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Ask the Author: Elan Mastai

“Now that my novel "All Our Wrong Todays" is out, I'm happy to answer any questions about it.” Elan Mastai

Answered Questions (27)

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Elan Mastai An interesting question. I often use music to get me into a specific frame of mind. So I might assign certain songs or bands to a character that I listen to when writing them. Or I'll go for a walk and think about how the character would see the world around them and get a running commentary in my head from that character's point of view. Sometimes I even record myself talking as them and transcribe it. There's no one way to do it, just whatever works for you as a writer.
Elan Mastai Thanks so much, Srishti, I'm really happy to hear you enjoyed the book. Yes, my next novel will explore a recognizably sci-fi concept. But, as with All Our Wrong Todays, I'll be coming at it from an unexpected and hopefully intriguing angle. I'm excited to get it to readers like you—as soon as I actually finish writing it...
Elan Mastai Jenn—for me, writer's block tends to come when I haven't thought through a story enough, so I don't know what needs to happen next because I'm unsure where it's going. Like standing at a crossroads not knowing which way to walk because you have no destination in mind. What I do is go work on something else and just think about the story that's befuddling me until I've got a better plan for it. I usually juggle a few projects at a time for just this reason.
Elan Mastai Thanks Randall. That's an astute reference, actually. I'm working with This American Life on a project and their storytelling approach has definitely influenced me. Because the book is written as a "memoir" I wanted to perform it as if it was a true story to the narrator. I wasn't trying to do an Ira Glass impression, but something about his vocal rhythms and tonal inflections—so widespread now in the podcast world—probably wormed their way into my delivery. My approach was to narrate the book like a podcast in which Tom is relating his real-life experiences to the listener.
Elan Mastai Thanks very much, Odilon.

1. I kept the structure pretty much intact. But details within that structure—the muscles, nerves, and organs inside the skeleton—evolved as I got to know the characters better through the writing process.
2. I don't think it's necessary to consult specialists if you have a good head for research and a good eye for telling details. Of course a proper expert will likely be able to tell you things about the subject that you may never otherwise find. So it depends on how crucial the research is to your story versus just some interesting shading to the plot.
Elan Mastai I think planet colonization is interesting, of course, but if the resources required to achieve such a thing were deployed to solve the many complex problems of our home world it would make a big difference. My loyalties lie with Earth.
Elan Mastai Traveling to new countries and meeting the local authors. Living in North America, we only get a fraction of the books written all over the world. So the chance to travel to promote my book and meet fellow authors and find about their work has been an unexpected but lovely experience.
Elan Mastai I'm currently writing my second novel. I've also been working on the movie adaptation of All Our Wrong Todays.
Elan Mastai I've always been fond of this quote by W. Somerset Maugham: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.”

I stick to a daily routine—usually writing 10am-1pm, take a break, get lunch catch up on email & calls, then writing again 3pm-6pm. Sometimes life intrudes and I can't do a full day's writing, but then I'll often make up for it after dinner, so that I'm averaging a solid 5-6 hours writing per week day.
Elan Mastai I do appear at author events when I can—and thanks for thinking of me for your event. It really depends on my schedule. I'd recommend contacting my American publisher Dutton if it's a US event or my Canadian publisher Doubleday if it's a Canadian event.
Elan Mastai Before I start writing, I build out a structure for the whole book. I don't like to begin until I feel like I have a terrific ending in place and that the rest of the book is durable constructed to get me—and the reader—there. But I always leave lots of room to discover things along the way, so that the actual writing feels spontaneous and alive with possibility. Like a long-distance road trip: you plan ahead where you'll be stopping for each night, but you leave enough space in your schedule to find lots of adventure and surprises along the way.
Elan Mastai I never give up on anything, because I never know when an old idea will find a home in a new story. It happens to me all the time.

