It’s time for another cuppa and catchup! This time I invited the lovely Liz de Jager along to talk about writing YA, bullet journals and pearls of wisdom for her younger writing self…
Rachel Connor: Welcome to my humble blog, Liz! Tell us a bit about yourself and what creative stuff you’re working on at the moment.
Liz De Jager: Hi! I’m so pleased to be here – thanks for the invite. So, I’m the author of a completed trilogy for YA (and other discerning readers regardless of age) called The Blackhart Trilogy.
The series follows Kit Blackhart who gets thrown in the deep end when in the first book she saves a Fae prince from becoming a snack for some bad guys and then: shenanigans!
What I’m up to at the moment: I’m editing a new book. It’s full on fantasy and I have no idea if its good. I hope it is! I’ve also become a bit of a crafter and mixed media enthusiast, making stuff and selling it on.
Rachel: I was first introduced to your work when I read Banished, part one of your fiendishly fun Blackhart Legacy trilogy. Can we hold out hope for more books set in the ‘Blackhart’ universe?
Liz: Sadly no. The Blackhart world has drawn to a close after the initial trilogy.
Rachel: Have you always known you were going to be a writer? When was your earliest memory where you knew this was the life for you?
Liz: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been an avid reader and I had to look after my hundreds of nieces and nephews at family gettogethers so I ended up reading to them from my tiny library I was allowed to have. When I ran out of books of my own, I started making stuff up to entertain them.
It never actually occurred to me, until I moved to the UK from South Africa in 2000 that I could actually write and be published.
Rachel: Since ‘Blackhart’ you’ve started working on something you’ve tantalisingly called the ‘Batshit Fantasy Idea™’ – can you tell us anything about this?
Liz: Well. What I can say is that I was desperate to do something different than contemporary fantasy. So I thought I’d write full on fantasy a la Joe Abercrombie and those guys. But I wanted to retell the story of Mulan somehow and have it be for younger readers.
Oh my goodness, the second the main character stepped on the page, she was just so full of vim and vigour and challenging, that I knew the book was not meant to be for younger readers.
Anything else about it: well, it’s set in a very far future where things have gone very badly for our world due an Event of Devastating Consequences. So things have reverted back to pre-medieval times with no technology to speak of.
There’s a biggish cast of characters too which is unusual for me, so I had to focus hugely on making my two main characters stand out.
Rachel: I have you to thank for my devotion to bullet journals – how did you find out about them and how do you feel they’ve benefited your writing/life etc? What would you recommend for someone who’s just getting started with bullet journaling?
Liz: Bullet journaling is so…life-changing. However it’s marmite. It either works for you, or it doesn’t. For those who don’t know about bullet journaling, check out this site, where you will learn about it all. But basically it’s an analogue system for a digital age.
Bullet journaling keeps me organised. I am not an organised person. If I don’t give myself parameters, I will live in a mess of books, inks, laptops and stationery and be 100% happy.
I relish chaos. So it was with reluctance that I took up bullet journaling, only to discover that it works for me. I won’t go much into it as it’s a bit weird reading about people’s obsession but, it allows me to organise my days so that I can have writing time with no guilt.
I think a lot of writers worry about things when they sit down to write. Doing the dishes, doing the washing, walking the dog, ordering groceries, shopping for groceries, doing the ironing. With this system you organise yourself, optimising your day.
So in that respect it has helped but what helps me when I sit down to write is, as always, The Pomodoro Technique. It’s simple.
- Turn off all electronic devices that will disturb you.
- Set a timer for 40 minutes and write until the timer goes off.
- Then you stand up, stretch, catch up on emails/twitter/facebook/jump up and down, pee, make tea, for say 20 minutes
- Sit down again for a further 40 minutes.
Obviously you can make the stretches that you write be 30 minutes or whatever, but NOT an hour. An hour tends to drag at you and your attention will wander.
Rachel: How important do you think it is for a writer to connect with other writers? Has having other writerly friends helped you on your journey?
