Allison's Book Bag

Round-up of Writing Guides for Young People

Posted on: August 28, 2011

For this round-up, I read five writing guides new to me. All of them were on how to write fiction, rather than nonfiction or other projects such as letters. As such, they all included a chapter on how to come up with ideas. They also all covered most of the basic elements of stories: plot, character, point of view, dialog, and conflict. The two shortest books omitted the main character’s motivation or the story’s theme. Did you notice there’s another element that I didn’t list? Even in many adult writing guides, information about setting is sparse although adult guides often at least discuss how to build atmosphere. No wonder I struggle with setting! In referring to plot, all the guides I read talked about how to create an exciting opening hook and build tension. Although none agreed on how many problems to burden the main character with, they all emphasized how important it is to create a dire problem and for the solution to take time and effort on the part of the main character. In referring to character, they also all discussed dialog and (in light of their young audience) even gave rules about how to write it. Last, while only one guide didn’t refer to publishing, only the two longest guides chatted extensively about the writing life.


To dip my feet into writing guides, I started with the shortest ones. Neither impressed me, but perhaps this is how older guides were. The oldest of the bunch, Write Your Own Story by Vivian Dubrovin, was written in 1984. In grade school these days, students learn that voice is one of the traits of writing and they are graded on their ability to inject personality into their essays. This guide lacks any voice. Another way of thinking about it is that people can often tell when a home has a woman’s touch or belongs to a bachelor. This guide with its abundance of questions, admonitions, and charts sometimes feels as if written by a teacher; it never feels as if written by an author. This guide is also the shortest, which is probably why the author glosses over certain topics. For example, Dubrovin advises young writers to follow this plot formula: Character + Problem + How Character Solves Problem = Story. Most standard writing guides acknowledge that even simple stories have a layer of problems. For character, Dubrovin recommends limiting a story to one main character, without ever explaining the role of secondary or minor characters. Ironically, Dubrovin spends an entire chapter on the miniscule topic of titles. Even if it’s only two pages, I can think of better ways to fill that space: How about a chapter on setting? Not to be totally negative, I enjoyed the chapter on revision. In it, Dubrovin talks about how to expand old ideas and to add new story elements.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


The next shortest guide is a hybrid. Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More by Nancy Bentley and Donna Guthrie tries to cover the writing life, short and long fiction, genres, and even publication all in a mere eighty-five pages. When reading this and Dubrovin’s guide, I felt tempted to think that perhaps short and skimpy books are best for young readers. Then I remembered that most of the writing guides that I devoured during my childhood were intended for adults. If one is passionate about a topic, doesn’t one crave that in-depth coverage that can only come with longer books? And truly who reads writing guides, except those who aspire to become authors? The problem with a short guide like Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More is that explanations of stuff like the elements of fiction are stripped to definitions that one could find in an encyclopedia. Chances are if I’m an aspiring writer, albeit a young one, I already know that theme is the larger underlying idea of a story. Moreover, from school, I probably already know how to identify themes in stories. What I need to know instead is how to develop, explore, and integrate themes seamlessly into my stories. The heart of this guide therefore is its chapters on genres. In them, I learned about some subtypes of mysteries and fantasies that were new even to me. I also liked the overview of genre ingredients, although I wish more examples of the genre would have come from books for young people rather than adult books or even movies. Then too, in one breath the authors in tone and brevity seem to be aiming at a younger audience, but then in the next when giving length requirements for publishable fiction they seem to be aiming at adults. While the strength of this guide is its focus on genres, even here the adults fail because of their selection. The title Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More might be catchy, but here are the problems. First, movies are not a genre. Why leave out genres such as romance and westerns to write about movies? Just as bad, horror (which is where monster stories fall under) isn’t even covered. Sadly, this book didn’t live up to my high hopes for it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


Then there are the longer guides. What’s Your Story? by Marion Bauer was written in 1992 and I liked it, thus proving that older guides can have voice and depth. Here’s where perhaps I need to take a step back to recognize that those readers who prefer just the facts may find Bauer’s personal examples intrusive. Moreover, those readers who seek out abridged books may find themselves annoyed by Bauer’s conversational tone, which is broken up only with subheads and only every few pages. However, I like that she uses a light tone and spent a page defining story: “Let’s try this definition. A story, any story, is about someone struggling….” In this same section, Bauer goes on to explain that her definition fits both short and long stories with the difference between stories lying in their complexity and of course length. I felt as if we were chatting, rather than her standing at a podium and giving me a lecture. How fun too that before she even got into the elements of writing, I’d grabbed a pencil and paper to write down all the ideas that were popping into my head from her serious and silly examples. I appreciated that while Bauer does talk about a formula for plot, she also elaborates to explain the reasons for each step and to offer ways to get unstuck at each step; she recognizes that writing is an art. When Bauer talks characters, she focuses on how to create interesting ones and even encouraged contradictions: “I am uncomfortable at big parties. Still, I can give a speech to a thousand people without feeling particularly nervous…. Your characters, especially your main character, need some element of contradiction built in too.” This proved more useful information to me than being told all the types of characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) that might appear in my story. Basically, I liked everything about this guide including the tips in the last few chapters on how to revise, accept criticism, and to polish for publication.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


