"Sketches from the Birchmere"
Both of the sketches in this post are sketches from my sketch book (only 10 more pages to go before the giveaway!) and were done while I was sitting at a Joshua Radin concert last night.
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.
Okay, these questions, like the concert last night, turned out longer and less nicely formatted than I had expected, so I'm just going to post them here in their intensely long unabridged entirety and then tidy and fudge for my website's FAQ. These are questions from my e-mail, from this blog, and from my writing blog. Thank you everyone for asking questions!
Questions about Craft
For you which comes first when it comes to writing- the character or the story?
Story first, definitely, because I tend to come up with the ideas that sound like "what if . . . " I write about the process from beginning to end over at my short story group blog.
Do you have any rituals before and during writing that help you to stay in the zone?
For me, it’s music. If there’s not music playing – and music that I’ve handpicked for that particular work in progress -- for some reason I can’t focus, even if the room isn’t noisy. Somehow music acts like the glue that keeps all the pieces of Maggie (which would be a great name for a band) together.
During writing, I tend to reward myself for finishing a scene. You know, I get to go online and check my e-mails or jump up and make cookie dough or something before getting back down to work. I’m a very reward-based person.
When you write, are you more in the mindset of being the director watching the scene unfold, or the character experiencing it? (I guess this is a question about emotional distance.)
Oh, definitely director. While I empathize with my characters a good deal (I think you have to), I also need to do horrible and fun things to them, and to do that, a director hat is more useful. Plus, as a character, you might miss opportunities to bring in setting or play with overall tone for a scene. I also think about building my novels scene by scene, so director-ness is much more me. If you get too close to a character, i.e., in their body a la Patrick Swayze/ Whoopie Goldberg, I think writing becomes much more of an emotional roller coaster and I think contributes to the idea of writers drinking like fish and generally being unstable people great for parties and bad for marriage.
I'm an avid reader of your short stories and have always wondered how do you write such realistic male characters?
I’m a very tom-boyish girl, so I think all my characters tend towards middle-of-the-roadness. Did you notice that my boys are always a bit sensitive and my girls are always a bit rough and ready around the edges? I have a hard time with very girly-girls.
That said, I steal shamelessly from real people. I try to pay attention when people speak and imagine what it would look like written down. It’s a great exercise and it also teaches you a ton about whoever you’re talking to. Once they get over you frowning at them because you're wondering where you'd put the comma or em dash in the last thing they said to you.
Any tips on achieving a good balance between dialogue and description during a scene? I tend to err on having either "long talk furthering conflict" scenes, or "action/stuff getting done" scenes.
Back to director hat here. When I’m trying to pace a novel - because really what you’re talking about here is pacing, I think of my novel as a mix CD. You want song you burn to have the same atmosphere, but you need a nice mix of slow and fast. Slow scenes make fast scenes seem faster, and vice versa. So I try and build my scenes like that. Then within the scene, I’m always leery of action that can’t possibly end up with someone you love getting dead or maimed. You know, if it’s towards the front of the book and you know the main character lives on. Or if it’s secondary characters you don’t care about. Because then, no matter how hawt your sword swinging action is, it’s not really conflict. It’s something to be skipped over til you get to the next good bit. Same way with slow dialogue bits. I’ve got to care, and you’ve got to care too.
Rule of thumb for me? If I want to know what happens, I write it. If I need to know but don’t feel excited writing it, I put in a ***insert scene where Bob tells Marley about chains*** and come back to it. Nine times out of ten, I don’t end up needing that scene, and the book’s tighter for it.
In terms of background and world-building, when do you decide "enough is enough"?
I like to have the big parts of my world settled on before I ever put pencil to paper, but a lot of it evolves while I’m writing. Because my fantasies always take place in the real world, I don’t have as much to work out as a high fantasy writer. However, I do need some rules established for my magic or my supernatural crap which is going on. I don’t like to do a ton of pre-planning, because then I’ll feel obliged to do an infodump. I prefer to go into the novel with a pretty good skeleton of my world, flesh it out as I need it, and then in the first revision, go back and make sure it’s all straight forward and plays nicely with others.
