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 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 my editor all ganged up on me. That book was Liar.

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 Liar. So I guess my real answer is that the book that begins to grow and make sense is the one I wind up writing.

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

A: 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!

Q: How do you write a novel?

A: I’m glad you asked. Here’s how.

Q: Why are most of your protagonists girls?

A: 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) have three view point characters two of whom are girls. Then How To Ditch Your Fairy is first person from the viewpoint of a girl. As is the Liar novel which will be out in (USian) autumn of 2009. 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.

Q: Nicolás asks: “I’m writing my first novel and i think i have a good story to tell, somethin’ that hasn’t been written at least not in Argentina. Luckyly i fell in love with my characters and their world and i hope it can get published ’cause i’d really like to get my first novel out there.
But lately i got scared, likee “oh my god what if nobody will want my book? what if i’m being naive and i’m wasting my time?” Do you have any kind of advise for these feelings i’m getting?
I believe in my story but lately i’ve been having these feelings . . . these scary feelings.”

A: Yes. I get those feelings all the time. I worry that what I write is crap more often than I like to admit.

In fact, I wrote two novels that have never been published. But I don’t think I wasted my time on them. They taught me a lot about writing. I’m still very fond of my first novel and have hopes that one day it will find a publisher. You never know.

I suspect that doubt is a part of the creative process for many writers. (Not all, though. I know at least two happy doubt-free writers.) It seems to be for me. As long as you don’t let the doubt get in the way of actually writing—which you don’t seem to be—then I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

Good luck!

Q: Belinda asks: “Have you and your husband ever written a book together? If not have either of you ever considered it?”

A: We haven’t, though we have written a section of a short story together that was auctioned to raise money for Clarion South. We have considered it, but so far we’ve both been way too busy with our own projects to make way for a collaborative one. Some day . . .

Q: What’s it like writing for a young adult audience?

A: I don’t feel like I wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy specifically for kids aged twelve and up (which is what a young adult audience is meant to be). I simply wrote the story of Reason Cansino the best I could. I hope it will be read by all ages. So far the books have been read and enjoyed by quite a few people who are considerably older than twelve.

I find that there’s a much bigger difference between writing fiction and non-fiction than there is between writing for kids and adults. Fiction is much, much easier. For starters: no pesky footnotes!

Q: I want to get my novel published but I’m a teenager, will publishers give me the time of day?—asked by several young writers.

A: You can find my detailed answer here. Most of it applies to aspiring writers of all ages. The short answer is that your age is irrelevant; it’s the quality of your novel that counts.

Q: I want to write a novel but I don’t know how to start. Help!

A: You are in luck. I have written an entire essay entitled, How To Write A Novel. I hope it helps.

The essay does not, however, describe how I write my novels. It’s advice aimed at a beginning writer.

Q: How do you write your novels?

A: Slower than I’d like. Annoyingly, each novel seems to demand a different method. I started out writing from the beginning to the end but more recently I’ve been writing books out of order. The more novels I write the less I seem sure of a distinct method for writing them.

Q: I’ve written a novel but it’s broken and I don’t know how to fix it? How do you rewrite?

A: Amazingly, I’ve written an essay that suggests many ways a newbie writer can tackle novel rewrites. Good luck!

Q: Brittany asks, “The devil books, must they be typed and submitted in a particular format? Or is standard Times New Roman 12pt Single spaced ok?”

A: One of the nice things about being a published author is that I submit my books electronically. Thus the font I use is irrelevant. The publisher can change it. When you’re unpublished and having to submit paper it’s best to stick to the industry standard stuff: double spaced, readable font, single-sided, etc.

For those wondering why Brittany asks about “devil books” it is because of this post where I say that books are teh devil, which they are.

Feel free to ask more questions below. I can’t promise a quick response but I definitely will answer.


  1. as lee on #

    What is your typical day like? Do you have a strictly disciplined schedule that you are able to fallow? Or do you write on a more when ever schedule?

  2. Justine on #

    as lee: I answered this question a couple of years ago and nothing much has changed. The sad truth though is I exaggerated in that answer. I do not write every day. It’s a bit more haphazard than it should be. But I aim to write every day . . .

