Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook

by Matt Phelan, Anne Mazer, Ellen Potter


Practical advice in a perfect package for young aspiring writers.

After receiving letters from fans asking for writing advice,accomplished authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter joined together to create this guidebook for young writers. The authors mix inspirational anecdotes with practical guidance on how

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Practical advice in a perfect package for young aspiring writers.

After receiving letters from fans asking for writing advice,accomplished authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter joined together to create this guidebook for young writers. The authors mix inspirational anecdotes with practical guidance on how to find a voice, develop characters and plot,
make revisions, and overcome writer's block. Fun writing prompts will help young writers jump-start their own projects, and encouragement throughout will keep them at work.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This playful guide for aspiring writers aims to demystify the creative process as it explores first drafts and finding inspiration, the meat and potatoes of writing, and writer's block and criticism. Mazer (the Sister Magic series) and Potter (the Olivia Kidney books) challenge readers to dig deep into their characters, make a “mental compost pile” to find inspiration, and face revision head on, while modeling their own approaches. “I get ideas while waiting in lines, staring at the clouds, or lying sick in bed,” says Mazer; demonstrating how to build suspense, Potter shares the true story (“with a few embellishments”) of a robber hanging from her neighbor's terrace. Phelan's ink illustrations and a lighthearted humor enliven the text, and honest advice, such as “Your character's heart's desire is what propels your story forward,” are cogent and invaluable. Ages 9–14. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
Two prolific writers for children offer advice on the writing process for young writers. In an engaging, informal style, Mazer and Potter cover the range of writing concerns, from getting started, creating characters, writing dialogue, finding a narrative voice and revising. Clearly the authors had fun compiling their tips, and original metaphors and images for the writing process keep things light: "Mental compost" is the fertile soil of the imagination, the "overflowing toilet" comes from having too many ideas and 300-pound drafts are what students lug around when enthusiastic teachers burden them with too many required steps in the writing process. This volume runs that risk, too, with so much well-intentioned advice that it could become daunting, but Phelan's illustrations, "I Dare You" sidebars that encourage students to try out ideas and the authors' own models of their writing help keep the format light and engaging. Young people who have already written a fair amount will best be able to see the value of the advice and will feel as if they have been allowed into a friendly conversation with masters of their craft. The best of recent volumes on the subject. (introduction, appendix) (Nonfiction. 9-14)
VOYA - Mary Ann Darby
Mazer and Potter receive one recurring question from thousands of their readers: "How do you write?" This book is their answer, crafted with joy and verve. Their discussions cover every topic from how to find inspiration to crafting a story to how to find a good place to write. The chapters are short and cleverly interspersed with sidebars, including many "I Dare You" sections that challenge budding writers to take on tasks such as describing the color yellow to someone who cannot see and writing irresistible starting lines for stories. The book's light and conversational tone makes it absolutely approachable and fun. The "Recipe for Mental Compost" in the "Inspiration" chapter is just one example of the practical and delightful advice they offer as a means of breaking down the daunting business of writing. Aimed at middle and junior high students, this book will be terrific for both libraries and classrooms. Mazer and Potter undoubtedly had a good time writing this guide and clearly know their audience. They sometimes toss aside the meticulous planning teachers urge, but for students who want to pursue creative writing, their advice is thought provoking. Rather than outlining the whole plot of a story, Potter says she "stalk[s] my characters...following close enough behind them to see what they will do." It is also funny (your descriptions should be more interesting than "...that smooshed toad on the sidewalk") and practical (find a writing partner to share work with and to "cheer each other on"). Reviewer: Mary Ann Darby

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Product Details

Roaring Brook Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
9 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Spilling Ink

A Young Writer's Handbook

By Anne Mazer, Ellen Potter, Matt Phelan

Roaring Brook Press

Copyright © 2010 Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59643-628-2


section 1

Is It Really This Simple?

Getting Started

by Anne

1. Pick up a pen.

2. Write a few words on paper. Like this.

3. Write whatever comes into your head — words, images, sounds, babbling, nonsense, laughter, crazy thoughts, last night's dream, a shopping list ...

4. That's right — ANYTHING.

5. Keep on going. See what happens.

6. You're writing! Don't get dizzy ...

Fancy Equipment Not Required

by Anne

One of the things I love about writing is that it's very low-tech. You don't need a computer (although it's nice), or have to learn a special language, or buy fancy equipment that costs a lot of money.

