First Author Event - Scott Westerfeld

Friends, I have achieved a new level of nerd, and I’m proud of it!

Andrew and I first started discovering the joys of free entertainment at the local library when we were accidentally (and simultaneously) unemployed last year. Movies are free! Books are free! The library is unemployment paradise!

Though I’ve been reading at a frenetic pace ever since, I had yet to attend a library event until this past Tuesday evening. Scott Westerfeld came to the county library to promote his new book Horizons. My incredible, sweet writing buddy Joyce is a fan of Westerfeld’s books, and suggested that we go to the event. I agreed, mostly out of curiosity: what exactly happens at an author event, anyway?

For my fellow newbies, here’s the breakdown of a typical author event according to our friendly neighborhood librarians:

  1. Someone introduces the guest author.

  2. The author gives a brief presentation, probably discussing the inspiration and story behind the book they are promoting.

  3. If they choose, the author reads a short excerpt from the new book.

  4. Author does a brief Q&A with the audience.

  5. Author is available for book signing, and books may be available for purchase. (Depending on the publisher’s guidelines, you may or may not be able to bring in your own copy of a book for signing.)

My experience at the Scott Westerfeld event was fantastic. I’ve only read two of Westerfeld’s books, Leviathan and Horizon, which I read only in preparation for the event. Westerfeld is a middle-grade fantasy/sci-fi author, and while he does what he does quite well, middle-grade isn’t really my jam. He is perhaps most well-known for the Uglies series--I purchased the first book at the event and had it signed so I have a memento from my first author adventure. Eventually, a “recent read” review will follow.

Though I admittedly cared very little about Westerfeld’s new book promotion, I still feel that I gleaned a lot of helpful information from the experience. Hearing an author discuss his process and sources for inspiration is always useful for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I can hear too many perspectives from individual authors.

But the highlight of the evening was definitely the Q&A. Some hardcore fans were present, of course, and asked about specific books, or thematic trends in Westerfeld’s work. However, many of the questions were incredibly useful for aspiring authors: questions about his process, writing routine, etc. And of course, as an audience member, I had the opportunity to ask questions myself. My question to Westerfeld: “If you could go back and share some wisdom with yourself at the beginning of your writing career, what would you say?”

His answer was thoughtful, and the concepts easy to apply. Here’s the summary:

  • Persistence is what counts. If you keep writing, that determines your success, even more so than talent, training, etc. Most aspiring writers give up early. Keep writing.
  • For novel-length writing especially, your memory matters. Sometimes you’re in Chapter 39 and realize that you need to add something in Chapter 5, or else Chapter 39 won’t make any sense. It is helpful to practice and develop systems for retaining information about your book, and find ways to manage the many details that “feed” the story: character profiles, event timelines, world-building details, etc.
  • Find the unique-to-you processes, tools, and routines. It doesn’t matter what any other author says you should do. Figure out how you work best--explore, and stick with it.

Though none of this is rocket science, I think these are messages that need to be hammered into my brain on a regular basis. It’s easy to forget that persistence is what counts, or that I don’t have to have the same writing process as Brandon Sanderson just because I love his books.

Another useful piece of advice developed out of a question related to research. I found Westerfeld’s distinction between two types of research particularly freeing:

  • “Don’t get it wrong” Research -- the stuff you research to avoid getting angry letters from obsessive readers
  • Research that Fuels Story -- the stuff you look up that actually interests you, is fun to pursue, and leads to story elements

This was so, so helpful for me. I frequently find myself in “don’t get it wrong” research mode, and the content that I’m researching is never something that I enjoy studying. At the moment, the research pitfall for my WIP is fictional planet design--the crazy scientific details of planet mass and atmosphere and gravity, and how all of these factors affect weather and geological conditions. KILL ME. Seriously though, I can’t stand this crap.

So what did I learn from Westerfeld? This is SPECULATIVE fiction, y’all! Emphasis on speculation! We get to have fun and make stuff up. Believable scenarios are important, of course. But as the author, we have the power to control the boundaries of our fictional realities. Play. Have fun. Ignore the potential angry letter writers in your psyche and remember that you get to create something miraculous and uniquely you.

In summary, I encourage you to keep an eye on your library’s event calendar and check out an author event near you. Don’t be shy -- you will be warmly embraced by your fellow reading/writing nerds, and will perhaps even learn something in the process.