Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing Exciting Action Thrillers - tips and discussion from twitter chat

Last night I was 'guest host' of a twitter chat all about writing exciting action thrillers for kids. If you're on twitter, take a look at the hashtag #ukmgchat - there's a fresh discussion every couple of weeks (the last Wednesday of the month and the second Wednesday of the month). The 'mg' stands for 'middle grade', which is the American term for the kind of books I write - anything for ages 8 to 13ish.

If you're not on twitter, here are a few of the main things that came up. It was pretty intense trying to hammer out answers in such a short format with no time to think about it before more comments and questions came flying in. So this is all pretty raw, but I'll stand by anything I said...

Do you know how you want an action/fight scene play out before you write it?
-I know what the outcome needs to be & story elements that need to happen. Beyond that is a fair bit of improv then edit.
-Punchy verbs make it easier to FEEL what's happening. Hit the guts harder. Adjectives get in the way.

Obsessed w language. Anglo Saxon better than Latinate, short chunky sound-bitey words?
-Agreed. Balancing word-length, sentence-length & pace/timing is the constant concern when editing action.

Hi Joe. How do you choreograph your fight scenes? Do you act them out?
-I have toys or use pens as people to slo-mo choreograph fights, action etc on my desk. Then I need to write precisely.

Picked up a good tip last night - you can control speed of reading as a minute a sentence level.
-I like to monkey about with that. One model for writing action is the Iliad, for its long similes at unexpected moments, holding back the pay-off til it's almost insufferable.

How gory/visceral can MG action scenes be? About to write a key (medieval) battle scene and not sure how far to go!
-I'm fairly ungory in disposition so I usually go one step beyond my own taste. It's instinct more than rules.
Worth testing on kids of that age. They will invariably tell you to ramp up the gore.
-Not always wise to listen to kids. You are the writer. Do it your way.

What are your favourite thrillers? Best action scenes? What gets your heart pumping??
-My models for action writing are Robert Ludlum and The Iliad.

How do you sustain action in your stories? Do you follow a method or let the characters dictate?
-Story first. Action serves story. Plot all planned out in advance. Sometimes I find unplanned action moments but rarely.

What for you is the most challenging aspect of writing thrillers for kids?
-Main challenge is maintaining a 'real' feel to it when kids are doing crazy action stuff. Could get silly v easily.

Are your books popular with girls and boys? Did you write specifically for one or the other?
-Audience for my books splits about 50/50, girl/boy. I don't consider audience at all while writing.

I don’t write action if I can help it. Usually have tons of characters and it's rock hard keeping track of them all in actiony bits.
-Action with any more than 2/3 characters is tough. Like juggling. I try to separate spatially into discrete scenes.

What is the best advice you can give to other MG writers looking to get published/ represented?
-Ignore trends, just write. Learn to cook well. Only share work as late as possible in the process.

Do you think action scenes are the way to get reluctant readers into books?
-Up to a point. Dull action scenes as bad as dull anything else. What matters: GRIPPING STORY. Tension not action.

How long do you think action scenes should be to keep them exciting?
-1 or 2 exchanges then move on. Or one major reversal. Stop just BEFORE you think it's done. Then cut half of it. Build the structure of action like a mini-story, with acts & climaxes. Sustains tension.

What do you read for inspiration?
-Ludlum, Lawrence Block, Nabokov.

In fight scenes how do you judge how much is too much? And have you ever been told that you got it wrong?
-Helicopter chase in my 1st book was about 10 times longer in 1st draft. I cut & cut & cut til it was good enough.
-In a fight scene, too much = anything more than the minimum. IMPACT more important than length. Boil it down. INTENSITY.
So do you often write more action then you need and cut or does it pan out mostly how you would like it?
-Usually 1st draft has more than I need. I rewrite action scenes & cut a lot in the edits.

Any tips for writing thrillers?
-Thrillers rely on rigorous plotting, clarity of hero's aims & intensity/originality of villain & his/her plans.

Any action no-no's to watch out for? Other than, "Don't confuse the reader."
-Mistaking movement for action, motion for emotion, volume for impact.

There was a lot more, with some recommendations of books to check out as well as tips from other writers getting involved too. If you want the full whack type #ukmgchat into twitter.


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