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Dojo Summer Sessions: Neil Gaiman’s Sage Advice

A brief intro for those who have been a) living under a rock, b) out pounding on rocks (hey, most of my friends are geologists, so it’s distinctly possible) or c) brand new to the cantina: Neil Gaiman is the writer I place at the head of my personal pantheon of writers.  He gives outstanding writerly advice, which writers of fantasy and literary fiction and even non-fiction science stuff shall find very useful indeed.  And he was at Town Hall Seattle on Sunday night, wherein much wisdom was shared and laughter flowed freely.

I hereby pass along his wisdom, and maybe a few of the laughs.


Writers get this impossible question, “Where do you get your ideas?”  And maybe you’re a writer already and now have that “oshit how do I answer that/I hate that question!” face, the one where everything twists up like you’ve just stuck a whole and very sour lemon in your mouth.  Or, perhaps, you want to be a writer, and you’re thinking, “ZOMG please tell me where do they come from?!”  In that case, you’ve got that please-please-ooo-pick-meeee! puppy-in-the-window face on.  Either way, Neil Gaiman can answer that question.

Here’s where the idea for American Gods came from: “And it was a scene, I didn’t know what it meant, which is often the best place to start any story, is with something that you don’t actually understand.”  He saw a fragment merely: a man on an airplane, who’d gotten there via a crazy sequence of seemingly random events, sitting down at last next to a man he couldn’t possibly know, who then turns to him and says, “You’re late.”  Neil didn’t know who they were.  But he found out, and a lot of other things, random and scattered things, bits and pieces from previous works and various experiences with the weirdness that is America and sleeplessness in Reykjavik and so much else besides, came together and became something magical.

Remember that, when you’re beginning a story or novel or any other project: you do not in any way have to understand what it is just yet.  There’s just this something making your mind itch.  You write to find out why it’s making your mind itch.  Because if your mind is itching, it’s quite possible the readers’ minds will itch, too, and they’ll need to scratch just as much as you did.

Or perhaps your story will come from somewhere else.  Neverwhere and Stardust, for Neil, were both books about homesickness.  He’d just come to America from England, and these books were ways back for him.  He loved re-imagining them, he said.  And that is an exile’s tale.  Perhaps there’s something in you trying to get back to, a place you knew well and deeply miss.  Perhaps you’ll faithfully reproduce it, or, perhaps, like Neil, you’ll imagine the way it never was, but could have been.  Fertile ground, that.

Neverwhere also emerged from a board game of the London Underground he’d known as a child.  He’d look at the stations and try to figure out what they were like from the names: were there knights in Knightsbridge?  These are other places ideas come from: childhood imaginings revisited and remembered, familiar things seen through new eyes, taking things literally that aren’t meant to be literal and figuratively when they’re meant to be actual. 

“The point of fiction for me,” Neil said, “is that it allows you – not necessarily intentionally, you shouldn’t start out going ‘I’ll take a metaphor and make it real’ – but it allows you to do that.  And it allows you to do that with power and passion and talk true things.

“Imaginary things are often the most powerful.”

You know that.  You’ve felt that.  It’s why you love fiction.  You’ve felt those characters live, you’ve immersed yourselves in their lives and their worlds, and hasn’t it at times seemed like those people and places are far more real than the ones you know?  Even if you’re writing non-fiction, if you’re a scientist doing science and you plan to write about it someday, it’s imagination that drives you.  Imagining what things may have been like back in deep time, imagining how atoms behave, imaginings that arise out of data points and mathematics and, in one famous case, the image of a snake biting its tail.  Imagination drive stories, and discoveries, and stories about discoveries.  That power is yours

Whether fact or fantasy, you’re telling a story.  And as for storytelling, “[I]t’s always about magic,” Neil said.  “It’s always about the way you take reality and you turn it forty-five degrees so that you could show people things that they’re very, very familiar with, and show them these things in a way that they’re not familiar with; you show them things that they’ve seen a thousand times and show them to them for the  thousand and first time, if you can.”

Do you see why I want all of you, fiction and non-fiction writers alike, to pay heed?  Because that’s the essence of telling a story.  Take the familiar and show it to your readers again for the very first time.

