By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)
This winter, a friend of my nine-year-old daughter’s told me about a short story she’d written. Then she asked me, “How do you become a writer?”
The short response was “You already are a writer.”
I went on to tell her about how you can study writing in college but you don’t have to. I told her to read a lot of books and see how writing differs from author to author, how it changes in different time periods, stuff like that. I said she can write things to show other people or just write for herself. I told her to write stories, poems, cartoons, everything and anything. I also told her that I would write an article for her so she can use it over the summer.
Sometimes you need an idea to get going. You can use writing prompts. There are a lot of writing prompts for kids out there; you can find them in books (including ebooks) and online. You might be better off looking for prompts written specifically for children, not so much due to content but because your daily prompt could be “use ‘meretricious’ in your first sentence.”
But do you have to wait for an idea in order to start writing? No. There are writing-related exercises you can try.
- Make a list of character names. This is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. The first “roll call” I remember writing was in sixth grade. I wrote first names I liked, as well as surnames, then matched them up. Then I decided which names would be in the same social circles. I thought of which boys and girls liked each other, who had brothers or sisters, who lived in what neighborhoods, stuff like that. Then I wrote down the things I learned about the characters.
- Draw a map. Create a town or a neighborhood. Name the streets. Look around where you live and think of how many houses fit on each block. Are they apartment buildings? Farms that are miles apart? Old houses with big basements? What’s the history of these houses? What kind of person would like to live in the house at this intersection? You can also use Google Maps or Bing Maps (as well as old fashioned things called “atlases”) to see how neighborhoods are set up. Look at the layout of New York City and compare it to the layout of Washington DC. Think of rivers and lakes. Is it hilly where you want your imaginary people to live? What’s the weather like? If you do this with sidewalk chalk, look at how the colors work together. Who lives in that pink house next to the big hotel? What happens where the yellow-green river passes under the white bridge?
- Play with toys. Act something out with Barbie dolls, Monster High dolls, LEGO, Avenger action figures, Star Wars guys, a sandcastle, plush toys, board games, Minecraft, whatever. Playing with toys is a way of creating a story. When you’re finished, write down a few notes about what happened. Let your imagination go wild. It doesn’t have to make sense or have an ending, like the stories in books do.
- Create a video game on paper. My seven-year-old son struggles with writing prompts but he loves taking stacks of paper or a magnetic board and creating level after level of mash-up video games. His current is Plants vs. Zombies meets SpongeBob. But think about your favorite videogames. There’s a story to them. Even games you think might not have a story. For example. Wii Sports. “Oh you just play sport games,” one person might say. A writer might think of the Miis used and their implied personalities, how the games build on themselves and get harder the more you play, or you might use two friends playing Wii Sports as part of your story.
- Use pictures to inspire you. In sixth grade, our English teacher showed us photos by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. You can use famous pictures to give you story ideas or you can use the photos hanging on the wall at home. You can use paintings (and they don’t have to look realistic) to inspire you or even make your own artwork to get that creative part of your brain all warmed up and ready to work.
- Read poems. I recommend the 100 Great Poems For Boys and 100 Great Poems For Girls collections. The books have many of the same poems in them so pick the one you prefer. Also your family might like The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family edited by John Lithgow (it comes with a CD). Check out collections by Shel Silverstein or Judith Viorst. You can find lots of age-appropriate poetry websites.
Create a portfolio
A portfolio is a collection of your creative work.
Okay so you’re ready to write a story, a poem, a comic book, a cartoon, a song… what do you do now? Well you can write on paper or on an electronic device like a computer or tablet.
When I was in fourth grade, I attended “College For Kids” (held at FAMU) and we were allowed to choose two “courses.” My choices for these college course things (I did them in later grades, with other universities) were always (1) photography and (2) creative writing. I was really lucky to participate in programs like these and I know very few kids have access to these things (hence articles like these).
Anyway, the very first thing we did in the fourth grade writing course was to create a book. We used long sheets of recycled smooth paper and folded them in half. Then we stapled the center. We then created a cover out of cardboard, fabric and yarn. Our job over the course of the semester was to fill that book. We learned about some of the things that TC already has articles about: characterization, setting, and plot.
