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THROUGH THE WRINGER: A Menagerie of Sorts With Marlena Frank

Bestselling Fantasy author Marlena Frank released the highly-anticipated sequel in the Stolen Series, entitled BROKEN, earlier this month. Today we chat with her about her journey writing sequels, the importance of writerly community, and penning her darkest scenes yet in Shaleigh Mallot's fantastical kingdom of the Garden.

Your sequel to STOLEN, entitled BROKEN, released early April with The Parliament House Press. Congratulations on book two! What is your literary journey like while writing sequels? How is it different from writing book one? Thank you so much! I’m so thrilled to have Broken out in the world and am so excited to share the continuation of Shaleigh’s (shah-LAY) journey. I can now attest that it is indeed more difficult to write book 2 than book 1. I think part of that problem is the pressure to create a book that is as good if not better than the first installment. There’s the misconception of sequels always being worse than the first, and we always see that mentioned in book and film series. I worked hard to prevent that. In addition to the pressure, there’s a big difference in the storyline and character development in Broken compared to Stolen. While character arcs happen in Stolen, there is also a lot of world-building and wonder. I introduce a lot of places, beings, and magic in the first book that I can build on in book 2. While there is still a lot to see in Broken, the framework of the world is already there, and I’m just building on top of it. There’s much more weight on the characters and their journeys rather than that wonder factor of being in such a surreal world or encountering new creatures. In many ways, it’s similar to Stolen regarding themes and struggles, but it’s also a different story entirely.

Is there a scene in either Stolen or Broken that made you cry while writing it? How about the scene that made you laugh the hardest? Oh wow, definitely! In Broken, there’s a scene toward the end of the book that just brought me near to tears. When I was writing it, a particular song, “On the Nature of Daylight,” came on. Afterwards when that song showed up in my playlist, I kept having my characters contemplate that scene. In many ways the song reflected that moment. Unconscious reflection is so important in books, and helps breath life into characters. I’m experiencing it the same moment the character is, and we share that with the reader. There’s one hilarious scene in Stolen that actually wasn’t included until my amazing editor Rae (@ANewLookOnBooks on Instagram) recommended including something with Mawr. She wanted to know what was happening with him while Shaleigh was carrying the main plotline. So I wrote a piece about trying to get measured for glasses, and it makes me smile every time I read it. Mawr is just his shy, fearful self in that moment, and Colin gets “volun-told” to do something he’s really not too sure about. It’s fantastic!

Would you consider your protagonist, Shaleigh, a good person? Be honest. I do consider her a good person overall. She has really good intentions even if sometimes she makes bad decisions and loses her temper. She’s also a little too manipulative for her own good, but that’s how she’s had to survive growing up. She’s independent and thinks she knows what’s best, when truthfully she doesn’t. She’s even cruel at times, but deep down she is a very good person doing her best with what she has to deal with. She is not at all perfect, but she tries her best. She has a lot on her shoulders and as the story progresses, she learns not only how to carry that weight easier but also how to share the load with others. She grows as a leader and as a person.

How does a big ego help writers? How can it hinder writers, if at all? Well to be able to promote your own work, you need to have some kind of ego. You have to be able to talk about your book and market it not only via email or on social media, but also in person at shows and book signings. It’s not easy, and is honestly something that I’m still trying to get better at. At the other end of the spectrum, humility goes a long way too. You have to be humble to accept criticism, to constantly try to improve your work, and to admit when you don’t know everything. As an author you’re constantly having to become a subject matter expert, so that’s very important. However if you’re too humble to accept praise when it’s given to you, you can seem unapproachable or rude. It’s a very fine line to walk as an author, and you’re always second-guessing your decisions. I’ve gotten better at giving a quick thanks and moving forward, but I’m still working on it. I’ve gotten better at accepting praise and criticism of my work, because it’s all valid. People are allowed to have opinions and no piece of writing is perfect. It’s difficult to accept at times as an author because we pour so much of ourselves into our words, but it’s important to learn how a piece of writing fits into other perspectives too. For me, it’s an ongoing process and I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to put myself out there more.

