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How Martial Arts Benefit Me And My Writing, by April Henry

I am a martial artist. I almost feel as phony saying that as I did for years when I told people I was a writer. My love for martial arts would surprise anyone I went to high school with, because PE was the only reason I graduated with a GPA less than 4.0. But it turns out that martial arts have helped me be a better writer (after all, mysteries and thrillers often contain an element of violence), as well as a stronger and more prepared person.

We often deal with threats, even physical ones, with social behaviors. We ignore the people who make them or try to appease them. We deprecate ourselves. We try to ally ourselves with the person who made the threat by telling them that we are really on their side.

But you know what? These skills won’t work on most predators. They won’t work on the person who sees your purse or phone as something they must have – and sees you as about as valuable as the packaging they originally came in. They especially won’t work on a predator who only wants to take you to someplace private so they can hurt, rape or kill you.

For me, a kickboxing class was the gateway drug to martial arts. As part of the class, we wore boxing gloves and hit bags. I had never hit anything, not even a bag, as hard as I could. It made me feel strong and it was a great workout.

Over the past three years, I have seriously trained in kajukenbo and kung fu, as well as taken a little bit of Muay Thai. I have an orange belt in kajukenbo (and was close to taking the test for purple belt when our sifu left). As for kung fu, I’ll soon have my orange belt.

Will I ever make it to black belt? Probably not. I’m not a natural, I’m not particularly coordinated, I’m older and I’m often afraid – but I still love it.

I particularly love sparring. At my school, I’m often the only woman sparring. I have spit blood afterward when I forgot to wear a mouthguard. I’ve told my doctor not to worry about the bruises on my arms from blocking blows.

Even though there are many times when I get to the door and have to resist the voice that tells me to turn around because there are new guys in class and they all seem to be about six foot four, or that there’s a new sifu filling in for our regular teacher, or simply that I’m really tired, I’m always glad at the end of the sparring class. Afterward, I walk to my car grinning like a fool.

First of all, sparring has taught me what it feels like to get hurt or simply experience the surprise of having someone attack you. Getting hit in the face or even having your hair pulled is shocking. In our culture, even close friends don’t touch our faces. Once you’re no longer a little child, no one even pats you on the head. Knowing a little something about surprise, pain and fighting back helps me write about them.

I can write authoritatively about fear, about how things blur, about the way people move and hold their bodies and eyes and mouths. I can tell when someone is about to hit me and where. The eyes focus, the breath catches and the shoulder drops or the hand goes back.

I know how to hurt people – and that means my characters might be able to do it too. Kajukenbo focused a lot on what are known as “grab arts” – how to get free if someone grabs your wrist, tries to strangle you or wraps you in a bear hug.

In my school’s kung fu, we also learn to grapple – ie, to wrestle on the floor. These scenarios make me uncomfortable. I don’t want to have someone on top of me, even if by day they are a mild-mannered computer programmer or corporate lawyer. Nevertheless, this type of situation is one I might face some day. Now I know what to do if it happens (and so do my characters).

Martial arts benefit me – and my writing.


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The Night She DisappearedShock PointThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGirl, Stolen     Across the UniverseTracksDark Hunter (Villain.Net)

Writing Teen Novels

Editors: Working With You To Make The Best Book Possible, by April Henry

My first book was published in 1999, so I’ve had a lot of experience working with editors. In fact, I’ve had five of them, plus an unknown number of copy editors and proofreaders. The amazing thing is that, in my experience, each editor has a different approach. What one editor is passionate about may not even be on another editor’s radar screen.

My five editors

My first editor loved characters who were quirky, whacky or eccentric – and if she felt they weren’t quirky, whacky or eccentric enough, she often asked for them to be enhanced. Sometimes her comments were cryptic. I still remember staring at one notation scribbled in a margin. It said, “Pump up the mystery!” I had no idea how to do that and I was too scared to call her. I’ve since learned that just as an email sometimes lacks the emotional nuance that would allow you to completely understand a message, so too can editorial letters and hand-written notes. A simple phone call can go a long way toward making things clear for both writer and editor.

My second editor was a legend in the business. She was in her 80s and everyone loved the idea that she was still working full-time. Dozens of famous authors had been edited by her over the course of her long career. I think she worked right up until she died. Her editing was much more broad-based and she wasn’t nearly as much of a detail person as my first editor was.

My third editor was famous for being able to write an 11-page editorial letter for a 12-page picture book. He used brown stickies to mark changes he had pencilled in green on the manuscript. One draft I got back bristled with so many stickies it looked like a porcupine. For Christmas that year, I gave him a brand new green pencil, figuring he had used one up on my manuscript. One thing I learned from him was that sometimes when an editor asks for a specific change, he or she may be right that something is wrong. However, the writer can often make a different sort of fix than the editor requested and still come away with both parties happy.

