Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed science fiction author Rachel Churcher about her YA books, The Battle Ground Series, including the latest release; Balancing Act. Rachel shares her experiences, writing processes, and the writing advice she has to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Hi JJ – thank you for having me! I’m a lifelong Science Fiction fan with a recently discovered passion for YA novels – particularly dystopias. I live in the UK and I am very fortunate to have a large library at home, and a quiet space for writing. I’ve been juggling writing with freelance editing for three and a half years, and so far I’ve written six novels, one novella, and a book of short stories – all in the UK-based YA dystopian Battle Ground Series. I run a YA book club for my local branch of Waterstones, where I spend entirely too much money buying books for my towering TBR pile. I firmly believe that the problem is never too many books – just not enough bookshelves.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I can’t remember! I’ve been writing short stories and poems since infant school, and I’ve always wondered whether I would be able to write a full-length novel.
When did you take a step to start writing?
When a long-term freelancing contract came to an end with two day’s notice. It just before the start of National Novel Writing Month in 2017, and my colleagues had challenged me to take part. I’d refused, because I was much too busy at work – and then suddenly I wasn’t. I sat down to write on day one of NaNoWriMo, and six weeks later I had a 60,000 word first draft. There’s nothing like sudden redundancy to spur you into action!
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The first draft of Battle Ground took six weeks, followed by another six weeks of self-edits, recruiting my amazing proofreaders, waiting for feedback, and then another month or so of editing. I didn’t publish immediately – I wanted to write the full series before I let any of the books out into the wild. Getting from day one of NaNoWriMo to the publication of Battle Ground took about twenty months, during which I wrote and edited the core five books of the series, learned how to typeset, publish, and promote my own books, hired a cover designer, established a social media presence, wrote a stand-alone prequel novella to use as a reader magnet, set up Taller Books, and started a mailing list. It took another six months to publish all the books, at six-week intervals. The entire five-book series took two years, two months, and nine days of incredibly intensive work to complete and release.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
The latest book, Balancing Act, is a tie-in novel, revisiting the Battle Ground Series from a new perspective. I sat down at the start of lockdown in March 2020, intending to write a book of short stories narrated by side characters from the series. All the books have first-person narration, so there is plenty of ‘off camera’ action that the narrators don’t see, and I wanted to write some of those stories. One of the short stories turned into a novella, and then a novel, eventually clocking in at 85,000 words! Including proofreader comments, editing, and final corrections, it took around ten months to get to a finished manuscript, and about a year from start to publication.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Balancing Act?
The Battle Ground Series is a near-future, UK-based dystopia. The story is told from two points of view – Bex Ellman, the sixteen-year-old conscripted schoolgirl protagonist, and Ketty Smith, her army instructor and series antagonist. I knew there were important scenes that neither of my narrators had witnessed directly, and other characters with important details to add to the story, and I wanted to explore some of their experiences. I didn’t expect one of the stories to turn into a novel, but when I started writing, the narrator showed up and I realised he had a lot more to say than I could fit into a short story!
What were your biggest challenges with writing Balancing Act?
Revisiting a story I had already written and published came with a whole set of challenges! The protagonist of Balancing Act is Corporal David Conrad, who plays an important role in Ketty’s story through books three, four, and five of the series. His novel included plenty of new scenes, characters, settings, and storylines, but almost every word of his dialogue with Ketty had already been written. The first thing I had to do was sit down with the original books and map out all his existing conversations and actions, chapter by chapter. Everything I had already written needed to be recorded with a date and time, alongside the text of all his conversations. It was challenging to make sure every scene lined up with the previous books, but it was also an amazing experience to rewrite the action from inside a new character’s head.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
For the core books of the series, Bex, the protagonist, walked into my head when I sat down to write, and I spent the next two weeks writing more to figure out who she was. At the start of the first book she has just been conscripted into a branch of the army, and she’s about to start her training. I wanted to write a story about an ordinary British schoolgirl who has to grow up fast, and learn to survive in a dangerous and uncaring environment. She cares about her friends, and I wanted that to be her strength. She builds a family for herself at the army training camp, and those relationships, alongside Bex’s determination to protect her friends, drive the rest of the series. I wanted a character who cared about other people, and about justice, and her role and responsibilities in a dystopian, totalitarian society.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The series antagonist is Ketty Smith. In the first book, she’s one of the Senior Recruits at Bex’s training camp, and she enjoys bullying and beating up the young people under her command. She comes across to Bex as straightforward baddie, with no redeeming features, but I wanted to develop her character and find out what made her behave this way. One of my proofreaders asked to know more about her, and I ended up writing book two, False Flag, from her point of view.
Ketty’s book retells the story of Battle Ground, with annoying new recruits, childhood abuse at the hands of her father, and the pressure on her to build a career with the people running her dystopian society. I didn’t want a two-dimensional villain – I wanted to know why Ketty was cruel to the new recruits, and how she had survived and escaped a challenging childhood. In the later books, her point-of-view chapters alternate with Bex’s story, and I want readers to find themselves sympathising with both characters.
In Balancing Act, the tie-in novel, I’ve tried to give some background to Ketty’s anagonist, David Conrad. He’s not a nice person, and I know he makes readers uncomfortable. By giving him the first-person narration for book six, I hope I can demonstrate that stories are not automatically black and white, and that his motivations and actions are understandable, even if they lead to uncomfortable results.
I think that every antagonist sees themselves as the hero of their own story, and this will shape their decisions and their actions. Understanding this can make them more frightening – both Ketty and David have rational reasons for everything they do, even if their actions are horrific.
What is the inciting incident of Balancing Act?
