Did you know the full plot before you started writing?
I knew where my lead character, Nathan Troy, was going to start. I knew where I wanted to get him to - roughly - but I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it. I’ve planned the next three Troy books, and almost all of these themes start with the reveal, and what I’ll have to figure out as I put those books together is how to build up to that reveal. Almost all the ideas I get for books start with the reveal.
How much did you plan out the book before writing it?
Many crime-mystery fiction writers, where the reveal is the whole reason you read the book, plot backwards to forwards. I didn’t do that with the Rabid Dragon. As often as not, the inspiration to get to the next step came as I was writing the scene, and with Rabid Dragon I didn’t feel like I even could have plotted backwards to forwards more completely.
Not an insignificant amount of the time I would sit down at my desk and really be racking my brain about ‘how am I going to get him out of this disaster’ or ‘how am I going to move him forward’, and the solution would come as I started writing that very scene. Once in a while one of my characters would say something, and I’d think, “oh, well that makes sense. Thanks for answering that question for me,” as if I were just the observer.
Inspiration and creativity is a damned odd thing.
This is not an easy way to edit though. For one thing, it is tricky to leave bread crumbs that add up to a full loaf of bread by the end of the book and lead a reader directly to the reveal. Thus, there is a much higher editing time expense for this style. I’ve already put a lot of work into the sequel, but the very nature of the sequel’s story requires a lot more planning, which will make the editing a lot quicker. There were many layers of re-organizing and shaping in Rabid Dragon that had to happen because I was writing by the seat of my pants.
How did you solve a plot problem when you got to a brick wall?
I don’t often quote Nietzsche - I am much more often in conflict with his ideology than in agreement, but there’s a quote by him which describes my idea cycle quite well. “Never trust an idea that comes to you indoors.”
He was a great walker, and apparently got a lot of his inspiration while outdoors. (I’m pretty sure his idea to commit suicide came to him while indoors). I’ve had much the same experience. When I was stuck in a scene or couldn’t solve a problem of how to get Nathan from A to B, I’d be out for a run and more often than not I’d run into a blip of inspiration to help solve whatever problem he was facing. Often I’d get some dialogue or quote-able quotes for my characters to say as well. Then I’d pull out my phone , write enough of it down so I wouldn’t forget, and keep running to see what else my idea antenna would pick up while out scanning for solutions. I wrote particularly many of these notes while I was on a half marathon in South Dakota. My time wasn’t brilliant, but I solved a lot of problems!
My inspiration process is sometimes like playing Pokemon Go - I need to be out on the street or moving so I can collect ideas.
One other important way was to get on the phone with my sister and brainstorm it together with her. Writing tends to be a solitary craft, but having people who can see things you might miss is hugely helpful.
What’s your writing routine?
I really like the idea of a writing ritual. This is part of why I don’t usually write in a cafe or away from my own desk. Also - while I was writing Rabid Dragon, my son was often taking his afternoon nap or down for the night in the room next door - so it might have been a rather poor parenting technique to leave him alone to go write in a cafe somewhere.
When we were in Beijing my husband traveled a fair amount for his work, and on one of these trips, he brought me back this really lovely ceramic teapot. Quite a large one - it probably holds nearly a liter of water - and since then part of my routine was to fill it with hot Roibus tea (I love black tea but am sensitive to too much caffeine), a cup of milk and my favorite tea cup of the moment. Then I carry the tray to my writing desk and sit down to work. I particularly like Roibus tea because I drink it with a splash of milk, and when I was annoyed or stuck, I could stop writing, pour the milk into my cup, pour the tea, and if I was particularly stuck, maybe a bit of sugar (which requires one to really stop and stir everything together) which all makes a sort of natural pause to let yourself think - or at least take a mini-break from being stuck. Also, besides keeping you hydrated, if you drink enough and work long enough you also need to get up periodically to void your bladder, so it also gets you up and moving, which is good for brain function.
Anything that gets your bum in the chair and your hands on the keyboard is helpful, and I find routine and ritual are lovely to cement that.
How long did it take to write Rabid dragon?
Precisely a year. Minus three days, I think. Of course it wasn’t what one might call ‘full time’. I didn’t have a traditional day job, I was working 24/7 as a parent. My son was one and a half when I started writing, so I wrote mostly during his long afternoon nap, and then often when he went to sleep for the night.
I started the project sort of as a new years resolution on January 1, 2014, and finished it December 28 of the same year. Of course, I was doing other things that year - so for instance I wasn’t writing when my mum came to visit and we went to Viet Nam, and I was doing other projects as well. But near the end I really was calling in favors to make enough time to sit down and get the last bits done.
It took a lot longer to edit.
You wrote Rabid Dragon in 2014. It is published end of 2018. Has anything happened in the world that would change how you’d write the book now? Or would you have written the opinions of the characters in the story differently?
