Tag: writing tips

Getting Hooked Part 2: How to Reel in Readers

The other day on my AuthorsNow! post, I wrote about books that have grabbed me as both a teen and adult. Today, I want to discuss ways we can hook our readers.

I’ll add the disclaimer that it’s not a one size fits all thing.You’ll run across methods that work beautifully in someone else’s book but makes yours look fugly. Or, like that sweater that always made your sibling look hot but looked gross on you until you added pearls, it’s a matter of adopting a method to work with your talents.

When I taught middle school, I told my students to start their stories/essays in one of 3 ways: description, dialogue, or startling fact. I think this advice can apply to novels as well.

Let’s start with description. You’re probably thinking that’s a great way to lose readers, and you’re right if you spend the first three pages writing heavy detail about a brown coffee table or living room. Heck, if you put this kind of detail even halfway through the book, I’ll skim it and move on to a juicier part, but that’s just me. 🙂

One of my favorite books, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, by Audrey Niffenegger, began with description. I love the poetry of the writing and how, from the start, Niffenegger’s words let us know something monumental is about to happen.

First paragraph:

Clare: The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I sign the visitors’ log Clare Abshire, 11:15 10-26-91 Special Collections. I have never been in the Newberry Library before and now that I’ve gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance, I am excited. I have a sort of Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books.

What I love about these lines is that Niffenegger utilizes the senses to draw us in. The details Clare sees and the way she presents them to us, really paint Clare’s character without us knowing anything about her. There is something child-like about her here and endearing, especially when she compares the library to “a big box of beautiful books.”

2. Dialogue–I have heard mixed thoughts on opening a book this way. Some balk at this method because we “hear” words without knowing right away who is saying them or anything about the speaker. But, if the words are alluring, we’re hooked, and then the writer can provide further details to flesh out the missing parts (e.g. setting, etc.).

David Levithan’s WIDE AWAKE begins:

“I can’t believe there’s going to be a gay Jewish president.”
As my mother said this, she looked at my father, who was still staring at the screen. They were shocked, barely comprehending.
I sat there and beamed.

I love the opening line here, and was pulled in immediately. I didn’t even care who was talking because the line was so surprising. The few lines above are the whole first chapter, but already we get a sense of the narrator. These lines are succinct, and the MC’s optimism/happiness of the moment comes through clearly.

3. Startling Fact–When I taught English and creative writing, this was often my students’ favorite way to open a story. It allowed them to bring out the most crazy, lavish line they could find and present it unapologetically. Sometimes, this is where they would begin and then create a story around the surprising detail. When I’m stuck on a character or chapter, I try to think of the most surprising element of that character and think how it would fit as a chapter opening. At the least, it helps rejuvenate a stalled writing process.

GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray is currently on my to-read list. When I hear a lot about a book, those first pages make me nervous because I really want to like them. I was hesitant to open this but am glad I did. The first page completely pulled me in, and it’s also a perfect example of a startling fact opening.

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.

Dying at Disney World is definitely not ideal, but the MC says this was his best day. Really? And it was all downhill from there? Right away, Bray has me, and I can’t wait to read this book.

How about you? What are some of your favorite ways to start stories? Which books did you feel hooked you from the start? How did they do it?

The Wall

Here is the scenario. You’re coasting along in your writing world. Your characters are gelling–more than gelling, even. They’re interacting, volleying the scenes back and forth with you, going places you didn’t think they would. The setting is developing. There are trees, basketball courts, evil principals’ offices, maybe the kitchen table takes on symbolic meaning. And the plot! Well, it’s perfection. Not only is the story progressing, but it’s doing so continuously, excitingly. There’s no lack of pacing at all. You’re super proud of yourself and pat yourself on the back or get that pudding pop break you’ve been craving. Then you’re back, ready to move forward from where you left off. Of course, that’s when it happens. You hit a wall.

