Writing Question #1

I just wrote a post about how today will be filled with the joys of pulling together my taxes, but I realized it was stupid so I deleted it.

Instead, I’ll dig out one of last month’s writing questions: “How does an idea become a whole story?”

::pause to stare at screen::
::types something:: ::deletes it::
::looks for another question::
::grits teeth and decides to deal with it::

This is a big question. In fact, there have been several books written in response to it. You’ll find a couple here.

Let me try to craft a short answer.

It helps to recognize the limitations of an idea. A watermelon seed in your hand doesn’t do you much good, unless you want to spit it at someone. A watermelon seed planted in well-balanced soil with good drainage at the right time of year, properly watered, weeded, and guarded from bugs and critters, will produce a decent watermelon you can enjoy. Your story idea is that seed – nice to look at, fun to think about. But you need to know going in that turning it into a story or book is going to require Work.

When I have an idea, I first focus on the people related to the idea. PROM, for example. The idea was to explore some issues that surround the ritual of an American prom. I started with the main character, Ashley Hannigan. Decided she would come from a working class family outside Philly, loving, but a little crazy. I spent a couple months thinking about and writing about her character, trying to figure out who she was. When I thought I understood her, I gave her The Big Problem – she hates the prom. Then I complicated it – she is forced to help save it. From there I imagined a series of complications, set-backs, and triumphs.

I don’t want you to think this all just pours out of my brain on to the page. I am not sure how other authors do it, but it tends to be very, very messy for me. Picture a person trying to decorate a room in total darkness. That’s what writing feels like to me a lot of the time. I flail around in confusion and doubt, trying to remember where I put everything. I fall down a lot.

This is why I recommend young writers start with short stories first. Novels can be a real pain – all those people! All that stuff! All those pages! Argh!

When you are writing or revising your story/novel, remember that every scene, every sentence needs to do at least one of two things: either give the reader more information about a character, or move the plot along.

Does that help?

21 Replies to “Writing Question #1”

  1. link in today’s post

    Your amazon link doesn’t work. You’ve got a “c” before your “http” in that link.

    I got there, but someone else may not.


  2. That really surprises me. I know writers don’t make a lot of money, but your ya books have all been well-received, and I assumed they sold pretty well, especially Speak. What we need is to get you a few more movie deals! (*rubs hands together maniacally*)

  3. I didn’t have an agent when Speak was sold and thus do not make as much money as you’d think from that title. For most copies of the paperback, I receive 9 cents a copy. (I actually earn 18 cents, but have to split it with the hardback pubisher.) The whys of this situation are a little complicated, but the lesson is clear – get an agent.

    The standard royalties are 6% of the cover price for paperback books, and 10% for hardbacks.

    More movie deals sounds rather nice to me!

  4. So, what do you do for the rest of your income? If you don’t mind me asking… I may know this if it’s been in your lj, but I’m sick today and half out of it…

  5. Authors are usually paid when they speak at schools and conferences. That is the “day job” of many, including me. Many authors also teach creative writing. I’ve thought about doing that, but the oppotunity hasn’t presented itself yet. I used to work as a freelance writer for newspapers and a public relations company. In a couple of years (when all our kids are out of college) the bills around are should decrease and I hope I will be able to stay at home and focus on writing more.

  6. Well, that was enjoyable and interesting to read -even if I’ve seen that very question (idea = book?) ask of many a favorite author of mine. I find that it’s sometimes useful to TELL a idea how to become a book/story/poem/creative non-fiction piece as it then usually goes and does the exact opposite of what you’d prefer, and you end up with a much better story overall. Works for me. ;^)

  7. Public speaking… eek! I’m betting if I was a good writer I still wouldn’t be good at public speaking.

    Yeah, Sarah Dessen was teaching. Oh, it would be so awesome to take a class from one of you guys!

  8. I really appreciated the part of this post where you gritted your teeth and decided to deal with it.

    A friend askt me last week What do authors make per book? and i had no idea at the time, so i am grateful that you posted these numbers

  9. Yes, that did help a lot, actually. Whenever I try to write a story (I tend to stick with poetry, but I like both), I always start with a great idea but then the more I write, the more I get bored and move onto something else. Next time I’ll try developing the characters first so I don’t lose momentum.

    thanks! and I’m totally still making you a pagent crown when I get the time =P

  10. you know how

    In Speak Melinda said Art follows lunch like a dream follows a nightmare well I just realized that with me Math follows English like a nightmare follows a dream. I thought it was interesting. I really am a bookworm aren’t I? remembering quotes like that? I think I need to join bookworms anonymous – Jessica

  11. Yay! Answers!

    Yeah, that helped even though I find it amazingly hard to write short stories. I can never say everything I want to say in a short story. And thanks for info on your pay. lol

    I have to tell you about this – it’ll make you happy, I think. I have a friend that doesn’t like to read or anything. She’s one of those that doesn’t like all the big words and long paragraphs. Well, one day in biology we (my frineds and I all sit at one table together) were all reading except for her, so she felt left out. (I know you’re not supposed to read during classes, but come on, it’s biology. Can you really blame me?) So she starts asking me to recommend a book for her to read. I brought Prom to her the next day, and she had it read in a little over a week! Then she went and checked Speak and Fever out of the library. She’s reading Speak right now, and is halfway through it. She keeps telling me I’ve turned her into such a bookworm; she keeps asking which book she should read after she’s finished. I couldn’t be more proud.

  12. Re: Yay! Answers!

    Oh, wow – that is amazing. Thanks so much for telling me and for being such a good person.


  14. why did you choose umm zena is it, as your icon
    i remember watching the show as a kid and always enjoyed the plot line, music and the outside settings etc.

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