Inspiration Monday: Reach the Finish Line with Laini Taylor

It’s hard not to be charmed by Laini Taylor. This ultra-cool artista is one talented lady. You want vibrant art? Got it. You want pretty, adorned ladies who will prance about with inspirational quotes in your face? Got it. How about a faerie tale thriller that will keep you reading page after page? Yup. Got that one, too.

Laini is married to artist Jim Di Bartolo, and together, this couple is just oozing with hipness and talent. Jim designed the cover art for Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer and is currently working on illustrations for Laini’s other works.

Faeries of Dreamdark:Blackbringer is a tale of a devil hunting faerie. Yup. You read right. A devil hunting faerie. No sparkly dresses, fairy wands and sweet spells here. We’re talking an unstoppable faerie, Magpie Windwitch, who is chosen to hunt down an evil demon who is intent on destroying the world. And she stalks this devil down with the prowess of a true heroine and the finesse of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Add her posse of loyal crows who will make you smile, a determined knitting warrior prince faerie who discovers a way to fly, a loyal friend, a disgruntled scavenger imp who is out for himself, and an evil faerie who pretends to be what she is not, and you’ve got one dark faerie tale of sweeping proportions that clips along with fresh language, action, humor, fear, and joy.

Faeries of Dreamdark:Blackbringer has only been out since this summer, and it has already been nominated for the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, the Booksense 2007 Summer Pick and the Cybils. If you’re looking for a book to buy a favorite teen for the holidays, you’re gonna want to put this book on your list. Wait. If you want to choose a book for any occasion, add this to your list. It’s good.

Laini Taylor was kind enough to stop by and share her brainstorming ideas, tell about her writing projects, how she comes up with names, how she finished writing her novel and she shares wonderful writing tips. Laini seriously wants to help everyone else get to the finish line with her. How cool is that? So, pull up a chair and read awhile. You’ll be so glad you did.

Without further ado, please welcome Laini Taylor…

HWM: What made you realize you wanted to write children’s books? How did you get your “break” into children’s books?
Laini: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a while to find my voice and genre. After college I was writing mainstream, “grownup” stories and I wasn’t having much fun. Looking back, I realize I was writing what I thought I should write, what was “literary” etc, after being an English major and having teachers like Maxine Hong Kingston.

It took a gradual rediscovery of children’s books throughout my 20’s, fantasy in particular, before I finally felt the fit. You know, I can’t remember if I was actively reading YA fantasy before the first Harry Potter book, but I don’t think I was. Once it occurred to me to write fantasy (which I loved as a child but got away from in my “literary snob years”), it was a revelation. Now I don’t think I could write “mainstream” if I tried; some fantasy element would creep in no matter what.

My “break” came at successive years of the SCBWI summer conference. It seems, in retrospect, that everything that kept me on my path as a writer happened right there in the Century Plaza Hotel. One year I met both my agent and a wonderful editor who expressed interest in my faerie illustrations, and agreed to take a look at the first few chapters of my novel-in-progress; after that, she really helped me develop it and I will always be deeply grateful. Without her, it’s really likely I’d have set the manuscript aside. At SCBWI I also attended a seminar by the writer Dan Greenberg about writing series for kids that helped me build my ideas into a world and a story. And later, I heard both of my current editors speak there, and asked my agent to send them my manuscripts. Now I will be doing my first SCBWI workshop this spring in Seattle!

HWM: Tell me what inspired Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer.
Laini: It all began with paper dolls, oddly enough. I spent a few rainy months one winter drawing and oil-painting a set of elaborate faerie paper dolls. The characters were Magpie, Poppy, and Whisper, and I was planning a series of books to go with them, but at the time I envisioned them to be short, light-hearted tales for younger girls. Once I really got into the story, though, it grew naturally into the kind of book I like to read: sophisticated fantasy with the influence of horror (I’ve been a fan of horror since I was a little girl) and I put the paper dolls away and went with it.

HWM: When did you know you had the right ending for Blackbringer?
Laini:There’s something that happens in my head when I get the right idea; I think of it as the “snick.” It’s the sound and feel of a puzzle piece settling into place. You know how you just feel the rightness of it. I brainstorm a lot. I almost never stop at one idea/solution. Maybe it’s a holdover from art school where we were taught to always draw lots and lots of thumbnails before deciding on a final layout. That’s what I do with ideas too. I audition as many as I can possibly get, and when the right one comes along, I get the glorious, unmistakable “snick.” I’ve heard from other authors who have their own words for this — one was “ping,” and I can’t remember the other.