Liz: I think having writerly friends really does help. No one else quite gets us, to be honest. Your other friends would go: come out to the pub / dinner / have coffee with us and you want to cry because don’t they understand you have words to write!? And so when you cry off that you have to write they stare at you a bit funny, like you just said you want to hurt yourself.
Having writer friends and talking to them online, via email and in real life when you’re in the throes of writing really helps. You can whinge: writing why so hard or: how can I kill this character gruesomely and in a cool way at the same time? Also: it’s a bit competitive sometimes, but the big thing here is to remember that this is YOUR journey and not someone else’s journey.
We all travel at different speeds and wanting someone else’s life because you think you perceive them as being more successful makes you forget how lucky you are in your own life.
(you can read more about some of the awesome friendships Liz has made during her writing career here.)
Rachel: You’re a multi-talented lady and have recently opened up your own Etsy shop! What kind of stuff are you selling?
Liz: Aaah, my new obsession! Yes, I started not just bullet journaling, but also art journaling a while ago because I was creatively blocked.
I really struggled so hard with writing that I turned to art to help me. I bought some paints and stuff and started playing. I had bought a stack of paper ephemera from other Etsy shops and realised I had so many beautiful vintage books of my own, who really need a new lease on life, that I could sell journaling kits myself. So I started doing that.
My little shop is called Emm’s Ephemera. I’ve graduated to also offering planner stickers, vintage postage stamps and some other goodies as I come across them.
Rachel: Are you reading any good books at the moment?
I’m reading The Roanoke Girls and it is SO good. I said on twitter that it’s better than Gillian Flynn as the writer doesn’t hate her main character or any of the other women in the book.
Rachel: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Liz: Keep writing and finish what you start. Quitters don’t see their books in shops or online.
Rachel: How do you find the writing process? Do you find it energizing, or exhausting, or both? Do you pace yourself or go ‘full steam ahead’?
Liz: Definitely both – there’s this high I get from writing, especially when you manage to fall into the zone.
I remember rushing to finish Judged, the last book in The Blackhart Trilogy and it was like two in the morning and I was too wired on the story to actually go to bed. Not ideal, to be honest, when you have to be up at six in the morning to go to work!
I try and pace myself but sometimes story just takes over and you write until you’re sick. Seriously. It’s happened before and it’s really not good! But looking back at it all now it feels a bit odd. Like: I wrote that in such a weird feverdream how is it even real?
Rachel: Do you have an old book idea from years past that you’d like to resurrect one day?
Liz: Oh my gosh yes. There’s this amazing MG I’d love to rewrite – it’s very Indiana Jones by way of Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series. In fact, this was the first book I’d ever finished and to this day I still have my ‘bible’ and the research that went into it.
Rachel: People define success in so many different ways – what do you feel makes a person successful?
I don’t know. For me success comes from the little things. Being sent fanmail. Or being asked if it’s okay by teens if they wanted to write fanfic about my characters.
I know other people want massive sales and a huge advance but to me it’s knowing that people have read the books and liked them enough to take ownership of those characters I’ve lived with so long.
I love the idea that maybe the trilogy became the gateway drug for a reluctant reader to try other books, more challenging perhaps and that they are reading for pleasure, rather than having teachers stand over them, forcing them to read.
Rachel: What kind of research do you do for your stories, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Liz: For the Blackhart books I did a lot of lore research into names especially. Every single person I name in the books has a reason they are named what they are, especially the Fae characters.
I also did a lot of research into fairy / faery lore and superstitions. I also did a lot of research into weaponry (my google history must have alarmed some government agencies I’m sure!) and I had a friend who’s a sword instructor and my husband combat whilst I took notes and choreographed sequences so I could see what would be feasible in real life. I had them try out different weapons too. It was very interesting!
I do a bit of research when I start out. Usually, because I’m a nerd, I tend to know quite a bit of the world / mythology before I start writing because my interests are so wide. But then if I find I need to find out more, I will dig out the tomes and swot up and talk to people who I know who can help. Research never ends, I think, it just becomes yet another obsession to fall into.
