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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How can I write…?

I and 33 other authors offer advice.

I wasn’t consulted, but my best advice?

Nothing is EVER finished – but you have to know when to let go. It won’t be perfect. Not EVER. Live with it. Get your story as good as you can and then let it step out into the world to seek its fortune. Hope it sends you a postcard to show you how it’s doing.”

That’s it. But it took me a score of books and a few million words to really recognize the truth of it. And between you and me, I sometimes have a hard time practicing what I preach.

I particularly like this advice:

33. “Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one…every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or (it’s) the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice. – Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others

And this:
As Bad as it gets posterimages.unsplash.com

07. First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone…if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful. – Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

See all the advice at Buzzfeed HERE

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The Japanese Museum of Rocks That Look Like faces

Rock faces 1Rocks have faces? Rocks have souls?

This is FABULOUS. this is a cabinet of stories waiting to happen. It gives me a happy and slightly insane urge to go out and start turning rocks over and asking them to talk to me.

Speaker to Rocks. There are worse things to aspire to be…

The museum is called the Chinsekikan (which means hall of curious rocks) and it houses over 1700 rocks that resemble human faces. It’s in Chichibu, two hours northwest of Tokyo and may be the only one of its kind.
Rock face 2 photoThe story in Colossal suggests this looks like Elvis Presley. I think it looks rather like our lamentable president-elect.

Read the whole story at the Colossal website HERE

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26 Very Long Books Worth the Time They’ll Take to Read

My choice in this list of books selected by Boris Kachka in Vulture might be obvious if you know my background. I was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. Clifton Fadiman of the New Yorker called it “one of the great books of our time“. I certainly agree.

I find the comments on the back cover of my own copy that was given to me shortly after the US and NATO’s war on my homeland to be very perceptive:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon coverBlack Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia,  Rebecca West (1941, 1,181 pages)

Written on the brink of World War II, West’s classic examination of the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia illuminates a region that is once again the center of international concern. A magnificent blend of travel journal, cultural commentary, and historical insight, it goes into the troubled history of the Balkans and the uneasy relationships among its ethnic groups. The landscape and people Yugoslavia are brilliantly observed as Rebecca West and untangles the tensions that rule the country’s history as well as its daily life.

See all the other books at the Vulture website HERE

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Quote of the Day

The best novels are those that are important without being like medicine; they have something to say, are expansive and intelligent but never forget to be entertaining and to have character and emotion at their centre.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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About me    My books    Email me 

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Riddle me this!

Literature’s most fiendish head-scratchers

For all of you out there with time on your hands and no codes to crack, The Guardian offers a selection of riddles from literature. Get pondering…

e.g. #6:
“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’” – the Mad Hatter to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Solve the riddles

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Kerouac’s On The Road turned into Google driving directions

Jack-Kerouac-On-The-Road

 

Gregor Weichbrodt, a German college student, took all of the geographic stops mentioned in On the Road, plugged them into Google Maps, and ended up with a 45-page manual of driving directions, divided into chapters paralleling those of Kerouac’s original book. You can read the manual — On the Road for 17,527 Miles– as a free ebook.

Go On the Road

 

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“My List of Writing Mistakes”

Best way of learning: do, and fail. Next time you’ll do better. Howard Andrew Jones keeps a list of mistakes he made already so that he won’t repeat them. This strikes me as wise.

e.g.
When you’re stuck moving the plot
           Introduce character with info
           Send in the ninjas

Read the article

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THIS ‘n THAT

10 Insane Buildings
HelixVincent Callebaut Architectures
Coming in 2016, Taipei’s double-helix-shaped Agora Garden Tower will split the difference between man and Mother Nature. The twisty, 20-story luxury residential building will be green in every sense of the word, with balconies on each floor to support gardens, and state-of-the-art sustainable features including solar cells and rainwater recycling.

10 Insane Buildings

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The Color of…
Burnt brandyBurning brandy. The color, flame-of-burnt-brandy, was described in 1821 by one ladies’ magazine as a mixture of “lavender grey, pale yellow, and dark lilac.”

