Ally’s advice for new writers

Last week you guys asked writing questions. This week I’m trying to provide writing answers.

In reading through all of the comments I found that, as usual, we had a lot of repeated questions dealing with…

-Writer’s block

-Character

-Organization

-The writing process

-Inspiration/dedication (which can often overlap with writer’s block)

When I went away to college and had to start cooking for myself, I would frequently call home and ask my mom for recipes. Now, my mom is a GREAT cook, but I soon learned that she has very few recipes. Especially for the dishes she makes all the time.

“How do you make chili?” I would ask.
“Oh, you know. You brown some ground beef, and then you make it,” Mom would say.

It’s not that my mom didn’t want me to make delicious chili for myself, it’s that she didn’t follow any sort of formula. She used what she had on hand and she played it by ear. Every batch of chili was a tiny bit different. She just…made chili.

Now, after years of cooking myself, I do the exact same thing.

I thought about this a lot when reading through your questions. So much of writing is just practice. You just sit down…and write. No formula. No rules. You learn by doing.

So do.

The other thing I noted is that A LOT of you had questions about making yourself write.

“I started a book but I don’t want to work on it….”
“I want to write but I can’t find the time….”
“I think a book would impress a college, but I don’t want to write one….”
Etc. Etc.

Okay. Tough love time: writing is a business. It is hard work. It is a job. And right now it is a job that you are not contractually obligated to do. So if you don’t have a burning desire to do it…THAT IS OKAY.

A lot of readers think they should also want to be writers. And, okay, being a writer is fun.

You know what sucks? Writing.

So I’m not going to tell you how to make yourself do it. If you aren’t chomping at the bit to do it, then maybe that is because it’s not what you are supposed to do. At least not now.

AND THAT IS OKAY!

Now…to your questions:

 

What is the publishing process? Just out of curiosity, what did you have to go through after editing?
As soon as Editor David and I are done working on Embassy Row people will continue to work on the book. It will go to a copyeditor who will proofread it for typos. Then it will be typeset to LOOK like a book. Then Scholastic will begin the promotion and marketing process. At that point my biggest responsibility will be writing Embassy Row 2.

 

Have you ever felt unconfident about your writing?
In my opinion, to be a writer is to be constantly unconfident in your writing. Truly. I know a lot of writers. And we all feel like it is just a matter of time until we are shown to be the frauds we are.

 

What methods do you use to plan out your books?
I have written about my entire process here. In this post. It is very long and very detailed and hopefully very helpful.

 

Do you think it’s a good idea for teens to get published when they’ve taken the time to edit and revise, and done their homework on publishing?
I cannot and will not try to tell you what is best for you. That is between you and your parents. But I can say that if one of my nieces had a book that they had been working on for years and that she was really proud of, then I would be really proud of her for having worked so hard on something for so long. I also would not push her to try to get it published.

Even if it was good. Even if it was really, really good.

Why? Because publishing is a business, and it’s brutal, and I would much rather the teen girls I care about spend that time in their lives being teenagers.

Not the only answer! But it is my honest answer. Publishing will always be there. They have the rest of their lives to have jobs.

 

How do you decide what goes in your synopsis and for the back cover of your book? In other words, how do you highlight what will happen in the plot but keep from giving away spoilers?
If you are writing back cover copy for potential readers to use you want to make sure you hook them with the premise and the plot and just a bit about the characters. But you’re right in that the big plot twists should remain a secret.

But if you’re writing a synopsis for a potential editor or agent to read then you DO want to include the whole plot, spoilers and all. The people who are looking to hopefully acquire the book need to know what they’re buying. And they need to be able to read it very quickly.

 

How hard is it to create your books “universe”. I know it is all set in the present day, but there is something’s you have to come up with. It that hard?
All novelists have to do some degree of world-building. Even if they aren’t creating a high fantasy world with really complex rules of magic or a dystopian society with a complicated backstory about how the government became evil.

Yes. I write in the (mostly) real, present-day world. But Gallagher isn’t like a normal school. So I had to ask myself how and why it was different. If a school like that really existed, then who would mow the grass and do the laundry and teach the classes and decide who can attend and who can’t?

For Embassy Row, we are in a real place (Europe), but in a fake city and country. So why does that city exist? Where is it? What is its economy like? Why was it founded there? Does it carry a lot of weight in global politics and, if so, why?

So, really, it’s about asking questions. It is about asking questions until that universe becomes real.

 

How much dialogue should a story have in general?
However much it needs. It depends on the story and the genre and, most of all, your voice. This is one of those things that you won’t know until you know. And it is impossible for somebody else to tell you.

