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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: writing advice, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 455
1. Waiting for Inspiration?

“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, […]

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2. Have an affair - book, that is

There's nothing quite like falling in love with a new idea.

file0001781362730A 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.

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3. What do you already have in the cupboard?

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.

file5101281691371So 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.

HOMELESSWhat 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?

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4. Don't give up on your dreams

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 11.01.28 AM

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!) 

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5. Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

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 […]

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6. Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

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 […]

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7. Always keep a notebook…

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 […]

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8. Switching Genres — Can it hurt your author brand?

Industry Life

by

Erin Bowman

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 createIf 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).

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9. What Are Novels? (HTWYA 3)

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.

Also, I’m on tour soon! Click here for dates.


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.


Next week, Part 4—”POV”
Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”

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10. What Is YA? (HTWYA pt 1)

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.


Later this week, Part 2—”What Are Stories.”

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11. What to write about when it feels like everything has already been written


This unnerving moment happens to every writer:

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

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12. 10 secrets to becoming a real writer


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.)

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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13. Pacing: Listen to Your Gut

By Julie Daines

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?

Good question.

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?


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14. Ask an Editor: Hooking the Reader Early

In this series, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman shares advice for aspiring authors, especially those considering submitting to our New Visions Award

Last week on the blog, I talked about the importance of following submission guidelines and basic manuscript format. This week, I wanted to go into more detail about why a reader might stop reading if they’re not hooked right away. Here are some comments I’ve heard our readers make about manuscripts that didn’t hook them:

  • Story does not captivate in first few chapters
  • Boring
  • Writing not strong, or not strong enough to hold a young reader’s (or teen’s) interest
  • Parts of the writing are very strange (not in a good way)
  • Sounded too artificial
  • Reminds me too much of something that’s really popular
  • Too Tolkienesque or reliant upon Western European fantasy tropes
  • Concept cliche

How do you get your writing to have that “zing” that captivates from the very beginning? This is a little tougher than just following the directions—this is much more personal to each reader and each writer.

Is your writing boring readers?

There are a couple different issues in the list above. Some readers lost interest simply because they were bored. If you find yourself telling readers of your book, “Don’t worry! It gets really good in chapter five!” consider whether you’re starting your book at the right moment in time. The phrase “late in, early out” is one to remember—perhaps you don’t need all the information that leads to the “really good” part. Or perhaps you need to revise to make that information more interesting and faster paced.

I don’t recommend simply dumping this information into a prologue. Many young readers skip prologues entirely, and many more readers will lose interest if your prologue is long and boring—it’s the same principle as saying “just wait till chapter five!”

If the information in your first few chapters are crucial, yet readers are getting bored by it, consider spooling that information out little by little over the course of the book. You need to find the balance between giving enough information for the reader to be intrigued and wanting to know more, without overburdening the reader with so much information that they become overwhelmed or bored.

been there done thatFor example, take the first few pages of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. On page 1, Taylor sets up the scene: it’s an ordinary day in Prague (interesting point number one: how many books are set in Prague?) and Karou is walking down the street toward school, minding her own business. It’s an active scene—something is happening—but it’s more about Karou’s internal mundane thoughts. However, it doesn’t stay mundane for long. By page 2, she’s been attacked.

But it’s not your average “you have to have an action scene in the first scene!” attack. The author plays with expectations, intriguing the reader and making you want to know what happens next. We get some ex-boyfriend banter (also against expectations) and the promise of interesting, embarrassing things to come by the end of the chapter.

It helps that the book is well written. But it’s more than good prose that hooks the reader here—she spools out just enough to let you know that this is a unique book, and that you want to know more. The next two chapters do the same thing, and bit by bit, the reader comes to know Karou’s intriguing magical background.

What she doesn’t do is infodump in a prologue or the first few chapters about Karou’s history, the history of the world, and the history of the strange beings who raised her. Save those details for when they matter.

Look at your favorite books and read like a writer. For hooking a reader, look in particular at excellent examples of the first five pages of a wide variety of books. There are many ways to effectively open a book, and you need to find the way that works for your story. Reading other books like a writer will help you to zoom in on ways to perfect your craft.read like a writer

Another great resource for writers trying to figure out how to hook readers is editor Cheryl Klein’s essay “The Rules of Engagement” in her book Second Sight. It’s no longer available online (and I don’t believe the book is in e-book form), but it’s worth the price of the book for her discussion of various ways to hook readers via character, insight, action, and other methods. (Bonus: you also then get access to all her other thoughts on writing and revision.)

