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.
YET YOU HAVE SEX IN FRONT OF CASSIE & HOLLY ALL THE TIME!
SRB: I FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEM? I GUESS!
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?
JL: 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.
- Just kidding. [↩]