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IN CONVERSATION: Shayne Leighton On Her Latest Book, Of Blood and Magic (Of Light and Darkness, #2)

This Wednesday I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down to have a chat with Shayne Leighton, author of the Of Light and Darkness Series, on what is apparently our new normal—the Google Meeting. While we drank our coffees and interspersed our conversation with laughter about life, the plight of being ginger-headed, and spouses flitting across video conferences in the background, we also dove into the details of being both author and publisher.

Aesthetic in Of Light and Darkness and Of Blood and Magic by Shayne Leighton

MALORIE NILSON: Your novel, Of Blood and Magic—the second in your Of Light and Darkness series—was just released on December 8th. Congratulations! I want to start by just asking how are you holding up? Life, in general, feels so crazy at present! How has this impacted your writing process? What is your experience of launching a book during a pandemic?

SHAYNE LEIGHTON: (laughs) It's funny; I think every release is different, of course. I remember when I first released Of Light and Darkness (OLAD) back in the day, in 2011, I was actually in Czech [The Czech Republic] for the first time. It was like the day after we had arrived in Europe. I was 21, published by another small press at the time, and I didn't really realize the kind of effort—the kind of elbow grease—that goes into a release day. The author is expected to be present, even in 2011! Social media was still a thing! But the marketplace was completely different. It was less saturated back then, so there wasn't as much competition in that publishing space. I remember getting on my partner Frank's dad's old computers—one of those giant cubes that is old and heavy—and I logged onto Amazon to look at the sales ranking. OLAD was ranking in the overall Kindle store in the top 10,000. Today that would be a huge deal. That's amazing! Not even in a category, in the overall Kindle store. I was excited about it, but I didn't understand the meaning behind that. So I was very whimsical and laissez-faire about the whole thing. I thought, "I don't really know what this means!" Then I just went on about my day. I really miss that—I miss that casual aspect of having written a book for myself, putting it out into the universe, and letting it be just "whoever reads it, reads it." It was much more peaceful.

Now that I have made this such a huge part of my life—a huge part of my career—and now that I know so much more about publishing itself, it is a lot more stressful. There's a lot more on my mind, a lot of moving variables, and I am paying attention a lot more. You know, I tell authors, "Don't refresh the page, don't look at your numbers. Don't be so obsessed. Look at it in the morning and in the evening, but then leave it alone. Create boundaries."

I am so good at giving that advice, but I am so bad at taking it! There are moments where I am really chill, and I can tell myself that I don't care, that this is just day one, that things do not hinge on release day. Sometimes a book can find success six years later—I didn't hit my stride with OLAD until 2016. I found a great readership, but it did take time. So, it is just reminding myself that everything I tell other authors is true, and when I say publishing is "playing the long game," it really is. Be kinder to yourself, and be patient—stop looking at the numbers, Shayne! I need to enjoy the fact that I completed another book and completed it to the point where I think the story is where it needs to be. I am satisfied with the craft of it alone. And I really am! I am satisfied with how the story turned out and the direction it is taking because it really organically flows with where I want to take the rest of this series.

That being said, all of that is exacerbated in a pandemic. We were discussing this earlier, but this is a really weird year. I have many colleagues and friends that were traditionally published this year. They face many of the same problems that my colleagues face in the independent publishing space—what we are facing. Not only are we competing with other forms of entertainment, we are competing with the anxiety that is 2020 and the problems we are all entrenched in. You go into things with the best intentions, and sometimes that is enough. That has to be enough. We just have to hope that we all get through it. And if Of Blood and Magic (OBAM) reaches a couple of people and gives them a break from 2020, that is really cool for me.

MN: I love that you touched upon that feeling—that success right now is defined by touching a few people in the darkness. I think that is so important, and the job that literature is meant for, especially right now. Focusing on that readership is critical to focus on, even as we move into 2021.

SL: Oh, yes. Completely.

MN: You had mentioned that a lot of time has passed and that you also experienced so much growth since publishing Of Light and Darkness. Many years have gone by; the publishing landscape is much different than it was in 2011. Can you go into a little bit about what has your writing and publishing journey been like for Of Blood and Magic? How has your process changed since then?

