Rocky landscape with sunset light

Reflections on writing my (first) novel


It’s almost NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I’m debating whether to write novel 3 while also trying to get novel 2 (the second half of my epic sci-fi series Aestus) ready for publication. 

I’m very tempted. In the meantime, I have been remiss in updating this blog and I apologize. It’s been a whirlwind – from writing books 1 and 2 to editing to figuring out the steep learning curve of publishing. I’m getting there, I hope, but it’s been a lot of work. Add in the fact that I work full-time and just took a 10-week intensive CELTA course (TEFL instructor certification through the University of Cambridge), and you have one very exhausted author. 

I’ve been thinking for a while about what I wanted to use this blog for. To be honest, I think of it as a space for me to write about the writing process itself – the giant effort to write a novel, for example. And that’s not something I’ve been able to sit down and reflect on in full. Hence the delay. But now I’m ready to try. In honor of NaNoWriMo, here’s a longish spoiler-free reflection on writing my first novel, Aestus, Book 1: The City, which you can find here.

An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.

–From the synopsis of Aestus, Book 1: The City

From idea to novel

I was not exactly planning to write an action-filled futuristic novel. I’ve always been more of a historical-fiction person (I have half a YA-esque plot on pirates in Boston written out, just saying). But offline, I’m a professional science writer and am very concerned about climate change; if you’ve read my writing guide on Goodreads, you probably know that my book began via a very frustrated me standing in a bus tunnel on a boiling hot thunderstorm-y evening waiting for a (late) bus, ~95F and ~100% humidity due to the storm. I started thinking about what humanity might do if the world became (God forbid) essentially uninhabitable. What if, I thought, this bus were coming to take me down into the earth at the end of my work day? Into an underground city? What might go wrong on such a trip? What if the bus broke down? What if there were clawed creatures that snuck into the tunnels at night? (I have a vivid imagination.)

I waited for the bus, went home, and started thinking about what that might look like.

The first bit I wrote was, in one sense, originally an exercise in action-writing, which was super intimidating because I had never written action. I wanted to try to capture both action and terror – the feeling of being hunted down by a monstrous creature in a dark tunnel with nowhere to run, assuming the heat and lack of water don’t kill you first.

I drew on some related experience (not with being chased in the dark, exactly, but something like that): I’ve been in a legitimate pitch-black tunnel once, on the Hiawatha Bike Trail in Idaho/Montana, and it was terrifying and cool at the same time. You wobble along with your bike light (they don’t provide them, so bring your own), and you can hear water dripping but you can’t see the ground too well – don’t veer into the mini-river – it’s pitch-black and everything is sort of reflective because of the water on the stone tunnel walls. It’s very cold…and it’s two miles long. 

My stupid friends decided to make eerie shrieking monster noises as we rode our bikes. This was funny…at first.

Now imagine you may or may not be being chased by a creature with glowing eyes and claws. In the heat, where water is an issue. And your bus has broken down and you have to descend about 300-500 feet into the earth…while trying not to fall into a giant pit left behind when your City was constructed.

I thought it was a cool idea, and generally wanted to write further about the idea of an underground city and climate change, so I started plotting out a story. I wrote six chapters or so and posted them on a blog; I had no idea how to expand the thing, but figured I’d probably update as I went. In the meantime, I asked my friends (a bit apprehensively) to read it. (Again, no action-writing experience!) 

They liked it…but I didn’t realize how much they liked it until one friend basically said to me, “Look. I need more than one chapter a month.”  

Now I felt obligated to write (thanks, friend – you know who you are!). So I sat down and started actually plotting things out in a lot more detail. But I realized very quickly that there was the potential to make this into a much much bigger novel…so I took it off my blog, instructed said friends to wipe their memories (haha), and started writing. 

NaNoWriMo started around that time. I decided to give it a go – why not? – and actually attempted to prepare, even purchasing a NaNoWriMo book, which is a very meta concept. I ignored the fact that I had already started on my novel (it’s acceptable now/doesn’t break the rules!) and just started writing.

In case you’re curious, I used a program called Wavemaker, which I hope still exists, because it was amazing. The only issue was the lack of spellcheck. But it gave a really focused (and free!) writing experience. I also used my Chromebook, which I do 80% of my writing on, and Werdsmith, where I do the rest. [Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any products I mention on my blog unless specifically stated. Use at your own risk.]

Characters, tropes, and lighting the bagel-toaster on fire

The biggest thing for me with characters is that I have to like them or at least understand them. Their decisions have to be logical, if not rational.

And they should be realistic, not trope-y. 

More than that, though, I truly care about my characters. I have no interest in characters who are tropes, so to speak – the Best Friend or the Old Mentor or whoever who are stuck into the plot but are very flat characters. Obviously, characters fulfill plot functions, but I also need to care about them. If I care about a character, I am willing to read pages about them doing just about anything. Literally. If I don’t, they’d better be saving the city from a disaster, and even then I’ll probably forget their names once the book is over, which is probably not how you want your novel to be remembered.

