Cassandra Clare

Writing Advice

In other words, writing advice and tips.

Now. I have a complicated relationship with giving writing advice. I never know whether what works for me will work for others, or even that what works for me will work for me again next time I try it. So this page mainly collects links to the writing advice I personally have found useful in the past. If you’re asking about how to get published — How do I find a publisher? What do you do to get published? — then skip down to question 13. And please keep in mind that due to legal reasons, I can’t read your work. Please don’t send it to me. If you’re looking for someone to critique your writing, there are some resources for that linked below.

    Writing Advice

  1. I tend to start with characters, but everyone does it differently.  There is no magic formula for the right order to write things in. Vivian Vande Velde has some good advice on her website about getting started writing a book.

  2. I think Steven King always says “Wal-Mart.” Harlan Ellison says “Poughkeepsie.” Lawrence Watt-Evans has a good essay about this. So does Tim Wynne-Jones. And Justine Larbalestier has great advice as well.

    As you can see, this question is the one every writer hates and everyone always asks. The fact is, ideas come from all around you, from everything you experience every day. You see a light on in an abandoned building and you think “I wonder who’s in there and what they’re doing?” The answer to that is an idea for a story. Whether it’s a good story or not is up to you.

  3. There are three things you want to ask yourself about your characters:

    1. Is my character developed and believable? Do they seem like a real person? Some people find “character worksheets” very helpful in developing their characters. It’s not hard to find character development worksheets online.Crawford Kilian provides a “character resume” which is not dissimilar. Elizabeth Moon has some detailed instructions on creating complex and realistic characters.
    2. What does my character *want*? Character arcs are determined by desire. I.E. what does your character want at the beginning of the story? Do they get it? Do they not get it? How does getting or not getting what they desire change them? A character who doesn’t want anything is flat, not to mention not believable.
    3. Speaking of flat, static, cardboard, round, and all sorts of other characters, James Patrick Kelly explains what the different kinds of characters are and how they function in a narrative here.
  4. Check out what the Story Sensei has to say.

  5. We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. —Frank Tibolt

    Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long. —Leonard Bernstein

    I am not the person to ask about inspiration. Mostly, I don’t believe in it — not in the popular conception of inspiration, where a lightbulb goes off in your head and suddenly you are inspired and your fingers start flying over the keyboard. Sure, that can happen, but as Bernstein says, you can’t rely on that happening. Writing is hard work, work that relies on learning and applying a varied set of skills, and finding out what those skills are, learning and practicing them, is always better than waiting around for inspiration. To quote Kristi Holl’s Writer’s First Aid:

    Writers who wait for inspiration before they decide to write are generally known as hobbyists. Working writers-those actively writing and growing in their craft-must write whether the muse is “in” or not.

    A much longer essay of mine on the topic.

    A fantastic speech by Elizabeth Gilbert about genius, inspiration, and fear.

    “But I’m not talking about inspiration! I’m talking about motivation!” you say. “I keep getting distracted while I’m supposed to be working. I keep wanting to give up. I get frustrated and impatient.”

    Okay, I’ll introduce you to the Secret Writer Mantra. Professional writers return to it again and again to get them through the books they’re writing.


    Here’s what it stands for:

    Butt In Chair. Hands On Keyboard. (No, I didn’t make that up.)

    Sit down. Type.  There is no secret formula to prevent you from becoming bored or distracted. Writing is work, like any work. It is not more fun or automatically not boring just because it is writing or because the story itself is exciting. Maybe you found the “actual writing” part easy, and revisions difficult. The problem there is that editing and revisions are also writing. They are just as necessary a part of the process as banging out a first draft. I know this isn’t very fun advice, but try to keep this in mind: how hard you work, unlike random inborn talent, is entirely up to you. If you work hard and complete your work, you’re ahead of 99% of people who want to write a book. Try to think of it as . . . inspirational.

  6. Your age will not be a problem in looking for an agent or a publisher. Here’s why:

    Querying agents and publishers involves submitting query letters and manuscripts through the mail. There is absolutely no way they are going to know how old you are unless you tell them. So this is seriously not a thing to worry about. Tell them if you want. Don’t if you don’t. Here’s what Jennifer Laughran, a wonderful agent, has to say about teen writers submitting to her (read link for the long version):

    “If the book is truly outstanding, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have. There is no reason that a minor can’t have an agent, they would just need to have their parents involved if they are under 18. That said, it is really hard to GET outstanding without a certain amount of experience.”

