Talking Writing with Sarah Reees Brennan

Irish writer, Sarah Rees Brennan, and I spend a lot of time IMing each other. We talk about many, many different things—including the superiority of Ireland and Australia to all other nations1—but mostly about writing. Recently when I was unwell SRB cheered me up by telling me the story of two of her not-yet-written novels. It was better than chicken soup! As any of you who have read her novel, Demon’s Lexicon, or her blog know, SRB is a wonderful storyteller.

It was not the first time SRB had told me the complete detailed plot of an as-yet-unwritten novel but this time I started wondering about how she does that. When I write a novel I know very little before I start writing. I figure it out as I go. My method is the winging it method. SRB’s is outlining. (Thogh really it’s so much more than that.) Which are the two basic approaches to novel writing. I decided it might be fun to ask her about her methods. And it was.

JL: I am so amazed at how you can reel off a whole written novel like that.

SRB: Oh I like to tell stories.
JL: Though it bewilders me.
SRB: I think in past times I would have been a bard.
Sad about my singing voice tho.’
JL: I think you would have been too. (I have not heard your singing voice.)
I used to tell a tonne of stories as a kid. But I got out of the habit.

SRB: I think our natural storytelling gene kicks in early and then you know, as you say, we get into habits.
I used to think i could never write straight onto a computer.
JL: Ha. I’ve been doing that since I was fourteen. I don’t really know how to write with a pen anymore. I think with my fingers. All the words are in my ten typing fingers. (Yes, I even use my thumbs!)

SRB: Occasionally I still write on paper.
JL: I am shocked. But I have a bad relationship with paper. We hate each other. I’ve been known to get papercuts on my nose.
SRB: I guess this is because you were wee when you started to write only on the computer? Whereas I was . . . the lofty age of seventeen?
JL: It’s not so much the age of starting as the amount time spent writing that way.
I’ve been writing on computers for more than 20 years. You haven’t even been writing that way for ten.
SRB: That’s true. ‘Habit becomes second nature and a stronger nature than the first’ — Anthony Trollope speaking of alcoholism.

ALso now I have writer friends, the ability to tell the whole story is super helpful. I told Holly [Black] the story I told you in Mexico and she was like ‘VILLAINS, we must take your villains apart.’

 JL: She started making suggestions about an unwritten novel? And you were okay with that?I
I’d worry it would interfere with you figuring it out yourself. I don’t think people are allowed to stick oars in until the thing is written.

SRB: See, it helps me
As I also gleefully reject anything someone says that goes against stuff I have decided.
I say no to many suggestions. Though sometimes I am very wrong about that.

JL: Hmmmm. Whereas because I work stuff out on the page and have such nebulous ideas about the story before I start writing that talking about it with someone else will just destroy it.
Which is why I mostly don’t.
Or if I do I say, “Don’t make any suggestions! Just nod and smile!”
SRB: See, if I don’t know where I am going to end up I float on a sea of horror. HORROR.

Mostly what I have is a firm start and end, and islands in between and I make bridges between the islands by telling people or making a chapter plan!

JL: Whereas if I knew my story as well as you know yours before you start I would never write them. I can’t see the point. It’s done already. Hardly anything left to work out. Why bother?
SRB: Well, I want to see how it plays out, and what will change. 😉
Plus I want to write the scenes I already love so I can see them. I admit they are rarely as beautiful as I picture them being, which is sad.
JL: I think writing a novel is like having an adventure. Without a map. I love finding out what the novel is about as I write it. It’s one of the main reasons I write novels. If I knew what it was about before I started it wouldn’t be an adventure.
SRB: Well that is a good metaphor and one which I can relate to.
Whereas I like buying a travel guide and planning out some stuff and thinking to myself WOW that picture of a temple is beautiful when I get there I’ll have so much fun. I’ll do this and this and this. (Which is hilarious, as actually in real life travels, I am the least organised person ever, and get carted about by my friends from place to place going ‘Oooh’ in a vague way, usually in inappropriate clothing.)

JL: (I can imagine.)
But you don’t just have an outline. When you tell me the plots of your unwritten novels you describe whole scenes and dialogue. So it’s more than just knowing where you’ll go and when. It’s knowing exactly who you’ll meet and what you’ll do.

SRB: Well, I admit some of my dialogue is written on the fly and some of it i keep, and some i do not depending on whether it sticks in my head.
JL: Which is the other part of your method I find utterly alien: your memory!
That all of this stuff is in your head, not on paper. (Well, at least not until I make you tell me the plot via IM.)
SRB: I do have an exceptional memory for useless stuff which is what the stories are in my head.
JL: Novels are not useless!

