As some of you may know, the lovely Luisa Plaja, has been publishing a book chapter by chapter online at Fiction Express for the last ten weeks. Each chapter allows the reader to decide which way the story will go, leaving Luisa with barely a week to write the next chapter. I have read Luisa's new book The Diary of a Mall Girl and I will be reviewing it on the blog on Saturday. Whilst Luisa was writing the book, I asked her if she would like to do an interview discussing her experiences of writing this way and she thankfully agreed. So here is Luisa discussing her writing experience with Fiction Express.
Where did you get the idea from to set your story in a mall?
I wanted the book to have a soap-opera-style hub – a place my characters could meet, whether on purpose or by accident. It needed to be a hive of activity to give the story many possible paths. I know from my own experience that shopping complexes are often the centre of teen action. (Hello, Brent Cross Shopping Centre and Harlequin Centre, Watford... but mostly St Ann’s Centre, Harrow, which was right next to my sixth form college!)
I once visited a wonderful mall in Chicago that included residential units, famously housing Oprah Winfrey. I’ve wondered ever since about what it would be like to live in a shopping centre as a teenager and have all that schoolmate action and gossip right on your doorstep. This is how Molly Hart and her home at The Lilies Eco-Mall, Lilyford started to take shape...
(Check out these gorgeous Chicago malls: http://www.labelscar.com/illinois/the-malls-of-downtown-chicago. And this is Water Tower Place, the original inspiration for The Lilies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Tower_Place)
What kind of research did you have to do?
My research was varied and plentiful! I took a trip to Birmingham to wander around the Bullring, which you can read about on Girls Heart Books (http://girlsheartbooks.com/2011/07/11/sweet/). I collected piles of mall maps and information, and used them to draw up a plan of The Lilies - including its service entrances where, as you know, a lot of the book’s action takes place! I read everything I could get my hands on about shopping malls, including a great non-fiction book called Call of the Mall by Paco Underhill. (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/150334.Call_of_the_Mall) I think this was this book that indirectly inspired Art Boy and his mall-decorating commission.
I have a background in Linguistics and I’m constantly fascinated by word usage and language development, so I also spent a long time scouring the web for instances of “mall girl” and the attitudes expressed by its usage. (When Molly’s friend Wendy uses the Urban Dictionary to verbally attack Molly in Chapter 1, she’s paraphrasing a definition that exists here: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Mall%20Girl)
I also researched things like planning permission for modern malls and the facilities they’re expected to offer, but perhaps I’ll stop there... I love research. (Yes, I’m a bit of a nerd. Ssh, please don’t tell anyone.)
How long did you have in between chapters to write the next one?
I technically had three days to write a chapter once the vote results came in. In practice, for me, this meant a day of daydreaming and research, a day of fiddling with words and sighing a lot, and then a frantic final day and night, racing to meet the Thursday editorial deadline. I rarely slept on a Wednesday night. Ssh, that’s another secret.
How did you get involved with Fiction Express in the first place?
I was approached by the Fiction Express team at Discovery Books (www.discoverybooks.net) and asked whether I was interested in an innovative fiction-writing project. And... I was!
How many times did you rewrite the chapter before you were happy with it?
This is hard to answer because I’m never completely satisfied with my own work! Honestly, give me anything I’ve ever written – including this – and I can edit it forever. The scary time limit on the Fiction Express project meant that I had to be very strict with my perpetual re-writing tendencies, though. I think there was only one time when I threw out several thousand words – and yes, it happened in the middle of the night on a Wednesday, just before the chapter was due...
Which chapters were the most difficult to write?
This is hard to answer too! Some family emergencies made it slightly harder for me to capture Molly’s humorous voice in the earliest stages. Chapter 7 was also a particularly tough one, but I’d spent that Tuesday in London, speaking on a panel about digital publishing, and my plan of writing all night on the train was scuppered when my netbook ran out of power and the sleeper carriages had no plug points. Argh! I scribbled a bit, but it still left me with a lot to do – and two missed nights of sleep that week. (Don’t try this at home, guys!)
