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Through the Wringer: Shayne Leighton

This New Year's Day, our Blog Maven got a chance to chat with the Of Light and Darkness series author, Shayne Leighton! She's emerged to spill the tea on her new literary ventures with the upcoming OLAD sequel, Of Blood and Magic (expected later this year), her writing rituals, AND the brand new Parliament Press secret society website.

You’re currently working on book two of the OLAD series. What is your literary journey like, lately?

I am so excited that I am finally getting back to my own world after some years of not really giving my whole heart to it. Of Light and Darkness (to me) is my Sistine Chapel. I’ve published and republished and reworked because every detail has to be right…or as close to right as possible. The journey is different now, because I have The Parliament House and that is obviously very time-consuming, but it’s an equal love of mine. Before, I used to hole up for weeks at a time to write and immerse myself in my own world and really live with these characters (who are all based on real people and real situations)— but now, I don’t get that luxury. So writing Of Blood and Magic has been my favorite escapism — just stolen moments here and there of plunging into my own world for a bit and then having to resurface and put my publishing hat back on. 

Is there a scene, in either OLAD or OBAM that made you cry while writing it?

Yes, actually— in OLAD, it was the birthday party scene. For my 17th birthday, my mom threw a surprise party that was outrageous and very special. It was similar to that scene in the book (minus the gang of undead people, unfortunately). But all of my friends were there. And Frank, who worked at night and slept during the day and who used to travel long distances for his work, was supposed to not have been there that night. But he was—my friends had shoved him away in a corner. Later, I found out he’d said to one of my friends that he would have “moved mountains to be there”. Keep in mind, Frank is ten years older than me, so when I was seventeen, we were strictly just friends. (And remained just friends for a long time after that. Lol.) But I’d been in love with Frank since I’d met him a year earlier. I had the biggest crush on him. So, when I was writing that birthday party scene, it had been a really hard year. Life became very different, and I was in a darker place— so I think just recounting all of that happiness just made me emotional and made that scene in particular very personal and special. 

Would you consider your protagonist a good person?

So, my protagonist is Charlotte, who is based (very loosely, lol) on myself. I think good and bad are hard to see sometimes. I think she tries. I  think she has her bad moments. I mean…she kills people. She’s assisted with like…a ton of murders. So, is she a bad person? But she loves Valek with her whole self and she wants him to be alive and comfortable. So, is she a good person? I guess it depends on where you’re standing. We are all the villain in someone’s story. And we are also, sometimes, the hero? The comedic relief? …depending on where other people are standing. 

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Speaking about the craft, I think comparing yourself too much to others is the biggest trap. It’s a great time to be a writer, because I think readers are more accepting now than ever before of different styles and mechanics and the way you use the craft to paint your picture. People are becoming better at celebrating when something is different, so you will always find your readership. Sometimes it takes a bit longer…but you will find your people. So don’t spend time comparing yourself to other writers (especially the more established ones), because you will never finish your book. Learn and love and accept why your voice is unique while simultaneously growing to become better (we can all be better), but let that happen organically and not because you wish you were as masterful as Leigh Bardugo (who is my particular ghost on my shoulder). 

How does a big ego help writers? How can it hinder writers?

Haha. I have a big ego probably. I think having a big ego makes you more brazen and more willing to take chances. A think a big ego allows you to look before you leap. It’s a good thing in art, because you put yourself out there unapologetically and expect that people will love it. It can hinder you when you find out not everyone will love it and then when you’re writing your sequel book (like me), you second guess every move you make for the next five years until everyone has forgotten about you and your series…. *cough* sorry. What was the question? 

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Music with lyrics in it. Shut off that noise. I can’t focus. You’re ripping me out of my world. Can’t you see I’m painting the next great masterpiece? It’s as if you’ve ridden into the room on a horse! (And then I start singing…and then I get on social media…What’s a manuscript? Why am I here?) 

What is the darkest thing you’ve ever written? That you intend to write?

The darkest thing I’ve ever written / intend to write is the third book in the OLAD series. The new evolution of it will be called Of Stars and Monsters and it’s a rework of the original book three. I named The Parliament House after a secret society that gets introduced in book two and gets the spotlight in book three. They’re a vampiric order and there’s a lot of ties to real history and royal bloodlines surrounding Vlad Dracul and all that… so they’re pretty sinister. I can’t tell you what happens, because… spoilers. But book three gets very (and sometimes questionably) dark. 

Do you think someone could ever be a writer if they didn’t feel emotions strongly?

No. If you’re not pouring over your manuscript the way the Phantom of the Opera pours over his music, what are you even doing? 

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better write?

I’m friends with SO MANY authors (most of them are Parliament people). I’m so lucky to have Chantal, Bri, Erica, Amanda, and so many others who I can bounce ideas off of and talk shop. My first industry friend was Cynthia Leitich Smith who wrote the Book Tantalize (Candlewick). My relationship with her is so special, because it started out as just a fan writing to a great author…and then it turned into her pushing me, giving me amazing advice, and becoming that little voice of courage that gave me the gumption to publish my book in the first place. 

Can each book stand on its own, or do you intend to build a body of work with connections between each book?

Personally, for me and OLAD, I intend to build a whole body and a whole web of characters and sub-stories as intricate (I’m not comparing the greatness, just the mass) of StarWars. Hahaha. I have so many ideas that fit into this one universe and so many characters are speaking to me…so the world of OLAD will live on for a long time. When I die, I want people to be like…oh yeah, that’s the author of the OLAD universe, no matter what else I write. (And I do have plot bunnies that are not OLAD). Now , I just need the time. 

