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Meg's Blog

More on Writing

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So I don't get what the deal is, but I have been getting TONS of emails asking for writing tips lately. I pretty much said everything I have to say on the subject in the November 2003 archive here.

But since people don't seem satisfied by that, I will attempt to answer the following requests for advice on writing, with the caveat that I, like you, don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing, and that I didn't study writing in school or anything like that. I just happen to be published, and you haven't (yet). But really, that's the only difference between us.

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I need some help from you! Several times I've tried to start off stories, because I want to become a writer too, but I can never seem to get past a beginning. It's horrible! Somedays I have this awesomely random writing inspiration, and then 20 minutes later it's gone! So my question is: What should I do to try and continue a story without completely forcing it's continuation into something that is poorly written?
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Um, if all of us writers waited until we got “awesomely random writing inspiration” to write our stories, there would be no stories. Very little of writing is about the “awesomely random writing inspiration” to do it. Most of it is about “completely forcing it's continuation.” In other words, um, sitting your butt in a chair and writing. I don't know a single author who is like, “Oh, I am so inspired, it is just flowing from my fingers all day long.” Instead, we are like, “This sucks, I hate it, why won't someone shoot me? I wish I were dead. What's for dinner?” all day long.

But this doesn't mean, because we are “forcing” ourselves to write, that what comes out is poorly written. I am forcing myself to write MOST days, and I doubt you could tell which parts of my story I enjoyed writing and which parts I didn't.

My advice to you is that if you get an “awesomely random writing inspiration,” write it down as quickly as you can, before it's gone, then go back LATER and make it all nice and pretty and flesh it out and add adjectives or whatever. This isn't FORCING anything. It's just writing.

FYI, one of my favorite authors, Anne La Mott, has a great book on writing called BIRD BY BIRD, which, if you want to be a writer, you must read. Anyway, in this book, she calls this phenomenon of just pouring everything out in a big initial burst of writing, not worrying about making it nice or pretty or even proper English, as creating “shitty first drafts” (her words, not mine, no letters of complaint, please).

There is nothing wrong with an “shitty first draft” if you go back later and fix it up. We ALL write them.

Only the truly dedicated are brave enough to go back in and turn their manuscripts from a “shitty first draft” to a totally great book.

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Dear Meg
Sometimes I just don't FEEL like writing. What do you do when this happens?
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Well, when this happens to me, I can tell you what I DON'T do: I don't take the day off. If you worked at McDonald's and one day you didn't feel like going to work, would you call in and be like, “Yeah, I don't feel like going to work today, so see you tomorrow”?

No. You would not. Because you'd be fired.

Writers can't take the day off if they are on a deadline. Trust me, no one will be able to tell the difference, either. I mean, of your writing on the days you FELT like doing it, and the days you didn't.

My question to you would be, unless you're getting paid to do it, why DON'T you take the day off from writing if you want to? You only live once! Enjoy!

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i write stories too. allot. but after about page 16 i get board of the storyline. either that of i think no one else would like it. what should i do? he longes story i have ever abandoned was 60 pages. HOW DO I KEEP ON ONE STORLINE AND MAKE A GOOD BOOK?!!!!
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There is nothing wrong with abandoning a story after page 16. I do that ALL the time. All that means is that the story wasn't the right one for you at this time. Maybe you'll go back to it and finish it later. Maybe you'll think of a better story and finish that one instead.

Here's my question for you: Why are you putting so much pressure on yourself? I can tell by your spelling of “a lot” that you are probably fairly young. You aren't writing stories to pay your rent (I should hope NOBODY out there is writing stories to pay their rent, except published authors like me, because this is a very unstable line of work, and landlords are very cranky about getting their rent checks on time, so you should be paying your rent from the income you get from your day job as a bartender or doctor).

My advice to you is, enjoy your youth while you still can. Use this time to figure out what kind of story will hold your interest past page 16. Don't worry, you'll find one you want to finish, eventually.

