Rick Riordan and Daniel José Older recently hosted a talk on Instagram Live to discuss how to craft meaningful stories during difficult times. The entire conversation was a gold mine filled with Rick’s and Daniel’s thoughts on honest storytelling and the creative process, advice for aspiring writers, and reflections on their own personal journeys. It also included exclusive insights into the backgrounds of Rick’s latest release, Daughter of the Deep, and Daniel’s Rick Riordan Presents debut, Ballad & Dagger. We recommend that everyone check out the conversation in full, but we couldn’t resist sharing some of our favorite highlights below.
On Writing Meaningful Stories in Difficult Times
DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER: Welcome, everybody! We’re here to talk about writing. It’s going to be us chatting and trying to figure out this wild, ridiculous world. Rick, the question is, how do we—I don’t even know how to phrase this question—how do we get through this time?
RICK RIORDAN: I wish I had a good answer for you. Two years ago, I remember we were talking about how to find joy in such hard times. And it feels like those hard times keep coming. They’re always there. And I guess in one way, it makes it all the more important to hold onto the joy you have and to find it where you can. And to share it where you can without making light of the gravity and the seriousness of what’s going on.
I think writing can be a way to take those emotions and make something positive that can speak to the pain. And that’s not easy. Sometimes it can take years. But writing is, for me anyway, a form of therapy. It’s a way to get in touch with my emotions, to figure out how I feel about things, and hold a mirror up to life and try to figure out the angles of how I can see this in a way that makes sense.
DANIEL: I think we have to be really open about not knowing the answer. That’s so powerful to admit and deal with and reconcile with. But we still have to do the work. And also, we still have to take care of ourselves.
For me, writing is also therapy. It’s a way to process everything that feels so big and put it into a way I can wrap my head around. It’s like when I was a medic. You’re around all this trauma, and you’re not just watching it, you’re taking part in trying to heal the person. Trying to make somebody better. And that’s so different than just seeing someone get hit by a car or being around someone having a heart attack. That’s a very different relationship with the tragedy. I think writing allows you that space to interact with trauma on some level. To play a role in it, hopefully for the better, and transform the world in some ways, and transform our hearts in other ways.
On Developing Personal Connections with Characters
RICK: I was thinking about your background as a healer and how that plays into Mateo Matisse. [To audience] By the way, if you guys haven’t read Ballad & Dagger yet, what are you even doing? You need to check it out. It’s a great story. [To Daniel] But it is so interesting how you use that [experience as a paramedic] to inform the character. Did it take a while before you were able to turn what you learned and what you experienced as a paramedic into your writing?
DANIEL: it’s funny. Not only did it take me this long to deal with (the healing part) on the page, but I was also resistant. I had to trick myself into writing this book. I always tell people I can’t write a book about being a medic. It’s not one story—it’s a bunch of weird vignettes. And then, when [we were working on] Ballad & Dagger, I didn’t go into it thinking that it was about healing until I was actually writing it.
RICK: It goes back to where we started, asking “How do you find healing in your writing?” I think a lot of readers turn to books for comfort. I know I do. For a familiar voice. Or a new place I can escape to. Or something that takes me away from the daily problems we all face. It is a form of healing, I think. But being a writer, and finding that healing in your own writing . . . I think that’s maybe something we’re not always aware of or good at.
DANIEL: That was something I wanted to ask you about. Because I always think of myself as a very emotional writer. When I’m writing a character, their emotional arc is almost the first thing on the page. And that wasn’t the case with Mateo Matisse. I had to do a whole edit to go back [and add his emotional beats]. Which surprised me, because he’s so close to who I am. And I think that’s the reason. Have you ever felt so close to your character that you just missed something?
RICK: Oh yeah, all the time. I think the distance is critical in a lot of ways. They always say, “Write what you know.” And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But part of that is appreciating what you know. And to appreciate what you know and see it as worth writing about, sometimes it takes a while.
On Representing Diverse Perspectives
DANIEL: You’ve had such a great record of having diverse characters in your books and you do it so well. Do you have an approach when writing a character that isn’t like you?
RICK: My process and my awareness have evolved over time. Back when I started writing The Lightning Thief, I was a different person, and the world was a different place. My understanding of things was very limited. It still is, but it’s something I think all of us need to work on.
