Serene Conneeley is an Australian writer with a fascination for history, travel, ritual, and the myth and magic of ancient places and cultures. She’s written for magazines about news, travel, health, spirituality, entertainment, and social and environmental issues, been editor of several preschool magazines, and contributed to international books on history, witchcraft, psychic development, and personal transformation.
She’s the author of the original Australian faery tale The Swan Maiden, the Into the Mists and Into the Storm trilogies, and the non-fiction books Faery Magic, Mermaid Magic, Witchy Magic, Seven Sacred Sites, and A Magical Journey, and creator of the meditation CD Sacred Journey.
Serene is a reconnective healing practitioner, and has studied magical and medicinal herbalism, bereavement counselling, reiki, and many other healing modalities, plus politics and journalism. She loves reading, drinking tea with her friends, working out, and celebrating the energy of the moon and the magic of the earth. Her pagan heart blossomed as she climbed mountains, sat in stone circles, crawled into ancient burial mounds, and stood in the shadow of the pyramids on her travels, and she’s also learned the magic of finding true happiness and peace at home.
Author interview – Serene Conneeley
Hi Serene, so lovely to have you here! I’m not a 100% sure, but you might be the first fellow Reiki practitioner I interview 😊 Let’s dive straight into the first question: When did you start writing, and why?
I’ve always written, I think because I’m shy—that was the way I expressed myself, and the way I made sense of the world too. I journalled and wrote poetry (much of it terrible, I’m sure!), and in high school I started writing for a national magazine, which convinced me to study journalism rather than social work, in the hopes I could help people through words. At university I became the first student editor of the uni paper, writing about environmental, health, and social issues, and the feedback that my stories were helping people encouraged me to continue. That’s still the main reason I write, whether it’s articles about suicide and dealing with trauma for teen magazines, spiritual development and healing for women’s mags, or my novels and non-fiction books.
So, you’ve been writing forever but…at what age did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?
It’s funny, as a journalist I always considered myself a writer, from my very first job fresh out of uni, and never felt I had to justify it—I wrote for magazines and newspapers, so I was a writer. But I still struggle to describe myself as an author, even after more than fifteen books. (Which seems a little silly as I write that!) While I was doing both, I would just say I was a journalist, but for the last few years, I’ve only been writing books, and I’m almost apologetic when I say I’m a writer. I guess I’m still a bit shy! I have moments of imposter syndrome, but I’ve discovered that most writers do—even my favourite authors, who’ve sold millions of books, struggle with self-doubt at times.
I don’t think it’ll ever go away, to be honest. But perhaps it’s what keeps us on our toes to do the best we can? So, how long did it take you to write your first book?
My first was the non-fiction book Seven Sacred Sites: Magical Journeys that Will Change Your Life, which is part spiritual adventure, part history, part travel guide. It took two years of seriously working on it (it’s very long!), but it was based on years of travel and magical experience, so far longer in some ways. With my non-fiction Magic series—Faery Magic, Mermaid Magic and Witchy Magic—which I wrote with my friend Lucy Cavendish, I spent a year on each book, and all six of my magical realism/fantasy novels took a year each too. With those ones, I spent each November writing 50,000 words in thirty days for National Novel Writing Month, then continued writing and editing for months—some ended up being 145,000 words long.
You know, the first ever card deck I bought was Wild Wisdom of the Faery Oracle, by Lucy Cavendish! Can you imagine my excitement when I realised you’ve written books together? What was your last book about? Was it another co-write?
The Swan Maiden is an original faery tale, about a black swan who transforms into a woman in order to help a young girl, and was inspired by the family of black swans in my backyard park. There is a traditional swan maiden faery tale, which is related to the selkie stories, about a hunter who sees seven swans cast off their feather cloaks to dance under the full moon. He steals a cloak so one of the sisters is trapped in human form, and he forces her to marry him, and give up her swan self, and she’s miserable until years later when, usually, her child finds her feathers, and she can fly away to freedom.
