Authors Elizabeth Helen in conversation with PTM‘s own Marleigh Green
I sat down with Canadian indie authors Elizabeth Helen, a sister writing duo whose recent romantasy book series Beasts of the Briar has taken off and become an Amazon bestseller. The series, a Beauty and the Beast inspired reverse-harem, stars a heroine named Rosalina, whose father has been searching for her mother ever since she was kidnapped by the fae. Rosalina’s father is seen as the town outcast, and Rosalina herself struggles to fit into the ordinary society into which she was born until her father mysteriously goes missing. The writing duo credits market research, TikTok, and their commitment to their craft for hitting such an impressive milestone in their careers. We had a wonderful chat about their impression of how authorship has changed, shifting from YA to adult, their advice for pre-published writers, and of course, Taylor Swift.
Q: So I have to begin by asking, what was the fantasy book or movie that started it all for you? Did you have a specific crush on a character, and if so, who was it?
Elizabeth: We were big readers from a young age, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were a core memory for us. Aragorn was the pinnacle of a gentleman.
Q: Lord of the Rings had my first crush, too, which was Legolas. But the Elvenking can also get it. On the topic of inspiring writing, in your opinion, what is the best way to begin a book?
Helen: We like to start our books in the middle of the action. We also like to put our characters in their normal lives before they get shifted to a new normal in a new world.
Elizabeth: Starting where the story’s already in progress, and you definitely want to ground your readers and show the difference between where they are at the beginning and the end.
Q: I know how hard it is to pick just one, but if you had to choose one song that represented each Beasts of the Briar book, what would it be, and why?
Elizabeth: This is tough because we love our playlists! For Bonded by Thorns: Taylor Swift’s Enchanted. We wanted the vibes of Rosalina being somewhere new. The line “please don’t be in love with someone else” is how she feels throughout the whole book. For Woven by Gold: We listened to Dance of the Druids from Outlander to give the mystical vibe of the Autumn realm. It represented Rosalina’s journey. For Forged by Malice: Across the Stars from Star Wars is so tragic and sad but so romantic and that fits the vibe.
Q: How do you go about editing your work, being two writers instead of one?
Elizabeth: Beasts of the Briar is our 11th and 12th book. We wrote under other pen names before, so people don’t always realize that. Typically we write the first the draft together, divvy up the scenes, write the rough draft, and edit each other’s work after reading the whole book separately. We print the entire document out and read it out loud front to back. This is more to make sure we didn’t miss anything or write ourselves into a corners, especially the verbiage. We then send to our beta reading team that we recently cultivated, they’re trusted ride or die readers and we know if they’re happy, the greater audience will be. They call out scene blocking they can’t visualize, what needs to be built on, what can be cut, all of that general feedback. Our editor will also give us feedback. Final step is proofreading.
Helen: Over the years, when we edit now there’s a lot less cutting and editing. Maturing as a writer is finding your process and we did a lot more editing at first compared to now. We also outline very heavily, and having a firm outline helps us figure out what will and won’t fuel the plot. We throw everything at the wall first and see what sticks.
Q: What do you wish you knew when you started this endeavor?
Helen: For me, it would be to be consistent with writing and make it a priority every single day. There was a quote I read that said if you’re only doing it once a week, it feels like jumping into cold water and it’s harder to get into the groove. If you do it every day, it feels like getting into a warm bath. Consistency is mine.
Elizabeth: I did not realize when I was younger how much you have to be your own advocate in this business. If you’re going traditional or Indie, you have to advocate for yourself at every possible moment. Prioritize yourself and your business and you have to stand up for yourself and what’s best for your work. Grit is a combination of consistency and advocacy. Be too stubborn to quit! The series we published before Beasts of the Briar geared itself more to YA than adults, despite it being adult-centric. Readers are hungry and want more books. Fantasy is saturated, but readers will read! If you feel you have something special, you probably do.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned advocacy, social media marketing is a huge topic in the writing world these days. Which social media platform have you found the most effective for reaching your readers?
Helen: Tiktok & Instagram. TikTok is great for new readers, it doesn’t always show your content loyally to your followers. Instagram is great for people who are following your career and want those daily updates. TikTok is for hooks & quotes, Instagram is behind the scenes life stuff. We also have a Facebook group for really loyal readers.
Elizabeth: There’s a different audience on each. TikTok is the platform that found the majority of our readers. We still advertise on TikTok and create videos that engage new readers. Instagram is all about connections. Facebook is our ride or die readers. Part of our marketing was finding out the age of our audience, that’s how we figured out we were leaning too heavily on the YA tropes. Disney Adults wound up being a huge market for us.
Q: What are some of the books you’ve read that inspired you to write your own?
Helen: When I was a kid, and I read His Dark Materials, it made me feel so many emotions and I wanted to be able to write something like that one day, that would make other people feel those things. It was so influential.
Elizabeth: As a teen I read Dune by Frank Herbert and I thought it was epic and it made me feel all of the things, and had so many different components. It made me excited to craft stories.
Q: Both excellent choices, did you also get into Twilight?
Helen: We both read Twilight as teens, and that series was obviously really influential for romance.
