Getting Kids Hooked on Writing Stories
(There’s a lot more on getting kids to write stories in Rocket Your Child into Reading and How The Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded my Maths Class and turned me into a Writer and How You Can be One Too. Both are published by Harper Collins.)
I met Gavin two years ago, in a High School at ... No, on second thoughts, I won't mention where it is!
I’d been asked to give a workshop for the keenest creative writing students and Gavin, who was definitely not in the top set, asked the librarian if he could come too. She asked me if I minded one more and I said, ‘Whacko, the more the better’
Gavin didn’t participate in the workshop, but he didn't looked bored either. He frowned now and then, as if he were working things out, and now and then he nodded with enormous concentration.
Gavin stayed behind when the others left and asked if I'd mind having a look at his story. I said sure, expecting a few pages.
He fished out a great wad of paper from his sport's bag.
'It's only 86,000 words so far,' he said. 'I think I'm about a third of the way through. I wrote another last holidays that was 120,000 words but this one is better.'
I began reading. One decapitation on the first page and a space carrier with all its passengers blown up. No more murders till page three.
'I didn't want to show it to any of the teachers,' he said. 'They'd think I was weird. I want to write books like Stephen King when I leave school.’
It was superb writing - clear, direct, well paced. Okay, it was full of blood and sex, but there was nothing kinky, nothing so dark I was afraid he was writing to work out some horror at home.
This kid just liked a good bloodthirsty thriller - a taste shared by a large part of the male (and a smaller but still significant proportion of the female) population, and that will probably make him a multimillionaire when I'm counting my cents to see if I can buy an extra scone when I'm eighty.
His story wasn't professional standard yet - you don't get that sort of polish at fourteen. But at the rate he was writing - and really WORKING at his writing - I expect to see his work on the airport bookshop shelves within a few years.
I tried to persuade him to show his teachers; he refused. I had a chat to his teachers and told them what he’d written, and why he hadn't shown it to them. One said automatically, ‘Well, he was probably right. I don't see why boys want to write that stuff.’ But by the end of lunch the rest of us had persuaded her otherwise.
Why expect kids to write 'nice’ stories when they don't want to read 'nice' books or watch 'nice' movies, and their taste is so widely shared?
I hope they persuaded Gavin to show them his work. I think they must have, since he hasn't e-mailed me with his new book, so I suppose he has another audience and helpers now. But I do sometimes wonder how many other boys are bored and under performing, because they are expected to be something they are not.
PS On the other hand I wouldn't encourage a kid to write blood, sex and gore - there's enough in the world already! And I would worry if a younger kid did so, in case he was expressing the terror or horrors he didn't know how to talk about. But with Gavin - well, good luck to him!
What kids get from writing stories
Writing stories is like riding a bicycle - hard work at first, but once you are used to it, delightful!
2. Word skills
How to use words they've heard and put words together.
3. How to think clearly and consecutively and put thoughts in the best order for people to understand them
Even if your child stops writing fiction at twelve, they'll have learnt skills that will help them write anything from a report to an instruction manual to a critical essay.
How to get kids to love writing stories
The first idea kids come up with is usually based on a book or movie- pretty much a cliché. But the more they THINK about their story the better it gets.
And the better it gets, the easier and faster it is to write.
When kids are first learning to write stories it often helps to do this bit in a group- the whole class together the first time, then maybe a group of friends working it all out together.
Where is the fascinating spot in the universe to put the story?
What does it look like?
Think of three absolutely fascinating things to put in your story.
Who are the main characters?
Think of a name.
Are they male or female?
What species - humans, anima, alien, mermaid vampire, zombie…
How old are they?
What do they look like?
What do they spend most of their time doing?
And now- most importantly- what do they want more than anything else in the world?
Will they have it by the end of the story? HOW DOES THIS STORY END?
So..what else needs to go in this book to get to the end?
NB: Kids don’t have to stick to this outline. It’s not a recipe. It’s just a way to get them thinking.
The more they think the better, and easier- it’s going to be.
But OF COURSE the story will change as they write it, or get other good ideas.
Here’s an example of thinking out a story:
Where would the best story you ever read be set? I’d set mine in a world with intelligent wombats who served scones and jam and cream down wombat holes. But you might prefer a story set on a space ship, or a zombie world where everyone lives in giant zombie chickens.
