Submit Your Story to the 6th Annual Junior Authors Short Story Writing Contest

INTERNATIONAL CONTEST

Open to Young Writers
Ages 9 to 21 from any Country

Deadline: June 30, 2013

Finalists Announced:
September 20, 2013

Winners Announced LIVE at the Junior Authors Writers Conference on October 19, 2013 (You do NOT have to be at the conference if you win. You will be contacted by email or phone and will get your prize.)

COMPETITION AGE CATEGORIES

Category 1 — Ages 18 – 21*
*You can be no more than 21 years old as of June 30, 2013.

Category 2 — Ages 15 – 17

Category 3 — Ages 12 – 14

Category 4 — Ages 9 – 11

The first place winning entry in each category will be published on the Junior Authors Contest website and the author of that entry will receive a signed copy of Polly Wants to be a Writer: The Junior Authors Guide to Writing and Getting Published by Laura Thomas. The top six writers in each age category will receive Amazon Gift Cards in the following amounts:

1st place – $100
2nd place – $25
3rd place – $25
4th place – $25
5th place – $25
6th place – $25

For complete rules, go to the Contest website.

(Do you need some pointers and tips on writing so that you can be inspired to write? Check this page for Jim Denney’s Advice for Young Writers. If you’re a teen writer, here are some resources to help you get started: Websites and Resources for Teen Writers.

So, young author, start stretching your imagination—and start writing!

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50 Years of Wonder: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

A Wrinkle in TimeIn September 1962—fifty years ago this month—my third-grade class filed into the school library in search of adventure. I found mine almost immediately—a book called A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In my new opinion piece at FoxNews.com, I recall the profound impact this one book had on my life and career. I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think. —Jim Denney

Websites & Resources for Teen Writers

If you are a teen writer, looking for support and advice on how to become a better writer (and, ultimately, a published writer), here are some excellent places you can go for FREE help. These sites were created by authors who have written many books, stories, and articles for publication.

M. Saint-Germain‘s Random Writing Rants
http://randomwritingrants.com/

Stephanie Morrill,
author of So Over It and Me, Just Different.
www.goteenwriters.com

Nicole O’Dell, author of the Diamond Estates Series
and Scenarios For Girls, Interactive Fiction
http://nicoleodell.com/on-teen-writing/

Jill Williamson,
author of Replication and the Blood of Kings Trilogy
www.novelteen.com

Shellie Neumeier,
author of Driven and A Summer in Oakville
www.nextgenwriters.com

Jeff Gerke, publisher of Marcher Lord Press
(author, as “Jefferson Scott,” of
Terminal Logic and Operation: Firebrand
www.fictionacademy.com

At these websites you’ll learn new skills for becoming a more effective storyteller and writer, plus you will discover how to format your manuscript, prepare it for publication, and submit it to a publisher.

Check them out, have fun, and keep writing!

The NEW Timebenders Books are coming!

Battle Before Time

For the past few weeks, I have been working closely with my new publisher, Greenbrier Book Company of North Carolina, to bring back my Timebenders science-fiction adventure series for young readers. I am revising and updating each book, and my friends at Greenbrier are repackaging these tales as ebooks with stunning new covers. They will be available in all popular ebook formats.

After more than a decade, I finally feel these books are exactly as I want them. I am extremely grateful to my Greenbrier publishers, Ron and Janet Benrey, for producing these new and improved editions of my Timebenders series. Very soon, I’ll be announcing the release of the first two books in the series, Timebenders Book 1: Battle before Time and Timebenders Book 2: Doorway to Doom. And just look at these incredible covers!

Doorway to Doom

Within a few weeks, I’ll also be announcing the release of the next two books in the series, Timebenders Book 3: Invasion of the Time Troopers and Timebenders Book 4: Lost in Cydonia. And after that, who knows? I have a lot of ideas for future Timebenders books on the drawing board.

Please help me spread the word through word of mouth, Facebook, and Twitter. Tell other young readers and parents about the thrilling new Timebenders books from Greenbrier Book Company.

And please write to me. Post your comments right here at my Timebenders blog. Tell me what you think of the Timebenders books. If you’re interested in writing books and stories, send me your questions. Let’s get acquainted.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

The Enigma of Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

The true nature and identity of Tom Bombadil is a mystery even to scholars and fans of The Lord of the Rings. Some have suggested that he is one of the Valar, the Powers of the World, the rulers who were sent to Eä (the universe) by Eru Ilúvatar. Possibly so. It’s clear that the jolly, silly, carefree Tom Bombadil persona serves to disguise a deeper, wiser, more powerful reality than Tom lets on. Tolkien isn’t telling, and we can never know for sure.