Over-reliance on common tropes

Several readers commented that several books relied too much upon Western European fantasy tropes (elves, fairies, etc.). There are ways of hooking readers with familiar story elements, but often most high fantasy tales boil down to “my elves are better than yours.”

The Coldest Girl in ColdtownLook for new inspiration. (We’ll cover worldbuilding more in full in a few weeks.) But especially in the first few chapters of your book, avoid leading with ideas that have been-there-done that.

If your story concept relies on tried-and-true tropes, it’s not the end of the world. Take a look at books coming out now that are successfully changing the mold—books like The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, who has revamped (haha) the vampire genre, for example. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown updates the genre, makes vampires scary again. In what ways can you update and revamp the concepts in your book to hook readers?

The solution to your writing being “not strong enough”: practice 

The number one complaint as to why a reader wasn’t hooked was that the writing wasn’t good. Once you get past obvious grammar and punctuation mistakes, this comes down to a greater need to practice your craft. Write regularly—it doesn’t have to be every day, but do it consistently. If your problem is time, you might find useful this advice from New Voices Award winner Pamela Tuck on how to carve out time to write on a regular basis. She has ELEVEN children, who require a lot of time and attention, especially because she home-schools them.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And next week, we’ll begin to drill down on elements that you can work on in the whole book, such as voice.

Stacy Whitman photoStacy 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. 


Filed under: Awards, New Voices/New Visions Award, Publishing 101, Tu Books, Writer Resources Tagged: ask an editor, how to, Laini Taylor, New Visions Award, Science Fiction/Fantasy, stacy whitman, Tu Books, writing advice

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15. Why research when you can do?

machine gun

I’m on a board for people whose write about murder and theft, poisons and fires. In addition to writers, there are a lot of professionals on the board - people who are or have been cops, paramedics, FBI agents, firefighters, PIs, and more.

A writer recently posted a question about what kind of gun her character should get.  She said she knew nothing about guns, and she wanted to know what her equally ignorant character would experience if she went to a gun shop and asked for help.


At which point I (and several other writers) chimed in. Why not just go into a gun store and explain what she was working on and ask their advice?  This was one real-life situation (unlike questions about, say, the best undetectable poison) where it would be easy to experience it.

And experience will give a writer so MUCH more than reading about it ever would.  She’ll be able to describe the shop without trying to google images of “gun shop.”  She’ll know the heft of a gun, and the feeling of the grip, learn it’s surprisingly heavy even though parts of it appear to be made out of plastic.  There may be smells and even tastes she would not expect.  Since her character and the writer herself are both coming from the same place (not knowing much about guns) she’ll be able to ask the questions her character would and hear the answers her character would as well.

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 3.50.05 PMI have found that almost everyone likes to talk about themselves and what they do to an interested person.  I have interviewed teens, death investigators, DNA experts, and curators.  In some cases, I have gone in cold (as I would in the gun situation above).  In others, I have done the professional the courtesy of learning as much as I could before I went to them.  With Dr. Dan Crane, the DNA expert, for example, it would be a waste of his precious time to sit down and say, “What’s DNA?”  Instead I learned a lot on my own and asked about Y-STR and familial DNA testing.

When I was working on the end to The Body in the Woods, I knew it took place in Forest Park.  And I knew my bad character would be armed, and my good characters wouldn’t be.  They needed something they could use as a weapon.  But what?  I took the same walk they would have to get into the park, past nice homes, and I photographed everything I thought they might consider for use as a weapon. Real life thought of many more alternatives that I did.



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16. How to Find Time to Write When You Have 11 Children

Pamela TuckPamela M. Tuck is the author of As Fast As Words Could Fly, winner of our New Voices Award and named to the International Reading Association’s Teacher’s Choices list. Tuck lives in Boyerstown, Pennsylvania with her husband and their 11 children. In this post, we asked her to share advice on how to find time to write. 

One common question people ask me is, “How do you find time to write?” I simply answer, “I don’t find time, I steal it, and play catch-up later.” In other words, I MAKE time.

