Advice for Young Writers

So many of you have been sending me emails asking me for writing tips. So I thought I would put some of my thoughts down here about writing and the writing business. This is what works for me. It might not work for everybody.

1.    Getting Started

Before you begin to write your story or novel, write a detailed outline and character backgrounds first. So many unpublished first (or second or third or 44th) novels begin halfway through the book because the writer has spent the first 150 pages giving us the background story instead of starting with THE STORY. Know your characters inside and out, where they came from, where they want to go, so that when you begin writing the book, you already know how they will act/react to events in the story.

I love outlines. I read somewhere that Stephen King said writers who like to write outlines wish they were writing masters theses instead of novels. For the longest time, I thought this was true. Now I think he was just exaggerating. You need an outline. Even just the barest outline so that you know the story’s beginning, middle and end. Sometimes, I don’t stick to my outline. The story begins to take off in a different direction, so I chuck the outline. But when this happens, I write a new outline. Outlines are the blueprints of stories. It will also keep you working, since you will see how far along you need to go. In general I write 10-20 page outlines, with a paragraph for each chapter in the book, describing the action that will occur in that chapter.

2.    Begin Writing and Don’t Stop

Now that I am a mother, I write on Monday to Wednesday from 10am – 3pm everyday at a writer’s office. On Thursdays I do revisions at home and on Fridays I spend time with my baby. When I’m on deadline, which means the book was DUE YESTERDAY, the schedule goes whacky, and I just work ALL THE TIME and try to see my family in between.

The three-day writing week usually results in a solid ten to twenty pages. The manic work that happens during deadline crunch can result in anywhere from twenty to fifty pages a day. This is when the novel really happens.

Before I had my baby, when I was not on deadline, sometimes I didn’t work at all. I went to the movies, I went shopping, I hung out with my friends, I tanned by the pool, I read a ton of magazines. But that only lasted for a week or two. Most of the time I’m banging it out. Which means I force myself to sit at my desk and write.

Now that I am a mother, the time that I am not writing is spent with my child. I try to read magazines and watch TV when she is asleep.

When I did not make a living as a writer, I wrote AT EVERY CHANCE I COULD GET. I was a computer consultant at a major bank, but I would say I spent six hours writing to the two hours I spent working on my computer programs. I also spent weekends writing.

3.    Cliffhangers are Key

How do you write a page-turner? By making each chapter end with a cliffhanger. What’s a cliffhanger? A cliffhanger is when the action reaches a feverish pitch and then the chapter ends with the protagonist hanging on a limb or about to kiss the boy or about to open the secret safe—but not revealing what is inside. It has to keep people reading to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

I got schooled in crafting page-turning cliffhangers because I used to write a serial novel in GOTHAM magazine called “The Fortune Hunters”. My story appeared every month, and every month I would end it on a cliffhanger to keep readers interested in reading the next story, which they would have to wait a whole month for.  Apparently, it worked. The serial novel was very successful, and I even sold it as an adult novel. But I have not had time to whip it into shape for publication, so we will all have to wait for that for now. (I even had to return the money!)

But writing THE FORTUNE HUNTERS taught me how to write cliffhangers. Also reading Michael Crichton novels. Those taught me about cliffhangers too. And of course, the best advice to any writer is to READ. You can’t be a writer without being a reader.

4.    Always Say Yes To Everything

Making a living as a writer or an artist means that some years, you can make a lot of money, and some years are very lean. One of my producer friends in Hollywood said that whenever he feels like blowing a lot of cash, he looks up at the Hollywood Hills at all those half-built mansions and reminds himself that sometimes, one hit is all you can get, so don’t get too cocky. The people who started building those houses didn’t have enough money to finish building them. Yikes!

All through my writing career, I have taken EVERY assignment offered to
me. In addition to big-name magazines, I have written for obscure
websites, shopping catalogs, health and fitness magazines, free
newsweeklies, blogs, anything and everything. I have written about my family, my sex life, my staggering credit card debt. I have endured humiliation and good-natured ribbing. I have survived to write about it. Did I want to dress up as a man and crash my husband’s bachelor party? YES! Did I want to try out every position in the karma sutra and write about it? YES! Did I want to go around New York and ask men to tell me the length of their bananas and see if they could get women to date them if they wore their inches on a t-shirt on their chest? Um…er…do I really have to..oh well..YES!

The first year I was a published writer,
I made $3,000. I was also making $75,000 as a computer consultant, so
it wasn’t so bad. The writing money was “fun” money. What I called,
very smugly, “handbag money” since I didn’t need the money to live on,
I usually spent it on whatever expensive handbag was trendy at the
moment. (I still call lame advances handbag money.
Like when my film agent tells me we’d sold the option to one of my
books, I’ll ask, “Did we get handbag money or real money?” “Well,” she
said, “Let’s say you can buy a Birkin but not the crocodile one.”)

When I was laid off from my corporate job during the bust of 2001, I was making $150,000 as a consultant. It was a huge blow, because I only made $10,000 as a writer that year.  Suddenly my “handbag” money had to become my “pay-the-rent-put-food-on-the-table” money. Eeks! Suddenly, I had to stop feeling so smug. I had to get to work. Real work. I wrote four proposals for books that year, and sold every one of them.

