Readers have written me to ask questions about writing. Here are some of those questions and their answers. If you have questions about publishing a book, please read my website section on publishing. If you have read all the pages in this section and still have a question about writing, you may click the Contact the Author button to the right to send me an email about it.
WHAT CLASSES SHOULD I TAKE IN COLLEGE TO
BECOME A WRITER?
HAVE YOU EVER HAD WRITER'S BLOCK?
I'M IN SCHOOL, AND ALL I WANT TO DO ALL DAY LONG IS WRITE STORIES.
OFTEN IN MOVIES, I'VE NOTICED, THEY JUMP BACK AND FORTH FROM SCENE TO SCENE, TRYING TO GET EVERYTHING IN. HOW CAN I DO THIS WITHOUT HOPPING BACK AND FORTH TOO MUCH AND TIRING THE READER?
HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO CAPTURE THE READER'S ATTENTION?
HOW DO YOU AVOID OVER-DESCRIBING?
MY PROBLEM IS I NEVER FEEL CONFIDENT IN MY WORK, ESPECIALLY WHEN MY SISTER OR MY PARENTS SAY MY WORK IS BAD.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH ORIGINAL IDEAS? WHAT DO YOU DO THAT YOU FIND HELPS TO GET YOUR MIND CRANKING?
MY BEST FRIEND IS A WRITER HERSELF AND SHE IS EXTREMELY GOOD. IT FEELS LIKE SHE DOESN'T HAVE TIME FOR ME AND MY THOUGHTS.
I'M SO FRUSTRATED TRYING TO WRITE A GOOD NOVEL! SHOULD THIS BE THIS DIFFICULT?!
MY DAD SAID I HAVE TOO MUCH DIALOG, BUT I LOOKED IN SOME OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS, AND THEY HAVE THE SAME AMOUNT OF DIALOG AS I DO.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE A PRODUCTIVE DAY? DOES IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH WORD COUNTS?
MY BIGGEST DILEMMA HAS BEEN TRYING TO COME UP WITH A NAME FOR MY BOOK'S COUNTRY. ANY ADVICE?
I WANT MY HERO AND HEROINE TO EVENTUALLY SET ASIDE THEIR CARES AND LEARN TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER. HOW DO I DO THIS WITHOUT IT SOUNDING CHEESY?
ONE OF MY LATEST WRITING PROJECTS WAS INSPIRED BY THE BOOK THE HAIKU YEAR, IN WHICH SEVEN FRIENDS EACH AGREE TO WRITE A HAIKU A DAY FOR A YEAR.
I'M UNSURE AS TO HOW TO BRING A FICTIONAL RACE OF PEOPLE INTO BEING. I WANT MY MAIN CHARACTER AND HER PEOPLE TO BE UNIQUE.
WHEN IT COMES TO MY CHARACTER'S CULTURE, DO YOU SUGGEST ANY STUDYING?
YOU SAID YOU MAKE YOUR BOOKS UP AS YOU WRITE THEM, SO HOW FAR AHEAD DID YOU PLAN KATE'S KING'S WIFE SNAKE CHARM? OR IN CLOSE KIN, EMILY HAVING TO TRAVEL WITH HER TEACHER?
I'M HAVING TROUBLE EXPANDING MY SHORT STORY INTO A NOVEL. I'VE BEEN TRYING TO INSERT MORE OF MY LIFE INTO IT, BECAUSE I THINK IF I CAN RELATE TO IT, I MIGHT BE ABLE TO ACTUALLY FIND SOMETHING THAT I CAN USE AS THE BASIS FOR A PLOT. UNFORTUNATELY, THE CHARACTERS THAT I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT ARE SO FAR FROM WHAT I EXPERIENCE THAT IT'S NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE. MAYBE I SHOULD STICK TO NONFICTION? I LIKE WRITING ESSAYS.
DO YOU LIKE TO WRITE ON PAPER OR COMPUTER?
HOW DO YOU PREVENT YOUR CHARACTERS FROM BECOMING MARY-SUE'S (PERFECT PEOPLE)?
I AM A YOUNG WRITER, BUT I SEEM TO BE STRUGGLING WITH MY WRITING. RECENTLY, I SEEM TO BE OVERFLOWING WITH IDEAS FOR STORIES, BUT NOT ACTUALLY BEING ABLE TO WRITE THEM. I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED WRITING, BUT ALWAYS HAD TROUBLE FINISHING MY STORIES. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I COULD DO TO HELP PREVENT/STOP THIS PROBLEM?
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF FROM BEING DISCOURAGED? I AM VERY INSECURE ABOUT MY WORK IN GENERAL. DO YOU EVER FEEL THE SAME WAY? IF SO, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
DO YOU JUST WRITE A STORY STRAIGHT OUT OR DO YOU WRITE A BACKGROUND FOR EACH CHARACTER?
DO YOU EVER GET BORED WHILE WRITING, OR ARE YOU ALWAYS EXCITED ABOUT WHAT YOU PUT ON PAPER?
I'M WORKING ON THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY FIRST NOVEL: A STORY ABOUT TWO SISTERS. READER FEEDBACK SUGGESTS THAT ONE SISTER IS MORE ENGAGING AND INTERESTING THAN THE OTHER ONE. DO WE AUTHORS PLAY FAVORITES? WHAT TO DO?
I AM WRITING A YA HISTORICAL NOVEL MYSELF, AND I'M INTRIGUED BY THE WAY YOU GET FEEDBACK FROM YOUNG READERS AS YOU WRITE. DO YOU USE WRITTEN COMMENT REPORTS OR DO YOU COLLECT THE FEEDBACK IN CONVERSATION?