Growing up as an only child, writing served as a source of entertainment for me. I found that expressing my inner thoughts on paper became therapeutic and helped me cope with stressful situations. So, as a mother of 11 children, writing, quite naturally, became a safe haven.

I don’t have a daily writing routine like some writers: waking up at 5 am, going for their morning run, eating a cup of yogurt topped with homemade As Fast As Words Could Flygranola, then sitting at their desk, with the picturesque mountainous view, and writing several pages of their next best-selling novel for 5 hours. Instead, my day begins with waking 11 excessively sleepy children, facing mountainous heaps of laundry, in between cleaning, cooking, homeschooling, and potty training. You get the point. So here’s how I steal prioritize my time for writing.

When I homeschooled my children, I incorporated timed journal writing assignments for everyone (including me). I had my children think of random words, and then I’d write the words on cut pieces of paper, fold them, and place them in a basket. We all picked one word from the basket. I set the timer for either three or five minutes, and we wrote anything we wanted about the word we picked. Some words prompted poetry, non-fiction pieces, nonsense pieces, and creative story starters that could be developed into longer works. That’s just one way I kept my inner writing flame lit.

I usually find inspiration to write from reading articles, seeing interesting photos, hearing conversations, or from life experiences. If I stumble across a story idea, I simply allot time, either during the day or in the evening, to write. These one or two hour time allotments serve as refreshing rewards during my busy days. Fortunately for me, my husband encourages my writing projects and he, along with my children, comply with my writing antics of having complete silence and/or isolation while I write. I use the time allotments to do research, if necessary, and to read other books similar to the type of story I’m writing. My family serves as a huge inspiration for my writing. They are my “sounding boards” as I bounce ideas around, my audience, as I piece those ideas together, and my cheerleaders when those ideas find a home.

So, going from one end of the spectrum (as an only child, with plenty of quiet time for writing) to the other (as a mother of a large family, with hardly anyYou are a writer. You don’t have to write on someone else’s schedule. Write on your OWN schedule. quiet time at all), I would like to share a little piece of advice that was given to me by my husband. After attending my first writing conference with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in June 2007, and hearing all the wonderful writing regimens of different authors, I thought my lifestyle would hinder my dream of becoming an author. My husband told me, “You are a writer. You don’t have to write on someone else’s schedule. Write on your OWN schedule.”

My husband found out about Lee & Low Books offering a New Voices Award and encouraged me to write my dad’s story of desegregating the public school system in 1960s Greenville, NC. My dad’s experiences of determination and courage inspired me to take my husband’s advice. I submitted my story to Lee & Low Books in September 2007. In December 2007, I received a call announcing me as the winner of the 2007 New Voices Award! Now, my dad’s family story has transformed into a picture book, As Fast As Words Could Fly, that can be shared with many families across generations. So, regardless of your lifestyle, your limitations, your oppositions…grab those ideas that are close to your heart, and write the story that only YOU can write. Unleash your dreams, and let them fly!

New Voices Award sealMore information:

The New Voices Award is given each year to an unpublished author of color for a picture book manuscript. Find more information on how to submit here.


Filed under: New Voices/New Visions Award, Writer Resources Tagged: As Fast As Words Could Fly, New Voices Award, writing advice

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17. How to write about violence

If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.

There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
black eyes
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.

Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.

Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.

And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.

Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.

Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
##
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?

Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.

Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.

She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:

Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)

************************
She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.

She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.

Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.

On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn

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18. How the writing process REALLY works

I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fight each other to publish it). And the books were done when they were done.

Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)

My current writing process is:

  • One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.

  • Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.

  • Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.

  • Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.

  • Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.

  • Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.

  • Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?

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19. It's better to be a good storyteller than overly realistic


One of the things I struggled with the most as a young writer was trying to balance creating realistic characters with being a good storyteller.

Here's what I mean. Let's say I was writing a novel where there's a strange but everyday fact of life for the characters in that world, like, instead of air everyone breathes tomato soup. (Bizarre, but yum.)

Since breathing tomato soup is so ordinary to the people in the novel and they can't imagine a world in which they don't breathe tomato soup, it would seem really unrealistic for them to sit around talking about breathing tomato soup. We don't sit around talking about air and explain to each other how it came to be. So why would the characters explain it?

And it may seem awkward and contrary to the flow of the novel to just come out with the explanation explicitly.

