Sunday, September 2, 2018

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to real questions that people really ask me, in letters, emails, tweets, and at events. They are sorted into five categories. Click on the category to jump to the questions.

Questions About the Jinx Books

I love all the questions I get about the Jinx books! These are the ones that crop up most often.

Q: Is there going to be a fourth Jinx book?

At this time, I have nothing in the works. But I hope to write more about Jinx and the Urwald in the future.

Some people have asked if Jinx, the Wizard's Apprentice is a fourth book. It is not. It is the UK title of the first book.

Q: Are you going to write Simon's backstory?

Every time I start thinking of writing Simon's backstory, I run into two obstacles.

The first is that it probably wouldn't be a story for children. Simon's adventures, living with the Bonemaster and so forth, are considerably darker than Jinx's.

And maybe that would be all right, because this FAQ is only Frequently Asked by grownups.

The second obstacle is that when I start thinking about writing Simon from his own point of view, instead of from Jinx's point of view, I realize that from his own point of view, Simon is probably a reasonable, pleasant, easy-going kind of person. I mean, that's what we all are from our own point of view, right? I know I am.

And who would want to read about a reasonable, easygoing Simon?

So it would be a difficult tale to write. But I'd like to do it some day.

Q: What do the names in the Jinx series mean?

These are the names people ask about most often:

Urwald means “primeval forest” in German. I don’t speak German, but I ran across the word in a book.

Simon Magus was the name of a legendary wizard; a magus is a magician.

I gave Sophie her name because it means wisdom and because it’s the name of the legendary wizard’s wife.

Elfwyn is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning elf-friend, although Elfwyn is not really a friend of elves in this story.

Dame Glammer I just made up.

A clever reader pointed out to me that Reven is never spelled backward. I had not realized this.

Q: Why is Jinx named Jinx?

I wanted to give him a very old name. So I looked online and I found a list of ancient names. The name “Jinx” was on that list, and as soon as I saw it  I knew it was right for the character. It is short and sharp, like him.

Now here’s the trouble with researching things online. Later I looked in a dictionary and found that it wasn’t really an ancient name at all. The word “jinx” has only been around for 100 years or so.  And “Jinx” has sometimes been used as a nickname, but not as an actual name, because who would name a child Jinx?

Q: This isn't a question, it's a complaint. I like Reven and I think sometimes he's right and Jinx is wrong. Some of the things he says are true and Jinx acts like they're not.

I like Reven too. But Jinx doesn't like Reven much, and it's Jinx's story. 

Jinx and Reven have irreconciliable points of view about some difficult questions. Neither of them is completely right or wrong. Personally I agree more with Jinx, but I know that many people would agree with Reven. And then there are people in the middle, bridge people, who can see both points of view and search for a compromise. Without bridge people, extremists like Jinx and Reven couldn't survive. 

The whole world couldn't survive.

Sophie's a bridge person. So is Wendell. You might be one, too.

Q: Did you get some ideas from the Harry Potter books?

No; I got these ideas from much, much older sources, the same folklore that J.K. Rowling got her ideas from.

For example, the concealment of a magician’s life in a container separate from his or her body features in many old legends and tales. J.K. Rowling put her twist on it and invented horcruxes; I put my twist on it in the Jinx books. Lloyd Alexander used it in the Prydian Chronicles. It’s been around.

J.R.R. Tolkien said that every tale floats on a vast cauldron of story. And Terry Pratchett said that every fantasy writer takes things out of the pot, and puts things into the pot. They were both right.

Q: How did Simon and Sophie meet?

This is the most FAQ from adults. Kids, bear with us. 

Simon and Sophie met when Simon went to study at the Temple of Knowledge in Samara. Sophie was giving some lectures on the Urwald (a place she had never been) and Simon thought it would be amusing to attend. Then he decided he liked Sophie a lot. He invited her to come to his house; he said he wanted to show her something.

Sophie, being a sensible young woman, said “No, thank you.” So Simon explained that he wanted to show her the Urwald. This was rather stupid of him, because he could have gotten into a great deal of trouble had Sophie told the Samaran authorities that Simon was from the Urwald. However, as he later told Jinx, this is an area of life that presents boundless opportunities for stupidity. 

As it turned out, Sophie did not betray him, but they both ended up in a large amount of trouble anyway, which is another story. It mostly had to do with the Mistletoe Alliance and a traitor in their midst and so forth. This all happened about two years before Simon found Jinx in the forest.

Sophie was enchanted with the Urwald. She kind of liked Simon too. So they got married and lived interestingly ever after.

Who was Calvin-the-skull when he was alive?

Okay, I'm lying. This is not a FAQ. In fact, nobody has ever asked me this. Not once. And I am so disappointed. I thought people would ask me this.

Is there going to be a Jinx movie?

At this time I know of no plans to make a movie out of the Jinx books. 

