A few weeks I mentioned on Twitter that a child in my son’s fourth-grade class wanted me to read his novel. He had a first chapter, he knew what his story was about, and he wanted to know if – based on that – it was publishable. (Sound familiar?)
Since then he’s emailed me the chapter, and he and I had a meeting about where he was, and what he should do next. I can’t excerpt the story for you, but I can share some of what I told him:
- It’s not ready to be published now, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it isn’t done yet. Just like homework and sports and games have a lot of steps, writing has a lot of steps, too. Chapter 1 is just the beginning.
- You can’t* publish something until after it’s been edited, and you can’t edit until it’s been written, so the fact that you’ve written something – anything – is a good first step.
- In your story, you have a lot of things that you’re making up. You have a world that doesn’t exist, you have a main character flying through space (you’ve never been to space), and your character is 15 years old… so he’s going through experiences that you haven’t had yet. Your reader needs to have something real in the story to hold on to. Like when a story has a cat-like alien in it – even though it looks green and scaly, it acts just like a cat would, so you can identify with the animal and the creature who owns him if you’ve ever had a cat. The reader has to be able to find what’s familiar to them, and that’s going to be something that you know so well you can describe it clearly. It’s okay to have a made-up world, or a made-up person, but you should have at least one part of the story be based on what’s real in your life.**
- Now that you’ve written the first draft of your story, go through and re-read it as if everything were questions. Then, answer those questions. For example, if you say he’s wearing a space suit, what does that look like? If he ate breakfast, what did he eat? How did he cook it? What color is his hair, the walls of his ship, his toothbrush? If you know the answers to those questions, you don’t have to put all of the information into your story, but you can choose to give us a few more details that will help us see the scene in our heads.
- When you go through to re-write it, read your story out loud. If the words the character says don’t feel right when you say then, change it to something that sounds like what the character should say. If you write a really long sentence and have to stop to take a breath, consider stopping it at that point and making two sentences, or at least adding a comma. If you have two different things going on in the same paragraph, or someone else starts speaking, that should be a new paragraph. At the same time, if you have one thought broken up into two different paragraphs, and neither one is more than a few sentences long, make it all one paragraph and see how that reads.
- The best thing that you can do to become a better writer is to read as much as possible. Check out books from the library! Read other books that have characters the same age as yours, or that are set in space, or Steampunk books. Read every night if you can, even a few pages. Read so that you know what you like, and what you don’t.
- Keep writing! Anything you write, you can make better, except a blank page.
- And, lastly, thank you for letting me read your work.
Anything else I should have told him?
Oh, and my favorite part of the meeting – he never asked if he was a writer. He didn’t say he was an “aspiring” writer. His friends, who wanted to know what his story was about and how long it was and if things blew up, never asked if I thought he was a writer. As soon as he had written, he was a writer, and he knew that in the black-and-white way in which kids know things.
The truth is that the only time you’re an aspiring writer is if you’ve thought about writing but haven’t actually done it yet. After that you can aspire to be a better writer, to be published, to sell a certain number of copies or be picked up by a certain publishing house or agent, but you’re past aspiring to be an author. Write, or don’t, those are your two choices. And please, stop calling yourself “an aspiring writer”.
Even a 10-year old knows better than that.
* Yes, I said “can’t publish”. I’m aware that many people interpret that as “shouldn’t publish, unless you’re certain it’s brilliant, in which case, go ahead”. I’d like to start the kid off on the right path by encouraging him to edit his work before he considers it finished.
** He decided to make the main character 10 years old, so that he could put a “real” person into his “fake” setting, and keep all of the Steampunk/space aspects he was having fun with.