Magic. Adventure. Mayhem. Ferrets.
How did the ferrets get involved?
Allow me to explain the planning process—or lack thereof—that resulted in the strangeness of The Great Wish for a Good Spice Tea.
The testing of the scenes
Every time I write a new book, I start with a test scene. I just sit down and write, and see what happens.
At this stage in the process, I don’t yet have an outline. I do have an idea of the setting, the magic system, the main character, and often some semblance of the conflict. But that’s it—no plot, no character arcs (usually), and often the magic system is fairly ill-defined. Character backstory isn’t necessarily there, yet, and neither are any of the other characters in the book.
The goal is to write the cold open, and to do it with hardly any planning in advance.
The whys and the hows and the wherefores
At first, I did this because I needed to get some words on the page. Now I do it on purpose.
I’m not a discovery writer—not really. I’m a planner, which means I create detailed outlines and execute them according to my plan. But discovery has a way of seeping in, and there is no better place for it than right at the beginning.
Test scenes are where I have the most fun. They’re where I’m the most fresh, where I haven’t exhaustively brainstormed everything, figuring out the highs and lows and everything in between. I have a blank canvas, with just the seeds of some ideas—and the resulting space to play in is awfully entertaining.
Sure, sometimes I have to modify the results. Usually, in fact. But the stuff I come up with is often incredible, and very, very useful. This is especially the case with Spice Tea. There’s something about writing when there are no lines, no strictures, no requirements. There’s something freeing about it, but I can only do it for so long. Once I’m past that opening scene, I need that structure. I need to know where I’m going. Otherwise I have nowhere to go.
But that opening scene? That opening is gold.
So there I was, sitting in a dark bar, drinking beer that was pitched somewhere between bitter grass and tears, clacking on my laptop like a hyperactive chicken with a proclivity for IPAs. I knew that I had an impossible magic system, but I hadn’t clarified how, exactly, it should work. I knew I needed a character and a villain, but I had no idea who—or what—they would be. I didn’t even know what city I was in, I don’t think. Maybe I did. It’s all a blur.
Maybe that was the ferrets’ fault.
The ferrets, you see, were born out of this test scene. They came from my beer-soaked brain, leaping off that sticky bar like that cockroach I could have sworn hadn’t been there a moment before.
Maybe I should find a different bar.
I hadn’t been expecting the ferrets.
And so the model of Spice Tea was born: strange occurrences from the sky, often involving small animals (for reasons I didn’t know at the time, but would later clarify into the system), and also involving things like weather, and coins, and Mayan faces, and a lot of stuff I just hadn’t designed yet.
All in all, it was a very entertaining experience.
The future in that scene
That opening scene became the template for the rest of the book. I took the strangeness I’d developed there, when I’d allowed my brain to just run wild, and I turned it into a system. I turned it into a plot. And sure, I had to adjust and clarify a few things. But overall, that opening scene still survives.
And so does the beginning for Part Two of Spice Tea, albeit revised. That opening—with Bitteric in the subway—was entirely written in discovery mode. I had no idea what the plot of this part of the book was going to be, because with this book I took the unusual approach of outlining each part separately (years apart). And so it was that in the dim morning hours, sitting on my now-forgotten leather recliner in an empty apartment, listening to the scritch-scritch sound of my cat’s claws on the hardwood floor, I wrote the rather strange and incredibly run-on opening to Part Two.
And turned it into an entire plot.
That’s the power of discovery. When you let it happen, sometimes it really runs away from you. Sometimes it turns into a bomb on the subway, with your characters hopelessly behind, and all of Manhattan is about to explode, and also there’s some nonsense about a tutu and glasses and Marge, your secretary who jumped out of the twenty-seventh floor window, even though she wasn’t a wizard, and dammit, where is that spice tea?
Sometimes—maybe even most of the time—that’s exactly what you need.