Writing Excuses

Hey, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve blogged. I plead tour exhaustion. But here are things for you to listen to and look upon!

For the listening, while on tour I did two long interviews with Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast on the craft of writing.

The first interview is appropriate to the Leviathan series, because it’s all about the visual components of writing. Maps, diagrams, character sketches, floor plans, and full-blown illustrations—all those things writers create to help them visualize the world of their books. (And for those of you who are visual learners, or who hate the sound of my voice, here’s the transcript.)

The second interview is more generally about steampunk, the subgenre of which I am now the resident expert/bore (but not high priestess, waah). Listen here or check out the transcript.

And now for things to look at. As I’ve toured, I’ve talked a lot about the books that inspired me to make Leviathan series illustrated: the 1910s-30s teen novels that had cool pictures in them. But I didn’t make a point of showing examples to my audiences, and I haven’t put any here on my blog. This seems like an oversight.

So here from my research bookshelf, recorded by my iPhone with craptastic lighting, are a couple of these inspirations.

First is A Trip to Mars, both the cover and an interior illustration:



And here’s the cover and illustration from the glorious “boy’s own adventure,” A Trip to Mars.



Note the similarities and differences from Keith’s work. Some of the stiffness of Edwardian illustration is visible in these, and the caption on A Trip to Mars could totally go in Leviathan. The spilling off the frame isn’t present here, and these are in color, which is interesting. But the spirit of them is, I think, the same.

Also, you can see that Keith is much better than these old-fashioned dudes. Seriously.

But I will admit that, whether they’re pen names or not, Captain F.S. Brereton and Fenton Ash are the most awesome author names in history. Evar.

Okay, I’m about to transit hemispheres, so there may be another long pause in my blogging. But thanks for dropping by, and thanks again to all of you who made my tour so much fun.

Ciao for now.

Nano Tip #27: Word Clouds

We all have words we love too much.

Maybe for you it’s something fancy, like “effulgent” or “apodictic,” or something sillier, like “smellypants.” And because we love these words, we will use them too often, until our readers begin to snicker quietly at us.

But those big, obvious words are easy to spot. We’ll whack them in the second draft. And even if we fail to do so, our friends will probably slap us the fiftieth time they encounter the word “prognosticate.”

It’s the little overused words that kill us, that quietly undermine our text without us ever noticing.

My big overused word was once “just,” as an adverb. “He was just happy to see you.” “She was just standing there.” It cropped up everywhere. After this was pointed out to me by a wise editor, I went through an entire novel, deleting it everywhere it didn’t completely change the meaning of the sentence. That cured me.

But how could I be sure that there weren’t other overused words mucking up my manuscript?

Then I discovered the word cloud.


“Word clouds” are graphic representation of the words in a text, scaled by how many times each word occurs. You’ve probably seen then in blog sidebars and Amazon listings. They’re software-generated, and therefore reveal common words that humans might overlook. (Though the software ignores super-common words like “the” and “a” automatically.) They’re also a great place to start when you begin work on your second draft.

This is what the word cloud for my latest novel, Leviathan, looked like after my first draft:

Lev wordmap
generated by the excellent Wordle.net software

As you can see, my two main character names, Alek and Deryn, are the biggest words by far.

Now, you can use word clouds to check relative importance of character names in your text, but I’m not interested in that here. (Alek is a bit bigger, but only because Deryn often goes by other names, like “Dylan” or “Mr. Sharp.” So no surprises there.) So let’s check for any overused little words.

The first thing that seems to be dominating is “eyes.” That may mean I’m relying too much on eyes for emotional cues, which could get boring. I definitely checked that as I worked on the second draft.

“Looked” is also a bit big, and got some scrutiny, I’m sure. If your characters are spending a lot of time looking at things, you probably got lazy at some point.

I also would have taken a search-pass on the word “voice,” which is often used as a shortcut to convey emotion. Too many phrases like “said Scott in a strained voice” is not a good sign.

“Feet,” “head,” and “hands,” are all big, but they’re all equal, so that doesn’t bother me as much. It’s a very physical book, after all, with lots of jumping and grabbing, and whacking of heads.

Note that I’m also ignoring interesting words, like “engines,” “walker,” and “hydrogen.” Those are just part of the world I’m writing about—airships and walking machines. I’d be worried if some cool words like that didn’t show up big.

See how it works? One glance at a word cloud can make all the difference.

To create your own word cloud, just copy and paste your entire text into this text field here at Wordle.net. Enjoy!

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the last two remaining even-numbered days. See you on the 29th with my final entry!

Nano Tip #25: Read It Backwards

This is my ante-penultimate Nano Tip, so you must be nearing the end of your fantabulous NaNoWriMo novel. Soon you’ll need to read the whole thing over with an editorial eye, polishing every sentence for sparkling clarity.

But how to concentrate on mere clauses and word choice while your amazing story is sweeping you along in its wake? How can you focus on all those pesky details when your characters are bleeding heroically onto the page?

Three words: Read it backwards.


Reading through a novel in reverse order is an old trick used by many writers. It’s like when an optometrist covers up one of your eyes to test the other. You’re covering up your “story eye” to bring grammar, spelling, and sentence structure into focus.

So what do I mean by “reading backwards”? Do you literally read the last word of your novel, then the one before that, then the one before that until you get to the beginning?

Well, that depends on what you want to concentrate on. Reading in reverse word order would bring spelling errors into sharp relief, but would probably also break your brain. No one I know does that.

A more feasible strategy is reading in reverse paragraph order. That serves to isolate sentences and word choices, without the drama of the scene pulling you past mistakes. On the other hand, if you read in reverse chapter order, you’ll be focused on the structure of individual scenes.

See how it works? The larger the unit you use for your reverse reading, the more “pulled back” you are from each level of writerly technique. But it’s up to you to discover which kinds of reverse reading are helpful for you.