HOW DO YOU STAY FOCUSED?
I HAVE A STORY IN MY HEAD, BUT I CAN'T SEEM TO WRITE IT WITHOUT EVERYTHING HAPPENING TOO FAST. HOW DO YOU WRITE YOUR STORIES?
DO YOU WRITE EVERY DAY? WHERE?
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE A BOOK?
DO YOU JOT DOWN NOTES TO HELP YOU WRITE A BOOK? DO YOU MAKE AN OUTLINE?
Writers need to learn to write well, so it's good if you do something that encourages you to write a lot, and it's also good if you go to a college that turns out writers or at least has a reputation as a challenging school. It's good to learn about literature, anthropology (other civilizations), history, and different ideas about philosophy. Basically, a fiction writer has to be well rounded.
Any class that makes you think a great deal about life and how we live it helps with the writing. Any class that gives you lots of easy answers is no good. History, unfortunately, tends to be the latter, although if it is taught well, it's the best of all. Anthropology is the study of how human societies live, from the bushmen of Africa to us right here in the USA. Anthropology is very helpful if you intend to write about fictional societies later.
We writers need to know our grammar and syntax perfectly, so it's important to learn how to write without flaws. And the more you know about literature, the better: it really does matter if you know all those literature things like foreshadowing, flashback, plot, crisis, setting, etc. We use them when we're putting together our own stories. And it's most important that you have a practical side to your degree because very, very few book authors make enough money to live on. Most writers have a double career for a long time, like librarianship, teaching, or writing for newspapers.
You would think that the English department would be the natural place for you, but some English departments are the last place for a writer. The teachers in them destroy talent and confidence. I know one English professor who stood in front of the class and said, "You have no idea what I'm talking about. And those of you who think you do understand me are the ones who really don't have a clue." If I had ever taken classes from someone like that, my writing talent would have been ruined. Use your common sense: if you're as objective as you can be, but you feel that you can't respect a professor, there's probably a good reason why.
My master's degree in library science was a tremendous help to becoming a children's writer. I learned how librarians think about stories and which books they like to order for their libraries.
Few professional writers can afford to get writer's block. That's a mind game we can't play with our careers, or we won't have careers much longer. But sometimes we lose confidence and second-guess our writing. If that happens, the only thing to do is to push through it and remember to do what we love most—tell the story.
Many writers who have suffered from writer's block have based their fiction on their own lives. A lifetime only has so much good fiction in it, so those writers sooner or later dry up. Other writers have been undisciplined, and that's something that will mess things up as well. We have to make ourselves write, if not every day, then at least five days out of every seven.
Writing looks simple from the outside, but actually, it's very complicated to do. The education in school is so important that it has to go beyond the school. It goes without saying that you need to get everything you can out of your grammar assignments and essays—find a great proofreader, or write for the school paper to get someone proofreading your stuff to help you learn grammar and syntax. Beyond this, fiction writers have to read lots and lots and lots. When I was your age, I probably read five or six novels in a week. We have to learn before we can teach, and we have to read before we can write—otherwise, our writing won't be worthwhile. We have to read history, too, because fiction hides sometimes how random and stupid human nature can be.
Beyond that, you have to live. Now, you may think this is a silly piece of advice, but we writers don't have to live our own lives: we happily live the lives of our characters, so we have to be told to get out there and live. But unless you're living your own life, you can't come up with the experience to put into your characters' lives. You're basing their lives on what you've read, not what you've lived, and while that's fine up to a point, real life has to come in, too.
The best advice I have is to treat writing like one of those mythical beasts that you can't capture if you head right for it. You have to go about your life, living a really good life—doing everything as well as you can. Then you'll find that the writing career will sneak right up to you, and you can reach out your hand and catch it. But if you had headed right for it, writing—writing—writing, letting your grades slip, dropping out of school, locking yourself in an attic to tell your stories, then you never would have gotten within miles of your final goal.
Your question about back-and-forths is a classic writer's problem. Here are a couple of things to think about. First, readers read a novel, not to gain information, but to identify emotionally with a character and "live" through that person. Readers can adapt and deal with several favorite characters, particularly if they are together. But if you make the reader deal with jumps back and forth, you have to understand that this jars the reader every time you do it, and there's a minute or two of disassociation during which you have to hook the reader all over again. Many books do it and do it well. I've had to do it in mine. But it always happens, and you have to know it's happening. You have to calculate the risk of losing the reader—because if the reader puts down the story and walks off, it's likely to happen at one of these jumps.
Every novel is like the tip of an iceberg. For the part of the story that's told, an author knows lots more that isn't told. It supports the whole thing, but if it were told, it would slow down and frustrate the reader. How to know which parts to tell is very difficult for a writer to convey, but the story has to be GOING somewhere all the time, and the reader has to feel that emotional energy of the story unfolding. Any scene that stops that forward motion, no matter how lovely and interesting, has to go.
I like to think about two things when I'm choosing how to write the opening chapter. First, I want to start where the reader is right now. I love all my monsters, and the reader will love them later, but right now the reader is just opening the book, just settling into a new world, so I want to keep from being too weird all at once. Some books start with an elf, a troll, three water demons, and a plus-four sword of might on Page One, and I've never been able to get into those myself.
The second thing I think about is raising lots of questions without giving away any answers. Questions keep a reader reading. For instance, in the first chapter of The Hollow Kingdom, the reader is thinking, Is she ever going to get away? What happens to her? Is that goblin a good guy or a bad guy? How did she wind up there?
