Bestselling Author Offers Tips and Insights to Aspiring Writers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Holly Black, the best-selling author of The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, visited the Swarthmore campus this past Tuesday, April 8. While there, Black treated students and faculty members to a question and answer session regarding her life, her books, and her struggles and experiences as a writer.

When asked how she began her career as a novelist, Black replied that she actually started out as a poet. As a result, she had a lot of trouble transitioning to writing short stories and novels. “Poetry is really about defining a moment…really getting to the truth of it,” said Black. When creating a plot, however, Black found stringing those moments together, and making certain of them take precedent over others, more difficult. As she continued to write, she began to understand how plot worked and how to weave her characters into it. Thus, her popular fantasy novels were born — one even made it to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.

Unlike plot, characters and fantastical details have always been effortless for Black to write. Even as a child, fantastical beings were a part of her life. “It’s very easy for me to recall having a very fantastical sense of the ways the world works,” said Black. She grew up believing in ghosts and vampires, and as a result of being terrified read faerie folklore to protect herself. She joked that she even painted her Barbies to look like vampires — to protect her from “the other vampires.”

Despite the fact that her whimsical imagination is deeply rooted in her childhood, Black originally planned on her books being geared towards adults, perhaps due to the books’ rough themes such as insanity and drug abuse. What she hadn’t realized was that the young adult genre had changed drastically in the past few years — something she attributes to Harry Potter. When she was told that her books fit the young adult genre, she was at first surprised, but soon realized how much her books meant to the younger generation. Said Black, “Every kid who comes to a book needs something different [from it].”

Tips for Writers from Holly Black:

1. Characters, besides having human emotions, must have a desire or something else to drive them. This is what many writers forget when they’re developing a character. Though passive characters are possible, they are much more difficult to write well.

2. One useful method of writing a plot is to write a “personal plot” that weaves itself in and out of the central plot, crossing it at key moments. For instance, the central plot may be that a king is trying to defend his kingdom from a dragon; he battles the dragon and sacrifices himself at the climax, and has a bittersweet funeral at the denouement. The personal plot would be that the king realizes his wife is in love with his brother. At a crucial moment, he understands that either he or his brother must fight the dragon, and that this battle would result in the fighter’s death. The climax of the personal plot would be where it intersected the central plot, and the king decided to sacrifice himself rather than let his brother die.

3. A large part of learning to write is understanding the weight of certain issues. For instance, if a fantastical story needs to begin with the protagonist running away from home, the reason can’t be something as weighty as his/her being abused, unless one of the novel’s central themes is abuse.

4. Secret to finding an agent: Go and find a book you like, and look in the acknowledgements. If the author acknowledges his or her agent, the agent is probably very good. Next, send the agent a query, which is basically a request to look at your manuscript (which should include a quick, “snappy” summary.

5. Most writers have other jobs that support them while they write. Find a job that makes you happy, but also gives you the time you need to write. Black herself worked as a medical market researcher for a long time.

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