When Kelly Thompson first published The Girl Who Would Be King, I was in awe as you can tell from my review. She won the 2012 Seeley James Award for Most Innovative and recently inked a movie deal. Fans of her book flocked to her second project, Storykiller. She’s now working on her third project, The God Slayer.
I caught up with the busy young lady to ask how she writes. Her answers are just as unique as her stories:
Q: Landing a movie deal for TGWWBK is every writer’s dream. How has it affected your life as a writer?
Well, most practically it provided me with a little bit of money to keep trying to do my thing, which is the whole point, right? Enough money to be able to keep working. More than that I think it’s helped me sell a few books and connected me to some wonderful people that are interested in my work. I’ve always been interested in writing for comics, film, and television, as well as novels so having a manager (which happened in part because of film interest in TGWWBK) allowed me access to someone that could help me get other work out there.
It always felt a bit silly to write things like pilot specs and screenplays because I had nobody who could actively make anything happen with them, but with a manager that feels so much more realistic that it really freed me up to do and explore other work. So I would say now I have way too much stuff to write – which is a good problem to have, if we could combine it with “too much money” or even “enough money” I’d be set.
Q: You’ve mentioned that it took seven years from initial concept to finalize TGWWBK and that the story evolved from a single character to the duality we love today. Were there specific turning points along the way when you realized the story needed a different dimension?
You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about the details of this publicly, but TGWWBK was initially intended to be a trilogy – the first book all about Bonnie from her POV and ending with her about to “meet” Lola. The second book all about Lola from her POV and ending with her about to “meet” Bonnie (i.e. super-punch her in the face). Then the third book would have been about both of them, alternating POVs as it is in the book now. And I still like a lot of things about that idea. But Bonnie without Lola was essentially a really boring superhero book about a protagonist without an antagonist, it was like I was saving everything awesome about the story and mythology and characters for later books.
There were ways of course to give Bonnie an antagonist and/or obstacles that had nothing to do with Lola, but I found that wasn’t the story I was interested in. The mythology and everything else told me it was a story about these two girls. At some point at least two friends heard the idea for the trilogy and both (separately) were like “yeah, you need to integrate all of that into one book.” I resisted the idea for months. Finally I realized they were right and basically started from scratch. So I had written a whole book (on the short side) for Bonnie before I wrote a single line of Lola. That said, I ended up scrapping almost everything of Bonnie’s. I reused ideas and some scenes and the character of course, but it was almost a total start over. It was a huge effort but it definitely paid off.
Q: You had an agent who helped with revisions before trying unsuccessfully to go the traditional route. What did you learn from that experience that shaped your novel?
I learned that there’s no way to avoid a good deal of revising. It’s just going to happen, accept it. I learned that patience is an incredibly valuable skill – one I continue to struggle with. The book publishing industry moves a glacial pace – actually, glacial feels generous! – but all you can do is make sure nobody is waiting on YOU.
The only thing really in your power is how you perform, how ready you are, how quickly, efficiently (and well) you can work. All you can control is your small piece of it, so do that to the absolute best of your ability.
I also learned that stepping away from a book and moving on to other things is sometimes the best possible perspective you can give yourself on a piece of work. I learned that sometimes, even if everyone has the best of intentions, they can’t agree on what’s best for a book, and that that’s okay.
Q: When you were writing TGWWBK, did you expect readers to love Lola as much as they did?
I was definitely nervous since she’s pretty unconventional but I loved her so much and she was so alive on the page that I thought people would probably come along. Most people who love the book are borderline fanatical about Lola. I guess I hoped for that, but didn’t expect it you could say.
Q: What were you aiming for as you developed Lola’s character?
You know, I was so afraid of writing Lola initially but she just came so naturally. It was weird. It’s the first experience for me with a character where they just emerged really fully formed on the page. Makes sense I guess that that would be how Lola would be born – she’d have it no other way.
