Young Writers Get Answers About Writing

For the month of July, I’m doing a  guest spot on Figment, a website for young writers, answering a slew of questions–I was only supposed to pick one, but all of them dealt with interesting issues, so I tried to answer them all. This week, the questions centered on technical issues, such as character development and orchestration and how much information to reveal, how to handle landscape–I was impressed!

Here’s the whole post:

When you develop a character, do you prefer to have it all planned out or have the basics down and discover more about the character along the way? For example, do you make the character react to situations based on what you have decided on the character, or do you have the character react however and that now becomes what the character is like? (Annie)

The latter.  I never have much planned out when I start writing, I learn about the people as I go along. I usually start with a character or a situation that has some energy to it–that works like a spring or an engine.  You wind it up and let it go. In the case of Paint it Black, I started with a character and a situation, a girl whose boyfriend has committed suicide, and whose mother blames her for the death.  In the case of White Oleander, I started with the character of Ingrid Magnussen, a very particular person I knew would cause a lot of problems for herself and the people around her.  Then I discover more about them as the story unfolds.

But sometimes you have to adjust the characters–because sometimes they have to things you need them to do for the sake of the story, so that they can hold their place, dramatically.  For instance,  in Paint it Black, Josie Tyrell began as a much quieter, more vulnerable character, but it just felt wrong, more wrong as time went on–and she wasn’t able to stand up to Michael’s mother.  She just collapsed. I needed her to be stronger so she could hold own better.

Often I write for a while and find I’ve exhausted what I know about the person, then I go back and ask myself a number of questions about them, their lives, their families, their dreams, their quirks.  Physical details, like illnesses in childhood, scars, colorblindness, allergies… Psychological details, like phobias and favorite classes in high school, hobbies and books and politics, their sexuality, … and sociological details like the kinds of families they come from, their work, and what kind of workers they are, if theyr’e clean or messy, things like that.

I’ll even sometimes have a conversation with the character and ask them questions about themselves.  ”Why do you hate Jenny?”  ”What was your worst birthday?”  I’m nutty enough that I really believe they talk to me.  For instance, in White Oleander, I couldn’t figure out what Astrid’s problem was. I could see through her eyes, but I couldn’t see her.  I talked to her and asked her what her problem was… we sat on a park bench together, and she put her head in my lap and said, “Janet, I am so lonely.”

My characters are more real to me than a lot of the people I know.

How do you know how much information to give the reader to make him/her think but not enough to make him/her bored? I enjoy books where the author gives little clues or foreshadowing, forcing me to figure things out, yet when I try this in my writing, most of my readers tell me I need to add more detail. Where is the line between a poor reader and a great writer? (Erin McLaughlin)

This is a matter of taste, and i don’t mean that lightly–I mean as a writer you have to develop a sense of taste.  You want to give people enough information that they can understand what’s happening in the scene, but only that much. You want them to lean forward, so to speak, to catch the next clue. It’s like the person who sits next to you on the plane and starts telling you his life story. It’s interesting for the first five minutes, and then you want to know less… and less… and less, until you put on your headphones and pretend you’re asleep.

On the other hand, I hate the purposeful withholding of details, usually for the sake of a “big” reveal. It’s a terrible idea–because in holding back that one detail, you often stopper up your own imagination.

In general, if your readers ask for more detail, that’s a good clue. Sometimes we go overboard in trying to be subtle… every writer’s different this way.

Sentence and word variation is generally considered desirable if not downright esential for a good story/poem. On the other hand, many good stories contain motifs or other recurring images or words that pop up throughout the story. How do you include meaningful themes and motifs in your stories without compromising it’s pace through repetition? (Meredith Hilton)

Good, interesting sentences and use of motifs don’t necessarily slow anything down.  What I, as a reader, love best is the double pleasure–of wanting to race forward to know what HAPPENS and also wanting to linger and reread that sentence again because it was so glorious.  That creates a tension that’s the most delicious reading of all.  Repetition–again, it’s a matter of taste, and I mean the writer has to develop a sense of taste, when too much is too much.

What genre do you think is best to write when you are in a silly mood? (As in, feeling like painting your face green, wearing a yellow suit and going crazy.) (Violet 11)

I’d probably go for a fairy tale.

Do you think it makes a writing more interesting to combine styles and genres within characters/books? (Emma A.)

I don’t mind genre-bending, but all good writing is interesting, I don’t think genre-bending makes anything more or less interesting, just different.

What different genres have you played with in the past? Are there any genres that you would like to explore in future stories? (Jordan the Boa)

I’ve written screenplay, I stink.  Generally, I write long fiction, but also short short stories  like the ones in my blog, and poetry.  I don’t write drama but I always think of my stories in terms of drama, in terms of scene.  I’ve done a few sci fi stories, fantasy… I’m pretty happy with that assortment.

In your opinion, is it possible to hook people in with a dark writing style, or do you think this scares too many people off? (Maekir Vilemist)

I always write in a dark style, except in short fiction.  I think the trick is, to have a little humor in there too, so people have a moment to breathe out–so there’s some dimension, or what painters call ‘chiaroscuro’, which means light and dark. But scaring people off… what people?  Not everyone likes chocolate either. The important thing is to make a chocolate bar that people who like chocolate will adore.

