Category Archives: Writing Tip

Peeling Back the Onion Layers

If you want to find your teen self (see last post) and let that person inform your writing voice, I think the best way is to free write scenes from your past.

Remember Anne Lammott’s advice in BIRD BY BIRD in the chapter about school lunches? She starts by writing what foods went in those school lunches and ends up remembering the emotional ties—what kinds of things you might have in your lunch that could lead to you being popular or getting beat up, your head smashed against the chain-link fence at recess.

That’s what I go for when I free write the details from my past—the emotional memories.

You could write about defining moments or the most ordinary. Like, What do you remember about driver’s ed? Your first time getting behind the steering wheel? Who else was in the car with you besides the teacher? Peers who gave you more confidence? People who made the whole experience more nerve-wracking? What was on the radio? Was the A/C too cold?

This isn’t to say fiction should be totally autobiographical, but I find as I conjure up details, the authentic emotions reach the surface too. And that is where you’ll find your authentic teen voice. Teens experience life much more intensely than adults, partly because their emotional centers mature before their impulse control, but also because everything is so NEW for them. If you can remember the exuberance and despair of being a teen, and especially the vulnerability, I believe your YA writing will always ring true.

So now you tell me. How do you get your voice right when writing for people younger than you? Does the voice come first or is it something you have to hone? I’m still a fairly new writer, so most of my characters reflect shards of my own past, but I’d like to move beyond that one day and eventually write not only characters who are younger than me but also much different than me. If you’ve been successful in this, please share your tips in the comments!



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Sandra Cisneros and Voice

I had the chance to present at the Space Coast Writers Guild conference a few weeks ago on writing for young adults. Good times! And then I had the chance to get over a nasty, nasty airplane-caught flu for three weeks. BUT I’m back and glad to be here.

My many thanks for the generous people of SCWG who let me come and didn’t walk out of my presentation even when I kept running out of air and almost passing out. I blame the pregnancy, not the nervousness. ūüėČ

Of the feedback I got on the presentation, a lot of people said they had never heard Sandra Cisneros’s vignette “Eleven” and liked it. Here’s a snippet in case you don’t remember from your ninth-grade English class:

What they don‚Äôt understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when¬†you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four,¬†and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you¬†expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like¬†yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten.¬†And you are‚ÄĒunderneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten.¬†Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared,¬†and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe¬†you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† okay. That’s what I tell Mama when¬†she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.

I like this because, for me, it illustrates writing from the young adult or middle-grade voice. You don’t have to invent a voice out of nothing. You’re already thirteen inside. You only have to decide if you have the courage to peel back the layers and let that awkward, tormented, idealistic person from your past speak.

Next week I’ll touch on how to peel back the layers and write with a younger voice without necessarily making your characters too autobiographical.


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Killing Weedy Words

Apologies for the Thursday post. I should have published this yesterday. But you are all too busy finishing your 60k novels this month to read blogs, right?

When NaNoWriMo ends in a few weeks, you’ll probably spend another month finessing plot, characterization, and setting, making your underlying themes gleam, unless you’re like me. Then you’ll spend another year.

After the big pieces are in the right places, then comes the time to clean up sentences. I like these examples from Highlights editor Kim Griswell:

Some words are like weeds: You should pull them out whenever you see them.

Some of her examples include useless adjectives, which we’ve heard a lot about. But I need to do a better job of watching out for prepositions. “Face your problems” sounds a lot snappier than “face up to your problems,” and “at this point in time” is a waste of words when you can say “now.”

Qualifiers should go, too. I felt sad when I saw this one on Kim’s list of noxious words: “Pretty much.” My characters say “pretty much” on pretty much every page.

How’s the crazy November writing madness going for everyone? (If I edited blog posts, I’d delete “crazy”—see, because “madness” means the same thing.)

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Writing and Pottery

In a BYU devotional, Professor Camille Fronk once said:

I found it fascinating to learn where a potter focuses his attention [at first]. He does not concentrate on the outward appearance of the vessel. He knows that the outside will take care of itself when the inner space is formed. In other words, the form of the inner chamber determines the appearance of the exterior.

This fact was used to make a religious comparison, but what can it have to do with writing?

Okay, I know I’ve hit on the issue of character motivation more than once, and maybe that’s because I’m still figuring out how to nail it in my own writing. The way I see it, the main character’s inner life—deepest wishes, greatest fears, way of viewing the world based on unique character traits and past experience—these all have to shape the action in the story. If you are a character-driven writer, it may seem obvious that your character’s heart is what creates the outward appearance of the plot. If you are a plot-driven writer, this idea is more tricky.

I’ve said this before, too: Readers can tell the difference between characters whose motivations create plot and characters who conform to plot without any deep or especially believable motivations. As a freelance reader of slush for a local publishing company, I often write comments like these on manuscript evaluations: “I don’t understand why the character is doing this here,” or “I don’t believe the character would totally change his course based on a vague feeling of intuition. It doesn’t ring true,” or “I don’t think this character would act this way without some outward instigation.” I feel like almost every evaluation turns into a chorus of, “WHAT IS THE CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION HERE?”

