Tips for Writers

My favorite part of visiting schools is all the wonderful questions that children ask me after my presentation.  A lot of these deal with writing, and it’s always heartening to see young people eager to improve their craft. I’ve answered the most common questions below for any aspiring authors out there!

Writing Advice

Read and write.  

My guess is that if you’re taking the time to visit an author’s website, asking you to read is like asking a baseball player to shag flies or a musician to practice her scales.  In other words: you don’t need me to tell you to read. You’re already hooked.

As for the writing portion, that’s a little trickier.  If you really want to improve, you need to write outside of school, for at least ten minutes a day.  Try to be consistent and pick the same time: morning, just after homework, right after dinner, etc. Think of it like exercise.  In a few months, you’ll be a better writer than you are right now, and in a few years…well, wait and see.

Beats me. My poor brain is bombarded with ideas all day long, especially when I’ve been drinking lots of coffee. Fortunately, I’m good at knowing when an idea is good (a boy trapped in a witch’s apartment is forced to appease her with scary stories), and when an idea is terrible (pajamas made from waffles, so you can eat breakfast as soon as you wake up).  

It’s different for everyone.  Many writers are inspired by real life experiences.  Others get their inspiration from dreams or current events.  There’s no set rule. The trick is to always leave the door of your imagination open and recognize a new idea when you see it.  For this, you need to hone your observation skills and ask a lot of “What if?” questions. Some writers find that carrying around a little notebook helps, so you can jot down ideas when inspiration strikes!

Good news!  Since you probably read the type of stories that you want to write, you’re already studying the “right” authors.  Convenient!

However, it’s also a good idea to try out genres that you might not normally read.  If your read only fantasy books, for example, try a book of poems or historical fiction to shake things up.  The more diverse your reading tastes, the better writer you’ll become. (That being said, you should never force yourself through a book that you’re not enjoying.  There are too many books and not enough time.)

Another recommendation is to read short stories, since this is what you’ll be writing at this stage. Some excellent collections include M is For Magic (Neil Gaiman), Tales from Outer Suburbia (Shaun Tan), and anything by Ray Bradbury, especially The October Country (for older readers). My favorite children’s collection—with truly stunning artwork—is The Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken. Unfortunately, that one is out of print and nearly impossible to get,unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars.

Quit.  Writing isn’t for you.


All writers get writer’s block.  Okay, maybe not J.K. Rowling, but she’s clearly a demi-goddess who doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us.  Mortal writers get stuck all the time.

Here’s some things that have helped me in the past:

  1. Do something physical.  Take a walk.  Play basketball.  Clean your room. As you’re moving around, keep the story in the back of your mind and poke at it a bit.  Sometimes a body in motion helps jar ideas lose.
  2. Don’t write in order.  Maybe you’re stuck because you don’t know what happens in scene 2. Do you know what happens in scene 4? Write that one first! Movie makers film scenes out of order all the time, and there’s no reason that writers can’t do it too.  By the time you get back to the scene that was giving you trouble, maybe you figured out a brilliant solution.
  3. Just write it whether it’s good or not.  I don’t let anyone read my first drafts, because they’re terrible. However, that awful writing is actually a crucial step in my writing process; without it, I can’t figure out how to make my story good.  If you’re stuck, just force yourself to spit out some words until you’ve filled the page. It’s a starting point, not your finished story, and it’s a lot easier to start from something than start from nothing

I get it.  I really do.  When I was a kid, it annoyed me to no end that I had to write boring essays about “a positive role model in my life” when all I wanted to do was write murder mysteries solved by a dragon detective.   

However, here are three important things to remember:

  1. Your teachers know what they’re doing.  If they give you an assignment, they have a good reason for it.  If you really want to be a writer, you need to be good at writing everything. Learn from your teachers and do the best job possible.
  2. If an assignment seems boring to you, consider it your job to make it as interesting as possible. Challenge yourself to write the best personal narrative about “a time I accomplished something I was proud of” that anyone has ever written.  Make the writing itself the star.
  3. This is the most important part: You might be limited to certain assignments in school, but you can write anything you want at home!  That’s when you put all those important skills and techniques your teachers have taught you to good use, in any way you want.

That’s your call!  Some writers make extensive outlines and find that this method works well for them.  Other writers, like me, have a general idea of where the story is going, but pretty much make it up as they go along.  The only “correct” method of outlining is the one that works best for you.

If you truly want to be a writer, you need to revise your work.  There is no wiggle room on this one. You also need to be open to the idea of “big” changes.  Sometimes you have to throw out the 80-pages you wrote and start all over again (just like I did with The Thickety: A Path Begins).  And that’s okay.  There is no such thing as wasted writing.  

I spend more time revising my work than writing first drafts.  And I love it.