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A Children's Author Perspective on How to Improve Your Writing
 
 
Writing Improvement Strategies: Modeling

Introduction

While you may feel you are traveling the writing road alone and without guidance, there are actually great teachers all around you in the form of writers you admire. Building a collection of the types of stories you would like to write and then working closely with them is like having their authors available to be your teachers. Here are two ways to learn from those that have come before you.

Typeovers

Learning an art form by copying the works of the great masters is a practice that goes way back in time. In the days before photocopiers and laser printers, students of musical composition began their studies as copyists, literally copying out parts of their teachers' compositions for use in orchestras. This hands-on tactile experience with the masters' works formed a foundation for the students to begin writing their own compositions. Similarly, many great painters learned to paint by attempting to copy great paintings.

As a writer, you can do this as well. As a warm-up to creating your own stories, you can run other authors' work "through your fingers." The act of copying another writer's work gives you a much more direct experience with what makes it work than does merely reading it. If you haven't written much before, watching good writing pass through your own fingers can build confidence and show you that good writing isn't some magical act, but simply the act of putting words on paper. Without your even trying, some of the style and skill of the writer you are copying will stay in your fingers, and your own writing will get better.

We do need to be clear that this is only an exercise. Under no circumstances would you copy a work and then submit it to market as your own. Doing so is illegal, not to mention just plain wrong. This exercise is for your own learning only.

Imitation

After you have worked some with literally copying effective stories, the next step is to write your own work that emulates your models. Pick a paragraph or two from a story you like, and again literally copy it. Immediately after doing so, write a couple of paragraphs in your own words, but with a similar subject to your model and in a similar style. You can do this practice for weeks and even months if you like, as you work up to creating your own original work. You can start working with longer passages or even complete stories that are direct imitations of published work. Now you are beginning to put your own words down, but being closely guided by your model, almost as if you had a writer you admired as your personal teacher.

Again, this practice is unlikely to culminate in original work. I don't advocate submitting derivative stories to magazines and publishers. What you are doing here is apprenticing yourself to another writer as you learn to control the many elements that go into a good story. Instead of reading books or articles that will tell you what vocabulary to use in a children's story or how long your sentences should be, you are working with direct examples of published stories for children; stories that some editor somewhere decided were perfect for the readers of his or her publication. As you imitate, the elements of the storyteller's craft will literally seep into your mind and your fingers by osmosis.

Riffing

In popular music, a riff is a short instrumental melody or melody fragment that is associated with a particular musician and is heard often in his or her work. It is common practice for other musicians to pick up a riff and incorporate it into their own work, perhaps with some variations, or perhaps verbatim, but cast into a new context. New musical artists on the scene are often described by the combination of influences that make up their styles. You might hear someone described as "David Bowie meets the Beach Boys," or "Punk Rock meets Reggae". In a jam session, "riffing" means taking a well-known musical phrase or riff, varying it or experimenting with it, until it eventually becomes part of your own style.

Fiction writing has its own form of riffing that takes imitation one step farther from the original work. This time, instead of directly imitating a story, you take an existing situation and/or group of characters and recast them in some way. What if Tom Sawyer was transplanted to a space station? How would Mark Twain's story change and what elements would remain the same? Take a story set in a classroom and set it during soccer practice. Try reversing the genders of all the main characters. What other elements would you have to change to make this reversal work?

Working in this way gives you a chance to begin creating more and more of a story of your own without completely building it from the ground up. You have an existing situation as your foundation. Instead of reinventing the entire wheel at once, you are inventing one or two of the spokes.

As you begin retelling existing stories in your own way, the chance increases that you will create something that is not obviously derivative of the work you started with. Sometimes retellings of well-known stories can stand on their own. A well known example is the Broadway musical West Side Story, which is a musical retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York City. Though it is a close adaptation, the setting and situation are so different that it's not immediately obvious the musical is not completely original, but once someone points out the connection, it's hard to ignore. In the process of retelling stories, you may well put enough of your own inspiration in to make the story you have written stand on its own. If you are tempted to declare your work original and submit it to market, exercise caution. Show your story to someone close to you, someone who might recognize the work you borrowed from. You should probably show the original work right next to your own and ask if the two seem too similar. If you have any doubts, you are best served to keep your work to yourself and submit it later when you are coming up with your own original stories. Know that if you get to a point where you have to make this decision, then you are well on your way to producing publishable work.

The First Draft

Introduction

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in How to Write Short Stories for Children?

As you work with copying existing stories and then with emulating work you admire, your skills will grow. You will probably find your newly developing writer's muscles working better and better, and you will probably start coming up with ideas that are really your own. The time will soon come for you to sit down and write your own story from start to finish. No matter how much you have practiced, the act of starting from scratch can feel like jumping into the water with no idea how to swim. Though you may chalk this up to being a beginner, the truth is that many experienced authors report that the feeling of being lost when faced with a blank page never really goes away. In this section we will discuss strategies that will help you hang in there and get your first draft written.

To Outline or not to Outline?