Tolkien in 1916

We do know that Tom’s stature as a mythic figure grew in the telling. Tolkien originally conceived Tom Bombadil as a having a smaller role and lesser significance in a planned sequel to The Hobbit—the role of a mere forest sprite or spirit. In a 1937 letter, Tolkien pondered whether “Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story.” As Tolkien’s vision for The Lord of the Rings grew, so did the stature—and mystery—of Tom Bombadil.

As filmmaker Peter Jackson demonstrated, you can advance the storyline of Tolkien’s tale quite economically by leaving Tom out. But in doing so, you lose something that is very important to the tale—and to Tolkien. As Tolkien himself wrote in a 1954 letter, Tom Bombadil “represents something that I feel important.” I believe Tom represents an elusive but crucial piece of Tolkien’s Christian worldview.My purpose here is not to pin down Tom Bombadil’s precise identity in Tolkien’s legendarium. Instead, I want to talk about Tom Bombadil’s unique place in Tolkien’s spiritual vision. The worldview, structure, and themes of The Lord of the Rings are drenched in Christian memes. So here is my theory about Tom:I believe Tom Bombadil represents the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity in Christian belief. If Eru Ilúvatar, “The One, the Father of All,” is an echo of God the Father, and if Gandalf, Frodo and Strider are echoes of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, then there must be, embedded in The Lord of the Rings, an echo of the Holy Spirit’s influence.

Like the Holy Spirit, Tom possesses an irresistible power and authority, including authority over the created order (see Genesis 1:2). Tom brings comfort and wise counsel to the hobbits, much as the Holy Spirit, our all-wise Comforter who speaks healing to our souls (John 14:26). The Spirit calms our fears and brings us joy and peace. He refreshes us when we feel exhausted, gives us sound guidance and advice, and reminds us to avoid evil. These are all ministries that Tom performed among the hobbits.

The Spirit is God, so He is rightfully the Eldest, who was here before all things. The Spirit knew the dark under the stars before fear came into the world. The Spirit knows all things before they come to pass. Nothing catches the Spirit by surprise. We can conceal nothing from the Spirit, and sin (like the Ring) is no match for the power of the Spirit. We can’t hide from the Spirit, and He rescues us when we call to Him.

Perhaps the most important parallel is this: The Holy Spirit gives us gifts. Tom Bombadil echoes the Spirit by giving gifts to the hobbits. Tom gives them ponies, and he also gives them daggers from the Barrow-wights’ treasure horde. The daggers have blades that “seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.” The daggers are swords for the hobbits to use for self-defense on their journey. “Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,” Tom tells them. “Sharp blades are good to have.”

Clearly, the hobbits don’t fully appreciate the true nature of the battle they have joined. Tolkien writes, “Fighting had not before occurred to any of them as one of the adventures in which their flight would land them.” This echoes our own obliviousness to the spiritual battle of this life. As Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV).

And how does the Holy Spirit arm us for spiritual warfare? The same way Tom Bombadil armed the hobbits: with a sword. Paul writes: “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17 NIV). And Hebrews 4:12 also compares God’s Word to a sword: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Tom’s gift of the ponies enables the hobbits to carry out their mission more effectively. The ponies remind us of the gifts of ministry that the Spirit gives to believers, as described in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and elsewhere.

The God-likeness of Tom Bombadil is reinforced by Goldberry. When Frodo asks her, “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?,” she replies simply, “He is.” That is clearly a parallel to God’s own statement about himself, “I Am that I Am” (see Exodus 3:14).

In all of these ways, Tom Bombadil is an echo of the Holy Spirit. Is Tom an allegory of the Holy Spirit? No. Tolkien disliked and distrusted allegory. Symbolic characters in The Lord of the Rings offer a resonance of a deeper reality, but they are not intended to teach Bunyanesque lessons.

At the Council of Elrond, we hear many things about Tom Bombadil that are both like and unlike the ministry of the Spirit. Like the Spirit, Tom has set the boundaries of his realm and will not step over them. The Spirit is a still, small voice who invites us to follow Christ—but the Spirit respects human free will and will not step over that boundary.

