How do you…

… get your ideas/write a book?’

One of the perennial questions posed to authors in many many many interviews is the fabled “Where do you get your ideas?

I too often answer with a snarky quip…”Off the Idea Tree in my backyard.” The true answer is simply, “Everywhere.”

A much harder question is “How do you write a book?

The “you” is generally generic. The questioner might mean how does anyone write a book, or how can s/he write a book, or how do I, Alma Alexander, write a book.

The first answer to that is another question: “Which book?” Because one of the fundamental truths of the craft is that there are a lot different kinds of writers.

One kind is the writer who tends to write the same book over and over again. Different characters, different settings, but very similar plots.

Barbara Cartland, who wrote 723 mostly romance novels, comes to mind. Writing things like category romances or the average mystery tends to be a fairly regimented process because of the often rigid set of rules which governs the finished product. If you’re writing your third, tenth, twenty seventh book, you’ve got it honed down to a fine art. You can probably churn out a decent story within a month – you’re putting together a product very similar to something you’ve done before and familiarity breeds speed and confidence.

Another kind is the writer of a fabulously successful series that his/her fans want more of, sometime even if s/he wants to go on to something else. The author of a series is constrained by a certain amount of stuff already established in previous books – a certain setting, a certain character, things you can’t just arbitrarily shift because you’ve now made it canon and the reader will roar in outrage if you futz with canon.

A third kind of writer is like me. Even if the fundamentals of our approach to worldbuilding, to style, remains basically unaltered, even if we continue to write in our favorite genre (fantasy for me), EVERY book we write is different.

How does that happen? It depends on our initial approach to a specific book. What was the inspiration? What were we trying to do? What kind of story were we intending to tell?

Let me illustrate that by offering you a quiz about a few of my own books. Here’s a selection of paths by which I arrived at specific books. If you have read a book or two of mine, or are a fan who has read several, see if you can match the initial inspiration I describe here to the book that was published.

1) I wrote a single scene featuring the protagonist and a handful of the main characters. I liked the scene, and set out to write the book in which it would appear. But when I started writing the story, and I began to write it fairly linearly, from the beginning, it took me literally 2/3 of the tale to actually GET TO THE FRIGGING SCENE WHICH STARTED IT ALL.

If I asked you to pick the scene I am talking about, all y’all would probably pick a different scene. Truth is, it’s integral to the plot, to the book, and it is impossible, once the story was done, to actually pry that one single brick out of the mortared wall. It is impossible to tell that the entire wall once hinged on the existence of that one single brick, or which brick it was. The whole effort took… years. At least a year to write, and then more years before it saw publication.

2) I wrote down a list of ten characters. Nameless, milieu-free characters. Just a short paragraph about each. When I showed it to my husband, he asked me what it was.

“My next novel.”

“What’s it about?”

“I have no idea?

It was the simple truth. At that point I had NO clue what the story was that these characters wanted to tell. Then somebody sent me a newspaper article about a real-life situation – and the fantasy which involved that news story and those characters blossomed into my mind, fully formed, with the characters taking on a vivid and brilliant life and literally dictating the book to me,

I wrote 200,000 words in three months. I didn’t stop to think, to breathe, practically not to sleep or eat – I wrote it at a white-hot fury. What’s more the draft I wrote down was not draft zero or even draft one. It was pretty much the finished thing, with a few tweaks but no major changes. It was a miracle book that was sold worldwide in 13 languages.

3) After finishing the miracle book, I was asked if there was a sequel. I denied it, right until the moment… there was one. An editor was involved with this one right from the start; we discussed the bones of the book, I presented a loose sack of ideas, she approved them, and I wrote the book. It came back to me with an editorial fiat that unequivocally demanded that I rewrite the ending completely. I did. It still worked and the book was published.

4) A combination of a series of ideas culled out of frustrations with the popular culture, a real-life but rather larger-than-life character I wanted to write about, and a desire to explore a different magic gelled to produce a story about a youngster coming into her potential through fraught circumstances.

It was a difficult story to write because it was more structured than some of my other tales were – and I don’t work well to outlines. But while I tried to stick to the original proposal, my OWN jaw drops at the difference between what I proposed to the finished series. 

This story took me longer to write than anything I had written before. In pure
wordage, it adds up to not THAT much more than Book 2 above – but while that took me three months, this series took several years. 

5) This book started life as a short story for a themed anthology. When I was almost 5000 words into the “short story” *and was still worldbuilding, I realized I was writing a book. And if I fitted certain things together in a certain way… I had a considerable amount of story I didn’t know I had. In the end I had a powerful trilogy.

So, then. You want to know how I write a book?

