Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Big Idea: Jo Walton

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Cirrcuit lies.” These lines have interesting resonance for Among Others, the new novel by World Fantasy Award winner Jo Walton, which uses some of the experiences of Walton’s own life as a springboard for a tale of fantasy and of reading. The end result is something that’s both enchanting and unexpected, and a book which, less than a month into 2011, is likely to be seen as one of the most impressive works of fantasy for the year.

Jo Walton’s here now to talk about memoir, fantasy, memory and books — and how all of them come together in this single tale.

JO WALTON:

Among Others is about the joy of reading.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen says “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” But despite Austen it’s quite unusual to have a protagonist who reads, or if they do read, they don’t tend to read specific books. I always love it when they do, and books like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. When I was younger if the characters in something I was reading mentioned their favourite book, I’d often go and order it from the library.

So when I wrote a piece on my livejournal about the South Wales Valleys, where I come from, and people started saying it should be a story, I started wondering what I could do with that. I had an unusual set of things happen to me at the end of my childhood and the beginning of my adolescence, and I hadn’t ever written about them because I hadn’t ever seen a way in to talking about that. And besides, if I was going to write about the way I grew up, I’d be talking about books, because books were as important as people were to me. So when I started thinking about mythologising a part of my life, I started thinking about a character who grew up in books.

Notice, immediately I started thinking about writing about it, I started thinking about mythologising it. I have no idea how people write memoirs. Really. It’s a mystery. How can you tell the truth? How can you even get close to the truth? Memory is so fluid, and we edit ourselves so much. How could I say that something happened, when other people might remember it differently? How could I even write about what I did and felt myself, at this distance in time? The more I thought about it the more I was thinking about the difference between truth and lies and fiction. There’s an interesting tension point there, and that’s what I started writing into.

What I wrote was unquestionably fiction — was fantasy. Among Others has magic and fairies. But I was writing fantasy about a science fiction reader who had a lot of the same things happen to her that happened to me. It’s set at the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980, and it’s about a fifteen year old just when I was fifteen, and from a family like mine and in the time and place and context where I was. I was using a lot of my own experience and memories. But this is Mori, not me, and she lives in a world where magic is real.

The hard part about writing it was that it gave significance and meaning to things that were in fact just random. In reality, my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. In the book, Mori’s mother is a witch. In reality, my sister died in a car accident because a stranger was driving drunk. In the book, Mori’s twin dies helping defeat their evil mother and saving the world. It does something strange to rewrite things that way.

For me, writing is always about the emotional truth, and it’s always at a little distance. There’s less distance in this book than with anything I wrote before, and more than anything else I kept asking myself if I had the right to write this, and what it was going to mean to me for other people to read it. I’m still not sure about that. People read this and think that I am their secret best friend. But they don’t know me — even if Mori was me, it was me thirty years ago, and I’ve changed a bit since then.

There are a lot of things in the book. There’s a lot of landscape, and a lot of magic, and a lot of books. It’s a story about a fifteen year old, but it’s more of a story for people who used to be fifteen than one for people who are fifteen now. The backstory would be a YA novel — the story about the twins whose mother was a witch, and who had fairy help defeating her and saving the world. But lots of people have written that story already, and I wasn’t interested in writing it again. The story I was interested in is about what it means to have been ready to die to save the world but to survive, crippled, and feeling like half a person because your twin did die. It’s about going away to boarding school after saving the world — and boarding school for real doesn’t turn out to be much like boarding school stories. (She’s disappointed to discover that too.)  And away in boarding school, alone, she has nothing to turn to but the books — and the books are there for her.

I’m always impressed with the Big Idea posts here and how clearly the writers seem to see their books — it takes me a while to be able to do that. It’s like an impressionist painting, close up it’s all coloured blobs, you have to step away to get perspective. But I guess the big idea of Among Others is “If you love books enough, books will love you back”.

—-

Among Others: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Jo Walton’s LiveJournal.