I adore Bonnie, but she’s extremely difficult to write. She’s quiet – hell, she’s selectively mute for the beginning of the book! – and she is just not easy to get to know. I really struggled to get Bonnie right, in comparison Lola was a breeze. But you know, Lola is a truth teller character and those kind of characters in my experience are both some of the easiest and most enjoyable characters to write. They don’t pull punches, they don’t hide, they don’t lie, they are laid bare, which makes them fascinating and wonderfully vulnerable.
I was of course initially concerned about how people would react to Lola, if they would understand her struggle. If they could relate to her enough and like her enough to stay with me as she did tremendously awful things. It was important that they see the tragedy in Lola.
I never cared that they absolved her or loved her, but that they could understand how she got there and that they would feel for her, despite everything, as she unravelled, that was critical. So I didn’t need them to love her but they did anyway and that’s all thanks to Lola, not me. Well, except my mother. My mother hates Lola.
Q: For TGWWBK, you chose 1st person, present tense which gives the reader an immediacy and intimacy. Example: “My head rolls back under me as my chest heaves up, toward the green in the sky. I turn my head to the side to throw up. Spitting into the grass and leaning up on my elbow a bit, I squeeze my eyes closed as tightly as I can, afraid of what I’m going to see when I finally have to open them again.” Did the book start out in that format?
The biggest reason for alternating first person for TGWWBK was because it was important to me that readers experience both Bonnie and Lola totally unfiltered. And it was important to show that these are very different girls, but also that there was something the same about them too. Highlighting the similarities and differences seemed most effective in first person. TGWWBK has a lot of fragment sentences and this is (mostly) deliberate as I had this idea that this is how they both think in these kind of long and rambling sentences and then short staccato sentences.
TGWWBK is also more deliberately “literary” than Storykiller and that’s again, largely to do with how these girls think. It’s very specifically their voices. And I wanted them to feel distinctive from one another but for readers to feel – even subconsciously – a similarity between them that inextricably linked them. I know a lot of people hate present tense paired with first person (despite how common it is) but I just found it had the most immediate and visceral voice that I craved for them. The book began this way – and I did try a few other combinations along the way – but I always came back to this one being the right fit for both girls.
Q: Your second book, Storykiller, is written in 3rd person, past tense. Why the change?
The biggest reason for the POV switch on Storykiller was simply because I knew both in this book and more importantly later in the series I was going to want scenes where Tessa wasn’t present. I wasn’t wild about the idea of doing 1st person with a ton of narrators, so 3rd person was the best way to go.
That said, that’s been my biggest struggle with Storykiller. I was never (and am still not) perfectly happy with the “head-hopping” in Storykiller but after the revisions I’d done I think the only way I could have fully corrected that issue and made it more seamless would have been to take it back and start over.
I feared doing that would lose the energy and momentum that Storykiller has in its current form. If I overworked it, I thought I might lose the wild abandon that it has, the energy and almost joyous enthusiasm. And that was too much to risk. That’s easily my favorite thing about Storykiller – especially as compared to TGWWBK – it moves like a damn freight train.
Q: TGWWBK is an unconventional story with an unexpected, but perfectly fitting, ending. You’re now working on the sequel, The God Slayer. How did you start writing the sequel, with an outline, idea, ending, vision?
I approached TGS in the completely opposite way to TGWWBK because I swore after TGWWBK I was never going to take so long to write a first draft EVER again. Even if you take out the revisions process it took me 2 years to write the first draft of the Bonnie only version of TGWWBK. It was my first novel, so maybe that’s more acceptable, but it took me more than a year to tear it apart and write the first draft of what TGWWBK is today, so that’s not so fast either.
Knowing what I know about the revision process (and the editing and publishing process) that is just too long to get to “the end” the first time on a draft. So with TGS I went in with a really detailed outline. I know pretty clearly where all the beats are and what all the scenes are. Things have changed (and will change), sure, but I have a great roadmap. With TGWWBK I often had no idea where I was going or what should come next. It slowed me down a lot and though I love TGWWBK when I look at it now I see a lot of things I wish I’d trimmed or cut completely, things I might have been able to see more clearly if I’d had a road map. Some of that is also a natural by product of having alternating first person POVs, but with a tighter outline I think a lot of that could have been avoided.
