Everything else

Write of Passage

Steps for becoming the next Didion, or Hurston, or Woolf, or you.

Illustration by Minna

For me, there is nothing more liberating, more magical, more fun, more cathartic, more completely and totally transcendent than writing. Maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve escaped into story for as long as I can remember. I started keeping a journal in second grade, because I was in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and thought that someday I might write an epic memoir. Since my life in the city of St. Louis and suburbs of Chicago was pretty boring compared to Laura’s childhood on the American frontier, I started making up fantastical stories about colonies of cows living on the moon to amuse myself. In junior high, I turned the horrible everyone-is-mean-and-I-hate-myself emotions I was dealing with into poetry. When I was in high school, the poems became diatribes in zines, and then I turned back to fiction.

Eventually, I went to college for creative writing. I got both my bachelors degree and my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from Columbia College Chicago. While I was in grad school, I met my first agent. A year after I graduated, she sold my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and a year after that, she sold the second, Ballads of Suburbia.

It was a dream come true, a goal I’d been working toward since second grade, and a HUGE learning experience, so I wanted to share some of what I learned with you, whether you’re interested in pursuing writing as a career or just a hobby. (Fiction is my area of expertise, but a lot of this advice can be applied to writing in general.) This is such a broad topic that I couldn’t possibly include everything (but you can always email youaskedit@rookiemag.com with more specific queries). In the meantime, here are some guidelines to help you along the way.

Keep track of your ideas.
Every poem, essay, screenplay, short story, or novel starts with inspiration. I’m guessing that if you read Rookie, you are already a very creative and imaginative person who gets ideas from listening to a song or looking at a picture, from watching the news or talking to your friends, from your crazy dreams about time-traveling monkeys or daydreams about how life might be if you’d made a different a choice somewhere along the line. If you don’t already, YOU NEED TO WRITE ALL OF THESE IDEAS DOWN. I literally have, like, seven notebooks going right now—one journal for all those angsty feelings that seem too personal to share but someday may make good fodder, one for the main book idea I’m working on right now, three separate notebooks for the three other fiction ideas that I have brewing, one for my non-fiction ideas, and one adorable little tiny notebook that I carry with me EVERYWHERE in case I get an idea for any of these projects or a new one. I also have pen and paper by my bed in case I have a spark of brilliance while I’m half-asleep.

Daydream, read, repeat.
When I’ve got one idea that I’m trying to build, I try to think about it as often as possible: when I’m running errands, walking to a friend’s house, or supposed to be working on other things. The daydreaming phase is really important. I also find it really useful to make playlists that align with my project, using songs that remind me of characters, settings, moods, or emotional turning points. Also, Pinterest has really helped collect images that inspire me.

Another important source for inspiration–perhaps the most important source–is other writing. I don’t have many hard-and-fast rules here, but this is one of them: read as much as possible. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, books that are in the same genre as ones you’d maybe want to write, and books that are totally different from what you usually prefer. The best, very free way (thank you, libraries) to learn how to write is to examine all of your favorite literary works and see how the narrative was put together. Go to see movies and plays and then read to compare. (You can find plays in the library, obviously, and movie/TV scripts at Simply Scripts and IMSDb.) Devour magazines and newspaper articles. Current events can provide great material for your writing (you might have heard that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction). Check out books by writers about the process, like On Writing by Stephen King.

Discipline, discipline, discipline.

I know what you’re thinking. What happened to freedom and liberation and stuff? Trust me, there is a lot of freedom within the discipline, but writing has to be part of your regular routine. Just like playing a sport or a musical instrument, if you don’t practice regularly, you get rusty, and then getting back into it becomes hard and NOT FUN, so you get frustrated and might even quit for good. I set myself a schedule. I was a night owl writer, but now I do my best work in the morning. Everyone is different, and habits may change. Some people advocate writing a little bit every day. Since I view writing as my main job, I take weekends off (but just from the actual writing, I’m always looking for ideas or thinking about my stories). When I was in school, I used to write a little bit in my journal every day and then sit down at my computer and binge write all day on Sunday. If you follow any writers on Twitter, you might see people asking if anyone wants to do a #1k1hr. This is a word sprint with the goal being to write 1,000 words in one hour. I’m horrible at these things, because I’m more of a slow and deliberate writer. Instead I try to write in concentrated blocks–no Facebook, Twitter, or other internet-surfing. Find a place to write (a café, your bedroom) and a medium (a notebook or computer) that’s conducive for you or else you won’t be tempted to write as often as you should.

