Friday, March 28, 2008

Reminding myself what I know

I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about writing and writing about writing, but not. . . you know. . . writing. I was working on my upcoming SCBWI presentation, wanting it be the sort of workshop that is really useful in concrete ways, and gives you some tools for working on your own books. I've attended a lot of conferences by now, and I can count on, er, I don't even need a whole hand, how many of those workshops were really, truly useful, apart from being interesting and inspiring, which is nice too. There is one workshop in particular that I still refer to my notes from, especially when I'm beginning a new book. It was taught by Dan Greenberg and I remember how after the conference was over I sat out on the terrace of the Century Plaza Hotel with a glass of chardonnay, in the Los Angeles evening sun, my notebook open, thinking hard about my work-in-progress (Blackbringer) in all new ways, my mind opening in unexpected directions, new ideas snapping into place. Those notes guided me toward taking my book to a whole new level, without which, I might never have completed it. Or maybe I would, but it would have been a very different book.

That is the kind of workshop I hope to teach, one where you're not just inspired in a general sense, as if often the case, but that gives you tools for getting to work, for breaking through your barriers and moving past what you've been able to accomplish so far. Here's the topic:

Laini Taylor will discuss generating ideas for a fantasy novel or series, plumbing the depths of nature and world folklore to enrich your ideas, building a world your readers will want to live in, creating characters they will want to be, and weaving it all together into an intricate and satisfying plot. And, she’ll give out buttons. And maybe candy.

(I know, bribery with candy is a cheap trick.) So, I've been mulling and writing and refining my talk, trying to make my thoughts on writing fantasy all concise and brilliant, and in the process, I've been reiterating for myself the things I really need to remember -- especially in between books, especially when the daunting prospect (however thrilling, it is daunting) of rolling forward with the new book looms ahead of me.

One thing I've reminded myself of is that the only way a story can begin to feel real to the writer is. . . to begin to write it. To just. . . begin. So simple, right? At the start of a new story, it of course feels thin and unreal. The characters haven't come alive yet, the world isn't convincing. For me, with a big, complex, thrilling story ahead waiting for me to come on in and do it justice, this is terrifying. There's a lack of confidence, each time, that it can be done. With Silksinger, I clearly recall the early attempts at bringing the culture of the dragonfly caravans to life. It was thin, dull stuff, utterly unconvincing. It was a bit demoralizing. I wondered how I could ever make this feel like a full, convincing, and compelling world, the way I wanted it to be -- I mean, I had such big glimmering ideas. Hobgoblins and dragonfly caravans soaring over the mountains! Ancient stone halls tucked into fissures in the high snowy peaks, bazaars where faeries and hobgoblins trade spice and silk, medicines and daggers, devils. . . how did I begin to make this culture, this world, feel real?

Well, the way is, of course, to write scenes, to write characters interacting, to write forward through the story, making things happen, discovering the story along the way. Discovering it and inventing it at the same time. You can do a lot of brainstorming and note taking and research up front (and I do), and that will give you a lot of details and color to pull out when the time comes, but there is really nothing else to do but to climb right inside your story and start writing it. You have to be in it, as scary as it is to get started. And that's where I am now. Well, to be clear, I am poised at the threshold, the cave mouth of my story; I haven't the time just exactly now to climb inside. But I will. (I swear.)

Now -- after months of writing and thinking and rewriting and thinking and more rewriting -- those Silksinger dragonfly caravans feel fully alive to me. But it took a lot to get there, and it has to start somewhere. Now, having reminded myself of this by writing it out in a presentation for others, I am feeling that nauseous combination of excitement and fear I always feel at the start of a new book. I know what I need to do -- I just had to remind myself a little. Thanks, self!

Writing about writing has come to my rescue often, as I rediscover what I know to be true, and force myself to face it. And, I am happy to say, some of my writing about writing is going to appear in the next edition of The New Writer's Handbook, a collection of essays about craft by working writers. I'm very excited! It'll be an excerpt from Not For Robots, and it will be in good company, along with pieces by Lois Lowry, Scott Westerfeld, and former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser! Cool! (Here's the previous edition of The New Writer's Handbook to check out, too.)

I'm off in a little bit to Barnes & Noble, to talk to the children's book person who has invited me to give a presentation to educators later this spring. Very exciting! I love talking to librarians, and I think teachers must be pretty cool too.


myrna said...

I finished Blackbringer at three o'clock this morning. It was wonderful. I'm going to read it again next week to pick up the stuff I missed because I was dead to the world tired. It was so easy (and fun) to jump into Magpie's skin and fly with her crow brothers. I'd be surprised if I didn't dream about it last night. Thanks for writing a great book for me to share with my friends and fam.

