Alexandra Bracken is one of the inspirational wunderkind found within the writing community: she published her debut fantasy novel Brightly Woven in her late teens.
But debuting as a teenager means that your already exceptional writing ability still has plenty of room to grow – and Bracken’s certain she’s improving as the years go on. With the Darkest Minds trilogy now under her belt, Bracken’s writing style has shifted.
“I started Brightly Woven when I was nineteen and I’m twenty-seven now. The added life experience and being able to look at my own teen years in the rear-view mirror has definitely has played a role in layering in more emotional depth [to my writing],” said Bracken.
But despite the shift in writing, her enthusiasm for the written word hasn’t faded. Though she never planned to become a writer – she first participated in NaNoWriMo as a college freshman, having no urge to write something original before then – it suits her. Characters leapt to her mind, determined to make it from her brain to the paper.
But after the release of Brightly Woven, for all that she loved writing, publishing had lost its magical edge.
“Before you sign a contract, you don’t have any of the emotional baggage that comes with having people counting on you to deliver, or making edits you’re not crazy about, or trying to meet deadlines. In a lot of ways, you’re not totally sure what you’re doing, but you’re writing for yourself, because you love it.”
Writing under a contract took some of the shine out of things – but the story demanded to be told, and so she wrote. From the beginning of The Darkest Minds, she knew her characters, exactly who they were and what they wanted.
And when simply understanding and exploring her characters wasn’t enough to keep her going, she had her own way of coping.
“There’s at least one point in every book, usually after I’ve been revising over and over and I can barely stand to look at my own words and I start losing faith I’ll ever get it right, that I want to stretch out on the ground and just give up! I know that sounds super dire, but five minutes later I’m off the ground and I’ve solved whatever story problem I’d run into.”
According to Bracken, the trick to writing is loving both the highs and lows.
“More than anything, I love that writing is never boring, I love that it’s always a challenge. And you get the best high every single time you finish a story. I don’t run marathons, but it must be like getting that kind of a running high after months and years of training.”
The challenge for writers can come in many different directions – building character arcs, understanding the plot, filling in plot holes, or crafting the world that readers will lose themselves in for hours. The world detailing in the Darkest Minds series is aided by two things: Bracken’s college education and her own meticulous planning.
“I think my approach to worldbuilding owes a lot to the fact that I double majored and got a History degree in addition to an English one while I was in college. When you study different periods, the rise and fall of different societies, and you look at individual experiences, you start seeing patterns in how all of these different aspects of our lives are entwined,” said Bracken. “I will absolutely kill myself researching the smallest thing to make sure that it feels “true to life” for readers in a near-future version of our world and I’m always proud and terrified when I ‘predict’ something. When I was first plotting The Darkest Minds, I had a number of conversations with my dad about the financial reality of their situation; I’d asked him what could quickly devastate our economy in the United States and he suggested us defaulting on our national debt. Fast-forward a few years later, and suddenly Congress can’t settle on a budget…”
Bracken’s world-building always comes secondary to her character development.
“I start with a character like Ruby, knowing who she is in and out, and I ask myself, what’s going on in her world to make her this way? What was her family life like? What did her parents struggle with? What’s keeping Ruby from getting what Ruby wants? And so on… it feels a little backwards, but that’s the only way I know how to do it!”
But Bracken’s way of building worlds isn’t the only way. She doesn’t even particularly recommend it for aspiring writers. Instead, she recommends seeking out and reading everything you can – and then developing your technique on your own.
“The best advice I can give is to read absolutely everything, even the genres you think you’re not interested in. I pull a lot from the non-fiction books I read – history is better than fiction at times, I swear – but I’ve learned a lot about story construction from reading mysteries, pacing relationships from romances, and so on and so forth. Even if you hate the book, you’re still learning what doesn’t work for you.”
In the Afterlight, the final book in the Darkest Minds trilogy, will release on October 28th. You can enter to win the entire series – plus a tote bag and a puzzle – here on YA Interrobang. For more on Alexandra Bracken, visit her at her website, Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter.