Language Wars

One of the best books I ever read about language is Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene, which was published way back in 1995. It’s a wonderful look at the way people try to regulate language to make it functionally, aesthetically and morally “better” and how insanely outraged and angry they get about it.

There are people who are completely wedded to the Latin-ification of English grammar that began in the 1700s, thus they are wedded to “he” as the universal pronoun, believe that infinitives must not be split, and are deeply in love with the subjunctive mood, which is on its way out in English.1

There are those who are appalled by changes in the spelling and meaning of words. They’re outraged that “alright” is becoming as common a spelling as “all right.”2 They mourn the loss of the distinct meaning of the word “disinterest” etc etc.

There are those still wedded to what their English/MFA teacher taught them in primary school/university. Never use passive voice! Never end or begin a sentence with a conjunction! Avoid adverbs! Use adjectives sparingly!

A large chunk of my university training was in linguistics. I was trained in descriptivist traditions. That is, I was learning how to describe language use not how to police it. We never discussed wrong usage ever. That concept just didn’t exist. I studied how various different groups used language. We looked at language acquisition in small children as well as those learning English for the first time as adults. We looked at the way language changes. How what was once non-standard becomes standard and vice versa. Things like that.

I learned to listen to what people really said and to think about how and why. This is reflected in the novels I write. I use “alright” in dialogue because that’s what I hear many people saying, not “all right.” Particularly younger speakers, which is who most of my characters are. Many of my characters split infinitives, don’t use subjunctive, don’t say “whom” and thus commit what some consider crimes against language. Yes, I have gotten letters to that effect.

It is fascinating how intensely invested people are in language use. Especially writers. Whenever I discuss this with writer friends we don’t get very far because many of them are wedded to one or more of the uses I observe disappearing. Don’t defend the “alright” spelling in front of John Scalzi, for instance. I get that passion. I’m sad about “disinterest” losing its specific meaning too. But not that sad. There are other ways to say the same thing, which don’t confuse as many people. Sadly, they’re usually longer and less elegant.

I’m as invested as they are in my understanding of how language works and how it is deployed, which is why I get into so many heated discussions with my writer friends and protracted battles with editors, coypeditors and proofreaders, who are almost all prescriptivist. Like Geoffrey Pullum, I think The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is an amusing but insane set of self-contradicting rules: if you try to match rule with examples your head will explode. But I know people who find Strunk & White useful and have learned to write clearly from it.

English is a contradictory sprawling mess. Any attempt to map it out with a set of rules is doomed to self-contradiction and insanity. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is as bad as Strunk & White. But has also been useful to many floundering in the mess that is English. Even attempts to merely describe the language are doomed. It’s too big, too unwieldy and growing too fast.

That’s part of why the English language makes me so happy.3 I can’t spell it very well, according to many I abuse its grammar rules, but English lets me break it open, pull out new words, mash up old ones. I get to play with how it looks and sounds and feels.

Like those who stand tall to defend English from the likes of me, I love it.

Just, you know, my love is more fun. 🙂4

  1. Though I will confess that I am using subjunctive a lot in my 1930s novel, whose omni narrator is on the pompous side. []
  2. (For the record, I think “alright” and “all right” are often used as two different words and deploy them thus in my books, giving my copyeditors major headaches. []
  3. Not that I have many points of comparison given that I’ve never been completely fluent in any other language. I had a decent grasp of Kriol when I was very little but that’s long gone. I learned some Bahasa Indonesia in high school and first year uni. Also mostly gone. And then learned Spanish while living there for five months many years ago. My Spanish is also disappearing from lack of use. []
  4. That smiley isn’t going to save me from the haters, is it? []

On Research

In the comments thread on my post about some of the research for Liar Kathleen asked:

Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

I started answering the questions in the comments but it got too long so I have given my answer its own post. Lucky answer gets an upgrade!1

No, there’s no point in writing a book in which I stop researching. In fact, I was up at Central Park again this week checking out a few things for Liar that I’ll now be changing in the first pass pages.2

Especially when I’m writing an historical the research is all the time. As some of you may know my current project is set in the 1930s in New York City. Before I started writing I already knew a fair amount about the place and the period because of earlier research projects. So the first thing I did was to find out if there’d be any new books since I my research was now more a decade old. Then I started reading those new books and articles. At the same time I started writing the novel.

That’s one of the important things I have learned. Never leave the writing until you feel like you’re on top of the research. Because if you’re anything like me you’ll never get there. I’ve been at this for well over a year now and I still don’t feel like I know enough. I’m still finding out cool tidbits. Did you know there was a Little Syria in NYC in the 1920s? I just found that out yesterday. Now I’m wondering if it was still around in the early 1930s. What did it look like?

I used to do the research first and only when I felt like I knew enough did I start writing. But I never felt like I did. So—you guessed it—I didn’t start writing. The only reason I started my PhD thesis was because my scholarship was going to run out. But I learned my lesson: never put off the writing.

I write until I hit a point where I don’t know enough. If it’s a big thing—I’m writing a scene set in a buffet flat in Harlem but I’m not sure what one might have looked like—I’ll stop writing and go back to researching. But if it’s just a small thing I leave a note for myself [what kind of toothpaste? powder?] and continue writing.

Which means I’m always constantly rewriting—going back and filling in the square brackets, as well as changing stuff I’ve guessed wrong, and adding cool new details: Little Syria!3 That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun. And unlike scholarly research I don’t have to footnote everything. Or anything really.

It’s all of the fun with little of the tedium.

Kathleen also asked:

I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

Yes, that feeling is part of any writing gig that involves lots of research. There’s always more to learn. But it’s one of the beauties of fiction. It doesn’t matter if some scientist makes a breakthrough that negates your plot because you’re writing fiction not a peer-review science article. A good story is a good story. Lots of my fave sf is based on outmoded science. Proabably all of it. Doesn’t matter.

All fiction dates in one way or other. But the good fiction outlives its datedness.

  1. Hope it doesn’t go to the answer’s head. []
  2. Typeset pages which have been proof read. I.e. these are the first page that look like the book will finally look. I check to see if I agree with the proof reader’s catches and to fix anything else that needs fixing. []
  3. Which may change the direction of the plot. []

Writing tickets

There’s a very fine line between promoting your books and writing tickets on yourself. It’s a moving line. What one person finds overly self promotery other people think is fine.

For instance, I was once told I had crossed the line because my Livejournal icons were of the front covers of my books. I thought that was nuts. I like the covers of my books. Why can’t I make icons out of them? Too pushy, I was told. It’s like you’re only on Livejournal to get people to buy your books. Someone else told me I shouldn’t mention my books on my blog because it sounds like I just want people to buy them and that’s the only reason I blog. On the other hand someone wrote wanting to know why there are no links to buy my books on this site. When I told them it’s because I think that’s pushy they said I was weird. (A definite possibility.)

I find it icky when authors blog about what voting awards (Hugo, Locus etc) they’re eligible for. To me it reads like they’re asking you to vote from them, which I find tacky. I mentioned this to some friends and they told me I was being crazy. That it is remiss of an author not to do that since the people who vote for these kind of awards often have no clue what’s eligible and like to be reminded. That it’s not about being self-aggrandising; it’s about giving readers information.

All these different takes on what constitutes being too self-promotery has led me to the conclusion that the only way to handle it is to do what you’re comfortable with. I am comfortable with icons of my covers. I am not comfortable blogging about good reviews of my work. (Or bad reviews for that matter.) Or skiting about being shortlisted or winning awards. (Not that it happens very often.) Because I honestly don’t think any of that has much to do with me. Reviews and awards are for readers not authors. I think the most important thing they do is help people find books that might otherwise have been overlooked. For me to engage with them is beside the point. So I no longer do.

I am comfortable (actually I’m ecstatically happy) blogging about the process of researching and writing my books, about the different markets my books have been sold into, the different covers the books get. All that fascinates me. As this is my blog I gets to write about it even if others think that’s too self-promotery.

What’s your take on all of this? I’d love to hear from authors and readers. What do you find too much? Are their authors you wish promoted themselves a bit more?

Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about. It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []

A most excellent research tool

Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.

Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.

I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.

“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.

Win some; lose some.

The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.

Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.

But the OED is an awesome starting point.

So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2

Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .

  1. According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s. []
  2. Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be. []

Thinking time

Jenny Davidson links to a lovely article by David Hajdu where he talks about Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan beside the Hudson river.1 I especially linked this bit where he writes about the thinking that goes into a book. I spend a vast part of my writing time figuring things out in my head, what if-ing, and just randomly musing. It all goes into the books. I adore reading people write about that elusive part of writing:

Since college, I have lived mostly on the Upper West Side, and I’ve done a great deal of work in Riverside Park. By work, I mean not just the labor of making sentences; I mean the different sort of effort involved in reading or listening to music that I want to write about. I had the author photos for my first two books (“Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” and “Positively 4th Street”) taken in Riverside Park, because the books were essentially made there. The park is where I did the musing that can be the most important part of writing.

Working in Riverside Park, one is reminded from time to time of the porous line between musing and daydreaming. My bench of choice faces the river, and I sometimes find the steady, endless rolling of the water lulling me to dreaminess. I like to think of this state as one conducive to epiphany, although it more often leads, in my case, to naps.

All so true. I can’t tell you how many times that wavering state where you’re not asleep but you’re not entirely in the here and now leads to insights and connections and ways to make the book I’m writing so much better.

It’s also very true that the same state can slide straight into sleep. As risks go that’s not a bad one. I quite like sleeping, me.

  1. For the New Yorkers, who are scornful of that description, may I remind you that many of my readers have never been to NYC and have no idea where or what the Upper West Side is. []

Make it the best book you can

There’s a certain misery in the air right now. I’m reading it on other writer’s blogs. I’m feeling it myself. Seeing it in tweets. Hearing it in late night conversations in bars. It’s kind of everywhere. So many writers I know, or who I follow on line, or in interviews, are grappling with their own self worth as writers. If I’m not selling am I still a writer? If I can’t get published am I still a writer? If my contract got cancelled am I still a writer? If my next book doesn’t do as well as my last book am I still a writer? If I don’t win awards am I still a writer? If reviewers hate my books am I still a writer?

I myself have thwacked a few writer friends with pep talks in the last few weeks.

Actually, it’s just the one pep talk and it goes like this:

You can only control the book you write.

You can’t control whether you sell it. You can’t control how big the advance is if you sell it. You can’t control how much is spent promoting it. You can’t control how many copies Barnes & Noble takes or whether they take it at all. You can’t control whether punters buy it when it finally appears on the shelves. You can’t control the reviews. You can’t control the award committees.

Spending time and energy angsting about any of that stuff will only do your head in.

All you can do is write the very best book you can.

It will get published or it won’t. It will find its market or it won’t. It will sell or it won’t. It will win awards or it won’t. None of that matters if you’ve written the best book you can.

Books with huge advances and the biggest marketing and publicity budget in the world sink like a stone. Books with nary a sheckle spent on them take off out of nowhere. Books you think are terrible do great; books you worship sell fewer than a thousand copies. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Do not let it do your head in.

Because if you believe that your worth as a writer is tied up in how well your books do even success won’t help. Do not be gloating that your book is doing better than so and so’s. That you can write full-time while they need a day job. Tables turns. So what if your current book is the hugest hit ever? What happens if the book after that isn’t? What happens if your biggest success is already behind you? Does that mean you’re not a real writer? That you’re a failure?

Elizabeth Gilbert touches on all these issues in her recent wonderful talk on genius and creativity. If you haven’t already, you really must check it out for she argues that you cannot let your sense of self get tied up in how your books do and also that it’s a pernicious myth that a creative person must be insane or damaged or both and that ultimately your art will destroy you.

It dovetails neatly with my thinking of late. Because I’ve been wondering if all the angsting that I and so many other writers do is fueled by a belief in those myths. Do we angst because we think we should? Because that’s what we’ve learned writers do? Deep in our subconscious do we believe that we’re not a real writer if we’re not suffering?

I believed it growing up. When I was young I obsessively read and re-read Katinka Matson’s Short lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self-destruction and the work of all the writers included in that book. I honestly thought that in order to be creative I would have to suffer and be self-destructive.

It bewildered me that any time actual bad things happened I found myself unable to write. I was not inspired by them, I was devastated. I have always written more prolifically and better when I’m happy. Later, much later, I could make sense of the bad things, but never at the time. Conversely I am always much happier when I’m writing a lot. When the writing is going well I’m way happier than any award or review or book sales have ever made me.

I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success. How To Ditch Your Fairy was the easiest and most fun book to write, thus far it’s been my most successful. Despite my struggles on the rewrite of the liar book it’s still been a much easier and more fun book to write than Magic’s Child, which was (other than my PhD thesis) my most unhappy writing experience. Rewriting the liar book’s been hard, but it’s also mostly been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes I’d really like not to be in the narrator’s head, cause, well, she’s a compulsive liar, but the tricky structure has been an excellently brain stretching experience. I’ve learned so much writing the book; I think I’m a better writer because of it. That’s very happy making.

If the liar book does well in the real world that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, I still know it’s the best book I could possibly make it.

I will admit that I have talked about writing the liar book as though I were suffering. Because I kind of thought I should be. Which is nuts.

The myth of the suffering artist is very pervasive.

But Liz Gilbert is right: it’s a stupid myth. We should forget about it. Write because you love it. Write because it’s your job. Write to produce the best books you can and to be happy with them. No matter what happens after they’re out of your control you will know that you made them as good as you knew how.

That’s the part of being a writer that is in our own hands; that’s the part that truly matters.

Juvenilia panel

As many of you know the first-ever NYC Teen Author Festival (March 16-22, 2009) starts in two days. There are many fabulous, wonderful events. Make sure you check out the full schedule over here. But as far as I’m concerned there’s only one event that’s unmissable:

You really need to hear just how bad our writing once was. But here’s what John Scalzi had to say after moderating our last juvenilia panel:

    “I was hitting my head on the table to stop the pain.”

How could you miss such an event? Don’t you want to heckle the badness? Laugh until you cry? Vote on who is the worst writer of all?

It really is worth ducking out of work early, skipping basketball/band practice, or whatever other thing that’s currently getting in your way. You know you want to mock us. You know you want to see how very very bad writing can be.

See all you New Yorkers Monday at 4PM in Tompkins Square Park Library!

P.S. I’m especially looking forward to Alaya’s contribution which was even stored in a purple folder.

Where to get your work critiqued

Several people have written asking if it’s not kosher to ask pros for help where can they get their work critiqued?

That’s a very good question with many answers.

For most of my years of being unpublished almost no one saw my work.1 Thus I did not improve much. But in the five or so years before publication I started swapping my work with other unpublished writer friends.2 What a difference having a few readers makes!

I was lucky enough to live in big enough cities that finding other beginning writers wasn’t too hard. (Sydney and NYC.) But I know many of you are more isolated than that. Or you’re too shy to admit that you want to be a published writer.3 For you I recommend online critique groups. Personally, I have never tried them because back when I was starting out they didn’t exist. But I know many people who’ve had great experiences with them. The Critters workshop for science fiction & fantasy is one I’ve heard good things about.

Anyone want to share their online critting experiences and/or recommend some good online worshops?

I also know many people whose writing lives have been dramatically changed by going to real life intensive workshops such as Clarion (also for sf & f) which operates in Australia and the US of A. Does anyone have other real life workshops to recommend?

Of course, something like Clarion lasts six weeks and isn’t free. Many people can’t afford that amount of time or money so it’s not going to be possible for everyone. Fortunately most online workshops are free.

And remember that crit groups and workshops don’t work for everyone and that they’re not all created equal. Just as some critique partners will work great for you and others won’t, and that may also vary from story to story.

Please chime in with any other suggestions and recommendations.


  1. For those who don’t know it took me twenty years to get published. []
  2. Here’s the story of how I wrote my first novel thanks to my wonderful critique partner Johanne Knowles. []
  3. It took me years to admit it to any but my closest friends and family. []

No, I won’t read your story (updated)

One of the hardest things I have to do is say no to the folks who write and ask me to read and comment on their work. In the last two weeks I’ve had five such requests. All for novels.

In the last week I finished reading exactly 0 novels. Let me repeat that: in the last week I finished reading no novels. Not a single one. Actually, it’s worse than that I haven’t finished a novel since January and it was a book I was asked to blurb.1

I get asked to read quite a few books every year. There’s the blurb books. Given that my career has been helped by other writers blurbing me, I always say yes to these requests. Yes, that is to reading the book. I won’t blurb a book unless I love it.

Then there’s all the novels I critique for friends. Right now I have six early draft novels on my hard drive. One of which I’ve had for seven months now. They are all wonderful writers whose work I adore reading. Not to mention that I owe them as they’ve all critiqued my own work. Yet here I sit with six unread mss, one unread blurb book, and dozens of unread 1930s novels.

