YA fantasy is a huge genre, spanning every kind of story imaginable. We have stories of espionage and treachery, of destined lovers, and magical games. Yet, sometimes I find myself craving that classical fantasy. The kind where our hero takes on a quest, braves the elements and maybe some goblins, and (hopefully) returns home just in time for tea. Luckily, Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker brings us back to fantasy’s roots, drawing inspiration from the fantasy giant that is Lord of the Rings.
With a journey that goes “there and back again,” Forestborn takes us into a magical forest, where things go bump in the night, giants could step on you, and the trees can make you ill with madness.
We follow a young shapeshifter named Rora, whose best friend, the prince, has been infected by a magical illness that is sweeping through the kingdom. The only cure is stardust, the most rare magical element in the land. The only place it can be found is in the wilds where Rora grew up–a place she swore she’d never visit again.
However, Rora will do anything to save her dear friend. So along with her brother, and the young prince’s stubborn older brother, Rora sets off on a perilous journey through a sentient forest, while evading terrifying creatures and human hunters who would like nothing more than to fill her full of arrows.
Now creating your own world, much less writing it well enough for it to be published, is no easy feat. However, Elayne Audrey Becker came especially equipped for this task. Becker has previously worked as an editor for Tom Doherty Associates, giving her a unique insight on both sides of the publishing fence. She kindly let The Young Folks tap into her wisdom as she shared her experience of writing Forestborn as an editor turned writer:
You have the amazing perspective of being on both sides of the publishing fence, working as an editor first and now a published author. How has your time as an editor impacted your writing, and eventual creation of FORESTBORN?
Working as an editor helped enormously in improving my craft. Learning the strengths and weaknesses my colleagues identified in manuscripts, as well as the kinds of changes they recommended, enabled me to approach my own writing with a more solid foundation. When I began to build and edit a list of my own, categories I’d help authors develop further–characterization, pacing, worldbuilding, etc.–all became categories I worked on myself. By the time I left that job, I was a much stronger writer simply by having spent years absorbing those conversations.
I also learned a ton about the industry as a whole. One of the unfortunate realities for published authors is that 95% of the conversations taking place around their book happen in-house and therefore out of the author’s earshot. As a result, the publishing process can feel quite difficult to grasp. To be able to pull back the curtain and participate in that 95% for other authors’ books really helped remove much of the mystery for me. True, it means I’ve seen some of the skeletons in the industry closet, so to speak. But it also means I know more about the overall path to publication than I otherwise would.
One of my favorite fantasy tropes is shapeshifting, so I must say I was absolutely delighted to read the story of Rora and Helos. What were your influences and inspirations for this lush, vibrant tale of shapeshifters, giants, and magical woods?
Thank you! It’s funny, when I first came up with this story, I genuinely had no idea if anyone other than myself would find it cool to think about people turning into other people and animals. Nor did I have a specific inspiration for the shapeshifting angle; I just knew it was a type of magic I’ve always found compelling. So it’s really exciting to me when I hear it resonates with someone else.
In general, I have always loved adventure sagas that celebrate perseverance and grit. I particularly enjoy The Lord of the Rings’s there-and-back-again format, as well as lush fantasies dripping with atmosphere like Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest. With Forestborn, I wanted to write my own atmospheric, there-and-back-again adventure tale with one feature I wish I’d seen more often growing up: a young woman at the helm. I aimed to use this format to explore what happens when emotional damage becomes bound up in a person’s identity, and the ways trauma can continue to impact those who experience it even years after the fact.
Because of my nature-loving heart, it was particularly important to me to bring the land to the story’s forefront, so that it functions almost as a character itself. I rarely see North American wilderness used as a setting for high fantasy, which seems like a missed opportunity given how special it is—think of the National Parks! So while Forestborn’s cultural, historical, and political landscapes are entirely imagined, its geographical landscape—the continent’s topography, flora, and fauna—is inspired by North American wilderness and wildlife.
As writers, we all leave a small piece of ourselves in our characters. What character in FORESTBORN do you relate to the most? Did you have a favorite character to write and explore, and who was the hardest to write in your opinion?
It feels like a bit of a risk to say I relate most to the protagonist, lest anyone walk away thinking she’s a stand-in for me. She’s definitely not! Nonetheless, I’m going to say Rora. (Though there’s a good bit of Finley in me as well.) Her life story is vastly different from my own, but certain facets of her emotional evolution are realizations I’ve had to work through myself.
