Can a novel be too cinematic?

Posted by annastan on April 22nd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

I personally enjoy cinematic books because they’re usually fast-paced and full of strong visual details. I think of the Percy Jackson books as a good example of this type of book; they’re quick, action-packed, and lend themselves well to the screen.

It makes sense that cinematic techniques have become more popular in novels considering how comfortable readers are with the types of quick cuts and multiple story lines that you’d find on TV and in movies. But is it possible for a novel to be too cinematic? Based on a book I just finished reading the other day, I would say yes.

This anonymous novel pretty much felt like a novelization of a movie. Scenes that were dialogue-heavy almost read like a script. The story was engaging and I certainly zipped through it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was written to be a movie rather than a novel.

Using cinematic techniques means you can throw readers into the action and jump around from scene to scene, giving just enough detail to place readers in the action. But the danger of this kind of approach is that it can keep readers from investing in the characters. If you scene-jump too much  and focus too heavily on special-effects action and high-tension dialogue, you lose depth. (At least in a movie, we get that depth from the actors’ facial expressions and character details.)

I also felt a little narratively manipulated in this anonymous novel. It seemed like the author was pointing a finger at the important parts of the story by cutting to a half-page scene and then another one and another one, all to set up what was coming next. Instead of being allowed to experience the story, I was being told it.

So I guess my advice about cinematic novels is this. By all means, use those techniques, but make sure that you’re not sacrificing character investment and that you’re not hitting your readers over the head.

We have to remember that novels aren’t movies; they can do things that movies can’t do. I think it’s great to see the two blend, but when a book starts reading like a movie script (unless you’ve chosen to tell the story in script format, which is totally different) then it might be time to step back a bit and focus more on it’s novel-ness.

What are your experiences with cinematic novels?

How do you get readers to feel what your character feels?

Posted by annastan on April 15th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

I had a great time visiting fourth graders at Baldwinville Elementary School yesterday. We talked about making characters interesting, giving them real emotions and fears, and figuring out what they want most in the world. The students came up with fantastic character ideas, and they also had some really insightful questions, including this toughie:

“How do you get readers to feel what your character feels?”

Let’s face it, that is one of the biggest challenges of writing stories. You want to make your readers empathize with your characters and make them feel like they’re experiencing the journey alongside your protagonist. But how, exactly, do you do that?

I did my best to give the student a coherent answer, but I wanted to talk more about it here since I think it essentially boils down to these four factors.

-Motivation. We need to understand why your character is doing what she’s doing and why she thinks it’s the best course of action. If she, for no apparent reason, wanders into a room where you know a psycho killer is lurking, you’ll be yelling at her instead of empathizing with her.

-Goal. The character’s end goal needs to be clear from start to finish. Every time the character’s goal shifts in the story (and it should evolve as the character learns more about what’s standing in her way) then the reader should know about it.

-Fear. Whatever your character is afraid of, whatever she dreads , we need to know about it. If she imagines what terrible things will happen if she doesn’t achieve her goal, then we’ll be even more invested in her succeeding.

-Impact. We need to witness how events affect your character emotionally. We don’t need to see her wallowing in grief (and it’s probably better if we don’t) but we do need to see at least a hint that she’s been somehow changed by whatever has happened.

There are more aspects to this technique, of course, but I think these four are the bigger ones.

Now, how do you convey all of this without putting in pages of internal monologue? Ah yes, another tricky business!

Remember that your reader is willing to put in a lot of work when s/he’s reading a story. A hint or a line will give your reader just enough to be able to fill in the gaps, as will showing some of these things through the character’s actions. You don’t have to give your readers a lot for them to empathize with the character, but you do need to give them enough to feel like they’re right there with her.

Original First Chapter of THE DIRT DIARY Revealed!

Posted by annastan on April 8th, 2014 | 4 Comments »

I was poking around my old files yesterday, prepping for some upcoming school visits, and I came across the very first version of The Dirt Diary that I ever sent to my writing group (then entitled DIRT). Oh the memories!

While the premise is basically the same and the story starts in roughly the same place, Rachel’s age and voice in the original chapter are a bit different, and baking isn’t even part of the story! It’s amazing to see how much a project can evolve. At this point, I can’t imagine every having told Rachel’s story any other way.

Are you curious to read this early early early draft? Well, you’re in luck! I’ve decided to embarrass myself by posting it. So here it is, the very first chapter I ever wrote of The Dirt Diary.



