Tips for Young Authors

Writing non-fiction…
If you have to write a report for school on a topic (say, the Civil War), it is really no different than what I go through when I write a book such as “Gymnastics” or “Baseball’s Greatest Games.”

The first step is to gather information. What I do, basically, is to try and find out everything I can about my subject.

For gymnastics, I went to the library to see what books had been published on the topic. I went through The New York Times Index and the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals to read articles written about gymnastics. I skimmed five years of International Gymnast magazine. I checked out gymnastic web sites. I interviewed gymnasts and coaches.

As I was doing all this research, I was jotting down on 3 X 5 inch index cards any information that captured my interest. I figure if it interests me, it will interest readers, too. I use hundreds of those index cards for each book.

When I felt I had gathered enough information about gymnastics, I organized it all by topic (history, judging, rules, scoring, costumes, biographies, and so on.), putting a rubber band around each batch of index cards. Then I combined all the topics that seemed to go together and broke them into chapters. I made a file folder for each chapter to keep things organized.

Finally, I took the folder for Chapter 1, sat down with all those index cards, and began to write the book on my computer. By breaking the topic down into many small pieces, writing a book that turned out to be 186 pages didn’t seem so intimidating. I find this to be a very good way to organize information. You can use the same system to write a four-page report for school.

Writing fiction… It’s similar, but not the same. I’m sure every author has their own system, but this is mine…

I start with what I call a “big idea.” A kid runs for president. A kid finds the most valuable baseball card in the world. A kid gets the chance to take a single foul shot for a million bucks. Like that.

Then I start to brainstorm with those wonderful 3 X 5 inch index cards. Any idea that pops into my head gets written on an index card. I ask myself questions: Who is the main character? What other characters might interact with that character? What problem can I give to my main character? How can it be solved? What would make it more exciting? What can my character learn along the way? Where should the story be set? How should it start? What happens next? How should it end?

I will probably have to go to the library and do some research. For “The Kid Who Ran For President” and “The Kid Who Became President,” I had to learn a lot about the Constitution, the White House, and the presidency. I like to mix facts with my fiction.

After I have a pile of hundreds of index cards, I’ll sit down and try to weave them into a story that makes sense from start to finish. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the cards will be discarded because they don’t fit in. I’ll add some cards as new ideas arrive. The index cards are my outline. I could do this whole outline on computer, but the cards work better. A very long computer file makes it awkward to cut and paste pieces back and forth. With cards, it’s simple.

When I’m satisfied with the story, then I sit down at my computer, pick up the first card, and start writing. After all the preliminary work I’ve done, the writing part is easy.

What if your teacher asks you to write a story and you don’t have a “big idea?” Here’s a simple six-step system to write a story even if your mind is a total blank… 1. Choose a setting, anyplace in the world (say, Texas). 2. Pick a main character. Not a name, but a type of individual (cowboy). 3. Give that character a problem or goal (wants to become rodeo champ). 4. Think of a few other characters your main character is likely to encounter (rival, former rodeo star, best friend, dog). 5. Get your main character into trouble somehow (breaks leg, accused of crime, tornado hits) 6. Let your imagination go wild, writing all the thoughts down before you forget them. You’re on your way to writing a story!

You have a big advantage over me. You’re a kid. Anything is possible to you. You don’t know all the rules, so you can break them. That can lead to brilliant, original writing. You can do it.

You may not know this, but there are lots of magazines and web sites that accept writing by kids. You can find some of them if you click on COOL LINKS. Maybe you can submit one of your stories and get it published. It is a big thrill to see your name in print. Hey, maybe someday I’ll be reading YOUR books. That would be really cool. I hope this helped. Keep writing!

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