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Writing Good Dialogue For Your Novel, by Lish McBride

There’s a fine line that you have to tread when you’re creating dialogue. You have to manage to write words that sound natural and normal coming out of your character’s mouths while at the same time crafting them to sound better than most conversations. I’ve been told that I write good dialogue. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m obviously biased in my own favor. I’m told that it’s witty and fun and I feel like I’m cheating, because honestly I’m surrounded by witty and fun people and I feel like I’m just reflecting that. Let’s say that you’re not lucky, though, and the people you’re surrounded by are less like Oscar Wilde and more like something that has crawled out of a cave. What then?

First, even cave-speak has it’s place. Not all of your characters are going to be into banter and witticisms. Some are naturally the straight man, only uttering monosyllabic responses and using hand gestures. That’s okay. That’s one of my big things—make the words fit the character. Sometimes I’ll get edits that will say, “I don’t think Sam would ever say this.” Believe it or not, I love those edits. It means my character has become such a living force that my editor is arguing about words that I have made up for them. She can tell when they don’t fit his mouth. It makes me do a happy jig.

Dialogue should be multipurpose. It should advance plot, naturally, but it should also tell us about your characters. It should not, however, be used as a plot-info dump. That’s the difference between this:

“I don’t need your weapon, I have this,” she said, raising an ancient sword.

“Where did you get that?” he growled. “Give it back. Now.”

And this:

“I do not need your weapon, because I stole this one from your house about five minutes ago,” she said.

“I recognize that sword! It is the magical sword from the house of Usher, the one my family has been protecting for generations. It can only be wielded by the chosen one! You are wielding it, so you must be the chosen one, though I cannot believe such a thing right away. You are going to have to prove it.”

Neither of these are the best examples of dialogue, but I think you get the picture. Info dumping is clunky. So is not using contractions. If you don’t use a contraction, it should for a good reason. Same thing goes for slang and dialect—there should be a very good reason to use either. Both dialect and slang can be a good world-building tool when used properly. In Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, she uses a few slang words like cove, looby and so on. They aren’t over used and it’s clear from context what they mean. It doesn’t stop or slow down the reader, and builds Beka’s character and world at the same time. How? When we meet the upper classes, they don’t use these words, so we know where Beka sits on the class spectrum by using them.

Overuse can be distracting, though. If people can’t read your book or understand anything going on, they put it down.

So how do you gain an ear for dialogue? Well, I can give you some hints. Listen. A lot. Go to a coffee shop and be creepy and eavesdrop on conversations. Write down interesting things that people say. What makes them interesting? If they say boring things, how can you use those lines to make something interesting? Take some dialogue you’re having a hard time with and read it out loud. Does it sound natural? If that doesn’t work, have someone else read it out loud. Watch movies and read books that you love—how do those characters talk? Listen to word choice and pacing. Using actions and description to break up dialogue can create the pacing that you want.

Example:

“Man, I love pie. Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever. What kind of pie is this? I think it has berries.”

Or

“Man, I love pie,” he said, licking his fork. “Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever.” He stabbed something blue with his fork and examined it. “What kind of pie is this?” He stared at the blue glob some more. “I think it has berries.”

The actions and description give the dialogue pauses and slows it down naturally. Also, now I want pie, just maybe not the one I just described.

Homework: Write some really horrible dialogue. I mean really try to make it the worst conversation you’ve ever written. Consciously writing bad dialogue is harder than you think (though we all seem to manage to write it unconsciously quite easily!). Have fun with it. When you’re done, examine it. What makes it terrible? Word use? Too many words? Not enough? Does it reveal anything about the characters? Now take the same dialogue and try to write it well. What’s changed?

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

Lish McBride’s bio page

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Handling Feedback About My Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!

Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.

Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.

Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?

So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.

Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”

The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”

Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.

Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.

You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

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Writing Sociopathic Characters, by April Henry

When you write mysteries and thrillers, chances are that you will someday write about a person who is a sociopath. In my upcoming book, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, one of the characters is a sociopath.

