After deciding writing was the only thing “that made sense” for her to do, Caryn Larrinaga just released her first book, which you can find on Amazon.com by following the link, “Donn’s Hill” on March 3. Below, she gives some great advice about not burning out, celebrating victories and how to balance working a day job with writing a novel.
First off, tell me about your new book.
Donn’s Hill is a cozy paranormal mystery set in a fictional (and extremely haunted) small town somewhere in the Midwest. In the book, a young woman with newly-discovered psychic powers is being harassed by the poltergeist of a local murder victim. She must use all of her strengths and rely on the help of some new friends to catch the killer before anyone else becomes just another ghost wandering the town.
Is this a debut novel or have you published books before?
This is my debut novel. (So exciting! I’d like to use way more exclamation marks than are acceptable in polite society!) I self-published a novelette called Hide and Seek in 2015, but this is both the first novel I ever finished and the first (so far) to get published.
Why did you want to write this book?
I’ve wanted to write murder mysteries for years, ever since I picked up a copy of The Cat Who Went Into the Closet at a book fair when I was ten. I hopped around a bit with my writing style and attempted a lot of books in a lot of genres, but kept coming back to mysteries.
The plot for Donn’s Hill was partially inspired by some paranormal experiences my mother and a friend of mine each had, and for the first time, I had a story that I felt I could finish. Just after I started the first draft, we had to put our cat Striker to sleep. She’d been with me for 20 years… it hit me really hard. I threw myself into writing and wrote her into the story. It helped me work through my grief, and I felt extremely motivated to finish the novel so that she could live on, in a way. That might sound crazy to some people, haha. Can you tell I’m a mega cat-person?
How long have you been writing?
Off and on: ever since I could read. In high school, I got into journalism and poetry, but wasn’t until I hit 30 that I really started taking writing seriously, and began writing with a specific goal of finishing short stories and novels. I credit my friend Mary Catherine Gebhard with that; seeing how she pours herself into her fantastic romance novels really inspired me. Writing novels stopped feeling like a pipe dream once I saw someone in my own life who was living that dream every day.
Now, basically, just take me through your normal day.
Well, since this is my first novel, writing is still my side job. I finish with my day job around 2 PM, then switch gears and—when I’m actually writing—try to write at least 1,000 words so I can be one of the cool kids on the #MonthlyWritingChallenge. I try to just spit out the words… it’s hard to not constantly stop and edit myself. If I’ve gotten a project back from an editor, I’ll edit instead of writing during that time. After dinner, I’ll play on social media for a bit while sort of watching a TV show. If I have the mental energy left in the evening, I’ll try to cram in another 1,000 words or some extra editing before bed.
Do you have a set time you write each day?
I try to write in the afternoon and late evening… “try” being the operative word. Crazy projects at my day job, chores, and sometimes just trying to maintain my sanity through R&R can often cut into that chunk of time. I think that in a lot of ways, writing has to be treated like any other job. You have to maintain a good work-life balance. I never want to get to a point where I resent “having” to write, so if I’m burned out from too many hours at work, or there’s something intense going on in my personal life, I try to forgive myself for missing my writing windows. As long as I’ve read, or maybe allowed myself to daydream for a bit about my characters and their world and what might happen next in the story, I don’t consider it a wasted day.
What rituals do you go through before you start typing?
It’s usually after I’ve logged off from my day job, so I like to take a shower. I like to imagine washing off the stress of the real world before transitioning to my imaginary one. The wheels in my brain tend to click away nicely in the shower, so I’ll sometimes figure out a way to get past a roadblock or resolve a conflict while I’m in there. Then I take my laptop to my blue couch, where I only sit to read or write and dive in.
What helps you stick to a writing habit?
Self-imposed deadlines are helpful. I’ll tell myself, “I have to finish this outline before Friday,” or “I have to finish this novel by November,” and then I’ll reward myself with a treat if I hit that mark. Being a part of a writing community is also really motivating; I like to participate in the #MonthlyWritingChallenge while I’m writing my first draft. If I’m really desperate to get something done, I’ll promise my beta readers that I’ll have something for them by a certain date, so that I’ll feel like I’ll be letting them down if I don’t get my butt into gear.
What’s a good day for you?
For me, a good day is one where I’ve made progress on a project. Finished plotting, written a good scene, edited a chapter, whatever. As long as I’ve done something, I’m happy. The best days are when I’ve been struggling with something like figuring out why on earth a particular character might make a choice I need them to make, and I’ve had a sudden breakthrough and plowed through a couple thousand words. As noted above, this breakthrough usually happens in the shower. 🙂
Do you set goals each day, week, or month?
Yes, but so far… I haven’t been great at meeting anything but daily goals. I wanted to write a short story each week, then a short story each month. I wanted to write two novels a year. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m really happy with the things I’ve produced so far, so I’m not terribly upset about it.
One of these years, though… twelve short stories and two novels. Maybe. Ha.
What advice would you give those just starting a writing habit?
I’d tell them to set realistic goals and to be forgiving of themselves if they miss the mark. Don’t expect to go from writing nothing every day to cranking out 2,000 words every night after dinner. Recognize and celebrate your successes, and don’t berate yourself when you fall short. Take the opportunity to re-assess and see if maybe you need to set a more attainable goal.
I also think starting a writing habit is a lot like trying to lose weight. It was literally a lifestyle change for me. I had to make room in my life by saying “No” to other things I liked to do. Less socializing on weeknights, less video games on the weekends. With the goals I’ve set for myself, I’ve had to make writing a real priority.
What tips, tricks or pieces of advice have you found that works?
There are two things I’ve found extremely helpful: first, to write something, anything, every single day. Even if it’s just one paragraph or the back story for a character that’s not even going to be included in the story. Stay limber. Yes, even on Sundays or whatever you consider your “day off.”
The second is something Martin McConnel talks about in his guide, Finish the Damn Book! It’s a simple concept that I struggle with, and I have to remind myself of it every single time I sit down to write: you don’t draft a finished novel. First drafts are called first drafts for a reason; they’re the first of many drafts. So yeah, the stuff I wrote today kind of sucks. But it’s okay—it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be there, so that I can build on it and make it better later.
Caryn Larrinaga is a Basque-American mystery, horror, and fantasy writer living in Utah with her husband and cats. Despite obtaining a degree in Anthropology (which is much cooler than you might think), she explored several career paths before deciding that she had to follow her passion.
Suddenly, writing fiction was the only thing that made sense.
Watching scary movies through split fingers terrified Caryn as a child and inspires her to write now. She lives in a 90-year-old house with a colorful history, and the creaking walls and narrow hallways send her running (never walking) up the stairs from her basement whenever she has no other choice but to go down there. Exploring her fears through writing makes Caryn feel a little bit less foolish for wanting a buddy to accompany her into the tool shed.
When her fingers aren’t glued to her laptop keyboard, Caryn also enjoys binge-watching superhero television shows, reading, playing video games, and filling up her phone’s flash memory with pictures of her cats. She loves music, and plays the bass guitar.
Caryn is an active member of the League of Utah Writers and the Utah Chapter of the Horror Writers Association.