    Here’s what another great agent, Kristin Nelson, says about whether to mention your age in a query letter to an agent. And here’s what Steph Bowe, a published teen writer, has to say about the business of getting published when you’re a teen. Now here’s my advice, the long version.

  7. PLOT is CHARACTER revealed by ACTION. No, I didn’t make that up; that’s Aristotle. Basically, plot isn’t something that exists outside the rest of your story – the characters, the action, the setting. Make up awesome characters. Put them in interesting situations. Force them to make important and revelatory choices that change them. Make sure that at the beginning of your story your characters want something. Decide whether or not they get it. Those are the elements of your story. The most important thing to remember is that your first reader, and audience, is yourself. Make sure you’re telling a story you yourself are dying to read.

    If you are really stuck with plotting — if you keep starting books only to lose track of where they’re going; if you can’t get past the first chapter, etc. — I would suggest outlining. That means sitting down and writing out a very detailed summary of everything that happens in your book beforeyou start writing it. Yes, some people can just wing it. But if it looks like you’re not one of them, the fact is that most writers outline.

  8. One key to figuring out your dialogue is reading it out loud. Does it sound like something someone would actually *say*?

    John August, a successful screenwriter, has a great essay about dialogue (and since screenplays basically tell an entire story via dialogue, he knows whereof he speaks.)  Juanita Havill talks about the function of dialogue and balancing  dialogue with plot and action.

  9. Well, for starters, manuscripts aren’t measured in page count. They are measured in word count, because page count is affected by all sorts of things like margins and font, and word count is definitive. An excellent guide is Colleen Lindsay’s article on the kind of word counts agents who represent different genres are looking for.

  10. Justine Larbalestier explains it for you.

  11. Justine has very good advice for unsticking you when you’re stuck. Or you may need an inciting incident. Let Maureen Johnson help you out. The fact is, commiting to writing a whole book is hard — the vast majority of people give up before the book is done. Finishing is about discipline and hard work. Holly Lisle has some tricks listed on her website to get you through the hard parts — including what I think is one of the most important things you need to know, which is how your book ends. Yes, you need to know that even before you start.

  12. Read “How a Book Gets Published” by Nathan Bransford. Now come back and read the rest of this.

    • Write a book. There is no shortcut around this. Don’t even bother asking the question if you don’t have a book that’s been written and revised. It would be good if the book was commercially viable according to at least one person who is not you or your parents. (Hey, my parents thought my writing was brilliant when I was 13. It wasn’t.) Revising with the help of a critique group is often helpful.
    • Query a literary agent. The literary agent is the person who represents your book to editors at publishing houses who might buy it. He is the person who knows how to get in touch with publishers, which editors are looking for books like yours, and what kind of terms you should ask for in a publishing contract. (In fact, if you are asking me “How do I find a publisher? Or “What publishers do you recommend?” then you really need a literary agent because publishing is intensely complex and to be blunt, you don’t know enough about it to make this work without an agent.) You can sell your book without an agent, but I don’t recommend it, and I don’t know much about it, so this focuses on represented (agented) sales advice.
    • When you query an agent, you are in essence sending him/her a short letter describing your book and asking him to take a look at the whole thing. Excellent advice online about how to find and query an agent abounds. Lawrence Watt-Evans explains what agents do and whether you need one. Tara K. Harper talks about the best way for a new author to find a literary agent. Neil Gaiman talks about finding a good agent and avoiding bad ones. Here’s Marcus Sakey’s post about how to find a list of agents  and query them. Richard Dooling has a good article on the same topicFind out how to write an excellent query letter from Nicola Morgan. If you’re still not sure how to write a synopsis or query, read Holly Lisle’s advice.And don’t get scammed.
    • Once you secure an agent, the agent uses his/her contacts and knowledge of the industry to sell the book to an editor (not “a publisher” — it is individual editors who work at publishing houses who actually acquire, i.e. buy, books for that publishing house. At that point you’re in a whole world of offers, contracts, world rights, and other publishing deal wonkery. I am not the person to ask about that stuff. That’s what your agent is for.
    • If your agent is unsucessful in selling your book, you can rewrite the book, write a new book, or look for a new agent, but at this point you’re really in a whole other ballpark where you should be looking for other writers who are in the same situation to discuss your situation with. Try the Absolute Write site forums.
    • I am sad that I have to add this, but I feel like I do. Do not, because you want to get published, google “How to get published!” and then publish with the first link that comes up. There are tons of scammers online, and in the real world, who love to take money from idealistic writers who just want to see their books in print. Remember Yog’s Law: “Money flows TOWARD the writer.” That means you do NOT pay to be published. You do not pay an agent (they make their money on commission, i.e. WHEN YOUR BOOK SELLS AND NOT BEFORE. You do not pay an editor. You do not pay a publisher. You do not participate in “shared-risk” publishing. If you’re thinking about an agent or a publisher, head over to Absolute Write’s “Bewares and Background checks” section and see what other people have to say about them. You can also check the “Preditors and Editors” site. If an agent or publisher is “not recommended” it’s a safe bet you shouldn’t work with them. And read this.
  13. Read this. And then this. And then this, which breaks down advances and royalties and how they work. Here is also an excellent essay by Jeanine Frost on how writers get paid, how much they can expect to get paid, and when to quit your day job.

    As for classes, there aren’t any specific ones you have to take. I took some writing classes in college. That’s it. I majored in English, but a lot of writers don’t. Some major in creative writing, psychology, philosophy, or even math. There are no school or educational requirements for becoming a writer, though you can always choose to take classes if you want to. Mostly what I did that was significant was read a great deal. Stephen King in ON WRITING says to read over 70-80 books a year. That’s a book about every four days. Sounds about right.

    A more detailed explanation about classes and workshops can be found here.

    As for getting paid and making a living writing novels, you might want to read this.

  14. It can often be easier to find a critique group online than in real life. Some of the most famous include Critters and The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can also search through yahoo groups or google groups for writing groups devoted to your specialization. In real life, try looking at message boards in libraries, taking classes at community colleges or universities, or putting out flyers yourself to meet other writers.

    There are also organizations you can join, like the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers  of America, and SCWBI (the Society for Children’s Book Writers and  Illustrators.) For many of these organizations you need at least one  professional sale. Check their requirements before applying.

  15. This process varies widely for everyone, but the discussion on Sherwood Smith‘s journal may be helpful.

  16. This article about “The Book of your Voice” by Julie Elizabeth Leto is worth reading. Also: “Often when a new book feels as though it’s sticking, it’s because you haven’t got the voice right,” says Nicola Morgan in her excellent essay.

  17. You want to use the amount of detail and description that will make the the scene feel real and immediate, but not so much that the reader feels overloaded with unecessary details. The key is to use details that are relevant to what you’re describing, and that matter to the story, and that are not themselves already obvious or self-evident (there is no need to make a note of the sky being blue, unless the fact that is is blue is interesting or relevant or unexpected in some way.) Description should also not be dropped in the middle of, say, an action scene, as it slows down the action. Here’s a good article from Bella Online about describing characters. Mike Klaasen has a good essay on bringing words and scenes to life with description, and how to avoid using too much.

  18. This essay on “Novel Outlining 101″ by Lynn Viehl is incredibly helpful and useful.

    If you’re really dedicated, you can enroll in this free mini-course in plotting, offered via email by the amazing Holly Lisle.

  19. I wish I could tell you. If there were an easy fix for writer’s block, no one would have it.

    My sole real observation on the topic of block is that writer’s block isn’t a disease. It’s a symptom of the disease. There is something causing your writers block: you’ve gone down the wrong road in your plot, you haven’t learned how to outline, you’re trying to make yourself write something you don’t really want to write,  you’re depressed or stressed, etc. Figure out the cause and fix that and the symptom will probably go away. Now, I don’t know how useful that is. Probably not nearly as useful as this essay by Elizabeth Moon, which strikes me as one of the few useful things I’ve ever read on the topic.

