How do you write villains who are more than just moustache-twirling cut-outs? How do you write heroes with real flaws? In today's interview, Sacha Black gives tips on these writing issues and more.
In the intro, Streetlib launches African stores and an international store for indigenous languages [The New Publishing Standard], Draft2Digital now publishes to Google Play (beta), PublishDrive announces enhanced Amazon Ads; Reedsy announces Reedsy Discovery, a new way for indie books to be discovered through email marketing and curated lists.
Today's show is sponsored by PublishDrive, a global self-publishing platform distributing to 400+ stores and 240,000 libraries, with innovative marketing tools like integrated Amazon Ads. The writing process is hard enough, so the publishing and marketing process should be easier. PublishDrive helps authors write more, publish more, sell more and worry less. Go to www.PublishDrive.com to learn more.
Sacha Black is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including 13 Steps to Evil and 10 Steps to Hero on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.
You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The journey from blogging to writing flash fiction to full-length novels
- Why all stories need a good villain, even romances
- How villains are part of the theme of a novel
- How to write a hero who is not one-dimensional
- On the benefits of creating workbooks to go with non-fiction
You can find Sacha Black at SachaBlack.co.uk and on Twitter @sacha_black
Transcript of Interview with Sacha Black
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm here with Sacha Black. Hi, Sacha.
Sacha: Hi, Joanna. Thank you so much for having me.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Sacha is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including '13 Steps to Evil' and '10 Steps to Hero' on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.
Sacha, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
Sacha: I think if I'd been slightly more self-aware, I probably would have started writing slightly younger. But I always read as a kid, I kind of had to change libraries because I literally devoured entire kids sections and sort of similarly I wrote stories as well.
But I also grew up knowing I had to get a proper job. So, instead of going to university and doing creative writing or whatever, I went and did psychology.
And after that, I ended up in a fast track management scheme. So kind of corporate hellmare as I like to call it. I became more and more stifled and I needed an outlet. So I created a pen name, which is where Sacha Black comes from and I started ranting on a blog. Literally, that's what I was doing.
The blogging community is so wonderful and I met lots of people and I discovered flash fiction. That led one thing to another and I dug out my old sort of notebooks and my first young adult fantasy book genuinely is a character that I created when I was nine years old.
Sacha: She's been with me for a very long time. And then I started writing up lessons that I learned because I'm basically senile, so I needed somewhere to put these sort of writing craft lectures that I'd learned and lessons. And a few of them, particularly on villains, well, they didn't go viral, but I saw an awful lot of traffic very quickly.
I did a bit of investigating, I looked on Amazon, I discovered there were very few books on villains. And so I figured there was a market there and that is basically history. It just sort of spiraled from there.
Joanna: That's really cool. We're going to come back to the blogging.
The development from flash fiction into a full YA novel, that's quite a leap, isn't it? Because for people who don't know flash fiction, it's 500 words, 1000 words. I know that's a leap that a lot of people want to make.
How did you make that leap from writing flash and writing non-fiction blog posts to full YA?
Sacha: It was less a leap, more a snail's crawl to writing the book. I did a very typical thing of somebody who is afraid to start writing. And for an entire year I plotted, I looked at visual things, I wrote notes, I changed my plot.
This was the year that I was pregnant and when my son was born, I knew I had to be the person that followed their dreams because that's the role model that I wanted to be then.
So I heard about NaNo and I just said a rude word and just went for it. I took the notes and decided that I had to start or I was never going to start. And the NaNo WriMo Challenge, for anybody that doesn't know, is 50,000 words in a month. And I figured it was as good of a challenge with accountability, sort of, you've got these public sort of forums and word counts. And I didn't look back.
Joanna: How many words did you do in that NaNo?
Sacha: Fifty-two thousand or 57,000. I threw the entire thing away.
Joanna: What did it give you then?
Sacha: The habit. It gave me the habit of writing. And that was all it took really. I drove my wife insane because she couldn't stand the tapping for the entire month. She's used to it now. But so after the month, I got the habit.
It was an itch I had to keep scratching, I had to keep creating. And the non-fiction blogs just weren't enough anymore. I wanted to do both.
