Words for Writers: My Visit With the Scarborough Museum Youth Team – Part 5 / 5

On Tuesday March 25, 2013 I visited the Scarborough Museum Youth Team to talk about being a writer. I got some really great questions, and with the youth team’s permission, I’m going to re-answer them there. Check back every day for a few new questions and answers.


Q: What are your favourite authors or books?

A: I really love Ann Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, simply because it’s a fantastic queer love story wrapped in a re-imagination of a Grecian myth, wrapped in one giant Classics Studies in-joke. It’s so layered and clever, and the prose is just magical and off kilter. I first read it when I was a teaching assistant at Ryerson University, and it was on the syllabus for “The Nature of Narrative” – I now reread it at least once a year. It was such a joy to teach, especially as I had done my minor in Classics.


I really liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, though I don’t mind myself as engaged in the second-read through. I do really love all the details of being a comics writer and illustrator, though, that’s fascinating. And it’s so neat to see people like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee showing up in the story.


I loved Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, though I didn’t find the sequels as compelling, nor have I found myself as drawn to her other work. I think something just sparkles in Inkheart. And of course, there’s Howl’s Moving Castle by the fabulous late Dianna Wynne Jones, which is so self-aware and just crackles with humour and amazing characterisation.  Hmm… looking at my choices, it seems I’m really in to stories about storytelling, aren’t I?


I really like the graphic novels Y: The Last Man, PowersFables, and Ex Machina. I just read all of the Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carriger and had a real ball – they’re so frothy and fun. I like Neil Gaiman, and Susan Kay (especially Phantom: A Novel of His Life), P.N. Elrod’s The Vampire Files series, and Tanya Huff’s two vampire series.  I grew up on a steady diet of Anne Rice and Piers Anthony, though the later certainly didn’t hold up when I returned to them as an adult. The first three of the Xanth series are still lovely. I’m quite enjoying my first re-read of The Hobbit since I read it 11 years ago, too.  I’m also working my way slowly through the whole of the Sherlock Holmes canon – I devoured the first few books of stories but now I find myself slightly annoyed at Doyle’s storytelling choices. I want to solve the mystery with Holmes, like I do with Agatha Christie’s work, but because they’re narrated from Watson’s POV and Watson isn’t privy to all the clues and deductions, both Watson and I are left in the dark until Holmes does his Great Reveal. It’s smug and it bugs me. (That’s why I like the TV series Sherlock so much – even if I can’t follow all the deductive leaps, I at least get to see the clues.)


And of course, I have to give shout-outs to my writer friends – Lesley Livingston, Adrienne Kress, Leah Petersen, Gabrielle Harbowy, Julie Czerneda, Ed Greenwood, Leah Bobet, Derwin Mak, K.T. Bryski… gosh, more than I can name! They’re all great storytellers, too.



Q: What inspires your plot?

A: Oh, gosh, it could be anything. A conversation I had with a friend inspired the novel I just turned over to my agent. He said something that made me really upset, but I knew he wouldn’t want to actually have it out with me over it, so I wrote a scene where a stand-in me yelled at a stand-in him. I liked the dynamic of it so much that I built a whole book around those two characters, around that argument, gave them names and backstories and a plot. Other times it’s a phrase that I get stuck on – for Triptych it was “There’s a flying saucer in my strawberries!” Sometimes it’s watching a movie or reading a book or a fanfic and thinking, “This is interesting, but what if the plot went this way instead? Why would it? What would make it do that? What if I tweak this or remove that or set it on Mars? Is there a story there?” And sometimes, like the book I’ve just started writing, it’s the expansion of an idea I’ve already had. This one, called The Maddening Science, is based on the short story of the same name that I sold to Dragon Moon Press for their anthology When the Villain Comes Home. Everyone really praised it and many, many people expressed a desire that the story hadn’t ended where it had – that there was more. And I thought, “well, I could write his whole life, couldn’t I? I could do a whole memoir of this supervillain.”


A lot of the time after I’ve had the initial idea, I daydream and roleplay in my head a lot. I make up conversations and have them with myself, or I walk around my apartment talking to the characters and asking them why I should tell their stories. It’s partially an acting technique, where you do mundane domestic things as the character in order to connect with them, and partially it’s a crazy-writer-who-talks-to-herself thing.  I spend a lot of time doodling the characters when I should be taking notes, or trying to decide what their favourite food is, how they take their tea. If that all works out, if I can engage with it and get a story going in my head, then I start writing. Or, as it has been lately, I write extensive notes and then set it aside to work on the other things that I have due first!


The last thing I do is, when I think I have the whole story settled (usually right before I start writing), I tell the whole story out loud to a friend. I pay close attention to what I include and don’t include, what I skip, the pace I go at, how long I linger on revelations or moments, and of course, my friend’s reactions. We discuss the story I just told them (usually takes about an hour to tell the story and the discussion lasts until… well, until the wine runs out), and we figure out what seems predictable, what was cliché, what seemed silly, etc. Then I have a much stronger sense of the voice and the pace of the novel, too.


And that’s it! Thanks for reading. If you have questions of your own for me, feel free to ask below.

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JM FreyWords for Writers: My Visit With the Scarborough Museum Youth Team – Part 5 / 5