Hello, Dear Readers - and Happy Monday! This weekend I realised that I had never posted the wonderful interview which Elle and Kate from The Book Memoirs did with me for their Writer's Workshop. I'm not even sure I posted a link, since I'd kind of forgotten about it (bad Zolah! No cookie!).
And so, I present it now, for your consideration. Some great questions here, which I've never been asked in quite this way before.
Hej, Memoirites! Hvordan har du det? It feels appropriate to say hello and ask you how you are in Danish because today’s author is young-adult novelist Zoë Marriott! No, Zoë herself is not Danish but her wildly popular first book, The Swan Kingdom, is an ingenious retelling of the fairytale ‘The Wild Swans’ by Hans Christian Andersen… (See what I did there?) Zoë is also the author of the acclaimed fantasy novel Daughter of the Flames and the highly acclaimed Shadows on the Moon, currently available in a bookstore near you. We love Zo and we’re always delighted to have her on the site.
Elle: Hi, Zoë! Thanks so much for agreeing to be here. In prepping for the interview, I spent some time working through your treasure trove of a website and all of your tips for aspiring writers. If you had to pick one single piece of all-important advice to give to budding novelists, what do you think it would be?
Zoë: Thanks so much for inviting me, girls! Now, this first question… Oh, heck – where’s Yoda when you need him? The thing is, the One All-Important Piece of Advice probably changes from writer to writer, from day to day, even from minute to minute. It all depends where you are in your book, your life and your career. If I’m going for a one-size-fits-all type of thing I’ll probably plump for a reminder that the only difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the published one never gave up. So don’t ever give up. Persistence is three times as valuable as luck.
Kate: As a big fan of fairy tales and folk stories, I’m curious: what made you decide to use an Andersen story as the backbone for your novel? Was this a conscious decision at the get-go, or an evolution as you worked through ideas?
Zoë: I’ve always been fascinated by fairytales, and The Wild Swans was my favourite fairytale growing up. Looking back, I can see that what really captured my attention about the story – and all folkloric works – is the wide gaps left for the imagination within the narrative. Fairytales always tell you who did what and where, but somehow that essential WHY is never provided. Just why is the wicked stepmother so wicked? Why is the father or King always so willing to banish and forget his own children? How do the children themselves feel about it? What kind of courage does it take to go on when your fairytale world has fallen apart like this? I promised myself that I would explore these questions when I got older. And then I forgot about it. But when – several years later! – I realised that I wanted to write young adult novels, The Wild Swans immediately presented itself as a story that I needed to re-tell. It was as if it had been waiting patiently at the back of my mind all that time for me to grow up and notice it.
Elle: I’ve noticed that in my search for information, I haven’t seen anything which speaks to your writing process. Do you story-board? Are there lots of pieces of paper stuck haphazardly on your walls or do you have nice, neat index cards full of plans?
Zoë: Here’s where I bust out my camera! As you can see here, I’m a devotee of notebooks. Generally when I get a little spark of an idea I’ll pick out a notebook that seems right – I have nearly a hundred neatly stored in my Writing Cave – and I’ll start shoving Post-It notes into it with all my random thoughts. Later on, when the idea has matured or collided with another idea to make something that seems juicy enough for a book, I’ll get the notebook out again, pop a working title and a date in the front and start scribbling like mad – everything from fully formed scenes to one-line snatches of dialogue, to character sketches.
I do almost all of my rough drafting with a pencil in a notebook, which means that about 75% of my notebook is full of messy stuff which bears no resemblance to anything in the finished book at all. I’ve tried typing directly into a computer but I find it adds a lot of hard work to the revising later on – things look so official once you’ve got them in a Word Doc., it’s much harder to be flexible, play with ideas, change your mind. When I feel like I’ve rooted the story firmly in my brain I start trying to write a synopsis to contain all the craziness. Oy vey, synopses! I’m terrible at them! Plotting is definitely my week spot. I’ve developed all kinds of elaborate graphs and diagrams to try and keep control of my plots (as you can see!).