So I wrote another entire draft, which I also binned. And after that, I changed my process and I decided that I was going to get feedback after every single chapter so that I didn't make plot mistakes going through.
I intensively studied the craft, and that draft, that third draft did go to a publication. So I think in total, I wrote 270,000 words of my first book, which ended up at about 64 or something.
Joanna: Well, that's interesting. There are a few things there.
My first NaNo, which is how I got started, I did like around 20,000 words. And around 5000 of that made it into the book. But also, I think it's interesting because a lot of us feel like the third novel is where you start to kind of understand things. So you just did it all in. You did it all in one, which is hilarious.
And the other thing you're saying there, my husband also says like when there's the tap, tap, tapping sound, he's like, ‘Oh, that's the sound of my wife.' Which is quite funny.
But okay, let's get into the books and give some people some tips. And I do think your psychology stuff obviously comes into the books. So let's talk about villains.
Why do all stories need a good villain even if we're writing a happy, happy rainbows, unicorns, romance?
Sacha: I think it's universally accepted that stories are about change. Whether it's your hero that's changing through a character arc or if it's the world, kind of dystopian novel, that's crumbling, the story is about change.
But another word for change is conflict. And I may get a bit science-y here. But I think that Darwin was absolutely correct in that it is about survival of the fittest, and that applies to our characters as well.
So you only really change when you are pushed to your absolute limits. That is when you're out of your comfort zone and you have to basically adapt or die, as Darwin would say.
And your villain, in whatever guise that may be, is generally the source of that conflict. Obviously, you have different types of villains, whether it be an antagonist or in a conflict or whatever, in a literary novel.
But, broadly speaking, your villain is the source of that conflict. They put obstacles in the way of your hero, and they force your hero to make do or die decisions. And that is why you need a villain. So it doesn't matter which genre you're in, the thing that they all have in common is that the villains are the source of conflict.
Joanna: And if we don't have conflict, it's just happy people in happy land, which I think James Scott Bell said that, and it always makes me laugh, it's like, that's not a story, that's just boring.
Sacha: Nobody cares. Where's the freak, where's the drama?
Joanna: When is the conflict? Which is exactly right. So how do then we construct a good villain with depth that is not cliché, but it's also good enough?
I was reading some of my diaries and I found a thing about one of the Bond films. It was, why was this not a good Bond film? I can't remember which one it was. And it was like the villain wasn't good enough, I wasn't scared. There wasn't enough of a threat. In a good Bond film, there has to be a big threat.
How do we construct a good villain with depth?
Sacha: I think the key to a good villain is a villain who is both credible and believable. And there's a few different things and sort of tactics and plot devices that you can use in order to create that credibility and believability.
The most obvious one that I think everybody would know is for your villain, as well as your hero, to have a very, very solid motive. Everybody, I don't care who you are, even if you are a serial killer, has a reason why they do things. It is Psychology 101, it's human nature.
Even in horror films like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,' Freddy Krueger even has a reason why he wants revenge. He was locked in a burning building. So that's number one.
Number two would be morals and values. So having a moral or a value, even when you're a villain, gives them a valid reason. It justifies their behavior, it justifies their why. I always think that is sort of the second stage of having a motive.
The third one that I would say is for your villain to have something in their past, whether it be a wound or a scar, or something emotionally wounding or emotion, that has created an emotional scar in their psychology that is driving their behavior because that's connected into the motive. I've lost count.
Possibly number four would be there's that really cheesy phrase, ‘Even villains have mummies' but it's actually really true. And I think if you give your villain a redeeming quality, or alternatively, if you don't sort of want to give them a redeeming quality, you can give them something to love, that humanizes them and that that sort of humanity makes them more relatable and that's how you get them to connect with the reader.
A couple of examples, even Voldemort, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter had his pet snake, Nagini. So, even your ‘everybody must die' type villains have that sort of humanity in them.
Joanna: And it's really interesting, what you brought to mind when you said, ‘Even villains have mummies,' you brought to mind ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin', which would be classed as a literary novel.
It's about a kid who kills people at his school, but it's his mother, you feel empathetic towards him where he's really the villain and it's her story, but it's one of those complicated things. You have to be able to make your villain empathetic in some way.
Another question, do any villains really believe they are the baddies?
Sacha: Oh, no, absolutely not. And that's the reason for having values is that having a value gives them this unfaltering logic to sort of their crazy, I call it, that reason, that big campaign, the thing that they're trying to destroy or whatever.
Having a value in their mind will justify their actions. And there's a great example of that President Snow from ‘The Hunger Games.' He has this rule that he tells Katniss that, ‘I only ever kill for a purpose.'
That's a value and that justifies his behavior. He believes what he's doing. He kills, yes, but he only kills for a reason. And that automatically makes you, as a reader, invest in what they're saying.
Joanna: I just started writing another novel this morning as we talk, which is kind of hilarious, and my baddies want to take our land back. And it's interesting because borders are this area where everyone thinks they're in the right. ‘Whose land is it anyway?' type of question.
This type of thing always comes up for me, who is the villain in these type of stories? And then this kind of plays into the idea of theme.
How do we construct a good villain that also plays into the theme of the story or how do we even strengthen theme with villains?
Sacha: I can't think of the word, but it's a distraction sometimes thinking about hero, villain, and theme. I think all characters play into theme. And I think it seems this weird concept that loads of writers panic about and worry about.
Not everybody knows what their theme is when you first start writing. Some people don't know until the final draft.
But if you have a character arc, and if you have change, I can guarantee you, you have a theme buried in there somewhere. So I personally like to think about theme in terms of a psychological theory.
So there's somebody called Gestalt…I forget the year, 1950 something or other. And it's a psychological theory that basically says, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Now, I liken that to a novel and similarly to a spider's web.
I think all novels are spider's webs and I call it something called the web of connectivity. Each thread in a spider's web is its own unique thread. But when you step back and you look at the whole of the threads, it's more than just a series of threads. It's an entire web, or in our case, an entire novel.
And that stands for things like plots, plot twists, characters, subplots, and so on and so forth. So how does that connect to the villain? If you want to strengthen your theme, I put all of my characters on a continuum.
So if you have the full embodiment of your theme, that is your hero. If you want the full embodiment of the antithesis, the opposite of your theme, that is your villain. But to strengthen that, you should look at every single character and how they reflect the theme.
So leading on with the Katniss and ‘The Hunger Games' example, Katniss embodies the theme of sacrifice. President Spow embodies the theme of sacrificing everybody else for his own good. And that plays out by him obviously sacrificing tributes, these kids who have to go and fight each other, and so on, so forth.
The other characters like Peeta and Rue are all variations on sacrifice. Even Haymitch, who's sort of this antihero mentor character, he is sort of the reluctant sacrificer. But he does, he comes around in the end and he gives medicine and things to Katniss during the games.
So as well as looking at the villain as embodying and all of his actions being the anti-side to your theme, look at the other characters too and how you can reflect theme in their actions and what question are they answering about the theme? How can they embody different variations, different points on the continuum?
Joanna: It's a really good point and I'm a bit more of a writing into the dark type of person. My ‘Map Walker' series, the theme is borders and maps and where the lines are between us as people and all that.
But it's interesting when you say that and I think maybe we naturally as we're readers, we construct these things. So, if people who're listening going, ‘Wow, that's quite reductionist,' well, you can do it either way. You can kind of reverse-engineer later or you can work through a workbook like yours, which we're going to come back to in a minute.
Let's talk about heroes because I actually find villains super easy. I really enjoy writing my bad people and I just don't struggle at all to find empathy with my villains.
But I do struggle with my heroes. I feel that I struggle much more with that and they're almost me, generally they are almost me, my main characters. And so maybe that's why it's a problem.
How do we construct a hero who is not just cardboard cutouts?
Sacha: So I talk about something called the hero lens, which is essentially the concept that everything your reader experiences should be funneled through your hero. They shouldn't come into contact with anything that isn't relevant to what your hero is directly experiencing.
