Advice for Young Authors
Every now and again people ask me for writing tips, and my answers are scattered through my blog. Now I’ve gathered those answers all together here, in no particular order, and will add to them occasionally. So if you’re looking for advice, read through the following to see if I’ve already answered your question. If I have, good. If I haven’t, feel free to ask.
Just to get you started, here’s a very nice message that I received from a young writer:
I wrote to you a long time ago and you gave me some great hints on how to write a good story. The one I found most useful was scrapbooking. I cut pictures out of magazines and if I’m walking down a road in town and spot something weird or interesting, I write it down. This has helped me have lots of great writing ideas, and I find it much easier to write a good story now.
A: The main thing to remember with a new idea is cause and effect. So just because you think it might be cool to have a murder (for example), you can’t just dump it into the story and expect it to fit. Everything has to happen for a reason. e.g. Maybe someone cheats a colleague out of money. As a result the colleague threatens to report them to the police. The dishonest person is already on bail, and if they get reported they know they’ll go to jail. So they murder the colleague.
So X happens, which causes Y to happen, which in turn causes Z to happen. That’s cause and effect, and it’s really important when you’re writing. EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON! If you don’t have it – if the murder just happens for no reason – your story becomes unbelievable.
A: It’s very tricky. Because for every decision you make to write about something, you’re also making a decision NOT to write about something else. But getting lost can be a good thing – quite often that’s when the best ideas come up. Let yourself get lost every now and again and see what happens. And meanwhile keep writing the other ideas down in a notebook so you don’t forget them.
A: Backgrounds are an interesting thing. I find they sort of grow – I work out a bit of background for each character before I start writing the story, but then more appears while I’m writing. In my first draft, my characters are often quite boring – it’s not till my third or fourth draft that they start to have all that intriguing background. When I’m writing I try not to think too much, so that interesting things can sort of pop out of my fingers unexpectedly.
A: It’s quite hard to describe how I come up with plots and characters. I sort of daydream them. I know that’s not very helpful! What MIGHT be helpful is to tell you that it’s important to have characters who want something REALLY badly. And it’s even better if the thing the hero wants clashes with the thing the villain wants. So the whole thing about ‘this person has red hair and glasses’ isn’t all that important. What really matters is what they want, how badly they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. That’s how you get good stories.
A: Don’t worry about not knowing yet what your main character wants. Ideas take a bit of time to cook, so just ask the question, then let it sit in the back of your mind, and every now and again bring it out and wonder about it a bit more. And I didn’t mean that your hero and your villain have to want exactly the same thing – just that their desires have to cross in some way. e.g. your villain might want someone dead – your hero might desperately need that same person to be alive. In Museum of Thieves, the Fugleman wants power, and is willing to unleash a vicious army on Jewel to get it. Goldie wants to save everyone she loves from death and/or slavery. These two desires clash, even though they’re not the same thing.
Also, you’re allowed to copy other people’s ideas when you’re starting out. It’s all part of learning how to write!
A: I’ve recently started using a cork board for planning, and it’s been interesting and fun. I used scraps of different coloured paper, depending on which character I was dealing with. So sometimes I do that, sometimes I use cards and write scene ideas on them, sometimes I just do it on the computer. I also have a notebook especially for the book I’m working on, where I write down everything I think of so it’s not lost. As far as planning is concerned I don’t start anywhere in particular – I just think of interesting scenes and put them down, and shuffle them around later. When I start writing, I start somewhere near the beginning, but often not right AT the beginning because that’s always the hardest part of a story to get right. Except for the ending. That’s hard too.
A: One of the main things to remember for an exciting story is that the stakes have to be high. In my early drafts of Museum of Thieves there were no guardchains – that was an idea that came to me quite late, and it changed the whole book. So don’t feel that you have to come up with all the ideas for a story straight away. Sometimes you write it and THEN find out the good stuff. An important thing to think about with characters is to ask yourself what they want, and how badly they want it. Hopefully that should clash with what the villain wants. And then ask yourself – what would happen if the hero/heroine lost? If nothing bad would happen, then there’s not much point writing the story – this is what I mean by having high stakes. Something really important has to hang in the balance, otherwise we won’t care who wins.
