Recently, I visited Shaler Area Middle School (close to the city of Pittsburgh) and talked about FREEFALL, science fiction, and social justice to a group of young readers who'd just finished a unit on segregation. Here are some of the great questions they asked me, with my reconstruction of how I answered them:
Charlotte: Do you believe the society represented in FREEFALL is likely to occur in the future?
YA Guy: Actually, I think it's happening right now. Not only nationally but internationally, we're a people divided by race and class, and in some respects those divisions have worsened despite legislation that was meant to shrink them. That's one of the things with science fiction: though it's typically set in the future, it comments on events that are happening right now, sometimes tweaking those events just the tiniest bit for the purposes of fiction.
Jamin: When you're writing a story, how do you know if your idea is good or not?
YAG: The short answer is that you don't. Or at least, if you mean "good" as in "lots of people will want to read it," it's hard to gauge that while you're writing. So my best advice to writers is to write what YOU think is good--the story that you want to tell (or that you'd want to read). You can't really control whether others will think it's good, so you probably shouldn't waste time worrying about that.
YAG: In the largest sense, every character I create is based (at least in part) off of me, because I'm the person whose thoughts and feelings I know best. But sometimes there's an even closer connection. For example, Cam Newell, my narrator in FREEFALL, is a guy from a relatively privileged upbringing whose viewpoint is changed when he comes into contact with people from very different backgrounds. His process of development is quite similar to what I experienced when I went to college, where for the first time my eyes were opened to people, perspectives, and issues that I'd never been exposed to before.
Tiffany: Where did the title FREEFALL come from?
YAG: Sometimes, I don't have a title for a book until I'm about halfway through, when I've finally figured out what the book is about. Other times, a word or phrase just pops into my head, and I decide it would make a good title--but then I have to figure out how it's relevant to the story I'm telling. That was the case with FREEFALL. I liked the word, partly because I knew I was writing an outer space adventure, and I was playing with the ideas of gravity and being grounded (or being thrown out of one's accustomed ground). But I also started to think about how being in love is kind of like being in freefall; it's scary and exhilarating and unpredictable all at once. So since the book has romance elements too, FREEFALL seemed like a good title. Eventually, to make it even more relevant to the story, I named one of the starships the Freefall.
Shahaan: Do you write books to inform or to entertain?
YAG: Many authors will say that the only purpose of writing is entertainment, and I do agree that entertainment is primary. But with a book, we're not talking about random light shows or clown acts, which might be purely entertaining; we're talking about language, which means that there's also going to be information conveyed from author to reader. I don't believe in hitting the reader over the head with a "message," but at the same time, I see nothing wrong with the author having information s/he wants to convey to the reader, so long as s/he leaves it up to the reader to receive and process that information.
Chris: When you use first-person point of view, what's the best way to describe your narrator?
YAG: Well, you probably want to avoid the overused device of having your narrator look in a mirror (or other reflective surface) and describe him/herself. You might ask whether you really need a physical description of the narrator, or you might drop little nuggets of physical description here and there. But if you want a single, sustained description, you should try to find an original way of doing it, such as I tried to do in FREEFALL, where Cam reads his own physical data on the screen of the life pod where he's been in suspended animation for 1000 years.
Logan: Where do you get the names for your characters?
YAG: Lots of places. I'll meet someone with a name I like, or I'll hear something on the news, or I'll create a name from scratch. In the manuscript I'm currently working on, everyone has names from Greek myths, so it was fun researching those names. For FREEFALL, I named the three male leads after my son's favorite NFL players.
Sammy: What was your inspiration for the Upperworld?
YAG: I honestly looked around at the real world and thought about wealth disparity, segregation, and oppression in the here and now, and then said to myself, "What if current trends get worse and worse in the next hundred years?" I'm no prophet, but there are very troubling signs that the world's wealth is becoming more and more concentrated in a smaller and smaller percentage of the global population, and if that keeps happening, we might literally have an Upperworld and a Lowerworld in the next century: an elite 1% with all the wealth and a remaining 99% with none.
Candace: How do you stretch a short story into a novel?
YAG: First, I'd point out that if you're writing short stories right now, there's no need to stretch them into anything other than what they are. Short stories are the perfect length for young writers: you can complete them in a week or a month, and thus feel a great sense of accomplishment, whereas for most teens (including myself forty years ago), tackling a novel is an exercise in frustration--it's just too much, and the likelihood that you won't finish it tends to produce feelings of failure. That being said, I've found that the key difference between a novel and a short story is that in a short story, the narrator or main character has ONE challenge s/he has to face and resolve, whereas in a novel, there will be multiple such challenges, each one yielding to a greater one. But I do want to repeat that for young writers, I think short stories are the best way to go: they give you a chance to hone your skills, and possibly even to gain some publishing credits.
Alexandra: Do you plan your novels out first, or figure things out as you go along?
YAG: I'm what people call a "pantser"--that is, I don't plan much, and so I kind of fly along by the seat of my pants. I'll have a basic idea for a novel--such as in FREEFALL, where the idea was to write an adventure/romance having to do with outer space colonization--but I'll let the rest unfold as I write. The reason I like to do it this way is that I feel as if I make my best discoveries as a writer "in the moment," where one idea will lead to another that I hadn't foreseen. But other writers like to plan out more than I do, and I think it's important for each writer to find the method that works best for her or him.
Maddox: How did the plot of FREEFALL develop?
YAG: This is a perfect example of the process I just described, where one idea leads to a wholly unexpected one. I'd created my main characters, Cam and Sofie, but I felt that something was missing--they were too similar to each other, and thus there wasn't enough tension and conflict in their relationship. But then the idea of Upperworld and Lowerworld popped into my head, which led me to the obvious conclusion that one of my teens would be an Upperworlder and the other a Lowerworlder. Once that idea was in place, the story took off: if they were from different parts of the planet, they'd have to meet somehow, and there would be some kind of conflict when they did, and each of them would have to learn from the other, and so on and so on. I didn't plan any of that when I started writing, but all of it unfolded in a series of discoveries during the writing process.
YAG: I think my favorite part is a scene where Cam and one of Sofie's Lowerworld friends are working together to rescue her from the book's villain, and they have a conversation where Cam realizes that, though they have the same objective, they have drastically different motivations. That was an important scene for the story, not only because it leads Cam to question his own motivations, but because it raises the question of whether it's possible to understand the life experience of someone whose circumstances are very different from one's own. I personally think it's possible to respect someone's position even if one doesn't fully understand it, and I hope that's what Cam learns too.
Dante: Have you had any hardships while writing?
YAG: Many. For example, with FREEFALL, my first draft was so horrible I almost gave up on it, but fortunately, I had the experience to know that if I set it aside for a while, I'd come back to it with fresh eyes and be able to make an objective assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Writing is hard work--though nowhere near as hard as many of the jobs that people perform--and you have to be strongly motivated to persevere in it.