Making Magic

How Magic or Madness Came into Being

Some of the ideas and thoughts the led to the Magic or Madness trilogy have been in my head for a long time. The three main ones were:

1) the things that bugged me in a handful of fantasy books,

2) how magic would really work and the conflict it could cause, and

3) Sydney and New York City.

I’ve always loved reading fantasy and like anyone who’s read a lot of a particular genre I have very definite ideas about what I think works and what doesn’t. One of the things I wanted to do with the trilogy was write a magic system that made sense to me, where magic wasn’t just an easy fix for every problem the hero has.

Once I’d come up with my magic system I could see it was going to create all sorts of conflict between family generations. How could you ever be sure who to trust and who not to? Excellent grist for the novelist’s mill!

Since I first started visiting the USA in 1993 I’ve been wanting to write about the differences between it and my country, Australia. (And also to come up with a quicker way of getting back and forth between the two countries—a door between Sydney and New York City would make my life so much easier!)

The event that finally forced me to bring all these (and other) ideas together was hearing that Penguin USA was starting up a new Young Adult imprint called Razorbill and was desperate for new books to publish. I spent two months obsessively working on the proposal for a trilogy about Reason Cansino and her discovery of the magic in her blood and the truth about her family. The proposal went through many, many drafts as I polished and honed my ideas and argued about them with my writer husband, Scott Westerfeld.

Proposals are very odd things to write because they’re not a book, they’re more like an advertisement for a book. Mine consisted of the scene where Reason steps through the door to New York City; background information about Reason and how magic works; a plot summary of the three books; and then the first three chapters of the first book (which by the time Magic or Madness was finished ended up being massively rewritten and turned into chapters three, four & ten).

Eloise Flood, the publisher of Razorbill, and Liesa Abrams, the senior editor, both loved my proposal. But they wanted to know more. Lots more. I’d never had a novel published before, (and barely any fiction—just a few short stories). I was asking them to trust that I could produce not just one, but three novels for them. Quite a risk!

I came in for a meeting that lasted hours. Eloise and Liesa asked me detailed questions about the story, the characters, how my magic system worked, how the third book was going to resolve all the problems I’d put in place, how I was going to make each of the books work as a single book and not just as part of a trilogy. They also had very definite ideas about who Reason should end up with. Ideas that did not entirely mesh with my own (I hadn’t thought about her ending up with anyone!). It was a strange and wonderful experience. Other than with Scott I’d never talked at such length about something I’d written before. I loved it!

After the meeting Eloise gave the go-ahead. Razorbill bought my trilogy and gave me a due date for delivery: 1 August 2004. At the time that was less than a year away. Gulp. I had no idea how long it was going to take me. My first book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, had taken much longer than a year to write.

Scott also had a novel to write, the second volume of his Midnighters trilogy, so in December 2003 we went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to write them. This ended up being a very good idea. Neither of us knew anyone there, and it turned out to be impossible to rent a house that didn’t come with a housekeeper. This meant that for twelve weeks neither of us had to do any housekeeping: we didn’t clean, or shop, or wash the dishes, or our clothes, or anything. Our wonderful housekeepers did that, Silvia Maria Palacios in the first house we rented, and Luz Barrón in the second. All we did was write and explore the town. We finished the first drafts of our novels in eight weeks. A miracle and all thanks to Silvia and Luz.

The other wonderful thing we discovered on that writing holiday was reading out loud to one another. Because we knew so few people we didn’t have much of a social life. Reading our novels to each other became our main form of entertainment. Writing is much more fun when you know you’re writing for a specific audience (Scott) and you know that audience is going to say useful, smart things about what you’re writing. It made us both write faster and better. We gave each other all sorts of brilliant ideas that improved both Midnighters Two: Touching Darkness and Magic or Madness out of sight (for instance, the snow fight was Scott’s idea).

It’s also amazing how different a sentence sounds read out loud. Especially compared to how it sounded in your head. Sentences I thought were sheer genius as I wrote them turned out to be signifcantly less than genius when I read them aloud. It’s a great way to catch bad writing and fix it on the spot.

After finishing that first draft I read the whole thing through and made more changes and then sent it to my first readers. By that point you definitely need fresh eyes to spot any plot holes, inconsistencies or other problems that have become invisible to you. On this occasion I used all Australian readers to make sure the Australian sections were working: Pamela Freeman, Jan Larbalestier, Jeannie Messer, Sally O’Brien, Kim Selling, Ron Serdiuk, and Wendy Waring (actually a Canadian but she lives in Australia).

After I got their comments back I rewrote it again and then sent it to Eloise and Liesa and the real editing began. They went over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, sending me detailed notes about the changes they wanted. We had meetings to discuss them, and I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote until all three of us were happy.

Then the manuscript was sent to a copyeditor who went through the manuscript to make sure that the book is consistent (tricky in a book where two point-of-view characters’ chapters are in Australian, English while the third point-of-view character’s are in American English), that there are no egregious errors like having characters go ice skating at the Lincoln Centre (oops!).

Next I checked the copyeditor’s changes and made some more of my own. Then it was sent to the proofreader, Polly Watson, who mainly checks spelling and grammar and that there aren’t any unnecessarily broken-up words or too-big gaps between words, but Polly went far beyond her brief (yay, Polly!).

Then I checked those changes and, being somewhat of an obsessive, made some more of my own. Then the managing editor at Razorbill, Andy Ball, did a read through to make sure all typos etc. had been caught and fixed. The final read through was done by Margaret Wright who caught still more typos. (NOTE: no book is ever completely free of typos. It’s an impossible dream to which all publishing houses aspire.) Then, at long last, the book was done and ready to be printed.

In the meantime almost as much work was being done on the way the book would look as on its contents. Marc J. Cohen designed the gorgeous cover (I am overjoyed by how beautiful it is!) and Chris Grassi did the interior design coming up with the cute sun and snowflake dingbats. Actually everything between the book’s covers looks good because Chris made it look good.

And that is how Magic or Madness came to be.