Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three Deadlies

The best aspect of being a published writer happens when someone writes to you and says how much they liked your book and how it has helped them in some way. It's also very handy when I am grilling one of my boys and he responds by saying, "Geez, Mom, what are you doing -- writing a book?"

As a matter of fact...

So there has to be a darker side, and there is: you get swamped with requests to read other folks unpubbed manuscripts. Initially, it's really flattering (and there are maybe two in your inbox in a month) I am the first to say writing a novel is

a) hopeful


b) hopeful

Of course I can't read them anymore. Most people who write, work, and have a family don't have the time to critique entire manuscripts, and I'm no exception. But I have read a few pages of them recently, just the first ones,because it's August and boring. There's a lot going on in the good department with writing, but the teacher in me has picked out three really consistent mistakes an awful lot of writers seem to be making. In random order, they are:

1. Dullness. Yikes. Death sentence. And the most common of the three deadlies.

Kids give you fifteen nanoseconds to interest them. Start in the middle. Let the school explode, then talk about how Doug had been bullied one science class too long and had always had an interest in dynamite. You can always go back and fill in the backstory later. You have to get them to WANT to know the backstory. And you have to do it fast. That may not hold true for adult stories, but YA/MG audiences are not known for patience.

And dullness goes for the writing, too. For some reason, maybe writers are striving for a casual approach in the dialog, there's a lot of "good as gold," and "black as night." Boring.

Here's a sentence I still remember from last year that Emma told me. "Mom, you have to cut off the crusts on these sandwiches. They taste like balloons." I remembered it because it's surprising.

If there is no fresh language and there are lots of cliches, no one will want to read it. Coat the characters and the actions in layers of irrelevant details and it will send everyone running, including agents and editors. You don't want to be a word slut and show everything you've got in the first few pages.

2. Beige Settings.

So much of YA takes place in the mall or the school, and it's THE MALL or THE SCHOOL, the generic one on the Disney channel. Give the place flavor. All schools and places have their quirks, strange characters, weird smells, an abandoned factory, a crazy neighbor, something along those lines. It helps the kids "see" the place. And they are still young enough to really, really like engaging all their senses to "see" --

3.Writer as Pastor.

I'm surprised at how common this is.

I did this once, and I thought it was soooo subtle. An editor at Carolrhoda picked it up (this was maybe five years ago) wrote to me and told me the story came close, but in the end she could sense the "lesson" through the story -- and she was sure kids would, too. It never works unless you are writing for vacation bible schools.

Right now, I'm reading Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, and I think as long as you have a sense of humor and have seen a few B movies and you want to write with more freshness, that's a great book to start with. It is sort of strange and surprising, but I'm reading pages of it to my balloon-bread daughter and she thinks it's "not so bad for a boy writer."


Merle H said...

I definitly need to work on setting. I leave that way way too blank (beige like you said)

Anna said...

All great things to keep in mind. Also, I LOVE Whales on Stilts. It's one of the few books that's made me laugh out loud recently.

Ghost Girl said...

This is great, Anne. I was a teacher/mom/trying to be a writer a few years ago. Thankfully, I'm just a writer and a mom right now...with a teaching assignment every once in a while.

Your point about setting is especially salient because it so often becomes an afterthought for beginning writers. I like to see my setting as another main character. Give it life and personality and depth.

Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing, too!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Good advice.

K.C. Shaw said...

I was in the used book store the other day looking at YA, and they'd just shelved a HUGE pile of hardbacks from one publisher, all of them horse stories. I love horse stories so I picked up each book and read the first page, hoping to find some gems.

Eek. Every character was a white girl (usually blonde) who lived on a ranch or a horse farm or something similar, with generic settings and bland descriptions. No wonder the books ended up in a used book store.

I love your daughter's description of the sandwich crusts!

adrienne said...

Great advice.
The first point is tricky for me. You hear editors say to jump right into the action. Then you hear them say they don't care WHAT happens to the characters until they know about them, and have a reason to care.
The same rules apply to picture books.You can go nuts (trust me) trying to get this all in 500 words or less.

Anne Spollen said...

So Merle, after you realize your settings are beige that's half the battle. I read your last opening page, and it was NOT beige...

Nora MacFarlane said...

Great post!

Anne Spollen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anna! I am having a great time reading that with my daughter. Yes, lol.

GG -- one of my goals is to become a writer and a mom. The paper work of teaching college takes up almost all my free time. And definitely the setting as a character.

Yes, Elizabeth -- the trick is remembering that I wrote this blog and to take my own advice now.

K.C. -- yik. Blonde girls in beige settings. I know, I go through this trying to find books for my daughter (who is neither blonde nor horsey)

What I'm thinking Adrienne, is you have to hook it all in -- the conflict and the character so the kids want to read it. I always think of "Where the Wild Things Are" for short books. He was just sent to his room, and then it takes off. So little description, yet every kid on the planet loves that story (I do, too)

Thanks, Nora!

Katie said...

whoa. this was awesome information. Thank you so much!

Hardygirl said...

Wow, wow, wow. Such GREAT advice. Thanks so much!

I'm working on a middle grade right now, and I'm trying to read as many middle grade novels as I can. I had forgotten about Whales on Stilts. I'll go get it today.