Critiquing a novel requires a brain firing on all cylinders and lots of time.2 In its own way I find it every bit as challenging as writing. Given that I earn my living from writing, my own stuff gets top priority. At the end of the day if I have anything left over I start critiquing one of the backlog of novels. Though when a friend’s having a real emergency I’ll drop everything to critique for them. They’ve done the same for me often enough.

But lately I haven’t had anything left over. Rewriting the Liar novel has been the most challenging writing of my career.3 The research and writing of the 1930s novel takes up the rest of my time. Who knew trying to understand the Great Depression would be so hard? I guess my extremely sketchy knowledge of Economics has been a wee bit of a handicap.

And I have a life outside writing and reading. I know it sounds strange but sometime I go outside and, you know, do things. Often I do them with my friends and family. Also I cook, I clean, I buy groceries and pay bills. Life stuff.

That is why I say no to all outside critique requests. I simply don’t have the time or the energy. It’s also why there are so many posts about the writing process on this blog. I may not be able to help you directly, but maybe I can help indirectly.

Good luck with your writing!

Update: For those of you who’ve been asking how to go about getting critiqued I’ve written a few suggestions. Hopefully, there’ll be more in the comments thread as well.

  1. That is not usual. I’m a three-novels a week kind of a girl. But lately the majority of my reading has been non-fiction. This is what happens when you take on an historical project. []
  2. Depending on the length, it takes me a solid ten or more hours to read and critique a novel. []
  3. I took on an unreliable narrator and the unreliable narrator is kicking my arse. Mental note: never write an unreliable narrator EVER AGAIN. []

Questions I have been asked lately

These questions come from my email and from this blog. Cause I’m short on time I thought I’d just answer ’em all here:

Q: Don’t you think it’s wrong that Stephen King attacked Stephenie Meyer?

A: No, I don’t. I also don’t think he attacked her. Writers are allowed to not like other writers’ books. We’re even allowed to say so out loud. Saying you don’t think much of someone’s writing or their books is not an attack on them. Writers are not their books.

The only reason I don’t blog my opinion of books by living people is because I am a coward. Why I even got into trouble for admitting my hatred of Moby Dick and of a certain famous detective series. It’s not even safe to hate books by dead people!

Writers are crazy. And fans of writers are almost as lunatic. Truly. See what happens if you say anything against Angela Carter on my blog. Hint: I WILL KILL YOU DEAD.

Since I know just how bad we writers and fans are I do not engage. But I do not object to others’ bravery in doing so.

Sash asked: Sorry if you’ve already answered this somewhere, but are there any Brisbane appearances coming up??

A: No, there are no Brisbane events for me. You can find all my confirmed appearances here. I update it as soon as an event is confirmed. And I always announce any new appearances here on the blog.

I don’t choose where I go. All my appearances in Australia are organised by my wonderful publisher here, Allen & Unwin. My appearances in the US are organised by Bloomsbury. If you want me to appear in your town or city you need to bug them. Go to their websites and find the contact email address for publicity. Then write and tell them why you think I should go to your neck of the woods.

Q: I’m a published YA writer but many of my friends are literary writers and they sneer at me for writing YA. How can I get them to read my books and realise that YA is not crap?

A: You can’t. Just give up now. Nothing you can do or say will change their minds. Unless you start publishing capital L Literachure and win the Booker. And even then they’ll think it’s a fluke cause you’re really a YA writer. Or they’ll be impressed and congratulate you for finally having grown up as a writer.

What you really need is new friends. Preferably ones who read and write YA.

Jessica asked: “…the Australian press sometimes has a strange habit of always being about 15 years behind everyone else when it comes to realising that things like children’s books, graphic novels or genre fiction might actually have some validity or even readers.” I was curious about the Australian publishing industry in general. And since sometimes you talk about it (or Australian authors), I thought you’d be a good person to ask!

A: I guess my response would be: show me a mainstream press anywhere in the English-speaking world that’s realised that children’s books, graphic novels and genre fiction are important. The mainstream coverage of those areas is pretty woeful everywhere. I don’t think Australia’s any worse than the US or the UK. It’s just smaller and thus has less press so it probably looks from the outside like there’s less coverage. Thanks to Jason Nahrung The Courier Mail in Brisbane is especially good on covering all those areas.

Q: Are those birds on your blog real?

A: Yes.

Q: Whereabouts in Surry Hills are your new digs?

A: In the good part of Surry Hills where all the rainbow lorikeets are.

Ally asked: How easily are they [rainbow lorikeets] scared? (Like are they used to people)

A: They’re pretty used to people and being handfed. I don’t because there are signs all over the Botanical Gardens explaining why that’s a very bad idea.

Kelsey M. asked: Are you thinking of making the books [Magic or Madness trilogy] into movies?

A: Typically, writers do not make their own books into movies. I don’t know anything about how to make movies so I leave it to the experts. If a movie maker wanted to make my books into movies they’d have to negotiate with my agent for the right to do so. Currently no movie maker has been given the right to make a movie of the trilogy.

Q: From your blog it sounds like you’d prefer to stay in Australia and never go back to America. Is that true?

A: I cannot answer that question on the grounds that it will make my USian friends upset with me. Er, I mean, of course not. I am very lucky that I get to spend so much time in two such wonderful countries.

Q: Why aren’t you going on the Irish castle retreat with all those other YA writers. I thought some of them were your friends?

: Many of them are indeed friends of mine. I’m not going because I’ve heard the food in Ireland is really bad and that the castles are cold and damp. I fear that my friends will get pneumonia and die. If they haven’t already been killed by scurvy from eating nothing but potatoes.

No, I’m not jealous. Why would you suggest that? I’m sure they meant to invite me. The email probably got lost or something . . .

Turning points

Ages ago John Scalzi wrote about being sacked ten years ago and how it changed his life. It ties in (somewhat) with with what I have tried to say about luck, which also has a lot to do with writing novels.

Stay with me. It will all become clear.

Scalzi was telling a story about his life. He was shaping an event into a story and considering how that story might have been different if he had gone a different way. That’s how many of us write novels. As a long story with one or two (or many) turning points. What would happen if your character killed the bully tormenting her? What would happen if she didn’t? What would happen if she turned him into a toad? What would happen if she did that but had no idea she was capable of it until it happened?

Or it could be something really small in a butterfly-flapping-its-wings way. She gets a bindi in her foot and in pausing to take it out sees something she wasn’t supposed to see . . .

My big turning point was deciding which PhD topic to pursue. Doesn’t sound very earth shattering, does it? As I wrote here, it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to write about:

Depending on the time of day or what I had just read, my thesis was going to be about the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities in Australia; the short stories of Isak Dinesen or Angela Carter or Tanith Lee or Kate Chopin or maybe Flannery O’Conner; or possibly on the use of nightmares in horror films.

I wound up writing about the USian science fiction community (despite not being especially interested in sf), which led to doing research in the US of A. I’m not sure I would have visited the US of A if it wasn’t for my research and if I had I certainly wouldn’t have been hanging out with science fiction fans, writers, editors, and publishers. Now I live in the US half the year and am published there. I’m not sure that would have happened if not for my decision to not write about Elvis.1

If I were writing a novel about me2, I would definitely signal in some way that the PhD topic was a big decision. Indeed, when I tell my story, I talk about it like it was a huge moment. But at the time it really wasn’t. It was more of a oh-crap-I-don’t-know-it-all-looks-cool-oh-you-mean-there’s-a-useful-collection-full-of-primary-resources-here-and-I-could-get-going-straight-away kind of thing.

I’m sure many people have no idea what the turning points are until they look back at them. And depending on what happens to them after a particular turning point they may, in fact, decide on a different turning point when they tell their life story. I could have decided that it wasn’t the thesis topic choice that was the big moment, but getting the extra grant money that allowed me to travel to North America, or meeting the bookseller, Justin Ackroyd, who convinced me that I really needed to go to a real life science fiction convention, rather than just read about them. Or—actually there are dozens of other turning point candidates.

When you’re telling a story, whether it’s the story of your life, or someone’s else’s (imaginary or real) part of what you’re doing is highlighting particular moments and casting them as turning points whether or not your protag is aware of it. Turning points are a useful way of thinking about the structure of your book. As they are for thinking about the structure of your life.

  1. But maybe my life would’ve been even better if I’d written about Elvis. Who knows? []
  2. Which I wouldn’t, ’cause BORING. []

JWAM reader request no. 27: Voice

Kate L Says:

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.

This is another one that’s too hard for me to answer. For starters, there are people who say that I do not have a distinctive voice that’s instantly recognisable across my fiction. I’ve had people tell me that they find it hard to believe that the same person who wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy also wrote How To Ditch Your Fairy. Those who’ve also read the Liar book say it even more vociferously.1 So as I do not have a clear voice except when writing this blog I clearly don’t know how to acquire such a voice.

Fortunately my friend Diana Peterfreund can answer. I wrote to her in a panic because I did not know what to say. And she responded thus:

    Fear not, my dear! This is a favorite topic among romance writers!

    Some helpful articles: ***especially this one!***

    Like Julie, I believe that a writer’s voice is something that develops over time, through the process of putting words on the page, over and over. She writes that it’s one of the hardest aspects to define, because it is so different depending on how it manifests. With one writer it could be the way they choose to put sentences together, or their propensity for wacko similes (or avoiding them like the plague, as they always come out cliched “like the plague”), or the fact that they write super short chapters, or that they always write XYZ kind of characters. It’s what makes you love one writer’s historical romance but not care very much for her contemporary thrillers. Or vice versa.

    Like that famous quote about pornography, you know it when you see it. But that doesn’t mean you can define it.

    You also know it when you feel it—or more likely, when you fail to. There are all kinds of books I can’t finish, though their subject matter/genre/plot/characters/style seem as if they’d be right up my alley—and it’s because I don’t like the voice.

    So, enough about defining another writer’s voice. How to go about fostering your own is actually an easier question. Write. Lots. Write about what you love, what you’re driven to write about. Pick out the parts of your writing that you love the most, the parts that readers have reacted to the strongest. Those are likely the parts where your voice shines through. Your voice comes as you develop as a writer.

    I’m not going to get into the argument about writer’s “adopting” voices, where you see a writer coming out with one set of book in a particular style, and then really changing it up and having a whole other kind of book—E Lockhart or you, Justine, with the departure of the Liar book.2 I also do think that some writers prematurely limit themselves in terms of what they can do because they decide, a priori, that their voice is such-and-such and so they have to write that. I think that’s a modern marketing thing, or a branding thing. Who knows? It’s very common these days for a unpublished writer with one or two manuscripts under their belt to take some “brand development” workshop and go, oh, I write sexy category romances! (That’s what I would have come up with had I taken one of those workshops with two books under my belt. And, as we can see, not the case.) I find it baffling. What if Jessica Bird, with her established career in family-oriented category romances, had called that for herself, had not said, oh, you know what? I’m going to go out and write a bunch of hot, homoerotically charged, urban-speak large worldbuilding paranormal romances that are markedly different than my previous novels. There’d be no JR Ward.

    I do think that a commercial writer needs to recognize their strengths, in style, tone, voice, plot, genre, etc. and head in the direction of what works. However, at the same time, challenging yourself can also produce great rewards. And, it’s important to note that as you write more and gain confidence in yourself as a writer (like we were talking about last night, in terms of “can we write this project, are we there yet in terms of skill?”) that the voice will emerge/develop to tackle it.

    The answer is: write a lot. Write a lot, and as you gain more confidence in yourself as a writer, your voice will emerge.


What she said.

As you can tell from the above, Diana and I talk about writing A LOT. We share snippets of our work in progress, brainstorm ideas, talk about what worries us—action scenes (me, not Diana), what make us happy—killer uni**rns, (both of us).

Part of what I’ve been trying to do this month is open up the kind of writing conversations I have with my writer friends to the readers of this blog. Talking about writing is part of the process of becoming a better writer. Obviously, nothing beats actually, you know, writing. But I’ve gotten lots of insights over the years talking with other writers. Thank you, Diana, and every other writer who’s shared the delicous moments of talking shop over the years. From way back when I was a teen writer to the present day. I’m a better writer because of you all.3

This is the last post of the writing advice series. That was more work than I thought it would be. *Collapses in heap* In the end I wrote more than twenty thousand words on writing . . .


Wow. That’s more than I wrote of the 1930s novel this month. Scary.

I’m so pleased that some of you found it helpful. It’s been a lot of fun for me even though you kept asking HARD quessies that forced me to actually THINK. Damn your eyes! Thank you for pushing me. I’ve probably definitely learnt more from your questions than you have from my answers.

Never forget that much of what I’ve said will be completely wrong for some of you. The only subjects I’m always right about are cricket and Elvis.

I’ll continue to answer any questions you care to ask on any subject. But not every single day.

As you were.

  1. Get it? Voc=voice thus voice-iferously. Oh, never mind. []
  2. No comment. []
  3. And a more excellent procrastinator. That’s Diana’s fault. And Scalzi’s and Doselle Young’s and, um, er, possibly my own fault. Let us never speak of it again. []

JWAM reader request no. 26: Bringing it altogether

Kim says:

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?

Eep. Wow, what a question. I suspect I’m not the right person to answer this because I don’t write this way and never have. If there are any writers who do, please speak up in the comments. I would love to hear different takes on this question and I’m sure Kim would too.

With that in mind, Kim, and taking everything that follows with a truckload of salt, my first thought was Scrivener, which is a software package for writers that allows you to bring all your novel materials together so you can see them all and get on with your writing. Here’s my post on Scrivener and why I find it so useful.1

WARNING: Scrivener is only for Macs, but there is similar software for PCs. (If you go here and scroll down you’ll find a list of such software.)

You’re drowning in too much stuff, what this software will allow you to do is immediately separate out your background material from the actual matter of your novel. I would put everything that isn’t actual scenes into research or some other folder. You need to get all your meta-material cleared away from your actual book. You especially need to clear away anything that isn’t directly related to the book your writing.

The important thing is that you find some way to get an overview of your novel so that you’re able to see the forest and not get lost looking at the trees, or worse, the bark and the leaves, or, worse still, the veins of the leaves, and the insects living under the bark, and the parasites dwelling in those insectes and, well, you get the idea. You need a global view too!

I used to advocate the use of a spreadsheet. But no longer use it because of Scrivener.

Sherwood Smith, who is a wonderful writer and very thoughtful and smart about it also has a response to your question over on her blog. Several of her readers have chimed in.

I hope some other writers will chime in here with helpful suggestions.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Note for Mitch Wagner: I will write more about how Scrivener changed my writing, but as it’s so tied up with how I wrote the liar novel, I thought I’d save it for closer to that book’s release date. []

JWAM reader request no. 25: Pacing

Rachael Says:

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.

I don’t think much about pacing until I have a finished draft. Then it becomes all I think about. No doubt about it pacing is hard. And you will never satisfy everyone. I’ve had quite a few people tell me—especially teenagers—that they found the beginning of Magic or Madness and How To Ditch Your Fairy boring, but that once they got into they were fine. I’ve also had some folks complain—all adults—that both those books move too fast and they do so at the expense of depth and literary worth. Whatcha gonna do?

As instructed I asked around my writer buddies and here’s what they came up with. Listed in the order that I received them:

    Cory Doctorow: Things get worse on every page = reason to turn the page.

    E. Lockhart: I am always trying to fix the pacing issues created by my philosophy of “just write it stupidly the first time and fix it later.”

    Robin Wasserman: I’m horrible at pacing—my editor used to tease me that my first drafts always have about thirty chapters of nothing, then two really ACTION PACKED chapters of CHAOS, then boom, THE END. It’s vaguely embarrassing. For me, I’ve found the best ways around this are outlining (I outline before I start writing, but I think it would be equally, maybe even more helpful to outline your first draft once it’s finished, so you can see very clearly the dead zones where nothing happens). I also outline other books that I feel are structurally similar to my own, and try to figure out how the authors move around their characters, where and when the action scenes fall, etc. I still suck at this, but I’m working on it.

    Sherwood Smith: The old structure of action-reaction is a good rubric. If reaction starts stretching out too long, especially when reaction turns into the character(s) planning the next action—which requires some new information, may as well insert it here–I sense the pacing slowing, slowing, slowing. Reaction and planning scenes need to have the motivation (with its attendant emotion) right up front. When the emotional logic is as convincing as the physical logic then the pacing ramps up correspondingly. I think.

    Ellen Kushner: Pacing is entirely subjective. Just the way an hour spent talking with an old friend can feel like a minute, while ten minutes in the dentist’s chair can feel like ten lifetimes, so good pacing is about whether the reader is having a nice time or not. How that time is spent almost doesn’t count as long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind that needs to be answered. It can be immensely trivial-seeming (“Will she accept the party invitation?”) or huge (“Will they get the serum to the town in time to save her life?”) or personal (“Why on earth did the hero insult her when she seems so nice?”) . . . as long as there’s something I want to know, I’ll keep going. You, the writer, get to decide what it will be.