Other equally evocative names dating from the same period include dragon’s blood (a deep purplish-red), d’oreille d’ours (a rich brown, literally “bear’s ears”), elephant’s breath (steel grey) and flamme de Vesuve (“the flame of Vesuvius,” or the color of lava).”

19 Colors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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Poetry can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

Why teaching poetry is so important

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10 of the oldest surviving books in the world
etruscan-gold-bookThe Etruscan Gold Book is estimated to be 2,673 years old.

The oldest books

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Quote of the Day
QUOTE Victor Hugo~~~~~
Alma Alexander
My books

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Which books are banned?

The Kids’ Right to Read Project investigated three times the average number of book banning incidents last month, Shelf Awareness reports.

A  number of notable works by minority writers were challenged in the fall, including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.

Banned booksWhether or not patterns like this are the result of coordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say,” said coordinator Acacia O’Connor. “But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask, ‘What is going on out there?’ “

The Kids’ Right to Read Project offers a poster of some of the most frequently heard myths about challenged and banned books.
 
Banned Books Myths

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The Greatest Gift

So, it’s nearly Christmas. What’s on your writer-friends’ lists:

There’s practical and useful stuff, sure – and then there’s the geekly gadgets that every writer with a background in a certain pool of tropes grins when (s)he sees, things that are utterly useless in any practical sense but tickle our sense of the awesome and the purely ridiculous – but …

Here’s a different and very doable wishlist.

This Christmas, if you are inclined to gift giving, give your favorite writer… A Reader.

Tell a friend about your favorite writer’s work and suggest they buy a book. Or two. Buy your favorite writer’s books as presents for your friends yourself. Write a nice review somewhere – on Amazon, on Goodreads, on your own blog, somewhere. SPREAD THE WORD.

If you like what you’ve read from me, give me another reader this Christmas. Go tell a friend. Tell that friend to tell their friends, if they agree that there was something in my books worth discovering. (And if you’ve already done this, bless you.)

I realize I am asking for something that is potentially enormous – I am asking for a gift that is intangible, that can’t be wrapped, that won’t be squealed over on Christmas morning as the ribbons are ripped from packages – but at the same time I am asking for a simple thing that it is yours to bestow. Spread the word. If you succeed in this, drop me a line and tell me about it – or get that friend to – and it’s a Christmas present that will keep on giving all year round.

To all the readers I’ve already got – thank you for coming along with me on this journey. You are ALL appreciated.

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What? You thought self publishing was a modern phenomenon?

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old writer and illustrator printed 250 copies of her first book, featuring a naughty rabbit. Beatrix Potter decided to take control of her own future after getting fed up of receiving rejection letters from publishers for a story she had made up to entertain a sick child.

Peter RabbitThe Tale of Peter Rabbit was printed with 41 black and white woodblock engravings and a colour frontispiece, Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian, and proved so successful that, within a year, it had been picked up by one of the six publishers who had originally turned it down. By Christmas of 1902, Frederick Warne had sold 20,000 copies of the book, with Potter’s own watercolor illustrations.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself, Emily Temple says at Flavorwire.

A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. For example:

Barthelme“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme

In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

Essays on writing

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How to Write — A Year in Advice  

“This year, I talked to nearly 50 different writers for the By Heart series, a weekly column about beloved quotes and cherished lines,” Joe Fassler says at The Atlantic.

Their contributions were eclectic and intensely personal: Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was a finalist for the Man Booker prize this year, shared a folk rhyme from his childhood, the investigative New York Times journalist Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar, Fat) close-read the Frito-Lay slogan, and This American Life host Ira Glass eulogized a longtime friend and collaborator. Though I began by asking each writer the same question—what line is most important to you?—their responses contained no formula.

HosseiniElena Seibert
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and this year’s And the Mountains Echoed, reminded us that we can only approximate the book we want to write—the final product will never capture the excitement of initial inspiration.

Interviews with writers

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Quote of the Day

Anyone who still believes print is dead never worked in an indie bookstore the week before Christmas. Seriously.” ~ Facebook post from Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz.
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Alma Alexander

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