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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Something is wrong

The uniqueness of story

You hear all kinds of numbers for the plot lines available to authors — 27, 10, 7, 3, 2, 1.

Those who favor two – “Someone leaves town/Someone comes to town” — have a point.

But personally I believe that there is really only one : “Something is wrong”.

If you take ANY book and distill it down into its smallest component parts you are going to get down to that last, eventually, because in their purest essence all stories have this in common – they revolve around a character with a problem (i.e. “something is wrong”) and the story then complicates and convolutes itself around that skeleton of a plot and fleshes it out… differently. Every time.

There have always been demands that every story be “unique”. Presumably that means that it’s  possible to foresee any single part of the development in advance of its actual occurrence or the authors of such works are “wasting their precious time”.

This circles back to the other discussion, the one about what readers and writers owe each other.

I realize, and appreciate, that I must tell a good story to keep a reader interested. I try to do this. If blogosphere commentary alone is anything to go by, I am not succeeding with everyone – in fact, if you haven’t got someone who absolutely hates and despises your book you probably haven’t been read by enough people to make a statistically significant readership quorum.

Take my own work. When it comes to “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, comments have ranged from:

“Go out there and get this book. And I mean NOW.”
“Graceful and lyrical”
“My favorite book, ever!”

…through

“Okay. (but) Not worth keeping.”

…all the way to

“Feminist claptrap”
“Anti-feminist diatribe”
“Falls into all the old traps, and I threw it against the wall”

You cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Those who see the story as “feminist” see only that there’s a book out there with not just one but a BUNCH of female protags (shock! horror!).

The ones who want to pick holes in the social fabric can only see that, for instance, one character was made Chancellor… and then nothing about her work as Chancellor was referred to in the book ever again; or that another character was the classic screaming-memie angsty psychotic fem-bitch who chooses to rule alone without a man and that I therefore made her OF COURSE go mad because I apparently wanted to make a point that women needed a man to make them whole, and and and and…

Man, I didn’t know I  packed so much subtext into that story.

But the point is, this subtest (counterplot if you like) is the thing that the reader brings to the story. This subtext may or may not have anything to do with the story being told. Of course it would have been fascinating to explore the character’s Chancellorship – but this book was plenty long enough as it was, and *it wasn’t just that character’s story*. Etcetera. I wrote the story that I was told, not, perhaps, the story that that particular reader wanted to read. I cannot be apologetic about that.

But coming back to the uniqueness of the tale – I actually stumbled onto the whole idea of nushu, the secret language of the Chinese women on the concept of which my story was based, and I wrote a historical fantasy or alternative history based on that idea. There didn’t seem to be many books with that as the plot bunny around – but less than two years after mine came out, hello, here they all  came – anyone heard of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”?

I promise you this – pick up the two books and read them side by side and although they are based on the same idea – i.e. NOT UNIQUE – they could not be more different. Boil down their plots to the distillate, and nushu – or, as I renamed it, jin-ashu – and the bonds it forged between women of a certain geographical and temporal locale are there in both books, and if you rendered the plots of both books into a single sentence, you’d probably find it hard to differentiate between the two of them.

How much more prevalent this is when you look at genre?

Mills and Boons and Harlequin books made a business out of the non-uniqueness of their plots and stories – they had a fricking TEMPLATE which their authors got and were supposed to adhere rigidly to. But even leaving that aside completely, ALL romance shares a certain set of genre requirements.

In a romance, and this defines it, the two protagonists have to be together on practically every page – and if they are not in an actual physical clinch then they must be quarelling with each other, hating each other, thinking obsessively about each other. A happy ending was mandatory (perhaps certain more modern lines have a bit of wiggle room on this, but you could NOT have a self-respecting romance novel where He and She did not end up together happily ever after. Just how unique is ANYONE’s romance? Utterly, I’d say – no two relationships are the same – but when you reduce it to a plot of a novel, it remains Boy Meets Girl, whatever dressing up you apply to the basic mannequin.

In fantasy, my own beloved, things are even more dire, because you have a limited number of tropes which define fantasy – and by definition no fantasy book is truly unique. It is the details that the writer puts in that make it so, the world that is being built, the interaction of the characters. “Lord of the Rings” is emphatically not the same book as Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” or “A song for Arbonne”; neither of those books bear much resemblance to the work of Kate Eliot, Glenda Larke, or J K Rowling.

But scratch them all hard enough, and the same tropes will bleed out, silvery and scintillating fantasy blood, for it is of quests we speak (personal or chasing after magic rings), and of insurmountable troubles, and often of battles and deaths and mourning, and transcendent love, and betrayal, and pity, and of building up and tearing down, learning to fly and tumbling from the sky, finding one’s own gifts or a place in one’s world, sometimes over dead bodies of those one loved or through tragedy stark enough to drain a human being and leave him or her a creature of stone and poison and ice and fury.

But still, whatever drama we the writers throw at our hapless heroes to make our stories “unique”, it all boils down to that same simple sentence that encapsulates the Plot: SOMETHING IS WRONG.

I’ve seen genre books (SF and fantasy) juxtaposed with so-called literary or mainstream fiction by describing the former as stories where strong and normal and (relatively) well-adjusted people take on broken circumstances, and the latter where broken people deal with ordinary circumstances.

I suppose that, too, is one way of breaking down plot – but once again, even on that basis, there is no such thing as a unique story.  The last certified original idea was seen fleeing for the hills back when humans first started telling stories.

