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The setting is often referred to as a novel's canvas, but that's not right at all.
A canvas is blank. It's white. It's unchanging.
If you think of your characters acting within a blank world, no matter how interesting they are it will feel like there's something missing.
Instead, it's crucial to think about what's happening in the broader world of your novel, what is changing, and how these larger forces are impacting your characters. When you do, your novel will feel like more than just an interesting series of events, it will feel deeper, richer, and more meaningful.
One of the (many) elements that elevated Gone Girl above a regular suspense novel was the creeping ways the economic downturn affected the lives of the main characters, from having to move to the Midwest, to the abandoned mall, to Amy's feeling that she couldn't escape her parents' shadow. The characters are acting within a world where they don't have limitless control over their lives.
Or think about the way Sauron is ascendent in The Lord of the Rings, how racial turmoil is a backdrop for To Kill a Mockingbird, how even an apocalyptic setting like Station Eleven is made more interesting by a sense of progress.
The thing about all of this change is that it's feels truer than a static world. We area all living in a world that keeps changing around us, that constrains our choices, that opens up new possibilities, and where new things are invented that alter everything around us.
Map out what's changing in your world just as surely as you map out what your characters do and how they change. Think about your world's government, its moral standards, its religion, its wars, its culture. Find a way to shake things up where it makes sense, and make sure it impacts your characters and plot.
Set that canvas in motion and your characters will feel more alive.
One of the biggest challenges with third person narratives is how to balance multiple perspectives.
This isn't always something beginning writers give much thought. Third person is third person, right? Can't you just jump from one character to another as you need to? Aren't all-seeing perspectives essentially the same?
Head jumping can be really confusing for a reader. It can be wildly disorienting to see three, four, five characters' inner thoughts in succession. You stop feeling anchored in a scene and instead feel like you're swimming through a thought explosion.
There are two main ways to solve this: sticking to third person limited (anchored to one character's perspective) or third person omniscient (Gods-eye). But most novels deviate slightly from these strict categories and cheat from time to time.
Rather than telling you "rules" about omniscient vs. limited vs. hybrid, here are some directional tips that will hopefully help you keep the reader feeling anchored in a scene:
1) Consider separating a shift in perspective with chapter or scene breaks
This is the most straightforward approach to multiple perspectives in a third person limited narrative. Pick a character and stick with their perspective through a cohesive chapter or scene. This is how George R.R. Martin handles the Song of Fire and Ice books (aka Game of Thrones). The novels are anchored by several key characters per novel, and we see what is happening through their eyes.
2) If you're going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a "camera" in place
Occasionally you might want to remove the narrating character and show something that is happening out of their view, whether in order to show the reader something the main character can't see or because it just makes sense for them to bounce for a second.
If you're going to do this, I compare this to keeping a "camera" in place in the scene. Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don't suddenly shift deeply into someone else's thoughts and feelings, but it's okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn't be able to see.
When/if the character returns, you can slide back into showing their thoughts.
3) If you're using a more omniscient third person perspective, imagine the narrator as a fully-fledged character
Third person omniscient allows more head-jumping and more flexibility in showing various thoughts and motivations. But it's tricky to keep things consistent and avoid disorientation.
Rather than thinking of the narrative jumping from one character to the next, imagine that there is an unseen narrator who is observing the action.
This does two crucial things. One, it smooths things out for the reader, because rather than taking into account multiple perspectives and biases, you're seeing things essentially from one point of view. The other is that it stops you from diving so deeply into one character that it's jarring to shift to another character's thoughts.
This omniscient narrator doesn't have to actually be a real, named character, but it's helpful to think of them this way so you tell the narrative through a consistent perspective.
4) The more the perspective is limited, the deeper the inner thoughts. The more omniscient the perspective, the shallower the thoughts
This isn't a hard and fast rule, but generally, if you have tied the perspective very closely to one character you can go as deep as you want into what they're thinking. It won't be jarring for the reader to see inner monologues, straightforward thoughts, etc.
If you have a more omniscient perspective that includes multiple characters, you may want to stick more to observing outside, physical actions and general, apparent emotions rather than diving too deeply into what multiple characters are thinking. This way we're seeing what's happening on the outside rather than having to wonder how it is that we're jumping around to what everyone is thinking.
Have you tried balancing multiple perspectives in a novel? How did you handle it?
Over the weekend (Feb. 7), I taught a breakout session at the Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators here in New York, NY. We were discussing how to write for a diverse audience. My main focus was on helping the audience to remember that no matter what you’re writing, your audience will always be diverse. Too often, writers think that there’s a dichotomy–that there are “multicultural books” that are read by kids of color, and that “everyone else” (meaning, white kids) read “mainstream” (meaning, white) books.
This just isn’t the case. Readers tend to read widely, and kids of color are just like their white peers, reading the most popular books, the books assigned to them in schools, and whatever else they happen to come across that sounds interesting to them.
Below are the links and a few notes from the handout I gave to writers at the conference, with a few annotations to clarify what we were talking about. I hope it is a useful resource when you’re thinking of writing for a diverse audience (i.e., when you’re thinking of writing–period!). If you have any further ideas–or links where writers can go further in depth–please add them in the comments.
Seven Essentials You Need to Know about Writing for a Diverse Audience
Don’t feel “forced” to write diversity, but remember your readers are diverse
If your real-life world isn’t diverse, if you don’t know any people of color, if you don’t know how to write diverse characters without relying on stereotypes, you don’t have to feel pressured to do so.
And don’t feel like you need to come in and “save” anyone—come in from a position of equality and seeking equity.
However, your world is likely more diverse than you think.
Writing across POC cultures—what is the individual dynamic?
Expand your definition of “diversity.”
Diversity is not just about race, religion, class, etc. It is often about how many different identity markers come together to create a specific experience. Here’s a basic definition of intersectionality. Think about how it affects your characters.
the most important thing about a diverse book is the same thing as for all books. What matters most:
Age-appropriate content (though not shying away from edgy topics)
Contextual clues are better than exposition of culture.
Show, don’t tell!
Remember that your audience includes cultural insiders and outsiders. Balance enough information for outsiders with the possibility of boring insiders with too much basic everyday information.
School visits are a great way to reach diverse students.
At the beginning of your career, be willing to do school visits or Skype visits for a low honorarium, until you can build up your resume and network with more teachers.
Keep in mind that schools with a high percentage of diverse students are often the most underfunded. They may not have a budget for an honorarium, but may be able to purchase books for students to compensate.
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.
The Chinese have a theory that there are five different tastes in food— sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, and sour— and if you have each of these five elements in a meal, then food will be more satisfying. You won’t be searching in the fridge 30 minutes later for that something you can’t quite put your finger on that you are missing.
It’s the same thing for writing books. There are five elements that every book needs to make it every bit as satisfying.
Scientists say that laughing does two things: it helps us to bond with people, and it lessens tension and anxiety. Both are VERY important in fiction. We want our readers to bond with our characters. (As an added bonus, it’ll help the reader bond with you as the author!) And at key points, like right after an intense scene or even during a stressful scene, we can use it to lessen tension and anxiety.
2. Horror / Scariness
Even if horror isn’t your main genre, there are plenty of ways to occasionally frighten your reader. Even things as simple as having your character walk through a creepy setting or leaving a chapter at a cliffhanger will go a long way in adding horror to your book. The big key is to make your reader afraid: they don’t want to know what will happen; they want to worry about what might happen.
A mystery in a book, such as information the character wants to find out, can keep a reader glued to the story. So build curiosity— even if it’s something like whether a character is a friend or foe, or what the key that they found goes to. Hint about things— like a monster, a treasure, or what’s around the next corner. But NEVER try to build a mystery by making things unclear. That’s confusion, not a mystery.
4. Action / Adventure
It’s a good idea to not go too long without action in your books. I’m not saying your characters have to run for their lives or jump off a cliff (although I am quite fond of characters jumping off a cliff :)). Action can be things as simple as running to make the train. Sneaking around somewhere they shouldn’t be. Being caught in a rainstorm. Something that gets the characters moving. Preferably fast.