Here is what I've said about this phenomenon—starting but not finishing stories–in the past

(PS This same advice goes for Writer's Block):

There are several reasons you may be having trouble with your story. You can choose the one that fits you best:

a) It is always more fun to start a NEW story than it is to work on the one you've been working on for months. This is why publishers don't pay writers their whole advance until they turn in the completed manuscript. Every writer feels this way. Just power through it.

b) You haven't found the right story yet—the one you can't let go. When you do, you will WANT to finish it. So cut yourself some slack, and keep trying.

c) You did not plan your story out well enough before you sat down to write it

or

d) You planned it too well, and now you feel like the story is already told.

In general, when this happens to me, it is c) or d). I know it sounds crazy, but planning your story in too much detail—like writing a 100 page outline, or keeping index cards on every little thing that's going to happen—can sometimes make it feel like your story is already done. Told. Over. Why would you want to go back and RETELL something that's already been told?

However, you have to plan a LITTLE, or your story will lack direction, and you'll get lost in it, then frustrated, then have trouble finishing it.

So the trick is that you need to find the right balance FOR YOU between not planning your story enough, and over-planning it. Practice will help.

If you write a page a day—just ONE page—in three months you'll have a hundred page story. And in six months you'll have a two hundred page story. That's almost a whole book. So don't think about it like: “Oh my gosh, I have to write two hundred pages.” Think of it like, “Today, I have to write a page.” Trust me. It works.

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I was wondering what exactly it means when publishers say they don't want unsolicited manuscripts. Does it mean that they won't accept a manuscript unless you have sent them a query letter and they have responded and asked to see the manuscript?????
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Yes, that is exactly what this means. No editor wants a million 300 page manuscripts sitting around on her desk. What she would prefer to have is a one-page only letter from you, describing your book and yourself. This is called a query letter. Then, if your book and you sound interesting to her, she will ask to see you both (well, maybe just the book). That way, she keeps her desk clear of books she has no interest in reading. For tips on how to write a stunning query l
etter, and on where to send it, buy Jeff Herman's Guide to Agents, Editors, and Publishers. You won't regret it.

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I want to ask you: #1 how you get your ideas for stories #2 how you plot out your story and do your rough drafts #3 when you get writers block (which I know you must get) how do you get through it #3 any other little notes or tips you could give me.
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#1 You know where my ideas come from. They come from the same place YOUR ideas come from. From inside your (my) head. From the TV. From the newspaper. From old memories. From everywhere.

#2 I plot out my story inside my head. Then I write it. Then I read back over what I wrote the day before and change it as I go along. So no, no rough drafts per se, in that I don't save anything called A Rough Draft to show at the end of a book. Because the rough draft is there, layered under the final draft. Get what I'm saying?

#3 As for writer's block, I only get it when there is something wrong internally with the story. Usually if I watch enough Lifetime Channel, and sort of put the book aside for a few days, I figure out where I went wrong.

If you want more notes or tips, go to the page I listed at the top of this blog.

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i'm wondering if i can send you a copy of a book i'm writing and you can check it at and tell me somethings i need to work on and what you like about it, ect, ect.
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Wow! That is so flattering that you think I would be a good person to send your book to! But no, you can't. The reason why is because I have a TBR pile (To Be Read) that is the size of a VW Bug. I cannot possibly add anything more to it, or it will topple over. I have so many manuscripts that I have been sent to blurb by publishers, I can't take on any more.

But don't feel bad about this! I can assure you that my input would not be of any value to you whatsoever. I am not an editor. I am a writer. I HAVE editors, because I suck at editing. What you need is an EDITOR to read your book, not another WRITER. Or better yet, you need an honest friend who actually likes to read the kind of book you've written. Give a copy to her and ask her what she thinks. Her input will be way more valuable than anyone else's, since she's your target reader.

