Writing Great Books for Young Adults — Book Review

Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks has the rather ambitious subtitle “Everything You Need to Know, from Crafting the Idea to Getting Published”. For the most part, the book lives up to its promise. Regina Brooks covers all the essentials of writing great books for young adults, such as plot, character, setting and dialogue. I found the explanation of the differences between plot (“a chain of events where each event has a cause”) and story (“the sequence of events as the reader imagines them to have taken place”) particularly helpful, as this is an area which is not always well explained.

Stephanie Cage's review of Writing Great Books for Young Adults.

Writing Great Books for Young Adults is the perfect primer for an inexperienced writer looking to write their first young adult (YA) book. Its breadth means that there is also plenty for the more experienced writer. For example, there is an intriguing precis of the 36 dramatic situations, and some thought-provoking exercises on getting into the mindset of a teenager. The time spent on basic writing techniques common to all fiction writing (use of all the senses in descriptions, choice of a point of view, etc.) means that sometimes the specifics of writing for young adults are not covered in as much depth as might be useful for the experienced writer moving into the YA market. Although these topics were included, I would have liked to see more depth to the sections about balancing realism and fantasy, tackling difficult subjects, and how to keep up to date with YA trends.

I enjoyed the quotes from YA writers and publishers, giving an insight into the current “state of the market”, and the stories from the author’s experience. I came away from the book with a long wish list of YA fiction to study. As a top US agent for YA fiction, Brooks has a wealth of knowledge of YA writing and publishing, but also a perspective which occasionally results in some surprising omissions when it comes to the section on breaking into the industry. In general, the book focuses on a particular path: submitting to an agent who in turn sells the book to a traditional publisher. Brooks largely ignores the many other options offered by developments such as small presses, e-book publishing and self-publishing. Writing Great Books for Young Adults is also highly US-centric, and while the techniques of writing a great book do not vary according to nationality, the specifics of the market covered in the final chapters often do.

If this book were titled Writing The Great American YA Novel, it would have entirely fulfilled its promise. Despite its limitations from my point of view as a UK-based author, Writing Great Books for Young Adults is a worthwhile reference for the YA author anywhere in the world.

Disclosure: This book was received courtesy of SourceBooks for review purposes.

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Topic Links
* Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks is available from Amazon.com
* Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks is available from Amazon.ca

About Stephanie Cage

Stephanie Cage is a British romance writer with books published by The Wild Rose Press and Crimson Romance. She loves dance and musical theatre, and her first full-length novel, Perfect Partners, has a dancing theme. Learn more from her contributor page.

Still Writing — Book Review

Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life is a gentle companion, filled with a myriad of antidotes that helps the writer on their own personal journey. The book is not a how-to guide in the least. It does not go over grammar, writing a sentence, or the like. It does, however, offer a how-to on surviving the sometimes lonely, frustrating, and doubting life that every writer knows intimately.

“To be still. To be grounded. To claim one’s place in the world.”

Dani Shapiro's Still Writing has a lovely watercolor cover.
According to Shapiro the beginning is about finding space. Still Writing is broken into three loosely themed sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

Beginnings

The advice of beginning a novel coexists with a glimpse into the beginning of Shapiro’s writing life. In frank and honest prose, Shapiro talks of her childhood in terms of how it informed her writing. She goes into the usual complaints of writers facing a blank page: the censor, the ideas, the inability to move forward. Then taking those fears most writers face, she interweaves them with her own life and the wisdom she has gained through living those moments. The result is poignant at times, though bordering on cliché on occasion.

Middles

The Middles is about what came after her childhood, starting in on a life of writing, and finding her place. She speaks again of the fears that come along once you start to find your toehold in publishing. The writer’s routine enters here and the need to keep on keeping on when faced with life.

Ends

The Ends is as you would think it would be: “If you show up, if you spend many hours alone, if you wage a daily battle with your inner censor, if you endure, if you put one word in front of the next until a long line of words is formed, a line that could stretch halfway across your home, if you take two steps forward, three steps back, if you grapple with bouts of despair and hopelessness — there will come a time when you can sense that the end is not too far away.”

