Tips for Writers
A number of my readers have written to me asking for writing tips, so I decided to make a list that I will add to periodically. I’ll include some exercises whenever possible, just to get your mental muscles toned and ready.
Before I begin writing any story, I create the characters, giving the main characters as much dimension as I can. Not only do I describe what they look like and what kind of clothes they wear, but I also write down their basic personality traits – shy, boisterous, timid, courageous, wise, foolhardy... Do they stand up for what they’ve done or make excuses? Do they make friends easily and have lots of them, or keep to themselves and have only a few good friends? I note their age, where they go to school if they are younger, where they work and what they do if they are older. I record their interests - sports, music, dance, games, etc, and what they like to read – mysteries, science fiction, non-fiction, books, magazines, scrolls of magic spells, etc. What do they keep in their closet, under their bed, in the trunk by the door? If it’s a main character, I go into much more depth than I do with minor characters, but whatever I do, I try to make the person seem real. Your main characters need to be people that your readers can find believable. If you write them well enough, your readers might even be able to relate to them.
Once I’ve written everything I can think of about my characters, I set the lists aside. Very little of what I’ve written about the person will actually make it into the story, however, I now know my characters. I know what they are like and how they will react in a given situation. I have just made the actual writing of the story much easier for myself, and if I have to include what the person has in her closet or what he likes to read, I already know the answer. It is always a good idea to describe what a character looks like early on in the story so your reader can begin to visualize him or her. However, never list your characters’ descriptions in the story. Let the physical descriptions come out naturally and where they feel most appropriate. Rather than describing their personalities, let your characters’ actions show their personality traits.
Practice exercise – Go someplace where there are lots of people like the library, a restaurant, or a park. Choose one person and write everything you can about the person. What does the person look like? What is he or she wearing? Does she have any mannerisms that draw your attention – like flicking her hair over her shoulder or gesturing with her hands when she talks? Does he sit with his shoulders back or slump in his seat? If you hear the person speak, what does he sound like? Is her voice high pitched and squeaky, low and raspy or somewhere in between? You can also do this with someone you know. If you do this with a family member, you’ll know a lot more about them and can do a much more thorough list.
A well done setting can help the reader feel as if he is there along with the character. Try to include all the senses when you describe a setting. What does the character see when he arrives? What does he feel - is it cold out, breezy, or humid? Is there a strong odor in the air? Does the room smell like orchids or stinky dog? Can he hear something or has the forest grown silent because a large predator is lurking just out of sight? Does your character lick his lips and taste the salt from the ocean spray? Just like a good character description can make a person seem real, a good setting description can make the place seem real, too. Don’t force it, however. If it isn’t natural for the character to taste something, don’t make her. If she is indoors and the room isn’t too hot or too cold, you don’t need to mention it. Don’t hit your reader over the head with your description. Insert the elements where they seem natural. Remember – no lists! And try to keep the description relatively short. Neither character nor setting descriptions should be so long that they stop the action.
Practice exercise – Go to a place you would like to describe. This can be a room in your house, a favorite spot in your backyard, the back seat of your family car, or a quiet table in the library. Write down everything you can about it. Use all of your senses. Include enough information that your reader could close her eyes and imagine what it would be like to be there.
I used to try writing without an outline, but I’ve found that having an outline makes writing a story much easier. Think of an outline as a map for your story – it tells you where to go next, but allows you to change direction if something happens that requires it. I’ve found that it’s easy to get lost without an outline, especially if my story has lots of twists and turns.
There are many ways to make an outline. I suggest that if you intend to use a formal outline for a story for school, ask your language arts or English teacher to show you the kind he/she prefers.
My outlines aren’t formal, yet there are certain steps that I take every time. Before beginning an outline, I generally write a one or two sentence blurb first. This makes me define the main problem to be dealt with, thereby helping me to better focus my thinking. After that I write out what is going to happen in the story in paragraph form, including the main characters and major events. This part is usually a few pages long. Finally I write the outline itself in chapter form, breaking down my story into manageable segments.
Keep in mind that every story needs to have an overriding problem that the main character must solve by the end of the story. On the way to achieving that solution, your character will encounter many other problems. As the story progresses, the minor problems that crop up must escalate in size and difficulty in order to keep the reader’s interest. Life cannot be too easy for your character, or your story will be boring and no one will want to read it.
There are lots of ways to determine how much should be in a chapter. Some authors believe that a chapter should end just as a new problem crops up, thereby keeping the reader in suspense and wanting to turn to the next page. I prefer solving each minor problem in the chapter in which it appears, if possible, although there will always be problems that last for much longer than one chapter. Never force a solution. Your main character must solve a problem or overcome an obstacle in a way that makes sense and seems natural within your story.
Although an outline makes a good guide, it is not written in stone and can be changed as you get to know your characters and your story better. I often revise my outline as I write, tweaking it as the need arises. Quite often, the outline I used when I started writing my story is not the same outline that I had when I finished.
Practice exercise: Choose a simple story – perhaps a fairy tale – and write it in outline form.