SL: I think that I am in a unique position with this because I am wearing both the author hat and the publishing hat. That has really helped me gain a perspective that I think I had lost because it has been such a long time since I have published a book. It is important for a publisher to be connected to and in touch with how things are running within the company and how that experience translates to the author. I think, for us on the publisher's side of the desk, it feels one way. We do market research, find things that seem to be working, create our formulas, and it is a very kind of black and white business. We definitely are emotionally invested, and that is a huge part of it. But the mechanics are very black and white. That can almost take you out of the emotional experience of writing a book, editing a book, everything that goes into it—your blood, sweat, and tears. And when you hit that release day, it is just a completely different experience as an author.

I think that indirectly there has been some criticism about small publishers putting out their own work. Not everybody agrees that it is okay. I tried to go into this with a very objective frame of mind that my book would not be treated any differently from our other authors. And I have to say 100% with sincerity that is true. I don't think OBAM got any special treatment whatsoever, which is good. That gives a really interesting perspective because now I can look at it from both sides. I can see where there are things that we could have done better as a publisher, and I can see where, as an author, I could have done things better myself.

Like I said before, in 2011, I was whimsically unaware. I was just floating through the process. It didn't have the same weight that it does now. When I queried and got that first acceptance, that was very exciting. And the editing process was so educational because I had never worked with an editor before. My editors from Decadent Publishing were phenomenal. I grew a lot from that process alone. Post-editing, I was just so thrilled to have it out there. I was just a kid! But now, I think I am just more analytical. I am more analytical about my process as a writer. For this book, I was overthinking every step of the process, which I think was good for me. I think it made me a stronger writer. I think that overthinking has helped me to be more realistic about my writing prowess and where things could be better.

MN: What I hear here is that your experience in the publishing industry has enabled you to see things from both perspectives, influencing how you approach things as an author. And your experience as an author changed how you approach publishing as well.

SL: Yes, absolutely. It allows me to see how the pieces all fall together. And there are a lot of pieces!

MN: You mentioned that the difference between your publishing journey in 2011 and now had impacted your writing. Your writing has changed in some ways from OLAD to OBAM, and I think that those changes have been reflective of maturation as a writer—

SL: I think just being an adult now also! (laugh)

MN: (laugh) Definitely! There is some truth to the adage with age comes wisdom. I must say, it has been delightful to see as I have been going along with your buddy read leading into your release. Were there things that you noticed or skills that you worked on to grow as a writer? How did you tackle becoming that more analytical writer?

SL: The simplest answer to that question is reading. You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader. You have to read, and you have to differentiate your portfolio. You have to broaden the scope of what you are reading. I have branched out from just YA or Fantasy and Paranormal novels. I have been reading more mature books and authors. I have been a fan of Anne Rice since I was 15, but I kept saying that to people when I had only read Interview with the Vampire. So, I gave myself that opportunity to read her other works, which are also so brilliant. I started reading Donna Tartt and Erin Morgenstern—all of those authors are not YA authors. So deviating from my starting point of Stephanie Meyers, not that there is anything wrong with Stephanie Meyers, has helped a lot.

Also, over the past several years, I have not been publishing any of my work. I have started projects and have worked on many great ideas. Some of them are sitting at 10 thousand, 20 thousand, even 60 thousand words. I have found that experimentation is essential. Through reading and writing, I have learned what I don't like, what resonates with me, what hits me emotionally, and what I think works.

A lot of authors are so focused on productivity and trying to complete these work in progress plot bunnies that they have, you know, things that they want to see turn into real novels. And they think that by experimenting or leaving things unfinished is a waste of time. I don't think that's true. I think the experimentation, that proverbial writing it down and balling it up and throwing it over your shoulder THING is totally necessary. Not every idea is meant to become a novel. I think that some of it just supposed to be stretching your muscles.

MN: Yes, you are absolutely right about that experimentation piece. With commercialization, over saturation of the book market, competing for attention and visual space on social media, it is a challenging prospect for an author to exist within that space and find a niche. There is that pressure always to be producing.

SL: Right!