Writing Advice

Why is writing important? It can tell great stories that cause us say, “Oh, that’s so exciting” or “I’ve been through that, too!” It can help us get across a point by using the right words. If we’re scared or upset, writing about it can make us feel better. 


I often get asked how to write. So I wanted to put together some general creative writing advice for kids (or anyone!) to help you be more comfortable putting thoughts down on paper. It can be used by individuals or in classrooms, just as long as it’s creative and fun!


HOW I STARTED WRITING 


I knew since I was young that I wanted to be a writer. Some adults encouraged me, some adults hated how much I wrote (they thought I should have been doing other things), and most adults ignored it. I never let any of that stop me. Now I’m a professional author, and I always tell kids, “Find what your passion is and follow it. It will take hard work, too, and it won’t happen overnight. But it is possible to go after your dreams.” Here are some examples of my early writing. You can see how I got better over time, and how I wrote whatever I wanted, because I loved to write.


I wrote this very short unicorn story when I was three. At that point I was either dictating stories to my parents or following them around asking how to spell every word: 

“One night a witch came to California. The witch saw a horse. The horse went to the stick and picked it up. She painted it white and she glued it on her forehead. And she turned into a unicorn. She turned the witch into a frog.” 


So it's not the best. But does that matter? We all have to start somewhere and I kept going. This is a chapter book I started writing in third grade. I mainly dictated this one to my babysitter, who typed it out: 


The summer after third grade, my best friend was going to be staying with my family and me during weekdays while her mom worked. So my mom joked we were going to be “Twins for the Summer.” That was all I needed to hear, and I came up with a story where two kids were stuck together for the summer. But instead of being two girls, they were a boy and a girl, and instead of being best friends, they hated each other! I like to take things from real life and turn them into stories. (Usually with a twist.) 


I didn't stop there. This is a chapter book I started writing while in fifth grade (first in notebook form and then typed):

During this time I was mostly writing out stories by hand and typing them up afterward. I would usually ignore paragraph indentation rules because I wanted to fit as many words as possible on the paper. I also didn’t care about spelling very much. But here’s a fun fact: I got good at spelling over time from reading and writing, not from spelling tests. When you see and write the same words enough, you start to remember the spelling. After years of struggling with spelling in elementary school, it all seemed to click into place in middle school.


And if Twins for the Summer was based on my life, this untitled story about Karleen was total fantasy for me. The character was older and I was trying to sound more mature in my writing. Sometimes people tell you to write what you know. This can be good advice, but I say write what you feel like. In fifth grade I was nervous about going to middle school, so writing about an eighth grade character made me feel as if I had some control over this life change. It helped soothe me. 


HOW YOU CAN WRITE MORE 


What is the most important thing to be a writer? To write. Not say, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’ll do it later.” The only way to get good is to practice, and pushing it off might mean not writing at all. Here are steps I’ve used to write creatively:


1. Find an idea that excites you. What keeps you up at night? What do you talk about at the dinner table? What sort of stories do you like? Writing an assignment that doesn’t interest you can be hard. (I remember in a high school English class, I was assigned an essay on how to brush your teeth. It didn’t exactly excite me.) But if it’s something you’re passionate about, you might have more thoughts and words for it than you realize.


2. It can help to jot down ideas. Some people like to make an outline before they write. Some people, myself included, typically don’t. Different things work for different people. But even if I don’t make an outline, I might write down a few basic things I want to write about.


3. When you write your first draft, let yourself go. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar in the rough draft. Spelling and grammar are important, but if you concentrate too much on them now, you might lose your train of thought. Just let yourself say whatever you want to say. When I write like this, it’s like falling into a trance. I’m not aware of what’s around me. 


4. After you’ve written it, take some time away from your story (or anything else you’ve written). 


5. Now, if you want, you can share your story with others. They might be able to tell you what they like about the story or what parts can be stronger. I always share the early drafts of my published books with other people for their insight. (Before they're published, I mean.) Sometimes when I’m writing something more personal and just for me, I don’t share it. 


6. Revise. This is the part where you go over your story and make it better. If you’re just writing for fun, you don’t need to revise if you don’t want to.  But if it’s a paper for school or something you want to publish (or if you want to get published someday), learning how to revise is key. When I was younger, I just wrote. As I got older, I learned that in order to be taken seriously by publishers and agents, I needed to learn how to take a rough draft and make it better. When you revise, it can be helpful to get advice from people you trust who read your work. This is also the time you go back and correct any spelling or grammar errors. 


7. Read. I’m putting this at #7, but this step ought to be first, last and everything in-between. Reading will help you become a better writer. Read widely, read everything. And enjoy! 


THE SIX PLOTS OF ALL STORIES


There are millions of stories out there, but only six basic plots. So if you’re having trouble coming up with a plot, this can be a cheat sheet. All stories need some sort of problem the main character faces, because then the reader wants to know what happens. Here are the six plots and examples of them:


Fall, Rise


Something bad happens to the main character, then he overcomes it. In my book Escape from the Overworld, Stevie falls in the beginning when he can’t protect himself from monsters. He rises in the end when he has to save an entire middle school from monsters.  


Rise, Fall


The character starts out doing well, and then something bad happens to her. This happens more often in tragedies and adult books than in kids’ books. In my YA comic “Picture Perfect” in Tales from the Crypt, Staci is doing well when she successfully bullies another girl. But when the tables turn and Staci gets her just desserts, she experiences a fall.


Rise, Fall, Rise


The character does well, something goes wrong, then the character does well again. In my book Adventure Against the Endermen, Stevie starts out as a hero in the Overworld, so he’s on the rise. Then he bites off more than he can chew when he tries to show off and just falls down a tunnel instead (into the lair of an Enderman monster). But when he leads people in a fight against the Endermen later in the book, he rises again. 