    Ursula Dubosarsky: I remember an eleven year old boy in a workshop, when I asked what sort of problems they had writing stories, saying: “How do I make my story last longer? Like, I wrote this story about a boy climbing up to the top of the volcano and then he fell in and that was the end.”

    Makes you feel like an agony aunt, that sort of question. How to delay the obvious gratification of having your hero fall headlong into a volcano…perhaps he stops on the way and has a sandwich? looks at a flower? remembers his last meeting with his aging grandmother? Only after all that your readers may well toss it aside . . .

    Pace is very fascinating. I think it’s all about experimenting. When I write there’s a lot of coming and going, trying this and that and seeing how it reads—like balancing hundreds of different sized bricks on a scale—until you feel it’s just about right and then you tiptoe away very quietly…(Crash!)

    Margo Lanagan: I think this one’s really a practice thing—reading a lot of differently paced stories, particularly ones that change pace internally, so that you get a feel for the kinds of details that get left out/included in order to speed up/slow down the telling. Where do authors make the cuts (e.g. how is a hot-pursuit scene put together)? Where do they start letting their characters pause and look around and register the smell of the roses/drains (e.g. when the character is home free/dying/waiting for the next burst of activity)?

    How do you know when a scene is moving too slow or too fast? You just know, from experience. Too fast, and you get confused (sometimes you have to ask someone else to tell you whereabouts they get confused); too slow and you find yourself thinking about shopping lists, or yawning, or not caring what happens to this dreary character in his overdescribed cave that has nothing to do with the plot. There is no quick recipe; you just develop a feeling for pacing by experiencing lots of examples of good and bad pacing.

    Diana Peterfreund: 1. “Get in late, get out early.” That means start the scene at the latest possible moment you can and end before it gets boring. Try to end on a “hook” too—keeps things moving.

    2. Elmore Leonard said “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Good advice. That means no scenes of hair brushing, unless it’s important to the plot (the only time I can think of is in The Snow Queen.) You can also skip the scenes of people going from one place to another, most times. Just put in a scene break and then put ’em there.

    3. If things are getting slow, throw in an explosion. That’ll hold ’em.

    Melina Marchetta: Pacing’s hard. If I’m writing an action packed scene, like one of the fight or chase scenes in Finnikin, I use continous verbs (-ing words—flying, thumping, connecting, roaring etc) and I tend not to use punctuation, soo it seems as if the chase or fight is neverending.

    Scott Westerfeld: Pacing is like a monkey on fire: you either have one or you don’t.

Wow. How cool is it seeing those different takes side by side? I wish I’d written all these writing posts like this. So much less work!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 24: Past tense versus present

Glenn says:

I hope I’m not too late with my question, but what I am very interested to know is your thoughts on present versus 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.

Excellent question and one I was unclear about until scarily recently.

Past tense is the default storytelling tense. I’ve heard lots of people say they can’t stand reading stories in present tense. They find it pretentious and annoying. I suspect that’s because it’s associated with Modernism, with writers like Gertrude Stein, and thus with capital-L Literachure.

Samuel R. Delany argues that it’s because the natural present tense in spoken English is not present tense, but present progressive. No one says, “I sit there, minding my own business”. They say, “I’m sitting there, minding my own business”. Which is probably the major contributing factor to present tense feeling so very literary. People really don’t talk like that. On the other hand, Damon Runyon deployed present progressive and he’s never been accused of directly replicating everyday speech. (I adore Runyon.)

Scott says that what he likes best about present tense is that you don’t have to use the pluperfect when you do flashbacks, you can use the simple past. Sure some people hate it, but some people hate books written in first person or omniscient point of view. They’re clearly crazy.

I like present tense fine. As with any other writing technique when done well it’s a marvel; when done badly it’s a nightmare. It sounds like you’re worried that you’re not doing it well. This could be as much because of you inexperience with writing, as because of present tense. That said, it’s a really good idea to try changing the tense of stories that aren’t working. I’ve switched from past to present and found a story suddenly has legs, and vice versa. My first novel, Magic or Madness didn’t work for me until I switched from third person for the main protag to first person.

Though sometimes no amount of changes will make a broken story work. But no worries there are plenty of other stories to write and experiment with. When you’re not on a deadline you’ve got all the time in the world.

You’re right, present tense can be much more immediate and intimate. I use it for parts of my next novel for precisely that reason. It makes it seem like my extremely unreliable narrator is talking to you right this very minute. She’s up close and personal how could you possibly believe she’s lying to you? She’s said she’s stopped that stuff. You believe her, right? How could you not? She’s right here! Right now!

Hope that helps and I hesitate to say it cause I’ve thrashed it to death this month, but, well, good luck.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no 23: Are you old enough?

Jenn S. says:

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?

You may not have enough life experience, but you should write her anyway.

One of the things I like best about writing is being able to create characters who are nothing like me. I’m long past high school age; but many of my characters are teenagers.1 I have no magical powers or fairies; Reason, Tom, Jay-Tee (MorM trilogy) and Charlie and many others (HTDYF) are and do. I’m not USian, but Jay-Tee, Danny, and Jason Blake in the trilogy are. I’m white; Reason, Jay-Tee, and Danny in the trilogy aren’t, nor is Charlie or any of the other characters in Fairy. They’re better at many things than I am: maths (Reason—actually, given that I’m innumerate, I suspect all the characters I’ve created are better at maths than me), sport (Charlie), making clothes (Tom) and so on and so forth.

There are readers who weren’t convinced by these characters, who don’t think I got it right. That will happen to you, too. All you can do is your very best and remember that even your best is not going to work for everyone. It won’t always be good enough.

Read memoirs and letters and journals of soldiers who are also mothers. Maybe some googling will find you communities of same. If you approach them respectfully they might even answer some questions for you. Ask women who are older than you and have children to comment on your work. Ideally ask older soldiers who are mums to comment.

Listen to their advice.

But also remember that even people of the same class and race and sex and sexual orientation and religion and profession from the same region can be very different. This is why it’s impossible to get it right for every reader. People are not all the same. Not even zombie-killing mercenary mums.

The more I write and the older I get, the more I know and the better I get at listening, and the more convincing my characters become.2 But you don’t gain writing experience by putting off writing a character you’re not sure you have the skills or knowledge to write. The way you get the skill set is by writing the character.

Your zombie-killing mercenary may be completely unconvincing when you’ve finished the first draft. Ask people what didn’t convince them. Then fix it. Might be that you won’t be able to get it right for many years. Some books take ages to write. Some never work.

In the comment that you quote above I meant to say not only that I couldn’t have written those characters then—didn’t have the writing chops—but also that I wouldn’t have thought of writing them. If that makes any sense. The kind of characters that I wrote as a teen were heavily influenced by what I was reading. They were V. C. Andrews or Raymond Chandler or Tanith Lee or Angela Carter or Isak Dinesen pastiches. Only, you know, MUCH WORSE than you’re imagining. I borrowed my characters from elsewhere, or I modelled them on myself,3 without realising it. I have a bigger range now. At least I hope I do.

Go forth and write your mercenary. What you lack in life experience you can make up with research.

Good luck!4

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. But, you know, I once was a teenager . . . []
  2. At least that’s the theory. []
  3. YAWN! []
  4. I know I’m getting repetitive but, honestly, where would we be without luck? []

JWAM reader request no. 22: Two quick ones

Epiphany Renee says:

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?)

As it happens a while back I asked people to share their suggestions on good jobs for writers.

The only jobs I can think of that involve a great deal of book reading are librarian, editor, agent (and other publishing jobs), journalist, as well as academic. The problem with all of these jobs is that the reading of books is something that you squeeze in around many other work obligations.

Anyone else got any suggestions?

In the post where I spoke strongly against creative writing as your major course of study at uni, I basically argued that any subject is useful to a writer: engineering, rocket science, history, philosophy, biology and so on and so forth. It’s all excellent grist to the mill and you may find a whole new love while studying. I know someone who went to university determined to become a writer. She’s now a microbiologist. A top one in her field and loves it. And, yes, she still writes on the side.

I wrote that post because I’d come across several high schoolers who were under impression that the only way to become a writer was to study creative writing. I was horrified and hence the post.

If you read the comments you’ll find some writers—such as Garth Nix—declaring that they studied writing in uni and it hadn’t gone too badly for them.

You should totally take my advice on these matters1 with a grain of salt. A very big grain.

Q says:

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

I touch on your question a little bit here and a lot more here.

This one’s very personal. How I decide whether an ms. is ready to share (I’m bored, or in need of praise, or I feel like I’m starting to make it worse not better, or it’s due with my editor) may or may not apply to you.

If you’re not letting anyone see what you’ve written despite rewriting it tonnes then you may have a problem. Feedback is very important. Especially for beginner writers.

On the other hand, if you’re letting people see it when it’s incomplete, unrevised and such a mess that not even you can make sense of it, then that’s a problem too.

You’re the one who decides when you’re ready.

Good luck!2

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Any matters, really []
  2. I wish there was a way to bottle luck. Share it around in an equitable manner. Alas there is not. []

JWAM reader request no. 21: Learning from the writing of others

Monica says:

I have a hard time reading other novels without getting drawn in and forgetting to analyze and learn from them. Any tips?

Mary Elizabeth S. says:

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.

Funny you should ask, Monica, because your question overlaps with Mary Elizabeth’s. One of the best ways to avoid getting sucked into the narrative so that you can closely analyse the novel is to retype a chapter or two. This may sound time consuming and laborious but it really works. You’re forced to look at each word, each clause, each sentence and think about why they’re ordered the way they are, and why the author made the choices they did.

I typed out the second chapter of Denise Mina’s Exile because I wanted to figure out why it was so effective. Here’s a snippet:

    Chapter 2: Daniel

    London is a savage city and she didn’t belong there. She might never have been found but for Daniel. She would have disappeared completely, a missing splinter from a shattered family, a half-remembered feature in a pub landscape.

    Daniel was having a good morning. It was a sunny January day and he was on his way to his first shift as barman in a private Chelsea club favoured by footballers and professional celebrities. The traffic was sparse, the lights were going his way and he couldn’t wait to get to work. He slowed at the junction, signalling right to the broad road bordering the river. He took the corner comfortably, using his weight to sway the bike, sliding across the path of traffic held static at the lights. He was about to straighten up when he saw the silver Mini careering towards him on his side of the road, the wheel-trim spitting red sparks as it scraped along the high lip of the pavement. He held his breath, yanked the handlebars left and shot straight across the road, up over the curb, slamming his front wheel into the low river wall at thirty miles and hour. The back wheel flew off the ground, catapulting Daniel into the air just as the Mini passed behind him. He back-flipped the long twenty-foot drop to the river, landing on a small muddy island of riverbank. The tide was out, and of all the urban rubble in the Thames he might have landed on, Daniel found himself on a sludge-soaked mattress.

    He did a quick stock-take of his limbs and faculties and found everything in order. He thanked God, remembered that he didn’t believe in God and took the credit back for himself. Staggered at his skill and reflexive dexterity, he pushed himself upright on the mattress, his left hand sliding a viscous layer off the filthy surface. Gathering the mulch into this cupped hand, he squeezed hard with adrenal vigour. A crowd of concerned passersby were leaning over the sheer wall, shouting frantically down to him. Daniel waved. “Okay,” he shouted. “Don’t worry. Other bloke all right?”

    The pedestrians looked to their left and shouted in the affirmative. Daniel grinned and looked down at his feet. He was sitting on a corpse, the heel of his foot sinking into her thigh.

The opening sentence intrigues me: “London is a savage city and she didn’t belong there.” On my first read I had no idea who this “she” is. It’s only after reading the fourth par that you realise it could be the dead woman. But is it in her pov? Or is it omni? It feels omni to me. A broad look, from above the scene that is about to unfold: “London is a savage city”. And now you, the reader, are going to see some of that savagery.

Yet in the next par we’re in limited third. It’s Daniel’s pov. He’s the one who thinks it’s a good morning, he’s the one who sees the mini careering towards him and makes evasive moves, which land him in the muck of the Thames on top of a dead woman.

Do you notice that Mina doesn’t once write “suddenly” or “at once” or any equivalents? Yet the reader is aware of how rapidly Daniel’s good morning goes to hell. Part of that is achieved with her verb choices. You’ve got your typical descriptive “to be” for most of the first par and the beginning of the second, setting the scene, establishing the goodness of his morning. The first more active verb is “slowed”, but then they ramp up: “signalled”, “took”, “to sway”, “sliding”.

Stuff is happening. Soon they’re happening even more rapidly: the silver Mini and parts are “careering” “spitting” and “scraped”, Daniel reacts: “held”, “yanked”, “shot”, “slamming”. Then there’s “flew”, “catapulting”, “passed”, “back-flipped”, “landed”. “Catapult” and “back-flip” especially are action verbs. Hard to do those slowly.

I find it useful to look closely at who is doing what to whom. In the first par she’s the subject who “didn’t belong” but exists. She’s a “missing splinter from a shattered family, a half-remembered feature in a pub landscape”. (And how vivid are those images? Very.) In the fourth par when she reappears she’s the object: the corpse he’s landed on, the thigh his heel sinks into. She is in bits, not a whole subject.

Let’s look at that first par again. It’s really different from the other two, not just because of the pov switch, but because of the evocative language. The first par sings. It’s poetic and melancholy: London’s “savagery”, “the missing splinter from a shattered family”, a “half-remembered feature from a pub landscape”. Notice how “the missing splinter” lifts “shattered family”, which we’ve seen before, and on its own would verge on cliche. But the “missing splinter” transforms it entirely. I find “a half-remembered feature” and “pub landscape” pretty much perfect. I know exactly what’s meant. I’ve walked through many a pub landscape. Seen the sodden regulars keep themselves upright by leaning against the bar, flopping back into a corner booth, struggling to stay upright on a slippery stool.

Notice how my attempt at unpacking Mina is much longer than what I’m examining? I cannot describe how she’s written this scene without running longer than her scene. She’s compact, efficient, evocative. My discussion of her four paragraphs is not.

I’ll stop now even though there’s lots more to say. Like, notice the shift from Daniel’s relief he’s okay, from the normality of him shouting up to the concerned passers by, to the realisation that he’s sitting on a corpse. (And, trust me, the rest of the chapter only gets worse. It’s a jewel of a chapter.) But I hope that gives you an idea of what I get out of typing out someone else’s writing. When I first read Exile I didn’t notice any of this.

A more shorthand way to do it is to read a book backwards. (The novel in question needs to be one you’re familiar with.) Read the last chapter first, then the penultimate, and so on. It should keep you from getting sucked in (though not always) and force you to pay attention to word choices, pov, shifts in tense and so on. But typing out a chapter is much better.

Hope that helps. Good luck with it. Delving into other people’s writing is a fabulous way to learn.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 20: Research

Monica says:

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?

Depends on the novel. My current novel, as regular readers of this blog will know1, is set in New York City in the 1930s. I’ve been researching it pretty much my entire life. I fell in love with early Hollywood movies when I was a kid. I used to fake being sick so I could stay home from school and watch Bill Collins’ midday movie presentations. I’d also stay up late cause they used to play old movies way into the wee hours. (Still do on ABC1.) I was also a regular attendee of the local revival cinemas. This was before videos, let alone DVD.

More recently I wound up doing doctoral and post-doctoral research that touched on USian science fiction in NYC in the 1930s. This included reading a tonne of letters from back then. By at least October 2006 I was already thinking about a novel set in the early to middle part of last century.

Before I had any idea of the story or characters, I was reading, watching and listening to material that would wind up being useful. None of that research was on purpose but it meant that I went into my current novel with quite a lot of background. But as I write I keep discovering things I don’t know. Like how private and public schools operated in Manhattan in the 1930s, how much it cost for a first-class passage on an ocean liner to England, what tooth paste and tooth brushes looked like back then, and how commonly they were used and so on and so forth. The first draft is full of [how would that have worked?] and [find out how much this would cost] or [when did nylon become commonplace? Second world war? what were the earliest readily available synthetics?].

Every novel I’ve written, no matter how much I knew going in, has involved further research as I wrote.

I knew virtually nothing going in to Magic or Madness about mathematics, number theory, or Fibonaccis. I researched as I wrote.2

I’ve never written a novel that required no research. For How To Ditch Your Fairy I had to find out a lot about sports I was unfamiliar with. For the liar book I learned about the difference between compulsive and pathological liars and theories about why people lie and how best to detect lies and much other spoilery stuff. Sometimes I think I write novels solely to force myself to learn.

