Archive for the 'Writing Advice' Category

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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.

Six Rejections That Should Make You Keep Writing

Rejections. Every writer has gotten them. But how do you know when to keep trying and when to take a hint? Here are a few hallmarks of what I’d call “good rejections”–the kind that should encourage you to keep going.

1. There’s some outright encouragement. Did the editor mention that he/she enjoyed certain aspects of your manuscript? Remember that an editor has to fall head-over-heels in love with a book in order to take it on. Just as we don’t fall in love with every attractive person we meet, editors don’t make an offer on every good manuscript.

2. It’s not the right fit. If you get a rejection that says something to the effect of, “It’s not right for our line,” that isn’t an insult to your book. Remember that book imprints have a brand of their own–readers expect certain types of projects from them. Your book may be great but not in line with their brand. Continue reading ‘Six Rejections That Should Make You Keep Writing’

Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can't teach voice.

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can’t teach voice.

Years ago, my editor-in-chief at Sweet 16 magazine (a moment of silence for that awesome publication!), told me she liked my voice. It was a compliment that meant a lot to me, but what she said after that made a real impression, too. I’ve never forgotten it. “You know,” Mary Lou said offhandedly. “Voice is the one aspect of writing that can’t be taught.”

I thought about that long and hard. I’d taught English for years and had taken pride in helping writers grow, but had I ever TAUGHT voice? I realized I hadn’t. Mary Lou was absolutely right. I could teach sentence variety, I could build vocabulary, and I could help students learn to organize their thoughts, but I couldn’t teach voice. Continue reading ‘Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)’

Breaking a Law of Writing


Stuff I don’t know how to use #424.

“I didn’t know you were a drummer!” said my agent. She’d just finished my manuscript about a middle-school girl drummer who starts a rock band.

“I’m not,” I said. “At all.” Fact is, I lack both coordination and rhythm–things that are kind of important for drummers.

So what was I doing writing a book about a drummer? Isn’t “write what you know” one of the unbreakable laws of writing?

Nope. Continue reading ‘Breaking a Law of Writing’

In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction

Remember the 80s hair band Cinderella? Sure you do. Their lead singer had that awesome screeching voice and everything they did was so marvelously loud. They rocked! And do you also remember when all the metal bands went through the power ballad phase and Cinderella sang that one about writing called, “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”?

OK, that song wasn’t really about writing. But it could’ve been. Because that’s the song that has been playing on repeat in my head the past few weeks as I search for old copies of Writing! magazine. Continue reading ‘In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction’

Harold Bloom Was Really Talking about Alice

In college, I had to read a scholarly work called The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. The gist of it was this: poets need to read other poets, but how do you make sure that you don’t wind up sounding like them and thus lose your own voice? I always thought Bloom’s argument was spot on, probably because all through college and my early twenties, I was doing some very bad JD Salinger writer-karaoke.  Shortly thereafter, I immersed myself in so much Faulkner that I could barely carry on a normal conversation without sounding like I’d just ridden into town from Yoknapatawpha County. Continue reading ‘Harold Bloom Was Really Talking about Alice’

Getting to Know Villains


Today I’m blogging about creating complex villains because as a professional writer, I am an expert on the subject. Ha! Quite the opposite. I chose this topic because it’s super hard and I’m trying to learn more about it myself. I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll share with you what I’ve picked up, and maybe you can offer me some tips, too. Yay, teamwork! Continue reading ‘Getting to Know Villains’