I enjoy answering questions at my Quora Profile Page. Here are some of my answers to writing questions and concerns.
QUORA Question 1: Is there stigma around smart adults reading Young Adult novels?
My Answer: There will always be people who want to judge you. I read almost exclusively young adult books. When my friends start talking adult novels, I’m like, “Huh?” Yes, I am an author of young adult books, but that’s not the only reason I read them. I read YA because it’s so different than adult books, and I really appreciate what the genre.
I love “first moments”—whether that be the intensity of a kiss, the raw emotion of losing someone you love, or the pain of breaking up with someone. I also love the adventures within teen novels. True, literary teens don’t have homework, and seem to have a lot more hours than the rest of us to get into trouble, but still. In a general sense, these books tend to be more fun and plot driven that adult books.
So many adult books are about “grownup” issues that bore me, frankly: divorce, marital problems, family angst. And the endings! They are usually so unhappy! Once I read a highly-acclaimed adult book about a very unhappy family and in the end, someone died, and that was it. I threw the book against the wall. I really dislike books that are solely character driven with little or no plot and then have a tragic end. I pulled my hair out when my mom started giving me Oprah Book selections. Now yes, of course, some adult books have plot and adventure, but they don’t seem to have as much of that magic intensity that’s unique to teen life and its characters.
So now that I’ve gone on and on about how wonderful YA books are, let’s go back to your question. I am guessing you read them because they are more interesting to you. People do joke about my reading tastes, but you know what, I don’t care. Why should you? Like food, like shopping, like people—we all have different preferences.
Own your love of YA and know, you’re not alone. Many, many adults have re-discovered YA, and those who haven’t are missing out. Take one of my favorite YA books, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. I challenge any of your book bullies to read it and then try to tease you about your taste for literature.
My Answer: Pretty much every writer has this problem, since none of us are in elementary school anymore. You aren’t alone, and just like all the successful authors out there, you can be successful too.
Technology changes. Circumstances change. The world around us changes. But emotions tend to be fairly static. Use your own to create authenticity with your characters.
How do you do this? Start with a stroll down memory lane. Do you have old diaries? School papers? Letters to grandma? Photos of lacrosse camp or your tenth birthday party? Looking at these memory-nudgers will open doors. Try to think about what you were feeling and thinking at the time. Pay attention to what you thought were the highlights of your life back then. Ask yourself how you felt about each of your party guests. In essence, get in touch with your inner child. He or she still lives inside of you.
Next, become a volunteer. Can you volunteer at places where kids commonly hang out? I know this sounds creepy, but I’m sure you are not a creep, so let’s move beyond that for now. You can volunteer to teach a writing class to fifth graders. While you are teaching, observe how the kids look, act, and sound. Obviously, there are so many ways you can observe kids, you just have to be creative. And if you want to be paid, and like to teach, try substituting. I am sure that job will pay you twice as much in valuable, usable kid details.
One quick point about kid dialogue. You will hear a ton of “likes” in their language, but do not put that into your book (or only very lightly.) Just because it’s authentic in real life doesn’t make it good literature. Same goes with slang. It sounds like you, as an author, are trying too hard when you have your characters saying, “OMG, that is, like, so sick!”—even if that is verbatim what you heard. Also, slang is dangerous in that it dates your writing. When I read a book that mentions some old social media platform that no self-respecting child would ever use now, I can pretty much tell you the year it was written.
Read middle-grade literature. Read everything you can get your hands on. These authors all have authentic kid voices, so while it’s secondhand observation, it works very well. Analyze dialogue, behavior, plot. It will help you improve tremendously.
If you want more ideas, I have an article up on my website that has ten quick ideas for getting in touch with the teen voice, but this can apply to kids of any age. Ten Ways To Improve Your Teen Voice
You’re on the right track, because you have identified your problem. Now you just need to fix it. I promise you, it’s achievable and this fear should not stop you from writing your book. Best of luck to you!
My Answer: I’m an author of YA novels, and since that’s arguably a much longer process and time commitment than article writing, I want to focus on that for my answer.
I’ve written two books. One comes out in fall 2017. I also have four others that did not get published. The difference between those that “made it” and those that didn’t are indistinguishable to me, by the way. I worked equally hard on each of them.
Once you get a better handle on the craft—plotting, characterization, pacing and more—certain parts of writing do tend to get easier. For one thing, it’s not so daunting to start a new project. With experience, you will have faith that you can reach The End through persevere and skill. But not every aspect of writing gets easier. Some don’t. Certain challenging aspects of creating a novel are, in fact, completely out of your control.
I’m talking about the less well-know aspect of writing in an emotionally authentic way, especially when your work has biographical elements. If your scene or characters touch home for you in some way, it can be extremely difficult to get the right words on paper and to even have the clarity to know what you want to say in the first place.
Most of the time, writers are not aware that the reason they stop writing has to do with their own reluctance to delve into something personal. For example, I have a scene in my book Stolen Secrets relating to potential elder abuse. On a personal level, I went through this with my grandmother, who I felt was being emotionally abused by a relative. Because this is what I knew, I modeled the abuser after my family, at first subconsciously. Every time I reached a scene with that character in it, I stopped writing and started cleaning my house. Hey, when an author’s house is clean, that’s a bad sign!
The emotional difficulty of writing does not get better merely because time passes. In fact, first time writers tend to write more biographically, so this aspect may make the initial experience of writing that much more difficult, preventing the writer from finishing the novel or trying again on a second or third one.
If you’re interested, I have an area of my website devoted to writers. You might want to check out an article I wrote called Themes In Lit and In an Author’s Life where I looked at how this issue impacted me.
As a general rule, almost everything that’s difficult to achieve will not come easy. There’s a reason so few people are successful at writing a book. It’s hard! But the sense of victory when you get there, emotionally as well as professionally, is thrilling.
The only way to cross the shallow river is through the mud. So waddle in and don’t stand still. I promise it will be rewarding and strangely cathartic to reach the other side.
My Answer: First drafts always suck. Flat characters are a common problem. Don’t waste a second worrying about this. The beauty of digging deeper to reveal a full, authentic character often comes in the next draft or the one after that. So let’s focus on how to grow your protagonist for a bit.
Go through each scene and ask yourself how your character would react, given what you know about her. You may well find that you have the character acting the same way every time. My critique partner was shocked to learn that each time her protagonist did something brave, she took a nap. This was the author, an introvert, projecting her own emotions of exhaustion at extrovert acts onto her character. Okay, let’s take another example: a shy character and a brave one. If a man tried to attack these two characters, they would react differently. One might run away, and the other might push the man down. Or, let’s say a cute guy walks into the store. Your shy character might want to run and play camouflage with the avocados in the next aisle, even if she desperately wants to meet him. But your brave character might march right up and start a conversation. (Wouldn’t like be great if we were all so bold?)
Another way to add depth to your characters is to play a question game. It goes like this: Why is my character so full of energy? Because she is hiding her sad emotions. Why is she hiding her sad emotions? Because her father died when she was ten. Why did her father die? He was moving out of the home and he got hit by a bus. How did that affect my main character? She always feels like everyone is going to leave her alone. AHA! So her boundless energy is a way for her to pull people in closer to her, and appear happy all the time, so they won’t abandon her. See how it works? You don’t have to know the answers, and if your character is flat, you most certainly won’t know them, so make up answers and keep on asking.
Dig, dig, dig! Your characters and your novel will thank you.
QUORA Question 5: How do I stop repeating words while writing?
My Answer: Don’t worry about it in the first draft. We all do it. In addition to being an author, I’m a freelance editor for other people’s manuscripts and I see this issue all the time. What’s interesting to me is that each writer I meet has one or more different and specific words they repeat. In any case, the first draft is meant to “get it all on the page” so you don’t need to concern yourself with repetition too much at this stage.
With the second (or third or fourth) draft, here are some tips:
- Discover what words you repeat. Use Command-F, or whatever search shortcut you use, and type it in. It will be disheartening to see that you repeat a word 82 times, but don’t let that get in the way of the haircut that needs to be done. Next, go through each one and decide if it’s the best choice for that sentence. Some should stay and others can be changed. For example, in this paragraph alone, I repeated a variation of “word” many times. I went through and changed “type the word in” to “type it in” and “go through each word” to “go through each one” and “some words should stay” to “some should stay.” This left only two. Both are necessary, in my opinion, so I left them in.
- Go to Thesaurus.com – The world’s favorite online thesaurus! and type in your word. You will see alternative options.
- Read aloud. Yes, some authors do this for their entire manuscript. Voicing a scene will quickly reveal what words are being overused.
- Pay close attention to word repetition within the same paragraph and chapter. Those need to be weeded out as they are most obvious to the reader.