My book was a hodgepodge of poems, song parodies (writing new lyrics to existing songs), one-page stories, and one-panel or four-panel cartoons. Some kids wrote long stories that used the whole book. Some kids wrote a poem on every page. Some kids drew a picture on one page and wrote a story on the opposite page (like Great Illustrated Classics). There’s no wrong way to fill your book. There’s no wrong way to make a book. You don’t even have to make a book. It can be a good idea to make a folder to put your writing in, whether it’s a real folder or a folder on your computer.
Diaries and journals are also nice to have. You can find them in stores like Justice, at craft stores like Michaels, or in the school supplies (a.k.a. “stationery”) aisle at stores like Target. Grocery stores also carry notebooks, composition books, and loose paper.
Anything can be a journal. You can write about your day (non-fiction), you can write a story (fiction), a poem, draw pictures, anything your pen or pencil can put on that paper. Some people hide their journals. Whether you want to hide your journal depends on you. If you have a very little brother or sister who might color in it or rip it up, you might want to store your diary (and other writing) in a high place like a closet shelf or cabinet. Ask an adult where a safe place for your folder might be.
If you have a place to be alone and write, close your door. If you don’t have a private place, use a book or the board from a board game to make yourself a wall around your workspace. This lets your parents, grandparents, guardians, sitter, brothers and/or sisters know that it’s work time for you. You can write in bed, on the floor, at a table, on the front steps, even in the bathroom!
If you don’t finish, that’s fine. Next time, you can continue (leave some space if you’re writing on paper) or start something new.
You don’t have to finish everything you start. And once you decide you’re absolutely, positively never going to write any more of that story or poem, you can come back to it.
It can be fun to make yourself a “writing time.” Set a timer for 10 minutes and create something. Maybe you’re not sure what to write about during today’s writing time. Try one of the prompts from the first part of this article.
There are a lot of places you can send your work to be published, if you’re interested in that. Look for established publications (in print or online). You should not send anyone any money in order to have your work published. Lots of magazines run monthly contests, sometimes based on a picture or word prompt.
You can also print your work yourself. There are reputable companies that can convert your drawings and words into picture books. This is something an adult will help you research. Having things printed this way does cost money. You will probably only want one or two copies, depending on who you would like to give your work to.
You can also print things on your home or library computer. If you create copies of a book, have a book signing at home and invite people to come and hear you read samples of your work. Sell copies of your book and autograph each one personally.
Or you could just keep your work in your folder and enjoy it for yourself. There’s no rule about what to do with your work. If you can keep it, do. It will be fun to reread it as time goes by.
I’m the grown-up here
You have a writerling at home or next door. You might wonder what you can do on that front, other than buying pencils and notebooks or giving rides to the library and schlepping bags of books back and forth. Here are a few things writers of all ages would like to get from those who care about their growth and passion:
- Someone to read it
- Someone to say “It’s great!” even when it’s not
- Someone to say “What happens next?”
- Someone to say “How can I make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time?”
- Someone to offer refreshments, particularly to deliver them to the writing space
- A place of one’s own to write, preferably undisturbed
- A safe place to store writing materials (notebooks, pencils, pens, idea books, a personal login on the computer, a folder to put special bookmarks, a folder in which to save documents, maybe even password-protected to keep siblings from deleting)
- Someone to help spell big words
- Someone to help focus big ideas
- Someone to offer inspiration (go for a walk, visit a museum, tell a story)
- Someone who reads for fun
- Someone who talks about books
- Music to write to (or quiet, if preferred)
- Encouragement of exploration of wild and crazy ideas (“An abandoned amusement park haunted by fire-breathing unicorns? Sounds great! What happens to the wooden roller coaster?”)
- Someone to provide books (buy or borrow) so the writer can see how people write
- Someone to take pride in having a writer in his/her life
This article is dedicated to Emily R, a writer in Pennsylvania.