Contest Update and Facebook Followup

Quick notes:

Haiku Contest: I was going to announce it today but I think I’ll end up announcing it tomorrow or Friday. The reason for this: I have selected a winner (yay!) but I also want to name three or four finalists, so I’m combing through the haikus again for those. Hey, there are several hundred. I want to be fair. So: Tomorrow. Maybe Friday. But there is definitely a winner.

Facebook Entry: A couple of points here on today’s Facebook post.

* In comments here and elsewhere there was interpretation of me saying that Facebook wasn’t for someone like me, but it was for normal people as a) a way to signal that I am awesome and smart and also awesome, and b) normal people are stupid and suck, and that’s why they use Facebook. Yeah, no. It’s not for me because the functionality doesn’t map well for what I want to do or have for my online experience, and “normal” in this case doesn’t mean “stupid people who suck,” it means “people who don’t want to make the time/energy commitment to run their own site.”

In this estimation, one of the normal people I’m speaking about is my wife, who has zero interest in maintaining her own site — even though I bought the kristinescalzi.com domain in case she ever did — but who uses Facebook because her family and friends are on it, and who is reasonably happy with it even if I am not. If you think I’m going to call my wife stupid (or worse, think that she is stupid), well, the most charitable thing I can say about that is you probably don’t know me all that very well.

* Likewise, for the people who wish to suggest I’m a snob about hoi polloi getting their sticky little fingers all over my precious, precious Web, a gentle reminder that in the mid-90s I used to work full time at AOL, the original home of the September That Never Ends, and that for three and a half years in the mid-aughts, I was the “mayor” of AOL Journals, the company’s (eventually unsuccessful) attempt to create its own LiveJournal experience. Basically, my professional experience argues against such a position. My problems with Facebook are not based on its popularity but on its design and its ethos regarding member data privacy.

* To the person who sent the e-mail that said “Yeah! Do Twitter next!”: I’m going to have to disappoint you because in fact I like Twitter quite a bit and find it complementary to what I already do online rather than a fumbling attempt to replace it with something less good. I’ve already discoursed on Twitter at length so there’s no point in repeating myself; click through that link if you want to know of what I think about it. But I will say that between Twitter and Facebook, I know which one I enjoy more.

January is the New February

February traditionally being the Month in Which My Daughter Doesn’t Get An Education, because of the high number of snow days at school. However, this year January seems to be making a run for the title, as she had two and a half snow days last week (the “half” being the days school started late/got out early because of weather conditions), and today school was canceled, not because of snow, but because it rained last night and then the temperature dropped below freezing, meaning that every road in my immediate vicinity is composed of black ice. Which is bad. So she’s currently down in the living room, watching Invader Zim. Which is educational in its way, I suppose.

What worries me is the possibility that February, jealous of January’s encroachment of its usual role, will strive to take back the crown, slamming us in bad weather, that Athena will actually not receive any schooling for four weeks straight and as a consequence will have to stay in school through July to make up for it. She will not be pleased. Although I suppose it would take care of what to do with her over the summer.

Anyway, this is why I’m online at the moment instead of working toward the daily writing quota. How are you?

Musicals From Science Fiction Films: My Picks

Ever lie awake at night wondering which science fiction movies could make excellent Broadway musicals? No? Well, why not? I do. And because I do, my Filmcritic.com column this week is on just that subject. Come find out which five films I think are just itchin’ to get the full-blown musical treatment. You may agree or disagree, but I promise that afterward you’ll never look at those films again without thinking about them as musicals. You’re welcome.

And Now, For No Particular Reason, a Rant About Facebook

A friend of mine noted recently that I seemed a little antagonistic about Facebook recently — mostly on my Facebook account, which is some irony for you — and wanted to know what I had against it. The answer is simple enough: Facebook is what happens to the Web when you hit it with the stupid stick. It’s a dumbed-down version of the functionality the Web already had, just not all in one place at one time.