5. A Sense of Wonder
Some genres— fantasy and scifi, especially— evoke a sense of wonder quite strongly. But it can be added in any genre through fascinating characters, looking at an everyday something very differently than you’ve looked at it before, or with an interesting setting. Think of where you’d love to go on vacation the most. You want to go there because of the sense of wonder that setting will evoke, right? Whenever you can, think about putting your characters in a more interesting setting. Why have a conversation happen in a boring kitchen, when it can happen in the woods, at a construction site, in a museum? Use things that will get the reader to stop and think about what is possible. To stop and look at something closely. The wonder they’ll create themselves.
If you put some of each of those 5 things in your book, when a reader finishes, they won’t be searching their Kindle for the something they’re missing that they can’t quite put their finger on. They’ll be texting all their friends about how they have to read your book.
Peggy grew up in an area filled with untamed places to explore, with parents who allowed her to be daring, and with resourceful siblings, which combined to make her middle grade years one giant action / adventure story. The magic of those years has never truly left Peggy, and she can’t help but tap into them as she writes books like Sky Jumpers and The Forbidden Flats. Today, Peggy lives at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Utah, and hangs out online at her website, blog, Twitter, and Facebook.
Recently, my son-in-law (SIL) told me about this documentary he watched in his university course about the penal system in the 1950s. He’s studying law enforcement and this documentary was a case study where they took students to live in a prison-like setting. Half the students were told that they were the prisoners and the other half were the guards. The take home message from this case study was that ALL the students fell into their roles and didn’t veer from them. If they were prisoners, then they were stuck in character. If guards, that’s who they became. This got me thinking. Our thoughts are so powerful. If we BELIEVE we’re writers, and practice this ROLE, then by God, we begin to FEEL like writers.
Sometimes it’s a matter of unplugging from the hard-wiring we’ve had growing up. As children, we fall into roles quite easily and sometimes are stuck in these roles for the rest of our lives. An ‘A’ student will always be the smart one. The ‘C’ student won’t. When I began the journey to be a published author, at first I thought only teachers or people with masters in English or in creative writing were good enough to be authors. It was a huge obstacle to overcome for me mentally, but overcome I did. I broke the mold that I was stuck in for years.
Once I retrained my mind, I developed a positive mental attitude, and I found that I started to feel free from the limitations I grew up with. It really didn’t matter if I didn’t possess an English degree or MFA, I knew I could learn to become a published author by sheer determination, perseverance, patience, and practice. I had the time to invest in following my heart, and I did.
I made a commitment. I scheduled my time. And I asked for support from my family or friends when I needed it. Remember the only thing holding you back from your writing aspirations is YOU. Break out of the role that’s keeping you from your dreams. You’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.
Thanks a heap for reading my blog. If you have time, please leave a comment and share what YOU do to create the role of writer for yourself. Cheers!
You bet they do! Authors know what buttons to push.
By ‘what buttons to push’ I mean what buttons do authors use to manipulate (yep, being honest) their readers’ emotions, to get them on side with the characters in their books. For example, perhaps the author creates unlikeable, evil antagonists and emphasizes the sterling qualities of his protagonists.
The most obvious ploy is the ticking clock. It not only lends urgency but it yanks the reader along at a rush, keeping him intrigued.
Then there’s characterization. Of course in this dynamic world, what worked ten years ago may not have the same appeal in 2014. The innocent 1960s virgin, so prevalent in romances of that time, would drive a reader from 2014 to drink. We are much more cynical, well-informed and downright demanding than we were then. Historically though, some classics retain their appeal because they are much more than the sum of their characters’ emotions. To Kill A Mockingbird’s racial tensions are still not outmoded today, and that lazy description of the syrupy south’s inbred attitudes is not far from the truth in some out-of-the-way places. And that is why books like these are classics. They endure not just because of the characters in the books but because of the settings and historical attitudes. And Harper Lee manipulated the readers’ emotions. Think of the way she pushes Scout’s lack of desire to be a ‘lady’ so that the reader is on Scout’s side.
Perhaps today’s writers manipulate the readers in more subtle ways. What of Dick Francis’s heroes who are often of the working class up against a criminal upper class or just up against class bigotry where he is on the outside looking in? Dick Francis does that so well that even if the protagonist is not your usual Everyman, the reader is still very much on his side. That’s right. The modern protagonist need not be a perfect hero as he has been in novels and movies of the past. Some have patchy backgrounds and they’ve made mistakes.
There’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher who thrums a string in every male heart. They all want to be Jack with his freedom and lack of possessions but with an innate sense of responsibility. And of course Jack has been in the military and knows how to handle himself in vicious situations. Every man’s dream. There are a lot of wannabe Jacks out there. And Lee knows how to manipulate those readers.
Tami Hoag’s heroines are believably imperfect. They make mistakes and have hang-ups that readers can empathise with and they frequently have to form alliances with people they don’t trust. There’s that little brush of reality that lends credence to the stories.
So…empathy and sympathy are the buttons. And the harder those buttons are pushed by authors and movie makers, the more a reader/viewer becomes invested in the characters. We need to see how the protagonists get themselves out of a bind, or if the evil antagonists get their come-uppance. And the best books of all are where you know darned well that the author is pushing your buttons, but you just don’t care. The book is so good! ~Vonnie
Vonnie Hughes is a multi-published author in both Regency books and contemporary suspense. She loves the intricacies of the social rules of the Regency period and the far-ranging consequences of the Napoleonic Code. And with suspense she has free rein to explore forensic matters and the strong convolutions of the human mind. Like many writers, some days she hates the whole process, but somehow she just cannot let it go.
Vonnie was born in New Zealand, but she and her husband now live happily in Australia. If you visit Hamilton Gardens in New Zealand be sure to stroll through the Japanese Garden. These is a bronze plaque engraved with a haiku describing the peacefulness of that environment. The poem was written by Vonnie.
This year is already 1/26th over! I swear 2013 ended five minutes ago. I'm going to blink and it'll be 2016, and then I'll nap for a bit and it'll be the year 3016 and all of our consciousnesses will be uploaded to the cloud and easily downloaded into teeny-tiny robots that can roam outer space and the bottom of the ocean. It'll be grand. In the meantime: a very belated New Year post!
Speaking of time being weird, I forget how long I have been keeping this blog for. I have five years worth of New Year posts (here they are, in reverse chronological order: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) and I had to write a sixth or it would ruin the continuity. Blogs are like funny little personal time machines that anyone can access. This time last year I was binge-watching The Walking Dead; this year it's Game of Thrones and Supernatural. I've totally evolved as a person, clearly.
My 2014 highlights: All This Could End was longlisted for the Gold Inky. I taught a workshop for young writers at QWC for a week, and had lots of other lovely school and library visits. I finished writing a manuscript and worked on two others. I graduated from one course I was studying and started a double degree. There are probably a lot of other things I'm forgetting.
My 2015 goals: write every day (so many novel ideas!), blog more, study smarter (less binge-studying at the last minute! Why do I do this to myself?), have more fun and adventures and stop stressing quite so much. It's all very unnecessary. (My goals are not all that different from when I was fifteen.)
I don't have any big scary goals this year, more habits I want to put in place, but I've had big goals in the past that I managed to achieve and big goals that I sort of... forgot about. So: maybe you want to write or publish a book in 2015. Which can seem like a very intimidating goal, but it's very possible. Here are the best ways I know to make big scary goals way more likely to be achieved (obviously with reference to writing books, because that's what I know. But I think you can apply these to anything):
Make yourself accountable to someone. Tell people about your goals! People who will ask how everything is going later in the year - make sure you get some work done so that you can answer truthfully rather than vaguely. Promise a friend that you'll send them the next chapter of your novel every Friday at lunchtime. Preferably the sort of friend who will come over in the afternoon if you fail to do so and take away your modem and uninstall all the programs on your computer except Word. Join online forums or enter in challenges or writing sprints (this is why NaNoWriMo is so great: community! time limits! pressure!). If you do not have deadlines from an external source, create them, and make sure someone will hassle you if you miss them. If you don't tell anyone and no-one's checking up on you, it's really easy to just let things fall by the wayside and wait till next year and have the same goals again. Which we don't want! You can do it! You just need someone to yell at you! Or, be supportive and encouraging. Either, both. It all works.