In cartoons this is very cute, and the character always bounces off the wall and then keeps on running. In my world, it’s not cute. I stare at the screen, minimize it, maximize it, look at it from another angle. But that doesn’t work. Then, I minimize the screen again and play Bejeweled Blitz or Scrabble on Facebook. Surprisingly, that doesn’t help either. Through all this, I wonder what happened. Where did I go wrong? When the wall smacked me in the face in the past, I thought my story was flawed. Maybe there were holes. There always are in the first draft. But that itself wasn’t enough. And just because there were holes, was no reason to scrap the idea (which is where my brain often went–into a sprial like on those water slides, thinking that there was nowhere to go now but down, into a centimeter of water. Ouch!). I’ve grown as a writer enough to know that the story does have promise but I will have to dig to find out what happened. And, most important, not give up on it–which would be the easy way out.

Part of the problem may be that I detest outlines. But, when the wall rushes at me, that’s what I always end up doing: stop the staring contest with the screen and make a mini outline. What happened so far, where do I see it going, what’s stumping me? It’s not a huge, three page outline, just a few paragraphs, and sometimes this helps. With my current WIP, it did not. This story is totally plotted. I know the characters. I know what has to happen to create the climax and add suspense. My issue with the WIP is that I don’t know how to move the story quickly enough to get it to the climax. So I have a different solution. My next plan is to just write random scenes I know–the big climax scene, the 3 scenes before that that set everything in motion, the ending. I don’t normally work like this, but it’s better than the alternative and at least I’ll be working on scenes that interest me.

What do you do when the wall emerges from the curtain and pops you in the kisser? How do you bounce back?

Night 8 Writing Tip

The last post comes from Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO–debuting January 2010 from Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. To find out more about Olugbemisola and her books, visit her at http://www.olugbemisola.com.

All of a Peace

I’ve loved to ‘make things’ for as long as I can remember. At the start of every holiday season my mind turns (a little too late) to all of the gifts that I want to make for people, for myself, for no particular reason; and then my longing to work on those often competes with a craving for more time to write, to work…and then I remember once again that it’s all of a piece for me, this writing and crafting thing.

Knitting and stitchery help me to revise, to think through stories or writing issues.  Like many writers, I spend a lot of time ‘thinkwriting’, and often a day comes when I sit down with my notebook and a fine point felt-tipped pen, and…a blank page stares back at me. And stares. And stares. I usually keep a few unfinished needlework projects around for just those moments, and when I pick up the needles and start to knit and purl, or loop the needle and floss around in a simple blanket stitch, the story welcomes me; I work my way in.  There is something about working the texture of the yarn, fabric, embroidery floss, or sometimes clay, that prompts me to simultaneously focus and let my mind wander into a story or moment with a character in a way that is both productive and supremely enjoyable.

I’ll admit that part of my inclination to making a writing/crafting connection stems from a nagging sense of guilt about looking busy, about ‘doing more’…letting those people who tell me about their ‘real jobs’ that keep them from ‘sitting around writing books’ get to me. In a way, that has prompted me to think about my crafts as intricately entwined with my work as a writer.  But that’s also been a blessing in disguise, because I truly believe that the work with my hands stimulates the creative work of my brain.  Collage, another wonderful brainstorming and revision tool, has literally helped me enrich characters and add depth in ways that simple listmaking or character sketches have not. Choosing a certain shade of blue, a scrap of text from a vintage book, a photograph of an overturned vase can immediately evoke a story or character ‘memory’ — “Ruthie would have done this, and then this…” — that leads me down an exciting writerly path. Sometimes it’s a literal “Aha!” moment, when a scene or bit of dialogue pops out, clear and gleaming as crystal, in the process of making; other times it’s a dim sensibility, a mood, an idea about theme that becomes lucid as I roll tiny french knots, maneuver a cable needle, or just wind a ball of alpaca round my hands.

And sometimes I make a stuffed toy or a cat hat because I’m just procrastinating and don’t want to pick up a pen (I still write longhand first drafts, notes, etc.) just yet.