The other thing I try to do throughout a book is to provide an emotional touchstone for the reader. As things are happening in The Hollow Kingdom, the reader's thinking, What's going on? How are we going to get out of this? And so is Kate. If the reader doesn't have an "emotional twin" inside the story to ask the questions the reader wants to ask and try the things the reader wants to try, then it's hard for the reader to stay interested in the book.
Two main ways. First, I never tell a world-rule in narration if I can show it through action instead. For instance, Kate and Emily find out through trial and error that the truce circle is a place of protection. I, the narrator, have known that from the start, but I haven't told. Kate and the reader get clues that Kate is a warrior by blood in the first book, with her spirited stand against both Marak and the sorcerer, both times inspired by a desire to protect weaker members of Kate's family. But I don't confirm this until Marak realizes it at the beginning of Book II and points out Kate's warrior blood to her.
The second way I avoid over-describing is to pick an emotional focus for a scene. For instance, if the focus is Kate, she's not going to be thinking about what she's wearing unless she's especially proud of the outfit, embarrassed by it, or physically uncomfortable. Then her observations will vary depending on what she sees, hears, or feels concerning that outfit. For instance, with the wedding dress, she feels how bare her neck and shoulders are, and this makes her feel vulnerable. Wearing the blue dress that Emily hates, Kate notices the stares she's attracting at court.
Why is this important? Because the first desire of a fantasy writer is to share all the little tricks of a world with the reader. We can't help wanting to do this, but we have to resist. The reader has to find out about the world right along with the characters. That's what makes it feel like a real world. And we want to point out all the things we know about our characters, too. We can't do that, either. Our characters show their problems to the reader in conversation, in actions, and in reactions. All we have to do is get our description down accurately, seeing and feeling what is really going on.
I wouldn't put too much by what your family says about your writing. Families have their own way of keeping everything in balance, and one of those ways is to discourage change. For instance, if you are the baby of the family, you will seem like a baby to your family members until you leave home as an adult and come back to visit. They will be the last people to see and acknowledge changes in you. You will have a hard time impressing them because they will unconsciously work to keep you in your family role as baby. If they don't feel writing is a safe career (and it is a very hard way to make a living), they may discourage anything that would lead you to choose it, even to the point of criticizing your writing. If they don't care much for books, they will not appreciate any sort of writing, and they won't respect you for yours. Everyone exercises these mental controls on one another in a family.
Your best chance for honest feedback will come from a good teacher. But then, you have to ask yourself what your measurement is. If you're comparing your writing to that of others in your same grade, that's a fair measure. If you're comparing your writing to that of published authors, that's too harsh. How good were the published authors at your age?
Everybody has problems, and the plot problems of a character should come out of the character's temperament and surroundings. For instance, in The Sky Inside, I have an ordinary boy living in the future. To annoy him, I made his little sister a genius. Her whole age group is this way, all genetically engineered. But then, watching her go through her day with him (walking to school, etc.), I realized how much these little children would be hated. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Maybe we could stand one or two, but if there's a whole group of them—never! So the book developed Nazi overtones as these little children are rejected by the society they live in. And I learned all that just by watching the little girl walk around and interact with people.
No idea is original. This idea of little children being hated for their talents isn't original. But ideas have to be just original enough to keep the reader guessing and not sure what will happen next. I can't help you with that—this is the part of storytelling that comes naturally or doesn't. I don't even know how it happens for me! I just watch the movies in my head until something comes together that's worth writing about.
Writers can be very competitive. Even though your writer friend means to be a good friend to you, it can be hard for writers to make room for one another. We tend to have a hard time not being a little jealous.
Are you in school? If you are, I'd talk to your English teacher or librarian about setting up a writer's club at school. Are there competitions you could enter? That can give you a direction for your writing. Some schools have a literary magazine, too.
Absolutely. Writing a successful novel is just as hard as performing an appendectomy, writing a master's thesis, preparing a law brief, or doing any other activity that requires the combined skill and education of a lifetime. Nothing about it is easy.
Dialogue is good, but it's important that your dialogue be going somewhere. It isn't the amount as much as whether the reader is learning interesting new things about the world and the characters from the dialogue. I've had to rework and rework dialogue scenes to get them just right. It's a hard balancing act.
Word count is a very interesting topic. I don't usually set a target of words, although I'm constantly aware of my output. If I'm not completing at least 1500 good, polished words a day, I worry. If I get interrupted several times, I lose concentration, and my word count plummets. On the other hand, if I'm in the middle of a thrilling part of the book, particularly toward the end, I may write for eight or nine hours straight.
I use a timer to keep my goals. Depending on the distractions around (i.e., if my family is nearby), I set the timer for 40, 50, or 60 minutes, announcing that the timer is going on and that I need there to be no interruptions. Then I keep the timer right where I can see it, and I write the entire time. No breaks to check email, no Internet browsing. The timer pushes me through the rough patches. When I get to the end of four hours by the timer, I know I've put in a good day.
I hate the sound of made-up names, myself; I think the reader can tell when names don't have a "root" of their own. And it's certainly a hassle to come up with names all the time. Parents have trouble with just one name at a time—we have to come up with dozens!
I keep all sorts of websites bookmarked for this need, and I have a large library that I turn to, as well. For my latest manuscript, I needed a modern name, so I turned to a site that listed the 100 most popular names for children in the last fifteen years (I think), according to birth registration documents. That gave me a way to look for names that were common but not too popular. And with my half-finished manuscript, set in a mythic India, I've pulled books out of the library on that region and jotted down any name that I halfway liked (there are lots of characters in this book).