It’s a horribly sad story, but I’ve always loved the idea of transformation, and the search for your authentic self—so for me it was really important that Signet, my swan maiden, had agency. That she transforms for her own reasons, on her own terms. It’s about finding your voice, becoming your true and full self, and discovering where you belong and who you truly are.
I love that. What are you working on right now?
An original faery tale duology. I was part of an anthology of faery tale novelettes with a bunch of American authors recently—mine was (very loosely) based on The Snow Queen’s Daughter and imagines that Hans Christian Andersen’s villain had a daughter. I’m currently expanding it into a full-length book, and also finishing its companion novel, which is based on the journey that Gerda from the original faery tale makes to rescue her best friend, who the Snow Queen abducted. (Faery tales are strange beasts, all abductions and imprisonments and cannibalism!)
I have another few original faery tales planned too, including some more set in Australia. I’m part of the Australian Fairy Tale Society, which investigates faery tales from an Australian perspective, and it’s fascinating how few are set here. Yet whether they’re from Germany or Denmark or China (like the origins of Cinderella), they all have timeless themes that can apply to any place, and any era.
What is your writing process like? Do you plot or do you just dive in? How many drafts do you go through before the work is final?
With my novels, I’m definitely a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants—the opposite of a plotter). With my first, Into the Mists, I’d planned to plan it out before NaNoWriMo began, but I only finished my previous book on October 31, so on November 1st I opened up a blank page and (completely terrified) dove in, with just the barest idea—a young girl from Australia loses her parents in an accident, and is sent across the world to live with a grandmother she didn’t know existed, where she finds a cottage in the mists that may or may not really be there.
And every year since, it’s been the same in terms of preparation (or the lack there-of), so, after nine NaNoWriMos, I’ve stopped beating myself up for not plotting and accepted that this is just my process. I don’t necessarily recommend it—it makes the editing much more difficult and involved, and there have certainly been times I’ve wished I had an outline, especially by the sixth book—but it’s what works for me. Which is all we can do. Listen to all the advice. Try different methods, experiment with different styles, until you discover what makes the story flow for you. There is no right or wrong way to write a book (or live your life), there is just the right way for you.
Amen to that. I couldn’t agree more. What do you struggle with most as a writer?
Productivity. Once I actually start writing, I’m disciplined and productive and can get lots of words down, but it’s amazing how often I find something to distract myself with. (Always vaguely for the book, but not the actual book. Writing blogs or newsletters. Designing potential covers. Planning teasers. Jotting down notes for a different series. Replying to emails. Posting out orders.)
It still baffles me that, during NaNoWriMo, I can consistently write eight thousand words a day, or even more when required, yet every other month I can’t, or don’t. But I’m trying to become more accepting of myself. While some writers consistently write 10,000 words a day, every day, for months or years, I can only do that in short bursts. And ‘composting’—thinking about your story while not actually writing it—is important too. And reading. And working out to offset all the hours of sitting. And spending time with my hubby. I absolutely admire the authors who can write several books a year, but I’m not one of them.
Me neither. I’ve never been able to understand how you can write that many words a day, every day, and do all the brainstorming, ‘composting’ as you call it, editing, too. I certainly can’t. Have you always had that struggle or has it changed over time?
I’ve always needed a deadline to motivate me—for assignments at uni, for magazine articles, for books—so it’s not new. Deadlines help me focus, and prioritise my time in the most effective way. If I don’t have one, I could write and rewrite forever! I know too that sometimes having more time to write doesn’t correlate to spending more time writing—I’ve had NaNoWriMo weeks where I had to work late at the magazines every day, and others where I had all day at home to write, and often it was the busy days when I got more done—a thousand words scribbled down on the bus to work, another five hundred while eating lunch. And sometimes doing something else, whether it’s the day job, or working out, can help you see a new thread of your story, and make you want to get back to it…
What advice would you give to writers dealing with the same or similar struggle?
