Writing Advice

A friend (M) asked me for advice for said friend’s child (R) who has shown interest in and talent for writing. So here’s what I came up with. I offer this to you as either inspiration, a wet blanket on your enthusiasm, or however you want to take it.

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So my thoughts for R. (or you, or the teacher, or whoever else wants to know about writing) are this (in general order, but do a lot of them all at the same time):

1) To write well, you need to read. A lot. And a lot of different things. R. should be reading at least a book a week, maybe 2 or 3. She doesn’t have that much going on that she can’t also be reading a lot. So find a few authors she likes and read a bunch by those. And then find some things that she starts and thinks, “I absolutely hate this”, then finish it and asks yourself, “why did I not like it?”

2) Write. A lot. Get a notebook. Write at least 10 minutes a day. Here are some topics to start writing about, if you can’t think of some:

I feel…

I smell…

I remember…

I want to go to…

I used to be…

One time, when I walked outside, I saw…

I wish…

Yesterday I dreamed…

When you fill a notebook, read it back through, once. Then put it on the shelf. Start another one. When you finish that one, read it through, then put it on the shelf. Keep going until you have 10 notebooks. Then keep going again. Sometimes, set a timer for an hour and don’t stop writing until it goes off. If you get stuck, keep moving with “Okay, now I’m stuck and I don’t know what to write. So I’ll just write what I hear. I hear…”

3) Did I mention reading a lot? Yeah, keep doing that.

4) If she’s going to be blogging, I recommend you (M) be the blog owner and she work with you to publish stuff. That way you’ll have access to comment moderation. I use WordPress, because it’s free (if you want, I think I pay something like $99 a year to have a domain that doesn’t include “.wordpress” in it). I’m sure there are a hundred blogging sites, you can find something that works for you.

5) At first, set a schedule for blogging. Like, “one post every Monday and then one every Thursday or Friday”. That way, one of the things  she wrote on Friday – Sunday can be selected for Monday, and one of the things from Monday – Thursday can be selected for Thursday or Friday. This will get her into a rhythm of writing, but it will also remove the pressure to create additional pieces just to post. Don’t worry if it isn’t great. Blogging isn’t meant to be perfect.

6) Read. A lot. Not just books. Have her read the New York Times from front to back one day. Go to the library and read an article from each of Cat Fancy, Guns & Ammo, Cosmopolitan, Ebony, and Science. Mix these up, read different titles each month. She won’t understand some, some you might have to chaperone or totally block, but just get her reading a variety of stuff, not just Nancy Drew or Wimpy Kid all the time.

7) Write more.

8) Read more.

9) Have her write a story. Make sure it has a beginning (something was like _____), a middle (then this problem arose_______), and an ending (and this is how the people solved the problem__________). Read it, give your honest feedback. Have her friends read it. have them give their honest feedback. Put it aside. Have her write 5 more stories. Read them, giving your honest feedback. Have her choose one of these to revise. Have her friends read the revised story. Have her revise it again. Put it aside.

10) Invite her to write letters to 10 authors. These could be people who have articles in the newspaper, or book authors, or magazine article authors. See if she gets any response.

11) Keep writing. Keep blog posting. Keep revising. Keep writing stories. Once she’s written 20 stories (each with a beginning, middle, and end), have her submit one to a magazine. Have her be honest about herself, her credentials, and be realistic. Expect rejection. Aim for 100 rejections. Once a story is rejected, find another place to submit and send it in. It might take 5 years to write enough stories to get 100 rejections, and some stories may have 20 rejections while others only have 1 or 2. That just means you’re honing your craft all the time.

12) Keep reading. Keep writing. Write for yourself (R), not for anyone else. If you like it, that’s important. If you like it and you’re authentic (which means it’s real, not just “what you think your audience wants”), that’s enough. Nobody else may ever like it. That’s fine, if you’re writing for yourself. Because ultimately only you need to be satisfied with it. And, strangely enough, if you are satisfied with it, eventually you will find an outlet for it.

13) Sometime you’ll want to, in your writing practice, start with “I write because…” You should attack this topic a couple of times a year. I still do, because I still don’t have a definitive answer for why I write. Mostly it’s because I love the feel of creation. I love to be surprised at what my mind comes up with when my pen is scratching across the paper. Some of it is the desire to impact people. Very little of my writing that I really enjoy is because I’m going to get paid for it or because it’s going to make me famous. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, they write because they can’t not write, not for any other reason. They would still be writing if they weren’t making the same money from it. The money is a bonus because the things they wrote are authentic for them, and, as above, since it’s authentic, it resonates with others too.

14) Read. Read the classics. Frankenstein. Dracula. The Swiss Family Robinson. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Read the classics of tomorrow:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The Hobbitt. 1984. The Prophet (Gibran). When you finish reading something like this, take one or more of your writing practice sessions to critique these stories. What worked for you? What was confusing? What was unexpected? What was too bland? How would you have made it better?

15) Create your own rules. These are suggestions. Read them. Read Strunk & White. Read Anne Lamott. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Read the AP Manual. Create your own writing rules. Follow them. Break them. Make new ones. Follow those. Break those. Make new ones again.

16) Be yourself. Write the stories you want to read. Write the essays you want to read. Write the poems you want to read. Write the plays you want to see performed. Write the songs you want to hear. If you can do that, you’ve won.

— SJ

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