advice for writers


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Getting kids hooked on writing



What's your Advice to Writers?

(Have a look at my book ‘How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded my Maths Class and Turned me Into a Writer - and how you can be one too’ - it was published by HarperCollins (Bluegum) in 1998 and should be in your library.)


I think daydreaming is one of the best things you can do - not just daydreaming stories, but ideas for boats or houses... or even what Australia might be like in twenty years time when you become Prime Minister.

As for writing stories ... anyone who can daydream can create a story - because that is what you are doing every time you daydream. The hard part of course is learning how to put them down on paper - or getting the confidence to know that something you have dreamed up yourself is good.

There are drawbacks to the profession though - the first being that it can be very hard to get your first book accepted..and then you may not get paid anything till six months after it's published. (It took over three years to earn anything from ‘Rainstones’.)

But once you have a few books doing well it is much easier... and gets even better as time goes by. (Writers only get a small amount of the money from each book though - somewhere between 22c and 95c so you have to sell a lot of books to make much money.)

I think the most important thing about writing is having confidence - because if you think you can write well you write in your own voice, not copying ideas and expressions and characters from other people.

Remember too that it takes YEARS to learn to do anything well - from plumbing to house building to writing - and the more you work at it the better your writing will be. Every year I know my writing technique is improving - and it is incredibly rewarding to work hard at something and see that you have improved.

Learn to look at things too. I know this sounds odd - but most people don't really SEE the things they look at - they just take them for granted which is why so much of their writing (if they write at all) is made up of clichés - things that people have said before. Try just sitting and looking and then describing what you see in new ways, that no one has used before..and noticing how the world smells and feels as well. (There is always a smell or two about - even classrooms have their own particular smell - and often describing smells can be very evocative. Feel how the wind touches your skin. Is it warm or cool or moist or salty?

I think perhaps at your age the most important thing to do is just to write - and keep on writing - as much as you can; and to read and to watch and to imagine. I can't emphasise these enough - especially watching, because you need material to write about - not just second hand stuff from other books and TV and reading, so you learn techniques - but most of all writing, because you need to develop your own voice and you won't do that without many years of writing.

Don't worry if you don't finish a story. You don't have time at your age to write a novel - and most of your story ideas probably are books, not short stories. Just write the bits you desperately want to write - and one day you'll find they work themselves into your first book - or your fiftieth...

I shudder to think of some of the stuff I wrote when I was younger - at one time I used to use so much imagery and so many adjectives that you'd need gumboots to wade through it - but I think I needed to, to experiment and play around with words - and I'm very glad no one told me not to or I would have missed out on an important part of learning. I think that to be a writer you have to learn to be your own critic - and that means playing round with words as much as you can.

Also - if you can't think where to start a story, start anywhere - wherever it is most vivid, then when you have written all you can go back and fill in the missing bits - then rewrite the whole thing. A story has to be vivid to you to be good. If it isn't go for a walk or listen to some music till the ideas come to you - then get them down quickly!

If you still can't start, try telling somemone the story first - or speaking into a tape recorder. Remember that, till recently, stories were more often told or sung - or even danced - than written down. I think most of us are story tellers - but we don't have the confidence to set them down.

Writing tips

(Taken from ‘How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded my Maths Class and Turned Me Into A Writer’ (Harper Collins, July 1998)

How to Avoid Moth-eaten Ideas
Have you ever had a second hand jumper? Okay - second hand clothes are always just a little bit faded - and the more they're used the more faded they get.

Second hand ideas are like that as well. If you base a story on something you've seen on TV or a book you've read, it'll always be just a bit faded too - no matter how bright and exciting the original was. It's the same with second hand images - if someone says to you 'it was as hot as hell yesterday' you don't cringe away in terror. Except you should - after all, it's a HORRIFYING image - heat like the fires of hell, so great your flesh is melting off your bones...

The first person who heard that image probably WAS shocked... but now it's not just second hand, it's millionth hand - and it's faded. It just doesn't mean much anymore.

So what can you say instead? Okay - what do YOU know that's hot? Chips sizzling in the frying pan, bitumen that oozes through your toes, the car roof so sunbaked you can fry an egg on it (do NOT try this at home. I knew a kid who tried that once and the stain's still there five years later...).

And if you want an original character - one that hasn't mooched out of a book or movie... well, that's why you need to learn to make compost.

But that's another story.

How I Make My Stories Fat
If an alien from Alpha Centauri was travelling over the earth right now and looked through my window at me at the computer, then looked through your window at you - what would they say is the main difference between me and you?

Okay, I'm an adult and you're a kid - but maybe aliens think that young humans are really caterpillars and we don't get two legs till we're older.

The alien might notice that I have brown hair and green eyes (I don't know what colour your eyes and hair are)... or that I'm dressed differently (I bet you're not wearing a skirt with flour smudges, tee shirt with blackberry stains and bare feet) or that I've got a scar on my left hand where a wombat bit me. I'm not sure how observant aliens are.