House at 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, England, where Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings

But at the Council there are things said about Tom that directly contradict the idea that he is a symbolic echo of the Spirit. First, Gandalf says that Tom would be “a most unsafe guardian” of the Ring, and “would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away.” That certainly doesn’t sound like the Spirit! Second, the elf Glorfindel says that Tom would ultimately fall to the onslaught of the Enemy—”Last as he was First; and then Night will come.” Clearly, the Holy Spirit could never be overcome by the evil of the Enemy.

So these descriptions of Tom at the Council of Elrond seem to undermine my theory that Tom represents the Holy Spirit. I see two possible explanations for this contradiction:

1.  In Tolkien’s mind, Gandalf and Glorfindel might simply have been wrong about Tom. They might not have recognized the true depths of Tom Bombadil’s power and wisdom. But I think this explanation is unlikely. It’s hard to imagine that Gandalf could have misread Tom so completely. I think the likelier explanation is:

2. Here is where the similarities between Tom and the Holy Spirit end. Tom is not an allegorical figure. He echoes some aspects of the Spirit—but not all. At some point, the analogy must fail. Tom is a character of fiction after all. Tolkien didn’t intend to teach us about God through Tom and the other God-like characters. He intended to connect with something we already know about God, so that these characters would have greater depth and resonance than mere words on a page. He was tapping into our consciousness of God.

I’m not sure that Tolkien consciously and deliberately created Tom with all of these echoes and resonances of the Holy Spirit. Some of these symbolic parallels may have originated in a subconscious act of the author’s creativity and imagination, infused by his faith. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author wrote that Tom Bombadil “represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely. . . . Even in a mythical age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

As I was writing my Timebenders series (beginning with Battle Before Time), I often discovered spiritual symbols and parallels in the work only after I had written it. I didn’t always consciously intend for this event or that character to stand for something larger.  But later—sometimes years later—I would reread the story and discover what my subconscious imagination had been up to while hiding from my conscious intellect. I’m sure Tolkien must have had similar experiences again and again.

I was very impressed with the Peter Jackson film version of The Lord of the Rings—but I did miss Tom Bombadil. The enigma of Tom Bombadil is a crucial dimension of Tolkien’s original story. Tom gives us a glimpse into the underlying spiritual reality of the War of the Ring. Without Tom, without that still small voice of the Spirit infusing the earth and air and water of Middle Earth, something doesn’t quite ring true.

Much of the power of Tolkien’s story comes from the fact that it feels like it is also our story—the story of spiritual warfare in the real world, the story of a struggle that is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world, and against the forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The enigmatic Tom Bombadil is an irreplaceable part of The Lord of the Rings. Tom visibly represents that invisible Presence, the Holy Spirit, whose still, small voice speaks softly to us throughout the tale, and throughout our lives.

The Enigma of Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings (Part 1)

For years, I’ve been promising myself a return trip to Middle Earth. It’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve read The Lord Of The Rings. Too long. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I finally took Volume One down from my shelf and began re-reading.

It’s been a long time since I last viewed the Peter Jackson film trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I am still able to visualize the story through the lens of my own imagination, not the movie images. I still see the characters and scenes as I remember them from my first reading of the book when I was a teenager.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

My latest trip through Middle Earth is doubly enjoyable because I am reunited with one of my favorite Tolkien characters, Tom Bombadil, who was unfortunately omitted from the film version. I’ve always thought it was a mistake for Jackson to leave Tom Bombadil out of the movie.

Though many people think of Tom Bombadil as a minor supporting character in The Lord Of The Rings, he is actually the key to understanding Tolkien’s worldview—a worldview that saturates every page of the trilogy. Tom is character of great symbolic and spiritual depth.

I’m not saying that Tolkien’s intentions are allegorical. Far from it. Tolkien himself once wrote, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” In other words, Tolkien disliked stories in which various characters and story elements are mere symbols intended to teach the reader some sort of lesson.

When Tolkien stated his dislike of allegory, I’m sure he had in mind stories like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist (named Christian) journeys toward the Celestial City (heaven), carrying a heavy burden (sin), and meets various characters along the way with names like Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality, and on and on. Tolkien’s close friend, C. S. Lewis, captured Tolkien’s viewpoint in a December 7, 1929, letter, saying that some of Tolkien’s early material (which later evolved into the Rings trilogy) had “mythical value: the essence of myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader.”

