Plain Kate Cover

(no subject)

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with me that’s up today over at Scribophile, an online critiquing and hanging-with-writers community.

Scribophile: In general, how much research do you do for your novels? Does it take place before you sit down and write the thing, or do you work on both tasks at the same time? And how can you tell when you’ve done enough—or even too much?


Mostly I write and research in parallel. There are places where it’s straightforward. You need to give a character a sucking chest wound, so you read up on sucking chest wounds, find yourself a combat medic to chat with, and then get your knife ready and write. Easy peasy.

There are places where research is just procrastination. You need to launch a spaceship from a magnetic rail, so you start researching eddy coils etc, and before you know it you find yourself wondering if the magnets need to be supercooled, and deciding Loftstrom Loops are awesome and we should totally build one, who do I write to at NASA about that—forgetting that none of the characters give two figs about how the shuttle works.

The best and hardest kind of research is the research that builds the world. For instance, my current book in draft, The Swan Riders, has horses in it — in fact it takes place during an epic cross-continent ride. I’ve never been on or around horses, so I don’t know much about them. The tricky part about this research is that you don’t know what you need to know. So I did a lot of general reading, of the “horses for dummies” kind. A lot of hanging out in virtual communities like The Long Rider’s Guild. A great horse informant was found (hi Jen!).

The other kind of research (chest wounds and space ships) I mostly do as I go along, but the horses kind of research I have to do upfront. This is because I have to shape the story to suit the horses, not twist the horses to suit the story. I knew I’d got it (as much as it could be got) when horses stop being a problem and became an inspiration. When they moved themselves, the way stories move or characters move.

I call this letting-research-shape-the-story thing “writing from the inside out.”

Getting to inside-out is difficult. If you think that’s hard to do with horses — and it is — try writing about another culture. You can’t just pin some feathers and blood sacrifice on ye olde sword and sorcery story and call it Aztec. That’s writing a story from the outside in.

Appropriation is always a risk—and really, all stories are appropriation. But the second miracle of fiction is that it is possible. Writing about people who are in various profound ways Not You is possible.
Plain Kate Cover

(no subject)

For a week I've been flailing around with the current chapter of Sorrow's Knot.

I keep thinking I'm about to hit the point where I can stop completely ravelling the last draft and saving only a sentence here and there. I dream about the big downhill rush, and I'm always sure it's just after this last little slog. And maybe this time I'll be right, who knows.

Anyhow. This week's chapter addresses one of the big problems from the first draft: no one understood why my hero had to do the terrifying and incredibly brave thing she did at the climax. I mean, I feel like I understood it. But no one else did. And by no one I mean my incredibly smart editor.

So, task: create a chapter where the whys and wherefores of the brave/terrifying/magically logical climax are spelled out. Where the character - visibly and on-screen - figures out what she's going to have to do. Short-term payoff: suspense. Will she really do THAT? Long-term payoff: increased reader satisfaction and decreased reader confusion. Hopefully fewer editorial post-it notes expressing bafflement. Definitely worth doing.

But what does this look like on the page? This looks like a big old chunk of talky exposition, that's what it looks like. The scream in the sunlight horror all-is-lost incident right before this? Let's lose all momentum by TALKING about it. A lot.

You may now picture me banging my head into my treadmill desk. Repeatedly.

Today, finally, I think I found the path through it. It's a well-worn path - so well worn that screenwriters use it as a truism: exposition is ammunition. Let's make the characters FIGHT about what to do next. It's a well-worn path but I missed it, and finding it seems like a little miracle. If I can just get through this next little push, it will be a fast clean rush to the ending.

(Or not.)
Plain Kate Cover

On the edge, part two

Well, I did it.  I tore apart the chapter I was talking about yesterday and put it back together again.   And then - then I wrote the new ending for it.   The one which brings the characters to the edge of escape, but fails to let one of them out.   I finished it about 12:00, and spent the remaining half hour in my office shaking and crying.   You can either view that as a sign the book is working, or a sign that I should up my meds.   Up to you.  

It's not even really that terrible a scene.   It's just that characters being crazy-brave always nail me.  Every single time, they nail me.  Sad I can handle. But beauty and bravery break my heart.