HWM: Which character is most like you?
Laini: Hm. That’s tough. I feel really boring saying this, but I don’t think any of them are. I feel like, as the writer, I’m kind of a cipher, sitting in my little room dreaming up characters who are out dagger shopping at the bazaar or having breakfast picnics in the cemetary. There are a few characters I’ve written (one of them is in Goblin Fruit) who are sort of tongue-in-cheek homages to my teenage-self, filled with huge daydreams and wild yearnings, but none of the Blackbringer characters feel like me.

HWM: Who was the hardest character to write about?
Laini: The hardest were the main characters, Magpie, especially. I had never written a novel before Blackbringer; I had never created a character who could sustain a long narrative. This book was like “writing school” for me. In early drafts, Magpie was too perfect, too accomplished; I had to figure out how to make her feel real and lovable and flawed. There was a period of probably a year of writing chapters and dialogues, trying
to figure out who the characters even were, what they cared about, what they would talk about, and none of that discovery process even made it into the book. In fact, in those early drafts, Talon had not yet come into being. There was another character named Acorn, and he just wasn’t working out. I had the idea tucked away in my brain for a later book that one day Magpie’s soulmate would emerge and that he would be a Rathersting warrior. And then it occurred to me: why save that? Why not use that now? And with that puzzle piece settling into place (“snick!”) the book started racing forward. Quirky or wicked characters like the crows or Batch and Vesper are always easier, I guess because they’re almost caricatures.

HWM: I now look at crows in a whole different way. Why crows and what inspired the idea of these wonderful characters?
Laini: Very early on in the planning of Dreamdark, back when it was still a very different, gentler sort of book, I had the idea of a young faerie raised by gypsy crows, and I just loved the idea, and through all the changes the book underwent, that one stuck. I love crows and ravens; I’d love to have one for a pet. When I was writing Blackbringer there were always a good half-dozen crows always right out the window, as if they were posing! I heard once about a woman who had a pet raven who flew beside her car when she went places. Can you imagine?

HWM: How do you think of names of your characters?
Laini: I love naming. For the most part I’ve used names that come from the natural world and that in some way reflect the personality of the character. Talon is from a warrior clan; all his family have tough-sounding names like Hiss and Nettle and Shrike. Magpie is descended from the wind and her family are named for birds — her mother Kite (a small hawk), grandmother Sparrow, etc. Poppy, the plant mage, has a flower name. Bellatrix the huntress is named after the star Bellatrix, which forms the bow shoulder in the constellation Orion the hunter. It means “female warrior.”“Batch” is a funny one. It’s a family joke, but “batch” is my dad’s made-up word for any nameless icky substance — the stuff that dribbles out of a leak in a garbage bag, the unidentifiable goo in the treads of a shoe. I decided that’s what “batch” means in the scamper language too!

HWM: I understand you’re in the process of writing a sequel to Blackbringer called Silksinger. What can you tell me about the new book? When is it due to be released?
Laini: Silksinger picks up a few months after Blackbringer ends, and there are two threads to the story: the continuing story of the characters from the first book, and the new characters. The title character, Whisper Silksinger, is the last of a great, ancient clan, left alone in the world to bear her clan’s terrible burden (much as the old Shadowsharp warrior in the beginning of Blackbringer was left alone with his clan’s duty, if you remember what that was). Journeying over the Sayash (Himalayas) by dragonfly caravan, hunted by devils, she meets a young faerie mercenary with an ancient scimitar and secrets of his own. It takes place not in the snug world of Dreamdark, but all across Asia from the jungles of Borneo to the islands of Halong Bay to the peaks of the Himalayas. I’ve had a wonderful time dreaming up exotic faerie cultures to go with these places! Hobgoblins feature, as do flying carpets. And there are a lot more devils. I’m not sure of the release date yet. Some time in 2009, most likely.

HWM: What are the challenges in writing a sequel?
Laini: This is new to me, but what I’ve found to be my main challenges are: coming up with a compelling storyline that works within the overall series arc and carries it forward; and giving readers what I think they will want after the first book, plus lots of new surprises they couldn’t have anticipated. From the very beginning of planning out the series, I knew I wanted new characters in book 2, but when it came time to write them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the characters from book 1 couldn’t be left in secondary roles so I’ve had to figure out a way to entwine their storylines, making the most of both, and all the while working with the series arc. It’s more complex than Blackbringer because of that, but I never wanted it to feel complicated.

