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Keep Writing: The Importance Of Finishing Stories, by Andy Briggs

I always feel awkward when I meet a budding writer. Most of the time people tell me they have a great idea for a book or, worse, they have started writing a book. Actually started it. What is very rare to hear is the phrase I have written a book. Everybody can start writing a book. Very few people ever finish it.

It sounds like the most obvious advice in the world to finish your story, but it’s difficult. Try it and prove me wrong.

Perhaps you already have proved me wrong and are clutching your precious manuscript in your hands. If so, have you edited it? Have you been through it three or four times and surgically remove chunks that don’t work and fine-tuned the rest?

Much “How To” advises you to let a friend read your manuscript. I never let them do that. Family and friends are the worst critics and will often let things pass that should have been hacked from your manuscript before another soul sets eyes on it. There are also many services that charge you for reading your work and giving you feedback. Personally, I think you should avoid these. Worst case, they are run by people who can’t get themselves published (or editors who can’t get a job with a publisher), best case, they are driven by opinion. They might not like vampire stories so will tear yours apart, whereas an editor in a real publishing company might be waiting for just that idea.

Or, are you one of these people who has reread your work and changed it time-and-time again? You have been rewriting it for the last 10 years. Well done, you have probably destroyed the very thing that made it unique. I know a few people who fall into this hideous rewriting free-fall and never recover. They have polished their idea to death.

So what do you do with your precious manuscript?

In an ideal world, you will lock it away in a draw (in the days of good ol’ paper), or back it up on a hard drive (preferably more than one, just in case). Then forget about it and write something else.

Then repeat the above steps several times.

Now you have four or five manuscripts. Go back and read the first one. Is it anywhere near as good as number five? Probably not. You would have got better and saved yourself a lot of angst when book one kept getting rejected. Or is book one still strong? In which case, send it off, because you have a solid, well-written story.

The more you write the better you will become. The more you write the more stories you have to sell. The more you write the more professional you will become, regardless of whether you ever publish any of the books.

More importantly, the more stories you write the more you have finished. Finishing the story is the real battle every writer, amateur or professional, has to face.


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Writing Teen Novels

Writing Dialogue In Teen Novels, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

I love writing dialogue and spend a great deal of time trying to get it right to make my characters sound like real teens.  I watch TV shows targeted to teens, eavesdrop on their conversations, read teen books and magazines, listen to the audio version of teen books, etc. – all in an effort to perfect the art of teen-speak.  While teen-speech (or any speech, for that matter) can be sloppy – people leave out words, compress phases into single words, use contractions and habitual phrases, make mistakes, etc., etc. – dialogue is highly planned.  Every line must have purpose and reason.  Just like a film gives the illusion of motion, dialogue gives the illusion of conversation, but it isn’t real.  It appears spontaneous, but it’s planned.  It appears chaotic and unexpected, but it’s reasoned and highly controlled.  Characters must have a reason for talking.  We may have to put up with real people who talk about nothing, but we don’t have to put up with characters who do the same.  I used to teach an online workshop with fellow author Lara Zeises.  Here are some of the dialogue rules that we created.

Dialogue should fulfill the following roles in the manuscript:

1) advance the plot

2) reveal character

3) reveal motivation

4) substitute narrative and

5) establish tone or mood.

If the dialogue doesn’t fill one of these criteria, then it probably can be removed without adversely affecting the story.

Some common mistakes

1. Overusing synonyms for the word “said” (cried, howled, bellowed, whispered, stated, replied, voiced, expressed, vented, responded, uttered, shouted, vocalized, asserted, declared…) – most readers don’t register the word “said”, so when you do use a special tag like “whispered” it really stands out.

2. Being too true to the way people speak (adding “um”, “like”, etc.) – unless adding an occasion or two of “like” really fits the character’s voice in a particular situation.

3. Using too much dialect.

4. Sounding too stilted or formal.

5. Using people’s names too often in conversations.

6. Losing track of who said what (that’s what speech tags are for!).

7. Unclear pronoun references (If there are three men in a room and you say “he,” which “he” are you referring to?).

8. Conversations where characters tell each other what they already know.

9. Having a character talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss.

10. Long, boring speeches to provide information to the reader.  Show versus tell applies to dialogue as well as narrative.  Having a character tell something is still telling.

11. Busywork (when a character answers the phone, don’t have them say, “Hello”, “How are you?” etc – jump into the meat of the conversation.

12. Making all characters sound alike (or worse, making all of the characters sound just like YOU).


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Writing Teen Novels

Writing About Violence And Physical Harm In Novels, by April Henry

If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers or even horror novels, 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.

A couple of years ago, I was running in Portland 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.

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 blood.

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

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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Writing Teen Novels

Creating Life-like Stories For Novels, by Kate Forsyth

A writer must learn to watch, listen and learn from life, in order to create the illusion of life in their work.

Go out with your notebook and pen to explore and experience. Catch a bus or a train, sit in the park or in a café, wander the streets or go to an art gallery, a museum, a skateboard park or anywhere that catches your fancy. Watch. Listen. Jot snatches of dialogue. Write quick word sketches of people:

- how they sit

- how they eat

- how they dress

- how they behave when in company, and

- how they behave when alone.

