January is writing advice month (sticky post) Updated

[UPDATE: I'll be answering questions about the process of writing only. No questions about publishing. Thanks!]
[UPDATE the second: This is for the folks asking about what order I'm answering the questions in. I'm answering them in the order they come in. Though I'm bundling similar themed questions together. If you've asked two unrelated quessies I'll answer your second one only after I've gone through everyone else's first questions. Hope that makes sense! I'll be turning off comments on the last day of January. I won't be doing daily writing posts after that. Though I will try to answer all quessies. It'll just be slower. Much slower.]

I am working on organising my writing process posts so that they’re more accessible. In so doing I discovered that there are several different writing posts I’ve promised, but haven’t gotten around to. Someone wanted me to write about the differences between being a full-time published writer and being a part-time writer. (More deadlines!) Someone else wanted advice about writing proposals. (Accept that you must suffer!) Someone else requested that I explain how to write dialogue. (With more ease than I write anything else. Honestly, it’s the non-dialogue bits that are hard.)

I will write more detailed answers to those questions this month.

I was also thinking of posting about how to get started, on characterisation, and how to push forward even when your plot has died. Any takers for those topics?

Do any of you have other requests for posts on writing or questions you want answered? Any aspect of writing that you particularly struggle with? Now’s the time to ask. I will leave this post at the top of the blog for the whole month so you can come back to it when a question occurs to you. Yes, even though this post is at the top, there are new ones below. Nothing can stop me blogging every day!

To avoid asking quessies I’ve already answered check my writing faq. I also have a post on How to Write a Novel and How to Rewrite.

Remember that it’s only five years since I sold my first novel. I’ve learned a tonne in that time, but there’s still lots I’m learning. I may not be able to answer all your questions. And for definite my answers won’t always work for you. Every writer finds different solutions. All writing advice should be used as needed and ignored otherwise. There’s no one way of doing anything in the land of writing.

I await your questions!

Happy new year!

64 comments

  1. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    Picking a point of view and how you learnt to work with the different types would be something I’d be interested to hear about. As a reader, I kind of know when the point of view works for the story and when it doesn’t, but I don’t really know how consciously writers make the choice or how you do it.

  2. Travis on #

    [Justine: Hope this helps.]

    Where do your ideas come from? Every time I try to write something, I can’t think of any interesting thing for my protag(s) to get themselves into. Very frustrating stuff.

  3. jonathan on #

    [Justine: Answer's here. ]

    I’d be very interested in the pushing a dead plot post, since that’s where my novel is at.

    On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already – stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.

  4. Melissa on #

    [Justine: Melissa: I know nothing about poetry and so can't help you. Sorry.]

    Dear Jack Trewlany,
    You recently came to my school called sacred heart in Ware i am in year 6 and you singed my book called the Crystal Pool. You being a succesful author i decied to follow in your footsteps but write potery instead, i find very easy and i am able to express my feelings through writing which i enjoy very much
    I thought i would give you a snippet of my poem

    My brain is sad i feel annoyed i wish i could be a floating boyed i would sit there for hours wating on end until it was time i needed a mend.
    Please tell me what you think.
    I am very eager to get some of my poems published and i would like to know how i go about do it.Love Melissa x

  5. beth on #

    [Justine: I've answered your question here.]

    I’d be interested in looking at the differences in submissions from when you were first starting to now. Could you share your query letters? Could you show us a real-life synopsis that you used when publishing one of your books? As someone with a complete novel and complete lack of success in publishing, I’d love to know more about the nitty-gritty of publishing, what it looked like for you when you sought publication, etc.

    And, of course, I’d love to see your zombie attack plan :)

  6. Mitch Wagner on #

    [Justine: Your second question's answered here.]

    Two requests, one mainly for entertainment purposes and one that’s really got me stumped.

    The one for entertainment purposes: A couple of months ago you mentioned you’re working up another post about how you use Scrivener. I’d love to see that — I’m a huge Scrivener fan and I think you did a terrific review of it (much better than the NY Times’s, which ran at about the same time).

    The one that’s really got me stumped: How do you sell a first novel? Does you really need to get an agent first? If so, how can you tell who the good agents are and who are the crooks? There’s so much writing advice out there, it all sounds authoritative, and I don’t believe any of it. I have friends who are established writers, and I don’t even believe THEM, because all they can tell me is how they got started 10 or 15 or 39 years ago, not how to get started today.