Another thing that can happen when you’re reading—like me reading 1930s related stuff—is that it can set off big ideas that reshape your novel entirely. Scott puts it this way,

    People tend to think about research as a way to get the details right. But it’s also about understanding big ideas. What makes Dune so interesting is Frank Herbert’s big idea that water is everything. Practically every detail in Dune serves that big idea. While writing Leviathan3 I realised that the big idea for airships is aerostatics. There are about five plot points on Leviathan that have to do with the fact that every time you put something on an airship you have to take something off.

I come across some beginning writers who look upon research as a chore. It’s really not. Sometimes the research is the most fun part of writing a book. I love making unexpected discoveries that change my book entirely. Like with my 1930s novel discovering that . . . oh, wait, that’s a massive spoiler. Never mind.

A really cool resource for online research is research maven Lisa Gold’s blog. Go read, enjoy!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Stop rolling your eyes! []
  2. I still know very little and have forgotten most of what I learned for the trilogy. []
  3. To be published in September. It’s Scott’s best book. I loves it. []

JWAM reader request no. 19: What to do when you’re drained

Melody says:

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?

I’m probably the worst person in the world to answer this question. I am all about resting. I will rest at every opportunity. I think everyone should rest. I am horrified by how hard many of my writer friends work. I think it’s immoral and plain wrong to work seven days a week. I am in favour of the four-day work week. The three-day work week is probably an even better idea. If only I could get away with a one-day work week. Or a no day work week . . .

Yet I hang out with writers who think that they’re lazy if they take a week off after having spent months and months, if not years, working constantly. The Puritan work ethic they has it too much. I tell them that they’ll wind up with shingles. But they don’t listen. So far I know of five workaholic writers who’ve had shingles. I rest my case.

Sadly though there does come a time when the work is piled up, and I’m knackered, but the book is due Monday and there’s nothing for it but to power through. I hates when that happens. Especially as it often happens because of the all resting I did. Which forces me to concede that perhaps if I’d worked harder earlier on I wouldn’t have wound up with all the work piled up.


But I’m in a very luxurious situation. I don’t have kids, or pets, or any other dependents. All I have to do is write and do the admin that goes with that, plus (with Scott) run our household.

I know writers who are looking after kids, pets, elderly parents, running the household, and meeting their deadlines. I have no idea how they do it. I’m in total awe.

So while I think that taking time away from your writing when you’re feeling drained is good for your brain, your body, your work, and your family, for many people it’s not an option. Many writers—yes, even published ones—are squeezing their writing time in between paid and unpaid work, family, and other responsibilities. If they take the time they need to rest it’s most likely their writing time that gets squeezed out. Not good.

I often hear writers without any (or many) of those pressing responsibilities say that you simply have to put writing first, implying that somehow if you don’t you’re not as dedicated as you should be. I have seen such advice fill the hearts of extremely hard-working, dedicated writers with shame. “Why if they were serious about their writing they would ignore the cries of their children, let their dog starve, never go shopping and just write, write, write. Clearly, they are dilettantes!”

[Insert big ole eye roll here.]

You know what else I notice? That often the people who are able to just write, write, write have someone else around to pick up the pieces for them. Someone else who’s doing the shopping and cooking and so on and so forth. Kind of makes that whole dedicated write, write, write thing a lot easier, doesn’t it?1

If you’re fortunate enough to be in a situation to recharge then go for it. Give your brain that much needed break.

But if you don’t have the luxury of taking the break you desperately need—please don’t beat up on yourself. You’re working hard enough as it is.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I lost all respect for Charles Dickens when I realised that he not only had a wife looking after him, but also servants. []

JWAM reader request no. 18: Endings

Becca says:

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?

I’m not sure I have any suggestions though I’d love to hear those of other writers. Anyone out there know how to write perfect endings?

You guessed it—the most frequent complaint about all four of my published novels is that I’m no good at endings. Ironically, the thing that annoys me most about many of my favourite novels is their endings.

Endings are the hardest thing in the world.

No matter how much I think I’ve nailed it, tied up all the loose endings, delivered the coup de grace, someone always disagrees.

Now it could be that I suck at endings. I suspect that I do. It could also be that we all have different expectations about endings.

The reason I think Austen rushed the finish of Pride and Prejudice is because she shifts from showing to telling. There are no details about the weddings or about the first few days or weeks of their married life as they learn to live with each other. Me the reader wants Austen to continue showing for at least ten or twenty or thirty years of Elizabeth’s & Darcy’s & everyone else in that book’s lives.

I’m mad at the ending because I don’t want there to be an ending.

What the reader wants and what the writer wants are sometimes—perhaps even often—not the same. As a reader I want to know EVERYTHING ever that happens to every single character in books I love. As a writer the idea of doing that appalls me. You can’t tie off every single thing. If you did you’d wind up writing the one book for forty years. And it would be UNREADABLY huge. Also you’d leave no room for your readers to ponder and imagine and make the book their own.

Then there’s the fact that conventions change over time. I’ve been watching a vast number of movies from the 1930s lately and I’m always struck by how abruptly they end. Girl and boy figure out they do like each other and bingo THE END appears on screen and the movie’s over. No hint of what anyone else thinks of this, sometimes no kiss, and mostly no credits.1

It’s very disorienting to be thrown out of the story so abruptly because we’re used to more drawn out endings, not to mention long credits that give you time to mull over what you’ve just seen. That’s one of the reasons I always put my acknowledgments at the back of the book. Gives you a little bit more to read something that’s kind of sort of related to what you’ve just read. You can pretend the book’s not finished yet.

Though it could be that they had it right back in the thirties and we’re now faffing about.

Hmmm, I’m not sure how helpful that was, Becca. You have my best wishes and condolences. Just remember that no book ever—no matter how popular or acclaimed—has an ending that satisfies everyone.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. They were usually at the beginning back then. []

JWAM reader request no. 17: The dread first chapter

Lesley says:

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?

Maybe you should stop reading agents’ blogs?

I’m kidding. Reading agents’ blogs is an excellent way to learn about the business and what some of the typical agent bugbears are. It also lets you know that not all agents are the same. Something which is very reassuring when you’re sending out and being rejected. They’re not all looking for the same thing. If one of them isn’t in to you it does not mean that all of them won’t be.

Has anyone other than you looked at your book? Someone who’s a good critiquer and has enough emotional distance from you so they can tell you the truth? Preferably more than one such someone. If not, send the first chapter of your novel to a bunch of different people and have them tell you whether they’d keep reading or not. And if they wouldn’t, why wouldn’t they? Fix accordingly and then send out.

If you’ve already had your entire novel, critiqued, and you’re the only one who’s freaked out about the first chapter, then it’s time to down tools and send it out.

What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?

You’ll get rejected. Most often it will be a form letter rejection so you’ll have no idea if it was the first chapter that put them off. Could be they already bought a zombie koala novel. Or maybe they hate zombie novels of any kind.

Rejection is a big part of, not only getting published, but staying published.

To take your mind off your novel being out there being perused by agents—why not start your next novel?

Good luck!1

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I realise I keep saying that but, truly, luck is one of the most important ingredients for a successful writer. []

JWAM reader request no. 16: The necessity of thinking time

Rachel says:

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?

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and I’m failing to come up with any new suggestions. There’s stuff on finding a plot here and I think the one on characters applies as well, and you’ve already read the storyless character post.

I suspect that your problem is that you’re still in the mulling stage and not yet in the writing stage. I’m more and more convinced that many of the people who can’t get started because they only have an idea but no plot or characters, or a plot but no setting or characters etc, are simply not ready to write that particular story yet.

A big part of the writing process for many writers is the thinking part. It may look like I’m sitting on the deck staring at the flying foxes making their slightly cumbersome, leather-winged way past me, but in fact I’m working very hard mulling and thinking and cogitating. Ideas and images are percolating and I’m letting them take me where they will.

Which sometimes is nowhere. Sad but true: not all ideas or images or characters lead anywhere. Sometimes they’re dead end; sometimes they’ll come in handy later.

I’d wanted to write a book set in NYC in the thirties for ages, but it wasn’t until I came up with another idea—in a conversation and email exchange with Cassandra Clare—that the characters and story started to grow enough for me to start writing them.

Sometimes I start writing as soon as a voice pops into my head1 or the setting or scene or whatever and it will grow as I write and I’ll figure it all out in the writing. Sometimes I need more than that to get going. I know many writers who need to have the entire novel nutted out before they can put fingers to keyboard.

When you’re a beginning writer part of what you’re learning is what kind of writer you are.2 I do know that whatever kind you are, you’ll find that a huge chunk of writing is thinking. Even if I start instantly from the moment the idea first hits me, sooner or later I’ll stop to have a think before continuing to write more.

Good luck!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Not in a crazy way, okay? []
  2. The bad news is that what kind of writer you are is probably going to change from book to book. []

JWAM reader request no. 15: Copyright fears

Michelle Madow Says:

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??

Kt Says:

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?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not an intellectual property lawyer.

But my gut response is that neither of you has anything to worry about. I’ve been in the writing game a long time. As an amateur unpublished writer I showed my work to gazillions of people and as a published writer I’ve shown it (pre-publication) to even more and no one has ever stolen a single idea, or character, or setting of mine. Nor have I ever heard of it happening to any of the other many many many writers I know.

I’ve seen cases where one person was inspired by the story of another writer in their crit group to write a story in response. In which case they told the writer what they were doing and asked if it was okay. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. Writers inspiring one another!

I’ve also seen unpublished writers posting published work and claiming it as their own fan fiction. This has happened to Scott’s Uglies and many other writers. Here’s the thing though, it had zero effect on Scott or his sales, because fans recognised it instantly and began harrassing the plagiarist to take it down, which they eventually did.

And just to repeat what I said in this post and many others: ideas cannot be stolen. They’re there for the taking. Plagiarism refers to the theft of words, not ideas. Did I mention that ideas can’t be stolen?

It depresses me that there’s so much worry about copyright nowadays. I’ve had kids as young as twelve ask me how to protect their writing from being stolen. Maybe I’m completely sheltered but I’ve never had anyone try to steal my work. Unless you count this kid who tried to copy my maths homework when I was in year seven and boy did that go horribly wrong for him. (I’m innumerate.)

Perhaps that’s part of the copyright concern? Cheating by copying other people’s homework?

But I think it’s more likely that it’s because there is so much misinformation about copyright. I keep coming across people who think that ideas and plots can be stolen. No, they can’t. Many people think that Eragon violates copyright because of its similarities to Star Wars and the Anne McCaffrey Dragon books and Lord of the Rings.1 No, it doesn’t. Paolini may have been influenced by those books—and, please, show me one published novel that is uninfluenced by previous novels—but his words are his own. You can accuse him of being unoriginal, but not of being a plagiarist. Ideas, plots, even character types, can’t be stolen.2

Let’s say a novel is published that’s a relatively original take on, for example, uni***ns, and then a couple of years later someone else writes a very similar book about uni***ns, and for some reason, even though it’s not as original or well-written as the book it was inspired by, the second book does much better than the first.

So not fair! Fans of the first book are really pissed with the author of the second. But unfairness doesn’t make it plagiarism. Words were not stolen, ideas were borrowed. There’s no copyright violation.

And what often happens is that the first book gets a lift in popularity on the back of the first one’s success because fans of it are desperate for more cool uni***n books. I call that win-win. (Of a sort.)

Not to mention that what’s imitation and what’s an original riff on an existing book is in the eye of the beholder. I know people who find Eragorn refreshingly original and are appalled that anyone could think otherwise. People read differently. Why, I know readers who do not acknowledge that Angela Carter is a genius. Insanity!

Michelle, you should send your work out to your friends. First of all, if they’re anything like me or my friends, most of them won’t get around to reading it. Secondly, the more people who see your work the safer you are from theft because all your friends will know that you wrote it and will call the thief out. But I have to emphasise that I haven’t seen this happen. The fear of someone stealing your work is WAY out of proportion to actual instances of that happening.

Feedback is crucial

When you send your work to other people or post it online, you get critical responses that not only helps that piece of work, but all your subsequent work. The benefit is real, immediate, and lasting. The chances of having your work stolen are, in contrast, vanishingly small and apply only to that one piece of work.

If someone is so uncreative and unoriginal that they have to steal someone else’s words eventually they’re going to get caught. (The intermanets has made it much easier to uncover plagiarism. Witness the Kaavya Viswanathan case.) Whereas you, who are creative and original, will continue to write wonderful stuff. The more you write the more evident that will be. The way of the plagiarist is unsustainable.

Scott puts it this way:

    You are the goose that lays the golden eggs, and you’re just getting started at the whole egg-laying thing. Don’t worry so much about what happens to every single egg at this point; worry about getting better at making eggs.

    As Cory Doctorow likes to say, the problem for the artist is not piracy, but obscurity. If you hide your work, you’re making yourself obscure.

    Art is a conversation. By keeping your work from other artists, you are cutting yourself off from that conversation. The costs of losing that feedback and those connections with other artists are about a million times greater than the risk of plagiarism.

Copyrighting your work

As I understand it (and remember I’m not a lawyer) copyright only applies to completed works. So it’s not something to worry about until you have a finished work. And even then I wouldn’t worry. I have never applied for copyright. It never occurred to me to do so. Once a publisher buys your novel they apply for the copyright and get your ISBN numbers too.

When you start submitting your work to agents and editors. DO NOT put a copyright sign on it. That makes you look like an amateur. No reputable agent or editor will ever steal your work. The internamanets allow you to thoroughly check out any agent before submitting. Writers Beware and sites like it are your friend.3

And now for Kt’s question about whether you should set your book in a real place or not:

My first novels—the Magic or Madness trilogy—were set in the real world. In parts of the Northern Territory, Sydney, New York City, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok and Dallas to be precise. It never crossed my mind that could be a problem. The vast majority of novels published every year all around the world are set in the real world using real names of streets and places, as well as made-up ones. Some of the restaurants and cafes in the trilogy are real, some are not. I bent things to suit my needs. That’s one of they joys of novel writing—no footnotes. As far as I know there are no legal issues involved in setting your book in a real place. (But remember I’m not a lawyer.)

When it comes to institutions like universities and specific businesses I think the common practise is to be a bit cautious. Especially if you’re writing a book where some of your characters are thinly disguised real people and it’s pretty clear your novel is an expose of the dirty world of Princeton or Vogue magazine or Harvey Norman or whatever. But I believe simply renaming them takes care of that. Any intellectual property/copyright lawyer want to step in here?

I have no idea why Jane Austen and many of her contemporaries did the whole ____shires thing. Though I’ve always wondered. But I have too much on my plate to start googling around to find out. Any of my genius and well-read readers know?

My main message is that you don’t need to be overly concerned about copyright. Put those thoughts aside and get on with your writing. Focus on writing perfect sentences, coming up with cracker plots, and crafting unputdownable novels. Trust me, getting that right is much more of a worry than being sued over setting your story in a real place or one of your friend’s stealing your ideas, (which CAN’T be stolen, did I mention that?)

One last thing: I am all for copyright. Its existence means that I am able to make money from writing. My copyrighted work has sold in ten different territories, earning me extra money in each one. Copyright is a very good thing indeed.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Disclaimer: I have not read any of Paolini’s books so I have no idea if that’s true or not. []
  2. Anyone who tries to start a flamewar pro or con Paolini gets deleted. []
  3. I have a bit more to say on how to check whether an agent is legit here. []

JWAM reader request no. 14: Similes

Michelle says

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.

Of course I remember you, Michelle!

Now to your question: it’s not one I’ve been asked before. It’s not one I’ve thought about either, and the more I think about it the harder I find answering it. Mostly, I think, because similes are more frequently overused than underused. The idea of propagating more seems wicked.

I definitely notice them more when they’re are too many, which happens a lot. (It’s my most frequent note for Scott—less similes, please!) Raymond Chandler was notorious for his similes. Personally, I love them but it’s true that he sometimes slipped over the edge into self parody. Here’s one of my favourites. Though many believe it crosses over the parody line:

    Moose Malloy “looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”.

Isn’t that perfect? A giant hairy spider looming over the food of an angel! Of course, you’d notice that. It’s a simile I’ve never forgotten. But, like I say, many consider it to be overwritten.

I don’t consciously write similes and going through the pages of a few of my novels I see that’s because I don’t use them often. Why do you want to write similes? There are many wonderful writers who are very spare in their use of similes and other kinds of metaphors. It’s absolutely fine to describe something directly and not in terms of something else. Just because you see a lot of similes in YA does not mean that you have to deploy lots of ’em in order to write YA.

Similes can backfire. I’m often pulled up by a simile that doesn’t work. I put a novel down because it described something being as “black as velvet”. Really? I thought. But not all velvet is black. I’d recently been out with a friend who was wearing a black velvet dress which in certain lights had a rust-red sheen through it. Was that the kind of black the writer meant? Or did they mean black as solid black velvet with no coloured sheens in it? Then why didn’t they say as black as a solid black velvet coat? Probably because that’s clunky and the writer’s not assuming that someone as annoyingly picky and literal-minded as me is going to read them.