Her brother, Helos, was the most difficult character for me to figure out. The general sketch was there from the beginning, but it took me several drafts and deep dives into his head in order to shape those loose pieces into a deeper, more intricate portrait. Fortunately, I now have a very clear understanding of who he is, and he’s become a very special character for me.
As far as favorites to write, I find it genuinely difficult to choose between the four mains, but I’ll admit I have a soft spot for Weslyn and his quiet complexity. I just get him, through and through. And because I have a very clear understanding of who he is and how he came to be this way, it’s easy for me to put him in any given scenario and know how he’d react.
Now, I know that the writing journey is not all rainbows and butterflies. What was the most difficult part in the writing process for FORESTBORN and how did you overcome it?
Thinking about the writing process as a whole, the most difficult part was probably pushing through burnout. Forestborn evolved over the course of many, many drafts. I’m ultimately very grateful for this fact; the version on which I landed in the end is so much stronger than those early iterations. That said, once you’ve reworked a manuscript six or seven times already, it can be difficult to keep going back to the drawing board again and again (and again) in the pursuit of shaping the story into something even better.
What kept me going was that even at my lowest points, I could feel the book getting stronger. That’s an amazing feeling for any writer, and it’s what mattered to me the most—that I make this story the best version it could be, rather than calling it quits early on, simply because my brain was tired. For any writers who may be wading through the trenches, I can tell you with complete confidence: it’s worth it to take the time you need to make your story the best it can be. Keep revising.
Lastly, from both being an editor and a writer, do you have any advice for all us aspiring authors out there?
- Read actively, particularly in the genres you’d like to write. Instead of passively internalizing the story you’re reading, actively engage with what’s on the page. Take note of what you’re seeing that you think is working well versus what’s falling flat. Do you like the way a certain author approaches character work? Does a book’s pacing move too quickly or too slowly to achieve the level of depth you find most effective? Do you buy this on-the-page romance, or is it falling flat for you—and in either case, why is that? Ask yourself questions like these as you read, and you’ll begin to build a loose mental model for how you’d like to approach your own writing.
- Learn to take critical feedback. I truly can’t overstate the importance of learning to accept critical feedback. As writers, we get so close to our own work that it’s impossible for us to identify all the strengths and weaknesses on the page. Also, because writing can be such a personal endeavor, it’s easy to feel like critiques of your work are actually critiques of you. It’s important to separate the two! Identify the heart of your book and stick to it, but be prepared to change a lot of other things. Remember that edits exist to strengthen your story, not weaken it.
- Be kind. I can tell you from my experience as an editor that showing kindness as an author goes a long way. On the path to publication, remember that publishing professionals are people, too. (And they all have a lot to do, same as you.) Lashing out, throwing fits—none of that gets you anywhere. Be professional and polite. It’s not that hard.
- Always keep writing. I don’t mean that only from a never-give-up/perseverance standpoint, though that’s indisputably important, too. I also mean that the more you write, the more your craft improves. (Remember those multiple drafts I referenced for Forestborn?) So write, write, write.
- And on that note, don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. Sometimes, I think writers believe they have to have a book deal in order to call themselves writers. That isn’t true. Regardless of publication status, or if you even want to be published—if you write because you feel you have to, you are a writer. Own it.
Bonus question: We’re in the middle of summer, and the world is slowly opening back up for fun summertime shenanigans and adventures. How do you think Rora, Helos, Weslyn, and Finley would spend their summer vacation?
Since Rora has trouble letting down her guard, she’d probably be working as hard as ever while waiting for the other shoe to drop. When she’s not traveling the kingdom in different disguises, though, she’d be hanging with Helos and Finley—her two favorite people, and the only ones around whom she feels she can truly relax—or taking to the skies as a goshawk for a bit of respite.
Finley would absolutely be living his best life. Hitting some trails, galloping his horse around the royal estate—if he could spend every day outdoors, he’d be happy. (And yes, he did know about that prior obligation and decided to skip it anyway, but thank you for checking.)
Helos would join Fin whenever he could get time off from work at the apothecary shop, because anywhere Finley goes, Helos will follow. He’d also be hitting the pub for a pint and a bit of fun, or checking on Rora to see if there’s anything he can do for her.
Lastly, Weslyn has a pretty strong work ethic and would probably mumble something about duty while going about his daily routine. Still, he’d be sneaking in trips to swap books at the library or going for runs with his dog whenever he could. (Or journaling all his intense feelings, but shh, no one needs to know about that aside from Finley.)
Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker will release on Aug. 31, 2021.