40+ POSTS. PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT HOW TO WRITE.

Writing Advice

Writing Advice #41: Ending Scenes/Friends as Critics

Two quick questions and answers this week…

I was wondering if you had any advice on transitions between scenes in a story. How can you link them all together smoothly?

I may have mentioned this in a previous blog, but honestly, I’ve written so many of them at this point, that I can’t remember! Anyway, here’s how I think of scenes:

Imagine that you are Spider-Man, swinging through the city. Now, when Spidey swings, he does so in an arc, right? He starts at a high point, plunges downward and picks up speed, then hurtles back up again and then — just at the last possible minute, at the highest point in the arc — he lets go and shoots out another web and starts it all over again.

Right?

Right.

What does this have to do with scene transitions? Simple.

Think of your scenes like a Spidey arc. You start off high. You gain speed as you move on. Then, when you reach the highest point in the arc — the moment of maximum tension in your scene — you jump off. You end the scene.

And start the next one.

I really believe that you should always strive to end scenes at moments of heightened tension. Why? Well, because it makes it MUCH more likely that the reader will read the NEXT scene. Also, this means that you automatically KNOW where to start the next scene — just like Spidey knows he’d better shoot out another web or he’s going to go splat.

BTW, when I say “tension,” I’m not encouraging you to give every scene some kind of melodrama or ridiculous action. Tension can be a killer breaking down the door and firing his gun, sure, but tension can also be a little girl saying, “Daddy, when is Mommy coming home?” when the reader already knows that Mommy is dead. Or has fled to Brazil with her lover. Or is stuck in the laundry room with an ocelot and an electronic accordion that won’t stop playing “Party in the USA.”

I know that this isn’t a direct response to your question, but I think that the best answer to your question is for you to think about how your scenes begin and end, which will make it easier to make sure that they flow together well.

Next up:
You said that it’s not a good idea to ask your best friends to look over your stories, but Ive found that for certain things, my best friend, who is also a writer who I believe is SO much better than me, is one of the best people to take a look at them and tell me what to fix. Is this a good idea? Or should I get someone who diesnt know me as well?

Hey, look, if your best friend is a better writer than you are AND is willing to cheerfully rip your heart out then, yeah, he’s a great person to have on your side. The two primary characteristics to look for in a critiquer are a good, critical eye and a willingness (nay, a thirst!) to be as brutally honest as is necessary. If your friend has both of these, then great.

In my experience, most best friends lack these attributes. But every rule has its exceptions, and since I don’t know your friend, it’s a decision you’ll have to make.

Another issue to consider when a fellow writer reads your stuff: Writer WRITE. So be aware when you get advice from a fellow writer. Are they trying to help you make this story the best version of the story YOU want to write? Or are they trying (most likely without realizing it) to make this into the story THEY want to write? Let ’em write their own damn stories!

But regardless of what you decide, know this: You ALWAYS need to have more than one person critiquing your work. It’s invaluable to have multiple people looking at your writing because if they all come down on you for the same thing, for example, you can be pretty damn sure that you should fix it. It’s helpful to get different perspectives.

So even if you keep your best friend, be on the lookout for some other folks, too.

 

That’s it for this week! Ask questions below, as always, and I’ll get to ’em.

Next week: My Method. How I write a book, pretty much from start to finish.

Writing Advice #40: Copyright

I was asked:

Everyone keeps telling me i need to copyright my books before i even attempt to get them published, because there’s the potential that someone will steal them. Is copyrighting a good path to go down?

This is an issue that many, many unpublished writers don’t understand, especially when it comes to theft.

First of all, the quick and easy answer to your question is: Yes, copyrighting is the path go down, but no, don’t worry about it. You do NOT need to copyright your book before you attempt to get it published. I certainly didn’t. In fact, there’s a clause in my contract that states that it is my PUBLISHER’S responsibility not only to list the copyright in the book, but also to register the copyright on my behalf! Nice. I don’t have to fill out the paperwork or pay the copyright fee. That’s generally how it works — your publisher handles it for you.