There is no such thing as an original story – for everything is a circle, things that HAVE happened will happen again; things that ARE happening have happened before; human life is human life, and THAT is what our fiction is based on. It has to be. We know no other yardstick.

What I, the writer, owe you, the reader, is a GOOD story, not one that has never been told before. I cannot promise that, or deliver it. And if you come into this relationship seeking that, then we will both wind up disappointed.

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Quote of the Day

Douglas Adams Ideas poster ~~~~~
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Sexy ereaders

Few benefits of the e-reader are as attractive as the privacy it affords, Calum Marsh writes at The Guardian, so after the launch of the Kindle, erotic romance really took off.

Spring FlingAn erotica publication geared towards the male market. Photograph: Ellora’s Cave

In public the anonymity is ironclad: you could be reading hardcore BDSM erotica on your Kindle or Kobo, but to your fellow commuters you might as well be poring over PG Wodehouse.

Print versions of erotica are mainly to please the authors because hardly anyone buys them in print.

 

 

Read the whole story HERE

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Planted in the stars
Beth Moon HerculesPhoto Beth Moon

Stunning Photos of Africa’s Oldest Trees, Framed by Starlight

At the Smithsonian, Melissa Wiley reports that for the past 15 years, fine arts photographer Beth Moon has taken pictures of really old trees. She has journeyed around the world in search of trees notable for their size, age and history, photographing during the day. Her most recent series, titled “Diamond Nights,” however, plays with starlight.

I was living in Zambia when I saw my first baobab tree. I always thought of Baobabs as “upside down trees” because they look like nothing so much as though a giant hand has torn them from the ground and then planted them again head first so that their torn and tortured twisted roots were the only thing that was left showing above the earth.

And now these pictures, which appear to show that these ancient trees are in fact rooted… in the stars.

Beth Moon has found something profound here.

Read the whole story HERE

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A Poet Describes Feelings In Color

Kelsey Danielle is a poet on Tumblr who describes emotions, as submitted by her followers, with the colors they feel like.

For example:
Color of loveThe project was inspired, Julia Reinstein reports at BuzzFeed, by a poem Kelsey Danielle wrote a few years ago on visualizing the things she feels as colors.

“It’s a poem that’s always stuck with me because I continue to attach colors to any emotion I’m feeling. I describe it a bit like feeling in colors. It’s been helpful for me over the years by having a visual to focus on when I’m upset or angry.”

Read the whole story HERE

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I just bought a book because the first line grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The first line of The Martian by Andy Weir is:

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

It doesn’t include my find, but at BuzzFeed, Sarah Galo finds 53 of

The Best Opening Sentences In Literature
Look at all the booksCreative Commons 2.0 / Via Flickr: stewart

FROM
“All this happened, more or less.” —Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

TO
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
—The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

See all the first lines HERE

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Can you read?

Yeah, OK. You learned to read in early childhood. But you could always do better, right?

Gretchen Rubin offers
How To Become a Better Reader in 10 Steps

One of her 10 is reading audiobooks. My husband endorses this wholeheartedly. He has ‘read’ hundreds of books this way. Initially, he insisted it was a way to get more exercise. He would download books from the library and listen to them as he walked. His walks got shorter and shorter, but he still listens to a book whenever he has a boring household chore.

Read all her tips HERE

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THIS n THAT

‘Cisgender’ has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary: The term is defined as ‘designating a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth.’

Read the whole story HERE

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Gilligan's Island cast15 Fateful Facts About ‘Gilligan’s Island’
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Bradbury bookendsRay Bradbury’s Demolished Home Turned Into Bookends

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Quote of the Day
Northshire BooksNorthshire Books in Manchester VT.

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Alma Alexander     My books     Email me
 
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Want to Seduce Like a Writer?

Then forget champagne and candlelight dinners, Joni Rendon Shannon McKenna Schmidt write at the Daily Beast.

Writerly seductionPhoto by Courtesy Everett Collection

Writers—from Colette to Casanova to Raymond Chandler—and their significant others haven’t played by the book when it comes to seduction.

For example, study the example of Raymond and Cissy Chandler.

Routine domestic tasks were anything but in Raymond Chandler’s home, where his wife, Cissy, performed housework in the nude. Contrary to appearances, the ex-model wasn’t acting out a porn fantasy. Instead, her au naturel dusting and vacuuming maintained her svelte figure. Cissy was a devoted practitioner of the Mensendieck system, which advocated doing chores in the buff to promote good body mechanics—and one assumes, a healthy sex life.

Literary seduction

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I’d like to say this doesn’t apply to me. I’d like to but…

Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators

When writers procrastinateWikimedia Commons

Megan McArdle explains in The Atlantic the psychological origins of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work.
 
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

Why do we do it? Megan has a theory…

Why writers procrastinate

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A fascinating and must read for anyone remotely connected to publishing, from writer to reader.

Cheap Words

Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books? George Packer asks in the New Yorker.

AmazonConstruction by Ian Wright.

In the era of the Kindle, a book costs the same price as a sandwich. Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher, says that “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value—it’s a widget.

Amazon’s identity and goals are never clear and always fluid, which makes the company destabilizing and intimidating, he says.

Amazon’s cheap words

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Quote of the Day

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” ~ John Wooden
 
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Alma Alexander

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Comments welcome. What do you think?
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