“What does your character want?” is one of those questions that is often asked of an author in the process of writing and revising. I think they all want to be treated with care and respect, and taking some time to work with my hands in this way reminds me to do just that. And sometimes, when I lay down the pages and turn on the sewing machine for just five minutes, I am reminded that it’s not that I don’t have enough time — I do. I don’t always respect the time that I have, I let the tyranny of the urgent overpower the important. Then I let myself enjoy this work that means so much to me, go into the story and tend to my characters with patience and a renewed sense of purpose.  I can even tell myself that the almost unforgivable amount of unfinished objects and WIPs laying about are helpful, really, plentiful reminders to respect and enjoy the process, not just the finished product. I’m not a particularly skilled crafter, and definitely a dilletante  (you should see my craft book collection, it’s embarrassingly large and all over the place); but I love to make things.
It awakens my mind, and quiets my soul. It helps my work; it helps me love my work.  The ‘craft’ of writing works for me.

My craft blog:


A Few Creative/Craftish Books that Inspire My Work:

52 Projects by Jeffrey Yamaguchi
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Knitters Almanac by Elizabeth Zimmermann,
Making Puppets Come Alive, Larry Engler & Carol Fijian
Creative Knitting, by Mary Walker Phillips,
Handmade Toys and Games, Dollmaking: A Creative Approach, and Creative Body Coverings, by Jean Ray Laury
The Joy of Knitting by Lisa R.Myers
Knitting for Anarchists, by Anna Zilboorg
Making Things, Books 1 & 2, by Ann Wiseman
Kurikuri/Tezukuri Series (Japanese)

A few crafting projects:

Betsy Ross Bags

Betsy Ross Bags

Lil Shane in kitty hat

Lil Shane in kitty hat

Finger puppets

Finger puppets

Wombat Observing Surroundings

Wombat observing surroundings



Holiday Dress

Holiday dress

Night 7 Writing Tip

Today’s post is from Stephanie Burgis, author of the Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson trilogy, which starts with Book One: A Most Improper Magick, due to come out April 20, 2010 from Atheneum Books. To find out more about Stephanie and her books, please visit http://www.stephanieburgis.com.

Follow Your Fun to Success


The most important writing tip I know is this: *follow your fun*!


It’s important to write as well as you possibly can, but it’s even more important to write your true heart’s passion. That’s a lesson it took me a long, long time to learn.


Back in 2001, I attended the Clarion West Science Fiction & Fantasy Writing Workshop. It’s an intense 6-week, residential workshop with competitive entry, taught by professional science fiction and fantasy authors. I learned more about writing in those six weeks than I ever had in my entire life up until then, and I got to see my own writing improve in huge leaps, faster than I ever could have imagined. Without having gone to Clarion West, I wouldn’t be a professional writer now, and I’m incredibly grateful to have had that opportunity.


And yet…


There was just one thing that wasn’t so good for me about the workshop. Before I stepped on the plane to Seattle, I was midway through the first draft of a lighthearted, silly, funny middlegrade SF novel that made me laugh and made me happy. Within a week of arriving at the workshop, I’d given up that novel. By the end of the workshop, I felt genuinely *embarrassed* to have ever let myself spend time writing something so silly and un-“serious”…because the message I somehow picked up at the workshop (and I’m not blaming any of my instructors or classmates for this) was that writing had to be “serious” to be worthwhile – and who wants to write something that’s not worthwhile?


Well, I’m a reasonably intelligent person. Once I have a goal, I try to follow it. So for the next five years, I wrote Serious Work™ with all my might. I’m really proud of a lot of the stories I wrote in those years, and I worked very hard on them. I think everyone has darkness inside of them as well as light, and I explored that darkness as well as I could.


Every so often, though, I’d slip and let myself write a funny, lighthearted short story just for my own entertainment, and in what should have been a sign to me, the first one I wrote turned out to be my first professional short story sale – but I ignored that sign with all my might because it didn’t match the “truth” I thought I understood about writing.


The thing is, what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to publish novels – so when it came to writing novels, I never let myself slip. I wrote Serious with all my might, working very hard to try to write the kind of novels I thought other people would want to read…until one day the idea for a completely different kind of novel slipped into my head. It was wacky, lighthearted, and the first lines made me laugh…so I knew I couldn’t let myself do it.


