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Posts tagged ‘advice for fiction writers’

My Tips For Writing Novels, by Pauline Francis

I don’t really have to write this post, do I? You could do it for me by now if you’ve been reading the others. But I’ll sum it up:

1. Read, read, read.

2. Write, write, write.

3. Write every day.

4. Always write down your ideas when you have them.

5. Never throw any of your work away. A short story might become a chapter in a novel.

6. Read your work aloud regularly for rhythm and tension.

7. Enter competitions whenever you have time.

8. Re-read authors who are most like you and try to work out why they are good.

9. Don’t be afraid to show your writing to somebody else for feedback.

10. Remember that others forms of writing can feed into your work: school essays, blogs, Facebook entries, diaries, letters/postcards will all tell you a lot about your style and genre. Why not volunteer to edit the school/college magazine for a term? Why not write/design posters? Why not take part in a school play/musical and help with the script?

I am a self-taught writer. I didn’t go to any creative writing classes. But I still had to learn my craft. I did it in two ways. At first, I just wrote. They were short manuscripts, with little re-drafting, which were all rejected. When I realised this was going to be a lengthy process – I’d gave up my job to be a full-time writer and there were bills to pay – I proposed a big project called Fast Track Classics to a publisher: I would abridge the classics for younger readers. This brought in a good income for many years. But the greatest benefit was reading great classics and seeing what made them endure and seeing why they might not be so popular with today’s young readers. I learned more about writing than at any other time in my life and I have great affection for these forty or so books.

I’ve also written many Readers for students learning English as a second language. They are graded at different levels, so I was restricted in vocabulary. This taught me what is essential in a novel: fast plot, strong characters set against interesting locations.

Everybody is capable of writing. But if you want to be published, you have to learn the skills, like any other job. You have to be patient. Think how long it takes to be the best gymnast, the best cyclist or the best piano player.

Of course the golden rule of good writing is SHOW – DON’T TELL. I didn’t put it on the list because I want to show this rule to you – not tell!  This is the magic that turns ordinary writing into something special.

This example below is from Raven Queen. Question: How can I describe Jane’s home (Bradgate House)? This paragraph is taken from the first draft (Jane is the narrator):

I lived at Bradgate House, a house built by my father’s father, Thomas Grey, who died when I was two years old. He used to boast that the forest beyond – Charnwood Forest – was big and that he’d laid water pipes from the stream to the house. The town of Leicester was about five miles to the east.

This would have sent my manuscript to the slush pile.

The final manuscript reads:

Visitors usually gasp with pleasure when they first arrive. It is thought to be one of the finest houses in Leicestershire; but Ned gazed past its red brick towers, past its gardens soon to be brimming with fruit and blossom, past the stream which fed water pipes to the kitchen – to the darkening trees beyond.
‘I like the forest best at dusk when birds cloud the sky,’ he said.
I glanced down at him. And now that he was standing closer to me, I no longer saw his tangled hair and grimy skin – only the smile that lit up his face.
Who was he?

Can you see what I’ve done? We see the house through a visitor’s eyes and it’s linked with an emotion that has already linked Jane with the stranger and leaves a question to be answered.


Paulines Francis’s author website:

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)My Brother's ShadowDark Hunter (Villain.Net)

Writing Teen Novels

Handling Disappointment To Be A Resilient Writer, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

If you want to be a writer, you have to be tough. The road to publication is full of soul crushing disappointment. Before you find an agent willing to take you on, you might have to endure rejection from several dozen. If you are lucky enough to land a representative, then you might be treated to an onslaught of rejection from dozens of editors before you find the right one. Once you get over the euphoria of your first publication, you might get slammed with a few bad reviews, or worse, you might not get reviewed at all. Then there are the blogs, and the reader reviews, which can get so mean spirited you’ll want to shut off your wi-fi forever.

For a writer, there are endless opportunities to have your tender heart crushed under the wheels of fortune’s dump truck. So how to cope? I’ve been in the business long enough that I’ve developed a few strategies that get me through the tough spots, and I freely share them with you:

Talk to your bestie. I have a wonderful husband who is very good at talking me off the ledge. I’ve also got a best friend who thinks my writing is top notch. Find the people in your life who believe in you and talk about your feelings. A lot of writers keep things bottled up, but that’s just going to make you difficult to live with. Talking it out with a supportive friend can really help you get over a hurt.

Read writers’ memoirs. It always helps to know that you’re not the only one. Every writer knows rejection, and a really honest memoir will talk about it. I remember reading Graham Greene’s A Sort of Autobiography, feeling comforted to know that he chose not to publish his first three books. Knowing that a brilliant writer like him has unpublished works makes me feel better about the dogs I’ve got hidden away. Another excellent memoir is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, in which she describes pacing her office in tears after receiving her umpteen millionth rejection for A Wrinkle in Time. What writer wouldn’t feel better after reading that?

Read some negative reader reviews for a writer you truly admire. In my opinion, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series deserves every bit of success it has seen. Not everyone agrees with me. If I ever need to feel cheered up about a really mean review of one of my books, I’ll check out the one star reader reviews for The Hunger Games, or another great book I’ve loved. Most of the time, really cruel reviews are written by silly people, but I’m only able to see that silliness when the review is about someone else’s book. It always helps me feel a lot better knowing the person who didn’t like my book might be just as silly.

Remember disappointment and rejection are part of the job. Every writer, from Charles Dickens to Charlaine Harris, has been rejected. Sometimes it’s about your work. If you’re sending your stuff out before it’s ready, the rejection is your fault and you need to take responsibility and fix it. But sometimes you just haven’t found the right agent or editor, and you need to keep trying. Either way, move on to the next book or representative or publishing house, and don’t feel too sorry for yourself because just like the brain surgeon sometimes loses a patient, sometimes your work will fail to impress. At least for writers, no lives are lost when we fall short.