Make a daily habit of it. Everyone is different, but I do think that the best way to get work done is to work consistently, a little bit every day. I tend more towards binge-writing sporadically and then stewing on ideas but not actually writing for a few weeks, and then it's always harder to get back into it. If it's something that's really important to you, and you don't want to forget about it, make it a daily habit. Tell everyone that you write from 7:00p.m. until 7:30p.m., and then write. Put it in your day-planner/Filofax/Google Calendar/iPhone/scheduler of choice. Make it an important and immovable commitment. You wouldn't miss an appointment with your hairdresser (I hope you wouldn't), so you shouldn't miss an appointment with... yourself, I guess? And your goals? (Talking to yourself is optional. I enjoy it, it contributes to my writing process.)
Make sure your goal really means something to you. It's much easier to motivate yourself to work towards something you want more than anything else in the world. There are a lot of people I know who say that they would like to write a book, but for whom writing is not of central importance in their life. It is incredibly difficult to put work into something day after day unless it's something about which you're passionate (or something for which you're being paid or there's some other obligation). Big important difficult goals that involve a lot of work over a long period of time (like, writing and publishing a book) are challenging to achieve, but borderline impossible if you don't have really strong motivation. Don't set goals that aren't really important to you, personally - there's not enough new years for resolutions that are really from other people/society (for example, weight loss).
Take small steps. The other day I went on a big walk over a big hill. My life is incredibly thrilling. If I thought about the entire trip at once it seemed overwhelming. So I told myself I only had to walk to the next tree. That was manageable. So I walked to the next tree. Super cool. Walked to the next tree. Eventually got over the hill. No big deal. Manageable steps. I thought to myself, this'll be a great metaphor for my blog. I didn't really. It's a terrible metaphor. At one point I thought I was going to faint and I realised hiking at midday in Queensland in the summer was a bad idea. Not really relevant. What I'm saying is: don't think about the whole thing at once. You don't have to write a whole novel. You just have to write a hundred words. How manageable is that? Then you write another hundred. Repeat until book reaches desired length. That's how books get written.
Enjoy the journey. I don't want to sound like a hippy guru yogini, but I think a lot of the time people want to achieve something because they perceive that they'll feel different once they've achieved that thing: happy, or confident, or cool, or proud. I know this is true for me, and it's definitely true for goals related to weight loss - people believe they'll be happier when they're thinner. Unfortunately the reality of things is often very different to what we fantasise about. Once you achieve something, you will just aspire towards something else. It's absolutely worth aspiring to be your 'best self' or whatever else, but enjoy the process of working towards your goals, because you likely won't feel hugely different once you achieve them. (I still fully expect I will reach a certain level of success as a writer and suddenly become a Glamorous Novelist. Delusional, I know.)
I hope you are having a most splendid 2015 so far, and you manage to achieve everything you set out to achieve this year. Don't stress if your resolutions don't work out. You're probably pretty awesome already. I wish you a year of good reading, good writing, good fun, lots of lovely people to be with and lots of lovely places to go and just lots of magic, generally.
P.S. Here are my five favourite blog posts from last year:
In addition to discussing Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, Katie and I talked quite a bit about my email newsletter, Bartography Express, which I wrote about earlier this year for Cynsations. And in fact, while I was listening to our interview, I was actually putting the finishing touches on this month’s edition.
The November edition includes, among other things, a Q&A with K.A. Holt and a giveaway of her new book, Rhyme Schemer. If you want to receive this issue in your very own inbox and get in the running for the giveaway, you can sign up on my home page.
This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my current book, Afterworlds, about a young novelist living in NYC. (More on this page.) You can also listen to me talking about Afterworlds and about NaNoWriMo here on Wisconsin Public Radio, or join me for a NaNoWriMo chat on Tuesday, Nov 4 at 5:30PM EST on Spreecast.
Point of View
Point of view is hard. It’s complicated, subtle, and confusing, and POV failure is one of the most common reasons why agents and publishers cast aside submissions half read.
To make things worse, a lot of the writing advice on the subject is unhelpful or downright wrong. Much of the terminology is broken. (“Limited omniscience” makes about as much sense as “casual nuclear attack.”) And, as I spent the previous post pointing out, POV is at the core of the novel’s primary affordance—getting us into someone else’s head.
So I’m going to talk about POV first, and at length. I’m going to invent some of my own terminology and use some old terms in new ways. (If you hate that sort of thing, go away.)
To start with the obvious: point of view isn’t one thing; it’s a toolbox. The tools inside this box can be combined in many ways, and the tools themselves are like adjustable wrenches—each possesses its own continuum of settings.
So let’s break POV into four basic elements:
1) Viewpoint (where the information of the narrative comes from)
2) Person and tense (the grammar of the narration)
3) Distance (the immediacy of the narration to the events of the story)
4) Voice (the personality of the narration, especially its attitude toward the reader).
I’m not saying that this schema is the One True Way to discuss POV. In fact, I intend these categories to be a bit weird and vexatious, as a way to break up your assumptions about how POV works. Because bad assumptions are everywhere.
For example, I frequently see people saying, “First person present tense is a very immediate way to tell a story!” Which is crap. The grammar of a narrative and its distance are two different things.
Take this story opening:
The summer has been long and boiling, my body changing in ways I don’t understand yet, my mind tangling in those changes’ wake. So it’s a mystery how I first get the idea to set fire to the home of the only girl I’ve ever loved.
Yes, it’s in present tense and first person, but there’s an elegiac lilt to the language, a sense that everything has already taken place. The grammar doesn’t change that.
But let’s say you started the story this way:
It was a hot day, and Roger was bored and itchy.
“Let’s set fire to Cindy’s house,” he said.
This is in the past tense and third person, but it’s way more immediate, with the story happening in real time before our eyes. In other words, the grammar doesn’t determine distance. Far more important is the way the story is told.
Some of you might be saying, “But wouldn’t it be more immediate in present tense?” To which I say, Maybe a little, but please note that every single other difference between the two passages is more important.
My division of POV into four elements is a way to remind you of this fact, that there are no shortcuts to getting the right voice or distance or viewpoint. You never get to say, “I picked present tense, so my novel is awesome and intense!”
Over the next few weeks, I’ll go through each of the four elements in detail: viewpoint, grammar (person and tense), distance, and finally voice. For now, let’s start with viewpoint in its most basic form.
Single Limited Viewpoint
As I said above, viewpoint simply means where the information in a novel comes from.
Does it come from one character? From many? From an invisible camera that sees all (but doesn’t know what anyone’s thinking)? Is the narrator a bodiless entity of great wisdom who knows the future and the past? Or is the novel simply a compilation of documents found in an abandoned vault? (If so, who wrote them? Who compiled them?) Is the narrator a trickster, a liar, a mad person? Or a writer at a desk talking directly to you, the reader?
Or is the universe itself talking to you?
Over centuries of writing, writers have experimented with a dizzying range of viewpoints, allowing the novel to reinvent itself time and again. If you never experiment with viewpoint in your writing life, you will be a very boring writer indeed.
But let’s start simply, with single limited viewpoint.
In this mode, all the reader can ever learn is what one character experiences. You’ve read tons of books like this. My own Uglies series is one example. From the early twentieth century, SLV has become perhaps the dominant mode of the novel. Indeed, there are people out there who will tell you that this is the Only Correct Viewpoint. (They are benighted, tiny people. But they exist.)
Why is it so popular? Here’s my guess:
In the single limited viewpoint, readers bond very closely with one narrator. All we ever find out is what that person sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, thinks, believes, and knows. We’re living inside their head, so we can’t help but start to identify with their desires, needs, and opinions. This bonding process is what makes reading so immersive and transformative. It turns us into another person.
