Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’


Learning to love the outline

April 7, 2010

I wish I longed for adventure. I look at my closest friends—many of whom have lived in far flung places—and think “I should do that; I could do that.” I never do. I’m a picky eater, I hate public washrooms, I’m scared of flying, and I can’t even master French (even though I grew up surrounded by it). In short, I am not wired to stuff a handful of clothes into a backpack and venture to places which may not have toilet seat covers and where my ability to purchase a constant supply of hand sanitizer may be compromised.

That’s just not the way I roll.

So it’s probably odd that I clung to the notion that I was a pantser* for so long.

(*In this case, pantser refers to a writer who wings it as they go along, not to any of the slightly scary definitions on Urban Dictionary.)

In the past, I always had an idea of where I thought a story should go, but the plot points were often vague signposts on the road-map from beginning to end (actually, less a road-map and more like directions hastily scribbled on a paper napkin). It wasn’t until an agent said, “I’d like to see what would happen if you outlined,” that I actually tried my hand at it.

And you know what? I’m sort of digging it.

Now I haven’t gone full tilt (I have one awesome friend who has an entire binder of notes and timelines—yes, you know who you are), but I do have seven or eight pages written up that detail the politics and culture of the place and time I’m writing about. And I have a massive table (in a Word Doc) which details each chapter (see below). I fill out the table a few chapters ahead (and I already have the major events down) and I keep notes for future chapters at the bottom. My new rule: I am not allowed to start a chapter until I have some idea of its purpose.

For each chapter, I fill out the following:

Chapter Number:Pretty self explanatory 😉
POV: I have two POV characters so noting the switches here really helps.
Chapter Start: A few words describing the opening (these are pretty vague and subject to change)
What is POV character trying to do? If your chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, this may have more than one answer. Sometimes you won’t be able to answer this question and that’s okay—but always ask yourself why you can’t answer it. Is there a good reason or are you writing a passive character who could benefit from more motivation?
What goes wrong? If nothing went wrong, there’d be no story.
What do they do about it? That whole “active character” thing.
Why does this matter? If it doesn’t matter, do you really need this chapter?
Chapter End: Same as chapter starts.

The questions between “Chapter Starts” and “Chapter Ends” are really the heart of it. They actually come from a FANTASTIC post by Janice Hardy (author of “The Shifter”, one of the most exciting fantasy debuts in years) on scenes and revising (click here to read Janice Hardy’s post).

Is it working? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. I’m about 100 pages in and it’s definitely making the writing go faster and I think editing will be less painful than it’s been in the past. My only worry is that some things might sound stilted or forced. That’s why I’ve given myself full permission to deviate from the outline I’ve created; some things just look better in an outline than they do in the actual chapter.

A famous author once said that plotting was for dullards. And that’s okay. I’ve had years to get used to the fact that I’m a little bit dull and to stockpile antibacterial soap.


Photo-illustration by violscraper.


Semicolons are connectors; they show relationships.

April 6, 2010

I was tempted to write an entire post with semicolons in each sentence, but after a few tries, the gimmick didn’t work for me; apparently, it’s something I do subconciously. 🙂 

Anyways, semicolons are covered in grammar textbooks and other places, so I’m not going to list the rules; I’m going to mention my favorite use of semicolons.

A semicolon joins related independent clauses; anyone who struggles with short, choppy sentences should consider using one.


“I couldn’t lose my hair at fourteen; baldness belonged around old people.”

“Of course Jason crashed and burned; he’s got no depth perception.”


My trouble with semicolons is that I overuse them; they’re just so fun.

Don’t follow this post’s example; semicolons make the biggest impact when the audience doesn’t even notice that they’re there.

Yes, I did it; I just couldn’t resist.



First Person! Second Person! Third Person! Oh my!

March 21, 2010

(photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Think lions and tigers and bears are dangerous? They’re nothing compared to wrestling with questions of POV.

Alright, I’m exaggerating. Point of View isn’t really that big a deal. There are books about it and threads about and it’s the foundation upon which your entire manuscript is based. Big deal, though? Nah. Wanna know why? There are two reasons:

Reason One: The Story Knows

I’m a firm believer that all good stories want to be told and that there is almost always a POV which works best for each story (maybe not the only POV that works, but one that works best). The writer may not realize it, the writer might fight it tooth and nail, but the story knows.

I recently started writing a dystopian. I loved the characters and I thought my basic premise was rather cool. Despite that, I just couldn’t get into it. For about a week, I’d try to write the first two chapters only to be constantly distracted. Acting on a hunch, I rewrote a few pages in third person (they had been in first). Bam! Suddenly I was connecting much more clearly with what was on screen. Switching from first to third gave me more flexibility in describing the world around the characters and made for more engaging prose.

Reason Two: You Learned POV on the Streets

If you read widely and often, you already know POV. You may not consciously think about it, but you are familiar with it. And that familiarity will serve you as well as any writing book (and probably better than a fair few of them). You may even find yourself going back to books which handled POV in a way you especially liked, trying to work out how those authors achieved certain effects.

Remember that dystopian I was talking about (it was two paragraphs up, so, if you can’t remember, you may have bigger problems than POV)? I knew I wanted it to be in a very close third person, so close that it almost felt like first. When I needed a little break from my computer screen, I flipped through About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Why? Because it’s the closest third person I’ve ever read. Hornby goes so close that I sometimes forget that the book is written in third person and recommend it to people who are looking for good first person reads.

I can’t be Nick Hornby. I don’t want to be Nick Hornby. But I like trying to figure out how he pulls things off—how any writer pulls things off.

So that’s POV in a nutshell. Not technical advice (you can get that in plenty of other places), but a few things I’ve noted from my own experience.