My fourth editor writes thoughtful editorial letters that I dread. Why? Because she is skilled at finding flaws I haven’t noticed. Flaws that require lots and lots of thought before I can fix them.

My fifth editor is both a big picture editor and someone who notices the smallest details. She’s pointed out words I tend to overuse - words I wasn’t aware of until she had checkmarked three or four uses of the same word in a single page. Once or twice, she has questioned the veracity of things I write, asking if it’s really true or possible. I welcome that. So much fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers, is riddled with errors about police procedure, weapons or investigative techniques.

The process of editing

Editing used to take place on paper, and you, the editor and your agent would send bulky manuscripts back and forth. I still have some unused manuscript boxes in my basement. They fold up neatly and have a little tab you insert into a slot. It’s probably the equivalent to holding onto a buggy whip. Now manuscripts get emailed as attachments, to be read by agents and editors on e-readers, and to be edited by line and copy editors on computers and then emailed to you with tracked changes. Many editors will still print out a paper copy and mark that up, at least to a degree, although I wonder if that will change as a generation who started on paper retires.

Line editors may make suggestions as to how to burnish the story and are big picture people. Copyeditors are more focused on the details. For example, they make sure that a character who has blue eyes on page 19 does not have gray eyes on page 319. They know the difference between flout and flaunt. They do a certain amount of fact-checking, making sure that, for example, you don’t spell Cheez-Its incorrectly. Oddly, I have had the same freelance copyeditor work on several of my YA books even though they were put out by different publishers. In a further twist of fate, she grew up in Portland, where I base most of my stories.

Both main editors and copy editors have saved my bacon many times. It’s hard to see your story clearly: you always need at least one more set of eyes.


April Henry’s author website:

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The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGirl, StolenShock PointThe Night She Disappeared    ResponseHappyfaceA Coalition of Lions

Writing Teen Novels

Tools To Develop Productive Novel Writing Habits, by April Henry

Do you ever find yourself polishing the same paragraph over and over, moving a clause here, changing a verb there and not ever actually adding any new words?

Sometimes even experienced writers have trouble making progress. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Here are some tools that have helped me:

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is great for big projects like novels. (Its inventor, Francesco Cirillo, named it after a timer shaped like a tomato, or, in Italian, a pomodoro). It has helped me be more productive by making me focus.

1. Set a timer for 25 minutes and start working. Let nothing – not the doorbell, not the phone, not the ping of an email or a text – interrupt you. Stop as soon as the timer goes off. You’ve just completed a pomodoro.

2.Now set the timer for five minutes and do something that isn’t work. Go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, check those emails or texts. But you only have five minutes and you must stop as soon as the timer goes off.

3.Repeat the first two steps until you’ve completed four pomodoros. Now you can take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

Want to know more? Go to


Freedom is a program that won’t let you go on the internet until a set amount of time (as long as eight hours) has expired. I resisted using Freedom for a long time, basically because it cost $10. I figured I was an adult, which meant I should be perfectly able to set limits and stick to them. For example, I should be able to write on my laptop without taking a peek at the Internet every five minutes for “research” or to see if I’ve gotten any important emails.

Then I gave the free trial a whirl. The first time, I only set the time-out period for 15 minutes. I realized I probably would have clicked on the internet a dozen times if it wasn’t for Freedom.

Now I use it in conjunction with the Pomodoro Technique.

You can find out more at:

Write or Die

Writers often get stuck. I think that largely stems from the fear that what you write will suck. That’s where Write or Die can help, by forcing you to stop overthinking and just write. Write or Die is a free program on the internet. (You can also purchase it to use on your desktop or iPad.)

You set how many words you want to write and you set the amount of time you want to write them in. You also set consequences, which range from gentle (pop-up reminder) to kamikaze (keep writing or words start disappearing). When you’re done, you save the text by selecting it and then coping and pasting into your own word processing program.

Now I make a running list of ideas – scenes, characters – that I could take to Write or Die. And at least once a day, I set the time for 15 minutes and the number of words for 500. It works best if you don’t over think it – or even think at all. Instead, write as fast as you can and describe the brightest colors, the softest sounds, the way something feels under the character’s fingertips. What are your characters saying? What are they feeling and not saying?

I won’t end up using everything I write on Write or Die, but often I’ll come up with something unexpected and wonderful.

You can try it for yourself at (scroll down if you don’t see it).


April Henry’s author website:

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Girl, StolenThe Night She DisappearedShock PointTorched    Across the UniverseBoys without NamesThe Final Four

Writing Teen Novels

Using Screenplay Techniques For Novel Writing, by Sarah Alderson

When I write a novel I always picture it like a movie playing in my head. I probably watched far too much TV as a kid, but I’m glad I did because I learned a lot about writing conventions –about character, dialogue, suspense, story arcs and pacing – from watching films and TV shows.

More recently I’ve been writing screenplays (after writing eight novel manuscripts) and have been amazed by how some of the hard and fast rules for screenwriting work the same for novel writing. The best book I’ve read on screenwriting is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and I encourage everyone to grab a copy and read it because a lot of what he says is valuable to anyone trying to write a novel.