By the way, if you’re in New England, I’d love to see you at The Writers’ Loft this Saturday for a great panel on writing historical fiction with authors Marissa Doyle, Alisa Libby, and Susan Meyer. It should be a great event!

historical fiction panel flyer-page


Reading for Fun When Your Internal Editor Won’t Shut Up

Posted by annastan on April 1st, 2014 | 5 Comments »

I don’t know about guys, but sometimes I can’t shut off my internal editor. When I’m revising a manuscript and teaching a workshop class and critiquing manuscripts for fellow writers, my brain is firmly in editing mode all the time. All I see are the things that aren’t working or the things that could have been done better. When I’m in that mindset, most books I pick up to read for fun don’t stand a chance. Luckily, I’ve found some ways around this sad state of affairs.

Read in a different genre - Sometimes I have to pick up something that isn’t my usual cup of tea–nonfiction, for example–so that the things I normally look for in a story don’t apply.

Go back to an old favorite - Last time I was in a serious reading slump, I reread Northanger Abbey. You can’t go wrong with Jane Austen!

Pick up a “light” read - There are certain genres and types of stories that I know won’t be high literature, and that’s a good thing. If I’m reading something that I know will be focused on explosions or romance, for example, I can let go of all the other stuff and just enjoy the ride.

Find a stunner - Sometimes, if a book is truly good, I’ll get so sucked in that I stop thinking about technique and focus on the story. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart was like that–I just couldn’t put it down. (Be warned, though, that the ending will mess with your head!)

Use your ears - Sometimes I find that I’m much more likely to get into a book when I’m listening to it than when I’m reading it. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman didn’t grab me when I tried to read it, but I devoured the audio book.

Give yourself a break – When I feel guilty for not reading enough, I have to remember that books are my job; sometimes you need to take a vacation from your job, even if you love it. That’s when I try to find other creative endeavors…or I just let myself watch silly TV shows and not feel guilty about it.

How do you get around your internal editor and enjoy a good read?

Tuesday Tidbits

Posted by annastan on March 25th, 2014 | 6 Comments »

Life on my end is a little nuts at the moment, but here are a few exciting tidbits.

Look what appeared on my doorstep last week: ARCs of THE PRANK LIST. Aren’t they pretty?

prank list arcs

Are you dying to get your hands on one of those lovely ARCs? You’re in luck. There are two up for grabs on Goodreads.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Prank List by Anna Staniszewski

The Prank List

by Anna Staniszewski

Giveaway ends May 15, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Finally, I got a sneak peek of the cover for THE GOSSIP FILE, and it’s adorable. I hope I can share it with you guys soon!

What’s new with you this week?

Getting into the Creative Zone

Posted by annastan on March 17th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

Now that I’m in between pressing deadlines, I’m having a hard time getting into Creative Mode. Sometimes life gets in the way of allowing you to open your mind up to creativity. Often, the best thing you can do in those situations is take a little break. But other times, it helps to give yourself permission to only do a little bit, even if it barely feels like anything.

Instead of forcing myself to write, I’ve been taking time to brainstorm and daydream. I’ve also been reading back through older projects to see if anything clicks. That’s about all my brain can handle at the moment. Once the next deadline hits, I’ll be forced to get back into the creative zone, but for now, I guess I’ll just explore and recharge.

If you haven’t seen this fantastic (and hilarious) video by John Cleese on creativity, I highly recommend setting aside a half hour to watch it:

Keeping Your Dual POV Characters Distinct

Posted by annastan on March 12th, 2014 | 5 Comments »

A quick thank you to St. John School in Wellesley, Mass. for hosting me yesterday. I had a great time talking about writing, fairy tales, and robots!

Usually when we talk about making characters different from each other, we focus on voice. But voice is just the tip of the iceberg. As I’ve been working on a new project with alternating POVs, I realized that while the voices sounded different, the characters’ goals weren’t distinct enough. Doh!

If both characters are reacting to situations in a similar way and working toward similar goals, of course they won’t feel like two unique people. Once I realized this (thanks to a trusty critique partner’s feedback), I grabbed my trusty writing bible (The Anatomy of Story by John Truby) and got to work.

When I tested out the characters’ wants, needs, etc, I realized that their weaknesses were too muddy. No wonder they didn’t feel like distinct people! I thought about what had made them the people they are, so that there was no way their personalities could blur together. Then I kept working and working until I got to a place where I knew the characters would react differently if faced with the same situation.

Since I’m only a few chapters in with this project, I still have a long way to go, but now that I have a much stronger grasp of my characters, I feel much more ready to tackle the rest of their story.

How do you go about making your characters sound, act, and feel distinct?

