Squawk Radio

Saturday, March 25, 2006


A BLOG WITH LIBBA BRAY, WHEREIN SHE DISCUSSES ACCIDENTAL WRITING, BAD FIRST IDEAS, ROMANCE JACKET COPY, AND THE PROBLEM OF FIGURE SKATING TO CLASSIC ROCK

When I was eight, I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a figure skater. It didn’t matter that I lived in Texas, which is not generally known as the winter sport capital of the world. It didn’t matter that I was a chubby little bookworm with all the athletic grace of a geriatric slug. It didn’t matter that I’d never had a pair of ice skates on my feet. As God was my witness, I was going to be a champion figure skater with a haircut imitated by millions! This was before my mother gave me that gentle, let’s-come-back-to-reality talk:


Mom: Honey, we live in the tropics. There are no ice skating rinks here. Eat your Cocoa Puffs.
Me: (tearful) Well, where are there ice rinks? (slurp, gobble)
Mom: (so over the drama) Somewhere cold, like Minnesota.
Me: (full wail) WELL…THEN…I…AM…RUNNING…AWAY…TO…MINNESOTA!

(What is up with this chick, you may be saying to yourselves. She’s going off on some wacked-out tangent on ice skating? No worries. See, I’m a writer. I’m tying it back in to my larger theme. Work with me, people, work with me.)

Since I couldn’t skate to sequined glory, I did what I did best: I made up a whole figure skating story arc in my head. My fantasy always started with me twirling and whirling to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”—a song that is about 400 minutes long. Seriously, you could drive cross-country to that song. If I skated to that, they’d be carrying me off the ice in a body bag. Still, in my head, it was a beautiful thing. But before long, my ice skating fantasy wasn’t doing it for me anymore. It needed something else. It was time to bring out my mental bedazzler gun and embellish: I was going for the gold at the Olympics, but I was the underdog. A good start. But wait—there’s more! I was a teen from a dying steel mill town that needed to believe in something again, even if it was a plucky, can-do redhead with thighs that could crush beer cans. Oooh, now we’re talking. More drama please. My family’s plane had been reported missing, and I would have to take the ice not knowing whether they lived or died! I would skate for them! And the dying steel mill town, but hey, let’s get to the outfit. Sequins. Lots of sequins. I’m talking Liberace bling. You’re with me, right? Great. With America holding her breath, and my possibly maimed family lost in the Rockies somewhere, I would suck up my grief and become the first female figure skater ever to perform a triple Salchow-half-caf-backflip with foam. Can you smell the roses blanketing the ice? Can you?? Who needs the rules and regs and boredom of real skating when you can just make it all up as you go along?

Clearly, I was ready to write fantasy. I just didn’t know it yet.

Fast forward. When I sold my YA trilogy idea to Random House in 2001, I pitched it as “A Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer, complete with a heroine who kicks butt and takes names, all in a crinoline and corset.” I think there was even mention of my heroine fighting giant beetles in one installment. This is, perhaps, a cautionary tale about your first idea not necessarily being your best idea. But somehow—maybe mercury was in my house of Oh-No-She-Didn’t luck—I managed to sell this sucker on a wing and a prayer. And then I went, uh, gee, now what do I do? Mainline chocolate? Make sock puppets? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

I’d never written an historical before. Or a fantasy. Or, um, a trilogy. Unlike J.K. Rowling, I wasn’t even British. Boarding school? Please, I spent my high school years listening to Led Zeppelin and giving myself bad home perms. And as for holding several story arcs in my head at one time, I feel it necessary to point out that I can barely organize my laundry into whites and colors. Was I insane??? You might as well have asked me to do a triple Lutz. (Ha! You doubted I could do work that skating thing in, didn’t you? Go, Libba…it’s your birthday…Go, Libba, it’s your birthday…) So how, exactly, was a girl from the flatlands of Texas, a kid raised on Monty Python, Cheap Trick, and K-Mart, going to write a story about a 16-year-old girl in Victorian England with a dead mother, a lot of guilt, supernatural powers, treacherous friends, a mysterious destiny, and a smokin’ hot love interest/nemesis named Kartik? Beats me.

The truth is, for me, writing has always been a way to discover what I don’t know but need to find out—about myself, about life, about the human condition. The whole process is like standing at the open mouth of a plane, holding on to the rip cord while looking down in fear and ecstasy, saying, “Wow, this could all end very badly…” I’m what’s known as a “plunger”—I dive headlong into a novel and see where it takes me. I live for the freefall. I write a scene here, another there. Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t. I admire those people who can outline and synopsize things. They probably know where their keys are, too. Sadly, I am not one of those people. I’m a mess. Chaos seems to be my method. There is always a moment when I’m on deadline when someone asks, “So, how’s the writing going?” I get that hunted look, my lip quivers, and I say, “I am going to end up living in the park picking through the bones of small roadkill for sustenance. I’m going down in flames! Flames, I tell you! Oh, the humanity, the humanity…” They usually say with a yawn, “Oh, you’re at that point of the novel. Keep writing.”

One thing that’s been a big help to me is my freelance job at Kensington Books. First of all, it gets me out of the house, where, if I stay alone for too long, I actually start to believe that George Clooney is waiting patiently for my call. Second, it’s opened my eyes to the worlds of other authors. For the past six years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing jacket copy for some fabulous romance authors there under the tutelage of the TGKD (The Great Kate Duffy, romance editor extraordinaire.) To see people like Lori Foster or MaryJanice Davidson or Susan Johnson turn in synopses that say, “and something happens here—I’ll figure it out later” is such a huge relief. To know that a story about a Regency viscount can blossom into a knockout tale of a vampire private investigator who sings in a rock band called Isn’t It Byronic makes me giddy with joy. Hey, I figure if these amazing writers can plunge first and ask questions later, maybe there’s hope for me.

When I started this trilogy, I had some vague notion that it would be a light-hearted mystery romp set in Victorian England. What I got when I wasn’t looking was a story that challenged me at every level and forced me to dig deep, a story about uneasy but necessary friendships and survival, aspiration versus duty, breaking away and falling apart, coming to terms with yourself and your past. It’s about good girls realizing that sometimes being bad is better. That actions have consequences. That power brings responsibility, but running away from your own power isn’t an option. It’s about dysfunctional families and the damage life inflicts, the terrible burden of carrying secrets, and the hope that lives inside everyone, refusing to give up its perch. The story of these girls’ lives had a lot to show me about the story of my own.

My motto is: Dream big and worry about the clean-up later. Write with heart and soul and passion. Tell secrets. Make a wound and heal it. Leave some marrow on the page. Let your story find you. Believe as if nothing else matters. Hit the ice with all your sequins shining, baby.

And if it doesn’t work, there’s always sock puppets.

What about you? Have you ever started a book with one idea only to have it completely turn around on you and become something else? What did you do when that happened? What is your writing process: Do you outline? Are you a total plunger? Or are you somewhere in between?

(You can visit Libba's website at www.libbabray.com)

Teresa Medeiros, 1:09 PM
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