Then you go and end up writing a novel where breathing tomato soup is totally unexplained and the reader is completely frustrated and distracted, thinking, "Why in the WORLD are they breathing tomato soup and why is no one explaining it to me???"

This is what I realized earlier in my writing days:

You are not writing for the people in the world of your novel. 

You are writing for the people in OUR world, as in planet Earth, as in a place where we breathe air and need anything different than that explained to us. Always. Always. Always.

No matter where your novel is set, pretend that the narrator has been magically transplanted to Earth and is telling it to us in 2014. They might use their own language to tell it, but they still are giving an Earthling reader in 2014 enough to go on to understand all the eccentricities of their world.

Now, as you are doing that explaining to Earthlings in 2014, this does not mean that two characters should sit around talking about things that would otherwise be ordinary to them. A better approach is to weave exposition in naturally within the context of the narrative and only when the reader needs to know the information because it relates to the plot (I talk a lot more about how to weave in exposition in my guide to writing a novel).

At the end of the day, it's much more important to tell a good story than to stick too closely to what's real. I mean, if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn't be reading a novel.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Art: Camille au Métier by Claude Monet

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20. Donate to Young Writers

As you guys know, I’ve been matching donations to NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Today, Tuesday June 17, is the best time to donate, because folks who donate between noon and 1PM US Eastern (9AM-10AM Pacific) will be automatically entered to win one of five signed copies of Afterworlds.

That’s right, you get to read it NOW.

The YWP is revamping their website, refreshing their already excellent (and free!) curriculum guides for schools who participate in Nano, and expanding their outreach to correctional facilities, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities.

Click here to donate and support young writers.

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21. Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction, Part I

Stacy Whitman photo

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. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

During the first week of June, I attended the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. At the conference, I met writers from all over Asia and the Pacific, discussing craft, marketing their books at home and abroad, and translation. I even ran into Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac, the Australian author/illustrator team behind the LEE & LOW picture book The Drummer Boy of John John. I enjoyed all the panels and the chance to see Singapore and meet so many people from the other side of the world—it gives you a perspective as an editor you might not otherwise have.

One of the panels I participated in was a First Pages event, in which I read about 20 first pages of picture books, middle grade, and YA novels and then gave feedback on whether the pages were working for me and if I’d want to read more.

Stacy Whitman with author Mark Greenwood and illustrator Frané Lessac

Stacy Whitman with author Mark Greenwood and illustrator Frané Lessac

For the fantasy and science fiction entries, a common problem was—and is in any new writer’s writing—revealing enough about the world that you create interest and intrigue, but not too much. Too much, and you risk alienating your audience, confusing them, or simply not hooking them. Reader reactions are so subjective. One person might think there’s not nearly enough worldbuilding in a book (“give me more! MORE!”) and another might say of the exact same book that what worldbuilding there is was way too confusing (“I couldn’t keep all those made-up words straight!”).

So how do you, as the author, balance the needs of such a wide range of readers when you’re working in a complex world? And how do you balance the need to establish your characters, setting, and plot with the need to spool out information to your reader to intrigue them rather than confuse them?

This is a question that almost every author and editor of speculative fiction struggles with, particularly because we, as veterans of the genre, are already more comfortable with a lot of jargon than your average teen reader, particularly teen readers whose preference for fantasy runs more toward the contemporary paranormal variety.

Singapore 2

Stacy Whitman at the famous Singapore merlion fountain

There are a number of reasons why I think Twilight was so popular on such a broad scale, but one of the biggest ones was the relatability of the initial situation. Not vampires showing up at school—before that. We start with a simple story about a girl who is leaving her mother behind in Arizona to live with her father in an unknown small town on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Relatable: divorced parents, fish out of water, adapting to a new school and a new climate.

Think about all the really big fantasy hits of the last decade or so in children’s and YA fiction: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent. Of these books’ beginnings, only the dystopian tales start all that far outside the everyday experiences of your average young reader, and even The Hunger Games starts with a relatable situation—a coal mining family lives in a desperate situation and must hunt for food.

