SCBWI Bologna 2006 Author Interview: Scott Westerfeld

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

YA author Scott Westerfeld, author of Pretties and other top-of-the-chart books will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. His talk and workshop (with Justine Larbalestier) topics include: “Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars;” “How to Write a Synopsis: Stand-Alones and Multi-Volume Works.” Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Justine Larbalestier, Sara Rojo, Doug Cushman. Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, and others. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola, and others. See registration information.

Scott Westerfeld is the author of five novels for adults and six for young adults. The most recent are Peeps (Penguin, 2005) and Pretties (Simon & Schuster,2005)(excerpt). His books have won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation, the Aurealis Award, and been named NY Times Notable Books of the Year. His YA novel So Yesterday (Penguin, 2004) won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2005. He has contributed nonfiction to Nerve, BookForum, and the scientific journal Nature, and published short fiction on and in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is married to the Hugo-nominated writer Justine Larbalestier, is a permanent resident of Australia, and splits his time between New York and Sydney. Visit Scott’s site and blog. Lawrence Schimel interviewed Scott in December 2005.

Lawrence Schimel: How and why did you begin writing YA?

Scott Westerfeld: At the end of a long ghost-writing project, one which had almost destroyed my brain, I had the idea for Midnighters (HarperCollins, 2004-). It came out of nowhere, and was clearly a young adult idea: about a group of teens in a small town where time froze at midnight every night.

I had already ghost-written some choose-your-own-adventure books for kids (Goosebumps, if the truth be told) so I knew some people in the business. I took the concept to 17th Street Productions, who developed that idea with me.

Once I started writing YA, I found myself enjoying it too much to stop.

LS: You also write for adults. Do you have any plans to write something for even younger readers (middle grade or picture books)?

SW: I might write a middle grade series eventually, perhaps collaborating with Justine. I think pictures books are beyond me, though. I need at least 15,000 words to get into second gear.

LS: Is it more challenging for you to write for one age group or another? Not having kids of your own and no longer an adolescent yourself, what do you do to find or recreate an authentic teenage voice in your fiction?

SW: I think YA is my most natural age to write for. I still have a lot of the same reactions about what’s cool and interesting as I did when I was 14 or so. In other words, all the issues that were important to me then—Why is the world like this? What’s really happening at the levels that I can’t see? Are we all robots?—are still vitally important to me now.

I think teens are doing two things at once: questioning the world in a radical way, and inventing various versions of themselves. My teen voices come out of those two problems: What the hell is this world I’ve found myself born into and how do I fit in? That collection of bravura, insecurity, philosophizing, irony, bemusement, and language play (inventing new words to help muddle through all those conflicting emotions) all seem to come naturally to me.

LS: Name one book (adult or YA) you wish you had written?

SW: All the books I wished I could have written are actually quite flawed. That is, I wish I could erase them from history and write them myself, but better. I wouldn’t mind redoing Gossip Girl and adding some vampires, for instance…

LS: What is your favorite book from your childhood?

SW: Charlotte’s Web.

LS: As an adult now, what is your favorite children’s book (as a reader)?

SW: See above.

LS: Any advice for new writers?

SW: In the 1980s, I followed Kasparov and Karpov in their interminable chess duels, and I remember Karpov losing one long match due to exhaustion, because he wasn’t as fit as the younger Kasparov. When I joked about that, saying that they were just pushing little wooden pieces around, a friend chided, “Chess is a sport.”

One thing I’ve realized since then is that writing is a sport too; it takes conditioning. You have to write every day to build your sentence-level craft. You have to write your way out of hundreds of plot-tangles and character breakdowns to develop sufficient problem-solving reflexes. And until you’ve written a novel in one focused stretch, you can’t build up the muscles it takes to keep 80,000 words of plot and character arcs in your head, which is a hard, hard thing to do.

Someone who writes “every once in a while” is like someone who plays chess by mail. It’s much easier, but they don’t really develop the stamina that it takes to fight their way through difficult problems.

All of which only means I’m giving the advice everyone gives new writers: write. Till it hurts.

LS: Any advice for more experienced writers?

SW: Really, it’s an expansion of the above. Challenge yourself with new problems. If you’ve never written from multiple viewpoints, try it. If you’ve never written in first person, make yourself. Figure out which plot/character/technique you’re most afraid of and give it a go.

At worst, you’ll fail and realize that you just can’t do certain things. But even then, when you go back to what you are good at, you’ll generally find have a few more muscles and reflexes at your disposal.

LS: Something you wish you hadn’t done?

SW: I went for too long without an agent. In addition to all the immediate benefits of being represented, you really need someone managing your career in the long run.

LS: You spend part of the year in New York and part of the year in Sydney. Do you write differently on the “other” side of the world?

SW: Sydney’s much more relaxing, less distracting in good a way, and I think that leads to a more disciplined approach: 1000 words a day with a couple of days off every week. In NYC, I have a more pre-industrial process: long periods of inactivity followed by bursts of illness-inducing overwork.

I think both techniques produce interesting ideas and stories, and I can’t claim to know which is better artistically. But the former is definitely healthier.

LS: What are some of the differences in children’s publishing, and/or being a writer, in Australia as opposed to the US?

SW: There is definitely more structural support for writers in Australia. Writers’ conferences, school visits, government awards and grants all provide significant sources of income. In the US, you pretty much only have the publishers paying you. Of course, the much greater population means that you make more money from your books.

One thing I’ve noticed though, is that Australians read much more per capita than Usians, so it’s not nearly as bad as the fifteen-to-one population ration might make you suspect.

LS: What is it like living with another writer? Are you competitive with one another? Supportive? Are you each other’s first-reader?

SW: When we’re both in full writing mode, we read to each other every few nights. It’s a great system in a number of ways: Because it’s all oral, there’s no low-level editing, which we don’t want with a first draft. The listener’s anticipation creates motivation for us to get that next chapter done. We hear the bad sentences as you say them aloud, of course. We have someone else to nut out plot problems with, who’s only a few days at most behind.

LS: Have you thought about collaborating on a book together? (Or would that be a Bad Thing for your relationship?)

SW: It’s possible we’ll be doing a middle-grade series together. We’ll both be exploring a new age level, so we’ll be less sure of ourselves, which is why I’m not worried about it causing fights.

LS: What is different about writing a multi-volume work versus a standalone novel?

SW: Series give you a lot more room to explore the world you’ve created, to follow up the implications of your speculation in a global way. Standalones are better for getting into a single character’s head, because the main POV character really “owns” the book.

LS: Which format do you prefer?

SW: Really, I prefer series. I especially enjoy writing second books, in which the world is already set up, and yet you still have room to subvert the reader’s assumptions about how everything works. I enjoy pulling back more and more curtains, revealing new sides to everything they thought they understood. Series give you more room for those kinds of maneuvers.

LS: Having written a synopsis and sample chapters as a proposal, how closely do you stick to it when actually writing the book once it has sold?

SW: Uglies (Simon & Schuster, 2005) was sold with a very long and specific outline, which I stuck very close to. That’s the kind of series it is: lots of betrayals, reversals, and complications. With the Midnighters series, I’ve found that those five characters bounce off each other a lot, generating their own heat, so I don’t have to worry about the plotting as much. I hardly outline them at all, just set up one big conflict to get things rolling, then put the characters into various groupings and let their battling egos keep the ball rolling.

Cynsational News & Links

Jo Whittemore — Books for Young Adults and the Young at Heart: debut website from the debut YA author of a fantasy trilogy that begins with Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn, March 2006). Jo is one of the original members of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom). Check on her LiveJournal!