I am (or want to be) a writer; can you please tell me…

These are questions frequently asked — or rather, concerns frequently raised— by kids who want to write, and adults who want to write, and kids and adults who are already writing, or have already written.

I'm trying to write a book, but it's not coming out anything like I planned.

Yes, that's normal. They never come out anything like we plan. That's part of the excitement. When J.R.R. Tolkien was writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he sometimes read bits of it aloud to his friends. (One of his friends was C.S. Lewis, who was writing the Narnia books.) And if his friends asked him a question about the characters or the story, he'd say "I don't know, but I'll find out."

He didn't say he'd think about it, he said he'd find out. You see the difference there? We don't invent our stories as we write. We discover them.

I start out and write a couple chapters and then I get stuck.

Me too. Every writer has to find out his or her own way around the Stuck Point. (For me, there's a second Stuck Point around 30,000 words into each book.) I made a list of things that help me get past the Stuck Point. It's posted here.

One way to reduce the number of Stuck Points is to do lots of planning. I've posted about that here, here and here.

I find it easier to write girl characters than boy characters (or vice versa).

Nearly every writer finds one gender easier to write than another. One solution is to leave the "difficult" gender out of your story entirely (looking at you, Mr. Tolkien!) but that can get a bit boring. A more practical solution is to think of your character as a person first and forget all about his or her gender. Then later, when you show your writing to your critique group or critique partner, they'll tell you whether the character works or not.

I want to have a book published by the time I'm 14 (or 20, or 30, or 65). How can I make sure that that happens?

Well, you can't make sure it happens, really. You can only write the best book you possibly can. After that, it's up to the publishers whether they want to publish it. And they're very picky. So focus on the things you can control: the writing and revising. If you write something you like, that's success. Don't stake your happiness on something that's out of your control (i.e. whether or not a publisher wants to publish your book).

What about self-publishing?

I don't know much about it. It's emerging as a separate field; there are certain skills needed to succeed in it and I can't really tell you how it all works.

Be aware of two things. One is that there are some scams out there.

The other is that while there are self-published authors who are doing well and making a living, they are all writing for adults. So if you want to write for children, take that into consideration. 

Two links for more information:

I want to be a writer. What should I do? 


And read. 

There’s a saying that you have to write a million words before you’re ready to be published. And it’s true. So get started now. Write a lot. It may take a while before you actually finish anything, but if you keep at it, eventually you will. Read your work aloud, to yourself if you can’t find anyone else. Listen to the words and sentences. Develop an ear for what sounds right.

If you have friends or siblings or cousins who are interested in writing, share your stories with each other. You don’t have to talk about each other’s writing, but if you decide to do so, be very tactful. Telling someone you don’t like their writing is like telling them you don’t like their nose. 

So learn to say tactful things like “I really like the way these two characters talk to each other. Maybe you should put it after the sword fight, so that we’re not distracted.” (Instead of blunt things like “This is dumb. Nobody would stop in the middle of a sword fight to have a conversation.”)

Read a lot of books, especially books that you like. Figure out what makes you want to keep reading in a story. What makes you like or dislike a character? What does the author do to keep you turning pages and to make you care about the people in the story? How can you do these things in your own writing?

Read poetry aloud. This will help you learn rhythm and cadence, which is important in fiction too. If you can’t stand poetry, read the archy & mehitabel books by Don Marquis.

One other thing. Plan on being something else as well. Just being a writer isn’t enough. See next question.

Are you rich? How rich do authors get?

This is one of the most FAQs I get from kids, who are clearly more practical than adults. Usually an adult shushes the asker before I can answer. Very properly; it’s not a polite question. But I’m going to be impolite and answer it, because I know some kids reading here want to be writers. And those kids should know the Awful Truth.

Hardly any authors are rich. J.K. Rowling is rich. (I love her books, don’t you?) Rick Riordan is probably rich. Hm, maybe only authors who start with R are rich. This year, I’m middle class, and I'm just hoping to stay that way next year.

It took me many, many years to become a middle class writer. During some of those years, I was a middle class teacher. During others of those years, I was a flat broke writer. Being flat broke is a common affliction of writers.

No writer makes enough to live on when they first start out. It takes years.

So if you’re going to be a writer, you absolutely need a Plan B. Plan B will actually be Plan A. It will be how you make a living until the writing starts to pay. It might be 5 years, it might be 20, it might be 50. It’s completely unpredictable.

My Plan B was becoming an ESL teacher; which was a job I loved. Make your Plan B, and follow through on it. Get educated for a good job where you can be happy, do some good, and make a living. Writers need to eat before they can write.

And then once you have that Plan B job, don’t forget to keep writing.

I've written a story. Will you read it and tell me if it's good enough?

