Todd Fahnestock is the author of the YA bestseller “Fairmist” as well as the middle-grade novel, “The Wishing World.” The following is a complete transcript of his interview with Cracking the Cover.
Why do you write?
It started as a challenge when I was eighteen. Like most writers, I was a reader first. I loved fantasy, and I wanted to make a fantasy novel “with more action in it.” So in the beginning of my senior year of high school, I signed up for an Independent Study class and began my first novel.
That’s when I made my first attempt, but it was almost a year later when I knew I wanted to be a writer forever. I remember sitting at the typewriter in my room in my family’s house, the late summer breeze ruffling the blue curtains. Sunlight made patterns on the floor, and it was all gorgeously ephemeral. The house was in foreclosure, and I was going to have to leave. My Mom got it in the divorce, but she couldn’t make enough money to keep it. We had all of our stuff packed up to move out, and my last hours were spent working on my first novel. Despite the impending free fall, I was calm, certain. Something about writing made me that way, made me stronger. That was when I knew: I was going to keep doing for the rest of my life.
I still feel that euphoria every time I rough draft (editing, now that’s an animal of a different stripe…), and I’ve been doing this for 28 years. I can’t imagine stopping now.
Why specifically for middle-graders?
Actually, writing middle grade came as a surprise for me. In retrospect, it makes sense. I’ve written books that matched the stages of my life. In high school, they were all about adventure (see “more action” above). In college, it was about adventure and relationships between men and women. In my thirties it was complex, blood-and-bones high fantasy for adults (The Heartstone Trilogy, inspired by A Game of Thrones and written by my friend Giles and me, is an example of this). In 2015, it was Fairmist, which was the fantasy novel I’d always wanted to write, and I noticed the style and tone was a better fit younger adults (16+). The Wishing World was, strangely, the natural next step, even though I didn’t see it coming. I was a father with two young children, 4-years-old and 6-years-old, and I had taken to making up colorful bedtime stories for them. When they asked me to write these adventures down, I figured I’d take a brief break from my “serious” work and make something just for them. I never intended to publish it. I didn’t give it my “best effort,” I just let it be free-flowing and whimsical. It produced my favorite book. Now I’m all about being free-flowing and whimsical. That was a big lesson as a writer.
How does writing MG differ than your previous novels?
It was freeing. After so many years of crunching my concentration down to produce something I felt was deep, complicated and epic, I loosened up and let the prose flow. The results were wildly creative, like Sir Real & the Flimflams, the Grudge, the Tasting Tulip, and HuggyBug the Pug. In my novels for older audiences, I would have edited such whimsical elements out or made them more realistic. I also feel The Wishing World has an elegant simplicity in place of a realistic complexity, and that’s refreshing.
Where did the idea for “The Wishing World” come from?
This story started as a series of adventures about Gruffy the Griffon that I told my kids to get them to go to sleep (It spectacularly failed in that purpose). When the story of Gruffy and the Princess of the Eternal Sea drew to a close, my children begged me to write it down. I failed in my first two attempts, but on the third try I found the key that opened the door to The Wishing World: Lorelei. I posted a series of short videos of myself telling this story in greater detail on YouTube, if anyone is interested.
How did Lorelei’s character develop? Is she based on anyone you know?
Lorelei is based on my daughter Elowyn, and she was the binding that brought the story together. I struggled to put The Wishing World to the page. It was only when I took my daughter and tossed her into the novel that it began to flow. Lorelei’s greatest fear is my daughter’s greatest fear –losing her family–, and I made her face it in Chapter 1. Elo has never forgiven me for that. To this day, she will not read the first chapter nor will she be in the room while I am reading it aloud.
But while Lorelei literally was Elo in the beginning, she evolved throughout the book, and even moreso in The Wishing World II: Loremaster. Elo and Lorelei are both whip-smart leaders, bombastic when the moment calls for it and quiet when needed. Lorelei and Elo also share a vast imagination, and they’re both excited by new things. Elo is more conscientious, but Lorelei is more driven. Elo, generally speaking, is happy where she is, while Lorelei crawling out of her skin to accomplish the only thing that matters: Get. Her Parents. Back.
Five and a half years, if you don’t count all of the oral storytelling before I first put fingers to the keyboard. The first draft of “Gruffy the Griffon” on my hard drive is dated April 4, 2011. Here, I’ll copy/paste the entire draft for you right here:
Gruffy the Griffon – Re-tell the story I told the kids when they were little.
