Back in March, Dorothy and I had the chance to interview the lovely Gabrielle Prendergast. She has written multiple award winning books, such as Audacious, Capricious, Zero Repeat Forever, and many others!
We had some burning questions to ask her, and here are some of her responses!
Dorothy: How do you choose the topic for your books?
Gabrielle: I have a lot of ideas for stories all the time, but I obviously can’t pursue them all. So, usually what I’ll do is start writing a few pages and typically I can tell if this story will continue. I’ve abandoned plenty of projects around a quarter or a third way through because I felt that the story wasn’t going anywhere or it was being forced along. Sometimes I go back to those later, but generally I would only write a story if it really starts speaking with me. The other factor on whether or not I write a book is what sort of feedback with the outside world. Right now, I’m currently writing a book because I was given a grant by the Canadian government. I had written a chapter along with an outline and pitched it to them. They liked it, so now I’m writing that!
Basically, even if I’m working on something and it isn’t speaking to me, if someone paid me for it, I’ll finish writing it. It’s either I’m getting paid for my work or I feel like the story is flowing well and I’m finding it easy to say the things I want to say. There are times where I go off on a tangent and I end up writing about something completely different. When that happens I usually abandon it. I am trying to be better at discipling myself and sticking with the outline, but it’s a process. I also like having multiple projects going on at the same time. I try to keep the number under seven. Right now I have a romantic comedy, the Canada Council book, another middle grade book, the beginning of a young-adult fantasy, an adult romance, and a picture book. So, that’s about six but there’s probably a few other projects I’m currently working on right now.
Dorothy: Since you have to juggle so many different projects, do any of your stories accidentally overlap?
Gabrielle: Not really…although I sometimes do like to think of them as being in the same world! So, like my books Audacious and Capricious are purely contemporary and don’t have any fantastical elements in them. However, it’s quite fun to think of them as prequels to Zero Repeat Forever. We don’t see these characters in Zero Repeat Forever, but something might’ve happened to them that led into Zero Repeat Forever. I also just finished writing this fairy trilogy for Orca and I like to think of this series as also being in the same world. All my books are set in Canada, but they’re set in different places. The setting of The Crossroads takes place mostly in Vancouver and Zero Repeat Forever is set in Calgary. So I guess while Calgary is being invaded by aliens, Vancouver is having some fairy land troubles!
Dorothy: What genre do you like writing the most?
Gabrielle: Ohhhh…that’s hard. I really like writing science fiction and I really love reading fantasy. However, it’s really hard for me to write fantasy because I tend to overthink magic. I think that if you ponder about magic long enough and get into the details, it ends up becoming science fiction. In Harry Potter, for example, there are some people with magic and some without. If I was writing that, I would be thinking, “Well is it a gene? Is it genetic? It passes from parent to child so it must be genetic in some way. How would this gene work and could you use gene therapy to turn a muggle into a wizard?”. I would ask myself all these questions and once you get there, it basically becomes science fiction and not fantasy anymore.
Dorothy: How much research do you have to do for each book and does it vary?
Gabrielle: Yes, it definitely does vary. Sometimes you just need to research things as they come up. I was talking with some people the other day about the armor that the aliens in my book, Zero Repeat Forever had. I originally wanted the armor to be bulletproof but not necessarily completely impermeable. So I did some research and it turns out that the bulletproof vests that police officers wear are very similar to what I was thinking of. They can stop a bullet from going through, but a knife can go right through the vest. It was perfect, that’s exactly what I wanted. Other authors might’ve read a whole book about bulletproof vests and would’ve gone to the police department to ask if they can feel the material, but I didn’t feel the need to do that. Basically I do the research as I write. It’s also hard to know what is considered research, because technically everything you consume could be used in a book. Recently I’ve been reading some historical nonfiction and I was thinking about maybe writing something with those elements.
