Sarah Raughley shares her writing tips and tells us what makes Fate of Flames, the first book in her new ‘Effigies’ series, so special.
Give us the elevator pitch for the first book in your new Effigies series, ‘Fate of Flames’!
FATE OF FLAMES is Sailor Moon meets Pacific Rim. A kick ass girl squad with magic powers saving the world from huge monsters.
You’ve put such a unique twist on the YA heroine trope by turning the ‘chosen ones’ into glorified celebrities. Where did the initial spark of your story stem from?
I think I was looking at certain stories featuring magically-empowered kids and monsters, and noticed that these characters typically operate under secrecy. There’s always a big deal made about having a secret identity, about making sure that regular people never find out about the monsters and heroes fighting always just out of sight. But what if the whole world already knew about the monsters? Then there wouldn’t be any point of hiding everything else. So it was really about me wondering, what if the Sailor Scouts were in the public eye and had to deal with today’s social media and fandom culture? That opened up a lot of fun possibilities for storytelling.
What do you usually start with when creating a story: characters, plot, or worldbuilding?
I start with a premise, which always has to have a bit of everything. So for FATE OF FLAMES it was, what if there were girls who fought giant monsters in the public eye? That’s a little bit of plot, character and worldbuilding. Then I spread out from there, building on all the elements at the same time. I don’t think I can only think about character, then plot, then worldbuilding etc. It all comes at the same time. They shape and inform each other. I might think of a worldbuilding idea that would cause me to go back and add or subtract a character or tweak the plot. It’s a very symbiotic process.
Here at Hypable, we’re huge ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ fans, so I have to ask: were you at all inspired by either of these shows?
I’ve definitely watched both and I love both series! But to be honest, the concept of girl warriors saving the world from evil, and even the concept of having people with elemental powers is something you see a lot in fantasy, from books, to comics to TV to anime and J-RPGs. So I think I was more inspired by this general SFF fantasy cultural landscape, including those series.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.
I’ve been writing since I was probably three years old and my first stories were about, you guessed it, little girls with magic powers (mostly because I wanted to be one). I’ve been writing stories and drawing comics (back when I used to draw more) for years. It wasn’t until ten or so years ago that I started to think seriously about getting published. So I did all my research on the industry and finally started querying in 2010. It took me about six months to get an agent, but the book I queried didn’t sell, even after multiple re-writes and close calls. It was really hard to come so close while still being so far, but what they say is true: don’t give up. Just keep at it. I’m glad I did!
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you first sat down to write your novel?
At the time, I was writing FATE OF FLAMES just for myself because with everybody in the industry talking about trends and the sort of things that would never sell, I didn’t have high hopes for a book that seemed to fit into the ‘this will never sell’ category. If I’d known that one day people would actually read and like the book, then I could have cheered myself up a bit more. Then again, it’s fun writing just for yourself. You’re a lot freer when you’re not thinking about what the industry wants or doesn’t want.
What has surprised you about writing and publishing?
Publishing is very stop, stop and go. You might go weeks without hearing something, then suddenly you have all this stuff you have to do at once. But I think it keeps you on your toes! It takes a lot of effort to publish a book from so many different people. I’m really thankful to my S&S team.
Does research play a role in your creative process?
Yes, definitely. Everything from mythology to biology to tech. You take what you need and what will serve your story. You do a lot of that before you start writing, but also while you’re writing too
Where is your favorite place to write?
I love writing in the quiet of my room, but I also like to move around a lot. Coffee shops, library, school, wherever. I think I get antsy if I stay in one place too long.
I read on your website that you’re currently completing your PhD. (Congrats!!!) What is it like working on your PhD while also working on your series?
Thank you! I can’t stress how hard it is to write novels and a thesis at the same time. There are some similarities to creative and academic writing (organizational skills, clarity, etc.) and I do think that writing both helped me become a stronger writer all around. But it’s kind of a shift, talking about post-colonialism and then boom you’re writing a kick ass fight scene lol. It definitely requires a shift in thinking. But overall, I think it was a great experience. It helped me realize what I was capable of and that’s always a big confidence boost!
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Not everyone will love your work. You write for those who will. Always strive to improve yourself, but don’t beat yourself up over every person who decides that your writing isn’t for them. Keep writing—write what you love, because you love it!
Who was your favorite character to write for in ‘Fate of Flames’?