SRB: But in my head, they are. I still do not believe I get to do STORIES for my living. Mostly they have been just something I harass my friends with. Endless yapping about stories in my head! About as useless as my remembering stuff like it is legal to shoot someone with a bow in Scotland for trespass.
JL: But you can’t shoot them with a bow for other reasons?
SRB: Not legally, alas.Then they arrest you for ‘murder.’

JL: Seems grossly unfair. What if the person you shot had interfered with your hamster?
But I digress.
Do you remember when you first start telling stories?
SRB: (We have no legal recourse to protect our hamsters. We have to move outside the law like Robin Hood.)

Well, in fact, in keeping with the theme of your novel, LIAR, I began my career as a storyteller by telling tremendous lies.
Crazy, elaborate lies.
I mean, I recall drawing a house, and having a small story about the house beneath it at the age of five and then informing my sailor grandpapa, a much muscled and tattooed man, of my many years of toil over this fine scholarly work. I remember the lying as my start, more than the house story
And you too did this lying thing did you not?

JL: The elaborate stories? Yes, indeed.
I would make up stories to entertain my younger sister, Niki. But there were also the outrageous lies I told to pretty much everyone, of which I was often the heroine. But I never wrote those down. I only wrote down the stories that I would make up for Niki.
The proper stories.

SRB: See, I find you writing down stuff for your sister very beautiful and fitting. It reminds me of the Brontes and Diana Wynne Jones who all did these things.
HOWEVER, my siblings are ingrates and did not let me participate in this flow of souls. They would never have in a fit read anything I wrote down for them. Happy though I would have been to do so!
My sister Genevieve however did like me to come ‘talk her to sleep,’ which may mean, I was so insanely boring she used me as a tonic. But I was ready to do it at all times and indeed to be fair to Genevieve she also read a couple of my books once I typed them and printed them out and bound them for her. And, indeed, is my only sibling to have read my published book.
JL: (It should be noted at this point that both SRB and me are the oldest sibling.) Oh, my sister never read any of it. I had to read it to her.

When she was little, I mean. Niki has read all my published books. And the unpublished ones, too, for that matter. She is most good sister.
SRB: (Why does anyone ever have brothers? Even among the Brontes, Bramwell was the bad seed.)
JL: (It is a mystery. Though I should not really express opinion as I do not have brothers.)

SRB: Putting stuff on paper does legitimise stuff in a way now
JL: I think Niki was pretty young when I stopped making up stories for her.
SRB: We understand as Homer would not have that REAL BOOKS are on paper.
JL: Yes! That’s probably why I shifted into purely writerly form for my stories.
SRB: And why we rush to do that when we have the storytelling urge.
Plus, once I write something I can forget about it.
JL: That might be why I am so bad at remembering stuff.
SRB: Think of those olden days bards who had to remember hundreds of stories.

JL: Literacy destroys memory. (I would like to claim that this is an original thought but I think Walter J. Ong would be cross with me.)
SRB: I COULD have done it, I think. Remembered all those stories. But good god the alternative is nice.
So now if a fan says ‘I loved that bit where’ sometimes my brain offers me up nothing! I venture a ‘good?’

JL: I could not have been a bard! Even as a small child my memory was dreadful.

Yes, people ask me detailed questions about my books all the time. I have not the faintest clue. I wrote them so long ago now. (Though for me even a week ago is outside the scope of my memory.)
SRB: I imagine that will happen to me. Should I ever be lucky enough to have five books published.

I like that we end up in the same places (the temples!) but one of us wants a map and plan and the other voyages to adventure!
JL: I have seven books! Two don’t count though as they’re non-fic. However, I don’t remember anything about them either when asked.

 SRB: (I feel people asking questions about non-fiction would be cruel and unusual.)
JL: (I get asked about the non-fic all the time. I remember nothing! It was more than a decade ago that I worked on those! I was a different person then. That was in another country and the wench is dead!)

So how did you start writing down your stories? And how did that not stop you from continuing to tell your stories?
SRB: Well, I was always aware that this was what you did. Wrote stories down. And also, I could spend happy days alone in my purple room writing. Whereas to tell stories to a person for days I would have had to drug them and tie them up, and as a deprived child, I had little access to chloroform.
JL: (Though you had a purple writing room. *Is jealous*)

Probably illegal. Like using a bow on hamster interferers.
SRB: There just isn’t a bardic culture anymore. Or a court where people all read Chaucer together, which in some ways makes me sad!
JL: We’re not as good at listening as we used to be.
SRB: Short attention spans, given the variety of amusements available.
JL: But I also think people aren’t as good at telling stories either.
There aren’t many people I would suffer to tell me their entire novel.
SRB: I blush, m’lady.