Facebook has made substandard versions of everything on the Web, bundled it together and somehow found itself being lauded for it, as if AOL, Friendster and MySpace had never managed the same slightly embarrassing trick. Facebook had the advantage of not being saddled with AOL’s last-gen baggage, Friendster’s too-early-for-its-moment-ness, or MySpace’s aggressive ugliness, and it had the largely accidental advantage of being upmarket first — it was originally limited to college students and gaining some cachet therein — before it let in the rabble. But the idea that it’s doing something better, new or innovative is largely PR and faffery. Zuckerberg is in fact not a genius; he’s an ambitious nerd who was in the right place at the right time, and was apparently willing to be a ruthless dick when he had to be. Now he has billions because of it. Good for him. It doesn’t make me like his monstrosity any better.

Which is of course fine. The fact is Facebook isn’t made for someone like me, who once handrolled his own html code and then uploaded it using UNIX commands because he was excited to have his own Web site, and back in 1993 that’s how you did it. I’ve been maintaining and actively updating my own site in one form or another for the better part of two decades now, and (quite obviously) like to write at length on whatever thought is passing through my brain at the moment. Committed loggorheic nerds like me don’t need something like Facebook. It’s made for normal people, the ones who just want to stay in contact with friends and post pictures for them to see and maybe play a game or two, and have a single convenient place to do all that sort of stuff online. Facebook is the Web hit with a stupid stick, but that doesn’t mean people are stupid for using it. They see Facebook as letting them do the things they want to do, and not making them jump through a bunch of hoops to do it. Again: Fine.

But again, also: Not really for me. I look at Facebook and what I mostly see are a bunch of seemingly arbitrary and annoying functionality choices. A mail system that doesn’t have a Bcc function doesn’t belong in the 21st Century. Facebook shouldn’t be telling me how many “friends” I should have, especially when there’s clearly no technological impetus for it. Its grasping attempts to get its hooks into every single thing I do feels like being groped by an overly obnoxious salesman. Its general ethos that I need to get over the concept of privacy makes me want to shove a camera lens up Zuckerberg’s left nostril 24 hours a day and ask him if he’d like for his company to rethink that position. Basically there’s very little Facebook does, either as a technological platform or as a company, that doesn’t remind me that “banal mediocrity” is apparently the highest accolade one can aspire to at that particular organization.

So, you ask, why do I use Facebook? The answer is obvious: Because other folks do, and they’re happy with it and I don’t mind making it easy for them to get in touch with me. But my Facebook immersion is relatively shallow; I save the majority of my deep thoughts for this Web site and the majority of my short thoughts for Twitter, so Facebook tends to get whatever’s left. I don’t use much there that would allow some obnoxious third-party program to either clutter up my wall or inform all my friends that I’ve bought a pig in a video game; they don’t give a crap and I wouldn’t want to inflict that information on them. I work on the assumption that Facebook is working by default to make me look like an asshole to everyone who’s connected to me, because I’ve seen it do it to others. As a result I think I’ve managed to avoid being such to others there. Or at the very least, if I’m an ass on Facebook, it’s my own doing and not because of Facebook. Which is all I can ask for.

I really do wish Facebook were smarter and less obnoxious to use. I wish I could sign on to the damn thing and not have the first thing I feel be exasperation at the aggressive dimness of its UI and its functionality. I wish I could like Facebook. But I don’t, and I’m having a hard time seeing how I ever will. I understand there’s a value for Facebook making itself the stupid version of the Web. I really really really wish there wasn’t.

So what’s left to me is to take comfort in the fact that eventually Facebook is likely to go the way of all companies that are stupid versions of the Web. This is not to say that Facebook will ever go away completely — its obtuse process for deleting one’s account at the very least assures it will always be able to brag of its membership rolls. But you know what, I still have accounts for AOL, Friendster and MySpace. Ask me how often I use them.