The Spark Note Version

Shapiro has written a writing companion that offers gems of comfort. It is the kind of book that you could pick up and flip through the pages, finding that line or paragraph that you need in order to keep focused, keep believing. That being said, however, there is quite a bit of Eastern philosophy and belief weaved through the pages with Yoga, Buddhism etc., which is not a deterrent for me but which might strike others as uncomfortable or just annoying.

Much of the advice contained is similar to what one would find in Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott or Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, but though the feeling is very similar (a sort of waving back and forth between advice and experience), Shapiro’s voice is uniquely her own. Like a particularly aware friend, one that has walked the path, knows the journey, Shapiro’s book on writing creates comfort for those treading in her footsteps. I would recommend it to anyone wanting a bit of a gentle companion along their own journey.

The Author

Shapiro has written two memoirs and five novels, along with contributing to a myriad of different venues. She taught at Columbia, NYU, The New School, and Wesleyan University, and is the co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Italy.

Disclosure: This book was received courtesy of Grove/Atlantic for review purposes.

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Topic Links
* Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is available from Amazon.com
* Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is available from Amazon.ca

About Heidi Hood

Heidi Hood, former journalist, is now a full time mom and part time novelist. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. Learn more from her contributor page.

No Plot No Problem

Book Review

As National Novel Writing Month approaches, you only have to browse on Amazon to see that the annual challenge has resulted in a host of guides for getting the most out of the month-long novel writing marathon. Many of them are valuable and interesting, but for me none will ever replace the original NaNoWriMo handbook, No Plot No Problem, by the founder of National Novel Writing Month, Chris Baty.

No Plot No Problem NaNoWriMo book review.The book is written with the same light-hearted exuberance which led the aspiring author to create the month-long challenge, involving just 21 would-be writers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Written in 2004, it remains one of the definitive guides to fast writing, and benefits from the author’s experience in mentoring groups of writers through several years of NaNoWriMo challenges on an increasing scale.

Advice on keeping on track with the 50,000 word challenge includes “secret weapons” such as agreeing to donate a large sum to a charity whose aims you wholly oppose, in the event of your failing to complete the dare. Plotting suggestions include introducing ninjas to spice things up when the plot runs out. In addition to general advice, No Plot No Problem contains a specific chapter on each week of the month-long event. The first week helps you get down to business, the second helps deal with the inevitable slump, the third looks at keeping the momentum going, and the fourth contains ideas for getting to the finish line and celebrating your arrival.

While it is all geared towards the particular 30-day schedule of NaNoWriMo, No Plot No Problem is actually an excellent guide to creating a “dirty draft” at any time of year. I am not sure that writing a novel in 30 days will ever be as “ow-stress, high-velocity” as the subtitle claims, but the magic pens and writing totems of No Plot No Problem certainly help the process along.

All in all, the book is both as silly and as inspiring as the challenge it accompanies.  If you want a sane, rational guide to how to write a novel, this is not for you. But if you were wholly sane and rational, you probably would not be contemplating participating in NaNoWriMo in the first place!

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Topic Links
* Enter the November writing challenge at official NaNoWriMo website

About Stephanie Cage

Stephanie Cage is a British romance writer with books published by The Wild Rose Press and Crimson Romance. She loves dance and musical theatre, and her first full-length novel, Perfect Partners, has a dancing theme. Learn more from her contributor page.

The Playwright’s Guidebook Review

An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing

Book Review by Laura Roberts

Although taking advice aimed at playwrights may seem like a strange idea to a novelist or writer of short fiction, one of my go-to writing advice books is Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook. With the subtitle An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing, you might think this book is only for those looking to write a stage play, but no! Indeed, it is Spencer’s belief that all good writing is dramatic writing that can help make all the difference between stories that fall flat and those that shimmer with life.

The Playwright's Guidebook Divided into five parts, the book explores how we tell stories by looking under the hood at structure, getting up close and personal with the creative process, detailing how to deal with problems, and offering both general and practical advice—along with a breathtaking reading list plus plenty of writing exercises that are sure to test your skills.

Spencer’s advice is cross-genre in its application, urging writers to take a close and careful look at each character’s “action”, or motivation. By breaking down stories into scenes, and figuring out what each character is trying to accomplish by the scene’s end, writers can get a better grip on where each piece of their story needs to go. Meanwhile, probing each character’s motivation for being in the room will help pave the path from one scene to the next, up to the story’s logical conclusion.

