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Nano Tip #17: Make Writing a Habit

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

One of your brain’s jobs is to turn frequent actions into habits. If you force yourself to turn the lights off every time you leave a room, it eventually becomes automatic. If you open the fridge door every time you’re in the kitchen, that too will become hardwired. You don’t have to think when you tie your shoes or say thankyou; those actions are ingrained.

But what about more complex activities? Can writing be a reflex?

I am here to tell you yes.


Make writing a habit.

But writing requires higher brain functions! you protest. It demands one’s full attention! The writer must focus on every detail, not wallow in habits of phrase!

Well, yes and no. I’m not saying you should write reflexively, typing cliche after cliche. I’m saying that the overall writing experience should become habitual—your brain and body should know when it’s writing time, and must be taught that writing time is sacred.

To understand what I mean, try this for a month:

1) Write at the same time every day.

2) Keep your physical cycles around that time consistent: sleep, meals, coffee, etc.

3) Write in the same chair.

4) Utilize the same protocols for every session (E.g., check email for 15 minutes, then WRITE! Or do twenty push-ups, then WRITE!)

Now maybe school and/or work make these suggestions impossible. But anything you can do to habituate yourself helps. Even silly stuff, like saying a prayer for a good writing day to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or wearing a special writing hat or magic writing ring. These tiny maneuvers, repeated over time, wire your brain so that it knows when WRITING TIME IS HERE.

It’s sort of like when batters step up to the plate and make all those little ingrained motions: scrape the feet, adjust the uniform, spit to the left. Those habits trigger memories of all the other at-bats that batter has experienced, saying to the muscles, eyes, and brain: It’s showtime!

My version: I always start writing the moment I’m done with the morning coffee, right after breakfast. I sit in the same chair, and start by looking over the last few days’ work. I have water standing by, and I don’t answer my phone or email for the first hour. I wear the same basic clothes, almost a uniform.

But it doesn’t matter what I do. You should create your own habits. Or perhaps a better word is rituals. But whatever you call it, repetition has power. Whatever feels natural to you, make it your habit, your tradition, your religion.

Writer’s block is no threat to the well wired brain.

Good luck for the second half of NaNoWriMo! And don’t forget to check out Justine’s post from yesterday, and her new one tomorrow. See you in two days!

By the way, there is exactly one more appearance in the Leviathan tour. It’s this Sunday in Philly, and it’s a benefit for the Philadelphia Free Library
summer reading program. Please come and support your local library!

Sunday, November 22 1:00-3:00PM
Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher,
T.A. Barron, Sarah Dessen,
Steven Kluger, Justine Larbalestier,
David Levithan, Lauren Myracle,
Jacqueline Woodson and me!
Children’s Book World
17 Haverford Station Rd.
Haverford, PA

One other reminder: you can buy interior art from Leviathan here, and color art from the series here, here, and here.

Nano Tip # 15: Take a Day Off

Monday, November 16th, 2009

That’s right, NaNoWriMo-ers, take at least one day off this month. About now is good, because we’re halfway through November and your brain needs a rest.

So take a day off and do nothing!

I know I just did.

Nano Tip #13: Pace Charts

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

It was only four days ago that I promised to do a multi-day post on meta-documents, but then I got distracted by Passages of Disbelief, and failed to follow up.

So now it’s time to double back and discuss another meta-doc I like to use: the pace chart!


Now, you may ask, what in the world is a pace chart? Basically, it’s any method you use to track the ups and downs of momentum in your book, the shifts from action to conversation to tension. Like all meta-docs, a pace chart allows you to step back from the trees of your text and see the forest.

A quick note: Often when we say a novel is well paced, we mean it’s full of heart-pounding action. This is mono-dimensional rubbish thinking, of course. Well paced should mean “strikes an elegant balance between fast and slow passages.”

There are lots of ways to track pace. As Justine revealed here, I used to keep spreadsheets to track many things, including pace. But these days I use Scrivener’s corkboard feature.

Here are the first 12 chapters of Behemoth, Book 2 of Leviathan, shown in corkboard mode. Don’t worry, the chapter captions have been blurred to prevent spoilage.


I distinguish among three levels of pace: ACTION, Tension, and “nothing.”

  • ACTION means fighting, pursuit, or any other sort of physical peril.
  • Tension means sneaking, arguing, or the revelation of horrible facts.
  • “nothing” means mostly conversation, exposition, and looking at stuff that may be wonderful, but isn’t threatening.

Of course, pace is context sensitive. In the world of Leviathan, Tension means sneaking through enemy lines, and ACTION means the pitched battle when the enemy spots you. But if you’re writing a high-school melodrama, Tension might mean someone giving you the cold shoulder, while ACTION is discovering them snogging your boyfriend in the janitor’s closet.

