Patrick Ness explains the secret of writing an unforgettable book

Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking book series has become an obsession for readers worldwide, and now it's becoming a movie from Robert Zemeckis and Charlie Kaufman. Check out our short review of Ness' new novel, More Than This, plus an interview where Ness gives invaluable advice to new writers.

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In the first pages of More Than This, the new YA novel by Patrick Ness, the main character drowns. Then the story begins.

Seth, the teenaged protagonist, awakens in a place that is both familiar and strange. He must be dead — or is he? Why does he seem to be wandering alone through a dust-covered, abandoned version of his hometown? What happened to get him here? While sifting through fragmented memories of his past, Seth spends much of the book just trying to understand where he is and what's really going on. Along the way, a sincere, thought-provoking story unfolds. The non-linear narrative shifts between present and past, washing over the reader in waves of sensory impressions. In the hands of a lesser writer, that opening scene might be a gimmick leading up to a big plot twist reveal at the end. But Seth's death is a meaningful part of the story, and while there are twists and revelations throughout, it's the personal, internal mysteries that offer the real challenges. The idea is perhaps less about pegging the world into solid answers than about learning how to handle the questions. Here, the facts of the world remain stubbornly elusive, and the task at hand is not primarily to map out that landscape, but to understand the self within it.

One fascinating aspect of More Than This is how it refuses to establish up front what type of novel we are in. Plenty of stories begin under uncertain circumstances, but usually provide indicators for the reader to place the book itself within a comfortably familiar genre. When I began reading More Than This, I felt adrift, attempting to categorize what I was reading. (I mean, look at that cover — it offers no help at all!) My uncertainty paralleled Seth's, who's wondering: Is this all in my mind? Is there a psychological explanation, or a spiritual one? Is this a science-fictional scenario? What type of situation are we even dealing with here? The reader may be asking the same questions. Approaching a book without knowing the ground rules can be a disorienting experience. It breaks down the distance between us and the protagonist, because we can't sit back complacently to observe a character as he struggles to understand what's happening; we're right there with him.

Patrick Ness explains the secret of writing an unforgettable book

Readers familiar with author Patrick Ness from his multi-award-winning Chaos Walking series will find quite a change of pace here. Like that series, More Than This is published for a Young Adult market. But Chaos Walking was set on a planet filled with "Noise", the unfiltered contents of everyone's thoughts spilling out into a overwhelming barrage of collective information. After a densely plotted world of Noise, More Than This brings us to a place of empty echoing silence, of personal introspection punctuated by scenes of sudden intensity.

Other characters do eventually show up, but they're more sketched than fully fleshed out. There may be plot reasons for this; there are certainly emotional reasons. Because More Than This embodies a mood of isolation that will be familiar to readers who've been there. Seth's loneliness and alienation reflect that reality. Without ever preaching or getting message-y about it, the book portrays the emotional truth of a young person in pain, trying to make sense of his world, and learning to reach for something more.


Here's our exclusive interview with Ness:

Did you set out to write a story that defied easy classification? Or is that just where you live?

I like uncategorizable books is probably the short answer, but it's also a writing ethos. I'm quite stubborn about demanding I be the one who chooses what I use from which palette, which by extension means I refuse to accept anyone else's limitations on that palette. I won't have a literary fiction straitjacket that says I can't use genre elements, but likewise I won't accept from genre that I can't use "literary" elements, either (though I do think some of these so-called limitations are straw men). It's really just trying to stick to what the story needs best. I'm okay with that as a reader, so I just assume people will be okay with that as readers, too.

For More Than This, though, the story was asking to push some boundaries. I kind of see it in three parts. Part 1 asks a question. Part 2 answers that question in a YA kind of way (which I don't see as pejorative at all). But then Part 3 asks, are you sure? And it's in that "are you sure" that's the fun of the book, but also the very serious theme of the book. Learning to live without knowing what happens next. Learning to live with boundaries that shift and change. It's what life is, after all.

But honestly? I usually only notice this stuff in retrospect. When I'm writing, I'm just in it and trying to figure out what seems best.

You've stated that you write books for yourself: books you want or would have wanted to read. In what ways does More Than This speak to the teenage you?

That's absolutely right. This one was definitely for the teenage me, basically because I could so easily have been Seth. That's the entirety of it. And how I would have loved a book that showed me I wasn't alone.

There still aren't many books with gay protagonists in teen lit, partly because publishers fear it will limit the audience. Is this something you've run up against? What would you like to see happening more in the field, along these lines?

To be completely honest, I've not run up against a problem a single time. Not one editor has asked me to draw anything back or expressed any sort of concern. Granted, I'm in a lucky position at the moment, so perhaps my experience isn't typical (and hell, I'd like to see them TRY and complain) but no, not a single eyelash batted. Which was great, I've got really good publishers who have always been willing to take chances.

And sure, I'd love to see more, but my silent answer to this question is always, "Well, what I really want to see are just more good books." I'd be THRILLED if those good books contained more diversity in their line-ups and made more room for more kinds of teens. And there's no reason on Earth why those can't be awesome books. Which is what I want. Just please let them be good.