If you are seized by inspiration, grab the nearest thing at hand. You can scribble on the margins of a newspaper, write on the back of your science homework, use an envelope (one of my favorites), or commandeer a napkin. When I was a teen, I wrote on my jeans. (Don't do this if you wear the hundred-dollar kind.)

The physical act of writing is very easy.

The challenging part is bringing your ideas into reality.

The Blank Piece of Paper

by Anne

It's normal to feel afraid or nervous when a blank piece of paper is giving you an intimidating glare. It looks at you coldly, and says, "You think you're a writer?" Suddenly you can't think or breathe. Your pencil slips through numb fingers and rolls under the bureau. You begin to stammer out apologies. "I didn't mean ... I don't know ... I can't ..." You don't know why you wanted to write in the first place. Maybe you'll try again tomorrow. Or next week. Or in five years. The mood just isn't right.

A blank piece of paper is a formidable opponent, but you can defeat it. Just stare the thing down. Refuse to be intimidated. Take a deep breath and write a word or two on the paper. Make that a sentence, a paragraph. Now you're in charge. Now you're writing.

Writers' Rule to Ignore or Adore? Write What You Know

by Anne

When I was fifteen years old, my mother, who is a very accomplished writer, gave me a piece of writing advice. She said that I should always write what I know — about the real things that I had experienced and seen.

It was a pretty good piece of advice, but since it came from my mother, and I was a rebellious teenager, I automatically questioned it. Why should I write what I know? I fumed. Was that the limit for writers? Didn't this advice leave a lot out?

It left out imaginary worlds, for example. It left out real, but unknown, times and places. It left out putting yourself in the shoes (and mind) of a very different person than you. I ended up by concluding that there was a lot to be said for writing about what you don't know.

There's no right or wrong here. For many people, "write what you know," is an excellent guide. If you want to stick with the familiar, keep your eyes and mind open. The best writers reveal the mystery in everyday reality.

If you prefer to go as far as your imagination will take you, keep a link to reality. In Tamora Pierce's fantasy classic, Alanna, The First Adventure, Alanna disguises herself as a boy so that she can train as a warrior. I love the fantasy elements in this book, but what really grabs me is its truth. What girl hasn't — at least once — felt that certain worlds are only open to boys? Alanna steps into a boy's life in order to fulfill an unusual destiny. It's a thrilling idea. Even the most distant worlds have familiar problems.

What Kind of a Writer Are You?

by Anne

Do you favor exciting plots, or complex characters? Are you interested in action or emotion or mood? Do you enjoy describing everything in the room, or do you prefer to write pages of dialogue? Do you want to write about things that you've seen and experienced, or do you love fantasy worlds? Do you prefer science or fiction? Do you like romance, comedy, mystery, or stories about real-life problems? Do you like all of the above, none of it, or your own unique mixture?

Decide for yourself what kind of writer you'd like to be. Or experiment until you find what you want.

Spilling Ink

by Anne

If you're afraid to start, or you hate every word you write, here's a foolproof fear-fighting exercise. Give yourself permission to write anything. That's right — anything. Spill some ink. Just babble on paper. Or write one sentence over and over. Or close your eyes and write. (Sometimes I take off my glasses so I won't see what I'm writing.) You may be writing absolute nonsense, but you are writing. Sooner or later, you'll start to think of something you really want to write about. Or maybe, buried in the pages of sludge, there's one tiny diamond.


section 2

Ugly First Drafts

Making a Mess

by Ellen

Before I started writing seriously, I was under the delusion that "real" writers sit down and write out the entire story in one nearly perfect, spectacularly clever draft. Oh, sure, maybe they would change a word or two, or rename one of their characters "Nathan" because his original name, "Jake," reminds them too much of their cousin Jake who belches the theme music to retro TV shows. But that's about it.


Hugely, profoundly, utterly wrong.

The truth of it is, professional writers have to rewrite their stories over and over (and over and over and over ... you get the picture) again in order to get them just right. I generally spend more time rewriting than writing the first draft. My first drafts are always ugly. Super sloppy. Lots of things don't make sense. Chapters are out of sequence; some of the dialogue is confusing. The manuscript is splattered with question marks and notes to myself.

