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Dear Ally, How Do You Write a Book, Page 2

Ally Carter

  But one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Alias, had done a spy-with-amnesia story line not long before. So had The Bourne Identity. And a movie called The Long Kiss Goodnight. (And probably several others.)

  I was talking with my friend Jennifer Lynn Barnes, telling her how I really wanted to give my heroine amnesia but I couldn’t because Alias had already done it.

  “So?” Jen said.

  “So I don’t want to plagiarize all those other stories,” I told her.

  Then Jen said something that really made the pieces fall into place for me: “If you can name a half dozen stories that have already done it, then you aren’t plagiarizing any of them. You’re just writing a trope of the genre.”

  So, yes, read. Read a lot. Watch movies. Binge TV. Devour comic books. Get inspired. Get exposed to things you never knew existed or things you never knew you loved—that’s what reading is for! Then take your new love of boarding schools or magical swords or amnesia and write about them. Most important, make these tropes your own, and put your own spin on them. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where your inspiration comes from. It matters what you do with it.

  Authors hear questions like this a lot. There are so many teens out there who love writing and want to make a career of it—they want to make a career of it RIGHT NOW! And I can’t blame them. It is a great career.

  But so many teens want to jump right to the getting-published part (which is why I do tackle the “Will publishers take us seriously if we’re just teens?” question in the Publishing Your Book section a little later).

  I like how this question is worded, though: What is the right age to begin a publishing career? The answer is: Whatever age you are right now is the right age to start your career. Why? Because your career starts with writing.

  You can’t query an agent for a book you haven’t written. You can’t get a publisher for a book you haven’t written. You can’t promote or market or sell movie rights to a book you haven’t written. And writing a book that’s worth publishing takes time. Lots and lots of time. And practice. And heartbreak. And probably more than a few missteps and false starts.

  You might not get published in your teens, but that’s a great time to begin your career. It’s a great time to start writing!


  You were really young when you started writing—and publishing! What was that like, and do you have any advice for teens who are looking to do the same?

  My first novel, The DUFF, sold to a publisher when I was seventeen, right before I left for college. It was, of course, an incredibly exciting time in my life. I’d always dreamed of being a writer, and I was doing it! I was getting started in my career! It wasn’t all easy, though. Once I started college, I had both schoolwork and writing work to do. I had deadlines to meet while also trying to keep high grades so I could hold on to my scholarships.

  I didn’t sleep nearly enough, and I had almost no social life in college. Many times my friends would ask me to go out with them and I had to decline because I had work to get done. I missed out on a lot of college experiences because I already had a career that took up a lot of time and energy.

  I don’t regret pursuing publication young, but I do wish I’d been more prepared for what that meant. So when teenagers hoping to publish young ask me for advice, I always tell them to really consider what they are pursuing. Getting published isn’t just about getting a book on the shelf at your favorite bookstore. It’s a job. It takes a lot of time and energy and patience. Once you write a book, the work has only just begun. It’s not something to enter into without a lot of thought.

  My other piece of advice to teenagers who want to get published young is to just enjoy the work you’re doing. If you’re only writing to get published, you’ll kill your passion for it early. Once you sell a book, there’s a lot of pressure. There are edits and deadlines and all sorts of other work to be done. So before you get there, have fun. Enjoy drafting. Remind yourself every day why you love to write. Take risks and make mistakes and learn from them all. Don’t put pressure on yourself—the world will put enough on you as it is—and instead let writing be something that makes you happy. When you think you’re ready to pursue publication, go for it! But until then, let writing be the outlet that brings you joy, not an obligation.

  Maybe you’ll be published as a teenager, and maybe you won’t. It’s okay either way. What’s most important is that the first book you publish be one you love and are proud to have written.

  This might be the question that writers get most, which is why it’s more than a little embarrassing that I don’t have a solid, concrete answer for it. But that’s probably because inspiration’s not a solid, concrete kind of thing.

  Inspiration can come from anything—at any time.

  The idea for I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You came to me when I was watching an episode of the TV show Alias and I thought I was seeing a boarding school for spies—but it wasn’t. It was just a regular orphanage, and I was so upset because, by then, I was super excited about spy schools! So I decided to write one.

  Heist Society showed up when I was listening to an audiobook and there was a line about being “a cat burglar in my own house”—which made me want to write a book about a girl named Kat who was a burglar.

  My Embassy Row series was born from a librarian telling me that she was worried her son might go into the diplomatic service and then “my grandchildren will have to grow up in embassies all around the world.” That, of course, made me wonder what it would be like to grow up on a street where every building is, essentially, a different country—and Grace, my main character, started to take shape.