  20. All writers have a lot of ideas. Nobody is in the situation where they get only one idea at a time and the second one pops up usefully when you’re done writing the first one. Keep a notebook, write your ideas down. Eventually, however, you’re going to have to commit to one. Here’s a useful article on deciding if your idea is novel-worthy.

  21. Well, first off, boring writing covers a multitude of sins. Without looking at your writing (which I can’t do), I can’t tell you why it’s boring exactly, any more than if you call up a doctor and tell her you don’t feel well, she can tell you what’s wrong with you exactly. The differential, so to speak, is vast. This is why you need someone — a teacher, friends, ideally a class of writing students — reading your work and giving you feedback.

    If you are convinced that your writing is boring, ask yourself a few questions:

    Are you including details that aren’t necessary to the story, just to pad out scenes and make them seem longer/more important? Keeping in only details that  matter to the story speeds up the pacing and keeps the story interesting.

    “Joe got up and brushed his hair and then his teeth. He chose a blue sweater to wear and made bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast. He got his briefcase and opened the front door. He went outside and locked the door behind him. He went to his car and turned it on. He drove to work. It took twenty minutes.”

    can be edited down to this:

    “Joe went to work.”

    Unless there is something remotely important about the tooth brushing, the breakfast food, or the locking of the front door, skip it all. It’s not interesting or significant to the story.

    Are you overstating characters’ emotions in order to make everything seem more dramatic? Trying to make a scene seem more dramatic by adding in overwrought detail often has the opposite effect.

    Are you using redundant language in order to add emphasis? For instance, “‘This is the worst day of my life,’ sobbed the wretched girl.’” We know she’s wretched from the sobbing and the fact that it’s the worst day of her life. We don’t need that extra adjective; once again, it slows down the pacing.

    Does every scene you’re writing serve more than one purpose? A scene that tells you something about a character is good; a scene that tells you something about a character and also moves the plot forward is better.

    Are you writing in the passive voice? Avoid passive voice; use active voice.

    Are you being self-indulgent? Every writer has to love what their writing, but it can become a problem when you’re in love with what you’re writing. Especially if you’re in love with your main characters or in love with their relationship with each other. There’s a fine line between romantic and soppy. Also, you have to make us, the readers, care about your characters before we are ever going to care about their relationship with each other. Zoom on back up to the question above about characters and make sure yours are ones that we are going to love enough to follow them through the whole story.

  22. Pay attention to names in the real world. Write down interesting names you come across in newspapers articles, in the telephone book, hear on the radio, etc. I’ve created character names adapted from names I’ve come across in graveyards or on hotel registry lists. If you’re really stuck, go for the baby name books. They’re full of names. That’s what they’re for.

    A good article on character naming from Writing World.

    Interestingly, Baby has some notes for writers on picking good character names.

  23. That’s called “foreshadowing.”

    The thing is, you do notice those clues while you’re reading, they just don’t mean anything to you until later. Foreshadowing means walking a very fine line between dropping too many hints (the reader figures things out before the characters) and too few (when whatever happens, happens, it seems to come sailing out of left field, and doesn’t appear to grow organically out of the story.) Using foreshadowing well is complicated and takes a long time to get right; mostly you need practice, but:

    • Look at books that you think use foreshadowing extremely well. Study those books, make notes on them, break down how they do what they do, how  clues are buried in the narrative in ways that the reader skims over at the time, but mean everything later. (In Harry Potter, the fact that Lupin turns out to be a werewolf is foreshadowed by the fact that his greatest fear is shown to be of “a glowing white globe” — the moon.)
    • A lot of writers use sets of notecards or graph paper to plot out their narrative. Identify the key points in the narrative (moments when characters meet each other for the first time, for instance, or when someone first notices something strange, or exhibits an unusual power (It’s foreshadowed that Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon when several times he seems to have unusual power over water.)
    • Don’t forget dialogue. It’s one of the best ways to foreshadow. A casually dropped comment by a character, a mention of an anecdote that seems related to something else, all those can be used to foreshadow and drop clues.
    • You don’t need to shove all the foreshadowing and clues into your first draft, before even you know exactly what’s going to happen. You can go back and plant clues later.
    • Usually, where foreshadowing is concerned, less is more.