FAQs About Writing, Getting Published, and Being Published

When you start a book, what is it like? Is the book just sitting in your head, mostly formed? Where does it come from?

For me, when I start a book, I’ve got parts of it formed in my head — pivotal, dramatic tension between characters that hasn’t necessarily formed itself into clear scenes with dialog and action yet, but that will form itself as I continue to mull it over. I guess what I have at the beginning is the feeling of my characters, and the feeling of their relationships with each other.

What I don’t have is the plot, and that’s where the serious, plodding, trial-and-error, tedious work comes in. I have to figure out the story that fills in the spaces around all of these feelings. I have to make up a story that will explain the feelings, support the feelings, make the feelings believable. And make logical and structural sense; and pull the reader in; and NOT be boring.

I guess every writer is different. For me, characters tend to come kind of naturally, but plotting takes tons of work! (12/4/08)

I’ve always thought of fantasies as world-building books where the authors create the characters after building the world. But that doesn’t feel like the case in Graceling, because the characters seem so real. Which came first: the characters or the kingdoms?
Well, thank you, and you’re right — the characters came first in Graceling, completely and absolutely. I knew Katsa, Po, and Raffin fairly well before I ever began to build a world around them. Of course, they came with their special powers and their situations intact, so they brought pieces of the world with them from the beginning; but without a doubt, characters were the genesis of the book. If you’re curious about how Graceling grew, I talk about it a bit in this interview. (10/20/08)

How did you learn about fighting, weapons, and everything else?
Ha ha! In a lot of cases, by reading, both fiction (Tamora Pierce, Hilari Bell, Vivian Vande Velde, for example) and nonfiction (books about horses, martial arts, the history of warfare; encyclopedia articles about swords or the history of medicine). In other cases, by asking oddly specific questions of the right people. For example, I’m lucky to have a general surgeon and wound specialist in my life who wouldn’t even blink if I were to say to him, “Uncle Walter, if I were shot in the gut at close range with a steel-tipped arrow and then ran up four flights of stairs, would I be likely to faint? And how long before I’d be able to climb down the tree outside my window into my lover’s embrace again?”

Anything I get wrong is my own fault, of course, not the fault of my sources of information. I take a lot of creative liberties with reality sometimes… (12/4/08)

In Graceling, what made you give the Gracelings two-colored eyes? Are the colors significant?
Good question! Truth is, I don’t remember why I decided to do this. I guess it just came to me and felt right; it looked right in my mind. I chose the particular colors I chose simply because I liked them. As far as Katsa goes, well, blue and green are my favorite colors; and Po, he’s just a glow-y guy (his rings and earrings were part of his character from the very beginning), so it seemed right to give him eyes of glow-y colors. (12/1/08)

I have a lot of trouble coming up with fantasy names. How did you come up with the names in Graceling?
Heh. I sympathize. Fantasy names are really tricky, and frankly, often kind of silly — I mean, let’s face it, basically we’re making up a bunch of silly words. And for me, they always seem to end with the letter “N.” (Giddon, Raffin, Murgon, Drowden, Thigpen, Birn, Silvern, Ashen — and wait ’til you read Fire! Hee hee) Why do I do this? It’s SILLY! Why not just name everyone nice, simple names, like David and Julia? Sigh, I don’t know.

For some reason — maybe because I think of Lienid as a place full of color — Lienid names always have some sort of color base, or at least a visual reference. (Ashen, Bitterblue, Silvern, Skye, Faun, Patch; Po’s real name is Greening.) For monikers in the rest of my kingdoms, however, I basically try to come up with names that have the right sound when they hit my ear. Sometimes I’ll read the credits of movies carefully, looking for real-life last names that would make good fantasy first names. Sometimes I catch myself reading exit signs on the highway. For the book I’m writing now, I had three men working together named Ambler, Runnemede, and Darby — until it occurred to me that anyone living in the Philadelphia suburbs might find themselves thinking, Ah, yes, and no doubt Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Upper Darby will come along at any moment… :o) (12/4/08)

How did you come up with the names in Fire?
Hm. Well, ever since rereading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, I’ve wanted to name a tall, handsome man Archer. I think Archer may have grown from his name, actually; his name (which is a nickname) is how I realized he was so good at archery. My sister, secret codename: Cordelia, has always despised the name Nash for various reasons, but I’ve always kind of liked it, so I decided to reclaim it and prove to her that it was worthwhile. Nax seemed like the perfect variation for Nash’s no good father. Cansrel… a dear aunt was dying of cancer around the time I started writing Fire. The similarity between the two words is not a coincidence.