Find your own process.

When it comes to actually committing words to the page, every writer is different, and every project is different. Sometimes you might struggle to come up with the first sentence, staring for hours at a blank screen. (Take a break, step away, shower, whatever.) Other times, you might have manic bursts of inspiration. I wrote one book entirely by the seat of my pants, just typing up scenes as they came to me, even if they were out of order. On the other hand, with my current project, I spent weeks writing plot sketches, outlines, and character bios before I dove into the story.

For aspiring novelists specifically, one of my favorite books is Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, because he has a whole chapter devoted to different techniques for what he calls the NOPs (no-outline people) and the OPs (outline people), or as they are more commonly called in the writing world: pantsters and plotters. I also recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder—it’s aimed at screenwriters, and it is full of handy tips.

I think the writing software, Scrivener, is a great tool across the board. It works on Macs or PCs. You can write everything from screenplays to in-depth research papers to novels using it. Plotters can use one of its many outline modes to plot (I love the corkboard!), and pantsters can easily rearrange their various non-linear scenes. You can keep research and pictures in your project file, so you can easily study that girl who looks like your main character without changing computer programs. Then, when you are done, you can compile it into a Word document. Best of all, they offer a 30-day free trial and after that, it’s only $40–cheaper than Word, and an excellent thing to ask for as a present.

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43 Comments

  • clairee July 27th, 2012 3:13 PM

    Thank you so much! This was very helpful, and I love that Little House on the Prairie was one of your childhood favorites, as it was mine growing up!

    I’m very curious for more details about your revision process. I find that everyone says it is super important, but I have a hard time figuring out exactly what works and what doesn’t in my work on my own. While I know sharing with others helps with this, I’d like to more train my self-critical eye and be able to improve. Sometimes I feel like I don’t actually improve and that my writing has stayed the same forever, which feels a little frustrating.

    http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 2:53 PM

      Clairee, I definitely feel your pain on that. Writing can be slow to improve sometimes. In terms of developing your own critical eye, my advice is still to share with others BUT make sure those others are critique partners meaning that they give you work to read in return. I’ve really found that editing other people has helped me learn to notice my own patterns and be aware of flaws in my own writing. Also if your school has a lit magazine, writing club you can join, or creative writing class you can take where you’ll have the opportunity to examine other people’s writing that will be really helpful. You’ll see things you like and can begin to examine how you can do those things better. You’ll also see their weaknesses and become aware if you have weaknesses in those areas, too. Does that make sense? You can do this when reading books too. I know I have a weakness in writing wayyyyyyyyy too much backstory, so I am hyper aware while I;m reading of how other writers do it.

  • Kristen July 27th, 2012 3:22 PM

    The Little House books were the first ones that I read as a child!

    This was so helpful, thank you for your advice. All of my ideas of the lives of writers come from movies like Henry & June and Howl… so this was nice and real.

  • sn0whill July 27th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Yes! Definitely filing this away for later re-reading. Thank you so much for writing this.

  • rosiesayrelax July 27th, 2012 4:06 PM

    This is incredibly helpful! I’m actually writing a story in blog format because it wa a new year’s resolution :) check it out if you like

    Escaping Jackie

    P.s. is anyone else watching the Olympics right now?!? It’s amazing!

    • A Fox In The Snow July 27th, 2012 5:24 PM

      I am! I reeeaaalllyyyy loved the pop music part, and was that actor Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting?

      • all-art-is-quite-useless July 30th, 2012 1:31 PM

        I loved the children’s literature and NHS section because: JK ROWLING! the childcatcher! voldemort! mary poppins coming to save the day! dancing nurses! happy sick children bouncing on their beds! and choosing to do a section on the NHS was really brave.

