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May 2009 Muselings

Writers should



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 desire to go to work in purple fluffy slippers? Must a writer 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 “Writers should…”?


When we’re first learning the ropes for being writers, 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 that 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, writers must grapple with problems like how to invest their earnings, and what to spend them on. Hmm ...


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's my belief we writers should build a magical place where others 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.


As Ernest Gaines puts it: “The writer does not have to be a great intellectual - but he must be able to use words to grasp your attention, hold your attention, until he is ready to let go. And if he is good enough, he will have your attention long after you have put down the book - all of this is accomplished through words, made from those twenty six little letters of the alphabet.”


I would add this: 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 Primary/Elementary school children, asking them what a writer should do. Overwhelmingly, they indicated the importance of having a good story to tell. Other responses 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.


Kids know 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 which 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 want meshes with what the writing gurus say. So, after you’ve finished reading this edition of The Muse Marquee, assemble your guns, plastic spiders, mutated humans and ballet-bullies because it’s time to start writing again. And when the writing process is over, when you’ve revised and polished and deleted and killed your darlings, it's time to start on another darn good story!


Susan Stephenson is a writer, editor, teacher and reviewer:






Have you been to these sites?


Great blog for writers - Query Tracker


The Query Tracker blog is well worth reading. Here's an interesting article on writing a pitch by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary. Be sure to check out the posts on writing queries and synopses.


Cup of Comfort Books - Submissions


A Cup of Comfort for a Better World / Submission deadline: June 15, 2009

A Cup of Comfort for Couples / Submission deadline: October 1, 2009

A Cup of Comfort for Golfers / Submission deadline: December 15, 2009


Susan's Book Chook blog

where children's literacy and literature collide

Chicken Soup Books – Submissions

All in the Family

“These serious or hilarious, oh so true stories will touch your heart and make you see that even in the most difficult situations, other families are not all that different from your own. Share your stories with others who may realize we all have the same in-laws, siblings, parents, etc. Submit under your real name, but rest assured we expect most of you to use pen names for publication and change the names of family members to protect the innocent (or guilty!). The deadline date for story submissions is June 30, 2009.”


Richard Harland's Writing Tips

Comprehensive writing tips site


Richard J Margolis Award

Essays or nonfiction articles that combine warmth, humor,

wisdom and concern with social justice. Submit at least two

articles, preferably no more than 30 pages total.

July 1 2009

$5,000 stipend and one-month residency at Blue Mountain

Center in the Adirondacks


Children's Christian Magazine – The Kids' Ark

Fiction for 6-10, to 600 words, pays $100

Check themes.





Until next time, write on!