Begin to develop stories around them. Wonder about their lives. Imagine motivations for their behaviour. Why do they talk, move, think and act as they do?  Feel free to let your imagination run wild.

Quick character sketches like these can be a great way to amuse yourself while bored waiting in a doctor’s surgery or for a ferry.

Over time you’ll build up pages of them that you can use when actually writing a novel. Train yourself to be observant and notice nervous mannerisms or interesting tics – do they always wear red shoes? How do they like to eat their eggs?

Obviously a character sketch like this only reveals personality by externals, but it’s amazing how much we can infer just from those visual clues.

The great strength of a novel, of course, is that we have dialogue, action and interior monologue to help us delineate characters as well as their visual appearance.

The more you try and get inside people’s heads, and imagine what they think and feel, the easier it becomes.

I always begin a novel by thinking about my characters, and what role they play in the story. In general, most novels contain a cast of characters whose roles can be summarized as following:

- the hero (or protagonist)

- the villain (or antagonist)

- the romantic interest (or two – I do like a love triangle!)

- the companion or sidekick

- the mentor

- the circle of friends and allies

- henchmen (the villain’s circle of friends and allies)

- complications

- clowns

- animal friends

- secret friends and hidden enemies

- the sacrifice

Of course, sometimes one character will take on more than one role. Often the buddy will also be the clown, for example, or he may act as the sacrifice. The animal friend can actually be a robot, a coconut with a face drawn on it or a rag doll. The romantic interest may prove to be a hidden enemy, or the villain may end up being a secret friend.

I assemble my cast of characters – I give them names and faces, and then I begin to daydream them into life. I wonder about:

- their motives

- their key character traits (impulsive and quick-tempered, or slow to anger but slow to forgive?)

- their great strengths

- their great weaknesses

- what sort of clothes do they wear

- what kind of food they like

- how do they move – are they quick and agile, or slow and clumsy?

- how they speak (dialogue is extremely important when delineating character).

Often strengths and weaknesses are different points on a spectrum of the same character trait, for example a generous-hearted person who thinks the best of everyone may sometimes not be a good judge of character.

Then I always begin to wonder about the two great driving forces of any personality:

- what do they FEAR most

- what do they DESIRE most?

I also consider:

- how will they grow and change throughout the story?

- what lessons do they need to learn?

The other thing that is also really important to remember is that the character’s outer journey must always be reflected by the inner journey They must learn something with each ordeal faced and each obstacle overcome. The true narrative arc of any story is the protagonist’s growth towards self-realisation and wisdom.


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Writing Teen Novels

On Story Development, by Andy Briggs

As a writer you should be reading and watching as much as possible. Not just teen books, but every kind of book – fiction, non-fiction – and genres outside your target audience. This is research, one of the most overlooked aspects of writing the humble book. Movies and TV shows should fall under this banner too.

Now, I’m not talking here about researching your subject – I will do that in another article. (For my Tarzan books I travelled to Africa and talked to zookeepers, conservationists and just about anybody I could to further both my knowledge and experience of the subject matter.) I’m talking about story research.

When I wrote my and books, which are superhero stories, I made an effort of reading comics, other superhero books and every superhero based movie I could. I was looking for specific things to improve my own stories. What reoccurring tropes were used? How could I avoid using them. If every superpower came from radioactive insect bites or discarded biohazard waste, how could I do things differently?  In my case I had my Supers download their powers from a website.

By absorbing other people’s worlds I was able to create something that felt reasonably fresh. I also managed to avoid the horrible trap of accidentally duplicating other people’s stories – it happens.

It also happens with characters. I often hear people wax lyrical about a fresh new character, and the author goes on to sell a bazillion books – whereas a portion of the audience is open-mouthed thinking “but that is just this other character with a hat on!” or “that bestselling book is just this cult Japanese movie with a different name!”

The trick in this situation is the ‘hat’ – or the way you present your character to the world. That slight change is often enough to create something similar – but, crucially – not identical to the idea you’re attempting to capture. The only safe way you can do that is by exploring the work of others.

The last thing you want is a reader picking up your book then putting it back on the shelf because the opening chapter (or character) is exactly the same as a TV episode they had watched.

Duplication happens more than you realize. Ideas are viral. Whatever stunningly original concept you have now – somebody else came up with it last week. Or they’re about to. Your idea is in a race to make it out into the world. You discover this after a couple of days pitching stories around Hollywood. Executives will stop you mid-pitch and tell you they’ve “heard it all before”. The novice will panic and know they are being ripped off, especially when they see their story on the silver screen a couple of years later. The more jaded amongst us simply acknowledge that we’re in a story-race.


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Writing Teen Novels

Why I Write Mysteries And Thrillers – And Read Them, Too, by April Henry

I love reading and writing mysteries and thrillers because they offer the built-in drama of life or death. The stakes can’t get any higher. There’s also crime fiction for every taste. It can be as cozy or as bloody as you like. The mystery can be solved by cats or shapeshifters, amateurs or professionals.