As a mythmaker and storyteller, Tolkien knew that his first duty was to tell his tale and captivate the reader. There is not a single sentence in the entire three-volume work that is deliberately intended to teach the reader a lesson. Yet, as you read, you encounter, again and again, images, phrases, snatches of dialogue that have “the ring of truth.” These story elements touch our souls as glimpses of an underlying truth—but never as a “lesson” or “the moral to the story.” These glimpses never intrude on our enjoyment of the tale. If we fail to recognize them, no matter—the story still enthralls. If we catch Tolkien’s deeper meaning, our reading experience is that much richer.

So I’m not suggesting that Tom Bombadil is an allegorical figure, or that The Lord Of The Rings as an allegory at all. Yes, there is Christ imagery in The Lord Of The Rings, and it is resonates powerfully in the Christian soul. In fact, the tale contains not one Christ figure, but three: Gandalf the Grey, Frodo Baggins, and Aragorn (Strider). These three figures resonate with the three biblical roles of Jesus Christ—prophet, priest, and king—and each of these figures undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection.

Gandalf represents Christ the prophet. He is the one who understands Deep Wisdom. Like the prophets of the Bible, he is not as much concerned with foretelling the future as with “telling forth” the deep truths that Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring need to know. Like Christ, Gandalf sacrifices himself for his friends in the mines of Moria—and later rises again, changed and glorified.

Frodo represents Christ the priest. He is the Christ figure who carries the sin of the world—the Ring. As Christ bore the cross along the Via Dolorosa, Frodo the Ring-bearer carries the crushing weight of the Ring. He takes the Ring to the gates of hell itself, the Cracks of Doom. As Christ defeated sin on the cross, Frodo succeeds in unmaking the Ring. Frodo even undergoes death (after his battle with the giant spider Shelob) and resurrection. In the end, Frodo experiences an ascension into Paradise when he sails with the elves to Valinor, the Undying Lands.

Aragorn represents Christ the King. The third volume of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, is named for Aragorn. He is a king who, like Christ, has left his kingdom and is destined, according to prophecy, to return and regain his throne. In Aragorn, there’s a resonance of the second coming of Christ. There is also a scene in which Aragorn descends into “hell” in order to find the ghostly Dead Men of Dunharrow.

Is there a being in The Lord of the Rings that corresponds to God the Father or God the Creator? Yes. He is known as Eru Ilúvatar (which means in Elvish, “The One, the Father of All”). He is a remote presence, rarely referred to in The Lord of the Rings, yet there is a sense in which the divine will and providence of Eru Ilúvatar weaves its way throughout the story, influencing events in the same way that the divine will of God the Father shapes human history. While God and Eru Ilúvatar both respect human free will, both are sovereign over history, and their purposes cannot be thwarted, either by Satan or by the Dark Lord.

That brings us back to Tom Bombadil. If you’ve read the trilogy, you remember that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin meet Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest when he rescues them from the evil tree spirit, Old Man Willow. He later rescues them again from the zombie-like Barrow-wights. Tom Bombadil also appears in a 1962 book of poems called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

Tolkien originally envisioned Tom as a merry nature spirit of the Old Forest and River—whimsical, carefree, and untouched by the cares and evils of the world. Yet Tom also possesses an irresistible power and authority. Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights fear the power of his voice. At his command, evil creatures retreat from him. Called the “Master of wood, water, and hill,” Tom is married to Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter. He speaks in a poetic meter, so that his dialogue lilts with a song-like rhythm.

After rescuing Frodo and the other hobbits, Tom feeds and shelters them for two nights. On the first night, Tom tells them stories, sings songs to them, and gives them advice. When he speaks to them, they lose all sense of time and experience a soul-deep healing. Tom calms their fears and tells them, “Have peace now.” He brings them joy, saying, “Let us now laugh and be glad!” As Frodo listens to Tom, time passes without any sense of feeling hungry or tired—only a sense of wonder.

At one point, Frodo asks, “Who are you, Master?” Tom replies, in part: “Eldest, that’s what I am. . . . Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

In an understated way, Tolkien makes it clear that Tom’s meeting and rescue of the hobbits was not a chance encounter. Tom clearly expected the four hobbits—though we are not told how he knew they were coming. It’s clear that Tom expected them because, on the hobbits’ first night in his house, Tom takes them to their guest bedroom, opens the door—and there are four beds already made up and waiting for them, with a pair of slippers beside each bed. Even before their arrival, Tom had prepared a place for each hobbit.

There’s a significant moment near the end of Book I, Chapter 7, where Tom questions Frodo about his travels, and Frodo finds he can conceal nothing from Tom. Frodo finds himself telling Tom more about his own hopes and fears than he has even told his friend Gandalf. Then Tom suddenly commands, “Show me the precious Ring!” Frodo, to his astonishment, finds Tom’s command irresistible: he takes out the Ring and hands it over.

