As an author who speaks regularly in schools, I get to talk to keen writers of all ages.
Over the years, I’ve found myself answering the same questions over and over, and giving out the same advice, whether to those students I visit or, as my boys became teens, to their friends.
These are my top tips for teen writers.
Read outside your comfort zone
When you find a genre or an author you like, it’s easy to find yourself in a reading groove. But grooves can become ruts very quickly. One of the best ways to develop as a writer is to keep developing as a reader. And that means reading widely.
It's not easy fitting reading for pleasure into a busy life, but balancing set texts for English with everything from crime thrillers to fantasy blockbusters, biographies to graphic novels will help you grow as a writer.
If you’d like to read more about writing, I’ve got a list of books for teen writers here.
Shut the gates behind your character
In a recent interview with award-winning author and AWC presenter Angela Slatter, she gave me a tip about story structure and pacing that got me thinking:
“Your turning points and your mid-point reversal all need to be places where decisions are made that can’t be gone back on,” says Angela. “The characters must go forward. If they can easily say ‘actually, you know what Gandalf, I don’t really want to go on an adventure, Hobbiton is still just back down the road, I’m going to get on this cart and go home while you deal with the dragon”… If you can do that easily, there’s no engine in the story.
“Moving forward in the story, particularly in a short story, I often feel it’s like closing gates. Closing gates for your character that they can’t go back through.”
In other words, your character needs to have a strong motivation to keep going and you have to close the gates behind them so they can’t go back.
Big worlds are built on tiny details
In the same interview, Angela and I got to chatting about, of all things, recliners.
“Let’s talk about setting, and specifically some advice from (author) Jack Danns, who talks about the camera,” says Angela.
“Whenever you start a scene, pretend it’s the camera in a film panning across the room or the town or the map or whatever. What are the important things your scene needs to show the reader to tell them about the setting? Put them in front of that camera.
“Is it a medieval castle? Is it a trailer somewhere in the US? What sort of furniture does it have? Is it an old La-Z-boy – or is it a new La-Z-boy? That choice will tell you things about the people in the story and their location. These are the things you need to give to your reader first off, so they know where they are.”
Big worlds are built on small details, and setting can show your reader a lot about your character.
$5 words can cost you
When you’re searching for the perfect word to use in a story, it’s always a temptation to go for the biggest, most impressive word you can think of. Authors call them $5 words. They’re the ones that really stand out in a sentence, the ones that show off your impressive vocab and your grasp of language.
But, they can cost you. Those $5 words jump out in a sentence. Authors use them for impact. And when you put too many of them together in one sentence or one paragraph, they lose that impact because readers either get a) lost or b) bored.
The best word for the job is often the simplest. The 10c words we use every day.
For instance, ‘said’ disappears in a dialogue tag; ‘gasped’ stands out. Guess which one published authors use most often?
Use your $5 words by all means, but spend them wisely. Place them for maximum impact and for those spots where no other word will do.
Follow the brief
The one piece of advice I repeat most often with teen writers, particularly those who are aiming for As on their school assignments, is this: follow the brief.
Writing for school is a specific type of writing, and the best way to do it well is to read the question thoroughly – and then respond to what it’s asking for. If it asks you for 2000 words, stick to that – and make sure there’s a beginning, middle and end within that word count.
Yes, it can feel restrictive, but it is one of the best lessons you can learn if you want to be a published writer. Published writers, from authors to journalists to content writers, work to briefs all the time.
Then, when you write your own stories at home, set your ideas and your writing free.
Edit with your reader in mind
Writing is a solitary pursuit, but, in essence, it’s also a contract. We write to be read – and that means that everything a reader needs must be on the page in your story. You don’t need to write with a reader on your shoulder, but you do need to edit that way
So when you have finished a draft of your story, put it aside for as long as you can (to give you some distance) and then read it through, as a reader. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does this story make sense?
- Is my character acting IN character all the time (not doing something out of character just so I, the writer, can make this story work)?
- Is everything my reader needs to understand this story and this world on the page?
As the writer, you no doubt have a full-colour picture of your world and your story in your mind. But your reader can’t read your mind – they need to see that world and that story on the page in front of them.
Learn to let go
One of the most difficult aspects of writing is letting it go.
Writing is personal – it’s YOU on the page, even if you’re writing about wizards and unicorns.
It’s also never perfect, no matter how much we might want it to be.
At some point, every writer comes up against the fact that the shiny idea they had for their story may have come up short in the actual writing.
But that’s okay. Every word you write, every draft you create, makes you a better writer. The more you practise, the stronger your writing becomes.
Letting it go, sharing it with others, and moving on to the next shiny idea, is all part of the process.
Want to be mentored on your writing journey by a published and successful author? The Teenage Creative Writing Program at the Australian Writers Centre will fast-track your knowledge about the craft of writing.
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is currently editing her latest middle-grade novel The First Summer of Callie McGee. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.