- Ask a critique partner. They know all your flaws, trust me.
One final comment: Don’t stop at words. Scenes are often repetitive. The way to find those is to ask yourself, how does this move my story forward? If it serves the same purpose as another scene, then you have some trimming to do.
My Answer: Thanks for asking me to respond to this question, Sammy. I wonder if you know that my main protagonist in my book coming out in September 2017, Stolen Secrets, has a photographic memory…or was that just fortuitous timing? Anyway, I feel especially qualified to answer this one, given my vast amount of revision on this book!
If you want to introduce your character’s photographic memory up front, show don’t tell. Don’t say anything about it, just give mysterious clues in the opening pages as to her special ability. It’s more interesting for readers to figure it out on their own. Also, research this ability because there is a lot to know about it, and then you can accurately portray it, rather than assume what her talent would be like.
Alos, try to imagine the pros and cons of having this ability. It sounds so amazing on the surface, right? But I know it comes with heartache, too. My character struggles with all the negative, awful stuff she can’t shake from her sponge-like memory. This holistic approach will make your character have more depth.
Finally, make sure there is payoff for her gift. In my book, Livvy is able to use her skill to unlock part of the mystery. Anytime a character has an interesting quality, it’s so much better if it ends up being useful to the plot, not just randomly put in because it’s intriguing.
QUORA Question 7: How important is it to give my characters a physical description?
Yes, No, and Maybe
In some cases, it’s very important. Sometimes, not important. And in other cases, detrimental. As I write for children and young adults, physical description, as a general rule, is a consideration. But it’s important to think about how much physical description to give, no matter how old the readership or what genre you choose. When I write for younger kids, I purposefully include such details as hair, eye color, height and, if relevant, weight details. Children often want to know what the main character looks like, and if descriptors are not there, I’ve noticed they complain about that straight away. But as kids mature to young adults, physical description becomes less necessary.
The Good and Bad of Book Covers
Book covers are a great way to illustrate what can happen when you give physical descriptions, even though they are visual, not text. For my first novel, League of Strays, the cover showed the faces of my two main characters. At first I was thrilled. My publisher actually found a red-headed teen, reflecting my protagonist’s dye job halfway through the book. But then the comments started rolling in from people who claimed that the male on the cover looked like Edward in Twilight. They immediately assumed that my book was a knock-off vampire book. The girl character, while accurately portrayed, had an expression that made her look scared and weak, and this, too, occasionally influenced whether or not readers believed they would like her well enough to stick around for 236-some pages.
Jump ahead to my young adult novel coming out in fall 2017, Stolen Secrets. My publisher chose a cover that purposefully avoided the protagonists’ faces, leaving whatever descriptions that existed to the pages within. Because this is a book for teens, I tried to use the appearance of my protagonists within the text in sparing and useful ways. For example, Livvy straightens her hair frequently in the beginning of the book. Her curly hair isn’t merely frizz—it’s a metaphor for her life. Her number one wish? To control her messy world. The last thing she thinks she wants is to be “loose and carefree.” Continuing with that metaphor, by the end of the book, she misplaces her straightening iron and doesn’t even notice for a few weeks. Hair can reflect character growth!
Hide That Mirror
There are times when descriptors can be be detrimental. An author must decide what’s important for a reader to know. Less description will allow your readers to “own” the book they are reading as a personal experience. Teen readers, in particular, have excellent imaginations and don’t need to be told that the main character has blue eyes and brown hair.
Skin Like Hot Fudge Sauce
When it comes to ethnicity, consider whether the reader even needs to know. If so, please avoid food descriptors for skin color. Many authors resort to comparing darker skin to chocolate or a variation of a Starbucks drink. Why is it so important for authors to make clear that the character is Asian, or Indian, or Black, or Jewish, anyway? That can say more about us, as writers, than it does about our characters. If you feel there’s a valid reason to inform your readers through description, then challenge yourself to go beyond pedestrian details or awkward metaphors.
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Bottom line? This is not a yes or no answer, but it’s an important one to consider. If you decide to reveal appearance details, you might want to evaluate how a protagonist’s looks influence who she’s become as a character or how she might behave in the story. Random appearance facts do nothing to deepen a character and they may just spoil a reader’s imagination.
QUORA Question 8: To be a good writer, do you think you need to read a lot?
