Tuesday, August 25, 2009
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
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."