While most kids who would have access to The Hunger Games don’t live under a despotic regime, it’s plausible that it could happen in the real world. Every kid has been hungry at some point, though perhaps not as hungry and desperate as Katniss. Every kid has taken a test in school, and sometimes it feels like those standardized tests do determine your everlasting fate, as they do in Divergent, even if Tris’s Abnegation explanations are a little tedious. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are ordinary kids going to school, living somewhat normal lives (even if abusive ones, in the case of Harry) before their worlds change with the discovery of magic.

Stacy Whitman speaking on a panel at the Asian Festival of Children's Content.

Stacy Whitman speaking on a panel at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:

Reader learns world alongside character

Exposition: questions raised, then answered

“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit

Next Thursday, I’ll go into detail about each of these techniques and give some examples. In the meantime, think about your favorite science fiction and fantasy books. How do they bring you into their world? What works best for you as a reader? Answering these questions about your own reading preferences can help guide you as a writer.

 


Filed under: Publishing 101, Writer Resources Tagged: fantasy writing, science fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, stacy whitman, worldbuilding, writing advice, writing resources, writing tips, young adult writing

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22. Writers Write — and Read

Writing Life Banner

by

E.C. Myers

EC Myers

It’s harder than ever to become a writer.

Not because of all the doom and gloom about the death of the novel, print vs. electronic books, big publishers vs. self-publishing, or Amazon vs. everyone. The problem is that many kids today (girls and boys) not only aren’t reading, but they don’t have access to books. Good writers are born from a lifetime love of reading.

It’s not a matter of kids and teens choosing to play video games, or watch TV, or go online instead of picking up a book — books simply are not in their lives as much as they should be. I was recently invited to talk to a couple of English classes at my old high school about my writing. I was honored, and even more so when I discovered what a hardship it was for the school to afford an author visit and books on their limited budget, which does not include much money even for school books. Or for a school newspaper or literary journal. Or a full-time librarian. These kinds of budgetary cutbacks in school and public libraries is an epidemic.

LegoMovie_Poster_200x300Back in my day, we had all those things. (Although one committed English teacher did sometimes have to resort to photocopying Marlowe, in an early form of book piracy.) I’m a product of every school library, every book we studied in class, every librarian who either recommended good reads to me or quietly looked the other way while I explored on my own. I’m a published author because of English teachers like Mrs. Fein, Mrs. Post, Mrs. Halpern, Mr. Riti, and Mr. Valk.

My author bio says that I was “raised by a single mom and a public library” for a reason: I was lucky enough to live a 10-minute walk from my local library (and I’m not exaggerating when I say I had to walk home up a huge hill in 100-degree weather carrying an armload of books, but it was worth it.) I was lucky because I had family and teachers who nurtured my love for reading and gave me the tools to turn that love into something else: a desire to write books of my own one day.

RRlogo_homeI was also fortunate to have other positive influences in my life like Reading Rainbow, which reinforced reading as a good thing; even at the time, I stood out for reading so much. Many people of a certain age remember the show’s theme song fondly. It talks about the amazing and varied experiences readers can have in the pages of a book, but the lyrics are also motivational for what readers can accomplish in life: “Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high.” “I can go anywhere!” “I can be anything!” Those are important messages to give young people. Happily, Reading Rainbow is making a comeback and will be able to reach new generations via computers and mobile devices.

At my former high school, where kids no longer have a creative outlet or writing instruction, one student asked me if I needed a college degree to become a writer. Though I was a little embarrassed, because college is important to getting most good jobs these days, I was also truthful. “No,” I said. “I learned how to write by reading books.” By reading, you naturally gain a knowledge of proper grammar (even if you don’t know the names of the rules or how to parse a sentence) and story structure and pacing, and you begin to develop a prose style and your own voice. Yes, you can take classes and join workshops or critique groups, and I think those are useful things. But to build a solid foundation with words, an active imagination, and a lifelong devotion to consuming and creating stories, you have to read.

handy_rabSo my best advice, forever and always, to kids in school, aspiring writers, and published authors is READ. Read anything. Read everything. Read genres you love and books you think you’ll hate. Read young adult and middle grade and books intended for adults, even if you aren’t meant to understand them. Pick up literary bestsellers and mysteries and science fiction. Try urban fantasy and new adult. Read non fiction and fanfiction, comics and read magazines — and yes, the internet. Read for pleasure. Read for research. Read for inspiration. Read to learn how other authors write well, and to learn what you shouldn’t do. Just read.