Musa was a dancer on So You Think You Can Dance whose name I liked. Mila was my dear friends’ dog. Larch converted well to the thing I needed it to convert to ;). Brocker, Roen, Tess, Gentian, Neel — they just felt right. Mydogg and Murgda… well, don’t they just sound unpleasant? The horses… again, the names just felt right.

Clara, Garan, Hanna, and Brigan. I loved the way these names sounded when extended to their full royal titles: Claradell, Garandell, Hannadell, Brigandell. I particularly liked the way Claradell sounded like Clarabelle, but wasn’t, and the way Hannadell sounded like Annabel, but wasn’t. And Brigan’s name was always Brigan (just like Archer’s was always Archer’s), because it sounds like brigand, and that’s how I thought of him in his early appearances in the book.

I don’t remember thinking up Fire‘s name. I think I must have always known it. (11/9/09)

Are your characters based off of anyone you know personally?
No, never. Or at least, not intentionally! I don’t recall ever having an actual person in mind while building one of my characters. Of course, the stuff of my imagination includes characteristics of people I know (including myself), characters from books I’ve read, character from movies I’ve seen, so nothing is ever completely original. But I certainly can’t point to a real-life person Katsa reminds me of, for example. (12/4/08)

Does Katsa loiter? Does she lurk in the corner of your mind and say things like, “That is so not how I would do it!” (for example)?
*smile* No, she really doesn’t. None of my characters do. There is a very clear line between me/my life and my characters/their lives, and when I think about my characters, they’re always in their own world, not mine. I wish this did happen now and then, though. There are plenty of times when my characters would make better decisions about how to handle certain situations than I would. I could really use some tips from them :o) (8/31/09)

Did you want to become a writer when you were younger? I can never think of a subject to write about! Were you that way, too?
Oh my goodness, yes. I was COMPLETELY that way! I always wanted to write, but I was always too out-of-my-mind busy doing other things, plus, I didn’t have any plots in my head. What changed that was the act of making myself sit down to write every day. Sure, I was a bit dry of ideas in the beginning, but the more you poke around and write little, meaningless, no-pressure, practice things, the more ideas start to bubble up. It’s a thing that responds — grows and becomes fertile — when you give it attention. (Or at least, that was my experience. No doubt other writers have different experiences to relate!) Oh, and I started doing serious critical writing when I was about 25, and serious creative writing around the age of 27. I’m 32 now.

I think that sometimes people think that writers are inspired by story ideas, and if you haven’t been inspired, then there’s no hope for you as a writer. Whatever. Sometimes coming up with a story takes plain-old work. So don’t despair if you don’t know (YET) what to write about! Just keep at it. Never surrender! (12/4/08)

You keep talking about how hard it is to write Book 3 / Bitterblue. Can you tell us why it’s so hard?

*smile* I guess I didn’t realize what I was getting into. Which is just part of the human condition, right? You make a seemingly innocent decision; you don’t realize what you’re getting into; but now you’re into it, and there’s no turning back. You’ve just got to figure out the best way through. Didn’t somebody once say, “The best way out is always through?” Yes — I just googled it — Robert Frost.

One of the many tricky things about Bitterblue is that there is a LOT of stuff going on. Possibly too much stuff; so much stuff that it’s hard to figure out how to structure it. I would describe the current structure as, um, rather numinous. I know it’s possible to write a good book in which a million things are going on at once; I know it’s possible to weave things together so that the reader isn’t left asking, WTF is going on in this book? What is this book even ABOUT? I’ve seen it done in other books. But that doesn’t mean I know how to do it. So, there’s some on-the-job training going on here. A lot of rewriting; a LOT of writing 10 pages and throwing out 5. I’m also trying to read a lot of complicated books, to see how other, better writers do it. Most of all, I’m trying to keep perspective: The fate of the world does not exactly depend on this book, now, does it? I’m trying to remember to laugh at myself and, in emergencies, eat cannoli. :o) (12/1/08)

I’m writing a book. It’s slow going at times to try to keep my focus. I feel like I can see ahead to more exciting parts of the story, while right now I’m trying to set up the setting, which can be tedious. Do you have any suggestions for this? Should I skip ahead and write the exciting parts, then go back and fill in the build-up?
This is a really good question, and it’s something that happens constantly, over and over, in the course of writing a novel. There are so many parts of a novel that are the parts without a major tension or emotion or climax or revelation.

