10 Things I’ve Learned About Writing in the Past 10 Years


I’ve been writing all my life, but it wasn’t until ten years ago that I got serious about it. And I didn’t want to be a hobby-writer, either. I wanted to be a real-life, full-time professional who spends his time writing, editing, marketing, and well … doing it all – because that’s what writers do these days.

The road was long and winding, but in 2012, I finally got published. Since then, I’ve written several novels on my own as well as with bestselling author, Tamara Thorne.

And Tamara and I didn’t stop there. We also began the radio show, Thorne & Cross: Haunted Nights LIVE!, and, more recently, Thorne & Cross: Carnival Macabre, where we interview authors, paranormal investigators, forensics experts, and anyone else who likes frolicking in the darkness with us. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some amazing people, and in the decade since I plunged myself into the strange world of creative enterprise, I’ve learned some things about writers, readers, the craft, and the business.

Some of these lessons were learned first hand and some of them through the wisdom of others, but all of them have proved profoundly valuable to me. The list that follows comes from my experience in the writing world, and I hope some of it may be useful to other writers … and interesting for readers.

1. Reading is the single most important thing to do if you want to improve your craft. Read everything … and read it with an active eye, taking in plot devices, pacing, theme, voice, dialogue, and character development. Reading trains the unconscious mind to find its own writing rhythm and gives you an “ear” for storytelling. So read. Not a little, but a lot. As Stephen King famously says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

2. There’s no such thing as ‘just a writer’ anymore. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when publishers spent copious amounts of time and money getting the word out about your new book. You’re not just an author anymore. You’re also a marketer, a public relations specialist, a social media virtuoso, and a business manager, among other things. Make peace with that, keeping in mind that no one will work as hard for you as you will. They never have and they never will. So be accountable for your career.

3. The cream rises to the top. In an age of do-it-yourself digital delirium, everyone’s an author. It’s easy to look at the bottomless pit of other writers and wonder how the hell anyone is going to find your work. But look closer and you’ll see how many of those authors fall off the map, disenchanted when their dreams of instant fame and fortune are promptly torn to pieces. Not to mention the profusion of books out there that simply aren’t any good. Readers are smart people and they know the difference between a good story and a poor one. They don’t come back to authors who write bad books. Keep writing damned good books and, like the proverbial cream, you’ll rise to the top.

4. Have heroes. Learn from the best. Once you’ve established what kind of writer you want to be, keep a close eye on those authors who inspire you. Study their work, learn from them. Stalk them on Twitter. But don’t get too stalkery. No one likes a creepster.

5. Set goals. Whether it’s a page amount, a word amount, or a paragraph amount, set daily goals. Don’t settle for the “when I get around to it” approach to writing. No one ever “gets around to it.”

6. Know the difference between a hobby and a job. If you want writing to be your job, you have to treat it like a job or no one else will. That means you set hours. The phone is off. The door is shut. You’re not readily accessible. If you don’t spend your time wisely, other people will happily spend it for you, so unless writing is a mere pastime for you, don’t let other people spend your time.

7.   Go big or go home. Don’t think you can only write for small markets, or that a high-powered literary agent won’t be interested, or that a big-name author is going to look down his or her nose at you. Know your worth and aim for the stars.

8. Walk through every door that opens. And if you keep at it, people will open doors for you. But getting through the door is the easy part. It’s up to you to earn your place in the room.

9. Never read your reviews. For better or worse, reviews are necessary, but they’re designed with other readers in mind – not the author. If you’re looking for a critique, get it from your agent, your editor, your publisher, another author, or an objective friend … anywhere but from the reviews section of the book retailer. Reading reviews – whether they be glowing or insulting – isn’t really doing you any favors.

10. Trust your characters. Some writers will say that you must keep your characters on a short leash and remain in full command of them at all times lest they sully your painstakingly-plotted story with their whimsical meanderings. But here’s the thing: Those seemingly frivolous departures from your plans are where the characters come to life. And when the characters come to life, that’s when the magic happens. I say let your characters go where they want, let them say what they want … let them tell you their story. Let yourself be as delighted and surprised by them as your readers will be.

The Art of Blaming the Industry


In 2010, I completed my first novel and the rush it gave me was of greater magnitude than anything else I’d ever experienced. After years of trying, I had finally done it: I had written my very first book. I was elated, bubbling with pride, and eager to get it out into the world where everyone could appreciate all my hard work. Everything was going swimmingly. That is, until I started submitting it to agents and publishers. Suffice it to say, this part of the process did not go as I’d planned.