First One Publishing and 404 Pages

In the comments to this post about First One Publishing’s frankly terrible publishing contest, Whatever commenter Johnny Carruthers notes:

I just tried to click on the page for the contest rules, and I got a 404 Not Found page. As Arte Johnson used to say, “Veeeeeeeeery Interesting!”

I just checked it myself and indeed, one gets a 404 page, suggesting the page has been purposely taken down. Has it been taken down because First One Publishing is retooling the content of the page so the rules aren’t so ridiculous? Or has it been taken down to shield the publisher from further ridicule?

If it’s the first, then of course I applaud them for listening to the folks telling them the ways the contest is bad and insulting to writers. If it’s the second, then we should probably point out that Google Cache sees everything — and even when that’s eventually caught up, people will have saved the cached page for reference. Like I did, right now.

But let’s hope it’s the first, shall we. It’s nice to believe people mean well.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

When is a bounty hunter not a bounty hunter? The answer: when author Kameron Hurley writes about one. In that case, the bounty hunter becomes something more, and in becoming more, becomes the seed around which the culture of an entire planet — and an entire story — crystallizes. The result is God’s War, Hurley’s debut novel. In this Big Idea, Hurley shows you how she started with the bounty hunter, and built from there.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Everybody wants to write a book about bounty hunters who run around chopping off heads, right?

God’s War would have likely ended up being just another story about a bounty hunter in the desert if I hadn’t started reading about homicide in the biblical world. I read far too many history books, and while doing some research for my “bounty hunter novel” I found an odd little nugget of a term: bēl damê.

No, not belle dame (beautiful woman) or bel dame (ugly old woman), but bēl damê, an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger. Or, perhaps, a murderer. None of the historians’ sources were exactly sure what it meant, only that killing was involved. Whether that killing was honorable – avenging a wronged family by hunting down the person who’d murdered their kin – or simple murder, was a matter of much debate, as the records are highly fragmented.  There were all sorts of translations, but the ones I liked best were “owner of the blood” and “collector of blood debt.”

I didn’t want to write a bounty hunter story anymore. I wanted to write a story about bēl damês.

The bēl damê/belle dame association was too tasty to pass up. I posited a world policed by old school bloody Assyrian law – enforced by a group of highly skilled, highly scary female government assassins called bel dames (unsurprisingly, my publisher had me lose the character accent marks immediately).

Everything else – the currency in blood and organs and bugs, the shape shifters, the mad boxing magicians, the centuries-old holy war, came from that one little term. From Assyria and Babylonia, I started going through the Old Testament, the Quran, the Torah, and digging back into the history of violence in South Africa, Rwanda, and more modern day Iran and Iraq.

Stories may begin with a single idea, but once you have that idea, you need to flesh out the kind of world that that idea exists in, and I knew that if I had a group of bloody minded women enforcing the rules of blood debt, I was going to be dealing with a violent, resource-strapped world at war. Why war? Because when men go to war – perpetual war – there are a few ways you can deal with it. The primary country in the novel, Nasheen, dealt with it by sending all the men off to war… leaving women to run the world. And police it. And… continue the politics of war.

My background is in history, so I’ve cut my teeth on a lot of terrible stories. When I was doing my graduate work in South Africa, I actually lost my stomach for any kind of gratuitous movie violence. I remember walking out of several theaters for their violent and totally casual depictions of abuse, particularly against women. I was living in a place where one in three people had AIDS and one in three women was raped, and spending my days poring over old transcripts of political violence and abuses committed during the Apartheid era. I couldn’t abide violence as a casual aside. It needed to show me something about people or perseverance. It needed to mean something. It had to be something besides safe, sanitized entertainment. It was that constant look into blood and horror that helped me create who the bel dames were in this world.