As you can see above, Behemoth starts with a fairly large ACTION set piece (a battle), and then the book settles down into a bit of exposition. There are moments of Tension punctuating a long stretch of mostly “nothing,” as the characters explore how alliances have been shifted by the battle, but no explosions until another fight gets started in Chapter 12. (The whole book is 42 chapters, so this is just the first bit.)

I usually mix in other data with my pace charts, because comparing data points is useful. The red pushpins above denote chapters in Deryn’s point of view, and blue are Alek’s. This way, I can make sure that one character isn’t hogging all the exciting scenes.

But the main purpose of a pace chart is simple: to make sure that long sections of “nothing” are broken up with Tension or ACTION, so that the reader doesn’t get bored. And, conversely, to make sure that long sections of ACTION are broken up with Tension or “nothing,” so that the reader doesn’t get frazzled. (Unless you want them frazzled.)

In even plainer words, your novel should have talky bits where stuff is made sense of, punctuated by fast bits where stuff explodes, and not too much of either in a row. A chart simply makes that structuring obvious at a glance.

Pace charts can also keep you from getting mechanical with your pacing. If you notice that you have three-chapter segments that repeat the sequence “nothing”, Tension, ACTION! several times in a row, you might want to break that up. A steady drumbeat of build and release can be just as boring as ten chapters of exposition. The point is not to straight-jacket you into a pattern, but to reveal where certain patterns might be getting tedious.

(And, yes, there are many formalists who intentionally subvert pace to great effect. But that’s different than simply screwing up.)

Now, if you don’t use Scrivener (you fool) you can scrawl a pace chart on a piece of graph paper, stick three colors of post-its into your MS, or graph it with Excel. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as your pace chart is simple to make and simple to read. If it takes more than ten minutes, you’re doing it wrong.

Because here’s the reasoning behind all simple meta-docs like the pace chart: it’s easier to look at one piece of paper or one screen than to read through your whole novel One More Time to figure out why everyone hates it.

Don’t forget to check out Justine’s post yesterday, and her new one tomorrow. See you in two days!

Nano Tip #11: Passages of Disbelief

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Welcome to another tip for all you NaNoWriMo-ers out there. I’ll be dolling out writing advice every odd-numbered day of November, and Justine will take on the even-numbered days. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s tip from yesterday, about not skipping the tricky parts.

But before I get started, you might be interested in this essay by me on John Scalzi’s site, the Whatever. It’s about working on Leviathan with Keith, and about illustrated books in general.

It also reveals a delicious new piece of art from Leviathan, so let me repost it here:


This is the captain of the Leviathan in his office, and that’s Deryn saluting. Notice the nautilus-shell theme running throughout the picture. Keith and I decided early on that all the Darwinist designs would echo living creatures, even furniture and jewelry. (Check out the captain’s cufflinks and hat.) Clanker design is, of course, very different, with everything echoing machines and mechanical parts. Not just two sides at war, but two aesthetics!

Okay, now onto the Nano Tip . . .


Let’s talk about “Passages of Disbelief.” That’s my own pet name for the part of a fantasy (or horror, or sf, or whatever) where the main character realizes that paranormal stuff is happening. The part where they say to themselves, “Holy crap! Vampires (or elves, or aliens, or whatever) are REAL!”

Passages of Disbelief (PODs) can be very problematic for a writer for the following reasons:

1) The average fantasy reader had already read dozens of PODs. Hundreds of them. We are bored with them.

2) The reader already knows that vampires, aliens, or whatever are real in the fictional world, because they read the back of the book. It’s not news.

3) If vampires really did turn out to be real, most people’s reaction would be to say, “Holy crap, just like in [insert name of fictional vampire franchise].” And there’s something unsatisfying about characters in books referencing other books of the same genre. Like when people in bad sf movies say, “Wow, this is like something out of a bad science fiction movie.”

Now, obviously there are many so-called “open fantasies.” In True Blood, everyone knows there are vampires. In Lord of the Rings, everyone knows there are elves. So if you simply decide to write an open fantasy, you can skip the POD.

But sometimes you want the fantastical elements of your story need to be “closed,” hidden from the world at large, mysterious and amazing. So how do you deal with PODs in an artful and interesting way?

Well, you can always steal tricks from other people. I’ve written a whole essay about how PODs work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (You can read the essay online this week for free. It’s from an old anthology by SmartPop, who are the publishers of Mind-Rain.)

To make your thievery easy, here are the most common tricks for Passages of Disbelief:

One: Use Humor
Comedy can make a POD into something new and hilarious. You can take advantage of your readers’ familiarity with POD scenes, by taking their expectations and subverting them.

