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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, C. L. Lauder shares the inspiration behind her YA Dystopian novel, The Quelling, which follows teenage Kyjta as her people are invaded by aliens.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed YA author C. L. Lauder about her life and career, the inspiration behind her new book about aliens invading, The Quelling, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a young adult fiction author, born in South Africa and later emigrated to the United Kingdom and now Hong Kong. I grew up amongst a labyrinth of bookshelves, breaking my teeth on J. R. Tolkien’s tomes before I hit my teens, then progressing swiftly onto Eric van Lustbader and graduating to Stephen King.
I pursued a master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of London, and I do most of my writing at a small checkers table at the top of a mountain near my home.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I was obsessed with stories all through my childhood. I would write and illustrate them, clamping the pages to a rusty old clipboard before sharing them with friends.
My stepfather was a book fanatic, and our house was lined with musty paperbacks that I’d sneak to my room when he wasn’t looking. I knew they were adult novels and that reading them wasn’t strictly allowed, and that was half the fun.
It wasn’t until I moved to London that I considered publishing a book. I would take the London Underground to and from work each day, and back then, there was no WIFI—there wasn’t even internet on your phone. Everyone would sit and read either a novel or a newspaper. Looking around, you could get a sense of what was popular. It was BookTok on rails. I was riding the Docklands Light Railway to work one day, glancing at all the commuters so deeply engrossed in their books, when I decided I wanted to write a novel.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Right away. I am a doer, and once I’ve decided I’ll do something, it’s nearly impossible for me to stop until it’s done.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took longer than I could have imagined. I was working full-time, so I did most of my writing at the weekend. I first attempted a series of middle-grade books but knew instinctively that the plots weren’t delivering. I bought every book I could find on plot, but they all seemed to focus on the beginning, middle and end. I was sure there was more to it.
Finally, I stumbled onto Blake Snider’s Beat Sheet, better known as Save the Cat—which provides a perfect plot framework for feature films, and that changed everything. Reading a number of similar books, I adapted the structure to suit a novel, and now I start every novel with a sixty-scene map of where I’m headed.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
The Quelling has been in the making for four years, but in that time, I’ve almost completed Book Two, and Book Three has been drafted. I wanted to ensure the trilogy worked before releasing Book One, so I’ve written them alongside each other.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Quelling?
I wanted to write a YA dystopian fantasy with an original premise. I started out writing Book Two in the series, then realized that I hadn’t started at the beginning of the story, so I went back and wrote Book One. The premise for Book Two is that aliens are adopting orphans in some semblance of a symbiotic relationship, and the protagonist must figure out if the beings are genuinely benign or have some nefarious agenda.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Quelling?
My biggest challenge was time. I work a full-time job and am a mother of two. I knew I wanted to write a novel, but I couldn’t let that interfere with my work or my family life. I struggled for a long time until one fateful conversation with my stepbrother. He asked me how much time I would need each day to write the novel I wanted to write. I thought about it for a while and then said – two hours a day. He told me all I needed to do was create two hours a day—he made it sound simple.
So, I decided it was simple. I started waking up at 5 a.m. each morning and writing for two hours before work. It was difficult initially, but now it’s just part of my routine.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Kyjta’s character allowed me to explore my own divided family structure growing up. She’s struggling to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance and forced to live with her inattentive stepfather, all while navigating the troubling terrain of a long-standing alien invasion. She makes mistakes along the way, but in the end, her strength sustains her—a strength she might never have tapped into if she hadn’t faced the hardships that came before.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The most villainous villains have a personal agenda that conflicts with the protagonist’s. It’s impossible to think of Voldemort or President Snow without contemplating their contempt for Harry or Katniss. In The Quelling, Kyjta has something that the villain badly wants, she just doesn’t know it at the beginning of the story.
When crafting the villain, the important thing for me was not the villain himself but his calling. I wanted him to have a meaningful quest that readers could sympathize with, even if they couldn’t get behind him.
What is the inciting incident of The Quelling?
The Quelling opens on a basement scene where the townsfolk are sheltering from a raid by the invading Rhemans. There’s a young girl cowering near our heroine, Kyjta, who seems lost without someone to care for her. When the Rhemans break through the town’s defenses, Kyjta takes the girl under her wing.
To escape, Kyjta must form a pact with a Rheman rebel she’s not sure she trusts, and later, when the girl is taken, Kyjta elicits his help again. Together they come up with a scheme to rescue the young girl.
What is the main conflict of The Quelling?
The backdrop conflict is the oppression of Kyjta’s people by a dominant alien race, but the core conflict is Kyjta herself. She is convinced of her mother’s murder, and that conviction causes her to make some very bad decisions. If she isn’t careful, she’ll lose more than just her life to the alien race that’s tormenting her people.
Did you plot The Quelling in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I start every novel with a sixty-scene plot plan, and while I often don’t stick to the plan, I do try to keep it updated and aligned with the story. I probably re-plotted The Quelling three times while it was in draft.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Quelling need?
The book would be nothing like it is today without the editing support I received. I went through three developmental edits with different editors before I was happy with the draft. There were several copy-edits and, finally, two proof edits. Editing is essential to writing; I can’t recommend it enough.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Learn to plot before you start to write. You’ll save yourself a lot of time. Study the stories you like, apply them to a plot structure and try to understand the ebb and flow of those scenes and how they knit together. The full tapestry makes a good story, not the individual scenes. Secondly, practice writing with original-sounding prose—there’s nothing worse than clichéd writing.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Book Two of The Quelling is close to completion, and Book Three of The Quelling is in draft. Book Two is the original story I intended when I devised the premise for The Quelling—an alien race adopting orphans of a grand technology war—but for what purpose? I’m refreshing Book Two based on everything I learned while writing Book One. You can expect it to hit the shelves in 2024.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am thrilled with the way The Quelling turned out. It does everything that I set out to do. There were times I doubted I could pull it off and knowing that I persisted gives me a great sense of achievement. I don’t need to consider whether it was worth the effort because my reasons for writing are not tied to completing a novel. I write because I enjoy the process. I want to spend time in alternate Universes, building alternate realities. Sometimes the only place I want to be is inside a world of my own imaginings.
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