I added Lorelei on October 25, 2012 and began the real first draft, which was completed on February 27, 2013. 6 drafts, 1 year and two months later, my agent sent it to Kathleen Doherty at Tor Books.
Take me through your writing process.
- I fall into a depression three days after my latest work is completed. The world is dark and horrible. I mope near my wife. She hugs me and feeds me and waits for it to pass. I mope near my children. Elo tells me all the reasons to be happy. Dash asks me to go bounce on the trampoline.
- I wake up in the middle of the night with a Character. Not long after, it is joined by an Idea. I go write them down. My mind begins to swim with all of the interesting things the Character could do with the Idea. I think about it while brushing my teeth. I think about it while at work. I think about it while watching movies.
- For several days I float around my computer like a moth near a bug zapper. I finally sit and get the jolt. I start writing. I am now in Rough Draft Mode. The muse sings to me. I am tortured and euphoric by turns. I write in the mornings before work. I write on the weekends. I write late at night. I am obsessed. Everything has to do with the Story. My life. My wife’s life. My children’s lives. Everything somehow fits. I keep writing.
- I finish my rough draft somewhere between a month and nine months after I began it. (The Wishing World II: Loremaster was written during NaNoWriMo 2014). The rough draft is beautiful and ghastly by turns. I rush downstairs and dance around the kitchen with my daughter and my son. My wife politely smiles. She hugs me and feeds me and waits for it to pass. Once upon a time, I would print out this not-ready-manuscript and give it to friends. I don’t do that anymore. Nowadays, this is when the real work begins.
- I write three more drafts on my own. Editing is not a natural talent of mine, but I am getting better.
- Roundabout the fourth draft, I engage the services of my good friend and phenomenal editor, Liana Holmberg, and ask her to take a look at it. She gives me an edit letter and creative edits on the story. I get back to work. Sometimes this means uprooting entire chunks of the story and rewriting them. With The Wishing World II: Loremaster, I had exorcised 90% of the rough draft by the time I got to the 5th
- Draft 5 – I send it back to Liana. She reviews it, sends me a smaller edit letter and line-by-line creative edits on the story. I get back to work.
- Draft 6 – I finish the edits. I stew on them. My Achilles Heel is thinking I am done before I am really done. I fight this, then look at the manuscript with new eyes and take another stab at making it better. When I have done this at least twice, I send it back to Liana and ask her assess it and, if it’s ready, to comb it for typos. I also make a copy for Lara, my wife, and ask her to read it. I also sometimes ask a couple of other family/friends to search for typos.
- Draft 7 – I send it to my agent, Bill. He sends it on to Tor. Then my Tor editor, Bess Cozby, sends me a few select final edits that bring the manuscript from great to amazing, and it is now done. Now the Marketing Work begins.
- I fall into a depression three days later. The world is dark and horrible. I mope near my wife. She hugs me and feeds me and waits for it to pass. I mope near my children. Elo tells me all the reasons to be happy. Dash asks me to go bounce on the trampoline…
Looking back, how has your writing evolved?
I think the biggest evolution in my writing is the realization that I need an editor. Accepting this was hard on my ego, and I avoided it for decades. I get euphoric while rough drafting, and I believe what I’ve put on the page is amazing. I want everyone else to believe it as well. In my younger years, I spent a lot of time defending a product that wasn’t polished, wasn’t even finished. I get so immersed in my rough drafts that I literally cannot see them objectively, and I need someone to tell me what is actually on the page versus what I want to see on the page. Once I admitted this, my writing has improved significantly. If there are writers out there who don’t need an editor, I’m not one of them.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the final draft of The Wishing World II: Loremaster. Right now, I’m putting all of my spare time into marketing The Wishing World. I actually haven’t done any rough drafting for a month, but I have three manuscripts on the back burner: The Whisper Prince II: The Undying Man (the sequel to Fairmist), The Wishing World III: The Hateman, and Charlie Fiction, which is a wonderful time travel novel chock full of social commentary about our tech-crazy society. I can’t wait to get back to each and every one of them, but The Undying Man comes first.
Is there a book from your own childhood that still resonates with you today? Why?
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That novel is immortal. The storytelling is compelling, accessible and artful. There are many books I loved as a kid that I can’t get through now, but I always enjoy Ender’s Game no matter how old I get. The story of Ender, a vulnerable child who exceeds all expectations, rising through physical and psychological adversity to become the one human who can do what needs to be done is a story that resonates with anyone who’s ever wanted to be special. I love it, and it is still enchanting readers thirty years after it was first published.