        I also loved the queen’s acting debut… I didn’t warm to the royal family once during the Jubilee celebrations, but I was weirdly proud of her this time :/

  • kmbcomments July 27th, 2012 4:12 PM

    This article is so awesome I just emailed it to two friends before even getting to page 2! :D

    Thank you so much for the straightforward information and inspiration. You are an excellent writer, so I am taking your words to heart. Also, I love the Little House books, but for me it was all about Sweet Valley High. The one where the girl tries to drown the other girl scuba diving??? Couldn’t put it down.

    Happy Olympics!!!

  • Narita July 27th, 2012 4:16 PM

    I’ve got another piece of advice, if I might be so free to put it here: Do. Really, if you want something, stalk people. I just wrote to magazines and now I’m the youngest-ever editor of the Dutch equal of Alternative Press. If you want to give out a book, get in touch with agents. I was 14 and a half when I started, but just… do it. Really. Most people kinda like it when you take initiative.

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:01 PM

      Good advice. You can definitely network and research and work your way in to the writing world. You don’t want to harass people because then you’ll end up on their bad side, but yeah, follow agents/publishers/writers you admire on Twitter, read their blogs, etc and you can learn a TON that way. And I agree, once you have some solid stuff, you are never too young to start submitting!

  • Jennifer T July 27th, 2012 4:19 PM

    I’m always surprised when this one never finds its way into “how to be a writer” tip lists: experience life as much as you can. If you’re coming up dry for material, chances are that living inside of your daydreams isn’t going to get you very far. Going out and challenging yourself, forcing yourself to experience things that you might not automatically choose to do can inspire all kinds of emotions and thoughts that translate into story material. Accept every party invitation, take on that weird job, visit someplace you have made a point of avoiding in the past. Writers tend to be sensitive types so if you fancy yourself a writer, chances are you’re going to have some strong reactions worth writing about.

    Also, don’t equate your publishing success with your value as a writer. Nobody will tell you this, but the publishing world (online, too) is very much an exclusionary club where personal connections are almost everything. Writing isn’t brain surgery; there are some damn good amateur writers who don’t make a living selling their poetry or prose–but the clubby nature of the writing world will make sure that these writers don’t get much of an audience because they don’t have the connections, they haven’t been published previously, or they haven’t devoted their lives to the craft. Once in a while we get these great things like NPR’s story project a few years back that provided an audience for regular people who have amazing stories and insights to share. Keep an eye out for those sorts of opportunities.

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 2:59 PM

      These are both great tips. Definitely living life is key to discovering more things to write about. That’s why going to school for other things besides writing can be so helpful for people. For me personally it is why I graduated high school early and went to live on my own in a new city.

      People shouldn’t necessarily equate publishing success with being a good writer, that is true. It’s something that I’m personally guilty of though, I must admit. I measure my self against the success of my writing friends and it can bum me out at times. However, I would disagree that writing is clubby and all based on connections. I think Narita gave excellent advice above that you really can take initiative, meet and talk to people and work your way in. That’s how I did it. I didn’t have any connections, but I still found an agent and got published. Also with self-publishing, you can publish your own stuff too. It might not be a massive bestseller, but that’s where I think your advice is key, you shouldn’t equate that with success.

      • Jennifer T July 28th, 2012 6:31 PM

        I can appreciate the hard work that you put into making it as a writer. When you say, “meet and talk to people and and work your way in,” that says to me that writing “success” is as much (if not more) about forging personal connection with those in positions of power as it is about the pure merits of the writing. There is a growing crowdsourcing movement in public policy (see: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/prizes-with-an-eye-toward-the-future/) where contests are held to recruit the best solutions for the problems at hand. The amazing thing, as the NYT reports, is that often “winners tend not to be the people you expect,” e.g., a clockmaker finding the solution for a navigational problem. My point is that good work can come from anywhere, and while crowdsourcing is growing, the literary world remains pretty insular in protecting and serving its own (published writing always mentions the writer’s past literary accomplishments, as though one can’t write unless one is a Writer). Yes, one might be able to work her way in, but she’s going to invest her time in such a wearying effort only if she wants to be a Writer. Does that mean that she has nothing to offer–no short story or poem? The literary world says yes. I find myself no longer reading the fiction in magazines like Harper’s because it’s all drawn from a group of, very often, NYC-based MFAs, and their stories just don’t move me. Just once I’d like to see the magazine publish a story from a plumber in Duluth :-).