As for research, there’s always this ongoing debate as to how much or how little an author should do.  For a non-fiction work, of course, research is essential.  What about fiction?  What research did Neil do for American Gods, for instance?  He had his research assistant find out populations of various towns (this was before the intertoobz could provide those answers in an instant).  He drove around and looked at stuff.  Remembered stuff.  He must remember a hell of a lot, because the only gods he did much research on for this particular book were the Slavic ones.  He couldn’t find much: only about three pages’ worth of useful material.  So he resorted to making stuff up.  For instance, he added Zorya Polunochnaya to the other two Zorya known in Slavic mythology, just made her right up.  He says he felt faintly guilty about that, but thought, “Who’s gonna know?”

And that is why this Wikipedia page has three Zorya rather than two.

I can see three lessons here.  First, when you’re writing fiction, and your research has gaps in, you can indeed make stuff up.  That’s rather the point of it being fiction, am I right?  Don’t be afraid to add the odd goddess or non-existent city or what have you, if the story calls for it and everything hangs together as a whole.  Second, if you’re doing research for, oh, say, a book on mythology, don’t use a fiction novel as an authoritative source.  And lesson the third: check the copyright date on the sources Wikipedia cites, to see if maybe the only mythology book to mention a third Zorya came out after American Gods did.

Toward the end, Maria Dahvana Headley asked Neil for his advice to young people who want to write fantasy.  Let’s rephrase that a bit, because it applies to all writers who are at the beginning of their careers: what is his advice to people who want to write fantasy?

He started with general advice for all aspiring authors: write, and finish what you write.  He said people stare at him like he’s withholding some big secret, but that really is the secret to a successful writing career.  You must write, and finish what you write, or you won’t get anywhere at all.

“But if the question is, ‘What would I tell a young fantasy author,’ I’d tell you a bunch of things,” Neil said.  “I’d tell you, ‘Stop reading fantasy,’ or at least, not to derive inspiration from fantasy….  Fantasy’s wonderful and you should know what else is going on in your genre, but you should read everything else.  That’s Number One: read everything else.

“Number Two is read primary sources….  Go for primary sources wherever you can.  Go for as primary as you can possibly get.  And read everything, read outside your comfort l
evel….

“And then, write.  Tell the stories.  Don’t do that thing of going, ‘I really like Lord of the Rings, I will write Lord of the Rings.’  Somebody else has already written Lord of the Rings, and has done it better than you ever could.  So, when you’re writing, try and tell the stories that only you can tell.  That’s the one thing that you have as a writer: any young writer has this special thing, which is you’re not anybody else.  Nobody else has had your life, nobody else sees the world from the place that you see things.  And, as a writer, the only thing that you have – there will always be better writers than you, there may be better plotters than you, there may be people who put a sentence better together than you – but there’s nobody else who can tell your stories better than you.  So the quicker you move from writing other people’s stories – and every young writer starting out starts out writing other people’s stories – and the quicker you write your own stories, the better.

“And that is the piece of advice I would give to any young writer of fantasy.”

All of those things are important.  All of those things are true.  And they’re useful for any genre: just adjust the terms a bit.  So, if you want to be a writer, if you want to tell stories, the very best stories you can, listen.  I’ll even embed the video I shot of that bit so you can listen.

Okay.  So you’ve written the book.  You’ve re-written, and re-re-written, and written the book again.  Let’s say you’ve done all that, and actually got it published.  Now what?  Promotion, of course!  And this is where Maria Dahvana Headley really brought the house down, because she announced the idea of the Author Sex Tape.  Alas, the audience was laughing so loud and so long through her subsequent explanation that the audio’s mostly unintelligible, and I was laughing so hard I can’t remember half of what she said.  But it’s a genius idea.  Drum up interest by leaking a sex tape.  There’s something very important said sex tapes must have: a catch phrase.  George R.R. Martin, she said, has a catch phrase: “Winter is coming.”  She waited for us to finish laughing our lungs out, and then asked Neil, with an amazingly straight face under the circumstances, what his catch phrase was.

“You’re asking somebody who’s written something out there on the table next to you that the end of Chapter One [next bit unclear due to audience hysterics] a gentleman disappears inside a prostitute,” Neil said.

And Maria, without missing a beat, shot back, “You could shout ‘American God’!”

If laughter is the best medicine, the audience is likely immortal.

Neil is a writer who can (and has) written very nearly everything: fiction and non, screenplays, comics, children’s books, articles – he’s a writer well worth listening to.  Never mind that he’s a bit skeptical about the whole “Author Sex Tape” idea.  We writers who want to achieve great things with our writing learn from those who came before, those who have already mastered the art, and Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who will never let you down.  So listen.  Then write.

And absolutely do not ever miss the opportunity to see him live if you can.