For a fictional race, however, I think that nothing brings the group together like a shared language. I've chosen obscure languages for my races and then named them from dictionaries of those languages. Again, I've been able to get to these dictionaries online. I fudge a little bit, changing the sound for a common letter, for instance, but by and large, I keep it pretty close.
Whatever you do about your names, don't feel silly about the fact that you're finding them such a chore. This is a huge problem, and after a while, you'll start keeping your own lists of names, just in case.
Pulling off a quiet romance is tough. As you point out, the relationship can't be forced on the characters. But you won't do that if you see yourself in the role of chronicler rather than matchmaker. Just spend time watching your characters together. They'll work out their own reasons for needing to talk to one another or getting to know one another. As time goes on, they'll discover their own feelings and make their own decisions about what to do.
That haiku idea is simply wonderful! I've never enjoyed writing a diary, but that seems like something really worthwhile. Poetry is a great way to reduce an experience to its most essential elements, so the idea of reducing an entire day to a single poem is splendid.
Here are a few things to think about. First, cultures don't develop a value or custom just because it's beautiful. I always mistrust writers whose fictional cultures have the best of everything: walls of pearl, floors of gold. Where do they get it, and who does the cooking, cleaning, farming? What do they trade for their gold?
We write out of what we know, and this can show up badly in the work of authors who haven't encountered ideas beyond their own cultural norms and values. Lots of books out there contain "fictional" races that are simply good old Americans in fancy skins or costumes—no matter how improbable those cultural norms might be for their surroundings.
Your character should not feel in the least sorry for the fact that she holds whatever values belong to her society. She lives in her culture as a fish swims in water. Unless she is particularly unusual (and something concrete will have happened to cause this), she will not stop to think that she should be allowed to hold a job, vote, read, write, or bathe daily. It's hard sometimes, but we must not patronize our characters. They have a right to be proud of their heritage. In By These Ten Bones, my heroine lives in a house made largely of dirt, sleeping in the same bed with the rest of her family and in the same room with chickens and sheep.
If your characters truly live in their culture, you won't have to stop the narration all the time to explain that culture to your readers. It will appear as a reality to your readers. And no one ever sits down to explain a culture. Beware when your characters get into this kind of dialogue; make sure it's necessary and fully credible. Make sure it only happens occasionally and that your characters do it just as well or as badly as they should. In Book I of my trilogy, a goblin explains the demise of the elvish race, and a more bigoted, self-satisfied little diatribe you'll seldom read (I hope). A good rule of thumb is that no one can explain his or her own cultural values clearly. If one of your characters can, he or she had better have special training to justify that ability.
So there are two problems, really. There is the problem of creating the fictional race. Then there is the problem of introducing it to the reader so that the reader can discover it for himself or herself, sympathizing with those fictional people.
Absolutely. Writers do lots of research to create their fictional worlds. I would urge you to go to your local library (preferably a large public library or university library) and get to know the subject headings that might lead you to useful material. Keyword searches are all well and fine, but you can miss a large store of material that a subject search would bring up immediately. You can start by trying keyword searches, taking a look at the records that turn up in the library system, and examining their subject headings. Often this will lead you to a mine of information. It's a good idea to see where things are showing up on the shelf, too: I've found some lovely source material by looking around my target book on the shelf. And audiovisual material can be useful, as well; I often find inspiration from period movies or documentary films. I even look in the juvenile collection because nonfiction books there have so many great pictures.
It is true that I usually have the basics of a book just figured out before I write, but I'm still making some things up as I go along. I made up the story of The Hollow Kingdom in two days when my husband asked me to write a book, and Charm was there from the beginning. That's because the sorcerer was in the story from the start, and I knew Kate would need a traveling companion to help her fight him: that's a big plot problem, so I had to solve it before I began to write. On the other hand, I didn't know what the goblin kingdom looked like until the door shut behind Seylin and Kate and Kate first looked around: that's not a plot problem, so it didn't matter what the place looked like till she looked at it.
I didn't make up Ruby until long after the first draft of Close Kin had been written. In the very first draft, Emily didn't follow Seylin until right before he came back, and then she and Richard went out alone (Thaydar, Katoo, and Tinsel found Richard in my original draft). But I decided that the story wasn't interesting enough and that I wanted more about the problems Emily was dealing with and about the history of the goblins fighting the elves. So that's when I added Ruby to the story.
First, recognize that what you're experiencing is normal for novelists. Thank God you're experiencing it! Otherwise, you would happily churn out garbage and never even notice that you were just rewriting the books you've read. (Believe me, there are plenty of those sorts of authors!)
Second, remember that not every story has to be a book. Some are beautiful just as five pages. If you can put together some gorgeous short stories at this point in your career, you're doing the storyteller's equivalent of writing poetry: you're learning to get to the essence. There's nothing wrong with that.
Where to get plots for short stories? Where to get plots at all? Well, if you like to sound off in essays, and you say you that do, remember that stories are laboratories: you can create a world and an episode to test an idea. I could have written an essay about how evil, and not death, is to be feared, but I wrote Maddie's experience instead in By These Ten Bones, and she discovers this for herself. An author doesn't have perfect control, of course, and the results of the experiment may surprise us, but that's a good thing, too.