I'm very sorry to say that I do not have time to do this. Occasionally authors (including me) will sell a manuscript critique as part of a charity auction. These tend to go for several hundred dollars (all for the charity!) so this is something you might save up for, but meanwhile a critique group is a much better (and cheaper) way to grow as a writer.

How do you find a critique group? Often they meet at public libraries. Ask the librarian— it's likely to be called a Writers' Group. There are some critique groups online. If you write for children, you may be able to find a critique group through SCBWI.

Or you can start your own group.

Questions About Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded

Is Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded the beginning of a series?

No, it is a stand-alone book.

Is this book about the current US political situation?

I wrote it before the current US political situation began to unfold.

Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?

I apologize for this. It did not occur to me when I was writing the book that some people feel the same way about snakes that Jinx and I feel about heights, which is "ARGH! No, no, no!" 

Now that the book is out, I have heard from these people. Again, my apologies. There is really only one snake. Just think of him as a metaphor.

I'm writing a report for school and I need to know…

…your life story, please. I can’t find a biography of you online.

Ha, my nefarious plan has worked! Nonetheless, your report is important, so see if there’s anything you can use here:

I was born in  Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and grew up in the tiny village of Gilbertsville, New York. I graduated from Antioch (college) and SUNY Albany (graduate school). Then I went to Florida to teach English as a Second Language in the Everglades, where I got pneumonia. The doctor said it was because of the climate. So when the school year ended, I boarded a bus with the intention of getting as far from the Everglades as I could. Boy, was that a long bus ride. It ended in Alaska, where I stayed for the next eight years, teaching ESL mostly on the Bering Sea coast but also in Anchorage. But nobody would come visit me in Alaska (except my mother, but only once and she didn’t stay long). So I came back downstates, taught at Salem College in North Carolina for a few years, and then quit to write full time. I live in upstate New York.

… what is the moral of Jinx?

I don’t know.

I just wrote the books to tell a story. That’s what readers want; a story.

After all, nobody ever took a book off a shelf, looked at it, and said, “Oh, I want to read this! It looks like it has a really good moral!”

Or if anyone ever did say that, it’s not someone you’d probably want to meet.

I think there are some moral questions in the JINX books, but I don’t have answers to them.

Beware of people who offer simple answers to complicated questions.

(Don’t mention in your report that there are moral questions. If you do, you’ll be asked to identify them. Guaranteed.)

…about inspiration. Where did you get the inspiration to write Jinx?

Mm. I don’t think I did. “Inspiration” sounds like something that hits you from out of the blue. If you wait around for inspiration, you will grow a long white beard, which will be a real nuisance, especially if you’re a girl. But you won’t write any books.

Writers have ideas. Everyone else has ideas too. You have ideas. (Admit it. You do.) Writers have to teach themselves to recognize their ideas. They have to coax them along, and introduce them to other ideas. One idea is never enough to make story.

Sometimes an idea is a little thing that sparks your interest.

For many, many years, I’ve been fascinated by the Deep Dark Forest, of fairy tale fame. That was one spark.

I read an old legend about a wizard named Simon Magus. There seemed to be a lot of pieces missing from the legend. That was another spark.

I read about Little Red Riding Hood. Was she really too dumb to tell her grandmother from a wolf? I bet she was smart and the story just got messed up. That was another spark.

There’s a big forest near my house. It has a lot of paths. That was another spark.

So I sat down and drew a lot of pictures to try to connect these sparks with each other. I spent much of the summer of 2009 drawing pictures while sitting on the front porch watching goldfinches, bluebirds and chipmunks. Werechipmunks.

Not all of the pictures ended up having much to do with the story. But one day I drew this picture… and there the story began.

What important lessons can we learn from Jinx?

If you're standing on the edge of a cliff, don't turn your back to it. Don't cut trees down, or the other trees will take revenge. Listen. The people in your life may not be perfect, but it's okay to love them anyway. Knowledge is power.


General Questions

Have you written any books besides the Jinx books? 

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, available from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

My child is 7 (or 6, or 8) but reads well above grade level. Are your books okay for him/her?

Yes. There is nothing inappropriate for children in my books. If anyone objects, tell them I said it was okay. And congratulations on raising a reader!

Where can I get review copies of your books?

E-book ARCs (advance reader copies) are available on Edelweiss a few months before each book's publication date. After publication, please contact the children's book publicity department at HarperCollins.

If you are not in the United States, please contact the appropriate publisher in your country about review copies:

Canada: HarperCollins
Germany: Oetinger
Israel: Tal-May
Russia: Apricot Books
UK and Commonwealth (except Canada): Hatchette Children's Books

(If you don't live in one of these countries then unfortunately you will probably not be able to get review copies.)

Where can I write to you?

Sage Blackwood
c/o HarperCollins Children's Books
195 Broadway
21st floor
New York NY 10007

or email:  sageblackwood2 at gmail dot com