Author and podcaster Sacha Black joins us to talk about The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences, which is the latest book in her Better Writers series. Sacha also discusses what led her to kicking off the series with a book on villains and how she knew she was ready to write non-fiction books.
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.
- Episode 136 – Launching an Amazon Bestselling Fiction Book in 2020 on The Career Author Podcast
- The Lesbian Book Club Summer Special! on The Lesbian Book Club Podcast
- Sacha Black website
- 13 Steps to Evil: How to Craft Superbad Villains by Sacha Black on Amazon
- Warning: These 5 Points Will Help You Create Awesome Female Villains on Sacha Black’s website
- 6 Terror Tactics For Really Scary Villains on Sacha Black’s website
- 6 Simple Steps to Superbad Villains on Sacha Black’s website
- 10 Steps to Hero: How to Craft a Kickass Protagonist by Sacha Black on Amazon
- The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences by Sacha Black on Amazon
- The Rebel Author Podcast website
- The Next Level Author Podcast website
- Sacha Black Instagram
- Big Gay Author Podcast Social Media:
- Jeff & Will’s Websites & Social Media:
Interview Transcript – Sacha Black
Jeff: Sacha, welcome to the podcast. It’s so good to have you here.
Sacha: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff: I’m super excited. We get to talk about your Better Writers Series and in particular, we’ll get into “Anatomy of Prose” in a moment, but tell us about the Better Writers Series in general.
Sacha: So, I have a deep passion for learning and specifically craft. Of course, like all indies, I spent time learning the marketing and business too, but my real passion is learning craft. And I’m senile, so unless I write down the stuff I’m learning, it is going to just go in one ear and fall out the other. So, I started sharing my lessons online and ultimately it ended in me turning it into books. I have three main textbooks at the moment. The first one that first got published is “13 Steps to Evil: How to Craft a Superbad Villain.” And then there’s one on crafting better heroes and then we have the latest one, “The Anatomy of Prose,” which looks at improving your story at the sentence level because I felt like most books that look at sentence level are really looking at grammar. There wasn’t really anything on the market that truly looked at better prose, better characters at the sentence level, better description. So, yeah. So, yeah, hopefully, they all help you become better writers.
Will: How did you decide the topics that you wanted to tackle?
Sacha: So, the first book, the book on villains came out of a very violent rant. Basically, I was ranting about how shit villains were in general and how most people failed, or most stories, most films were failing to really capture the essence of what a villain should be. And so, I was ranting about this and the fact that all story is about change, it’s about emotional change, the change that the hero goes on, but without some kind of conflict, you cannot…like you don’t change because humans are habitual creatures. We like to stay in our little boxes and, you know, have our newspaper and coffee in the morning. So, unless there’s something shoving these people, these heroes into action, you don’t get change, therefore, you don’t have a story. And the source of that change and that conflict is the villain. And so, this was where the rant went and I got about 100,000 hits on that post in a very short space of time.
And I was like, whoa, obviously, like this is a topic that is either underserved, there’s not enough information, or there’s not enough books. So, I did a bit of market research and discovered there was no…well, I think there was one or two other books on the topic. So, that’s what led me to writing that book. In terms of the hero book, that was literally the flip side. I’d done the villain so I figured, you know, and actually quite a few of my readers had said, “Are you going to cover heroes as well?” So I did.
And then “The Anatomy of Prose” was completely different. So, that came from two places. The first one is my deep love of learning. And I have this obsessive geeky way of reading, and I always have a pencil, and I have 5,000 sticky tabs, and I will underline things, and then once I finish the book, I will go back and look at all of the things that I’ve underlined to pattern spot. And somebody once said I was like forensic in the level of detail that I go down to try and see what tools or literary devices that the authors are using. And I wanted to share that. And I’d also spent quite a while doing developmental editing. And I felt like I was repeating myself a lot with a lot of common mistakes that newer writers were making. So, I was like, well, actually, maybe rather than doing one-on-one developmental editing, if I put it all into a book, I could help one to many in that respect. So, yeah, that’s where it came from.
