Our very own Movellians grill the writer on writing inspiration, fave reads and the best bits of being an author…
Last Saturday, some very lucky Movellians were treated to an exclusive writing masterclass with the fab Scott Westerfeld, author of the ‘Uglies’ series and ‘Afterworlds’ over some tasty snacks at Piccadilly Waterstones. Read his top writing tips from the event here.
Uniqua Niques: What makes you want to be a writer most?
One thing I like about writing is how you sort of get to be everything. When you’re an architect, you draw the plans and you don’t do the building. When you write a symphony, you don’t play every instrument. But in a weird way, as a novelist, you actually get to do everything. You get a big idea, then have to work out the details, there’s every part of the structure you have to work out. But you’re also sitting there and saying ‘is this a colon or a semi-colon?’, ‘how shall I spell this word?’, ‘how should I do this?’. So it’s like being an architect but you also do the building, you also do the painting, you also do the plasterboards, the safety inspection and all that stuff.
That’s what I like about it: you get to jump back and forth between the biggest issues and the smallest little details.
Uniqua Niques: Do you plan everything out in your story and then write it? Or do you get one idea and then write it from there?
I’m halfway between an outliner and a sort of Seat of the Pantser. When I start, I usually have a bunch of ideas, but no structure. So, in a way, I’m just writing without an outline. I usually think about stuff for a long time, so I think about the issues, and I do a little research (or a lot of research, sometimes) but I don’t have an outline.
Usually about halfway to two-thirds of the way through a novel, I realise it’s gotten out of control and I need to figure out how to end it. So that is when I make my outline.
So the first thing I do is I outline the stuff I’ve already written, and then I outline the rest of the book; I sort of get myself a skeleton for the rest of the book. Then I finish. So I outline half-way through, is the weird answer to that question.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: What do you look at when you're plotting your characters? What do you do to make them believable to the audience and to get them usually emotionally involved? Do you tend to cut characters or form an emotional bond?
Right, to me, the thing that bonds to you a character is them having to make the choice. I think that's when you connect with the character Tally, in the 'Uglies' Series, When she has to choose to betray her best friend, but you understand why she does it. So I had to establish all this stuff beforehand and to give her choice to prove as to why she does it. And forcing someone to do something, it makes you want to bond to them more. Makes you connect with them. And I think in ‘Afterworlds’, you're kind of worried about Darcy, because she's got too much too soon, you know what I mean? And she doesn't really have the equipment to deal with it all. So I think you bond with her as she's juggling with all this stuff she has to do and something's going to fall eventually. But you don't know what's happening and that's what really makes you want to bond with them to find out what's happening.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: What's the best advice you received as an author?
The best writing advice came from Raymond Chandler: write at the same time every day, the same room, the same chair, and don't let yourself do anything else at that time. You don't have to write, maybe your brain won't write today. Your two choices are write or get bored at staring at the wall. Your brain will start writing. And whenever you go to that room, at that time of day, you'll be like well this is the writing room and I have no choice. And that's the best way to keep writing. Its the cure for all writer's block.
Uniqua Niques: Do you have a favourite book or an author that you really admire?
Yeah, there’s a book that’s just come out, called ‘Love Is The Drug’ by Alaya Dawn Johnson. She is really cool and it’s set in an expensive private school in Washington DC. There’s a sort of viral attack so they all get confined in the school together. She gets stuck in this private school, cut off from her family with all of her schoolmates. It’s a little bit ‘Lord Of The Flies’, little bit ‘Breakfast Club’, you know? So it’s interesting.
Uniqua Niques: Is there anyone in particular that inspired you to write?
I had a creative writing teacher in my Junior Year of High School. I was kind of a smarty pants, I got good grades and usually when I wrote something I would just get an A. But he totally kicked my ass. He would question every single word: ‘is this what you want to say exactly?’, ‘this is not what you mean’, ‘this is wrong’. So I was used to just getting A’s and people being like ‘oh whatever’ but then his red ink would be all over every page. It was like being really edited by a professional and we all just hated him and were so annoyed with him but he turned us into real writers that thought about every word.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: What are the best and worst parts of being a full time author?
The best parts are definitely that when someone comes up to you and says that your book changed their life. This kid did that in a school I was in at Nawaki a couple of days ago and he basically said in middle school that he used to hate himself and then when he read 'Uglies' and then realized that he was just not accepting himself. That is probability the best part. I don't know...it's childish to talk about the bad parts.
I mean like for example, getting rejected by a publisher.
I've had plenty of rejections. Rejections are not a big problem for me. I've had success so it's ok, but the huge problem for me is when someone reads your book but have completely missed the point of what you were writing. The most annoying thing for me is a review of 'Afterworlds' that says it's totally unrealistic that she gets a publishing deal in a few weeks, when it doesn't, it takes seven months. I'm like just read it! Read what's actually there and not what is that you're expecting to read.
It takes a long time to get published, and it takes a lot of hard work.
Yup. So that's where I kind of get frustrated by is that people don't read the book and read some other fantasy novel in their mind.
Uniqua Niques: What gave you the idea for 'Uglies'?
