Author of the hilarious My Scorching Summer Diary, Liz Rettig give us her five best tips for writing a diary book
First, a confession: I’ve never managed to keep a proper, real diary for more than a couple of weeks and gave up trying ages ago. Typically by around the middle of January there would be four or five entries along the lines of: “Had baked beans and toast for lunch. A bit soggy. Pizza followed by chocolate cheesecake for dinner but with Diet Irn Bru as I’m still watching my weight. Was pleased when my brother told me I didn’t need to watch my weight, but not so pleased when he added that was because, with the amount I ate, my weight wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Cheeky sod. Nothing much on TV so went to bed early.”
Not the kind of stuff to rivet anyone, including me. When my life did get more interesting though, it was usually in a horribly embarrassing way that I didn’t wanted to think of at the time, far less write about. You know the kind of thing. You meet up with an old mate and you tell her you heard she’d split up with her boyfriend last year, and how happy you are, as he was a useless tosser you could never stand. Then she says stiffly, “Actually Nigel and I got back together again and we’re now engaged.” Hmm.
So, many years later, I turned to fiction writing instead. Totally imaginary stuff and not, as some have suggested, based on embarrassingly awful incidents that really happened to me in my teens. In particular, the transparent swimming costume beach episode had nothing to do with me whatsoever. Honestly.
Now that we’ve got that sorted here are some tips that might help those of you interested in writing a book in diary format.
Read lots of diary books: Not to copy, of course, but to get a feel for the various writing styles and techniques used in this type of novel. If you like teen humour, why not try Sue Townsends’s Secret Dairy of Adrian Mole 13 ¾, Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries, Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson series or the Kelly Ann diary books by Liz Rettig (a.k.a me).
Have an engaging central character: Diaries, of course, are written in the first person so in some ways it’s easy for readers to identify with the main character but there are pitfalls too. You can’t have your character describing themselves in a wooden, stilted way. ‘My name is Kelly Ann. I’m skinny with medium brown hair.” Instead you need to draw your readers into your character’s world in a natural, easy way. Like this: If I were blonde, the flat chest and spots wouldn’t matter so much. Honestly, you could have two heads and if one of them was blonde some bloke would fancy you but with mouse brown hair you just have to try harder. This tells you not only something about how the character looks but also how she feels about it. Sorted.
Make sure there is conflict: As with any other novel, you need to give your character problems to solve - maybe lots of them. I mean, imagine this diary entry: “Fortunately I’m really popular at school with loads of amazing friends. I’ve got a loving, supportive family with parents who never embarrass me and, best of all, a gorgeous boyfriend who totally loves me so we never argue about anything. My life is perfect, really. I’m just so lucky.” Now, okay, I exaggerate here but you get the idea- if this carries on for a few chapters then the reader has no reason to turn the page to see what happens. Also, your readers will hate her. Well, I would anyway. So make sure you give your main character plenty of troubles, difficulties, set backs, crisis. Pile them on. If you’re writing a thriller then perhaps she is being stalked by a psychopathic killer who plans to slit her throat in a gruesome manner and toss her dismembered body in the Thames. A romantic comedy? Okay then, the worn-out white second-hand swimsuit she bought for a quid from the charity shop turns transparent as soon as she dives into the sea and she can’t come out of the water for fear of exposing herself to everyone, including the hot boy on the beach she so wants to make an impression on. But not like that! Frankly I’m not sure what would be worse – gruesome dismembering or revealing all on the beach, but maybe that’s just me.
Use Dialogue: With diary books everything is viewed form the diarist’s point of view which can be limiting if you’re not careful. You need to make sure that other characters in the book are given a voice too and fleshed out. One way to do this is with dialogue. Or you can use reported speech (without quotes). Here is an example from My Desperate Love Diary when Kelly Ann’s best friends advise her on how to behave on her very first date.
Asked Liz and Stephanie what to do about snogging.
Liz advised that I should keep my mouth closed on the first date – absolutely no tongues – but Stephanie said I should go with my feelings and do what seemed natural.
Liz then said I could allow a bit of breast fondling but on no account let them put their hand up my skirt. She said if they tried to do that I should guide the hand back to my breasts. The thought of a boy trying to fondle my flat chest fills me with horror. I suppose if that happens I will just have to guide his hand up my skirt.
And finally, don’t forget you’re writing a story: Real life diaries ramble on, much like real life, without any structure. But a story has to have a shape. An interesting beginning to hook your reader, a well structured plot and. . . a satisfying end. Good luck!