Here is a long letter but as it is typical of emails I receive every day I will try to answer in chunks:

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I am trying to write a novel but i am stuck. I have gotten to the middle of chapter ten, but it is starting to sound repeatitive. My friends have read it and said that it isn't, but I still think it is. Is it because I have read it too many times that it seems repeatitive?
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Yes.

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Does this happen to you when you write a book?
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Yes. Put the book aside for a few days (or weeks) and take it out and read it again when it isn't so fresh in your head. I promise you will like it better, or, if not, you will at least be able to figure out what's really wrong with it.

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And my main male character seems too nice but i don't know how to change that without rewriting the whole book.
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What is wrong with a nice character? You want your character to be likable, or no one will be able to relate to him or want to find out what happens to him.

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I want him to seem different then he did at the beginning but i don't want it to be a huge change. Do you have any suggestions?
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A character HAS to change from the beginning of the book to the end. Otherwise, there is no point in telling the story. This is called the character's arc, or something (for more on this, read the book Story by Robert McGee. Not that I ever read it, but you know, people tell me to all the time, so it must be somewhat helpful). It doesn't have to be a huge change, but there has to be SOME change. If you think your character is too nice, maybe at the end of the book, he develops a backbone, while still, essentially, being nice.

Okay, new letter:

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I'm also interested in being a writer. I know it's hard to pin point my ideas, but I was just wondering. Writing is one of those things I'd love to make a living of doing. I'm sending in my story to the Scholastic Writing Awards. Did you ever submit to contests when you were younger?
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I submitted my stories to hundreds of contests when I was younger and I never won a single one, so I don't think contests are all that great.

But if it gets you into the routine of making a deadline and submitting your work, why not? It can't hurt. Unless you are one of those sensitive people who is going to cry if you don't win. If you're one of those people, get out of the writing biz now. Otherwise, you will be crying every SINGLE DAY.

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I always wanted to be a writer, but lately i've been
thinking maybe i'm just not good enough. I put lots of
time into my english papers but when i get them back,
my teacher always has negative commments about things
i've written. Yet, all my friends have been telling me
i would make a perfect writer.
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Hi. Can I introduce myself? My name is Meg Cabot, and many of my English teachers wrote negative comments on my papers when I was in school, even though, oh, yeah, a lot of my friends thought I would make a perfect writer.

But I was always sure I wasn't good enough, especially when I never won any writing contests as a kid, so I never sent my stories to any publishers.

Then one day when I was in my mid twenties my dad died, and I realized, “You know what? YOU DO NOT HAVE TIME IN LIFE TO MESS AROUND. If there is something you want to do, you had better GET DOING IT, because otherwise, you are just going to die.”

I hate to be blunt, but seriously, that is how it is. Don't be like me and wait until someone DIES before trying something you always wanted to try. Because my dad died never having read a single one of my published books. He died never knowing I even GOT published, because I never tried to get published until after he was gone.

Don't be like me. JUST DO IT. WHATEVER IT IS.

(PS if whatever it is is you've always wanted to do is something really stupid like getting a tattoo or pierced tongue or whatever, you do NOT have my support. How is that thing going to look when you're seventy? Well, I live in Florida where there are a lot of seventy year olds so I can tell you: it's going to look AWFUL. Don't do it.)

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I'm only a sophmore in high school, and decsion time
is comming up on what our majors will be or schools
we plan to attend. I thought i wanted to major in
english so that would help me become a writer, what do
you think is the best major to help my writing?
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I always advise going to college, but not to study creative writing. You can take some creative writing classes, but if I were you, I would major in something you can actually get a job in after you graduate (unless, of course, you have a trust fund) such as accounting, medical school, journalism, criminal justice, teaching, fashion illustration, recreation, psychology, business, WHATEVER. Just something that, if the writing thing doesn't work out, you will have something to fall back on in order to pay the rent (see first letter).

Plus, if you choose an interesting side career or day job, you will have something cool to write about.

Well, that's about all I can say on writing at the moment. Because now I have to actually go and DO some.

More later.

Much love,

Meg

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