Don’t Got Shiver? Come Hither! Shiver Agent Laura Rennert’s Five Writing Do’s and a Chance to Win Books and More!

December 14, 2009


Saying the Andrea Brown Literary Agency plays an important role in young adult literature is like saying chocolate plays an important role in chocolate chip cookies (and, like most writers, you probably know the significance of a daily dose of chocolate). Twice a year, the agency helps host the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. For one blissful, glorious, worth-eating-three-months-of-Mr. Noodles-to-get-there weekend, children’s writers attend lectures, work on their novels in critique groups, and yes, have cocktails with other writers, editors, and agents.

 This year was my first year to go, and I have to say: it was well worth its weight in noodles. With clients like Ellen Hopkins (Crank), Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver), Super Agent Laura Rennert has represented some of the most talked about titles in YA. During our workshop, we had the chance to listen to Laura to speak to us about Five Writing Do’s. And without further, ahem, ado, I’ve summed up what she had to say (with my own twist).

1. Craft

Laura says to make sure you have a fresh and compelling voice, and that the voice is authentic to your specific character. Use the POV that works best for your story. To work on your voice, interact with the age group you’re writing about. Or, barring that, eavesdrop on them at the local mall (just try not to look like a stalker).

Also, read your writing out loud to really hone in on what’s working and what’s not in your sentences. After attending the workshop and having to read my writing out loud to strangers—MEEP!—I can tell you this really does make a world of difference in how you hear your own words.

2. Create Memorable and Dynamic Characters

 Know your characters. Laura believes in the iceberg analogy: 9/10 of what makes a character tick remains under the surface. And guess what? If you, the writer, only know the top 1/10—like, say, your MC Suzie loves ponies and ice cream sundaes—your can bet your novel will be lacking in depth (yeah, I went for the pun there. Deal with it.)

Also: the more stress you put your characters under, the better. Basically, Laura was too kind to say it, but I’m not—torture your little sweeties until they cry and need a heavy dose of therapy. No, seriously.

3. Coherent and Satisfying Narrative Structure

Capture your reader’s interest from page one, and never let the forward momentum slack. Laura’s example: if your very first scene involves a party, don’t begin your novel when the party starts. Jump to the middle. My elaboration on how not to start:

“Yo, Joe, what’s shaking?”

“Nothing much. You?”

“Aw, nothing much. Hey, did ya catch that Lakers game last night?”

“No, man? You?”

“Uh uh. So, how come you missed it?”

 “Oh, well—I was taking a nap.”

Um, guess what? At this point, your reader is probably nodding off, too. Instead of beginning at the, well, beginning, start in the middle of the scene, when the action is already getting underway. Leave your hello’s’ and nap talk for offscreen. And then, since you’re off to such a great start, don’t back off. Keep the tension mounting from there. You know that old David Bowie and Freddy Mercury song “Under Pressure?” Make it your writing motto. By putting your characters under pressure, you’ll keep the reader reading—always a good thing.

And, according to Laura, another cool thing about upping the stakes? You—and your reader—will get to know your characters better. Laura’s example: If your character tells the truth when nothing is at stake, so what? But if your character’s life or reputation is at stake and they still tell the truth, well—that is truly noteworthy information to have.

A final tip: the main character should change over the course of the novel. Metaphorically speaking. I mean, she or he doesn’t have to morph from human to vamp—although, we’ve heard rumors that maybe that method does work on occasion <grin>.

4. Explore the Universal and the Idiosyncratic

 According to Laura, this means that within universal themes—such as conflict with friends—give us particular and concrete examples that are specific to your world. Feel free to give us the same old, same old—but with your own unique take or spin.

5. Literary Voice and Commercial Conception

Have a great, strong storyline along with a strong voice. And in case you were wondering if Laura was serious about stakes? She mentions them here again. She says use ordinary experiences but elevate the stakes.

Her example? Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher—a book that looks at teen suicide in an unusual and compelling way.

So, those are the five writing do’s that agent Laura talked about.  But, wait– don’t run off to write just yet!  Why not enter a contest that showcases the very authors exemplifying those do’s? Comment below to win your choice of Thirteen Reasons Why, Shiver, or Tricks, PLUS a $25 gift card to either Barnes and Nobles or Amazon.