This is what keeps us up at night with a flashlight.
So how does it work?
I’m about to show you lots of examples. Unless otherwise noted, I’m just making these up on the fly. They aren’t great literature, but they’re not meant to be. They’re more like those plastic models of flowers at the science museum—they aren’t as lovely as real flowers, but they’re useful for showing you how stuff works.
Here we go:
Arnold frowned. “I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me.”
Behind him, a group of sailboats were gliding past on the bay. Maria watched their sails flutter and fill, trying to ignore the way his eyes flashed when he teased her.
“I was asking, um, if you wanted to get coffee?” A cool droplet of sweat crept down the inside of her arm.
After a long moment, the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face. It felt like daybreak.
“I like coffee,” he said.
Clearly, we are in Maria’s viewpoint here, not Arnold’s. We can see Arnold’s facial expressions and the boats behind him (which he presumably can’t see). We feel Maria’s sweat on her skin, and her emotions as well. When Arnold’s smile is “like daybreak,” that’s what it feels like to Maria, not to Arnold.
Importantly, we can’t see Maria. Unless she looks in a mirror (argh!) she’s mostly invisible to us.
But even invisible, she does know things about herself. Let’s continue a bit:
“I like coffee,” he said.
Maria smiled, straightening the cambric shirt she’d worn especially for Arnold. He’d said he liked the shirt—a month ago?—and she’d worn it often since. “Glad to hear that. I like coffee too.”
Maria doesn’t need a mirror to know she’s smiling, or what clothes she put on this morning. That information is in her head, so it’s available to us in single limited viewpoint. More important, we also know why she put on that shirt, because Maria knows why, and she’s just had a moment of self-consciousness about it.
Facial expressions can be tricky, because they can be sensed from the inside or seen from the outside. In first passage, I wrote, “the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face.” That wouldn’t work for Maria, because a “hint of a smile” is something perceived at from the outside. For a hinted smile in her own viewpoint, I might try something like: “Maria felt a smile playing at her lips, and swallowed it.”
See the difference?
When you’re writing in limited single viewpoint, every piece of information you put into the text—physical details, actions, mood, even the simplest background knowledge about the world—has to pass these tests: Does your viewpoint character know about this? Would your viewpoint character notice this? Does you viewpoint character have the capacity to understand this?
If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, then you have to leave that detail out.
In a way, the text of your novel becomes the viewpoint character. When they think or feel something, the reader doesn’t have to be told it’s the character thinking or feeling it; the character’s mind simply imbues the text. This is why we talk about limited viewpoint as “being in a character’s head.”
Let’s look at another example:
Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
If this were the first paragraph of a novel, we’d know right away that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint. This fact affects everything about the text. For example:
Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green . . .
The nasty color of the wall is Billy’s opinion, not objective reality. Also, the foulness of the green probably reflects his current mood more than any permanent opinion about the wall. (Some of you may recall how the protagonist’s bad mood informs the color of sky at the start of Uglies.)
And check this out:
[The wall] had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings.
Billy probably wasn’t there when the wall was painted. If he had been, the lazy painter would be a specific person, not “someone.” This laziness is Billy’s assumption, based on his observations in the present. But here’s the important part: even though Billy lives in this house, he’s noticing the sloppy paint job at this exact moment. His sulky mood has infected every detail of the room (and every detail of the text).
At this point, the reader might already be wondering why this guy is in such a crappy mood. And the text answers:
Behind [the wall], Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something.
Let’s assume Billy can’t see through walls, but he can recognize his parents’ voices. Note that the argument is “about something,” without specifics, which probably means the words are muffled. (It’s also possible that Billy doesn’t care about his parents’ arguments anymore, and so isn’t listening particularly hard.)
Also, notice that it’s just “Mom and Dad,” not “Billy’s mom and dad.” Even though this is third-person, it’s as if Billy is talking to us. We’re inside his brain, where Mom and Dad are pretty much their names.
Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
This prediction about the coming car trip is Billy’s best guess, based on his past experiences and his current crappy mood.
The cool thing is, the writer doesn’t have to explain that these are Billy’s observations and guesses and assumptions. Readers already know the conventions of limited viewpoint and understand that character and text are extensions of each other.
Look at what happens if we get rid of these assumptions:
Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a color of green that he found foul, apparently by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. From behind it came the muffled sounds of Billy’s mother and father screaming at each other. He sighed, guessing that it was going to be another dismal drive to his grandmother’s place.
This passage spells out the machinery of limited viewpoint, rather than just letting it happen. It makes for clumsy prose. Ironically, by constantly reminding us that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint, this language forces us out of Billy’s viewpoint.
Of course, the writer might not want to be so closely in Billy’s head, because he’s a minor character who’s about to die, or because it makes this scene too depressing. But you have to admit that second version is clunkier.
Let’s see what happens to the passage if Billy is a different sort of person. What he sees and hears may be exactly the same, and yet everything changes:
Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a mismatched forest green (Pantone 363?) by someone too barbaric to tape the moldings. Through the thin drywall came muffled screaming—the lord and lady of the house had been at it all morning. “Customers,” Billy sighed. It was going to be another tense morning of arguments over carpet samples and color swatches.
Meet Billy 2, an interior decorator. He’s more aware of color than Billy 1. For him, people who paint sloppily are demoted from “lazy” down to “barbaric.” Billy 2 casually identifies details of the wall’s construction. (Billy 1 might know what drywall is, but he probably wouldn’t think it.) Also note that Billy 2 isn’t as depressed as Billy 1. Your own parents fighting may be “dismal,” but your customers arguing is merely “tense.”
This is what makes limited viewpoints so powerful: everything changes when the observer changes. This means that we learn as much about a character by how they see reality as by their actions and choices. You don’t have to make your narrator look in an actual mirror, because the whole world becomes their mirror.
(Protip: never make your character look in an actual mirror.)
And now for an important aside. As I was so strenuously pointing out above, viewpoint is separate from person. In other words, all this stuff works exactly the same way in first-person as it does in third-person. Check this out:
I stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
That’s right. I change one word and this passage goes from third-person to first, from Billy’s viewpoint to “mine.” That’s what I meant about POV tools being interchangeable. (I’ll get back to first- and third-person in a later chapter. Just wanted to point out again that person is separate from viewpoint. I like repeating things. Repeating things is good. We learn through repetition!)
Let’s look at some more examples of how viewpoint informs text. Here’s the first of three characters witnessing a fighter jet fly past:
An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single engine, which threw those tons of metal up into the sky like so much thistledown.
Okay. What do we know about this character? They know a lot about fighter jets, clearly. In fact, one might say they love military aircraft, because the language of the passage reflects that affection.
Now let’s see the same event through the eyes of a non-enthusiast:
The fighter plane shot past, furiously loud and low to the ground, its metal skin mottled with gray and green. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, and a moment later it was gone.
See how all that technical info about engines and afterburners disappeared? Those facts are outside the knowledge base of the narrator. They can’t show up in this story without another character filling them in.
More important, the love is gone. This character has no great affection for fighter jets, so the poetry of the passage fades into more mere observation. So does that mean the first narrator is better, because they allow access to all the writer’s lovingly researched details?
Maybe not. As a reader opening a novel to that first passage, I’d be pretty certain that many cool airplane facts were in my future. This will thrill some readers; others will put the book down. In some ways that enthusiastic first character is also limited by their knowledge, because they can’t look at a jet plane without thinking of its technical specifications. Which might get old after a few hundred pages.
Also, sometimes a character who doesn’t know things is more interesting than one who does. Check out this version:
The sky was splitting, tearing open along the red horizon. The hills around Hera roared and shrieked, the earth itself shuddering in terror. A shape caught her nervous eyes for a moment—a knife hurtling through the air. But then with a furious bellow, it disappeared into the sky, leaving only a sharp scent behind, like the tar pits when lightning had set them burning.
This passage is clearly describing the same event, but there’s nothing about airplanes. That’s weird.