Admittedly, part of what I like about writing guides is getting to read about authors. Truth to be told, I didn’t pick up Writing Magic by Gail Levine to discover how to write stories. I’ve read so many writing guides that now I learn most by the actual process of writing. Rather, I wanted to know how one of my favorite fantasy authors writes. For that reason, I loved the first section! In it, Levine shares all her reasons for being a writer. Just so you know, she writes to be in charge, to tell herself a story, and to make discoveries about her feelings. Regarding the latter, she explains that she once wrote a book about an orphan. When she reread it years later, she realized that it was less about her father who had been an orphan and more about how she felt orphaned when her parents died. Because Writing Magic isn’t an autobiography, the emphasis of course is on how to write. Even though I didn’t expect to learn anything new from yet another writing guide, I filled a page with the insights I gained from reading Writing Magic. For example, when Levine writes about beginnings, she talks about the types of beginnings but also gives examples along with reasons for why they do or not work. Then she follows-up by challenging readers to pull favorite books off their shelves and look for the ways the authors hooked them. Besides writing several chapters on plot structure, Levine writes several on character and in one of them she includes a questionnaire. What made the questionnaire pop for me is that she shares when she is most likely to use it and even how it helped her when she couldn’t figure out one of her characters. Within every chapter Levine tosses out activities for readers to try and I particularly liked the one for details: Your main character is participating in a scientific investigation of a magical object. She must choose an object, and wear it, eat it, or drink it. Then she must speak into the microphone and tell the scientists everything that happened. Bauer had me grabbing my pencil and paper to write down ideas; Levine had me itching to experiment with my stories. My review of Writing Magic is getting long and so let me leave you with two analogies that worked for me: Levine argues that authors must both show to slow down action and tell to speed up action. She compares telling to looking down from the window of an airplane or decreasing the magnification on a telescope and showing to being on the ground or increasing the magnification of a telescope; Writers often write about things that haven’t happened to us and Levine compares this to method acting, when actors remembers events and feelings in their own life that are similar to what their characters experience. They use these recollections to shape a scene—as must writers. One last thing! In the final section, Levine shares more about her own life. For example, this is where I learned about her worst rejection letter and that she has a folder two inches thick of rejection letters. Obviously, I could blather on and so suffice to say this guide is “magic”.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?


Having never heard of Anne Mazer or Ellen Potter before, their writing biographies initially felt a little less important than the tips about writing that I could pick up from their guide: Spilling Ink. Ironically, I’ve now added their novels to my reading list. Such is the power of a good writing guide! (It also doesn’t hurt that Mazer has written a series of books about a girl who wants to be a writer.) This is the second guide I’ve read where authors collaborated. In contrast to Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More where only the byline on the front gave away the dual authorship, Mazer and Potter identify which one of them has written each section. If you aren’t a fan of novels where the character viewpoints switch back and forth (and I’m generally not), you might think this method might feel confusing. In Spilling Ink, we are instead blessed with short and snappy sections that are entertaining to read, nestled within lengthy and detailed chapters that provide tons of insights into the entire writing process. In one chapter, Potter talks about how she and Anne bounced titles back-and-forth for this writing guide. In the end, they choose Spilling Ink because it sounded fun and slightly rebellious and so made clear that the book is about writing without sounding like a textbook. In another chapter, Mazer describes how her fantasy novel The Oxboy began with an idea from a poem, which she unsuccessfully tried over and over to write a story about, and how her novel only worked when another unrelated idea merged with the poem to make one unified idea. In the same way, Mazer and Potter share their unique insights on multiple topics to form a cohesive guide. Perhaps this is why their book is also the longest and most exhaustive in its coverage. No topic is ignored; even the story element of setting and the nature of a writing life are explained. They also include writing activities called “I Dare You”. Okay, while they do talk about sharing and editors, they don’t really talk about how to publish. Instead in the appendix, they include an exchange of interviews with each other. If after reading through their writing guide one desires to publish, just check out a dedicated market guide.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?

