Book reviews & writing tips from a wannabe YA writer
The Guardian posted a collection of rules for writing fiction from authors like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Philip Pullman. I read these rules over the course of a day so the words of wisdom would have a better chance of sinking in. Here’s my eloquent summary of one rule that cropped up over and over on the authors’ lists: Read a lot.
After reading the Guardian article, I allowed myself to fantasize about one day being a published author and being asked to provide my own list of writing rules. Would I offer practical advice like Elmore Leonard? Be funny like Roddy Doyle—or a stick-in-the-mud like Philip Pullman?
I decided to find out.
1. First impressions count. This is the rule that trumps all others. If the reader doesn’t connect with your main character—if she doesn’t empathize with what your character’s going through—you’ve lost her. Some ways we push our readers away without realizing it:
2. Don’t be shy. In this world of instant gratification, readers want something to happen right away. So ditch the prologue and the first chapter full of backstory and jump right into the good stuff. You can sprinkle the backstory in later. Likewise, make sure your main character does something early on that involves more than just reacting to what others are doing.
3. Do be mysterious. Can you imagine if the first chapter of When You Reach Me explained who was sending the notes and what they meant? No fun in that. Our job is to create a sense of wonder in the reader. This goes for the main character’s thoughts and feelings, too. We don’t need to tell the reader every single thought that flits through the character’s head. Use their actions and dialogue to show how they’re feeling.
4. Keep the drama in check. Soap operas don’t work so well on paper, at least not for me. Cut the melodrama, or tone it down. Try reading an emotional scene out loud to find the parts that are over-the-top. Instead of having a character talk about their emotions, put them in a scene where their actions can reflect how they’re feeling. The character might still have to hint at their emotions, but at least they won’t come off like a drama queen.
5. Live in the present. Much like the person you’re dating won’t appreciate frequent trips down the memory lane of your previous relationships, the reader will get tired of frequent flashbacks. It can also quickly get confusing about what’s happening now versus then. If you do include a flashback, keep it short and make it clear when it’s over.
6. Listen to your heart. Your main character’s parents and teachers may very well have good advice. Even so, she’ll have to learn those lessons for herself the hard way. Not only does it make for a more interesting story, but a character empowered to solve her own problems is hella inspiring. Scrutinize every piece of dialogue coming out of an authority figure’s mouth to make sure they’re not giving all the answers.
7. Don’t forget to have fun. Play with language to keep your writing fresh and sharp. Do a crossword puzzle every day, or subscribe to a word-of-the-day newsletter. Pull out a writing book and use a prompt or an exercise. Stretching your brain to use language in new ways will pay off.
What would be on your list of writing rules? Do you disagree with anything on my list or in the Guardian article?
And if you’re looking for even more rules, check out: