Tuesday, August 10, 2010


My answer

I have a book coming out in about two months, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. My first two novels were somewhat realistic and I got the usual questions about whether I was my character and if my story was real. I gave the usual answer. Some of the story and characters, in a very changed form, have elements of autobiography but most is made up. In this new novel, aliens invade the world and conquer it in ten seconds and enslave the survivors. This time I have to admit it’s all real. Every word of the story is true. Also, I’m all the characters.

I’m the aliens who come to earth to colonize. Back in our solar system the sun burned out so we had to hit the road, ride the solar winds, find new worlds. Yadda. Yadda. Fortunately for us there are a lot of worlds out there. Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of those worlds we are quite advanced and think that primitive beings really don’t matter so we put most of them “to sleep” in a humane manner and enslave the rest to help our civilization, which is really, really great, move forward.

I’m also, as it turns out, the enslaved who are mostly young (*author’s note—I killed off most of the older people because, hey, most of them don’t read young adult fiction.) and who must find a way to adapt in order to survive. We’re not happy about this. Each one of us is unhappy in his or her own way. It’s never been all that easy to be a human but being enslaved by aliens (basically little green men whose power comes from their mind and telepathic abilities and not brawn and technology which is very confusing and certainly un-civilized by civilized Earthling standards) really sucks. We’ve lost our parents, our brothers and sisters and friends and dogs and cats. We’ve had a very bad time.

My main character is named Jesse and he is me. He’s only seventeen and I am, well, not. He’s a slave and I am, well, not. His father was in the military for twenty years and mine was in for three. Okay, some similarity there. He has a black belt in TaeKwonDo and so do I, but he’s much more advanced in martial arts than I will ever be. His mother was a teacher and mine was not. He grew up in Houston and I did not. But other than these differences we’re alike. Except in the ways we aren’t.

I guess, in the end, my answer to “is your story real and are you your characters?” , whether writing speculative fiction or somewhat realistic fiction, remains the same. I write what I know and what I know is that any story I write will have parts that are taken from real life and put into the Crazy Imagination Blender™ and used in the construction of character and story along with totally made up parts. In the end, they’ll be blended together in such a way that I won’t always be sure where something came from and what % of it happened and what % of it is made up. It’s all real though—to me—in a purely fictitious way. And thanks for giving me the chance to clear that up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nina: On Getting Out of the House

Before I published my first novel, Hold Still, in October of last year, I used to look at novels on bookstore shelves and think that it must be easier for published writers to write than it was for me. I thought that writing might be like making my mother’s (delicious!) buttermilk pancakes. The first try would be disastrous (somehow both burnt and undercooked); the second try, a little better (but too lumpy, with little clumps of baking soda); the next few attempts, just okay. But then, after a while: success! And then, each time that followed: more success!

If I hadn’t gotten the delicious novel recipe down by my first book, I certainly should have it down by the second.

So with inevitable ease and success in mind, last summer I wrote the beginning of my second novel and an outline for the rest of it. It’s a road trip story, and I determined where my characters would be on each day and what they would do and, of course, what would be done to them. My first draft deadline was in the winter, so over the fall, I followed the outline I made, checking off scenes as I wrote them. My outline became a giant to-do list.

Which was a problem.

Where did the inspiration go? The creativity? You know that feeling, when you sit down to write a scene and then, suddenly, it becomes almost a living thing, starts moving in unanticipated directions, surprises you in the best way possible? Well, I didn’t get that feeling. All of it felt like work.

But worse than the work itself was the pressure. The pancake theory burned up, was replaced with the realization that writing is, at least for me, going to be an eternal struggle—and even more frightening than that, for the first time, people will be watching. So instead of only worrying about the book itself and whether it’s any good, I’m now also worried about how it will compare to my first novel. Of course, I want it to be better. I want to keep growing.

This summer, as though rebelling against my former stick-to-the-outline self, I began my revision and expansion work as haphazardly as possible, dipping into scenes at random, adding a few lines of dialogue here and there, letting my narrator think more freely. Upon re-acquainting myself with the novel, something good started to happen. In many scenes, moments that seemed unimportant became seeds of larger moments. I thought of a whole side trip that wasn’t there before, with new characters and new events solidifying the older themes that didn’t quite come to the surface in the first draft.

But I kept questioning myself: what if these new ideas weren’t actually that great? Maybe they were just new. So I decided to get on the road.

I brought music, a camera, and a few changes of clothes. I brought my wife, who is, among millions of wonderful things, a swift driver and a gifted exchanger of ideas. We drove where my characters drive, we saw friends, and we met new people, and through it all, I was open to everything. Just as my narrator is. Almost everywhere we went, I discovered something new to add to the novel. The restaurant in Medford with cinnamon buns the size of my face and impossible riddles as reading material. The farm on Vashon Island, where our close friends are living. The friend of a friend in Portland, who told stories about working jobs I never knew existed. Everything we saw out the window as we whizzed past it.

The trip revealed gaps in the story I hadn’t recognized, and then showed me how to fill them. I’m excited, now, about where the book is going and the ways in which it continues to grow. And, though certainly no replacement for the recipe I thought I would master, I learned something that I’ll be able to apply to the next book: in order to breath life into my work, I need to get outside and live a little.