        • Stephanie July 30th, 2012 11:38 AM

          I definitely understand your point and personally I don’t read the fiction in Harper’s either because I also don’t like that clubby, MFA based feel. But I think that if you look at writing as a whole as opposed to just “literary” fiction/short stories, you’ll find writers from a lot of different backgrounds telling a lot of different stories, people who come from art or teaching or music or child psychology, maybe even a plumber :)

    • Carneece July 28th, 2012 3:57 PM

      Slow clap for the advice on going after fresh experiences! I recognized this last year as a sophomore at uni, whilst hating my life and my creative writing major. I finally realized that my writing was anemic because I spent so much time siphoning my life into the writing process and leaving little time to “refuel” with new experiences to draw from. I’m a wary advocate of the “write only what you know!” philosophy, since I find that embarrassingly crippling, but if I don’t brach out and become more comfortable with different avenues of life then I tend to be malnourished as a writer. So, DO STUFF, writers! Find new things to love/hate/fear/adore!

  • RiotViolet July 27th, 2012 4:29 PM

    I thought this was a great piece. As a teenager whose been obsessed with writing, I thought this was very informative! I currently working on a book I hope to publish in the next couple of months and is definitley looking at all the tips I can get to become a better writer xx
    -Violet Lee
    http://violet-lee.tumblr.com

  • Susann July 27th, 2012 4:54 PM

    This is amazing! Thank you so much!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • A Fox In The Snow July 27th, 2012 5:21 PM

    This article is extremely helpful. I’ve recently started to write a story for myself, but I stopped because everything my characters were saying sounded silly. I think I will start writing again now that I’ve read this!

  • lylsoy July 27th, 2012 10:05 PM

    I lack discipline… THANKS FOR TELLING ME sorry for screaming, but this is a revelation!
    xoxo
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

  • Eryn July 28th, 2012 12:04 AM

    Thank you so much for all the great tips!!! I have pages and pages of stories I’ve abandoned. I really need that discipline! Great article :)

  • Aubrey July 28th, 2012 12:42 AM

    Can I just say how timely this article was? I have notebooks filled with things I wrote during the school semester that I promised myself OF COURSE OVER THE SUMMER I’LL WRITE NOVELS. But it’s almost August and I’ve done none of it. This article just may be the thing to get me writing again. Thanks so much!

  • streaked lights July 28th, 2012 2:43 AM

    Wow! This was so helpful.
    I’d also like to suggest another program from writing, this one more towards the novel sort, ‘StoryMill’. I think this one is only for Mac though, I’m not sure.

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:02 PM

      Ooh thanks for that. I don’t have a Mac, but I will check it out and keep an eye to see if it comes to PC.

  • Margomouse July 28th, 2012 2:49 PM

    With three days until Camp Nanowrimo (write a 50000 word novel in a month) this article could not have been posted at a better time. The writer of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone wrote this?! That book made me like books. And books made me want to write so..

    • Stephanie July 28th, 2012 3:03 PM

      Wow, that is a HUGE compliment! I’m glad my book made you like books :) Good luck with Camp Nanowrimo! I hope these tips help!

  • Jessica W July 28th, 2012 5:54 PM

    Fantastic post.
    I think some people have the gift of writing as well. For example, I now numerous people who do NOTHING year round in English, yet achieve excellent results time after time.

    The Lovelorn

  • unicornconnect July 28th, 2012 7:29 PM

    Thankyou so much!!! I really really like writing and this has been really helpful. I would love to actually sit down and write a short story or a long story, but I have never actually finished. Because I think after I write the start I get all freaked out about the plot. But this has inspired me to Sit my butt down and write something!!

    Also, how do you write a novel and make it long enough to be a novel without making the story all rambling and crazy? I’m not sure if that question makes sense.. Bit do you kind of get what I mean?

    Yay!
    Carla

    • Stephanie July 30th, 2012 11:34 AM

      Carla, to keep a novel going and going STRONG so the middle doesn’t sag, you may need to do some plotting, scary as it is. I used to be freaked out by plot, too, butI really recommend reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell for some tips on this and analyzing some of your favorite novels to see how they do it in terms of using sub plots to heighten tension and bring more action to the story.