Jeff: Your latest book, “The Anatomy of Prose,” which you subtitled “12 Steps to Sensational Sentences,” I thought it was really epic in what it covered. I mean, it really, to me, I think will become almost a checklist of things to look for in my manuscripts as I go. And that it’s going to be as helpful…I recently did J Thorn’s “Supercharge Your Scene” where he really breaks down scene structure. I feel like this is the next drill down from that. How did you manage to hone all of this into 12 steps?
Sacha: With a lot of gin and great difficulty. It’s a good question. And I think it was literally having written two other non-fiction books and understanding that layering and structuring. So, my process for writing any non-fiction is to do all of the research before I start. And that looks like me reading, underlining, and putting quotes and lessons and thoughts into basically as coherent brain dumps as I can possibly do. And I section them. So, for example, or I might’ve read five books and out of those five books, I had lots of sections that talked about description. So, I dumped that in a file called description. And so, it’s literally pattern spotting for me. I tried to spot where the similar topics were or the similar devices were, for example.
And then it’s literally a process of, well, what fits together in the most logical way that gives a description from simple to complex. So, pattern spotting is probably the key tool that I use to draw a structure together. So, when I started, it was 18 steps and that just felt ridiculous. So, I tried to compile a few of them and that’s really why I have the last chapter the way the last chapter is because…so for anybody who doesn’t know about the book, the last chapter is basically a reference section. Looking at all of the different types of literary devices that there are. Everything from juxtapositions, foreshadowing, breaking the fourth wall, metaphors, similes, all that kind of stuff. And then everything else essentially leading up to that builds up to then, and here are all of the devices that you can use.
Jeff: That makes sense. What’s the most difficult of the steps for you in your own work?
Sacha: It definitely changes. And the most difficult step at the moment is not in this book. The most difficult step that was for me was description. I used to have like a love-hate relationship with description. I always appreciated it and loved, you know, not literary description necessarily, but beautiful description. But I can never do it. And I remember, I think it must’ve been the first or second draft of my first book, basically, I got hauled over the coals for terrible description. So, I was like, “I will not be defeated by this.” So, I really, really made a point of trying to learn how to do description. And so, for me, that’s the chapter I’m most proud of because I came from such a place of hating it, finding it difficult, and obviously over time, I’m now at a point where it is quite literally my favorite part of writing. So, yeah, I love that that was a journey in itself. The thing I found most difficult at the moment is plotting and outlining. I just have now a love-hate relationship with plotting.
Jeff: Given that you’ve got the developmental editing background, how does that inform you as you’re doing your work? Because we were taught, we can never edit ourselves. Are you able to better edit yourself as a developmental editor and employ the steps that are in this book too?
Sacha: So, that is such a good question because developmental editing has been the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. And it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done because, by any form of teaching someone else, you learn yourself. And so, I have improved vastly by doing developmental editing, which in turn makes me a better developmental editor. But the downside of that is I am so fucking slow now. It is so painful. And I’m really fighting, I’m in the trenches now with myself trying to pick up that pace again and be comfortable with what I used to do, which was vomiting drafts out. I used to do that really crappy first draft. I would smash out a first draft. Now, like two years down the line, I still haven’t got to the end of my current draft, you know. So, yeah. The downside of it is that it has made me slower because I can’t help but do revisions as I’m going. And obviously, I’m not one of these writers…I’m not a Dean Koontz, I think it is, who gets to the end and that’s the end. I still have to go back, but I’m doing a lot more editing as I go. And I don’t necessarily think that’s the healthiest process at the moment for me.
Jeff: That’s interesting that you’re not trying to developmental edit yourself as you go instead of at the end. And one more thing I’ll throw out there since you are a developmental editor, I sing the praises of the developmental editor these days because I think they’re so important and I’ve seen how they improve my work. Tell people why they should use a developmental editor just to help drive the point home.
