In case you missed it, the latest round of #writeabookwithal is over and I have finished the first draft of my latest manuscript. It is, brace yourselves, the 15th first draft fiction manuscript that I have written.
Four were written before my first children’s novel (The Mapmaker Chronicles: Race To The End Of The World) was published and I doubt that we will ever see that fab four again.
Since TMC #1 came out, I have written five manuscripts that are now published novels, plus five more, including this new one. News on all of those various projects will be with you once I have it to hand.
Anyhoo, my point is that I’ve written a few now and it got me to thinking about the various ingredients that are common to all of them. So I’ve packaged them up neatly as Cs because a) it’s been a while between blog posts, b) it amused me to use a maths concept in my creative writing post and c) that’s how I roll.
I’ve put this one first because it’s hard to write a novel without an idea. Sometimes, though, I think the bigger challenge is working out which idea will sustain a novel and which is the starting point for a character (which will then be subsumed into a larger idea), which is the basis of a scene (which will then be subsumed into a larger story), and which is a short story all by itself.
The reality is that some of my many ideas are just half-formed fragments that end up in notebooks and stay there, taunting me forever.
The most difficult ideas, for me, are those that present themselves as ‘I’d like to write a book about X’, or ‘I’m going to write a mystery story’. For me, that’s not an idea, it’s a theme, or a genre.
The best and most creative ideas are specific. Often weirdly specific. And, for me, they usually present themselves as a question and a feeling.
The Mapmaker Chronicles came from that feeling you get when you look out into a clear night sky (where are the edges? what’s at the edges?) and a specific question: How did they map the world? (You can read about it here)
The Ateban Cipher novels came from the feeling I got when I looked at The Book Of Kells (I wanted to take it home) and a specific question: Why would you write a book that no-one can read? (You can read about it here)
If you have always been someone who can write – that is, sit down at school, or university, or wherever, and have words pour out onto the page when required – craft is often something that you come to later. It’s often about the time that you write the first draft of your first novel, all 70,000 words of it, and think that your work is done.
In fact, it’s the time that you submit that first draft to an agent who comes back to you with these words: “What would you like me to do with this? There’s some nice writing in here but it is in no way ready to send out.”
Or maybe that’s just me.
Valerie Khoo and I have often discussed on our podcast that you don’t know what you don’t know. I discovered this lesson the hard way when I had the above exchange with an agent. I knew I could write a sentence – hadn’t I been doing that for years as a features writer? What I didn’t know was how to write fiction. Not really.
I was lucky enough to have had a good head start, thanks to all of my years of reading and working with words. But I had a lot to learn, and that’s where craft comes in.
Structure, character development, logical plotting, pacing… Take the courses, do the reading, go to the workshops at festivals, join writers’ groups. Whatever works for you.
I’m still learning a lot the hard way, because I still write without a detailed plan. I have to write it to see what it is, which is not the most efficient way of managing a publishing career.
But at least I now know what I don’t know.
If you had told Teenage Me that I’d one day be a published author and that I’d spend half my time walking around the block trying to work through logical solutions to problems that I had created myself, Teenage Me would have laughed.
Teenage Me thought that creative writing was all about… creativity. Little did Teenage Me know (about this and so many things, right Mum?)
When I do my school visits these days, I like to talk about writing superpowers. And when I tell the ‘maths kids’ and the ‘science kids’ that they have one of the greatest writing superpowers ever, I can see their confusion.
But so much of what we do as writers is problem solving.
If this happens, what happens next?
If that happens, what happens next?
And every decision has to come back to your character, and what your character would do in that situation.
Not what you would do. What your character would do.
Not what you, as the writer, needs your character to do to fix this festering plot hole you have created. What your character would logically do.
No wonder Procrastipup and I do so much walking (which is a great way to work through logical solutions, if you’re looking for one).
Look, I wish that talking about writing got the writing done. I wish that I could tell you that your novel will write itself.
But it doesn’t, and it won’t.
If you want to write a novel, you have to commit to the process. You have to make the time. You have to write the words.
It’s not easy. You’ll have to make sacrifices. You need to show up.
But that’s what it takes.
If you need some help to get the words written, you can read my blog post here, or you can take my 30-Day Creative Writing Bootcamp (10,000 words in 30 days. Yes, you).
I well remember the first time I received a structural edit (you can read about it here). I have still been known to cry. But editing – fixing (correcting) what is wrong with your manuscript – is an essential part of the process.
The trouble with a big edit is that it feels like an insurmountable problem. How can you possibly make all of these changes when every single change you make affects the entire story?
The answer, of course, is that you climb that insurmountable mountain one step at a time.
I’ve got some tips on how to edit your own writing here, and some tips from a professional editor here.