Spencer recommends writing from an image, and provides numerous prompts that can help writers envision their characters in different scenarios that will stimulate the senses. Whether you are writing for the page or the stage, his commandment to bring all five senses to life helps writers to focus on much more than mere description, developing setting as well as character when viewed through a protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) eyes.

About Laura Roberts

Laura Roberts is the author of a variety of humorous erotic tales, including The Montreal Guide to Sex and The Vixen Files. She has also written a satirical ninja novel entitled Rebels of the 512, and is currently working on her erotic novel Naked Montreal. Visit her website to find out more about her latest work.

The Grammar Girl’s Quick and Easy Tips for Better Writing

Book Review by Charlotte West

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips Book CoverThe Grammar Girl’s Quick and Easy Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty is a must-have for your reference library. Ms. Fogarty brings a breath of fresh air to the stale, dry world of grammar. Her style is comfortable and humorous, and always clear. She includes plenty of real-world examples to help you understand the rules. In other words, she is just what you wanted in a teacher when you were in school. As a matter of fact, it would be a great book to add to your children’s libraries, too.

The book is laid out well. The appendices, table of contents, and index all make it easy to find what you need. The pages are broken up easily with headings, subheads, bullets and a splattering of bold type, making it comfortably readable. It covers the most common grammar problems, including word usage, common mistakes, punctuation, and style. It even includes sections on writing, bad habits, and the internet.

This book is a gem! It’s no wonder that her podcast is ranked #1 and Amazon reviews rate her at 4.8 stars out of 5. The information in the book and podcasts are valuable to writers of all kinds. Even Oprah was impressed enough to have Ms. Fogarty on the show.

Check it out. You will be glad you did.

About Charlotte West

Charlotte West, B.S., has always loved to read and write. She never goes anywhere without a book, pen and paper. Currently she is developing a program using hypnosis to help writers and she has an alter ego, writing as Charli Brightwell.

On Writing

A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

Reviewed by Grace M. Cho

One of the first adult books I remember reading when I was a kid was Stephen King’s Night Shift. It captivated my ten-year-old imagination so much that I was inspired to try my hand at writing a horror story about a grave-robbing ghoul. I entered it in a sixth-grade literary contest, and to my disappointment, it did not earn me any accolades at all. It took me a while to bounce back from the rejection and start writing again, but by the time I graduated from high school, I had nurtured aspirations to become a writer. During my first year of college, however, I was rejected from every creative writing class I tried to enroll in. Convinced that I lacked talent, I hung up my creative desires at the age of 19 and focused my energies on more pragmatic pursuits, like teaching.

Stephen King On Writing CoverTwelve years passed before I made any effort to write creatively again. By that time, I had become part of the academy, whose writing style favored polysyllabic jargon over language that was either clear or evocative. My attempts at creativity were often punished.

Fast forward another nine years. With the weight of tenure off my shoulders, I started writing a memoir. Twenty years after I failed to get accepted into a college writing class, I began my career in creative writing. I joined BIW, and during my first month, won Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It was a good omen.

Among the many things I appreciated about reading this book was the book’s fundamental premise that successful writing is based on practice rather than merely talent. Yes, there are some people with a real gift for writing, but most writers out there fall into the category of “competent”. King writes: “while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”.

King does not offer a single recipe for success, but he does emphasize some crucial ingredients. A writer must have his or her toolbox stocked with a good, though not necessarily flashy, command of vocabulary and grammar. King warns against trying to show off with vocabulary words that feel unnatural and suggests using the first word that comes to mind. Likewise, he shuns the conventional wisdom that complex sentences make for better writing. He says that the basic unit of writing is the paragraph, not the sentence.

He then goes into more advanced writing techniques, the “bells and whistles”, but again reminds us that these are not necessary because “the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations”.