Putting these kinds of reasons aside and focusing on the writing alone, I found Chapter 10 surprisingly tricky. Normally I’m full-steam-ahead when I approach the end of a novel, but this time I found myself fervently wishing that I could go back and change a few parts of previous chapters. I couldn’t, of course... and I got through it!
I should add that I really enjoyed writing the whole book!
Did the reader’s choices always fit with your own?
Split by a Kiss, whose “split” story occurred because I couldn’t decide which path to write – so I wrote both!)
I was very happy when readers seemed to like a certain boy, as I was also very fond of him and I loved writing his scenes with Molly.
There was one week’s vote that shocked me, and that was the choice from Chapter 6 – whether or not Ameera and Molly get caught snooping. I truly wasn’t expecting that result, and it did floor me for a while. Another one that made me baulk a little was the Chapter 9 vote, the one involving Molly and Liam. Readers, you are a wicked lot!
How much harder was it to write with the reader in control of the story?
I don’t think it was harder exactly. It was fun, and it was... challenging!
There was a lot of contact with the readers during this process, especially those who blogged about it regularly, how did you find that contact helped in your writing process?
It helped massively. It gave me support, encouragement and ideas, and I’d like to thank all the wonderful people who wrote me tweets, emails and letters, and who blogged about the chapters, and also those who talked to me about Diary of a Mall Girl at my teen book club. I can’t express how much I appreciated every single piece of feedback. THANK YOU!
Did the story end the way you hoped it would?
Yes. I love writing endings, and this one was no exception.
There is a twist at the end. Was that planned from the beginning?
Ah, what a great question! The simple answer is ‘no’. Nothing was planned. I started the book with only a setting, a group of characters and a rough idea of their conflicting agendas – but not in any great detail. Anyone who writes like me (with hardly any planning at all) will be familiar with the magical way that threads seem to present themselves and beg to be pulled at exactly the right moment.
I once met a great writer at a NaNoWriMo event (http://www.nanowrimo.org). She writes long, involved and brilliant epic fantasy, and she told me about the way she’ll describe a series of weapons in the early part of her book, having no idea what future purpose they might serve. Then she’ll get to page 250, or whatever, find her characters in a bind and think, “Weapon X! Of course, Weapon X is perfect for this!”
I write romantic comedy rather than epic fantasy, but it still applies. I turn around and find that I’ve somehow laid the groundwork for a twist. This is how I’ve written all my books, including the ones with the more earth-shattering twists. The main difference was that, with Fiction Express, there was no going back and honing my weapon – I had to go with exactly what I’d given myself. Now that was a challenge!
I loved the way the story included current issues that occurred in the same week of publication, was that a conscious decision or did it just evolve as the story progressed?
Thank you - I loved writing those bits! It was a conscious decision, really, in that I wanted each chapter to be a full week of Molly’s life in ‘real time’ for the week of publication. This meant I could include mentions of annual events such as the Glastonbury Festival, Wimbledon, The Eurovision Song Contest and all the fun of summer term at school, complete with exams and work experience. (I consulted some real-life Year 10s and a few exam timetables to get Molly’s term as chronologically accurate as possible.) I tend to set my books in quite short time periods – Extreme Kissing, for example, takes place entirely in one day – and I enjoyed having this fixed 11-week framework for Molly.
Will the experience change the way you write in the future?
I’m not sure – I might need to get back to you on this one! Writing a conventional novel now feels like a luxury. What, I can go back and edit everything? Yes, please, let me at it! On the other hand, I might miss the speedy feedback and the wonderful reader involvement.
What happens to the book now?
It remains available at Fiction Express, and I think they have some interesting plans.
Thank you so much for having me at Serendipity Reviews and for all the wonderful questions!
The Diary of a Mall Girl is still available to read over at Fiction Express where you can read the first chapter for free.