YA sensation Cassandra Clare discusses the tactics she leverages to craft her bestselling Shadowhunter series and demystifies the secrets of writing for different age groups and fostering representation in fiction.
Cassandra Clare wrote her first published novel in a closet. That is, in one of those “cozy” New York City apartments, wherein the bed doubles as an office chair and the desk looks suspiciously like a windowsill. At the time, she worked the night shift as a copy editor for the National Enquirer, spending daylight hours in her cramped apartment, cranking out chapters, researching agents, writing queries, reworking her manuscript and, eventually, signing a contract for publication of the soon-to-be New York Times bestselling YA novel City of Bones.
That book would prove to be the first of several bestsellers in a multi-series collection of 12 novels (and counting)—plus several short story anthologies—known as the Shadowhunter Chronicles: tales from an urban fantasy world brimming with angels, demons, warlocks, vampires and faeries, plus the enemies and allies thereof. Of those, perhaps the best-known series within the broader universe is The Mortal Instruments sextet. Clare’s follow up, the Infernal Devices prequel trilogy, harks back to the Victorian Era, and the December 2018 release of Queen of Air and Darkness completes The Dark Artifices, a sequel trilogy to Mortal Instruments. Fans of Clare can expect to further explore the Shadowhunter universe in a new trilogy, The Eldest Curses, the first of which will be released in Spring 2019.
Despite her early successes, it wasn’t until the stellar release of her third book that the YA superstar was finally able to ditch her tabloid gig and embrace novel-writing full time. Today, the 45-year-old’s books have sold over 50 million copies worldwide in more than 35 languages and have been adapted into film, television and two manga series.
Clare, whose real name is Judith Lewis, pens her books like clockwork: She’s published at least one Shadowhunter book per year since 2007, with additional short stories and collaborative works interspersed among them. Often, she says, the processes overlap such that she’s plotting out one book while copy editing its predecessor.
Many of her co-authored works, like The Bane Chronicles novellas with Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson, belong to the Shadowhunter universe, while the five-book middle-grade Magisterium series with Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, ventures into an entirely new world.
In conversation with WD, Clare shares her thoughts on plotting a multi-part series, venturing out into middle-grade, collaborating with other writers, and more.
Your world is so intricate. Tell me about your plotting process. How do you lay out your narratives?
I’m an outliner. I know there are people who are plotters and people who are more pantsers, but I am definitely a plotter. I need to know what is going to happen in a story. So I generally start with what I call a “macro-plot,” in which I sort of take the story from Point A, where it begins, to the end, and try to lay out the significant moments. And I think pacing is a good way of looking at it, because I’m looking at the moments where the story turns.
For me, there are basically five points where the story turns: You’ve got the beginning of the story. Then you’ve got the inciting incident, something that changes things for the character so that the story [takes off]. And that’ll be a realization or an event: a birth, a death, something that causes you to answer the question of, Why now?—Why are you telling this story now, from this point? And then you have your midpoint, where the story often reverses itself or changes and you learn new information. You usually have the low point of the story where things seem lost for your characters. And then you have your denouement.
I try to plot those out, and that forms a spine on which everything else is built. Then I’ll do what I call a “micro-plot,” in which I actually plot out each chapter and what is happening in terms of the characters and the arcs and the events that are occurring in order to create a full story.
Obviously those things will change. They’re not going to stay completely the same as I move through the story; some things will work, some things won’t work. But for me, it helps to have that as a guide. And I think that does help me keep these books, which are quite sprawling and involve a lot of characters, as tightly plotted as possible.
Most of your books take place in the same universe, but you didn’t write the series in chronological order. How do you ensure consistency and continuity when you’re writing these novels that jump around in time?
I know. I keep thinking, Why did I do that? But that’s me. I try to be disciplined in my outlining and whatnot, but sometimes it’s a case of “follow your bliss”—I do the stories that I’m the most excited about at the time. And it just happened that, when I was finishing up Mortal Instruments, the thing I was most excited about was doing a historical. I had this idea and I loved it, and I wanted to do it. So I jumped back in time and did The Infernal Devices, which is set in 1878. Then I jumped forward in time and did The Dark Artifices. And now I’m jumping back to 1903 and doing [a new series called] The Last Hours.