So… What are you reading now? (Other than this blog post.) Me, I’m finishing up my friend Rajan Khanna’s excellent debut science fiction novel, Falling Sky, out in October from Pyr. In the comments below, tell us about what’s on your eReader, in your bag, or on your night stand.

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel FAIR COIN and its sequel, QUANTUM COIN; his next YA novel, THE SILENCE OF SIX, will be published by Adaptive in November 2014. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at his blogTwitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

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23. Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction, Part II


Stacy Whitman photoStacy 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. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

Last week, I discussed why worldbuilding in speculative fiction can be so challenging for authors. How do we introduce a completely new world without infodumping or confusing readers? I gave some examples of worldbuilding done well in popular YA science fiction and fantasy: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight. In all these cases, the starting point is in some way relatable, or there is something about the character (Tris, Katniss) that hooks the reader. First pages should be character- and plot-driven, and worldbuilding should support rather than dominate. That gives these books an easy entry point and wide appeal.

There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:

Reader learns world alongside character

Readers of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Twilight figure out the world alongside the main character. Information is spooled out as the character learns it, so the reader doesn’t have to absorb everything at once. This is a low bar for entry, not requiring much synthesis of information. The character is almost a stand-in for the reader.

Exposition: questions raised, then answered

What about Hunger Games? Now it gets a little tougher. Suzanne Collins starts out with a perfectly relatable (if a tiny bit cliche) situation, the main character waking up and seeing her family. We get some exposition on Katniss’s family and the cat who hates her.

But it becomes non-cliche by page 2, when we learn about the Reaping. Ah! What’s the Reaping, you ask? We don’t know yet. Now the bar for entry is raised. There is a question, the answer for which you’re going to have to read further to find out. The infodumpage level is low, but there is still some exposition in the next few pages, letting us know that Katniss lives in a place called District 12, nicknamed the Seam, and that her town is enclosed by a fence that is sometimes electrified—and which is supposed to be electrified all the time.

Collins’s approach to spooling out a little information at a time is to explain each new term as she goes, but some readers think that feels unnatural in a first person voice because the narrator would already know these things, so why is she explaining them to the reader?

It depends on the story, in my opinion—Collins makes it work because of how she crafted Katniss’s voice. It is a very fine line to walk—I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve received that start out with, “My name is X. I am Y years old. I live in a world that does Z,” an obvious example of how this approach becomes downright clumsy when not handled with Collins-esque finesse.

“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the reader is given clues to work out rather than having any new terms explained to them. This approach needs just as much, if not more, finesse. It’s a process that some readers who are new to speculative fiction might stumble over the most, which is why I think there’s so little of it in middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I’ve seen it called “incluing,” which is a silly word, but I don’t know of another name for it and the description of incluing in that Wikipedia link is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I—as a lifelong fantasy fan—prefer to see in the beginning of a book, particularly one set in a world that has no connection to our own, or if it’s in the future of our world far enough into the future that the society is unrecognizable to us, such as the society in Tankborn. Karen Sandler does a wonderful job at incluing readers as we read chapter 1 of the first book in the Tankborn trilogy.

The prominent example I like to give writers for this kind of worldbuilding is from The Golden Compass. Check out the first paragraph of that book:

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table.”

Pullman jumps right into the scene, with Lyra sneaking down the dining hall with her daemon. We’re hooked—she’s doing something sneaky, and we don’t know what. And we want to know. We don’t even know what the daemon physically looks like until paragraph 4, and even then we don’t know why he’s called a daemon or what makes a daemon special.

What is a daemon, anyway? We don’t know! In fact, this is one of the major conflicts of the book—we need to read more to find out about daemons, and further mysteries are revealed as we read that deepen our understanding of daemons and of Lyra’s world in general. As we discover more clues that intrigue us, we want to know more, and keep reading.

But the line between intriguing the reader and confusing the reader is very thin, and I would argue that for some readers it’s in a different place than for others. Those of us who are familiar with fantasy might be more willing to patiently wait for more information about daemons because we trust that this author will let us know what we need to know when the time is right. We know that they’re teasing us with this information so as not to overburden us within the first few pages of the book (or, in the case of The Golden Compass, because the reader can’t know what the majority of people in that world don’t know, either).