What is the darkest thing you’ve ever written—presuming there might be pieces darker than Shaleigh’s adventures? I’m writing some pretty dark scenes in Chosen, book 3 of the Stolen series, right now, but I make a clear and conscious effort not to put anything too dark into the Stolen series. Shaleigh’s world is fantasy and while it can get quite dark, I work hard to prevent it from overlapping into horror territory. I write horror books to tackle those nightmares. I like to keep my fantasy and horror on opposite sides of the field, not only to make sure that my work fits into a specific genre, but to ensure that my readers aren’t taken by surprise. People who love horror don’t always enjoy reading fantasy work and vice-versa. What’s too extreme for one group is too mild for another, so it’s a careful separation for me. That said, I’ve written some very dark short fiction, some of it is currently available. My short story, “Tiny Necks”, published by Bloodshot Books’ 2016 anthology, Not Your Average Monster Volume 2, is probably one of my darkest pieces that is currently available. My Young Adult Horror book, The Seeking, comes out on October 27th from Parliament House and is especially dark. It’s a dystopian world inspired by a nightmare I had. I also have a short story, “The Impostor,” coming out in December. It’s been included in an anthology by Filles Vertes Press titled Link by Link inspired by winter and ghosts. My story was so frightening that my editor told me it gave her nightmares. As a horror author, that’s the ultimate compliment! My horror tends to be very weird, surreal, and at times visceral, and I don’t like explaining everything in those stories. The mystery of the face behind the monster takes away from the terror of what it can do. Some of the most frightening horror I’ve read is when something is a threat without rhyme or reason. When you don’t know the rules, you can’t prepare. Stephen King’s “The Raft” and The Mist comes to mind.

What other authors are you friends with? How does being part of a writerly community help you become a better writer? I have befriended so many authors over the years. Even before I was even writing original work, I was friends with fan-fiction authors online. We even got to meet in person once. I’ve honestly been surrounded by readers and writers for most of my life. As I’ve written more original work, I’ve found other author friends too. I was a member of Scribophile for a while and met authors who I still follow. I really started meeting authors when I became part of The Parliament House. We work together to solve problems, to bounce ideas around, and to write books. In collaboration and teamwork, I’ve met book reviewers who I’m now good friends with and fellow authors whose work I admire and tend to devour. I’ve even gotten the chance to work alongside fellow authors at conventions and book festivals. It’s been so rewarding to realize that we’re all in the same boat. I also joined my local Horror Writers’ Association a couple of years back, and getting to meet with those experts on a regular basis has really helped me. Not only have I learned best practices, but I’ve also grown more confident in finding shows and in talking about my work. Something about working next to an author who has published 20+ books, sweating it out in a stuffy booth on a hot day in September helps you realize that you’re not alone. It’s definitely a bonding experience! I’ve also found all sorts of indie authors on social media, especially on Instagram. Not only has it helped me connect with authors around the world, but it’s also exposed me to so many incredible books too!

So the readers know, will there be a third book to this series? Any spin-offs planned? Oh there will absolutely be a third book in the Stolen series! I’m working on book 3, Chosen, right now and it’s coming along very nicely. I’m thinking it’s going to be quite long too, and I’m both excited and nostalgic to be wrapping up this series. As for a spin-off, I’m not sure! I’ve had some ideas for potential short stories for characters in the series as a behind-the-scenes of some of the lesser characters in the world. However if I did that, I would of course have to include stories from the main ones too. So I suppose I’m torn right now and the verdict is still out. I haven’t entirely ruled out continuing Shaleigh’s story one day, but her world will be put on the backburner for a bit. I’m certain there are still stories to be told about her and her friends, so maybe one day I’ll consider writing more in this world, but for the moment I have other projects to focus on.

If you could tell your writing-self ten years ago anything, what would it be? Hey you know that NaNoWriMo thing you’re thinking about participating in come November? Do it! And yes, the book you write won’t end up ever seeing the light of day, but what comes a few more books down the road is so worth the work! Oh and when you get discouraged and decide to not write for a couple of years because you don’t think your work is good enough, please ignore that and keep writing anyway! You already know you won’t be able to stop writing anyway. You’ll regret not pursuing your dreams earlier.

How did publishing your first book change your artistic process to what it is today? Before I had Stolen picked up, I really didn’t hold myself to timetables with my writing. I would tool around with a short story for a while before finally deciding it was worth publishing. I would work on a book off and on for months, and maybe consider publishing it. If it got no immediate bites, I would pitch it into the trunk and move onto the next novel attempt. I would have months where I worked consistently on a book, but it was difficult when I tried to tell acquaintances about it and they rolled their eyes because everybody seems to be working on a book. When I tried to explain that it was about fantasy and faeries and living statues, their eyes glazed over and I regretted bringing it up. I didn’t see my writing career as real until a book was published, and that’s not right. Every unfinished, unedited, and incomplete manuscript has every right to be given a chance. I just couldn’t see that back then. Today my writing schedule is very different. For example, I talk about my writing at work. Co-workers read my books (yes, it still freaks me out). I explained to my boss that I had another book coming out and he gave me a high five (Don’t worry, it was months before quarantine). He’s actually read my short fiction too. When I tell people that I have edits or galleys or an interview to focus on during the weekend, they give me the space I need. People take my writing career seriously, and I find that part of that is because I take it seriously now. I have had to push back deadlines a couple of times, but I’m learning to be kinder to myself. I’m learning my own limits and needs in the process. Writing for fun is very different from writing on a deadline, and it’s at times a tough transition. But my writing is improving because of it. I can see so many differences between how I approached writing a book then compared to now. I’m better about taking notes, world building, drafting outlines, crafting characters, and figuring out the heart of my books. That was very difficult for me years ago. The motivation was there but I didn’t have the discipline yet. Writing on a deadline or even on a schedule has helped me so much to meet my goals.