I despise the info-dump and I also despise feeling like the author has put a lot of work into the world building. However you do it, it should appear effortless and in the background. The characters come first. World is a far far far second.
How do you balance family life with writing? Do you ever feel like you're so busy listening to the characters in your head that you aren't paying full attention to the people speaking with you in real life?
I will confess that if a really good argument is happening or a really charming moment, my mind will often slide over to Maggie-Author-Zone, where I steal the emotions and dialogue for later use in a scene. I was really bad about this as a teen, and I came off pretty detached, I think, because I was a watcher rather than a player. Now I only allow my characters and novels full rein of my head under controlled circumstances – brainstorming in the car by myself, for instance, or laying on the floor with the headphones on. Brainstorming is a crucial part of writing, so you can’t get rid of it. But you can definitely dictate when you do it.
As far as balancing family life with writing, I’ve always had a good husband who understands that writing is important to me. Even before it was my job, he knew that when I said “I’m going to write for a bit” that I wasn’t to be poked at. And we’re good at entertaining ourselves in the same room in parallel lives, so he’ll pop on a movie I would never watch on the sofa a few feet away from me, and I’ll pop on my headphones and start to type, and whenever we take a break from what we’re doing, we’ll chat or smooch or something disgustingly charming like that. I just sort of smushed it into life and it’s just like eating or washing the dishes or watching TV. I just make sure it has a beginning and an end time. I don’t dash over to the ‘puter to write every spare moment I get. I save them all up into a wad.
What's one thing you should abandon and one thing you should cultivate to become the best writer you can be?
I guess the one thing you should abandon is melodrama. When I look at my old stuff from ten years ago (yes, when I was 16. Shut up. I was not a melodramatic teen.) the really awful part was the melodrama. The ideas and plots were still kinda cool, but the way the action and relationships played out . . . people. I mean, characters. Get. Over. Yourselves.
And the one thing I would say you should cultivate is a good reading eye. We’re writers. You can study books on craft all you like, but the real thing that teaches us the most is reading a good book. The difference between a good reader and a good writer is that a good writer can look at a great book and figure out why it’s great . . . and apply it to their own stuff.
Questions about Business
Should I look for an editor or publisher or agent first?
Definitely an agent first. If you don’t get any personalized responses to your query letter from an agent, it’s a surefire sign you need to polish your query or your story a bit more. I suggest diving into www.agentquery.com first.
Is an agent a necessary thing to have? I'm assuming yes on this one seeing as how most major publishers won't look at your stuff unless you have one, but I just wanted to be sure.
Actually, I can’t in all good conscience say yes, although I love my agent and think she works like an absolute demon to further my careerm because I got my first book contract without an agent, with a mid-size publisher, Flux, who still accepts unagented submissions. Flux has a good reputation and gets good reviews and shelf-space in the major chains for their novels, but the danger with going with a mid-size publisher is that they won’t be able to get your books on the shelves of the major chains. So if you decide to submit your work to small publishers yourself, make sure you check out the local bookstores to find out if their current list is readily available.
Also, my agent negotiated my second contract with Flux (and my subsequent one which I can’t talk about yet) and I have to tell you, it was wonderful to sit back and let her do all the business work while I wrote. Plus she got me more money, a contract filled with bells and whistles that I could never have negotiated, and for the next book got me read practically instantly by major editors. I could never have gone full-time without her.
So can you get published without an agent? Yes. Can you get a contract with a major NYC publisher? Very likely not (most are closed to unagented submissions) Can you go full-time without one? I don’t think so.
When is a good time to start looking for one? Before editing? After editing?
Definitely after editing. Getting an agent is extremely competitive, only slightly less than getting published. You want to make sure your work is as good as you can get it, but don’t be surprised if they have even more editorial suggestions. And get used to the idea that your editor will have even more editorial suggestions after you’ve done all you can do on your own.
What's a good way to go about finding a good one?
I really like www.agentquery.com. It lets you find agents that represent your genre, take e-subs, and are members of AAR. Another good way to find them is in the acknowledgments of novels in your genre. Do your research on agents! Read their websites and make sure they’ve had sales in your area before you query them, not after. A bad agent is far worse than none at all.