    P.S. “Ton.” Not “tonne.” Heh. Blog overlord spits on USian spellings.

  7. sylvia_rachel on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    I second the request for a pushing-through-a-dead-plot post (or perhaps a figuring-out-who-the-villain-is post). My writing projects tend to start with a strongly felt character/voice or scene, and then I have to go looking for a plot — sometimes easily found, sometimes … not.

    Quiz question: Lois McMaster Bujold has said that the way she finds plots for character-driven novels is (I’m paraphrasing) to figure out what’s the worst thing she can have happen to that character, and then make it happen. Discuss ;-)

  8. Julia on #

    [Justine: Answer is here.]

    How do you come up with interesting believable characters? Without them seeming flat, or ridiculous, or confusing, or just completely lacking in personality?

  9. Gillian A on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    I third the request for a post on pushing through with a dead plot. I’d also be interested in any comments on dealing with the ‘middle’ of a novel (although there may be elements of overlap with the dead plot advice – at least in my experience).

  10. Dorothy on #

    Justine: Your answer is here.

    Hey Justine,
    I’m really happy to be reading your blog and all your great answers!I also have a question for you: how can I make my plot more exciting? Like put in those kinds of turns to make you want to read the whole novel at once! So far my stories are too calculable.
    Thanks for reading :))

  11. Lianne on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    Hi Justine,
    sometimes when I’m writting I really like the story idea but, then I loose intrest in what I’m writng. I know that if I ever want to complete a novel, I have to stick with my idea and like what I am writing about. Do you have any advice on how to stick with my ideas?

  12. Justine on #

    Everyone asking about dead plots and getting stuck and middles and their plots being uninteresting: your answer is now up.

  13. Bran-la on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    Hi, i saw Scott post about this and i love to write so i thought i would come on over!

    The thing that i always have trouble with is getting started. I never know what to say in the beginning or where the setting should be. What helps you get started? Any hints and tips would be wonderful!

    By the way, when i say Scott IMterview i ended up reading How to Ditch Your Fairy and i really liked it. I had a lot of my friends ask me about it and i suggested it to them.

  14. Bran-la on #

    I have another question in which i don’t know if you will answer but i will try. Do you think it is realistic to have a dream to be a teenage author (publish a book or more before the age of 18)?

  15. Dahlia on #

    [Justine: Your answer's here.]

    Justine, what do you do when you have a great character but no story to put them in???
    It’s a question that’s been bugging me for about a year, which is the amount of time I’ve had a plotless character in my head that I really want to write about… but can’t.
    I don’t have anywhere to put her.
    It’s also not the first time this has happened, though by some miracle I have recently come up with a plot for the other one. :)

  16. Justine on #

    Beth & Mitch: Your publishing questions are answered here.

    Note to everyone else: Theirs are the only publishing quessies I’m answering this month.

  17. Tim on #

    [Justine: Answer is here.]

    Justine, I was wondering whether there is anything in particular you do when developing the voice of your character (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything you do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

  18. Natalie on #

    [Justine: Your answer's here.]

    I’m a fan of your writing and your blog. This is my first comment on here so first – Hello :) Thanks for sharing so much information on here. Your writing advice is always very smart and encouraging. I have a question to add to the mix. ( I haven’t looked through your archives so if you already answered this one, my apologies. :)

    I’m writing a fantasy novel. One of the characters has a great background story and I’m really struggling with how, or if, I should include it. I don’t want to vomit background all over a plot that’s moving forward at a good pace. I know background info can be kinda trixy. Is it better if I keep most of it to myself and only tell absolute need to know info within the text? Should I not include any at all? How do you know when to include background information and when to leave it out?

  19. AlisonG on #

    [Justine: Your answer's here.]

    I’m working on my first YA novel, and have (of course) discovered two other books that have similar plots. What do you think, should I read the books so I can avoid similarities and reassure myself that my book will be unique? Or should I avoid them so I can claim I was not influenced and did not steal from them? :-)

    What would you do?

    P.S. Just bought my first ever Mac because of your raves about Scrivener and I’m so glad I did. Thanks for hyping the software, it’s fabulous!

  20. beth on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    My question is about finishing writing, and knowing when to stop.

    Do you have a critique group, or a close group of beta readers that advise you (and if not, have you ever)? How do you know when to take their advice and when to ignore it? At what point do you look at the manuscript and think: this is well and truly done?

  21. Monica on #

    [Justine: Your question is answered here.]

    Thanks so much for all your great advice. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog!