I call it courage. Others, as one person on Twitter told me in no uncertain terms [insert eyeroll emoji], call it confidence. Perhaps it’s a blend of the two.
It’s the blind faith that will carry you through the process of sitting alone in a room for the countless hours it takes to write your novel, then the countless hours of hard graft it takes to edit your novel and then, right at the very end, the sheer will it takes to press ‘send’ to either submit your work to a traditional publisher or publish your work yourself – and it is not for the faint-hearted.
Putting your thoughts on the page and then handing them over to someone else to read isn’t easy.
Dealing with rejection isn’t easy.
There are a lot of people out there who say they’re going to ‘write a novel one day’.
To me, it takes courage to try.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher.
You can find out more about me here, and more about my books here.
And check out So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.
Last week I found myself compiling a list of books about writing for a young writer I know. She’s 15, enthusiastic, stymied by the parameters of writing for school assignments, hungry for information, encouragement and advice.
I tried to give her book suggestions that would open up the world of writing for her, beyond those school assignments, give her some craft tips in a not-too-serious way, and also, perhaps, take her writing into different areas.
Some of them are personal recommendations, some of them are Book Boy‘s recommendations, and some of them are recommendations from authors I’ve interviewed on the podcast.
It occurred to me that there are probably a lot of teen writers out there just like her, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share my list.
So here it is (click on the title to read more about each book or to buy at Booktopia). Just in time for the holidays.
12 books about writing for teen writers
On Writing by Stephen King
This is my favourite book about writing, hands down, and Book Boy (15) loved it, too. You can read his review here. Half-memoir, half-writing craft, it’s a no-nonsense page-turner about writing.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day.
We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.
Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” – Anne Lamott
I first read those words about 20 years ago and they perfectly sum up, for me, the process of getting a book written. One word, one page, at a time. It’s another memoir/writing book combined, with a lot of inspiration and motivation in its pages.
Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
This one comes recommended by international bestselling children’s author Andy Griffiths, who talked about it at length in episode 65 of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast.
Here’s a snippet from the interview with Andy Griffiths:
“I discovered a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, who was very keen on writers putting the hours in and putting the practice in. She has a method of time writing practice, which was to write non-stop on any subject without editing, without thinking, without trying to control it – just get words on the page for a five-minute period and then repeat it again and again and again.
“That allows you to access your subconscious without the editing function getting in the way, going, ‘Well, that’s a bit silly,’ or, ‘That’s a bit rude,’ or, ‘That’s not appropriate, as if bums could grow arms and legs. Let’s get onto something a bit more realistic.’ You need to escape that voice when you’re getting the raw material on the page. You bring it in later to edit what you’ve done and to tidy it up. But, too often it’s fused at the creation stage, so people are very timid and very restricted in what they feel they can write.”
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Another book that is often recommended on the podcast. Children’s author Tristan Bancks, for instance, is a big fan, and talked about it in episode 201, as did children’s author Jen Storer, in episode 98. If you ever hear people talking about doing their ‘morning pages’, you can bet they’ve read this book. It’s a great way to encourage teens to keep a journal.
The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers by Kate Grenville
I have a tattered and ancient copy of this book, which was the first book on writing I ever bought for myself (I was probably about 20 or 21 at the time). I love this one because it is practical, hands-on and Australian. I have given it to Book Boy, as much to help with his English assessments as his writing. For detailed, accessible information about point of view, dialogue and other techniques, it’s a winner.
Everything I Know About Writing by John Marsden
This was published in 1998 and I have only just discovered its existence (I know, where have I been?). I promptly bought a copy for Book Boy (okay, for me) as everything John Marsden knows about writing is surely worth reading. I am hoping Book Boy will review it once he’s read it, and I’ll edit this post with the review once it’s available.
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within by Stephen Fry
I bought this one for Book Boy, who loved it (see his thoughts here), finding it equal parts instruction and entertainment.
Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve just bought this one for Book Boy after it was recommended to me as a terrific book on creativity. In this post on Medium by Chris Castiglione, it’s described thus:
“In 1903 Franz Kappus (a 17-year-old student) wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (27 years old) asking his advice on becoming a writer.
The book is a collection of Rilke’s replies over a series of ten letters. In the letters Rilke beautifully articulates advice on topics of creativity, dealing with criticism, inspiration, love, life, and loneliness.”
Grammar & Punctuation
The Elements Of Style (Strunk and White)
Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Punctuation matters. I’m sorry, but it does. As I tell kids when I do author talks and workshops, ‘think of it as a toolkit to help readers decode your words. You want them to get the message exactly as you intended, not some weird, cryptic guess.’
These two books take different approaches to the same subject – S&W is the classic, ESL is the contemporary – but every teen writer should have at least one.