What I’ve Been Reading

Posted by annastan on March 5th, 2014 | 4 Comments »

I was able to sneak out of town over the weekend and do some much-needed relaxing and reading. Here are a few book highlights:

The Archived by Victoria Schwab

I enjoyed the unusual premise and lyrical style of this book, but what really kept me hooked was the mystery element. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.


How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jessica Keating

I was honored to be asked to blurb this adorable tween novel about a girl whose family lives at the zoo. (As if junior high isn’t zoo-y enough!) I particularly loved the voice in the book, and there were parts of the story that had me laughing out loud and cringing at the same time.


The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

I love books that mix fantasy with science fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised when I realized this story takes place on a different planet and has elements of magic and steampunk. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I’m excited to keep going.

What have you been reading?

Avoiding Info-Dump in Sequels

Posted by annastan on February 24th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

New England folks! I’ll be at the Writers’ Loft tomorrow, February 25th, doing a Craft Chat on using dummies and storyboards in writing picture books, and I’ll be leading a writing workshop for teens on Wednesday at the Worcester Public Library. Hope to see you there!

Also, Husband Ray did a great “Creating an Author Website” workshop over the weekend. Here’s a recap of the event along with some useful links.

Last week, I had a great comment from Jenni Enzor about writing a series:

“Often authors summarize the previous book at the beginning or the plot is very similar to the last one. How do you avoid being repetitious?”

To answer Jenni’s question, I wanted to revisit a post I did about this topic when I was working on the second book in the Dirt Diary series:

Avoiding Info-Dump in Sequels

Ah, yes. The dreaded word: Info-dump. It’s hard to avoid overloading on backstory in any type of book because you want your readers to know All The Things as quickly as possible. The trick is finding ways to weave in vital information without slowing down the story.

In a sequel, avoiding the info-dump becomes even more challenging because you feel like you have to fill the reader in on what happened in the previous book. This is precisely what I’ll be tackling in The Prank List this week. Overall, I think the first few chapters work pretty well, but as my agent pointed out, the info about Book 1 slows thing down.

Slow reader

When I thought about it, I realized that readers might not need to know all that info since some of it doesn’t affect the story arc in the sequel. There are certain bits that I need to remind the reader about because it will set them up for Book 2, but there are tidbits that I could safely take out.

Taking out those tidbits makes me nervous because I’m afraid the reader isn’t being given enough about the situation, characters, etc. to really understand it, but I have faith that if I show enough in the present story, I won’t need to work in that backstory. I need to trust myself and trust my reader.

So watch out, Infodump. I’m coming for you!

Should You Reread Book 1 Before Writing Book 2?

Posted by annastan on February 18th, 2014 | 3 Comments »

If any of you are in the New England area, come check out an awesome “Creating an Author Website” workshop that Husband Ray is doing at The Writers’ Loft this Saturday at 2pm.

Should you reread Book 1 before writing Book?  This might sound like a silly question, but I must admit that I hate rereading my books once they’re finished. I’m always afraid I’ll find a huge error or a scene that doesn’t work. Of course, avoiding rereading my books can be difficult when I’m working on a series.

So my answer is YES, you do need to reread your first book; in fact, I think you should reread it more than once.

Before I start drafting a new book in a series, I usually go back and read the previous one. But last week as I was revising THE GOSSIP FILE, the third book in the Dirt Diary series, my publisher sent me the final page proofs for THE PRANK LIST, so I had to read the book yet again. And I’m glad I did because it helped me with the following elements of my revision:

Pacing – After seeing the pacing of Book 2, I realized that Book 3 needed to be much tighter at the beginning to match it.

Continuity – This is an obvious one. You want to make sure that what happens in Book 3 makes sense with what happened in Book 2. I realized that there was a housing issue mentioned at the end of THE PRANK LIST that hadn’t been addressed in THE GOSSIP FILE, so that’s something I’ll need to address.

Consistency – As I was rereading Book 3, I made the discovery that I’d written “Booger Crap” as “Boogercrap.” Shocking, I know! Thank goodness I realized this before it was too late.

Voice – Even though I reread THE PRANK LIST before drafting THE GOSSIP FILE to get a feel for the voice, going through the second book again got me even more firmly into the character.

Story Structure – In the first two Dirt Diary books I tried to make all the plot threads feel intertwined. After rereading the second book, I realized that’s something I need to keep working on in Book 3.

So there you have it. All the reasons that I (grudgingly) acknowledge that rereading your books multiple times is essential! I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any huge errors or flat scenes in Book 2, so maybe that means I’m learning to let things go. :-)