It was the opposite of “serious”. It was the opposite of where I thought I needed to go for my career. It was too quirky, too focused on my own individual loves. It was what *I* wanted to read, not what *other* people would want to read. I knew I couldn’t let myself write it, no matter how tempting it felt…


Well, I’ll cut a long story short. I finally gave in (almost a year later!) and wrote that novel purely for myself because I couldn’t get it out of my head…and guess what? Last year that book sold as the first in a trilogy. It turns out that what makes me laugh makes some other people laugh, too – and the books that were most fun for me to write are also the books that are most fun for other people to read.


I’m not saying that everyone ought to write lighthearted, funny books. But the lesson I’ve learned not, just from my own experience but also from the careers of a bunch of my writer-friends, is that your most successful books will always be the ones you write *for fun*, whether that means light-hearted Regency fantasy for kids (like mine) or hardcore, fact-based science fiction/gruesome thrillers/meditations on grief. Different people enjoy different things…


…But whatever you write, make sure you’re writing what *you* truly want to read, not what you think agents/editors/other “important people” will want to see. That’s not just the only way to make writing truly worthwhile – it’s also the best tip I know for success.

Night 6 Writing Tip

Nice and Mean cover

Jessica Leader is the author of Nice and Mean, about two girls, one nice, one mean, who face off in their middle-school video elective. Nice and Mean will be published by Simon and Schuster on June 8, 2010. To learn about Jessica, Nice and Mean, or the nifty polls she’s put on her website, go to www.jessicaleader.com.


The Writing Block Song

Chanukkah celebrates the overcoming of adversity in the face of great odds, and you know, that’s just what we do as writers. Some days, facing down a troop of Syrians doesn’t seem like much, compared to figuring out what the heck I’m going to do with that dropped plotline. Writing calls for hard work and miracles, too!

With that in mind, I give you a version of the most traditional Chanukkah song I know, with a twist: writer’s block.

The rhythm of the song is a little wonky (we Jews love our syncopated rhythms), so here’s a video of the song to help you with the tune. It’s an unusual choice for a video, I admit (a middle-school student signs while music plays in the background), but the ones I passed up featured strobe-light menorahs, off-tempo pre-schoolers, and a chorus of girls so unfortunately attired in matching black dresses, I couldn’t bear for anyone to watch them.

The Writer’s Block Song

By Jessica Leader


Writing block, oh writing block, it tries to destroy us.

How can we change it to merely annoy us?

Here’s my little lesson to lessen the rage:

Blocks are really boredom with what’s on the page.


(Chorus tune)

I ask myself questions

To see what is making me bored.

One for each night, they diminish my fight

And they sweeten what once was abhorred.

One for each night, yes, they shed welcome light

And result in a tale that’s adored.

(I hope!)


(Verse tune)

First: is my character’s goal in this scene clear?

Is there good reason that she wants it now, here?

Is her life so bad that we care where it hurts?

Drive her up a tree, then pelt her with dirt.


(Chorus tune)

And now, motivation,

I’ve conquered you—Ha, you are mine!

Now I’m revising—Tyra, I’m smizing—

This novel is closer to fine.

But while rereading, my joy is receding—

Cause somehow, my prose doesn’t shine.


(Verse tune)

Know why this is dull, Jess? You can’t see the setting.

(Dialogue’s my favorite; set’s my forgetting.)

So I go back in and sprinkle details

Best if they’re symbolic—a cure for what ails.


(Chorus tune)

I think this part’s good now.

It doesn’t suck nearly as hard.

Where is my chocolate?

Because I have rocked it—

I see my book multiply starred!

Bring on the gelt,

I will loosen my belt

For a big giant writing reward.




Night 5 Writing Tip

Lindsay Eland, author of SCONES AND SENSIBILITY, coming out on December 22 from Egmont USA (OMG! That’s 5 days people!), posts today! To find out more about Lindsey and her books visit her at www.lindsayeland.com


A Somewhat Revealing Post

There is a lot more to who we are as people than just what we say, right?

We are people who feel and think deeply yet so differently about everything from the Twilight craze to the African Aids epidemic.

We react to all our surroundings revealing to everyone around us how comfortable we are on stage or in a crowd at Disney World.

And we each have our own unique backstory that illuminates the very essence of who we are in this very moment.

So it has to be with the characters we create. Our stories must be saturated with character.

William Goldman said, “If your characters are saying only what they’re saying…you’re in trouble.”