My main character was the hardest part of writing (at first, anyway), especially as I came up with her knowing very little about the plot/world or, therefore, her. Coming up with a main character (MC) that I actually like is always a challenge. Coming up with a woman as a main character is particularly hard…because there’s so much baggage that comes along with women as characters. They’re either overly (and overtly) sexy or “quirky” (ew) or Different from Other Women (what’s that supposed to mean?) or “damaged” in some way (trauma, specifically to do with men). Notice a theme? This all has to do with their relationship to men. I just wanted a character who was interesting and intelligent and accomplished and whatnot, nothing to do with men or how men perceived her. 

I named her Jossey Sokol, and she’s a visibly-scarred survivor of an Onlar attack when she was ten, during which she lost her brother. Now, fifteen years later, she’s a solar Engineer, secretly terrified of the dark tunnels through which she must pass twice a day to work on the equally-terrifying surface, because it’s the only career she’s ever wanted to have. 

Basically, I wanted Jossey to be a strong character who didn’t rely on her relationship with men to make her interesting.

“- Female lead that exists comfortably outside of the usual stereotypes” – A. Behlum, reviewer

(I take this to mean that I accomplished that goal!)

However, I quickly ran into the (obvious) idea that she couldn’t really do everything herself (I mean, stopping a bus from hurtling into the pit when one has no experience with driving a bus generally requires help, for example)…so I grudgingly allowed a man to assist, haha. (I joke – several of the main characters are men. I just didn’t want the story to go the way of so many others and have romance be the main focus.)

(Of course, plans often mean next to nothing: I ended up coming up with another character who ruined my carefully-laid plans with Emotions and Feelings and Stuff…but who I think immediately improved the story, and is now one of my favorites in the “cast.” But I digress.)

Back to the notion of non-tropetastic characters:

Gavin, Mr. Handsome Patrol Commander. On the surface, he’s ideal in many ways…and he’s legitimately a sweet guy, but he has quite a few blind spots, to say the least. If anything, he’s flawed because of how near-ideal he is.

I enjoy playing with contrasts, and he’s very much a study in contrasts. That said, he’s not specifically constructed in order to demonstrate those traits or look at contrasts or whatever. He’s just him, the slightly-doofy-but-also-terrifying overprotective “bodyguard” of sorts who used to be Tark’s best friend and who promised to be there for Jossey the way he’d been there for Tark. He and Jossey are now adults and he’s still there for her. He drives her nuts with his overprotectiveness and his Handsome Commander near-arrogance…their relationship is not exactly smooth at times.

“Jossey half-smiled. How many women in the City would be beyond thrilled to find Commander Tskoulis passed out in their hospital room, flowers in hand, waiting for them to awaken?

She almost laughed at the thought.

It was sweet of him. She just wished he wouldn’t be so…so…”

Aestus, Book 1: The City

That said, he’s as realistic as I could make him, considering how admired he is in the City and how a large percentage of the female population is infatuated with him. People like this do exist, haha. I take it as a personal challenge to push the limits of Mary Sue-dom, but I also happen to know quite a few people in real life who really are [geniuses/amazing athletes/what-have-you] and I don’t feel bothered by putting characters like Gavin or others into the story. If you do so, just make sure they have flaws. Said geniuses that I know have also demonstrated otherwise at times (examples include lighting our bagel-toaster on fire after buttering the bagel first, which while efficient was also a Bad Idea). Ah, my youth. As for the series having villains, and them veering close to trope territory, I have quite a bit I could say about the status quo and economics, but I should save that for my commentary once the series ends. 

Dystopia and world-building

Back to the dystopian aspect. In terms of speculative fiction, I wanted Jossey to figure out the secret(s) via a series of adventures. (I use that word in the dystopian sense; the reality of the plot is significantly more complex and less trope-y than that. Hopefully more on that later.) The fun part (and the real adventure, barring of course being pursued in dark tunnels by a clawed creature) began once she joined Patrol, the military arm of the City. As a child, as mentioned, Jossey had snuck aboveground at night with her older brother Tark to see the moon, a trip that ended disastrously when one of the monstrous creatures known as the Onlar found them. Jossey was left with terrible scars and a damaged leg. Tark disappeared. That’s where my book begins…and then it takes the reader to fifteen years later, when Jossey’s solar-engineering-crew bus breaks down in the dark tunnel and she has to save 30+ people from the creature that’s pursuing them. After that second traumatic experience, her uncle asks her to join Patrol on a special engineering assignment; she says no for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, her Patrol-commander friend, Gavin, is on an aboveground night mission when one of his recruits stumbles (literally) across a child’s skeleton…near where Tark had disappeared. Jossey does a 180 and all but demands to be allowed on Patrol. 