It’s imperative for me that I have a bible. I think they often call it that in TV writing as well, where everything is noted down. You know, the genealogy of all the families, what things and how they work, the rules of magic. The location of all the major known places in the books. I refer back to that. If somebody ever stole it, I would be so doomed.
The dialogue in your books feels so natural. Do you have any advice for crafting strong conversations?
Listen to the way people actually talk. To an extent, all written dialogue is stylized where we take out the ums and the sort ofs and the minimizing language. And remember that there is a rhythm. That the back-and-forth of talking is rhythmic: Somebody gives information, somebody else reacts. You have to get that pattern down. I love writing dialogue. It’s one of my favorite things.
When I was writing Infernal Devices, one thing that was helpful to me was sitting down and listening to audiobooks and plays written in the Victorian Era, so I could get the cadence of Victorian dialogue and the way that they talked. I did it as a sort of immersion thing. For about six months, I only read books, watched movies and listened to plays that were written in the specific time period my characters were operating in, so that I was sort of walking around thinking in that kind of language.
You have a very dedicated fan base. Have you used their feedback to shape what you’ve written?
Definitely—when they give me feedback on certain characters or things that they love. I’m very interactive with my fans, and they’re very interactive with me. For instance, they absolutely love the character Magnus Bane in The Mortal Instruments series. He’s an immortal warlock, and I thought, There’s no reason he couldn’t be in The Infernal Devices, so I put him in. People love him so much and it was great to see him at a different stage of his life. It was in large part fan feedback that caused me to include him as a significant character in that other series.
That character—Magnus—is gay, correct? And beyond him, diversity is core to your books. Why is having a diverse cast of characters important to you, and how do you avoid falling victim to stereotypes when you’re writing these characters?
[Magnus’s boyfriend] Alec is based on a friend of mine I knew when I was younger who committed suicide because he was gay and his family did not accept that. Alec was a way of giving him—though he wasn’t around—a story that he would have loved. He, like me, was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, a big fan of stories and adventurers and kickass fighters. To see a character who was like him, who was this badass demon fighter and got to have all these adventures, would have meant the world to him. What I thought when I created Alec was, This will hopefully be something that can mean a lot to people who want to see themselves reflected. There’s not enough representation across all the boards.
And in the same vein, I’ve tried to create many other characters that people can see themselves in. There are autistic Shadowhunter characters. There are trans characters. There are characters with different body types. There are characters of different ability, and all these characters of different races and ethnicities. Being a Shadowhunter—being this cool sort of hero—isn’t restricted to any one kind of person.
In terms of avoiding stereotypes, it’s something that you have to keep an eye out for. When I create characters that are not like me, I always use sensitivity readers. When I was writing, for instance, the trans character Diana, who is in The Dark Artifices, I met with many trans women who live in my area and talked to them extensively about how to build her character, how to know exactly what to avoid. That was my first question. I sat down [and asked], “What do you not want to see in this character? What do you not want me to express?” And then when the book was done, I had trans readers give me their feedback and changed it accordingly.
Mortal Instruments is often referred to as a YA “urban fantasy” series, but you’ve said in the past that it has also been categorized as YA romance. How do you feel about those genre designations?
They’re marketing designations. When I first sold my book, it was sold as urban fantasy. And that’s what we looked at it as. And then Twilight came out and suddenly all of these publishers were pushing books toward being marketed as romance. There is romance in The Mortal Instruments, absolutely. I love romance and I love writing it, so that’s not a problem. There were definitely books that I saw out there that were not romance that were sort of shoehorned into this category. Then we got The Hunger Games, and everything was marketed as a dystopia.
One thing about having a career that’s now spanned about a decade is that no longer happens to me. In the early days of my books, my publisher did a lot of designing kind of romantic-looking marketing for them—part of that paranormal romance marketing boom. I’m glad that has faded away. Now the books are marketed as their own thing.
One of the things I love about YA, actually, is that it’s not broken down into those categories [as much as adult fiction]. It’s all together in the bookstore. So you write a mystery and then a romance and then a science-fiction book, they’re all going to be shelved together. But if you’re an adult author, all of those books would be shelved separately in the bookstore. YA encourages intersectional fiction. It doesn’t matter if your book is difficult to shelve. If you’ve written a science-fiction romance, you don’t have to worry about where it’s going to end up.