So where are we now?  Well, if I didn't seem to be allergic to structure, I'd say this was the "darkest moment" part of the draft.  If it were a 100-page screenplay, so sayeth the Screenplay God Blake Snyder, this would be page 75.   The break into act three.  

I have some hope that act three will be faster to write.  I've totally torn act one and two apart, saving only the main characters, the general premise, and a paragraph of description here and there.   I have never had to strip a book so far back.   It's not a rewrite, it's a just-plain write.   But act three may be more or less salvageable.  Wish me luck.

Also, an aside:  mamculuna commented yesterday on my berating myself for listening to thinky-plotter me and thereby getting stuck.   She says:  "But I suspect that the thinky self gets you across the chasm on some kind of Rube Goldberg bridge, and then the real writer self sees where to go and flies across."   That rang true.   Maybe I can usefully view my thinky-plotter self as one of the poor souls working on the crazy bridge in Dr. Suess's How Lucky You Are.    After all, you have to cross the gap somehow.   Maybe you need a little crazy bridge labour before you can leap.   
Plain Kate Cover

On the edge

Today saw me back my writing office after a four day weekend. I've not gotten much work done since the beginning of April, which is a long stretch when deadlines are near.

But the thing is ... I tried to write this last chapter. I gave myself a nice pause and a couple of thinky days before tackling it, plotting how I was going to help the characters out of the dangerous place where they were trapped, and then later how I was going to get them to go back there on purpose. When I thought I had it all figured out I tried to write it.

And failed. I wrote an entirely wrong-footed chapter, mechanical and choppy and confusing. But I pushed it (after all, I'd already given myself the pause) and got the characters to the end of the chapter, and the edge of escape. And as they came to the edge, I thought, "wait, this is IT, this is where it happens, right here, right now." And I thought: "this is why I couldn't write this: I was trying to avoid this moment."

Of course that wasn't what I had thoughtfully planned, so I ignored the hunch and wrote past the moment, completing the escape. Then I froze up.

It took me a few days to decide to throw out my plans (not to mention most of a chapter) and trust my gut. Of course NOW it seems obvious -- why would they want to escape then come back? -- but I fought and fought and whined and stomped my feet. But today, finally, I scrapped the problem chapter, stripping it back and putting it back together with its new not-escape ending in mind. I'm ready, tomorrow, to bring my characters to the their worst moment, the all-is-lost point. GULP.

But when, oh when, am I going to figure out that my thinky-writer self doesn't know what it's doing? When am I going to stop pushing through before I'm ready? When am I going to quit fighting those deep flashes of insight? Listen to your self, Erin: "This is where it happens. Right here. Right now."

Plain Kate Cover

Read these now

I don't often talk about the books I'm reading on my blog, but I've recently read two books that are about to make their North American debuts, and I would love to see both of them reach lots of readers, because they are both fabulous. I thought: it would not hurt to do my part.  

The first is Zoe Marriott's Shadows On The Moon, which a high-concept blurb writer would probably call "A Japanese Cinderella."  That does not begin to do it justice.  For starters, take it from me, it's not easy to make the jump from fairy tale to novel, and most writers fail.  They forget to fill in what almost all fairy tales leave out: motivations for the characters, and rules for the world.  So, you must imagine a story in which Cinderella was not a fairytale cipher, but had an agenda of her own.  What, exactly, does it mean to dance so well a prince might fall for you?  And why would you need him to?   
But I love Shadows most and best for its first scene, its first sentences, which I just want to diagram and study.  Here's how you do it, folks:

On my fourteenth birthday, when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us.  We saw them come, Aimi and me.  We were excited, because we did not know how to be frightened.  We had never seen soldiers before.  

Go on, put the book down after that.  I dare you.  

(Also, let's hear it for non-white people in Fantasy Land, hurrah!)  

Shadows On The Moon comes out April 24th.
I also just finished Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  Here's a book to give to your friends who shy away from reading YA because they think it's all broody vampires. It is straight up fabulous, shatteringly good.  
The novel largely takes the form of a rather rambling written confession of a female British special agent being held in Nazi-occupied France. From the title on in, you suspect the agent is up to something.  Indeed, I've always loved unreliable narrators, and who is less reliable, for better reasons, than a confessing spy? 