A good place to start a plot is to pick a story that really doesn't work, like the plot of a bad movie, and then find a way to fix it: not to make the movie turn out as it did originally, but to make a believable occurrence based on what you were given. I started Hollow Kingdom that way. I was disgusted that we don't have the nerve to let our monsters have a fair chance of winning, so I gave Marak a fair chance and then worked out what would happen.
I'm left-handed, so my handwriting's awful, and I hate the trouble of longhand. I do all of my writing on computer, in Microsoft Word, and that's a very good thing! When I want to revise, I can do so with ease. Whole scenes can move here or there without difficulty. I've heard one writer say that he never really writes revisions; he just polishes his first draft. Well, I do lots of creative stuff during revisions, and I think it's the freedom of computer editing that allows me to do so. I've added entire plot lines to books at the second or third revision. It's a good thing to get used to the freedom of working on computer.
My editor, agent, and I email back and forth constantly, and we send Word files back and forth, too. They use my Word files as the basis for their own master electronic file that ultimately goes to the printer; I can tell that because if I've made a typo in my Word file, it's in the printer proofs. I don't think any publishing house would accept a longhand manuscript from an author nowadays. It's too problematic to deal with.
If you're a school-age writer, it's a good idea to pay attention to a really fine typing or keyboarding class so that you can learn to do your inputting easily, comfortably, and without lots of mistakes. And I use all those things that you probably don't think you will every really need, like wrist rests and mouse wrist rests, too. Carpal tunnel syndrome is no joke! I've had problems with it in the past: it's one of the dangers of this profession.
First, you might well ask whether I've succeeded at avoiding the Mary-Sue problem. I know that at least one reader has criticized Kate as being too perfect. (I tend to think that Kate's problem is that she thinks she's better than everyone else and can trust her judgment further than she should.) Like you, I also didn't want to make Kate beautiful, but I also had to because of the plot. I balanced this by making Emily think nasty, jealous thoughts about her for the sake of all the rest of us ordinary people. I also made Emily average and Maddie, the heroine of By These Ten Bones, plain (although the hero of that book is handsome, at least from Maddie's point of view). I can relate: I get tired of pretty people.
But you have a beautiful and very gifted heroine on your hands. On the one hand, that's good: we like to read about winners. On the other hand, too much is too much, as you note, and you need to do something about it. Rather than simply thinking up hampering characteristics at random, like making someone a secret nail-biter to compensate for lots of gifts, I like to play psychiatrist to my characters instead. We people tend to be a package deal: our strengths and weaknesses are usually all wound up together. And it occurs to me that, if you settle your character down on a psychiatrist's couch and start examining her closely, you will find that her strengths give her plenty of weaknesses right there.
It's only in the movies that beauty and power equal boring perfection—in reality, the people we know who are beautiful or exceptionally talented are often the most messed up. The movie stars themselves are a great example of that, poor souls! They seldom have a happy life. In reality, beauty is something of a curse: no one takes seriously what's underneath because everyone wants what's on the outside. But what real woman is willing to settle for that? Who wants to compete with her own looks?
Moreover, you point out that your character's beauty is deliberate: she belongs to a race of beautiful, deceitful enchantresses. Well, how would you feel if you knew that your beauty was only there in order to help you ensnare men and muddy up their thinking? How would you feel about your looks, or about men's praise of you? You'd have a terrible time taking your appearance seriously, or enjoying the attention it would bring. It would be like wearing a con man's makeup all the time, like being a living trap. It would be hard not to hate men, or think that all of them were idiots. What sort of personal relationship would you be able to have with a man, or even with your own relatives, like your mother, who could be charming or tricking you at any time? What sort of respect would you have for yourself, knowing that you were fully capable of setting people up for a fall? Far from making her too perfect, those magical powers and that beauty may well wind up alienating this young woman from everyone around her.
If these enchantresses have had these magical powers for generations, they'll have developed a culture for how to deal with them, a way to teach their daughters to use them and to deal with the stress. So that's something else to think about: what this young woman will have learned that can help her (and what she may want to reject).
Overall, then, I think you've got plenty of tension and opportunity built right into the plot to turn your character into a very believable, approachable basket-case in spite of (or because of) her talents and looks.
I can tell you're a good writer just from your email and from the writing problem that you state. It's a fairly high-level problem; lots of people probably never get far enough into a writing career to have it. As you note, we fiction-creators can't turn off the world-building, so that keeps percolating along throughout our entire lives. It's the writing over which we have control. We can turn it off if we want to. I didn't write for more than twenty years, and that's a shame.
I can think of two reasons right away that may be contributing to your writing problem, and both of them may be affecting the mix to one degree or another. The first is a question of time. Writing requires, not just time, but energetic time. You can't just come to it at the end of a long, hard day. Because you're using all your talents to pick those words and because you're having to live through harrowing moments with your characters, writing takes a real emotional toll. But you very likely don't have as much time or emotion to give it these days—you're building up that resume to get into the right university (or are already there)—and you're wearing yourself out meeting those daily demands. That means that you can't just sit down and spend a glorious afternoon perfecting a story anymore. Or, when you do have time at the end of the day, you're too drained to write, and that makes you feel that you must not really *want* to write after all, when you actually do, and would, if you had the energy: the problem is that you're just worn out.
Your stories very likely drag on and on because you can only steal little bits of time to write them, and you get frustrated at the slow progress. This accentuates the problem you've already had of starting stories but not finishing them. Those of us who are creative have more ideas than time to write them (I have three novel ideas in my head right now that I'm desperately trying not to think about, or they'll be old and stale by the time I get a chance to write them down). So, sooner or later, you just give up in disgust and go on to a newer story that interests you more. As you build up this trend, you annoy yourself so much that you don't even bother to start writing them.