  3. Lily on #

    I’m twelve and I’m writing a short story for my English class. Un fortunately, my plotline is extremely complex, and it’s going to be way too long for the assignment. My English teacher says that I should write my story in several installments, but that’s not really the way I want it to be read. Should I bag the idea altogether and go with something else entirely, or should I keep the idea and just condense it a bit.
    The thing is, though, my story has at least four different climaxes, and it would be confusing reading it if it started after one or two of the climaxes, and had lots of flashbacks (if any).
    Also, I don’t really want to do my story in first person, or third person limited, but is third person omniscient too difficult for a beginning writer? My English teacher told me that it was a very old fashioned writing style, and although I’ve seen it used, it’s always been on stories that are at least fifty pages long (our stories can’t be longer than eight). I’m afraid my idea will turn out to be several hundred pages worth of material, so would that be too long to condense into eight pages?

  4. Justine on #

    Lily: Why not write your story in all those different ways? A condensed one for your English class. A long one for yourself. And why not try writing it in first, limited third and omni to see which one works best?

    I frequently write stories lots of different ways before I figure out which one works best. Not only is it fun but you learn a lot about writing.

    Here’s what I’ve written about points of view. I don’t think any of them are intrinsically harder than any of the others. I recommend trying your hand at all of them.

    Good luck with your story!

  5. Angela on #

    [Comment deleted because it was a series of questions for my husband, Scott Westerfeld.

    Please don’t do that.

    If you send Scott questions and he doesn’t answer them it’s because he doesn’t have time. Scott gets a ridiculous amount of mail every day. He tries to answer all of them. Sending your questions to me won’t magically supply him with the time needed to answer them.

    He has a long FAQ of his own. And there’s loads of other information on him if you read around his website.]

  6. Taylor on #

    Hi, I’m 14 years old and I’m writing a book. I have already written the prologue and part of the first chapter but I’m having trouble going on. Whenever I try to write I kinda freeze up or something, kinda like an anxiety I guess; but I really want to write and this thing is getting irritating. I’ve read something kinda similar to this called “Black Days.” Do you know it? Think you have a way to (semi) cure it?

  7. Justine on #

    Taylor: I’ve written a couple of posts on related questions that might help you. I link to them below.

    Many describe what you’re going through as “writer’s block”. It’s very common. There are lots of ways to beat it but they pretty much all involve pushing through. You have to ignore whatever is creating the anxiety and just write. First drafts are almost always terrible. Mine are. Don’t let that worry you. Just keep writing down the story you set out to tell. You can always fix it later.
    Here are two posts that might help. One on generating ideas and the other on how to get unstuck.

  8. Breanna on #

    Do you think it is bad to have short scenes? As in, 800 words short? In the beginning of my novel, the scenes were at least 1,500—ranging to 6K!—and now they’re quite short. Although some of them are a bit longer, I’m just being a worry-bug and would like to know what you think :). Thanks for reading, hope for your reply! ~Breanna

    P.S. When I first saw “Liar” ‘s cover in stores, I was like, “What does that say?” It was so confusing—and then I finally worked it out! 😀 Yay for me!

  9. Justine on #

    Breanna: Liar is full of very short scenes. I think the shortest one is 45 words. James Patterson and Dan Brown have very very short chapters and their books are very popular. Don’t worry about the length of scenes! Just write the best you can.

  10. Breanna on #

    I have read the advice on your website, and your essay on the topic, but I have another question—and I know this is sad :P. Do you have any advice AT ALL on editing? I mean, like the tiniest, slighest advice? Because I’m really, really awful and I want to know if the experts have any more of a clue… Thank you for your time; you’re AMAZING!!!

  11. Addy-la on #

    Dear Justine,
    I have read just about every bit of advice you have on here… But i have one question… (Even thought asking it makes me feel like a complete fool.) I working on this “book” (I want to become an author, that least that’s the dream…) But as I’m writhing it i feel as if it sounds to much like some other books that have already been written… Does this mean I’m not a good writer? Or that I’m stealing? Or I’m not original? And how can I fix it? How can i save my Book? (I love this book like its my baby and have started over 2 many times because i have felt this way…) PLease help me!
    Thanks ~ Addy-la

  12. Justine on #

    Breanna: I have a whole post on editing and rewriting here.

    Addy-la: It turns out I have answered part of your question before but buried on the blog. Here it is.