After two years and nearly 200 hundred rejections, I gave up. Not on writing or my dream of being published, but I gave up on my theory that my book was a misunderstood masterpiece. I might have blamed any number of sources for my failure – poor judgment on the parts of the agents and publishers, lack of industry funds, the changing marketplace, etc. – but I was never comfortable putting that much of my fate into someone else’s hands. I admitted to myself that the problem might be me. So I pulled my manuscript out of circulation and gave it a long, hard, honest look. Lo and behold, I found some issues. Issues that, deep down inside, in a place I don’t like looking at, I suspected were there all along.

Taken from an interview in 2018

The characters needed to be amped up and more clearly defined. There were some loose threads that never really went anywhere. The scenery wasn’t clear. Yes, there were issues, but also, there was enough potential that I couldn’t just scrap the novel – even though I tried.

Fast forward to 2015. My collaborator, Tamara Thorne, and I had just gotten our haunted hotel novel, The Cliffhouse Haunting, published – and it was time to start the next project. We were all set, but there was something I had to do first. I had to re-work the manuscript I’d completed in 2010. So, I put many things on hold, dug my heels in, and refused to go forward on anything else until I gave my solo novel one more hard, honest rewrite.

What ended up happening was, again, not what I had planned. Rather than reworking the existing novel, I rewrote it entirely, keeping only the plot’s most skeletal basics – a few characters, and about three scenes I felt were strong enough to make the cut. I switched the point-of-view from first to third person, rearranged some plot points, and added new layers of texture to the characters and their relationships with each other. What I ended up with was an entirely different story – a better one that had no trouble seeing publication.

Its title is The Crimson Corset, and it was released in early August of 2015. Finally. Five years is a long time, especially in writer-speak. But in that time, I kept writing and managed to get a few other works published. More importantly, I developed, becoming a stronger writer with a keener eye, a sharper focus, and a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of good storytelling. The Crimson Corset went on to become a bestseller, earning praise from vampire-lit veteran Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Jay Bonansinga, New York Times author of The Walking Dead books …

But it came from humble beginnings and I won’t lie. It burns to realize your novel isn’t good enough. It’s disheartening, it’s aggravating, and because it’s your own hard work, it is personal, regardless of what they tell you. But there is a great mercy in the midst of this misfortune, and that is seeing how much you’ve improved with time. It wasn’t that my story wasn’t good enough – it’s that I simply wasn’t ready to tell it. I needed a little time, a little more experience, and only with those ingredients could I give full justice to the novel I was trying to write.

And I never resented having to rewrite this novel; I loved every minute of it – so much, in fact, that I’ve agreed to make it the first in a series: The Vampires of Crimson Cove (book 2, The Silver Dagger, is out now, and book 3, The Black Wasp, is coming this summer.)

I have never subscribed to the philosophy that creating art is a painful, grueling process. If I believed that, I don’t know that I would continue. If writing was as painful as some claim it is, I would simply do something else, something that didn’t hurt quite so much, something more suitable to my abilities. But the fact is, I love writing. Even rewriting. Sure it’s hard work, but when you write what you love, hard work is fun work. And the industry has nothing to do with it. A writer’s business is to write the kinds of books that readers want to read. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.

Behind the Book: Sleep Savannah Sleep


One night, days after finishing my novel Dream Reaper, I was in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what to write next. I considered going back to the Crimson Cove series but I felt like there was a different story in me trying to get out. The trouble was, I didn’t know anything about it yet – I literally had no other ideas – so I started asking questions. 

I’ve always believed it’s the writer’s obligation to push their main character as hard as they can – that just when the protagonist might crack under the pressures of their dilemma, it’s time to give them one more problem – so the question I asked myself that night as I sought my next idea was this: What’s the worst thing I could possibly do to my main character in this book? 

It took some thinking, but a short time later, I finally had it: the absolute worst crisis possible (which I can’t say anything about without spoiling the book.) Suffice it to say that even now, I can’t imagine anything more awful than what Jason, my main character, goes through in this book. Anyway, once I had that, I worked backwards from there, something I’ve never done before. 

I started outlining this book that night and I was so excited about it that I never went to bed – but by the time the sun came up, Savannah was plotted out in its entirety, from the opening scene to the last. While this isn’t how I usually do things, I will say that it makes for much quicker novel writing: Sleep Savannah Sleep was written in twenty-five days. The first draft, that is. Edits and revisions still took a few months – but I’ve never written a first draft that fast. It was both exhilarating and exhausting, and though I don’t plan to do again any time soon, I loved it.