The biggest delay on TGS is just having too many other projects. I didn’t even want to start writing TGS until I knew I could get TGWWBK published. So that happened in late 2012. But by then Storykiller was already written and was in the revision process. That became the new Kickstarter, which took a ton of prep time.
Then you add on all the Kickstarter campaign and fulfilment, some screenplays and pilot specs I wrote, and comic books and pitches…poor TGS just kept getting pushed. But it’s at the top of the pile and I’m working on it now. I’m working on a few other things too so it’s taking a bit longer than I hoped, but I’m optimistic I’ll be releasing it in 2015 in one form or another.
Q: Not counting the seven year run-up to TGWWBK, how many full-book revisions are typical for you?
It’s hard to say because TGWWBK was a really weird experience and hopefully an anomaly and then I only have one other finished book to use as a barometer. I guess I would say that with Storykiller I did three or four relatively significant revisions and then maybe two or three tweaking passes, plus two rounds with a professional editor. However my experience is that my writing is getting stronger and cleaner with everything I write, as it should be I suppose.
When I gave my writing group the Storykiller 2 sneak peek that Kickstarter backers were going to get, they were shocked how clean and tight it was, so that was a great revelation. That sneak peek was only about 12k but I hadn’t revised it much at all after the first pass. I then did one light pass based on the group’s notes and then two really light passes with my editor. I hope that’s the future. Better and cleaner every time!
Q: With two published books and a third wrapping up soon, what has been the biggest change in your writing?
I think the biggest challenge is always money/time. Time is money and money is time and there’s never enough of either. If you work full time so that you have the money to not worry about sales, book deals, and movie options then you have no time. If you don’t work full time and live on meager sales, freelance work (etc.) then you have enough time but no money. It’s a classic catch-22.
For me the goal is always to make enough money to keep writing. And unless you have “NYT Best Seller” attached to your name, it’s a pretty difficult thing to do.
Q: How do you write dialogue? Does it flow onto the page or do you script it first?
If I build the characters in the right way this comes really naturally and I barely have to think about it. I know (post TGWWBK!) where the scene is going plot wise and so as long as I’ve built those characters correctly from the ground up, they just kind of take over and say what comes naturally to them.
Occasionally this is a problem – if your characters don’t behave the way you need or want them to it can screw things up – but I find in every case so far the character has been right – meaning that if they won’t behave the way I need them to, then I’ve done something wrong in the plotting stage – trying to force a square peg into a round hole if you will. It’s a pain in the ass for your characters to tell you you’re wrong, but so long as it serves the story, I’m okay with it. If I built the characters poorly then dialogue is a bitch. But when I’m struggling with that I usually can see that what’s wrong is actually something on the character level and if I go back and fix that it fixes my dialogue problem.
You know – interesting sidebar here – when I was very young – maybe 14 or 15? – I had told my mom that when I wrote that my characters sort of “talked” to me, that they would “tell” me what needed to happen to a degree, and that when I had something wrong, they sometimes insisted on doing things that screwed up things I wanted to do in the story. My mother, quite naturally, looked at me like I was nuts. To her credit she didn’t check me into an asylum. A while later (months? weeks? I have no idea?) my mother and I were watching Mary Higgins Clark (a writer we both read a lot of back then) be interviewed on some daytime talk show and she said that her characters talked to her all the time. Ha! My mother looked at me, wide-eyed and I was all, “SEE!” I felt so vindicated!
Q: Do you have bad habits you find creeping onto the page and, if so, what are they?
I have a real problem with repeated words. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s so annoying. Maybe it’s a problem every writer has or maybe I’m just magnificently lazy, but it’s a terrible habit. I’m to the point where after I finish a draft if I see a couple words that are popping up all the time I’ll do a search and destroy mission on the whole ms trying to eliminate them.
