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Posts tagged ‘writing a novel’

Writing What You Know, by Beth Revis

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know”.

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know”.

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times, it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff. Focus on the stuff you know – the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things every teen has experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow. This is what the writer must know – and if the writer knows this, then everything else: the characters, the plot, the world – will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing – a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

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Creating Characters With Flaws, by Kashmira Sheth

When I was growing up I listened to the stories from the Indian epic Mahabharat. Even as a young child it struck me that the heroes were not perfect. They had their weaknesses just like anyone else.

When we write it is easy to identify with a person who possesses good qualities, so why create a main character with a flaw? Shouldn’t he or she be perfect in every way? Wouldn’t a reader want that?

We don’t have a perfect protagonist because it would be like trying to drink a glass full of sugar syrup: too sweet and utterly disgusting. Giving a hero flaws adds much to their personalities. In real life people are a mix of good and bad qualities, and when we mirror those qualities in our stories our readers identify with our characters more deeply and root for them. They worry about them and eagerly flip pages to make sure they are safe at the end.

Another advantage of creating such character is that they are engaging. They amuse and surprise us and sometimes ever make us cringe. If he has a quick temper he adds a fiery element to his dialogues when he is angry. His anger maybe short lived but his words can linger in reader’s mind. Our protagonist adds depth to her character when she can sting with her words, make the reader laugh with her sauciness or delight the reader with her cunningness. No simple, perfect protagonist can stand up to a character with a flawed personality.

The flaw or flaws we select for our characters demand care and sound reasoning. In YA novels our main characters are young. If our fifteen-year-old protagonist has smoldering anger there must be some reason for it. We must answer the question, “Why does he have so much anger?” It might be that he felt ignored and unloved because his older sister was brilliant and took up all his parents’ attention. It might be that his parents were busy fighting and had no time for him. Whatever the reason, we must know it so we feel grounded about our character’s past and understand his present.

The flaws we pick should become part of the story we’re writing. If the novel features a girl who is sassy and loud-mouthed, we could use those very same qualities to get her into trouble. During the course of the story, she may even overcome some of those flaws. However, it is not essential or even desirable to have our character grow out of all their shortcomings. Over the course of the story they grow and change, but in a believable way. They don’t turn completely perfect at the end.

Creating a character that is likable as well as flawed is essential to a story.

They are fun to write about and fun to spend time with. After all that is what we want.

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

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Guiding A Reader’s Experience Throughout Your Novel (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

Gosh, my series of posts for this blog is turning into quite a tutorial! I’m even starting to learn from it myself.  The next secret is really about pace. Hopefully, you’ve set up a great collision course in your story. Your protagonist is hanging off those cliffs and you aren’t rescuing them too easily. Brilliant. In fact you’re piling on the (metaphorical – or actual) hurt in thick slabs. Good. Your next job, once you’ve got your teenage reader ripping through the pages, is to control them. You don’t want them so eager to find out what happens next that they skip to the back of the book to find out. So this means:

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 11

drum roll…  tada!

Control the reader’s curiosity

If you’ve been successful at creating that page turning novel, strangely enough, to hold your readers you’ve got to build in some ‘breaks’. Readers can easily reach saturation and burnout. They cannot indefinitely hold off not knowing. One way around that is to build in reveals and triumphs to reward them for staying with the story. This is one of the roles of sub-goals. However, don’t reveal the ‘final outcome’ of the overarching quest or goal of the protagonist (whether lost or won), because if you reveal this too early it will kill the suspense.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Reward your reader by telling them the results of sub goals
  • Allow your reader a little bit of down-time after a very tense scene
  • Up the ante before the tense scene – you know the kind of thing: the picnic in the woods before the reaping in The Hunger Games.

WATCH OUT FOR THE TWELFTH AND FINAL SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

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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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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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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Worldbuilding When Writing A Novel, by Lish McBride

I can show you the world. For the people who have seen Aladdin, the song A Whole New World will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Ha!

Worldbuilding: it’s important. Though it is most evident in fantasy fiction, it’s just as important in contemporary realistic fiction. It’s just that in contemporary realistic fiction, you can lean on the general shared knowledge of readers. You don’t have to describe the bank that your character walks into with excruciating detail. It’s a bank. We’ve all been in banks. If your character walks into their favorite coffee shop, you better describe it. That coffee shop is part of your character’s world and you have to make it reflect what you want the reader to see. If your character is a straight-laced, prim, bookish type and her favorite hangout is a biker bar, it’s going to tell me a lot about their personality and the world they inhabit.

In fantasy fiction, people are really examining it because half the reason they’re tuning in is because they like the world the character inhabits, so you better spend time on it. Half the reason we all liked Harry Potter so much was because the world was clear. You knew what wizards and witches ate, drank, wore, where they shopped, their favorite sport and a lot of other cultural trappings. The readers loved Harry, sure, but they also liked imagining themselves in his surroundings (perhaps minus Voldemort).

Urban fantasy fiction is a hodgepodge of both and it has strange complications because you can’t quite make all of it up. Your character might have magical powers, but if he or she walks into a bank that bank better act like a bank. Which means you have to put in the imagination work, but you also have to do the leg work of researching your stuff.

For example, many years ago I was helping a student with her fantasy novel. At some point, her character had to go to the hospital. From the second her character entered the hospital until the time she left nothing happened like it actually would in a hospital. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse. I grew up in hospitals and clinics, so every time she made a goof, it screamed at me. Readers have to be able to suspend belief when they’re reading, and if you’re writing urban fantasy and getting things wrong that they can identify (and really, most people have at some point entered a hospital) well then they’re not going to buy into your magic-y bits.

When I asked the student what was going on, she said she didn’t know how hospitals worked, so she just made it up. After I was done banging my head on my desk, I told her that’s exactly why you do research. I’m lucky. If I ever have a medical question, I can call my mom. Not everyone is going to have that kind of go-to resource. However, there’s this thing called “the internet” and these other things called “libraries”. Both are quite useful to writers. Don’t know how a hospital works? Go find a professional and ask them – nicely. Can’t find a professional locally? Reach out through friends, social media, etc. and find a professional. Ask them questions. Have them read your stuff and point out the things you’re getting wrong.

If that doesn’t work, go to the library. If you’re not good at tracking things down, ASK A LIBRARIAN. They are professionals at finding relevant books and data. They went to school for it. I know research can be time consuming, but it’s worth it. You can’t get everything right all the time, but you should try. However, don’t let it get in the way of you getting words down on the page. Some people hide behind research as a way to get out of doing any actual writing. If you need to get some pages down but haven’t caught up on your research yet, write a note to yourself in the text. Something like, “Insert hospital scene here” and then go back when you’ve done your homework.

Homework: Read an article, book or interview, or watch a documentary or podcast, or something like that in an area that you are curious about and that pertains to something you’re writing or want to write. Take notes. What can you use to deepen your story and world? What’s cool but won’t fit?

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

Lish McBride’s bio page

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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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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

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