Rachel: Do you remember getting your first writing advance? What was it for and what did you spend it on?
Liz: Oh yes! It was for the first book in the trilogy, Banished. I went a bit crazy and bought myself an iPad and a PS4. And so many books. Basically I cleared out my Amazon wishlist to add to my bulging reference shelves. It. Was. Amazing.
Rachel: You’re writing a first draft – is your weapon of choice a pen or the keyboard?
Liz: Planning for me is always by pen. These days I’m all about my Midori Traveler’s Notebook. It’s such a great system as the notebooks can be swapped out for new notebooks once they’re full. So basically, I have a notebook for plot and my characters. I know who they are, what they’re doing at all times. I write down the plot loosely and then I start embroidering and getting more elaborate. I play the what if game, basically.
Then I also have a notebook that contains the notes about the world and this becomes my worldbuilding bible. I write down town names, names of people they meet along the way who get named (that way no one ends up being called the same as someone else). I write down the mythology of the world too, as much as I know it. Anything important about the world lives in this notebook.
The third notebook in my TN is for edits. These I do once the first draft is typed up. I write directly onto the screen, referring to my notes on plot etc. My edits are chapter by chapter and they’re not line edits for grammar or anything like that. They are 100% about plot and character, the big stuff. Sara Grant taught me this: you first edit big, then you edit small.
Rachel: Was there ever a time you felt a bit discouraged by writing? How did you bounce back?
Liz: Quitters don’t see their books for sale. That’s advice from my friend Zoe Marriott who is a superstar of advice and a powerhouse of skill and story.
We all get discouraged. You sometimes sit on social media and see other writers and it’s like they live this charmed life and you want to cry but you got to focus yourself.
You have to step back and get over dramatic self. No one is going to write the book for you – unless you’re a celebrity, of course – and you have to just get in there, push your hands into the mud and create.
Rachel: On the blog, I like to talk about things writers can do to nurture their wellbeing. What do you enjoy doing to recharge your creative juices?
Liz: Get out of the house. Oh gods, it’s terrifying, especially if you’re on a deadline but get out of the house.
Go walk in a park or just take time to breathe. Schedule it in, if you have to.
Leave your technology behind and go do other stuff.
For me, right now, it’s playing with inks and stamps in my art journals. My husband recently watched me and said that he likes the way I just ‘go away’ and look happy when I’m crafting.
Other stuff I do to get creative juices flowing: movies! And I read non-fiction. A lot. I’d occasionally pop online and beg people for recs. I’ll read anything basically.
Rachel: Let’s talk telly! Are you watching any good shows at the moment? What would you recommend we check out?
Liz: I’m currently LOVING The Team. It is such an interesting show with a cast from all over Europe. I’m also watching Bordertown on Netflix. I was desperate to love Finn Jones in Iron Fist but found myself being meh about it.
I recently finished the second season of Marco Polo and am sad it’s not being renewed. I’m loving the series Taken on Amazon too – it’s sort of the prequel to the Taken movies starring Liam Neeson and it’s quite good.
And of course, there’s Riverdale on Netflix. I just love this show. It is interesting, diverse and the showrunners are having so much fun with these characters.
Rachel: If you could take any three people to dinner, living or dead, who would you take and why?
Liz: I always say Alexander the Great. I have been obsessed with him for almost all my life. Homer. Just, the Illiad, man. I want to shake him/her and just shout about Achilles, basically. And I’d like to meet Dr. John Dee and ask him about his experiments and why things went so badly wrong.
Rachel: You’re headed to a desert island – what three items do you take and why?
Liz: The Illiad. See above. *sobs over Achilles*
Water purifying tablets – unlimited supply. I don’t mind not having food but I refuse to go without decent water.
My husband, Mark – he’s a good hunter/gatherer and can deal with killing things better than I can.
So as you can see, Liz is a delightful person as well as a fantastic writer! Go check out her books on Amazon, and stop by her Instagram which is just bursting with joy and creativity. Don’t forget to say hello to Liz on Twitter.