Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Things I Learned from Reading the Cybils that All Writers Should Know

I am still slogging away at the Cybils (pictured above: this week's deliveries), and as my fellow judges and I whittle away at our favorites, a few big things are jumping out at me, things that separate the amazing from the meh.

Number one: good is not enough.

I’ve said this before, but a good story, good writing, and good characters are not enough. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a book and thought “Well. That was fine.” Fine. Nothing jumped out at me positively or negatively, the plot went nicely from A to B, the characters developed. It was enjoyable. It was forgettable. It was fine.

YA has become one of the most dynamic groups of books out there, which, frankly, is why I love it so much. The problem with good is that it’s the bar. It’s the baseline. Readers come in expecting a certain level, and good is the bare minimum. This means good is not enough—your story has to bring something new to the table to stand out.

Number two: characters need to want.

In the Cybils, there’s a rule that if we read a book and know that it doesn’t meet the levels of the award, we can stop reading after 50 pages. Generally, I try to go a bit past the 50-page mark, just in case something exciting happens (I can think of two books on my shortlist that exploded right at 50 pages). Lately, though, if I’m on the fence about continuing a book, I ask myself a question: do I know what the main character wants?

Really, this is just shorthand for asking whether or not there’s any clear plot, and you would be surprised at how often I answer that question with “not really.” This tends to happen with a main character, usually a girl, usually nice and sweet and mildly attractive who doesn’t stand out in any discernible away and doesn’t seem to want anything beyond not attracting attention.

First, this is terribly boring to read, but more than that, there is not a single human anywhere on this planet who is not striving for something—fame, success, love, stability. Want equates plot, since, theoretically, the book should be the character trying to get what they want. Otherwise, it’s just stuff happening to them.

There’s a lot I’m learning from reading these books, but those are the two that have jumped out at me most. I hope they're helpful to keep in mind as you think about your own writing, and I'll be back soon with more Cybils updates!

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