of a supposedly fun fantasy story was another leap of faith. At the end of the day, though, I had to learn to go with my gut, pay attention to what worked, and be prepared to take out or revamp what didn’t. It meant getting very, very honest with myself.
It’s one of those books that isn’t quite one thing or the other, no matter how it’s marketed. I always tell people that there’s something for everyone, because there are many different aspects to me. There’s horror, there’s fantasy, fairy tale asides and hidden Easter eggs abound, there’s more paranormal quirks, there’s humor. For me, though, there was a lot of work and learning. This book taught me not only about process, but the fact that sometimes you have to change up and let go of your process to do what’s best for the title. I cut a good portion out and changed up the last fourth of the book to tighten things up. Some parts of certain characters’ personalities won’t be revealed until later in the series. That meant a lot of constant reworking, a lot of constant changing up.
And you know what? That’s okay. At the end of the day, Olde School isn’t about trying to be any one thing or appeal to a certain person. At its core, it’s about a bunch of strange misfits banding together to figure out a bigger problem. For me, at its core, it’s about me finally getting the chance to sit down and give myself permission as an author to do what needed to be done and fully embrace all the highs and lows, the edits and fumbles of that process. It was the permission to just make the book the way it needed to be made, and I’m really glad I got to have that opportunity – no matter how long and arduous that could be at times. And if people enjoy it and all that work pays off by people connecting with the book and the series? Then that’s a great big thick layer of icing on an awesome cake.
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.