Tankborn coverIn situations in which you need to establish a world that’s entirely different from our own, I find that putting a character in a situation that’s somewhat familiar to the reader can help with establishing the unfamiliar. In Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, for example, Kayla has to watch her little brother instead of going to a street fair with her friends. While Kayla calls him her “nurture brother” instead of just her brother, it’s still a situation to which a lot of readers can relate, even if it is set on another planet and her brother is catching nasty arachnid-based sewer toads instead of familiar Earth frogs and toads.

M. K. Hutchins, author of Drift, approached it in a completely different way. She starts with a dangerous situation—a family on the run from authorities, splitting up. The mother, our main character Tenjat, and his sister Eflet are embarking on a terrible journey that’s almost certain death, setting off on a raft in the middle of the night into an ocean full of snake-like monsters, and leaving the family’s father and smallest brother behind to face unknown punishment. While perhaps no reader has been chased by authorities in the middle of the night, it is a dangerous situation and a parting of family—mixing the familiar (family) with the unfamiliar (a dangerous situation in a completely new setting).Drift

It’s the difference between showing and telling. Philip Pullman, Karen Sandler, and M. K. Hutchins all show us how their worlds works, rather than pausing to tell us how it works (“in this world, all people are born with an animal companion called a daemon”).

Telling can work, though, especially in small doses—Katniss’s voice is so conversational that the brief moments of telling in the first few pages of The Hunger Games work, particularly because Collins is mostly showing what Katniss is up to. The brief pauses to “infodump” feel like the reader is being told a story by a storyteller, like a friend telling a story over the kitchen table after a nice big meal would pause and explain something you didn’t understand (a friend who’s a very good storyteller). It’s an awareness of audience that most speculative fiction doesn’t have the luxury of.

Showing isn’t always better, and telling isn’t always bad, when done right and mixed in with showing. Whichever method you use, remember that sometimes readers will trip over new words so you need to give them as much context as possible without over-infodumping.

And here is where the art comes in. I can’t tell you what that balance is, but if you look at examples like the ones above, you’ll get a better feel for how much to reveal and how much to hold back in your first few pages—revealing enough to orient your reader and give them a sense of the differences of this world (while grounding them in something familiar like Lyra’s hallway or Katniss’s humble home) while seeking to avoid overburdening them with too much all at once.

What about you? How have you found the right balance of introducing your world without overburdening the reader? What books do you recommend that do this particularly well?

 


Filed under: Publishing 101, Tu Books, Writer Resources Tagged: fantasy writing, science fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, stacy whitman, Tu Books, worldbuilding, writing advice, writing resources, writing tips, young adult writing

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24. Read Like a Writer: The 100 Rule

More than one local prolific author has said she read hundreds of books in her genre before writing her own well. Hundreds. Good books, bad books, but all in the genre in which she intended to write.

I think this is possibly the best course one could take for writing. And you'd be surprised how many people I know want to write in a genre that they don't actually read: people with a picture book idea who think if they throw some rhyming words together it is publishable without ever cracking a published picture book, people who read nonfiction but want to write dystopian YA, people who only read romance but want to write memoir.

It's normal to be in love with our own ideas. They are our babies, after all. But if we are going to send them out into the world, we have to know what their place in the world could be. And to do that, we have to know something about their peers. (It also helps with writing the dreaded queries ... a topic I'll discuss on my next post.)

So I want to pass on this advice: read in your genre. Read a lot in your genre. Yes, hundreds of books. Okay, start with 20 and build. But make a serious goal.

But when you read, read like a writer.

Reading like a reader is passive, it is as simple as deciding if you "like" or "don't like" a book.

To read like a writer is to question and answer exactly what it is that is and isn't working. In fact, finding a book that you don't like can be of more value than digging into a book that you love. When we love a book, we are taken by it in a visceral, emotional way. It becomes "ours" in a way that our own writing is "ours." It is hard to be critical of your darlings.

On the other hand, good old favorites—the ones you've read over and over, the ones that you feel you already know—can be useful to look at closely because you aren't getting caught up in the plot. You know it well enough to lift the curtain and see what is underneath each page.