Sleep Savannah Sleep was a slightly different animal for me. I knew almost right away that this was a murder mystery so my process was a little different this time around. Usually, I know about where I want to end up and I just start writing toward that, allowing the plot to go where it sees fit (within reason, of course). In a murder mystery though, you need to have a concrete end at the beginning. You need to know your ending well and work strictly toward it, all the while leaving subtle clues that become apparent to the reader only after they’ve finished the book. This requires lots of heavy plotting and lots of precision, and for those reasons, I’m especially proud of Savannah.

As any writer will attest, each book is special in its own way, and to me, the thing that really sets this one apart from my others is not only its style but what it did for me, personally: It proved to me that I could expand. And for a writer who’s always looking for the next fresh angle, that’s important.


P.S. – Sleep Savannah Sleep (narrated by Isaiah Fowler) is available now in audiobook at Audible.com. You can also get it in paperback and ebook at Amazon.

Finishing Books and Listening to Your Characters


Coming this summer

On March 5th, I finished The Black Wasp, book 3 in the Vampires of Crimson Cove series, and I’m astounded by the direction these books have taken. This is in so small part due to the Black Wasp herself – a character who showed up in the middle of the previous book, The Silver Dagger.

I can still remember the moment she made her first appearance. I was in the midst of writing a scene that had nothing to do with strange, ancient women in old-fashioned mourning clothes, but there she was, all white-faced and creepy-eyed, waiting to be written. I put her off at first because I knew she’d do exactly what she did – which was forever alter the DNA of this series – but eventually, I could ignore her no longer. And I’m glad I didn’t.

Unlike the other supernatural creatures in Crimson Cove, she’s not a vampire – not in the usual sense, anyway – but something much darker, much deadlier. While she does feed on humans, it isn’t blood their that satiates her, but their fear and pain. In that respect, I suppose she’s a kind of “psychic vampire,” though I never refer to her as that in the book. She’s a different species altogether, her own kind of monster – a monster that’s opened new doors of possibility for the story arc and added deeper layers of intrigue (and terror) to my fictional world. Figuring her out has been one of the creative highlights of my writing life, and I still have a lot to learn about her.

I love it when characters feel this alive because early in my writing career, I was advised – by someone who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about – to never let the the characters guide the plot. Not knowing any better (and to my own detriment) I followed that advice, and my writing – when it came at all – suffered badly for it.

I nearly gave the up entirely more than once, but eventually, I heard someone say that writers should listen to their characters, and decided to give that a try … and that’s when my fictional world flourished and my plots gained real ambition.

It undoubtedly sounds crazy to non-writers (and probably to some writers as well, depending on their own processes) to say that the characters know what’s best, that it’s the author’s job is to transcribe more than actually invent the story, but – in my case, at least – it’s the absolute truth. Had I ignored the promptings of the Black Wasp character, the Crimson Cove series wouldn’t be taking the turns it is – and I love where it’s going.

The same thing happened in the first book, The Crimson Corset, with Gretchen VanTreese. It’s pretty hard to believe now that my central antagonist was originally intended to die in her first and only scene, but she was. Somehow, though, by that mysterious process of creation, things changed along the way, taking on an entirely new and unexpected shape. Without Gretchen, this series would be something entirely different. Assuming it existed at all, it certainly wouldn’t be the story I currently know and love.

And this is why I use every opportunity to tell new writers to a) trust their characters, and b) be very selective about what advice they follow. Every writer has their own process which needs to be discovered organically, and the only way to do that is to write. And write and write and write.

So keep writing …

And always, always listen to your characters.

P.S. The Black Wasp is currently with the editors and should be out sometime in early-to-mid summer.

Walking Fine Lines… and Writing Them, Too


frustrated-writer-2

Even as a kid, I loved writing and spent hours composing poems, song lyrics, and scribbling out short stories. As I grew older, my interest in the craft continued to build, but none of these formats gave me the room I needed. For me, writing novels was the next logical step. Between 1997 and 2005, I made countless starts on would-be cliffhangers, murder mysteries, and nail-biting tales of terror. But, as it turns out, writing a book is a lot more grueling and complicated than the masters make it out to be, and none of these early unfinished efforts survived outside of my notebooks.

Then in 2005, after one of those rare life-changing revelations everyone talks about, I finally decided I was going to do this writing thing… and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. It helped that, for the first time, I had a solid story line that was good enough to be told, and perhaps, more importantly, I was finally old enough to tell it. And so I began…

When you start a book and don’t finish it, it hangs around your head until you get it right – for years, if it has to. I did finish the novel I began in 2005, but I didn’t finish the story. For the next few years, the manuscript was in circulation, promptly being rejected left and right. While the Thanks-But-No-Thanks’ continued piling up, I kept writing – and when you keep writing, an interesting thing happens: you get better at it. I eventually got published – but it was the next novel, a different one – not the one I’d spent so much time on. By then, I knew my writing had improved and I pulled the first manuscript out of circulation. After re-reading it, I could clearly see why it wasn’t selling. I decided it needed a serious facelift before I submitted it anywhere else. Discouraged, I set it aside and started the next book.