These days I also do a “find” for “ly” and eliminate as many adverbs as I can. I’m not fanatical about it, I don’t think adverbs are the devil or anything, I just know I lean on them like a crutch, so I’m trying to make sure that crutch doesn’t make it through to later drafts.
I think also, my own sense of humor, which is usually an asset, sometimes creeps into drafts and corrupts the way a character is or should be. I’m a fan of the kind of Joss Whedon-style of writing where a lot of characters are sassy and share a similar sharp/witty sense of humor. I think this makes a reasonable amount of sense especially if you’re dealing with people of the same age and people who are friends since people are attracted to people with similar senses of humor and interests/pop culture/media touchstones, but it’s a fine line. Too much and everyone sounds the same, which is a killer. So I try to be careful with that. Again, if I’ve built my characters correctly they’ll usually take pretty good care of this for me.
Q: What kind of feedback do you look for between drafts (critique groups, friends, editors?)
I have an invaluable writing group that usually reads my first solid/clean draft of something longer. Depending on how long I workshop it and how much changes they may read it again. They read Storykiller twice I believe.
I also have a couple invaluable beta readers that aren’t local but are awesome. I’m very lucky in this regard. I worked with a professional editor on Storykiller and she was incredible – I hope she’ll continue working with me on future projects. As for what kind of notes? I’ll take anything. I’m shit with a comma for some reason, so my editor always has to fix all of that madness. But I want all the feedback. Character notes, plotting notes, everything and anything.
Q: What are your pet peeves or clichés in writing?
You know, there are so many clichés, and many I am guilty of…it’s hard to say…this question feels like a trap! I guess I would say almost everything feels like a cliché these days, but that I always try to subvert things at least a little bit, but I’m not always successful in that.
I guess I hate it when books squander excellent ideas with poor executions. There are a good number of books (mostly YA trilogies for some reason) that I really loved the ideas for (and often beginnings to) only to become increasingly dissatisfied, enough so that I didn’t even bother to read the second book. This happens to me over and over again. It’s really disappointing. Do you know how bad a first book has to be that you don’t even care to pick up the second one? I mean it’s so natural to want to know what happens next for characters you spent 300+ pages with…to not even care enough to read the next installment. Yeesh. Ultimate failure.
On that same tip, endings that are not earned or don’t make sense drive me nuts. There are a lot of writers who are incredibly talented and just don’t know how to stick their endings, as a reader it’s almost impossible to overcome a terrible ending…it’s the last thing you’re left with and so it couldn’t be more vital.
Q: What part of being an author do you find the most difficult?
Money. I already said this, right? I feel like I’m coming off like a money-crazed nightmare! I guess you can feel the stress. It’s hard to worry about returning to a “straight gig” after so much work pushing forward as a writer. I worry about losing momentum I have worked so hard to build, I worry about all my projects falling into disrepair, neglected and ignored. It’s my nightmare and unfortunately only one that money and success can rescue me from. So that stress is the hardest part about it.
In the writing itself it’s hard to pinpoint what’s the most difficult, it’s easier for me to pinpoint what’s easiest for me – which is the beginning – the creation, the world building, the character stuff before you get into the blood, sweat, and tears of the first draft or into revision hell where you have to solve all the problems you’ve created for yourself. It’s why we all have such trouble finishing things.
New projects are SHINY. They’re like sirens luring us onto the rocks of never completing anything. That first creation phase is just like pure epic madness – ideas colliding and exploding and blooming into something new and exciting, it’s like falling in love. Who doesn’t love that part? Falling in love is the best.
Q: What book have you read recently that blew you away?
Mmm. I just recently read both Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and her Eleanor & Park, I loved both, though the ending to E&P drove me a little crazy. I don’t mind some ambiguity, but throw a girl a bone Rowell!
For comics, a couple months ago I read Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer, absolutely beautiful, brilliant, and moving – so unexpected. To be honest, while I have to read a ton of comics and graphic novels for my freelance work, I have to actively curtail my prose reading a bit, because it’s easy for me to get lost in it and if I’m reading I’m not writing…and I have a lot I NEED to be writing.
Thank you, Kelly!