    I am pretty new to novel-writing, but I’ve heard a lot about “interviewing your characters” to get to know them better. Is that something you do?

  22. Kevin on #

    [Justine: Your answer's here. ]

    I’ll second AlisonG’s comment at #21. Scalzi has talked about borrowing concepts for his books. I have a vague memory that Scott may have talked about his books having similar ideas or themes to other books. Have you had a situation where you’re borrowing concepts/ideas/settings and you borrow too much? How did you (or how would you) deal with that, beyond the obvious step of rewriting?

  23. Anna on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    I just read your post on Characterization and I noticed you said you “spent a long time learning how to plot, how to write action scenes, transitions, exposition etc. etc.”

    My question is: How do you learn that stuff? I’m another writer who finds characterization very easy, but I can’t plot. I’ve tried reading books on it, and none have been helpful so far.

  24. Anna on #

    … I just realized I sound like an idiot in that last comment because you’ve already written two entries on plotting, but I guess what I want to know is, do classes help? Are there books you found useful?

  25. Sky on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    Someone else asked how you start something, so while I’m interested in that answer, I have a different question.

    As a writer, you must have tons of ideas. You probably think of dozens of new things you could use in your writing every day. How do you choose just one to start? What separates that idea from the rest of the things that floated into your brain?

    Thanks so much for answering all these questions!

  26. Justine on #

    Julia, Tim, and Monica: your questions about writing characters are answered (sort of) here.

  27. Justine on #

    Bran-la: Your question on getting started is answered here. Hope it helps!

    Thanks for coming over from Scott’s blog!

  28. Jaya Lakshmi on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    I have several interrelated questions:
    1) How short can a novel be, in terms of word count?
    2) How do you expand a novella (around 114 pages) into a novel? What are your suggestions?
    Thank you, Ms. Larbalestier

  29. Carrie Ryan on #

    [Justine: Your answer is here.]

    I’m wondering about plot. In your post on characterization you mention that you had to learn how to plot. I’m interested in learning this thing called plot. I know what happens when I get stuck in plot, etc., but it’s coming up with the plot, making sure that I actually have a plot that I’m curious about. Thanks!!

  30. Michelle Madow on #

    [Justine: My response to your question is here]

    Hi, Justine! You probably don’t remember me, but I started the Westerboard 2 years ago and had lunch at a mexican restaurant with you and Scott that summer in Hell’s Kitchen after the writing conference in the Algonquin Hotel.

    I’m currently working on writing my first novel, and came across your blog! I’m so excited to read about the writing process from someone who’s been there (and has done it right.) One topic I would like to see addressed–and I don’t know if this makes sense–is how to find great similes to create good imagery. I’ve been analyzing young adult fiction books and comparing them to what I’m writing, and I’m having a difficult time finding comparisons that make sense and have that extra pizazz to bring a book to life. Do they just come to you, or do you have some sort of process on coming up with them?

    I don’t know if that’s something that can be taught or if it’s just natural, but I figure it can’t hurt to ask.
    Hope to hear from you soon, and I can’t wait to talk and learn more about the writing process!

  31. Michelle Madow on #

    [Justine: My response to your question is here.]

    Sorry for posting twice in a row, but I just remembered another question I have. A lot of my friends have been asking me to email them what I’ve written so far, and it’s started me thinking about copyright. I want to show my friends what I’m working on so I can get their input, but don’t want to hurt myself in the end by doing so. Also, if I ever get published, I don’t want to have to deal with copyright lawsuits! How do I go about obtaining copyright, and how does copyright work for an unpublished author??
    Thanks! :)

  32. Justine on #

    Dahlia: I’ve answered your question about how to find a story for your character here.

  33. Kt on #

    [Justine: My response to your question is here.]

    I’m finding that its incredibly difficult to write fiction that theoretically occurs in a “real” world, that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the timelines and reality of said world. Sometimes i feel like it would be so much easier just to create an entirely imaginary world even though realistically that is a lot harder to develop. I can think of several writers who have done well by anchoring a “fictional” town in a “real” place. I’m debating between if i need to do that or if i can just fictionalize real places to be what i need them to be. i don’t even know if there are legal issues with that, i remember being very confused reading pride & prejudice with all the ____shires etc to avoid naming actual places. What do you find to be the best way to deal with this when there really is a need to anchor the story to at least a specific area?

  34. Rachel on #

    [Justine: My response is here.]