Even though I had written about them, it took me years to figure out that someone I knew was a sociopath. People will often hear sociopath or psychopath – the two terms are basically interchangeable – and think you must be talking about a serial killer. But no. Only a few are. Most are people you might work with, live next door to or be related to. For the most part, they are people who leave a trail of broken hearts, empty wallets and frustrated expectations in their wake.

In some ways, I’m like a sociopath. I was born with no real sense of direction. I can be facing the setting sun and still have no idea where west is. I routinely get lost. It can take years for me to grasp how one street relates to another.

Sociopaths are like that. Only instead of being born without a sense of direction, they seem to be born with an inability to value other people as real, vulnerable human beings.

Robert Hare, PhD, is a pioneer in criminal psychology, specifically the study of sociopaths. He’s come up with some traits common to most sociopaths.

Sociopathic traits

Sociopaths have superficial charm. They are smooth and engaging. That’s because they are not in the least shy or self-conscious. The woman I know comes across well – at first. She easily struck up conversations with strangers.

Sociopaths have a grandiose sense of self-worth. They’re opinionated and cocky. They are so sure of their self worth that at first you might be too. The woman I know was thinking she should become a TV broadcaster – despite lacking any training or experience in this highly competitive field.

Sociopaths have a need for stimulation. They get bored, they take chances, they like thrills. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They are impulsive. The woman I know sometimes hooked up with near strangers.

Sociopaths lie, con and manipulate. It ranges from being sly to being outright dishonest.

The woman I know is an excellent liar. Caught in a lie, she simply layers on two or three more.

Sociopaths don’t feel any guilt. The only feelings they have about their victims are disdain. They have a lack of feeling in general – cold and tactless. I once saw the woman I know laugh because she had made a stranger believe one of her lies to the point the stranger cried with pity for her imaginary fate.

Sociopaths have a parasitic lifestyle. They are good at getting others to pay. The woman I know hasn’t had a job for years.

Sociopaths have difficulties controlling their behavior. They are annoyed, impatient, aggressive, hasty, and often angry. The woman I know ended up in jail for attacking someone.

Sociopaths have no realistic long-term goals. Or their goals are unrealistic – like become a rock star or a famous actor. Or, like the woman I know, to become a TV reporter.

Sociopaths are irresponsible. They may not pay bills, show up late, or do a sloppy job.

They also won’t accept responsibility for their own actions. According to the woman I know, nothing was ever her fault.

Sociopaths you have known

Sociopaths cause so many problems, but, at least right now, we have no way of curing them. Put them in the general prison population or in a mental hospital, and they’ll find ways to manipulate the other inmates.

In order for a person to be change, they must want to be changed. Dr. Hare and others say that sociopaths seldom, if ever, want to be fixed.

Think about people you have come across at work, at school, in your neighborhood, even at church. Chances are that there might be someone who embodies a large number of these traits.

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

April Henry’s bio page

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Nurturing (And Protecting) Your Story Idea, by Diane Lee Wilson

I don’t talk to anyone – ANYONE – about the novel I’m working on: not family, not my editor, not my friends. This can go on for months. People will feel offended but the danger is too great: one little adverse comment (or, as sensitive as I am, even a sideways look) will take the air out of the idea as surely as if one had squeezed a baby chick around the neck. A developing story is simply too fragile to share.

Only when I have enough chapters done that I’m (fairly) confident I have a good story going do I write up a book proposal. I provide an overview of the story and supplement that with the novel’s opening chapters. If I happen to have already envisioned the climax of the story – especially if it’s really exciting – I definitely don’t share those details. I simply try to ‘sell it’ from a convincing premise and several chapters, maybe 50+ pages. (That’s a recent luxury. For my first five novels, I presented complete manuscripts. Only now do I submit – via my agent – a proposal and initial chapters, and I guess my publisher knows that I’ll come through with a successful project.)

Even without telling your friends about your story, there are many threats to your idea: you’ll open a newspaper or magazine one day and read about a newly published book that is EXACTLY your story. (What? How did that thief get hold of my story?). Relax and take a deep breath. There are any number of stories with similar themes or plots or characters that, unfortunately, get introduced at similar times. The thing to remember is that YOU and only YOU can tell your story your way. Thirty people, having witnessed the same event, would relate it in thirty different ways. So take another deep breath, exhale, and get back to writing.