How does your process change when you’re writing with co-authors?
I’ve written with a bunch of co-authors who are friends of mine—Robin Wasserman, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Thompson—on the anthology series we’ve done, which are short stories set in my [Shadowhunter] world. I was influenced to do this by classic urban fantasy, books like the Thieves’ World [anthologies] I grew up reading where groups of writers would get together and write different stories all set in the same world. This was something that I grew up thinking of as completely normal, and then I realized it wasn’t something that people were still doing. I was like, “Let’s bring it back.”
That was interesting because these are all people who are very familiar with my world and my characters. We have workshops on my books together. They definitely know what they’re doing. So we would sit there and kind of back-and-forth these ideas. It was almost like working in a writer’s room on a television show, where you all know the characters and you all know the world and you’re sort of tossing ideas back and forth—that could happen or this other thing could happen.
And then when I wrote with Holly Black, and we created Magisterium, which is a five-book series for middle-grade, it was totally different. We had to build the world from the ground up, together. It wasn’t my world; it was our world. We were both equally responsible for building all the pieces of the magic system. And I didn’t have any veto power. With the anthologies, I’m kind of like the showrunner because it’s my world. But with this, Holly and I had equal say. It’s a different balance. They’re both fun in different ways.
Did you find writing for middle-grade more difficult?
I was worried that I wouldn’t have a middle-grade voice. That was how the whole discussion with Holly started—I was reading Percy Jackson in an airport. I said [to Holly], “I have this idea that I think would be a great middle-grade book but I don’t know if I have a middle-grade voice.” She wrote The Spiderwick Chronicles, which are classics, and she sort of sat up and said, “I have a middle-grade voice.”
We decided then [that] we could write this together. When we sat down to write the beginning—because we were going to use it to sell the publishers—she plopped it down in front of me and said, “Let’s see your middle-grade voice.” I was like, “You know, this is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them into the pool.” But I started writing and she was like, “This is great. This is exactly what middle-grade is like.” I was like, “Oh, thank god.”
I think I got there not because I have an inherent ability to do this, but because I’d read a ton of middle-grade before I had sat down to start. If you want to write in a genre you’re not used to, the best thing you can do is sit down and spend a couple of weeks reading in that genre.
You've done quite a bit of short fiction as well, which can be a particular challenge in these genres because you don't have quite as much room for detail. So how do you go about choosing the right details to make a short story paint a complete picture without going overboard?
Oh man, short fiction is so hard for me. One of my best friends is Kelly Link, who is a short story writer. She has been multiply awarded and nominated for the Pulitzer for her short fiction. She's brilliant, so it's a little terrifying to be around her. But she has given me great advice that a short story is more of a formal exercise—to try to think of it as the way that I generally think of novels, but that I'm telling a smaller piece of that story. And that piece of that story is often more intense. You're getting a slightly more concentrated story in a short story.
So there have been various short stories that I have written—there's one called “A Fortunate Future Day” that takes place in a sort of destroyed future world. We don't actually learn that much about everything that's happened in the world because with a short story, what you're concentrating on is your character and what happens to your character in the story: How do they change? What are you learning about this character in this story?
How did the film and TV adaptations of The Mortal Instruments come to be, and how much say do you have in that?
I have no say at all. [The TV show] came to be because they had done the movie, and the movie had done okay, but not what they wanted. And they decided that part of the issue with the movie was trying to tell this big story in a two-hour format, and that they would be better served by selling it as a television show and trying to tell the story in a much longer form format. It was an interesting move because instead of making a second film, they basically took all their materials and went to networks and were like, "We want to do this instead." And I think that that was a really interesting way to continue to develop the story. But I have literally nothing to do with it. I don't know what their plans are.
What can you tell us about your latest novel?
The Queen of Air and Darkness, which is the last book in The Dark Artifices trilogy, is out in December , and I’m going on tour for that. I’m very excited. And then the first book in The Red Scrolls of Magic, which is a spin-off series that’s just about Alec and Magnus, is coming out. After that, I have an adult series called Sword Catcher that’s coming from Random House about a boy who is kidnapped from his home and forced to be a stand-in for the crown prince of a country, and discovers that the crown prince who is in line to inherit the throne is a pretty evil guy.