The books now pay for a lot of handbags, and to my surprise, it didn’t take too long to match what I’d made before as a computer consultant, or to double it, triple it, quadruple it, quintuple it, exponential it, until finally I got to the point where I was so sated I had to say, "IS THIS ALL THERE IS?" and have to go get spiritual or something. Or you know, set my shopping goals even higher.

Like a private jet. I’d really like one of those.

I kid. (Only a little.) And the specter of those half-built homes in the Hollywood Hills haunts me so much that I’ve finally started doing something I never did before. Now I save my money. For the lean years, if they ever come again.

BTW, I only worked with Alloy on the Au Pairs series. Everything else (Blue
Bloods, Angels, Ashleys, Social Life, etc.) is mine and mine alone. I
just add this because people ask, and that is the answer. But I loved
working with Alloy and wholly recommend working with them. If they come
calling, say YES!

5.    But Don’t Sell Yourself Short Either

Never take a first offer. Always try to push the deal to the farthest you can push it. Glossy magazines have paid me $1 a word, $1.50 a word, $2 a word, and at my highest, $3 a word. I’ve heard other writers can command $4 or $5 a word. So it’s possible. And it never hurts to ask.

Book advances are NOTORIOUSLY low for first-time novelists. Mine paid for three months’ rent and living expenses in New York, and that was it. (And I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment! Still, it wasn’t as small as some others I’ve heard. I’ve heard unagented writers are offered $1500 for a book. I mean, my god. That’s not even enough for a Chloe Paddington these days!) So you need to push. Ask for more. Or don’t sell them all the rights. Definitely not your movie/film rights. Hold on to stuff. MAKE YOUR AGENT WORK FOR YOU. In the end, you have to be the judge of your work. You know how much it’s worth. Publishers can always say no, but most of the time, they will try to say yes.

A CAVEAT: If you’ve pushed and pushed and pushed and they still won’t budge, take the money and do the job.

6.    Write what you know, write what you love, but research is fun too

Sometimes I have really happy days when I realize I am getting paid to write the kind of stories I used to write in my notebooks when I was a teenager. I used to write soap-operatic dramas modeled on Dynasty, but starring the members of Duran Duran. I know. Very sad. Thankfully, my writing has developed since then. But I still sometimes feel like I’m fourteen and I’m just writing things that I think are really, really fun to write about.

I’ve written about fashion shows, sample sales, private school, the Hamptons, all subjects that I am very familiar with. But I’ve also written about surfing, skateboarding, college radio stations, and other subjects I’m not so familiar with. I’ve always been interested in surfing, skateboarding, and college radio, but I didn’t know so much about them so I did research. I love doing research. I love figuring out subcultures and learning new slang. It widens my horizons as a writer. So don’t be afraid to tackle new subjects, writing about what you don’t know can be fun too.

7.    Finally, live a little

So many people want to WRITE but they have not yet even begun to LIVE. I think that the reason so many of us YA writers are in our 30s is because at this age, we finally can see clearly, what being a teenager really meant. When you are too close to the experience, you don’t have the objective distance with which to write about it. I can’t wait to be 50 and write about a young mother in her 30s. 🙂

Also, a lot of the fun in my books is inspired by the REAL fun I had going to clubs, covering fashion shows, trying to get into all those crazy parties, dancing on tables with my friends, indulging in a lot of boyfriend/girlfriend drama. I went out there and experienced life. I recently read about a young writer who had published her first novel (a teen romance) and she said she had never even been kissed! How can you write about boys if you don’t know what they are like? If you have never even had a boyfriend? I was quite appalled. I don’t want to read a romance from someone who has never experienced love. Puh-leeze.

So, get out there. Kiss tons of boys. Fight with your girlfriends. Go to a lot of parties. Spend too much money. Have FUN. Fall in love. Fall out of love. Make mistakes. Wear platform shoes and trip on them.

Then, a few years later, write about it. You have all the time in the world to be a writer, but you are only young and can fit into that size 2 Betsey Johnson silver micro-mini skirt once. (Ah, I remember that skirt very fondly. It came up to my upper thigh, barely covering my butt, and it got me in a lot of trouble with many cute boys.)

8. All the Usual Stuff…

How to get an agent? How to get published? I found my first agent through the WRITER’S MARKETPLACE. Are they still around? Everything is on the web now. Follow their instructions. Be patient. Try again. Don’t give up. Try to have a day job while you’re doing this, so you can still afford to shop at Barneys and get $150 dollar haircuts at Frederic Fekkai while you’re only making $100 an article (like I did). 🙂

A lot of really great writing advice is already out there– see Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun and Profit.

On this page, I have tried to answer questions you guys have sent me, essentially, how do you write a fun and glam page-turner like the Au Pairs, or a sexy thriller like Blue Bloods. I hope I’ve helped.

A very successful friend of mine in Hollywood (who has a new show coming out this September on a big network and she’s the EXECUTIVE PRODUCER hello!) says, the world is ALWAYS looking for new voices, new writers. If you have talent and determination, you will succeed in this business.

Good luck!!!


PS- I recently devoured and very much enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and she has some great writing advice too. There are many different kinds of writers in the world, and it gets easier when you figure out what kind of writer you are. For example, I once thought I would be the kind of writer who wrote self-conscious poetry and published small books titled "Epiphanies." LOL! I mean, gack, Epiphanies?? It turned out I was much, MUCH better at writing about partying nannies and hot vampires!