Still another threat to your story idea resides in your very own head, home to the Caustic Critic. The Educated Editor. The Literary Snob. It is SO easy to let those voices inside your head talk you out of your story. Pretty soon you’ve stopped writing. It’s really no good, you tell yourself. What was I thinking? No one’s going to read this.

STOP. Think. What made you want to write your story in the first place? Is the fire still there? Then stir up the embers, muzzle those voices in your head and get back to writing.

But teens won’t like my story. They’ll think it’s boring or lame or (fill in your favorite aspersion). Again, STOP. You’re the author of your story and your job is to make your reader WANT to read it. Surely you’ve encountered authors or storytellers in your life that possess the magic to make you hang on every word – no matter the subject. So borrow some of that magic and do the same! Get back to writing!

The easiest thing in the world is to abandon your story. That’s why so very many people say, “I’m going to write a story one of these days” and then never do. Conceiving the story idea is always more fun than raising it to maturation. Ultimately this is YOUR story and you alone must be champion of it: you must create it, nurture it, protect it and sell it. Trust your instinct. (And get back to writing.)

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

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How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Not every idea you have flowers, not every book you start to write is finished and not every book you finish ends up being published, or even submitted. If you write, it’s almost certain a significant amount of your time will be spent working on projects that ultimately come to nothing. It’s never a total loss: you are learning from your mistakes and exercising the writing muscles, so to speak. Occasionally, you only get to the novel you should write by way of the one you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to be able to identify failures-in-waiting earlier rather than later, and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to differentiate between a piece of writing that is difficult to pull into shape and one that is impossible. If we become too sensitive to the signs of nascent disaster, we may lose the courage to see any project through.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Having just abandoned a novel after working on it for two years, I may be the very worst example, but here, for what it’s worth, are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First, don’t abandon a novel just because it isn’t turning out the way you hoped. Woody Allen once said that he arrives on the first day of every film shoot carrying in his mind a picture of the masterpiece he is about to make. Then, compromise by compromise, the actual film takes shape. The thing we are aiming at is a feeling rather than a product. Its fleshy imitation is sure to disappoint, especially on first draft. The danger is that in order to develop the mental toughness required, you can become insensitive to crucial warning signs.

The next thing is the importance of being able to distil the idea that brought you to the novel. I think the cliché of being able to reduce a story to one or two sentences is absolutely as valuable as its ubiquity suggests. If you have a vague feeling that you find highly exciting but you’re unable to find a succinct expression for it, then it might not be a story-in-waiting at all but rather one of those phantoms that will always dissolve under scrutiny. I once had the idea of a story where a boy receives a letter in the mail from God. He assumes it’s a hoax but can’t quite let it go… I could never pull any more out of it than that, even though, whenever I think of it I have an ill defined yet compelling feeling that there’s something there. Until I can say what, there’s nothing to be gained from exploring it further, or so I see it.

Another point I have to remind myself of constantly is that openings aren’t stories. Openings are fabulous ways into stories, but just having a great opening is not in itself a reason to believe a great story (or indeed any story) will follow. I struggle with this one a lot, simply because I find openings so seductive. ‘A middle aged journalist at a concert is called away to cover the location of a murder victim’s body. He is meant to be taking his teenage daughter home at the end of the concert, so accepts the offer of a man he has bonded with during the show to drive her home. Only, of course, this stranger is the murderer, seeking to groom his next victim…’ I really wanted to write that, so I did. The opening ran to five thousand words, I was excited by it, I liked the voice, there was a great sense of momentum, then a screeching halt because the opening was all I had. I didn’t actually have a story I wanted to tell that went beyond what was in fact a slightly macabre little short story. Novels aren’t quite in the plant-and-wait-for-it-to-grow category of things.

Finally, and this is the one that caught me recently: is the story you are telling an authentic expression of you? That sounds waffly. Let me see if I can sharpen it. There’s a very great difference, I think, between trying to be the sort of writer you would like to see yourself as and trying to be the best version of the writer you actually are. Sometimes I will read a book and immediately be seduced by the idea of ‘wanting to write like that’. Yet, when I examine it more closely, I realise the thing I have loved about the book is the insight it has given me into a world and personality that isn’t my own. Much as I admire and am jealous of so much great literature, it is very often shot through with a sort of existential angst that, were I to try it on for myself, would play as nothing but self absorption.

I’m not in the end a deeply serious person. I maintain a certain lightness in my life. I struggle to take myself seriously and when others do there’s always a part of me that wants to slap them. Where others are able to draw upon the depths of their fears and sufferings, I find the hole has been filled in with a truckload of cheap gags and irony. That means, on the occasions that I have tried to imitate the writers of serious literature, there’s been a fake quality to the writing that I’ve quickly become self conscious of (but haven’t angsted over, you understand). The writing I’ve most wasted time over is the writing where I’ve been trying to be something or somebody I’m not.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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You Need To Love Your Characters, by Lish McBride

I’ve been having a problem recently with the book I’m working on. Let’s call it New Thing. In this New Thing, my main character has a boyfriend. We’ll call him C.J. My editor and agent have both lodged complaints about C.J. He’s flat an boring, and they can’t understand why my main character, Ava, would be with such a person. I agree with them but also point out that all of us at one time date someone like that. You know, that person you date that none of yours friends get why you are dating, and when you break up you also wonder what possessed you to spend time with someone like that? Yeah, it’s like that.

Usually, in those situations, you can argue back to your friends with something. Maybe you liked that he had impeccable table manners. Maybe she was a primo whistler or she tutored you in math. It could even be something embarrassing and shallow, like he was really good looking or she drove a nice car. Whatever. You had a reason for dating them, even if it was a terrible one.

There in lies my problem – my character doesn’t have much of a reason to date C.J. Sure, he’s attractive and he’s normal, which is something my character craves, but they think it’s not enough. Their argument is that she is too smart and even if he were crap, she’d have more justifications for dating him, even if they were flimsy. You know what? They’re right. As it stands, C.J. is pretty lame.

Usually I have no issue filling out my characters. I spend a lot of time on it and I love them and I want that to shine through. That’s the problem. I don’t love C.J. I don’t even like him very much. I kind of want to kick him in the shins, except I don’t care enough to be bothered. This is a problem. You have to love your characters. Even the awful ones: the bad guys, the thugs, the skeezy back-stabbers. There has to be something you enjoy about them, even if it’s how much you like seeing them get their comeuppance.

We all love a good bad guy. What’s Harry Potter without Voldemort? 101 Dalmatians without Cruella DeVille? Sure, Snow White is cool and all but, really, we’re more fascinated with the Evil Queen. We want to know what makes her tick. C.J. isn’t the bad guy. He’s just a normal guy… which is part of the problem. I find normal boring and confusing. I have almost no interest in it and can’t understand why anyone would find it desirable. Normal, to me, is the human equivalent of the color beige. It’s boring and bland, but, hey, it will go with anything.

C.J. will continue to be boring and flat until I find something in him to like. He’s necessary to the story and very necessary to my main character, so I need to make him work. He’s not my dream; he’s hers. Until I can find something worthwhile in him, I’m going to have to keep writing drafts. One crap, flat character can tank a whole book. The whole situation reminds me of a line from a song that I find rather depressing, personally, “If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with.” It’s terrible life advice but good for fiction.