My Answer: Technically, writing is one of those things you can do without a formal education. I don’t think most of us have read a book and wondered where the author went to college and what type of degree she earned, right? But though you don’t need a physical classroom, I believe that successful writers teach themselves every day of the week. The easiest way to do this is through reading broadly and widely.
Now if you were to become a doctor, you would read textbooks on the human body. If you wanted to be a scientist, you’d read a great many chemistry, biology, or physics books. In essence, if you want to be good at anything, you should study what’s already been created and perfected; otherwise, you’ll get stuck reinventing the wheel, for one thing.
The wonderful thing about reading books in your specific writing genre is that each book can be a master class. You have the opportunity to analyze what works and what doesn’t and apply it to your own writing.
Now if you choose not to read, my bet is that your voice will echo a style similar to the types of books you read long ago. I have attended many children’s writing conferences where older writers turn out very old-fashioned work and when I ask them what they like to read, they admit that they haven’t truly delved into their genre since the days of Charlotte’s Web.
If you want to reach today’s audience, you have to understand the times you live in and write in a style that’s contemporary. Imagine attending New York Fashion Week wearing your 80s blazer with built in shoulder pads? If you want to be relevant today, then it’s crucial that you know the contemporary world of your characters as well as the needs and desires of the book-purchasing audience.
QUORA Question 8: How does one write a screenplay based on a book?
My Answer: I was a screenplay major in college. I wrote a few screenplays, and was a finalist in a very large competition, but I didn’t have it in me at the time to pursue the career. Now I’m an author of young adult novels.
First of all, it’s much easier if you are basing your screenplay on your own novel, otherwise you will need to option a book if it doesn’t belong to you, which is very expensive. I’m currently writing the screenplay to my book, Stolen Secrets, that comes out 9/19/17.
To write a screenplay, you need to read many books on screenwriting first to get the formatting and structure down, such as my favorite, Save the Cat. Then you’ll need to think visually. Forget following the book exactly. You need to think about how best to portray the feelings and scenes using the more visual form of film.
Dialogue, while important in a book, is critical in a screenplay. Use subtext, create clever lines, illuminate character through dialogue, and avoid obvious exposition through dialogue through “on the nose” comments like, “I’m sorry I’m acting so mean, but I was abused when I was nine and I’ve been in therapy ever since.”
To quote screencraft.org on expositional dialogue:
Doing that makes the reader aware that they are being told a designed story and pulls them out of the natural flow of the narrative. The goal should be to reveal this information subtextually…via what is not said rather than what is said.
Have fun with your screenplay. If you do it right, the book and the screenplay will mostly match in plot and characters, but the way you tell the story will be very different.
QUORA Question 9: How can you know that you are a good writer?
My Answer:I’m sorry to say, you can’t trust your friends or family on this one. They’re colored by their love for you and their pride at what you’ve achieved. You need outside sources—people who don’t know you and won’t tip-toe around your feelings.
Start by joining your national writing group, whether that be RWA (Romance Writers of America) or mine, SCBWI, (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) or whatever your specific genre. Then go to the conferences and writing classes and ask for critiques. You pay for these, and professionals will share their opinions about your writing and suggest improvements.
You might also join a critique group of fellow writers. Don’t stress over your perception of their talent. Critiquing is a skill unto itself. Even newbie writers can identify what works and what doesn’t. (Remember, critiques can sometimes be wrong, too, so trust your gut.) Your group can exist in person or online, so there’s no excuse for not having one.
I disagree that if you write what you love, others will want to read it. I don’t believe that making other people feel emotions when they read what you wrote tells you that you are a good writer, either. Yes, those things are part of the literary equation, but the true way to find out your skill level is seek out the opinions of professionals and other people who share and work on the same dream as you. You will need to grow a thick skin, but that’s a necessary first step toward becoming the best writer you can be.
No matter what you find out about your abilities, don’t stop working on your craft. I have an article on Persisting for the Long Run that you might want to check out. Hey, if you aren’t “good” now, you will be one day if you persistently enhance your skills. And even if you are lucky enough to be spectacular right now, there’s always room for improvement.
QUORA Question 10: Why is 50 Shades writer E.L. James Such a Bad Writer?
QUORA Question 11: If you were writing a novel, you were stuck trying to figure out how to make a certain idea work and wanted to find someone (besides an expensive editor, or beta reader expecting a whole story) to help you out, where would you go?
QUORA Question 12: How Do you Figure out an Ending to a Story?
There are more writing related questions. Please go directly to my Quora Profile to View them.