Near the start of this post, I said I’d read five new writing guides for young people. Even though I did develop a fondness for writing guides while growing up, mostly I read ones for adults. I actually still own most of them, because they met my need for a serious and in-depth study of my writing passion. Yet there are two for young people that my dad gave me during my teens, which I’d encourage you to seek out. Both are by authors Susan and Stephen (Judy) Tchundi: Gifts of Writing and The Young Writer’s Handbook. The ideas for both books grew out of ideas that the couple used in writing workshops for young people and emphasize making creative projects with words. Gifts of Writing is designed to encourage young people to create an attractive presentation of their words and talks about how to make cards, posters, stationery, and books. The Young Writer’s Handbook came about because the authors discovered that students have an interest in writing beyond schoolwork and so the authors wished to encourage them to grow into adults who write. The handbook talks about journals, letters, stories, along with school writing and nonfiction writing, and even advises how to publish these for family, friends, or other audiences. I have kept these books, because they remind me of the real reason we should all write: for the joy of it.

4 Responses to "Round-up of Writing Guides for Young People"

I knew that Write Your Own Story has been recommended by librarians for years, but it’s great to know that after over twenty-five years, one of my earliest books is still one of only a handful of books included in your back-to-school review of youth writing instruction books! Wow! You may not realize that it was part of the “First Book” series developed by the Franklin Watts, Inc. educational publishing house to be a collection of very easy, very quick, very simple basic books, designed to strip a subject down to the absolute bare-bones: story creation at its ultimate simplest. I do know of some of the other authors and books you reviewed, and they are good reads for a step up to more complex creation and additional information. It depends on what you need in a basic guide; all books you mention serve a purpose.

In the decades since that book was published I have continued in my life-long love of helping children learn to create stories. I started my own publishing company, Storycraft Publishing, which has produced an award-winning series of books, periodicals, and a kid-safe website (The Kids’ Storytelling Club) that help children create and tell (not memorize and recite) stories. Those publications discuss some of the “beginners-plus” features you mentioned in your review, such as secondary characters and settings, and touch on “intermediate” storytelling skills such as tailoring a tale to a specific audience, point of view, and author voice. But the bare basics of a complete story (character, problem, solution) are still at the heart of good storytelling. Focusing on the basics before developing advanced writing techniques is key to developing talented writers.

When Write Your Own Story went out-of-print in 1990, I received all publication rights back from Franklin Watts, Inc., adapted the manuscript for storytelling, and published the book in 1995 through Storycraft Publishing as Create Your Own Storytelling Stories. In the spring of 1998 Mary Claire Wickins, Acquisitions Librarian, Dayton Memorial Library Regis University, reviewed this book in Colorado Libraries, Volume 24, #1. “Young people are shown how to take ordinary life events, dress them in dramatic narrative, and transform them into well-told tales. This handbook shows how to uncover story ideas, create characters, map out plot, and present a finished product to various audiences….This is a book to be used in creative writing and drama classes as well as storytelling workshops with young people ages eight to twelve. The uniqueness of its focus is in the composition of original stories rather than the presentation of traditional story fare. The book is as much a storytelling as a storymaking guide.” Create Your Own Storytelling Stories is still in print today.

Although a good book never goes out of date, at Storycraft Publishing we are staying “modern” by adapting our youth storytelling instruction to now include e-books, with our new Easy Beginner Tales Kindle book, that includes some basic storytelling instruction for kids, teachers, and parents who need quick and easy help.

I noticed that you have a blog reviewing kids’ books. The electronic world offers many opportunities today to help kids. In my blog, “What’s Their Story,” I am continuing to offer tips and advice to parents and teachers on helping kids learn to create and tell stories, drawing on my many years of teaching continuing education courses for teachers and directing professional writers’ conferences and workshops. After so many years, there is still so much to do.

Thanks again for taking the time to review my book. It’s great to know that Write Your Own Story is still available for kids (and adults) to take from a shelf when they want a very basic, un-intimidating introduction to story creation.

Thank you for your surprising post. Normally, I only hear from an author if I intiate contact.

I reviewed all the youth writing instruction books I could find at our local library. As you know, libraries frequently weed out low-demand books to make room for new books, so yes, that your book continues to be kept by libraries certainly says something about its quality.

How fun to hear the background to Write Your Own Story. You raise good points about the purpose of your guide. Indeed, while reviewing Write Your Own Story, I almost noted that beginning readers and writers might start with your book and then move onto more complex guides. In writing my reviews, however, I prefer to focus on what would have appealed to me in my earliest writing days. By age eight, I was already looking for exhaustive guides. Then again, as long as I can remember, I have aspired to be a writer and so have been blessed with shelves of good books to serve as models. As you observed, different guides will serve different purposes.

I also found it inspirational that you have spent your life helping children learn to create stories. As an elementary school teacher who also likes to write, my favorite task is to help students at all levels to become excited about and skilled in creative writing. I have your Kids Storytelling Club bookmarked as reference. I’ll check with our library to see if it has a copy of Create Your Own Storytelling Stories. It may serve as a nice reference for my writing club students.

I appreciate that you took time to read my review and check out my book review blog. You might find of interest the reviews that my students wrote last year: Snakes by Sandra Markle.

Thank you again for appreciate your courteous and thoughtful post.

Thanks for linking to my blog 🙂

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