Sacha Black writes YA fantasy – the Eden East series, and non-fiction for authors.
Her writing guides include 13 Steps to Evil: How to craft Superbad villains and 10 Steps to Hero: How to Craft a Kick Ass Protagonist.
Sacha is a proud indie author and recently went full-time with her writing.
Find out more about Sacha and her books at
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I have been busy with the launch of The Silver Mark: Crow Investigations Book Two.
In the introduction, I give an update on the launch, read the blurb and talk about my recent writing retreat.
Also, I mention my non-fiction writing mindset book, Stop Worrying; Start Writing: How To Overcome Fear, Self-Doubt and Procrastination.
IN THE INTERVIEW:
We discuss tips for writing compelling villains, antagonists, and heroes, as well as Sacha’s own writing process and publishing journey.
I’m trying something new this month, with a full transcript of the interview (below). I want to make the podcast more accessible for those who prefer (or need) to read, rather than listen. It’s pretty time-consuming to do, so I would love to hear what you think!
Recommended by Sacha (and me!):
Deep Work by Cal Newport
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH SACHA BLACK
Sarah: Sacha Black writes YA fantasy the Eden series and non-fiction for authors. Her writing guides include 13 Steps to Evil How to craft super bad villains and ten steps to hero how to craft a kick ass protagonist. Sasha is a proud Indie Author and recently went full-time with her writing. Welcome to the show. And congratulations on making the leap to full-time writing.
Sacha: Thank you so much. It’s an absolute honour to be here. I’m really really excited to be on your podcast.
Sarah: You’re so kind. I would love to hear more about making the leap into the full-time writing. Was that a goal that you set for yourself?
Sacha: Absolutely. I kind of meandered my way to making the decision that I wanted to write full-time. I’m not really one of these people who was overly self-aware as a child so it became a goal as I started writing more but I didn’t really enjoy my day job. So I worked as a project manager at a very corporate quite conservative environment, and they didn’t really allow for much creativity. I mean they wanted to they tried really hard but you know you come up with these creative ideas and it’ll be a no we can’t we can’t do that.
So about I would say probably five or six years ago I started writing with the intent to publish. I had written prior to that but that was kind of the, you know, the pivotal turning point where my mindset shifted and I and I kind of got this obsessive tunnel vision, you know kind of single-minded. This is what I want to do. I want to do this full-time and the more I write the more I wanted it. So yes it was definitely a goal.
Sarah: So you mentioned there about and sort of the beginnings of your writing so was it something that you’d always wanted to do?
Sacha: Yeah I think if I’d been more self-aware I’d have realised that’s what I wanted to do. But you know when I look back on my childhood all of the signs were there. You know I would carry around notebook and pen and scribble little sentences. And I think my mom also had to move libraries once, I remember because we were sort of in this local library which was sort of quite small but I’d read everything. I mean literally everything. And we had to go to like this larger library… So you know when I look back I think, actually, you know I should have realised that that’s what I wanted to do. But I was also brought up knowing that I had to get a proper job and I had to wear a suit or, you know, have some kind of a qualification. So I went to university and I probably should have done creative writing or something or English even just because I loved it and I didn’t.
I did psychology because I thought ‘that’s a career’. It’s kind of on the peripheries of medicine. And then I did a Masters and I sort of fell into being in my students union as president. And then I got onto a graduate scheme, a fast track management scheme because that was a proper job and that’s what you do. And it did not take very long for me to realise that was really not what I wanted to do. So I started blogging. I kind of just needed like this platform or this place to just vomit out rants about things that annoyed me. As you know writing is so cathartic, so many people say that, and that’s exactly why I came back to writing.
And then I got out my notebooks and kind of remembered, and I found one of these stories that I had written when I was nine. And that was the story that I always wanted to turn into a novel. So I decided to do NaNoWriMo and I took that novel and that was the novel I wrote in my first NaNo and the rest is history. You know I that was it. Once I got the bug and the habit in NaNo it was game over for me I realised very rapidly this is what I wanted to do exactly as you say the more you write the more you want to write or the more you get obsessed with it it’s your thing.
Sarah: So were you doing non-fiction about writing alongside writing fiction or which did you publish first?
Sacha: Okay that’s a great question. So I am one of these super geeky nerdy people. So no matter what I’m obsessing over I just I go to the extreme of geekery when it comes to it.
