Archive for the 'Writing Advice' Category

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A POV Tip I Picked up Somewhere

When one begins to write a novel, one of the first things one has to decide is which point of view one should use. (And how to avoid ever having to use “one” because you can see how awkward that quickly becomes.)

I struggle with this, too. In Brand-New Emily, I used first person point of view, and I think it worked out nicely. In Jump, I used third, which I think ended up being the better choice for that particular novel (I’ll explain why in a minute). And with my new book Tig Ripley, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel, I used third again, but for a different reason than in JumpContinue reading ‘A POV Tip I Picked up Somewhere’

16 Things Writers Wish You Knew (Part Two)

(A continuation of my rant from last week…)

9. When I say I work from home, I mean I actually WORK from home. I’d like to dedicate number 9 on this list to the teacher who called me up when my daughter was little and said, “Well, since you don’t work outside the home…” and then gave me a laundry list of ways I could help her out in her classroom. It was as though she thought she were saving me from all this free time on my hands! Yes, I can be flexible when I’m not on deadline, but that doesn’t mean I’m just sitting around waiting for something to do. Why? Because…  Continue reading ’16 Things Writers Wish You Knew (Part Two)’

16 Things Writers Wish You Knew (Part One)

Warning: It’s about to get real up in here.

Every profession has its list of petty annoyances. I’m sure doctors get sick of everyone they meet asking them about their physical ailments at cocktail parties. I’m sure stockbrokers would probably like to talk about their favorite movie once in a while instead of constantly being pumped for info about which investments to choose. But I don’t know much about being a doctor or a stockbroker, so I’m going to tell you about what drives writers nuts…because THAT, I know. And, hey, our writing teachers’ mantra was always, “Write what you know.”

I’ve compiled a list of 16 things I think every professional writer has at some point wanted to say (or scream) to someone. But since that’s a lot to scream at once, these are the first 8. I’ll post the remaining 8 next week. And if you have any to add in the meantime, please comment! Here we go…. Continue reading ’16 Things Writers Wish You Knew (Part One)’

Writing and Gratitude

Painting: just another one of the zillion things I can't do.

Painting: just another one of the zillion things I can’t do.

A while back, an older friend of mine (in her 80s) was telling me about some needlework she’d recently done. “Oh, I wish I could learn how to do that,” I remarked. “I’m just not good at anything handy.”

Imagine my surprise when, instead of offering to teach me her skill, my friend looked at me and responded pointedly, “I think instead of trying to learn new tricks, you ought to be thankful that you can write, and just keep on working on doing that better and better every day. Be grateful you’re good at something and keep with it.”

It’s good to hang out with the older and wiser folk. They give you some good perspective…and sometimes keep you from blowing a lot of money at the fabric or craft store on stuff that you will never, ever actually use.

So, I hope you weren’t counting on an embroidered or crocheted or knitted gift from me for Christmas, because it’s not happening. Perhaps you’d appreciate a copy of Tig Ripley? Writing is pretty much all I know how to do.

But it’s enough. And I’m grateful.

 

The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived

Recently a friend of mine was telling me how he strives to be the best at what he does professionally. “I don’t just want to be good, I want to be the best,” he said. Then he asked if I strive for the same thing. I was a little confused.

“Don’t you want to be the greatest writer who ever lived?” my friend asked.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Now he was the one who was confused. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t set my sights higher.

The truth is, the whole “being the greatest writer who ever lived” thing? I’ll pass. And here’s why. Continue reading ‘The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived’

Supporting Characters Rock

I posted recently about how to be your own leading lady/protagonist. But honestly, protagonists in real life can be overrated.

When choosing your friends, would you rather have someone single-mindedly dedicated to a goal, who will often stop at nothing to achieve it, or would you rather have someone supportive who doesn’t have to be the center of attention all the time?

Supporting characters are also sometimes a lot more fun to write. Unlike your protagonist, your supporting characters can start out awesome and stay awesome–they don’t require the character arc your main character does. For example, my agent, editor, and I are all unanimously giddy over Tig’s friend Robbie Chan in my new novel Tig Ripley: Rock’n’Roll Rebel. We all three agree that we want to be Robbie! I call Robbie “The Fonz” of the book because she’s ridiculously cool, fearless, and can do anything. She was so much fun to create…all I had to do is imagine how cool I could be if I were actually, you know, cool.

What do supporting characters tend to have in common? 

  1. They’re quirky. These characters can be a bit overdrawn to make them more memorable. One of my favorite things when writing is choosing my supporting characters’ quirks. Quirky people are so much more interesting, don’t you think?
  2. They tend to be a lot more settled. While protagonists are on a quest, supporting characters are often way chill. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that in real life?
  3. They fulfill a need. Sometimes a supporting character serves as the conscience of the protagonist, or the sympathetic ear, or the Ethel to their Lucy. They are the kind of friend you wish you had or that you should strive to be.
  4. They don’t need to be the center of attention. I don’t know about you, but in real life, I quickly tire of “look at me! pay attention to me!” people. Supporting characters are much less needy, and I love that about them.

Sure, sometimes in life you have to be your own leading lady/protagonist. But there’s a lot to be said for playing the part of the supporting character, too.

 

I Hope Your Life Would Make a Lousy Book

Often, when I tell people I’m a writer, their response is, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book about my life.” Immediately, I feel sorry for them. (Then, when they inevitably ask if I’d write it for them, I feel sorry I for me, but that’s another blog for another day.)

