Thursday, 31 March 2011

Advice for teenage writers

I was not a teenage writer, if by writing you mean stories, poems and books. I was a teenage reporter. I started off writing reviews of children's books (and did I appreciate the power I wielded? No, I did not) and continued on to reporting on meetings, disputes, court cases, controversies...anything that might be considered news-worthy. I was published in a national newspaper every week. I took it completely for granted.
So I find it difficult when I am asked for advice by today's teen writers.  I did write some long stories on my own when I was about 13 - one was about twin boys, I remember, one good and hard-working, the other misunderstood and always in trouble. Another was a girl's diary, about how she was solving all her problems. A teenage pre-emptor of Bridget Jones. But my writing fizzled out when I was about 14 (I wonder what happened to those notebooks?) and I became more interested in trying (and failing) to be cool, or at least invisible.  I sat out the next few years in a daze of boredom, failed my A levels, got a job at 18 as a messenger girl on a newspaper. Which turned into an apprenticeship as a reporter. I was writing all the time. I just wasn't using my imagination.
I'm just back from two events where I was asked many times for advice from teenage writers. At Reddish Vale Technology College I ran a two hour workshop for year 9 writers. (Reddish Vale turns out to be one of those rare schools which encourages pupils to see beyond the curriculum and develope their writing for its own sake. Hurray for Miss Ogden, their inspirational teacher) We worked on finding plots from newspaper stories - I went armed with cuttings about pirates, snake-smuggling, bullying, ballet and face transplants, to name but a few. We talked about beginning a story and ending it -  for some reason most of their plots ended in despair and suicide.  We created characters, by answering questionnaires about their invention's secret shame and biggest dream.
Diana Wynne Jones
The next day at Beblington Library I met pupils from schools all over the Wirral along with authors David Miller (Shark Island), Leslie Wilson (Saving Rafael) and Paul Dowswell (Auslander). We talked about how we'd come up with the ideas for our books - a terrifying experience (David), family history (Leslie); how we researched them, created our characters. We talked about the themes they covered - especially interesting because Paul and Leslie were both talking about World War 2 books -  and our own careers as writers. And we were asked for lots of advice from writers, possible writers and one boy who said 'I'm not a writer, but I did start writing a few books last summer just to keep myself going.'
So, here is some of the advice that I give.
1) Read these wonderful writing tips from one of the best children's writers ever, Diana Wynne Jones, who sadly died last week. If you haven't discovered her books, then do yourself a favour and read them. My favourites are The Ogre Downstairs and Charmed Life.
2) Write the book that you want to read, not the book that you think people will like.
3) Don't be too hard on yourself. Write something, allow it to be rubbish, do not delete it, put it away for a few weeks. Then go back to it and read it as if you had never read it before. Chances are it won't be as bad as you think and you can see what works and what doesn't.
4) Set yourself a target of x words a day, and try and stick to it.
5) Get used to sharing your work. is a great website for teenage writers to share their work and comment on others'.
6) Lots of people keep a writers' notebook -  a place to stick in inspiring stories and pictures, try out new ideas, plan plots and sketch characters.
7) Don't worry too much about publication. Yes, some teens do get publishing contracts (Steph Bowe, for example and Hannah Moskewitz )  They are unusual though, so don't despair if you're not published instantly. Just concentrate on writing the best book you can.
8) Spelling does matter, also punctuation. The best way to improve your literacy is to read. So read, read, read, teenage books, adult books, books you know you'll like, books you expect to hate. Keep trying new things. But don't let the words of others stifle your own voice. Fan fiction is fun to write, but what makes your writing special is whatever makes you unique.
9) No one knows better than you what it feels like to be a teenager. That's valuable information. Use it in your writing, with honesty.
10) Don't throw anything away. If I'd kept my stories about the twins or the diary girl, who knows what use I could have made of them now. Hmm..I shall have to have a search in my parents' attic.


  1. I guess I've left it too late to be a teenage writer? Shame, this is such good advice. Lots of love - Rachel (Aged 48 1/2)

  2. Brilliant to see you inspiring the next generation! Looking back, I think most of my teenage writing was done at university. I joined the TV production society and had to churn out a script for a five or ten minute film on a weekly basis. That was good discipline and it also got a lot of the derivative stuff out of my system. Still took me a long time after that before I was any good, of course.

  3. Fantastic advice, thanks Keren :-)

  4. "Write the book you want to read." Love that! I'll pass it on to some teens I know who are avid writers.