When you are reading hundreds, though, you are bound to find those that you don't like. Those can be easier to take apart. Because the undeniable fact is that this book made it. So you have to figure out what it is about the book—the language, the construction, the story, the setting, the dialogue, the characters—that managed to get it passed the gauntlet of queries, slush piles, agents, publishers, and book stores to find its place on this shelf (be it physical or digital).

So, break it down.

Really understand the construction of the book. Think of it as a scaffolding upon which the words hang. Even in a picture book—the most compact of stories—plot is carefully built like the frame of a building. It must be solid and balanced. Writers are engineers. Read like an engineer.

Carefully note dialogue that moves you and dialogue that seems unnecessary. Then figure out why that is. The "why" isn't always that easy to decipher. It may be the language, or it may be the setting in which the dialogue takes place. Also look at the balance of dialogue to exposition. When does the description of a movement from a character "say" more than dialogue? How is it done?

Are there single, carefully chosen words that tell more about the setting than a lengthy description?

Whatever it is you want to learn, you can learn a lot about it by the careful reading of many examples. The more, the better. Say, one hundred.

How long will you take to read one hundred ... like a writer?

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25. Advice for young writers


I often receive e-mails from young writers in high school and even younger, and I'm always so impressed with them and even a little bit jealous. I had no idea I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school and I rue all those years I could have spent honing my craft. And even if I had known I wanted to be a writer, I didn't have the Internet to reach out to other authors and learn more about what it takes to write a novel.

These young people are getting such a head start on their careers, and I can't wait to see the incredible books they produce.

There's a long tradition of writers offering advice to young writers, perhaps none greater than Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I can't top that, but here's my own modest contribution to the genre.

Here's my advice for young writers:

Don't write for the writer you are now. Write for the writer you're going to become.

Writers aren't born, they are made. It takes most writers years and years to hone their craft, and it's helpful to have had years and years of reading experience now. By the time you've reached high school you have lived enough to have tasted the world and it may feel like you're ready to channel it all into a novel, but don't expect that your writerly success will come immediately.

Yes, there are occasional wunderkinds that defy this rule. But even S.E. Hinton, who published The Outsiders when she was sixteen, had already written several novels before that one.

Within the publishing industry, you won't be judged based on your age, you'll be judged against other writers who have spent years and even decades writing. Being good for your age isn't enough. You have to be good period, and it's difficult to achieve that level with limited experience.

Don't judge your writing success by whether you're able to find publication immediately. Instead, write to get better, write for catharsis and practice and fun. Your future self will be thankful for the time well spent.

Create the world you want, but don't leave the one you're in.

Teenage years can be incredibly difficult. You might feel trapped by parents, peers, or a school that doesn't understand you or even mistreats you. You have limited control over your life even as you're old enough to grasp that there is something more out there, if only you were allowed to go and get it.

Writing can be an incredible release. It gives you the ability to create a world that's better than the one you're living in. It gives you the power you don't have in your day-to-day life.

Use it well. But don't disengage with the world you're living in. Writing can feel like a substitute for real life, but it's important to find people in the real one who you can talk to, whether that's friends, a teacher, or fellow writers. Don't let your characters be a substitute for real-world relationships.

Don't be afraid to imitate at first.

Nearly every writer who starts out can see the fingerprints of their favorite writers in their work. This is normal.

Don't be alarmed if you feel like you're writing someone else's book at first. Push forward. Keep writing. Even take up fan fiction if you want to.

It takes time to learn how to craft a plot, to write sophisticated dialogue, to infuse your work with emotional depth. It takes many writers years to hone these skills.

One thing you can do in the meantime is to find your voice. Write, write, and write some more. In the beginning your work might sound like someone else. But eventually you'll make it your own.

Don't ever apologize for being a writer.

Adults often underestimate teenagers. They treat them as if they are still children, when it's not true, and they may not think you're capable of being a great writer when you absolutely are. Or, possibly worse, they might try to indulge you and be overly enthusiastic, when you know they secretly are not taking you seriously and think your writing is a phase you're going to grow out of.

Your writing is worthwhile. Your writing is important. Don't let anyone tell you any differently.

There are a lot of people in life who never try to achieve their dreams. They would rather sit back and be a critic than an artist, because it's easier to see what's wrong with someone else's work than to create your own. There will always be naysayers. But...

Writers write.

So go for it. There is a whole world waiting for you to bring it to fruition.

Art: Schreiben der Knabe by Albert Anker

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