Once you have got the basics down, you have to do it every day (or at least, regularly). Not everyone has the luxury that Stephen King has to read and write for 4 to 6 hours a day and finish a draft of a book in three months, but much of his advice applies to you no matter your day job. Here are a few tips I will leave you with:

  • “If you want to be a good writer, you must… read a lot and write a lot”.
  • Once you finish a draft, put it away for six weeks before revising. Sometimes we are too in love with what we have just written to be able to look at it with a critical eye.
  • Designate a place where you will write, preferably a room with a door. I love this advice, but choose to interpret it loosely. King discourages writing in coffee shops, but I find that as long as the other people in the room are strangers, I can imagine a virtual door.
  • Write with the door closed. This sends the message that you are serious about your work and invite neither distraction nor premature feedback. When you are ready to revise, write with it open.
  • Finally, when you are ready to send out submissions, remember that it takes patience and persistence to get published. Like King, you might get a big stack of rejection letters before you get a hit.

On Writing is a delightful and inspiring read. Though King writes with a healthy dose of humor, he is serious about writing and urges his readers to be serious, too.

About Grace M. Cho

Grace M. Cho is author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. She is currently working on a food memoir, a piece of which has been published in the summer 2012 issue of Gastronomica.

Character and Viewpoint

Review by Louise E. Sawyer

Are your fictional characters vivid and memorable? When I read John Grisham’s novels I am amazed at how well I get to know his major characters. I either love them or hate them and I find myself smiling or anxious.

The three sections of Character & Viewpoint cover Inventing Characters, Constructing Characters, and Performing Characters.

Orson Scott Card explains how to distinguish major, minor, and walk-on people you create. You learn how to develop each one appropriately and have fun interrogating them! Then raise their emotional stakes and see how they respond. You will empathize with your heroes and engage with their goals, challenges, and opportunities for transformation.

As you use the tools offered in this book, you will develop your characters more deeply, so that you really believe in them and either love them or hate them–just like your future readers.

You will learn how to balance romance and realism. And explore the makings of comic people and serious ones.

Did you know you have many voices? You will learn about them as well as how your narrator voice relates to your audience just like in a performance. There are many details for first and third voice choices too. And you discover whether you are writing in a representational or presentational way. Dramatic or Narrative?

As one of the Writer’s Digest’s Elements of Fiction series, this is a readable and very useful book to refer to when you are in the midst of developing those vivid and memorable characters you hope to become famous for!

Louise Sawyer writes mostly non-fiction but enjoys reading and writing novels as well as watching movies and writing screenplays. She is a Creativity and Lifestyle Coach for women with challenges, including chronic illnesses. Her passion is teaching Tortoise Step workshops on stress reduction, play, and creativity. Louise is a senior and lives on beautiful Vancouver Island with her guinea pig Neuron, who squeals at the top of her lungs for lettuce whenever she hears the fridge door open.

About Maureen Wood

M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario with her husband of fifteen years. She has been moderating BIW for over nine years and works on the Internet. You can learn more about her projects on her official website.

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches

Book Review, by Judy Downing

Villains are useful creatures. Without the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s trials and tribulations would have been reduced to a sometimes petulant young man struggling to survive his lessons and gain acceptance from his peers. George Wickham, a very different kind of villain in Pride and Prejudice, opens Elizabeth Bennett’s eyes to her own misconceptions and provides a vehicle whereby Darcy can prove the depth of his love and commitment.

Bad guys come in all shapes and sizes. They can be quirky anti-heroes or feisty females who ignore the niceties of social norms; or they can range into the dark and unforgiving territory of sociopaths and serial killers. Crafting the right villain builds conflict and forces your hero to grow, often in unexpected ways.

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches by Jessica Page Morrell is an exhaustive analysis of the bad guys in popular fiction. Bad guys are placed on a continuum and grouped into categories such as Bullies, Bitches, Sociopaths, and Lost Heroes. One chapter provides detailed characteristics that distinguish a Dark Hero from a Bad Boy. Another gives you questions to answer as you create the female who will do her best to control, damage, or destroy your hero.

The book is a comprehensive reference that delineates a wide variety of antagonists. Each chapter identifies and discusses a particular type of bad guy. There are lists of defining characteristics and questions to ask when creating this type of villain. Ms. Morrell provides numerous examples to illustrate her thoughts and conclusions. She also provides a Rogue’s Gallery, a list of examples of characters who fit within each category. For example, Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is classed as a villain while Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is considered an anti-hero.