Actually yes. When I wrote the first draft, Xi Jinping had just become the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, replacing Hu Jintao. Since he has come to power, the mood and the direction China is heading has changed. He’s done a lot to centralize his power to his own hands, and crack down on descent or criticism. It’s now a federal crime to speak against the government or the party, and you can be imprisoned. He’s changed the constitution so that he can reign, if you let me say it like this, indefinitely. Since Mao died, the President of China has been ‘elected’ for two five year terms, but we’ll have to see how long Xi stays there - certainly he’s paved the way to staying quite a bit longer.
He’s done other things to really make one feel that, in many ways, China has gotten a lot more intolerant of both external and internal criticism. And that’s moving backwards, to me. The epilogue I wrote for Rabid Dragon was basically that we need to want to see China succeed. We are often very critical of their system, but we should give the ruling powers the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to move forward, because they’ve got a very tough task on their table, to move their country forward in a peaceful and civilized way. And we do want them to succeed, not just because we should want all men on earth to benefit from economic success and freedom, but also for the really concrete reason that their success is heavily wrapped up in our own. As well as their failure. If China were to suffer a devastating economic crisis, we would all be pulled down.
I still agree with this, but many of the actions of Xi in the last couple years make me think the Party is going to end up strangling the future success of their country as they try to retain control of a beast that is now so large that the only way to continue to control it is to hinder its growth. I don’t know that I could say that they do this intentionally, but it is a natural result of some of their policies.
Was there anyone in particular who served as inspiration for Nathan Troy, your lead character?
Much of writing comes from real life, and perhaps I’m just not that creative, but much of the anecdotes and personalities in my writing are inspired from real life.
But also, since I had to think through how Nathan solved each problem that came along the way, I inevitably ended up making him think like myself, because I was requisitely doing his problem solving. That isn’t necessarily intentional, but it’s something I couldn’t really get away from. I realized, as Nathan took shape, that I’d had one sort of ideal for him in my head when I’d started writing, but as I got into the book, I couldn’t write that character because I didn’t know him well enough. I’d thought at first I would make Troy much more robust, secret agent spy, sort of man. But I couldn’t get into that persons head. So Nathan became what he is.
One thing though, which you only understand when you start doing it, is how much a character will develop beyond yourself. As he develops, and I suspect as he moves through the sequels I’ve planned for him, he’ll be less and less me and more and more his own person with his own ideas and opinions. It sounds ridiculous, but there is a sort of black magic about how these created characters become real people. It is very much like raising a child. They start off very literally a part of you, but as they grow and become adults they parrot less and less what you say and almost magically become their own person. Writing fiction is a very literal form of creation.
Other characters were inspired by other people, for sure, but I spent most of my time in Nathan’s head so the natural consequence is he started off much like me.
But it’s not just me. He also has a good deal of my husband, who I used as inspiration to model him after, especially style wise. My husband is a very sharp problem solver though, and if I’d been able to model Nathan after him better, the book might have been half as long.
Were there any major changes to the book in the editing process?
Whole chapters were added after the first draft was handed in. Even one scene, about a quarter of the way to the end, was completely revamped and remixed after the book had really been finished and my editor was doing the last last copy edit. That was certainly an exception, but major things happened during nearly every editing process. All of them very good and to me very necessary. Each time I’d work through a larger change, or cut something or add a new scene, it always felt very much like, “ah, it all fits together so much better now!” Almost as if there was a form the book has in some invisible platonic ideal world, and each edit got it closer to what that perfect story was. Not that I really believe that, but each layer of editing really formed it so much more into what it a stronger, tighter story. The physics of the world suggest there are millions of nearly equally valid iterations and bifurcation that the story could have followed. But this wasn’t how I felt when I was editing.
One specific major change, though, was that originally I’d really wanted to write the story narrated by the German pensioner who currently serves only as Nathan’s mentor and sounding board. I love the idea of the book being couched in the voice of this wise old German, who has a very dry and sometimes even cold sense of humor, and who adds a bit of his own commentary the whole story long.
But it really didn’t work. I ended up deciding, under strong direction from my editor, that I just wasn’t familiar enough with German culture to make that voice authentic enough. So I dropped it. I was pretty close to dropping his character completely, and making Nathan do his own mentoring, but I’m glad I didn’t let that happen. I’d love to do a future story with Hans as the narrator, perhaps a spin-off, or later book. But in this first mystery it was too much, or perhaps too little.
Was there any correction your editor kept making?
She said I had a lot of annoyed characters. Apparently I wrote that Nathan was annoyed, or he said something ‘with annoyance’, far too often. He also rolled his eyes a good deal. I tried to avoid using too many adjectives or at least tried to cut them in the multiple edits, so I think now he says nearly nothing ‘with annoyance’. He does periodically roll his eyes, though. I couldn’t get away from that.