Today I have a real treat for you–a guest post by Deborah Halverson with some wise advice on writing teen fiction, AND a giveaway. Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, is the founder of Dear Editor, and is a former editor for Harcourt. I’m excited to have her here, sharing her insight with us all.
The giveaway is a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies. The giveaway is open to US and Canadian residents. To enter, just leave a comment on this post. The contest will run for one week, and then I’ll randomly chose a winner.
Everyone gets something, though–you can all download the Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies Cheat Sheet. If you’re interested in writing for teens, you’ll want to grab this.
Banishing the Blahs from Your Fiction
by Deborah Halverson
Not long ago, a writer sent me the first chapter of her novel, along with a plea for help. She was frustrated. She’d once been totally excited about her story concept, but then she’d sat down to write the novel and within a few chapters, pphptt! Her enthusiasm vanished. She couldn’t seem to get energized about the scenes she was writing, and she found it hard to continue with the project. What was the problem? She still thought that it was the coolest concept ever and that her protagonist could be awesome. Could I help her figure out what had gone wrong?
I read the chapter for her. The diagnosis was easy to make: Her manuscript was suffering from a severe case of the blahs.
The writer in question had included a lot of dialogue in her scenes—a tactic that has great potential for energy and a fast pace—but the stuff she’d inserted in between the lines of dialogue was letting her down. It was boring, meaningless filler action: He raised his eyebrows in surprise . . . he took a bite of an energy bar . . . he brushed his hair off his forehead . . . he rolled his eyes. Sure, these actions have the characters physically moving, and they break up the lines of dialogue and thus inject vital rhythmic pauses, but they don’t do any more than that. They don’t deepen the characterization or enhance the setting, and they force the dialogue to convey all the emotion in the scene. They’re the literary equivalent of rice cakes: they’re food but they don’t make your mouth water or leave you feeling satisfied.
The good news is, the blahs are easily fixed once you know your manuscript has been infected. You just replace the blah action in your narrative pauses with revealing action.
Look at this example of blah action:
“I said I don’t care!” Laurel shouted angrily, glaring at her former BFF for all she was worth.
There’s shouting going on, which should be energetic, and there’s glaring going on, which suggests anger, but there’s nothing particularly interesting actually happening. You’ve got a loud, angry girl. So what? Why’s that fun to read? Why do we care about this girl? What makes her emotion specific to this situation and her mpersonality? Check out this revised version:
“I said I don’t care.” Laurel stabbed her pencil into the sharpener as if spearing a balloon. Grimacing, she pulled the pencil back out and then swore at the broken tip. “What idiot decided Scantrons need pencils, anyway?” She slammed the pencil into a trashcan and stomped back to her desk with her blank Scantron, pulling a red pen out of her pocket on the way.
Not only is the mood more powerful, but we just learned that this girl is rebellious (switching to a pen for a Scantron . . . a red pen, at that!), we see a slightly violent side to her personality in her spearing and slamming, and we deepen the overall mood by contrasting happy balloons with an unhappy person. This action is unusual and reveals things about the character, enriching the characterization and making the passage much more interesting to read—and I daresay much more interesting to write.
Notice that in spicing up the action I omitted the need for the descriptive tag “shouted.” Tags aren’t where you want readers to look for action. They should identify the speaker, that’s all. I also removed the exclamation point, which was another crutch used to convey mood to the reader. With the new narrative action, there’s no need for punctuation tricks. The dialogue can relax even as the scene gains tension.
Adverbs . . . The Blah’s Best Friend
I also omitted the adverb “angrily” from the example above. When you write, strive to avoid adverbs. The most noticeable ones are those -ly words. Adverbs tell readers how an action is done. Only, you don’t want to tell readers. You want them to understand the mood and manner from the content of the dialogue and from the actions themselves. Yep, it’s that old show, don’t tell adage. The amazing Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously banished adverbs from his writing after his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. For him, out of sight, out of mind: Soon after he started consciously writing without adverbs, he stopped thinking in them, too. That’ll happen for you.
Once you’ve excised the empty fillers and banished the adverbs, what’s left? Actions that are dynamic and that let the reader make his own judgments about the mood and personality of the character acting them out, that’s what. Now your narrative pauses will be about moving the story forward and enriching the overall reading experience. That’ll keep your readers interested in your story for the long haul—and it’ll give you reason to stay excited about writing it.
Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Armed with a masters in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is a frequent speaker at writers conferences and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. Deborah is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals. For more about Deborah, check out her website DeborahHalverson.com.
This post was part of the Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies Blog Tour. There are three more stops to go; don’t miss them!
July 25: Story Connection
July 26: The Got Story Countdown
July 27: Free “Writers & Artists” webinar with Katie Davis
And, if you’d like to check out the previous stops, you’ll find a lot more detailed, helpful information about writing good fiction.
Shrinking Violet Promotions (Flipping the Switch From Introvert to Extrovert)
SCBWI blog (Serving Up Subtext)
QueryTracker.net (Melodrama Isn’t a Four Letter Word)
Elizabeth O. Dulemba Blog (Interview)