But this approach has a big problem: many, many writers have already done it. (See my Buffy essay above.) You will have to work hard to top them, and not sound like someone telling an over-familiar joke.

Two: Start Your Story After the POD
If your character has already been recruited into the alien-slaying guild before the first page, then there’s no need for a POD. You just start out with your character explaining alien slaying to the reader in a matter-of-fact-way.

Sure, a quick flashback to the day your protag first learned about the Secret Alien Invasion might be warranted at some point, but that’s much less onerous than a whole real-time scene.

The problem here is that in a closed fantasy, you’ll eventually run into a secondary character’s POD. Like, when your alien-slayer’s boyfriend (or mom, or parole officer) finds out about the aliens. Then you’ll have to deal with it anyway!

So here’s the ultimate answer the POD problem:

Three: Make Sure Your Ideas Are Mind-Boggingly Original
Here’s the thing: If you’re original enough, your reader will ALSO be going through a Passage of Disbelief along with the character. Whatever they’ve read on the back of the book or heard from friends will pale in comparison to your brilliant new take on fantasy. And they will NOT be bored.

Instead of saying, “Here we go again,” they’ll be shrieking, “Holy crap! Alien vampire werewolves from Poughkeepsie! I never saw that coming!”

I’m afraid that this little trick the only real answer to PODs. In a world swimming with paranormal stories, if you aren’t genuinely freaking your reader out, your main character’s little freak out will only be so much wasted ink.

See you in two days! In the meantime, don’t forget to check out Justine’s tip tomorrow. And if you haven’t already, click here to buy Leviathan, or grab it at your local bookstore.

Nano Tip #9: Meta-Documents

Monday, November 9th, 2009

As you probably know, Justine and I are doing writing tips for every day of NaNoWriMo. She’s doing even-numbered days, and I’m doing odd. Her tip from yesterday about the glories of square brackets reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while. And I think it’s going to be a multi-day thing.

So here’s the first of several essays on the subject of meta-documents! (And don’t forget to check below for my NYC appearance this Tuesday.)


Sometimes in the headlong fury of trying to make our word count, we writers forget to keep track of our characters’ scars and bruises, of their eye and hair colors, or even what day of the week it is. We forget, in short, to make meta-documents.

So what does this fancy term mean? Well, the main document your working on for NaNoWriMo is, of course, the Novel itself. But in order to keep that novel coherent, you almost certainly need meta-documents. That is, documents about the main document.

Think about it: novels are at least 50,000 words, and can be three times that length or more. That’s a huge project, and you, dear novelist, are the Project Manager. You need a clipboard with you at all times, or you will start forgetting stuff.

Of course, the most famous type of meta-doc is the Outline, the chapter-by-chapter plan of how the Novel will unfold. Some of us writers love to outline, some find it a chore, and some find that outlining is a novel-killer, destroying any need to tell the story at all. Finding your own place on that continuum is the job of every writer.

But heed this well: Just because you’ve given up on outlining, don’t think that you can throw aside all other forms of meta-documentation. The outline is actually quite an odd meta-doc, in that you usually work on it before you start writing. But most meta-docs are things you maintain while you write. They are maps of where you’ve been, not of where you’re going. They are the keepers of consistency and realness.

Trust me, the sooner you start making meta-docs in the writing process, the less you will be pulling out your hair later on.

So for the next few odd-numbered days, I’ll be giving descriptions of some meta-documents that I use while writing. Today, I cover the mighty timeline . . .


Timelines are possibly the most important meta-doc for me. Without them, I have no idea what day it is. And without that, all sort of details get shaky. Bruises heal instantly. People go to school six days in a row. The moon stays full for a week and a half. This makes for an unconvincing novel.

More importantly, emotional reality breaks if you don’t know how much time has past. A horrible fight with your best friend feels very different a week later than it does the day after it happened.

And take it from me: Timelines are extremely easy to create along the way, and a ROYAL PAIN to reconstruct later on. So do them while you write. Start one NOW.

Okay, but what should your timeline look like? In the timeline for the first book in the Uglies series, I started every line with a chapter of the book, and then give a calendar date. (I use a calendar even if the characters never mention dates themselves, just to keep myself on track.)

I also annotate jumps in time and other oddities, especially these three:

1) What off-screen characters (Shay, in the case below) are up to while the main action is taking place.
2) Any cues about time that appear in the text. “three days later” “It’s taking too long”
3) If characters are saying something untrue about time. (In Part II, Tally lies to hide her departure date.) It’s tricky to keep fact and fiction separate, for the reader as well as the writer.