 

You know how the slow parts of a book where you get to know the characters and not much is going on- are the really important parts because that’s what makes you love the characters so much? How do you get yourself to write those parts and not just skip to the action packed romantic exciting scenes?
Well, I happen to be of the opinion that you should cut out all the boring parts. True, not every scene should be a fight scene. Or a making out scene. But if there is a scene in your book you would rather skip over than read, then you should probably cut that scene. Or at least make it accomplish three or four things.

A lot of beginning writers labor under the illusion that you need a scene that shows the character and a scene that advances the plot and another scene that introduces the world and…

Fooey. I say you need one scene that does all of those things.

 

Recently, I’ve found that I really like the pacing of my stories at the beginning but that they slow down when I reach the middle. My question for you is, how do I keep my story interesting and energized during the sagging middle?
First of all, almost everyone hates middles. Second of all, shorten it up. I used to really actively try to stretch out my books because I felt like they needed to fit into some sort of mold. They don’t. So if you don’t have exciting stuff happening then maybe you don’t need those scenes at all. Chances are you don’t.

 

If someone doesn’t have too much time to write due to other activities (Sports, school, homework…etc), what would you say to them to help motivate them to write during that time?
You shouldn’t write because you have a lot of free time on your hands. You should write because you can’t NOT write. If it is something you don’t have the time to do, that is okay. It really is. I hear from a lot of teens that they don’t have time or a good idea or motivation or the desire to write. AND THAT IS OKAY. All that means is that maybe writing isn’t something you should be doing right now. You can always do it later. Or you can enjoy other activities. It doesn’t have to be something that every person who likes to read aspires to do.

 

When do you come up with the ending of a book? Is before you begin?
See the above re: my process.

 

How do you make the characters in your story believable?
You should always think about your characters as if they are real people. For secondary characters it can sometimes help to write a scene from their point of view–even if you don’t need it. You need to get comfortable in everybody’s head and think about everything from their perspective.

If they don’t feel real to you, then they won’t feel real to anybody else.

 

I guess that you most of the time have more than one idea in your head – how do you choose which one to write next?
It is important to do one idea at a time–especially when you’re starting out. As soon as the writing get hard (and it WILL) you will have another idea that you think sounds so much funnier and more exciting than the book you’ve been working on. Do not switch. Stick with it. Otherwise you will never have a finished book to show for all your work.

How do I decide what to do? Usually I run a few ideas by my friends and my agent and sometimes my editor. Also, there is usually an idea that haunts me more than the others–one I can’t get out of my system until I write it.

Embassy Row has been in my system for six years.

 

Do you keep your ideas in a notebook or in your head?
I do have notebooks for each book where I write down random things, but the big ideas I don’t have to write down really. Generally speaking, if the idea is GREAT then I won’t forget it. That is usually a sign it really is a great idea.

 

When you write a novel do you start from beginning to end or write different parts the piece it all together?
My process.

 

I know that a lot of authors know their characters really really well. I have heard that that J K Rowling had notebooks on Harry and others. But when I write stories I don’t really know my characters that well and when I try to “get to know them” I don’t really get anything….. Is that just something that comes with practice?
Every writer is different. Every book is different. For me, I know some things about the characters when I start, but I don’t know them nearly as well as I do when I finish. That is just something that comes with time.

 

How many hours a week do you spend writing? What tips do you have for ignoring daily distractions?
I write by inertia. When I’m at work I stay at work. When I’m at rest I stay at rest. This week I will probably write at least 60 hours. I only wish I were more efficient with that time.

 

After you finish a draft, who do you let read it? Only editors, family etc.?
My editor is almost always my first reader, followed by a few very trusted friends and then my mother (she is my #1 proofreader.)

 

When you get in a really bad writing block, do you take a break from the story or just push through it until it passes?
I almost always take a break, step away. Take a nap. See a movie. Call Jen Barnes. Or talk to my editor. That is usually the order in which I try things.

 

If you know where you want to go with the plot line of a story, but don’t know how to get there, is it better to write out the scenes you plan to include or is it better to just wait until you get there in the plot line of your writing?
My process.

 

My question is how do you decide how much of the facts (names of towns, names of famous people, etc) in the universe of your story are true and how much are fiction?
It can be whatever you want it to be. Or whatever it needs to be. This is, again, one of those things that WILL NOT have an answer. It will vary with every author and every book. You just have to roll your sleeves up and try stuff until you figure it out.

 

How do you find the perfect title and cover for your book?
For titles, I think about it a lot. I mean for weeks or even years. Sometimes, though, the perfect title just pops into your head. Sometimes you make lists of hundreds of titles and quiz everyone you know about which one is their favorite. It’s not science. It’s not art. It’s alchemy (to paraphrase my brilliant film agent Kassie Evashevski).

For the covers, luckily that isn’t up to me. My publisher does that and I am very glad to be free of the responsibility.