Who are the main characters? I’d have the world's most handsome wombat, Fuzztop. And a vampire chicken called Gloria.
Three things you really love and want to see in a book: . macadamia ice-cream, lots of cold watermelon and zombie spaghetti, a terrifying treasure hidden deep under the earth . a battle between the furry forces of good (the wombats) and the slime worms of the Dreadful Depths Below.
How the story ends: Gloria learns how to vampirise a carrot. Fuzz top invents The Way of the Carrot- a new form of martial arts using vegetables. The Slime Worms turn out to be allergic to carrots, which is good as the Way of the carrot may be delicious but it's not much good for whamming Slime Worms. The world is saved, apart from the carrots, as now Gloria is eating them too. And the treasure turns out to be . . .
So try it for yourself. Where is the story set? Who are the main characters? Three things you'd love to see in a book (or more; a good book needs a hundred great ideas, not just three.) How does the story end?
Write the most exciting or interesting bit…but, and here’s the catch, don’t stop writing till you’ve finished it.
Doesn’t matter if it’s messy or not as good as it could be. Just write!
(This is to astonish reluctant writers ... they will be stunned and delighted at how much they have written, and how good it is if they’ve had fun thinking up a great story first.)
Write the ending. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation.
…now write some more bits…
Put the bits together…add any other bits needed…. rewrite boring bits… but step 5 may not happen for years. Most of the stories kids come up with are for long novels or a TV series- not a short story.
But they only have time to write a short story. Pushing them to ‘finish’ the book will only make them hurry the story along. It teaches them bad writing. Best to make sure they finish writing the ending, and leave the ‘complete’ stories till they are older and have a spare year or two.
Ps Few adult writers can write a good short story. It’s harder- not easier- to stun the reader with a few words instead of lots. The short story is the hardest thing you can get kids to write. A fragment of a long story is infinitely easier.
1. A story is not a spelling text!
Don't worry if kids can't spell the words in their story! And don't correct them either or the kids will become too inhibited to keep writing! Just make a private note of the words that are badly spelt so you can help them with them after – much, much later and very, very discreetly!
2. Let them range!
Let your kids write about what THEY want to write about - this is fun, not a way to turn them into a junior Shakespeare. And if they DO turn into a junior Shakespeare they are best left to experiment and find their own voice.
3. Don't worry if it's a lousy story!
Of COURSE it will be lousy - they are just beginners! But also the more ambitious a young writer is, the more experiments they'll make. Kids who write NICE stories – a bit like their latest book and with butterflies in the margin - are possibly just trying to please their loving parents, not writing from the heart. Give them the freedom to make a mess of it!
4. Don't worry if they don't finish their story.
Hounding kids to always finish their work will make them hurry the story along to get it done and that will teach them very, very bad writing habits.
The story they are writing is probably a novel or a movie script – not a short story! So let them just do lots of bits - one day, when they have time, they may finish a book - if they want to.
If they wanted to be a builder you wouldn't expect them to build a whole house at their age - just experiment with building other things. So don't expect them to write a whole book either.
5. Provide paper or word processor.
Yeah, sounds obvious, but how many houses have writing materials on hand? And when a kid wants to write they want to do it NOW! Leave piles of scrap paper where they can be found easily and used whenever the child wants to.
6. Praise them!
Who cares if it's lousy? It's their best. And there will be something there that you can pinpoint as commendable. So praise it and them and their hard work.
7. If they are really into writing, borrow books on writing stories from the library.
See ‘How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded my Maths Class and Turned Me into a Writer and How You Can Be One Too’ – a book for kids. But reassure them that every writer has their own ways of making up a story - I outline my stories and think about them for ages before I start the actual process of writing i.e. putting words on paper (or rather on screen!). But other authors find that boring - they'd rather just write and not know what happens next until they have written it!
In other words, give kids help - but leave them free to do it their own way too - or to find out which way works for them.
8. Give kids a great range of books, so they can absorb the techniques other writers have used to say the things they want to express.
9. If the kid is particularly proud of their work DON’T send it to a publisher, or to a writer asking how to get it published!
You'll just be raising the kid’s hopes unrealistically. A book by a kid gets published maybe once a decade, if that.
Kids can write brilliant stuff - but it's usually only 98% brilliant. And that uncertain, amateurish 2% will almost certainly make publishers reject the book and disappoint your kid.