For example, I just read David Levithan's Every Day, which is about a genderless being who spends each day in a different body until one day, of course, that being falls in love. The skipping through gender and sexuality issues is fantastic and new and refreshing, but it's handled so skillfully and in such an exciting, accessible, beautiful way. That's the kind of book I'd love to see more of. And there's certainly lots and lots of room for it.

One of the things going on in More Than This is that our main character is growing up gay in a world which makes that difficult. I love that this is one of the things going on, amid a whole lot of other stuff. It's not presented as Seth's Central Problem, not by a long shot, and he doesn't have to struggle to come to terms with his sexuality; he's pretty matter-of-fact about it.

This sounds terribly pompous and I really don't mean it that way, but there's an axiom that "One of the many ways to change the world is to act as if it's already changed." I apply this a lot to gay characters - Ben and Cillian in the Chaos Walking books are my best example - and for Seth, it was the same. I believe it's a matter-of-fact issue, so by god, I'm going to treat it that way. I also wanted to play with the expectation, "Oh, THAT's why he's had difficulties" and then go on and say that isn't it at all. He's had the same difficulties that any teenager has felt, that first wanting of someone all your own, which is so universal.

But on the other hand it really was important to me to write a book in which a gay teen could see themselves where that fact wasn't the whole of themselves. Amazingly, almost no one mentions it! They get it, they see him and understand him, and their attention then turns to the world of the book and the questions it's asking. Which is what you want in a perfect world, after all.

Seth is coping with deep guilt and pain from a traumatic event in his past, and there's an unflinching exploration of the suicidal urge. It's not the first time that your books have dealt explicitly with violence, and the criticism has been made that this is inappropriate or immoral in a book for younger readers. How do you respond?

Yeah, this comes up quite a lot, but my answer is always the same: read what teenagers write themselves. Those stories contain more darkness and harrowing events than ANYTHING any YA writer would ever publish. So they're clearly thinking about these things, and my philosophy is that if you don't engage with the darkness in YA books, then you're abandoning them to face it by themselves. In my opinion, THAT's the immoral position. Do it truthfully, do it honestly, and I don't see a problem at all.

Much of your work has been designated Young Adult and/or Science Fiction, two genres that are known for lots of vibrant community among writers. Have you connected much with those literary scenes, or are you more of a solitary scribbler?

Well, I'm also a distance runner and most of my friends end up being runners, which is just a weird quirk. I do have quite a few writer friends, but we almost never talk about writing, so I guess my answer is yes to both. Online is such a brilliant, brilliant way to connect with young readers - even if they just want to tweet "Hey, I read your book!" - that absolutely I connect with that. But I also treat writing as solitary and keep it to myself as long as I can.

What kinds of stories did you read, growing up? Who are some favorite authors you find yourself returning to, over and over?

It's hard to describe what I like, and the best answer I've been able to come up with - which still isn't entirely satisfactory - is 1) a book that shows me something new (in any fashion) and 2) feels like it had to be written or the author would combust. I read authors like Nicola Barker and Peter Carey and Chris Adrian and Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, because they feel like people writing under a life-or-death compulsion, no matter the genre (and I really mean that, in sf I think of Tricia Sullivan or Neal Stephenson). Sure, there's subject matter that I get bored of - like the million and one American novels about nice white Southerners during the Civil War (I mean, come on) - but an author who, in a sense, doesn't care if anyone reads it, they just need to tell this damn story: I'm there.

Patrick Ness explains the secret of writing an unforgettable book

I did this growing up, too. I read everything I could get my hands on just to find different stuff, but I always gravitated back to people like Daniel Manus Pinkwater, the hero of budding young weird writers everywhere. I bless him to this day.

What's something really juicy and good that you've read/watched/heard recently?

Gosh, stuff all over the place. I just read George Saunders' essay collection The Brain Dead Megaphone, which is brilliant. And the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is stunning. Those two, that's what I'd recommend.

You've spoken about writers as singers, not songwriters. I find this idea profoundly useful; could you elaborate on what you mean?

Well, I believe that books aren't songs; they're the performance of a song. So god yes, choose a bloody good song, but your reader wants to hear you sing it amazingly. It's kind of the synthesis of the way that genre and literary can snipe at each other: The literary complaints that genre is all idea and no execution and the genre complaint that literary is all style with no foundation (though again, I do wonder to what extent this "battle" is real or relevant anymore, but still). It's just a way for me to really focus on the fact that book needs both: it needs a great song, but that song needs to be sung beautifully, passionately, playfully, originally. If you sing beautifully about nothing, no one will listen. If you sing badly about great stuff, no one will listen. Ideas are everywhere, but my theory is that a writer doesn't just think of an idea, they perform them.

Just a thought, though; there's all kinds of ways to look at writing. No one can tell you how to write, they can only tell how they write. Big difference!

Any advice for those starting to write?

I always give the same one: write a book you'd want to read yourself. You'd be amazed at how many people don't. But if you love it, I really believe your joy will be in it and that's something readers respond to, no matter how odd the story. Forget market or publishers or whatever. Just write with fire and joy, and in my own experience, those are the stories of mine people have wanted to read. Sounds simple, isn't, do it anyway.