If this were the first paragraph of a novel, the reader might not even realize what was going on. But Hera isn’t stupid or unobservant. In fact, she noticed something the other narrators missed: the lingering scent of expended jet fuel, which smells like . . . a tar pit?
Of course! This is one of those books where a stone-age woman travels through time and sees a jet fighter. (Or maybe the jets have gone back to hunt mastodons. Yeah, I’m going with that.) As such, Hera lacks any frame of reference for what a jet is. She barely understands that all this sound and fury is caused by a flying object. To her, it’s more like the sky is shaking itself apart. It might take a few scenes for the reader to grasp what these noisy sky-things are. (Of course, the cover would probably show jets shooting at mastodons. But let’s just ignore that.)
Having a viewpoint character who’s thrown out of their usual frame of reference can be a glorious thing. In speculative fiction, characters often find themselves in other eras, on other planets, or facing revelations of magic hidden beneath the surface of the everyday world. The narrator who steps through a portal and doesn’t know what’s going on is a great stand-in for the reader, because everything is new and shiny to them. They’re being introduced to the novel’s alternate world at the same time the reader is.
So which do you choose? A narrator who knows a little? A lot? Nothing at all?
Partly it depends on how much of your story depends on technical details. If you’re telling a story about someone stealing a stealth fighter, an expert narrator is probably the way to go. If you’re making the point that modern technology has godlike potential to do damage to the world, maybe it’s better to show it from a stone-age hunter’s perspective than a jet pilot’s.
Repeat this before bed each night in November: The meaning of a story is molded by the eyes we show it through.
Another key is consistency. In other words, don’t cheat. You have to stick with what your character knows, or have them learn new things in a reasonable time frame. If you have a narrator suddenly remember the dragon-slaying class they took in high school or that time they learned ancient Greek, you bounce your reader out of the protagonist’s head.
And a broken viewpoint is a broken novel. (< -Also repeat this daily.)
Of course, knowledge isn't the only thing that makes people who they are. Characters are also their beliefs, assumptions, and politics. In other words, their worldview.
Let's go back to the non-expert character watching the jet, with some edits:
The fighter plane shot past, its metal skin mottled gray and green, so furiously loud and low to the ground that I feared it would crash. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.
The big change here isn’t knowledge, it’s attitude. For this character, contour-hugging maneuvers are unfamiliar and scary, which makes them nervous for the safety of the pilot. And they can’t watch a display of military hardware without thinking of the social costs. The poetry of the aircraft enthusiast has been replaced by an acid tone.
Our beliefs—political, religious, and ethical—are the lenses through which we see the world. These parts of a character’s personality inform the text just as much as their knowledge, mood, and senses.
On top of which, people are complicated. One last jet flyover:
An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single J79 engine. Those tons of metal were thrown up into the sky like so much thistledown, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.
Plot twist! This character both loves the charismatic fury of military aircraft and hates their social and economic costs. (Urban legend: The conflict is coming from inside the house!) This is why single limited can be so powerful, because a character’s inner struggle can imbue the language of the novel itself.
It’s up to the writer to put all this together. With every sentence, you have to remember the constraints of your character’s senses, the colors of their mood, the extent and zeal of their knowledge base, and the repercussions of their beliefs and principles.
It’s not easy. But if you do your job well, readers don’t just bond with your narrator, they become them. They start noticing the same details, feeling the same anxieties, and even dreaming the same dreams.
That’s how novels change the way that people see the world.
So why don’t we write every novel in single limited viewpoint? Given that YA lit is so concerned with the teenage experience, surely this kind of immersive storytelling is what we should be aiming for.
Here’s the problem: The greatest strength of single limited viewpoint is also its greatest drawback. Because we’re so closely aligned with one character, our experiences are limited to theirs. As a writer, you’re trapped with one pair of eyes. This limits how many events the reader can witness first-hand, and how much you can reveal of the world you’ve created.
If you want to show how the awesome plumbing system of Dwarf Castle works, you’ll have to make your narrator a dwarven plumbing expert. (Um, yay.) If there are exciting things happening in two places at the same time, your reader only gets to witness one of them. If a serial killer is secretly stalking the narrator, the reader won’t know this—and will feel zero suspense—until the narrator finds out about it. (And then it’s not secret stalking anymore, is it?)
But the biggest constraint of the single limited viewpoint is not of senses or knowledge, but of belief. Your text is trapped within a single set of assumptions, a single ethical framework. A character’s beliefs may change over time, but you can’t show both sides of an issue at once.
Those of you who’ve read my Leviathan books, try to imagine them with only a Clanker perspective, and no Darwinist characters, or vice versa. The whole point of the series would vanish. With single limited viewpoint, you never get a first-hand look at what it’s like to be the bad guy. You may never discover that from a different perspective, all that badness was completely justified. And don’t forget that about half the YA audience is teenagers, who have been known to question authority. They are open to the idea that truth doesn’t flow from single well.
So sometimes you have to bust out of this single-character thing.
In the next post, I’ll talk about multiple-character viewpoints.
Ghost stories are an unusual taste for a six year old, but by this age Joan Aiken was relishing them: I had already read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James, and nearly died of delicious terror at “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You”. Searching for more fodder of a similar kind – […]
"In his 47 brilliant rules, Nathan Bransford has nailed everything I've always wanted to tell people about writing a book but never knew how. Wonderfully thought out with lots of practical examples, this is a must-read for anyone brave enough to try their hand at a novel. It's also a great review for experienced writers. Highly recommended."
Robin Preiss Glasser
Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Gail Carson Levine
Marc Tyler Nobleman
We each helped author Katie Davis celebrate the 200th episode of her Brain Burps About Books podcast by chipping in some writing advice. I especially enjoyed Brian Lies’ tip for writing in rhyme, but who knows whose advice will be most helpful for you?
“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,” Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories. Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did, […]
There's nothing quite like falling in love with a new idea.
A lot of times it will happen when you are in the middle of another book. A book that has gone from pure pleasure to write to a kind of muddy slog.
And then a voice will whisper inside of you: "This book sucks. But I'm a anew idea! I would make a wonderful book. I would practically write myself. "
Do not give into temptation. Do not divorce your current book to run off and hastily marry your new idea. Because one day you will wake up and you'll realize you are stuck in the same muddy slog, only now it's with your once shiny new idea.
Does that mean you should give up on your wonderfu, sexyl new idea?
No. But what you should do is make it your affair book. Yes, sneak off every now and then to write it. Write with passion. Leave when it starts suggesting you need to do the dishes or take out the garbage. Come back to it with presents of energy and excitement and insight. Repeat as necessary.
Two of the best books I've ever written were not under contract, and I really shouldn't have been writing them. But I snuck out every now and then to meet up with them secretly. And I'm so glad I did.
I'm close to finishing a murder mystery. But I realized I needed more suspects for the reader to consider.
While I had presented a number of theories about who did it, several of them weren't concrete enough for the reader to grab onto. For example, the amateur sleuth in the story, Olivia, thinks a hitchhiker might have been the one who killed her parents years ago, or a crazed person they met in the woods. While those are both good possibilities, they're not suspects she can meet now and speculate about.
So I came up with two new suspects. One is Nick, a businessman who is a real estate mogul now, but who back then was a drug dealer. I'm partially modeling him on someone I went to school with, a guy who looked like a success on paper but who hadn't left his past behind. (When I googled him, he turned up in an article about prisoners making wooden toys for children.)
I also decided I wanted to have Ben, a homeless man whose descent into alcoholism and homelessness began around the time of the murders.
Now I could have gone back to the book and thought of places to force Nick and Ben into the narrative, but it turns out they already kind of exist. I had briefly mentioned a guy in a suit and tie at a gathering. He has become Nick and now has a longer description. And I had a homeless guy hanging around in a cemetery in a scene that, now that I think about it, wasn't doing enough anyway. Now he's Ben and he's going to pass on some information.
The businessman can show up at a party I've half written, and the homeless guy can bring in cans to the grocery store where my main character works.