I’m not sure any of them really work – they’re more like a comfort blanket that I need in order to keep going when really I have no idea how things are going to fall out. For instance, after finishing the first draft of my current book I was forced to go back and change the gender OF EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER except two, and completely re-write it to make that work. I feel as if I’m a 50/50 mix between a planner and a pantser, and I hope one day to find a combination that works for me a bit more smoothly.
Kate: As someone who’s fairly private with her own writing, I always wonder this about published authors: when do you share your writing with other people? Do you have a sounding board you bounce ideas off of from inception or do you wait until you have some or all of a first draft done?
Zoë: Oh, you’re not alone, Kate! Lately I’ve been feeling like a bit of an anomaly in this regard, because Twitter and other writers blogs show me that everyone – but everyone! – seems to have teams of alpha readers, beta readers and critique partners. But I don’t. I never have. The only people who even get to glimpse what I’m working on before I’ve completed the first draft are my agent and editor – and when I say ‘first draft’ I actually mean ‘third or fourth draft that I call a first draft because I don’t want to admit how awful the actual first draft was’.
When I was first writing this was because I couldn’t find any person in my real life who was a) interested enough to comb through a first draft on my behalf and b) capable of doing so in a meaningful or helpful way. Seriously, you can’t exactly ask your mother, can you? By the time I became aware of the huge online YA community and the critiquing boards on places like AW I found that I didn’t really want feedback from anyone who wasn’t going to be directly involved in getting the book published, because so often the comments I saw online were contradictory and unhelpful.
But even though I don’t have any beta readers, I do belong to an informal writing group which was founded by an online friend of mine several years ago. We call ourselves The Furtive Scribblers and you’ll find them mentioned in the acknowledgments of everything I write. We have enormous, no-pressure fun, brain-storming, bouncing ideas, testing plots for holes, and pushing each other through writer’s block. I adore them, and without them my books would be HALF as good, if that.
Elle: I’m really interested in your experience of planning a fantasy novel and the alternative rules of that world. For high-fantasy, everyone’s advice is to start with a map, urban-fantasy seems to carry the recommendation of working out the mythology first. What did you do first whilst plotting your brand of fantasy novel?
Zoë: Panic, normally. As soon as I start to get an idea of what my fantasy world is going to be, I freak out and become convinced I JUST DON’T KNOW ENOUGH OMG. I wear out my library card, spend all my cash on reference works, documentaries and world music CDs and Google until my fingers bleed. Because my fantasy worlds so far have all had a historical basis (Daughter of the Flames was a mixture of India, Africa and Tibet, Shadows on the Moon is Japan and a sprinkling of China) it would have been all too easy to get things wrong.
Which may sound crazy when I’m making up my own world – but if you’re creating a pre-industrial country with no mass production and you have your characters pull out a ‘tarp’ or carry water in a metal bucket, you’ve already messed up. If you’re going to create fairytale Japan you need to know about real Japan or instead of an homage you’ll create a stereotypical parody, and not only insult the real culture you’re using but embarrass yourself. I do not like to embarrass myself!
Only when I’ve stuffed my brain to bursting point with every real life fact I can find do I feel as if I have the right to start messing around and actually making stuff up. This is the fun part. I used to draw incredibly detailed maps, but my publisher doesn’t like them and won’t actually put them in the book, so now I mostly sketch out relative areas so that I don’t get mixed up later on. I have a mental check list of vital facts I must know before I start work in earnest, like – what is the primary religion or religion of this country or countries? How strongly does this affect the day-to-day lives of the people? What does the general populace look like? What is the climate like, what are the major geographical features and natural hazards? What are is the wildlife like? The list goes on for quite a long while. But once I’ve filled those boxes I’ll give myself freedom to make other things up as I go along and as the plot or characters require. Some of my favourite bits of world building have come from impulse invention – like the facial tattoos in DotF.
