Posts Tagged ‘novel’

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The short, annoying answer is, “from my head”. While that’s true, I realize it’s neither helpful nor illuminating, so I’ll try to be a bit more specific.

If you and I were to go to the same film/lecture/bare-knuckle boxing match, we’d notice different details. Then we’d interpret and prioritize our experiences in different ways. So everything I’ve ever written comes from some experience of mine – something I read or saw or overheard. But it all gets processed in the back of my brain and spewed out later as something quite transformed. As the novelist Frances Trollope said, “Of course I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.”

mmm... sausages

mmm... sausages*

To get even more specific:

  • I set A SPY IN THE HOUSE during the Great Stink of 1858 after reading about Benjamin Disraeli fleeing the House of Commons with a handkerchief over his nose, so ghastly was the stench
  • I made The Agency a women’s detective agency because I wanted to write about an elite, exciting, all-female institution. It was a reverse-inspiration, since the prestigious organizations and clubs of the period were generally all-male.
  • I made Mary’s father a sailor after reading an academic article (Laura Tabili’s “‘Women of a Very Low Type’”) that talked about the children of common-law marriages between sailors and poor women in Liverpool

When I answered this question in a high-school presentation, the follow-up question was, well, how is that different from plagiarism? Great question! Plagiarism is stealing specific ideas and/or language from others, and presenting them as your own. In these examples, I’ve been inspired by specific things but used them as jumping-off points for my own ideas. I would never claim to be the originator of those first, inspirational anecdotes, facts or articles. And, obviously, I describe my own ideas in my own words.

All this brings us to a cliche that’s completely true: there are no new ideas. Other people have written about the Great Stink, women’s detective agencies (though I didn’t read Dorothy L. Sayers until after I’d written the first draft of SPY) and orphaned sailor’s daughters. So if there’s a bottom line, it’s this:

  • all ideas come from somewhere
  • keep track as best you can
  • give credit to your inspirations and your sources
  • yes, the ideas from “from my head”

*The butcher’s diagram comes from Zazzle, where you can buy it as a postcard.

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On writer’s block (plus contest winners)

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

One question I’ve heard a lot recently is, “What do you think about writer’s block?” Oh, writer’s block. It seems to be a bit like Santa Claus, or Love at First Sight, or the Perfectibility of Humankind: either you believe in it, or you don’t.

Many writers I admire suffer, on occasion, from writer’s block. One of my favourite living novelists, Beryl Bainbridge, found herself unable to write after 2001’s According to Queeney (apparently, she quit smoking and it destroyed her routine). I held my breath for several years, but Bainbridge is supposed to be back this year with The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. I live in hope. Other prolific, highly successful writers simply don’t believe in it (writer’s block, not chain-smoking!). In her recent profile in the New Yorker, Nora Roberts shared her golden rule of writing: “Ass in the chair”. I’m tempted to add, “No internet connection”.

In my experience, writer’s block is actually a fear of imperfection. If you can’t write that first sentence (that first paragraph, that first draft) because you’re trying to come up with the perfect first sentence, you’re “blocked” – not because you can’t write, but because you don’t want to write anything short of a polished, elegant, shapely final manuscript. Sadly, THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE.

So go ahead and give yourself permission to write imperfectly, clumsily, downright badly. Words on the page can always be altered – but only once you’ve got something to edit. So write. Your first sentence will probably be excised, and your first paragraph chopped up and rearranged. Your first attempts will bear only scant resemblance to your final draft. You’ll go back to it weeks or months or years later, and be embarrassed by your first draft. But so what? You wrote it down, cleaned it up, polished it to a high shine, and here you are.

Emphatically not blocked.


On an entirely different (though also triumphal) note: congratulations to Lauren Beazley and Eleitta Brazeau of Regiopolis Notre Dame HS, winners of the limited-edition, not-for-sale-anywhere A is for Agency t-shirts. Please let me know what size you’d like (S, M, L or boy’s M or L) and I’ll send them right out.

Next week: more on writing

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La Agencia: Una espia en casa

Friday, September 25th, 2009

THE AGENCY: A SPY IN THE HOUSE is on sale now in the UK, with a full North American debut in spring 2010. Canadian availability will be patchy until then, but you can try Amazon or the Book Depository.

It went sale in Australia and New Zealand on June 1! You can link here to my Southern Hemisphere publisher, Walker Books Australia.

La Agencia

La Agencia

The Spanish edition was published on June 2. Isn’t the cover gorgeous? And my publisher, Ediciones Versatil, made a bookmark for you! Click here for the PDF.

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