What I'm doing is called reincorporation. Basically, it means bringing back people, places, and things you’ve previously mentioned in your story. It makes your plot feel more organic.
So if you get stuck in your story, read back what you have already written and see what you have to work with. I truly believe we subconsciously leave our future selves clues. That canoe you mentioned your characters walking by? That bus driver your character talks to every morning? The nosy neighbor who only pretends to be watering the flowers? They might just be there for a reason.
What does your story already have that can be reincorporated now? What clues did you leave yourself?
This week I'm talking to over a thousand students in Missouri. And I think the most important message I have for them isn't about reading, writing or research. It's about not giving up on your dreams.
I'm not the best writer out there. But - and this is an important but - I one of the most tenacious. I think in most things in life, tenacity can be just as important as talent.
When I first started writing, I took a class with two people named Jane and Tom. They were both better writers than I was. (In fact, Tom used this one clever framing device to describe a character that I have since borrowed a couple of times.) They both approached a few agents, and both got rejection letters.
And both, at least the last I heard, gave up writing.
The thing is, those agents didn't really have the power to tell Tom or Jane they weren't good writers. All they could say was that they did not want to represent those particular books.
The only one who can really take you out of the game - whether that game is writing or acting or dancing - is you.
I have had four times in my career as a writer where it looked like I might never be published, or published again. I still have a big fat file that stinks of sadness that I labelled submissions/rejections. There are probably over 100 items in that file. But I did not take no for an answer. Or at least not "the" answer. I kept pushing, writing new books, tweaking old ones, looking for as much advice and inspiration as I could get.
So if you really want something, be tenacious!
(When I spoke at a school in February, a teacher came up to me afterward and said that after listening to me, she had decided to go to massage school!)
It’s easy to write a children’s book isn’t it? From the huge numbers of new books now appearing, including all the Ebooks and self published works, character driven series, tv and movie spin offs, and school reader series, it looks as though it could be an ideal career for anyone, and certainly the publicity given […]
It’s easy to write a children’s book isn’t it? From the huge numbers of new books now appearing, including all the Ebooks and self published works, character driven series, tv and movie spin offs, and school reader series, it looks as though it could be an ideal career for anyone, and certainly the publicity given […]
I'm not much of an outliner. I've tried it before, and it just doesn't seem to work for me. I wish it did because it seems like a much better way to write. But no. For me, I just can't.
So, I'm constantly asked, how do you work out the pacing of your novel?
I am now going to divulge my secret and never-before-spoken-out-loud trick.
I listen to my gut.
Here's how it works:
I'm writing a scene. It's going great. The dialogue is fun, the action intense, and the conflict building. Then suddenly, I get this wrenching, panicky feeling right in the middle of my stomach. It says, "Oh my gosh, this is getting too long. You're dragging it out. Something new has to happen. You've got to move on." My blood races and my fingers shake unsteadily on the keyboard.
"MOVE ON!" it screams.
I listen. I wrap it up and move on. On to the next scene and the next plot point.
Is this a scientific method? No. Will you find it on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat beat list? No. But it works--for me.
Our guts--our writer's intuition--can often be our best friend if we take the time to listen. Feed back from critique partners, from beta readers, pacing, character names, character reactions, almost any part of our novel will speak to us.
Take a moment, consider carefully all sides, and listen to your gut. It is your friend.
When have--or when do--your writerly instincts kick in and help you?
Read, read, read.Try well-reviewed books in genres you wouldn’t normally read - fantasy, historical novels, even westerns. Don’t be afraid to put something aside if it’s not working for you - but first try to pinpoint why it’s not working.
You don’t have to write what you know. Write what interests you. Do I know anything about kidnappings, murders, drug dealers, being blind, assuming a dead girl’s identity? No. But I’ve written books that have gotten starred reviews, awards, and have hit the New York Times bestseller list.
You can write a book in as little as 20 minutes a day. I know, because I’ve done it. Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration. Once you are published, you’ll need to make deadlines. Write every day, or at minimum every weekend.If you don’t know what to write about, start by getting a book with writing prompts, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write. Sometimes you’ll find your back against the wall when you need a solution or a resolution to the story. Make yourself write something. Anything. And often what you come up with turns out to be surprisingly good. (Sometimes I use www.writeordie.com to force myself to write 15 or 20 minute.)
You don’t have to outline - but you can. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters. Set up initial goals, throw some obstacles in the way, and see if your characters sink or swim. And if your characters do swim, send a few sharks after them!
Tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. I still think about Jane and Tom, people I took a writing class with about a decade ago. They were the stars of our class, far better writers than I was. I was just one of the drones. Both Jane and Tom gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. If they had persevered, I think they would have been published.
Show vs. tell is something most writers struggles with. In movies and on TV, they can’t tell you anything. Everything is visual ie - they have to show you. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and TV and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you're writing. This is a good way to learn how to show emotion instead of telling it.
Revision has gotten a bad rap. It can actually be the most fun. Most of the hard work is done - so you just polish things up, trim away the fat, make characters a little larger than life, and reorder your ideas. The best way to start a revision is to let the book lie fallow for at least a week. A month is better. Six months would be ideal.
To really see what needs fixing, read it aloud. Yes, all of it. It’s even better if you can read it to someone, even if it’s a toddler or your cat. Or imagine an editor or agent is listening.
Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll learn something from every writer you hear. You’ll see that published writers aren’t some exotic species. And they’ll be glad to see you even if you don’t buy a book.
You finally get the nerve to tell someone your idea for a book. You describe your idea, you brace yourself for whether they think it's good or bad, but instead they say, "Oh yeah, that sounds like [X book]."
You blink a few times as your face flushes. Someone already had the same idea??? And the book is already published??
Are you now completely, colossally screwed?
No! You're not. Deep breaths.
There are hundreds of thousands of books out there. The odds that you will come up with completely original book that does not remind anyone of another book is pretty much zero. At the end of the day, originality is somewhat overrated.
Still, it can be disheartening to feel like you're simply retracing someone else's footsteps, and it may leave you bewildered. What do you do?
Here are some scenarios and what to do about them:
When all of your ideas for novels feel like books you have already read:
Keep thinking. Keep brainstorming.
If you're not feeling impressed or excited by your own idea there's no way you're going to sustain enough momentum to write a whole novel. When the writing gets hard it's only your belief in your idea that will sustain you.
Don't settle for an idea that you feel is vaguely uninspiring. Keep pushing yourself to find something better.
When it feels like you are imitating someone else's voice:
When you are just starting out, you may annoy yourself to death because you know you sound exactly like your favorite writer or the most recent book you read. You can't stop yourself from imitating.
This is totally, perfectly okay. Just go with it. Get the words out there. Don't stop writing.
What will happen over time is that you will gradually start to find your own voice. You'll start sounding less like your favorite writer and more like you.
And when you do, you can go back and rewrite the opening part where you were imitating. It will be much easier to go back and revise the voice than it would have been if you had obsessed over your voice from the start.
When you're writing a novel and then find out someone else already had a similar idea:
This is somewhat inevitable. There are tons of books already out there, we've been telling stories for thousands of years, and there are only so many combinations of events that can be shoehorned into a story.
The important thing to focus on is what makes your story unique. You need a unique setting, unique characters, and a unique style.
If the world of your novel feels very different than the previous similar book, chances are people won't even make the connection.
When you look at your unfinished novel and think, "Why in the world is anyone going to care about this with all the other stories out there?" Have faith!
If every writer who experienced this feeling stopped writing there wouldn't be any books out there at all.
Everyone wonders why anyone would care about their book. Everyone has moments of self-doubt and feeling of futility.
Don't give into these feelings. If you power through and finish your novel you'll be immensely glad you gave your dreams a shot.
Do you ever have these moments of doubt? How did you get through?
Art: View of the Salon Carré at the Louvre by Alexandre Brun
My next novel, Afterworlds, is about a young writer reworking her first novel after NaNoWriMo. I thought a fun and useful promotion for it would be a series of writing advice posts. I got carried away.