Currently, I haven’t conceptualized anything yet but it could turn into a new project. What also happens is, I’ll start writing and then I think, I need a location for this. With Cold Falling White, I was working through a scene and I realized that I needed to picture where this is on a map. So I got the map of Canada out and I was looking around. My plan was for the setting to be north of where Zero Repeat Forever was. Originally I was thinking somewhere around northern Alberta and BC, near the Rocky Mountains. But then I looked over at Saskatchewan, and I realized there is a dune sea just south of Lake Athabasca, which is way up north near the border of the Northwest Territories.
I found the concept so cool! Like a dune sea in Saskatchewan means that it’s sand, but when it snows, it’s basically snow on a desert. So I started looking up pictures of it and I fell in love with the idea. That small area became the location for several of the scenes in Cold Falling White, even though I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. The same thing happened with another scene in Cold Falling White. The hydroelectric dam in the story was also the result of me poking around on the map. I was looking around somewhere north of Prince George and I found this dam. I had visited a nearby town a few years ago so I knew of the location. As I was working with the whole concept, I realized that the dam is actually going to be a part of the plot and not just a location in the background. So, that’s the kind of stuff that happens and it should happen before I start writing, but it doesn’t. I usually do it while I’m going through a book. Often I don’t know how a story is going to end until I’m actually working on it. Sometimes the bits of research that I have to do to get through a scene, end up being the element that ties the whole story together.
Dorothy: What prompts you to write a story?
Gabrielle: It can really be anything. Quite often it’s a title, but it can also be a dream. Several of my projects have been inspired by dreams that I’ve had. One example of that is Zero Repeat Forever. It can also be a character. For example, when I wrote Audacious I knew what kind of character I wanted to write because it was semi-autobiographical and was based on my own experiences in high school. Other times it’s a feeling, like Zero Repeat Forever was inspired by a dream but the dream wasn’t about an alien invasion or anything like that. The dream evoked a feeling of not knowing whether or not you are being imprisoned or protected. That feeling carried on into the themes of Zero Repeat Forever. There are also times where I just want to write about a trope. For example, with the fairy land trilogy I had just finished, I knew I wanted to write about fairies because I have been obsessively reading Sarah J. Maas, Holly Black, and all kinds of fairy books lately.
My publisher Orca also does these series for middle grade readers that are simplified stories and within their collections, they don’t have a lot of fantasy. So I pitched a fantasy story that’s a spin on the classic idea of there being a fairy kingdom. I chose that topic because the idea of there being another world is pretty much universal to all cultures which would make it easier for people who might not be familiar with English folklore to understand. They agreed and gave me a green light. Afterwards I also wanted to include the concept of these fairies stealing a child and then you have to go into that world to rescue the child. This is an archetypal story in many, many cultures so it would be easy for people to understand. I only had 16,000 words to tell this story so I had to be very simple about it, but that’s basically how I wrote my latest book, The Crossroads. This book is actually the first in a trilogy, the other two being The Werewood and The Overwood. The plot is basically about a human boy who’s younger brother and sister are both fairies which leads to a whole bunch of problems. Nevertheless, going back to what I’ve said before, what prompts me to write a story can really be anything.
Dorothy: What do you think is the most important element to a story?
Gabrielle: Conflict is really important, but I think it’s crucial to have a protagonist. That may seem obvious but you would be surprised at the things that I see! When you are writing a full book, you have the liberty to have more than one protagonist. For example, Zero Repeat Forever and Cold Falling White have two and three protagonists respectively. However, within each of their stories, they need to have room to grow. All my characters are flawed when the story starts. At the beginning of the story they’re moody, ignorant, sad, depressed, mean, unsure of themselves and all kinds of stuff. Even when you are telling a story that is a little gentler and has less conflict. It’s not going to be interesting unless you have that room for your character to change and grow. Otherwise it really would be a slice of life and that’s okay once in a while, but that’s not going to sustain people for a whole book. I can’t stand it when you open on the first page and the character already knows how to sword fight and is perfect in every way. They’re rich, they’re pretty confident with themselves and they don’t have any problems. Then at that point, why not end the story because nothing bad is ever going to happen with them!