On the surface, the confession tells the story of her friendship with the (also female) RAF (or rather, Air Transport Auxiliary) pilot who brought her to France.  And here's something else I've never seen done this well.  The agent and the pilot have one of those fearsome "first friendships" that many of us have in college -- the girls are of just that age.  That first adult friendship that is not sexual, but in other ways just that intense, and just that new, because *you* are so new.  Of course I've seen this first friendship explored for young men, but much more rarely for young women - and I have never, ever seen it done this well.  

Code Name: Verity comes out May 15th.
Plain Kate Cover

On Endings ....

 I was just talking to a writer friend about how we want our scenes, our chapters, our stories as a whole, to be a little more jagged and gangly, with bits sticking out that don't  quite fit.  Neatness is often seductive -- you feel it's "right" if it all fits together -- but it is a small thing, and a false one.  
The friend I was talking to was another writing Mommy, and we were particularly discussing our tendency to let the external pulls of our life creep into our fiction.   Why did her scene end there?  Because it was time for her to go pick up her daughter from school.   Why are my chapters suddenly turning out at about 3,000 words?   Because that's how many "keeper" words I can write in a week.   Deep true artististic reasons, both.   

But it is hard to resist the temptation to wrap things up at the end of the day, and make them neat.   Leaving bits hanging feels like leaving wounds open.   Or, less dramatically, like stopping your knitting in the middle of a row, without casting off and tying a knot.  If you leave loose threads - won't it all unravel?   But writing is not knitting.  Writing is wild.  It does not prosper when we clip it short and box it up so.   Ursula LeGuin wrote that all art tryings to say the unsayable--and writing, God help us, tries to say the unsayable in words.  It ought to be rough.  It ought to be shaggy. 

(A related point, which I won't develop here:  outlines don't work for me.  I observe that they work for other people but I don't understand how they possibly could.)   

Endings are of course place where one is tempted to pull all the threads together and tie a bunch of knots.    That's legitimate.  You don't want a novel that feels like it's going to come to pieces in your hands.   Novels - this is a remarkably controversial statement, but - novels are big stories.   When you come to the end of a story you don't want to be startled by the storyteller's sudden silence.  You don't want to look up going: "wait, what's wrong, did you choke on something?  Did the transmission cut out?  Did they leave out the last few pages?  WHAT?  WHAT!?"    At the end of the story you want the sigh and the silence, and then the impulse to stand up and cheer.   You don't get that if you don't make a good ending.  

But many, many books go too far in making endings.   They tie everything up too neatly.  They end with a great clanging final thump.  

The thing is, book endings aren't really endings.  (Unless they end with the world blowing up.)  They often have that sense of launching something new, of going through a new door.  Even something as simple as "and they lived happily ever after" is about putting a big door at the end of the novel and then opening it up.  I personally like readers to be able to imagine the future of my characters, and to be able to glimpse what it is.  It's not too different than the way I like them to be able to glimpse the back stories of the assorted secondary characters.   That these untold stories are there adds richness, even if no one writes them. 

Endings are like ... weddings, I suppose, which is why books often end with the bells ringing.  In life it's bad when weddings are viewed as endings.  Anyone who's successfully married will tell you a wedding is a beginning, or at least merely a climax at the end of Act One.   Still, weddings have that quality I look for in novel endings, of ceremony and transition, of possibilities changing.  

And like weddings, the happiest of endings can sometimes make me cry.  And I like that.  
Plain Kate Cover

An open letter to Mr. Joel "Adults Should Read Adult Books" Stein

In response to this piece in the New York Times -- a particularly fun addition to a growing list of major newspaper pieces by people who don't read young adult fiction but publicly disparage it anyway.
Dear Mr. Stein,

You're a humorist, yes?   Your books (and possibly this column) are meant to be funny?  That's just ducky:  good for you!  

I don't read humour writing, myself.  Perhaps funny books are lovely, full of characters so alive you could swear you know
them personally, like the works of John Green.   Maybe they can make the simplest language into a fully breathing description of the glory of the world, like E.B. White. Maybe they take the shattering pain that made Melinda from Speak silence herself and turn it into crooked little smiles, smiles that hide too much.  I don't know because I don't read anything that's mean to be "funny."