What style of writing is best; third person, second person, or first person? (Zara Olympia)

It depends–third person lets you look around more. First person brings you in close, feels very immediate. Third is more sophisticated. First is more urgent. Second is sort of a novelty item.  I wrote White Oleander in first because the character had a  fine vocabulary from her poet mother. I wrote Paint it Black in third because, although Josie Tyrell was a bright and observant thinker, she was also a high school dropout, and her vocabulary wouldn’t have been able to express the interesting thoughts she had.

Where do you get most of your ideas? Like do you visit certain places and get inspired? Or was it other writers? (Ariel G. Martinez)

Out of the blue.  It was like people asked Chekhov what he was going to write next. He picked up an ashtray and said…”Hmm, maybe I’ll write about this.”  YOur stories are inside you. Start anywhere. On my blog, I use an exercise called The Word as a basis for my short shorts. Most of my writing has come out of one of these exercises.  Sometimes I”ll write from a photograph or a piece of music… but the ideas are inside–the exercises are just a way to get to them.

Throughout all of your adventures, while wearig a cape and the such, how do you find what you want to write in the time you have to do it? (including inspirations, incentives, etc.) (Roberta Shapiro)

The thing that’s funny is that a writer’s life is actually pretty quiet.  I sit down and work every day, it’s just what I do.

How do you like to describe the setting? A giant description of it is kind of boring, so would you kind of sprinkle some details in when they seem fit and slowly develop it like that? (Annie)

Yes, exactly. You sprinkle it in. Think of the landscape as a spell you’re casting, a spell that starts to dissolve as soon as you you cast it. So you have to keep creating it, keeping it vivid and in front of the reader. you have to find various ways to describe the same things, or other details about the same landscape, to keep that spell going. Great question.

Have you ever worked with poetry? And if so, do you prefer more descriptive and showy poetry or basic clear language in poetry? (Annie)

Yes, I always work with poetry.  As a reader–my favorite poets are Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot, Anne Sexton, but I love Anne Carson (Beauty of the Husband) , Carl Sandberg (The People Yes), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Joseph Brodsky (To Urania), Diane Wakoski (The King of Spain), Howard Nemerov, James Merrill, Blaise Cendrars…

How do you create your characters? Do you people watch? Are they inspired by the looks/personalities of the people around you? (Tori Scott)

Usually my characters are like people in a dream–they’re all pieces of myself.  I’m working something out by setting them loose in interaction with each other.  But I use the looks and personalities of people I know for the forms they take, gestures and way of speaking, often I find pictures of people who remind me of–that’s what Michael looks like, and that’s Ingrid.

If you had/have children would you/do you alter your writing style to something they would read? (Tori Scott)

I do have a daughter.  And no, I would not alter my writing style. This is who I am.  I need to say what I need to say.

Do you have any tips for writing a good action scene? Also, what are some things that should be avoided when writing an action scene? (Dashiell Graci)

Not too much interiority in an action scene.  People think when their hands are less full.  Also, an action scene is still a scene–something has to happen, where the character can’t ever go back to the way things were before.

What are your thoughts on writing scenes that interest you most at the time, instead of in chronological order? (I mean skipping over less important scenes and then coming back to them.) (Krista Ogilvie)

I do that all the time.  I think its brilliant. Often you find you don’t need the other things at all.  You don’t have to have the character wake up in the morning, the reader can figure that for himself.

Do you write daily and, if so, how do you keep it up? (Alex Loomis)

I do, even if it’s just 15 minutes, to keep it alive. I do it because I have a hunger to express myself.  I do it because I love the puzzle of it.  Because I’m compulsive.

What do you generally think of stream-of-conciousness stories? What tips do you have for those who write them? (Meredith Hilton)

I love them.  the tip is–the more interesting the mind, the better, the more memories, the more variety of thought.

Which genre do you think is most likely the easiest to write? (Regie Lavon)

Depends on the writer. I find the short short story easiest, also bad poetry.

First of all, I absolutely adore both White Oleander and Paint it Black! *Ahem* Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of my system. One thing I’ve noticed when reading both books is that there doesn’t seem to be an antagonist, of course there’s someone who is the root of the problem but there isn’t an outright enemy. Is this intentional or does it just sort of happen that way? (Charlotte Donaghue)

The thing to remember is that nobody’s a villain to themselves. We all have reasons from our own point of view. Be fair to your villains and you’ll have a really interesting story, because sometimes your protagonist will see their point of view.  Just before they attack.

What inspires you to write your stories? (Aly Lovegood Harris)

The greatness of other writers.