A: What you have to do is think about what will challenge these particular characters the most. What sort of people are they? What are their strengths and what are their weaknesses? The sort of danger they are heading into should be something that will make them grow in some way, or teach them something. For example, if someone is a really good sword fighter, and all that happens is that they get into lots of sword fights, that’s actually fairly boring, because we know they’re going to win. But what if that same sword fighter is afraid of cats? And the person they are fighting knows that, and uses it in some way. Then it suddenly becomes a lot more interesting, cos the sword fighter is going to have to overcome that fear – and there’s always the chance that they’ll lose. So find out a bit more about your characters, and what they’re afraid of, or what they’re not very good at. Then toss them into exactly that situation, and see what happens!
A: It’s not uncommon for authors to get ideas from a book they have read. But what you must keep in mind is that the initial idea is, in a lot of ways, the easiest and least important part of a book. It’s what comes AFTER the idea that counts. That’s where you make the book your own. I always have quite a long space after I’ve got the initial idea for a book, and before I start writing. This is where I think about who the characters are going to be, and what they are like. Not their looks, because that is not the most important part of them, but their nature – what they really want in life, what they love, what they hate. This time is also where I think about what sort of things might happen during the story. You need to do this work from your own heart, thinking about what you believe in, and not copying anyone else. If you do that, the book you end up with will be totally different from the one that gave you the idea in the first place. You see, you could give two writers exactly the same idea to start with, and their books would be completely different. Our writing comes from our heart, and from our intellect, and from our life experiences, and everyone is different in those things, so everyone will write a different story, unless they are copying.
A: If you’re uncomfortable about writing certain things down, then don’t do it. You have to take all writing advice (including mine) with a grain of salt – not every bit of advice suits every person. When you are young, it is hard to keep your writing as private as it sometimes needs to be, and if you’re concerned about it, it’s better not to do it. So for now, write down the things you see and hear and smell during the day, and the way people act, and other external stuff like that. That’s all very useful for a writer, and makes you better at observing the world.
A: The best way is to read it out loud. You can read your work to yourself (that’s what I do) or to someone else. If you read it to someone else, take careful note of where they lose interest – where they start to look around, or cough, or shuffle. That almost always means that you’re describing things too much, or that the story has taken a boring turn. If you’re reading to yourself, you need to listen for the bits where you get bored.
This all takes practice, of course, but it’s a good thing to do. Reading your work aloud is one of the best ways of improving your writing.
A: Twists can be tricky things. I have read books where there was a twist that just didn’t work – mainly because it felt as if it was there just for the sake of having a twist, and didn’t really fit the story properly. So the first thing to remember is that a twist must grow naturally out of a story. I’m sure you’re aware that, when you’re writing, you need to think about cause and effect. For example, you might have a girl who runs away, and leaves a note for her parents, and her parents then set out to find her by questioning all her friends. The cause is the girl running away, and the effect is the parents questioning her friends. Of course, the girl running away is also the effect of something – perhaps it was caused by her parents’ cruel treatment. If she runs away for no reason, the story doesn’t make sense. This is what I mean by cause and effect.
The best way to find a twist is to ask yourself – what other effects might come out of that cause? e.g. What if the note the girl leaves gets lost somehow? So everyone thinks she’s been kidnapped, and there is a massive police hunt for the people who have taken her, which ends up with her boyfriend being arrested. That changes the story entirely – and means that the girl is going to have to do something to free her boyfriend. And whatever she does will have an effect. So a story is like a chain: cause – effect – cause – effect – cause – effect etc. A twist is merely an unexpected effect. Everything a person does (in both fiction and real life) has expected and unexpected consequences. Your job is to find those unexpected ones, and if they’re not there in your story already, put them in. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, which means they will also surprise your readers.