The other problem that intrudes on a writer is the question of audience. This is the reason I never wrote my stories down! We can make up our worlds for ourselves and go live there; we can move our people in, develop every scene, and memorize it word for word. But when we write it down, whether we're thinking about the fact directly or not, we're writing it down for others. And then the internal critic fires up: "Who's going to want to read that? It's not very good. You can do better with your new idea. This stuff stinks." I have a quotation on my website from my old classmate Libba, who swears that she has an internal sadist!
I skipped dealing with my internal critic entirely by not writing until I could write for my children. They gave me instant and positive feedback: they hung over my shoulder as I wrote The Hollow Kingdom and begged me for more. But most authors don't get so lucky, and I'm not so lucky anymore; they've grown up, and I have to write for "the world" now.
You may be reluctant to commit your stories to paper right now. They reveal a part of yourself that you might not feel entirely safe revealing, even if you do really love to write. I don't mean that there's anything wrong or weird in them. It's just that when we write down our stories, we become vulnerable. People can misunderstand our stories. They can laugh at us, or judge us harshly. And that's just something that writers have to learn to deal with.
If time is your problem, I'd suggest that you get the most out of the writing time you have. Don't set yourself long, complicated stories to tell and make yourself wade through the boring parts. Instead, pick out that thrilling scene that you can polish in an hour and focus on getting it down perfectly. That way, you'll have something that's complete, even if it's not everything you know about that world. Or set yourself other short tasks related to the world you're working on: a really good character sketch of the heroine, for instance, or a quick and haunting description of some place. A vignette. Some poetry—after all, poems are the shortest, most vivid way to say a thing. But get yourself to finish what you start, even if it's small. Make it into something that you're proud of.
If audience is the problem, the best cure is to cultivate a friend (or two) who loves the kind of fiction that you love to read and to write. I had friends in high school who would sit for hours while I told them the plot of my latest story—some of which took an entire night to tell! Those friends may well clamor for your latest tale, and that will give you the confidence and the reason to keep writing it down. They won't be happy if you leave them without a really good ending, either.
I know what you mean about being discouraged. I think it's why I didn't have the nerve to write as a teen—I just didn't have the confidence. It's almost impossible not to feel insecure about what we write. Writing is like having children: we make ourselves vulnerable through it. Parents can never again be as safe as they were before their children were born—now they will suffer if their children suffer. And we suffer through what happens to our writing—even when it's good, sometimes. Even the praise that I read confuses and hampers me and makes it harder for me to write.
I think any writing can either help us grow or help kill our spirits; it's just like experience in the real world. My stories don't have all the answers because my own experiences in the real world don't teach me all the answers, either—but if the writing pushes me to think about people more honestly and compassionately, then I know it's worth writing, and it's worth giving to my readers. That encourages me to express it, even though I know that not everyone will like it or like me for having written it. And, ultimately, I have to remind myself that I write for my own pleasure and approval. I'm in control, and I love what I do. That has to stay true, or I don't think I could do it anymore.
Sometimes it can take a long time for all the elements of one of my stories to come together. I'll have a couple of ideas from one place and a couple of ideas from somewhere else. Then, all of a sudden, I'll see how they can fit together. Once I have the ideas, I begin to think about my world, my crisis, and my characters. Plot is the last thing I worry about: it develops naturally out of the other three things, and plot is easy to generate, anyway, as long as I'm being attentive to who my people are and what their problems are likely to be.
I can't just make up a summary, and I can't make up a character sketch of people, either. My mind can't work like that. I have to watch my characters interact "real-time." I may begin with a one-sentence notion about someone: "just a regular, average boy." But, until I see him smarting off to his mom or handling his school friends, I won't really get to know him.
I do know writers who develop extensive reference sheets to help them keep in mind certain details about their characters, and I think that this is an excellent habit: basically, anything that helps to put us in touch with our characters is good. The only thing that would concern me is the sort of character development that isn't planted in reality; this can sometimes happen if we design our characters on a sheet, as if they were custom-ordered robots instead of humans who respond constantly to their surroundings. But if the reference sheet just helps us remember the things we have observed about them, then it's serving a useful function. The only reason I don't use such sheets is that I have an excellent memory for this sort of detail and can hold an entire plot in my head without difficulty. My memory has room to do this because it is entirely unable to store numbers larger than three.
As I'm developing the plot of a book, it holds together at first like a pieced quilt with squares missing—this happens, this happens, big gap, this happens. I keep working with the pieces I have (watching mental movie snips) and brainstorming to cross those gaps—sticking on new pieces of fabric as I dream them up. I don't summarize much at all. At a certain point, I'm ready to start writing the draft, but there are still small gaps there. I cross those gaps when I come to them!
This question has come to me several times and in several different forms lately from writers who are afraid that, because the process of writing a chapter is beginning to bore them, they will in turn bore their readers. The question is a fair one. Most of us have, at one time or another, written in an inspired frenzy, and when we are amateur writers we need never do otherwise. But what do professionals do when the frenzy runs out? Or does it run out? Perhaps we've seen the movies, in which writers lock themselves up in their garrets to scribble in one long, unending dash, while the flowers bloom, then the leaves change color, then the snow drifts down outside. Is that what it takes to be a real author?
In a word: NO. Writing is a wonderful profession, but it is not an ecstatic whirl. It requires steady discipline and a down-to-earth attitude. (Although I do write in a garret—perhaps that helps.)
