January 13, 2011

What’s Your Favorite Writing Lesson?


Yesterday, the inimitable Tawna Fenske had a blog post about how reading outside our comfort zone can make us better writers.  Her post got me thinking about a book I recently finished, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.

Unlike my usual genres of paranormal or historical, Anna and the French Kiss is a contemporary YA romance.  However, I’d heard great things about the book and the author (and not just that Stephanie has blue streaks like I do), so I decided to give it a try.

Did I love it?  Yes and I think so.  I adored the humor and was ready to give Stephanie a high five by page 3 with her description of the heroine’s father—which just happens to sound an awful lot like an author I’m not fond of.  Heh.

The teenage angst of “does he like me or not?” was incredibly well depicted.  Almost too well depicted for my taste, as my stomach was in knots the whole time.  By the end of the book, although every aspect of the story was perfect, I couldn’t tell you if I actually enjoyed the experience or not.

Then again, I’m not a teen.  And thank goodness for that.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy high school, or college, or any other part of my life.  I did.  But I’m done with that phase and have no desire to re-do it.  I learned what I was supposed to learn and moved on.

In a way, reading YA with characters so behind my experience in how to handle situations is painful for me.  The more I get into a story, the more I feel like I’ve lost all those lessons I learned.  And I’ve fought, studied, and paid attention too much for too long to let them go easily.

I cringe when I read something I wrote a year ago, much less a decade ago.  I’ve learned so much about the craft of writing, from grammar and pacing to characterization and emotion.  Those lessons are important to me.

Do You Have a Favorite Writing Lesson?

Every once in a while, we should think about everything we’ve learned.  And we should feel proud of how far we’ve come since we started.

We’re all focused on the “next step”: finishing our story, finding an agent, getting a contract, increasing sales.  Looking forward is great, but it can make us feel like we’re never making progress.  So stop for just a minute and look backward.  Recognize what you’ve learned and accomplished.

My favorite lesson is probably always going to be whatever my most recent breakthrough is about.  Each thing I learn is like a knot tied in the path of this learning curve, preventing me from falling back.

In the past month or so, thanks to feedback from my contest entries, I had a breakthrough in how to create emotion in the reader.  I had the internal dialogue and physical reactions showing a character’s emotion, but I wasn’t quite connecting to the reader enough with it.  I discovered that making my writing more sensory fixed this issue.  Getting the other senses in there and involving the reader’s emotions more?  Bonus.

I’ll probably read through Anna and the French Kiss again to see if I can pick up any pointers.  Obviously, Stephanie Perkins did a fabulous job at creating emotions within her readers, even this reader who was somewhat reluctant to get involved with the story.  Maybe on a second read, I’ll learn even more ways to add angsty goodness in my work.

Are you able to step back and feel proud of your progress?  What’s been your biggest writing breakthrough?  What’s your favorite writing lesson?  How did you learn it?

Comments — What do you think?

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Funny, I just posted a blog today about heightening the sense of touch to create more realistic characters.

As always, this is a great post, Jami, and very relevant to something I’ve just experienced (have you been following me around?). A couple days ago I gave my newly completed ms to a friend who gave me some feedback on my last ms over a year ago. Yesterday she came to work and said she was loving it, and could see a huge improvement in my writing.

With each ms I finish, I feel it myself. I find more ways to deal with problems and have more tools inside my head. I can’t think of a particular lesson I’ve learned recently, except to be prouder of my accomplishments and realize how far I’ve come.

Syleste Hoskins
Syleste Hoskins

I’m also struggling with emotion in my characters. This is one of the big reasons I haven’t made much progress in editing my book. I keep working on the same sections over and over again, trying to convey my character’s feelings, but I don’t see any improvements. I guess I’ll have to do more research. I’m actually waiting for a few books on the subject to arrive at my doorstep.

Andrew Mocete

Overall I’ve adopted the less is more attitude. I always wanted to make sure the reader understood what I was saying, which I suppose spoke to my confidence as a writer. People still liked it, but now since I’ve adjusted my style, when they read something I get told it’s much better. Yay me!


Even just over the course of the novel I’ve been writing, I have learned a lot. I’m somewhat dreading going back for edits/rewrites because I know that I’ll be doing a lot of it. (getting rid of nods and smiles especially :))

Tawna Fenske

Hey, thanks for the blog shout-out! Your choice for outside-the-comfort-zone reading material sounds a bit different from mine 🙂

I keep hearing about this book, so I might just have to pick it as my selection for next month!


Jeffe Kennedy

My favorite writing lesson is to write, if not every day, then as consistently close to that as I can manage. I resisted for years. Best thing I ever caved on.

Suzanne Johnson

Great post! I guess the most valuable thing I’ve learned along the way (so far, because I’m definitely still learning) is to “blow apart” paragraphs in revision to see if emotion can be worked into them in a subtle way. I still haven’t mastered it, but emotion’s tough for me to write and this technique has helped me isolate opportunities for it.

Todd Moody

My wife is my alpha reader and she brought one home for me just last week. I was writing an important scene and asked her to critique it. She reminded me to make the reader feel the scene instead of just reading it. Little nuances can make a big difference in projecting the reader into the scene. The masters at it can really make you forget you are reading a book, I’m still working on it.


Hi Jami!
Great topic. In my writing, I love the little things. I think those natural gestures draw the reader in. Instead of having my heroine pull the grocery list off the fridge and put it in her purse – I’d add that she folded it into quarters before putting it into her purse. Such a little thing and yet it humanizes a character.

My biggest writing lesson? (besides chopping the 22 adjectives out of each sentence. 😉 ) I used to think if my character had certain idiosyncrasies that was enough for the reader to connect with, but it wasn’t. It’s those unexpected reactions or actions that make a character come to life on the page. A nose scrunch, a wink or a huffed aside bit of bang – does wonders for making a character come alive.

Great post.


Awww! Thanks Jami! And I’ve learned how to make my characters suffer REALLY GOOD from you. 🙂


Something I’m proud of? My character development. I can compare my process from a couple of years ago to now, and it has definitely gotten better. I connect more with the character (which makes it somewhat easier to hit their soft spots… hee hee) and can understand them more. It also means they do things that I didn’t expect. (Point in case: Fuyumi. She is good at sending me curveballs, right when I think I can predict what she’ll do…)

It helped that I found someone who understands me a couple years ago, and she’s been really helpful in making me think before I write. A fellow writer can be so handy…

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