Living in a world of blood and horror does not make you a spunky co-ed in tight leather pants. Your primary angst in life isn’t going to be whether or not you’re sleeping with the werewolf or the vampire (or both). You are going to be concerned primarily about survival. Probably addicted to several kinds of drugs. Likely have a drinking problem. And if you’re still alive in this brutal world, you’re going to be very, very good at killing things. And the real monsters might even start to like it. There may come a time when you can’t imagine the world as any other place but one where folks are maimed, mutilated, and brutalized for the good of a cause. For honor. For patriotism. For religion.

I wanted to build a complex world where these terrifying women could exist as real people. And I wanted to build a rollicking good adventure story within it that left you wondering a lot about the ways we negotiate violence in our own world.

The people always come first in my books, and this one was no exception. Once I had the bel dames, I knew exactly the sort of person I wanted to write about. Her name was Nyx, and she had done something so horrible that the most terrifying women in the world had kicked her out of their ranks – but not something so bad that they wanted to kill her. No, I decided, the bel dames didn’t like to kill their own. Not when they could keep them around to use them for later.

Thing was, Nyx isn’t the sort who likes to be used. So when the inevitable bounty hunter story starts, we are not dealing with bounty hunters as we know them anymore. We’re not in a world we can immediately recognize. The day is nearly thirty hours long. The suns give everybody cancer. Nobody can remember a time without war. Bugs power the world’s technology and make up the primary food source. Magicians build weapons of war. The world is a contaminated ruin, and most folks die young.

But it’s a world of intensely passionate and powerful people, the kind of people we imagine could be great heroes, avengers. Or monsters.

That’s what God’s War is about. A world at war. The people who police it. The joy and terror and fear and awe of living on after the end of the apocalypse, when everybody says the world has ended… when the war has just begun.

—-

God’s War: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See the book trailer here. Visit the book Web site here, which features an excerpt, or download a pdf of the first chapter. Visit Hurley’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Quick Contest Update

First, thanks to everyone who entered my “naming” contest last week. There are about 750 qualifying entries, which a) is awesome, b) makes me glad I limited it to haiku, since I now have roughly 12,750 syllables to consider.

Second, I’ll announce the winner on Wednesday. This will give me enough time to read through the entire list of entries, pick finalists, accept bribes, and so on.

Third, while there will be one primary winner, whose name will replace Merkel’s, I may ask some of the finalists if I can use their names for other minor characters, because, hey, why not. As a warning, these characters might also die, too. Because that’s life in my universe. As a god, I’m kind of a dick.

In any event. Thanks again, everyone.

Music For a Sunday Night

Because I’m apparently on a Petra Haden kick tonight, her and Bill Frisell’s version of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” which depending on your tastes may be better than the original. It’s from this album, which is excellent overall, and also includes this heartbreaking version of “Moon River.”

While I’m on the subject of “Yellow,” I’ll tell you a story about that song, which I thought I’d already recounted, but which a quick trip through the archives says I haven’t. One night I was having a dream in which I was playing guitar, and I was working through a version of “Yellow,” and everyone around me started singing along. And after we were all done, I said, wow, I’m glad you liked what I was doing enough to join in. And someone said, you don’t understand. We weren’t joining in; we were trying to drown you out.

I wonder if other people have dreams like that.

Today’s Writing Contest To Run Like Hell From

It’s this one, from an outfit called First One Digital Publishing. Why? Because it costs $149 to enter, and because of this little gem in the contest fine print:

All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.

So, to be clear: These people want you to sign away all the rights you have to your own work — and they want you to pay them to do it. That’s just very special.

Now, if you win, you’ll apparently be offered $5,000 and a publishing contract, but, you know what, if you have a manuscript good enough to submit to this contest, why not just submit it to a publisher rather than enter it in this ridiculous contest? Preferably to a publisher who won’t charge you to submit your work, or demand all of your rights as a condition for submitting your material, and who may even offer you more than $5,000 for your work.

Oh, and here’s a lovely bit in the rules:

In the event that there is an insufficient number of entries received that meet the minimum standards determined by the judges, all prizes will not be awarded.

