Some Basic Advice about Writing

Some Basic Advice about Writing


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



No one is going to know how great your writing is if your story or novel is only shared

with friends and family. You’re going to have start sending your work to publishers 



Some Basic Advice about Writing

By Jess Mowry


The Basics

I get a few letters every week from new writers, showing me stories or parts of their novels and asking advice about how to write, what to write about, and how to get their writing published. This site has been up for about five years, and in all that time I’ve only seen three or four stories that I would call “bad writing”, and even those weren’t hopelessly bad if the writer really wanted to put some effort into learning how to write better. Not surprisingly, the natural talent of very young writers usually shines the brightest, and it saddens me to know that many of these natural story-tellers will either not go on to develop their talent, or will become discouraged by rejections and give up writing. As with any god-given talent, whether it’s an aptitude for playing an instrument, a knack for painting or drawing, or the natural ability to tell a good story, your talent alone is not enough. Your natural skills have to be developed through practice. Developing your natural talent for writing a good saleable story (novels are stories too) is no different from developing a natural talent for shooting hoops or freestyle rapping: you pick up advice from experts in the game, you check out other people’s styles and imitate those you like. And most of all you practice. As you might guess, I don’t have time to write a detailed critique to everyone who sends me samples of their work, so I hope this page will give you some basic advice about how to develop your own natural talent for writing. Probably the best advice I can give — especially to young writers — is to READ. Read until your eyes go blurry and your head is stuffed with all kinds of things you never thought you’d want to know! Besides making you a better writer, you may not have to work for the white man the rest of your life.Knowledge is power!

Knowledge is the only true power in the world. If you’ve got knowledge you can do just about anything and survive just about anything… and the best way to survive the ghetto is to get smart enough to get your ass out. Knowledge is better than money because with knowledge you can always make money in some way. But ignorant folk are always poor and usually stay that way. In the U.S., being poor and ignorant leaves you with better than a 50-50 chance that you’ll end up in prison before age 25. And If you’re black and ignorant, you’re probably in prison already. There is nothing cool or “bad” about being locked in a cage and treated like an animal… an ignorant monkey. If you believe that getting locked in a cage is some sort of black passing rite to manhood (“everybody has to do time sometime”) then you’re ignorant. Period. The concept that wasting months or years of your life in a white man’s prison is some sort of black ritual, isn’t a black thing, it’s a white thing. It’s also a white thing to play gangster games and feed on or kill your Brothers and Sisters. If you weren’t an ignorant monkey, then you’d ask yourself who really benefits by locking up black boys, or teaching them it’s “cool, bad and manly” to kill each other? Anyway, back to writing… and reading.Develop your natural writing skills . . . READ!

Black History and current black issues are very important to know, but don’t restrict your reading to only these things. And don’t limit your reading to only black authors. To be a good writer you have to know a little about a lot. Also, by reading many different writers, you will gradually develop your own writing style. There are many times when I can tell what few books a young writer has read — or who his or her favorite author is — just by the way they write. So can most editors at publishing houses and magazines. Imitating your favorite author is normal: in fact it’s how most successful writers got started. But it does reveal that a new writer is still a little wet; and just as in most professions, whether trades, sports, music or film, very few people in the writing business have time to deal with a wet one. A new writer may have tons of natural talent that shines through his or her rough or imitative style — hardly a week goes by that I don’t see an example of this — but editors don’t have time to help a new author develop their skills. Most editors are not writing mentors or teachers, they are business people, and their jobs are to chose books and stories that will make money for their publishing house or magazine. The general attitude of most editors who encounter a gifted new author who hasn’t yet polished their writing to a saleable degree is basically the same as a band leader or a film director when a talented but unpolished young musician or actor comes in for an audition… “nice, kid, come back when you’ve learned a little more.” There are many definitions of “writer”. Can you call yourself a writer on the legit and not be published? Sure. There are lots of really great writers who aren’t published yet, and probably just as many who will never be published, just as there are many great painters who will never be recognized, and many great sports players who will never be professionals. In many cases, these great natural writers will never be published because they either won’t work hard enough polishing their writing to a saleable degree (which usually means learning the right form for novels and stories) and/or they won’t put enough effort into trying to get their writing published.Get busy!