Homework: Look at characters you love (or love to hate). What do you like that they do? Why do you like them? Then take a character you’re having a hard time fleshing out and write out a list of things that you like about them or things that you like that they bring to the story. Sometimes writing a scene just about them helps, even if it won’t make it into the book. Those writing exercises usually show me something surprising in a character and I’ll find myself connecting or sympathizing with them on this new point. I discovered a lot of these moments with my character Douglas in Necromancing the Stone. He’s a big jerk but I truly do feel sorry for him.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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Month In Review (October 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its tenth month of articles for 2013 from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for October 2013

On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment by Bernard Beckett

Research For Writing Novels by April Henry

On ‘Killing Your Darlings’ When Revising A Novel Manuscript by Monika Schroder

Where My Ideas For Novels Come From by Beth Revis

Dealing With The Idea Of Writer’s Block by Paul Volponi

Maximizing The Potential Of Your Writing Group by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel by Diane Lee Wilson

Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Worldbuilding When Writing A Novel by Lish McBride

Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2) by Kate Forsyth

Talking About My Writing At Conferences by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing Description In Novels by Carolyn Meyer

On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels by Pauline Francis

Why I Write Teen Fiction by Sam Hawksmoor

Developing Good Writing Habits by Kashmira Sheth

Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

On Writing Self-Contained Novels In A Series by Andy Briggs

Inexpensive Ways To Market Your Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Developing Good Writing Habits, by Kashmira Sheth

Unless we are fortunate enough to write full time, finding time to do can be as elusive as catching a dream with a butterfly net. I remember talking about writing for many years before I actually sat down and did it. Something or another was always more important to do than my writing. There was taking care of my children, cooking, cleaning and gardening, so everyday I told myself, I will write tomorrow. For a long time that tomorrow never came.

My writing is important to me. I knew that even before I wrote my first story, because I kept thinking about it. One morning I decided that unless I wrote 500 words I wasn’t going to do anything else that day. I wasn’t even going to shower. Writing had to be a sacred duty that had to be performed before I could do anything else. That idea really helped me get started.

Here are some suggestions for finding writing time that have worked well for me.

Start with a word count

Decide how many words you can write per day and stick to it. For me, the 500-word rule has worked well. 500 words fill up 2 pages and no matter how busy I am I can find time to write those pages. If starting to write was difficult, keeping up with 500 words has been easier. The word-count rule is better than committing to write for two hours. In those two hours you may answer your email, surf the internet, talk on the phone, and still feel like you have fulfilled your two hours.  In contrast, the word count is results-oriented.

Stop in the middle

One trick that I have heard other writers use, and have used myself, is to end the day’s writing in the middle of a scene. That way it is easy to pick up and finish the scene the next day, and then start a new scene. If the scene is long, it can even take a few days to complete.

Try to write at the same time each day

If you keep some kind of writing schedule it makes it easy to get to your writing. When you are making other appointments, commitments or social plans, you know that between 10 and 12:00 it won’t work.  This rule makes it easy to keep writing time special, and to remember to write every day.

Disconnect from everything else

Turn off your internet, phones, and other devices: This is easier said than done, but if you don’t check your email and answer your phone during your writing time you can reach your goal of 500 or even a 1,000 words much faster.

Get up to walk or stretch

This may seem like it’s working against writing but it is good to get up and move about a bit. Sometimes, just throwing a load of laundry in the washer or vacuuming a room can help move the blood in your body. In the spring I like to take a walk in my yard for a few minutes to see what is coming up in the garden.

No rules against writing more

If you find that you are on a roll, keep on writing. There is no rule against writing more than your daily word quota.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

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Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel, by Diane Lee Wilson

Composing the first sentence of your novel can elicit screams of agony. It can be a difficult task because so much depends upon those few words. Will a prospective teen reader, already distracted by a myriad of electronic devices and entertainments, glance at this sentence, yawn and set your book down? How do you manage to entice such a fickle reader along to a second sentence and then a third?

As a practical matter, I have always liked starting my novels in the middle of a highly charged scene, ideally with one short sentence that hints at intrigue: “On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me.” “The little thumbnail moon gave no light at all; a friend to the thief.” “Better that you’d never been born.” Homicide, thievery, banishment – all themes that hint at an exciting tale.

In venturing to the local library, I found strong openings of varying lengths in many critically acclaimed teen novels. Robert Cormier’s classic, The Chocolate War begins simply, “They murdered him.” Laura McNeal introduces a mysterious character in the very first words of her lyrical Dark Water: “You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don’t match.” Then there’s Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which starkly states, “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” (Okay, those aren’t the exact first words but they’re in bold type and centered on the page so that’s where your eyes go.)