I'm sure it's fine for some.  I remember the boys in class who could get a laugh.   The one with a line in fart jokes.  The one who could burp the whole alphabet.  Those kids grow up.  They need something to read.  Maybe they'll even learn something from books like yours, who knows?  Personally, when ever I see someone reading, say, Pratchett, I judge them instantly.  You'd think they could at least get one of those classy leather book covers to hide their shame.  

For my part, I'll read humour books after I've finished the 3,000 years of writing that's entirely serious.  After all, books aren't meant to be fun.  They're improving.  That's why teachers assign them.

Fair warning: reading the whole cannon may take me a while.  I'm currently stuck in the Greeks, and I'm not sure whether to re-read Antigone or Euclid's Geometry.  They're both pretty serious ... and yet, last time I read them, they both gave me delight.  Hmmm.  These genre distinctions are tricky.  It's almost as if they weren't marks of quality at all.  

John Green, for instance.  I admit I skipped ahead of the Greeks a  bit and read his book on kids with cancer, The Fault in Our Stars.   I was sure it would count as serious -- it's got those breathing characters (only one of them can't breathe very well).  It's got a Shakespearean riff for a title and a sort of metatextual problem of authorship point on which the plot turns.  Plus, you know, it's kids with cancer.  How fun could it be?  And yet I laughed so hard reading the egg-the-car scene that my husband made me read it to him, which made me laugh even harder, bittersweet crying real laughter that made snot bubbles come out my nose.  But I swear I didn't mean to read that.  We Serious Readers are considering some kind of labelling system, warning against "mixed" books like this.   Or possibly a fatwa.  

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your piece "Adults should Read Adult Books" and wish you good luck with your future "funny" work.  

Yours in all seriousness,

Erin Bow
Young Adult Author

Look for more New York Times "balance" pieces, including the one for the series on contemporary theatre (Maxin Kon's "I'm a movie director and plays are for suckers") and the one for series on artisan teas ("Grow up and drink coffee").  
Plain Kate Cover

When not writing is the best writing you can do....

Yesterday I did a great deal of awesome writing, bringing my characters to a climax/crisis/realization/high-point thingy. (This is the technical term.) Today I put almost no words on paper.

I'm not stuck.  I think I know what happens next, in broad strokes (which is more than I knew yesterday at this time), but I felt a resistant to writing it. I felt in need of some time to let the idea leaven and rise. So I took the time, doing some editing and note-making and doodling instead. And even though I'm missing a deadline soon (April 1? not gonna happen) I feel better for letting the dough sit.

I am not always -- not often -- this kind to myself, but I believe in the value of this sort of kindness.   Sometimes it's best to respect your reluctance when you don't want to write. There may well be a reason for it.  

See also: [how to get stuck and brood].
Plain Kate Cover

.But with dragons

(originally posted at  Gonna try to do a better job with my mirroring.)

Check out this Adam Gopnik piece from the New Yorker on why young people like fantasy novels. For a change, it’s NOT insulting to youth or to fantasy. (Much.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything — though it’s always hard not to agree with Gopnik; he’s such a good writer that he can make anything sound reasonable and insightful, if not revolutionary. But he’s spot on about this: fantasy elevates ordinary and eternal problems of young people (and the rest of us, though Gopnik doesn’t say that) into stories via the language of myth. It turns “No one really knows me” into “I’ve got a secret identity.” It turns “I don’t understand why other people act the way they do” into “I’m trapped in a faerie realm.” It turns “my high school must have been built over the mouth of hell” into “my high school must have been built over the mouth of hell.”

I once told a class of 12th Graders that Plain Kate was autobiographical. “Not that I’ve ever fallen victim to a witch hunt because I don’t quite fit in,” I ad-libbed, “except that high school is exactly like that.”  I didn't mean to say it, but it sort of burst from my heart.  As one, they locked eyes and some even nodded. It was an electric moment: my hair stood up. All of them looked at me, all of them. Even the cheerleaders.

“Be kind,” says Pliny, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

There are certain things in life that are glorious, and they are glorious for everyone. There are more that are hard, and they are hard for everyone. We like to see these things retold, but with dragons.

Plain Kate Cover

(no subject)

(originally posted at

Readers, I have been shopping.

