- Write a sentence a day
- Write 1-4 stories a month
- Finish and submit them
- Don’t rewrite except to editorial request
- Read 10X what you write (say, a story a day)
- Repeat 100 times
This is the basic structure of my writing instructions, and IMO they will work for anyone. It was fascinating to see how hard it was for the kids in our “Author’s Club” to understand #2. They all read Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and saw their stories in an enormous sprawl across the canvas of their minds. They didn’t just think in novels, they thought in “trilogies” and worse. Sprawl sprawl sprawl.
You’d have to read hundreds of pages to have a sense of whether they were good writers or not. Oh, on the sentence-by-sentence or paragraph-by-paragraph or even chapter-by-chapter basis you can learn a lot…but can they finish and round a story? Design character arcs? Develop theme and counter-theme? Thesis and antithesis? All that “stuff”?
Only looking at a finished work will tell you. Like adults, the kids fight that constrictive discipline. I’ve had writing instructors and MFA students say that “novels are NOTHING like short stories” and had to wonder if they understood the definition of the word “nothing.”
I say that short stories have everything you need to write a novel, only certain cycles within it are expanded or repeated. So I began teaching the class with the most basic story structure I know of:
- Someone wants something
- Something stands in their way
- Efforts are made to resolve the problem
Or: WHO wants something? WHAT do they want? WHY can’t they just have it? HOW do they try to solve the problem. Of course, “WHERE” fits effortlessly into that as well, but I just want to set up the dynamics.
The most common problem is a kid with a sprawling dream, who has no idea where to start, or how to finish. By drilling down on the WHO, WHAT, WHY, HOW, and WHERE of the situation, they are forced to take it out of their heads and onto paper.
When should you start working on a novel? I suggest a simple progression: you can attempt any work that is no longer than the sum total of your published stories. The first 5-20 page stories are free. You can write all the stories of this length you want.
When you sell a couple of 20-page stories, you can try a 40. Sell that? Bump it up to 80. Sell that? Novella time. And so forth.
Now, most of my students have been adults, and I know they’ll do what they want, but I won’t change my recommendations because they don’t match the picture in their heads. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN IDEA WITH AN INTRINSIC LENGTH. ONLY THE TREATMENT OR EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA HAS AN INTRINSIC LENGTH.
A story is about ONE moment where something changes. When I helped one of our kids focus down on that, you could see both frustration and dawning comprehension in their eyes. Freedom. They can finish a story in a week…but then there are other problems.
There is the danger that it will be no good.
There is the responsibility to actually sell it. And as no agents are needed, it is frightening: you can’t blame “the world” for your lack of success. It is you. Just…you. Work on a book and you can hallucinate for YEARS that you have the Great American Novel, before crashing back to earth.
But if you will try the smaller scale, until you are selling regularly, NOW you know who you are and where you are. It is painful at times, but nothing will teach you faster.
So proud of our kids. The current plan is to design a program for TEACHERS AND PARENTS to create semi-autonomous “Author’s Clubs.” Say, a six-part course, designed to be instructive to adults but suitable to be shown to kids. And the six steps above will be central. IN addition:
- Writer’s Block
- Organizing the club
- Criticizing each others’ work.
- Creating a club anthology.
Will be covered. What other topics can you think of that kids need?
Write with Passion!