Wednesday, February 8, 2012

World Building Technique: An Interview with Jen Reese Author of Above World

I'm really excited to have Jenn Reese with us today. Her debut, Above World, will be released on February 14th. This is one you're not going to want to miss! I couldn't help but think about Katniss (Hunger Games) as Aluna, the heroine, fights to save her people and ultimately the world. 

1) Why do you write for children?
         When I was young, my home life wasn’t good and books were my escape. I spent as much time as possible in other worlds, making friends with Turtle from The Westing Game or helping Meg find her father in A Wrinkle In Time. (I was the kind of kid who almost walked into oncoming traffic because I couldn’t put my book down on the way to the bus stop, not even for a minute.) So my childhood is the main reason I write middle-grade adventures. The books I read back then saved my life, and I want to repay that gift if I can.

2) Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.
        I grew up reading but didn’t start writing until my mid twenties. Well, that’s not entirely true – I wrote constantly for the Dungeons & Dragons games I played, inventing elaborate back stories for my characters and creating worlds and cultures for games I was running myself. Once I starting writing short stories (it was eight more years before I tried novels), I couldn’t imagine why I hadn’t started sooner. Creating worlds and stories and characters is something I will always love doing. That I now get to share my inventions with other people is an absolute joy.

See Review Here.

   3) What was the inspiration for Above World?
      I was trying to come up with an idea for a short story, some sort of adventure in space. I asked myself what sort of person might make a good space captain, and the answer came to me right away: a mermaid! That’s how I got the idea of combining mythology with science fiction. I also knew I wanted the book to feel like an epic fantasy adventure, the kind I gulped down as kid. I thought that approach – along with an emphasis on bioengineering instead of spaceships -- might win over some readers who didn’t think they liked science fiction.

4) Tell us about your process.
           I am an unrepentant planner. When I start working on an idea, I write everything down in a Moleskine notebook that never leaves my side – not while I’m at work, not while I’m asleep, not ever. The notebook is basically an external brain where I trap every single thought related to the book, including all the stupid ones I’ll never use.
            Candy-bar scenes are another big thing for me. First, I should note that "candy-bar scenes" come from author Holly Lisle ( who has a lot of great advice on her website. I list every scene that I’m dying to write – a first kiss, a fight scene with a particular kind of weapon or in a neat setting, a surprising twist that I can’t wait to spring on my characters. I have to know the big final scene of the novel (at least what it means to the main character), and it must be a candy-bar scene, a scene that I can’t wait to write. If it’s not, then it’s not the right final scene and I have to keep thinking.
           Once I’ve got the ending, I start to sketch out an outline – only a few brief sentences per chapter or just a chronological list of beats. I like to have structure, but to leave enough room for unexpected turns or for a side character to become more interesting. If I plan everything out too much, then it’s not as fun for me to write.
          Having said all that, I think processes should stay fluid. I’m continually changing as a writer and a person, and each story is different. I like to think that I’ll keep adapting as I go.

5) Your process is inspiring and I love the idea of "candy-bar scenes". Can you tell us a little more about your world building? How do you decide on the rules for your world and create plausibility?
           There are a lot of ways to approach world building, and I have no fixed method. For Above World, I started with an endpoint and worked backward. I knew I wanted humans who had bioengineered themselves into the shapes of mythological creatures, so I tried to imagine how the world we know now might change to create such a need or desire. Overpopulation and resource depletion seemed like great excuses for humans to seek homes in harsh niches requiring biological modification. The humans chose mythological creatures as their inspiration because many humans (myself included!) are in love with form as well as function. We're drawn to mythic resonance, to sleek interfaces, to clever industrial design. Why live underwater as a human, when you could live underwater as a mermaid? Armed with this basic framework, I researched current science and extrapolated in an effort to make my modified humans as scientifically plausible as possible. Almost none of my research made it into the book explicitly, but I like to think it's there, hidden in the details. And I guess that's another one of my tricks: to do as much world-building as I can -- to fill my notebook with thoughts on food preferences and family trees and societal rituals -- but to use only the parts that work for the story. Then I sneak more and more details in with each draft as I understand both the world and the story better.

6) What does a typical writing day look like?
         I really don’t have a typical writing day. I’ve had many different day jobs over the years and my writing schedule has fluctuated wildly with each one. While I was working long hours at an animation studio, I wrote late at night between 11pm and 1am. Now that I’m working part-time and as a freelancer, I try to get two hours of work done in the mornings when I don’t have to commute to my job, and get to do as much writing as I want on weekends. I don’t write every day, except sometimes when I’m on deadline. I’m a big believer in filling the well and taking breaks, and in finding a system that works for you and your life.