A: Stuck. Hmm, let’s see. The story sounds VERY exciting so far. I wonder if perhaps something might happen as a result of one of the things that happened earlier. So something that your characters thought was finished and dealt with comes back unexpectedly? As with life generally, it’s good not to waste your resources in a story. By this I mean, if you have had an interesting character previously in the story (one of the assassins perhaps?), then try using them again rather than bringing in an entirely new character. It’s more interesting for the reader if there is a connection between events rather than just one new event after another. It’s a bit like weaving a particular thread in and out of the story. So you bring in something from before, but with a new twist. Maybe the villain (whoever it is) now has helpers. Or maybe they are more desperate than before, for some reason. Whatever it is, if you are writing an adventure story (and it certainly sounds as if you are) the danger levels must rise for your heroes as you go through the story, right up until the story climax, which is when we get the biggest danger of all.
I’ll give you an example of using a character several times. In City of Lies, the Bandmaster is quite a minor character. Yet he pops up three times and plays a very important part in the story. 1. He’s the first person Goldie befriends in Spoke; he gives her something to eat (after she has stolen it and then given it back) and alerts her to the fact that Harrow is a person to be terrified of. 2. Later on, he and his band play a major (though unwilling) part in Goldie’s rescue of Bonnie and Toadspit. 3. Later still, he and his band help Pounce get on board the Piglet, and when the Big Lie strikes them they chase Guardian Hope away.
Now I could have used a different character for each of these things. But that would be wasteful and besides, it’s far more interesting using a character that we already know.
You’ll find some more good suggestions here from Susan Stephenson – they are mainly ideas for getting started, but you can use many of them for getting unstuck as well.
A: So let me get this straight. You have lots of good ideas, and the beginnings work well, but then you get stuck and can’t get any further? Is that what happens? If so, I wonder if perhaps you are starting to write the story too soon after the idea first comes to you. Ideas can be funny things – they need time to cook if they are going to turn into a proper story. If I start writing as soon as I get an idea, the whole thing sort of fades away before I get very far into the book. It’s a bit like starting out on a long bush walk without enough food in my backpack, and quickly running out of energy. As well as that, not all ideas are as good as they seem at first.
So what I do now when I get an idea is, I start a notebook. And I jot down thoughts about the story, and cut out pictures and stick them into the notebook – anything that might be interesting, like photos of people or places – and write down things that might happen as part of the story, or things about the characters, or bits of dialogue. This is a really interesting part of writing, because once I start thinking about a story like this, all sorts of thoughts come to me, often as I’m about to fall asleep at night (which is why I always keep a bit of paper and a pen beside my bed). So when I start to actually write the story, I already know a lot more about it. Doing it this way is a bit like packing my backpack full of good food before I set off on that bush walk, so that I can go a good long way and not run out of energy.
Also, keep in mind that learning to write books takes time. It’s like learning to play tennis, or swim, or build a house. You must be both patient and stubborn. Patient, because it always takes a long time to learn to do things well. Stubborn, because there will be times when you feel as if you will NEVER learn, and will be filled with despair. The main question to ask yourself is, do you enjoy writing stories and inventing characters? Because if you do, you will always want to come back to it after those moments of despair, and try again. And THAT’S how you eventually become a good writer.
My last piece of advice is this – have fun. Don’t worry too much about getting published – you’ve got plenty of time for that in the future. (Patience, remember?) Don’t even worry too much about finishing a book. Experiment and play with different ideas, and enjoy yourself. Maybe what you are doing right now is learning to write good beginnings! That’s a really useful thing to learn. So if you can’t get to the middles, try jumping straight to the end of the story, and write some endings instead. There’s no law that says you have to write it all in proper order.
