Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Writing lessons learned from JUST LISTEN



Guys, I have a new love. The object of my affection is Sarah Dessen's writing style. Dessen is the author of JUST LISTEN, and several other YA books. In YA circles, I'd heard Sarah Dessen this, Sarah Dessen that. Now that I've read JUST LISTEN, I can see why teen girls love her books.

A brief description from Amazon:

When Annabel, the youngest of three beautiful sisters, has a bitter falling out with her best friend--the popular and exciting Sophie--she suddenly finds herself isolated and friendless. But then she meets Owen--a loner who's passionate about music and his weekly radio show, and always determined to tell the truth. When they develop a friendship, Annabel is not only introduced to new music, but is encouraged to listen to her own inner voice. With Owen's help, can Annabel find the courage to speak out about what exactly happened the night her friendship with Sophie came to a screeching halt?

Here are some of the writing lessons I learned from this amazing book:

  • Keep secrets--I feel like I mention this all the time, but that's probably because I really admire authors who do this well. In JUST LISTEN, something bad had happened between Annabel and her best friend Sophie. Something bad had also happened with a guy. But we don't know what these Big Bad Things are until much later. 
  • If the protagonist does something out of character, set up the why--Annabel wasn't a rule breaker, but when her new friend Sophie suggests breaking a rule, Annabel crosses that line. Why? An older guy had shown interest in Annabel, and Sophie used that information to lure Annabel to the other side.
  • Show important character traits early--Sophie, the best friend, is insecure and controlling. This is shown, not told, very early. As a matter of fact, it's shown in a long flashback (which totally worked, by the way). We learn early on that Sophie is someone you don't want to cross, and her behavior with Annabel makes total sense.
  • Consider placing an important romantic moment in an unlikely place--Annabel and Owen don't share their first romantic moment with candles and soft music. Instead, it's at Owen's house, with five thirteen-year-old girls running around, having a fake modeling shoot. It was unlikely and took me by surprise.
  • No banging over the head necessary--JUST LISTEN had many layers of important emotions and issues. But Dessen didn't bang the reader over the head. Instead, she quietly and expertly wove a complex story, and she took her time doing so. It was beautiful.
  • Quiet books work--JUST LISTEN had zero explosions, zero car chases, and zero shouting. It was a real-life drama at its best and worst, and played out with memorable characters. Even in the quietest moments, something important was happening. Not all readers are fans of quiet books, but I am, especially when they're packed with strong emotion.

When I grow up, I want to write books that affect people the way JUST LISTEN affected me. As a reader and a writer, this book changed me.

Have you read any of Dessen's books? What did you think of her writing style? And what do you think of the above writing lessons? Please share!

25 comments:

  1. I always love these posts of yours so much, Julie! These are six fantastic tiles, although awfully hard to pull off, by the way. Especially the keeping secrets one. I'm trying to do that in my WIP. It's a great way to build urgency for the reader, but it's a tightrope act between giving away too much and authorial withholding.

    Thanks for the tips!

    Martina

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    1. Martina, I struggle with this SO much, but I love it when it's done well. Something to strive for!

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  2. Not my genre, but I can understand the points you made. I had a surprise romantic scene in my second book, which hopefully people liked because it was one of the only romantic scenes!

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    1. Cool, Alex! Surprise romantic scenes are the best kind :)

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  3. I really enjoyed this book! Contemp YA is my favorite genre and Sarah Dessen writes them so well.

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    1. Ghenet, I hadn't read her books before, but now I'm a huge fan. I've got another one I'll read next!

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  4. JUST LISTEN was the first book that I read from Sarah Dessen but my favorite of hers is THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER.

    I love her character-driven novels -- just as intense to me. I always learn so much about character development from reading this author.

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    1. Ooooh, I saw that one on her web site. I have "Along for the Ride," which I'll read next. I learned so much from her!

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  5. I haven't read her but you've piqued my interest. Thanks Julie.

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    1. Lee, I have a feeling you'd like this author!

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  6. I'm completely with you on these lessons. When I'm critiquing and the writer tells me everything about the character right at the onset, I know I'm in for trouble. I also think the softer inciting incident makes for a stronger story, although I do tend to like action. I'm not so much a contemporary fan either, but you can learn all kinds of lessons by reading cross-genre. =) Great insight.

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    1. Crystal, it's such a challenge to get that pacing right, isn't it? And I agree about the softer inciting incident.

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  7. What a great review and tip list, Julie. You've got me thinking about how this relates to my WIP and plotting some revisions. Thanks!
    -- Susan

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    1. Susan, I hope it helps. I tell ya, it really made me think about how I structure my own work and how I pace it.

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  8. I HAVE to read this book now! I'm working on deepening my characters in this revision of my WIP, and it sounds like I can learn a lot from Sarah's storytelling dexterity. Thanks Julie!

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    1. Oh, I sure hope you like it! I learned so much from this book AND enjoyed reading it. Win/win!

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  9. I'll have to check this one out. Thanks Julie!

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    1. Nancy, if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it :)

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  10. I always marvel at the golden nuggets you pull out of books. This one sounds lovely. I like "quiet" books.

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  11. Sounds like another I'll have to pick up. Thanks!!

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  12. I've never been able to get into her books, but after reading your synopsis, I'll have to give this one a try. Great recap, Julie!

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  13. Great post, Julie, and I love your final conclusion that "quiet" books work. It certainly sounds like an interesting book artfully rendered.

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  14. omg, I LOVE Sarah Dessen for the very reasons you state. Her novels are quiet, and she expertly weaves unexpected situations and character traits throughout. She's the master! love her~ :o)

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  15. This is the first Sarah Dessen book I read! I really loved it. I especially remember Owen. :D Such a cool character.

    Love when you do these posts, Julie!

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