Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures series is a hit. A huge hit. The series has been published in over 40 different countries and the Warner Bros. movie is opening this weekend. But before they were bestselling authors, the two friends made video games (Margaret worked on the Spider-Man Activision game), taught in schools and (most importantly) took strange bets with their teenage kids and relatives on whether or not they could write a compelling story about magic that didn't involved vampires. That bet paid off, big time. We chatted with Margaret and Kami on the phone about their strange rise to fame, and hit them up for writing tips on sharing the page with your partner and keeping the camp out of teen romance. And of course, we geeked out.
What's the secret to writing with a partner?
Kami Garcia: The secret is to be best friends so you fight about every single thing in the entire world, except for the book, because you're so exhausted from fighting about everything else, like sisters. That's the secret.
Margaret Stohl: I would add to that pizza and caffeine… Also we wrote the book on a dare for my teenage daughter and her sisters, and Kami's sisters, this group of teenagers. So partly the secret is to know who you're writing for. And they gave us really specific instructions. They said, "No vampires, a boy telling the story not a girl, why can't the girl do something besides fall in love?" And we wrote to them. It was really a story, not a book. It took 12 weeks, we wrote it like serialized fiction where they would come home and read bits and ask, "When is Ridley coming back she's so bad!" And we would go in and write a Ridley chapter.
Kami: We were not writing to get published. We weren't going to submit this anywhere, we were writing to win a bet and for 7 kids that we knew. I think one of the tricks was it never felt like our story. It always felt like Gatlin was a real place, these real people we were writing for and this story was for them. So we weren't as possessive in the same way as some people are when they write. If we didn't write something that was great, we wanted the other person to take it out so the teens wouldn't make fun of it.
Then how did you end up getting published?
Margaret: The teens started passing around our story in their high school, so we were going to put the book on a website. My family makes video games for a living, I've been making video games for 16 years and my sister-in-law builds websites so we thought we'd put it online so the rest of the kids could read it. That way people won't have to text us in the middle of the night asking for pages. My friend who is a middle grade writer, Pseudonymous Bosch, told us not to put it online and then (without telling us) sent it into his agent. Later on I got a call from someone in New York City and I told Kami, "Guess what, someone in New York likes our book!" Everything happened really quickly after that. It was auctioned, it went to Little Brown, it sold to a movie.
What are the rules when writing about magic? How do you keep it grounded? How do you start world building the Casters and how to do you keep yourself in check because it is magic and you can honestly change anything you want?
Kami: That's the easiest part for us, because Margie made video games which is entirely about rule sets and building a universe. I'm a huge comic book fan, and both of us grew up on fantasy. We had charts and tables and family trees. There are things we know about the origins of their magic that aren't in any of the books. I think, for us, that's the way our minds work.
Margaret: We came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you'll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect. scrupulous That comes from reading fantasies as a child… There's a fantasy writer from England named Susan Cooper, and I was the head of the Dark is Rising fan club. At all my book events I end up reciting the poem from the front of the Dark Is Rising.
Kami: Prove it!
*Margaret Races into the When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back; Three from the circle, three from the track...….*
How do you write teen fantasy without getting campy?
Kami: I think you have to take your story really seriously. We treated Lena and Ethan like real people. We also have a lot of respect for teenagers. We know that their problems are real, they fall in love, they have problems and their lives are completely controlled by their parents and teachers. They don't get to make their own decisions. Yet, when you're a teen it's almost like your feelings are amplified. But powerless, it's such a difficult time.
Margaret: Also it's about getting into the minds of the characters. If you look at Doctor Who it's a Time Lord in a blue box who travels around the universe. It's a silly concept, but it's one of the most brilliant, emotional experiences because it's sort of about what is humanity. When you're writing about superpowers you're writing about power. When you're writing about immortals you're writing about mortality. We try and tap into that a little.
There are a lot of literature and pop culture references in this movie and book. Slaughterhouse Five is brought up a lot. Did that influence the structure of the story?
Kami: The biggest book to influence the structure of the story was To Kill a Mockingbird. Because the teens that were were writing for were reading To Kill a Mockingbird and they were complaining to us about how irrelevant and lame and boring it was. And why did they have you read this old fashioned book that was no longer relevant. We set out to prove that it was relevant. Every single poem, comic book character, TV show, movie book is something that one or both of us love...
Margaret: We believe that teenagers are smart and passionate. It's harder to write for them than adults because they will call bullshit on you. We kept my middle schooler home from school for three days before we turned in our final draft because she was so mean, and so brutal at editing out all the cheesy bits. She would roll her eyes and make fun of us, and it was what we needed. You better have your story down before you take it to a teenager. So we wanted to show smart, literate, witty teenagers who care about things and were more then what you might see on any given day on The CW, not that I have a problem with the CW... it's a different kind of teen.