But let’s talk about what copyright actually is. Copyright is exactly what it sounds like: It is the RIGHT to make COPIES (i.e. to publish) a work. When you sell a book to a publisher, you’re not really selling them the book. What you’re actually selling is the RIGHT for them to publish the book in a specific format, under specified conditions, with (usually) certain restrictions in place. You still own the book; they just own some of the rights that you have decided to grant them.

Here’s something most writers don’t know, though: You don’t need to register a work in order to own the copyright in it! You own the copyright to ANYTHING YOU PRODUCE AS SOON AS YOU PRODUCE IT!

So, for example, I own the copyright to this blog. I didn’t send it anywhere. I didn’t file any papers. But I own it.

And guess what? The law says that as soon as your book is in a “fixed form” (such as printed out or saved to your hard drive), it is AUTOMATICALLY copyrighted in your name!

Now, yes, you can send a copy of your work to the Library of Congress and have it registered there. That will give you some additional legal recourse. Right now, if someone starts publishing your book without permission and you haven’t registered your book, you can still sue them, but only for compensatory damages, which is to say, for the sum of money you lost because of their theft and no more. If your work is registered, then you can also sue for punitive damages, which is additional money you could get just because you’re the injured party. When you see a jury give someone a billion dollars, that’s punitive damages, most likely.

But, dude… Sorry, but no one’s going to steal your book. Not as long as you’re dealing with reputable parties. If you stick to publishers who actually publish books and agents who actually sell books… Why the hell would they steal your book? The damage to their reputation and their business is going to outweigh any benefit they get from screwing you over. It’s MUCH cheaper to pay you in the first place! If you show your book to a publisher and they think it sucks but they like the general idea and publish a similar book later, guess what? You’re out of luck anyway.

Because here’s what copyright is NOT: Copyright is not a way to protect “ideas.” You can’t protect ideas AT ALL. If you say, “I have a great idea for a book about a radioactive ocelot from the future,” then I can totally go, “Hmm…” and then go off and write a book about a radioactive ocelot from the future. As long as I don’t actually use any of your language or characters or anything specific to your book, I can do whatever the hell I want. It may make me a dick, but it’s not illegal.

You can only sue me if I actually take chunks of your book — your actual words — and use them in mine. A jury would look at your book and my book and decide if I ripped you off or not. (Obviously, if I just copy your entire book, then it’s gonna be a real quick trial…)

Copyright doesn’t protect your idea — it protects the EXPRESSION of your idea.

God knows I’m not the first person to write about a comic book geek. Or a kid molested by a teacher. And I won’t be the last. But I expressed those ideas in very specific ways, ways that were unique to me. I can’t copyright a comic book geek or a molested kid, but I can copyright my books ABOUT those ideas and characters.

This is what you need to do: Write a kick-ass book. Follow the steps I’ve discussed in previous blogs — join a writers’ group, go to conferences, meet people. When you hook up with a legitimate agent and a legitimate publisher, they will handle copyright for you and all will be well.

Oh, and I should probably say here that I’m not a lawyer and I’m just giving y’all the benefit of my experience. Go ask a lawyer if you don’t believe me. Look up “entertainment lawyer” in the phone book, give ’em a call, and ask ’em.

More questions? Ask ’em in the comments below and I’ll take a crack at ’em!

Writing Advice #39: Cursing

Two weeks ago, Sarah D. posted in the comments:

I have a unrelated question. Cussing in YA. I struggle with this so much. In my normal life I never cuss. That’s just me. In my book I find myself wanting to cuss all the time. My problem is how do I show emotion–like anger–without cussing. When are good places to use it…when aren’t? I basically would just love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Well, shit.

Heh. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

I find it interesting that in your personal life, you never curse, but when you sit down to write, you want to let loose with the expletives! I say go for it. Look, if you think that it makes sense for a kid to say “fuck” or “asshole” at a point in time, do it.

If you feel uncomfortable, though, having “those words” in a book with your name on it, then I advise you to work around them. If you don’t really want them in your book, they’re going to come across as insincere, as something you threw into the book in some vain pursuit of “edge” (whatever the hell that is). No one is going to judge you for NOT dropping the f-bomb in your book! Above all, you have to be comfortable with what you write — you’re the primary audience, after all.

The flipside of this is: Kids curse. They do it all the time. It’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t mean that you HAVE to curse in your book, but don’t for a minute think, “I can’t use THIS WORD — kids are going to read this book!” Believe me; they’ve seen, heard, and said it all already.