A kid who wants to be a doctor doesn't expect to start practising at fourteen - and it's a really bad idea to let your kid think they might be a professional writer at fourteen too.
(The mum of Nobel Prize winner Patrick White paid for his early poems to be published, and in later years Patrick White did his best to get hold of every copy still extant. The stuff you write at fourteen, even if you are brilliant, may be desperately embarrassing to you ten or twenty years on.)
On the other hand, a kid's story can be a great gift for aunts, uncles and doting grandparents - and a great memory to hand on to their own kids in twenty years or so too. There are computer programmes that will let you produce a reasonably professional looking book. Or ask the advice of one of the companies that specialise in self-published books. Contact the Writer's Centre in your nearest capital city for a list.
A Few Writing Questions from Kids
Hi Jackie, I’m entering a Young Writer's Award and I have no idea what to write about! we can only use 500 words and being ristricked to that amount makes it really hard for me. i haven't got any ideas. u probably can't give me any cos yor not allowed and cos thats cheating, but, i dunno. please tell me what u think i should do.
Answer. Think of the past two weeks; what are your most vivid memories? Playing with the dog? Some news item? The stuff you remember most vividly is what moves you most...which will give you a clue what to write about!
And with only 500 words DON'T SPEND TOO LONG ON THE INTRODUCTION! That is the main mistake beginning writers make in short stories- the start takes 300 words then they rush the rest.
Try writing the end first! But do make it something that really moves you...if you find it boring so will the reader! Good luck! J.
Question: I don't know where to start!
Write the ending first. I 'm serious.
It's easy to write the beginning of a story- then stop, as you runout of ideas.
But if you write the ending first you have to THINK about the story. What is it about? Who is it about? What do they want more than anything else? Will they find it? Where will this story end up?
You may not stick to the ending. But it WILL make you think before you write.
p.s It's much easier to write a GOOD beginning when you've already written some of the book. The beginning is the bit that will haul the reader in- so it must be vivid. But it doesn't have to be written first,.
Question: I can't get any ideas! Can you give me some as I have to write my story by tomorrow.
Answer: There is no such thing as inspiration! Just years of THINKING and looking and listening and analysing, then suddenly it all comes together and you know what your story is going to be about.
And then you REALLY start thinking.
Yes, there is a point when a story idea comes together- but if you haven't done lots of thinking about all sorts of things first, it won't happen. Ideas don't just drift out of the sky. I wish they did. They have to be worked for.
So..what are you really interested in (If you say 'nothing' then there is no way you are going to be a writer)
think about the last two weeks- what did you feel passionate about? And yes, this can be as simple as playing with your dog- write a doggy book- or gossiping with friends. Write about what you care about.
Think about the most vivid scene you can create in your mind. Your own home? An alien planet? A tropical island? That is where you set your book.
See also 'How the Aliens etc' for more on outlining a story.
Question: How can I make my story better? (No kids have actually asked that, but here’s the answer)
1. THINK about your story before you write it: no matter how good your writing is, your story will still be boring unless you can come up with some fascinating ideas.
2. Don't over write.
It took me years to realise that being good with words can actually be a handicap if you want to be a good writer!
I'm very good with words. I can make words stand on their heads and wiggle their toes. But beautiful writing doesn't make a good story.
IDEAS make a good story- and if the story itself isn't good, no amount of good writing will make it interesting.
Sometimes too people who are good with words over write- they use more words than they need to tell the story.
Use AS FEW WORDS AS YOU CAN, even if every one of them is beautiful. Words can really get in the way of the story.
(On the other hand someone who is brilliant with words can weave a story out of almost nothing, but that's ALMOST nothing...the story must be there, and the words will just be doing a perfect job of telling it)
p.s If the reader ever stops to say, hey, wow, isn't that expression wonderful, you have failed as a writer. A writer's job is to get the reader so involved in the world they are creating that they are aware of nothing else- even the words used to create the story. Stunning writing should only be obvious when the reader has already read the story at least three times, and can now concentrate on how the book was made.
i recently read `hitlers daughter` as a school assignment and now i have to do a project on you and i was wandering if you could give me some information about your self and the book `hitlers daughter`. ok first i need the names of your sons daughters and grandkids, i need what school you went to when you where young and finally what gave you the idea for `hitlers daughter`.
Answer: (Short groan from overloaded author)…please look at the web site!