  Not If I Save You First, which is about the daughter of a Secret Service agent in a race to save her former best friend, the president’s son, came to me when I was on an Alaskan cruise and I looked out over about a million acres of wilderness without a single light and I thought, If you got lost here, there’s no way you could call 911.

  Ideas can come from things you hear or see, say or do. But most of all, I think they come from asking, “What if … ?”

  What if you went to a boarding school for spies?

  What if your dad was the best art thief in the world and all you wanted to do was steal a normal life?

  What if you grew up on a street where every house was, technically, a different country, and ticking off the neighbors could start World War III?

  What if you lived in one of the remote parts of Alaska and your best friend was kidnapped during the storm of the year?

  Think about the way things are, and ask, What if things were different? What if people were different? What if a rule or law or piece of science were different?

  Then see where your imagination takes you.

  What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  Shannon Hale Write for fun! Follow stories that thrill you or interest you or make you excited to sit down and work.

  You’re right. Most writers get ideas all the time—every day! And they aren’t all winners. From ideas for new books or series to options for how a plot could unfold, my brain is always swarming with options. And too many options can be paralyzing sometimes.

  So this is a big issue—one I’ll probably worry about for the rest of my career. After all, writing and publishing a book takes about a year for me. I don’t want to pick the wrong idea and regret it in six months. Or a year. Or twenty years! Authors get to write only a small percentage of the ideas that we get. So how do we pick the right ones?

  Here are a few of the things that I do to help me (hopefully!) pick well.

  1.SET IT ASIDE FOR A WHILE. I know those really great ideas grab you and make you want to dig in right now, but that’s not always possible. As a rule, any book idea that I’m still thinking about months or years later is probably an idea I should try to do something with.

  For example, I had the idea for All Fall Down, the first Embassy Row book, five ye
ars before I sold it. So for five years I thought, What if a girl grew up in an embassy? When the time came to write something new, I knew that one was probably the one to run with.

  2.TRY WRITING TWO OR THREE CHAPTERS. If after writing chapter 3 you can’t rest until you’ve written chapter 4, then you’ve probably got a winner. If, however, you’ve run out of steam and don’t really know where to go, maybe you don’t.

  3.TRY TO WRITE THE COVER COPY. You know, the stuff that’s on the back of a paperback or the inside flap of a hardback? That’s the part that’s supposed to tell the reader a little about the book they’ve picked up and get them excited about reading the whole thing.

  Years ago, I had a terrible writing experience—a book I struggled with for over a year. Later, I realized it was because I tried to write the book before I knew what would go on the back of the book—what the central conflict would be and what the character would be striving to achieve. I swore right then I’d never again start a book without knowing what would go on the back of the book … and that’s made all the difference!

  What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  Alan Gratz Keep an idea book! This isn’t where you write your stories—it’s a notebook where you write down all your crazy ideas for stories and all the writing advice you get from books and teachers.


  I know you, like most writers, get a ton of ideas. How do you decide which ones you actually want to write?

  Sometimes I feel like the most indecisive author ever! I have an entire file on my computer that’s stuffed with ideas. Some of them are one line long, and some are 20,000 words long. In terms of figuring out which ideas I want to stick with, it almost always comes down to the fact that I can’t stop thinking about the world and the characters. I itch to get to the computer in the morning, and even if I’m frustrated with the plot, or don’t know what happens next, I’m still excited about the story. Unlike a lot of authors, I usually don’t know how a story will end when I start drafting it, so if I want to find out what happens, I have to finish writing the book—lol.

  Very early in my career, I was trying to figure out what book to work on for NaNoWriMo, and my husband suggested I write what I love. At the time, I was fascinated by zombies but it was 2006 and no one was very interested in zombies. There wasn’t really a market for them, and I felt like it would be a waste of time to write a book that obviously wasn’t going to sell. Then, while walking home from work one night, the first line of a book popped into my head. When I got home I started writing. I stopped caring about the market, because suddenly I was writing the book I wanted to read. This was a book for me, and it was my own desire to see what happened that pushed me to finish it. I’m glad I did because that became The Forest of Hands and Teeth—my first published book.

  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the “write what you know” school of wisdom because I think this advice is easily misunderstood.

  When I was a teen, I knew what it was like to go to school and church and family events. I knew what it was like to have friends and worry about my grades. My life was pretty boring and probably wouldn’t have been interesting to anyone who wasn’t me.

  So, good stories can’t be about average, everyday things? NO! Not at all. People write amazing stories about super-common things all the time, but … (and this is the important part) … they always have an uncommon take on the common occurrence.

  In other words, those stories all have higher-than-usual stakes. They have more than an average amount of conflict. They have big issues or questions or challenges that are, by definition, heightened. These stories are always a little bit “more” than what the average person sees in their average life. That’s why those stories are more interesting than just reading someone’s diary or journal.