Just as if you were a poor kid in rural Mississippi with a great natural talent for playing the guitar, the odds are that you’re never going to be a professional musician and get paid for playing if all you do is sit on your porch and play for yourself and your friends. The chance that some big-time music promoter is going to break down in his Lex in front of your house and be captivated by your music is pretty damn slim. Yet many great natural writers seem to think that some big-time book editor or literary agent is somehow going to stumble across their novel or story! Do you think they’re going to bust your crib and find your work in a drawer? Just like that Mississippi boy, you’re going to have to get off your ass, call attention to yourself, and show off your talent. You will probably be treated like shit by a few people, and have a lot of doors slammed in your face; but if you keep on trying and keep getting better at what you do, then sooner or later you’ll land your first paying gig… sell a story. No one is going to know how great your writing is if your story or novel is only shared with friends and family. You’re going to have start sending your work to publishers; and you’ll probably get a lot of rejections and be treated like shit by some people. But if you keep on writing and getting better at it, and keep sending your writing to publishers, then sooner or later you will be published.Don’t be scared of rejections

A lot of new writers have a fear of rejection, and this keeps them from sending their work to publishers. (Just as it keeps many young black people from going out into the white world and building a good life.) But writing is a business, and rejections are just a part of that business. Most rejections are based upon editorial taste… meaning the personal likes and dislikes of an editor. I’ve had many books rejected by white female editors just because they don’t like stories about young black males. Editors keep their jobs by choosing books and stories that sell, which makes money for their publishing house or magazine; and if an editor has been successful by choosing only certain types of stories, then he or she probably won’t take a chance on publishing something different. Unfortunately, black books and stories are often “something different”, so many editors are afraid to publish them. But that’s just another part of the writing business, and you have to accept it. You should never take rejections personally… it was your book or story that was rejected (for whatever reasons) not you.Practice = work

Most young people are very creative in many ways. For example, the cartoons that many young people draw are excellent. But the difference between a cool cartoon on a school binder or a warehouse wall, and the work of a professional cartoonist in a magazine, or as animation on a movie screen, is that the professional cartoonist has to draw his or her characters in many different poses and situations, and from many different angles and perspectives, not just the one or two poses that he or she likes to draw. Maybe the cartoonist is good with faces but hates doing bodies or backgrounds. That doesn’t matter in the real world of cartooning: the professional cartoonist has to draw all of those things to make a whole picture. And, the professional cartoonist has to draw his or her characters over and over and over again, and polish them to perfection each and every time, including the parts of the drawing that he or she may not like to do or want to do. And, he or she must draw every day whether they feel like drawing or not. The same concept applies to professional writing. That “inspired” short story you wrote in an hour, or the first chapter of a novel; the idea that came to you in a dream or in a in a moment on the street; the scene, the situation, the protest, the picture, that demanded to be written — the story that was “fun” to write or felt good to write — is only the beginning of a long and sometimes painful process if you want to see that story or novel between covers and out on a book store shelf.Rewrite and polish!

