SBBT Stop: Holly Black

Holly_3Holly Black is the New York Times best-selling author of three books for young adults–Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside–and the younger-skewing Spiderwick Chronicles (an adaptation of which will appear soonish on a movie screen near you). She has things graphical and novelly in the works, and a master plan for world domination involving Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction writers. She is, basically, awesome. (photo credit: Chris Barzak, at Sycamore Hill 2007)

GB: Okay, the first question I always ask is about process, because the
Shaken & Stirred readers, they love the write porn. What’s your process
like when you’re working on a novel? (You can start anywhere you like, getting
the idea, actually beginning to write, trapped beneath a deadline, etcetera.)
(Astute readers are probably going to notice this is the exact same question I
started with yesterday: I’m lazy.)

HB: Every time I start a new book, I have a new
theory of how to write one. For example, when I started Ironside, I
thought that maybe I could outline by scenes instead of chapters. That worked
about as well as outlining by chapters had. Then with my new book, I was
thinking maybe I could write it all in first person to avoid getting bogged
down in description, then convert it to third and add description. So far, all
that has given me is a lot of leftover me’s and I’s.

What I’m looking for is a way around my totally inefficient
writing process which goes like this: 

1) I have a whole bunch of
things I’m interested in and I want to write about and a character that may or
may not have anything to do with those things.

2) I try and puzzle-piece together a plot. I wind up leaving
a bunch of stuff out and adding new stuff.  Possibly I retain only one or
two bits of what I started with.

 3) I write the first chapter. I revise it.

 4) I write the second chapter. I decide that the first
chapter doesn’t quite work any more. I revise the first chapter. That changes
the second chapter. I revise that too.

 5) I write a third chapter. It changes everything! I revise
from the beginning again.

 6) I notice that my puzzle-piece plot outline no longer even
vaguely resembles the novel I’m working on.

 7) In a panic, send what I have to writing group friends.
They have some thoughts. Revise again! And so on. I know that one is supposed
to write through to the end of a first draft, but I never manage it.

Being trapped beneath a deadline is scary, because you wind up having to
write so fast that you no longer have time to consider whether what you are
writing works and you have to rely on the eyes and ears of the people around
you more. I try and remember that I need time to think about the work I’ve done
and that I need to make sure I give myself that time.

GB: Your three young adult novels–Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside–are all
set in the same universe. I always find this tremendously appealing, novels
where the same characters and places can be found in different lights, because
it gives such a sense of largeness to the fictional world. When you finished
Tithe, did you know you’d revisit the world? How did this world evolve for you
as you were writing? (Also, is your next book set in the same universe?)

HB: I also really love novels set in the same world,
so that the world seems bigger and the intersections between characters with
history more interesting. It is one of the things I love about Charles de
Lint’s Newford stories. That said, although I intended Valiant to be in
the same world as Tithe (and Ironside), I didn’t know it would be
connected as tightly as it wound up being.

When I finished Tithe, I had been working on the book
for so long that when I finished I was relieved to be done with those
characters and that world. I thought I would never write about them again. Then
about a month later, I had the idea for Ironside and wrote a chunk of
what would become the first two chapters and I realized that I wasn’t sick of
the characters at all.

The graphic novels that I’ve been working on with Ted Naifeh
(called The Good Neighbors) are set on the other coast and I’m hoping that they
could be considered part of the same universe, although the faeries operate
somewhat differently. My next novel won’t be in that universe, though–at
least, there’s currently no overlap in terms of characters or creatures. 

GB: You are cold, cold, cold to your characters–you put your characters
through more terrible things than anyone else I can think of. Do you ever
secretly fear they will come to life and gang up on you? Or, more seriously, is
it ever hard when you’re working to put these characters in such awful
predicaments? Do you ever long to cop out and have a mean faery turn into a

HB: Really? Me? I feel like I am such a pushover because I always give them
what they want in the end.

But I admit that I am very
pleased when I think of something just awful to do to one of them.

GB: You are a master of structure and plot. No, you are. How do you put a
book together? Do you do a lot of thinking about it up front or does that come
in revision?

HB: Characterization is the fun part for me, but because I find plot hard
I’ve thought about it a lot more. If I have developed some skill with it, it’s
because I really found it to be a challenge to get my head around. As you can
see from the summary of my process, I think about it up front as much as I can,
but it’s something that continuously evolves through revision.

I remember reading books on plot before I knew how to put
one together–they often represent plot with an inverted check mark,
where the action of the story rises steadily to climax and then quickly drops
down to resolution. My personal breakthrough came when I realized that I understood
plotting a lot better if I imagined a second check mark overlapping the first.
The first check–the one that I might now term "the time-limiting
plot" or "the plot that will be in the summary on the back
jacket" might be something like "A dragon is attacking a king’s lands
and he has to figure out what to do about it." But that isn’t a novel. For
one thing, if all that happens is a dragon attacking, the novel is kind of
boring. For another, if all that happens at the end is that the dragon or the
king is dead is, it’s not particularly satisfying.

But by imagining a secondary plot, a "personal
plot" that starts on the first page, provides most of the tension for the
first part of the novel, and is usually at the center of the last scene, I
understood things better. For example, in our dragon-attack novel, the personal
plot might be "the queen is in love with the king’s brother." The
tension between these two stories (perhaps the king goes to fight the dragon
because he nobly plans on dying so his queen and his brother can be together;
perhaps he sends his brother to kill the dragon to get rid of him), and the way
the climaxes and resolutions of each story relate to each other, finally let me
start plotting with some degree of success and make some sense out of the book
I was working on.

People who understand plot better will probably see this as
intensely simplistic, and there certainly are lots of different ways to
construct plot, but it was the realization that opened plot up for me.

GB: Unicorns?

HB: Well, they’re better than the alternative.

GB: Tell me some books you’ve been loving lately.

HB: I just read Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora
adored it. Ditto E. Lockhart’s Dramarama,
which took me back to the summer art program I went to in my freshman year of
high school and which utterly changed the way I saw myself. I also love
Kathleen Duey’s harrowing magic school book, Skin
And Cecil Castellucci’s Beige,
which I think is her best book yet. Emma Bull’s Territory, which
was so, so, so good. Also the book that Christopher Rowe just started but
is trying to pretend is a short story.

9 thoughts on “SBBT Stop: Holly Black”

  1. You can telI I was at Sycamore Hill ’cause I was all crazy about process and writing theories.
    Thanks, Gwenda!

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