But here's an idea I'll probably use one day but you can borrow for your story:

An old pencil, handmade from gnarled wood and a length of charcoal, that you can use to draw a door on any flat surface leading to wherever you need to go. Its power is finite, so every time it's used, the pencil gets smaller and smaller. The wood is all that's left of a sorcerer's staff and the charcoal is the burnt remains of.... well, that would be telling.
Elan Mastai A few thoughts on screenwriting:

1. If you haven't written a screenplay before, I recommend tracking down the scripts for movies you love—most are online—to see what they looked like on the page. Screenwriting is a peculiar literary form, because you're telling a compelling story while also creating what is essentially a blueprint for the crew to make the movie.

2. Movies should be propulsive, you watch them minute-to-minute in real-time, so think about what's happening on each page that will keep the audience glued to the screen. And movies are expensive, so there should be no wasted moment—everything you write, even people in a room talking, costs a lot of money, so consider if you really, really need it.

3. In movies, character is revealed by the choices they make, so do your best to create situations where your characters have to make clear decisions that illuminate their inner thoughts and changing opinions. A movie is about what a character does—and doesn't do.

4. Even though you're writing a literary document, it will be a movie, an audio-visual experience, so you should always be asking: what exactly is the audience seeing and hearing onscreen right now? Essentially you're describing on the page a movie that only you have seen.

5. Screenwriting is a laconic form. You want to use the minimum number of words on the page to convey the maximum audio-visual experience, so every word matters, just like in a movie every shot matters. This is of course true of any kind of writing.

Hope this is helpful.
Elan Mastai Not knowing the specifics of your circumstances, it's a bit hard to answer. But generally speaking:
1. Give yourself permission to write badly. You're going to rewrite your book so many times anyway. It's always easier to rewrite something that exists than to create material from scratch. Just write it badly and fix it later.
2. Have you figured out your ending? Sometimes the struggle comes from not knowing where you're going, like packing the car for a road trip with no destination in mind. Why are you writing this book? What do you have to say, ultimately, about your character's journey? Choose an ending, even if you change it later, and then the book is all the things that have to happen to get you there.
3. Don't think about writing a book. Think about writing a page. Think about writing a paragraph. Small, manageable goals. I wrote my first draft 250-500 words a day for five months. I didn't think about writing a novel. I thought about writing 250-500 words a day. To put that in context, this answer is 188 words long.
Hope this helps!
Elan Mastai The drive to connect with other people, communicate what I'm thinking about, and hopefully engage in conversation with readers. I know a novel can seem like a pretty one-sided conversation, but for me it's ideally the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it. Life is complex, messy, and confusing, but books offer a powerful way to step back and, through the veil of fiction, make sense of our world. Also, I just really enjoy entertaining people—that's the fun part, for me.
Elan Mastai Kurt Vonnegut's work, particularly "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five", David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas", Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Travel's Wife", and Philip K Dick's "A Scanner Darkly" were influences. Sheila Heti's "How Should A Person Be?" inspired me to hone a very specific first-person voice for "All Our Wrong Todays", as did Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". In terms of movies, the influence was more in contrast. There are many vivid dystopian visions of the future—from "Blade Runner" to "Mad Max" to "Strange Days" to "The Matrix" to "Children of Men" to "The Terminator" to "Brazil" to "A Clockwork Orange" to "The Hunger Games" and on and on—but I wanted to imagine a more optimistic and utopian take on the future we might have had... and then take it all away, replacing it with a far more familiar dystopia: our own actual present day.
Elan Mastai Thanks Dee. I replied to you on Facebook, but yes—I agree, pacing is so crucial. Having worked as a screenwriter for so many years, I'm always, always thinking about pace. I never want to wear out my welcome as a storyteller or ask for more indulgence from a reader than the story deserves. If I overdo it on the next book, let me know!
Elan Mastai Thanks Caitie. This is kind of a big question and hard to answer in a concise manner! Briefly, I believe parallel worlds are eminently possible and even probable but the limits of human perception mean it's highly unlikely we'll have any conscious interaction with them in our lifetime. What future technology might hold, I don't know, any more than my great-grandmother, born in 1899, could've predicted the smartphone I'm typing this on. But more to the point, our ability to imagine parallel worlds and alter egos, whether or not they're pure invention, allows fiction to influence reality in profound and powerful ways—for better and for worse. I guess I'm basically saying: I don't know, but it's wonderful to think about it.

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