Which is to say, it’s entirely possible no one will win anything. But what will happen to the contest entry fees and the submitted materials? Well, it doesn’t say, which means you should probably assume that you won’t be getting any money back, or the rights to your work back, either. Want to complain about it? Sorry, you probably didn’t read this part of the rules:

By entering, entrants release judges and Sponsor(s), and its parent company, subsidiaries, production, and promotion agencies from any and all liability for any loss, harm, damages, costs, or expenses, including without limitation properly damages, personal injury, and/or death arising out of participation in this contest, the acceptance, possession, use or misuse of any prize, claims based on publicity rights, defamation or invasion of privacy, merchandise delivery, or the violation of any intellectual property rights, including but not limited to copyright infringement and/or trademark infringement.

So, to review: Pay to enter, lose all rights to your work, no guarantee of any winners at all and you’ll have no legal recourse against these folks.

Again: What a very special contest.

There’s no way in hell I would enter a writing contest with rules and requirements like these. If any of my friends asked me if they should enter it, I would ask them if they were high. Let these two statements be your guide when considering it for yourself.

Some further thoughts on this contest here and here.

Update, 1/18, 3:21pm: First One Publishing has apparently taken down its contest rules. More details here.

This is the 6,000th Post on Whatever, So Obviously We Must Have a Picture of a Cat

There, that takes care of that.

I’ll note strictly as a matter of accuracy that this is merely the 6,000th entry currently posted on Whatever; the extant archive only goes back to March 2002, which means that there’s currently three and a half years of entries, going back to September 1998, not on the site. One day I will go back and put them back in, which is to say, pay someone else to do it, because doing it myself would be a pain in the ass.

But until that frabjous day, look: 6,000 posts.

Why 2,000 Words Works For Me

I’ve noted that I’m doing a thing where I don’t check into the Internet until I write 2,000 words on my current book project or until noon. People have asked me why the stated quota is 2,000 words. Why not some other number? Why not some specific amount of time? I’ve answered this question before briefly, but I’m happy to expand on it a little.

1. First, because generally speaking, I’m easily able to write 2,000 words a day. Years of banging out copy, first at a newspaper, later for online sites and magazines (and also here) help with that; the other part is simply that my writing brain seems to have a wide throughput.

2. It’s an amount that makes me feel like I’m making real and substantive progress every time I write that amount. At 2,000 words a day, you could have a 100k-word novel in done in 50 days — not a land speed record for a novel, to be sure, but not a horrifying slog with no end in sight ever, either.

Now, the Reality Police compel me to warn you that out in the real world even at a 2k clip, you’ll still probably spend more than 50 days writing a novel, because not every word you write will be gold. I threw out about 500 words I wrote the other day, for example, because it turned out I was just faffing about in them. Even so, you’re still moving at a nice clip, and for people like me, knowing you’re making solid progress on a daily basis helps.

3. 2,000 words is also not so many that the creative part of my brain gets tired. I can and do write more than 2,000 words at a time, often when I’m near the end of a novel and just want to be done, already. But I do find that, especially after 5,000 words or so of creative writing in a single day, what my brain really wants to do is nothing — which means three to four days of killing zombies. Which is fun, but which isn’t finishing the novel, or getting the mortgage paid. Alas.

With 2,000 words, I get enough writing done that I’m happy, and my creative brain doesn’t feel pummeled afterward, so it can problem solve regarding where the story needs to go to next. Which means when I sit down to write the next morning, I spend less time figuring out plot, and more time writing up where my brain’s figured out the story needs to go next.

4. 2,000 words is enough that even if I can’t or don’t make the writing quota, I’ll probably still have cranked out a decent amount of wordage. The other day, for example, I hit 1,800 words rather than 2,000, and that included those 500 faff-tastic words I mentioned earlier. But even having missed the quota and tossing out 500 words, I still had a net of 1,300 words on the book. That’s not my quota, but it also doesn’t suck.

5. It’s also a large enough sum of words that if I do have a day where I do no writing on the book — as I did yesterday, thanks to the daughter’s second snow day in a row plus other things that required attention — I don’t feel like missing that day means I’m spinning my wheels overall, because overall for the week I’ve had a decent number of words pile up.

For example, in the two weeks that I’ve been on the quota train, I’ve written 15,000 words in the book. That’s less than the 20,000 that was the goal, but it also incorporates two snow days and an additional sick day for my kid, who, while I enjoy having her at home, also likes to have attention when she’s about, plus those words I threw out. That’s good progress for two weeks, or is for me, at least.

6. On the flip side of that, the 2,000 word amount is not gospel if I want to write more; I don’t compel myself to stop the instant I cross the 2k line. Today I wrote 2,900 words, because I was in a groove and also because I wanted to get to where would be a natural stopping point in the writing, and also because my wife, who gets to read my stuff first, was saying to me “I want the new chapter. Finish it up OR DIE.” But phrased more lovingly, of course.

That said, the nice thing about that 2k mark even when I blow past it is that it means I can relax; I’ve done what I set out to do for the day and everything I write past that point is gravy. And it’s nice to be able to say to one’s self, “I’m writing more because I want to, not because I’m in a blind panic on a deadline.”

So those are the reasons why 2,000 words is a good daily quote for me. I don’t want to suggest it’s the right quota for everyone, but for most writers I think it’s worth looking at the possibility of incorporating a daily writing quota and seeing if it works for you.

Independently, here’s why I have the noon deadline as well:

1. Because I usually have other work I want and/or need to do with my day;

2. Because on the days where it’s just not happening, it’s nice to have a point in time after which you can say to yourself dude, let it go, we’ll pick this up tomorrow.

The noon deadline does assume I’m up and writing by about nine am at the latest, but since I often take my daughter to school before 8am and the dog whines like a siren if I won’t take her outside by 8:30, this really isn’t a problem. This may be a reason to consider getting a dog. Or, alternately, if you prefer to write at night, not.

The Big Idea: Wendelin Van Draanen

One of the things I personally enjoy about the Big Idea series is that often I get to learn about the origins of the books here — the seed that take root and grow into stories, sometimes against our will. For The Running Dream, author Wendelin Van Draanen found her inspiration on the road, quite literally, as she ran past. It was a good place to find it, for a book about a teenager runner. Here she is to fill in the details.

WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN:

For me, the Big Idea for a book often starts with a Little Idea that grows and expands until it becomes part of a larger, broader concept. That was certainly the case with The Running Dream. It didn’t start with the theme See the person, not the disability.

It started with a rope.

A rope that was obstructing my way at about Mile 12 of the New York City marathon.

Let me back up and tell you that marathon running is not something I do for fun. I’ve run five marathons with my husband in the last five years for Exercise the Right to Read—a literacy and fitness campaign for kids—and each time I cross the finish line I swear it’s my last marathon.

The NYC marathon was particularly tough because, being from a small town on the West Coast, I didn’t realize what pre-dawn cold in November in New York actually felt like, or how crowded a field of 40,000 runners would be. Even huddled like cattle, I shivered away all my “reserves” in the holding area well before the race started at 10:00 AM.

So perhaps coming upon The Rope at Mile 12 wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t been pre-exhausted, or if the field hadn’t still been so crowded. But I was and it was, so The Rope seemed like a mammoth barrier instead of something strung between two people in front of us. And in my head I’m going, Who are these idiots with this rope?

Then we went around them and I realized that we’d just passed a blind runner and his guide, and that not only was I the idiot, I was a complete wimp. I thought running 26.2 miles was tough? How would I like to do it blind?