There are a few successful writers who say that they never do a rewrite or polish their work. I think that’s bullshit. At least I’ve never written anything that wasn’t improved by rewriting and polishing. And I don’t think any real successful writer ever has. I can still read one of my most published short stories and see how changing a word here and there, adding or deleting a sentence or a paragraph, could make it better. Sometimes rewriting can be fun, but often it isn’t. Rewriting is work… a four-letter word. Just like a professional cartoonist who polishes his drawings, polishing your writing is something that you might not like to do, yet it must be done. You should think of your inspired story or novel chapter as a first draft. It probably felt really good when you wrote it; maybe it got you an “A” in English, and all your friends liked it: but if you hope to get it published, or go from a ten-page first-chapter to a 300-page novel, then there’s a lot of hard work ahead, and at least some of it won’t be fun. Just how to go about rewriting and polishing your work is something you have to find out for yourself. It’s helpful to ask how other writers do it; but eventually you’ll discover what works best for you. My own way is to read over the beginning of a story, or the start of a new novel chapter from yesterday, polishing as I go along, and let this polishing flow into today’s new writing. Some authors write their whole story or novel all the way through with the first inspiration and then begin at the beginning to polish and rewrite it all over again. But, no matter how you do your rewriting, you will always find that fresh words, descriptions, ideas, scenes, characters and perspectives come to mind and improve the story.Study

Go into any bookstore and you’ll find hundreds of books about how to write and how to get your writing published. A lot of those books were written by published professional authors. Most are full of good advice, and many will claim to give you all the tricks you need to “write to sell.” But, what works for one person may not work for another. The best advice I can give you about these kinds of books is to read a lot of them so you’ll get many different opinions and perspectives.Tricks are for kids

Don’t pay much attention to “writing tricks”. The trouble with so-called writing tricks is that most editors already know them, and will see them in your work. Some editors will even know which “how to write” book you got those tricks from! A book of writing-to-sell tricks is a lot like those infomercials on TV where somebody who supposedly made a million dollars selling self-cleaning cat-boxes wants to show how you, yes YOU, can do it, too. For a price, of course. There’s a big difference between writing-tricks and good writing. About the only real trick a black writer can use to sell his book is to tell the whitefolks what they want to hear about us — a trick the whitefolks never wise up to — but I assume you have higher standards than that.Learn the form

But the only on-the-real trick to sell your writing is to use the right form when shaping your story. Form is one of the writing rules you’re going to have to follow whether you like it or not. Besides, if you need tricks to sell your work, then you’re not much of a writer anyhow. Obviously I can’t go into every detail of how to write in the space of a web page: all I can do is give you some basic advice. The basic form (or rule) for a short story or novel is that you have an interesting character (or characters) and that character is faced with a problem. This problem can be anything… something as simple as buying new jeans, right on up to getting drive-byed. It’s up to you, the writer, to make your character and his problem interesting enough that someone wants to read about them. Let’s say your character is a 13-year-old boy named Terrel. Having Terrel get drive-byed on his way to school would catch most readers (and editors) attentions no matter what color they were. It sure as hell caught a lot of people’s attentions when I had the Friends in Way Past Cool get drive-byed on their way to school. Creating an interesting character in an interesting situation that most people would want to read about is not a writing trick, it’s a necessity. But, stories don’t have to be life-and-death, dirty, dark, or violent to be interesting (like having Terrel get drive-byed). For example, just finding the right jeans when Terrel doesn’t have much money, or having Terrel venturing out of the ‘hood to some uptown whitebread mall for his jeans — or venturing into the hood from middle-class suburbia to score a pair of genuine G jeans — could be just as interesting to read about as Terrel in a life-threatening situation. You start your story by introducing your character and his problem to your readers. Some writers like to describe their characters and settings — Terrel’s room, his building, his house, his neighborhood, how he looks and dresses — while other writers keep all that to a minimum. That’s a matter of style… your style. You present Terrel’s problem as soon as you can in the story… set the stage… and Terrel fights in some way to overcome or solve that problem. If Terrel has just been drive-byed on his way to school, his problem might be to find out who did it and make sure it won’t happen again. If Terrel wants to score a new pair of jeans, his problem might be how to get the green, or how to get into that whitebread mall past a racist security guard. Or, Terrel’s problem could be how does a middle-class black boy from the ‘burbs survive in the ‘hood long enough to score those G jeans and come home alive? Terrel’s fight to overcome his problem builds up your readers’ interest and adds tension and excitement to the story. If you write well, it keeps your reader reading to see what happens next. Will Terrel discover who drive-byed him? And if so, what can he do about it? Will Terrel from the ‘hood be able to outsmart the racist security guard and get into the mall? Will he be chased by the guard? Will he get his jeans? What about middle-class Terrel? What kind of problem does he have to overcome in the ‘hood to score his jeans? Finally, in the end, Terrel either solves the problem and wins… he finds out who did the roll-up and deals with him. Or, Terrel outsmarts the racist security guard and scores his jeans after an exciting chase through the mall. Or, suburban Terrel comes home alive from the hood with his jeans after being chased by gangstuhs. Etc.Comedy or tragedy?