I read Blackbringer because I love reading your blog, and the one you wrote today is a great example of why I love reading it. You make me want to go to work. I reorganized my kitchen after seeing all of the fun pictures of your house. This blog makes me want to jump back into the novel that I haven't been working on for the last couple of months. I have over 20,000 words (more than I've typed on one story before), and when I start working on it I don't want to come out again. But I have three small children, and I babysit. Yet I still have time to read and reorganize my kitchen. If I spent half of the time I spend reading on my novel, I'd finish it this year. Anyway, thanks for the two great reads. Good luck with your conference! I wish I could come!

Anonymous said...

the only way a story can begin to feel real to the writer is. . . to begin to write it. To just. . . begin. So simple, right? At the start of a new story, it of course feels thin and unreal. The characters haven't come alive yet, the world isn't convincing. For me, with a big, complex, thrilling story ahead waiting for me to come on in and do it justice, this is terrifying.

As I contemplate the dread specter of Book Two (due next May! Ack!) I needed very, very badly to hear this. Deep down I knew it, or feared it, but it helped a lot to hear someone else -- especially someone who seems to write in a very similar way to myself -- say it. Thank you.

Disco Mermaids said...

Writing about writing has come to my rescue often, as I rediscover what I know to be true, and force myself to face it. Brilliant! In fact, there are about a dozen brilliant lines in this post.

I don't even write fantasy, but I'm sad that I have to miss your presentation. It sounds like it'll be great...especially because you remember the types of presentations that meant the most to you.

You're an inspiration...

- Jay

tinker said...

If your workshop is anything like your blog and 'Not For Robots' writing, I'm sure it will be full of inspirational tools. Just reading that little bit you shared about creating bazaars and dragonfly caravans flying into ice fissures has sent my mind whirling off, thinking about discovering new landscapes...
Congratulations btw, on being included in The New Writer's Handbook! I'm glad this year is starting to get better for you - may it just get better and better!

Q said...

Not For Robots is such an INSPIRATION for me to keep writing. Thank you. Your workshop attendees will bee amazed. Even without candy.

Granny Smith said...

Ha! Now I know from whence our latest Sunday Scribblings prompt arose - perhaps.

I have been to many writers conferences and have found them fun, occasionally inspiring, but not really useful to a writer. I have, however, received very useful input from editors and agents. It's a long time since I have written fantasy, but I wish I could hear your presentation. I'm sure, with all the thought you are putting into it, that it will be truly useful.

~Stella said...

I'm not a writer. And I don't play one on TV (that must be the most over-used line in the history of blogging). Even so, I write...sometimes. And I struggle with some writer-ish things.

I hope that you can emphasize in your seminar the actual mechanics of putting pen to paper for creating good (and later, with editing and rewriting, GREAT) writing.

I have read this truth in Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" and in Anne LaMonte's book, "Bird by Bird". I fear that a lot of potentially amazing writers out there forget that a creative mind is a wonderful thing, but a writer...a true writer...makes that creativity accessible to readers. And you can't do that without getting it out of your brain and onto you can edit and perfect and enrich and grow.

Being a writer is ridiculously hard work, but the first step to getting there is putting pen to paper. So simple, but so true...and I could digress in the thousand other metaphoric ways this can apply to life but I'm not a writer and it simply would not present itself properly.

So, make those people write. And have fun teaching! Can't wait to read about it!

Cambria said...

I love your blog. So great and fun to read!!! Cambria

tone almhjell said...

Ah, curses!

That there is an ocean and a continent between your writing class and me. It would be so much fun and so very useful.

Monday morning I'm going to read this again, and get over myself and sit down and WRITE. Not mock papers on magic and the Nikolaus effect. Not elements for maps. Not articles on the social structure of the bone brigade. But scenes, characters, the - real - story.

Monday (because I'm really busy now, what with cuddling the cat and nipping out for coffee and preparing the baking date with my sister: caramel/ginger/pear upside down gingerbread. Very important stuff!).

Thanks, Laini!

lifedoesntimitate said...

Hello. This is the first blog post of yours that I've read. I came over because you posted on mine about being a huge Joss Whedon fan. Literally, that's all it took for me to check you out.

How thankful I am that I did.

This was a great post to read. I'm currently in a similar situation - realizing the importance of the just-sit-down-and-write. I'm doing this thing called script frenzy, which starts on the first of April. I just recently finished my outline, and I'm very anxious to get started. Your post helped me remember the importance of just doing it.

Also, I'm posting a link from my blog to yours so, you know, expect upwards of... ones of new readers.

-- lifedoesntimitate

brittany said...

laini taylor, you rock!

Steph said...


I registered for the conference yesterday and signed up for your workshop. I'm looking forward to meeting you. Not for Robots has been a tremendous help and inspiration for me. (Thank you!)

Alex S said...

Every time you write a post as amazing as this one it is less time for you to make cookies and bow to my snowglobe skull. This is a wonderful, wonderful post Thinnychoochoo!