Fantasy Authors Soman Chainani & Victoria Aveyard on Writing...and a little about Game of Thrones

Seira Wilson on September 19, 2017

SomanVictoria200First came film, then came books for both Soman Chainani and Victoria Aveyard--screenwriters who became novelists for young readers, creating series that have gained widespread popularity.

SchoolGoodEvil4_200The new book in Chainani's series for middle graders, The School for Good and Evil #4: Quests for Glory, released today and it's the start of a new era as the students must meet the challenges of their fourth year--some will win glory, some devastating defeat, but the stakes have never been higher.  Total series candy for young readers.

KingsCage_200Victoria Aveyard is finishing War Storm, the final (!!) book in her Red Queen young adult series, but we'll have to wait until May to get a look at  for ourselves (watch for the cover reveal in the coming weeks). If you haven't read the first three books yet, you've got time and they are a thrill ride of political intrigue, magic, and twists...(the third book, released earlier this year, is King's Cage)

Below, Chainani and Aveyard chat about their shared history, how they do what they do, and why, in this exclusive conversation for the Amazon Book Review.

Soman Chainani: I thought we could start with some common ground: since we both started in film before we wrote our respective series, what feels more like home to you – screenwriting or novel writing?

Victoria Aveyard: That’s a good question, because of the word “home.” I’ve never thought of it that way. My foundation is in screenwriting, but the majority of my career is in novel-writing. I have more professional experience in writing novels. But I’m going to answer the question a different way and say that my home is in structure – and in a certain kind of structure versus a particular medium. What about for you?

SC: Because I learned screenwriting by getting an MFA at Columbia, I think the bones of it are more built into the way I write. So when I first start working on a chapter and am free flowing it, when I look back at what I’ve written, it’s essentially the screenplay of the chapter. The beats… the dialogue… the key turns in character…

VA: Yes! I’m working on War Storm, and especially with this draft, I’ll write full conversations, with just the dialogue and nothing else, before I go back and turn it into a “novel.” Every writer comes to their writing from a different direction. In our case, I think we still enjoy writing the deep description and prose, but first, we translate the story to ourselves in a cinematic way. That would be a fascinating thing to unpack: why writers draft the way they do.

SC: You know, writing is so difficult and often, excruciating, that the only reason to really do it is because you get an emotional payoff from it. Many writers get their kick from a beautiful set of words – that perfect description of a pool in a backyard that might make a reader never see a pool the same way again. Whereas you and I are story queens – we get our emotional highs from the twists that no one ever saw coming.

VA: Right, very true [laughs]. In a similar vein, a lot of readers ask me, “Do you ever get emotional while writing the book?” or “Did you cry when you killed this character?” And the truth is, no, I didn’t. That’s not really the way I approach it. I don’t get emotional while writing, but then there are plenty of other authors who do.

SC: I’m exactly the same. I feel nothing when I’m writing, but I think it’s because I'm so focused on: “Does it make sense? Is this working? Is it good enough?” Later, when I’m in the final drafts or proofs, I can read the book and feel it like a reader. But I can't do that while I'm actually working on it. I think it would lead to me being too precious.

VA: I think the difference is some authors write from the “id” in their early drafts: gush all the feelings out onto the page and make the emotions raw. In revisions, story will be their main place of focus. Meanwhile, we come at it from a place of structure and story, where I’m focused on the bigger picture versus the smaller moving pieces. In revisions, then, is when I add in the most emotional scenes, as well as heighten key moments and ramp up the tension.

SC: While we’re on the subject of emotion, death occurs quite often and significantly in our respective series. When a big death happens, how much do you let the rest of the characters dwell on it?

VA: Oh, I wish I had an answer for that, because either readers think I don’t dwell on deaths enough or readers will say: “They wallowed in this way too long.” There’s that impossible balance between a character being saddled with the fact a person’s just been taken from them and the fact we need to look forward.

SC: In real life, grief is such a slow process. But here, we have to make the death have impact, without it feeling like a video game death. On a related note, do you see characters’ deaths coming ahead of the time? Or are you ever shocked by it?