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches will help you increase the depth and breadth of your knowledge of bad guys in all of their various forms and disguises. Read it at your leisure. Take time to absorb the material. Then, when you are ready to create your hero’s deliciously evil nemesis, you have only to turn to the appendix and answer the intriguing list of “Questions for Bad Guys.”

About Maureen Wood

M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario with her husband of fifteen years. She has been moderating BIW for over nine years and works on the Internet. You can learn more about her projects on her official website.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Book Review, by Annie Haws

This is a delightful approach to a necessary “evil”. As the co-authors (independent editors themselves) remind us, writing and editing are two very different capabilities, which ought not to be engaged in simultaneously. Write first–get out that first draft–THEN edit–not before.

The aim of this book is to guide authors to edit wisely, whether the intention is to submit to a mainstream publishing house, and independent press, or to self-publish, online or via publish-on-demand. The principles still stand effective for any of these options.

The authors set out with the prime directive for any writers: “Show Don’t Tell”, and work through the various aspects of editing to make a really excellent (and publishable) book. With the down-home writing style of a personal touch, and the inclusion in each chapter of a checklist and exercises, the reader (and future published writer) finds herself settling in easily and learning to follow the instructions–as if this was a one-on-one mentorship program. Examples from published works illustrate the points, and the inclusion of recommended books is valuable also.

Just as a writer does not produce a first draft in one day (unless perhaps it is flash fiction), this book is not intended to be consumed in one day, or even a few days. My recommendation would be: write that first draft, whatever its length; put it aside for a while (also one of the book’s many good suggestions); only then, pull it back out of the drawer (or open the computer file), and set in to edit–one chapter of this book at a time. Read a chapter of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, absorb the material, think about how you can apply it to your work, then go edit. Set the work aside for a while, read the next chapter, absorb, edit.

In writing and in editing, nothing good is produced by a rush-through. All in all, I recommend this as one of my top suggestions for published authors, about-to-be published, or just hoping for publication–to improve the quality of writing and to make one’s work worth reading.

About Maureen Wood

M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario with her husband of fifteen years. She has been moderating BIW for over nine years and works on the Internet. You can learn more about her projects on her official website.

Increasing Production and Creativity

The Artist’s Way is for Writers too!

Since I became serious about my writing back in 2006, I have met a lot of other writers through different ways: blogging, Facebook, writers’ groups and writers’ forums. Through this network, a certain book has kept popping up on my radar from time to time during the last six years. It is Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and its last appearance was through this website last fall when BIW was hosting the 12 week course in conjunction with the book.

The Artist's Way by Julia CameronAt that point the timing was wrong for me and I gave it a miss which I now regret. However, I did buy the book where it languished on my bookshelf for more than six months. It was only in April that I opened it up in a desperate attempt to deal with a bad case of writer’s block.

Recently, I posted about this and how I had only managed to write 10k words from January to April. I felt my effort was paltry. Threadbare. Lackluster. I would sit in front of my computer and stare at the blank screen. In my post, I mentioned some things that I was going to do to combat writer’s block. It would be terribly remiss of me not to include this book on that list.

Initially, I was skeptical as it is divided into twelve chapters with tasks/exercises to complete at the end of each chapter. I tend to shy away from any form of exercise be it aerobic, writing or otherwise. Plunging in, I knew my capacity for this sort of thing was about fourteen days. But here I am, heading into the 8th week of this 12 week course and hand on heart, I completed all of the assigned tasks so far.

But best of all, since May 1st, I have added another 40,000 words to my new work-in-progress and it is zipping right along. The excitement has been in the process; I never know from day to day where I am going to end up on my writing journey and I love the surprises that have developed because of that.

I have also managed to finish a short story I have been working on for the last two years. I feel much more productive and most important, the creativity is flowing again. There are two central tenets to this book that will unblock your creativity; they are surprisingly simple and easy to do.
If you are serious about your writing and your writing career, then this is a must have book. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

About Michele Brouder

After living for seven years in Ireland, former Buffalonian, Michele Brouder now calls Florida home. Her first book, a YA paranormal, is due to be published sometime in 2014 for Harlequin E, Harlequin’s new digital format. Learn more from her contributor page.