Mysteries and thrillers are also democratic – appealing to most people at some point, if only as a beach or airplane read. It’s one genre that attracts a wide following. Most men won’t read romance. A lot of people won’t read westerns or horror. But almost everyone will read a mystery or a thriller.

So why do writers and readers like them so much?

Making sense of the senseless

All too often, real life often doesn’t make sense. Events happen randomly. You get a great new job, your best friend gets cancer, someone breaks into your car and steals one boot, you go to to the grocery store, you find a five-dollar bill in the bushes. There is no story arc.

It’s not always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes there is no dawn.

Real crimes are usually senseless and stupid. A lot of murders involve, not a criminal mastermind, but rival gang members, people selling drugs, or someone who is far too drunk to be driving, let alone handling a gun. The murderer may not be a black-hearted villain and the victim is not always lily white.

The randomness of life is one reason why the more predictable patterns of fiction are so appealing. And in a book, you can usually count on there being a good guy. A good guy who wins at the end. He may be bloody and bruised, but he still wins.

There is something very satisfying about writing or reading those kind of stories.

Using brain, not brawn

In a mystery or a thriller the crimes are usually clever, involving layers of deception. Each one is slowly peeled back to reveal yet another layer.

In the real world, killers are not often geniuses. The predator who manages to keep several steps ahead of the cops, or who plays a mean game of cat-and-mouse, is not a staple of real life. How much more satisfying for a reader to mentally match wits with a mastermind, not some mope with a gun.

And as a writer, it’s even more fun to think up a complicated, convoluted crime.

A little learning on the side

Often, the reader of a mystery or a thriller gets to learn something – something the writer either knows or had the pleasure of researching. (Of course, sometimes what you learn, especially if it’s on TV or in the movies, is wrong. Like female CSIs don’t wear four-inch heels and low-cut tops. And a lot of the flashy technology you see exists only in some screenwriter’s imagination.)

To research Girl, Stolen, I interviewed people who had gone blind, read autobiographies, and visited The Guide Dog School for the Blind. When you read Girl, Stolen, you not only wonder if Cheyenne will be able to escape her kidnappers, but you learn how to use a cane or a guide dog, and even how to create makeshift versions of those tools. You learn how blind people handle everything from money to meals.


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Writing Teen Novels

To Write Better, Read More, by Diane Lee Wilson

I believe that every novelist strives to become a better writer, and I find that the craft of writing is improved by reading. So with that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Read Literature. I’m VERY particular of what I read for pleasure while I’m working on a novel—especially if I’m just starting out and still trying to identify voice and mood and pacing. That’s because I find that whatever I’m reading at night invariably influences my writing the next morning. If my chosen author uses long sentences with many descriptive clauses, I find myself fitting more words between my periods. If the mood of my previous night’s read was somber then my characters tend to mope a bit. So, as peculiar as this may sound, I now go so far as to select for my personal reading a literary quality novel that A) is told in the same viewpoint as the one I’m writing; i.e., first-person narrative if I’m writing in first-person and so on; and B) one that is written in a style to which I aspire.

Now, I know that I am not going to create a Pulitzer-winning novel with my current work, but I’m happy to be inspired by one. Beautiful writing and great storytelling move me to produce. We write, after all, because we love language and stories, right? So choose to read the best books that you can and hope that osmosis works for literary talent.

Read Everything. Stay creatively inspired by reading anything and everything. You never know where you’ll find inspiration for your teen novel. It might be a newspaper article about a rising teen athlete and the challenges he/she combats. An essay in an historical magazine might prompt you to research an interesting teen from an earlier time. A random quote in an on-line publication might prompt you to say: My character would think that same way, and that might send your story in a different direction.

Also read for style. Personally, I love reading any column by a talented sports writer. In a limited amount of space I’m presented with intense drama, vivid language and fascinating personalities. I once again fall in love with the art of writing. I also enjoy perusing essays on the opinion pages of my newspaper where I’m reminded how to write passionately as well as succinctly.

Read Aloud. Sometimes hearing your words voiced helps you critique your work. So, when you’ve finished a chapter and polished it to your very best, let it sit for a day or two, then pull it out and read it aloud. And listen—hard—as you’re reading. Is the magic there? Are you drawn into the story? Are there places where you could improve the writing? Be hard on yourself; where can you make it better?

Read with a Group. Sharing your writing with a group of fellow writers isn’t effective for everyone, but I’ve been in a small group (just three of us) for fifteen years and I find value in two ways. First, I’m accountable. I have to produce. Typically my group meets every two weeks for about ninety minutes. We each email the other two members a chapter (or more) a day or two in advance of the set meeting. Then, after a short “catch-up chat” over coffee, we begin critiquing each other’s work. And here’s the second value: I receive two independent opinions of what I’ve written. Those opinions aren’t always aligned, but I can trust my two co-writers to be honest, and to keep me on my game. I’ve sometimes presented a chapter that I thought was pretty darn good, only to have them both tell me otherwise. Harsh reviews are never easy, but it’s much better to receive them in the early stages of a novel rather than to send a completed manuscript to an editor and have it rejected. Reading my work with my group makes me a better writer.


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