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5 Writing Tips from Tana French
I’m still very much in the apprentice stage of writing. I read somewhere that you need to write a million words before you know what you’re doing – so I’m headed that way, but I’m nowhere near there. But, for what they’re worth, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

1. It’s OK to screw up. For me, this was the big revelation when I was writing my first book, In the Woods: I could get it wrong as many times as I needed to. I was coming from theatre, where you need to get it right every night, because this audience will probably never see the show again; it took me a while to realise that, until the book goes into print, it’s still rehearsal, where you can try whatever you need to try. If you rewrite a paragraph fifty times and forty-nine of them are terrible, that’s fine; you only need to get it right once.

2. Your character is always right. No real person thinks they’re being stupid or misguided or bigoted or evil or just plain wrong – so your characters can’t, either. If you’re writing a scene for a character with whom you disagree in every way, you still need to show how that character is absolutely justified in his or her own mind, or the scene will come across as being about the author’s views rather than about the character’s. You can’t make the judgement that your character is wrong; let the readers do that for themselves.

3. There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women’. There’s only the individual character you’re writing. One guy emailed me asking me how to write women, and I couldn’t answer, because I had no idea which woman he meant: me? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Lady Gaga? If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes. Sure, there are differences between men and women on average – but you’re writing an individual, not an average. If your individual character is chatty on the phone or refuses to ask for directions, that needs to be because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she is. Write the person, not the genitalia.

4. Kill the dream sequence. My husband, who’s my first reader and who has a demon eye for sloppiness, says that a dream sequence is almost invariably either a repeat of something that’s already been done within the action, or a lazy way of doing something that should be done within the action. I think he’s let me get away with one dream in four books. At this point I just save us both time and kill them before he gets to them. You may well need to write the dream sequence, to help you towards an understanding of something in the book, but it’s very unlikely that anyone needs to read it.

5. Don’t be scared of ‘said’. Writers sometimes go looking for alternatives because they worry that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ will feel repetitive if they’re used all the time, but I swear, they won’t. ‘Said’ is the default dialogue tag; readers don’t even notice it, the eye just skims over it. Anything else, on the other hand, does stick out. I read one book where the characters never said anything; instead they spent all their time grunting and bleating and hissing and cooing and growling and chirping and… It was like a menagerie in there. After a while I wasn’t even taking in the rest of the book, because that was all I could see: the dialogue tags. Unless your character is actually doing something specific that needs pointing out – shouting the line, say, or whispering it – it’s almost always a good idea to stick with ‘said’.

Tana French's new novel, Broken Harbor, publishes July 24 from Viking.

-from Publishers Weekly

I fervently agree with #3. You can write a character pretty close to stereotype without it being a bad thing, just as long as the character feels real, but the moment an author is deliberately changing/forming the character around a set of gender rules it can feel pretty forced.

Not sure if dream sequences need to be thrown out altogether, though.

Write the person, not the genitalia.

Yes, this <3

I agree so much with #3. And that’s why I can’t help rolling my eyes and get all ranty every time I read reviews of In the Woods bitching about Rob’s POV not being believable because he “sounds like a woman”, “is a bit of a girl” and such stuff. What’s that supposed to mean? Mmm... I think I prefer not to know, honestly lol

One of my least favorite compliments is 'she writes men so well' too. You just shouldn't be thinking about the writer that much while you're reading. Even in writing classes it drove me crazy because a character should be a well written character, period.

You just shouldn't be thinking about the writer that much while you're reading. This. I honestly read some of the criticism she gets and just think those people are picking up the book thinking "Oh, so this lady thinks she can write men, huh?" And I don't think male authors get nearly as much crap when they write female protagonists.

What I also think is really weird about this whole line is that writers are rarely criticized or lauded for characters of the opposite sex who aren't protagonists. As though we judge all writers solely on their ability to sell the voice of the "main" character but no one else has to ring true.

The dream sequence one is sure interesting. I'm not sure that I don't agree with her on some level, but I do think that sometimes a writer needs the freedom of a dream to push things, character or plot, along. I'm going to have to do some more thinking on that.

The first one though is incredibly true for me. Right down to the idea that I think of writing as rehearsal and that trying things out and discovering that they don’t work is almost more valuable to me than getting it right the first time. I share a theatre background with Tana, which may be a lot of that.

And I must say that I was really struck by her use of 'said' when I was first reading ItW. It felt really different, and I now find myself very consciously trying to get the right balance between the more simple, said, asked, answered and the more elaborate dialogue tags. I have a hard time because I find 'said' repetitive but I like the change in rhythm I get when I use something like 'asked sharply' instead of 'snipped'.

Edited at 2012-07-21 10:47 pm (UTC)


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