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Writing Advice from Cassandra Clare (part one)

City of Bones Cassandra ClareCassandra Clare is the author of The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices series. Her books have topped the New York Times best-seller lists, with over 22 million copies in print world wide. The film adaptation of City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments series, will be released in cinemas on 23 August.

In this post Cassandra Clare shares tips and links writers of all genres will find extremely useful and answers many of the most popular questions asked by aspiring authors.  

Where do you start a book? With plot, characters, or dialogue?
I tend to start with characters, but everyone does it differently.  There is no magic formula for the right order to write things in. Vivian Vande Velde has some good advice on her website about getting started writing a book.

Where do you get ideas?
I think Steven King always says “Wal-Mart.” Harlan Ellison says “Poughkeepsie.” Lawrence Watt-Evans has a good essay about this. So does Tim Wynne-Jones. And Justine Larbalestier has great advice as well.

As you can see, this question is the one every writer hates and everyone always asks. The fact is, ideas come from all around you, from everything you experience every day. You see a light on in an abandoned building and you think “I wonder who’s in there and what they’re doing?” The answer to that is an idea for a story. Whether it’s a good story or not is up to you.

I have trouble with characters.
There are three things you want to ask yourself about your characters:

  1. Is my character developed and believable? Do they seem like a real person? Some people find “character worksheets” very helpful in developing their characters. It’s not hard to find character development worksheets online.Crawford Kilian provides a “character resume” which is not dissimilar. Elizabeth Moon has some detailed instructions on creating complex and realistic characters.
  2. What does my character *want*? Character arcs are determined by desire. I.E. what does your character want at the beginning of the story? Do they get it? Do they not get it? How does getting or not getting what they desire change them? A character who doesn’t want anything is flat, not to mention not believable.
  3. Speaking of flat, static, cardboard, round, and all sorts of other characters, James Patrick Kelly explains what the different kinds of characters are and how they function in a narrative here.

How do I handle backstory? How do I introduce a character with a really complicated past without putting that past into a big chunk up front that confuses and disorients the reader?
Check out what the Story Sensei has to say.

How do I get inspired and stay inspired to finish my work? How do I get motivated? How do I keep from getting distracted?

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. —Frank Tibolt

Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long. —Leonard Bernstein

I am not the person to ask about inspiration. Mostly, I don’t believe in it — not in the popular conception of inspiration, where a lightbulb goes off in your head and suddenly you are inspired and your fingers start flying over the keyboard. Sure, that can happen, but as Bernstein says, you can’t rely on that happening. Writing is hard work, work that relies on learning and applying a varied set of skills, and finding out what those skills are, learning and practicing them, is always better than waiting around for inspiration. To quote Kristi Holl’s Writer’s First Aid:

Writers who wait for inspiration before they decide to write are generally known as hobbyists. Working writers-those actively writing and growing in their craft-must write whether the muse is “in” or not.

“But I’m not talking about inspiration! I’m talking about motivation!” you say. “I keep getting distracted while I’m supposed to be working. I keep wanting to give up. I get frustrated and impatient.”

Okay, I’ll introduce you to the Secret Writer Mantra. Professional writers return to it again and again to get them through the books they’re writing.


Here’s what it stands for:

Butt IChair. Hands OKeyboard. (No, I didn’t make that up.)

Sit down. Type.  There is no secret formula to prevent you from becoming bored or distracted. Writing is work, like any work. It is not more fun or automatically not boring just because it is writing or because the story itself is exciting. Maybe you found the “actual writing” part easy, and revisions difficult. The problem there is that editing and revisions are also writing. They are just as necessary a part of the process as banging out a first draft. I know this isn’t very fun advice, but try to keep this in mind: how hard you work, unlike random inborn talent, is entirely up to you. If you work hard and complete your work, you’re ahead of 99% of people who want to write a book. Try to think of it as . . . inspirational.

Do you have specific advice for teen writers? Will my age be a problem in looking for an agent/publisher?
Your age will not be a problem in looking for an agent or a publisher. Here’s why:

Querying agents and publishers involves submitting query letters and manuscripts through the mail. There is absolutely no way they are going to know how old you are unless you tell them. So this is seriously not a thing to worry about. Tell them if you want. Don’t if you don’t. Here’s what Jennifer Laughran, a wonderful agent, has to say about teen writers submitting to her (read link for the long version):

“If the book is truly outstanding, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have. There is no reason that a minor can’t have an agent, they would just need to have their parents involved if they are under 18. That said, it is really hard to GET outstanding without a certain amount of experience.”

Here’s what another great agent, Kristin Nelson, says about whether to mention your age in a query letter to an agent. And here’s what Steph Bowe, a published teen writer, has to say about the business of getting published when you’re a teen. Now here’s my advice, the long version.

I don’t know how to build a fantasy world. How do you do that?
Pat Wrede
does. Can you answer all the questions she’s helpfully compiled?

I can’t figure out how to plot!

PLOT is CHARACTER revealed by ACTION. No, I didn’t make that up; that’s Aristotle. Basically, plot isn’t something that exists outside the rest of your story – the characters, the action, the setting. Make up awesome characters. Put them in interesting situations. Force them to make important and revelatory choices that change them. Make sure that at the beginning of your story your characters want something. Decide whether or not they get it. Those are the elements of your story. The most important thing to remember is that your first reader, and audience, is yourself. Make sure you’re telling a story you yourself are dying to read.

If you are really stuck with plotting — if you keep starting books only to lose track of where they’re going; if you can’t get past the first chapter, etc. — I would suggest outlining. That means sitting down and writing out a very detailed summary of everything that happens in your book beforeyou start writing it. Yes, some people can just wing it. But if it looks like you’re not one of them, the fact is that most writers outline.

How do you write good dialogue?
One key to figuring out your dialogue is reading it out loud. Does it sound like something someone would actually *say*?

John August, a successful screenwriter, has a great essay about dialogue (and since screenplays basically tell an entire story via dialogue, he knows whereof he speaks.)  Juanita Havill talks about the function of dialogue and balancing  dialogue with plot and action.

How many pages is my book supposed to be?

Well, for starters, manuscripts aren’t measured in page count. They are measured in word count, because page count is affected by all sorts of things like margins and font, and word count is definitive. An excellent guide is Colleen Lindsay’s article on the kind of word counts agents who represent different genres are looking for.

But I still don’t understand how to write a novel?

Justine Larbalestier explains it for you.

I’m writing my novel but I’m stuck and can’t go on. Or, I keep starting books and then giving up in the middle, how do I keep going?
Justine has very good advice for unsticking you when you’re stuck. Or you may need an inciting incident. Let Maureen Johnson help you out. The fact is, committing to writing a whole book is hard — the vast majority of people give up before the book is done. Finishing is about discipline and hard work. Holly Lisle has some tricks listed on her website to get you through the hard parts — including what I think is one of the most important things you need to know, which is how your book ends. Yes, you need to know that even before you start.

Read Part Two of Writing Advice from Cassandra Clare

This advice was originally published at, reproduced with permission. Thanks to Cassandra for allowing us to republish her work here. For news and updates from Cassandra Clare follow her on Twitter.

Related post:
Put One Word After Another: Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing


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