Tom places the Ring on his own finger—yet the Ring has no effect on Tom. It doesn’t make him invisible as it would anyone else. In fact, Tom spins the Ring in the air, and the Ring vanishes with a flash. When Frodo is alarmed at the disappearance of the Ring, Tom makes it reappear and gives it to Frodo. Then Frodo, to make sure it’s the actual Ring, slips it on his finger and becomes invisible to everyone—except Tom.

Why does the Ring have no effect on Tom Bombadil? The Ring does not stir Tom to desire its power—an influence that the Ring has on everyone else, even the Christ-figures, Gandalf, Frodo and Strider/Aragorn. Just as the humanity of Christ was tested in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) and the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-44), the three Christ-figures were tested by the Ring—and they passed the test. But Tom Bombadil, who calls himself the “Eldest,” and who “remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn,” is completely beyond the Ring’s power and influence. He is neither tested nor tempted by the Ring.

Before sending the hobbits on their way, Tom gives them sound, biblical advice to not be afraid, but to avoid evil. And he gives them a rhyme to sing if they fall into trouble. Tom promises to hear and come to their rescue. The hobbits later use this rhyme to summon Tom when they are captured by the Barrow-wights.

There’s a significant moment in Book II, Chapter 2, during the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. Elrond, the Elf Lord of Rivendell, calls Tom Bombadil by his ancient name, Iarwain Ben-adar, which means “oldest and fatherless.” He is “older than the old,” says Elrond.

When Erestor, Elrond’s chief counselor, suggests that Tom could help them because “he has a power even over the Ring,” Gandalf replies, “No, I should not put it so. Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. . . . [Tom] is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step over them.”

Erestor observes that, within those bounds, “nothing seems to dismay him.” So why not give the Ring to Tom and let him keep it there, “for ever harmless”?

Gandalf rejects the idea. If Tom were given the Ring, Gandalf says, “he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian.”

Another elf, Glorfindel, adds his opinion that in the end, even Tom Bombadil would fall to the onslaught of the Enemy. “I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.”

Who or what does Tom Bombadil—Iarwain Ben-adar, the oldest and fatherless—symbolize? Or should we avoid reading any hidden meaning into this character?

The answer will be revealed in Part 2.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Quotations About TIME

Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
—MADELEINE L’ENGLE, An Acceptable Time

Three in the morning, the soul’s midnight.
—RAY BRADBURY, From the Dust Returned

The By-Laws of Time
Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
If At Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
A Stitch In Time Saves Nine Billion.
A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.
It Is Earlier When You Think.
Ancestors Are Just People.
Even Jove Nods.
—ROBERT A. HEINLEIN, “All You Zombies—”

“Do not look so sad. We shall meet soon again.”
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy, “what do you call soon?”
“I call all times soon,” said Aslan; and instantly he was vanished away.
—C. S. LEWIS, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

For the future to touch the past can be dangerous. It could cause a paradox.
—MADELEINE L’ENGLE, Many Waters

Time rushes through us as we rush through time.
—RICHARD GRANT, “Drode’s Equations”

If there’s something you want to do, somewhere you want to go, then you’d better start the doing and the going. You’d better start using the time that’s left in you, because you can’t stop it from running out. You can stop water from running out of a tub by putting the plug back in, but there isn’t any plug that can stop time from running out of you.
—FREDRIC BROWN, The Lights in the Sky are Stars

To those who live in time, sequency is the norm.
—URSULA K. LE GUIN, “The Shobies’ Story”

Darkness swallows time.
—MICHAEL BISHOP, “A Gift from the Gray Landers”

But there is something about Time. The sun rises and sets. The stars swing slowly across the sky and fade. Clouds fill with rain and snow, empty themselves, and fill again. The moon is born, and dies, and is reborn. Around millions of clocks swing hour hands, and minute hands, and second hands. Around goes the continual circle of the notes of the scale. Around goes the circle of night and day, the circle of weeks forever revolving, and of months, and of years.
—MADELEINE L’ENGLE, The Small Rain

Jim Denney’s Advice for Young Writers

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about nine years old. How about you? Do you have stories to tell? Books you want to write? Would you like to spend your days thinking up adventures and writing them down, like I do? Excellent! Writing is a lot of fun. If you’d like to be a writer, too, then I have some ideas that may help you become a writer.

