Writing Advice with MJ Pankey

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MJ Pankey is the author of Epic of Helinthia, published earlier this month under her imprint Muse and Quill Press, and several short stories, as well as a freelance editor. We’re so excited to have MJ on our blog today to answer some questions about valuable writing advice and her publishing journey!

Hi! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new novel, Epic of Helinthia?

Hello! My name is MJ Pankey and I’ve always been in love with the idea of inventing stories to fill in the blanks my own human limitations created after seeing something—what are they really thinking? What if this happened instead? When I was 12 or 13, I read the Iliad, and this began my love of Ancient Greece. I wanted more of that world, of the gods, of heroes and hubris, and that’s where the main threads of Epic of Helinthia took root. Epic of Helinthia is a 20-year project that has been reimagined and rewritten so many times, finally becoming a story about five heroes embarking on a quest to appease the gods and save their island from famine and social upheaval.

What did your road to publishing look like for Epic of Helinthia?

From the get-go, I knew I didn’t want to go the traditional publishing route. During the height of the pandemic, I took time off work to focus on family and my writing, and during this time, I built a writing community through hosting my local critique group and interacting on twitter, and I beta read and critiqued several books that my new friends kept receiving rejections for, and it frustrated me to see these great authors discouraged about their work and exhausted from their struggles in the “query trenches”. Out of solidarity and self-imposed boundaries on my own mental health, I decided I was just going to indie publish. It’s been a long, exhausting road, but I’m very happy I chose this route. I’ve learned so much about publishing and been able to connect with readers and other authors in so many ways, and that has been very fulfilling.

Considering both of your roles as an author and an editor, what is the most valuable piece of writing advice you can give to rising authors?

New and experienced writers often get stuck trying to write a particular scene and decide to pause their writing and come back to it when inspiration comes, but then it doesn’t. This has happened to me a lot, and the inspiration never comes until I completely change gears, either by writing the scene completely different than how I planned, or by writing something else entirely, and then the magic begins to flow. Writer’s block has many causes, but sometimes it’s just your Muse telling you that what you think needs to be written isn’t what It wants you to write, and there is no inspiration without your Muse. So try something different. But always keep writing.

Epic of Helinthia is going to be a series. Do you follow any particular method when plotting out the next several books? Series can be intimidating for so many writers!

I usually begin by creating a major conflict happening in-world, and then determine how that conflict will be resolved. From there, I find characters among the populace to achieve that aim. I usually know at least three or four major milestones or events that will happen as well, but my characters are largely a mystery to me. They tell me how they will grow as they encounter these obstacles on the page, rarely before; I learn everything about my characters as I write them.

Long drives listening to epic/cinematic music really inspires my Muse as well. On my recent drive back from my summer book tour in June, I listened to my playlist for about 5 hours of the leg, and my entire book 2 played itself out in my head. Some of my characters looked me in my third eye and told me how they were going to take matters into their own hands, and I was quite surprised and delighted by it. I’m very excited about the sequel and hope readers will be just as eager to read the next part of Helinthia’s story.

From an editor’s perspective, what makes the beginning of a story stand out and gets you to keep reading?

En Media Res is my absolute favorite. Books that begin in the middle of the action and disorient me pique my curiosity so much! I want to know immediately what is amiss, it can be something happening in-world or a character thought, or some other little drop of intrigue. I love first lines and first paragraphs that make me think “oh snap! What is happening?”

What is your favorite and least favorite aspect of writing as a craft? (e.x. plot, dialogue, etc.)

My least favorite part is dialogue. I enjoy setting the scene, plotting and planning, and imagining everything out, and most of the writing is enjoyable when the inspiration is flowing. But dialogue is a challenge for me, mostly because I’m worried it will sound boring, too dramatic, or too forced for plot purposes. I’m constantly having to rethink what someone would actually say in the situations I’m writing, and it becomes more complicated trying to stay true to the character’s unique voice. I definitely spend most of time with dialogue, but when it’s right it makes all the difference in the story.

Can you provide links to any websites or social channels you’d like readers to follow?

Social links are:

Instagram: authormjpankey

TikTok: @mjpankey

Website: mjpankey.com

Cover of Epic of Helinthia by MJ Pankey, who gives fantasy writing advice in this blog post.

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