  • July 28th, 2012 7:47 PM

    This is such a helpful post, I love writing and I have a few tips myself
    Tip number 1: I have been trying to write in my journal every day. I think the most important part of journal writing is to understand that you don’t need to write an essay every day it could just be one word that describes whatever you want it to. Journal writing is about release and what you write doesn’t have to be well written or something you would want to share, it’s just for you.
    Another tip I have is to surround yourself with creative people who inspire you to write more and to go to the movies (a good movie that inspired me to write was Ruby Sparks).

  • Caden July 28th, 2012 11:39 PM

    I too have a degree in creative writing. And my love of story telling has taken me to a have a career in special effects makeup in film. You never know where writing will take you!

  • shinmachine July 29th, 2012 5:54 AM

    ahh~! i shouldve bought that I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone book when i saw it last week! this is a very helpful article, btw. thank you

  • Sophii July 29th, 2012 10:30 AM

    This is such a great article. Wonderful tips. I’ve written a book and I’m writing a sequel but my parents won’t let me publish. I might try reading the whole first book out loud but it’s 113 A4 pages long so I’ll get through a lot of cups of tea and throat sweets! I would love to pursue writing as a career so much. I just love it and have done since I was like 5. I have a fashion blog where I write about fashion too. My favourite things to write are fiction, fashion and history but I just love the power that words can have. This article is super inspirational. Thanks,
    Sophie x
    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.co.uk

  • eliselbv July 30th, 2012 9:27 AM

    “Another important source for inspiration–perhaps the most important source–is other writing”

    I totally agree with you! I’ve been reading since I’m 5 and everytime I write, I have many “pictures” in my head from my readings.
    But the hardest part is to not copy the authors I like.
    Elise
    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • MissKnowItAll July 30th, 2012 10:16 AM

    I really needed this!
    Thanks so much!
    p.s Tavi and Anaheed, is there an instagram for Rookie?

  • Whatsername July 30th, 2012 11:59 AM

    Thank you so much for this! I hope to go into writing someday, it’s been my dream since like kindergarten, but since it’s summer I’ve been slacking in terms of practice.
    Loving the section on editing, btw. My dad would always tell me, “writing is rewriting”. He’s a screenwriter and he’ll print his script out and take a red pen and scribble literally ALL OVER the entire page. Every now and then I’ll see him cross out a whole three pages with big X’s. He’ll keep doing this with the same script for, like, a year.

  • shedoesthecityteen July 30th, 2012 1:24 PM

    This is a really fantastic post. If any young writers out there are looking to get started, we’re accepting submissions to She Does The City Teen: http://shedoesthecityteen.com/

    Contact haleycullingham [at] gmail [dot] com with your ideas and pieces!

  • curlllss July 30th, 2012 8:21 PM

    I got I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone years ago and it is one of the few books I’ve read more than once. It’s so awesome to read your article!!! I’d actually like to go into editing, but writing has been my passion since I was little. Thank you for this.

  • Filia-Zissy August 1st, 2012 8:47 AM

    Thanks for the advice. I love writing but I keep not finishing stories. I found the tip “think of your story as often as possible” a very precious one. It sounds very obvious, but it’s something I haven’t done very often so far. There were working periods and than I was just doing something else, thinking of anything but my stories. So thank you.

  • Loudandproudmag August 1st, 2012 3:12 PM

    I loved this article! I’ve always been unsure about what i wanted to, subconsciously I knew I would end up doing something to do with writing! I’m going to be in my third year of my creative writing degree!
    Ani
    http://gleaming-horrors.tumblr.com/

  • AdrienneRumer August 1st, 2012 5:44 PM

    For the past couple of years I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo, but I’ve only managed 5k words, but with your advice, I’m hoping to give it a good go this time. And hopefully I’ll have written enough to actually have something to edit!

  • austenthecat August 1st, 2012 10:46 PM

    This is just about the most helpful thing ever. Thanks so much for this!

  • TheElizabethFL August 1st, 2012 11:06 PM

    Wow, that was super useful. Seriously.

    As an aspiring teen novelist, thank you!