I think Chae Rin is a lot of fun because she has no filter. She’s quick and brutal, and says what a lot of people are afraid to. That kind of character is always great to have on the squad.
How are you most like your main character? How are you most different?
I think we both have big hearts, but fight through insecurities. Maia can be very hesitant when it comes to thinking of herself as a hero. I think a lot of people go through that as well; it’s about accepting your weaknesses, but never giving up no matter what.
What is your approach to writing heroes versus writing villains?
I don’t really have any kind of specific method for writing either heroes or villains. They’re all just characters who make choices. So you have to understand why they’re making their choices. Who are they? What makes them who they are? What are their strengths, weaknesses? And then just put them in a room together and see what happens.
What kinds of stories do you feel most drawn to?
I’m a huge geek so big epic fantasy stories with big casts are really my thing. I’ve loved them ever since I was a kid. Whether they’re TV shows, books, anime, J-RPGs etc., I just love stories with big stakes, lots of awesome fights, great, complicated characters and immersive worlds. That was definitely my inspiration for my series.
Your first book, ‘Feather Bound’ was a standalone. How does your approach have to differ when writing a series versus when writing a standalone?
FEATHER BOUND is a much different story with darker themes and when I wrote the story, everything needed to be wrapped up at the end of the novel. It’s a more personal and intimate story that deals with more mature conflicts. FATE OF FLAMES is on a more epic scale spread over three books. There’s a lot I have to keep track of while writing the whole series because there are a lot of characters and a bigger, more complicated world. Not to mention I always have to make sure I’m clear on when I’m going to reveal what. While writing FOF, I had to pay special attention to all those aspects about the world, the mysteries, the plot and the characters that I couldn’t reveal until the later books. And there are more characters with different motivations I have to keep track of.
You wrote a very powerful blog in June about owning your space as a woman of color. What do you think are the most important issues surrounding diversity in the media and young adult literature today?
Whenever I hear stories about white washing, it crushes me because I remember how hard it was for me growing up. It took me until I was 14 or 15 to realize that women of color like me could be heroes too. And really, that’s what happens when the vast majority of stories told in TV, books etc. tell you the opposite. To me, diversity matters, but it’s not just throwing one in your story. It’s making them real, fleshed out characters and protagonists that drive and give life to the story. Diversity is important on the page and on the screen, but it’s important behind the scenes as well. We need to properly reflect the world we live in and give opportunities to people who have been silenced and marginalized for so long. Because we have stories worth telling. And stories are power.
What are some of your favorite YA reads and/or authors that you’d like to share with us?
There have been a few books that really resonate with me with how well they’re able to weave a modern, YA sensibility into fantasy and Sci-Fi. I love Marissa Meyer’s THE LUNAR CHRONCLES and Leigh Bardugo’s GRISHA TRILOGY. I loved Cindy Pon’s SERPENTINE series and Marie Lu’s THE YOUNG ELITES. I would also recommend Nnedi Okorafor’s ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER and AKATA WITCH—beautifully written stories that feature African heroines!
Finally: what makes you passionate about the Effigies’ story?
Everything else aside, it’s just really fun. It’s a fun adventure and it’s absolutely the kind of thing my geeky self would have loved as a kid. Who doesn’t love fun and danger?
About ‘Fate of Flames’
Four girls with the power to control the elements and save the world from a terrible evil must come together in the first epic novel in a brand-new series.
When Phantoms — massive beasts made from nightmares and darkness—suddenly appeared and began terrorizing the world, four girls, the Effigies, each gained a unique power to control one of the classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Since then, four girls across the world have continually fought against the Phantoms, fulfilling their cosmic duty. And when one Effigy dies, another girl gains her power as a replacement.
But now, with technologies in place to protect the world’s major cities from Phantom attacks, the Effigies have stopped defending humanity and, instead, have become international celebrities, with their heroic feats ranked, televised, and talked about in online fandoms.
Until the day that New York City’s protection against the Phantoms fails, a man seems to be able to control them by sheer force of will, and Maia, a high school student, unexpectedly becomes the Fire Effigy.
Now Maia has been thrown into battle with three girls who want nothing to do with one another. But with the first human villain that the girls have ever faced, and an army of Phantoms preparing for attack, there isn’t much time for the Effigies to learn how to work together.
Can the girls take control of their destinies before the world is destroyed forever?