And yet, readers have marked the same observations on my manuscripts. When they do, I find that those passages were written when I was excited about the next plot point and I wanted to get my character there. I hadn’t stopped to think what my character would be thinking, feeling, and reacting to in the present, unaware of what plot twist the author had in store for her next.

Do you know what’s going on inside your main character’s heart and head when you sit down to write?

If not, how do you figure it out?


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Domain of Ownership

Are there any literary or artistic works that almost feel like they are a part of you?

I don’t know where this quote originally came from; I jotted it down in some class notes from my college days:

In your own writing, make allusions to works or artists that feel like they are a part of you. Works are more powerful when rich in your personal culture.

I remember the professor telling us we could “own” other people’s works. Our emotional response to them would make for a unique voice in our creative writing.

Who are some artists or authors—or what are some works—that are a part of your personal culture? And are they classical enough to write about or will today’s teens totally miss the point?

Originally, I had characters in my first novel alluding to The Scarlet Letter and Emily Dickinson poems. In fact, I built the whole first chapter around a poem. Then I learned that my main character hates reading and cut all literary allusions.

In a book I’m working on now, I referred to Indian legends about my hometown. Then I changed the setting, and those parts got axed too. I guess I have yet to make my works “rich” with my “personal culture.”

However, maybe personal culture extends beyond the humanities. Why did I feel driven to write about a character who spent time in a Japanese internment camp when I’m a sheltered, white, Utah girl? Because my great-grandparents had a Japanese internment camp barrack brought to their farm after the war, stuffed to this day with old, rusty junk. That building and what it stands for haunts me even now. I hope the image of that barrack haunts the pages of my novel, too, even though I have no Japanese heritage.

What allusions have popped up in your writing that have added depth?


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The Value of Commitment

A few days ago I shared these quotes on my religion blog:

I haven’t read any of Jonathan Franzen’s novels yet, but I love what he had to say when he was on the cover of Time recently: “One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions. And a way of further surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions.”

Franzen goes on to say:

“I came to realize that because my purpose on earth seems to be to write novels, I am actually freer when I’m chained to a project: freer from guilt, anxiety, boredom, anger, purposelessness.”

Whether it’s living a religion or writing a novel to the bitter end, commitment makes it happen. For the first time ever, I’ve spent the last two weeks giving daily word-count goals a try. I’ve missed some days, yes. But guess what Saturday night finds me doing? Catching up to meet weekly word-count goals.

I’ve read that Stephen King writes 1,500 words a day. Sometimes more. Rarely less.

In August, Laurie Halse Anderson shared her own writing schedule on her blog and challenged readers to write for 15 minutes a day. challenges writers to write 1,657 words a day for 30 days straight, producing a 50k word draft by the end of November.

Claudia Mills writes for one hour or one page a day. Check out her interview on how to balance writing and real life.

Jillian Michaels doesn’t write novels at all, that I know of, but she wrote this article on goal-setting. The short version:

1. Writing down goals makes them “a concrete thing instead of this vague hope tucked away in the back of your mind.”

2. Writing down goals prevents people from getting “caught up in activity traps–things that simply waste their time and energy–thereby making them unproductive and increasingly discouraged.”

3. Writing down short-term goals can make long-term goals less intimidating.

“I’m going to write a novel this year” = intimidating. “I’m going to write 500 w0rds today” = not so bad. Try it six times a week, and 20 weeks later, you’ll have your first 60k draft.

Here are my goals for what’s left of 2010:

3,000 words a week. That breaks down to 500 words a day, six days a week. My first draft will be finished by the end of January 2011. My second draft will be finished by mid-February. My agent will have something in her hands to blow to pieces by March 7, and I’ll start over from there.

I know this is a weird post for September 29 instead of January 1, but a Wednesday leading into the Halloween season seems as good a time as any to start anew.

What writing goals or schedule structures work for you?


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Writing “Process”

Do you outline? Do you bleed on paper and see what comes out? Do you agonize over every word and then have a first draft that needs almost no revision by the time you’re finished? Every time I start a new book, I’m not sure what my answer is going to be.

I found these quotes from author Pam Munoz Ryan in my Chautauqua notes from 2003:

When I speak to educators, they are especially curious about the writing process. The word process always reminds me of packaged bologna, which has been mechanically wrapped, and in one sense, I think that is exactly what people want to know—a recipe or a series of steps that will take a writer from the blank page to finished manuscript. They want to know a writer’s tidy shrink-wrapped procedure.

She then relates how educators asked her how she used the concept of cause and effect in one of her books so they could teach that to their students. She says:

After a book is published, a writer is asked to examine his or her own techniques and procedures. This is always difficult and painstaking for me. . . . As a writer, I don’t set out to write a book with exemplary use of cause and effect or plot. . . . I set out to write a compelling story. When I start a book, I don’t first ask myself, “What’s the plot?” Instead, I start with the question, “What’s the story I want to tell?” . . . For me, starting a story means a lot of time with my own wandering thoughts. I daydream and try to create answers to my own questions. . . . I ask and answer questions like, “What if?”

I ask those questions too. “What if this plot sucks?”

I want to know the various ways you approach new story ideas. How much do you have to write, visualize, and daydream before you know if a story idea is worth pursuing to the bitter end? And how many hundreds of pages have you thrown away in your lifetime before finding something that stuck?


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