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
Billing itself as ‘the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need’, this was the first book on screenwriting I ever read and I found it invaluable for writing fiction of any kind. As a bonus, it helps to watch the movies that are mentioned in the book, so offers hours of useful procrastination as well. Teens will find it very readable and really helpful for learning about the structure of stories.
Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo
There are now two volumes of this collection with this one, the first, being the classic edition, featuring songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, k. d. lang and more. The second volume (More Songwriters On Songwriting) includes Patti Miller, James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Loretta Lynn and more.
I bought the first one for Book Boy, who writes his own songs, and have enjoyed dipping in an out of it myself for the insight into the creative process of some of the world’s best songwriters.
So there you have it. Some books for teens about writing*. Have you or your teens got any recommendations to add? Please share them in the comments!
*You will note that I didn’t put So You Want To Be A Writer, my new book with Valerie Khoo, on this list. The main reason for that is that, at 15, my young writer friend is still in that beautiful space of having time to write, think, and explore the craft of writing.
So You Want To Be A Writer is a book about deciding on the kind of writer you want to be, making it work outside a day job (to begin with), approaching writing as a business, making it fit within your life, getting in touch with your creativity, getting the words written. I will give it to my 15-year-old friend in a few years, as a high-school graduation gift. Buy it here for yourself or someone you know.
It’s been a big year for the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast team!
Not only have we screamed past the ONE MILLION download mark (you’ll find my 15 favourite interviews here), with a LIVE event at VIVID Sydney (book now!) in the works, but we’re happy to announce that we’ve written a book!
So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job) by Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo will be on sale from 8 June (be at our event to be the first to own it!)
Here’s the blurb
The ultimate guide to making your writing dreams come true!
Want to write a novel or earn an income as a freelance writer, but not sure how to go about it? Authors Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo – co-hosts of the popular So You Want To Be A Writer podcast – will give you the steps you need to make your dream a reality.
In this book, you’ll discover everything you need to be a successful writer, including how to connect with people who will help your career grow and productivity tips for fitting everything into your already busy life. You’ll also explore how to keep your creative juices flowing and where to find other writers just like you.
This book lays out a blueprint to help you get started and thrive in the world of words. With advice from over 120 writers, you’ll tap into proven wisdom and find the path that will lead YOU to success!
Here’s what five of Australia’s favourite authors have said about the book
‘Practical, grounded and inspiring. When a thousand voices tell you that you can’t, you need a voice to make you believe you can. This book is that voice.’
Candice Fox, #1 New York Times bestselling author
‘So many pro tips in here from working writers. This is like Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans but exclusively for writers. I loved it.’
Tristan Bancks, award-winning children’s author
‘Perfect for the person who wants to write but doesn’t have the confidence or the know-how to start.’
Pamela Hart, award-winning historical fiction author
‘Essential reading for any aspiring writer.’
Graeme Simsion, international bestselling author
‘Val and Al were a godsend to me before I was published, offering a guided tour to the world of publishing that was otherwise closed to me. Their advice is highly, highly recommended.’
Dervla McTiernan, international bestselling author
And here’s a picture of the co-authors on the day (nearly a year ago) we decided to write a book
We are thrilled to bring this book to our podcast audience, our writing community and to new and aspiring writers everywhere. It will be available through a range of online booksellers, here and overseas, so stay tuned for more details.
If you’d like to read more about So You Want To Be A Writer the book, or register your details to receive notice as soon as the book is on sale, you’ll find all the details here.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I run an irregular series called Industry Insider, in which professionals offer their insights into some of the big questions about writing, editing, reading and publishing.
This week, Matt Davies, Australian author of debut YA novel This Thing Of Darkness, has popped in to talk about how to manage dark themes in YA fiction. It’s a delicate balance between exploring a difficult theme in a realistic way – and keeping the teen reading.
Here, Matt explains why he believes that challenging books should be part of every teen’s reading life.
Take it away, Matt Davies…
Exploring dark themes in YA fiction
A big part of becoming an adult is discovering that the world can be a really dark place. Bad things happen.
Men kill women who they’re supposed to love, children die at random from terminal diseases, and young people self-harm and take their own lives.
These are harsh realities, and one of the strengths of young adult fiction is that it gives teenagers a way in to these issues in a safe place where they can explore and think about them at arm’s length.
There’s no shortage of difficult themes in modern-day YA. In fact, unashamedly feel-good new releases are in short supply.
Mental illness is being explored more and more (It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini; Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Adib Khorram), and trauma, particularly the death of a loved one (The Protected, Claire Zorn; Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley), is well covered.
Stories about psychological disorders (Everything Everything, Nicola Yoon; Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley) and psychological trauma (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky) are relatively easy to find.
But many of these stories deal with situations that are out of the protagonist’s control or, to look at it another way, not their fault. They delve into plotlines that the characters have been forced into in some way, and the books end up focusing on how the characters learn to deal with their newfound reality.
But what about books that explore dark situations of the character’s own making? Books that ask us to empathise with someone who has done something incomprehensible? There’s not so many of those.
Responsibility and consent
Chris Lynch writes a lot about boys behaving badly. His 2005 YA novel Inexcusable is told from the perspective of a twelfth-grader called Keir. Keir is a loyal friend and a devoted son and brother. He sees himself as a good guy. He loves his girlfriend and would never hurt her.
But then she accuses him of rape.
As the reader, we can clearly see that the image Keir has of himself is skewed. He lives with his lonely, widowed dad, who treats him more like a mate than a son. His dad is an enabler and part of the reason why Keir constantly justifies his own bad behaviour. His family wouldn’t love and support him if he was a monster, right?
It’s a provocative book that raises important issues about intent, responsibility and consent. Ultimately, though, it’s about the lies we tell ourselves and owning up to the choices we make. All choices have consequences – that’s a very adult concept but one that can’t be dodged.
Rage and redemption
Gail Giles’ Right Behind You (2007) is another YA novel that tackles a tough moral issue for teens. It tells the story of Kip, a 14-year-old boy living with an agonising secret – when he was nine, he set a kid on fire in a jealous rage and the kid died.
Now Kip is starting high school with a new identity after spending four years in juvenile detention. Just as he begins to form friendships, he makes a huge mistake – he talks about his past. The town turns on him and we get the sense that Kip’s life is destined to be a revolving door of secrecy and guilt.
What makes this story so thought-provoking is that Kip is not a psychopath or a faceless serial killer that society can lock up and write off. He’s a kid. In fact, he’s a likeable kid, with a good sense of humour and a huge capacity for love. But he did a horrible thing, and now he has to live with the consequences.
Right Behind You is a powerful story about rage and redemption, guilt and forgiveness. It’s about owning up to your actions and then learning how to move forward.
Balance and consequences
The idea that there are certain issues that teens can’t handle in their fiction is ridiculous. There’s no restriction on what they can access online or in films or in books marketed at adults. In fact, YA fiction is the perfect place to explore darker themes in a considered way.
But there has to be a balance and there has to be consequences. By balance, I mean exploring issues from all sides. And by consequences, I mean that the bad behaviour can’t go unchecked.
My YA novel, This Thing of Darkness, takes on a similar subject to Right Behind You. Dean is 18 and living with a secret past involving years in a youth justice facility for committing a violent crime. Now he’s out and hiding who he really is and what he did. But he soon learns that he will never truly escape his past. He can only learn to live with it, even if those around him can’t.
I work as a freelance editor, and in 2017 I edited a government report into the state of Victoria’s youth justice system. It was dire – harsher than the adult system and not enough focus on rehabilitation. This Thing of Darkness encourages readers to consider the story behind the story.
What drives a child to commit an aggravated crime? What can we do to help them before they do, while they’re incarcerated and after they get out? Without support, in too many cases the cycle of crime continues. And that’s bad for everyone.
Books that ask us to sympathise with teen rapists and child killers are not easy reads. But YA shouldn’t be easy. It should be challenging and it should spark conversations. It should provoke.
Some novels empower; others enlighten. Some do both. I love a great story that follows the hero’s journey – one that sees the protagonist achieve a massive victory against their nemesis at the end.
But the reality is that sometimes we will never be able to achieve the victory we envisage. So we have to settle for a different kind of victory – a lesser one, but something we can accept – and then carry on.
And that’s all part of growing up.
Matt Davies’s novel, This Thing of Darkness, was published by Scholastic Australia in November 2018. The manuscript was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript.Find out more about Matt and his writing on his website or follow him on Twitter.
As the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast nears its 270th episode (and it’s one millionth download – stand by!), it has become an incredibly deep and rich resource of interviews, stories, anecdotes and information from published authors of all kinds from Australia and around the world.
Which gives us a LOT of great advice to play with.
Today, the amazing team at the Australian Writers’ Centre released a wonderful curated ‘pop up’ podcast series called Magic & Mayhem.
Featuring 40 incredible interviews with authors such as Andy Griffiths, Jacqueline Harvey, Tristan Bancks, Lauren Child, Wendy Orr and more, it’s a fantastic exploration of the world of children’s and YA fiction, from picture books through chapter books and middle-grade and right up to teens.
But wait, there’s more.
The AWC team has also created a fantastic FREE companion ebook that brings together the very best of the advice that each episode offers.
You’ll find all the details about the podcast and how to claim your free book here.
Or you can just start listening right now here, or on iTunes here.