Here’s another recent one that threw me out of the story: His emotions rumbled like thunder. Really? Some thunder is sudden, extremely loud, and doesn’t rumble at all. It’s one giant house-shaking clap and then gone, leaving nothing behind but the echo in your ears. Only to repeat several beats later and scare the bejesus out of you even though you knew it was coming. But that ain’t rumbling. Thunder that rumbles is further away. Does the writer mean his thoughts are rumbling in the distance like a storm on it’s way out (or in)? But in context the rumbling was continual. The character had a big problem that wouldn’t go away and that they couldn’t stop thinking about. The thunder simile did not evoke that for me. It felt clumsy and unthought through. I put the book down.

Similes are also a double-edged sword because on the one hand they should be familiar enough to evoke something for the reader, but on the other they should not be so familiar they’re worn out. A scary number of similes are cliches: “black as coal”, “black as tar”, “black as night”. When I see a lot of them in the one story I assume the writer is just phoning it in. If they can’t be arsed thinking about they’re writing, then I can’t be arsed reading it.

Not only is “black as night” a cliche. It’s not a very accurate one. Night often isn’t black at all. Especially not in the city. Sometmes it’s not that black way out in the country if the sky is clear, the stars are bright, and the moon full.

Her skin was white as snow is another one that drives me spare. Not only is this one overworked past death, but it it doesn’t ring true. I’ve never seen anyone whose skin was the same white as freshly fallen snow. White skin isn’t actually white no matter how pale. I happen to have very pale skin. I am holding my arm up to a piece of white paper. Guess what? They’re not the same colour.

On the other hand, I’m very fond of “dumb as a stone”. Yup, it gets used lots, but for me it still works and evokes exactly what it should, plus it always makes me smile for, yes, I have met stone-dumb people in a way I have not met flame-haired or indigo-eyed people. I am very fond of smile-inducing similes.

Try to describe what you see and smell and taste and hear. If you find yourself writing about coal-black hair or emerald green eyes, STOP. Go find someone with really black hair or really green eyes. Does it really look like coal? Like emeralds? I doubt it. Eyes are never one colour. And even the blackest hair can look different in different lights.

I think the best similes are the ones you’ve never read before that conjure a clear and fresh image. That’s why I like Moose Malloy looking like a tarantula on angel food. It makes me think of someone big and dangerous and hairy. People who are as cunning as foxes, radiant as the sun, and have blood-red lips, that doesn’t evoke anything for me except a desire to read something else.

To sum up: similes can go a long, long way. Less is more! (Unless you’re Raymond Chandler.) Cliches should be avoided especially in simile form, and go read Farewell My Lovely or The Long Goodbye.1

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Though “erotic as a stallion” is a simile to be avoided. []

JWAM reader request no. 13: Novel lengths

Jaya Lakshmi says:

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?

1) I think the length of a novel depends on what genre it is. Novels for children and young adults are sometimes much shorter than ones for adults. Some chapter books are only about ten thousand words long. Though the shortest YA novel I know of is about 35,000 words.

I’m pretty sure some romance novels are as short as 50 thousand. I suspect that’s about as short as you can go for an adult novel. But it’s not a part of the publishing world I know a lot about.

2) I have absolutely no idea. This is something I’ve never done.

Has anyone reading this turned a novella or short story into a novel? How did you do it? I’m dead curious because I have been thinking of turning “Thinner Than Water” into a novel.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 12: Choosing ideas

Sky says:

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?

This is one I was asked recently. It’s at the top of the writing FAQ:

    Q: When brainstorming ideas for your next book do you come up with multiple ideas? How do you choose the one to push forward with?

    A: I pretty much always have a number of novel ideas to play with. I tend to talk about them with Scott and my agent, Jill, as well as my editor, Melanie, and a few writer friends. I’ve been talking about writing a book about a compulsive liar for ages. Whenever I mentioned it people would get very enthusiastic. I was too afraid to start though cause it seemed like it would be really hard to write (I was right) so I delayed until Scott and Jill and Melanie all ganged up on me. That book will be out in (the USian) autumn of 2009.

    I guess I let people bully me!

    Though honestly all the bullying in the world wouldn’t have gotten me going if I hadn’t finally figured out a way to write the Liar book. So I guess my real answer is that the book that begins to grow and make sense is the one I wind up writing.

But I realise I have a bit more to say on the subject. Namely that one idea isn’t enough for a novel. If you only have one idea then what you have is a haiku not a novel. (And that’s unfair to haikus.) I’ve had the idea for the liar novel since early 2005. I imagined a character who at the outset of her story declares that she’s a liar but that she’s not going to do it anymore. She’s turning over a new leaf. She then starts telling her story only to pause a couple of chapters later to say, “So I think I’m doing pretty well so far. But, um, you know how I said that I’m eighteen? Well, actually, I’m fourteen, which is practically eighteen so it’s not that big of a lie.” And so on and so forth.

Except that she didn’t have a story. I needed more than my unreliable compulsive liar protag; I needed a reason for her to lie. I wasn’t able to start writing in late 2007—almost three years after the initial idea—until I had that second idea. And I wasn’t able to keep writing the novel until I had a bunch more ideas.

A novel requires more than one idea.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 11: More on plotting

Anna says:

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.

I just realized 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?

Carrie Ryan says:

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!!

At last a short post!

I learned by doing.

There was no one book that taught me how. I’ve never done any writing classes. I learned not just by writing my own books, but by critiquing other people’s. The more novels I wrote and the more novels I critiqued the better I got at plotting. I also started reading in a whole new way. I went through my favourite books and forced myself not to get caught up, but to pick them apart, and figure out how they work.

I’m also convinced that the four years I spent reading incredibly bad science fiction taught me a vast deal about plotting. Of the what not to do variety. It taught me to avoid characters acting completely out of character merely to serve the plot. I learned to foreshadow later events, and to think through the implications of my world building, so that my invented universe is not merely a sound stage for the story to take place, but actively shapes the story.

Reading other people’s work has taught me more than writing my own. If I had just worked on my own stuff and never critiqued anyone else I would not have learned nearly as much. It is much easier to see other people’s missteps and mistakes than it is to see you own. But more and more exposure to other people’s writing especially through the early drafts, slowly opens your eyes to your own faults.

For me learning to critique other people’s writing has been the single most important way I have improved my writing.

Once again, there are many writers for whom this is not true.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 10: Finishing

Beth says:

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?

Taylor Hicklen says:

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

My immediate response is that no book is ever “well and truly done”. They could all be made better. Every single one of them, yes, even Pride and Prejudice.1 There is no point at which “you shouldn’t tamper with a story anymore”.

Problem is that if we all took that attitude we’d all be working on the same book our entire lives and it’d only find its way into print when we carked it. Not very satisfactory. So, yes, at some point you have to let your story go. It may not be a forever letting go. It may just be letting go to send out to agents and/or editors. If it does sell it will be return to you and you’ll be rewriting it again. I know some writers who continue to revise books after they’ve been published.2

However, as a writer who’s had several books under contract, deadlines are my signal to stop. Deadlines are extremely good at focussing the mind. If I don’t finish on time, I don’t get my next wadge of dosh, which means the rent isn’t paid and the crops fail. No one wants failed crops . . .

But, of course, that’s not helpful for those writing without a contract.

Plus it’s not even true of everyone with a contract given that so many of them ignore their deadlines.3 Why, certain writers haven’t had a manuscript on time in ten or twenty years. (You know who you are.) I know of writers who are years late with their books. Who get a phone call every year from their editor, “So, um, would it be total madness to put you on the fall schedule of 2010? How about 2011? 2012? You can still type, yes?” Editor puts phone down and cries.

I suspect that part of the problem is that there are so many different meanings of “finished”:

  • There’s finished as in ready for someone other than you to look at. I remember the first time I showed someone part of my first attempt at a novel. I was TERRIFIED.
  • There’s finished as in ready to be sent out to agents for consideration.
  • If you have an agent, but the book’s not under contract, then there’s finished enough to send to your agent so that they can decide if it’s ready to be sent out to editors.
  • If you’re under contract there’s finished enough to send to your editor for the first round of comments.
  • Then there’s finished enough for the second round.
  • Finished enough for the third. Or however many rounds it takes.
  • Then there’s finished enough for the copyeditor.

I’m going to focus on the first of these. How did I decide that my first novel was ready to be sent to agents and editors?

This is a little bit embarrassing: I decided it was ready when I got to the end of the first draft. But I’d read somewhere that you should never send out a first draft, so I fussed with it a bit, moving around some words and phrases,4 and then sent it out.

It was rejected.

I “rewrote” it some more then sent it out to a couple more agents.


I started writing another novel. In the meantime a few of my writer friends read and commented on the first novel and I made changes based on what they said. Some of them were verging on substantive but I still had no real understanding of how to rewrite. I was focussed on line editing, when it was the structure that had problems.

I sent out my first novel too early. But I’m not convinced it was a mistake because I learned that the first draft (zero, really, in this case) of your novel is most definitely not finished. I did not glean that from my rejection letters because they were all form . Except for a couple which were too idosyncratic to be useful.5

I learned much more from the generous writers who read and commented on the ms. than I did from my rejection letters. Especially from Scott, who pointed out a whole raft of ways in which my novel was broken. He made me cry but he also taught me a lot. Such as how to rewrite.

I rewrote the book again. Really rewrote it this time. I’m very proud of the result. My agent liked it and gave me a new set of notes, which made it even better. As far as we were all concerned it was now finished and dusted and ready to go out.

It remains unpublished.

Which mean it’s still not finished. *Sigh* Not that anything is ever really finished. (See above.)

How do you know when to take their advice and when to ignore it?

Never take advice you feel uncomfortable about. It might be that advice is helpful, but if it feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Perhaps, after you’ve thought about that particular advice (this story needs a monkey!) for a while you start to see ways in which a monkey really would improve your story. But maybe not.

It’s your story. Do what you want with it.

My first five (almost six) years of being a pro writer have taught me to trust my own judgement.6 I also trusted my own judgement when I was starting out, but back then I was wrong. I regularly sent out half-baked, unfinished stuff. Paradoxically, it was only by doing so that I learned that it was half-baked and unfinished.

Trust my crap judgement was how I learned to develop good judgement. Some of the advice I was given then and ignored—never have too many characters whose name starts with the same letter it’s confusing—I now (mostly) follow.

Back then the only people reading my stuff were a few friends and the rejectors, who pretty much never gave any feedback. My improvements came very very very slowly. It wasn’t until I started being critiqued by pros—almost twenty years after I started sending my stuff out to adult markets—that I improved at a faster rate. Once I was published and getting detailed editorial letters my learning curve turned into a vertical line. Whooosh! I’m a vastly better writer now than I was in April 2003 when I first went freelance. I blush to think of the stuff I was writing then.

But I only ever took advice that felt right and in the process made many mistakes. But that’s how I learn. I’m pretty sure that’s how everyone learns. It can be confronting in a critque group to get ten different takes on how to fix your novel. But the more you write and the surer you are of what you’re trying to say the easier it is to pick out what’s useful and what’s not. Trust your judgement.

I stop working on a manuscript when

    a) it’s due, or

    b) I can’t stand it anymore

Usually, I can’t stand it anymore because I’ve spent too long on it and lost all perspective. When that happens it’s best for me to back away. That’s a judgement call disguised as visceral hatred. Usually at that point (if it isn’t due with my editor) I send it to my trusted mob of first readers, which gives me at least a week to recover. I send it to them knowing full well that it’s not perfect. Knowing exactly how to finish some of the major flaws, but too exhausted to do anything about them.

Part of what I want from my first readers is for them to confirm that the problems I’ve identified are real and not a product of my manuscript-hatred. So I trust my judgement, but I still like to get it confirmed.

They frequently come back to me with stuff I consider to be off base and insane. I ignore their suggestions, but look at the parts of the ms. they’re having problems with. Then I change what I think needs changing and fix the stuff I already knew was a problem. Then and only then does it go to my editor.

But that draft isn’t finished, just ready enough for my editor to look at it without completely losing her faith in me as a writer. I’m still aware of stuff that could be fixed. I usually have a fix list—build up thread about flowers, ramp up explosion in penultimate chapter, is Riad too bossy? etc. etc. I don’t think I’ve ever sent an ms. to my editor with every single item on the list crossed off. Did I mentioned the exhaustion? And the deadline? Then there are other probs that occur to me after I’ve sent it to her.

Finished is not a forever thing. I think “stopping” is a more useful way of thinking about it. For my sanity, there always comes a time when I have to stop working on a novel. I will take a week, a month, a year, or an even longer break from it as others read it, edit it, or as it sits in a (metaphorical) drawer.

You need to give yourself permission to stop, to take a break. Even if you don’t send it out. A good way to rest from a novel that’s been eating your brain, is to start a new novel. If my last novel was dark and intense, I will find myself writing something lighter and more relaxing next. After that I’ll want the intensity again.

I know I’ve said this for every post, but all of this depends on what kind of writer you are. I know many writers who only let their editors look at their work. They have no first readers they won’t even let their nearest and dearest take a squiz. Still others will not let anyone see their novel—not even their—editor until they consider it to be absolutely perfect. I think this explains why some writers always miss their deadlines. I know writers who never hate their books and never get sick of them.

Only you can know what your process is and when you’re ready to stop.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Austen rushes the ending. There. I’ve said it. []
  2. Not me. I can’t even bring myself to read them again. []
  3. Stop, giving the good writers a bad name! That’s right, I have, um, never been late. Oh, look over there flying killer monkeys! []
  4. I.e. Moving deck chairs on the Titanic. []
  5. This is not fantasy—your hero has not gone on a quest! Why is this not set in mediaeval Europe? No one cares about Cambodia! []
  6. Note to the first USian to tell me I’m spelling “judgement” wrong. No, I’m not. In most of the Commonwealth countries it’s legit to spell it with two “e”s. Deal. []

JWAM reader request no. 9: Plot similarities

AlisonG Says:

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?

Kevin Says:

I’ll second AlisonG’s comment. 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?

My apologies for the rambling messiness of this post, but these questions sent me off in many different directions.

It entirely depends on where you are with your project. I’ve been thinking about writing a zombie novel pretty much since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. As I mull and think and cogitate on zombies, I’ve watched many zombie movies, and more recently been reading zombie stories (though that’s had to stop because for some reason there’s not so many 1930s zombies). Reading material related to what you want to write about feeds your novel, makes it richer and better. You discover what works, and just as importantly, what doesn’t.

However, if, say, I’m in the middle of writing my novel about an underground colony of zombies, who can’t climb, or manage stairs or ladders,1 and thus are unable to get out of the bunker they were bred in, and a friend alerts me to a review of an underground zombie novel, I am very likely to panic.

Once I’ve calmed down, though, I will continue to write my novel, because even two novels with very similar set ups, wind up being very different. I would make it a point not to look at the other book because I would worry that, consciously or unconsciously, I would alter my book in ways that might break it. As in I would be paranoid about the similarities and would thus make changes to make mine massively different. However, chances are those changes might not make sense in my book, but only in relationship to the other book.

But once my bunker zombie book was in print I would totally read the other underground zombie book.

Or maybe not. Occasionally I’m told so often that some writer or book is just like mine that I develop an irrational hatred and refuse to read it (or them) at all. The five-year-old within screws up her nose, pouts, and says, “We are not the same!” But I’m assuming you’re more grown up than me. For your sake, I hope so.

I asked a bunch of other writers and they split fairly evenly on whether they would or wouldn’t check out the other book while in the middle of writing. Those who said, yes, they’d read it, said they’d rather know than not know. So, like everything in writing: figure out what works best for you.

Or should I avoid them so I can claim I was not influenced and did not steal from them?

People will accuse you of all sorts of crazy stuff once you’re published. Best not to let it bother you. Honestly, whether or not you’ve heard of or read the book/movie/tv show/ad copy you’re accused of stealing from is neither here nor there. C. L. Moore’s “Of Woman Born” was recently mentioned in a discussion of a friend’s book, with the implication that the book in question was overly influenced by it. This may shock science fiction nuts, but the vast majority of readers don’t know that story, including many science fiction fans. Not being an sf scholar like myself, my friend had never heard of Moore or that story.

This is because most people are confused about what plagiarism is. Plots and ideas cannot be copyrighted. No one owns them. It’s only plagiarism if the actual text is copied, word for word.2 Plots, ideas, concepts, themes are there for the taking. If you could copyright them there would only be a handful of books and stories and no new ones since the 1800s. The only vampire tale wouldn’t even be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it would be John Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, which, trust me, is not very good.