But there's one thing the alien would notice straight away...

I'm fatter than you are - and my stories are much much fatter than your stories.

If you want to write good stories you need to make them fat. Skinny stories are no use at all. EVERYONE writes skinny stories when they start writing - you get an idea between your teeth and run with it as fast as you can till the end because you want to finish as fast as you can - because it's exciting, because it's interesting or just because the sooner you get the blasted thing written you can go and do something else.

So you're writing skinny stories.

A skinny story is like saying: '... and then the dragon ate the knight and all that was left was his bones.'

That's a really skinny story - and it's boring because it's skinny.

Instead of saying '... and then the dragon ate the knight and all that was left was the bones' you need to tell the reader...

What did it feel like inside the knight's armour?

What could he see?

What did the dragon's breath smell like?

What did it feel like in those last few seconds as the dragon's teeth penetrated through the steel?

What did the bones smell like three weeks later?

What did the dragon feel like when her stomach was full of knight? (Maybe he hadn't washed for six months and she got indigestion.)

When you write a story you have to put EVERYTHING into it. You know what that world is like in your mind - but the reader only knows what you've put on the page.

So make your stories fatter.

Once you've made them fat you have to make them skinny again. This is one of the secrets of really good writing.

When you make a story skinny you go through and cross out EVERYTHING that's boring - because if it bores you it'll bore everyone else. You have to cross out any words that don't say much. (Most verys and lovelys and awfuls don't mean much... it's better to put down exactly what you mean. Instead of 'it was a lovely day' say the day was bright as chilly butter. Instead of saying 'I felt awful', say 'my cheeks were so red I thought I'd frizzle up and disappear..but I didn't, more's the pity...'

Go through your story and look at EVERY word - and see if you can use a better one. (Not too complicated though, because if people have to stop when they're reading and say to themselves 'ah, that's an interesting word' the spell's broken. Use simple words if you can.)

When you make your story skinny you have to go through and pull out every word you can get rid of - most ands and thens and wases.

And by now you're probably yawning and thinking 'I don't care what she says it sounds like a lot of work.'

Well it isn't. This is the way to write your stories fast - much faster than if you didn't make them fat then make them skinny.

As I said before, most of the time you think you're writing a story you're just sitting there thinking 'What am I going to say, what am I going to say? No, that won't work. HELP! I can't think what to say... '

When you know you're going to go over your work and cross out everything that doesn't work you can just start writing - and keep writing even if it's rubbish it doesn't matter because you can cross it out later. So you write fast, and faster, and faster, and faster...

Once you learn to make your stories skinny - really chop out bits and add bits and rewrite bits - you'll find you just start writing and keep going till you can't hold the pen anymore.

Books that Gallop - Slowing Your Stories Down
When most people get an idea for a story they start writing and gallop away with it, trying to finish it as soon as possible.

Well, of course. It's exciting - so you want to get to the end. Or the teacher's waiting for it so you have to finish it.

But hurrying a story makes it a bad story.

Consider this bit of writing for example - ‘ ...and then we raced up the castle stairs and grabbed the treasure from the dragon and escaped out the secret tunnel.'

That's a boring bit of writing - because it's too fast. There isn't any time to build up suspense.

'And then we crawled closer, closer, closer to the dragon.

The dragon twitched its nose.

We froze.

'Do you think... ‘ whispered Michael. His voice broke off as the dragon opened one round and golden eye.'

It's boring when a bus goes slowly... but when a story goes slowly it's more exciting - because you wonder what's going to happen.

Slowing stories down also gives you time to get to know the characters in the story. Who cares what happened to the kids in the first bit of writing? I'm not going to start snivelling if the dragon crunches up their bones. They're strangers.

But if I've lived through the story with them for ten or twelve pages - or even two pages - then I'll be turning the last page in a hurry to make sure they're safe.

Long stories are usually more effective than short stories. (Not always. But it's VERY difficult to write a very short story that still has the power to move you.)

Always make your stories as long as you can. Most of the time you won't be able to make them very long - you won't have time. But if you can write a little bit of a long book instead of trying to cram all the ideas in your head into a few pages - because that way you won't get into the habit of writing books that gallop.

An excercise
Tell your best friend the most exciting thing that ever happened to you.

But don't just say: the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was when I fell off the roller coaster at Wonderland..

That's a skinny story.

Make it fat. Take TEN MINUTES to tell how you fell from the roller coaster at Wonderland (or were almost eaten by a shark or run over by a semi-trailer... )

What were you doing on the roller coaster? What did it feel like? Look like? Smell like? How come you fell?

What did it feel like flying through the sky? What could you see, hear, smell?

What was everyone else doing?

What did it feel like when you landed?

Now you've got a fat story. And a heck of a good yarn you can tell over and over again...