And that is categorized for me into four different things; actions, thoughts, feelings, dialogue. The rest of the story, obviously describing things is really important. You need to locate your reader, you need to put them in time and space. But so what? Your reader doesn't really care. All that does is create a picture in their head.
If you want to make your reader care, your reader wants to know what does your hero feel, what do they think about the fact that it's called ‘On the Train' and the train's in disrepair or whatever? That's a terrible example. But you know what I mean.
When you share that inner psyche and that inner viewpoint with the reader, that's what makes your hero relatable and that's what helps your reader to connect with your hero. So let me ask you a question. This is a bit random and I always use this question. I've said this so many times, but is turquoise more blue or more green?
Joanna: Blue. Absolutely. I took off my turquoise jumper.
Sacha: Okay. But I guarantee that half of the people listening to this would have said green. And that's what makes your hero unique.
It's not motives or traits. Everybody has a motive. Everybody has a trait.
What's unique about your hero and what makes your reader fall in love with your hero is their particular perspective, your hero's rose-tinted glasses. How does your hero's thoughts, feelings, and actions impact how they view their surroundings?
I draw that down to saying, if you want to imbue that in your story, think about how your hero's viewpoints affect your sentences at sentence level. If your hero is angry you have to use shorter, sharper words. If your hero is depressed, make your sentences longer, like flow them more melancholy. So that's one thing.
Second thing, layer conflict, really important. To me, there's kind of three different types of conflict. Inner conflict, which is your great example of this, Ned Stark. I don't if you're a ‘Game of Thrones' fan. I love ‘Game of Thrones.'
Joanna: Of course. No spoilers.
Sacha: No. Ned Stark is completely out of context, a character. And George Martin does this quite a lot with his characters, he pits their values against each other and makes them butt against each other and have to make really difficult decisions.
A difficult decision very early on for Ned Stark is he values loyalty, but he also is very intelligent and has a lot of foresight. His decision is, he's been asked to go and help the king, if he goes and helps the king, he's pretty sure he's probably not going to come back.
And that creates this inner conflict. Does he go and help the king, which he should because he's his friend and wants to? But if he does, he kind of knows it might be his end. So that creates inner conflict.
Second layer of conflict is sort of your micro-conflict, characters fighting against each other, hero-villain, blah, blah, blah.
And then your third layer of conflict is macro. So society, world, war. And you can lay these levels of conflict. And that helps to create barriers and problems for your hero to fight against.
And the very last point is the bravery myth. I think lots of writers think that the way you get your readers to connect is to make your hero brave. Well, I would beg to differ. Not everybody can be brave.
So it just takes a bit of balls, can I say that, guts. But it's the hero who sacrifices something that really shines. And usually the sacrifice has to be something that's important. The more important the sacrifice, the more valuable and the more engaged your readers become, especially, typically, it's something about themselves that they have to give up or sacrifice. So, those are probably the three things that I would say are most beneficial for your hero.
Joanna: Bringing up ‘Game of Thrones,' and as we speak, the final series is not yet out, which is like oh, my goodness. But I read the first couple of books, and then I went off the books.
But the TV series is masterful in conflict. And also I think, as you're saying with heroes and villains, half the time, you don't know who is a hero and who is a villain. And that's clever. That's super, super clever. And all these different layers of conflict also.
Even if you don't like fantasy, you can watch ‘Game of Thrones' and understand this idea of conflict on every page, it's just incredible.
Let's talk about some of your publishing because I'm very interested. Obviously I have workbooks from my books, you have these workbook edditions for your hero and your villain books.
Why did you want to do workbooks? Is it worth it for multiple streams of income? Any tips for other people on workbooks?
Sacha: Okay, so completely honest, why should I do them? Because you do. No, okay, that was one of the reasons.
The other reason is because I do actually use them. K.M. Weiland has some workbooks too and I used hers. And I actually really enjoyed them. I found them more useful sometimes than the textbook.
So it was a combination of seeing the value that you'd promoted of having them.
And lastly, because it makes good business sense. Now, I actually went and checked what my sales were yesterday because I knew this question was coming.
I have digital workbooks. I have e-books, I have paperbacks, and I also have box sets. So I digitally box-setted the pair and I will pay for backup, it's just slotted into production schedules.
Each one of those is earning me between 6% and 10% on top of every textbook sales. So every 1 in 10 will also buy a workbook or instead they'll buy the box set.
Now that might not seem like very much, but when you have 6 or 12 or 20 of these workbooks, all of these little 6%, all of these 10%, suddenly you are making a lot of money.
And the other thing is that it takes the pressure off having to have one book that is this golden egg that earns you all the money.
It's a much easier business strategy to have lots and lots of different products. So that was one of the main reasons for doing it.
In terms of tips, there are lots of different ways you can make up a workbook. I generally do summaries of my core textbook chapters that give enough information that they're comprehensive without giving all of the information from the textbook for obvious reasons.
And when I am writing the textbook, I actually note down questions at the same time, which is silly, because essentially, I'm writing two books at once.
But it also means that when I finish the textbook, it only takes me a day to mock up the workbook. So I would say that that is probably the first thing, write the questions as you go, because the question should hopefully come to mind.
Vellum for formatting, it is hard to get Vellum to leave your spaces. So if you can't get Vellum, then pay somebody to format it because obviously, workbooks, you do need space for people to write their answers.
And, do digital versions because I was skeptical of doing them at first because I thought, well, everybody will want a workbook so they can write the answers in it.
But actually, that's not the case. I am earning just as much, if not more, from my digital workbooks than I am from the paperbacks. How I use my own workbooks from other authors in that I don't write in them. I preserve them so that I can use them again and again.
So having a digital version is essentially the same. Instead of having a paperback, you reuse the same e-book. So, do digital versions definitely.
Joanna: Oh, well, see, I haven't done digital versions of my workbooks.
Sacha: You're missing out.
Joanna: Because as you say, why wouldn't you just get the book? I include all the questions in the main book. So if people want to kind of write them in their journals or whatever, they can do that. But it's interesting.
I have been using an iPad a lot more. I'm using an app called iAnnotate on PDFs. So I wonder that's another way, isn't it? You could basically open up the workbook on more of a tablet and kind of fill it in and a lot of people have stylists now, I guess. So, good tip. Good tip there. That's fantastic.
Oh, and what size are you doing? Six by nine?
Sacha: Yes, I think so. Yeah. Slightly bigger so they have more space to write.
Joanna: Exactly. I also wanted to ask you, because you have two non-fiction books and the workbook editions, obviously, you have two novels, you've got a blog, so you're not newbie, you're not just starting out, you know what you're doing but you're not someone who's super famous for making seven figures a year. Which let's face it, I'm not either.
Any thoughts for people who were where you are? Which is, you know what you're doing but you feel perhaps that you have somewhere to go at the moment.
Sacha: Absolutely. I am not writing full time. I definitely have somewhere to go. And I love this question because it made me stop and reflect.
Technically, I've only been published for 17 months. I haven't even been published for two years. So when I thought about that, I was like, ‘Wow, it's been a long 17 months'. I can't believe how much I've done. Every day I moan that I haven't done enough.
What are the lessons that I've learned? First of all, everybody's situation is different. I have never come across two authors who have got to full time by doing it the same way. So the first one is to find your own way, find your own method.
Second lesson I've learned is to get your finances in order. I think it's Elizabeth Gilbert who says, ‘You don't want your love for creating to have to pay your bills.' And in giving you that pressure. So, clear off debt, make sure you have a nest egg, that would be number two.
Number three would be to negotiate a slow reduction. I've been listening to ‘The 4-Hour Workweek' audiobook and something clicked recently in that lots of people think that their employers aren't very flexible but actually, have you are asked? Have you have you actually asked?
Because I bet you they are more flexible than you think they are. So asking and negotiating for flexible working and reducing your hours slowly I think is really positive.
That said, I'm a complete hypocrite because everything that I've reduced up until now is play money, it was just sort of saving money that I would have saved and instead I took the time to write.
Recently, I've taken on a lot of freelance work. I've got a lot more projects going and I cannot do the hours that I'm doing in my day job if I want to take this seriously. I stalled and I couldn't reduce my hours anymore.
Anyway, I've done it but sometimes you have to be brave and take the risk, otherwise, you're going to stay in the same place and I do not want to stay in the same place.
Network, it's invaluable. And don't be afraid to ask. I have met so many authors who are just so kind and so willing to help. And I was so afraid to talk to anybody at that first London Book Fair and everybody's lovely, and the opportunities that come out of networking are ample. So I would say definitely, network.
In terms of marketing, pay to play, unfortunately. And as much as I find it difficult and grueling to do slow burn ads, I try to do a mixture of daily AMS ads, a few sprinkled with a few CPM ads, as well as trying to do some spike marketing as well. And I think that gives me quite a good mix and is building kind of both my readership and my sales slowly, and I'm happy with that because it makes it stable.
Oh, last one, Jack Canfield, who I read because of you, thank you. Oh, my gosh, it was amazing. I have signed a contract to myself with a leaving date that I publicly tell people a lot because it makes me get accountable for it. And I keep it in my wallet. And I think every single time I go to buy a coffee I see that note and it reminds me to keep fighting every day.
Joanna: That's fantastic. And that book is ‘The Success Principles' by Jack Canfield, which I listened to, or read over 10 years ago when I was looking at leaving. And I also had the bit of paper in my wallet which said, ‘I am creative, I am an author,' a long time before I was creative or an author. So these things work. And also I went to four days a week, that's what I did.
Also, the dialing down and we downsized and sold everything. And so all of this stuff is exactly right. And I'm glad you got a date.
Joanna: Let's circle back to blogging because, of course, you mentioned a whole load of marketing stuff then, but you didn't mention blogging. I'm starting a new blog, a new podcast. So I'm still a massive believer in content marketing.
But you also helped me with Instagram, which you also didn't mention.
Any thoughts on blogging or Instagram and/or Instagram for marketing or brand building?
Sacha: My blog is very much for my non-fiction audience. I haven't quite worked out how to do the blogging thing for my fantasy stuff. But actually, that's what I'm using Instagram for.
My blog has garnered me basically all of my subscribers for my non-fiction. It's how I created an audience. And I feel terrible but I kind of did it by accident. Of all of the things I've done, that was the least intentional.
But it's a great way because non-fiction is about solving problems and I blogged my lessons which were essentially solving fiction writing problems. And I shared them on Pinterest and different social media channels and that's how I gained a non-fiction audience.
On Instagram, I started for a really shallow reason. I'm really visual and the book pictures are so pretty and I really liked them. And I wanted book pictures of my books to look like that. Yeah, so that's how it started.
I find Instagram amazing because one of the biggest problems for fiction writers is visibility. But Instagram has this ginormous bookstagram community. And they're all whale readers, they're all reading like 100 books a year. Who can read 100 books a year? These people do.
And this visibility problem is a problem because you don't know how to find them. But on Instagram, all you have to do is go in and search by hashtag, #YAFantasy or whatever.
And all of a sudden there's 400,000 people who are fantasy readers and they're all engaged. And Instagram has all of these quirky ways of being able to interact with people and your stories. You can ask questions, you can play some music, you can insert polls.
I found that readers are really, really engaged. I get responses, I get answers, and I have genuinely sold books because of Instagram because people find the pictures, they find your stories, and I guess a bit like your podcast, people start to get to know your voice, then they get to know your style on your stories, and they buy into you. So yeah, I love Instagram.
Joanna: You definitely helped me get into it and I love it too now. And it's funny because I feel like it's a much more personal channel. I feel like you get to share some personal things. And I'm @JFPennAuthor. Who are you on Instagram?
Sacha: I'm @SachaBlackAuthor, but Sacha with a C rather than two Ss.
Joanna: I'll put these links in the show notes and Sacha took some lovely pictures of my books, which I put on my channel and your channel as well, right? So very, very cool. Okay, so we are out of time. Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Sacha: My website is www.sachablack.co.uk. So that was Sacha with a C. All my books are on all of the stores. I'm a wide author and Facebook and Instagram are both @SachaBlackAuthor. So.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Sacha. That was great.
Sacha: Thank you for having me.
This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn