The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas
“What if you could do magic by blowing things up?” This is the question author Sarah Prineas is asking in her The Magic Thief series, of which the second, Lost, has just hit the stores. My answer: Man, if I could do magic by blowing things up, I’d be the happiest wizard ever. But there’s more to it, of course, as Prineas explains below.
The Magic Thief: Lost is the second book in a series, and follows The Magic Thief, which was published in June 2008 by HarperCollins Children’s. It’s a book for ages 10 and up, and it really does read ‘up.’ Or so I’m told. The main story arc of the books is that a gutterboy thief named Conn becomes the apprentice of a cranky wizard named Nevery. Conn is incredibly pragmatic, and sets about solving the mystery of why the magic of the city of Wellmet, where they live, is dying. Because the magic is under attack, Conn discovers—which, in turn, leads him to bigger adventures than he ever could have expected. The biggish ideas of Lost include pyrotechnics, swordfighting, adventure, traveling on bad roads, friendship, enemyship, peril, heartache, hairsbreadth escapes, cliffhangers (not at the end), sly references to dragons, and not nearly enough biscuits and bacon.
Right, I know. These aren’t Big Ideas.
When I begin writing a novel, I have no clue how it is going to play out. My positive spin on this is that it’s “writing as discovery.” I write not in order to elucidate big ideas, but in service to story, and to finding out what happens next. I do explore some ideas in the book. Like: What happens if you’ve lost everything you ever wanted? And: What if magic weren’t something to be used by wizards but a living entity with its own goals—not necessarily benign ones? And finally: What if you could do magic by blowing things up?
But mainly it’s about the discovery and the adventure and the fun.
I’m serious about the pyrotechnics, by the way. There’s even a recipe for black powder in the book. There’s also a recipe for chicken pot pie with a biscuit crust. The main character was a street kid before he became a wizard. He’s a little obsessed on the subject of food. It’s an important element in the series.
Scalzi says in the description for the Big Idea project that “ideas are easy, writing is hard.” It’s actually the opposite for me. Sure, writing is a lot of work, but for me it’s joyful, incredibly rewarding work. I really don’t think in terms of big ideas, but in terms of character, and how plot arises from character. One of the big things I learned from writing this book, my second, is that writing as discovery—writing into the void—was something I could do. I learned to be confident that even if I didn’t know what was going to happen next, if I kept writing the story would articulate itself to me. And if it didn’t, well, I could always blow something up.
The tagline for the book (which Greg van Eekhout came up with) is “Never Mix Fire with Magic!” but it could just as easily be “When in doubt, blow something up!”
It takes me about five months to write a book. Not steady on, 500 words a day, but in fits and starts, with plenty of “pre-writing” (i.e., blogs and emails). I’ll get an idea for the next bit and fling it down on the page in a couple of days that produce 4000 words, and then I’ll spend a week or two recursively tweaking it, writing a new sentence here and there, getting ready for the next leap forward.
Book publishing is so weird because of the lag time between when books are written and when they’re published. The second book is just out, but I’m just about finished with the last Conn and Nevery book. When I write ‘the end’ I’m going to have a very hard time saying goodbye to these characters and their story. They’ve so bravely gone into every void I’ve thrown them into, just to discover what will happen next.