Some people skip ahead and that works for them. I can’t tell you what to do. But I can tell you what I do. I do NOT skip ahead. (The only time I skip ahead while novel-writing — and I never skip more than a few lines/paragraphs — is when I absolutely cannot know what’s supposed to happen now until I’ve written something that won’t happen until later. I leave a gap with a small outline or notes, and make myself move on, even though I hate to leave blank places and it makes me worried and nervous.)

What I do try to do is figure out a way to write the establishing-the-setting type things, the establishing-who-the-characters-are things, in scenes that are emotionally interesting and do have some sort of small excitement. I don’t mean that every single scene needs to have high drama; I only mean that… well, for example, right now in my writing, I’m building up to some fun, exciting stuff that will be happening soon. But the parts I’m writing right now are distinctly unexciting, and it’s hard to make myself keep writing. I kind of need to show the passage of time and do some exposition that feels pretty boring to me. So, I’m trying to use these passage-of-time sections to build the relationships between characters I’ve neglected so far. For example, if there’s some information I need to convey to the reader during this slightly unexciting section of the novel, I might try to find a way to reveal the information using an unexpected conversation between two characters who haven’t interacted much before. Put them in an interesting place, maybe give them a few props to work with (something to do with their hands or look at with their eyes), and also give them a few things to talk about at once — some important topics, some less important topics, and maybe even something frivolous or funny, all mixed in together. (Don’t make your conversations too linear! If you get your characters moving around their setting and talking, revealing the way they interact with each other, your setting/characters/exposition will come to life, and the conversation/action will engage the reader at the same time as you convey the possibly unexciting stuff you need to convey. And you might learn something from their conversation that you hadn’t realized before.

Does that make sense? It’s only one example of a way you can use laying-the-scene to also further-the-plot and increase-inter-character-tension. ^_^ If you feel like you’re bungling, don’t worry too much. I don’t think it’s possible to write a novel without feeling that way, (8/31/09)

I always wonder about how to make time in my own life to write. What was your day job when you were writing Graceling?

When I wrote Graceling I was working as a freelance educational writer. There was a great discussion on the question of “the writer’s day job” on The Longstockings several months ago; if you’re curious, check it out here. And if you’re specifically curious about my work as an educational writer, scroll down to my own comment in The Longstockings discussion, because I wrote a tome about it there, describing the work in detail… :o) (12/1/08)

When and how did you start writing? How did you get your “big break” into publishing? Do you have any publishing advice? Do you have any writing advice?

[I answered these 4 FAQs in a very long post, and rather than taking up space here, I’ll direct you to that post for my answers. Answers are here!] (5/21/09)

I love to write, I need to write… but at the same time, I am afraid of publishers and editors and agents. Not so much about rejection letters or working with them, but sending my work to them. I know it must sound weird, or maybe not. How did you cope with it when you sent Graceling away? Was it really hard to let your creation out of your hands?
[This is one of the best FAQs I’ve ever gotten, and my answer, all about the fear and joy of being a writer, is long. The conversation it elicited is also worth reading. So I’m going to link you to the post in which I answered it. Go here to read my answer!] (2/5/09)

Do you read online reviews / buzz about your own books?
Not any more. I don’t google myself or my books, and I do not get google alerts. I do not read reviews on Amazon or other book sites. If someone tells me about a link to anything concerning my books, I almost never follow the link. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that people are writing reviews and spreading buzz — I’m hugely grateful, because online dialog brings readers to my books. But I don’t involve myself. I’ve learned it’s better for my writing process, my sanity, and my happiness to avoid it. (Besides, I get a ton of feedback without looking for it — my friends and publishers are on the ball and keep me informed of what people are saying — so I generally have a sense of what’s going on out there without seeking it out myself.)

I do usually (though not always) read reviews if my editor or publicity department sends them to me. Those ones tend to be the ones in major review journals, and are hard to ignore. And, okay, I’ll admit that occasionally I stumble across a review in the blogosphere by accident, but it’s only when one of the few sites on my own reader runs a review of one of my books. (I have to say, it always gives me a slight heart attack when I open my reader and see one of my book covers in a post that I didn’t write!) These are the only exceptions. (6/8/09)

*WARNING! All FAQs beyond this point contain spoilers! Proceed at your own risk!*

The villain in Graceling is really creepy and disgusting. Was it hard for you to write him?

Actually, quite the opposite. I tend to enjoy writing creepy, bad stuff. I suppose Freud or Jung or somebody would say that society represses our natural human tendencies toward deviance, and creating a deviant character could be a kind of release. Or something? Whatever the reason, I would much rather write about a creep being creepy than about someone bland being bland. Or landscapes. I don’t much like describing landscapes. (10/20/08)