Under the influence of my visiting (and very stylish) mother, I bought not one but two Serious Frocks.

One is a little black dress — not what I was shopping for, but so smashing, and I got the most amazing turquoise and gunmetal earrings to go with it. The other is a wrap dress in gunmetal, olive, and cobolt blue. Also bought: two pairs of quite impractical shoes. I’m having second thoughts about those. I normally wear flats with serious insoles — the kind made of half an oak’s worth of cork and holding several patents — and I bought Chinese Laundry three-inch “Barbie goes to the Party” heels. I may also need training wheels.

The Serious Frocks are needed for some serious parties. In fact, by the end of the month I am anticipating needing writerly life support, as I sink into some kind of introvert’s healing coma. Because here’s my schedule:
  • CBC Book Club Saturday, September 10: I’ll be in Vancouver doing the CBC Book Club, which is taped before an audience and broadcast later. Free tickets for the taping, folks! It’s at 11:00 AM. I don’t know when the broadcast is, but I’ll try to find out. It will be on North By Northwest, the BC-wide morning show, and on the internet.
  • Sunburst Awards Wednesday, September 14: I’m at Harbourfront in Toronto as part of a lineup of authors shortlisted for the Sunburst Award — Canada’s award for science fiction and fantasy. Holly Bennett, Paul Glennon, Guy Gavriel Kay, Douglas Smith, Hayden Trenholm, and Robert Paul Weston are also reading. And then they give out the award. Like the Oscars, but lower budget and geekier, and hey: doesn’t that sound like more fun anyway? Keep your fingers crossed for Plain Kate, which is up for the Sunburst in the Young Adult category.
  • Science in the Pub Friday, September 16: I’m home in Kitchener/Waterloo, and appearing at the Perimeter Institute’s popular Science in the Pub event at the Huether. It’s part of the Grand Opening Weekend for the new Stephen Hawking Centre. For discussion: Science vs. Art: which is more creative. (Somehow they didn’t mention the smackdown aspect of it when they were signing me up…) Rumour has it they’ve pulled in Ray LaFlamme for Team Science, which makes me heavily outclassed: Team Art supporters must come wave our far more beautiful flags. There is one event at 5:30 and one at 7:30: they are the same, so pick one or the other. Attendance is free but advanced tickets are required.
  • Telling Tales Sunday, September 18: I’m reading at Canada’s leading children’s literature festival, Telling Tales, in Rockton, Ontario. Anne of Green Gables and Mark Twain are also going to be there, in person. Free admission, though donations are accepted.
  • Word on the Street Sunday, September 25: I’ll be appearing via videolink at the newest location for the coast-to-coast festival Word on the Street: Lethbridge, Alberta. Since Plain Kate is up for the Alberta reader’s choice award, the Rocky Mountain Book Award, I’m hoping some folks will actually have read the book.
  • EEEK! The TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award Gala Tuesday, October 4: Oh, my goodness, I’m going to the ball. Plain Kate is up for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for the most distinguished book of the year. This isn’t public, alas, but an “invitation-only gala” at the Carlu in Toronto. (Lah-de-DAH!) This, too, is like the Oscars: the winner will be announced on the night. Wish me luck: this award is a very big deal, especially for a first novel.
I shouldn’t go before I tell you my two favorite parts of the Serious Frock Adventure. The first is that my five-year-old Fancy Nancy daughter, seeing me model my little black dress and great big earrings, went to her jewelry box to get her new mood ring to complete the ensemble. I am to wear it, she says, to be extra beautiful.

The second is that I talked to my grandfather after shopping. To help you paint the stereotype in your head, I’ll tell you he’s a 90-plus retired farmer with an eighth-grade education and an Irish temper. To erase it, I’ll tell you he looks like Jimmy Cagney and dresses that sharp. And that my grandmother, who died last year, was a great beauty who took up modelling in her 70s, and had a closet full of smashing clothes, for which she made special trips to the city (Sioux Falls) with my grandfather proudly on her arm. She wore a hat and gloves to go into town to shop. She would not have dreamed of cork insoles. She is greatly missed. Anyway, I talked to my grandfather and he sighed and said: “Ah, you can’t beat a black dress.”