The Rules of Survival

Post Date: March 18th, 2012

Yes, I do have a long-term relationship with fear…when I’m writing, I am not thinking about my readers at all. I am thinking about my characters–projecting myself into them as fully as I can. And I am also thinking about the dark places in myself and in my life.

I use my art–the writing of books that are filled with characters trying to cope with fear, injustice, and sometimes outright human evil–as a way to grapple with those same things that I perceive in the world around me. My writing always knows what is going on in the darkest parts of my soul, long before I do. I trust it to do so. And over time and many books, I’ve realized that this is not the burden I first thought. It is a gift.

When in doubt, Sonny says, “Hide your face.”

Nancy Werlin, author of THE RULES OF SURVIVAL

When in doubt about your future in the publishing industry, thou shalt do one of five things:

  • sleep the day away, in a tight ring, like thy cat;
  • read other YA while resenting other authors for being so accomplished and godlike;
  • eat recklessly while popping Benadryl, Lact-Aid, or Bean-o because your digestive system can’t seem to swallow food or the task of writing; 
  • cry over an episode of “My Fair Wedding with David Tutera”;
  • or stop feeling so damn sorry for yourself over a very First-World problem: having to rewrite your novel.
And as your Better Self takes over, note that the YA book you just read–THE RULES OF SURVIVAL by Nancy Werlin–is an excellent model of a tight, focused, fast-moving plot, dominated by the Big Ideas of fear and self-preservation. You can learn much from Werlin and her 13 year-old character of Matthew who must dodge a sociopathic mother and protect his two younger sisters.
Read it. You won’t put it down. The primal themes; the simple, direct sentences; and the adult tone of a young boy are completely believable. This is a young man who doesn’t have time for flights of fancy and eloquent diction. He needs to make it into the next day, in one piece, with his siblings.
It struck me on page 100 that I hadn’t even asked why we never hear about his friends. It seemed strange, but only for a second–as in, is this an author oversight?--and then I found the justification that a reader who believes in the story often does. I told myself, “People surviving abusive situations often shut down and hide their trauma.” And I didn’t care there weren’t a host of other characters. I didn’t need Matthew’s peers. I just needed him, Callie, and Emmy–the kids; and then the adults: the crazy mom, Nikki; the aunt, Bobbie; and the two men that might or might not help–Murdoch and Ben.
The Rules of Survival for the publishing industry are what you do after you get over yourself and your tender feelings. The Rules of Survival are simply 
  • read a lot of great YA; 
  • seek the feedback of smart readers and fellow writers; 
  • listen to your agent; 
  • and then do what your heart says after you get some distance from all that. 

As I send off a new synopsis to my agent, I will dig deep and take my cues from other authors who keep showing up to the desk. I’m still here, still writing, and this book ain’t dead yet.

Writing Prompts:
  • What incidents get you feeling incredibly sorry for yourself? And then later, do they get you feeling sorry for being so sorry? Write a piece called “Sorry.” 
  • Write a rant and a lament. Then write a Message Back to the Ranter, Courtesy of The Universe (or whatever power/force/spirit you believe in).
  • Nancy Werlin’s novel was inspired by an incident in a convenience store. She wrote a short story that eventually led to this novel. Think of a time when an incident between you and a stranger or an incident you’ve observed between strangers left you cold and marked by fear. Is there a story there?
  • Read Nancy Werlin’s quotation below about how she’s grown in her craft of writing and ask yourself to identify the level of skill you’ve developed in plotting, characterization, or other aspects of craft.
  • The Big Ideas of survival, fear, and aggression are compelling to us as readers; The Hunger Games with its worldwide popularity is yet another confirmation of what the people want. Is there an injustice or darkness you need to talk about but have dodged in your writing? Can you begin a page of the story that needs telling, and let the fear and aggression run amok, as much as they need to there?
I believe that each book teaches you how to write it. Each book requires skills that you did not previously possess. Readers of my first novel (Are You Alone on Purpose (Houghton, 1994; reprint forthcoming from Puffin, 2007)) can tell that I was then a poor plotter, for example. Readers of my second novel (The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte, 1998)) can see that I did not know how to transition in time; I had to label my chapters with the date. I learned about writing action sequences in my third novel (Locked Inside (Delacorte, 2000)). I learned to work with a large cast of characters in Black Mirror (Dial, 2001). These are only small examples.

Think of a writer as being like a carpenter. The writer’s toolbox should grow over the years; her skills should increase. At first she can only build a rough toolshed; by the end of her career, if all goes well, she can build a castle–or a perfectly balanced Shaker cabinet.”

Nancy Werlin, in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith


  1. Keep writing, Lyn! I love the way the quote helps you own writing as not just a skill, but as a spiritual practice and a healing gift to yourself and the world.

  2. Thank you, Marcia! Writing is spiritual practice…and when it isn’t any longer, we need a spiritual tune-up!