I’m still in World Fantasy wind-down mode, and today bring you the highlights provided by Toastmaster, Connie Willis.
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I was recently blown away by her novel Doomsday Book, so was particularly keen to hear what she had to say in person. And what a delight! I attended her Friday Toastmaster Speech and Q&A, her Saturday conversation with GOH Neil Gaiman (who yesterday tweeted the following: “Probably the best panel I’ve ever been on, in 28 years of con panels. Just Connie Willis & me talking craft for an hour“), and then there was her witty Toastmaster’s speech at the banquet on the final day.
Here are the key nuggets I took away.
From her Toastmaster Q&A
It takes Connie 1 to 1.5 years to plot each novel. She talked a little about her next project, which she described as part alien abduction, part Romantic comedy, set in the US town of Roswell.
She outlined her three levels of research:
- 1st level is general, top-level research that is largely situational
- 2nd level concerns specific detail
- 3rd level involves ‘the secret nerves of the book’; the piece of information that adds more than colour, that becomes critical to the story. (She usually doesn’t know what it is until she finds it.)
The secret nerves of the book! Oh, how I love this. It was worth my entire trip to San Diego to hear this piece of wisdom from such a master storyteller. She went on to illustrate what she meant, using (fortunately for me!) Doomsday Book… In which the key fact, the secret nerve of the book, was that every English village back in the Middle Ages had its own unique-sounding bell, and that you could hear the plague coming closer and closer from the bells tolling death over and over… and then silence. It gives me shudders now to think of it — and I remain in awe of this book.
She also raved about a UK TV series called Primeval.
From the conversation with Neil Gaiman
First off, it’s worth spending the hour to watch the You Tube video below. Seriously. But otherwise here is just a sprinkling of gold dust from both of them (from my hastily scrawled notes).
CW – Can’t remember not wanting to be a writer
NG – You’re not a writer until you finish something.
CW – You’re not a writer until you start writing. The need for validation (sales, success) never stops.
NG – Influences are everything you read before the age of 11. For him huge influences were Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
NG – Aims to write stories that creep into people’s heads; readers get to fill in all the gaps; readers are complicit in all deaths of characters. [I love this in particular!] The Graveyard Book is the only book that turned out better than what was in his head. None of the others came close.
NG – Cited Gene Wolfe quote along the lines of “Never figure out how to write a novel. Only figure out how to write the novel you’re writing now.”
CW – Every novel needs a new skill set (unless you write the same novel over and over again).
NG – Said there’s often a sudden magical moment in a novel, when he realises he knew what he was doing the whole time.
CW – Getting through the bad bits is what proves you have what it takes to be a writer.
NG – He has days when he’s convinced every word is the wrong word, that every sentence is deformed… and later he can’t even tell which sections that was. He compared writing to building a dry stone wall, one stone at a time.
CW – added that then at some point a truck drives through it. [laughter!]
NG(?) – The originality of a story doesn’t lie in one idea, it’s in the combination of ideas and how the writer deals with it.
NG – said sometimes there’s something going on between you and book that no-one else can quite share or see. He cited CW’s story All my darling daughters as his favourite piece of her writing.
NG – Quoted Heinlein, something like: “Know when to stop rewriting, then submit, then start the next story.”
CW – Don’t give up. And read inspiring books. She recommended Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, and All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams.
NG – Recommended reading outside your comfort zone and use primary sources for research.
I didn’t take any notes during Connie’s Toastmaster speech, but it was very funny and smart. And it has got me convinced I need to watch Primeval! It was a real privilege to be present at both her panels and I got a lot out of just listening to her and Neil speak.