If you could tell your writing-self ten years ago anything, what would it be?

Get off social media. Relax with your relationship. Music is not going to be your career. Frank is cool and all but all boys are dumb. Prioritize yourself and your time…especially for writing. 

How did publishing your first book change your artistic process?

Over the years, I’d gotten so much feedback on it and the reaction has been very divided. So, hearing that feedback as given me a bit more later focus to pick out the things I’m doing wrong and how to fix them. Before, I had my rose-colored glasses on and thoughts everything I did was awesome. But I’m grateful to have a more critical eye now.

When did you first learn that language wielded power? What did that moment look like?

I don’t think there was ever a particular knowing. I think just seeing how words effect the world be it narrative and how it restructures pop-culture, or in politics, or even just articles online—anything. Language effects response and human behavior. It’s our most powerful tool. 

What are the most important literary and aesthetic magazines for fantasy/ sci-fi writers to subscribe to?

I don’t know about particularly fantasy or sci-fi, but reading Writer’s Digest and Publisher’s Weekly is important when it comes to the industry. I read Tor’s blog and a lot of newsletters and posts from other publishers I respect like Two Dollar Radio. There is such an abundance of things on the internet. As far as aesthetic, Faerie Magazine is great. I mostly just turn to Pinterest when it comes to looking up aesthetics for projects. 

We base many characters on celebrities; are there any characters in this series inspired by real people? Who are they?

They are all inspired by real people, but they’re all real people I know. Valek is obviously Frank. Mr. Trinozka is my grandfather. Sarah is a mashup of a previous friend, a current best friend, my mom, and my grandmother. I never base characters off of celebrities because I don’t know them, and for me that just feels too impersonal. It just doesn’t work for me. 

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

At this moment, about five or six— each of them have about 20k words. That seems to be my benchmark for throwing it in a desk drawer. 20,000 words….and that’s enough. 

What does literary success look like to you?

I think literary success is having a readership of any size—a group of people who are just as emotionally invested in your story and your characters as you are. If you have people who are creating a little fandom around your world and who are living in that world with you—if you’ve really reached them—then you’ve found success. 

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

Dialogue. I don’t want the characters to sound like me, I want them to sound like them. I over-talk and use too many words even in my day-to-day speech… then men I know are just the opposite. They’re very direct in the way they communicate. So, the hardest part is just remembering that, while Valek is emotional, he’s not loquacious. 

What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

Definitely young adult — early 20’s. I think that time is when life feels most exciting and most terrifying because it’s the jumping-off point from your childhood, when things seemed a little simpler and safer. 

What did you edit out of this OLAD that you may or may not regret mixing?

So far, I haven’t cut anything out, minus a few pieces of unnecessary info dumps. 

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures in fantasy/ sci-fi?

Research. Research. Research. Get your details right, especially if your fantasy exists in reality. If you’re details are correct, your world-building within reality as we know it is more believable. If it’s more believable, I think it makes for a more dynamic story. 

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones, if any?

I used to. I used to really torture myself. Now, not so much. There’s such a divide between people who love my book and people who really hate it. It’s mostly all because of the relationship between Valek and Charlotte, and a lot of people just don’t get it—and I understand. I’ve learned to just shrug those things off. I meant for it to feel a little weird and controversial. When I set out, I didn’t want to make readers comfortable. Just the opposite. So, if there’s a bad review, I try to just except the criticism that will help me improve my story and then move on with my day. 

Do you hide any “Easter eggs” in your books that only a few people will find?

All the time! ;) 

What was your hardest scene to write?

Action / war scenes are always super hard for me. I’m a libra, so I just want my characters to talk out their problems… but that’s not very exciting, is it? 

Google yourself. What’s the first thing that pops up?

Hahaha…. my Instagram. Naturally. Also, cool! I have one of those Google side bar things, but it lists me as a “Film Director”…which…no. 

What’s one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

Television and social media. I live on social media, but if I could give it up to be a recluse for a whole year and just work on my writing, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t even have the temptation. I would need to move to a remote part of Romania or something— just totally off the grid. 

What are your favorite literary journals?

Publisher’s Weekly is my go-to. 

What is your favorite childhood book?

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett is my first favorite book and will always be. 

Do you believe in writer’s block?

To a degree, but I always believe there’s a way to push through it. If you can’t write the moment you need, write around the moment and come back to it later. 

In light of OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS—Darkness is in this year, in terms of book subject matter. What are three new Parliament Press books readers can look forward to this year?

I’m super excited about Vampires of Portlandia, The Infernal Machine, and The Nightshade Cabal, to name just a few. But we’ve got SO MANY good books coming out this year. 

The Parliament House website has been shrouded in mystery for a while now... When can we expect a return?

TODAY!!!! You’re probably on it right now. I still have a lot to do to it, but isn’t it cool?! Welcome to the new secret society….of fantasy books! The Parliaverse is deep and cavernous. 

What new features will members be able to access in this new venture?

There’s a ton of new things including an updated blog, a forum where readers can discuss their favorite PH authors, a Member area where you can follow other people who are part of the Parliaverse, track your orders, and more!!! That’s my favorite new feature. Also, you can browse books by our new specialty categories including, Weird Monsters, Kids on Bikes, Horrible & Haunted, and more! 

How can potential pledges sign up to be Members of Parliament?

There’s a button on the home page. Only the worthy will be able to seek it out…. (It’s also a Facebook Group)

In closing, can we spill a secret about our secret society?

Only Members of Parliament know… monsters are real. 

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