Image: Cover for Havemercy. Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. (Spectra, 2008).

The books Havemercy, Shadow Magic and Dragon Soul are part of a fantasy trilogy written by 2004 Scholastic Writing Portfolio Gold Medalist Jaida Jones and her co-author Danielle Bennett. The books begin with a tale of two cities, Volstov and Ke-Han. Amidst warring magicians, macho dragon riders and their mysterious mechanical steeds, these rich characters must ultimately work together to find lasting peace. How did Jaida and Danielle publish three books (with a fourth on the way!) and conceive a rich fictional world with original characters? Like many epic sagas, it started out with a Scholastic Award, a story about firefighters, and a sensitivity training class at a summer job.

What was the inspiration for Havemercy?
Jaida: Havemercy [our first book] was inspired by a three-hour sensitivity training course during a summer job I was working between college semesters. The woman leading the course told a story about the hazing of women by a predominantly male firefighting force—peeing in their boots and bullying them in the locker rooms. For some reason, that story wouldn’t leave my head, so when I finally headed back to my desk, I shot Danielle an email about it. We’ve both always been very into the fantasy genre and kept tossing ideas back and forth about how to make that experience into something inherently fantastical. We talked about elves, flying motorcycles, and then suddenly hit on dragons.

How was your manuscript “discovered” or picked up to be published? What do you think made it appealing to your publisher?
Actually, we were pretty lucky. After I was included in an article published in the Wall Street Journal featuring fan-fiction authors who also wrote original works, our soon-to-be agent ended up finding my email address and asking me if I had any finished manuscripts lying around. Danielle and I had just finished writing Havemercy, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I hand-delivered the manuscript and two weeks later, that agent called saying she really enjoyed the book and that she would love to represent us.

Danielle: We waited a long time—for us, but not in the publishing world!—to hear back after our agent sent it out to publishers. Six months later, we received an acceptance letter from Bantam Spectra’s Anne Groell at Random House. She worked hard to help us polish what we already had, and she loved our characters just as much as we loved them.

Do you feel your Scholastic Portfolio Award helped prepare you for this process?
Jaida: There was absolutely no sci-fi or fantasy in my portfolio when it won the national gold. It was poetry and a few short works of personal essays/memoirs. But the scholarship that was awarded to me helped me go to Barnard, and across the street from Barnard was Columbia, where I ended up taking a lot of East Asian history classes that influenced the fantasy worlds I was building. At the same time, the poetry that did win the Scholastic Award was published in a small collection that was featured in that Wall Street Journal article, which is how we ended up getting in touch with our agent. So things happened in an admittedly accidental, roundabout way, but everything really does tie back in with that first national recognition.

How did you brainstorm the fictional world in this book?
Jaida and I always start with the characters and character dynamics. Part-way through the book, I drew a map in MS Paint that would help us get a better feel for the lay of the land. We wanted to write about dragons, but we wanted to make them different. Jaida has always been obsessed with old clocks and clockwork, so we came up with this idea of dragons that are built and infused with personalities, with their own capriciousness and personal quirks.
Image: Map of Volstov and Ke-Han empires. From Dragon Soul (Spectra, 2010).

What was some of the feedback you got from your editor about your first draft?
I still remember how enormous our editorial letter was. Thirteen pages! That’s just our editor’s style, however. She broke down what needed to be changed page by page. One of the things I remember her coming back to again and again was the fact that she was looking for a lot more build-up in the beginning, so that we could lay the groundwork for the conclusion.

How did you respond to that feedback?
Danielle: It was really, really daunting at first. There were moments at the start when we had to ask ourselves, why did she even want this imperfect book at all? But in the end, after working hard to give her the manuscript she’d been hoping for, it became clear why she’d been so specific and meticulous. She was making sure we spent as much time as we possibly could world-building. Her method was incredibly helpful in terms of breaking down the different elements we had to improve on. We even ended up color-coding them, with green highlighter for world-building issues and pink for character relationships.

Is there anything you learned the “hard way” about writing fantasy and science fiction series that you think others could benefit from?
Jaida: We didn’t write our first book with an outline or even any plan of where we were going and what we were doing. While it was an amazing amount of fun figuring out where we were going while we were going there, it also made for a lot of revision work later. So planning things out in advance definitely helps in the long run.

What are some of the important elements of a series that help people come back?
Jaida: I wish I knew! What has always caused me to come back to a series has been the characters. What will happen to them? Where will they go after the so-called ‘end?’ That’s how I’ve always written—with characters first, everything else later—and that’s
how I read, too.

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