 

How do you start a book? I have the characters, setting and plot but I just don’t know where to start writing and similarly how do you write parts that don’t have directly to do with the main conflict?
Tell yourself this: computer files are free. Paper is cheap. There is no harm whatsoever in writing something you eventually cut. NONE. As someone (not me, though I can’t remember who) once said “Don’t get it right; get it written.” No go forth and write.

 

How do you sound like a guy in your books?
Writing is about putting yourself in situations and…well…bodies where you’ve never been before.

I’ve never robbed a museum in London. I’ve never broken into a Top Secret CIA facility or been tortured by terrorists. I have never had amnesia.

But it is my job to imagine what a person must feel like in each of those situations. It is my job to imagine being a million different people–including guys.

 

Whenever you get compliments for your work, you tend to worry about the next work and whether it will meet or beat the standards of readers. Do you keep that in mind while writing, and if you do how do you make sure it is better than your previous work.
As much as you want each book to be good, you want your next book to be BETTER. That is part of the business. Or maybe it is more a part of me. But, you’re right. It is hard. And it is just one more way in which I try to keep myself motivated.

 

Did you take any classes in school that you feel helped you with your writing?
No. I really didn’t. I had to take basic English in high school. Plus, my mother is an English teacher so grammar was drilled into me from a very early age. But I never took any classes on how to write books. I learned how by 1. reading a lot and 2. writing a lot.

 

How do you organize when your writing?
My process.

 

Would you recommend teen writers start posting their stories on wattpad or other websites like it? Especially if they want to turn the hobby into a career at some point in their lives?
I honestly know nothing about being an unpublished writer on the internet. Fanfiction. Wattpad. That stuff either didn’t exist or existed so far away from my radar that it might as well have not existed for me. So, in short, I don’t know. I do know that writing is good. And if having a following or a community on a place like Wattpad makes you write, then I guess that is good.
But do be sure and read the fine print of any website you may post to. You want to make sure that you maintain sole ownership over your work. Don’t ever give anyone your copyright.

Do you organize the plot on something like an outline before writing? Or do you just get a general idea of what you want and let the characters run wild?
My process.

What does it take to get your book published and out there?
I’ve written extensively about this many times. This post is a good place to start. Also by searching here (especially the For Writers tab in the sidebar.)

 

Do you have any advice on developing one small idea into a more complex plot?
Make the stakes bigger.
Make the stakes more personal.

Comments

  1. You probably wont see this, but THANKS ALLY. I asked the question about the boring scenes and action scenes being important. I think id known that but never really thought about it that way-about having that scene do all of the above. So I think that was really good pointer for me! So if you see this- thanks!

  2. Hi Ally and everyone!

    It’s always interesting to read your answers, Ally! And thank you for answering my questions!! ;) I totally agree with you that the most important thing is to write – even if it doesn’t start out well, you will get better with practise!

    The best writing advice I’ve ever read comes from Meg Cabot: “Sit down. Start a story. Finish it. Put it aside. Start another one. Now, you’re a writer.” It’s basically as simple as that.
    Dog trainer Caesar Millan can also be quoted here: “Don’t try it, do it!” I don’t always follow that wisdom but I try!

    I have stopped reading books about how to write books, because it’s better if I spend that time writing! So good luck to all the future writers here!!!

    Lots of love to you all from Gabriella in Sweden :)

  3. circlechaser999 says:

    Thank you for all these tips! I’m printing them out and hanging them on my wall.

  4. Thanks so much Ally! I had one of the questions about the writers block. It really helped knowing that taking a break from it is what I’ve been needing to do! LOVE LOVE your books!

  5. I saw you mentioned fanfiction in this post and I was wondering: do you think that a fanfiction writer should put as much effort, time, and research into a story as an author would put into a book they had published?

  6. Sabina G says:

    Thanks Ally, this will really help! :)

  7. Thanks so much for all of this! I love to write and I really look to you as a sort of “role model” for writing if that makes sense. I don’t know if you already answered this but how did you get into writing and get your first book published? Also I guess this falls under writing block but what do you do when you can’t figure out how to express something(like I kind of don’t know how to express this question) how do you find a way to say it. Sorry if this doesn’t make sense.

  8. Thank you so much, this was all a huge help!!! I just had a reread of Heist Society and I love it!! Can’t wait to read more of your books.

  9. Hi, my problem is that I am almost finished with a story that needs tweaking, but so far it is only a little over a hundred pages. I don’t want it to go on and on, but a novel should probably be longer. Any advice?

  10. I read a lot, and i love your books, and a lot of people have said that i am a great writer, but every time i start a story i never finish it. Now i’ve started fanfiction (about GGs of course) but even now i haven’t posted in a few days. I’m not sure if that means i’m forcing myself to write or if i’m just to scared to continue. Do you have any idea how to help me with this?

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