So that was the seed for the Little Idea. I didn’t know I was growing a book at this time. It was just a thought. One that I subconsciously watered with experiences from other events. Like the half marathon I spent behind a gimpy old guy wearing red socks. Mile after mile I was stuck about thirty yards behind him watching those red socks go up and down. His mechanics were awful. His stride was a hobble. Yet my long, well-trained legs couldn’t close the gap. He was, like, Super Gimp.

Then there was the race with the woman with the atrophied calf. Her right leg was a club of muscles, the left pencil thin. What had happened to her? How was she even able to run?

Little pictures, stored in my mind.

Running has always been a part of my life. Not in the competitive sense, but in the mental-health sense. If I go too long without a run, you don’t want to be around me. So when I was younger and into backpacking and we had nothing to do one night around the campfire but talk nonsense, and the Question of the Night somehow became, If you had to lose one limb, which one would you choose? my answer was unequivocally Not a leg. If I couldn’t run I’d go nuts. I couldn’t imagine losing any limb, but that night, pressured to choose one, I settled on my left arm.

Now that I play guitar, that answer would be different.

Actually, now I just wouldn’t answer, but at the time I was being needled by brothers, so…you know.

Anyway, yes, this is how I grow an idea. I don’t even know I’m doing it. It finds roots in the past and water from the present, and then suddenly it pops through the murk and starts stretching toward the light.

What popped through was the idea of a track star tragically losing her leg, but what quickly shot up and out from that was the complex issue of the effects of peer reaction, and the even more complex emotions of retrospective self-assessment. Why is it that we empathize best when we’ve experienced a tragedy ourselves? Why does it seem to take one to open our eyes to others around us? And how do you go on when the thing you love most in the world is suddenly gone?

In all my years running, I had never been at an event where I’d seen a runner with a prosthetic leg. As a matter of fact, until I began writing The Running Dream I knew next to nothing about amputation, rehabilitation, or prosthetic limbs. And although the idea of The Running Dream was quickly blossoming into a Big Idea, the research alone seemed daunting. So I tried to bury it. After all, I had other books under contract. I had a timeline to maintain. Starting a project like this would be crazy!

But the trouble with letting Little Ideas grow into Big Ideas is that they become rooted in your brain so firmly that there’s no yanking them out. You’d rip out half your brain trying.

So I decided to do a little research. Just to see. And then I dared to meet my character, Jessica, on the first page where she’s certain life is no longer worth living.

I was done for after that. I became obsessed with the story, with bringing Jessica back into life, and with doing my chosen themes justice. And yeah, my timeline for contracted work got all messed up, but I’ve had the same editor since she plucked me out of the slush pile twenty-something books ago, so I think she’s forgiven me.

Aside from the feeling of awe that sweeps over you when you finally hold a finished book in your hands, the wonderful bonus that comes from allowing a Big Idea to take root is that you grown along with it. I’ve learned so much from writing The Running Dream and have met and worked with wonderful, compassionate, inspiring people. To me, that may actually be the best thing about writing.

I just hope another idiot strings a rope across my path sometime soon.

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The Running Dream: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See a video trailer for the book. Visit the author’s blog.

Obama Tucson Speech Discussion Thread

Folks have asked for a thread to talk about the President’s speech last night in Tucson (as well as the entire gathering in general), so, okay, here you go. Chat away. I’ll probably have more to say about it later, once I’m done with today’s writing quota, but for now I’ll say that my general impression is that he did it very well, both in eulogizing the dead and reminding the living that we can be better to each other than we are. Nicely said, and nicely delivered.

Go ahead and post your thoughts below.

(Also, before you ask, today is my daughter’s second snow day in a row, which means I spend some amount of time working around her, which means my schedule is a bit fragmented today, which is why I’m here at the moment typing this instead of running away  from the Internet in the mornings as I’m supposed to be doing. However, that said, I am about to run away now to write up at least part of a new chapter. I’ll be back after that to post today’s Big Idea, from the fabulous Jo Walton Wendelin Van Draanen (whoops, fudged my own schedule, Jo is next Thursday). Later!)