Find what works for you. Some people claim there’s only one way to write a book, but there’s no right or wrong. Some are wonderful plotters, and others can’t plot for anything, but they write wonderfully if they just jump in and start. Some get up at 4am to write for two hours before the rest of their household wakes, but others don’t feel inspired until midnight and end up writing half the night, so forcing themselves to get up early will be counter-productive. Some need to write every day to maintain momentum, while others will feel too pressured by that and do better writing once a week, or only when inspiration strikes. (Ignore the ‘Real writers write every day’ memes. ‘Real’ writers write when and however works for them.)
So, listen to advice, but remember it’s just a suggestion, the way that works for that particular person. There really are no rules for writing, and no one way to finish your book—except that, at the end of the day, you just have to write it. There’s no magic bullet, no way to cheat your way finished. You have to sit down and write or type (or walk and dictate) until you’re done…
And keep writing, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Often, I think I don’t know what to write, so I put it off, but once I sit down and actually begin typing, the story eventually starts flowing and I work out where it’s going, and how to get there. (Picasso said: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’) Switching from typing to writing by hand can often shift your perspective enough to solve plot problems too, as it uses a different part of your brain.
And accept that there will be days when you hate your story, your prose, yourself. Times that you’ll think your book is terrible, and boring, and there’s no way on earth anyone will ever want to read it. But it’s all temporary. A few days later you’ll read over some of it and be surprised by how much you love it. Just keep going.
Do you prefer the term ‘writer’ or ‘author’, and why?
Either is fine. I usually say writer, because it still feels a little presumptuous to say author, but they’re interchangeable, so I should probably get over that!
Who’s your favourite author?
Juliet Marillier, who wrote the Sevenwaters books, the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy, the Warrior Bards series, the Saga of the Light Isles and the Bridei Chronicles, amongst others. Her books are so magical, and beautiful, and so beautifully written. Which is why my favourite review ever was from a reader who said she hadn’t enjoyed a book as much as Into the Mists since reading Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier. And as well as being incredibly talented, Juliet is the sweetest person, and was really encouraging when I was shaking with nerves over my first public speaking event.
That would be the best review ever, being comparted to your own favourite author! What’s your favourite book?
That’s an impossible question! One is definitely Juliet’s Daughter of the Forest, and I also adored Circe by Madeline Miller, The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag, The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston, The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, Blackbirds Sing by Aiki Flinthart, and I’m currently reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, which is wonderful too.
You know, almost everyone hates that question! Yet no one seems pushed to mention just the one title 😉 What’s your favourite book on the craft?
I find myself quoting Anne Lamott quite often, from her book Bird by Bird, and I love the short craft courses Kate Forsyth, an author I love, does (she also includes writing tips on her website), and Derek Murphy offers a lot of free courses and tips for writers.
Reading as much and as often as you can, from a variety of genres, is also a wonderful way to learn craft, and I discover so much about my own writing by beta reading for my author friends. I’ve also spent decades as a magazine writer and sub editor, and have edited several books, which helps my writing too.
I’m reading Bird by Bird right now and I see what you mean, it’s a wonderful book. And yes to Derek’s work, too. His last book Book Craft has been on my TBR pile for a while now. So, what’s the best writing advice you were ever given?
Allow yourself to write a crappy first draft. Just write, without editing or rewriting or second-guessing yourself. If you’re stuck, make a note, for example [add scene about xx here], then keep writing. Don’t even check spelling or word meanings, just write. I think this is why NaNoWriMo works for me—the first draft of your book is just to get the full story out, the bare bones of the novel. Later, in subsequent drafts, you can fill in the missing details, expand on emotions and descriptions and character motivations, rewrite and revise, add and delete, and fix up anything that feels clunky or inconsistent.
But don’t fall into the trap of trying to write and rewrite your first chapter, refusing to move on until it’s ‘perfect’, because then your book will never get written. No first draft of any book—even your favourite, million-selling novel—is perfect, so don’t feel yours has to be either. Jodi Picoult said it so well: ‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ Don’t be so paralysed by fear of imperfection that you don’t write your book.