    So, I just read the storyless character post, and I have a similar problem: the storyless scene. I tend to come up with a scene, kind of like your Charlie scene but generally the idea, not the character, is dominant. How do I give that basic idea and scene a plot, characters, and events?

    Thanks for doing this for us!

  35. Justine on #

    Natalie: The answer to your question on incorporating backstory is here.

  36. Taylor Hicklen on #

    [Justine: Your answer's here.]

    I know rewrites and edits are a good thing, but is there a point where you shouldn’t tamper with a story anymore?

  37. Justine on #

    AlisonG & Kevin: The answer to your question about plot similarities is here.

  38. Lesley on #

    [Justine: I've responded to your question here.]

    Hi Justine,

    Thanks so much for answering our questions and for offering such helpful information.

    My question is about the first chapter. I have no problems getting started with a story, and much like you said, I just start without worrying what it sounds like. I don’t try to make it perfect because I know that for me, that is what rewrites and editing are for.

    My problem is the revised first chapter. I’ve written two novels and am about to submit my second novel to agents. I have edited the entire manuscript and think it is ready for submission, but the opening lines, first chapter, etc. are holding me back. I read agent blogs, and so many of them discuss the importance of a great first line, paragraph, etc. Many say they only look at the first two pages, and this terrifies me. I spend so much time trying to perfect these first few pages that I end up hacking it to death to the point that it’s terrible! Any suggestions on editing/revision for the first chapter of the novel?

  39. Becca on #

    [Justine: My not very useful response to your question is here.]

    You’ve mentioned that Ms. Austen ended Pride and Prejudice too abruptly. I have this problem in my writing, too. When the protag’s problem is solved, I end it. Let it go. I would love to know your suggestions about rounding out a story/book instead of letting it drop off (I may leave readers wondering if there were supposed to be more pages that somehow didn’t get printed). Any great ideas?

  40. Melody on #

    [Justine: My response and much discussion is over here.]

    What do you do if you’re just drained? Not stuck, not blocked–you still know what’s going on, you have ideas, you can still write–but you’re completely energy devoid, whether it’s because you’ve been immensely productive or because the outside world has just been piling up obligations. Do you just power on through, or do you step back and take a bit of a break, let yourself recharge?

  41. Monica on #

    [Justine: My response to the first part of your question is here. And my response to your second is here.]

    Thanks again for answering all these questions!

    You’ve talked a lot about research and reading other writers to learn from them. How do you go about researching a novel? Do you research before a first draft, after, or while you are writing it? I also have a hard time reading other novels without getting drawn and forgetting to analyze and learn from them. Any tips?

  42. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    [Justine: My response to your query is here. Sorry it took me so long to finally do this one for you.]

    I just discovered you were doing a series of writing questions this month. That is so awesome! Thank you for taking the time and energy to do this. Several of your posts already have rung bells for me, and the whole series is much appreciated. (((hugs for Justine)))

    And I do have a question, too. A while back, you mentioned something about writing out scenes from books you liked in order to try and figure out how they worked and why. It was only mentioned in passing, and you were going to expound on it but never got the chance. (Of course, now I can’t find that post to save me life, and am wondering if I haven’t gone a bit crazy…) I’d like to know more about that exercise.

    ~Mary

  43. Epiphany Renee on #

    [Justine: My answer to your quesssies is here.]

    I don’t know if these questions qualify for this month but I am very interested in your thoughts. They are while writing questions as opposed to how-to writing questions-
    What is a good job to have to fund my writing career?
    Do you know of any job that will pay me a living wage to read books?
    What is a good major in College, especially for an aspiring writer? (I know you are opposed to Creative Writing as a major, but what do you think is a good one?)

    Thank you so much for considering my questions.

  44. Q on #

    [Justine: I respond to your question here.]

    How do you know when a manuscript is ready to share?

    (I apologize if this has been asked already.)

  45. Jenn S. on #

    [Justine: My answer to your quessie is here.]

    In one of your recent posts, you said, “There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.” I was wondering if you could expand on that briefly.

    I’ve got a protagonist who I really like, but I keep wondering if I can write her realistically because I have less life experience than she does. I’m 24; she’s 38. I’m single; she’s been married and has kids. I’d freak at the sight of a zombie; she, an experienced mercenary, would immediately hack it to bits—etc. I would love to write her story, but how do I know whether to try it now or to wait a few years until I have more life experience?

  46. Justine on #

    Michelle & Kt: My response to your questions about copyright is here.