We do not have the memory-recall of the bards of yore. And, you know, the beautiful bits of writing—description and the like—we have to think about those. I couldn’t tell someone those bits.
JL: I am still wondering about your telling of novels. My zero drafts are very tender delicate creatures. I show very few people.

And basically only in a cheering squad capacity. They can cheer my first baby steps, not criticise the wobbliness and pigeon toes. (There’s nothing wrong with pigeon toes!)
My novels can’t bear the weight of criticism until I’ve figured out what they are. And that doesn’t happen until there’s a whole draft.
SRB: I tend to find criticism always helpful.
JL: Oh, criticism is essential.

SRB: Unless I disagree with it of course . . .
JL: But someone criticising a zero draft is kind of like someone criticising a souffle on the basis of a few of the ingredients laid out on a table, but not yet made into a, you know, souffle.

I can’t stand people weighing in before I know what it is I’m doing. Before I can see the souffle. Because then they’ll try and make it into a cheesecake or, I don’t know, an aardvark or something.
SRB: While I am kind of like, as I can already visualise the souffle I like your idea of adding cinnamon.
JL: I am, of course, now envisioning a cheese souffle so am horrified by the idea of adding cinnamon to it.

SRB: Well, I have never made a souffle so cinnamon may be inappropriate to all souffles
JL: (Would be fine for a chocolate one.)

How soon do you start telling someone a novel idea?
SRB: Hmmm. There is usually a space. I mean, I will tell people I have an IDEA and then I will ruminate for some time. Sometimes unconsciously.
JL: There’s a long time while the novel gestates when it can only be me who knows about it. Maybe the difference is your gestation happens in your head and mine on screen?
SRB: Maybe! That would make sense. I do start telling people bits of novels before I have it all worked out: beginnings, backstory.
I told a lot of my friends the backstory for Demon’s Lexicon before I had a book.
JL: Cause telling it out loud was part of your process of figuring it out?

SRB: Yeeeees. It is one way of fine-tuning, building the bridges between the islands. Very tiresome for my friends however . . .
JL: Not for some of them. I know plenty of writers who like to stick their oars into other people’s books. I love it!

SRB: I remember being very surprised when Holly was like TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOOK!
I was a baby publishing intern at the time. She was a Big Deal Writer Lady.

I was very pleased though: usually I had to coerce people. TALK LOUDLY OVER THE SOUND OF THEIR PROTESTS.
JL: Lucky you have such a penetrating voice. 🙂
SRB: Possibly this is how I developed it . . .
JL: Holly really loves telling novels. She and Cassie Clare too.
SRB: This is how we all work.
JL: I had never come across that method before I met you three. I admit I was appalled at first.
SRB: So us in a pool in Mexico plotting novels in detail really works Plus we can fill in each other’s steps. If I have a gap and cannot proceed along the way. Holly or Cassie can fill it in for me and from there my ideas can snowball
JL: The first time I saw (heard) Holly & Cassie doing that I was shocked and appalled. But now I enjoy watching them at it. I had to let go of my fear of spoilers. And I learned not to breathe a word of what I was working on them lest they start interfering with it.

I’m already permanently spoiled for Scott’s books. Now yours and Holly’s and Cassie’s are also on that list.
SRB: Sometimes my process is too chaotic for them. I scream out something that seems insane to them. Then ten minutes later we reach a brainstorming point where my insane scream makes sense.
JL: I think what appalled me is that from my viewpoint you’re all sharing something that has always been intensely private for me. I do all of that stuff on my own.

SRB: I guess since it ends up public it seems right to start it with friends.
JL: Well, that’s the part you can’t control—when it’s published. So I like as much control as possible before then.
SRB: on the other hand, while I do not mind people showing me their babies. I would be very discomposed if they had sex in front of me.
JL: Ha! Interesting way of putting it.
JL: EWWWW!!!!!

SRB: Wow, now my own rash metaphor has transformed me, Holly and Cassandra into immoral orgiastic maeneads.
JL: You said it, not me.
SRB: Whereas you are the decent lady. (Sorry, Holly and Cassie!)
JL: Well except that you tell me your novel plots all the time. Sometimes I even beg you to. (I get Diana [Peterfreund] to tell me hers, too.)
SRB: So you are a decent lady with a peephole. Or I am the maenad who sometimes has orgies on your lawn?