Check it out:

Part I
Chapters 1-3 “New Pretty Town,” “Best Friends Forever,” “Shay”: late June 7
C. 4 “Wipe Out”: afternoon June 14
C. 5 “Facing the Future”: afternoon June 25
C. 6 “Pretty Boring”: afternoon June 28
C. 7-9 “Rapids,” “Rusty Ruins,” “Waiting for David”: late June 28
C. 10 ”Fight”: morning Aug 26
C. 11 “Last Trick”: late Sep 2
C. 12-14 “Operation,” Special Circumstances,” “Ugly for Life”: morning Sep 9
C. 15 “Peris”: a few days pass, Peris comes in dawn of 9/12
C. 16 “Infiltrator”: morning of 9/12
NOTE: Shay (off screen) leaves to go to the Smoke late 9/2, and gets there early 9/8, 5.5 days later. (Same as Tally, basically, with a slower hoverboard but with David’s guidance.)

Part II

C. 17 “Leaving”: night 9/12
C. 18 “SpagBol”: night 9/12 through morning 9/13
C. 19 “The Worst Mistake”: starts sundown 9/13
then three days’ travel on bottom p.121
sundown 9/16 on p.122
C. 20 “The Side You Despise”: very late 9/16
9/17 dawns on p. 127
C. 21 “Firestorm”: late afternoon 9/17
C. 22 “Bug Eyes”: sunset 9/17 through wee hours 9/18
C. 23 “Lies”: morning 9/18
Tally arrives at Smoke
She claims she left late 9/8 (night before birthday) and took 9.5 days.
She actually took 5.5 days.
C. 24-27 “The Model,” “Work,” “David,” “Heartthrob”: all 9/18
C. 28 “Suspicion”: on p. 172 two weeks pass until 10/1 morning
C. 29-32 “Bravery,” “The Secret,” “Pretty Minds,” “Burning Bridges”: night of 10/1 except last paragraphs , which are dawn of 10/2

Part III
C. 33-37 “Invasion,” “Rabbit Pen,” “In Case of Damage,” “Run.” “Amazing”: early morning and onward of 10/2
C. 38-39 “Ruin,” “Maddy and Az”: morning 10/3
C. 40 “The Oil Plague”: night of 10/3
p. 259 is daybreak of 10/4
C. 41 “Familiar Sights”:
reach edge of desert during night of 10/4 p. 263
reach sea “three days later” on 10/7
travel for “a few days”
hunker down for storm from 10/10 to 10-14 p. 264
p. 265 is morning of 10/14
reach Rusty Ruins night of 10/17
In this chapter, David predicts they will make it to the city in ten days, but it takes 14 due to the 4-day storm, which is why he says (during the storm on p. 264 ): “It’s taking too long.”
C. 42 “Accomplices”: night of 10/17
C. 43 “Over the Edge”: as darkness falls on 10/18
The book ends 21 days later, the night of 11/8.

See how that works?

One quick note: Tally’s culture doesn’t use days of the week, but normally I keep careful track of those as well, just so no one goes to school/work on Sunday for no reason.

Another great thing about timelines is that they show you how your novel is paced. You might have three chapters in a row all set on the same morning, and then a series of chapters where time flies faster. Maybe this little pattern keeps happening again and again. Now, maybe that’s okay, or maybe it’s getting monotonous. But without a timeline, you might not notice the pattern at all.

Uglies is paced in a very particular way. Each book has a few intense days in the beginning, but then time spreads out as the characters go on a journey, allowing them to absorb the lessons they’ve learned. The timeline helped me recognize that pattern, and use it to my advantage.

Two days from now, I’ll talk some other types of meta-documents.

Take it away, Justine!

Also, don’t forget that I’m appearing with Justine and many other fabulous writers in New York City tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 10 6:00PM
Books of Wonder
Libba Bray – Going Bovine
Kristin Cashore- Fire
Suzanne Collins – Catching Fire
Michael Grant – Hunger
Justine Larbalester – Liar
And me!
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011

Click here for all tour details. And click here to buy Leviathan.

Nano Tip #7: Stealing from Chandler

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Just got back from a wonderful mini-tour in Canada. Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and I had a great time, and Keith Thompson enjoyed a warm welcome into the world of bookstore appearances. I think he will do more!

But now I am SLEEPY. So I’m cheating and pulling another old writing advice out of the e-drawer. It’s from January 10, 2006, so only you old-school blog-stalkers will have read it before.

I promise to do a fresh one for Monday! And don’t forget Justine’s excellent advice from yesterday.

Take it away, me from three and a half years ago:


While I was finishing Specials my fictional brain started to break, so I decided to take some time off from narrative. Fortunately, a collection of letters written by the great hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler leapt from the depths of my Sydney storage unit and into my hands.

