The Big Idea: Malinda Lo
The idea for my new novel, Adaptation, came to me in a dream.
I know, I know. Such a cliche, right? But I swear I’m not lying. Like many writers, I keep a journal, and the morning I woke up from the dream that became Adaptation, I ran to my desk and scribbled it down as fast as I could. Here is that journal entry in its entirety:
Saturday, Jan. 11, 2009
I had a dream that would make a great beginning to a postapocalyptic novel. I was on a plane that stopped for a layover in Texas. Outside the windows suddenly these spacecrafts started shooting into the sky—like UFOs, and then hundreds of birds started falling from the sky dead. We were all very scared. Eventually it stopped and the plane took off. On the news we were told it was just an antivirus thing—killing off cancer-causing animals. Even Bill Clinton was shown standing outside in the falling birds, unharmed. Wouldn’t it be great to send a group of high school kids on a school trip where they encounter this? And although the government says it’s OK, it’s really not.
In retrospect, a few things jumped out at me upon rereading this entry. First, it took three years and nine months to turn that dream into a finished book. I had that dream before my first novel, Ash, was published. I had forgotten that this idea had been in my head for so long.
Second, practically nothing survives from that dream except two things: starting in an airport, and birds falling dead from the sky. Sadly, I was not able to integrate Bill Clinton in a shower of dead birds into Adaptation.
Third, the last two lines of that journal entry were actually my first attempts at figuring out what a book inspired by this dream could be about. I was a little startled to realize that I haven’t strayed from that initial idea. Those last two lines are exactly what Adaptation is about.
Now, getting inspiration from a dream sounds well and good, but once you’ve gotten that inspiration, you have to figure out how to turn it into a story that makes sense. Dreams can be intense and immersive; they can be fantastic and frightening. But they don’t follow much of a narrative structure, and they have tons of gaping plot holes. After deciding to turn the dream into a book, I had to figure out what happened to make those birds do what they did — and fashion a plot structure to hold it all together.
I knew in my gut that I had the beginning of a potentially awesome story. I was particularly excited about it because it had so many shades of The X-Files, which was one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Clearly, Adaptation owes a lot to The X-Files — not only its spooky tone, but the fact that The X-Files helped bring conspiracy theories and UFO sightings into the mainstream. Let me tell you: The research I did for Adaptation was equal parts totally fun and incredibly paranoia-inducing.
For instance, dead birds really do fall from the sky. Mass animal die-offs are not actually unheard of; they’re just really creepy. Additionally, birds and airplanes have had a long, bumpy history. Airport runways have to be designed to avoid common bird flight paths, because birds don’t know when a plane is going to get in their way. Planes are actually built to withstand hitting birds, and you might remember that pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike. (Incidentally, that happened on January 15, 2009 — four days after my dream.)
Now it’s September 2012, and my book-that-began-as-a-dream is a reality. The idea that initially inspired it is still there. In fact, here are the first two sentences of the novel: “The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and limp. They struck the ground with such force that their bodies smashed into dark slicks on the concrete.”
The book’s main character, seventeen-year-old Reese Holloway, sees those birds out the window at Phoenix Airport, where she is waiting for a flight home to San Francisco after a disastrous showing at a debate tournament with her partner, David Li. (She also has a crush on him, but her crush goes in interesting directions. For those who have strong feelings about love triangles, pro or con, I will note that Adaptation does include one, as well as this: My love triangle ain’t like the others.)
It turns out that birds aren’t just falling dead from the sky. They’re also striking planes in large flocks, which are causing the planes to crash. Thousands are dead, and the government calls for a flight ban.
Of course, Reese and David want to get home. They decide to rent a car with their debate coach and risk the freeways instead of waiting at the airport. Just as I learned while I was wrangling the plot of Adaptation and its sequel (coming fall 2013!), Reese and David discover that the birds are just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that readers will want to find out the truth as much as I did.