Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nine Questions and Answers About Writing

As part of the Writer's Digest University event, I answered nearly fifty questions written by participants in the course of the webinar. Here are nine of my favorites (including a definition of the new Point I just named, the Experiential Point, in part because I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote in the blog post here).

8. Can you review the difference b/t emotional and experiential Points.

The Emotional Point is the emotional change that your protagonist goes through – how he or she develops from A to B emotionally as a result of the action of the plot, and how you would define that development from A to B. (The Emotional Plot is the steps through which she makes that change.) The Experiential Point is a loose summation of the dominant feelings you intend the reader to feel in the course of reading the book: scared, delighted, under stress, etc. Or, if you prefer, it’s a summation of the book’s overall atmosphere/attitude: funny, tense, relaxed, amused . . . again, what you’d intend a reader to take away.

9. What if the change is not something modern American readers appreciate? And what if the change is very subtle, again, that readers might not connect to?

If you’re determined on this change, and there’s no way to heighten it or make it something modern American readers might appreciate (if, in fact, the subtlety and strangeness of it are part of your whole intention, as sometimes happens): Then you need to accept that your book may have a limited audience among modern American readers. Which is not the end of the world – you can still find a publisher (just maybe a smaller one that appreciates this kind of change, and not a mass-market one); you can still find those readers (ideally the ones served by this publisher); and you will have written exactly the book you wanted, which is always a good thing, because people rarely get exactly what they want in this world. But if that is not something you’ll be satisfied with, then I’d return to the idea of heightening the change.

10. How do you feel about using modern terminology such as BlackBerry, iPhone, Facebook, etc., in YA novels?

As a general rule, I think it’s good to try to avoid brand names, because they also brand and date your character for the reader in a way you may not intend, and those companies don’t need the free advertising. The exceptions are Facebook and Google, because they’ve become such an ubiquitous part of everyone’s online lives, and an online life has become such a ubiquitous part of life in general for many people, and they don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. . . . I feel as if you might as well use the real names of those programs, since if you use a fake name, readers will just see through to what you mean anyway. On the other hand, if you can come up with a fun fake name for those programs, that’s cool too, and it protects you from concerns about something getting outdated; for example, Sarah Dessen invented her own social network,, that appears in all of her books.

18. Are there rules for how a novel is written such as in the 1st person.

Yes. I’m going to shamelessly quote my own book at length here:

With first person, the reader is inside the narrator’s head, looking out through his eyes. This means that we have an immediate and intimate connection with this character—immediate access to all of his thoughts; an immediate, you-are-there presence in the action. It is terrifically intense, because there is no escape from this point of view, and everything that happens to the character happens to us, the readers, as well.
However: That will only happen if readers find this narrator likeable or compelling in some way. If the narrator is really annoying, that greatly increases the chance that the reader will put the book down. (If I stop reading a book, nine times out of ten it’s because I dislike something about the narrative voice.) . . . In first person, a narrator is under three kinds of pressure: (1) to tell the story; (2) to be believable and compelling as the voice of that particular character; and (3) to bring a personality and richness to the story beyond mere factual narration, as no interesting human being telling his own story ever reported merely the facts.
. . . Doing a first-person voice is like writing a picture book in rhyme: You should do it only if you do it very, very well. Of the three kinds of pressure placed on the narrative voice above, #2 and #3 are by far the most important; everything else — all your informational and plotting needs — has to work within the bounds of the character’s believability and personality. And if you have more than one first-person narrator within a book, then each voice has to be distinct from each other one in all the personality aspects we’ll discuss below: word choices, sentence rhythms, thought patterns.
20. Any techniques on how a character with low self esteem, as in a lack plot, can be created into an attractive character?

Show the reader that the character is actually quite interesting, smart, and funny, and has strengths s/he doesn’t recognize, most likely because they’re not valued by the culture (familial, social) in which s/he lives. Then make the plot of the book the change in the character’s own values, and the discovery of those strengths. (Three books that do this well: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich; and the forthcoming The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson.)

23. What aspect of being an editor, do you find the most enjoyable? Challenging?

My favorite part of being an editor is my conversations with my authors, in person (especially over food), on the phone or through e-mail, in my editorial letters, and on the manuscript page. The most challenging part of the job is the workload.

25. Is there a common theme that you see in new writers, of something that needs to be strengthened?

New writers tend to be impatient. They give away their entire story on the first page, or in the first chapter, because they believe they have to hook a reader right up front by throwing everything awesome they can possibly imagine (and/or all the information they have about the story) at the reader ASAP; but then there’s very little left to discover for the reader as she or he goes forward, because the writer has already revealed everything that’s interesting. I believe that readers are in fact more often hooked by authorial control: the sense that there is a lot of interesting story to be told here, and this author knows just how to tell it, and is going to reveal it to you piece by piece.

The moral here (slightly vulgar, but still true): Write your novel as if you’re performing a striptease, not going to a nude beach.

35. If one doesn't know what happens in the middle of the story, how can one figure it out?

In the words of Ray Bradbury, “Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.”

47. You talked about defining point and three kinds of points. Do you have any more tips on how to uncover/define/figure out these points in our manuscripts? I was horrible at figuring out theme in high school and I still struggle with it.

Yes, “Figure out your points!” is one of those things I say blithely because I do it all the time, but I know writers often struggle with it a little bit more, because they practice creating action, not diagnosing it! I’d set Thematic Point aside at the beginning and think about your Experiential Point first: What are five things you want to make the reader feel in the course of the book? How would you want the reader to describe the book afterward (beyond generic positive adjectives like “Great!”)? Then think about your main character. Who is he at the beginning? And the end? How would you define the difference between those two people? What has he learned emotionally? There’s your Emotional Point. And then if you can take what he’s learned Emotionally and turn that into a more general thought about life or people or ways of being in the world, you can check off Thematic Point too.

Shameless Authorial Bookmongering: My book Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, containing many more thoughts on plotting, novel beginnings, character development, and voice, is available here.


  1. I love what you have to say about First Person Point of View Narration. I'm in the process of re-writing a novel from 3rd person into 1st, and it's been making a world of difference.

  2. If the book itself is a character, narration can be tricky and interesting (from the writers point of view, at least).

  3. Thanks for sharing about the emotional and experiential points. I didn't really understand the difference.

  4. Shamelessly quoting your own book. Hmmm., Rather strange when a publisher has to self publish her own book through a "vanity press" rather than through the tried and accepted process.

  5. Oh please, Anonymous. I've described my reasons for self-publishing repeatedly, and if you're truly curious and not a troll, you can find them on the SECOND SIGHT pages on my website.

  6. This was extremely helpful. I almost always write in first person, and it's terribly difficult to make different characters sound, well, different. In fact, with every project I take on, the first thing I do is try and see if it doesn't sound like any previous ones. I may try third next time and see what I can do.