Curse words are like any other words. You use them when they work and you don’t use them when they don’t. Don’t separate them out into their own category.

I love curse words. Oh, man, do I love them! They are so expressive and so powerful and so much fun. And sometimes only a “bad word” will do. As David Levithan has put it: “He lied to me” and “He fucking lied to me” are two entirely different statements, two entirely different sentiments.

But there are, of course, other ways to express emotion without resorting to curse words. Basically you just want to be sure to employ your full repertoire of verbs: seethe, rage, explode… Adjectives, too: desperate, exasperated, conflicted… These will all communicate the same thing as “I could fucking kill you!” or “I thought you loved me, but you turned out to be a lying asshole.”

Just as there’s always more than one way to write a book (or a sentence), there is always more than one way to express an extreme emotion. You don’t have to channel your inner Andrew Dice Clay. (Kids, check Wikipedia — the grown-ups know who I’m talking about.)

My thoughts on cursing in YA in general… It’s like anything else, in that it depends on the book. Look, like everyone else on the planet, I have my own internal stratification for Those Words, ranging from the tame “hell” all the way up to the big ones. (For my own amusement, I was going to actually type up the entire Ladder O’ Swearing for this post, but then I realized I really didn’t want the Google hits that would result!) In real life, I go up or down that ladder depending on the subject matter, my comfort level with the surrounding group, and — quite possibly — my level of intoxication. (And, uh, the level of intoxication of the group.)

In fiction, I go up and down the ladder purely dependent on the story itself and the characters.

In my first book, I drew the line at “shit.” I decided — for reasons I can’t remember any more — that no one would say anything worse than “shit.” Oh, there were plenty of “goddamns” and “assholes” and all that, but I didn’t haul out the f-bomb or anything more intense.

For my second book, I dropped in “fuck” almost on page one. I knew that this was a different kind of book. The kids were more mature. The subject matter was more intense. I wanted to signal that to the reader right from the get-go, and I could think of no better shorthand than by front-loading the word I’d avoided in my first book.

In my third book,
 I decided to pull back. I wanted the ideas — the meaning of heroism and patriotism — to take center stage, so I deliberately toned down the language, limiting myself to a single “fuck,” and that from a decorated war hero. I felt that it would have more punch that way, much the way Inigo Montoya’s final words to Count Rugen really get you in the gut because no one has sworn throughout The Princess Bride.

For Goth Girl Rising, I knew that Kyra would have a foul mouth, but I also knew that — for reasons that become evident by the end of the book — she wouldn’t say “fuck.” So I salted her language with “bitch” and “goddamn” and “asshole” and enough “shit” to fertilize the Mojave Desert. (My editor asked me to “cut the shit in half, please.” I think I took out a few, but not nearly half.)

So, as you can see, I took a different approach with each book. I don’t think your question/conundrum is binary at all. It’s multi-pronged. In some stories, you might want/need a kid to swear. In others, you may dodge the issue. (The easiest thing in the world is to write, “Billy swore as he hit himself on the thumb with the hammer” as opposed to “Billy yelled ‘Fucking goddamnit!’ as he hit himself on the thumb with the hammer.”)

Realize that if you employ anything stronger than “hell,” you’re automatically limiting your audience. There are communities out there that will consign your book to the dung heap of history for the crime of having someone say things you can hear on prime-time broadcast television, much less stuff on HBO. This is a risk you take. It’s not one I think about that much, to be honest with you, but it’s there.

In short, I am happy to give you a strong, unwavering, “It depends.” 🙂

Oh, but seriously, there is one other thing to consider, and that is that I firmly believe that from a readability standpoint, the following rule applies to swearing: Less is more or more is more, but some doesn’t work. In other words: People who swear usually do it often. If you’ve decided that your character will swear, go for it. If you’ve decided they don’t (or that you’re going to save a good, juicy curse for a climactic moment), then stick to that. There’s nothing more jarring in the world than reading a book in which swearing is studiously avoided, only to suddenly stumble upon a page of “fuck this” and “fuck that” followed by more pages in which no one swears.

That totally fucking sucks.

As always, please fire away in the comments below, especially if you have questions.

Writing Advice #38: Get A Life

As promised, this week I’m going to talk about what to do while waiting for the writing gods to smile upon you and bestow upon you the Divine Keyboard of Publication.

I received the following e-mail:

Hi Barry! First off, I love your books! They are AMAZING! Anyway, that’s not why I’m writing this. I have a question. I’m a junior in high school, and I have to start figuring out what I want to do with my life. The thing is: I have no idea. For as long as I can remember, I’ll I’ve ever wanted to do was write. I want to write books and be published one day, but that might not definately happen. I want to be able to have some type of job when I get out of school, so I don’t have to wander the streets homeless and steal food from unsespecting pedestrians or something. So what can I do for a job? I think I want to go to college for English (I’m also interesting in environmental biology and history, but I don’t think enough to want to get a degree in them), but then what? And I’m not sure I want to be a teacher, either. So, I guess my point is… do you have any idea what I might be able to do for a job (again, so I don’t starve)? Thanks a lot!

To begin with: People! It’s totally not necessary to lead off your questions with telling me how amazing my books are. Don’t get me wrong — my poor, shriveled sense of self-esteem perks up every time it happens, but there’s no need to butter up Unca Barry before going ahead with your question. I’m here to help.

That said: Thanks! 😉

This question strikes right at one of the core elements of the writing life: Namely, that not everyone who wants to be a successful, published author will achieve that dream. Some people will publish a book or two and never another. Some people will publish consistently, but not earn enough money to live off of. And some people, of course, will never, ever publish a book. Possibly some of you reading this very BLog post.

This is not easy to hear, but it is true. It sucks. Don’t complain to me, though — I just work here. I didn’t make up the rules.

So my advice to people who want to be published authors (and especially to teens, such as this week’s special guest) is very simple: Find something OTHER than writing that you enjoy. And yes, I realize that you will never, ever find something in life you enjoy AS MUCH as writing, but there’s gotta be something that’s sorta, kinda close. Since a career as a paying author is neither promised nor guaranteed in this life, you need to be able to — as you say — avoid wandering the streets and stealing food from pedestrians, both of which are not nearly as romantic or as enticing as they sound.

But you also don’t want to merely subsist, barely living as you wait for your moment in the authorial sun. That’s not living. Stephen King wrote that life is not a support system for art — art is a support system for life. In other words, the purpose of our lives is not to create art, but rather creating art makes life better. See the difference?

Finding something else to do does not mean that you should give up on your dream and settle for second best. It means that you should fight and struggle every single day for your writing dream, while also living a fuifilling life.

Is that tough? Sure. It’s the equivalent of living two lives, working two jobs, and I did it for years before I broke in.

But look: There is nothing in the world — NOTHING — sadder than some wannabe writer living a life of boredom and privation, waiting for the day when the writing gods will come down from Authorial Olympus. That is just a waste of life, man.

You need to find something that you enjoy, something that fires your imagination, something that will make you happy even if you never, ever achieve your dream of being a writer.

I made a mistake, in some ways — before I was published I worked as a staff writer and editor, writing ad copy and the like for a national distributor. I thought that being paid for writing would be great and that it would keep my writing muscles nice and limber for long stretches of MY writing. The problem, though, is that I was spending eight hours (and sometimes more) a day in front of a computer, writing. When I got home from work, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit in front of another computer and keep writing!

Still, I say “in some ways” because I did learn a lot about publishing at that job, specifically about the importance of deadlines, the general process of production, and things like that. I’m still up in the air as to whether or not I was smart to keep that job as long as I did. Some days, it feels like a huge mistake. Other days, I think, “It taught me a lot. It was worth it.”

But you know what? I never, ever loved it. And if I were still working there, I wouldn’t be happy or fulfilled at all. A life without joy or fulfillment is sort of the definition of epic fail, so you need to avoid that at all costs.

Look, you mention wanting to go to college for English. That’s exactly what I did, and it’s lots of fun. So do it! College, if nothing else, is a great way to avoid the real world. (I suspect college was invented by the ancients as a way of staying out of the fields for a few more years.) But the best, coolest thing about college is that it’s utterly unpredictable. Most colleges will force you to take a well-rounded schedule of courses, which means that you’ll end up studying things you never would have imagined studying. One of those things may just strike a chord in you and whisk you into a life and a career you never could have imagined. At the very least, you’ll get lots of fodder for writing. I’ve used this example before, but when I was in college, I took a course in astronomy that — years later — inspired a short story about infidelity that used the life cycle of stars as an important metaphor.