This, by the way, makes the story a “comedy”. A story doesn’t have to be funny to be a comedy. A comedy is where your character overcomes his problem and has a happy ending. On the other hand, the problem might be too big or powerful for Terrel to overcome. …Terrel gets capped while trying to find out who drive-byed him. Or, the racist security guard catches Terrel and frames him for boosting a pair of jeans. Or, suburban Terrel gets put on his back and his jeans are stolen. This would make the story a “tragedy”. Romeo and Juliet is a tradegy… they both died. They didn’t overcome their problem. Of course, Terrel doesn’t have to die for this story to be a tragedy: he just doesn’t manage to solve his problem. So, that’s the basic form or rule for writing a story… interesting character, interesting problem, does Terrel solve his problem or not? If you’re a good story-teller, then you’ve probably gotten several ideas from these examples. Remember that Terrel’s problem doesn;t have to be life and death to make a good story or grab a reader’s attention.Story or novel?

It’s hard to define the difference between a short story –which can be pretty long sometimes — and a novel; but usually a short story is about one character and one main problem. A cast of thousands is usually reserved for novels. There’s no rule about how long a short story can be, but very long short stories don’t sell well these days because there’s no market for them. Most magazines and short story books (anthologies) only want stories that are around twenty manuscript pages. (See the Submitting Your Work page to find out what a manuscript page is all about.) Sometimes a short story idea pops into your mind all complete from beginning to end and can be written down in an hour or two — the first draft, anyhow — but a novel usually takes a lot of time and thinking to work out; and sometimes you don’t even know where it’s going until you get there. Three of my seven books began as short story ideas and just kept growing, while a few of my novel ideas became short stories because there just wasn’t enough material to build a novel. Some writers say they can tell the difference between a short story and a novel idea before sitting down to write it. Maybe they really can.Point of view