So I started this kind of obsessive journey to develop my craft and the other thing I am is very senile. Literally, if I don’t write something down, usually by hand, there is no way I am going to remember whatever it is I need to remember. So what I do is every book I read I add – this is sacrilege, so people please forgive me if you think I’m a kind of heathen – but I have a pencil and little sticky tabs. And every time I see something that I think is well written whether it’s description or dialogue or foreshadowing I’ll underline it very lightly in pencil and stick a sticky tab in and then when I get to the end of the book I go back and review all of the sentences that I’ve underlined. I started out by hand writing them up and then I quickly moved in to using my blog and what I would do is I would copy and paste them down and then I would look for patterns and trends and what I tended to find is that particular authors had you know really good skills in one particular area whether it be description or dialogue.
And so then I would go down to kind of sentence level detail and look at why it was that they did so well and I would write those lessons that I was learning up into blog posts and I did, I think it was a post on female villains, which just I mean it didn’t go viral but you know I think it had quite a lot of hits. And so I wrote I think three or four more.
Collectively, I think they garnered me you know 50000 or 100000 hits something like that on my website which to me at the time having not been blogging for that long was just an enormous amounts of hits. So I dug a bit further and I looked into whether or not there were kind of books on this and there weren’t. So I was like well, hey, you know, there’s obviously a market for this. I’d already started writing up my lessons. Why not do a bit more research and compile it into a book? So that’s what I did. So my 13 Steps to evil was the first book that I published which I know some people like ‘well, you know, what validity do you have?’
Sarah: Well I think teaching creative writing is different. I mean some people will say ‘I’ll only ever take class with someone who is a bestseller in my particular genre.’ And I’m not criticising that opinion, that’s a perfectly valid opinion, but speaking as someone who has done a Masters in Creative Writing and been taught by very very talented writers, not all of them are great lecturers, not all of them are great tutors. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So I’m not sure I completely agree with that.
Sacha: I completely agree and that’s why I wrote it, because I’d learnt these lessons. You know, one of the things that I was really keen to do, because I was also reading a lot of writing craft books at the time, was create something that wasn’t dry because so many of these writing craft books, forgive me, they are incredible fountains of knowledge, but they’re also so dry and I am a very sweary, very sarcastic author – I’m on my best behaviour today – so I just I wrote in my voice. So my writing craft book is sarcastic and it is sweary, but people like that. Well actually that’s not true. People either love it or they hate it. That’s fine. But you know I kind of I had a goal of making writing sarky and fun and not dry. And I think actually not necessarily having those years and years and eons of knowledge enables you to craft non-fiction in a way that’s slightly innovative I suppose.
Sarah: And another thing you said there about your voice and writing it in your voice I think that’s so key. And again it comes down to the teaching thing when I said that some of the lecturers maybe weren’t so good. They weren’t good for me. And what matters is your teacher is right for you and that’s why you know when writing craft book or business book or whatever it is will speak to a particular reader and it makes it the perfect match.
But if you don’t write your blog post or your teaching book or record your podcast then those readers out there who would respond to your voice don’t get a chance. And so I’m aware that we’ve sort of gone a wee bit into whole non-fiction antagonist, we’ve uses the word antagonist and I love a good antagonist so I was instantly drawn to that title but thinking in terms of protagonist and antagonist doesn’t always come naturally to everyone. So I thought before we go any further we should maybe just have some basic definitions.
Sacha: Yeah absolutely. So I kind of think and talk about villains and antagonists as being on a continuum. So a villain is somebody or a character who is inherently evil and by evil I mean perhaps they perpetrate acts of violence.
They might murder lots of people, their mindset is very dark. An antagonist, the similarities with the antagonist is that an antagonist gets in the way of the hero. So they are a blocker or an obstacle. They they want to prevent the hero from achieving his or her goal but they aren’t necessarily evil at the core.
So a good example of this would be Harry Potter. You have Lord Voldemort who is a villain. He is evil. He you know he kills people freely. And one of the, I mean there are many antagonists in Harry Potter, but one of the most obvious ones would be Draco Malfoy. You know he’s just you know he does step in the way of Harry. A lot.
But at his core he’s just a bit of a weak coward. He’s not necessarily evil and violent. And so with a protagonist and a hero the protagonist is typically who the story is about and a hero is somebody who will have you know magical powers or they would be Superman somebody who tends to have you know unnatural amounts of strength or skill or power.