First sentences/first paragraphs
Last sentences/last paragraphs
A writing group can be a wonderful tool for those of you who enjoy writing. It can be composed of people who write for fun or people who are serious about their writing and hope to get published someday. Some groups are more social while others are more business-like. It doesn’t matter which it is, as long as it encourages you to write. I’ve belonged to both kinds of groups and they can both be helpful in their own way.
The purpose of a writing group is to encourage its members to write. Generally, members share their work with each other, critiquing it and acting as each others’ editors. It is always desirable to have someone look at your work with a fresh eye. You may have read it over and over, but chances are good that sometimes you’ll read what you think you’ve said, and not what’s really there. Your editor can also notice things that you’ve left out that are essential to your story. You know those things, but may not realize that you haven’t told them to your reader. You might also put in things that aren’t necessary to the story and need to be cut. It helps to have the input of someone with an impartial eye to see them. Keep in mind, however, that it is up to you to make the final decisions about your writing. An editor will suggest changes; it is up to you to consider each suggestion and decide if you agree with it. Sometimes you’ll find that you don’t agree with the suggestions made by certain members of your group while the suggestions of one or two others are generally worth using. If this is the case, you may have found an editor (or editors) worth keeping, even if your writing group doesn’t continue to meet. If you are both lucky, your editor will find your suggestions just as valuable and will want you to continue to edit her work as well.
Usually members of writing groups share whatever they are working on, but I belonged to one group that gave its members assignments – short stories that we all shared the following week. It was fun to see how stories can differ even though the topic, or first or last sentence, were exactly the same.
There are lots of different ways you can start a group. Talk to your friends to see if any of them are interested. Ask your language arts teacher if she can recommend other students who like to write. Take a creative writing class and see if anyone you meet there might want to join. While you are talking to people about writing, you might find that a group has already been formed. If so, attend one of their meetings and see if you are comfortable sharing your work with them. You are writing because you enjoy it, so do what it takes to surround yourself with people who enjoy it as much as you do.
You have written your story and polished it until it is as close to perfect as you can make it. You’ve decided that you want to get it published. What do you do next?
First of all, decide if you want to have an agent represent you. If so, you will need to research agents and send out query letters asking if they are interested in representing you and your book. Finding an agent can be as difficult as finding a publisher. An agent will help get your book sold, help negotiate your contract, and see that your checks arrive on time. They will also get a percentage of the money you make. Many authors have agents. Many do not. I do not have an agent myself, which means that I had to find a publisher without anyone’s help.
Finding a publisher
Before you begin looking for a publisher, you should determine your target audience. Is your book written for children or adults? Is it fiction or non-fiction? Is it a mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy...? With this in mind, find out which publishers are interested in the kind of book that you have written. You can go to the bookstore, find books in the same genre as yours and see who published it, or you can consult The Writer’s Market which is a book that is published every year, and tells you who is publishing what kinds of books. The Writers’ Market will also tell you who is accepting unsolicited manuscripts, which are manuscripts that the publisher has not asked to see. The book is an excellent source for examples on how to write query letters asking if a publisher would like to see your manuscript. You can find the Writers’ Market in bookstores and in the library. Make sure you use the most current edition as the information changes frequently.
Another way to find a publisher is to attend writing conferences. If you know the genre of your book (what type of book it is), consider joining the appropriate association. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, also called the SCBWI. This association is for authors of books for children all the way from board books for small children to young adult novels for teens. These associations often have writing conferences where you can meet other authors as well as editors and agents. I met my editor at just such a conference. These associations can also tell you what publisher is currently accepting what kind of material, information that is updated more frequently than in a book published annually like The Writer’s Market. Look for information about the writing associations on the internet.
What your manuscript should look like when you send it
Make sure your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct. Your manuscript must be neat and easy to read. Use a standard type such as Times New Roman and a size 12 font. Begin each chapter on a new page. I always start mine about one third of the way down the page with a numbered chapter heading. Make sure each page is numbered. Include a heading at the top of the page that states your name and the title of the book – or an abbreviation if the title is long. For instance, if Maxwell Jones wrote a book titled Hungry Cats in Search of Mice, his heading would be Jones/Hungry Cats. The first page of the manuscript should also include your name, address and telephone number in case the editor wishes to contact you.
How long will it take to get published?
You might be one of the lucky few who get a manuscript accepted right away. However, for most of us it takes years. After you send a manuscript out, it can take up to three months before you hear back from the editor. In the meantime, do not contact the editor to see if she likes it – she will contact you if she does. And do not just sit back and wait to hear. Start a new story, keeping in mind that writing is like many other skills; the more you do it, the more you will improve.
Be prepared for lots of rejection letters. If you can’t handle rejection, being an author may not be the best career choice for you. I used to say that I had enough rejection letters to wallpaper a powder room. Each rejection is a disappointment, yet you can’t let them discourage you. Eventually you may receive a letter from an editor with a word of encouragement and some actual suggestions. If this is the case and you try taking the editor’s suggestions, send your manuscript back to that editor after you have completed your revisions. Include a letter with the revised manuscript thanking her for her suggestions and saying that you did indeed use them. She’s more likely to give it a second look if you really have made the changes. And who knows – maybe we’ll be reading your book sooner than you think!