: I look but don’t touch. (I fear we have taken this too far.)
Do you like talking on the phone? (Not in a sexy way!)
SRB: Hmmm, not that much.
JL: I would rather IM than talk on the phone.
SRB: I mean, I am perfectly happy to do it
JL: Holly & Cassie are phone people and they don’t like IMing.
SRB: I have never IM’d with Holly, it is true
JL: IM is my fave form of communication. Other than face to face.

I had a theory linking preferring to talk on the phone to telling stories rather than writing them first. But you have blown it by preferring IM.

*shakes fist at SRB*

SRB: Well, there is the fact I always live pretty far away from people. I like most forms of communication to a degree.
(Curse my own metaphor, now I am the sluttiest of all!)

JL: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a slut.
SRB: Naturally not! But I could wish others would join me in my scandalous preferences.

JL: Don’t look at me! I is good, sweet, innocent writer.

  1. Just kidding. []


  1. Kristin Cashore on #

    It strikes me that the moment a person starts interfering with your hamster, that person is no longer welcome in your home, and therefore becomes a trespasser. Fire away!

    Justine, I’m pretty much like you when it comes to not breathing a word. When people ask me what my WIP is about, I give the best non-answer I can come up with. Also, I have to say, I’m completely paper-based in the drafting part of things, and have no memory, AND I’m a mad outliner, which means there’s a LOT of paper floating around my house. (Every 30 pages or so, I transcribe it all into a Word doc in case the house burns down.)

    Thanks for sharing — this was interesting.

  2. phoquess on #

    I used to talk my stories out to some close friends before they got written down. In fact, the week before NaNo started my sister, best friend and I had a tradition… we would bring our baby ideas to the high school football game, and during the game we would talk them out to work out holes and problems and make them more awesome! But I don’t really do that anymore, after I moved away from my best friend and ended a friendship with another writerly friend. Now I mostly do them in my head.

  3. HWPetty on #

    SRB is in my brain. But I also start every story with no idea of where it will go… so talking through things aloud keeps me from writing in circles and cutting whole chapters later.

    This was so awesome to read, though! Thanks for letting us in on the conversation.

  4. wandering-dreamer on #

    Wait, writers usually write down all the ideas they have on paper for future use? Wohoops.
    Anyway, I usually don’t talk about the dozens of little stories floating around in my head (unless it was my NaNo story and then I was only talking to my friend/editor who was actually interested in them) unless I think up a very amusing situation in my daydreams. If it can make me giggle for five minutes straight I want to share it with all my friends, no matter what form or what the heck it is. Then again, I just like amusing people and retelling stories to them, not quite bardish but something like that I guess.

  5. Kirsten on #

    It’s pretty geeky, but there’s a strong storytelling component in fantasy role-playing games. The best of them involve everyone in the group telling the story (I remember writing a ballad for one–!) together. But it’s so ephemeral: like a group of musicians jamming improv together or a cook throwing together bits of this and that to create a sound or a souffle (1) that, while delicious, is lives only in the memory of those who enjoyed it. Whereas a good story can be told over and over to new audiences without losing its savor.

    Of course, if some of the players are artists, they can then mine the game for songs and pictures and stories, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?

    (1) And here the metaphor collapses, since, as my internet pen-friend kalquessa pointed out, baking is like visiting fairyland: one has to stay on the path and obey all the arcane rules or the whole venture comes to sticky end.

  6. Diana Peterfreund on #

    i’m glad sarah is with me about the outlining. justine and my other misty friends are…different.

  7. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    LAUGHING SO HARD right now. Your IMing! I loves it! You even used parentheses. Only one of my friends knows what I’m getting at when I do that.

    I am a good story repeater. Once I learn a story (like a fable or a fairy tale or similar) I can tell it over and over again. Sometimes with variations, sometimes word-for-word. (Whether or not I alter the wording in the retelling depends on how well I like the original wording. If I really liked it, it sticks whole. If not, I just carry the gist of it around in my head, and then when I need it the words mostly come back to me.)

    But my own stories, when I get to yammering about them, tend to be all over the place. I don’t tell them start to finish. After they’re written, I can. But then I usually just let the other person read what I wrote.

  8. Courtney Milan on #

    I have to say:

    1. I write everything longhand. And I edit it long hand. I spend a lot of time transcribing, which is also the step when I get so bored transcribing that I insert snarky things to liven up the process. This is a vital part of my voice.

    2. My critique partners can do the “talk about things and critique stuff out loud” route. I can’t. Everything I ever write sounds absolutely insane. I did this once and was told that the only way my book would ever make sense would be if someone jumped out at the end and said, “Surprise! You’re on candid camera!”

    … This was the first book I sold.


    Although I do wonder if this Book Which I Must Not Write While I am on Drop-Dead-Line for the Other Book might be easier if I could just get someone else to figure out what happens after the first scene, and before the chicken and the magistrate.

