Author Brandon Mull gives tips for young writers during stop in Idaho Falls
IDAHO FALLS — Brandon Mull, author of the New York Times bestselling series Fablehaven, Beyonders and Five Kingdoms, recently visited Barnes & Noble for a book signing for his latest novel, Dragonwatch. Barnes and Noble manager John Radford estimates 850 people attended Thursday night’s signing, which speaks for the author’s popularity.
We sat down with Mull before the signing to chat about Dragonwatch, Mull’s idea and story process, and advice he has for young writers.
EIN: What can you tell us about Dragonwatch?
BM: What I’m touring for right now is Dragonwatch; that’s my sequel series to Fablehaven. When I say sequel series, I mean the events of Dragonwatch will begin just after the events of book 5 in Fablehaven, which is a complete series. It begins a few months after Fablehaven, so Dragonwatch has the same main characters as Fablehaven, and it is the start of a new five-book series. Fablehaven is the best-selling series out of all of my series.
I’ve been asked for years to do more Fablehaven, and finally I found an idea worth doing. It’s the story of a dragon uprising. One of my favorite parts in Fablehaven is when they go to the dragon sanctuary, and this will allow me to spend a lot of time in the dragon sanctuaries.
I think readers will see familiar characters that they know and like if they’ve read Fablehaven.
If they haven’t read Fablehaven, they could start with Dragonwatch because I kind of reintroduce everything since it’s the start of a new bunch of trouble. They could always go back and read Fablehaven if they like Dragonwatch to get some of the history. Those who have read Fablehaven will find characters that they already know and like getting wrapped up in a bunch of new fun adventures. I’m so excited to share it.
EIN: Where do your ideas come from?
BM: In general, my books are a mixture of observation and daydreaming. I pay attention to the world around me, then I daydream about the stuff I see. Almost all the books I write have some autobiographical aspects that I’ve then layered fantasy on top of.
In Fablehaven, I set it in Connecticut, and I used to live in Connecticut from eighth grade to my junior year. I used some of the local things in Connecticut for some of the setting. For the Candy Shop Wars, I took a lot of memories from my fifth-grade year and just added magical candy that gives kids superpowers. A lot of the stuff the kids do are the kinds of things I did in fifth grade, and the kids are kind of like the kids I hung out with.
I do daydream a lot. I do layer lots of crazy fantasy over it. I almost never take things at face value. I’m always asking, “What if this happened?” I look at reality as a starting point, then I start layering fantasy on top of it.
EIN: Do you have everything planned out before you start the book or do you make it up as you go?
BM: A lot of writers are discovery writers; they’re improvising their stories. I definitely plan my story before I write it. I daydream about the story for months or years before I start writing. With Beyonders, I daydreamed about that for probably about 10 years before I started writing. What that allows me to do as I start a series is have really cool setups in book two that pay off in surprising ways. That almost requires some planning, to do some of those setups and payoffs. You could maybe get there with improvisation, but I feel a lot more confident when I know I’m setting something up that’s going to pay off later on in the series.
That said, even though I have kind of a movie in my head when I go to write the book, when I break that movie down into scenes and scene-by-scene build my story, as I write a scene, I’ll always make discoveries. Some of those discoveries make the story cooler, and when they do, they get woven into what I already have planned. There’s definitely improvisation with each scene that I write, even though I have a master plan for the story.
EIN: Do you write chronologically, or do you jump around?
BM: I totally write in order. I’ve talked to other authors, (and) there are as many different methods as there are people, it seems like. I know Diana Gabaldon, who writes the Outlander series, writes like a mosaic; she does a moment and a moment and a moment and then pieces all of those moments together into a novel. That breaks my brain to think about writing that way.
I just write it straight. I want to see what the characters are choosing and doing and that helps me track how they’re evolving and changing, and also, if I wrote it out of order, I’d probably write all the parts I most want to write first, and once I’ve written that, I think some of the other chapters would feel like broccoli, like I’d written all of my desserts first. The big finale for the book is kind of like a carrot that leads me through the book that I get to write when I get there.
If you can write a good scene, you can write a good novel.
EIN: When did your wanting to be a novelist start?
BM: When I was a kid and I read the Chronicles of Narnia, it showed how deeply a story could be imagined, and that made my imagination go crazy. When I was a kid, I wanted to go live in Narnia. I wanted it to come true, and when that couldn’t happen, I started doing it in my head and making up my own adventure stories.