I am frequently bored with what I have written, particularly when I have to review it for the seventh or eighth time as it's progressing through the stages of editing. One of the reasons I read my work out loud during these editing stages is to force my attention to stay on the task at hand. I frequently have to drop one manuscript to attend to another as they move through publication, or stop at an exciting point in order to do further research. Moreover, I have to work collaboratively with my agent, editor, and publishing house to see that a manuscript meets the needs of its buyers.
Writing novels for a living is, ultimately, very satisfying, but it requires just as much dogged hard work as does any other professional career. It is very different from writing only what we want to only when we want to, as the amateur writer does, and it is that jump from the one to the other reality that can make the former hobbyist feel that the Muse has fled.
There are excellent reasons why writing even the rough draft can seem like boring drudgery. Our imaginations don't necessarily want to wait around while we put the words onto paper; they want to jump ahead to the most exciting parts of the manuscript. I make myself write my books in order, beginning to end, precisely because I do not love every scene. If I let myself get away with doing the fun stuff first, I'd have a very hard time coming back to fill in the rest. Also, we may not know our secondary characters all that well, and learning about them can be a bit of a chore. Forcing ourselves to focus on those characters and finding interesting tidbits to tell the reader requires a certain amount of restraint on an imagination that wants to run wild. And writing is a much slower process than reading. I may find myself sweating blood over two pages that the reader will hardly even notice.
But maybe the part I'm working on really is boring, you say. Well, if you're working on a rough draft, now is not the time to figure that out. At this point, you're trying to make the plot work and testing the characters to see if their reactions make sense. There are many things that you are still learning about your world. Of course you aren't making the writing smooth, suave, and perfect. No one can do everything at once. You can't write and edit a piece of work at the same time. I spend the first part of each day's writing session reading yesterday's work, and I do clean it up to some extent, but I don't make huge changes or throw out whole scenes. I save those doubts for the second draft.
So, if you're worried that something isn't working, tack a mental red flag to it (or a real one if you're likely to forget) and go about your business of writing. First you have to create it—ALL of it—and then read it in its entirety. At that point, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to fix.
In my experience, this sort of character inequality is quite common in the early stages of a manuscript's life. Some characters jump right off the page at us, while others take longer to come into focus. This isn't a big problem during the first draft as long as we are aware of it and remember to fix it during the revision process. First drafts are the time to get the basic action down on paper, arrange the order of scenes, visualize everything for the first time, and work out plot incongruities. Fine-tuning the characters can wait.
Once I have the story on paper, I spend a little more time with those problem characters. Having divested myself of all that dialogue and description I've been carrying around, I am much more at liberty to study this sort of detail. Often, I find that the problem has simply fixed itself: by the time I go back to read the early chapters, I know that character much better, and I can already see how her dialogue and actions need to change. I also have the opportunity to consider at this point whether a minor subplot would work well to reveal more about her. Now that the basic story is written, I can look for ways to use this sort of subplot to tie the loose ends of my story together more tightly.
In all of my stories, major characters have changed during revision. Some have become more assertive or have become "older," while others have acquired distinctive traits that they didn't have in the first draft. Still others haven't changed at all, but the reader's perception of them has changed because I have altered the way I have described them. A difference of just twenty or thirty words throughout a manuscript will change how the reader feels about a character.
I've used both adult and target-aged readers on each revision of each manuscript, and I've used both interviews and questionnaires. I've tended to use phone or in-person interviews with the adults, but I've often followed my printed questionnaires myself as I talked to them. Still, the informality has allowed us to pursue a particular topic much further than anyone's patience would have allowed for in a written format.
With the teens, I have tended to stay with letters and questionnaires, although I have found a small focus-group-style meeting with them also to be helpful. I stress to my readers that they need to be frank, that compliments alone will not make a better book, and so far, I have been blessed with candid readers of all age groups. They have taken the challenge seriously, and they have told me what didn't work for them. But because it's very hard for teens to deliver criticism face-to-face to adults they know socially, I've generally turned to the children of friends of friends, classmates of pen pals, and other "anonymous" teens who do not know me. Then I've been able to hide behind the paper so that they won't feel the need to be nice to me.
With my most detailed historical novel, By These Ten Bones, I tried a long, detailed questionnaire (four pages, with lots of open-ended questions). I learned two things. First, the more questions on the paper, the less I got in the way of helpful answers. My target readers did fill in every blank; but, knowing how far they still had to go, they didn't give as much detail as I was used to. Second, the most helpful answers came on the most general questions:
What did you think of this book? (by far the best question)
Would you recommend it to friends?
Who do you think would like it? What age? Male or female?
Did you finish the book? If not, where were you when you stopped? (That can identify slow parts. Only one reader in my group stopped, but she stopped at the "darkest hour.")
Did you read the book as fast as you could, or did you set it aside?
What did you like best about the book?
Did anything confuse you?
Do you have questions about the book? (Some of these were interesting—and really showed me what was going over my readers' heads)
Did any of the words confuse you?
What do you think could make this a better book?
It can be very helpful to know exactly what you want and then go after just that information. My editor arranged for another target-audience reading of By These Ten Bones to find out two things: the age and gender that the book appealed to. Along with that, she asked the volunteer coordinator to collect general feedback, and we got some very interesting answers.
You might want to give your target readers a short questionnaire and then meet with them to ask them more specific questions about setting, vocabulary, etc. Then you get the best of both worlds. And you could use adult readers to give you more sophisticated feedback at the same time (are the characters shallow or engaging, believable, predictable, etc.; is the story idea fresh, controversial, etc.). Adults are always appropriate target readers for YA novels because we have to run the gauntlet of adult reviewers, adult librarians, and adult teachers.