How true.

Everything that you write must reveal that character you want us to follow and sympathize with, and cry over, and cheer for.

We must see him or her through every single setting.

Feel what they feel at every moment and turn—their reactions coloring every bit of prose and every description.

He or she must be revealed in every tidbit of backstory, every line of exposition, every detail from the cereal they eat at breakfast to the music they play on their ipod.

Everything must reveal character.

Because just as we are people worth watching and paying attention to and listening to, and cheering for, so our characters must be as well.

Night 4 Writing Tip

Today’s post comes from Kurtis Scaletta, author of Mudville, published in 2009 by Knopf Books for Young Readers. His second novel, Mamba Point, will be published in 2010, and his third novel, Wake, ME, will be published in 2011. Find out more about Kurtis and his books at http://www.kurtisscaletta.com.


The Long View

If I had to distill my advice for emerging writers to a single sentence, it would be: take the long view.


Take the long view of your career


In my 20s and early 30s I went running sometimes. I was never a runner, though. I know a lot of runners, and they just do the whole running thing on a different level. They run every day, no matter what the weather or their mood. They know all the science about running — the proper way to stretch and warm up, what their heart rate should be at any point in a run, when and what they should eat, and a bunch of other stuff I find boring.


I thought I might like to run a marathon, some day, but the plain truth of it is that I liked the idea of boasting about having run a marathon, but didn’t really want to become a runner, and that’s what you have to do first. You have to take a long view of yourself as a runner. It’s a lifestyle decision, and I wasn’t up to it. I know now I’ll never run a marathon. That’s fine. I’m not a bucket list guy with a bunch of stuff I want to do just to have done it. I have also realized at various times in my life that I am not a musician, an artist, a golfer, a poet, or a practitioner of yoga.


I am a writer, though. I have always had a long view of myself as a writer, and went through many years of writing classes and workshops, critique groups, reading books about writing and publishing, and writing every day, completing four unpublishable manuscripts before the first made its way into print. So when people ask me how I got a book published, I find myself explaining that I was a writer first. I didn’t just knock off a book over a long weekend and win the slush pile lottery. I’ve been doing this stuff since I was six years old.


And I still have a lot to learn. I may have sold a book or three, but I still read other books and realize I have a long way to go. It’s not about just straggling along the finish line once and saying, “There, I did it. I ran a marathon.” I want to keep doing this, and keep achieving a new personal best.


Take the long view of your role in the industry


Most agents and editors aren’t looking for a one-off. They’re looking for a LTR, as they say in the personal ads. I think it’s easy for new writers to jump at any opportunity to get a bit closer to publication, but since I’ve now known my agent for three years and my editor for two and a half years, I can really appreciate how important it is to have smart, thoughtful people who are also taking the long view of my career as a writer. It’s a serious commitment for everyone, and you all need to be ready for the long haul. Think of the relationship beginning with your query letter, not with an offer.


Take the long view of your current project


If you’re lucky, you might see your first novel in print three years after you start writing it. For me, it was five years. Book publishing is a slow business. We live in the age of NaNoWriMo and instant web publishing, and blogs that turn into book deals within months, but most books take a year or more to write and up to two years to publish after the manuscript is done. So even though it’s exciting to have books out on submission, knowing that any minute now the phone might ring with exciting (even life-changing news), there’s really no hurry. There’s always time for another round of revisions, or for a little research to tighten up some stuff you faked your way through on the first draft. I’m really glad I gave Mudville that second summer of revisions, that I stopped to research things that felt unimportant when I was storming through that first draft (like how to rebuild a baseball field) and that my agent then put me through another winter of edits before she started shopping the book around. Now that it’s out, it doesn’t feel like the waiting was that hard, and it was definitely worth it.


On a similar note, take a long view of your book. It might be in print for fifty years or more. A few months, even another year, will not make a difference. And don’t worry about what the current trends are, either. Did E.B. White worry about whether pig fiction was big in 1952? Was Dr. Seuss convinced that rhymed stories about meddlesome cats were all the rage with six year olds five years later? Write as if your book will be around for generations, outlasting the trends. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t, but it’s more likely to if you take the long view.