– Kathleen


Five Facts Aspiring YA Authors Should Know (A Conference Experience)

February 17, 2010

By Sarah Harian

This weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2010 San Francisco Writers Conference. I experienced a whirlwind of different emotions–anxiety from having to attend alone, fear of not being noticed or being rejected by all of the publishing professionals, relief when I met a handful of wonderful writers on the first day, and joy when I realized how confident I came off during my pitch sessions. These emotions made for a marvelous experience, one that I am very happy to share with the OPWFT readers.

YA Lit was a HUGE topic among conversations between writers, even though a lot of the writers at the conference didn’t write YA. YA was brought up in every single panel I attended, and here’s why:

NUMBER ONE: The amount of YA books on the shelves has increased 83% in the past two years.

You should have seen the faces of all the adult fiction writers when Regina Brooks (from Serendipity, LLC) spilled this little fact at a panel. Those were some numbers! Which leads me to number two…

NUMBER TWO: YA is the reason why a lot of publishing houses are still in business.

Daniela Rapp, editor at St. Martin’s Press, revealed this at a panel about turning your manuscript into a book.

If you’ve been into a Borders recently, you’ll know why. Recently, Borders has rearranged their shelves do display a “Borders Ink” section right at the front of the store. In the Borders in my town, this is the busiest section of the floor. There are always customers there, carrying around the newest Mortal Instruments or Vampire Academy book. Even in a recession, YA booms. Of course, the boom started a couple of years ago, but it took a while for editors to start admitting it was the main reason for the publishing world staying on its feet.

NUMBER THREE: The trend that you’re seeing now is two years old.

That’s right, folks. That’s how long it usually takes from Agent to Bookstore. Editors are no longer looking for Fallen Angels and Werewolves. This is ok though, because as a writer, you don’t want to follow a trend. You want to start one. So write the story that’s in your heart, not ones like those that are selling off the shelves.

Steampunk and Vampires are the exceptions though. The term “steampunk” became a running joke at the conference because either an agent was actively seeking it or had no idea WTH steampunk was. Every author decided on telling others that they wrote steampunk, even though they also knew nothing about the genre.

As for vampires… Well, as it was said many times over the weekend, “Vampires will never die”.

NUMBER FOUR: Publishers these days spend very little money building your platform.

Most editors, and even some agents will ask you this question before they take on your project: “What are you going to do to get the word out?”

It’s up to us, the writers, to advertise our projects and books. This was a HUGE topic at the conference this year. Don’t have a Twitter account? Get one. Don’t have a website? SERIOUSLY think about investing some money into buying a domain and getting a nice, clean layout. Don’t have a blog? Not only do you need one, but you also need to post every other day.

Some agents don’t care about whether or not you have already established some internet presence, but it was said by more than one agent that they do some research on a writer before signing them and see what they’ve already done to build a readership. Yes, if you are querying, agents are researching you. This means that it is VITAL for you to be polite and courteous while you are networking and actively working to get your name out there.


With the dawning realization that YA is such a popular market, a lot of writers with projects that had young protagonists started contemplating pitching their book as YA. This is fine and all, but I KNEW that many of these people had never picked up a YA book in their life, or at least hadn’t since the days of S.E. Hinton or Lois Lowry. The YA market has changed so drastically in recent years, and will continue to change. It is important for you, as a writer, to get your hands on as many YA books from all different genres as you possibly can. See what others are writing about. Take note of their styles. It will help you develop your own voice.


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


Top Ten Writing Tips

October 14, 2009

One of the many things I’ve learned throughout the writing process is that you can never have too many words of encouragement. I want to impose ten tips writers should always remember.

1. Never, ever give up. I know. I know. You’ve heard this one hundred times by now, but it’s the truth. You can’t let rejections or editing get you down. Keep your chin up!

2. Read until your eyes burst into flames. Sounds crazy, but it helps. Not only does reading give you a break, but you can learn so much—how grammar, punctuation and writing styles are used.

3. Observe, and then observe some more. Yeah, that’s right. Take a seat somewhere the next time you’re out in public. Watch people. See how they react when speaking to someone else. What are their mannerisms? Oh, man. I can see those gears rotating in your head already.

4. Don’t edit as you go. Trust me—I know this is hard. Who cares if your first draft is crap? The odds of writing a perfect novel are probably 0.00000000001%. There isn’t a novel out there that’s perfect the first go-around. Wait until you’re finished. Give those fiery eyes a break. After a few days, you can go back and edit.

5. Write as much as your heart wishes. No, I’m not talking about just books. Keep a journal. Grab a pen and paper, step into your backyard and describe what you see. Think of it as practice. The more you practice something, the more experience you gain.

6. Learn from your mistakes. You’ve been pierced through your most vital organ and are bleeding abundantly. It hurts when someone takes the red pen of doom to your baby, doesn’t it? Don’t take it to heart (pun intended). These people are your sidekicks, partner-in-crime, fellow writers. They want to help. Listen to them. Have an open mind. I promise your manuscript will be ten times better than the original draft.

7. Read out loud. You’re probably sitting there going, “Whaaaaaat?!” Yep, I said it. I bet you’re trying to remember the last time you read out loud right now. You can actually catch typos and sentence structures that are out of place better than if you read with your eyes only. Try it sometime.

8. Always keep a pen and paper handy. You never know when that shiny new idea will spring to life inside that head of yours.

9. Pay it forward. If another writer reviews your work, be kind enough to review theirs.

10. Stay true to your characters. They need you. They depend on you. You are the only way they’ll get their story read by hundreds—maybe even thousands/millions—of other people. Remember, they’re one of the reasons you began this journey.