What specifically made you want to become a writer? When did you first start taking an interest? And what would/do you do outside of writing? (Michel Momeyer)

I’ve been a lifelong reader, but I didn’t decide to be a writer until I was 21.  But I lived more in my books than I lived in my life, and my sense of what was “real” was never very firm.  Outside of writing, I read, I love a great intellectual conversation, I love to travel, I love printmaking and graphic arts, collage, artists books.  I’m always interested in people.  For work, I’ve done a lot of publishing related jobs, and jobs in the graphic arts.  I’ve been a manpower temp, I’ve done a lot of journalism.

Do you have any tips to help us writers? (Zina)

Sure. I didn’t come to writing knowing what I was doing. I had to learn almost everything. I try to help other writers so it won’t take them as long as it took me.

What made you want to write the kind of books you do? (Zina)

Reading. Some of the greatest pleasures of my life have been lying there on the couch reading something so vivid and emotional and real, my real life just disappears.

When did you discover your love of writing? (Zina)

I learned to read when I was four.  I guess you could say that’s when I started.

How did you emotionally handle the idea of another author adapting your work for film? Several people have expressed interest in adapting my work for the screen, but I have grave concerns for how it will be interpreted. (Arianna Sexton-Hughes)

Once your work is written, nobody can change that.  So it’s not like they can really screw anything up.  I look at a movie as being another person’s work of art–based on something I’ve written, but it doesn’t have to be the same. It just has to hold together on its own terms.

What are some of your most uncanny inspirations? (Holly Blackwood)

It’s all sort of uncanny. That you can, say with The Word exercises, take a word like CANE, think about it, and then end up with an entire little world.

Where are your favorite places to write? (Holly Blackwood)

I write at home normally. If I’m stuck I’ll take my computer to a coffee house where there’s no INTERNET!!

In general, what advice would you give to teenage writers (if you could travel back in time, what would you tell yourself)? (Holly Blackwood)

/I would say, write a LOT.  And don’t imitate movies or TV.  I would say, read great books. If you know all the words in a book you’re reading, if you don’t have to look up anything, you’re reading books that are too easy for you.  You should come across at least one unfamiliar word every few pages.

How do you know when your manuscript is done? Not simply finished, but edited and revised? (Erin McLaughlin)

That’s a great question.  When you change things and change them back, you’re done.  When you change things and they’re no better, just different, you’re done.  When you’ve let a couple of people you really trust and respect read the work and listen to their critique and do the edits, then you’re done.

In your opinion is it more important to be a very good dialogue writer or a description writer? They are both key elements to a story but which should be stronger? (Ali Renee)

Have to do both.  Which is more important, your left leg or your right?

Do you ever think back after a book is published and think about what you might have changed? (Holly Blackwood)

Mostly sentences, rather than scenes.  When I read my books in public, I always edit them.

Taco shells: hard or soft?
^this is a ligit question, as I’m asking which INSPIRES you to write more? See how it all fits in? xD (thefrankie)

Soft.  Flour.

What do you think are the most important qualities a writer should develop and why? (The Oak Tree)

Obsessionality.

Do you do this completely organized version of writing a book with a whole plot diagram, or is it more spontaneous? (The Oak Tree)

Spontaneous. Though when I’m rewriting, I sometimes diagram to get more a grip on the proportions of what I’ve done.

Do you think it’s easier to write short stories or novels? (Holly Blackwood)

Different for different people. I’m a novelist who sometimes writes short stories. I know people who are short story writers who sometimes write novels.  Gene Kelly was a pretty good singer for a dancer.

Have you ever been discouraged about writing and wanted to quit? If so, what do you do to get past that? (Kayla M.)

No.  I get discouraged but quitting was never in the cards.

Do you ever have a specific type of music you have to listen to when writing or thinking of an idea? It seems rather hilarious, but I find myself listening to Selena Gomez. I find it helps me think of the most interesting ideas! I’d love to know what you prefer! Is it Classical, Rock, Pop, just wondering! :) (Pooja Kini)

I listen to things that pertain to what I’m writing. Right now I’m listening to Russians reading poetry in Russian, just for the sound of it. Sometimes Russian men’s choruses.  In Paint It Black, I listened to some very sad songs, because sometimes I was in a cheery mood and had to write a very sad scene!

3 Responses to “Young Writers Get Answers About Writing”

  1. jonmcphee Says:

    I love writing. I’m finding my voice and a style. Where I get frustrated is all the advice about formatting for publishers/agents. I was just curious as to where or how you learned to to get your manuscripts submission ready or had any tips in this regard. I have a collection of three similarly themed novellas that I want to submit as one work. The editing is making me suicidal. All the information regarding industry standards for appropriate format is contradictory, and nothing is in one place. Thanks

    • Hi Jon,
      Manuscripts for submission.
      Rule of thumb, 1 ” margins all around. 12 point Times Roman, double spaced. PUt your name and the name of the work at the top header, every page, with a page number.

      Title page should have your name address phone number and email down towards the bottom, flush left, and the title and “Three Novellas” and your name half way down centered.

      I’d start each novella 1/3 the way down the page, with its title centered, maybe in caps, as one would do a short story. But number the whole manuscript consecutively. Maybe have a Table of Contents and put what page each novella starts.

      Good luck with this and don’t get hung up!
      Forward!
      best,
      Janet

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