HWM: You have recently sold Goblin Fruit to Arthur A. Levine Books. What can you share about this project? Has a publication date been set yet?
Laini: Goblin Fruit consists of three supernatural tales — two long stories and one novella — about kissing! That is, each story is a supernatural romance that pivots on a single kiss with profound ramifications for the kissers’ souls. The title story is influenced by Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, which I have loved since college.

The other two are called “Spicy Little Curses Such As These” (set in Raj-era India) and “Hatchling.” They’re for teen and adult readers and are sensual and creepy and mysterious. I’m really excited that the book is going to be lavishly illustrated by my husband/art monkey, Jim Di Bartolo (who also did the art for Blackbringer), though it remains to be seen quite what this will look like, as that process is only just now beginning. The pub date isn’t firm. Probably 2009. I can’t wait to see what it will look like!

HWM: I never realized what an incredible artist you are, until I read your blog. Do you have any desire to illustrate books or work on an illustration project with Jim or write/illustrate your own book, or write a graphic novel or….. Laini: Thank you! I really would like to write and illustrate a picture book some day. That’s why I went to art school to begin with (in my mid-20s). I wanted to illustrate my own books! But I’ve since figured out that what I really want to write [now] is novels. Since I’ve gotten more serious about writing full-time, it’s been hard to keep up with painting.

I still make time for designing Laini’s Ladies, my “other job,” of course. But I haven’t painted in ages, and I miss it. Jim and I collaborated on a graphic novel a few years ago called The Drowned, published by Image Comics. We’d like to do more graphic novels some day, but I have no desire to illustrate one — it’s way too big an illustration job for me!

HWM: What do you enjoy about your different careers? What do you do to organize both careers and keep things in balance?
Laini: Well, they’re fairly lopsided in terms of time devoted to each. I spend far more time these days writing than doing art. A few times a year I do a new line for Laini’s Ladies, but otherwise I’ve had to put illustration on the back burner. Each does p
rovide a nice change from the other, so it’s nice to go back and forth. But what I’ve found is that for me, real balance just isn’t possible.

HWM: Do you outline or free form?
Laini: There’s not a free-form bone in my body. (Well, maybe it’s in there and just sadly underdeveloped!) I plan and outline like a maniac. When I feel like I’m on solid ground and ready to move ahead with the writing, I go for it, but I always end up coming back to outlining. It’s like my default setting is: planning! That said, the only truly joyful times I’ve ever experienced in the writing process are the times when I’ve hit a stride and I’m just writing, the scene unfolding ahead of me, fingers flying on the keyboard. It’s magical when that happens; I wish it happened every day.

I like to think of an outline as the equivalent of “aerial photography” — you get a flattened-out, two-dimensional view of the topography of your story, with no sense what it’s really going to be like once you get “down on the ground.” You can plan all you want, but only once you’re in your story will the real life of it reveal itself — the fragrance and predators and quicksand — and you’ll have to be nimble and resourceful to adapt to what you find.

HWM: Where do you like to create?
Laini: I wrote Blackbringer at the kitchen table, and have since converted a spare room to my “writing room,” and that’s mostly where I write, with occasional changes of scenery to this or that sofa. And we have an art studio upstairs which is where I draw, paint, and design. It’s also where Jim works.

HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
Laini: Ideally, I get up early, about 6, make coffee, and sit down to write. For me, the words of Emily Bronte ring true: “A person who has not done half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.” I’m a morning person, and though often I’ll work all day and evening, my most productive time is morning.

As for “process,” it’s always changing as I come up with new stategies to keep myself working, but my basic ritual is to start out my day’s writing in my “working doc” — that is a sort of “decoy” document that I always have open next to my “real manuscript.” That’s where I trick my perfectionist-self into getting started, where I chit chat a little with myself about where I’m at in the story, etc. At some point, if things are going well, I switch over to my “real manuscript” and just write.

HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?
Laini: Finishing a novel has been my biggest challenge. Muscling through to the end. First with Blackbringer, now with Silksinger. Goblin Fruit was easier because the tales are shorter. I hope it gets easier as I write more books, but finishing a novel is HARD and there’s only one way to do it: to just do it. No tricks or secrets. Just stubbornness! Learning that kind of “applied stubbornness” has been crucial for me. I tend to get paralyzed by perfectionism and want to rewrite early chapters over and over, rather than ploughing ahead. I need to constantly push myself forward.