Sarah: Okay. So what makes a good antagonist?
Sacha: Another great question. So there are so many things, so many things! I will try and summarise I think, I could be here all day because I just love it and I obsess about it, but I think I think one of the most common mistakes with villains or antagonists is not having a sound motive. We all do things for a reason, even villains. And I know that somebody is going to come and argue ‘well you know look at a psychopath they don’t necessarily have reasons or justifications for doing things’ and okay, sure, sometimes that is the case, but that’s the difference between writing truth and writing fiction. We we are writing fiction we are not writing truth, and in order to convey fiction effectively and make your characters believable you do need to have reasons and justifications for your characters doing things.
Sarah: So I know from my own experience that sometimes I get stuck in my story because I haven’t thought through my antagonist and their goals or their point of view properly. Is that something you’ve found?
Sacha: Yeah I think so and the thing that I always come back to is making sure you have the why behind that behaviour. This is a bit from my psychology background, but as children we build these things called heuristics in our brain. And they’re kind of a set of rules by which we categorise things so a square, as a child you learn that a square whether it’s big or small or red or blue or patterned is still a square.
And one of the things that we learn about people is that, you know, 99.9 percent of the time people do things for a reason which is why to make your villain believable, you have to come back to them having a why and a justification and a motive for doing something. And even more than that is having a cause or a driver behind the motive. And this is probably one of the key tips is to go further than just saying why your character is doing something.
For me, I try to link my villain’s behaviour to something that happened in their past.
So we always talk about heroes and how they have a wound that creates the flaw but actually your villain ought to have the same thing. You know they are perpetrating things that are bad or they’re doing these negative actions that are getting in the way of the hero. And and why is that? Go create a motive and then go back into their past. I’m not saying that you have to have reams of background and information dumps in your story but you knowing why your villain is doing something will help you naturally convey more believability and depth in your villain.
And the last thing that I do is that I try to connect that flaw or wound in your villain to the theme. Your hero obviously embodies the theme itself and your villains should embody the ante theme so the opposing kind of force to whatever your theme may be. And I try to derive something that happened in their past that is connected to that. So say if your theme is sacrifice perhaps your villain failed to sacrifice something back in their past, and perhaps they lost somebody that was really important to them and that then would be the why and the drive and cause behind the motive for why they’re behaving the way they are now.
Sarah: So, developing your hero and your antagonist kind of in tandem is a good idea, then?
Sacha: Absolutely and I talk about this in, I think it’s my heroes book, but I actually try to develop all of the characters in tandem and I know that’s really overwhelming and it sounds ridiculous, but bear with me. So often we just concentrate on the hero, but if you’re a smart author you will look at the hero and the villain as kind of a yin and yang with each other.
But actually if you can take that one step further and look at how all of the characters are an embodiment of your theme.
A good example of that would be the Hunger Games. So Katniss embodies the theme of sacrifice. She constantly sacrifices herself for others. The villain, President Snow, embodies the anti theme in that he constantly sacrifices other people for his own benefit. But when you look deeper at the story and you look at the other characters they are all reflections on that theme. So Rue for example is a good portrayal of this, in that she is also a tribute. For those who don’t know what the Hunger Games is it’s essentially a dystopian novel where lots of these children have to go and fight each other to the death. And Rue is one of these children fighting against Katniss and instead of fighting and killing Katniss which because she has the opportunity to she decides to save Katniss. So Rue in herself makes a sacrifice and is a reflection of that theme in a different way and all of your characters should do that. They kind of mesh together on different representations of the theme. Does that make sense?
Sarah: Absolutely. And while we’re on heroes, what do you think makes a really good hero – is it that link to the wound that you mentioned?
Sacha: Absolutely. My favourite types of heroes are heroes who aren’t perfect. I think heroes who are perfect are boring. And I think your readers are going to think that they’re boring as well.
So you know I think the best kind of heroes are the messy dirty ones who make bad choices and poor decisions, but they learn from them. For me, having a hero who does have a bit of a moral greyness to them I think builds depth because it makes them more of a reflection of humanity. We are not perfect beings. And I think when you when you can kind of embody that in your hero it makes your reader connect much more, and on a much deeper level your hero because they can see parts of themselves in your in your characters.