In 2012, I met Tamara (Thorne, co-author). We hit it off, had the same sensibilities about writing, and immediately began making plans. In collaboration, we’ve since completed two novels, one ongoing serialized Gothic tale, and have become the hosts of our own horror-themed internet radio show, Thorne & Cross: Haunted Nights LIVE!  As 2014 came to a close, I finally had a few things under my belt, and I knew it was time to return to that solo novel.

I’ve had to dig my heels in a little – at times I’ve surely been nothing short of an asshole – but as of January 1st, every previous version of my solo novel has been torn down, totaled, and trashed, and I am 25,000 words into the new one.

I love collaborating with Tamara, and although I never envisioned collaborating with anyone, I’m grateful beyond my capacity to express it that she, an already established bestseller, took enough interest in me to make me a part of her journey. I couldn’t have foreseen such a thing five years ago; I was unconscious to any such possibility, but my gratitude is timeless, and as long as she’s inclined, I will continue writing with her. But I must also build a body of solo work.

hosts

I’m learning that hosting a radio show and bouncing between collaborating and writing solo requires a good deal of balance – it’s a lot to take on. There are days I’m overwhelmed. Some mornings, I wake up wondering where to begin, and wishing I could take the day off.  But then I get up, get on it, and soon I’m into the rhythm of things – and even on the bad days, I don’t take it for granted. This is what I wanted. For years, I have been obsessed by writing, not as a hobby, but as a profession. For the past decade, I’ve spent every waking hour trying to find a way to make it happen, and now that I feel like I’ve finally gotten my career off the ground, I’m going back to the beginning – back to the first story I really wanted to tell.

My solo novel’s original title was The White Room, but – for many reasons – I’m no longer calling it that. It has a stronger voice and it deserves a stronger title. I’ve given it one, but until I’m closer to completion, I simply call it “CC.” “CC” is a vampire novel, but its themes are not romantic. Under its fangs – if I do it right – it’s a tale of redemption, addiction, and the power of family ties. At 25,000 words, I’m only about one-third into it, but already, I am more deeply in love with it than I’ve ever been before. It has dimensions I wasn’t able to explore until now. It tells a deeper, more powerful story this time. It’s found its missing spine.

In the ten years since its conception, this book has been revised, revamped, re-written, kicked, mauled, set aside, and left for dead. It’s had a pretty rough life, but it’s on track at last, and I’ll do everything in my power to prevent it from being knocked off the rails again. I intend to complete it this spring.

Regarding Thorne & Cross, it’s great to be preparing for the release of The Ghosts of Ravencrest’s fifth installment, Night Moves, which has been sent to the editor and heads to production next week. We’re also looking forward to the completion of our witchy tale of terror – and first collaborative concept – Grandma’s Rack, which, right this very minute, is being polished and refined for public consumption. Our other completed novel, which we have to be tight-lipped about for now, is in some stage or another of the publication process, and as soon as the vacancy sign lights up – which we anticipate happening in March or April – we have the next collaboration waiting in the wings. It’s a stormy little thriller that we’re both itching to get to, and I have a feeling this one is going to make some major waves…

000ARavencrest

On Writing: Extreme Collaborating


collab2

A radio interviewer asked Tamara Thorne and me how we write together and that was one of the most eye-opening questions we’ve ever had.  She was amazed when we told her our method and said she’d never heard of anyone writing like that before.  Evidently, many writers split things up with one brainstorming and the other writing. Neither of us can even imagine having any fun doing our job this way.  To not be allowed to brainstorm would be horrible!  And to not write would be just as bad!  We can each imagine this working in non-fiction, but in fiction, if you don’t love both sides – creating and writing – where does that leave you? How can you imagine ideas for your plot and characters without being able to set them down as well, and vice versa? Can a good writer write without his or her imagination taking off and soaring to the heavens?  It sounds absolutely horrible to us.

Our collaborations are a 50/50 effort. We plot together, we develop characters together, and we even transcribe together by getting on Skype, opening the Cloud, and working side by side. Sometimes Tamara takes the lead, sometimes Alistair does – but nothing is written without both of us present. We each have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, and we each are aware of the other’s. Luckily for us – as we learned early on – our weaknesses and strengths balance out; where one of us has difficulty, the other is at ease.

