I’ve had a very exciting couple of months:
- Handed in the second draft of Ransacker.
- Took on a new project for the mobile-fiction app Hooked.
- Hired Royal Digital Studio to build a new website for me.
- And headed out to LA for a round of meetings with some very smart and creative Hollywood development execs.
(Friends, the meetings were exciting. There’s not much I can tell you about yet, but I promise — you guys are always the first to know about all major developments. I should have some big news in the next couple of months!)
In the meantime, I wanted to share a tiny lecture I put together for the NY Teen Author Fest. I was asked to give a 4 minute master class on an area of expertise. I decided to write about some lessons I learned in film school that have helped me as a novelist.
I give you:
1. Begin with the premise
I like to begin my writing process by nailing down a premise. I want to identify — the central character, the struggle, the stakes. Here’s an example of a premise:
When she is drafted into The Hunger Games, a gruff loner must learn to trust another competitor while they fight others and the game itself, or else lose her humanity and her life.
See how much there is in there? We really get a sense of the whole story — the protagonist, her central characteristics, the antagonist, the struggle she faces and the stakes. It’s all in there. Do I use these for my own work? Why yes, I do. I work on the premise before I do anything else.
Here’s one I wrote for my first book, Monument 14:
When a series of escalating environmental catastrophes strands a group of fourteen kids in a superstore, they fight to protect themselves from chemical warfare compounds in the air and to establish a new way of living. But when two desperate outsiders threaten to take over, the kids must fight back or lose everything.
2. Bust out the magic markers
After you have the premise, create a movie-style poster for your book. This is incredibly fun. Draw ten versions. What you’re doing here is pin-pointing the tone and also what’s special about this book.
Think of the poster for ET, or Jaws, or Little Miss Sunshine, or La La Land. How about the one for The Fault In Our Stars, with the two kids laying face to face, and the air tube twisting across the Shalene Woodley’s face. It tells you so much about the movie — it’s a love story. It’s intimate. It’s clever. It’s gonna be sad and tender.
3. Embrace 3 act structure
I urge novelists to beat out their story. Get a cork board and use note cards. Get the structure up so you can see it. Some people get antsy when they think about using 3 act structure. They worry it will create a novel that feels cookie-cutter-ish. Think of structure as a scaffolding — it’s not meant to be seen. You use it to make sure your building will stand! By the time your book is written, the scaffolding is gone.
I know Pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants) do exist and I know they can be very successful, but I say, write ten books from an outline first. By then your story sense will be strong and you’ll just know what’s supposed to happen next. Until you’ve written ten books, write an outline so you can get a look at the thing before you build it. Hear me? You want to get a look at it before you write the whole, dang book.
4. Think about your reader
Screenwritiers really think about their readers – movie executives. They know the movie executives don’t have a lot of time for each script. You’re lucky if they read the first five pages. So there are no extra words. Everything is crisp and vivid and lean.
Your readers are young adults and other people who love YA books. So write down the page, not across.
Novels can often be filled with long, dense paragraphs. It’s easier for the reader if you break those up into dialogue or short paragraphs for action.
5. Write what they do, not what they feel
In a screenplay, a writer can only describe what we see on screen. She can’t write: “Josie was really frustrated. Her boss was always late and it was starting to wear her out, but she had to keep it professional.” She’s gotta write: “Josie scrubs her hand over her face. She kicks over a wastepaper basket, then puts the papers back in.” Even that is probably a bit too much description. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” This is a very clear way to see this principle in action — show us what your characters do, as opposed to telling us what they are feeling.
In summary: Premise! Poster! 3 Acts! Write for your reader! Show, don’t tell!
That was my 4 minute master class! When I read it for the NY Teen Author festival, I made it with 2 seconds to spare!
Sending lots of love,