A friend of mine moved to LA for his new job, he was a New Yorker like me, and sort of didn’t want to go there. The way he dealt with this was by writing long emails back to us describing the strange ways of the Los Angelinos. One of them was about the first time he went to the dentist. So he went to the dentist and at first it was a perfectly ordinary dentistry. But then at the end she told him that she really needed to speak to him in her office. He thought ‘holy crap, I’ve got mouth cancer!’ or whatever, but he went back to her office she she was sitting behind a big desk, plaques on the walls, folding her arms. ‘I have a serious question for you. Where do you want your teeth to be in 5 years?’ she said and he replied ‘in my mouth?’’ But she continued, ‘no, seriously, I think we need a 5-year-plan’ and he didn’t know what she was talking about. You know, he was like ‘I don’t need a 5-year-plan for any of my body parts!’
Basically what she was saying was that he had regular New York teeth but he needed movie star teeth because he’s in LA now. And for the rest of the day as he was walking around he noticed that the people around him all had these Movie Star teeth. Basically, he realised that this was a culture where that was the norm. That just got me thinking about what it’d be like if everyone was on a 5-year-plan and, of course, I got the idea that everyone gets it at the same time, at the same stages of life, where you get plastic surgery. So that’s basically how I got the idea for ‘Uglies’.
Uniqua Niques: If you could write a story based on your life, what would the title be and what would the main character (you) be like?
Ah, I don’t know. I think… you’re asking me to describe myself as I would write myself, which isn’t necessarily me because not all characters are necessarily real people. The fictional character that I try to be is a kind of trouble maker, truth-teller. I’d say the things that are more or less true but most people don’t say or haven’t said in exactly that way before. In a way that’d make people think a little harder, to push buttons at the risk of p**sing people off. I’d be trying to say things in new ways or to up-end people’s views as much as possible. To rewire people is what I’d be trying to do. ‘Rewired’ would be my title.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: When writing ‘Afterwolds’, what made you choose to go for the viewpoint of an Indian American? What was the inspiration behind that?
Right so, I had the idea for the attack in the airport. I knew it was gonna be about a near death experience that would turn them into an Soulguide. Once I had that idea I started looking through various legends of Hindu mythology and I ran across Yama, who had such an interesting story. One of the Vedas describes his tale as being a mortal person dying who goes to the Afterworld. It's such an interesting way to look at the Afterworld -as an kind off superhero origins story. It just spoke to me as an really cool story. And so I thought, well if my character had Hindu parents, maybe she wasn't super connected towards the religion.
So she was more moderate, not into the religion as such?
She's an Ethnic Hindu rather than a practising Hindu. She reminds me of most of the people I know in the Indian American Community. I'm not so sure about Britain or other countries but you get something similar in that aspect. What I liked about it in terms of writing that character from that world, is that in the Vedas there's so many stories. And somebody said something really interesting about this to me is that its not like House Cleaning. Like a lot of religions you know they go through a part where they go, okay this is the real stuff, this is candid and that's what's happening. Whereas in Hinduism it keeps everything going.
There are billions of stories in the Vedas.
Yeah exactly, so its kind of perfect to write a novelist character who comes from this world of story and where the stories are pushing and contesting with each other.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: Do we need imperfect characters in dystopian novels to really reflect reality and allow the reader to connect with the character on a deeper level?
I think you have to have imperfect characters, perfect people aren't real.
Uniqua Niques: Do you prefer to read in the same genre as you write or do you prefer to read a range of novels?
I usually read YA Science Fiction for pleasure, but sometimes I read a lot of non-fiction for my research. For example, when I was writing Leviathan, because it was about airships and World War One, there seemed like so much I had to know that I ended up reading non-fiction almost exclusively for a couple of years. Or I read some fiction but it was teen books, adventure novels, from 1914- from that period. But that’s an exception, just for fun I usually read YA. That’s my kind of thing.
Augustus:Emperor of Rome: When you're finding agents, what's the thing that you have to do that will attract agents to come to you? Nowadays I've been reading a lot of writing magazines where finding agents is getting particularly harder. What would your response be to that?
I mean write a good book obviously, and write a book that's not like all the other books, and that's not completely incomprehensible to others. From the moment, the first sentence you should know whose head you're in. You know that person and you're in that person's head, that's what makes people wanna keep reading. That's what makes people interested in this book. The other thing is write a good query letter, if you look at those sites that look at query letters, just follow the rules and don't try to be weird. If every single word in your query letter is spelled right, punctuation is good and it’s written well, that means you're better than 90% of the letters out there, because there's people who don't know how to write, how to construct a sentence, where to put commas and all. You know as an agent, if the commas are wrong in the query letter, it's not worth their time to go through 400 pages if you don't know how to write. If you're not good at mechanics basically.
Uniqua Niques: What advice would you give to people who would like to be published? Or what motivates you personally as an author?
One thing is that stories are really important. Some of the oldest things we have are stories. There are stories that live for thousands of years and are used in all different kinds of ways. There are civilisations that have completely died out, except for their stories. These things are important and it’s part of being human; the ability to make sense of the world and to construct a story out of all the random stuff that happens. And I think that’s an important part of civilisation, part of being human.