At the start of Battle Ground, Bex is arriving at her army camp. She has already been conscripted and taken from her school, so that’s the moment when her life changes completely. She decides to keep her head down, stay safe, and do as she’s told until she can go back to school. The second inciting incident takes place half-way through the novel, when Bex witnesses a war crime. She has to decide whether to accept what she has seen, and continue working for the perpetrators, or risk everything to save herself and her friends. In this case her antagonists are the government and the army, who expect her to blindly follow orders while putting ordinary people in danger. It’s a tough decision for someone who never wanted to be a soldier, and never planned to risk her life in order to do the right thing.
What is the main conflict of your Balancing Act?
Bex is a law-abiding, rule-obeying schoolgirl faced with a horrifying event and an impossible situation. She wants to go back to school, pass her exams, and become a teacher or a doctor. She doesn’t want fame or glory – she wants good friends and a happy, quiet life. As the series progresses, she is forced to reassess her motivations. It becomes more important to stand up against the dystopian government than to follow the rules, more important to take care of her friends than to do as she’s told, and more important to fight back and get involved than to keep her head down and wait until she can go home.
At the same time, Ketty is tracking Bex and her friends when they escape from their training camp. Her career depends on bringing the missing recruits to justice – and the penalty is a show trial and a firing squad on live TV. While Bex is inspired to run, and to fight against the government, Ketty becomes more determined to track her down. If Ketty succeeds, Bex and her friends will be executed. If Bex succeeds, Ketty will find herself on the wrong side of history, and the career she has worked so hard to build will end in a prison cell – or worse.
Both narrators believe they are fighting for the right side, and both stand to lose everything if they fail.
Did you plot Balancing Act in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
After writing six novels, a novella, and a collection of short stories in the Battle Ground Series, I’ve learnt that I’m a plantster. I’ll sit down and write half a book – around 30-40,000 words – before I can see where the story is heading. There’s a ‘eureka’ moment when the conflicts, the characters, and the events come together, and at that point I draw up a chapter-by-chapter plan for the book. I’ll go back and adapt the chapters I’ve already written to fit the plan, and then continue writing until I have a finished first draft.
If I plan everything from the beginning, two things happen. The first is that the story feels dead to me. It’s like pinning a butterfly to a display board – it’s all there, but it’s missing something essential, and I lose interest in writing it. The second is that my characters will take a look at my plan and laugh, and before I know what’s happened they’ll be off doing things I hadn’t planned. The story will jump tracks and end up somewhere entirely unexpected!
By giving the characters free rein to do whatever they want for the first half of the book, I find I can steer them more effectively to a meaningful conclusion – and then go back and make sure they were always heading in the right direction.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Balancing Act need?
I was an editor before I started writing my novels. I’ve worked on national magazines, educational materials, and online resources, and I’ve learnt some editorial tricks during my career. When I finish a first draft, I polish it as much as I can and then send it to my five amazing proofreaders. I give them around six weeks to read it and send me comments, during which time I’m either drafting the next book, or freelance editing someone else’s work. I try not to look at my draft at all until I have feedback from all the proofreaders. This gives me the distance I need to come back to my book and edit it myself.
It’s not an easy task, picking apart your own writing and making sure it is as good as it can be, but I try to come to each novel as if I’ve never seen it before. I have my proofreader comments to indicate where the draft needs extra attention, and the distance to spot clumsy wording or disastrous plot holes. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being your own editor, but so far I’ve been able to make it work.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
The piece of advice that made novel writing possible for me came from the NaNoWriMo website: give yourself permission to write badly. Your first draft, as Terry Pratchett said, ‘is you telling yourself the story’. As a professional editor, I worked on transforming other people’s first drafts into polished text, and I realised I was expecting myself to write perfectly from the start. Allowing myself to write a bad first draft was absolutely liberating, and it gave me the opportunity to get my story on screen without getting tangled in the details. No one else has to see your first draft – all the polishing comes later. First, tell yourself the story.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have vague plans for several books, and I’m not sure which one I’ll end up writing next. I’d love to write some YA cyberpunk, and some grown-up space opera – two of my favourite genres as a reader. I have a partial plan for a superhero novel with a twist, and a sneaky idea for a retelling of one of the Arthurian legends. When I sit down to write, I’ll see which characters show up, and I’ll take it from there!
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely. Battle Ground, book one of the series, won a Wishing Shelf Book Award last year. It’s also a Reader’s Favorite Five-Star Book, and the reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and Library Thing have been incredible.
It’s a risky political story, set in a near-future post-Brexit totalitarian UK. Scotland has declared independence and the country is under Martial Law, cut off from the rest of the world. I wanted the series to be what David Brin calls ‘a self-avoiding prophecy’ – a dystopia that is recognisable, possible, and worth fighting against. I had no idea whether readers would follow me on this fight for justice and democracy, but the reviews and the reader support have been fantastic.
Readers have fallen in love with my characters (even the ones they wanted to hate!), and thrown themselves into the story. They’ve enjoyed the friendships at the heart of the books (the core books are almost romance-free), and they’ve constantly asked what happens next. They have inspired me to write the tie-in novel and short stories, and I hope they’ll come with me when I start on the next project, the next story, and the next cast of characters.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Series information: http://battleground.tallerbooks.com
Free prequel novella: http://freebook.tallerbooks.com
Blog (news and YA book reviews): http://blog.tallerbooks.com
Amazon author page: http://viewauthor.at/RachelChurcher
Balancing Act, book six of the Battle Ground Series, will be published on May 28th 2021.
Book seven, Finding Fire and Other Stories, will be launched on July 23rd 2021.