Zach: I myself am an aspiring writer and really enjoy writing short stories, so do you have some professional tips for me to better develop my stories and characters?
Gabrielle: Well, I am not the person to ask about short stories because I find it quite difficult to write things that are short. Most of the time, when I try writing a short story, it ends up becoming a short novel! It can be quite short, like The Crosswood is only 15 000 words and that is technically a short story, but I call it a novella or a novelette. The thing that makes a difference is that when I write my stories, they are broken into chapters so that it is structured like a novel. Sometimes though, short stories are much more contained than that. All I can really tell you is what I was told when I was learning how to write short stories, as I have written some award-winning short stories. This advice goes for novel-writing, screen-writing, and pretty much everything: it is all about the structure! So, we start with the beginning of our story, then go for the rising action, have some sort of climactic scene, and then it basically resolves really quickly after that. This is what you are aiming for when you write a short story.
In a novel, movie, or a screenplay, it goes the same way. Going back to what I was saying earlier about how characters need room to change, this arc represents their change, with the plot driving the change and the things that are happening to them instead of just the things that are happening around them. When I used to teach screenwriting, I would say that you need to have turning points in screenplays, just like you need to have them for short stories and novels too. Basically, it is a three-act structure, like the Harry Potter books. For example, the first turning point in Harry Potter is when Harry is told that he is a wizard, and the whole process of getting the letter, Hagrid telling him, and then taking him away from the Dursleys to Hogwarts. This is something that has happened in the plot that has affected him personally; it can’t be something else big. I used to say to my students that if their turning point is a bridge exploding, the main character either has to be on the bridge, or someone they love has to be on the bridge. It can’t just be a bridge exploding on the other side of the world!
The event really needs to have an impact on them; it needs to be something big and dramatic, but it also needs to affect the character personally. The same goes for short stories, and even more so in fact, because short stories are so short that everything happening in the story needs to happen to the main character. You can’t be spending a lot of time with extraneous characters and all that goes on with them, since it all basically needs to be about the main character and their reactions to what happens to them. However, it can’t just be about things happening to them, but also the main character making choices in response to that. When Harry starts getting letters from Hogwarts, he actually stops and reads the letters before then running off to Hogwarts. So really, he could have made a different choice, or he could have done nothing at all, but he made choices to go.
We see the same thing in Star Wars as well, where Luke Skywalker buys the droids and gets the message from Leia, finding out that she needs help. Luke originally decides not to help until the villains come in and kill his uncle and aunt, where he then decides that he needs to save the princess to defeat the bad guys. This is him making a decision, which is what drives the plot forward. The thing I would say about short stories is to always have a protagonist, focus on them, give them room to grow and change, give them decisions to make based on what is happening to them, and make every step of the journey greater than the last.
Dorothy: How do you usually write your characters?
Gabrielle: I like to make them up as I go along! I usually have an idea of who I want them to be in my head when I start. I want my books to be diverse, so I like to step back and ask myself, who are these kids in a classroom? Then I start thinking about their backgrounds and family situations. I like to include a variety of family situations in my books so some of my characters only have one parent, others have both parents, and a few have step-parents. Despite that, a lot of my characters tell me who they are as I am writing. Like literally. For example when I was writing Audacious I introduced this character called Sam who I was sure was going to be the main love interest of the book. Then a few scenes later when Sam and the main character, Ella, were talking about what their names were short for, Ella mentioned that her name is short for “Raphaelle.” Sam commented that it sounded like a biblical name and Ella responded by saying that isn’t Sam just short for Samuel. But then in that moment, Sam responded by saying, no it’s actually short for Samir. It was then that I realized, oh this character is actually Muslim.