  In short, at some point every novelist has to make things up.

  Where the “write what you know” advice is true, I think, is when we think about feelings and emotions and world. We should all strive to write books that feel real to the reader, and especially when you’re starting out, that might be most easily done by writing things that are actually real to you.

  So, yes! Pull from your experiences of what it feels like to be betrayed or embarrassed or heartbroken. Take a reader into a house or street or school that maybe they’ve never seen before.

  But don’t forget it doesn’t do you any good to brilliantly describe your school or a dance competition or summer camp if nothing happens while we’re there.

  Most of all, make your readers feel. Give your characters conflict, and make sure they have something at stake. And don’t feel bad if your life story isn’t the stuff of great novels—most people’s aren’t. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t experiences and emotions and observations around you every day that would make your novel a whole lot better.

  What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  Sarah Rees Brennan Nobody can write the books you’re meant to write but you.

  Well, think about it this way: You wouldn’t want to spend months or even years of your life writing in a genre you don’t enjoy, would you?

  But it’s also okay to have stuff that you read just for fun. In fact, when I’m writing a YA, I tend to read other things (historical romance being my favorite) because it helps me get out of my own head and not compare what I’m writing to what I’m reading.

  In fact, I firmly believe that writers (especially young or beginning writers) should read as much as possible and as widely as possible.

  Maybe you love reading YA fantasy novels. That’s great, but don’t stop there. Read sci-fi and contemporary, too. Read adult romance and nonfiction. Read plays and biographies, mysteries and thrillers. Watch a lot of TV and movies while you’re at it.

  Then sit down to write the story that uses the stuff you picked up along the way. The more you read, the more tools you’re going to have in your tool belt. Don’t worry so much about setting out to write an [insert genre here] story. First and foremost, focus on writing a good story.

  What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  Stephanie Perkins Learn how to read books like a writer—pull them apart, inspect their seams, see how they function.

  I didn’t set out to be a young adult author. In fact, when I started writing, YA fiction certainly didn’t look like it does today. So, in the beginning, I just wanted to write. And I think most published authors are the same way.

  Sometimes you might write a whole book thinking you’re writing for kids, just to have a publisher decide it would be better off as an adult book. Some books, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Book Thief, might be published as an adult book in one country and a YA book in another. In many ways, deciding whether a book is adult or YA can be a marketing decision as much as—or even more than—a creative decision.

  So I’m not sure it’s something you should really worry about yet. For now, just focus on writing the best book you possibly can. The other stuff will work itself out in the long run.

  What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  Maggie Stiefvater Write the book you wish you could find on the shelf but can’t.

  First of all, you’re right to ask about word count rather than page count since the number of pages in a novel can vary widely, depending on font, margins, whether the author uses short or long paragraphs—a bunch of different factors. So when you talk about the length of your work, always talk about word count, and you’ll be one step ahead of the game.

  Secondly, this is one of those questions where the answer is going to vary. Widely.

  Personally, my books probably average about 65,000 words, but that is by no means the “right” length.

  A lot of really amazing books come in shorter than that. A ton of really amazing books come in longer.

  The only thing you need to remember is that your book should be the number of words it needs to be. No more. No less.

  In some w
ays, the genre you’re writing in is going to impact that. It’s generally accepted that sci-fi and fantasy (or any book with a lot of detailed world building) will be on the longer end of the spectrum (though that isn’t necessarily always true).

  It’s also going to be a function of your voice. Years ago, I was talking with my friend Carrie Ryan. We were comparing physical copies of our books one day, and we realized that they had almost exactly the same number of pages, but her book was tens of thousands of words longer. How could that be? Well, I started looking at the pages themselves. My book had a lot of dialogue and very short paragraphs, which meant there was a lot more white space on each page.

  Carrie’s voice, however, is much richer and more lyrical, and her book had much longer paragraphs and a lot less white space on the page.

  So that’s how you get a much longer book that is the same number of pages.

  How long your book is will also depend on how big your cast is and how much time your book spans.

  Are you writing about a family of six witches, covering a hundred years? Or are you writing about a boy and a girl who get locked in after school one day and are stranded in the huge, abandoned building overnight?

  The size of your book will also depend on the size of your characters’ goals. After all, in a lot of ways, a plot is like a character’s to-do list. The more your character has to do, the more words it will probably take to do it.

  Word count will also vary a lot based on the age group you’re writing for. A picture book will be shorter than a middle grade novel, which will often be shorter than YA or adult fiction. (Though not always.)

  So it really, truly varies. I don’t want anyone to get hung up on a certain number, but there are some ranges that generally mean certain things to people in the publishing industry. Writer’s Digest, for example, gives the following breakdown: