7 Writing Lessons from Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Uglies by Scott WesterfeldAs a writer, I’m always reading. When I can slow down enough to appreciate the art behind the book, I take mental notes. Here are some that made it out of my head…

Scott Westerfeld writes SF&F for a YA audience. His stories are fast-paced, action-focused, and very YA-minded — not at all like what I write, and not what I read most of the time. Which means they have something to teach me. So I’ve just finished reading one of his SF series — Uglies, Pretties, and Specials. (Yes, I know about Extras. More about that later.) Here’s what I learned.

(I’ll flag any major spoilers, but not minor ones.)

1. Start late, end early.

Westerfeld will often start a scene by jumping right into a conversation or an activity. The reader has to wait for a page or two to learn how his POV character, Tally, got there from the last scene or what happened in between the two. I tend to include transitions at the beginning and/or end of scenes to orient the reader, but now I see they’re not always necessary. And he’s careful to make the scenes emotionally engaging right from the beginning, so the reader is swept along instead of trying to puzzle out what just happened.

2. Use ALL the senses.

You’ve heard this before — don’t rely just on sight and sound if you want to create a vivid scene. Westerfeld is really good at this, especially touch. He’s always describing the experience of heat or cold, aching muscles, or the feel of wind against Tally’s skin. That makes each scene and setting come alive.

3. To speed up pacing, try writing scenes that span multiple (short) chapters.

You try putting a book down in the middle of a scene — it’s almost impossible. So writing chapter-spanning scenes makes a book fly by. Other tips from Westerfeld’s writing: minimize internalization and description, write short paragraphs, and of course, don’t forget the power of cliffhanger chapter endings.

4. When writing SF or F, don’t forget the “wow, that’s cool” moments and details.

Early in Uglies, we’re introduced to hoverboards — basically flying skateboards — and crash bracelets, which stop you from getting hurt if you fall off (by slowing your momentum). They’re just plain fun to read about. But Westerfeld doesn’t stop there. Hoverboards and crash bracelets come back over and over throughout the series, for different purposes and with different resonances. He gets a lot of mileage out of those two devices. At the same time, each book in the series introduces new technology to get excited about.

5. Make sure conflict has consequences.

#4 is important, but books are about characters, not cool details. Westerfeld is good at this too. (SPOILERS…) He makes Tally choose between her community or clique (represented by a friend, such as Peris or Shay) and her boyfriend, over and over again. The boyfriend usually represents the “right” choice, the moral one, the hard one. But whichever side she chooses, there are big consequences for her relationship with the other. The result is that by the end of Specials, we really feel like we’ve come a long way along with Tally.

6. Give your POV character a relatable, immediate goal, especially if there’s a reason your readers might dislike them.

(SPOILERS…) In Pretties, Tally has been brainwashed to be stupid, but she’s still worried about fitting in and being accepted as part of the group, and she keeps saying the wrong thing and being awkward — all very relatable problems. (It helps that the audience knows something Tally doesn’t: that she’s actually undercover and waiting to be rescued by the Smokies — a great example of dramatic irony.) There’s a similar setup in Specials, to great effect.

7. Know when to stop.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t read the fourth book in the series, Extras. Why? Several reasons. (SPOILERS…) First, the end of Specials felt so final, so perfect and complete, I didn’t really want to disturb that feeling. Second, I peeked at the beginning of Extras, and it introduces a new POV character  sneaking out of her dorm, just like Tally in Uglies…and I feel like I’ve been there and grown out of that already, like Tally. Third, the situations and technologies in the first chapter seem like they’re going to revolve around different themes than the first three books, and they’re not themes that float my personal boat (YMMV). So, possible lesson here: know when to end a series (or a book). Though I will readily admit I might have stopped too soon…

(And, Extras notwithstanding, you can bet I’ve got Westerfeld’s steampunk series — Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath — on my TBR list!)

Your turn! Have you read Scott Westerfeld? What did you take away from his writing? Should I rethink my decision not to read Extras?

If you liked this post, you might also like 7 Writing Lessons from George R.R. Martin.

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5 responses to “7 Writing Lessons from Scott Westerfeld

  1. I’ve been meaning to pick up Uglies because I’ve heard such great things about it and the other books in the trilogy.

  2. You should! 🙂 They’re very fast-paced and exciting reads.

  3. I haven’t read any Scott Westerfeld, but I have met him. In fact, he’s been in my (former) car. Not that he’d remember, it was years ago… Anyway, namedropping games aside, I think you’ve extracted some great tips here. I particularly like your first point, which is something I need to practise more too.

  4. Cool, Ellen! Yes, my early drafts tend to include a lot of “And then they spent three days doing X until they got to the next relevant plot point” (not quite in that phrasing, though…!). I’m good at cutting that out to a certain extent, but Westerfeld made me realize I could be going a lot further.

  5. Augh, scene transitions are the *worst*.

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