I didn’t know that beforehand, but he told me. After figuring that out, I had to do some more research and sort out what his background was. But at that moment he told me, on the page, who he was. That type of thing happens sometimes, which is a little disconcerting but my process isn’t very organized. I would better compare my process to sculpting. I’ve read that when sculptors sculpt from big blocks of marble they just chip away at the bits that don’t fit. You start with a character who is basically a block of marble and then you keep chipping away at it, trying to reveal different parts of them. The character isn’t finished until the end of the book, and sometimes not even until the end of the second book! Like I was discovering new things about Raven even when I was writing Cold Falling White! Sometimes it was based on little throwaway lines from the first book and other times it was introducing new aspects of her character.
Zach: When I am writing short stories, I find that the hardest part is not really creating the protagonist, but having a great antagonist and villain. What do you think is the recipe to making a really good villain?
Gabrielle: It is extremely important for your villain to have their own life, background, and motivation. One of the things that you learn in screenwriting, which I recommend you get some books about because screenwriting will teach you a lot about characters, structure, plot, and almost everything else that can be used in short stories. The antagonist, or really any character that plays an important role in the plot, should have at least a goal and a motivation. Obviously though, they need to have details like an age, a name, a race, a family background, and perhaps some beliefs and attitudes for their personality, but they also need to have a goal and a motivation. The goal can be anything, but the motivation is much more important than the goal, in my opinion. With Harry Potter, Harry’s goal from the very first book is to defeat Voldemort; as soon as Harry hears his name, he becomes determined to defeat him. Why? Because Voldemort killed his parents, and that’s Harry’s motivation, which is so much more important.
Every character has a goal that they want to kill someone, like James Bond, Jack Reacher, John Wick, and all these other detectives and stuff; they all want to kill somebody, but that is not an interesting or unique goal. What makes all those characters interesting, however, is the reason that they want to kill another person. It is essentially the same with villains: when you look at the Lord of the Rings, the villain is Sauron, who is just a glowing eye, but we never know or find out why he is evil, he just is! That was alright back in the 1940s and 1950s when those books came out, but that would not fly now. With Harry Potter again, we eventually learn why Voldemort is who he is. In fact, if we look back on it, we know pretty much from the start that his name means “run from death”, which means that he is afraid of death and explains why his followers are known as Death Eaters. He tries to become immortal because of his fear of death, with his mother dying, etc. Voldemort would not be nearly as interesting as a villain if we didn’t learn all those details. He actually starts to get really interesting starting from the second book, where we meet him as a young man through his journal.
When you are creating an antagonist, it is so important to give them their own story and motivation; you, as the writer, should love them and be very sad when they are ultimately defeated, and hopefully your reader will also be kind of sad when they are defeated if you have done your job correctly. Today, you can’t just have monsters anymore. In the old days, you could have monsters like Dracula just be your villain. If you were rewriting Dracula now, you would have to make his character so much more motivated, even though the original was still a brilliant book. Even when it was made into a movie, like the Dracula movie that was made in the 1990s with Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder, they gave Dracula this whole background story about how his wife died and he could not save her when he was still a living man. This explains why he is so obsessed with immortality, which is not in the book, where he was just sort of a bad guy for no real reason. That is what you really need for your antagonist to be successful.
Dorothy: Since you have written a few children’s books in your career, do you prefer writing those or young adult fiction? Which one do you think is easier?
Gabrielle: I think I like writing teen books better because I can put romance in them. Kids books are fun and I enjoy writing them but there’s something different about romance. In The Crossroads, the characters are thirteen and I was hoping to put romance in the trilogy but my publisher shut that idea down. Which I thought was a shame. Although I like teen books more, they are also harder because they’re longer and they need to be a little more sophisticated. You can’t get away with doing cute things with the plot because teenagers will most likely not be interested in it. It feels like my mind is still set to when I was seventeen or eighteen so when I write about teens, I really feel like I’m closer to them. On the other hand, writing about kids makes me feel like I’m their mom. Which is fine! But writing about teens it feels like I’m one of the characters, not just the mom character.
A big thank you to Gabrielle Prendergast for joining us in this wonderful interview. Please check out some of her books, including Audacious and Zero Repeat Forever, with newer titles like The Crossroads coming out soon!