Two books came out last year, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson and Skinned by Robin Wasserman, which illustrate this. They were written at the same time, with neither writer having the faintest clue that the other writer was also working on a book in which a girl wakes up in a fabricated body after an accident. (Yes, that’s also the plot of the C. L. Moore story.) The two books could not be more dissimilar.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is slow and contemplative; Skinned is fast-moving and action-packed.3 However, they both deal with the meaty (get it?) philosophical issues raised by having your memories downloaded into a body that is not your own. The main one being: Are you still you?

It’s an exaggerated version of what happens when you become an adolescent and your body changes in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways that totally freak you out.4 It’s a very juicy YA plot. I’ve had a novel brewing with a very similar plot for several years now—ironically enough, inspired by the Moore story. Does the publication of these two books mean I won’t write it now? Nope. I haven’t written it yet, not because there are too many other books like it, but because it’s not ready. Needs more stuff before it’s good to go.

Because Skinned was published a few months after Adoration. I’ve seen a few people online who seem to be under the delusion that the first was influenced by the second. Impossible. Given the way publishing works—a book coming out in September has already been finished the previous September—you can’t “rip off” a book published in the same year as yours. Besides, see above, using a similar plot is not a rip. It’s how many writers write.

My hope would be that people who’ve read the one, will then check out the other. I read Skinned first. Robin and me are mates and I read it in ARC. But as soon as I heard of Adoration I grabbed a copy and had a read. I absolutely adore seeing what different writers make of the same plot. I loved how different they are from each other and how VERY different they are from “Of Woman Born”. It’s one of the reasons I’m so addicted to fairy tale rewrites and have read every single volume of Ellen Datlow & Terry Windlings fairy tale series. Not to mention the fairy tale collections of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee.

It’s why I think vampires will never be played out. There’s always some writer to come along and breathe fresh air into them.5 Part of the appeal of vampires, or “Beauty and the Beast” for that matter, is that they’re so familiar. That’s why I found Holly Black’s Valiant such a joy: it was something old made very new. Same with John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Though I’m not sure I would describe it as a joy. More like the opposite. In a good way!

Plot similarities are not a problem

It’s very rare to come up with a plot that hasn’t been done before. In fact, I can’t think of a single recent book with a completely-original, never-been-done-before plot. They’re all interesting takes on something else (usually many other things). In fact, some argue that there are only two plots:

    Stranger comes to town: Pride & Prejudice, every Western ever, How To Ditch Your Fairy
    Someone goes on a journey: Lord of the Rings, every quest novel ever, How To Be Bad

Personally I think that’s so reductive as to be useless. But I do think many books have the same basic plot. Person opens a door/falls through a rabbit hole to a new world: Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Magic or Madness, and to many others to name. Obviously the settings, the characters, and the many other details that make up these novels’ voice and feel are very different.

Because it’s the settings, the characters, the feel of a book that makes it unique. Very rarely is it the plot. And if the plot is all a book has going for it? Then you’re in deep trouble.

Let me repeat that:

It’s the settings, the characters, the feel of a book that makes it unique.

So, yeah, I would be concerned if key details of setting and characters appeared to be similar: two novels about an underground colony of zombies. But not that concerned. I’m pretty sure no other writer out there has my twisted brain, so they won’t have added an insanely evil spider-god who controls the zombie hordes, and is slowly teaching them to climb.

A spider-God! No one in the world has ever thought of that before.

Plus, I’m thinking of having my bunker zombies, who are controlled by the evil spider-god, be discovered by a girl who’s just woken up in someone else’s body after an accident . . .

What do you reckon?

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I think of them as zombie daleks []
  2. And why anyone does that is totally beyond me. The great pleasure of writing is picking out the words yourself! []
  3. I could not put it down []
  4. Or maybe that was just me. []
  5. Though I’m not sure that fresh air works with vampires. Er, come up with your own image. []

JWAM reader request no. 8: How to incorporate backstory

Natalie says:

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?

Excellent question. There are two basic approaches to this one. (Feel free to suggest others in the comments.)

1. The infodump
This is where you flat out just tell the reader everything you want them to know. It’s a major violation of the show don’t tell rule. (Which frankly is often a really stupid rule. Show me one book that doesn’t at some point tell!) But the main objection is that it’s hard to infodump well. If you stop the plot with a long flashback to the protag’s childhood, you’re apt to annoy the reader who was really wondering if that shiv rotating through the air, heading towards the protag’s throat was going to land or not. Likewise, a pause when the shiv is mere milimetres from the fine hair on the protag’s throat, to expound upon the derivation of the word “shiv” could also cause your reader to groan and skip ahead to see if the shiv misses, or, worse, close the book and read something a tad less digressive.

And, yet, I am extremely partial to Dorothy Dunnett’s infodumps. As well as Jane Austen’s, Kim Stanley Robinson’s, Samuel R. Delany’s, and Minette Waters’ to name a few. I believe there’s one James M. Cain book where he spends several pages talking about the origins of a particular gun. I have zero interest in guns, and can’t remember much about this particular infodump, but at the time I was fascinated. Now, that’s good writing.

In first person, especially, a well-done infodump can establish much about a character. Hunter Bracque in So Yesterday is pretty much all infodumps, all the time. I find him utterly charming.

Keep your infodumps honest, though. I really hate conversational infodumps. This could come from the trauma of having read WAY too many bad science fiction stories, many of which are chockfull of these kind of exchanges:

    Scientist’s daughter, Lotte Fairface: Hank, why are you throwing sand into that well? It seems to be affecting that strange contraption over there.

    Hank: Funny you should ask, Lotte, but, you see, that’s not sand, it’s magnesium calumbanate. It causes the water molecules to bind to the calumbanate to form a reinforced ectoplasmatic force field, which is emitting invisible salitrucic waves that are impacting with the Rooseveletereen engine—not a strange contraption at all, Lotte—and causing its pistons to fire.

    : Oh, Hank! You’re so marvellous. I’m so proud that you’ve invented something so very clever! Um, why is the Rooseveletereen engine turning red and expand—

    [They both die in the world-destroying blast. Good riddance!]

2. Slow seeding
This is what I do most often, seeing as I am not yet a mistress of the infodump. It involves slowly leaking information as the plot unfolds. I hate to turn to P&P yet again, but really Austen was quite the genius for leaking out the backstory:

    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

    Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

    “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

    Mr. Bennet made no answer.

    “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

    You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

    This was invitation enough.

    “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

    “What is his name?”


    “Is he married or single?”

    “Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

    “How so? How can it affect them?”

    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

    “Is that his design in settling here?”

There’s a tonne of world-building in this little exchange: it’s a universe in which marriage is a big deal, in which people have servants, where four or five thousand [somethings] a year is considered a fortune, and where at least some of the inhabitants—Mrs Bennet and Mrs Long—like to gossip.

You also get the first hints that this is not a happy marriage. Mr Bennet clearly has no respect for his wife. He needles her throughout, while she is too stupid to notice. Much later he will warn his beloved Lizzy against entering into a loveless marriage. The reader has seen all too clearly through many such exchanges just what kind of a marriage her father is warning Lizzy against.

Mind you, Austen was not against infodumping. That first chapter concludes thus:

    Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Ah, the delicious flexibility of omni! Which allows you to jump into whoever’s head you want because you know everything about everyone. Omni’s most excellent for infodumping.

To return to your question. I think you should go for a maximal approach. You’re clearly in love with this character’s backstory so throw it all in. Try infodumping it one big clump. Or in a bunch of smaller ones. Or reveal it through two gossiping characters. Or slowly have it leak out as the story progresses. Early on you learn that the character collects shivs. Later you discover she collects only one particular kind of shiv. Still later it becomes clear she is trying to find the one specific shiv that was used to kill her mother and father and brothers and sisters so that she can turn the shiv on the evil spider-god who murdered her entire family.

The vast majority of novels do a bit of both. Some slow seeding here, some infodumping there.

You’ll probably only figure out whether all that backstory is necessary when you have a complete draft to work with. If it works keep it, if it doesn’t cut it. You may find that there needs to be more backstory. Or somewhere in the middle.

But having a well-developed sense of your characters, and a sense of their life outside the span of your novel, is a really good sign. My biggest complaint about bad fantasy is that so much of it is flat, there’s nothing beyond its narrow confines, it reads like a sound stage with a few extremely worn props (battle axes, hearty stews, parapets, a serving wench, and a drunken knight). It’s why I adore the work of, for example, Samuel R. Delany and Ursula Le Guin. There’s such a richness to their worlds. I always feel that there are many more peoples and lands and stories, just around the corner.

Good luck with it!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 7: The storyless character

Dahlia Says:

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.

Hmmm. Tricky. I do touch on this with the ideas post and also the one on how to get unstuck. There’s much about plot generation there.

Maybe you should plonk your character down in a fairy-tale plot and see what happens? Holly Black did that with Valiant, reworking “Beauty and the Beast” to most excellent effect. (I adore that book.)

One of the satisfying things about rewriting a familiar story is how it can surprise you. Because your character is not Cinderella or Puss’n’Boots when you put them in their shoes you’ll find your character has transformed the story so that’s it’s almost unrecognisable. It took me awhile to realise that Valiant was a rewrite of “Beauty and the Beast”. (I can be thick that way.)

It could be that the book for this particular character of yours just isn’t ready yet. Perhaps you need longer than a year to think and mull and let the story grow. It took me three years before I was ready to write the Liar book.

Often I just start typing in the character’s voice and the story starts to unfold and take me in unexpected directions. How To Ditch Your Fairy started with Charlie ranting about how much she hates her parking fairy. Her voice was clear and strong right from the beginning. I knew instantly who she was, but I had to figure out where she was, why she wanted to get rid of her fairy so much, and what would happen when she did. What is now the third chapter of the book was the first thing I wrote.

On the other hand, I’ve also started writing a character and gotten no further than that. Back in the olden days, I had loads of characters who never found a short story to live in, let alone a novel. They were nothing more than character sketches. But they taught me a lot about writing people and dialogue.

As I’ve discussed, there are many ways to generate story. Throwing things at your character teaches you a lot about them (Aristotle’s drama is character revealed through action yet again). Make their life complicated. Give them relatives, friends, impediments, responsibilities, a shitty job.

When I started Magic or Madness, Reason was on her own a lot. It was really boring. So I added another character, Tom, who pushed the plot in all sorts of interesting directions. There’s nothing more boring than one person in a room. Add another one. Add two. Why not four? Have them argue. Right there you have the plot engine of Scott’s Midnighters series: five midnighters arguing with each other for three books.

More people = more complications = more plot.

Whenever I’m stuck I throw more stuff in. That’s the engine of all novels: more stuff being thrown in. Take Pride & Prejudice. Pretty early on you learn that there’s a husband and a wife with five daughters. She’s hellbent on getting them married off. He’s worried about them not being provided for, though is too lazy to do much about it. Two new marriage prospects come to town. One of the daughters falls for one of them and he for her. One of them is slighted by the other new bloke in town.

More and more stuff keeps happening. More blokes are thrown into the mix, as well as aunts and uncles, also illness, vapours, marriage proposals, refusals, acceptances, elopements, miscommunications, lies, zombies. More and more complications. So it goes until the book reaches its climax, resolving the miscommunications and complications, and rushing (too quickly!) to its end.

Your character needs other people, other stuff, a quest, a band, a mission, a zombie apocalypse to react against in order to have a story. Your job is to get them out of the blank white room and into a wider (and hopefully exploding) universe.

Good luck!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

I know you know this

But I thought I’d reiterate given some of the email I’ve been receiving:

There is no wrong way to write a novel.1

Please take all the advice I’m writing here with a grain of salt. Keep what works; throw away what doesn’t.

Hell, I don’t do the vast majority of what I’m suggesting here. Many of my working methods are weird, superstitious, or unhygenic, and thus unlikely to work for anyone but me. What I’m offering here are suggestions, tips, and ideas that I think might work for the person asking the question.

They might not.

Writing is a strange and varied game. There are a million and one ways—more!—to write a novel. I’m just scratching the surface of possibilities in this series of posts.

If you don’t agree that’s fine. But, truly, there’s no need to be writing me yelly emails to express that disagreement. It’s a waste of your time and mine. The internet is a vast space, there’s more than enough room for you to write your own series of writing advice posts. Or to comment here expressing—politely—your disagreement.

Why, there’s room enough for all our crazy advice. Bless the internets!

  1. Well, using a stylus made from the shinbone of your enemy, and writing in the blood of vrigins on skin torn from a copyeditor, who really annoyed you—that would be wrong. Don’t do that. []

JWAM reader request no. 6: Getting started

Bran-la says:

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!

It is a scientific fact that the majority of first chapters never make it into the final version of the novel. Here’s the very first chapter I wrote of Magic or Madness and here is the published first chapter of Magic or Madness. You will notice that the two have pretty much nothing in common.

This is good thing to know. It means you can relax and not worry whether your first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter is perfect. Odds are they won’t be in the final version.

When you’re getting started I find it’s best to just let yourself go and not second guess yourself on grammar or even spelling. Just type! When I was little all my stories began, “Once upon a time . . . ” I know it’s corny but it really helped me to get going. You can always edit out that phrase later.

I’m one of those writers whose first drafts are unspeakably bad. Total rubbish. It’s only in rewriting that they become readable. I suspect that some beginning writers are put off by the idea of their writing not being perfect straight away.

You need to give yourself permission to be bad. You’ll fix it in the next draft, or the draft after that. The first goal is to write a complete draft. It don’t have to be pretty.

As for kick starting ideas—have a read of this post, it definitely applies to getting started.

Once you start writing you’ll likely find you’ve gotten many things wrong. You don’t have to know everything about your novel before you start writing it. I never do. I usually know close to nothing about my novels when I start.

I have a novel that I originally thought was set in an alternative mediaeval Russia. It was rubbish and kept stalling and going no where. I abandoned it for a few years before I realised it was really set in an alternative fourteenth century Cambodia. I was several chapters into How To Ditch Your Fairy before I discovered it was set in an imaginary place called New Avalon.

Diana Peterfreund mentions in a comment that while writing one of her books she discovered ninety pages in that her protag was afraid of water. It changed her plot. She had to go back and rewrite everything up to that point to accommodate this revelation.

Happens all the time. Books change as you write them, as you learn more about the world you’re creating, and the people in it. This is why the first chapter is usually the most frequently rewritten chapter in the entire book. That is, if it escapes the cutting room floor.

Other kinds of writers

Now, none of this advice will be useful to you if you turn out to be one of those writers who has to know exactly what the first sentence of their book is before they can move on. My condolences!

There are also writers whose first draft is their final draft. They write slowly and painstakingly, crafting and shaping as they go. What I achieve over the process of many drafts they achieve in one but they probably take the same time with their one that I take with my many.

There are writers who cannot write a single word of the novel until they’ve figured out the entire plot in their head. From first to last sentence. If you were one of those writers than perhaps that’s why starting is so hard for you.

I know other writers who work out their novels in a detailed outline and don’t start the real writing until they’ve nailed every plot twist and character quirk. I remember someone once telling me that Tim Powers’ outlines for his books are longer than the books themselves and include maps and diagrams.

So it could be that what you think is slowness in getting started is, in fact, all part of the process of writing the novel. Some people work things out on the page, some in their head, and some in an interperative dance with finger puppets. (*Shudder*)

The only way you can figure out what kind of novelist you are is to write one. And be aware that with your second novel you may discover you’re whole different kind of novelist.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 5: Characterization (updated)

Today I attempt to tackle questions about how to write the peoples in your novels. I believe I mentioned in the initial post for this month of questions that I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers. Today’s post will demonstrate that with bells on. You have been warned.

Julia says:

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

Tim says:

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?

Monica says:

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?

I’ll take Monica’s quessie first since it’s the easiest:

No, I have never interviewed my characters and find the idea of doing so deeply bizarre. However, if it works for you—go for it. That’s the thing about writing advice. Every writer writes differently. Some really do have conversations with their characters, and come up with astrological charts for them, and take them to the movies, some of us most emphatically do not. There’s no one right way. When you’re a beginning writer try anything and everything. Some of it will work and some of it will not.

Actually, Tim’s is pretty easy too.

Is there anything in particular I do when developing the voice of my characters (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything I do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

No, there isn’t. My characters just talk to me and I transcribe what they say. Kidding! (Sort of.)

Any one else got a more useful response than this for Tim? Diana? Maureen? Anyone? (I apologise for my crap answer.)

Now for the tricky question:

How to write interesting characters

So far, I’ve already thought a lot about the questions I’ve answered for this month of writing advice. But I’ve never thought about how I write characters. Not once. Thus trying to give you tips and suggestions is breaking my brain.

I suspect the problem is that writing people and dialogue have always been my writing strengths. I spent a long time learning how to plot, how to write action scenes, transitions, exposition etc. etc. because I was crap at them. (They’re still not my strengths and I’m still learning.) Thus I can talk about how to do those till the cows come home. But the peoples?