During revision the plot may change, the sequence of events may be rearranged. New characters may appear while some existing characters disappear.

keep this in mind


Have you ever read a book and thought, "This is sooo good, I could never write as well as this!" Just keep in mind that the writer may have rewritten the book twenty times before she got it right. I revised my book SLOB about a dozen times, and Anne rewrote her book The Accidental Witch thirty times over a period of seven years before she got it just right.

This is your chance to play with your work, so have fun. Mess around. See what works best. Above all, never be afraid to change things.

If you are one of those writers who dreads rewriting or thinks of it as boring, look at it this way: You know when you think of the perfect thing to say to someone five minutes after they've left the room. Don't you hate that? Well, rewriting your story gives you the chance to say the perfect thing while that person (your reader) is still "in the room." And you will look spectacularly clever in the process.

the perfect page


I once met a woman who showed me a perfect page of writing. It was as good as anything I've ever read. I wanted to jump up and down and cheer as I read it. It was like reading the first page of an extraordinary novel. When I asked her if she was going to continue, she said no. She destroyed everything she wrote, she told me. Nothing measured up to her standards of perfection.

That one perfect page stands in my memory, cold and solitary, haunting me with its unfulfilled promise. She never developed her talent or shared it with the world, but what stories she might have written! If only she had had the courage to let herself make mistakes.

Whenever you feel that your writing isn't good enough, do try to make it better. But know that nothing — and no one — is perfect. Dare to write the imperfect page.


section 3


Showing Up On the Page

by Anne

Some writers know exactly what they want to say or write about. Others stumble on it by accident or luck. If you idly wait for inspiration, your ideas will dry up. But if you keep writing, sooner or later, inspiration will appear.

If you haven't found your ideas or inspiration yet, you have to wait. This can be frustrating, but don't quit! A lot of writing happens by deliberate accident. That means that while you work, something unexpectedly wonderful happens.

This happens to me quite often. I start work in a foul mood. I'd rather be cleaning toilets, or scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, or walking up a hill in the blazing sun, or something fun like that.


I sit down at my desk and start to write.

Often I'm pleasantly surprised. Instead of the unintelligible gibberish or lunatic ravings that I expect, I advance the story or even have a breakthrough.

"Eighty percent of success is showing up," Woody Allen said.

You have to show up on the page. Otherwise nothing will happen.

A Recipe for Mental Compost

by Anne

When I first discovered the idea of compost, I was so excited. No more throwing away fruit and vegetable scraps. No more waste; no more heavy garbage bags.

Instead, I dumped food scraps, rotten vegetables, and leaves onto a compost pile in the backyard. I wasn't very scientific about it, but nevertheless, months later, I had a rich, dark, loamy soil to spread on my garden. I called it my "gardener's gold."

If you want a rich, fertile soil for your imagination, you can prepare a mental compost. The scraps are your experiences, knowledge, observations, and memories. Nothing in your life is wasted — not even your worst moments! (In fact, they make some of the richest soil.)

Here are the ingredients for "writer's gold."


All of your embarrassing moments — the more humiliating the better. Have you ever dumped an entire tea tray with cups, saucers, milk, sugar, cookies, and of course, tea, in the lap of an important school visitor? I have. I turned this unforgettable event in my twelve-year-old life into a scene in one of my books.

Anything you feel very, very strongly about. I've always been fascinated by people who have to hide a part of themselves to survive. My fantasy novel, The Oxboy, explores this subject.

Small daily moments that capture your attention. Maybe you have a little sister who walks around with a pet mouse on her shoulders. I did! She's grown up now and still loves animals. I haven't put her in a book yet, but maybe I will some day.

The subjects that you know a lot about. Are you a cyclist? Have you knit a sweater (it doesn't matter if the finished item came down past your knees)? Do you know how to survive in the wilderness? Do you play computer or video games? Do you know how to fold napkins into swans? All these experiences can find their way into your writing.

What you've observed about your family and friends.

The news, television shows, YouTube clips, advice columns ...

Whatever makes you laugh or cry.

Your history: individual, family, neighborhood, town, country, world, universe ...

Your dreams.

In short, your entire life.


1. Throw it all on the mental compost pile.

2. Let it sit for a while. (Time will vary from one hour to twenty-five years.)

3. It may be very helpful to take notes, or keep a journal. But it's not essential.

4. Regularly turn over the material in your mind.

5. Spread it around in your stories. Let seeds sprout from it. You'll be amazed at how many ideas it will germinate.


section 4

Convincing Your Characters That They Are Alive

Choosing Your Characters

by Ellen

Think about your first day at school. You're looking around the classroom, scoping out potential friends. A certain person catches your eye. Maybe it's the fact that this person has a hole in his jeans and he's doodling a map of Idaho on his kneecap. Or maybe you like the way she boldly corrects the teacher's pronunciation of her last name. This person interests you, and you'd like to get to know him or her better.