Another reading-out-of-order technique I’ve used is to look at all the scenes in which a certain character appears, just to make sure they stay consistent.

Warning: if you start to get a headache, stop for a while before continuing. But don’t worry. It’s just like your first non-flipped manga; your brain will adapt eventually. That’s what it’s good at.

That’s it for today! Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the even-numbered days of November. See you on the 27th.

Nano Tip #23: Change Your Brain

So . . . you’re more than two-thirds done with NaNoWriMo, and maybe you’re starting to crumple a bit. Your dialog sounds forced, your action scenes are flat, and your plot twists have all turned to spaghetti. What can you do to break out of this slump?

Here’s my tip for the day: change your brain!

“Um, what now?” you may ask. Allow me to explain . . .


This tip was inspired by a recent article in the journal Brain and Cognition, about how traffic levels between the two hemispheres of your brain affects thinking. Researchers found that any activity that promoted neural cross-talk in test subjects also promoted creativity.

In other words, if you can get the two halves of your brain talking, you’ll be more likely to find inspiration. And it’s easier than you think.

(A quick note before I go on: most of the right-brain, left-brain stuff people repeat is total rubbish. There isn’t a “creative lobe” on one side of your head and an “analytical lobe” on the other. Both sides of your brain perform both analytic and creative tasks. The key here is to make them talk to each other.)

In this study, the subjects moved their eyes back and forth along a horizontal axis, like when you’re watching a tennis match. (Or a really boring game of Pong.) After thirty seconds of eye exercise, the subjects gained about ten minutes’ worth of improved scores on various creativity tests.

So if you need a quick hit of creativity, try looking from right to left for thirty seconds and see what happens.

Of course, you can’t move your eyes back and forth every ten minutes of your writing day. That would be dizzying and tedious. So how do you keep your creativity levels high for, say, all of November?

Luckily, there’s evidence that you can improve cross-talk levels (and thus creativity) on a permanent basis, simply by pretending that you’re left handed.

Here’s the thing: left-handed and ambidextrous subjects had no benefit from the eye movements in this study. In fact, in some studies lefties and ambies seem to get stupider after cross-talk exercises. Many scientists think that’s because lefties and ambies already operate at an optimal level of cross-talk, generated by the fact that the world is designed for right-handed people.

That’s right, all those rightie-baised scissors make lefties more creative.

Or to say it another way, being challenged by the world wires your brain for creativity!

So here’s my exercise for you today: Pretend you’re left handed. Open doors, eat, and mouse with your left hand for a day or so. You’ll be promoting cross-talk in your brain, and rewiring yourself for creativity. It may feel weird, but it should give your creative juices a boost.

And for those of you who are already left-handed or ambidextrous? Hey, you don’t need my help. You’re already creative geniuses! (Or rather, you’re already operating at optimal cross-talk levels, so you’ll have to find some other trick to make yourself smarter. Sorry!)

That’s it for today! Don’t forget to check out Justine’s posts on the even-numbered days of November. See you on the 25th.

Nano Tip #21: Writers Re-read

Being a writer should change your daily life. You should scan the newspaper for story ideas, deconstruct old fairy tales in the shower, and eavesdrop shamelessly in the name of dialog development.

And being a writer should also change the way you read.


The next time you read a scene that makes your socks roll up, make yourself stop and learn.

Even if it interrupts your readerly pleasure, take a moment to wonder. How did the author just make you cry? Which elegant phrase or shameless trick jerked those tears from you? At what point in that action scene did your heart start pounding? What was the exact moment that you went from hating this character to liking them?

One of your jobs as a writer is to take novels apart and see how they work. Don’t go for the easy enjoyment of letting the words wash over you. Instead analyze and nitpick. Get your hands dirty.

Writers re-read.

Okay, I’m off to NCTE in Philly, so that’s it for today! Many amazing writers and I will be doing a benefit for the Philadelphia Free Library summer reading program while we’re there. 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

Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips. See you in two days!

Nano Tip #19: Read Out Loud

If you ever take a linguistics class, you will hear this catechism from the first day on:

1) Speech is primary.

2) Speech is universal among human cultures, and separates us from other animals.

3) Speech is innately acquired-–-unlike writing, which is a skill that must be learned.

4) Therefore speech (not writing) is the primary material for linguistic study.

Yes, dear NaNoWriMor-ers, writing is important. But speech is the bee’s knees. So when you want to measure your burgeoning novel against a basic human yardstick, read that sucker out loud.


Every week or so, Justine and I read aloud to each other the last few chapters of whatever books we’re writing. We like to entertain each other, but we do have one important rule: the reader is allowed to stop at any time to fix a lousy sentence, even if it leaves the listener hanging.

We’ve found this practice extremely useful for the following reasons:

1) When you read aloud, pacing issues become readily apparent.

2) It is physically impossible to read a crappy sentence without flinching.

3) Reading dialog aloud prevents unintentional hilarity.

3) Drafts are easier to share when no one can see your crappy punctuation and spelling. (In early drafts, you often don’t care about such details yet.)

5) Non-verbal responses like laughter and gasps are invaluable.

6) Novel writing is a lonely process with extremely long lag-times for feedback. Storytelling has the advantage of instantaneous feedback.

7) Loving to tell stories is why we got into this racket.

So the next time you’re stuck, consider finding a friend and reading aloud to them. Surprisingly, a stuffed animal works almost as well, because it’s not the listening that changes everything, it’s the talking.

Speech is primary.

You can still read my chat with Naomi Novik here at Suvudu.com. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s post from yesterday, about avoiding stereotypes, and her new one tomorrow. See you in two days!

Nano Tip #17: Make Writing a Habit

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 #13: Pace Charts

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

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.