Monday, November 18, 2013

Every Writer Should…

by Guest Columnist, Susan Stephenson

What are the prerequisites for being a writer? Does a writer need a thick skin? An understanding and forgiving spouse? A sense of humour? Should a writer have the uncontrollable desire to go to work in
purple fluffy slippers? Is it necessary for a writer to be passionate about her prose?

If you had to compile a checklist about what writers should do, what would the main points be? How would you finish the sentence “Every writer should…”?

When we’re first learning the ropes for being a writer, we learn to write about whatever fascinates us, whatever we feel passionate about. While doing this, we must consider the elements of plot, theme, characterization, motivation, setting, form, genre, point of view, and more. We learn to show, not tell. We learn few writers ever make it out of the slush-pile and writing is hard work.

Later, we learn the importance of planning and revision. Still later, if we seek publication, we discover marketing, self-promotion, how to write an effective query letter and how to cope with rejection. Further down the track, or so I’m told, writers must grapple with problems like how to invest their earnings and what to spend them on. I wish…

While all that’s going on, most experts agree every writer should write. Every writer should read. They should do both every day. They should make sure they get out into the real world on a regular basis, or risk becoming out-of-touch with their target audience. Writers should hone their senses and increase their powers of observation, the better to accurately pull a reader into the story, be it fiction or non-fiction.

It is my belief writers should build a magical place where we can read our dreams. I believe a writer’s craft is to use her bag of tricks to construct an alternate reality for the reader - a place for escape and entertainment, furnished with words and images, decorated with imagination.

It pays to be a wordsmith. Read. Go to bed with your dictionary. Increase your word power. Collect words and phrases that make your heart sing. Learn to really look, feel, touch, smell, taste and record those observations as accurately and powerfully as you possibly can. And if you’re writing for children, spend time with them, find out what they want.

Because so much text about writing for children is by adults, I decided to discover what children want of writers. I surveyed a group of Elementary school children, asking them what a writer should do. Overwhelmingly, they indicated the importance of having a good story to tell. Other responses generally supported writing with action and lots of humour. Several students indicated a writer should “get straight into the story” or “not have a long introduction.” Similarly, there were calls for a writer to have a “proper ending” and “an end that leaves you something to think about.”

Can you spot the gender differences in these responses? “Writers should tell about boys being scared of things like mice and plastic spiders.” “Writers should make sure they have lots of crooks, evil villains and robbers.” “Writers should have guns, lots of guns.” “Writers should tell you about bullies being scared or doing ballet.” “Writers should write about different worlds with evil overlords and mutated humans.”

Both boys and girls agreed that writers needed to include “lots of problems and drama” and to write “believably”. There were calls for “pictures, even in a novel”, providing a spur to writers contemplating creation of a graphic novel. Many children wisely touched on the need for writers to tap into an element of “magic”. But my favourite piece of wisdom came from a ten-year-old boy. He told me, “Every writer should make you wonder what will happen next.” His words are now a bumper sticker on my computer.

It seems to me kids have strong opinions of what they want from writers. They recognize and appreciate writers who don’t waste words, who keep them guessing, who give them opportunities to share the fictive dream. Structure is important to children, as is humour and all those devices that make a story seem real. But what is the single most important quality a writer should have? For kids, it’s the ability to tell a darn good story.

Fortunately, what children actually do want from writers meshes with what the writing gurus tell us. So, assemble your guns, plastic spiders, mutated humans and ballet-bullies and start writing. And when the writing process is over, when you’ve revised and polished and deleted and killed your darlings, remember to submit to publishers!

Susan Stephenson is a writer, teacher and book reviewer who lives about as far east as you can go on Australia without falling off. Apart from pretending to be a chicken at The Book Chook blog, Susan writes stories for children and offers resources for teachers and parents at her website,

Monster Maddie
Written by Susan Stephenson, Illustrated by K.C. Snider

To make the kids at her new school take notice, Maddie becomes a monster, with fangs and claws and wild, wild hair. They turn their backs. When she realizes her mistake, a kitten shows her the way to making friends successfully.

The Castelane blog will feature guest authors, artists and publishers, writing about marketing, publishing and the joys and angsts of the writing life. If you’d like to contribute to either the Castelane blog or the Knowledge Base, please contact us at

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