Some of my best feedback has come from adults, in person, and has been very hard to listen to. I am a good liar: I tell people that I really, really want to hear honest criticism, when of course I want them to tell me I have written the greatest thing they have ever read. When readers have taken me seriously and embarked upon a cautious criticism, I have turned in Oscar-winning performances, convincing them that I am thrilled and very interested in what they have to say. Often, I have left such an encounter steaming inside; after all, each draft I write is as good as I can make it, and each time, I have really thought it was my best work. BUT ... I have gone home, mulled that honest, well-meaning criticism over for a day or two, and invariably found that it did have something very useful to teach me. Often, it's made a huge difference in the long run. And each time, the reader has been so very excited to see what I've done as a result to make the final book much better. Not everyone is out to help, and not everything needs to be listened to, but I think that target readers can do our work a great deal of good.
It can be a real trick to stay focused, especially when I have to drop a manuscript in order to work on a revision, go back to that manuscript a few weeks later, work on it for a couple of weeks, and then drop it again to handle page proofs or copyedits or something else.
I make myself write my rough drafts in order: no writing the fun scenes first. Each day, I think about what I'll write the next day, and I try to concentrate on those two or three scenes without thinking about any other part of the book. Then, the next day, I sit down to write that five or ten pages as if it's the only thing in the world I'm ever going to write again. That way, I stay interested in what I'm doing, even if it's a long way from the climax of the book. After all, every part of the book needs just as much attention as any other part. If I'm bored with what I'm writing, my reader certainly will be bored reading it. No one wants to feel that he or she is just hurrying through the dull parts.
So that would be my suggestion to you. If you want to write a long project, sketch out the broad plot in your head and then concentrate on making each scene you encounter into a gem all its own. Later, you may find that you have to change those scenes radically as you learn more about the book plot, but that's okay. You enjoyed them when you wrote them, and you'll enjoy what you write in their place. Some of my favorite writing comes along in relatively slow parts of my books. One of the chapters of Close Kin, involving a girl named Jane, turned out to be a real favorite of mine, even though when I first planned it out, it was just supposed to be filler to give Seylin something to do on his quest.
The only exception to my write-it-in-order rule is that I often write the ending of a book long before the end comes. Endings are too important to leave till the end. The ending of my trilogy, the last few chapters of In the Coils of the Snake, got written even before I had finished Close Kin because I knew exactly how it should all wrap up. And the last chapter of my next manuscript is already done, even though I've only written about a third of it.
First I dream up some characters I like and a tough situation for them to deal with. Then I start thinking about the background and the plot. But when I begin to write, I spend my time planning out the actual scenes that take place in the book, strung together with just enough information to get the reader from one scene to the next.
When I get ready to write a scene, I watch it in my head like a movie. I watch where people's hands are, think about what people are seeing, work out how they are feeling, what they are smelling, touching, and so on. Most importantly, I make up (or listen to) the dialogue at this point, thinking hard about what education people have, what favorite words or phrases they use, etc. Usually, in a scene, I'm staying "close" to one character, so I'm especially thinking about what he/she sees (in The Hollow Kingdom, it's almost always Kate). I try to imagine myself in that person's body. What's happening behind me? I may hear it, but I won't see it. I do this scene-watching several times, planning out some of the words and phrases I will use to describe what is happening. Writers call this rehearsing, but I call it prewriting.
Finally, I write that scene down, paying careful attention to what I learned from the prewriting. And I work hard to make the words sound beautiful and natural, even if it's a scary or nasty scene. After that, I move on to the next scene. It's like writing a little short story each time.
I do some work relating to my writing every day, although it may just be answering mail or working through a copyeditor's questions on a manuscript. I think about my writing even when I'm not doing it, too. When I'm ironing or driving, I prewrite the scenes that I intend to write down next. I try not to work for more than four hours each day on the actual writing because I have lots of other things to do.
Our typical German house has a kind of "attic" room as its third floor, and this A-frame room opens onto a large balcony, so it's airy and bright. We use it as a combination workout room/escape room, and the cats love to sleep there because it's so warm. My computer is up there, too. I never sit at this computer unless I mean to do my writing, so when I climb the stairs and sit down at the workstation, I'm ready to begin.
Writing is addictive, so when I'm working on a new manuscript, I have a very hard time doing anything else. I can usually finish a complete draft in about four months. After that, my editor and target readers get back to me with suggestions, and I revise it. A revision usually takes a month or two, depending on what else is going at the time. So far, I have revised each of my manuscripts three times, but some of the revisions have been very quick because they were fairly minor.
I sometimes take notes when I'm doing research on a particular place or on unusual customs. I especially like to keep lists of possible names to use in a book. But I generally don't outline a plot I find it more entertaining to tell the story to myself again than to go through a bunch of old notes. I did use a partial outline on one revision of In the Coils of the Snake, but I dropped it as soon as I started working my way through the manuscript and let the emotional tone and the pacing of the story itself guide me instead.
My fifth manuscript, however, has been something of an exception. It has been waiting over a year for me to finish a whole string of revisions on other manuscripts. The second time I had to abandon it in the middle, I went ahead and wrote down a couple of pages of plot notes about it.
When I get a new book idea, I take a few minutes to write down a page or two of impressions. Often this is nothing more than atmosphere/setting or a quick description of a crucial scene. That way, I can drop it out of my memory until I'm ready to start work on it.