Did you find your choices for, and, finally your remarkable agent after your publisher expressed an interest in work or before?
I got my agent after I had my contract for LAMENT (well after -- I didn't start looking for one until I was thinking about getting the sequel under contract), but there are plenty of folks who landed their agent without any publisher interest. There’s a great section on Fangs, Fur, and Fey where the members (including me) talk about how we got our agents and book deals. I'm sorry it's not an easy page to navigate, but if you look at all of the entries for the month of December, I think the posts begin on the 8th.
Is it harder to get an agent if there is no previously published work? I've never been good at writing short stories and getting them submitted into magazines or anything like that. My pieces of fiction have always been a lot longer.
I actually never managed to sell a short story until after I got my novel published. I had no credits at all when I got my first contract. A nice, professional looking blog (without no griping about rejections on it) will help you more than short story credits, as will a cheerful persona and a willingness to be edited. Sounds cliche to say your work will speak for itself . . . but it better.
The hardest thing for me was writing the damn synopsis. Don’t figure. I tried to keep it brief, but I wasn’t able to get any feeling in it. I’m still rewriting it. It seems too clinical. Common sense tells me if you can write an 80,000 word something, the synopsis should be easy. Your views, experience, greatly appreciated.
Agents will want synopses! Either a long (6 page-ish) or short (2 page-ish) I used to dread them. Okay, I still kinda do. But they don’t have to be horrible. What you have to keep in mind when you write them is that they aren’t chapter summaries. They’re merely an overview of the plot and character arcs, complete with ending, told in the same style as your novel.
So imagine that you’re standing in a grocery store line and someone asks you what the movie Pretty Woman was about. You’re like “Richard Gere falls in love with a prostitute.” They say, “sounds interesting, disease issues aside. Is it any good? Does it have a happy ending?” And you’re like, “Well, a rich business man hires Julia Roberts to be his live-in girlfriend/ sex toy for his business trip. He lets her whizz through the shopping district with his credit card and buy stuff to make her look like a lady – shades of Pygmalion – and all the while he’s falling for her and trying not to let anyone know that she’s a ho. In the end, the guy who plays the annoying guy from Friends finds out that she is, tries to come onto her, and Richard Gere beat the living ectoplasm out of him. He asks Julia if she’ll be his high paid mistress forever and she turns him down, now that she’s learned principle and Prada. Sad bit. Aww. Then he decides he wants her to be a real, live girlfriend instead, accosts her with opera, and they live happily ever after.”
You don’t talk about the best friend, the snarky sales people she meets, the concierge who helps her – you talk about the main plot and the points you need to show the arc of the characters changing. That’s it. And you tell it in the same voice as your novel. Either a two pager or a six pager, depending on if the agent wants a long or a short (I prefer the short).
Questions about Maggie, the future Queen of America
When I read author FAQ pages I like to see things like, what are your influences, what were your favorite books as a kid, what music do you listen to while or before writing (if any)...stuff like that.
Favorite music: Alternate rock (Breaking Benjamin, Muse, Ashes Divide, The Shins sort of stuff), Celtic (Lunasa, Solas, Silly Wizard, Bothy Band, etc), & soundtracks (The Village, Finding Neverland). But I’ll listen to anything. Some of my favorites don’t fit in those categories, like Blaqk Audio, Imogen Heap, and Palestrina. I burn mix CDs and buy music expressly for books that I’m working on – mood’s important!
Favorite books: definitely check out my recommended books on GoodReads (and feel free to friend me if my books look like they match your taste in books). I’m working on adding the ones I loved as a kid there but I’ve got most of my recent loves up.
Do you have a page on Facebook? Myspace?
Yep. Here's my Facebook. And my Myspace. And you can find out more about my tastes in movies/ music/ books on either. Feel free to friend me.
Would a statuette of a childhood era Maggie be a Hummel Figurine?
Yes, it would be. My maiden name was Hummel but I went with my married name of Stiefvater for my books because I thought it sounded friendlier and more approachable.
That's saracasm, in case you missed it.