In your comments, tell us either what you consider your writing strength or your weakness, or both. We’ll do a random drawing on Wednesday night, December 16th, at ten p.m. Pacific Time, and announce the winner the following day. Anyone who re-tweets our contest on Twitter? Feel free to DM us and let us know, and we’ll enter your name twice. (Sorry, but the contest is restricted to those with a Canadian or United States address).

Good luck, Happy Holidays, and of course—Happy Writing.

By Debra Driza



  1. Yay! Awesome giveaway and even awesomer advice! Thank you so much for passing this on to us.

    As for the question: I think my strength is voice. I have had great feedback on that particular aspect of my written work. Now the stress thing? That’s where I really have to work at it. Conflict and tension and not being too nice to my babies – definitely my area of attention.

  2. Love her Fives, but I just want to say this – I HATE referring to my writing as a “craft.” It’s the most pretentious sounding thing in the world.

    But that’s just me. Carry on.

  3. I think my writing weakness is grammar. I’m working hard at overcoming this.

  4. Those are some wonderful advice! Thank you for sharing them with us. *takes them to heart*

    My writing strength is something every writer has, I think: the ability to think up ‘cool’ ideas (at least, cool to me :)). My writing weakness is… everything else. Or the prose. I tend to write very choppily in the first draft and need to smooth them out during edits, though they will still sound awkward post-revisions.

  5. Awesome contest! I’ll mention my writing strength weakness. Weakness is definitely the whole show don’t tell thing. I always find my first drafts are full of it. My strength is how awesome I am at the male POV. I’m still so shocked haha.

  6. I think my strength is in plot/concept. My biggest weakness is losing faith in my work.

  7. My fiction teacher spent the entire semester pounding #4 into our heads. Hmm, idk what my strength is…a lot of people seem to like my voice. My weakness is probably plotting. I don’t always do well carrying the narrative through the way I want to and sometimes I have structural problems of weaving in backstory.

    Cool contest. Thanks, guys.

  8. I’ve been told I have a good voice (in writing), which is funny because I always thought that was my weakness. I consider dialogue to be my strong suit.

  9. I’ve been told voice is my strength – and my weakness. It’s bipolar! Hey, how about a story about a writer with a bipolar voice? Just kidding.

    In my opinion, my strength is voice and my weakness is in adding something that slows the story (without realizing it). Yep, I draw things out sometimes.

    Laura is totally turbo when it comes to YA – listen to her and listen to her again.

    – Julie

  10. Debra,

    Thanks for the helpful post and great contest.
    My current strength: voice
    My current weakness: depth of secondary characters.

    I’ll be sure and retweet the contest, too.

  11. Great contest and post!

    I’ve been told many times that I am a good storyteller and my voice is strong, but when I put it on the page, sometimes I feel the dialogue can get flat. I’m working on putting more emotion into the dialogue and putting more action into “talking scenes” through movement in the room, etc.

  12. I’ve been told my strengths are concept, voice (for novels), and thinking visually (for picture books). I need to work on pacing and tension.

    Thanks for the great summary – the conference sounds wonderful!

  13. Great fives–that’s what I try to teach my students when we do creative writing or look at novels.

    Strength? I think it’s dialogue. I teach teens all day and really get to know the cadence & language of the teen (why, yes, it is like observing a foreign species sometimes!)

    Weakness? Details. I’m a pretty spare writer in my first draft and have to go back during revisions to add detail and imagery.

  14. Thanks for posting the tips! My weakness has to be those darn first 5 pages. There’s so much I want to do, include, set up, etc. that they just don’t have the same flow as the rest of my work. Bummer since that’s what every agent judges you by…

  15. Dialogue has become my strength, but I’m working on adding sensory details as I revise my novels. Those are the details that sometimes get missed when you’re trying to meet a self-imposed deadline to get the first draft written, I think. (I re-tweeted the contest: twitter.com/jeniw) Thank you for this interview! Very helpful. Jeni

  16. I think my strength may be humor…as for my weaknesses, how much time do you have? 😉 Here is one: I take forever to settle on my characters – I end up writing from TWO viewpoints for ONE character until I can decide which works better. Ugh.

  17. Five great tips.

    With regard to writing strength, I’m most proud of my ability to develop the story’s characters. They’re big (metaphorically), are prone to great suffering privately and not-so-privately), and my readers tell me they know kids in real life that are like my characters. That’s reassuring.

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