Elizabeth: We had such a great time with the YA resurgence during the Leigh Bardugo era and Hunger Games. Twilight is the friend you love to bully.
Q: Ah yes, we can’t help but giggle over those lines from Edward Cullen that used to make us swoon. In that same vein, what is your favorite thing about each other’s writing style?
Elizabeth: We love to add easter eggs into our books and foreshadow. Helen is a master at that. She’s the kind of person in the movie theater who in the first 20 minutes can predict the ending.
Helen: Elizabeth does amazing dialogue between the characters. She’s got some really great one-liners and she’s really good with grammar, and I can’t spell to save my life.
Q: Yes, some of Rosalina’s one-liners made me laugh out loud, especially when she calls Ezryn the “tin man”. How do you divvy up who writes what?
Elizabeth: We brainstorm the whole book together, we create the outline, and then we don’t choose characters but sometimes they lean more towards one of us than the other. We split things 50/50 and decide who will take which chapters and scenes. We divvy it up by arc rather than character. For example, I took more Ezryn and Helen took more Dayton.
Helen: What’s funny is, in the end we can’t often remember who wrote what because we edit each other’s work so much.
Q: Speaking of Ezryn, Dayton, and the rest of the princes, Beasts of the Briar has a “why choose” approach to the romance between Rosalina and the princes, what made you decide to write multiple love interests instead of just one?
Elizabeth: It started with a marketing perspective. We came from a new adult series that was leaning heavily on YA and we did a lot of market research to find out what’s hitting in the Indie adult market. What are readers excited about, where is there a gap?
Helen: Fantasy romance was really hot and so was reverse harem. But there weren’t a ton of fantasy fairytales with those themes. We started to read “why choose” books but it was so interesting to see the way the relationships develop between the characters. We love multi-POV books as well.
Q: Yes, and her relationships with the princes are all so different, so you kind of get to explore all of the romance tropes in one.
Helen: Yes, exactly! It’s so fun to get to do enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, all of it, all in one book.
Elizabeth: For us, it started as a marketing move. But from the writer’s side we fell in love with exploring so many different characters. We wanted to stay in the romance genre and have it be a relationship-centered book.
Q: Romance is a genre that’s sometimes looked down upon. Do you have an opinion on why this might be, and what we can do to change this perception as writers?
Elizabeth: This is a very interesting topic that comes up for us. Romance is heavily written and read by women. Things enjoyed by women are seen as shallow and non-educational, and unimportant which is very sad. If some of these critics took the time to read these romances, they’d see these vivid emotional stories. I think it’s sad that there’s that perspective.
Helen: Because these are told through the female gaze, if a man reads it, they find it hard to relate to. Because they don’t understand it, they have to knock it down. If you’re intimidated by a fictional character that’s a you problem.
Q: I very much agree with that sentiment. Your series is an Amazon bestseller. How did it feel to see your book become such a success?
Helen: It was and still feels surreal. It did way better than our previous books, so it was amazing and then it was a couple of months after it came out. One of our TikToks took off and we got a lot of new readers. It was a snowball effect.
Elizabeth: Surreal is definitely the word. Social media can be a snowball effect, the more people who read it the more talk about it. We do feel like it’s a seven-book series and we’re not anywhere close to done. There’s an audience even bigger than what we have out there. We have been wanting to write full-time and have been pursuing publication for 11 years. This is the first time we haven’t gone back to teaching. It’s so special to have found readers and an audience.
Helen: We had so many failures over the past 11 years and our books didn’t get off the ground, and it came to a combination of studying the market really hard. Luck is a part of it, TikTok was hugely helpful. We had crafted our skills so much that we could produce a product that was going to hit with the audience. I wake up every day so grateful for this.
Q: What is the advice you want to give to other writers that most pre-published authors don’t have an opportunity to hear?
Elizabeth: I would say to remind yourself that the world needs your story. If you are motivated and this is your passion, there is a place for what you’re writing. The book of your heart might not be the one that gets you on the map. Keep believing in yourself and why you’re doing this, writing at midnight and daydreaming at work. Keep learning and you can do it.
Helen: Something I struggled with in my mid-twenties was being jealous when other authors my age succeed. Instead, I now look at these authors and say “this is who I’ll be in two to five years”. Other authors succeeding in our genre shows the industry that people want your stories. Realizing that authors elevate each other and celebrate each other’s success and reframing your mind around that.
Q: Wow, that’s an excellent way to look at this, especially that reframe of the success of others being a positive and not a negative.
Elizabeth: Emily Rath totally reset my brain on this. The aspect of giving back in the industry is so touching. She gave this analogy of when you look at an author that’s so successful, don’t think that they have what you want. Think instead, that’s my future career.
Helen: Other authors are your coworkers, not competition!
Q: Well thank you both for meeting with me and doing this interview! It was a pleasure to speak with you and I can’t tell you how honored I am that you found the time in your schedules to share your wisdom.
Elizabeth: Absolutely! It’s okay to ask for help. We even had an author we admired reach out to us with questions, and it was so surreal and full circle. You can learn from each other and help each other. Especially for Indie authors.
Helen: The Indie community is especially important and supportive. Making those connections is vital.