Chandler’s technique for writing letters was to stay up at night drinking and talking into a tape recorder (a wire recorder in those days, actually). The next day his secretary would type up his rantings and send them in the mail. This led to many a drunken tongue-lashing, and a fair amount of solid writing advice, being preserved for posterity.

As I re-read the letters, I realized that I’ve stolen a lot of Chandler’s writing techniques over the years, especially his “four-hour rule” (see below), which I’ve expounded to many a writing class. So I figured it was time to ‘fess up and show all of you the source material.

So here is the unalloyed Raymond Chandler on the subject of writing:

1. Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, editor of Harper’s Magazine
7 May 1948
My theory was that [the readers] just thought they cared about . . . the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things that they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock at the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

That paper clip image is very goosepimple-making, a classic noir example of the crumpled little guy facing oblivion. Of course, we all know that a guy trying to pick up a paper clip on a hoverboard would be cooler. And like, especially if the paper clip exploded . . .

This next motivational technique is one I always tell aspiring writers to try:

2. Letter to Alex Barris, an interview by mail
18 March 1949
The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. B. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.

Put those two rules on your refrigerator and you’ll have a novel within a year. Or at least someone else who uses your refrigerator will.

The letter below reminds me of something Kingsley Amis said: “Sometimes the hardest part of writing is getting the characters out of the pub and into the cab.” Writers don’t just get stuck at the earth-shattering, life-changing decisions that our characters make; the little details of reality management are actually quite tricky and frustrating. Never assume you’re a crap writer just because you can’t get someone across a room—it happens to all of us.

3. Letter to Paul Brooks, a publisher working on a Chandler collection
19 July 1949
When I started out to write fiction I had the great disadvantage of having absolutely no talent for it. I couldn’t get the characters in and out of rooms. They lost their hats and so did I. If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. Give me two people snotting at each other across a desk and I am happy. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.

This letter to Alfred Hitchcock contains fantastic advice for writers as well as film-makers. Just substitute the words “wicked-cool sentence” or “scintillating simile” for “camera shot.”

4. 6 December 1950
As a friend and well-wisher, I urge you just once in your long and distinguished career . . . to get a sound and sinewy story into the script and sacrifice no part of its soundness for an interesting camera shot. Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There will always be another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.

Beyond his anti-Agatha Christie snark, there is an excellent point below about the difference between novels and short stories. A lot of writers who excel at the story level don’t think to “turn the corner” when attempting the longer form.

5. Letter to Dorothy Gardner, secretary of the Mystery Writers Association
January 1956
The trouble with most English mystery writers, however well known in their world, is that they can’t turn a corner. About halfway through a book they start fooling with alibis, analyzing bits and pieces of evidence and so on. The story dies on them. Any book which is any good has to turn the corner. You get to the point where everything implicit in the original situation has been developed or explored, and then a new element has to introduced which is not implied from the beginning but which is seen to be part of the situation when it shows up.

Speaking of snark . . . bet you didn’t know that Raymond Chandler’s brief foray into science fiction actually predicted the rise of Google as an information search service. Check this out:

6. Letter to H.N Swanson
14 March 1953
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It’s written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Abadabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”
They pay brisk money for this crap?

Yes, Mr. Chandler, they do.

You can buy the collection, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, from Amazon, B&N, or Indie Bound, or from your bricks-and-mortar local bookstore.

Nano Tip #5: Write Your Way Out

Thursday, November 5th, 2009


I’m on tour in Canada this week, so today’s Nano Tip will be a blast from the past. This post is from early 2005, when this blog was young and tiny. (It got a whopping seven comments, and I was well pleased with that.) And yet its ancient caveman wisdom is as true today as it was then!

So here it is again . . . “Write Your Way Out.”

People in writing groups often ask me, “What do I do when I get conflicting advice? How will I ever decide which way to go?”

My answer is: “Try it both ways and see which works! Don’t just write one ending, write three!”

It’s a medically proven fact: Writing the same scene several different ways won’t kill you.

Take a cue from visual artists. They make a hundred pencil drawings of a subject before even starting with the paint. They paint the same dang pot of flowers a dozen times, with only slight variations. They doodle in their sketchbooks all day, making stuff no one will ever see. But they rarely sit there and just complain about a compositional problem without putting their hands on a brush/pen/piece of clay.

In my second novel, Fine Prey, I actually wrote a scene that I knew wouldn’t be in the final draft, just so I could visualize what had happened “off screen” in the story. Weird, but it worked.

In another case, I lost a short story and had to write it again from scratch. Then I found the original again. (Argh.) Guess what? The combination of the two–taking the best elements of each–was better than anything I would have reached by fiddling endlessly with that lost original. And the experience of writing a story twice and then comparing the two versions helped me understand it in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

You see, paper is magic: Making marks on it changes your brain. So, don’t sit around trying to think your way out of problems, write your way out of them. The best place to find answers is on a piece of paper or a glowing phosphorus screen.