Living a full and interesting life — learning things — will make you a better writer. Full stop.

You mention being interested in environmental biology and history. Great! STUDY THEM. It doesn’t matter if you want a degree in them or not (though you may change your mind). What matters is that you have a passionate interest in SOMETHING other than pounding on a keyboard. Exploit that. Use it. The acquisition of knowledge is good for its own sake, but it also always leads to better, stronger writing.

And the side effect, of course, is that even if the writing gods choose NOT to smile upon you, you will still be leading a fun, interesting, fulfilling life.

As always, I hope this advice has helped someone out there, but especially this week’s questioner! Please comment and ask questions below — I love hearing from y’all!

Next week: Cursing in literature. One of my favorite fucking topics.

Writing Advice #37: Undercomplicating

Last week, I talked about overcomplicating your story. That post resulted in a question about undercomplicating. At the same time, I received an e-mail about something related. So I’m going to tackle both at once.

Contestant #1:

My current WIP has a strong basic plot (I think), but my subplots keep fizzling. I’ve taken a bunch of time away from the book to investigate the backgrounds of each of my minor characters (and I think my writing has improved because of it) but the subplots still aren’t working out.

It’s an MG novel, so it doesn’t need as much subplot as a YA or adult book, but it just feels weird and choppy to me to climb through the scenes of the main plot like they’re some kind of ladder leading to the end. Not an uncomplicated ladder, of course…there are all kinds of problems…

OK, that’s the basic problem. The related issue comes from someone else and harks back to the very first Writing Advice post.

Contestant #2:

i’ve started on my million bad words and i have an ending and i have a beginning, and i knnow my characters well enough to feel like i know what they would do, but im finding it really hard to write a middle bit to my story. and i guess that’s probably the most important part. any suggestions?

Basically, in each of these instances, the poor suffering writerfolk are in trouble ’cause there’s not enough “there there.” In the first case, it sounds like the writer knows her story, but isn’t sure it’s deep enough or, probably, long enough. In the second case, the writer just has no idea how to get from A to Z.

Not enough complication? Well, maybe.

Look, I am well aware that the current trend in Big! Selling! Fiction! seems to be fat books that could — when hurled from a properly engineered catapult — breech the walls of a medieval fortress. And writers want to write stories that will be Big! Selling! Books! because, well, why not? Given the choice between being the rich, admired idol of millions and the struggling, unknown idol of a dozen, which one would YOU pick?

Now, I am all in favor of you guys making many, many millions off your future books (just remember Uncle Barry when the time comes, eh?), but let’s remember something very important from last week’s discussion on overcomplicating; namely that a story is not every thing that happens — it’s every INTERESTING thing that happens.

In the case of our first contestant, writing can be compared to cooking. Let’s say you’re making chicken noodle soup. Obviously, you need chicken and you need noodles. (Duh.) You probably also want to toss in some carrots, some celery, some pepper and salt… If you’re feeling all crazy and Emeril-like, you’ll toss in onions, mushrooms, thyme, a bay leaf… Great, right? Right!

But then you go nuts and you start tossing in peas, shallots, diced peppers, chopped rutabaga, pumpkin seeds, raw spinach, baking chocolate, and anise.

All good stuff, but you don’t really want it cluttering up your nice chicken soup, right?

Some stories — like some meals — are meant to be simple. I encourage you to take a good, hard look at your story. And take a good, hard look at last week’s discussion of overcomplicating, too. It’s possible that what you think is undercomplicated is actually just a tightly-told, taut narrative. Sometimes you don’t need a million character subplots because you’ve done a good job explicating the characters on their own. What you think of as “not complicated enough” may, in fact, be you AVOIDING the curse of overcomplication.

Ultimately, what matters is this: Is the story satisfying? If it is, then no one will say, “It needed to be more complicated.” They might wish it had gone on longer, but that’s just because they liked it so much. “I wish it hadn’t ended” is NOT the same as saying, “It was too simple.” The world is filled with heavyset tomes, true, but it’s also filled with wonderful books that don’t tip the scales at much more than 200 pages, and they rock, too.