An important thing to consider is from what point of view you’re going to tell your story. Many young writers start out with the “I” point of view… like, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”. This is the easiest way to write for a lot young people… your character tells the story to the reader. For example, here is Terrel telling the story:I woke up and shoved off my blankets. Outside it was warm and sunny. I could hear birds singing in the park. But I felt like shit ’cause I got real drunk last night. This may be the easiest way to tell a story for many young writers, but using the “I” point of view has a lot of limitations and some disadvantages. For one thing, if it isn’t done right it gets boring pretty fast, unless Terrel is really good at expressing himself and describing his surroundings. And, unless you have Terrel checking himself in a mirror…I checked myself in the bathroom mirror; my eyes were a little red. … it’s hard to tell your reader what he looks like. For example, If Terrel is handsome and muscular, he’s going to sound full of himself by telling that to your reader… Also, since 13-year-old Terrel is telling the story, he can’t use words and descriptions that a person of his age, environment, and life-experience wouldn’t use. With the “I” point of view, nothing can be going on in the story that Terrel isn’t there to see, hear, smell, feel, touch, or think about. Terrel might hear what sounds like 1970s muscle car cruising his hood, but he can’t know that its full of bangers waiting for him until he goes out and gets drive-byed. If Terrel is telling this story, then your reader is sort of like inside Terrel’s head. Your reader can only know what Terrel sees, hears, feels, smells, etc. And all these things can only be described in Terrel’s own words… the words of a 13-year-old boy. And your readers can’t know what Terrel is thinking unless Terrel tells them. Probably the biggest disadvantage for a young writer using this “I” point of view is that it looks like a story written by a beginning writer, and this can turn a lot of editors off. Another way to tell a story is sometimes called “the narrator point of view.” In this style you, the writer, are sort of like God… you know all, see all, hear all, etc. And you tell the story instead of Terrel…It was a warm sunny morning in West Oakland. Birds were singing in the park. Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets. He was a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen, with big, puppylike hands and feet and a normally cheerful smile. But he didn’t feel much like smiling today. He’d gotten really drunk last night and his head hurt like hell. As “God”, you, the narrator, know everything about Terrel, his neighborhood, his friends, and everything else that’s going on around him. You watch his every move, and you see and know things he can’t. You also know what he’s thinking…Two goddamn forties of O.E.! thought Terrel. I’m never gonna do that shit again! You can say things like: Out on the street, a black ’75 Chevy Camaro rounded the corner. Inside were six bangers from over East. They seemed to be trolling around for somebody. Most books and stories are written from this narrator point-of-view. It’s often more interesting to a reader than the “I” point of view, and it gives you, the writer, a lot more room to move. For one thing, you don’t have to restrict your vocabulary and descriptive powers to those of a 13-year-old boy. There are several other points of view to write from, but my favorite is sometimes called “stream-of-consciousness”. I think it combines the best parts of both the “I” and “the narrator” points of view. Like the “I” point of view, stream-of-consciousness storytelling is limited to what your character sees, hears, smells, tastes, thinks, etc. Terrel still can’t know that black Camaro is packed with bangers trolling for him until they do the roll-up. But Terrel isn’t telling us the story through his own voice; instead, you, the narrator, are telling it. Like the “I” point of view, we are inside Terrel’s head sometimes, but now we know what he’s thinking without him having to tell us out loud as if he was talking. In the stream-of-consciousness point of view, the same scene would go something like this…Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets. Outside it seemed to be a beautiful day. He could hear birds singing in the park. Birds! The hell were they good for? Why didn’t they just shut the fuck up! His head hurt as he rolled from the bed and padded into the bathroom. Two goddamn forties of O.E. last night on an empty stomach! His eyes were red when he checked himself in the mirror, seeing a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen with big, puppylike hands and feet. Get the idea? Not only can you, the narrator, tell the story, but Terrel can also tell it by thinking… Birds! The hell were they good for? Why didn’t they just shut the fuck up!That’s the basics

So, we’ve covered the basics of writing a story: you need an interesting character with an interesting problem to overcome, and you need a point of view from which to tell your story. A few writers switch points of view during their stories. While this can make a story more interesting, it can also confuse and annoy your reader if it isn’t done right. In most cases there’s no need to do it. Confusing or annoying an editor is almost always a guaranteed rejection; and even if your story is published, confusing and annoying readers will make them stop reading your story.Bad advice

Finally, I want to warn you about what I think is probably the all time worst piece of advice young writers can get… usually from your English or Creative Writing teacher. Don’t ever… ever… let anyone tell you that you must only “write about what you know”! This advice is bad enough for white writers, but it can keep you down forever if you’re black. Did space aliens write Star Trek? Do real detectives write most mystery novels? Nope. One of the best novels about the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage was written by someone who had never been in that war. Better advice would be: If you don’t know, then find out before you write about it.If you don’t know, don’t guess If you don’t know, don’t guess and don’t fake it — do your research, get your facts and details right . The internet is a good place to find out just about anything you need to know. Write about anything you damn well want to! Don’t let anybody say you can’t!Dream! And don’t be afraid to dream… BIG.

Jess Mowry is the author of Way Past Cool as well as other novels for and about Black children and teens, such as Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz, Rats In The Trees, Ghost Train, Bones Become Flowers and Children Of The Night. Check the Site Index page for details. His stories have appeared in many anthologies, such as In The Tradition, Cornerstones, School Is Not Cool, Follow That Dream, I Believe In Water, Face Relations and Brotherman.

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