Today, writers want to impress other writers.
One of the most common threads I’ve noticed in middle grade and YA is the protagonist who loves books. We as readers are drawn to these characters who are passionate about their art, live at the library and/or bookstore, and dream of being writers. For those of us who are not in the target demographic (that is, adults reading middle grade and YA), one of the major draws of these bookish protagonists is their commitment.
They get lost in the pages of their books, the stories are bursting from them faster than they can write, and they don’t care about penning the perfect draft. It’s all about writing because they are passionate about it. This open love for writing is something that I, and I’m sure many other adult readers, find inspiring. It helps us to remember our own love for writing, why we do what we do, and feel reenergized to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard.
On the other hand, writing characters who love reading and writing can sometimes come off as a crutch. I’ve met my fair share of protagonists whose interest in writing set off a kind of alarm for me: this author is writing what s/he knows. It’s much less common, for example, to see teen protagonists—girls especially—who thrive in mathematics or science classes, and yet there are armies of characters flourishing in English class, working on their novels, or running literary magazines and school newspapers.
Like every other element of writing, there are good and bad ways to go about it. Today’s post discusses both sides of writing about writing.
Writing about writing didn’t become a pet peeve of mine until I got to college. Throughout high school, I bought into the “plain bookish girl” protagonist type (ponytails, hoodies, and glasses galore) and reveled in having characters with whom I could identify. This certainly isn’t a bad thing, and I’ve read a lot of literature-loving characters as an adult who have stayed with me in a good way. There are a few red flags that I started noticing as I aged out of the target demographic that are worth keeping an eye out for in your writing, though.
- Address that writing is Hard Work, and sometimes the ideas and words keep coming, and other times they don’t.
- Incorporate different types of writing, like journaling or blogging. Show how writing is an active part of your character’s life.
- Remember that writing isn’t the only part of your character’s life. Let your character explore the world outside of writing.
- Include other characters in your cast who are also bookish/writerly people. Include ones who are not bookish/writerly people.
- Announce that your character who hasn’t said a word about writing the whole book has suddenly always dreamed of being a novelist.
- Use writing/reading as a plot device to tie in a moral, lesson, or other agenda.
- Make a character a writer because you can’t think of another artistic interest for them. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of creative hobbies and careers besides writing.
- Make a character good at English/literature/writing classes because you want to write what you know and not at least look into other subjects in which they could excel. Math, science, and foreign languages are your friends!
- Have your “bookish” character only ever reference required reading titles and/or classics.
- Divide bookish/not-bookish characters into good-bad, smart-dumb, us-them categories.
- Use clichés like “the words poured/flowed out” or the adjective “furiously” (as in, “he scribbled furiously” or “she typed furiously”).
- Write about writer’s block. It’s always boring.
- Use writing to show that your character is smarter/more mature/better than other characters.
- Put too much of yourself and your personal experience into your characters; let them spread their wings and be fully-realized as fictional characters.
There are exceptions to every rule, naturally. When we see characters who love reading and writing in books, we get excited because that’s common ground. These characters have a great capacity for imagination and exploring the world in a whole new way. Mostly, writing about writing gets boring when it’s less about the characters and their development and more about the writer’s own self-indulgence.
What prompted this post was one of my recent reads. While I am currently reading Megan Miranda’s Soulprint, I’m also working on Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which gets writing about writing so right I don’t even know what to do with myself. I’m only halfway through—so no spoilers!—but already I relate to the main character’s experience of writing intensely.
Reviews for both of these so-far-so-great books to come! In the meantime, what are your thoughts on writing about writing? Any pet peeves? Or do you love it? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!