Sacha: Well, because with any story, you as a single writer will have this diamond that’s rough and it’s a terribly cliched explanation, but it really is true. And no matter how many times you get feedback from yourself, from critique partners, from writers, developmental editors are literally experts in this arena. You wouldn’t have an ankle operation by a heart surgeon. You’d have it by an orthopedic surgeon because they work on bone. But do you see what I mean? Unless you’re making bad decisions, you don’t do your own cover design. You pay for a cover designer who knows what they’re doing that’s an expert. And developmental editors truly are experts at shaping and chiseling and helping you to learn and grow.
So, you don’t get as much learning from a proofreader or a, you know, copy editor because they are literally correcting mistakes. If you get a good developmental editor, you will be a better writer at the end of that edit. When I developmental edit, I don’t just say, “You’ve made a mistake here, you’re filtering.” I will explain what that is and then I’ll explain and give a suggestion of how you can remove that filtering, for example. So, and good developmental editors will do that. So, you are investing both in bettering your story and bettering yourself forevermore and every book you write thereafter.
Jeff: I love the analogy of the orthopedic versus the heart surgeon. That really, I think, will help clarify it for some folks. So, I just had to go off on that tangent because I find those edits to be so important these days. Back in the book, you mentioned description being your thing as like what you worked really hard on. I love the word delicacy section because I find myself so often stuck with words that could be stronger, better, more powerful, more active, whatever. What have you heard from the readers of the book that they’re finding most helpful within these 12 steps?
Sacha: So, when I saw this question, I had to do something I do not normally do. And I had to go and read my reviews because I try to avoid like a radio button finding out these things because I fully ended up kind of just that. But yeah, so basically, it’s very mixed actually, which I’m really proud of because it means that everybody’s getting something different from the book. So, I had a quick look and people are saying all kinds of things from the quotable prose section to the character development, seeing it in a different light, like a different way to look at characterization, also at description. And the thing that I am most proud of that an early advanced reader said is that they felt like they had had a developmental edit when they had finished the book. And without realizing it, I think that was my intention with the book was to pull everything in that I had learned from developmental editing and that I do in developmental editing and to give that to readers. So, you’re gonna save yourself a whole bunch of money if you read it. But also, you still need a developmental edit, obviously.
Jeff: Yes. For whatever your specific book is, you still need the developmental edit. It just may go better. You’ve done companion workbooks for each of the installments in this series. What’s someone going to get from the workbook? Because I have to say, I haven’t picked up the workbook yet myself.
Sacha: So, the workbooks are very much for people who like doing writing exercises. And I know that not everybody likes to do the exercises. I’m one of these people that actually really likes to do them. So, I sort of selfishly write them for me, but I probably shouldn’t admit these things but you know, it’s true. So, yeah. So, basically, I go through every single section and I create exercises to help you then implement either the literary device or the lesson that I have given in that particular section. And in “The Anatomy of Prose” workbook, in particular, there’s a lot of self-reflection in there as well, which isn’t necessarily in the other two workbooks. But I feel like so much of your voice is shaped by your prose and sentence level choices and getting your voice as an author, I think, takes self-reflection. So, yeah, there’s also lots of exercises in there about reflecting on the things that you’ve done in those exercises.
Jeff: Do you have more books planned in this series?
Sacha: Yes. I will never stop writing non-fiction. I have a cover for the next non-fiction, but it’s only a little bubba of a book. In terms of the next big ones, I’m actually really struggling. The two things that I’ve been asked to do are one on editing and one on characters holistically. So, obviously, I’ve looked at heroes and villains, but the request has been characters, character development, and sub-characters, like side characters, in particular, side characters. So, those are the two that I’m getting people asking me to write. Another part of me wants to do something on story structure, but I don’t think I’m there yet. So, yes, what should this say?
Jeff: It’s interesting here you say that you’re not quite there yet, maybe with story structure. I’m always very into asking folks who write non-fiction or who teach, how do you know when you’ve crossed the invisible line where you employ all of this craft to where you now feel confident in teaching or writing about it? What was that line for you?