A: I’ll answer your questions in reverse order. First, headings and titles. A title should be both a teaser – something that will get people interested in reading the story – and a promise – something that gives them a true sense of what sort of story it might be. So, for example, if your story is funny, it’s good to have a funny title – but you wouldn’t want a funny title on a serious book, because it would be like promising something and then not delivering it. If I’m having trouble finding a title I will often do a brainstorm – i.e. set a timer for five minutes and write down as many titles as I can think of in that time. I don’t worry about whether they are any good, I just write down anything that comes into my head. Then at the end I look through them and throw out the dreadful ones, and usually end up with a short list. Once you’ve got a list, it can be good to test the titles out on a friend or two – ask them which titles would make them want to read the book (this is REALLY important – a good title will make people really want to read it), and what sort of book they think it might be.
Secondly, length. I wouldn’t worry too much about length at this stage. Some chapter books are short, some are long. The most important question is not how long it is, but whether you have told the story as well as you possibly can. Sometimes a writer will rush over bits of the story that should be told in great detail, and this will make it shorter than it should be. Other times they will write too much detail, and it will be longer than it should be. The best way to judge is to put your story away for at least a month and not look at it in that time. Work on something else and forget about it totally. When you come back to it you will have a bit of distance from it and will be able to judge it more clearly and see what is wrong and what is right and what needs to be changed. This is also the best way of finding out if it makes enough sense.
Thirdly, adjectives. Taking a break from the book will also help with these – when you come back to read it after a month you will be better able to see if the adjectives are good ones or not. Generally as a writer you don’t want to rely too much on adjectives. Most of us overuse them when we are starting out, and it can be a good exercise to go through your work and see how many of them you can get rid of – this can really improve a story. It’s important not to put in an adjective just for the sake of it – only use them when they are necessary. So, do we need to know that someone has blonde hair? Maybe not, if it’s not an important part of the story. But we DO need to know that they have cruel eyes, because it tells us something about their character. You’ll find that verbs are usually more important than adjectives in creating a picture in your reader’s head. Verbs are the engine room of your writing – they are what gives it power. Words like ‘blundered’, ‘staggered’, ‘crept’, ‘stalked’, ‘rushed’ give us such a wonderful idea of what a character is doing. So when you come back to your book after a month’s break, check your verbs and make sure that they are nice and strong, especially in the exciting bits. (Of course if someone is simply walking down the road, you would simply use ‘walk’. )
A: Some writers use a lot of descriptive language and others don’t, so not being good at it is not necessarily a problem. Part of learning to write is working out what suits you – what your particular style is. The main thing when you’re starting out is not to try to be too fancy. Just tell the story and see what happens. Then put it aside for a couple of weeks at least, so that when you come back to it you are reading it with fresh eyes. Remember that most writers do quite a few drafts of whatever they are working on. So your first draft might be very disappointing. (Most first drafts are!) But that’s when the work begins. You read it through and try to understand why it’s not working as well as you want it too. Maybe you’ve skipped too quickly over some parts. Maybe you’ve gone too slowly over others. Or there might be another problem altogether. So then you start on your second draft and try to sort out some of those problems. Read the work of some of the authors you admire and see how they dealt with the situations that you are writing about.
Another important thing is not to be discouraged. You have to be immensely stubborn to be a writer – like anything else worth doing it takes time to learn how to do it. Most people who are ‘overnight successes’ have been writing steadily for ten or twenty years before they hit the public eye.
And finally, I hope you are reading a lot. Read a lot and write a lot – that’s how you develop your writer’s instinct. Whenever you read a story, try and work out why you liked it or disliked it.
A: It can be very hard to judge your own work, so your stories are probably not as stupid as you think they are. I always find that when I’ve written something, I have to put it to one side and forget about it for a few weeks, then I can come back to it and read it with a clearer eye. I must admit that I too sometimes find I have written something that seems stupid But the trick of being an author is knowing that first drafts are often VERY BAD, and that you can then work to make them better. If you had seen the first draft of Museum of Thieves, you would not have liked it. I wrote twenty drafts before I got it right! So you see, being an author requires a lot of stubbornness.
A: Endings are hard, aren’t they? ALMOST as hard as beginnings, which I always have particular trouble with. I think I rewrote the ending of Museum of Thieves about fifteen times before I got it right. Probably the best way to learn how to do them is to read the endings of all your favourite books, and see what the authors have done. And then try to sort of copy it. I say ‘sort of’ because of course your story will be different, and so your ending will be different. But for example, if one of your favourite books was the first Harry Potter book, you look at the ending and find that there are really two endings. The first one is when Gryffindor wins the house cup, and Harry thinks it’s the best evening of his life. And the second is when he says he’s going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer. Both of them are terrific endings, and perhaps the characters in one of your stories could think something a bit similar. Not EXACTLY the same, of course – make sure you change it to fit your story!
If you were an experienced writer, I would never tell you to do this, because you’re not allowed to copy other writers’ work. But when you’re learning, this sort of almost-copying can be really useful. It’s a way of finding out how good authors do it, and practising, and then gradually finding your own endings.
A: My first tip would be read read read – because this is the way you learn the rules of story, and absorb good writing, and find out what works and what doesn’t. Besides, you can’t be a writer without being a reader (although some people try!). My second tip would be write write write – because writing is like tennis, you have to practise it to get good at it. And don’t just write one sort of thing, even if you’re sure that you KNOW what sort of author you want to be. Experiment. Try writing some poems, or a short play. Write a fantasy story, then a realistic one. Write an article for the newspaper and another one for a magazine. This sort of experimenting will build your writing muscles and help you develop your own writing voice. And you might find that your interest lies somewhere unexpected!
A: No, I don’t think that 12 is too young to write. However your mother is also right, in that you must LIVE life, and not just read about it. I didn’t realise this when I was 12, but I do now. You see, I have discovered that you need to know a lot about life to be a good writer. You need to observe people, and observe yourself, and open your senses to the world. THAT is how you come to write good descriptions. It’s a useful exercise to sit outside somewhere for ten minutes or so and write down everything that you can hear, smell, taste and feel. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or proper sentences – just try to capture as much of it as possible. We humans tend to over-use our eyes, so it’s important to practise using our other senses whenever we can. But as well as using your senses, you must also use your brain and your emotions. To be a writer, you must think deeply about why people behave the way they do, and try to understand them – even people you dislike. You must try and understand yourself too – which is not always easy! You must listen to the way people speak and watch how they walk, and see what they do when they are happy or sad or frightened. You must put yourself in their shoes. Only then will you be able to write convincing characters. It is all research, you see! So don’t forget this, when your mother wants you to do something other than reading. She may not realise it, but she is sending you off to do research.
Now for your other questions. I use felt-tip pens and big sheets of paper when I am stuck. I mostly use them for brainstorming – for example if I can’t work out how Goldie is going to rescue someone, I’ll get out a sheet of paper and give myself ten or fifteen minutes, and scribble down as many ideas as I can in that time, as to how she might do it. Some of these ideas will be really silly, but I don’t judge them, I write down EVERYTHING. This can be a really good way of getting the answer to something. I like using different coloured pens and lots of arrows and circles as well, to inspire me. Sometimes too I use this method to find out more about a character, what sort of things they like, and what they hate, and where they came from etc. Again, the important thing is not to judge, but to write down everything. Then, when you’ve finished, you can sort through the ideas for the useful ones.
Point of view can be tricky. I’m not mad on first person, though some people do it brilliantly. Why don’t you try writing a small bit of the story from one person’s point of view, and then try it from someone else’s? Sometimes you have to experiment like this to find out which is best.
A: I have a policy of not reading other people’s unpublished work and giving comments. I used to do it, but it took up so much time that I stopped. Sorry I can’t help.