WHICH BOOK?!? They are all different for me. Every. Single. One. I reinvent myself as a writer with every single manuscript I produce.The answer that vexed question is that there IS no single way that a book can be written or has to be written. If it works for you, and produces something good, it all comes out even in the end.

Stop worrying whether you’re writing a book “the right way”. There IS no right way. No two books are exactly alike. Listen to them, and they’ll tell you what their preferred process is. And after that… just TRUST them. Your stories know what they are doing.

Were you able to figure out which of my published books came from the paths described above? They are:

1) Hidden Queen/Changer of Days
2) The Secrets of Jin-shei
3) Embers of Heaven
4) Worldweavers trilogy – (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic.”)
5) The Were Chronicles (“Random”,”Wolf”, “Shifter”)

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Wings of Fire coverA copy of my latest book, Wings of Fire,

is up for a giveaway. If you want to get

on the list

Sign up HERE

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The Death of Beth

Over the mumble years since I first read “Little Women” as a girl, I have taken more than one quiz about which character I wanted to be, or was most like.

Of course, I always came out as Jo.

Because…well seriously, Jo is the only “real” one out there.

These reflections come in response to an essay by Stephanie Foote, The Thing About Beth (“Little Beth, loved by everyone: Except me“), in the LA Review of Books.

Beth at the piano drawingAmy was Vanity, Meg was Poisonously Good (with just that faint little dash of spirit in the end, but that got scotched pretty fast and she remained the Good Girl who Did What She Ought To). And Beth is a gentle ghost.

And not one that haunts, either. She wafts through the story, and then she’s gone. Perhaps it’s that she didn’t have TIME to do anything. She was just Sister #4 from central casting, the one destined for the weepy let’s-go-the-violins death scene which would serve to “strengthen” (in the virtuous “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger ” sense) everyone else.

This was a book I read when i was quite young, living in a very different world, and to me, the background and the setting of it was as incomprehensible as it would have been if it had been set on Mars. But I devoured it, and I fell in love with Jo, like everyone did. I felt betrayed when Laurie went and picked up silly flappy little Amy instead.

Yes, I cried when Beth died, but it really was a sad set-scene. I don’t think I wept because I had felt any kind of warmth or a kinship with poor little Beth. I wept because I was supposed to weep at that point, for that character. And everyone dutifully did.

I suspect that I would less susceptible to that if I read the book now. And yes, i suspect I would respond far more viscerally to the things that Beth left behind. So much of that character lives in “her things”: Too much. Not nearly enough of it lived in the girl herself…

Read the whole essay about Beth at the LARB website HERE

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10 Terms cartoonAt Signature, Nathan Gelgud offers us

10 Annoying Literary Terms

You might not know it, Gelgud writes, but you have probably put a prolepsis into play recently.

“Did you know that a signature isn’t necessarily a scribbled name on a credit card receipt? You know that classic character that Gilda Radner played on “Saturday Night Live” who’d confuse “violence” with “violins”? Do you know what kind of mistake that is? You probably know what a climax is, and maybe even how to pronounce denouement, but do you know what part of a plot makes up the anagnorisis?”

A delightful essay you can read at the Signature website HERE

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In the New York Times, Annie Correal writes about

The Quiz

For about four decades, applicants wanting to work at the Strand, the undisputed king of New York City’s independent bookstores, have confronted a final hurdle, the literary matching quiz.

There are tests for driver’s licenses and citizenship, for New York City landmarks preservationists and sanitation workers. But a quiz for an entry-level retail job at a bookstore?

Fred Bass photoFred Bass, 88,created the literary quiz in the 1970s. Credit George Etheredge

Bass, who owns the Strand along with his daughter, created the literary quiz in the 1970s. He had selected masterworks to appear on the quiz,

And then I did a sneaky thing. I made one not match. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and no Mitchell,” he said

BTW, I took the quiz and got 40 out of 50 right. My husband refuses to tell me how well he did. [I always beat him at Scrabble, too. 🙂 ]

Read all about the Strand and take The Quiz at the NYT website HERE

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New Pokémon Game Takes Bookstores By Storm

Book Store Display Sign
Photo courtesy Facebook/Main Street Books
The display sign outside Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo.

Booksellers are always looking for new ways to attract more customers to their stores, but it’s doubtful that many thought that Pokémon would be the answer. The sudden popularity of the smartphone video game Pokémon Go is driving people into bookstores and, in some cases, driving up sales.

The nature of the game is proving a boon for foot traffic at some bookstores, like Wild Detectives Bookstore in Dallas. “It’s crazy,” said Sam Villavert, a barista at the store.

Read the whole story at Publisher Weekly’s website HERE

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Quote of the Day
Small Talk Poster

A truly twisted mind never thinks along a straight path. I like to travel that way. On the back roads. Seeing things that other people miss because they’re trying to get THERE from HERE way too fast…

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