World of Word Craft is a new feature on The Book Wars that runs every fortnight. As the title suggests, each post is designed to look at word craft, that is, to look behind the scenes of books and take a closer look at how stories are constructed and the process of writing. To this effect, we have designed questions to ask some of our favourite authors about their writing processes. We hope you, the reader and perhaps the aspiring writer, will gain as much from this as we, the book warriors, have done.
Today’s author is Celine Kiernan who has written some of my favourite historical fantasy fiction. Here’s her official biography:
Celine Kiernan is an award-winning author of fantasy novels for young adults. Her critically acclaimed work combines fantasy elements with the exploration of political, humanitarian and philosophical themes. She is best known for The Moorehawke Trilogy, a dark, complex trilogy of fantasy YA books set in an alternative renaissance Europe. First published in Celine’s native Ireland in 2008, the trilogy has since been published in 15 different territories, and translated into 10 different languages. In 2009 the first book of the Moorehawke Trilogy, The Poison Throne, won The Readers’ Association of Ireland Award for best book; it was included in the White Raven Collection and short listed for the 2009 Irish Book Awards in two categories (Best Newcomer and Best Children’s Book senior category). In 2010 it was long-listed for an Australian Silver Inky Award.
Celine’s fourth novel, Into the Grey (aka Taken Away) – a YA ghost story set in 1970′s Ireland – won the 2012 CBI Book of the Year (formerly The Bisto award) and the CBI Children’s Choice Award. It is the first book to have won both categories. It won the RAI Book of the Year 2013, and has been shortlisted for the Sakura Medal (English High) 2014. In 2013 the Irish Times named it as one of the best children’s books of the past 25 years.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, 1967, Celine has spent the majority of her working life in the film business, and her career as a classical feature character animator spanned over seventeen years, before she became a full-time writer.
1. Do you find yourself writing chronologically (in terms of your story) or bits and pieces as they come to you? Any advice in this regard?
I’ve always written chronologically. I treat each chapter in a book as a short story, which I try to give a specific purpose, and a satisfying beginning, middle and end. Though I constantly go back and revise as I write, I can’t move on from a chapter until I feel that it at least somewhat works as an individual unit. Recently, (the last three novels) I’ve taken to doing a brief chapter by chapter outline of the entire book prior to sitting down to seriously write (I have usually written the first few chapters before doing this outline, though) I feel free to deviate somewhat from the outline during the writing, but this deviation usually involves omitting things and I rarely veer totally off course. I find that having a plan helps focus my mind on what I need to say within each chapter. That way I can concentrate more fiercely on the actual writing process. It saves time I might otherwise have spent floundering about in self doubt or confusion – especially in the middle sections of a story when it’s very easy for me to get lost in my own make-believe world and forget altogether the plot/theme/arc I’d intended communicating to the reader.
I have no advice in this regard other than finding your own path through each individual novel. I don’t think it’s necessary to tie yourself to the same technique for every work. In my experience each piece brings its own voice, challenges and rewards. It’s probably best to remain flexible and allow yourself relax into whatever works for the project at hand.
2. . When worldbuilding, how do you decide how much detail is enough?
I tell just as much as I feel the reader needs in order to figure out what’s happening. Sometimes not even that much. There’s always more in my head than I put on the page as I’m very wary of underestimating my readers. As a consequence my editors always have to ask me to put in more information. This is not something we always agree on. Sometimes I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into divulging more (the editors are always right, by the way. Always. In hindsight, I’ve never regretted adding information that they’ve requested)
I almost always write from a limited POV, which means I only allow the reader the same knowledge my POV character has. Also, many of my books are about people attempting to make sense of a world where history has been controlled or suppressed by others more powerful than themselves, so their world view is often very limited. My latest book (Resonance) has several POV characters. Staying true to all the many personalities and POV’s in that story was a particular challenge as the characters are often not only lying to each other, but also to themselves. Keeping true to their points of view, while still keeping the reader engaged and informed, was a huge challenge.
In regards to setting and sense of place, I think every word is vital. Choose the right few words when describing a character walking into a room, and you’ll go a long way towards conveying physical surroundings, as well as social hierarchy, emotional weather, and atmosphere. Focus your mind on what your reader needs to know and on what you want them to feel, then try and convey this in the shortest number of words. Make actions, dialogue, surroundings all tell you something greater than just an empty physical description.
3. At which point in your writing process do you start giving attention to the overall structure of your novel?
My attention is focused on this right at the start. As I said, I write chronologically, and even prior to my current process of writing a chapter by chapter outline, I always moved forward with a strict sense of where the book was going and an iron-solid idea of the plot. This is probably even more vital when you write quiet, internal, character driven books, like I do. It’s easy to loose focus when you climb so deeply into your characters’ minds and feelings and when you explore their sensations so minutely. It’s vital to ask yourself the purpose of each chapter – what new thing have I revealed here? What way has the story moved forward? What has changed for the characters? – if none of these three things has happened by the conclusion of a chapter, I know I’m treading water.