Being asked to describe how I write ’em is like being asked to detail how I breathe. I dunno. I just do.

So I did what I usually do in this situation I talked to Scott.


    “Don’t yell. I’m brushing my teeth. I can’t hear you.”

    “If you can’t hear me then how come you’re answering?”

    “Can’t hear you!”

    “Can to.”


    “They want to know how to write characters!’

    Scott emerges from bathroom with extremely clean teeth. “Tell ’em about Aristotle: ‘Drama is character revealed through action.'”

    “Aristotle. Right. What about your funny hat thing?”

    “Fine. Tell them about funny hats. But Aristotle’s key. And choices. Your characters have to make choices. When they make a hard decision, your reader invests in them, because they’ve lived with them through that difficult time. Also zombies.”

You all got that? What Scott said.1

You’re probably wondering what funny hats are. Scott says that when he begins a book all the characters are essentially funny hats: the girl with the big hat, the boy with red hair, the woman who lisps and so on. But eventually they become more than a funny hat, they take on other characteristics, opinions, ways of existing in the world of the novel. As he writes they grow. He does not, however, explain how he makes them grow.

Hmmm. The only simple tip I can come up with2 is to try and avoid writing stereotyped characters. Does the boy who like fashion have to be gay? Does the footballer have to be straight and a thug? Is your protag a reader and super smart and beautiful, but not in a conventional3 way? If you’ve written characters like that are they that way for solid reasons? Do they make your story better? Or do they seem tired and unoriginal?

I really hate it when a character, midway through a book, turns out to have a relative (mother is a surgeon) or hidden ability (black belt in karate) solely because the plot requires it. How convenient. If your mum’s a surgeon or you’re a black belt it would affect who you are. You’d be used to your mother not being around a lot. Being really good at a martial art, or sport, or some other intense physical activity changes the way you move and think about your body. Those are not things you can suddenly pluck out of the air for your characters in the middle of a book.

Check out some bad books with unconvincing characters. Try to figure out why those characters don’t work. Are they too stereotyped? Predictable? Boring? What is it about the way they’re written that doesn’t work for you? Too much description “violet eyes”? Not enough?

I know many of you are going to hate me for this, but when I think of unconvincing characters, I think of science fiction. Especially the science fiction published in sf magazines of the 1920 through to the 1950s. Talk about your two-dimensional characters. Those stories are all plot and no real peoples. They are a nightmare to read.

Why are they so crap?

I suspect part of the answer is that many of the writers, like Isaac Asimov, for instance, were extremely callow and didn’t know much about people. It’s hard to write people if you don’t know many or understand the ones you do know. It’s possible that part of why some writers struggle to create convincing characters is that they too don’t understand people or can’t empathise with how other people think, which makes it very tricky indeed to come up with believable characters.

It could be that as they get older, meet more people, travel more, go through different friendships, work relationships, love relationships, marriage, they’ll learn more about people and find them easier to write. There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.

Another part of it is, of course, practice. But if you’re struggling with writing convincing characters, writing lots of stories may not be that helpful. Why not re-read your favourite books with your favourite characters? But instead of getting caught up in the plot, read closely. Try to pinpoint the moment where you start liking the character. Now figure out why. What has the writer done to win you over? I know I fell for Elizabeth Bennett before she even comes on stage:

“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”

“You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

Even though this is still the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice, Mrs Bennett has already been established as a fool, and Mr Bennett as a man of sardonic humour. If Mrs Bennett doesn’t like Lizzy, and Mr Bennett does, then this reader has high hopes for Lizzy.

I hope there’s something in this post that will trigger something for you. But likely not. It’s a topic I need to read and think more about. My apologies for its inadequacies.

I’d really love to hear from other writers. What are your tips on writing believable characters?

Update: Sarah Monette has chimed in with a most excellent post answering many of these questions particularly Tim’s one about developing the voices of characters. Do check it out! (I am so with her on being kind of appalled by what I think of as the acting-school of writing. But as we both say it really works for many writers.)

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. He didn’t really say zombies. But I’m sure he meant to. What would cause your characters to reveal themselves in action faster than zombies? []
  2. and, actually, I stole it from a friend []
  3. Oh, look, she has red hair! []

JWAM reader request no. 3: How to get unstuck

There are a number of requests that touch on the same theme of getting stuck:

Jonathan says:

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.

Sylvia_rachel says:

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 😉

Gillian A says:

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).

Dorothy says:

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.

Lianne says:

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?

These all amount to more or less the same thing. How do I stick with my novel? Despite the plot being dead, me being bored, me having crap ideas, my novel being totally uninteresting—how do I perservere?

My first response is, Oh, good. Another not easy question. Though I think I have at least partly answered Sylvia_rachel’s question in JWAM reader request no. 2 when I talk about nicking plots from elsewhere.

I’ll answer Sylvia’s quiz question first. Lois McMaster Bujold is the mistress of good plotting (and one of my favourite writers) so what ever she does is bound to work. Though personally, I have never consciously done that. How do you figure out what the worst thing is? Surely there are multiple answers to that question? (Which is probably Bujold’s point.)

How to deal with a dead plot

I don’t believe that any plot is dead. Only abandoned and/or recalcitrant. With the second (recalcitrance) often leading to the first (abandonment). This definitely seems to be the case for Jonathan, given the second half of his question: “On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already—stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.”

When your plot tangles, or grind to a halt, or becomes in some other way recalcitrant, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away. You need to not be in the same physical space with the problems. Go for a walk1 around the block, around the flat, whatever’s possible. Stretch our your back and arms and hands and fingers. Jump up and down on the spot. Do something physical away from your computer for at least fifteen minutes.

When you feel like the blood is actually circulating, sit down somewhere—not near your computer—and with pen and paper, or your iphone, or blackberry, or whatever—the key is that it be something that is not the thing you mainly write your novel on—write a quick schematic of where you are in the novel. You can draw little stick figures if you like representing the characters. Squares to represents the various places your novel takes place. Squiggles to represent action. Straight lines for when nothing’s happening. Etc etc. Personally I am not a visual person, I just write stuff down, you know, with words, but I have seen diagrams and sketches work for other people.

The point is to recreate your novel in a much shorter form to give yourself a different angle on it and a path forward. You may discover that not all your characters are interacting—bring two unlikely ones together. That they’re stuck in the same place—move them. And so on and so forth. Sometimes just the act of writing (or drawing or dancing) stuff about your novel away from it will trigger a solution to your plot problems.

It’s really important to take a break from your computer when you’re stuck. Don’t stay there futzing about on teh evil interwebs. That’s usually not the path to clearing brain and getting more focussed. Though if you’re writing your novel with pen and paper or on a typewriter (you lunatic!) or some other weirdness, then sitting in front of a computer could be just the break you need.

The other tried and true method—and this is the one I use most frequently—is to just push through. Sometimes that means putting in square brackets [no idea what happens here] and jumping ahead to write a scene where I do know what happens. Other times it means stubbornly writing even though you’re not sure what happens next. I did this when I got stuck with Magic Lessons and wound up writing about twenty thousand words (or whatever it was) where Tom was stuck on his own in Sydney while Reason and Jay-Tee had a fine old time in NYC. I didn’t realise I’d made a wrong turn until I had Tom sitting on his own in the cemetery saying to himself, “What am I doing here?”

Very good question.

I deleted the twenty thousand words and started from the point where Tom had been left on his own with nothing to do. This time Jay-Tee stayed in Sydney. The book began to write itself. Love it when that happens!

Scott had the same thing happen to him with Extras. He started the book in Hiro’s point of view before realising 16,000 words in that was the wrong point of view. He had to start over. Not much of what he’d written was salvageable.

Many beginning writers are appalled by these stories. “But you wasted so much time!”

Not really.

The time spent going in the wrong direction is how we figured out the right direction. Making mistakes and fixing them is how you learn to write a novel. Very few (if any) people get it right the first time.

Pretty much every novel Scott and I’ve written (and I suspect this is true of most novelists) has far more words on the cutting room floor (so to speak) then make it into the actual novel. I don’t mean that in the dramatic ditching-twenty-thousand-words-cause-of-wrong-turn way. Just that as you write, you make edits:

    First version: Her hand had gotten cold so that when she reached out to touch him he startled from the coldness of her touch. (22 words)

    Second version: Her hand was cold. When she touched him he startled. (10 words)

    Third version in which you realise the sentence not only sucks, but is unnecessary and cut it: (0 words)

So 22 words witten, but none of them remain in the complete first draft of the book. That’s just one (very bad) sentence. There are gazillions more where that came from.

Dealing with the middle, making things more exciting, finishing

I think the advice above can definitely help when you’re bogged down in the middle and will also help make things more interesting. You should also look at JWAM reader request no. 2 about generating ideas.

But I suspect that the real problem is often psychological. Who says your book isn’t interesting? You, right? Are you sure that’s not just an excuse to give up?

The most important way to deal with all these problems is to finish your book. It’s very hard to diagnose what’s wrong with an unfinished manuscript. Trying to fix things before the book is finished can complicate and slow things because once you truly finish you may discover that your diagnosis was wrong. Making your book good is easier to do when you have a complete manuscript to work with.

Your main job is to complete the first draft. This is especially true if you’ve never finished a novel before. You will never trust yourself as a writer until you have a completed ms. with a beginning, middle, and an end.

Hope this advice helps. Just remember there are lots of different solutions to these problems. Some will work for you, some won’t.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I know that’s tricky for some of you Northern hemisphere types given that it is literally below freezing right now and I’ve heard tales of people in Canada dying of exposure when they went out to get the paper and the door slammed behind them []

JWAM reader request no. 2: Generating ideas

Travis Says:

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.

I have written so many posts answering your first question that I created a separate “ideas” category for it. However, I think you’re asking something different. The issue is not where I get my ideas from, but how you can generate some of your own, and thus find interesting things to happen to your protags.

When beginning writers ask this question I tell them to take a plot from somewhere else: a fairy tale, a movie, a novel, manga, anime, anywhere at all really. But change it. Change it a lot.

Say, you decided to use “Little Red Riding Hood”. Why not make the protag a boy? And instead of crossing the woods to meet his grandmother, he has to get from one end of your city/town/neighbourhood to visit his uncle. And in place of a wolf there are members of an enemy gang trying to stop him.1 And it’s set in a future where water is scarce and worth more than gold. Or whatever you want. If you get stuck throw in another plot. Like one from Naruto maybe or High Noon or Great Expectations or something.

Every time you get stuck have something blow up. Or someone come running in brandishing a gun. Or someone discover that their new best friend is their long lost sister. Just keep throwing more stuff in until it feels like you have enough to work with.

I also suggest fixing someone else’s story you think is broken. Next time you read a book you hate, or stop watching a movie because it’s deeply lame, try to figure out what you hated about it and how you would fix it. Then write your improved version. This is a great way to learn how to plot.

Trying your hand at fan fiction—setting a story in someone else’s world with someone else’s (maybe minor) characters—like writing a story set in Harry Potter’s world about Hagrid or in the Middleman universe about Lacy. It’s a great way to learn. You already have a world and characters. But it really helps you learn how to plot like no one’s business. It’s no surprise that the pro writers who come out of fandom are plotting geniuses. Counter-intuitively they’re also very good at characterisation and world-building. You learn A LOT playing in someone else’s world.

Now most of these borrowed-plots stories and fixing of other people’s disaster will probably suck. But they’re an awesome way to learn.2

I once3 wrote a story by opening up two books at random in my room. I closed my eyes, spun around, and grabbed a book and opened it before opening my eyes. I was staring at an entry in an almanac about Lammas Day. The second book opened on the “Demon Lover” ballad. The resulting story was at long last, after many many rewrites, published this year.

I don’t need to generate ideas using tricks like that any more because after so many years of writing ideas come easily. That’s true of most things in writing (in life, really) the more you do them (plot, write dialogue, transitions, action scenes etc.), the easier they become, until they’re a habit you couldn’t break if you tried.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Wait a second does this mean that Warriors is a retread of “Little Red Riding Hood” and not whatever Roman myth the creator claims? []
  2. Some fanfic is just out and out genius. []
  3. more than fifteen years ago []

JWAM reader request no. 1: Choosing povs

Malcolm Tredinnick Says:

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.

Hmmm, a tricky one first up. Curses!

I think I may have mentioned that for most of my writing life i.e since I was five and first started, I wrote short stories, not novels. I’d start many but not finish them. But I finished hundreds of short stories. None of them were much good as stories, but they were excellent for learning stuff like how to use the different points of view.

And, wow, did I. I even have a few stories written in second person. Those were on purpose experiments, but in my early days I did lots of experimenting without knowing what I was doing. I would change points of view willy nilly. One minute a story would be in first, and then in limited third, and them in omniscient. I’d write from Jack’s pov, then Chan’s, then Jill’s, then Kara’s. Sometimes all in the one paragraph. Those stories were mostly unreadable, but slowly I started to learn my way around the four basic povs.

In those early bouncing-around-all-over-the-place stories I had no control over what I was doing with pov. I didn’t notice the constant changing. That was something I learnt by writing all those bad stories.

How does that translate to what I write now?

The first draft of Magic or Madness was written in third person. I also thought the book was going to be entirely from Reason’s pov. I wound up with Reason’s voice being in first and the two other pov characters, Tom and Jay-Tee, being in third. I’m not sure how that happened. Reason just wasn’t working in third. Her voice seemed flat. As soon as I tried shifting it to first, the book took off. I’d found the right voice.

I think my struggle to find the right voice for Reason stems from the trilogy beginning life as a set of ideas, rather than with a specific character. Both How To Ditch Your Fairy and the Liar book began with the strong voice of the protag. Both are in first person. It never occurred to me to change. Didn’t need to.

Scott says he uses first person when the book is more digressive—So Yesterday, Peeps—it allows him to stop the narrative and say, “Hey, let me tell you this cool thing.” He uses third when the narrative has more of a straight drive, like the Midnighters and Uglies books.

My current novel is (at least partly) in omniscient. It’s big with a large cast of characters. I believe that omniscient is the point of view best suited to epics. I think Dunnett’s and Pullman’s1 deployment of it is a large part of what gives those books their distinctive epic feel. If I can make it work even half as well as they do I’ll be home and hosed.

I’m loving writing in omni. I love being able to move from a close in view of a character’s thoughts all the way out to a sweeping view of the city and that character’s place in it. Omniscient feels like the most metaphysical point of view. The most flexible too. It allows for straight driving narrative, digressions, whatever I want to do with it. Right now I am deeply in love and feel that it is perfectly suited to the huge story I am attempting to tell. Bless you, omni!

Hope that answers your question, Malcolm.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. in His Dark Materials []

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!

Write what you know, NOT!

“Write what you know” is one of the most frequent pieces of writing advice. Problem is, it’s rubbish. As Cat Sparks discusses at length in this excellent post:

We’ve all heard that old adage ‘write what you know’. Well, that’s a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you’re just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren’t that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don’t know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.

Almost every book I’ve written has involved me doing research. Obviously, I did that for my two non-fic books. But also for my novels. The Magic or madness trilogy has a protag, Reason Cansino, who’s a mathematical genius. I am not. I can barely add up. I had to learn about Fibonaccis, prime numbers, and many other mathematical concepts that I barely grasped and have now completely forgotten, but hopefully make sense and worked in those three books. I’ve had some maths fiends write and tell me how much they appreciated Reason’s mathsiness. Those are the compliments that mean the most to me because that was by far the hardest part of writing the trilogy. I was writing stuff I didn’t understand. Or only barely. And only for long enough to write those bits of the book.

None of my novels are about people who are like me. Charlie in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a jock. I love sport, but I’ve never played that much and have never excelled. I would never have made it into a sports high school, even if I’d had the talent, cause I don’t have the discipline, and I really hate being told what to do. Charlie loves it. Rules make her happy, being at the strictest, most irrational high school in the world makes her happy. It would have driven me nuts. I would have been expelled within a week. Sometimes I think Charlie is the character I’ve written who is least like me. She has little intellectual curiosity, she’s happy with how things are, she loves rules, and she’s very very disciplined. Writing her was a revelation—I wound up liking and even understanding her. Whereas if we’d been at school together, I doubt we’d have had anything to talk about. Charlie doesn’t read or watch tellie and she doesn’t have much of an imagination.

If I’d’ve stuck to writing what I know, I wouldn’t have written any of those novels.

That’s not to say that I use nothing I know. Sometimes I give characters aspects of myself. Reason has spent time on indigenous settlements, so did I. Tom (also from the trilogy) has a father who’s a sociologist, so are both my parents. Tom in the trilogy loves fashion; so do I. But we’re still different. I’m challenged to get a button onto a shirt; Tom can make any item of clothing from scratch. So it required research to make his fashion prowess believable.