I choose my characters the way I choose my friends. They interest me. I may even admire them in certain ways. They may not be perfect — in fact, they're more interesting if they aren't — but I definitely want to know them better. So I write about them.

Hmmm, You Look Familiar: Basing Your Character on Someone You Know

by Ellen

There's nothing wrong with basing your character on someone you know, providing you make the character different enough from the real person so that no one gets offended. You can change the character's hair color; give them large, round glasses; make them a different ethnicity; or give them a different life history. Or you may want to take only two or three of the real person's outstanding qualities (i.e., her almond-shaped brown eyes, her habit of tripping over her own feet, or her sarcastic sense of humor) and apply them to your character. Do this for your own sake as well as for the real person. If your character is too much like the real person, it will be hard for you to imagine him or her riding a yak through the Himalayas, if that's what you want this character to do in your story.

The biggest advantage to basing your main character on someone you know is that you may be able to bring your character to life fairly easily. For instance, you know the way the real person tilts his head when he asks a question or the way he snorts when he laughs. It will be easier to visualize your character since you know the real-life version!

danger, danger!


When you're writing stories, never ever reveal deep, dark secrets that your friend has told you in confidence. Being a writer gives you tremendous power, so use it carefully. If you don't believe me, readHarriet the Spy,by Louise Fitzhugh.

Baking Characters from Scratch

by Ellen

Another way to craft your characters is to create them entirely from your imagination. This is a lot like baking cookies from scratch versus baking from a mix. When you bake your characters from scratch, you start by gathering up the different qualities that you want your main character to have.

Here's an example.

5 cups of cocky attitude, sifted

2 cups of loyalty to friends

1 cup loathing of ketchup, wet socks, and a boy from summer camp named Richard

2 tablespoons of insecurity about big feet

1 teaspoon of a bad habit of biting nails till they bleed

One pinch of a shoe-shopping fetish (but just a pinch and no more, due to the difficulty of finding shoes for big feet)

Combine and bake at 350 degrees or until character is done.

Creating a Main Character for Your Ingenious Story Idea

by Ellen

Do you have a mind-blowingly brilliant idea for a story but no ideas for a main character? Sometimes when you have a great story idea, it's tempting to not pay as much attention to creating great characters for the story. The truth is, though, that no matter how terrific your story idea is, you need strong characters to keep readers' interest. Without a vivid, interesting, authentic main character, even the best story idea will fall flat.

You can certainly create a character to fit your ingenious story idea; just be sure to let him or her develop fully. For example, let's say you're dying to write about an abused horse that refuses to be tamed. You're probably going to want to create a main character who is able to tame that horse, right?

idea finder

If you are fresh out of ingenious ideas — or any ideas at all — check out Section 6, "Blackberries, Raspberries, and Story Ideas," on page 34.

You'll have to ask yourself what qualities that person should have. Maybe he'll be able to sympathize with the horse because he has been treated poorly too. Or maybe he'll have an incredible gift for "talking" to animals.

Truth or Dare: Getting to Know Your Character's Deep, Dark Secrets

by Ellen

Maybe it's the sugar rush from all the junk food or the fact that you get overtired and goofy, but people tend to tell each other all their deep, dark secrets at sleepover parties.

You need to know your characters' deep, dark secrets too, in order to convince your characters that they are alive. I know that sounds weird. I know you're supposed to convince your readers that your characters are alive, not the characters themselves. But if you take the time to get to know your characters well, they will start to think and act for themselves. You'll know this is happening when ideas unexpectedly pop into your head as you write. You'll suddenly know exactly what your character would say or how they would react to something. On the other hand, if you try and make the character do something they really wouldn't do, you might feel like your story is taking a wrong turn (see "Don't Be a Bully" in Section 7 on page 56).

One way to convince your characters that they are alive is to get really nosy. Find out everything you can about them. Find out what embarrasses them, what makes them laugh, what makes them cringe. Find out how your characters react to stressful situations.


Excerpted from Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer, Ellen Potter, Matt Phelan. Copyright © 2010 Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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