The world cannot change for us;

therefore we must change ourselves for the world.

—Ali’ikai of the Coral Kampii, born Sarah Jennings

7)  I agree that filling the well is extremely important. Tell us some of the ways you "fill your well'.
   For the most part, I fill my well with other media -- movies, TV shows, music, and video games. I've learned so much from singers like Dar Williams and writers like Joss Whedon, both masters of metaphor but in entirely different ways. (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is my favorite TV show of all time.) I remember watching Nickelodeon's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and realizing that it was a perfect touchstone for the tone I'd been trying to capture in my book. Knowing that helped immensely when I was writing the next draft. I also read and re-read books on screenplay structure. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat seems to hold a different gem for me every time I open it. But I'm only able to see these things when I take a break from writing, step back, and give my brain a chance to refresh itself.
           (Looking back at this answer, I kind of wish I'd said, "I like to climb mountains, backpack through Europe, meditate on the beach in Fiji, and volunteer for the Peace Corps," but let's face it: I'm a geek.) 

8) Where is your favorite place to write?
        Sitting in my recliner or on the sofa with one or more cats keeping me company and a playlist for the novel blaring in my headphones. Some day I’d love to add a window with a forest view to that picture, but probably not while I’m living in Los Angeles.

9) Could you share with us a few artists that make their way into your playlists?
            I'm one of those people who can't write to songs with lyrics, so all of my writing playlists are instrumental. I mostly go for tone and mood. For Above World, I listened to a mix of soundtracks: Pirates of the Caribbean, Dragonheart, Harry Potter (Chamber of Secrets), and Serenity. Some days even soundtracks are too distracting and I listen to rainstorms or crashing waves with my "White Noise" app.

7) What did or do you find most challenging in creating the story and getting it published? What do you wish you would have known?
           I lost hope in this story many times along the way, and I’m certain I would have given up on it without the support of my friends. The book is dedicated in part to Stephanie Burgis (author of the amazing series Kat, Incorrigible) who talked me out of some very dark places. It was a visit with Steph and her husband Patrick in 2009 that convinced me I needed to take my career more seriously. When I came home, I set myself a schedule for revising the book and starting my agent search.
            What do I wish I would have known? That I’d be revising the book so many times – and so extensively -- that those initial drafts really weren’t that important. I struggled so much with the first draft. If I’d only known that I’d be rewriting the opening chapters six or seven more times, maybe I wouldn’t have beat myself up so much that I couldn’t get it right the first time.

8) What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
        Write with passion. I’m not sure if anyone ever said that to me specifically, but that’s what I get when I distill years of advice about trusting yourself and your voice, and understanding that no one else will ever write exactly the same story as you will. Passion is contagious. Even better, it’s fun.
9) Are you working on a new project? Can you tell us about it?
         I’m finishing up the second book in the Above World series and dreaming about writing a third. My Moleskine is filling up with ideas for a new middle-grade fantasy and a YA adventure set in an alternate dimension.

10) What advice would you give others that write for children?
          Don’t do it unless you love reading middle-grade fiction yourself. Writing for children isn’t for everyone; it requires a passion that you can’t fake.

That was incredible! There is one thing about having the opportunity to read a book before it's release—you have to wait that much longer for the second one to come out. 

Looking for more Jenn Reese?
Here are a few more places you can find her:
Interview on The Enchanted Inkpot  sometime this week...
Don't miss my review of Above World here.

Thanks again to Jenn Reese for stopping by and we wish you well with the release next week!


  1. Awesome & inspiring interview!

  2. Jenn - I am SO looking forward to this book! Terrific interview, ladies - thanks so much! And you're right, Jenn. We are drawn to mythic resonance. I've so got to work on that. Thanks so much for the inspiration!
    I'm off to tweet this now...

  3. I am very exited about this book. Thank you for such an extremely rich interview.

  4. This is such a wonderful, inspiring interview. Thank you!

  5. The insight about the candy bar scenes and not writing for kids unless you love reading those books--awesome. Thank you for all of this, both of you, and the best on your book release next week, Jenn!

  6. Thanks, everyone -- so glad you enjoyed the interview! The credit should go to Pam and her great questions.

  7. Oh, wow. I hadn't heard of this book, but now I absolutely want to read it. (Mermaids in space is the best one-phrase tagline I've heard in a while.) What a great interview!


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