With a first sentence as strong as any one of these, a prospective reader (and innately curious human) simply cannot resist continuing to the second sentence and then a third. Now he or she is like a fish following the bait. So you keep writing, keep tossing out interesting tidbits, not yet revealing the whole story. Remember that most teens have short attention spans – at least until they’re hooked! – so you’ve got to move things along briskly. Think of this challenge as crafting one sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next paragraph.

Admittedly, there are times when I can’t think of a good opening for a novel I’m starting, so for inspiration I’ll revisit favorite books that have hooked me early on. I’ll scan the first few paragraphs and try to decipher just how the author pulled me in. Was the protagonist in immediate danger? Was there an unusual setting? Was there an urgent problem to be solved? On occasion, the unique tone of a book or the author’s voice will pull me in. I highly recommend studying those authors that have mastered the art of the “tease”.

If I continue to be stuck on my opening, however, rather than yank out my hair and switch careers, I attack the book from a different direction. I just start elsewhere in the chapter. I pick a scene that I am passionate about and that I can easily visualize, and I write it. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the first chapter without having created a strong beginning. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the novel. What I’ve learned though, is that a strong beginning often reveals itself only upon the book’s completion. Once you’ve spent time with your story, once you’ve come to understand and love your characters, you’ll know how to begin their story in the strongest way possible.

So, in composing the first sentence of your teen novel, keep your teen reader firmly in mind. You’ve only a brief period to hook him, so rely on novelty and human curiosity. You’ll soon find yourself writing with confidence, with readers fully engaged.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Plot Structure In Novels, by Kate Forsyth

Whenever I teach writing, I always spend quite a lot of time talking about plot structure.

This is because I think that it is nearly always the reason why a novel fails. A book can have engaging characters; a fast-paced, action-packed plot; and a fascinating setting, but still not quite work. This is nearly always because it has a weak structure.

Think of the structure as the framework of your novel, the internal architecture. It is like a human skeleton – invisible to the eye, yet the thing that stops it collapsing into jelly. Like the skeleton, it is made up of small parts, each linked one to the other, each doing their job to keep your novel working at full strength. The structure of a novel should fall into logical divisions, usually called scenes, chapters and sections.

A scene is an incident or event in a novel in which the action takes place continuously in a single place or time. Each scene should follow on logically from each other in a cause-and-effect chain.

A chapter is a division of the novel into regular parts, usually comprising one major scene, but sometimes combining several scenes.

A section is a collection of chapters, bound together by the point of view of the primary protagonist, by the place or time in which the action is set, or thematically.

In children’s and young adult fiction, the structure is usually more simple and linear than in an adult book, but this is a rule that can be broken. For example, The Puzzle Ring begins long after the adventure has ended, foreshadowing what will come.

Chapters aren’t just arbitrary rest breaks in a book. They should be carefully planned to control pace, to advance the plot and to work with the reader’s natural reading rhythms.

I usually aim for a chapter length between 1,500-2,000 for a children’s book (aged 8+), 2,500-3,000 words for young adults (aged 12+), and 3,500-4,000 words for an adult’s book (aged 16+). However, there is no rule – a chapter can be can a single word as in Frank McCourt’s final chapter of Angela’s Ashes: ‘’Tis”

I usually maintain a single point of view in a chapter. Sometimes I will move from head to head, particularly in the final climactic scenes when numerous characters may all be working toward the final denouement.

I will usually finish a chapter either at a point of high tension, i.e. some kind of cliffhanger, or at a moment of resolution. I call the first a ‘peak’ scene and the second a ‘trough’ scene. Having peaks and troughs varies the pace and rhythm of the book, and allows moments of rest before cranking up the intensity again.

I try to make sure each point of resolution occurs after half an hour’s reading for a child, and an hour’s reading for a young adult or adult.  This is so the reader can get off their bus and go to school or work, or turn off their light and go to bed. Most people read in this way. I know I do.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

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