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.


How to Get Published


There’s plenty of advice on how to get published, but I’m going to tell you the real secret. Ready?

Submit. A lot.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’m convinced that being published isn’t necessarily a mark of how incredibly talented you are. Yes, I think you have to have some talent as a writer, but the world is full of people with unrealized potential. What sets the published apart from the unpublished, in many cases, is determination. Years ago, when I was working on a magazine story, a friend told me, “You’re like a dog with a bone. You don’t let go!” I think that’s had more to do with any success I’ve had than my ability to turn a phrase. What sets the published apart from the unpublished is often their stubborn refusal to give up. They keep working and they keep submitting. I’m not particularly good at darts, but if I threw darts at a dart board for a long enough time, one of them might eventually hit the bull’s eye or somewhere close to it. I might even hit that bull’s eye more often than someone who is a better darts player but who rarely plays. Just the law of averages. Continue reading ‘How to Get Published’

Pickup Lines

Gone With the Wind Movie Poster

David O Selznick ignored Mitchell’s first line.

Yesterday I saw a silly pickup line on the internet. You say to someone, “You smell upsexy.” Then the person responds, “What’s upsexy?” And then you reply, “Not much. What’s up with you, sexy?” I thought I’d try it out on my husband that evening, just for laughs. So that night, I say, “You smell upsexy.” He looks at me like I’m crazy and then responds, “What does that mean?” Well, there goes my joke–although I actually laughed harder at my script’s going awry than I did at the actual joke.

What does a lame pickup line have to do with writing? Only this: I challenge you to think of the first line of your novel or story as a pickup line. Except not a lame one, of course. One that will get readers’ attention and make them want more…just as a pickup line is supposed to get someone’s attention and entice him/her into a larger conversation.

One of my all-time favorite first lines is from Gone with the Wind.

Many people believe that the enduring power of Gone with the Wind lies in its characterization of the heroine and/or the complexity of the love triangle. While all that is good stuff, consider the first part of the book’s irresistible first line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it….”

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Hollywood overlooked this first line when they cast the gorgeous Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. And while I can’t imagine any other actress in that role thanks to Leigh’s outstanding performance, I think the first few words of the book have a great deal to do with the novel’s power. Scarlett, though attractive, was not so beautiful that she didn’t have to rely on her wits to get what she wanted. And ultimately, it is her charm and cunning that drive the novel’s plot. I think every woman on the planet would like to know the secret Mitchell teases at in that first line. You mean this woman Scarlett wasn’t a beauty but somehow she made people think she was? How’d she do it? Can she teach me how to do the same thing? Hasn’t this promise in some form or another been a cover tease on every women’s magazine cover every month for the last…forever?

What’s your favorite first line and why?




“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’

Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t

Less scary than a blank piece of paper? (photo from

For a short while in my teaching career, I taught public speaking in addition to teaching writing. I loved teaching public speaking, mainly because the students seemed to take it so much more seriously than they did writing instruction. Most kids are perfectly willing to slap some words on a piece of paper in study hall seconds before a writing assignment is due and think nothing of it–after all, who cares if the teacher is impressed? But it’s an entirely different matter to present ideas that are unorganized and ill-conceived to an entire room of one’s peers. I found that the students who took public speaking took all the instruction about getting attention, staying focused and organized, and using relevant examples to heart and were better writers because of it. Good public speaking skills translate into good writing skills. But there are some things public speakers can do that writers typically should not. (Note: The list below does not apply to technical writing, where all bets are off when it comes to style.) Continue reading ‘Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t’

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’