I’ve heard countless ravings about Ilsa J. Bick’s ASHES trilogy, but I’m incredibly excited to try out her new book—WHITE SPACE. It sounds dark, eerie, and utterly compelling. I’m thrilled to share with you a guest post on Ilsa’s journey to publication.
In the tradition of Memento and Inception comes a thrilling and scary young adult novel about blurred reality where characters in a story find that a deadly and horrifying world exists in the space between the written lines.
Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian whom a stroke has turned into a vegetable, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives so ghostly and surreal it’s as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. But one thing Emma has never doubted is that she’s real.
Then she writes “White Space,” a story about these kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard.
Unfortunately, “White Space” turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer. The manuscript, which she’s never seen, is a loopy Matrix meets Inkheart story in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page. Thing is, when Emma blinks, she might be doing the same and, before long, she’s dropped into the very story she thought she’d written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, Emma meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities: Eric, Casey, Bode, Rima, and a very special little girl, Lizzie. What they discover is that they–and Emma–may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose.
Now what they must uncover is why they’ve been brought to this place–a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written–before someone pens their end.
In a word? My road’s been a bit bizarre . . . but then so am I.
I never dreamed of being a writer, gave it zero thought, sucked at keeping a journal. (I find my own thoughts and dreams and snarks to be utterly boring.) The closest I ever came to writing anything as a kid was a terrible rip-off of L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time where I had the school and all the other kids taken over by this disembodied principal-brain. Of course, I saved them by slashing the thing to death. Given what a soul-sucking experience high school was and just how horrible many of the other kids were—can you tell I got picked on a lot?—one wonders why I bothered.
Really, the most I ever did in terms of writing was some truly awful epic poetry. I daydreamt a lot, though. My dad was big into chores, and so I’d be out there, in the sweltering heat and on my knees with a pair of hedge clippers (the old manual kind; they hadn’t invented weed-whackers yet), giving the grass under and around the fence and all the trees and the garden this pedicure. Took me hours. So I beamed myself aboard the Enterprise where, natch, not only was Captain Kirk madly in love with me, so was every other major character. (Well . . . except Spock; guy just never floated my boat. But William Shatner? Honey, in my day, that was serious beefcake.) Of course I was also pretty, had super-powers, and was über-smart. Made clipping the grass go faster, that’s for sure.
Anyway, fast forward a trillion years. I’m now a medical doctor: started out in surgery, ended up in child psychiatry. But during my fellowship, I also got really bored. (I’m just that way.) So I went back to school at night and got a masters’ degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on film and literature. From there, I started writing but only serious and academic stuff, papers on film and psychoanalysis that I presented to other academics and doctors in turgid, deathless academic-speak. (Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the intellectual exercise and I was good at it, but honestly, I’m convinced that academics really only write for each other: post-modern this, Lacan-that. Who can understand that stuff? Take my tonsils out with a fork.) It passed the time, though, gave me stuff to think about that was pretty interesting, and I got to watch a ton of great movies and TV shows.
Mainly, I think I was pursuing my obsessions with science fiction and horror in general and Star Trek in particular, trying to figure out how the show actually worked on a psychological level. While I was doing my psychoanalytic training, I even ended up writing about the show and presented part of that humongous paper for a big retrospective on the show put on by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Even got this close to William Shatner, enough so I can say . . . yeah, the guy’s got some spectacular lace.
Then, one day, my husband dared me to take the next step: forget the academic stuff and try writing something creative. I thought he’d lost his mind, but I never back down from a challenge, or rarely ever. Two, three years later—and after about forty stories and six deservedly unpublished books (three Trek because I just had to write at least one adventure where I saved the ship, had super-powers, and everyone on board fell in love with me, and three non-Trek)—I was ready to give up. Writing was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and it completely defeated me. Like . . . I just couldn’t get my fingernails under it.
Then, quite by accident, I saw an advertisement for a Star Trek fiction competition called Strange New Worlds. In a nutshell, you could write a story set in any of the Trek universes (the shows) and send it in to Pocket Books. So I figured, okay, this one last time and then I’m done. So I wrote a story in about a week (longhand, in a Borders, with a new fountain pen and in a pristine Babylon 5 journal), typed it up, sent it in and forgot about it. It was the fastest I’d written anything to that point, and that was at the end of August 1998.
Long story short: flash forward to November, the day before Thanksgiving, and I get a call from the editor at Pocket Books telling me that I’d won Grand Prize in the competition. I was floored. Not only was I paid and published, I won enough prize money to buy a refrigerator .
I also learned a valuable lesson—for me, anyway: write fast. Any slower, and I tend to censor myself and try to . . . carve . . . every . . . word. You only end up boring people to death. (An editor also told me that you have to write about a million words before you manage to tell one decent story. Forty stories, six failed novels? Yeah, that’s about right.)
Anyway, that first prize winner, “A Ribbon for Rosie,” gave me the confidence to try again and again. I won several more prizes and then started getting my short stories published—and that led to a phone call from an editor at Pocket Books who asked if I wanted to write a Trek novel for “The Lost Era” series. (Uh . . . yeah. I think I created the most dysfunctional crew in the history of the universe.)
And that was the beginning. I would write in the morning before seeing patients and then again at night if I had time after dealing with kids and dinner and all that. I wrote on weekends. I set challenges for myself: a story a week, that kind of thing. When we eventually moved to Wisconsin, I cut back and worked part-time as a psychiatric consultant to a women’s prison and tried speeding up my writing so I would have more product.
I also discovered the entering contests really worked for me because a contest provided structure, what with a deadline, a word limit, that kind of thing. Being a drudge and pretty disciplined, I work well when you give me a task. That served me really well when it came to branching out into original novels because it was in response to a contest—the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award—that made me send in my first YA. I’m also convinced that making it to the semifinals (so, the top 100 out of how-many thousands), and at a time when there was no YA category (I’d slotted my entry as a mystery), was the hump I needed to get over to finally land a publisher.
Or—maybe—I just needed to write enough to finally start to get a little competent at it.
Among other things, I was an English major in college and so I know that I’m supposed to write things like, “Ilsa J. Bick is .” Except I hate writing about myself in the third person like I’m not in the room. Helloooo, I’m right here . . . So let’s just say that I’m a child psychiatrist (yeah, you read that right)as well as a film scholar, surgeon wannabe (meaning I did an internship in surgery and LOVED it and maybe shoulda stuck), former Air Force major—and an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books, and novels. Believe me, no one is more shocked about this than I . . . unless you talk to my mother.
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And be sure to stop by Bildungsroman tomorrow for a Q&A with Ilsa over at http://slayground.livejournal.com!