Interestingly enough, Resonance ended up being quite radically restructured in a way I didn’t anticipate. Initially, I wrote it with POV changes happening as the chronology of the story dictated (In my opinion, it’s vital in multiple POV books to keep the plot moving forward and not retread old ground) But during the editorial process, I was asked to confine each chapter to one POV only. In hindsight I think this was a good move, and it had surprisingly small impact on the timeline (except to shove a few scenes forward or back in order of telling) It was a glorious challenge. After the initial fear of failure I very much enjoyed the process.
4. Do you plot ahead or do you let your characters guide you where they want to go?
I think its clear by now how rigidly I plot. However the characters do very often dictate the tone of scenes and this often takes my by surprise. The situations which I anticipated in outline, remain the same when I come to write them – but often what I assumed would be a sad scene is a humorous one, or a character’s anticipated resignation becomes anger or some such thing, because my characters are much more alive for me than they had been when I first wrote the outline. This can mean that some scenes are abandoned entirely (an attempted suicide in Come See the Sky, for example, never happened because I came to understand that that particular character would always see another way out.)
5. Is there a specific way you individuate your characters?
Speech patterns based on different upbringings, education or social status. Physical ticks based on personal history. Clothing, physicality, interpersonal behavior based on personal history, health, or social standing. Belief systems. World views. All these things combine to make each character unique.
6. Do you have tricks for increasing or slowing down the narrative pace? Is there a way to make the story flow faster or conversely slower?
Not while writing, to be honest. I think this all comes in the editing process – when you decide what is vital to the book as a whole, and what is fat and must be cut. It takes time to know the difference between that which is truly vital, and that which you’re too in love with to cut.
Second and third draft editing is where I tighten everything up for pace. I cut vast chunks of text which felt important at the time of writing, but which on rereading add too much weight to the narrative (this happened very much in Resonance and the middle book of Moorehawke – both books lost over 50k words in editing) Usually these cuts are subplots, character arcs or back stories Very often they’re descriptive passages which I cut entirely or pare back to one or two words. The cutting is always painful – but the books are almost always the better for it. Again I stress, you can’t know what to cut if you haven’t written it. Write it all first, be unrestrained and glorious in your initial approach. Then kill everything that’s non-essential in the edit.
On a sentence level, use words wisely so that your narrative doesn’t get flabby. Cut your words until all that remains are those with real purpose. (But, again, do this during your editing process – not during the first draft. First drafts are for extravagant poetry and willful richness of language. It’s only when you begin to edit that your linguistic discipline should come in) It’s taken me years to learn, but now I cut until my heart bleeds for the loss. Then I cut again. I cut until I’m left with what I think are only the most communicative of words. On;y then do I feel I’ve made each sentence work for me.
7. Do you hold off on writing until your characters emerge, fully (or almost fully) formed? or do they develop over successive drafts as you discover who they really are and what is going on?
My characters very often start as thematic symbols or archetypes – in that, I know very clearly what their contribution to the plot or theme is – but as I write they very quickly round out into full characters with their own specific personalities. As characters clarify, I find myself going back over dialogue and reactions in order to shine a clearer spotlight onto their personalities.
8. Most useful writing habit or practice?
Getting the words out of my head and onto paper. There is literally no other way to get the job done.
9. How do you get past the midpoint – when the story suddenly seems to lose direction/you lose interest in the story/you don’t know what other characters need to be introduced?
The outline helps. Also, it’s very useful to write a brief synopsis of your plot and theme (no more than a couple of lines for each) Hang this on the wall where you write. Every time you feel yourself getting lost or floundering, look up at it and ask yourself – am I fulfilling the brief? Am I telling the story I set out to tell? Am I exploring the themes I had intended to? – If the answer is ‘no’, you know you’ve gone off course and need to refocus the narrative until you’re heading in the right direction.
10. How do you silence the censor/critic in your head?
I’m not sure that critic needs silencing entirely. For example, it doesn’t do to ignore the niggling suspicion that you’ve gone off course (see question 9) or that your characters are no longer behaving like themselves – these are things which will scupper you if you don’t face and address them as you go along. However, it’s important to keep cracking on through doubt. During the difficult times (of which, in my experience, there are many), I try and produce what I call my ‘four pages of shit’ a day. Doesn’t matter if the writing works or not, I just crack out that four pages. The next day there will always be something worth using, and I’ll have stepped forward in my goal of finishing the story. If you keep doing that you’ll eventually have a novel which you can edit and make shine. You have to write the book. You have to finish writing the book. Only then can you know if it’s going to be worth reading.
Thank you Celine for taking the time to answer our questions and sharing your expertise with us.