Of course, thinking about writerly issues in the shower or while jogging is a fine habit to get into, because otherwise that’s just wasted time.* Please understand that I’m not against thinking; I’m only against thinking that thinking on its own will get you out of a hole. Shovel also needed.

*Except for the being hygienic and fit, which is somewhat useful.

So there’s my blast from the past. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s excellent tip from yesterday, and she’ll have tomorrow’s tip as well. I’ll be back on Saturday.

Ottowans and Toronto-ites, don’t forget to come see me, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare tonight and tomorrow night. We have buttons!

with special guest Keith Thompson,
illustrator of Leviathan

Thursday, November 5th 7:00PM
Chapters Rideau
47 Rideau Street,
Ottawa, Ontario

Friday November 6th 7:00PM
Trinity St. Paul’s United Church
427 Bloor Street West
(Because this is an off-site event, admission is five Canadian bucks. You can buy the tickets right here. You can also pay at the door, if there’s any room left!)

And over the weekend, I’ll be appearing on my lonesome back in NYC:

Sunday, November 8 1:00PM
Thalia’s Book Club
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre and Café
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway (at 95th Street)
New York, NY 10025

The Symphony Space series is aimed at young writers. There will be a discussion, a few slides, a short reading, and a creative writing prompt. Then lots of Q&A. I’ve never done one of these, but it sounds like a cool format. Go here to buy tickets.

Want a free ticket? Write me and say why, and I’ll see what I can do.

Click here for all my tour details. And click here to buy Leviathan.

Nano Tip #1: Dialog Spine

Sunday, November 1st, 2009


Welcome to Nano Tips, a month-long festival of writing tips from me and Justine. We’ll be posting daily, me on the odd-numbered days of November, and Justine on the even-numbered days. This is, of course, all in celebration of NaNoWriMo. (And I think you know what that is.)

So here’s my first tip: The Dialog Spine.

Many writers use the so-called “dialog spine” as a way of mapping out a scene. As a sort of “zero draft,” they write just dialog, with no setting, action, or even attribution. It’s a quick once-over of conflict and resolution in a scene, without any tricky bits to slow you down.

This, of course, assumes that you find dialog easy. For some people, writing the action/description/whatever first might make more sense. In any case, you don’t have to make your dialog (or whatever) perfect. It’s just a way of mapping out the main beats in a scene.

But there’s another trick that I use the dialog spine for: blowing out the cobwebs. And by cobwebs, I mean “writer’s block,” “general ennui,” or “an idea that just needs to be written down, but I don’t have time.”

For example, over the last three days I’ve had a small but persistent short story idea. Of course, I’m on tour and just about to start doing revisions on Behemoth, book two of Leviathan. I don’t have time to write a short story, but I want to get this idea down. Once I write the dialog spine, maybe I’ll realize that there’s not that much to it. Or at least it’ll be on paper and out of my busy, busy brain.

And occasionally, a dialog-only short story is a lovely thing on its own. This falls less into the “novel writing advice” category and more into “a weird writing exercise.” But it’s all useful. Quite often in the middle of a novel, it’s good therapy to write a simple short story.

So here are my personal rules to writing a Dialog Spine Story:

1) Only dialog. That’s it. Zero exceptions.
2) Only two characters speak. Other characters and their dialog may be implied, but their words do not appear on paper.
3) One character’s dialog uses quotation marks, the other doesn’t. (This saves fiddling with attribution, or spending a lot of time creating verbal ticks to tell the characters apart. Remember, the point of this is to be quick and dirty. Not astonishingly artful.)

So what do these stories look like? I thought you’d never ask.

Here’s one I did just yesterday, for Halloween:

Served Cold
By Scott Westerfeld
October 31, 2009

Mind if I sit down?

“Oh, my goodness.”

Sorry to surprise you.

“But you . . . ”

I know. You didn’t expect to see anyone in town today. Least of all me.

“No, I didn’t. But of course it’s wonderful to see you. Please.”

For heaven’s sake, don’t get up! Does that arm hurt much?

“They say it’ll be fine. It throbs in a bit, but I’m full of codeine. Can I get you anything . . . ? Ah. That’s probably a stupid question.”

No, it’s not. Coffee would be wonderful.

“Really? You’re not just making fun of me?”

I would never make fun of you. Anyway, I always liked the smell of coffee better than the taste.

“Yes, I remember that . . . Excuse me, waiter, but could I have a coffee, please?”

Tell him black.

“Black, please.”

You’re very kind.

“Well, it’s the least I can do.”

Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault, you know. Just one of those things.

“Really? I mean, that’s what the police said. It was the ice.”

And they were perfectly right. It isn’t safe on those small roads out of town. Goodness, is that gin I smell?

“Yes. A bit early, I suppose.”

But it’s been a long week, as you always say. And look, you’ve hardly touched your salmon. It looks quite cold.

“The salmon is served cold here. But yes, it’s slow, eating with one hand.”

Poor baby. I wish I could hold a knife. Ah, here’s my coffee. Do you mind pushing it across, please?

“Of course.”

Yes, that’s a lovely smell. It’s the little things, you know. Even now.

“I’ve always thought so. Not that I would know anything about . . . ”

No, you’ve no idea. There must be lots of questions you want to ask.

“Of course.”

Well, don’t be tongue tied.

“I suppose . . . the main thing is, is it good? Or is it horrible?”

Hmm. It’s melancholy, more than anything. Like not being invited to a party, and all your friends are there. Speaking of which, you were invited to the funeral, weren’t you?

“Of course.”

And it’s today.

“Yes. It’s just starting now, I suppose.”

Then why aren’t you there?

“Well . . . I could ask you the same thing, you know.”

Ha! I suppose you could. And I was going to go. But you know what they say. It’s not for me; it’s for them.

“Well, maybe I’m not one of them.”

Don’t be philosophical, darling. You are one of them. You’re only here in town because you’re afraid.

“Well . . . not afraid, exactly.”

Yes, exactly afraid. Afraid that everyone will stare. With that arm still in a sling, who could help staring? And they’d ask if it hurts, like I just did. Really, how awkward.

“I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. I told you, it wasn’t your fault. It was a patch of ice.

“Are you sure?”

About the ice? Yes. I took a good long look at it again this morning. It was back again, after melting in the sun yesterday! The roads are quite unsafe. Someone should do something.

“But there’s nothing I could have done, right?”

Well . . . perhaps there was one little thing.


If I’d been wearing my seatbelt, I’d be sitting here properly, wouldn’t I? Having cold salmon with you.

“You hate salmon, and you never bothered with seatbelts.”

I would have put mine on, if you’d asked me. I’d have done that for you.



“But it’s not as though . . . you’re eighteen, after all.”

Ah. You’ve been practicing that line, haven’t you?

“Don’t be crass.”

Sorry. But I was wondering if my parents had asked yet. About why we were out so late.

“No. They haven’t said anything.”

That means you’re in trouble, of course.

“Well, they’re still quite overwhelmed.”

No—you’re in trouble. Just look at you, sitting here all alone, pushing your lunch around with one hand. In trouble and drinking gin on top of your codeine.

“And missing you.”

And missing my funeral, you mean. The nerve of you. They’ll only talk more because you’re not there. It’s an admission of shame.

“I’m not ashamed.”

You were wearing a seatbelt.

“I . . . yes, I always do.”

And I’d have worn one if you’d asked. I did a lot of things for you.

“I know.”

Good. Then you’ll do something for me? One last thing?

“Of course.”

Go to my funeral.

“But . . . now?”

Yes, now. I know it’s already started, but funerals are always endless. Leave right away, and you’ll catch the main event. I want you to be there.

“I . . . I suppose I could still make it. Are you coming . . . with me?”

No, I’ll go ahead. But I’ll be beside you all the way, in spirit. Look, here’s the waiter.

“Check, please? Listen, I’m not quite sure your parents want me there.”

Of course they do. You’re their best friend! And I want you there, so steel yourself, darling. Here, finish your gin, that’s right. Look, he’s got your check already. Pay with cash, it’s quicker.

“All right. Don’t rush me.”

You’ll have to drive fast, won’t you?

“It’s rather tricky, with one hand. Do you really want this so much?”

More than anything. Please be there to watch them lower me. Don’t let me go down there alone.

“Of course. I promise I’ll be there. I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. It was just the ice. Just go.
. . .
Drive safely.

Mwa-hah-hah! Like I said, it’s a quick-and-dirty Halloween story.

Anyway, feel free to discuss what you think is going on in the comments. And behold the power of dialog!

On my next Nano Tip day, November 3, I’ll discuss this story in more detail.

And here’s Justine’s post with Nano Tip #2!

Sort of Update:
Almost forgot the obligatory click here for Leviathan tour details. And here to buy Leviathan.

The Importance of Titles

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

If judging a book by a cover is bad, then judging a book by its title must surely be worse. After all, covers are pictures, pictures are worth a thousand words, and titles are usually a mere phrase.

But it’s not that simple. Titles name a book, and names are important. A good name can make or break you.

Take, for example, the case of Ziz. Poor sad Ziz, of whom you have NEVER heard.