Sacha: That’s such a good question. I think you kind of hit it on the head. I’m a very unconfident person. And when I feel confident about a topic, then I’m confident to write about it. So, I suppose it’s when I start talking about it more, be it on the podcast or in person or on Q&As or in blogs. When I start writing notes about it. Also, I do a lot of research in whatever topic I’m going to write on. So, I think that also comes a point where I start to feel saturated in what I’ve put in and then it starts coming out. So, I won’t ever write a non-fiction book unless I have read a lot of things that I can get my hands on and I’ve done research and I’ve talked to people and all of this good stuff. So, yeah, I think hit a saturation point with the inputs and then literally it starts flowing out and that’s when I start to feel confident because I’m like, “Okay, I can’t take in anymore. Therefore, it has to start coming out.”
Jeff: What kind of guidance would you give to authors who are thinking about crossing in to non- fiction like this?
Sacha: Do it. Because you will learn so much and you will solidify things that you know through writing non-fiction. The other thing that I would say is the structure is the hardest part. Definitely. And don’t be afraid to keep changing that structure. No matter how much I have thought about and planned and prepared structure in my head before I start a book, it always changes with the non-fiction. So, don’t be afraid to do that. It’s okay if you need to change the structure, but yes, absolutely do it. You know, because if for no other reason than selfish gain because you grow from putting these lessons and things that you’ve learned down on paper. So, yeah, I encourage everybody to do it.
Jeff: And I find too that, you know, I’ll read different books about the same topic, and then finally there’ll be something in one of them that really resonates. Would you agree you don’t necessarily have to be breaking new ground if you think you have a new way to say it?
Sacha: Completely. And this is the wonderful thing about non-fiction. So, I read so many self-help books. It is unbelievable. And 99% of the time I’m reading the same shit I’ve read 500,000 other times, right? But every so often, I’ll come across an author with a voice where everything just makes sense. And this is why even if you think you have a non-fiction book in you, you should write it because you will be that voice for somebody that changes everything. You will be an epiphany for somebody and, therefore, the world needs your book, your voice, your spin on whatever topic it is that you are writing. And the other thing to say is when you get somebody who likes non-fiction and they read in a particular genre, they will read 20 books on the same topic. Just like me. I just said it literally. I can’t tell you how many self-help books I’ve read. And, therefore, there can never be enough self-help books out there for me. So, yeah, if anybody thinks, “You know, the market’s saturated,” that’s a load of shit. It’s not, keep writing and publish that book.
Jeff: Speaking of more non-fiction, we love your podcasts. Please tell everyone about them and where they can find them.
Sacha: Okay. So, the first one is “The Rebel Author Podcast,” which should be on all podcatchers. And also I sort of do an audio play, a thingy on, you know, my technical words on my website, which is sachablack.co.uk. And “The Rebel Author Podcast” is basically what it says on the tin. So, it is a podcast for creatives and writers who are a bit cheeky, a bit rebellious, love a bit of sarcasm, you know, naughty potty mouth me. And basically, I interview people like wonderful people like yourselves and try and glean lessons for other writers to help them improve their craft, business, marketing, all that good stuff. “Next Level Authors” is co-hosted by me and Daniel Willcocks, my buddy, my friend, my enemy. No, I’m joking. We’re very, very…we banter each other a lot. It’s fun. And each week we ask each other a question with the aim of learning something to help us reach the next level in our author careers and with the secondary hope that it helps other writers also reach the next level by learning from our fuck-ups.
Will: That would be…you could just make that the new tagline.
Sacha: Yeah, “Learn for our fuck-ups.” Yeah, sorry, guys. “Don’t do this.”
Jeff: So, Sacha, how can we keep up with you online and find out the next books that are coming, podcast announcements, everything else?
Sacha: So, basically, the website I mentioned, which is sachoblack.co.uk. And Sacha with a C and not an S. Podcasts are on all normal podcatchers. And if you want to interact with me, I am most active on Instagram and that’s @sachablackauthor.
Jeff: Fantastic. We’ll link to all that stuff in the show notes so people can find it really easily. Sacha, thank you so much for hanging out with us and talking to us about “Anatomy of Prose.”