1. Be the Sponge
The famous playwright, August Wilson, used to haunt a cigar store called Pat’s Place in Pittsburgh. He didn’t say much. He kept himself to himself. But he absorbed everything that was happening around him.
Writing is born from observation. The more you hear and see, the more material you’ll have for your characters and settings. Whenever you’re stuck in a boring situation—an airport terminal, an author reading, a family reunion—be the sponge. It’s fascinating to find out what people will do and say in public.
2. Always Ask Why
The best kind of writing avoids assumptions. When you spot someone who’s behaving in an unusual manner, ask yourself, “why?”
- What’s going on inside that person?
- Why are they acting like that?
- What is their hidden history?
3. Keep an “Ideas” Notebook
And write down ideas that occur to you during the day. These bits & bobs could include funny events, strange jokes, descriptions of people, notes about nature, metaphors—anything that might feed into a story later on.
You may never use these musings. You may adapt them or combine them or distort them. But the act of writing them down matters.
I call it push-ups for the mind. If you don’t exercise your brain muscle, you may end up relying on clichés or predictable plot lines. Stretch your imagination. Work that idea.
4. Go for a Walk
Great thinkers are fabulous walkers. John Muir, Aristotle, Virginia Woolf… Pick a writer, any writer, and you’re likely to discover they wore through their shoes.
Walking gives you time & space to:
- Think over plots and characters
- Find new material for your stories
- Work through issues and problems
- Experiment with phrasing and dialogue
Where you live is unimportant. Charles Dickens often walked for miles through the city of London, which was choked with smog and horse dung. Just walk.
5. Expand Your Vocabulary
You don’t have to use big words in your stories. But it’s always fun when you have the option to use them. To expand your arsenal:
- Read everything you can get your hands on—books, magazines, instruction booklets, cereal boxes, road signs.
- Watch “talkies”—videos, plays, and movies with a lot of dialogue.
- Do crosswords (and word scrambles and word finds and anagrams).
There are free word games all over the place, including the Book Fun section of this website.
6. Learn the Rules of Grammar
This is going to save you a lot of pain later down the line. Learning grammar is like eating wallpaper paste, but it’s important. Agents and publishers expect manuscripts to be polished and free from errors.
Trust me—you’re going to need to know where to put that apostrophe.
7. Play Around with Genre
Try to write a thriller, a fantasy, science fiction, or a graphic novel. Try a picture book. Try a play or a film script or song lyrics. Try a sonnet, haiku, or a limerick.
Then meld ’em. Spoof ’em. Reimagine ’em. Play with genre as much as you can. This is the time to experiment.
8. Write for a Specific Audience
Lewis Carroll invented Alice in Wonderland after lazy days on the river with Alice Liddell. J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan with the Davies boys. The idea for Treasure Island came from a map that Robert Louis Stevenson drew with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.
Anyone who says that books shouldn’t be written for a specific audience is mistaken.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore the basics of plot and character and description—you’ll need these for an interesting story. But go ahead and concoct something for your family or friends. They’ll provide you with plenty of inspiration.
9. Explain Your Plot to Others
Better yet, ask your parent or friend or sibling to go on a walk with you (see Rule 4) while you do it. You’ll probably find that:
- Certain parts of the plot don’t make sense or connect
- Characters aren’t behaving in a logical fashion
- Your listener starts to get excited about what happens next
Good listeners can often get you out of a narrative jam or provide you with an unexpected twist.
10. Read Your Work Aloud
The whole thing. If you can’t bear to do it, have your computer read it aloud. Or enlist an ally—J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, used to read Lord of the Rings to the Inklings. (Apparently, J.R.R. was a terrible public speaker.)
You’ll find obvious mistakes, yes, but also subtler things. Your character is rambling. You’re repeating phrases. Your description sounds too much like other things you’ve read. You won’t appreciate this until you hear it. The more I perform at bookshops & libraries, the more I want to go back and tweak my own prose.
11. Submit & Repeat
There are heaps of magazines that only accept submissions from kids and teens—check out this fabulous list of Places to Publish from TellingRoom.org. You can also start up your own blog or student paper.
If you’re unlucky, editors will reject your story. If you’re lucky, they will reject it and tell you how it can be improved. If you’re extremely lucky, they will publish it.
You must NEVER, EVER give up. It sometimes takes decades for stories to be published. But you will always be a writer if you write.