When did you first learn that language wielded power? What did that moment look like? When I was in third or fourth grade, I decided I was going to put on a puppet show at school. I built the whole setup with the cloth background. I cut out little Bernstein Bears and glued them onto popsicle sticks. I remember reading from a book on the ground while I had my arms up above my head, acting out the scenes with my popsicle stick bears, trading them out for different expressions as needed. It was a huge hit. The classroom exploded into laughter right on cue. My teachers were so thrilled, they wanted me to read aloud to another class. If I could handle a puppet show, then reading a book aloud was no big deal. I was excited to do it, but nervous that I couldn’t hide behind the puppet theater. Then when I read aloud to all of the students sitting around my rocking chair, I didn’t get a single laugh. Not one. It was the same story as before, complete with punchlines and everything, but the only noise I heard was the humming of the electric lights overhead. I did all the voices the same, I made the hilarious noises like before, but I didn’t get anything. It was a tough audience. At first I was mortified, thinking I had done something wrong. I must have not been funny enough for them. Then I realized that it wasn’t me, it was that the stick figures were far more funny than I could be. I was also a peer, not a teacher, so there was far more scrutiny. Mostly I realized that just because something written down makes some people laugh doesn’t mean it works for everybody. It didn’t matter how funny I made the story, or how often I laughed to try to get the others to laugh too. If they didn’t like the story, they weren’t going to laugh. It was an embarrassing way for me to learn that not everybody likes the same stories I do, but there are some.

We base many characters on actors or artists; are there any characters in this novel inspired by real people? Do you have a dream cast? Who are they? I don’t really have a dream cast actually. If somebody wanted to adopt the Stolen series, I hope they would choose a diverse cast of characters. I went out of my way to include a rich group of characters, and I would insist that the diversity not be removed. I also hope they would choose an unknown actor for Shaleigh. I think she’s a fascinating character with strengths and weaknesses that would give any actor a lot to explore (though I might be biased). She’s an adventurous, witty, determined leader in the making, and she deserves someone who can bring that to life. The only character who is based on a real-life “person” is Mawr. His personality is based on our tabby housecat, Watson. He’s super sweet and just wants love and cuddles all day, but he’s also terrified of everything. He’ll walk by a blanket and treat it like it’s going to jump him at any moment. When he’s calm, he is a dedicated nurse maid and sleeping buddy who will encourage you to go to bed at a decent hour and will watch over you when you’re sick. In so many ways, Mawr’s personality is pulled directly from him. Even when he accidentally hurts people.

What did you edit out of BROKEN novel that you regret nixing? I tend to underwrite my novels and then add to them when I edit, so I didn’t have to cut out anything thankfully. The scenes that are there are exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t have to pick and choose. I will say there’s a scene toward the end of Broken involving Mawr and Shaleigh and a starry night sky that was added in. I have a bad habit of losing track of characters when I’m drafting a book, and I always feel like a bad book mom when I do that. I had forgotten to explain what one of the characters was doing because I was caught up in dialogue. Thankfully my amazing editor Rae saved the day and caught it, leading to one of the most beautiful and poignant scenes in the book, and possibly the series. So yes, without editing that scene wouldn’t have existed, which is yet another reason to have a fantastic editor for a book -- especially a series! Rae is amazing!

Do you read your own book reviews? How do you deal with the “bad” ones, if any? Yes, I do, though sometimes they’re difficult to deal with. I’ll have a ton of positive reviews, and then read one that’s more meh, then suddenly I’m questioning my skills as an author. Even though I know better and not everybody is going to like every book I write (and if you do, you’re awesome!). It’s a vicious cycle, because you want to see the praise you get on a book, but you’re also terrified of seeing the criticism. I’ve grown a thicker skin over time though. When I was writing mostly short stories, I would often never see my story mentioned in reviews, which would also be a blow. So I remind myself that at least I get to find out what people think of my writing, which is so much better than living in the dark. This is something I still struggle with. I know many authors who don’t read any reviews, but I don’t know if I can cut myself off that much from readers. I appreciate the feedback and sometimes the criticism is very insightful. So I have to steel myself to go read reviews sometimes because I have to prepare myself for that one comment that will cut deeper than expected.