So between now and November, this blog will host excerpts from a non-fiction book I’m releasing next year, called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, because it’s not done, but you can preorder Afterworlds on the bottom of this page. It comes out September 23.
What Is YA?
Young adult fiction has exploded over the last two decades. Once a small and sleepy corner of publishing, YA has become a major part of the industry, the only category to have grown by double digits every year since the mid-1990s. YA is now a profit center that helps keep the rest of the industry afloat, and the primary engine for creating new readers. The massive sales of YA mega-hits like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have also help kept a lot of bookstores from going out of business.
I have some theories about why this sudden explosion of young adult literature came about, but I’ll come back to those later. First, let me clear up a really important misconception: The genre of YA is not “fiction for teenagers.”
Partly, this is a matter of fact. Studies suggest that about half the YA audience is adult. But more important, the idea that YA is for teenagers is a conceptual error about the definition of genre itself. Genres are sets of practices, techniques, and stylistic conventions. Genres consist of shared assumptions and shared canon. In other words, a genre is not an audience. When someone tells you that they write “novels for men,” or “novels for old people,” or “novels for urban youth,” they aren’t talking about genre.
So what are YA novels, then, if not books for teenagers?
They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.
It’s pretty simple, really. YA is the set of all stories about what it’s like to be a teenager. Not from an adult looking on (or looking back) but from inside the teenage years while they are happening. YA is literature (or movies, TV, comics, video games, ballet, or whatever) that takes us into the hearts, minds, and lives of teenagers.
So how did this particular genre get so huge? Why would so many readers want to inhabit the lives of people who aren’t quite children, nor really adults?
To understand that, you have to know what a teenager is.
What Are Teenagers?
A couple of hundred years ago, there was no such thing as teenagers. The word did not exist, nor did the concept. There were only children and adults.
When people turned thirteen or so, many joined the navy, or got married, or went into the mines and factories. Many young people worked sixty-hour weeks, and child soldiers were common. (Some were rather good at their jobs. In the US Civil War, an eleven-year-old named Willie Johnston won the Medal of Honor, the highest his country bestowed.) I spew these facts not to outrage you, but to make a simple point: teenagers didn’t always exist. We had to invent them.
It happened slowly. Britain, in the throes of industrial revolution, often led the way. There, the workday for eleven through eighteen year-olds was shortened to a mere twelve hours in 1833. (Progress!) In 1844, the age for joining the navy as a midshipman was raised to 14. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929. Over two centuries, a space opened up between the complete dependence of infancy and the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood. We had to give this space a name.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first appearance of the word “teenage” as 1928. The word “teenager” did not appear till 1949. By then, things were changing quickly. In the decades after the Second World War the industrialized world created nothing less than a new stage of life. We invented teenagers.
So what the hell are they?
The legal definitions are too long to list here. In most countries, at some point in the teenage years citizens reach the age where they are allowed vote, consent to sex, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, sign contracts, leave school, drive cars, marry, gamble, join the military, or work at other dangerous jobs. Exactly at what age these all happen depends on geography, and is the subject thousands of pages of law. These laws change all the time, buffeted by social mores, by new technologies, and by moral panics whipped into existence by some of the silliest people on the planet.
In other words, it’s all a bit of a muddle.
The cultural aspects of being a teenager are just as tangled. Whatever teens flock to—skateboards, file sharing, hoodies, rock music, rap music, MySpace—will soon become the subject of a moral panic. This is because teenagers frighten adults.
Five little kids in a store is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s loitering. It’s time for a curfew, or closed-circuit cameras, or a device that emits annoying high-pitched sounds that only teens can hear. (Seriously. Just google “mosquito teens.”) To put it simply, adults see teenagers as big enough to be dangerous, but not old enough to have been civilized yet.
They are uglies, if you will.
Here’s the weird thing: Despite this underlying terror, popular culture celebrates the teen years as carefree and happy, a time of consequence-free exploration. And in our youth-worshipping commercial world, teenagers (those with perfect skin and symmetrical faces, at least) are put on a pedestal. Images of teens are used to sell everything from clothes to food to music.
And let’s not forget the drama of those years—the time of firsts. Somewhere in all this muddle is when most people experience their first sexy kiss, tell their first meaningful lie, and suffer or commit their first real betrayal. Often for the first time, someone close to them dies. Most people drink their first beer, break their first law, and have their first political awakening as teenagers. These years see our first jobs, our first glimpses of independence, and our first life choices so serious that we can never completely undo them. And, of course, our first loves.
So let us recap. We have a global culture inventing an entirely new phase of life, engaged in a messy, noisy conversation about what it means to be an adolescent. We have an oppressed class, whose passions are harassed and banned, whose rights are curtailed, even while their customs are celebrated and their images ever more glorified and sexualized. We have an age of drama and emotion and reversal, where good days are transcendent, and bad days can feel like the end of the world.
Seems like there might be some pretty interesting stories in there.
This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my next book, Afterworlds about a young novelist living in NYC. Afterworlds launches Sep 23 in NYC, and you can pre-order it at the bottom of this page.
What Are Novels?
I’m not going to talk much about the history of the novel. Your local high school, university, bookstore, and library all have departments devoted to that subject. If you want to be a novelist, you should be reading lots of novels, new and old.
Go do that. Keep doing it your whole life.
For now, though, suffice it to say that the novel was invented somewhere between four hundred and a thousand years ago, and in the last century has superseded poetry, short stories, essays, and the rest to become the dominant form of literature.
Novels are powerful. They can help reform corrupt industries (The Jungle), start civil wars (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and provide touchstones for decades-long political movements (Native Son). Novels are so successful that their DNA has invaded other forms, such as narrative history, true crime, and memoir.
So what are novels?
My favorite definition is “a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.” I don’t know who came up with this, but its point is clear: novels are lengthy and lack the shiny perfection of shorter works. They are usually written in the rhythms of natural speech, also known as prose.
But not always! There are many novels in verse (in YA, most notably Ellen Hopkins’ bestsellers about troubled teenagers). And novels that are mostly prose often include other stuff: poetry, song lyrics, mathematical equations, computer code, “realia” like score cards and bus schedules, and even words twisted and transformed into visual art (Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, 1953). Before the twentieth century most fiction was illustrated. So, yes, novels can have pictures too.
In other words, novels are big and imperfect and supremely rugged, like a battered old trunk that can hold pretty much anything.
Young writers ask me all the time, “How long should my novel be?”
The lower bound of the novel is fuzzy. Science fiction folks (like me) tend to use the Hugo Awards’ definition: forty thousand words or more. In lay terms, a novel should be more than a hundred pages. Of course, the Hugo categories below that length are “novella” and “novelette,” terms that simply mean “little novel.”
Far more important: there is no upper bound to the novel. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is four thousand pages long. It was published in seven volumes from 1909 to 1927, but it’s all one novel.
I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s answer to the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?” He quipped, “Long enough to reach the ground.” In other words, your novel should be long enough to get to the end of your story.
The artist in me doesn’t care how long your novel is. (But the commercial hack in me suggests that you stay between fifty thousand and a hundred-fifty thousand words. Okay? Are you happy now? You made me be a commercial hack.)
Here’s a much more interesting question: What are novels good at?
Every art form has its specific “affordances,” a fancy design term that asks of an object, “What can you do with it?”
Ropes are good for pulling things, but not for pushing them. Coffee mugs are good for hot liquids (the handle keeps your fingers from getting burned) but desultory for champagne (you can’t see the bubbles!). FaceBook is good for finding old friends, but terrible for keeping old friends (and advertisers) from finding you. Twitter is good for snarking at the Music Video Awards, less so for nuanced discussions.
So let’s compare the affordances of the novel to other narrative art forms, to find out what novels are good for.
Imagine the opening shot of a film: a dirty and decrepit room, years’ worth of old newspapers stacked against the walls, opened and half-eaten cans of beans everywhere, and one wall covered with newspaper clippings about the president of the United States, the eyes scratched out of every photo.