There are hundreds of ideas in the book but the key ones for me, and which I’ve also come across in books on creative writing, are as follows:

Save the Cat!

Snyder talks about the importance of having a Save the cat moment in a film. What he means is that your hero HAS to do something that immediately makes you like them and he or she has to do it in the first chapter. Otherwise you end up with a book/film that fails to engage the reader / viewer and leaves them indifferent to the fate of your characters…disaster!

I’ve read plenty of books which fail, precisely because I don’t care about the central character – because they never saved the cat. Think about all the books you’ve hated and now think about whether you liked the main character. There’s usually a link.

State the Theme

Like every film, every book needs to have a theme, and that theme doesn’t need to be obviously stated but it should be there nonetheless. The theme of Fated is whether or not we have choice in life. You don’t need to provide an obvious answer but you should be clear what your theme is and invite your reader to contemplate it.


It’s really important that an event occurs in your book early on that turns everything on its head – that forces your hero to reassess everything and take action. That might sound really obvious, but lots of writers spend an age on fluffy description and developing characters and forget the plot part entirely. Bring in that catalyst and let it be the perfect catalyst for your particular character; it must challenge them and help them grow.

All is lost moment

Like every film, I think every book needs a moment where it looks like everything is lost, and so does Snyder. All great movies include this moment, where the hero is about to give up, is at their lowest ebb. I write thrillers so it’s a no brainer that my books also include this all is lost moment. It’s the point in Hunting Lila where (SPOILER) they get captured by Demos and his crew. It’s the point in Fated where Evie discovers who Lucas really is. The all is lost moment allows for a big finale come back scene and gives your readers an emotional roller coaster ride.

Even if you don’t write thrillers, it might not be a bad idea to study screenwriting techniques. It’s sure to help you think more creatively about how to develop and structure your plot.


Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedSave the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedSave the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into ... & Out OfSave the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever ToldScreenwriting: The Sequence Approach

How To Be A Good Writer, by Sarah Alderson

Write for as many hours a day as you can. Write emails, blog posts and bucket lists. Write letters to lovers, to friends, to your grandmother. Write a letter to the person you admire most in the world and a letter to the person you most regret hurting. Write a complaint letter, a condolence letter and a congratulations letter. Write copy for websites, write tweets and write job applications. Write stories and essays. Finish your homework.

If you practised piano two hours a day for five years imagine how good you would be. If you write for five hours a day for five years imagine at the end of that time how accomplished you would be at crafting words.

In the times you are not writing, read. Read incessantly. Read books, magazines, blogs, websites, reviews, scripts, newspapers, political journals, Facebook status updates, interviews with writers, celebrities, politicians and the everyman on the street. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read the greats. Read the truly awfuls. Read poetry. Read the signs in public toilets and on the subway. Read advertising. Read flyers. Read comic strips and newspaper headlines and Wikipedia.

Don’t be a snob. Read everything. Learn how other people speak and write. Absorb beautiful words and turns of phrase. Jot them down. Flinch at bad writing and figure out why you’re flinching. Learn how a journalist’s words differ from a poet’s and how they are the same. Learn the art of an advertising tag line and the craft of a politician’s buzzwords. Read what you’ve written. Out loud. Don’t scrunch it up and throw it away. Work on it. Improve it. Keep going.

Listen. Watch the news, watch comedy, watch drama, watch movies and, whatever you do, watch every HBO series made. Watch Hollywood blockbusters and independent art house films. Watch children’s television and go to the theatre. Watch chat shows and YouTube videos.

This is how you will learn the art of great dialogue, the conventions behind the genres, the archetypes and the power of great storytelling. You might not realise it but you’ll be absorbing the conventions of three act story building, of character development and imagery. You’ll figure out how and when to incite incidents.

Listen on the subway and on buses. Listen to your friends. Listen to your parents and teachers. Listen to strangers at the table next to you and to the person spouting nonsense on the street corner through a megaphone.

Listen and learn the cadence and rhythm of speech. Study accents, slang and etymology. Revel in every new word and expression you come across. Listen and collect stories and names and the funny turns of phrase you overhear. One day that person you walked past in the street, that story you overheard waiting in line for your coffee, that piece of scandalous gossip at the water cooler, might lead to your Pulitzer.

Do all these things and always keep challenging yourself. Don’t just write one genre. Experiment, play, enjoy. Try writing a movie, a kid’s book, a young adult novel, a poem, a short story, a thriller, a horror, a romance, a TV Pilot, an episode of your favourite show. Try writing a haiku or a book blurb or a film poster. Figure out what you’re good at through trial and error.

The blank page is not something to be frightened of. It’s a new adventure waiting to happen. And there’s always the delete button.

Words. Make them your best friends.


Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedKeeping CornerThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinMishapsHappyface


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