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Laini: Goblin Fruit has been a big surprise from the very beginning. It was an entirely unplanned book. Each of the three tales began as one- or two-word writing prompts on Sunday Scribblings (they were “real life,” “monster,” and “music”) while Blackbringer was being edited. My intention was to get back to writing short pieces after spending over two years working on a novel; it was really just an exercise. Once I got into it, the ideas started flowing like crazy and these stories were born and formed themselves around a theme, and — even more surprisingly — Arthur Levine wanted to publish them! It has made me so aware of how ideas are always, at any moment, ready to give themselves up to you if you just put yourself in the right state of mind.

HWM: If you could share any unique writing tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Laini: From my own experience, it has been crucial to me to go to conferences. Not only do you learn a lot — you truly begin to internalize the fact that writers are real people, no different from you, and so are editors. Under the influence of a good conference, writing begins to seem not like a crazy dream, but a real career.

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Laini: I love what Jane Yolen said at a conference a few years ago: “Write the damn book.” I’m considering stenciling it on my wall!

HipWriterMama’s Curiosities

HWM: Why do you blog?
Laini: I initially started blogging as a curiosity and found an instant connection to so many “kindred spirits” all over the world. I now can’t imagine NOT having it. I would feel incredibly isolated as a writer if it weren’t for blogs, being able to connect with readers and other writers this way. I don’t have a writer’s group or know any local writers, so it’s really important to me to have this community online.

HWM: What is your favorite post?
Laini: This might be my favorite. I posted it after my first ever book talk and signing (at ALA Midwinter last year), and I also posted the transcript of my talk. That was such a fabulous experience — I [heart] librarians! And here’s a short fiction I wrote for Sunday Scribblings.

HWM: Why did you start Sunday Scribblings and Not For Robots?
Laini: I co-created Sunday Scribblings with one of my first blog friends, Meg, who lives in England, because we wanted something like “Illustration Friday” but for writers. I wanted to get myself working on short fiction and it has really worked — as I mentioned above, all the stories in Goblin Fruit began as exercises for that site.

With Not For Robots, I didn’t intend it to be an active site, but just a place to post a series of essays on writing. I was inspired to write the essays partly because I was struggling with my o
wn writing at the time and sometimes writing about writing helps me inspire myself, and partly because I have noticed that a lot of published writers don’t really talk about how hard writing is. Or if they do talk about it, they downplay the difficulty. I wanted to share the things I’ve learned, and all the tricks I have to use on myself to overcome my issues with perfectionism. When I have more time, I’d like to update the site and start including author interviews about process.

HWM: What inspired Laini’s Ladies? What is your process for creating one of your lovely ladies?
Laini: Laini’s Ladies was a serendipity in much the same way that Dreamdark was. Funny to think, the roots of my two careers are both: paper dolls! Dreamdark came about after I got obsessed with drawing and painting faerie paper dolls and created the characters of Magpie, Poppy, and Whisper. Laini’s Ladies were a further evolution of paper dolls that I created as my Christmas cards one year. They were laminated ornaments with bead feet, and I tested them out in my craft booth the week before Christmas, and I started selling out! It was a light bulb moment that really shifted the entire direction of my art career, and it was really a result of playing and following my creative whimsy.

HWM: Do both you and Jim work at home? It must be great for bouncing off ideas and for support, but I would imagine it can get stressful at times depending on deadlines, writer’s block, creative bursts of energy, etc. What type of arrangement did you have to work out, if any, to create in peaceful co-existence?
Laini: Actually, it’s effortless. Truly. We have an art studio that takes up most of the 2nd story of our house, and we work in there together; and I have my writing room downstairs, which is where I am mostly to be found these days. And we’re really lucky to share the same work ethic — we’re basically always working. I think it would be hard for a “normal” person (ha ha) to be with either one of us. We’d drive them crazy never wanting to go out and “do things” when we’re working on a project. And, since we’re both home, we still get to see each other a lot, and then go back to our own workspace.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Laini: I would want the power to stop time so I could get more work done!! Really. I know that’s boring, but it would be so great. If I really were able to pick out a super power, though, I would probably have to go with something like invulnerability or healing ability (like Wolverine or the cheerleader on Heroes), because then I would never get sick or hurt or old. (I’m married to a comic book geek and we’ve played this game before!)

Other Places to Find Laini:
Laini’s blog
Laini’s website
Laini on MySpace
Sunday Scribblings
Not For Robots
Laini’s Ladies

Excerpt from Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer
Podcast of Laini reading the first few chapters of Blackbringer

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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