Above all, keep writing. If you’re working on the next book, and you’re excited about it, a disappointment about your last book might not sting so badly. As far as my own writing goes, I think each of my books is better than the last, and that always makes me feel hopeful.

You can try your hardest and you still might fail, but you will definitely fail if you give up. You might as well give yourself a chance. In my experience, learning to get over the disappointment that goes along with being a writer is a greater determinant of success than talent. I’ve seen plenty of very gifted people give up when they shouldn’t have, and I can only imagine their regret. So keep your chin up! Keep writing!


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GlowSparkZen and Xander UndoneVibes    Tracks

Writing Teen Novels

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

“In writing you must kill your darlings.” Many heard this quote, attributed to William Faulkner, relating to the need to delete words and phrases we are particularly proud of. We love the characters we invent and the thought of eliminating them, after we have poured so much work into their creation, is heartbreaking. But sometimes it must be done.

The first character I removed was Uncle Wilhelm, in an early draft of what later became my first novel, The Dog in the Wood. He had arrived at Fritz’s grandma’s farm in December 1945, after the Russian military police had taken Fritz’s mother and left him and his sister to live with the hated grandma. Uncle Wilhelm, a World War One veteran, who had lost his left arm fighting the French, was a jolly old fellow. I had placed him in the story at the moment of greatest pain for Fritz. He was supposed to give solace and help my protagonist get through his hardship. When I re-read my manuscript I realized that it was not yet time for Fritz to be consoled. He had to face the pain and then ultimately find the strength within himself to do something about his situation. Instead of finding comfort in the presence of an old, friendly relative, he had to turn his fear and rage into action. I learned that the main character always has to carry the book’s action.

Deleting all scenes with Mummo, the Finnish grandmother of Wren in my work-in-progress, For The Birds, taught me not to be too preachy. Mummo was full of good advice. I had so much fun putting clever words into her mouth and inventing Finnish proverbs she would use to share her wisdom. But I realized my readers would find her preaching tiresome.

Removing Mummo also taught me another lesson. An eccentric personality can enrich a story but it is hard for a larger-than-life-character to stay in a supporting role. Mummo was overshadowing my protagonist, Wren, another reason she had to go. Instead, I had to give Wren more of the now departed grandmother’s courage and wit. The lesson here: Be careful not to let secondary characters take over your story. Make sure you keep in mind whose story you are telling.

In early drafts of Saraswati’s Way, 12-year-old Akash, who runs away from home and becomes a street child in New Delhi, had more friends. Through my revisions I realized that I didn’t need so many different people to show Akash’s traits and reactions to events. I focused on only one main friend and strengthened the scenes and the interactions between these two characters. The old adage, less is more, is also true for the number of supporting cast in your book.

The ability to remove characters from a manuscript during the revision process is a very important skill for any writer. Open yourself to the possibility. It can be liberating and improve your writing.


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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     GenesisA World AwayWinter TownHold Me Closer, Necromancer

Writing Teen Novels

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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The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)The Starthorn TreeThe Tower of Ravens (Rhiannon's Ride)The Puzzle Ring     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeAcross the UniverseTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels

Hooking Readers With The First Chapter Of A Teen Novel, by Beth Revis

One of the things I’m really happy about with my own writing is the first chapter of Across the Universe (which you can find online at Before and since, I’ve made it something of a habit to look at first chapters, paying special attention to what makes them tick.

1) Empathetic characters

Empathy doesn’t mean that you feel bad or good for a character; it means that you understand what the character is feeling and why. In my own novel, my main character, Amy, watches her parents undergo a painful medical procedure. This is something that anyone can empathize with – we know how we would feel if our own parents or loved ones underwent a painful procedure. This immediately puts us in the picture with the main character. Possibly the most important thing you can do as a writer is create empathetic characters. Think of Katniss and her love for Prim in The Hunger Games - that was chapter 1. Think of Bella meeting Edward in Twilight or Harry Potter becoming an orphan. These are things with which we can empathize.

2) Sympathetic situation

While your characters need to be empathetic, it’s good to start the story with a sympathetic situation. You have character who you can almost visualize as yourself – you understand where they’re coming from and who and why they are. Now put them in a situation we wouldn’t want to be in. Make us feel bad that these characters we identify with are in a bad situation. This is the Hunger Games and Harry’s cupboard under the stairs.

3) It is what it says it is on the cover

You should also definitely give some hint of what the book is. You’re giving readers a taste of the whole book in the first chapter. If it’s a sci fi novel, as mine is, you need a spaceship or cryogenic freezing. If it’s a survival story like The Hunger Games, have Katniss shoot her bow. Harry mentions magic. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Pride and Prejudice mentions marriage. Whatever your story is overall must have a hint of it here, in the first pages. I should know what genre you’re writing not from your cover or your back jacket description, but from your first chapter.

4) Immediate conflict as a foreshadow to future conflict

Writers are often told to start their novels with a bang – but that can often lead to overly dramatic (and melodramatic) first chapters. Instead, try to mirror a larger conflict within the first chapter with something smaller. In my novel, Amy watching her parents being cryogenically frozen mirrors how later, when she wakes up, she has to make tough decisions without them. For The Hunger Games, Katniss’s hunt in the first chapter mirrors the battle for survival that the whole book revolves around. For Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia it’s the way her brother Edmond treats her.

It’s hard to identify exactly what it is that makes a first chapter work. However, analyze some of your favorites and I think you’ll see the things I’ve listed above.


Beth Revis’s author website:

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Across the UniverseA Million Suns (Across the Universe)Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)    GlowThe Night She DisappearedMy Brother's ShadowThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))

Writing Teen Novels


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