Clare B. Dunkle

Storytelling and Fiction Writing

Clare Dunkle's suggestions for young writers

Japanese Garden in St. Louis

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.


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.


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 in books.


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.


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 our differences!


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 your friends.

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, too.

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