When I read Lord of the Rings, it showed me how real you could make a fantasy feel.
When I read Harry Potter in college, I saw you could write the story with a young main character and make it smart and twisty so an adult could read it and a kid could read it, and they could both like it.
I think that’s one of the reasons when I do a book signing, I’ll have adults in the line, I’ll have kids in the line, I’ll have teens in the line, I’ll have whole families who read it together — and that’s what Harry Potter did for my family, and I really wanted to write that kind of fiction. I wanted to write young main characters, but make the stories cool and sometimes dark and scary and fantasy stuff we’d never seen before and still make it really high quality if I could.
Because I was inspired by the good books I read, I had lots of stories in my head. I came to feel the best thing about me was the stories in my mind, and writing was the way to share them, so I became really passionate about getting good at it.
EIN: What did you do to build up to where you are now?
BM: The most important thing I did was pay attention to how my favorite authors built their scenes, then practice writing my own scenes.
Really, a novel is a chain of scenes. If you can write a good scene, you can write a good novel. It was that. It was finding my voice as a writer; what do I sound like when I’m telling the story compared to all of my favorite authors. (I would) pay attention to how my favorite authors do it, take what I like from what other authors do, find my own voice and start telling cool stories my way.
EIN: You originally got your degree in public relations. What did your professional life start out as and how did you end up where you are now?
BM: Out of college, my first normal day job was as a marketing guy for an entertainment company. I wrote marketing copy (there), and I ended up working for a publisher writing marketing copy. It was cool because even though I wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted to do, I was learning about the entertainment business and that has served me because I make my living in the entertainment business as an author. I know a little bit more about more about the marketing side of it than some authors do because I worked in that before I was working as a novelist.
Once I was making enough money with my books, then my books became my day job.
EIN: Is there anything you wish you would have done differently in your novels or career?
BM: I’m pretty happy with how everything has worked out. There are times when I’m writing a certain book where I wish I could back and plant some seeds in an earlier book in the series, or I wish I could tweak a rule that I set up so I could have something happen that needs to happen. But for the most part, it’s worked out. I’ve been pretty satisfied with how things have gone.
(As for) my career, I started at Shadow Mountain. Chris Schoebinger, who discovered me, was the first publisher to say yes. They gave me a green light for Fablehaven. He’s here with me (at the book signing) because Dragonwatch is the sequel series to Fablehaven, so I’m publishing that with those guys for hardback.
I’m really glad I started where I started. I’m really lucky. I’ve worked with Simon & Schuster, Scholastic and Shadow Mountain; those three publishers have all done good things for me. I’ve been able to write the books I’ve wanted to write, I’ve felt really creatively free with my career, I’m making enough money to support my family, and I feel really happy about how things have gone. I’m proud of the stories I have out there and I’m proud to have my name on them. I feel like they’re stories I think are cool, and all that’s a big relief. I almost wouldn’t want to go back and mess with that because so far, so good.
EIN: Tell us a little about your family.
BM: I have four kids. It’s girl, boy, girl, boy. They are super fun. They are creative and they are curious, and my oldest loves my books — she’s loved them ever since she was tiny; she was an eager reader, kind of a dream child for a writer. My books are her favorite books, so it’s perfect. All my kids love stories and they’re all into my stories. They listen to the audio books before they can read.
I’ve got my Pingo picture books that were perfect for when they were little. That’s probably why I wrote them was to share with my little kids. I didn’t want them to go, “Dad writes books, but not for me.” All my books were for older kids and I had these tiny guys, so I wanted to write at least a couple books for tiny guys. Sometimes I’ll read other people’s picture books; I’ll read it straight the first time and then I’ll read it the daddy way, which means I take the pictures and make the weirdest story I can out of the pictures with my own words. Sometimes the daddy way makes them laugh more than the original stories.
EIN: What advice do you have for young writers?
BM: One thing I would say is to be patient with yourself. Sometimes young writers want to be perfect at writing or at storytelling immediately and they want to have success immediately, and sometimes you can do yourself a disservice because you put too much pressure on yourself. If I could talk to my younger self, I would say, “Be patient. Give yourself time to develop. You don’t have to be an NBA superstar your first time on the basketball court.”
At the same time you’re trying to tell the best story you can tell, remember that book might be a training ground for the next book. Over time you will develop and get better. The core of getting good at writing is read a lot, write a lot. Pay attention to how your favorite authors build their scenes, practice building your own scenes. Eventually you’ll get better.