  47. Justine on #

    Rachel: My response to your question about what to do when you only have the idea of the scene but not characters etc. is here.

    Lesley: I’ve answered your question about first chapters here.

  48. Glenn on #

    [Justine: My answer to your quessie is here.]

    Hello Justine,

    I only found your blog for the first time earlier this month and have been devouring it ever since!

    I hope I’m not too late with my question, but what I am very interested to know is your thoughts on present v’s past tense for a story. Basically when I first started writing a few years ago I confused the aspect of “active voice” with present tense (oops). So from bad habit ingrained in me since then means I typically write in the present tense thinking I am making the story more immediate, intimate, etc. Buuut I don’t seem do it very well AND I have received comments that maybe past tense would be a better way for me to write even for stories that are happening “now” as opposed to recounting past/historical events.

    Thank you again for the great blog too.

  49. Justine on #

    Becca: My response to your question about endings is here.

  50. Rachael on #

    [Justine: My, well, many other writers' responses to your question is here.]

    Hi Justine,

    I was hoping you might talk a little bit about pacing. What are your thoughts on it? What kind of methods do you have for making sure things move at a proper pace; how do you tell if it’s too slow or too fast at certain points? Whatever you can tell me about this subject would help. Also, if you feel like passing this around to any of your other writer friends who blog (or if you know of anyone who has already blogged about this), I’d be curious to hear their answers, too.

    Thanks so much!

  51. Justine on #

    Melody: My answer to your question about what to do when you’re knackered is here.

    Monica: My response to your question about research is here.

  52. Justine on #

    Monica & Mary Elizabeth: My answer to your questions about learning from other people’s writing is here.

  53. Kim on #

    [Justine: Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated! My not very useful response to your question is here but it does lead to Sherwood Smith's blog where she responded much more usefully.]

    I’m a regular reader of this wonderful blog, although I’ve just lurked shyly for years, never submitting a question or comment until this wonderful post!! I’ve been out of the country and away from my computer for several weeks and so sad that I didn’t get a chance to post this question sooner. I personally have never seen an answer to this specific writing question anywhere, and I just have to imagine it’s the turning point where aspiring writers either finish something, or don’t. Hoping you can help all writer-kind with your answer, or point us in helpful directions!

    Here’s my desperate, de-lurked question: how do you organize all the jumbles of idea generating, plot generating, character generating, and so on, in order to see what you have, so you can then take it and put it all together somehow? In my example, I have a 100 page document focused on one story (one novel) only. It has snippets of scenes, plot ideas, potential background for characters, what ifs and opposing what ifs, outlines and ideas for character’s backgrounds, and so on and so forth. Again, it’s specifically focused on one novel and one story idea, but it also includes multiple options for that novel and story idea etc. I’m finding that I can’t move forward with structuring this story without knowing what I even have, i.e. being able to SEE it so that I can make CHOICES about all of the above. I have never quite seen this problem addressed anywhere. I’ve seen info. on generating plot and characters, generating ideas, how to outline, how to write a synopsis etc., but no one tells you what to do with the disorganized mess you create when you’ve done all of the above. How do YOU do it? And have you heard of genius ways others have done it? How do you take your idea-generating mess and turn it into something cohesive to work from?

    Thank you!! And thank you muchly for your wonderful, helpful blog. We appreciate it, even if you don’t “see” all of us or know the many very devoted, but shy, lurking regulars. :)

  54. Kate L on #

    [Justine: My answer to yours, the final quessie of this month of writing advice is here.]

    I have a writing question that I always have trouble with. A lot of writers have a distinct style or tone. You can pick it up while you’re reading but, for the life of me, I can’t decipher what gives the writing the qualities that seem to ooze out of the sentences. How do you define style and tone? How do you foster it? Heck, how do you even find your own tone in your work in order to foster it? It’s so hard to pick out the nuances that make writing yours in your own work.

  55. Justine on #

    Ephiphany Renee & Q: My responses to your quessies about how to prepare for a writing career and when to relinquish your manuscript are here.

    Jenn S.: My answer to your question about being old enough to write characters who are more mature than you is here.

  56. Justine on #

    Glenn: I’ve answered your question on past versus present tense here.

    Rachael: I’ve, or rather, my friends have responded to your question about pacing here.

    Kim: I’ve responded to your question about bringing it altogether here. I also link to Sherwood Smith’s much better response.

  57. Justine on #

    Kate L.: My response to your question on voice—the last one of the month—is here.

Comments are closed.