    The other part is more about confidence. One of the hardest parts of writing is having confidence in what you’re doing, believing in it. Almost every writer has moments of being full of doubt and convinced their work is unoriginal, boring or bad or all three. It’s just part of the territory.

    So keep working on your novel, make it as good as you can, and put your worries aside as best you can! Good luck!

  13. Addy-la on #

    Thanks you so much!!! I feel better already!

  14. Addy-la on #

    Umm Okay so i have another Q! How to I give my Book a amazing name??? I want to give it something good but i don’t know how to go about naming it!

    (It’s like looking at a huge cupcake. And as you sit there, with your mouth as wide as it can go, you can’t find the perfect place to start devouring it’s yumminess. So your stuck with this amazing looking cupcake with a very hungry tummy.) Please help me! Thanks you the best!
    ~ Addy-la

  15. Justine on #

    Addy-la: Names are hard. Every title I’ve come up with for one of my books has been overruled by my publisher so now I just give them stupid working titles and don’t worry about it.

    While I’m writing I tend to have working titles like “The Fairy Book”, “The Liar Book”. Currently I’m writing “The 1930s Book,” “The Lodger Novel” and “The Other Book.” I usually don’t come up with an attempt at a proper title till the book’s close to finished or actually finished.

    Hmm. Seems I’m not really the person to ask. I am not good at titles. Good luck!

  16. Aude on #

    Justine, i wanted to thank you for your blog, it’s a wonderful help for the teen writer that I am. But how did you manage to find a publisher after your so-called “midlife crisis” when you were seventeen and no one wanted your writings?
    I’m kind of in the same situation!

  17. Justine on #

    Aude: I just kept trying. Also after twenty years of sending work out I started to get a bit of name recognition. As in the rejections started to be personal and then at last there was an acceptance. Persistence and luck, I guess.

    Good luck to you and keep on writing.

  18. Tegan on #

    Hi Justine,

    I think I have a fairly good story I have written that I would like to try and get published. I’ve had it in my mind since I was a teenager and have been working on it on and off for the last two years. I was just wondering what a manuscript would look like, I’ve check around the Internet and found them all to be on US sites. I’m from Australia and I just want to know what our standard is like. I understand I might not get published anytime soon or at all, but I just like to give it a shot, and I don’t won’t to look like an ameteur (even though I am one). It’s just I won’t to look I have put effort in trying to impress them. Any hints?

  19. Tegan on #

    Sorry about the appalling grammar. I just realised.

  20. Danielle on #

    Hi Justine (:

    Um…..what age did you start writing storys at? What year did your first book get published?
    I am wondering because i am doing a book report on you…so yeah (:

  21. Justine on #

    Tegan: The basics has outlined by the US sites you’ve looked at is pretty much the same for Australia. Only print on one side of the page, double space, make sure the font is readable i.e. 12pt black and one of the standard fonts like Times. Though these days with more and more electroic submissions you don’t have to worry about printing and if they don’t like your font choice they can change it.

    There’s a lot of good advice out their own agents blogs about what your query letter should look like. I’ve never written a query letter in my life. Agents know far better than me.

    Good luck!

  22. Justine on #

    Danielle: I started writing stories almost as soon as I learned to write. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories. However, I didn’t sell my first novel until many, many years later. It was published in 2005.

    Sorry I didn’t answer this in time for your book report. Hope you went well.

  23. Sally on #

    Hi Justine,

    LOVE your work! And I have a question for you regarding race (and connected stuff). I’m (re)writing a YA steampunkish novel set in an Austalian-ish parallel/off to the side kind of world. I have characters of a few different ‘races’ – there are Indigenous characters, convict witchy people, ‘Oriental’ folks and so on. Being of Anglo-stock myself, I have given myself a heck of a lot of grief over this – do I have the right to speak in the POV of characters whose race I don’t belong to (even if they are sort of in a sideways universe)? You don’t seem to let this sort of questioning stop you, I notice (and take heart from).