Some writers prefer to outline their stories from start to finish before they write them. Others prefer to start with little more than a basic dramatic situation and make things up as they go. Still others fall somewhere in between, perhaps with a vague plan in their heads or a short list of character actions written out in advance. What method is best for you? The answer is to try them all and see what works for you. You will probably find that a certain approach helps you work most comfortably. Alternatively, you may find yourself alternating between outlining and not outlining on successive stories you write. As a beginner, you may appreciate the written outline but learn to work from a mental outline as you gain experience.

Even if you find that you prefer a certain method, it is a good idea to vary it from time to time. The mind craves variety, and breaking up your routine can often spur your creativity.

Your outline doesn't have to be a formal one with Roman numeral, letters, etc. For a children's short story of 300-1000 words, an elaborate outline is likely more trouble than it is worth. You might try a list of actions and obstacles that move your story along, like this:

--Jimmy is being bothered by a bully on the playground.

--He tries to avoid the bully by playing somewhere else but the bully follows him.

--He decides he has to stand up to the bully.

--Through the confrontation, he learns why the bully is jealous of him.

--They end the story as friends.

A list may be enough to get you started on a story, or you may feel you need more detail first. Go ahead and add more detail, or some sample bits of dialog. You can indent these details under each main point:

--Jimmy is being bothered by a bully on the playground.

--The bully calls him "Four Eyes."

--His school books get tossed in the mud.

--He tries to avoid the bully by playing somewhere else but the bully follows him.

--"Go home and read your stupid books, Four Eyes!"

--He decides he has to stand up to the bully.

--Through the confrontation, he learns why the bully is jealous of him.

-- The bully is a struggling reader.

--Jimmy offers to tutor the bully.

--They end the story as friends.

The process of outlining may suggest a setup for the story that shows the bully's motivation"

--The teacher embarrasses the bully, who has forgotten his book.

--Jimmy is the best student in the class.

--The bully takes his anger out on Jimmy on the playground.

Experiment with brief outlines like these, or feel free to structure them any way you like.

Silence that Critic!

Outline or no outline, there comes a time when you have to sit down and actually write your story. You may be itching with excitement to get on with it. Great! Plunge in and go. More likely, though, you may feel doubt creeping in. Maybe this idea isn't as great as you thought it was. What if you write a lousy story and waste a perfectly good idea? Your critic will try to convince you that trying and failing is worse than never trying at all. The moment of starting your first draft can be the most difficult moment any writer faces. It is the moment that keeps many people from writing at all. It is impossible to fail as a "would be" writer, our inner critics would have us believe, but if we actually write that draft, we might find out we're lousy writers, and how is that going to make us feel?

The inner critic must be silenced if you are going to write at all. The way to do this is to give yourself permission to write badly. You make mistakes when learning to do anything. Think of any activity you're comfortable doing, such as driving. The first time you tried it, the car jerked forward and then stopped with a stomach-wrenching lurch. Maybe you didn't release the clutch properly and the car bucked like a bull at the rodeo. Did you give up driving after your first awful attempts, or did you stick with it until driving became second nature to you?

For some reason, we tolerate our mistakes when learning other skills, but we expect that as writers we must be the equals of E.B. White or Judy Blume right from day one. You must give yourself permission to be terrible at first. Keep writing and you will get better.

In a 2006 interview for Locus Magazine, science fiction writer JayLakesaid:

"Someone said you have to write a million bad words before you get good enough to sell something. The very first story I sold came at around 850,000 words, and I started selling with consistency at around a million words. I don't ascribe any mythical significance to that theory, but it was true for me."

If it's true that you need to write a million words to be a good writer, then you'd better start today! Rather than judging every word you write and declaring yourself inferior, focus on the fact that every word you write, good or bad, gets you closer to being an experienced writer. Train yourself to believe that failure is not a poorly written story; the only failure is a blank page.

Don't sweat the details. Try to get pen or your fingers moving over the keyboard. You don't need to compose the perfect opening line now. Type something reasonable and move on. You can try to make it better on the rewrite. Don't get hung up trying to think of the perfect name for a character you introduce. If you don't know what to name him or her, use John and Mary and then change it later. Get your basic story down without worrying about creating perfect prose. Don't get hung up on word counts at this point either. If the magazine you hope to be published in only accepts stories of 800 words or less, your first draft may still be longer. You can cut on the rewrite. It often takes more words to explore the telling of your story than you will ultimately need. Just focus on writing now. You can fix problems later.

The Power of Commitment

Make a commitment that you will write, no matter how hard it seems at this moment. If you simply can't make yourself a start a story, then type something else. Do a journal entry, practice your description, even type "I don't know what to write" over and over. If you truly can't write a word, then just sit there. Don't give up and leave. Commit to sitting at your keyboard for a half hour a day even if you don't write a thing. Sooner or later, you will get so bored with sitting there that you will start writing just to pass the time, and if you can start writing, then you are on your way.

Once you do start writing, make a commitment to finish what you start, at least most of the time. Finish your first drafts, even if you don't come back later to revise them. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, and often the endings are the most difficult parts. Getting your characters to solve their problems in a creative and satisfying way should be your goal as a children's author, and this can be very hard. If you don't take your draft from beginning to end, your inner critic is again convincing you to give up before you have a chance to fail. Hang in there and practice those endings, even if they don't come out right. Remember that even bad words get you closer to writing good ones.
 
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