Vivian Vande Velde Main Page

So you want to be a writer?

The good news--and the bad news--is that there is no right way to write.

This should not be surprising when you consider there isn't any one thing that everybody agrees on.

How do you feel about this year's Newbery winner?

Did you agree with the latest Oscar announcement of the best movie of the year?

What do you think of the current People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive"?

Which Baskin-Robbins flavor is your favorite?

So if we can't even agree which is the best end result, how are we ever going to agree what's the best way to get there? Ask a dozen writers how they write, and you're sure to get at least a dozen answers.

With that in mind, these are my thoughts--what works for me. (Sometimes.)

Even though most of my books are fantasies, many of my stories start with something that really happened.  A writer's best tool is the question "What if?"  What if a dog could talk?  What if a teacher was as bad as a kid's worst nightmare--what if, in fact, she wasn't even human?   What if there was a place you could go to on the Internet that sold magic spells you could put on your classmates? 

I wrote my first book (A Hidden Magic) the year my daughter was born; I was 28 at the time.  Ever since I was very young, I was always telling people that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  But once I sat down and started actually trying to write a whole book, it was harder than I had thought it would be.

I kept wondering:

  • What should I have happen next that nobody will be expecting?
  • How do I make people like the characters I'm writing about?
  • How much description is enough so that people can imagine what is happening, but not too much to make them get bored?

Then I thought: Well, who needs this? So I put the project away to do other things. But the story stayed on my mind, calling me (just like that bag of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen cupboard). Over and over I would go back to the story, only to put it aside when I got disheartened. But I was more disheartened if I wasn't working on it.

It took me two years to finish that first book, and what I've discovered since then is that if I work a little bit every day, I get a lot more ideas than I do if I sit around just waiting for those ideas.  Now that I'm working more seriously at writing (aiming for every day, although that doesn't always work out), I can get a lot more done faster. 

If you're just getting started, here are some thoughts for you:

1.)  A writer needs to read.  (In a pinch, you can also watch TV and movies, but that is truly second best unless you plan to write for TV and movies.)
2.)  When the story is over, think about it.  Think of specific reasons you liked the story (the picture on the cover or the actor who played the lead was cute is not a good enough reason), and think of reasons you didn't like the story.  If you think something was unbelievable, pretend you're the writer:  how would you fix it?  Didn't like the end?  Think up a new one--but make sure it fits the rest of the story.  Too long?  What would you have cut out?  (But before you delete anything, try to figure out why the author put it in there to begin with.)
3.)  Write the kind of stories you like.  If you most enjoy stories set in fairy tale times, write those; if you prefer stories about everyday American kids, write those; funny stories, spooky stories, romances, mysteries--you'll do best with what you like to read, because you know what works and what doesn't work for you when you're reading.

4.)  Write a little bit every day.  It's too easy to say "I'll write when I'm inspired." Writing is like exercising:  the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  Thinking about your story doesn't count.  Try to write at least 1 page.  If--the next day--you decide you hate it, you can always tear it up and start over.

5.)  But don't do that too often.  Finish what you start.  A lot of would-be writers come up with a great beginning, then they go back and fiddle with that beginning day after day until they get tired of it, so they start a new story, then fiddle with that one's beginning...  And so on.  And they never finish a story.  (More on this in a bit.)

6.)  Whether you finish a story and don't like it or you've given up without finishing it--don't throw it away.  Maybe after a little time passes you might come up with a way to fix it.  Or you might decide that the story is hopeless--but one of the characters is interesting and should be in a different story.  Or you might be able to use the setting to go off in a totally different direction.  If nothing else, when you get to be a year or two older, your writings will be like a time machine bringing you back to the way you think now.  Who knows?  Some time in the future that might be just what you need for one of your stories.


OK, back to those people who never finish a story.  A lot of writers get stuck in the middle. Many times a story becomes stuck because the author doesn't really know the characters well enough. One way to get unstuck might be to start asking questions about your character, questions like: 

  • What is it that makes this person angry? 
  • What makes him (or her) happy? 
  • How about afraid? 
  • Embarrassed? 
  • What secret would he be unwilling to share--even with his best friend? 
  • Does he have a secret that he wouldn't admit even to himself? 

You might try having your character write you a letter--possibly complaining about the story, or about the other characters.  (If your character doesn't have anything to complain about, you're making his or her life too easy, and the story will be boring.)

And finally be aware that publishers receive thousands of manuscripts every year, and only publish a small fraction of them.

I wish you good luck in your writing. But remember that getting your story published is not the significant thing. The significant thing is actually writing it.