Kate: Do you have any writing “rituals”? Do you have to cut yourself off from the outside world? Do you start rereading what you last wrote? Is there anything that has to be done for the juices to get flowing?
Zoë: I try not to let myself get into too many rituals, because I have an addictive personality and I feel as if I would just end up strangling myself. So, generally, I try to be in my Writing Cave by 9:00, I usually have a large mug of tea or coffee with me, and I generally try to re-read and revise what I wrote the day before, and then go onto new material. But if I blocked the doorway of the Writing Cave with three baskets of un-ironed laundry and I have to write downstairs instead? I try to be OK with that. If the dog rolled in something awful and needs a bath and I can’t start until 10:00? Golly, I really, really try to be OK with that. I think the only things I absolutely must have are my notebook/pencil and my iPod. Music is one thing I can’t do without. I mean, I can write without it, but I find it so hard to get started, it’s just easier to give in.
Elle: You’ve mentioned in one of your Q&A answers on your website that the ending to The Swan Kingdom changed drastically halfway through as you got to know your characters. Do you tend to find you start a novel with a fully-formed character in mind, or do you often begin with a handful of details and surprise yourself as you go?
Zoë: Actually, the ending itself stayed exactly the same. What changed was where the ending took place, how it took place, and all the characters involved!
I always start with a character. Stories come to me through the filter of a character’s eyes. I get that little whispering voice in the back of my head, and their life begins to unreel itself before my eyes. And because of this I fool myself that I know who they are and what’s going to happen. But of course, I’m not actually receiving messages from an alternate reality – it’s all coming from the little Writer Plugin in my hindbrain. And so what seems to come to me as incontrovertible ‘fact’, like this character’s actions, or that character’s traits, are all negotiable.
It’s only when I actually put the characters in the world, set them against each other and and let them get to work, that I truly start to understand them, and see how their histories, personalities, and conflicting desires, work together to create what I hope are fully realised people. And as soon as this starts, the story – what it means to them and what it means to me, and hence what actually happens – begins to warp and change.
This is a good thing. Even if it does cause the occasional panic attack…
Kate: At what point do you abandon an idea – be it for a plot twist, a character, or part of your fantasy world – as unworkable? Is there some threshold that lets you know “this won’t work”?
Zoë: Nope. I’ve not yet figured out how to be well adjusted about this stuff. There’s things that I love, and things I don’t. The things I love stay no matter what, and the things I don’t go out the window in a constant stream. Then I send it to my editor and she cuts half the things I love, brings half the things I don’t love back from the flowerbed under the window, and tells me to make it work. And I groan and clutch my head, and try to sneak as many of the ‘love’ bits back in as I can, but it’s never as many as I wanted. If anyone else has any tips on how to handle this? I’d be extremely grateful!
Elle: I’ve taken great pleasure in putting this question to everyone else but I especially can’t wait to see what you say! Writers are often asked who their biggest influences are but I would instead like to know which novels most influenced you as an individual and as writer, barring the most obvious answer (cough, cough)!
Zoë: The Holy Trinity for me as a young person was – The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce, and Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. If you’ve read these, you’ll sense a common theme – resourceful, brave, compassionate heroines, with bag-ass swords. These books taught me who I wanted to be and I like to think I’ve lived up to that, at least in a small way. Even though my sword is only a wooden one.
When it comes to writers who influence me and my work as an adult, though – writers that I’m still striving to emulate, writers whose books have expanded my horizons and continue to make me a better writer myself – the picture changes a little. Suddenly I’m looking at a new top three:
Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones, The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold and The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin.
These books have a lot less in common on the surface, but each of them has a core of… something, some indefinable thing, that I’m constantly trying to breach and understand. I’ve re-read each of these so many times you’d think I’d know them by heart. Instead, I find myself reading a new book each time. THAT is greatness. I bow down before them.
Thanks again for having me Elle and Kate, and for coming up with such different, intriguing questions!