Christelle Dabos, fantasy author who notably wrote the series The Mirror Pass (Gallimard, 2015), answered questions from Internet users World in a chat dedicated to writing during confinement. She shares her techniques with readers.
Zig: When you started writing The Mirror Pass, did you have in mind the narrative framework of the four volumes or did you progress as you went along?
Christelle Dabos: When I started The Mirror Pass, I had absolutely no idea where I was headed. I had my characters, I had my universe – they all sprang up at the same time in a big big internal bang – but I didn't have my story. So I totally improvised to see where it was going to lead me. I have blackened hundreds of pages. Then one day, very late, when I had a better idea of what was going to be the “red thread” of the novel, I decided to take it all up again.
I wouldn’t do it the same way today. Already, once edited, I tried to be better organized … with more or less success. I had the illusion, for my second volume, that by making a detailed plan in advance it would help me. And that completely blocked me, because I still need to have some room for improvisation.
The best compromise that I found, it was “the fluctuating plan”: yes, I put the main stages of the story, but no, I do not go into detail and I allow myself to change direction at all instant if I feel like that's what history needs.
What really helps me is not so much the dynamic of the story as that of the characters. It is by understanding them better, them, intimately, it is by knowing their strengths and their flaws, their desires and their fears, that I have a clear vision of their personal trajectories.
Ahnranya: How's your writing routine going?
Well. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to shatter your image of me. I am a very, very undisciplined author. And very, very slow. I don't have a routine. I don't wake up in the morning. I never look at the watch or the sign counter. I take an indecent number of cocoa breaks. I think I hurt my editor a little.
I work only on computer, I write very badly by hand. I open my file as soon as I get up, but sometimes it remains covered by dozens of windows – games, readings, music – until I deign to finally take a look. And, sometimes, it's going to be the complete opposite, I'm going to be obsessed with my text all day long, typing on my keyboard, in a trance, until late in the evening.
AnneAel: How to keep motivation to write?
To stay motivated, it's important to keep it fun. This little “click” that makes us one day put ourselves in front of a blank page and that we wanted to project words into it.
What can be demotivating is the feeling of not moving forward.
If you're in a trough – and, believe me, it happens to everyone, me first – you can set yourself a very small goal per day. For example, writing even two or three sentences. Or write down ideas, document yourself for a particular passage. Or soak up a work that inspires you. Or, quite simply, close your eyes and feel a scene, interact with a character. Just that little moment, between you and your story, a little bit every day.
Afterwards, there is a lack of motivation and real blockage. A blockage is very uncomfortable to live with, one can have the impression that one does not succeed any more, that the writing will never return, one can even feel guilt. In this case, really, I advise you to change your mind and do something completely different. Household. DIY. Gardening. Video games. As far as I'm concerned, inspiration has always been best received in complete relaxation of body and mind.
Mileva: Your saga gave me a taste for writing three years ago. But for the past few months, it's been a bit of a desert. Do you have any tips for fighting white page syndrome?
If a novel project is close to your heart, maybe try a different approach. For example, what helps me personally is the dynamics of the characters. If I can understand what motivates them, what drives them forward, what pushes them to take risks or, on the contrary, what hinders them, the way they evolve each other, all this creates tremendous motor energy!
What also helps me is to think about the opposing force: if your character has a motivation, put obstacles in his way – an antagonist, an internal conflict, an event out of control – and explore with him how he will try to overcome, bypass or flee from them. This friction between your character's desire and the opposing force is the backbone of your plot: if you are aware of the issues, it helps to know where you are going.
A translator who loves Ophélie: Your books have also been a huge success abroad. Have you read their translations? Have you had contact with translators?
I only read the Spanish translation of the first volume; I am not good enough in languages to read all the translations, alas! But I am in contact with several translators, yes. Some people are so keen to be faithful to my intention that they send me many questions for this or that use of words. And my belgicisms disturb a little too, sometimes!
Lohën: I have lots of loose ideas, which confinement invites me to put on paper. However, this period keeps me from focusing on anything for a long time. Do you have any tips and tricks?
This is quite understandable. I had the same phase. What we are experiencing is not conducive to concentration. This is why I needed to completely change my mind for several days, to clear my head before I could resume writing. You are right, writing requires rigor. Continue to write down your ideas as they come. Perhaps write very short texts, for the moment. Scenes. Dialogues. A little bit every day, without putting any pressure on yourself. Writing can be a very beneficial valve that will allow you to express a lot of things. Let everything come as it comes. And take care of yourself.
Aigle: I wanted to know if you had any advice for writing a good dialogue. Mine always sound wrong and I can't seem to make it alive or flowing … Thanks in advance!
It is not an easy exercise, indeed. Maybe take the time to listen to the way people around you talk? Do they have language tics? They can be inspiring. But what I advise, if you are not comfortable, is to opt for short sentences, as one does it orally. And also to adapt the language register to your character.
AnneAël: Who should read its extracts to be properly advised?
The immediate entourage, even with the best will in the world, cannot always make a constructive return on substance and form. Your loved ones will be able to share the emotions they felt, what they visualized, what they understood or what they did not understand: and it is already extremely enriching. But if you're looking for more critical feedback, then it might be worth turning to online writing platforms.
I wrote a large part of The Mirror Pass on the Plume d'Argent site and I collected feedback which helped me a lot to position myself on my text. I also learned by reading the other members and trying to formulate, to analyze already in me, what made me enter their text and what made me leave it.
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