My wish for you, dear reader, is that no one would ever want to read a book about your life.

Why would I say such a thing? Because in fiction or true-life narratives, there’s only one thing that’s interesting, and that thing is Trouble (note the capital T).

The other day I read an excerpt from Yeonmi Park’s memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. Her life story makes a good memoir because it’s full of pain and suffering and horrors I can’t imagine, but if she’d had a choice, she probably would have preferred to have had a boring, wonderful life story instead of fodder for a great book.

Whenever I speak to school groups, I offer to make up a story about a kid in the audience. Lots of hands go up. I choose a volunteer. I make up a story where things go great, where nothing bad ever happens to the subject of my story. Then I ask the other kids if they want to read that book. “NOOOOOOO!!!!” they chorus. The only one who says yes is the student in the story. I offer to make the story interesting with lots of trouble, and everyone’s game except for the original student. See how it works? Your happy, perfect life is strictly Dullsville to everyone but you.

Therefore, I wish you a boring, lovely life that would make a lousy book. Trouble is awesome in storytelling, but in life, it’s overrated.

 

Are Fictional Characters Really Fictional?

I’m often asked whether the characters in my books are based on real people. The answer is no. And yes.

Writers are influenced by everything and everyone around them. Ideas come from any number of sources. When I create characters, oftentimes I am inspired by something about a particular person and then use that nugget of inspiration to flesh out a completely different character.

My novels draw inspiration from my experiences growing up, and most of them are in some way inspired by my experiences as teacher. There might be certain things about certain students I taught that I found interesting and later incorporated into my characters, but the characters remain completely fictional.

The other day at the airport, I ran into a woman who’d graduated from high school with me. I went over and said hello, which is kind of funny because in high school, I don’t think we ever spoke. She was cool and popular and I was…well, neither of those! I knew who she was but never had a class or a conversation with her. She was surprised when I told her that a character in my first novel, Brand-New Emily, owed something to her. This real-life person has a distinctive facial birthmark that was the envy of all the girls in our class, and I’d given a similar birthmark to a beautiful female character in Emily. When I told her about it, she said, Mean Girls style, “Why are you so obsessed with me?!” Then she called her lawyer to get a restraining order in place. Nah, I’m just kidding! She was really nice. I just wanted to show you how writers operate. Ha ha. See how I took that one real thing about her but made the rest up? That’s what I do…all the time.

The other day one of my daughters asked me if a new character of mine wore her hair in a braid. When she pictured the character, she explained, the character had a fishtail braid. Cool, I said. But does she have a braid or not? my daughter asked. I had to tell her I didn’t know. I’d never really thought about her hair at all! She was shocked that I didn’t have a clear picture of the character, but the truth is, I don’t really “see” the characters I create as if they’re acting out a movie in my head. Most of the time, I just have more of a feel for who they are.

And who they are may have a small part to do with a character trait, idiosyncrasy, or physical aspect of someone I know or have observed.

Or not.

 

 

 

How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

Every time I go for a school visit, I get the same question: How long does it take you to write a book?

You’d think this would be an easy question to answer, but the truth is, I have no idea.

The first draft is just the beginning of a long, long process. And I’ve never really timed myself on a first draft anyway. Things such as illness, contract work, or family commitments may interfere with a first draft. Or maybe the draft just isn’t working and I know it and have to scrap it all and start from scratch. There’s no telling.

Once I do finish a draft, I send it to my agent. She edits. I rewrite. Then we do that a few more times before she sends it out to publishers. Then sometimes a publisher or two will show some interest in the manuscript but ask for some changes. So then I’ll make those edits and we’ll resubmit.

Then, once the manuscript sells (if it sells), the editor and I go through a few rounds of edits. Then a copy editor comes in and suggests more edits. And by the way, “copy editing” isn’t just looking for misspelled words. Copy editors create a “book bible” with all the details of the book (character names and relationships; colors of rooms, eyes, hair, whatever–every little detail contained in the book) and they question word choice, character motivation, and anything else they might catch. It’s a big job. Once a copy editor on one of my books caught a huge continuity error that my agent and editor and I had all missed!

After I go through and work on the copy editor’s edits, my editor sends the manuscript back to me and we all edit it a couple more times. How many edits does it take? It’s kind of like the old question about how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. You lose count, but it’s a lot.

Think about all those edits, all those eyes, and then think about how often you’ve found an error in a book. It happens. Mistakes can still be made. Scary, isn’t it?

So, how long does it take to write a book? I couldn’t say.

 

“Let’s Get Rid of ‘Said’!” she said.

 

When I was in grade school, one of my favorite teachers did an exercise with us called, “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Said’!” The idea was that “said” is a boring, generic way to tag a writer’s dialogue. She was totally right. And yet, she was totally wrong.

Yes, “said” is a boring, generic word. But guess what? That’s exactly what you want. Other than an occasional “replied,” all your dialogue should be tagged with “said.” Anything else is the mark of a novice. Professional writers do not want their characters to state, announce, assert, claim, declare, disclose, reveal, pronounce, utter, or, for heaven’s sake, chortle. Therefore, step away from the thesaurus.

“But that’s so many ‘saids,'” you say. You’re right. But it’s OK. The idea is for the reader to gloss right over the dialogue tags and pay attention only to the dialogue itself. And gloss the reader does…as does the agent reading your work while thinking, “Thank goodness I’m dealing with someone who knows to use ‘said.'”

Trust me. Just use “said.”

There. I said it.