    Also, 3. I am no longer just lurking on Justine Larbalestier’s blog.

  9. AudryT on #

    Hey, now! My five brothers were my most devoted audience. Well, four of them. I was the babysitter. They didn’t have a choice. :::cackle:::

  10. Karen Mahoney on #

    Although Sarah knows I have mad love for her, there is no way I could ever write the way she does! *gasp!* Talking about stories before things are figured out? Before they are written down?! *shudders*

    I am far more like Justine – I have to keep things to myself & find it very difficult to share my work until I know what’s going on with it. I definitely figure out the story as I write, and that has to be a personal & private process.

  11. Bookewyrme on #

    I am just like you Justine! I have to write on a computer (it’s not the paper, it’s the pens. Pens are evil, and out to take over the world) and I can’t tell anyone even my ideas until after it’s on paper. I do have a few very very close trusted friends who I like to show the first and partial drafts to, warts and all. But that’s it, everyone else has to wait till I’ve re-read it a couple times and fixed all the glaring plot-holes, typos, and banal chatter. Oh, and I’ve never been able to work out a story before it’s written down, for similar reasons.

    People with bad memories are handicapped, I say!

  12. Skaldi on #

    The book I’m editing was written semi-organically. Because of the nature of the story I researched for years before creating a chapter outline. All that contained were the beats (key points) for each scene that needed to occur for the story to come together. I winged the rest and the story is richer as a result.

    For me it comes from my scriptwriting and film background where you need to know where you’re going due to the constraints and succinctness needed for the medium. The beats also come from there.

    Playing with an idea with a friend has led to another world being born. But I don’t do that for most of them. I have notebooks filled with story ideas and details that I otherwise would remember. I find it especially useful since I’m usually developing several others at any one time and there’s too many other interesting and obscure facts up there as well as the research I’m currently pursuing.

    Oh and the notebooks, as opposed to just using the computer, is because I’m also an artist and it’s more the feel of drawing as I write notes allowing me to think as I write and include maps and other relevant pictures.

  13. Mac on #

    Just occurred to me: Would you consider the standup comedy circuit a sort of “bardic culture”?

  14. Maria Lima on #

    Sarah, we are twin souls! I used to think I was like Justine, in that I didn’t outline (for all values of “outline” = writing everything down). After reading this, I totally get it – I know the beginning, the end and the islands in between. I also talk it out with friends/fellow writers. For me, there’s no other way.

    I love epiphanies like this!! Thanks for the very cool post, Justine & Sarah.

    ::goes off to mutter about book 5::

  15. Susie on #

    Yay! My two favorite bloggers! (and among my very favorite authors) Thank you, this was wonderful.

    I am an outliner (even if most of the outline is in my head), and I’ve found that if I talk too much about an idea for a novel before I’ve started writing it, I’ll never write it. For me, sharing the story (out loud or on paper) finalizes it rather than writing it down. (And like Justine, I draft on the computer and think with my fingers–though I sometimes write scenes or notes on paper with a pen)

    The exception was my last book (sadly not published yet), where I got really, really stuck on the ending. I realized the ending I’d (loosely) planned did not work. I told the whole story so far out loud to my sister, and somehow just telling it made it clear to me and I knew how to end it. I think because for me the *story* is not the same as the *plot*. Story includes theme and character quirks and the narrator, whereas the outline is just plot, just *what happens.*

    I also have to defend brothers. My brother remains the only other person who likes my poetry, proving either that he is the only other person in the world with any taste, or that he is the best brother ever. : )

    Also, I love that image of the finished book as a new baby and the idea as conception. Making the writing process like pregnancy I guess, which works. After all, you show it to more people the closer it gets to being finished. : ) (With or without Maenad orgies on the lawn!)

  16. Rai X on #

    Aha, this has been most pleasing to read! It is as if I am living vicariously through this conversation. There are times when I get the urge to talk about my novel/stories so badly, but none of my friends give a hoot. Even other writers! Its as if I am talking to a wall, that occasionally says “yeah” “uh huh”. It also doesn’t help that not one of them has read my entire novel (even if it is just a first draft). Can’t gain any input if they’ve got no clue what you’re talking about!
    Thank God for the internet, where I can ramble on endlessly and pretend someone is listening to it!

    For me, most of my stories end up being “written in my head” before I ever attempt to write them down. So I know fairly well what is going on. Although, since they usually end up as just the important scenes, I do have to figure out how to tie everything together as I go along. But sometimes I feel as though there are so many stories in my head, I couldn’t possibly write them all down in my lifetime!

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