    Sometimes it seems like I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t, you know? I read your interview about race stuff in the link on your blog. I would hate to whitewash my story – ugh! I hate the idea of a totally white world, especially an imaginary one that I get to make up myself! It’s just, I find my story itself is getting so fraught with these issues, like, it’s invading the text itself and sometimes I can’t tell if I’m just working through my issues or if this stuff is meant to be in the story.
    I think it’s also the steam-factor that is making this extra tricky. Steam = Victorian era = very dodgy time for Indigenous folks at the hands of Empire-building. So, I do think grappling with race relation issues is in-built to some extent when trying to write an Australian-ish steampunkish thing.

    Argh! Realising I don’t really have a clear enough question to put to you … besides … is it worth it?! And … do you have any advice for how to stay focussed on the story, without letting the politics totally muzzle and smother what was once a fun, magical steam-driven adventure and is now turning into something that at it’s best is dark in a good way, but at it’s worst is heavy and miserable in a not so great way and not at all of the vibe I originally had in mind … ??

    BTW – this is my first novel!

  24. Justine on #

    Sally: Writing the story you’re passionate about is always worth it.

    And it’s doubly worth it to do the very best research that you can to make sure your book is as truthful and rigorous as you can make it. For instance, many people find the word “Oriental” offensive. You should definitely read around to find out why. You’re a writer so it’s very important you understand the connatations of the words you use.

    I have written several posts on these questions. If you click on the state of the world category you’ll pull up many posts by me and guest bloggers on race and class and gender. This one has a particularly good comment section that you should read through.

    Good luck!

  25. Sally on #

    Thanks heaps, Justine. And the timing was amazing. Proof of the vibey-ness of the universe, or something. I’d kinda forgot I asked that question, then remembered the day before y’day and came to see if you’d answered (first time I’d been back to yer blog in a while). Nup, nuthin. Then this morning – there it was! 🙂
    MUCH appreciation, Sally.

  26. Dylan on #

    Hi Justine,

    I’m almost finished writing my first novel. It’s a thriller, and I have a quick question about marketability. A lot of the books that I have read in this genre rely on realistic settings and places to engage readers. With the Australian readership being so small in comparison to the UK or America, I’m worried that if I use Australian cities, streets and landmarks that I will be limiting its potential to be published. I’ve kept all places fictional so far. With your experience, do you think foreign readers are favourable of thrillers that are set in places they can identify with, or would they rather hear about an interesting setting?

    Thanks for your time!

  27. Justine on #

    Sally: Pleasure.

    Dylan: do you think foreign readers are favourable of thrillers that are set in places they can identify with, or would they rather hear about an interesting setting?

    Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about any of that. Unless you’ve lived in a place it’s very hard to write about it convincingly. So write the places you know. (That includes places you’ve invented.) Do the best job you can and then, and only then, send it out to agents. But while your sending your book out start writing your next book. If you want a career as a novelist it’s always good to have a novel in progress.

  28. Mandi on #

    Hey Justine,

    I’m writing a thriller/Sci-Fi novel write now, and even though it’s only at the beginning, it feels like it’s getting a little boring. I know in your essay about novel writing you said to add exciting twists and all, but I’m not sure what twists I can write currently. Do any twists exist for the beginnings of books so the readers continue to be interested and they wouldn’t put my book down?


  29. Justine on #

    Mandi: That’s a very difficult question to answer as all twists and turns vary depending on what book they’re in. For example in one book it might be a twist if it turns out that the main character’s best friend is actually imaginary whereas in another it would be a twist if they turned out to be real.

    Sometimes if there’s not enough going on early in a novel it’s because there aren’t enough characters. Maybe you need to add some best friends or siblings or parents? The more characters you have the more complications you can have. Good luck with it! (Sorry to be so slow to answer.)

  30. Lamusiqe13 on #

    I’m sure you’ve touched on this elsewhere, but I can’t find it, so I’ll ask here. Any advice on proofreading the works of friends? How do you give them advice that’s useful, applicable, and honest without being mean?

  31. Justine on #

    Lamusiqe13: I think I need to write a whole post to answer your question properly. The problem is that most beginner writers experience pretty much all criticism as being mean. (To be honest some writers who’ve published a million books are also that sensitive. Including me sometimes.) That makes things tricky.

    I always start by asking the person what they want me to give them feedback about. What are they worried about? Do they want me to mark where I got bored, where my attention started to wander? Do they want to know if the plot made sense? If there were parts where I got confused. Etc etc. And then I focus on those questions when I read their story.

