The Importance of Reading for Writers

I cringe when I think back on a conversation I had a few summers ago with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.

As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:

There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.

Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.

I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”

That’s called not reading enough. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.

The work published by others is our only textbook when we’re honing our craft. Ideally, writers in any genre should read as much as they can, inside their genre and outside. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.

There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading more.

Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique. And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.

So read a lot, read widely and read well. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.

* Just kidding! Someone already did that. Introducing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

A Magic of Convenience

There are tons and tons of manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers, which is always fun and interesting. The more I read of them, though, the more a strange habit rears its little head. And it’s difficult work to make magic believable and compelling, since it is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your fantasy wold-building, but the plot, too.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at the structure of your scene. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

Luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy/magic/magical realism in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Next time you work with fantasy or magical powers, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, the reader will already know the rules of their magic. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

Revision Trick: Fooling Yourself

In moments of deep, dark, cookie-dough-scarfing despair, some writers wonder in their most secret of secret hearts whether they’re just fooling themselves. Unless you’ve got robot circuitry at your core or are an extreme narcissist (sometimes I envy egotistical robots), you’ve been there.

For me, the cookie-dough-scarfing depths of writerly depression usually come during the revision process. Writing the first draft was so free, so easy! Discovery at every turn! That process is what I like to call First Draft Goggles. Like beer goggles, that first draft euphoria can sure make everything look great.

Then comes the crushing hangover: revision. You’ve got to look at the thing you enjoyed so much during the first draft. You feel sick. There’s a bile taste creeping up your throat. “Did I really just write that?”

And here it comes, the big question: “Am I really just fooling myself with this writing thing?”

Well, here’s a nifty trick that I learned from David Morrell, a very seasoned writer. He took me under his wing at a conference one time and gave me a very simple, very effective tip. It truly was a “duh!” moment:

Every time you think you’re done with something, change the font, print it out and read it again.

This is a trick I like to use when I’m fairly far into my revision process, but I’ve found it helps with anything that’s getting you stuck. When you change the font, you’re more likely to slow down and read it more carefully, since your eyes aren’t as used to how the words look on the page or screen. Glaring errors and things that don’t sound right tend to stand out much more.

Some writers like to read a page bottom to top for much the same effect. That gives me a headache, so I just change the font. I like to go from Times New Roman to Courier New or, if I’m feeling extra frisky, Arial.

Try it and see what you think. This is literally a way to fool yourself into paying more careful attention and not getting complacent with your draft. Sometimes, fooling yourself is actually a good thing!

A Real Had Been

From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)

It’s the “had” problem.

In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.

When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect is for.

To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.

Here’s an example:

She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…

I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.

When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”

The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.

Take a look at a revision:

Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.

She chased the memory away now…

Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.

Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.

Question for Writers: Staying in Touch With Your Market

A friend of mine, a published adult writer whose characters have ranged from sixteen to twenty-five years old, mentioned an interesting opinion the other day. “I was thirty four when I wrote my twenty-five year-old character,” she said. “I wanted to write her then because, now that I’m older, I don’t think I can justifiably write someone that young.”

She writes for the adult market but her comment is even more applicable to kidlit. Most characters in our market are eighteen and under. Most writers, though, are older than that. Sometimes much older. And yet older writers manage, in most cases, to make their voices and their characters sound authentic and true-to-age.

Here’s a question for the writers out there. Aside from interacting with your kids and their friends/schools/lives, how do you keep in touch with your market? How do you bridge the age divide and keep yourself fresh?