One very important part of our process that we stress very much when asked about it, is the personal side of our relationship. Writing is a job, a business, and although we are business partners, we are also friends. We may share the same vision, the same sensibilities, and even similar writing styles, but all of this is pointless without three very important elements: respect, honesty, and loyalty.

Respect comes first. We are aware of each other’s time. We meet every day, six days a week, and work anywhere from 8 to 10 hours. But if something comes up or one of us is running late, we are okay with that.

As for honesty… honesty is something you have to be comfortable with if you intend to write with another person. If one of us hates what the other is writing – though it hasn’t really happened – we’d say so… but kindly. If one of us isn’t feeling the same vibe as the other and thinks the story needs to go a different direction, we discuss it openly.

No drama. We are similar in that we both avoid drama – and the people who spew it – so one of us getting drawn into the chaos of the other one’s personal life issues is never a problem for us. This zero tolerance for drama, in fact, is probably the glue that holds this whole thing together. (Sure, we each tell the other what’s going on in our lives – we’re friends and that’s what friends do – but we don’t dwell. We go to work.)

So kindness, honesty, and a no drama policy is what makes up the respect facet of this deal. Then there is loyalty.

Loyalty comes into play because we are given a lot of advice by outside forces, and sometimes, the advice is not good. We’ve made a firm pact that no decisions will be made without the consent of the other one. No one is allowed to call one of us and discuss changes behind the other’s back. We are business partners, and we operate as such, no exceptions.

With loyalty comes trust, which could easily be the fourth part of the sum. We trust each other with the characters, the storyline, and on a personal level as well, but this trust is built on the foundation of the respect, honesty, and loyalty to which we adhere.

And now that the personal elements of our collaboration have been covered, we come to the creative part of the process.

collab

Each day we spend an hour or two in the morning warming up. We chat, we do our PR and marketing work, whether it’s writing a blog, posting to Facebook, or answering interview questions. We spend a little time studying some aspect of our business most mornings as well, whether that’s going through a lot of covers or promotional posters and talking about what we like and dislike, discussing articles we’ve just read on traditional vs indie publishing, or anything else writing-oriented.  We tell some jokes. We laugh a lot.

And then we get down to writing.  If we’re having trouble getting going, we get silly, each sneaking in outrageous dialogue or descriptions for the other to laugh at. That’s actually one of the best tricks we’ve found for getting a scene moving. We’ll add on to the silliness, each of us, and suddenly the scene comes to life and, when we’re done, we remove the goofy stuff.

We each enjoy following certain characters and take the lead on our favorites, but we are also careful to switch off so that we each know every character well.  To us, familiarity with our characters – all of them – is vital to the story.

While, individually, we both do a lot of world-building in order to get to know our characters and their locale, together, we probably spend twice as much time doing this.  When you are collaborating, the littlest details become important and are (usually) best figured out beforehand because both of us must know whether a character has dimples or drives a beat-up old Chevy or hates seafood.  Otherwise, incongruities can get past us, unnoticed.

The characters’ voices, however, evolve during writing and whoever creates the voice sets the tone the other follows for that character. For example, a character in one of our upcoming novels has a unique way of swearing that Alistair made up.  We both love voicing her and work together to get the most insane profanities out of her as we write, always following Alistair’s original style.

While we occasionally write two scenes in tandem – this usually happens when we are writing one scene together and one of us is inspired by something the other writes – we still consider ourselves to be writing together; after all, via Skype, we have instant access to one another.  After that, we go over both scenes together and make sure everything is in synch and do a light edit.  Mostly, though, we quite literally write together. One of us may write most of a scene with the other trailing along fixing things, or simply taking in the tale as it evolves. Sometimes we take turns in the same scene. Tamara often takes over descriptions of locale because she really enjoys it. Alistair enjoys writing certain situations and takes those. We think the main reason one or the other of us takes the lead, though, is character. We each have our favorites.

We write in similar voices and have similar sensibilities, senses of humor, likes and dislikes, and this, of course, is part of our chemistry. But if you have a collaborator you constantly disagree with, our question is why?  If you have nothing in common, how can you enjoy your work – or one another?

We received some great feedback the other day. After reading The New Governess, the first installment of our Gothic Erotica serialized novel, The Erotic Adventures of Belinda, a reader said to us: “Which one of you wrote this? I can’t tell.” To which we happily answered, “We both wrote it.” And we did.  Just like we wrote this blog. Together, in the Cloud.

For more, visit us at: http://alistaircross.com & http://tamarathorne.com