Fall, Rise, Fall


The character starts out down in the dumps, then rises, then falls again, usually through their own mistakes. Like “Rise, Fall,” you see this more in tragedies and adult books than kids’ books. An example of this would be the famous story of King Midas. After Midas pleased Dionysus by taking care of Dionysus’s tutor, the king asked for everything he touched to turn to gold. He fell when this turns out to be a bad idea. He can’t even eat, because his food turns to gold! He learns his lesson so Dionysus takes away the curse, letting Midas rise. But then Midas makes another mistake – he says bad things about Apollo’s music. Apollo responds by giving him the ears of a donkey, so Midas has fallen yet again! 


Steady Fall


Things start out badly and keep getting worse. It’s Tragedy Central here. In the original Little Mermaid, the mermaid goes to the sea witch for legs, even though she can never return to the sea and she’s in incredible pain while she walks. She tries to get the prince she loves and can’t. In the end, she turns to sea foam. 


Steady Rise


With steady rise, things continue to improve. In my comic Barbie: Puppy Party, Barbie and her sisters find a lost dog and decide to throw a puppy party to get the local shelter pets adopted. They have a challenge to overcome, but as they work through things, it keeps getting better. 



HOW DO YOU GET INTO THE RIGHT MOOD TO WRITE?


1. Read something similar. For instance, if you’re going to write a fantasy story, read another fantasy story. It can help you find the right voice. Voice is another way of saying style. Different stories have different styles. If you're writing sad story, you probably don't want to write it in a funny style. 


2. Exercise while thinking. Sometimes it helps to take a walk or go on a bike ride while you think. I used to circle around my backyard over and over and over in elementary school while I was coming up with stories. 


3. Listen to music. I usually listen to music while I write. The music changes depending on what kind of writing I’m doing. For my Minecrafter books, it’s usually something loud and fast-paced to put me in the mood to write something heart-pumping and adventurous!


THOUGHTS ON REVISING


All writers revise. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the rough draft of Escape from the Overworld compared to the final book:


Different stories need different amounts of revision. This was my first book taking place in the Minecraft world, and I was new to writing like this. When I wrote later books in Minecraft, I was more used to the world and didn’t need to revise as much. 


When you revise, you want the story to flow better. Take a look at the opening of my rough draft: “The monsters came out whenever darkness fell. Too late, I realized the sun was setting.” It’s all right. But in the published book, it opens like this: “The monsters came out whenever it got dark. I didn’t realize the sun was setting until it was too late.”


I didn’t really change anything there, but doesn’t the second version sound better? I smoothed it out and made it flow. That’s a lot of what revision is. Sometimes in rough drafts you repeat the same point too much, or you go through a scene too quickly. If you step away from your story after writing it and come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll see where some parts read better than others. 


THINGS THAT KILL WRITING 


1. Imaging judgment. If you sit down to write a book and think, “No one is going to like what I say!” you’re not going to get anything written down. You can’t predict what people will think. And does it matter if you just want to write? Let your story come to you. 


2. Showing off. A big problem I see with newer writers and student writers is that they want to show off. They throw in lots of descriptive words and bigger-than-average words to show how smart they are. Here’s an example: "As the evening breezes gracefully descended upon the upturned crown of my face and the tresses of my pulchritudinous hair, I felt the most scrumptious of all shivers traverse down my spine." Now, what does that even say? You could write, "I felt the evening breezes touch my face and hair and it made me shiver." Or, "A shiver echoed down my body as I felt the sweet evening breezes." You can rewrite that a lot of ways, but the point is, just about any rewrite is going to sound better. 


3. Trying to make everything perfect in a rough draft. It’s not going to happen. It doesn’t happen to any of us. Revision time is for making the story better. Writing is just for getting your story down. 


WHAT HAPPENS IF SOMEONE SAYS SOMETHING BAD ABOUT YOUR WRITING?


It hurts. But it’s okay. We’ve all been there, myself included. I’ll give you an example, and then the ironic twist at the end. A few years ago I was submitting a novel I had written to agents, the people who help you sell your book to a publisher. Most of the agents were professional and nice enough, even when they rejected me, but two agents sent me really nasty rejection letters. One said my writing “is not up to par” and “weak.” That really stung at the time. Then, four months later – after she apparently saw a whole bunch of my published writing – she suddenly liked me. She wanted to connect professionally on LinkedIn and be all buddy-buddy. People are funny sometimes. 


If a person doesn’t like what you wrote, it might say more about their personality than your story. For example, maybe you wrote a story about unicorns and they only like stories about things in real life. 


Sometimes your story might need more work, which is normal. (If you ever get depressed about rewriting, take another look at all the red marks on my Escape from the Overworld rough draft!) 


It’s good to learn the difference between constructive criticism and just being mean. (This is true whether you’re getting advice or giving it!) But the point is that constructive criticism helps you get better in the end. An example of constructive criticism would be, “This one part of the story didn’t feel real to me. But if you had the character say this, it might work.” The person might be right and that part of your story might be better if you make that change. On the other hand, saying, “Your writing is terrible!” doesn’t help you at all. Don’t take any of that stuff to heart. 


A FINAL THOUGHT


The same year I wrote Twins for the Summer, my teacher seemed to think I was hopeless. She gave us a writing assignment to create our own candy bar and write about it. I thought this was boring, but I tried really hard to come up with something clever. When I didn't start writing immediately, the teacher hovered in and complained that I couldn't write, and why was it so hard for me? It wasn't hard! I just wasn't given the right opportunities. I think a lot of kids get turned off writing because of how some teachers (not all by any means!) try to force uninteresting writing assignments on students, then sigh and groan when the students say they don't like to write. I think making writing more engaging and personal can make a big difference in young writers. 


I hope this helps, and happy writing!