VA: For the most part, I know the deaths are coming. When I was outlining the series, I could project ahead and sense that at some point, a character might be too much of a help or outlive their usefulness. But at the same time, sometimes things change and deaths happen unexpectedly just by asking the question: “Well, what can I do to make things more difficult for the main character and up the stakes?”

SC: What I’ve realized is every character is attempting to achieve their respective purpose – or fulfill their greatest dream. Sometimes achieving that purpose means they’ve done their work and they can die in a way that feels cathartic rather than tragic. At the same time, it’s a delicate balance, because if you wait too long to kill a character, you end up with someone who has lived far past his expiration date – as has happened in Game of Thrones.

VA: I was just discussing this with my roommate. There’s a character who spent the whole season lurking around because he had absolutely nothing to do.  He should have died sooner.

SC: Speaking of Game of Thrones, we’re not done with our own series either, though we’ll finish them before George R.R. Martin. In my case, I thought The School for Good and Evil was going to be a trilogy and as soon as I was done, I felt an entire next saga open up to me that would take three more books to tell. Deep down, I’d always wanted to do more than three, but I don’t think my brain was ready to fully commit to it until I got through that first trilogy. It would have been too daunting to go into the process as a debut writer, thinking of it as a six-book series.

VA: I’ve been wondering how you came to that decision and what that looked like! Because I had the same circumstance of knowing I had more story to tell – but in my case, I knew I could do it in one more book versus… three.

SC: At the end of the third book in the School for Good and Evil, called The Last Ever After, everyone graduates from school and goes off to their respective kingdoms. That’s usually where a fairy tale ends – with the happily ever after and the prince marrying the princess. But I wrote the series to bust the stereotypes of fairy tales, so it’s only natural that I started realizing that in a way, the story really begins once they get to their kingdoms. Suddenly, we’re going from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones and that transition was irresistible to me.

VA: That’s great, because that means the books are changing with your audience; they were younger when they began reading them and now they’re older and will be looking for something that challenges them and they’ll have it within the same series they started with.

SC: It almost feels like a new series within an existing one. Speaking of new series… are you ready to end RED QUEEN?

VA: I’m ready to be done. Even with this draft, it came out faster than the others, because the story feels ready to be finished. At the same time, I’m ready to start playing in a new sandbox. I’ve had ideas for stories that have stayed with me all the way through RED QUEEN and I know I’m ready to tell them once I’m done with this series. So I have big stories that I know are waiting and ready for me to tell. But I’ve also fantasized about writing a small, little book… a palate cleanser.

SC: Do you know how to do that? We write such big, complex stories. Do you have any idea how to write a small, little novel just for you?

VA: [laughs] No, but I keep thinking that one day I will.

SC: [laughs] I’m trying to picture us writing a novel about two lovers in Paris eating sushi and going for walks. 

VA: I’m not sure if I have the emotional maturity.

SC: What is it about fantasy that makes you feel like it’s the genre you can express yourself best in?

VA: I’ve always really loved big worlds and the kind of worldbuilding where you can open a portal into a new realm that feels full and complete. At the same time, I also really love history. So the combination of big worlds and history draws me directly into fantasy. Well, it should turn me towards historical fiction but I’m such a perfectionist about research that I’m not sure I could ever write a book in that genre properly. In fantasy, you have to have the same level of precision, but it’s not as research-based. Plus, I get to write my little info sheets and draw my maps.

SC: You are such a nerd.

VA: Yes, but I also like big stakes. And with fantasy, the stakes and tension are always so high.

SC: I think that’s because with fantasy, you don’t have to deal with modern-day references and you’re not grounded in the mundane. Fantasy relies on a bigger landscape of time. Personally, whenever things in the world are falling apart, I take solace in the fact that this will pass, like everything else has before. There’s something about writing fantasy that lets you float above reality and transpose it into something more ephemeral.

VA: Look at Harry Potter, which at times used the window-dressing of fantasy to shadow racism and government corruption. She made those concepts palpable to 13-year-olds. So now Harry Potter readers are more likely to see the world a certain way, because they read these books when they were kids and developed a new level of empathy or understanding.

SC: That is the highest goal for a fantasy writer, isn’t it? To have their readers see the world in a new way.

VA: Or at the very least to give them the facts. 

SC: Well, let’s hope we’ve done that for today...


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