    When I critique someone’s work, whether they’re a raw beginner or Holly Black, I always start by saying what I liked, what’s working, what’s good about the manuscript. We all want and need praise. So start positive, then talk about the problems with the ms. and then go back to being positive.

    (That kind of critique, however, is not proofreading. Proofreading is when you’re looking for typos and very minor stuff. No need to proofread until a story is exactly how you want it.)

  32. Samantha on #

    Hi Justine! In writing should you take other’s advice? Like what you should do and not? Or should I just believe in my self and learn from it? Sorry if I asked this kind of question.

    • Justine on #

      This is a tough question to answer because it’s not an either/or. Sometimes other people give you the perfect advice, sometimes they give you terrible advice. Sometimes the one person will give you good advice and then the very next thing they say will be terrible advice.

      One of the things you learn as you’re learning how to write is to tell the difference between advice that works for you and advice that doesn’t. It takes a long time. In the meantime here are some rules of thumb that might help:

      Be suspicious of people who tell you there’s only one true way to write. Who say that you have to outline or that you should never outline. Or that true writers write every single day or you’re not a real writer if you don’t drink coffee or whatever.

      Different methods work for different writers. Try them all and figure out what works for you. Though remember that while outlining may not have worked for you with one story it might work for another. Writers change their methods from time to time.

      If people are giving you advice that feels wrong or confuses you and your gut is telling you not to do what they say then don’t. Writers need to be able to trust their instincts.

      However, sometimes your instincts can be wrong but you’ll only learn that by following them. A few times I’ve ignored advice from multiple people only to discover after writing the story my way that they were right and I was wrong. It happens.

  33. Nicola on #

    Hi Justine,
    Just enjoyed reading your “10 years of writing” post. Quick q: you mentioned being part of the fabulous YA community in Australia. Would you be able to recommend any great online YA communities I could become part of? Feeling the pangs of loneliness and doubt in front of my compu at the moment…

    • Justine on #

      Eek. I really thought I had answered this one. I’m not sure where you are but if you’re in Australia I’d recommended checking out the #loveOzYA group.

  34. EZ8 on #

    I am currently writing my first novel. If I may say so, the plot and story is good, I just don’t know how to chapterize it. I’ve just written it all. I mean how many words are supposed to be in one chapter. Or how many scenarios can I cover in one chapter.

    • Justine on #

      There’s no rule to how many words in a chapter. Some authors turn scenes into chapters. So each discrete scene is one chapter. Some have multi-scene chapters. Some have fifty word chapters. Others have ten thousand word ones. Some novels have no chapter breaks at all.

      Sorry if this isn’t helpful but it really depends on the novel and how you want to organise it. Re-read some of your favourite novels and have a look at how they’re broken up into chapters. It might give you an idea of how to do it for your own novel.

  35. Ani on #

    Hi Justine,
    I have just read your “How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White” article, which I found very helpful, however, I’m looking to write a PoC character but in a medieval/fantasy setting and I’m wondering if the same rules apply and what else to do?
    My main reason for doing this is I start with a concept for a character and then I build from there. I was browsing Pinterest looking for costume ideas when I found this http://dndhomebrewandart.tumblr.com/post/163326826529/we-are-rogue-mtg-dhund-operative-by-magali drawing; her expression and baring completly fits with the character idea I had and I knew this was what I had to base my character off- I already knew that my main character would have to travel south at one point, so it was feasable plot-wise. I’m trying not to fall into any traps, because I already loved this character idea before finding this and want others to love her as much.
    Thanks for your time

    • Justine on #

      Hi, Ani,

      Your question raises many more questions. For instance, when you say a medieval/fantasy setting what do you mean exactly? An Asian setting? An African setting? A European setting? If you follow https://twitter.com/medievalpoc http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/ you’ll know that there were many PoC in medieval Europe and that Europe’s past is far more complicated than many of us were taught in high school.

      I always advice folks writing fantasy to think very carefully about world building because your setting is a huge part of your story. What do the peoples of your world eat? Where does that food come from? Do they grow all of it themselves? Do they trade for it? Once you have trade you always have many different groups of people from all over.

      Figuring out the economics and politics of your world should help with your understanding of all your characters.

      Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New here? Please read the blog rules, moderation policy, and spoiler policy. Thank you!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.