You see, there was once this trio of awesome creatures. All three were in the Bible [oops, see the update below], rocking out with special dispensations from Yahweh and generally kicking young earth ass. Three unbeatable giant beasties, one of the water, one of the land, and one of the air . . .

Leviathan, Behemoth, and, um, Ziz.


How bad is it to have a lame name? Well, thousands of years after their cameos in the Bible, Leviathan and Behemoth are still both famous. Their names are words in modern English, both meaning, “stuff that is big and awesome and/or scary.”

The word “Leviathan” appears in Moby-Dick, is the title of a famous work of philosophy and a movie, not to mention a record company and a comic strip.

“Behemoth” is equally culture-spanning, including this delightful Polish metal band. (Warning: high-volume flash intro Not Safe For School.)

But Ziz? Ziz has a crappy name, so the creature itself wound up fading into obscurity.

So if names are this important, surely titles are too.

Titles bring the reader into the world of the book. They set them up for what’s coming: comedy, tragedy, farce, or all three. They create inevitabilities (Death of a Salesman) and anticipations (The Year of Living Dangerously), or intensify the poetry of a key phrase (Dude, Where’s My Car?).

Even punctuation can be key. I mean, what if James Kelman’s classic novel How Late It Was, How Late, had been titled “How Late? It Was How Late?”

Totally different story, man.

Which brings us to my next trilogy, the first two books of which are called Leviathan and Behemoth. But seriously, can I call the third book, um, Ziz?

What do you guys think?

As CosmicDog points out in the delicious and insightful comments below, Ziz is not actually in the Bible, but is a part of Jewish folklore. Behemoth and Leviathan are both in the Book of Job (and Leviathan other places), so that part’s right. I got confused because they are frequently pictured together.

Does this mean my point fails? Or does this mean that Ziz has been double-dissed! First by being left out of the Bible, then by being generally forgotten!

Hairy Fruit

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

I haven’t done a writing advice post for a while, so here’s one for you.

Rambut = Indonesian for “hair”
Rambutan = a hairy fruit, common in Southeast Asia


These hairy eyeballs are one of the fruits that Justine and I like to gorge on while we’re here in Sydney, because you simply can’t find them in New York. (Or if by some chance you do, they’re both absurdly expensive and half rotten.)

How to describe the taste? Well, the only similar fruit available in the US is the lychee, but I never had fresh lychee until I came to Australia, and the canned ones suck. So the rambutan really is a new taste—less acid than citrus, sharper than melon, darker than pineapple.

Or maybe I shouldn’t use comparisons. Rambutans have their own flavor, so I should describe them in their own terms. And that means really tasting them, then thinking hard, then wondering for a while how words can even capture sensual experience. In other words, describing the hairy eyeball means really being a writer.

(Which also means maybe failing at being a writer.)

These little philosophical diversions are something I love about travel: Going new places reminds you how much bigger the world is than you thought. For every kind of fruit you’ve tried in your life, there are a dozen species you’ve never heard of. No, make that a hundred—there are thirty species of pears, for heaven’s sake.

And it’s not just food. For every kind of social celebration you can name, some culture somewhere has ten more that don’t fall into any of your familiar categories. For every kind of person you’ve met, there are probably dozens of other personality types out there, unknown and unexpected, walking around experiencing entirely different aspirations and fears than the ones you know so well. Even the human emotions we think of as universal and primal sometimes come in very different flavors.

“But all people love their children!” I can hear someone protesting in a whiny voice. Yeah, maybe, but talk about different flavors. In various times and places, people have loved their kids by crippling them, beating them to death, or selling them.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need a time machine or even a jet plane to experience difference. I’ll bet that some very different folks live just on the other side of your town, and for whatever reason (social, historical, economic, accidental) you’ve never met them.

Writers need to remember that. I mean, everyone needs to realize that their little sandbox is not the whole world (or a scale model of it, or in any way representative of it). But it’s especially important for writers to keep hitting ourselves over the head with reminders of this simple fact: The world is SO much bigger and humanity so much gnarlier and more complicated than we assume it to be.

And if we forget that, we wind up splicing ourselves and the few people we know best (in my case, college-educated white folks who geek out on sciencey/numbery stuff and music) into every scenario on the planet. We wind up turning this gigantic world into a small one, and wind up writing small books for small readers.

In other words, we become cowards.

(And for us science fiction writers it’s so much worse, because we’re flogging these same, lame photocopies in the distant future and across the universe. Our bigger canvas means a epically vaster Fail.)

So this is my writing advice for today: When the hairy eyeballs look your way, look back. Taste them, swallow them, deal with their weirdness. Then tell stories about them.

Otherwise you’ll suck, both at writing and at life.

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