Ask yourself if your story is satisfying. Ask yourself if maybe — just maybe — you’re aiming for some arbitrary goal: “I want my book to be as long as Book X. I want my book to be as complicated as Book Y.”

‘Cause here’s the thing: If you don’t know what you’re doing, then “long” just equals “Oh, God, when will it end?” And “complicated” equals “contrived and convoluted.”

Don’t add compexity to your book just because you think you need to! Complexity should grow organically from the story and the characters!

Let me give you an example.

I’m currently working on what is going to end up as a very long novel. The last thing in the world I want is an excuse to make it even longer. Now, I knew at some point that I would have my main character go on a quest of some sort. I didn’t really know the details of the quest and the journey definitely wasn’t as important as the destination. I just needed to move him from one point to another, preferably as quickly as possible.

And then… The Idea came. The Idea was a flash of insight, a notion for what the quest could be, how it would develop, and how it fit into the overriding narrative.

Problem: Now the quest is going to be pretty long. It’s not just jumping from place to place any more. It’s gotten crazier than that. But it makes such perfect sense and it fits in so perfectly that I just have to do it.

Notice that I was perfectly willing to forgo this. I was willing to go the short route. Indeed, I was prepared to do so and assumed that I would. I’ve only changed my course because The Idea fits.

It FITS.

You have to let your story dictate its own length and complexity. If you find yourself thinking, “I need to do/write this because…just because” then you’re on the wrong path.

So, Contestant #1, I encourage you to take a good, long look at your story. Especially in middle grade, I think you’ll find that a little subplot goes a long way. I’m working on my second middle grade novel right now, and I can honestly say this: Just because the story doesn’t have lots of off-shoots doesn’t mean it isn’t complicated and entertaining to the reader. Focus on the twists and complexities of your main plot, as well as the humor and tragedies befalling your characters. Natural off-shoots may suggest themselves. If so, go with them. If not: Don’t worry about it.

Now on to Contestant #2, who has a much more serious problem.

The point of a story is to take the characters (and, therefore, the readers) from point A to point Z on a spectrum. The characters must be changed in some way from the beginning of the book, otherwise what’s the point?

The middle of a book serves as a bridge from A to Z. It’s the transition period. Say your main character begins the story as an unrepentant womanizer and by the end is happily married. Well, what happened in the middle to change him? Why is he married now? Who’s the lucky gal? What has he given up in his transformation and what has he gained?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself.

Without knowing anything at all about your story, I would hazard a guess that the problem you’re having is that you’re not moving your character from A to Z, but rather from A to, say, B. Or C. You say you know the beginning and the ending, but not what happens in between. Well, if the ending is dramatically different from the beginning (as it MUST be), then the middle should suggest itself. You should have SOME idea of what to do in there, an inkling at the very least. You would start by moving him from A to B, then C, etc. Baby steps. You’ll get to Z eventually. But if nothing suggests itself… Then there’s not enough “stuff” that could happen in the middle. There’s not enough distance for a journey. So your story is staying home and watching TV instead.

Maybe the problem is that your character isn’t different enough at the end of the story. To use my example above, maybe he begins as a womanizer and by the end of the story, he’s not married, but rather has only decided to try his third date with someone. Sure, that’s some growth, but it’s not drastic or dramatic.

My advice to you is two-fold: First of all, re-think your ending. It may not be “far enough” from the beginning, and so the reason you can’t think of a middle is because there IS no middle! (Conversely, re-think the beginning: Maybe you need to start your guy at a different point in order to make the ending really sing.)

Second of all, check out the BLog entry on writer’s block. A lot of the suggestions there will help you brainstorm possible paths for your story to take. Start off by assuming that your ending is fluid, that the story may end that way or it may not. Then just spitball. Play the “What If?” game and start having your characters do crazy things. One of those things might spark something that leads you down a very interesting, very rewarding path.

As always, I hope this advice has helped someone out there! Please comment and ask questions below — I love hearing from y’all!

Next week: What to do with your life while you wait for the writing gods to smile upon you.