Sarah: And it’s seeing them struggle as well, isn’t it? I know when I first started I found it quite difficult to be mean enough to my characters because I like them. I wanted them to make the right choices because I knew they were a good person and I like them. But, as you say, making sure that they do fail, making sure that they don’t always make the right decisions, is super important. What you said about the yin and yang thing reminded me that one of my favourite types of antagonist is the doppelgänger antagonist, where they start out very similar to the hero and then you see them make different choices throughout the story.
Sacha: Absolutely. I think I think you can always see the difference between a hero and a villain when they are forced to make a choice in a difficult situation because the hero will make the right choice for the right reasons or, okay, sometimes they make the wrong choice but for the right reasons. But that’s more going into the anti-hero realm, but the villain will more often than not make the wrong choice or you know they’ll make the wrong choice for what they deem to be the right reason. And this is what I’m talking about, that moral kind of greyness. Sometimes, in the villain’s mind they’re making it for the right reason, which means morally they are on the right side of the line in their eyes.
Sarah: Do you develop your characters before you start writing, or do you just dive in and then get to know them as you write?
Sacha: So my writing process is still in fluctuation and kind of going through this process of change. When I wrote my first book I was very much a plotter, but what happened was I plotted for an entire year before I even wrote a word.
I was like ‘what are you doing? It’s going to take me 20 years to write this book unless I get on with it!’
I am moving away from that and I am actually now trying to write completely as a pantser. I haven’t quite found the right balance yet, but I think I am probably going to end up more on that continuum more towards the pantser side than I am the plotter side. I quite like to let the characters develop on the page because if I don’t they’re just going to do what they want anyway. You know I spent all of this time doing character interviews and development and, actually, they never ended up anything like what I thought they were going to end up. Yeah. I don’t know whether it was a newbie mistake or I was just delusional about what my process really was, but I stopped trying to control my characters and we all get along much better now.
Sarah: That’s fantastic. I think it is, as you say, a case of just learning what your own process is, and you don’t know that without doing it and trying things so that makes a lot of sense. Because this is the worried writer I do like to ask about blocks and things, so do you have any tips for writers who are maybe trying to come up with a really good antagonist or they’re trying to round out their characters either while they’re writing or in the planning stage? Do you have any methods that you would offer people to get unblocked on that.
Sacha: Yeah absolutely. A few actually. So that the first thing to say is to just stop what you’re doing and write something completely different. So I play this game with some of my friends and we call it the one word game or the one sentence game and somebody will pluck a random word out of thin air or out of the dictionary or out of something they are reading, and we will just write a sentence. Or a paragraph or sometimes we end up writing a whole page, it really just depends.
The point of that is to just get you writing because, so often, the answers to block come when you are not brow furrowing and concentrating on trying to find the answer, but when you’re in the shower or, if you’re me, when you’re driving and have no pen. So that would be the first one. Write some flash fiction – something that doesn’t have to be part of your story or whatever.
The second thing would be to take your character out of your story and put them in a high stress situation and just write it completely out of context. Put them in a different story or a different situation, because people as a whole tend to show their truest self when they are under high stress or high pressure. So that’s something that I quite like to do. And another thing to do would be to either add in an obstacle or throw in some conflict. Now for me conflict comes at kind of three levels. So you have a macro conflict which is you know usually kind of in dystopian it’s like wars it’s world battles or societal issues or you have micro conflict which is between characters.
That’s often the best unblocker for me is to put an argument or a problem between two of the characters because that will lead you to generating more plot, and then you have inner conflict and this is one of my favourites. So inner conflict is where your characters have emotional battles. So a good example of this would be Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. And actually George R.R. Martin generally does a lot of this, but Ned Stark has kind of two personal values. The first one is that he values wisdom and the second one is that he values loyalty and he is very loyal to the king who asks him to go and work for him in the palace. But Ned’s wisdom leads him to realize that he’s probably going to die if he does that. That puts his two most valued values against each other. What does he go with? Does he go with his wisdom or his loyalty? And that butts up against each other and gives him this inner conflict that he has to kind of turmoil over and that will also usually unblock for me or if it doesn’t necessarily unblock me it will unblock the characters who will then tell me what I need to write.
Sarah: While we’re on the subject, we’ve been talking about quite big stories with real villains – the examples of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games – but something that sometimes people ask me is what to do if you were writing a romance or a quieter story that doesn’t have a serial killer as the villain? I’m aware that you still need an antagonist; are there things in your book about crafting super bad villains that are applicable to people who are trying to write those quieter or non-crime-driven stories?