Within seconds, we know that we’re in the house of a crazed assassin. Tension!
This is something films are good at: establishing settings more or less instantly. A film can open in an alternative steampunk Bangkok in the 1930s and, even if you don’t know anything about Thailand or steampunk or the 1930s, you are there.
A novel would require a lot of text to create a setting of that complexity. The writer can’t upload a whole image straight into your retina, but has to introduce the elements one by one. Novels have no audio track; they can’t give the viewer direct experience of the music playing next door, or the tone of a person’s voice.
On the other hand, a written word can do things a movie can’t. Many details escape the camera’s view: the etymology of a phrase in Thai, the construction history of a Bangkok Airways zeppelin passing overhead, or the text of a newspaper clipping that the assassin tore from the wall yesterday and burned. And novels can engage smells, tastes, and textures in a way that films, being audio-visual, can only suggest.
Another cool thing about novels: they have infinite budgets. You can build a whole city for a one-page scene, then burn it down. Your only limit on extras and special effects is your imagination and ability. (Comics also have infinite budgets, with a combination of novelistic and filmic affordances. But that’s another book.)
Here’s a similar, but more subtle, affordance: novels can compel aesthetic reactions across boundaries of taste. What I mean is, a skillful writer can convince readers that a group of musician characters is the most awesome band ever. But in a movie a real band has to appear and play actual music, which will not please everyone.
We novelists reach into our readers’ head and make them create their own perfect music.
The same thing happens with descriptions of beauty and charm, which is why when books are made into films, the casting decisions invariably cause dissent. Novels co-opt the reader’s imagination to create whatever the story requires. Every reader constructs their own version of that graceful waltz, that gorgeous sunset, that irresistible face.
On top of what novels can show the reader, they’re also very good at hiding things. If we need to, we writers can mention “a car” without any brand, vintage, or state of repair. If a detail isn’t important, we can make it disappear. We can walk around in a character’s head for a whole novel and not find out how old they are, what they’re wearing, or what they look like. (In first person, we can even decide not to disclose their gender.)
Sure, filmmakers sometimes avoid showing the main character, but it’s clunky and obvious what they’re doing. In a skillful writer’s hands, the reader might not even notice.
Let’s be clear about something: you can attempt any narrative trick in any medium, and as a young writer you should be stretching the form. But the fact is, some things will work better in film, some in writing, some in comics, and some on the stage.
If you find yourself using a coffee mug as a champagne glass, or as a hammer, you might want to rethink.
Okay, we’ve talked about what novels are good at, but what are novels best at? What’s the thing they do better than any other medium?
Here’s one answer: When you read a novel, you can know the agony of a character’s stomach ache, the limitations of their colorblindness, what bacon means to them, or the way they feel when a loved one comes through the door. Their fears, hatreds, beliefs, prejudices, and the exact words they’re thinking can be laid out on the page. All the fragments of a character’s memories and knowledge can be accessed as easily as the facts in the reader’s own brain.
I would argue being inside people’s heads is the grade-A, number-one affordance of the novel. To never access anyone’s thoughts or feelings in a novel is like using a champagne glass as a hammer. (Artists like to do that sort of thing, of course. But if you try it, you should be ready for the broken glass and severed fingers.)
Here’s a crazy theory for you:
We humans have a superpower. We can look at another person, observe their facial expressions, words, and body language, then add this data together with everything we know about them and all the other humans we’ve ever observed, and make guesses about what’s going on inside that person right now.
Are they sad? Angry? Hungry? About to stab us?
This trick, called empathy, is a very useful day-to-day skill. It helps us know when to comfort someone, when to make a joke, and when to run away. But its long term consequences are far bigger, because empathy turns us into social creatures, who can cooperate to build tribes and cities and the internet. It’s the basis of art, ethics, and civilized society, not to mention a crazy little thing called love.
The novel is the outgrowth of this ability, because to read is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Just as movie cameras are modeled on the human eye, the novel is modeled on our empathy. It’s not about watching someone, it’s about being in their head. In other words:
Novels are machines for becoming other people.
As we read, we become someone else. Often this person has a more exciting and glamorous life than we do. They may wield magic or posses awesome technology, live in another era or on another planet. More important, they may think differently than we do, and see the world in radically strange ways, and yet we are still drawn into those ways of thinking and seeing. To read is to travel, not just geographically, but into other minds, other lives.
This is what the novel is best at. And that’s because—more than any other medium—novels are an art form grounded in point of view.
I asked for blog topic suggestions on twitter yesterday, and one of our readers posed the following (paraphrased):
There’s the idea of author brand and books readers expect from that author. But what happens if the author wants to write in a new genre?
As a YA author who debuted with a sci-fi/dystopian trilogy and is following up those three books with a historical fiction stand-alone, I find this topic incredibly fascinating. Yes, I’m changing genres, but it hasn’t worried me too much. And maybe that’s because I don’t really think my brand has changed.
As an author, the bulk of my brand is me, a human being. I’m not Nike or Starbucks*, some corporation with a logo and strict style guide. I’m Erin, who loves Harry Potter and geeks out over good typography and has an unhealthy obsession with all things Autumn. These are the things people know about me via twitter convos and blog posts, and they haven’t changed. Neither has the fact that I write YA fiction.
I’d argue that the remainder of my brand as an author is made up not by what genre I write, but by the characteristics of my novels, the type of story a reader is going to get when they pick up any of my books.
Let’s look quickly at the TAKEN trilogy and VENGEANCE ROAD. The two are very different when it comes to plot and genre classification. But if I examine the core elements of either story, there’s a lot of overlap: good vs evil, a gritty world, unexpected twists, action and adventure, a dash of mystery and a touch of romance. As such, readers who enjoyed TAKEN will most likely enjoy VENGEANCE ROAD.
I guess what I’m saying is that readers love an author less for the genre that they write, and more for the type of stories they create. If the staple elements that readers fall head-over-heels for exist in an author’s newest book, there’s a good chance readers will be happy regardless of that book’s genre or label.
Stephanie Meyer, for example, jumped from straight-up paranormal romance to light sci-fi. Many fans of TWILIGHT followed her to THE HOST and were rewarded with her staples: forbidden love, relationship drama, and a slow-burn romance. Lauren Oliver debuted with a stand-alone contemporary and then released a dystopian trilogy, but both had the beautiful prose readers expect of her, plus nuanced female friendships and well-developed themes of love/family.
Perhaps the more difficult-to-navigate transition is changing audiences—switching to MG or adult, after establishing yourself as a YA author. Naturally not all of your existing readers will follow you if you do this, simply because the new book is meant for a completely different age group. Still, Oliver has found success writing for a variety of audiences, as have others.
At the end of the day, the advice we hear over and over is to write the story that excites us, the book we’d want to read. I still think this is some of the best advice around. Let your publisher worry about how to entice your existing fanbase to try your next-book-in-a-new-genre. You just worry about writing an awesome book. Be aware of what elements from New Book will also appeal to fans of Old Book, if only so you can better promote it to your existing readers when the time comes, but write what makes you happy. Life is too short (and the publishing industry too uncertain) to write only within one genre if you’re anxious to try others.
Remember: Labels are a result of bookstore and library shelving. They are a necessary evil of the industry. But readers just want good stories. So go write good stories, genre be damned.
* Nike and Starbucks are the brands, sneakers and coffee are the products, respectively. The same is true for authors. The brand is the person, the product is the books.
Erin Bowman is a YA writer, letterpress lover, and Harry Potter enthusiast living in New Hampshire. Her TAKEN trilogy is available from HarperTeen (FORGED out 4/14/15), and VENGEANCE ROAD publishes with HMH in fall 2015. You can visit Erin’s blog (updated occasionally) or find her on twitter (updated obsessively).
Joan Aiken’s advice to young writers when she went to give talks in schools was always to carry a small notebook and to jot down anything of interest. She wrote: “The most frequent question they ask is Where do ideas come from? And if I’m talking to them in a classroom I produce the small […]