……I try to treat every character with respect. I get it wrong a lot, of course. But I try to treat my characters as real human beings. For instance, a lot of times when I’m writing young characters, I think of them as the kids I taught in my classroom, and I draw from that experience.
The next step is to check my work. Like my math teacher always told me, always go back and check your work. And I’ve found sensitivity readers to be wonderful. I’m sorry I didn’t know [about them earlier], but it’s such a wonderful resource to draw on.
Of course, it doesn’t inoculate me from making mistakes, but it is really nice to have other pairs of eyes from different experiences helping me to understand things. When I did that with Daughter of the Deep, it was a fantastically helpful and collaborative experience.
DANIEL: I love the amount of integrity you brought to it and your honesty with it. Because so often people act like [representation is just] a matter of facts. Representation is so much deeper than simple facts. First of all, there are emotions. There’s spirituality. There’s culture. There’s history. And most of all, there’s power. And I think we often erase that element because it’s so uncomfortable. People don’t want to talk about power. Being honest about that without letting it take over the story, that’s where I try to start.
Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers
RICK: Do you have go-to advice points that you give to young writers?
DANIEL: The first thing is: talk to other writers. Be sure to have other writers around you that you can talk to, both about the work itself and about your emotional journey through the work.
The most important thing a writer can do is also the most important thing a person can do: listen. We all have to learn how to listen. As writers, to capture conversations, and rhythms, and voice. How those things sound and how the world moves around us. That’s our job as a writer. But our job as writers is also to not burn out and not run ourselves ragged to hit a deadline. That’s not healthy. You’re not going to be a good writer if you’ve burnt yourself out. And so, you have to listen to yourself and check in.
RICK: I really love what you said about listening. I was just reading a book the other day where one of my favorite quotes was, “As long as you’re talking, you’re not learning.” And that was really, really powerful. You can’t do both. You have to shut up and listen. I’m going to put that into my repertoire of things I’m going to remind myself and others [to do], because it’s so true.
[My usual advice is] pretty obvious, but [writers] need to read a lot. Immerse yourself in a sea of words. Read all the different authors who are out there. Read widely and deeply. So you can figure out where you are. Where you want to go on that ocean of words and who you are as a writer. It sort of informs you.
Sometimes I hear from people, “I can’t read anything while I’m writing because I’ll start sounding like what I’m reading.” If that’s the case, my advice is: you need to read more, not less. Read more broadly.
RICK: Another thing I say is: just don’t give up. Because we’ve all had rejections. Every single one of us. I have never met an overnight success. Never. You may think they’re overnight successes because you weren’t aware of them before, but then you don’t see the years of toiling that went behind that. Your first publication, what was that like for you?
DANIEL: Well, Shadowshaper was the first book I wrote, and it got rejected forty times.
RICK: Forty?! Oh, wow!
DANIEL: Rick, nobody wanted that book! And I always like to tell people that. Whenever I’m talking to younger writers, especially. People have to know that that’s part of the process. It took years! But throughout the course of those forty rejections, I think I wrote three other books. To go back to your advice, when you’re done with something and you’re sending it out, it’s really great to have another project you’re working on. And I still do that! I still get rejected. And I still pick up another project during the submission process. Because it just keeps you focused on something other than just waiting.
RICK: We’re all glad you kept up with it and didn’t give up. Because people do. They get that rejection and they say, “This hurts. This is not for me.” It’s not fun to get those rejections. You got me beat. I think my first novel was rejected fourteen times. Which, in the nineties, that was like, every major publisher. The last one finally gave me a small pittance to do a paperback original. But I was over the moon! I was thirty at the time and I had been writing since I was twelve. So, it took a long time to get there.
DANIEL: Did you want to be a writer since you were twelve?
RICK: I did! Ever since I read Lord of the Rings. I think that’s what did it for me. I said, “I want to write a book that helps me escape into a world that I love like this series does.” I want to experience that kind of storytelling and figure out how to do that. As a writer, having that need (to write) is one thing, but you also have to have something to say. You have to find what it is, and it has to come from your heart. Sometimes, for me anyway, you can’t rush that. It has to come when it comes.
We’re so grateful that both of these amazing authors took the time to share their wisdom with us.
Itching to hear the entire thing? Check out the rest of the conversation here!