For me, one of the great pleasures of writing novels is exploring worlds I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about New Avalon when I began HTDYF. It’s an amalgam of places I’ve been, but it became its own city. Not like anywhere else. I didn’t know it until I wrote it. But I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know—about mathematics, about being an athelete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile. It’s why I kept writing for twenty years without being published. It’s why I will keep writing long after my career has dried up. And it’s why I’m so bewildered by those writers who keep writing the same book over and over again. Maybe I should write a novel about that kind of writer so I can figure it out?

Forget about “write what you know”. Or, rather, don’t be limited by that injunction. One of the scariest things I encountered on my tour was when I was being shown around a lovely school and I was introduced to all the different grades, even kindergarten, and in one class, second grade, I think, the teacher told her students that I was a writer:

“She writes stories for a living!”

The kids looked a bit bemused by this information but smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back.

“When you were their age,” the teacher asked me, “you wrote about your own experiences, didn’t you?”

“Oh, no,” I said immediately, “I wrote about dinosaurs and wizards and witches and monsters and—”

The teacher cut me off even as many of the kids were giggling. “Yes, but don’t you agree that it’s much better to learn to write from your own experiences?”

I don’t think that at all. I was horrified. So horrified that I just stared at her, not able to articulate my response. I don’t think anyone noticed because someone realised we were running late and I was led away. But later that day I made it a point to talk about how important and fun it is to write about stuff you don’t know, and that the way to do that is to make it into something you do know.

For example, maybe you have an excellent idea for a story about a kid whose mum is an elephant trainer? But you don’t know anything about elephants or what goes into training them. Start reading up on it and once you have go to the zoo nearest you. See if you can interview the zoo keeper about how they keep their elephants. Ask yourself lots of questions: How happy are elephants to be trained? How much longer do they live in the wild than in captivity? Would your character have an ambivalent attitude to their mum’s job?

That’s a lot to learn. Maybe you can ground your story by setting it somewhere you’re familiar with, or giving your protag some aspect of yourself. I doubt anyone writes a story that’s entirely made up of stuff they don’t know. In fact, once you’ve researched it, you do know it.

Hmmm, I think I’ve come full circle: write what you know.

But remember that what you know includes everything you’ve learned, all your research, everything you’ve read, or heard or seen. So the more you read, and hear and see, the more you have to write about.

Outlining v winging it

One of the conversations that I have most frequently with my good friend, Diana Peterfreund, is about our different writing methods. She’s an outliner; I wing it.

Tis most excellent fun talking writing with her precisely because we could not be more different. So different that we frequently wind up talking at cross purposes. Last time we had this discussion we got hung up on the phrase “first draft”. Turns out that what she means by “first draft” is not what I mean.

Because Diana outlines she figures out much of the novel before she begins writing. I figure things out as I write the first draft. Thus my first drafts—zero drafts really—are frequently messy conversation spines. A large part of what I do when I rewrite my first draft is make it coherent. Describe where the conversations are taking place, illuminate thought processes—flesh the skeleton out.

Diana’s already figured out most of that stuff before she types a word. She has a clear vision of her book before she starts writing. I have only the haziest of notions, which changes as I write. I had no idea when I started writing How To Ditch Your Fairy that a large part of would take place at a sports high school in an alternative universe in the city of New Avalon. I found all of that out as I wrote.

Diana’s “first draft” is much closer to the final book because she wasn’t figuring stuff out as she went along; my “first draft” is a mess. So when she says she doesn’t like to change her first draft too much I think she’s insane. Because I keep forgetting that her first draft is not a broken mess like mine.

On occasion I am made to write an outline or a proposal by my agent or editor. I hate writing them more than anything in the whole world. I would much rather write the book than a description of it. The reason for this is that I don’t know what the book will be until I write it. Writing a description of the book before writing it is pretty much impossible for me.

Diana, on the other hand, loves proposals, outlines and the like. They make her excited about writing the book. Whereas I see them as something that gets in the way of writing a book. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy before I wrote it on the basis of a proposal, which consisted of the first three chapters, an outline, and short descriptions of the world. It was some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Writing the first three chapters was easy. Writing the rest of the proposal was nightmarish. The only way I could do it was to tell myself that the outline was an advertisement for the book, not a description of the book.

I never looked at it again. It did its job of selling the book; I did mine of writing it. Never did the twain meet.

I’m not exactly sure what Diana’s planning and outlining looks like, though she has posted pictures of her plot board. It seems crazy detailed. I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing that. Though sometimes I make notes before I start writing.

My notes for the Liar book start on the 24th of February 2005. I wrote seven short notes—jotting down ideas and a few lines—before I started writing in earnest at the beginning of this year. Those notes amount to a few hundred words (to put that in perspective this post is more than 900). That was my planning. Except that the first time I read those notes again was for writing this post. The point for me is not the notes, but the act of writing them. I remember because I wrote them down, which means I don’t have to look at them again.

It’s not until I have a completed first draft that I get serious about planning. In my pre-Scrivener days that’s when I’d start using a spreadsheet to map out the structure of the book and see where and how it was broken. With Scrivener the structure is plain to see—on the cork board—-making the spreadsheet redundant.

So my outlining and planning stage comes after writing the book. Diana’s comes before. Which makes me wonder if our novel-writing methods are actually that different. What she works out in her head, or on paper, or plot board before beginning the actual writing; I do during the writing. I nail down the structure once I have a draft. Whereas Diana does it before she begins the draft.

All the same things are happening just in a different order.

Maybe winging it and outlining are identical methods put into practice in a different order? Maybe all novelists write in the exact same way but merely change the order? Maybe we are all the same?! Me and Diana and Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov, all identical!

Or maybe not.

Heh hem.

Either way my method is the best method. I’ll get back to applying it to my latest novel now.


Perfecting your craft

A large part of being a writer—whether you’re published or not—is working to improve, to perfect your craft. One of the biggest obstacles for many beginning writers doing that is that they sometimes get so obsessed with getting published that they forget about the writing.

It took me twenty years of striving to make my first professional fiction sale. I know how you feel—I felt it. I was desperate to get published and that’s part of why it took me so long. I kept getting distracted from perfecting my craft. From writing and writing and writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. From reading and studying the best (and worst) writers I could. I was more obsessed with seeing my name in print than I was with becoming a better writer.

I didn’t figure that out until I was in my thirties. Co-incidentally that’s when I started getting published.

Once I became a published writer I spent even more time perfecting my craft. When you’re a pro you start getting editorial letters and dealing with copyeditors and proofreaders. All of whom work to make your books as good as they can be by, yes, pushing you to further perfect your craft.

If you think that perfecting your craft is some annoying thing people who don’t want to publish you tell you just to keep you out of print, you’re wrong. They’re telling you because it’s at the heart of being a writer. No publisher worth their salt publishes a first draft. Those professionally published books, even the ones you hate, were edited and rewritten and copyedited and proofed.

If you are unprepared to work to make your book better and to improve your writing skills then maybe you don’t really want to be a writer?

BookPeople questions we ran out of time to answer

Our BookPeople event was run like the Actor’s Studio. There was a moderator, Emily, who asked us questions written down earlier by the audience. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and couldn’t answer them all. So here are our answers to the ones we didn’t get to that night.

Be warned: there are some spoilers for Scott’s Uglies books.

Questions for Justine:

Q: Will there be any more books about New Avalon?

A: I don’t plan to write any. Of the next two books I will publish, one is already written—the Liar book—and the other one—set in NYC in the 1930s is under way. If I did get an idea for another book set in New Avalon (where How To Ditch Your Fairy is set) it wouldn’t come out until 2011 at the earliest.

Q: Do schools like New Avalon Sports High really exist?

There are all sports high schools around the world. But I hope they’re not quite as strict as NA Sports High. I didn’t base it on any particular high school. Though I was influence by a doco I saw about girls training to be gymnasts at the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport). I was shocked at the long hours these young girls were training and at how strict their coaches were. Yet they seemed to love it. I remember one girl being asked how she could love such a tough training regime. She looked at the journo asking her the question as if they were crazy: “Are you kidding? I get to go to the Olympics!”

A: Is all the slang a mix of US & Australian or is some of it made up?

I made up the majority the slang, mostly by playing with my thesaurus. Thesauruses are fun! My favourite is “pulchy” for cute or good-looking. I’ve always thought “pulchritudinous” was the most hilarious word ever because it sounds so ugly yet it mean beautiful.

Questions for Scott:

Q: Did Tally and David get together at the end of Extras?

A: It is up to you, the reader, to decide.

Q: Why did you k*** Z***?

A: One of the dumb things Hollywood does is show us wars in which only extras and minor characters get killed. But in real life, everyone is the star of their own movie. So in real wars, everyone who’s killed is someone important—not just an extra or a bit player.

So once I realized that Specials was about a war, I felt it would be dishonest for only minor characters to get killed. Someone important to Tally had to die, and Zane was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Q: How did you find all the thirteen-letter words to use?

A: At first I found them “by hand.” Whenever I ran into a long word I counted the letters, writing it down if it had thirteen letters. But after a while I developed a strange superpower, the ability to spot
tridecalogisms by sight. Then my sister-in-law bought me a crossword dictionary that listed words by length, which was cool. Then finally I found a website that was designed to find words you didn’t know who to spell. I typed in thirteen question marks, and it generated a giant list! (I can’t remember the site name now . . . )

Questions for both Justine and Scott:

Q: Are you friends with any other authors?

Justine: Yes. Loads and loads of them. It’s fabulous. We read each other’s mss. critique them bounce ideas off one another. I’m very lucky.

Scott: We also write at least once a week with several authors: Maureen Johnson, Robin Wasserman, E. Lockhart, Cassandra Clare, Lauren McLaughlin, are the ones who most often show up.

Q: Is there any news on a movie?

Justine: While there’s been some interest in turning How To Ditch Your Fairy into a movie nothing has come of it so far. Trust me, if there’s any news on this front I will sing it from the rooftops. Though I think the Fairy book would make a better TV series than a movie.

Scott: The Uglies movie is still waiting for a script, as far as I know. I think Hollywood doesn’t know how to make a movie about, you know, ugly people.

Peeps is with an independent producer and screenwriter, and So Yesterday is being looked at. More news on that soon (probably).

But no auditions yet!

Q: When brainstorming ideas for your next book do you come up with multiple ideas? How do you choose the one to push forward with?

Justine: I pretty much always have a number of novel ideas to play with. I tend to talk about them with Scott and my agent, Jill, as well as my editor, Melanie, and a few writer friends. I’ve been talking about writing a book about a compulsive liar for ages. Whenever I mentioned it people would get very enthusiastic. I was too afraid to start though cause it seemed like it would be really hard to write (I was right) so I delayed until Scott and Jill and Melanie all ganged up on me.

I guess I let people bully me!

Though honestly all the bullying in the world wouldn’t have gotten me going if I hadn’t finally figured out a way to write the Liar book. So I guess my real answer is that the book that begins to grow and make sense is the one I wind up writing.

Scott: I usually have one idea that I really want to do most. I don’t come to that conclusion by any conscious way; it simply bubbles up in the back of my head as the most interesting idea. I think this ability comes from having written, like, 18 books—I’ve tried lots of ideas, and so am getting better at telling the more productive ones from the boring ones.

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

Justine: Loads! You can find some here, here and here. Though all my advice applies to beginning writers of all ages. In a nutshell my advice boils down to:

  • Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get published. Learning to write well is the main thing. If you try to publish before you’re ready you can wind up very discouraged. While you’re learning o write you should have fun with it. Try different styles, different genres, mess about, get your hands dirty!
  • Read A LOT. Read and read and read and read! Think about what books you like best and try to figure out what it is about the writing that works for you. Then give it a go. Think about what books you hated and try to figure out why the writing was such a disaster. Don’t write like that.
  • Write a lot.
  • Learn how to critique other people’s work.
  • Learn how to take criticism. If you want to be a professional writer you’re going to have to learn to take criticism and the sooner you start practicing the better!

Scott: Here’s the “writing advice” category from my blog, including some advice from guest blogger Robin Wasserman: Writing Advice.

Q: Which is your favourite cover?

Justine: I’m assuming you mean of one of my books. I’ve been very lucky I like every single one of my covers. But I think my absolute favourite is the one Cat Sparks did for Daughters of Earth.

Scott: Probably Extras. The fun part was that I got to work on it from the beginning, from choosing the model to picking the final shot.

The full story can be found here.

Q: Why are most of your protagonists girls?

Justine: Er, um. I don’t actually know. It was not by design. The first novel I wrote has multiple viewpoint characters many of whom are boys. My second novel is first person from the point of view of a boy. However, neither of those books sold. My first published novels (the Magic or Madness trilogy) has three view point characters two of whom are girls. And then How To Ditch Your Fairy is first person from the viewpoint of a girl. So far the books I’ve written with more girl characters are the ones my publishers have wanted. We’ll see if that pattern continues.

I don’t really consciously decide to make my main characters girls or boys. Nor do I consciously make them black or white. That’s just the way they are. Once I start getting a sense of their voice I’m learning at the exact same time all those other things about them: their race, gender, ethnicity, opinion of Elvis etc. Hope that makes sense!

Scott: I’ve had a mix of male and female protagonists. So Yesterday and Peeps were both from the point of view of boys, and The Last Days and Midnighters were from both male and female POVs. But I guess more people have read Uglies so Tally has left the strongest impression. Since that series is about the pressures of beauty and looks, I figured that a female protag would make more sense. Certainly, boys do worry about the way they look. But overall, girls are under a lot more pressure to freak out over every zit and extra pound.

Though, as I say in Bogus to Bubbly, I actually did try to write Extras from Hiro’s point of view. But the interesting stuff kept happening to Aya, so I moved her to center stage. I still don’t know exactly how it worked out that way.

Another moment of clarity: copyeditor edition

I finally figured out why I always often get into mega fights disagreements with my copyeditors.


Thus far all my novels have been in first person or limited third. I view these as the colloquial points of view and write them to mimic the character’s speaking voice as much as possible. That way, if I do it right, the reader will feel like the protag is talking to them because the language I use is conversational.

And there I fall into arguments with many copyeditors (not all of them—certainly not YOU). They wants everything to be gramatically correct and conform to house style. I wants for it to be colloquial, flowing, rhythmic language. Sometimes that means flouting conventional grammar rules and house style.

And leads to stet wars.

I also don’t believe that any one word is inherently “weak”. I do not believe there are “weak” adjectives or verbs or nouns. Or anything. Even words like “good” or “nice” have their place. Their use reveals a tonne about the character saying them.

There are very few grammar rules or commandments that I think are always and for all time. I is all about context. One of the reasons I love the English language so much is on account of how crazy flexible it is. I can bend and twist it. Sometimes make it go SNAP and BANG and BROKEN. But it always bounces back good and nice.

It’s the job of copyeditors to disagree with me. Which is for the best. Having them query my language messing, forces me to check that I’m doing what I think I’m doing, and that it actually works.

I can’t believe it took me so long to figure out why me and they is so often at loggerheads. It’s because our jobs be quite different.

Which is a good thing. Excellent even.

How to Write a Novel Redux

It has come to my attention that many readers of my post on how to write a novel are under the misapprehension that it is a description of how I write novels.

It is not.

It wasn’t even an accurate description of how I wrote them back when I wrote it. Lo, those many years ago.1

The novel I’m writing now makes no use of a spreadsheet,2 I did not borrow the plot for it,3 and the first sentence does not begin with “the” or “once upon a time”.4

I wrote the how-to-write-a-novel post for two reasons:

  1. I thought it would be funny. Maureen Johnson had just written a very amusing how-to-write-a-book post and I wanted to try my hand at the genre.
  2. I was also responding to the beginning writers who’d written asking questions about novel writing. Thus I was thinking about what might work for them. A common complaint was that they could never think of a plot. Hence the borrow-a-plot advice. Also they worried about the length and how to organise such a big amount of words. Hence the spreadsheet advice.

Personally, pretty much every novel I’ve written has been produced differently from the previous one. I have no set methods. Though I have lots of madness.

The novel I’m writing right now is the first one I’ve written with Scrivener and that’s making a huge difference to how I’m writing it. I’ve certainly never written a book completely out of order before. The last scene is already written though many from the middle are not. For me that is very strange.

I’m sure there are people who write each novel in the exact same way5 but most of the writers I know say they find each one different and have to figure out how to write it as they go.

I am the same.

  1. Well, okay, almost two years ago. []
  2. Scrivener renders spreadsheets unnecessary. []
  3. I’ve never written a novel that way, though I have written a number of short stories that retell ballads. One you can find here and another one will be published as part of Love is Hell later in the year. []
  4. None of my novels do. Though Magic Lessons begins with “once”. []
  5. There are some who write the exact same novel over and over again. []