Sacha: Absolutely. So talking about that kind of inner conflict, that’s often what you see in romance stories. So you’ll see a character conflicted against what they think they should do versus what their heart wants them to do. And I talk about that kind of turmoil and how to create that conflict and that is genreless, almost. Also, one of my favourite topics in there is around mental health, because so often villains are given a mental health issue and it’s the reason why they’re doing their thing that they’re doing. And actually that just creates stigma, it creates discrimination, and it’s just wrong. Mental health does not cause you to behave badly. You being a bad person causes you to behave badly! There’s that chapter as well which spans genres. There’s also a chapter on clichés and clichés tend to span genres. So yes I have tried to make my book as genre-less as possible and I have got examples from lots and lots of different genres as well. I also have a book on endings and I talk about which endings most suit which genre.
Sarah: That’s brilliant because I know that sometimes it can be a wee bit trickier to get a handle on conflict or villains or antagonists when you are writing those kinds of stories. So that’s fantastic. Now I want to move on a wee bit to your writing process and so on, and your head space and time management particularly since now you have gone full-time which is great. You’re writing and publishing in two separate genres, and that of course requires lots of different tasks. And I just wondered how do you balance the various parts of your professional life both in terms of the head space and the time management?
Sacha: Really badly!
It’s hard for me to answer how I am going to be doing that because I’m really literally only in my first week of being fully self-employed. So, I mean how did I manage it before when I was working full-time? I have a five year old and I have a wife and a house and I managed it really badly.
I was essentially working two full-time jobs. And it’s not healthy, it’s not clever and I ended up suffering from burnout all of the time. I had really bad imposter syndrome all of the time, really bad doubt, because of course all of these things derive from being exhausted and not treating yourself very kindly not giving yourself any self-care. I mean the biggest thing that I did was to make lots of sacrifices. So I gave up TV about four years ago, I think. I will binge watch something on Netflix once I’ve finished a project or once I’ve hit a goal. But, of an evening, I wasn’t watching TV anymore and you would be surprised quite how much you are capable of achieving if you don’t watch TV. You know I kind of gained four hours every evening. People like to say they don’t watch TV. Trust me you are watching TV! I gave that up.
I kind of withdrew a bit from my social circle. So I would go out less so that I had more time to write, I would get up early sometimes, I would also write on my lunch break or I would do marketing and admin on my lunch break at work and when I was walking down corridors at work I would write a sentence or two on my phone. I had Dropbox and iCloud sync up so everything was accessible everywhere, and you’d be surprised, I would go home sometimes with 1000 words because people had been late for meetings or I had to walk further for a meeting. So, I say badly, but I was just acutely aware of how I spent my time and I tried to maximize every opportunity to write or do marketing that I possibly could.
Sarah: Do you think it’s key to know why you’re doing that or to have a goal, as that sounds quite full-on?
Sacha: Yes, I don’t really recommend it. I did suffer some quite intense burn-out and that’s just inefficient as it stops you from working essentially.
Sarah: Do you have plans, now that you are full-time, for making sure you have boundaries and self-care?
Sacha: While I’m transitioning, I’m still doing some freelance work, so I’m trying to time-block so that I have calls or freelance work related time on some days and great swathes of time on other days so that I can do deep work. There’s a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport which is fantastic and it really helped me to set clear strategies for deep work.
One of the other things I gave up was exercise which was really bad… So, I’m planning to get back to that.
One of the other things is I have a Fitbit and that shouts at me every hour, if I haven’t moved enough, so that’s good, and there are some woods near my house so I’m planning to walk there.
Sarah: I also love Deep Work! Just to finish up what you working on at the moment or what’s next for you?
Sacha: I have three things. I want to finish my YA fantasy series, which is about a third done. The next is to finish my next non-fiction book. I don’t quite have the pitch down yet but it’s something along the lines of the anatomy of prose. I’m not looking at grammar, but sentence level word choice. It’s right down at the deep sentence level, on the exactly how you convey emotion, how you use juxtaposition to foreshadow etc etc. It’s my piece de resistance. And the last thing is creating some mini writing courses.
Sarah: Where can we find out more about you and your books?
Sacha: I have a website sachablack.co.uk. And that’s Sacha with a ‘c’. I have a blog and I’m on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I’m pretty much everywhere, please come and say ‘hi’. I don’t bite unless it’s a Tuesday!