Michael Grant’s Tips on Writing

‘You are the enemy you must defeat’

The dark genius of YA fiction has some tips on how to conquer your writing demons and transform your ideas into the bestselling dystopian nightmares of tomorrow.

1)    Do It Your Way.

There is no correct way to write a novel. There’s your way. Just your way. Try as you might, you won’t write like anyone else. So bear that in mind as you go through the rest of these tips. I’m not telling you how you should do it, I’m telling you how I do it. And bear in mind, too, that I write almost exclusively in series, not single titles. You want advice on how to write single titles talk to John Green or Andrew Smith.

2)    Have An Idea.

Obvious, yes. But I find it helpful to have some idea in mind when I start writing. Doesn’t have to be much of an idea, really. The essential idea for the GONE series is basically “TV show LOST meets X-Men.” The idea for ANIMORPHS, which I co-wrote with my wife, is “Kids can turn into animals to fight aliens.” The idea for BZRK is “Wait, what’s living in my eyelashes?  Oh my God. That’s really disturbing!”

3)    Start Building.

I tend to think in almost architectural terms with a series. What’s the structure? Where are the cross-beams? Have we added enough windows? Basically I assemble elements: Characters, locations, plots. I create a series bible that serves to focus my own thinking, as a sales tool, and as a reference for who looks like what later on when I may forget. I usually have a couple of characters in mind, major positional characters: hero, hero’s friend or significant other, enemy, enemy’s friend or significant other. These are the people I absolutely need. Everyone else is supporting cast. In the GONE series Sam, Astrid, Caine and Diana are the core. In MESSENGER OF FEAR it’s Messenger and Mara and Oriax.

4)    Ooooh, Pictures!

I go online and start pulling head shots off Google Images or Bing onto my desktop. This guy could be Sam, so could this guy, so could this other guy. I get hundreds of potential cast members. Then I narrow it down. In the process of doing this I often come across pictures that aren’t what I’m looking for, but who interest me. The character of Dekka in GONE started as a picture of this tough-looking chick. I liked her. So I “hired” her.

5)    Who Are They Wearing?

Now I start compelling a dossier on a character. We know what they look like, but what do they care about? What do they hate? Who do they love? What music do they listen to? What’s on their bedroom wall? Of course this is fluid and is really just a focusing mechanism – things will change when you start writing.

6)    Location, Location, Location.

I like maps. I like locations. Just as with characters, I pull shots from the web. This mountain, that home, a school. BZRK was the most disturbing version of this since the locations were often down inside the human body.  I spent many hours looking at scanning electron microscope (SEM) pictures of nerve cells, bacteria, pollen, hair, and of course, mites of various types.  Some very creepy stuff to spend hours with.

7)    Then What?

Okay, so I have some of my characters (more will be added later) and some of my locations (ditto) and I have a core idea. So, what next?  Exactly: what next? What happens first and then second and third and so on for thousands of pages. My approach is to start with a compelling premise, then walk it forward logically but without shying away from anything. In GONE I had not thought about what would happen to babies left parentless for days. I figured the characters would be similarly clueless, so I followed it through logically and showed that infants starved to death in their cribs.  Yeah, so… That was kind of dark. But it was true to the premise.

8)    Planning?  Nah.

Beyond what I’ve talked about in the previous tips, I don’t plan the books out. I like being surprised. It’s scarier for the writer not to know, and hopefully that nervousness translates onto the page. There’s a theory that fiction exists to create order out of chaos. But I don’t like playing God, I respect chaos and like to find ways to incorporate it. It’s more real that way. I don’t want to reassure the reader, I want the reader biting his or her fingernails the whole time. Even in a series like MESSENGER OF FEAR where the explicit purpose is to impose moral order, I’m busily subverting that order. Because it’s fun, that’s why.

9)    Do What It Takes.

I have three rules for not screwing your life up: a) Don’t get pregnant or get anyone pregnant, b) Don’t become addicted, c) Don’t kill anyone, including yourself. Avoid those three things and you’ll probably be okay. But short of those three things, do whatever the hell it takes to get your book written. You have to be ruthless because some part of your brain is going to try desperately to stop you.

Yes it will.

You are the enemy you must defeat.