Patrol was really fun to write, if also somewhat intimidating – the closest I have to “military experience” is the Boy Scouts of America. I worked in the forest for two summers at a summer camp, helping with shooting sports, among other things. But I got a good sense of the camaraderie, the pecking order, etc. For example, Thompson and Ellis, the two kind-of sweet-natured, fiercely loyal doofuses (mostly Thompson, to be honest), started out as vaguely stock-esque characters and grew into two of my favorites in the series. (Can’t tell you why, but after book 2, Thompson is solidly in the running for top five favorite characters.)

The tech was fun, as was the world-building in general. Without spoiling anything (as much as possible), the City is an underground module system of sorts built to withstand severe climate change. The aboveground world is deeply inhospitable during the day. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. I started to think of things like how the Onlar (the monstrous creatures) could move around during the day, how the City would power itself/get water/etc., and more. What would likely happen if someone got trapped up aboveground, for example?

Thoughts on plot-writing

The plot quickly became far more complex than I had anticipated, and I ended up using Google Slides to keep everything in order (I had one for tech, for example; one for political motivations…).

In constructing the plot, I specifically focused on motivations and reactions. One thing I’ve learned about writing drama is that it really comes down to people’s motivations and how they perceive others’, whether that’s on a friendship level (“why did she say that about me?”) or a full-on battle-strategy game-theory level. (Both exist to an extent in this series.) 

There’s a TV show I watch, for instance, where the simple tension between two brothers, one of whom wants power that the other seems to have without trying, plus a single apparently-minor incident, spirals ever outward into a massive series of events that threaten to take down empires. It’s all logical, each step building on the previous ones, all the threads weaving together, and it amazed me how such a simple structure could unfold into something so exquisite. It reminds me of crystals – search “bismuth crystals” if you want to see something amazing.

Anyway. I used to be of the mindset that I needed to plot Signposts: Or, Things that the Characters Need to Aim For. Yes and no. Obviously there are goals, and there are external factors/limitations/etc. for the characters, but ultimately the plot is characters reacting to their circumstances and trying to plan ahead as best they can. When I started to think of the plot as slowly-unfolding consequences of decisions, I was able to let the book all but “write itself.”

It very quickly became much bigger than I’d intended, in fact. I ended up with a notebook where I tried to write down all the things that I had to complete in each chapter for the story to make sense/not have plot holes/etc. It was helpful as a roadmap, but it was very different than the roadmap I’d originally set when I started writing, other than the general major plot points. It was almost like I’d built up momentum for the story with the early decisions/actions of the characters, and now things were proceeding under their own steam, in a sense.

Before I spoil anything…

I am at a loss, speaking of, for how to proceed from here, because I don’t think there’s much else I can say without giving away the plot. So here’s an invitation to read it for yourself!

Link (ebook and paperback): (If you’d prefer other than Amazon, click on the Home button above to see options for ebooks at Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.).

A summary:

An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.

When Jossey was ten, the creatures of the aboveground took her brother and left her for dead, with horrible scars. Now, years later, she’s a successful solar engineer, working to keep her underground city’s power running, but she’s never really recovered. After she saves dozens of people during a second attack, she is offered a top-secret assignment as a field Engineer with Patrol, but fear prevents her from taking it…until Patrol finds bones near where her brother disappeared.

She signs on and finds herself catapulted into a world that is far more dangerous, and requires far more of her, than she ever imagined. The creatures and the burning heat aboveground are not the only threats facing the City, and what she learns during her assignment could cost her her life: one of the greatest threats to the City may in fact lie within. With thousands of lives at stake, can she act in time?

Aestus is an adult dystopian science-fiction series set centuries after climate change has ravaged much of Earth. An epic story of vengeance, power, shifting loyalties, and survival that looks at just how far people will go to protect what they love, brought to you by science writer S.Z. Attwell, Aestus paints a picture of a world in which far too little has changed.

Finally, reviews:

“…masterful…on par with the best in the genre.” – A. R. Saida

“It’s hard to write a review of this book because I’m afraid that my description won’t do it justice. This is a phenomenal read….I can’t remember the last time I read a book this fast nor one that stayed with me for so long.” – Amanda W.

“Aestus is one of the best dystopian sci-fi novels I’ve read….beautifully vivid, with descriptions so specific and detailed that I felt like I was there alongside the characters, watching events unfold as if through my own eyes….It’s difficult to speak in much detail about Aestus without ruining one of the dozens of mysteries posited by the novel, but every page within the book’s covers is worth reading. Aestus has been the best fiction book I’ve read this year, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone, even those not fans of the genre.” – R Sha

I will probably do a second blog post once Aestus, Book 2: The Colony is released, which I hope will be in December – I just don’t want to spoil anything! (Join my mailing list for updates – click on the Home button above!)

Happy reading!

Sabrina (S. Z. Attwell)


One response to “Reflections on writing my (first) novel”

  1. […] Whether you’re a budding author or a seasoned vet, Attwell’s post is an inspirational read. You can read the article on the author’s website here. […]

%d bloggers like this: