and Fiction Writing
Clare Dunkle's suggestions for young
I have already had the pleasure
of meeting some very talented young writers who want to write a book of
their own someday. They are well ahead of me when I was at their age.
I never did want to write a book! I enjoyed creative writing exercises
in English class, and I even liked writing essays and research papers,
but I didn't do any writing for fun until a couple of years ago.
Instead, I daydreamed. Every time
I read a book, I tore its world apart, changed it to suit me, and moved
in. I wrote Lloyd Alexander two letters as a child, telling him about
the characters he "should have" included in his Prydain series
and all the other things that were different in "my" Prydain.
My Fellowship of the Ring picked up an elf girl in the Mines of Moria
who managed to rehabilitate the impulsive Boromir, my Dracula had a clever
daughter, and my Starship Enterprise had a mind-reading alien over a decade
before the television series did.
Here are a few suggestions
for young writers, based on my experience.
DON'T WORRY IF YOUR WRITING SOUNDS LIKE YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS.
When I was young, I didn't create very
much that was new. I was too busy playing with all the worlds that my
favorite books gave me. Now that I am older, I find that I have lots of
new things to say, and you probably will find out the same thing.
Working with another author's world
can be excellent writing practice because you already know the world rules
and you will know when you change them. This can be better than making
up your own world, complete with its own set of rules, because that takes
quite a bit of work to get right.
READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN, AND READ THE CLASSICS.
When I was growing up, my family didn't have
a television, and personal computers and VCR's didn't exist.
I read constantly. My mother was an English professor, so the best books
in the world were right in my house. I would not be a writer now if I
hadn't read so much then. All that reading taught me how to write.
Before people become doctors, they spend years
watching other doctors at work. Writers should do this, too. The more
you read now, the better your writing will become. You will learn new
vocabulary words that will help you say exactly what you want to, and
you will find that you will make fewer mistakes in spelling and grammar
because you know so much about your own language. That's important.
Editors have a hard enough job getting a book ready to be published. They
don't have time to waste fixing silly errors, and they reject lots
of manuscripts every day because the author doesn't know how to
write good English.
Reading the best books you can find will also
teach you how to build better characters and worlds of your own. Think
hard about a book once you have read it, and try to live there for a while.
What are the characters like? Why do they say the things they do? A good
author will give you characters with both strengths and weaknesses. Even
the villains will have some good traits, and even the heroes will have
flaws. If you study them, you will notice that certain good and bad traits
often go together. You may even find that you can understand your friends
and relatives better because of the things you learn about characters
IF YOU CAN'T GET TO THE COMPUTER, PRACTICE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
AND DIALOGUE DRILLS.
Some young writers tell me that their parents
won't let them use the computer for their stories. The most useful
trick I know for learning how to write fiction doesn't require a
computer. You can practice it wherever you are, and no one else will even
know what you are doing.
When I was younger, I spent hours working
on characters. I would make up someone and try to learn everything I could
about her. Was she proud, fearful, careful, or enthusiastic? What had
her childhood been like? How did she speak? Did she make grammar mistakes
when she talked, or did she use slang? I would make up a couple of characters
like that, and I would put them in some dangerous or exciting situation.
Then I would try to figure out exactly what they would say and do.
If you get to know characters very well, they
will begin to surprise you. They will say and do things that you never
thought they would, and you will come to realize that there are certain
things they won't ever say or do. These things would be "out
of character" for them. Robert Cormier, a great writer of young
adult books, once wrote an entire chapter that he liked very much. Then
he realized that his characters would never do what he had written ...
and he had to throw the whole chapter away!
Listen to the people around you. They are
using favorite words and little habits of speech that belong to them alone.
If you study dialogue in the real world, your characters will begin to have
their own favorite words and interesting habits.
You don't have to write down what you
have created—just make up new characters tomorrow. When you get
ready to write a story, all that practice will pay off.
TELL YOUR STORIES TO YOUR FRIENDS.
I didn't write any novels when I was
younger, but I was always making up stories. I didn't have time
for writing, so I told them out loud to my friends. I got the same practice
in story creation and character development that I would have gotten in
writing, and I had a lot of fun, too. I loved the excitement of seeing
my friends breathlessly waiting to find out what was coming next. Some
of my stories took hours to tell.
When I finished telling a story, my friends
and I would play with it. We would choose our favorite characters and
"talk" it out. This involved changing the story as we went,
of course, because my friends who were villains didn't want to lose.
I remember one story that a friend and I never did finish. I was an Indian
girl, he was a U.S. Army soldier, and we just couldn't seem to settle
LET YOURSELF ENJOY WRITING.
Writing seems easier than it really is because
the only tools you need are a pen and paper. That can lead to some very
frustrating moments. You might have all the talent to become an award-winning
architect, but you probably wouldn't expect yourself to design a
skyscraper right now. You may be destined to be a great writer, but you
shouldn't expect yourself to write a bestseller yet, either.
I don't recommend that you sit down
to write a book-length story. You have a busy life already, and a book
takes lots of time. I didn't write any books until I had no other
job to do, and even now, I like to write short stories sometimes just
for the pleasure of writing.
Work on a story as long as you are having
fun. Then dump it into a drawer and go do something else. If you pay attention,
everything you do will contribute to your later writing, from listening
to the cashier's funny speech patterns to talking out stories with
Give your own writing a chance. Don't
hack it up every time you read through it. You are developing your own
voice, and when you are through, your writing won't sound like anyone
else's. When you were a toddler, your mother didn't hit you
every time you stumbled, or you would have stopped walking entirely. Don't
beat up on your writing, either. Be kind to it so that it can grow up,