What was the hardest scene to write into this novel? So many scenes were difficult for me to write, but it’s usually about schematics. Emotions I get very well because I’m inside the character’s head, but figuring out if somebody was on a person’s left or right always gets me. There’s a scene in Stolen where Colin talks about his background, opening up to Shaleigh for the first time. It was a tricky scene because of their history, and I wanted to get across the morally grey area that Colin exists in. I worked that scene into the ground to make it perfect. It was a scene that my editor loved on her first read. In Broken, there’s a scene toward the end that’s quite terrifying. I worked that scene like mad to get it right too, agonizing over every description, every piece of dialogue, and the overall emotional response. Then my editor pointed out an obvious thing in the background that I had entirely overlooked and I had to rewrite a good bit of it. It ended up being a very powerful scene, but if that detail hadn’t been caught readers might have been distracted trying to envision it. Usually scenes that seem the most streamlined are the ones that were the toughest to write, you just can’t tell because I’ve hidden the seams.

Google yourself. What’s the first thing that pops up? I actually do this regularly to make sure my SEO is working as expected, and the first item to crop up is my website: I’ve actually had this site for over ten years and it’s become a main hub for all of my writing. Listings for all of my books and short fiction can be found there, along with some free short stories that I’ve published over the years. I post regular book reviews, new releases, and active promotions. I also take part in the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop, where authors post up educational pieces for fellow authors. I have several tutorials listed from how to publish short stories, to how to use Scrivener, to a whole vendor series explaining how we do setups at shows (You know, when we used to do that!). When writing Stolen, I also posted regular updates as I wrote to keep track of my word count and to motivate myself. On the Books page you can go through and see all the posts I ever wrote where I tagged that book. It’s had several title changes over the years, but you can see how much the story changed over time. It was a long work in progress started in 2013 before it finally got published in 2019.

What’s one important thing would you give up to improve your writing skill? I honestly can’t think of anything I would give up to improve my writing. I value the family and friends that I spend time with, but I also value my hobbies like reading books and playing video games. Even cleaning the house and commuting to work provides some level of mindless activity that helps me think up new stories, plotlines, and characters. At this point I don’t really have anything that prevents me from focusing on my writing, I just don’t have enough hours in the day to do everything! So I guess the real answer here is sleep. I would and often do give up hours of sleep to get writing in!

What is your favorite childhood book? Did any of your childhood reads inspire your writing style/voice in the Stolen Series? I read a lot of fantasy when I was a kid. One of my favorite books was Charlotte’s Web. In fact you can see me reading it in one of the few photos we have from back then, I want to say I was in first grade at the time? My sisters are waving or smiling at the camera, but I’m too engrossed in my book. My nephew got a copy of Charlotte’s Web over the holidays, and I read the first few pages, feeling all nostalgic. On page one Fern finds out the runt of a pig’s litter is going to be killed by her father, and she runs out to him, begging him not to kill him. She promises to take responsibility for it instead and starts caring for it herself. I hadn’t remembered that the book started immediately with such a dire situation, but I saw instantly why I loved it as a child. I’ve always had a lot of empathy for people and for animals around me. At that age, I couldn’t even watch someone get hurt on TV, and even in college I struggled to join in with friends to watch viral videos involving people getting hurt for laughs. I often had to turn away because I couldn’t bear to watch. It made me too anxious. Shaleigh is a character who feels too deeply, and I think her outburst at her father at the beginning of Stolen really shows that. She’s frustrated because she’s put up walls to not feel her father’s sadness, to not feel her mother’s disappearance. She’s supposed to be responsible, but she clearly has emotions that she’s redirecting into anger. Later on when she shows her best friend Kaeja the secret of her mother’s room, Shaleigh lashes out again because she can’t handle seeing the shock and confusion come over her friend’s face. For her, anger is easier to feel than sadness, pain, and embarrassment. Shaleigh’s entire driving force in Broken is to repair the damage that she’s done in Stolen. She doesn’t have to take that pain on herself, but she does. She’s constantly unburdening others but also taking on more burden for herself. She’s determined to fix what she’s destroyed, even if it means putting aside her goals or possibly never reaching them. I enjoy empathetic characters because I feel a connection to them. I too have given into anger rather than sharing the pain of others. I’ve also lashed out because I didn’t like the emotions I felt inside. I enjoy climbing inside the heads of characters like Shaleigh and finding that beyond the thick, angry shell they surround themselves in, they care deeply about the people in their lives. All it takes is a push for them to realize that, whether that’s lashing out unintentionally at a friend or getting kidnapped on a flying bicycle. I try to create characters who do care, almost to a fault.

As Shaleigh discovers, the world of The Garden wields an abundance of whimsical creatures enough to fill a Bestiary! If you had to go on the same adventure, which is one creature you would choose?

Mawr, the iconic living statue of a lion, would absolutely be my new friend. I would just want to hide him away so nobody could ever hurt him. He’s so precious and so sad too, I would want him as a friend at my side.

I don’t know if I would be as brave or as determined as Shaleigh is on her journey, so I would probably have a very different fate than she does. It certainly wouldn’t be good!

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