A: Knowing if the story you’re trying to write is any good can be hard. The best way I know is to put it aside for a while after you finish it – maybe for a couple of weeks or even longer. Really the longer the better. This is because when you first write something, you’re still very tied up in it and it’s almost impossible to judge whether it’s good or not. But if you put it aside for a while, by the time you come back to it you’ve got a bit of distance from it and you can look at it as if someone else wrote it. I do this ALL the time. And usually when I come back to something I can see ways of improving it. This is why authors write many drafts of their stories – making it a bit better each time. The other thing I do is show it to people who I trust. Not my family, who will always say that it’s terrific But someone who knows about writing and who will give me good advice on how I can improve it. (In your case this might be a teacher you like and trust.) You see, even professional authors don’t get it right first time – we have to work away at a story until we get it the way we want it to be.
It’s very hard for a friend to criticise your work honestly without hurting your feelings and perhaps damaging the friendship. It might be best to ask her just to tell you two or three things she likes best about what you’ve written, and why she likes those things. That is very useful, as it will help you to understand your strengths as a writer. But don’t push her beyond that.
If you want more serious criticism, you need to go to someone like a teacher. Someone who you trust. But don’t ask them to just generally criticise or comment on your work – ask them to tell you what they like about it, and then ask them to tell you one or two things that you could do to improve it. That lets them know that you are serious about your writing, and want to become a better writer.
Remember in all this that it’s very hard for anyone to criticise your work without hurting your feelings, but if you seriously want to be a writer you just have to get used to it. I always hate it when someone says something I don’t like about what I’ve written. I go off by myself and swear a lot, and sometimes cry, and tell myself that they are wrong wrong WRONG. And when I’ve got over my hissy fit, I come back home and think seriously about what they said. Often I find that they were right, after all. 🙂
I get ideas from all over the place – from newspapers, from people I meet, from things I see, from other books. Some of them come and go and never turn into stories. It’s the ones that stick in my mind that interest me – the ones that tingle with energy, so I can’t wait to explore them. But I don’t start writing a story for ages after the idea first comes to me. Instead I carry a notebook around with me and jot down thoughts about the story as they come to me – it’s sort of like letting the story grow by itself for a while before I get really stuck into it. (Actually, it’s a VERY good idea to carry a notebook – to get in the habit of writing down interesting things you see or hear. This is all part of the training to be a writer.)
A: Sometimes I start with just jotting down ideas on a big bit of paper – you’ll see an example here under the heading ‘making a mess’. I don’t worry about putting things in order, or about whether the ideas are any good or not – I just throw down everything I can think of as to how the problem might be solved. Sometimes the ideas might be quite silly, or impossible, but I put them down anyway. I’ll also sometimes set a timer – for maybe five or ten minutes – and see how many ideas I can get down in that time. Then when I’ve finished I pick out the ones that I like and work on them.
At other times I start with the character and think ‘What would this person do? How would they react to what has just happened?’ You see, everything in a story has to happen for a reason, otherwise readers won’t believe the story. It’s called ’cause and effect’. For example, if someone is punished for something they didn’t do, you ask yourself – what sort of person am I writing about? Would they fight back? Would they run away? Would they just bow their head and take it? Would they secretly plot revenge? All of those things (and many more) are valid responses, but which one actually happens depends on the character of the person you are writing about it. Character is SO important – everything starts there.
A: If you’re stuck, try starting with one of these and see where it takes you:
Write about something you love.
Write about something you hate.
Write about something that scares you, or
the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, or
the first thing you remember from when you were very small, or
the time when you felt really jealous of someone.
It’s a good idea with stories to start with something you feel strongly about (either good or bad) which is why I have made the above suggestions. You don’t have to say it’s about you, of course. You can make the story about someone else, called – um – Bettina or any other name you fancy. And once you’ve got started, you don’t have to stick to the truth. These are just jumping off points.