7 Things I've Learned So Far, by James Dashner

This is a new recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer James Dashner. James Dashner is the author of The Maze Runner as well as The 13th Reality series (all YA books).
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by James Dashner, author of THE MAZE RUNNER) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

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Guest blogger James Dashner's latest
YA book is The Maze Runner.

1. Not every agent is right for you. I’ve had quite the interesting journey with my book, The Maze Runner. I actually wrote the first draft of it almost five years ago, and it’s been through many ups and downs since. One of those stops included signing with my first agent. Although she was great and got my manuscript in front of some top editors, I think she should have recognized that my work wasn’t good enough yet, and pushed me to make it better. We also had major communication problems and ended up going our separate ways. Later, after many revisions of Maze and the publication of The 13th Reality, I signed with a new agent (Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich) and we sold Maze to Random House three weeks later.

2. Networking is key. Almost every author I know—and certainly myself included—can trace their publishing success back to someone they met at a writers conference. If you want to get published, I can’t think of any better advice. Attend every conference you can find and afford. Not only will you find editors and agents (and you can’t overstate the value of face-to-face meetings), but you’ll also meet other authors and aspiring writers who can help your journey. My two biggest breaks: meeting an editor from the publisher of The 13th Reality, and becoming friends with an author who later recommended me to her agent.

3. Differentiate your characters. In my early writing, all of my characters were exactly the same person. They all spoke the same, made the same types of jokes, reacted the same, etc. I think they were all just me in disguise. Something I’ve worked on really hard over the last few years is making them stand out from each other. Different backgrounds, thought processes, ways of speaking, emotional reactions, senses of humor (or lack thereof), etc. Ironically, this was very difficult for The Maze Runner because none of the characters remember their previous lives, and memories and background are very useful tools for character development. But I did the best I could!

4. Immerse your reader in the story with depth. Another thing I’ve worked hard to improve. In the beginning, I wrote my stories much in the way you’d tell a quick bedtime story. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc. I’ve learned patience. Give internal thoughts of the characters—show us what they’re thinking and feeling. Use the five senses when describing setting. Patiently develop scenes, building them to their climax or revelation. It’s a fine line—you don’t want your reader to get bored. But you also don’t want them to feel like you’re just rushing from one cool scene to the next.

5. Don’t make your hero or villain two-dimensional. This is so important on both sides of the coin. A villain is so much more compelling if they’re not just purely evil. When you’ve made your reader feel empathy for the bad guy, you’ve won. Two great examples are Severus Snape and Darth Vader. By the same token, you don’t want the protagonist to be Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. Give them flaws and weaknesses. Make them do things that cause the reader to doubt whether or not that person is worthy of the title, hero. Then you’ll have created characters they’ll never forget.

6. Set goals and work to achieve them. True story: In August of 2003, I set a goal to become a full-time author within five years. I told a bunch of my friends so I’d have witnesses and people to push me. Well, funny enough, I quit my old job as an accountant (bleck, retch, puke) in August of 2008, exactly five years later. I know the goal helped me. I also set daily writing goals (words per day) when I’m in first draft writing mode, and that really helps keep me on task. You don’t have to get all Stephen Covey crazy about it, but goals do work.

7. It’s all about the story. You will and should do everything in your power to improve your actual writing skills. You’ll work hard to create characters that are compelling and unforgettable. But in the end, it’s the story that matters. Don’t ever let the other stuff get in the way of your inherent skills as a kick-butt storyteller. Move the reader, make them happy and sad and excited and scared. Make them stare into space after they’ve put the book down, thinking about the tale that’s become a part of them. Be unpredictable, be real, be interesting. Tell a good story.

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James Dashner is the author of
The Maze Runner as well as
The 13th Reality series (all YA books).
See his author website here

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