Tip #1: Write About What You Really Care About

Battle Before Time by Jim Denney

I’ve heard people say, “The first rule of writing is, ‘Write what you know.'” Well, I have a little different point of view. I don’t say, “Write what you know.” I say, “Write what you really want to write about!”

The problem with “Write what you know” is that there are a lot of things that are fun to write about that nobody has ever done. For example, my Timebenders books are about time travel—but I’ve never traveled in time. I’ve never been scared out of my socks by a Tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve never been to an old English castle. I’ve never gone to the future and been chased by robots. If I could only write what I know from my own experience, I couldn’t have written Timebenders!

So I say the first rule of writing is to write whatever you really want to write about, whatever you think would make an interesting story, whatever you really care about. Now, when you do that, you can also use a lot of what you know. For example, you might write an interesting, imaginative story based on a vacation you took or an interesting person you know. But if you want to write about an adventure in outer space or about a visit to the Garden of Eden, you’ll just have to use your imagination and make it up—and that’s okay! Make it up and write it down. When you make up stories about times and places you’ve never been to, you’ll probably need to do some research. So, for example, if you write a story about the Civil War, you’ll need to read about the Civil War. One of the most famous books ever written about the Civil War was The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane—yet Stephen Crane was never a soldier, and was never in the Civil War. He didn’t write what he knew; he did research. And he did his research so well that his book convinced many people that he had actually been a soldier in the war.

Tip #2: Read!

A writer is a reader first of all, so read every day. And when you read, don’t just read your favorite kind of book. Read all kinds of books, many kinds of books. Whether you like scary books or fantasy or adventure stories or romance, you should read other kinds of books as well. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read books about the lives of famous people, books about science, history, literature, and art, and books of poetry. Read the Bible. If you want to be a good writer, become a well-rounded reader.

Tip #3: Write All the Time!

Doorway to Doom by Jim Denney

Some people only like to write when they feel “inspired.” But I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve found out that the best way to get inspired is to sit down and start writing—even when I don’t feel like writing! I write every day, and I don’t always feel “inspired” when I begin. But soon after I start writing, ideas and sentences start to flow. I start having fun. And I keep writing and writing until I find that I have written a lot of pages.

Keep a journal or diary, and write down observations about interesting events and interesting people. Write down things that happen to you. Write about things that make you feel happy, mad, scared, sad, or embarrassed. Someday, you may want to read your journal and use some of these observations as bits and pieces of a story or book.

When you write, remember that it’s okay to imitate writers you admire. I don’t mean you should “steal” story ideas or actual sentences from other writers. But study your favorite writers and see how they create characters, how they write believable dialogue, how they create realistic settings and descriptions, and how they use metaphors to create word pictures in the reader’s mind. It’s okay to study and imitate other writers—that’s how we learn.

Tip #4: Relax and Daydream

My best ideas come when I am relaxed, not when I’m super-concentrating. If you concentrate real hard and tell yourself, “Think! Think! Come up with an idea!,” your mind seems to freeze up. But when you relax, you loosen up your mind, you let your thoughts drift, and ideas start to flow.

Here are some relaxation ideas: Step away from your desk or computer for a moment, lie down on the couch or your bed, and just daydream about your story. You can listen to music, but keep the TV off. Or, you could take a walk or get some exercise. You might even find it relaxing to do some yardwork—sweeping the patio or raking the leaves in the yard.

As you let your thoughts drift, daydream about the characters in your story. What do they look like? What are their personalities like? How are your characters different from each other? Why do they like or dislike each other? What makes them get mad at each other? What common goals do they have to unite them? Are your characters messy or neat? Are they lazy or hard-working? Are they nice or mean? How do they talk? How can you give each character a unique-sounding voice?

Invasion of the Time Troopers by Jim Denney

Also, daydream about your setting. How can you describe the setting of your story and make it feel real? Let’s say your story takes place in a garden. As you daydream, ask yourself: What grows in this garden? What plants and flowers do I see? What are the unique smells and sounds in this garden? What kinds of insects and birds do you see and hear in this garden? Help your reader see, smell, and hear the garden. Get inside the skin of your characters and feel what they feel. Let the reader feel it, too: The feeling of warm, golden sunshine on a character’s face, or the fragrance of orange blossoms on the breeze. Help your reader to be there, right alongside your characters.

Also, daydream about your plot. Ask yourself: How can I start the story in an exciting way? What unexpected thing can I do to surprise the reader? What can I do at the end of the chapter to make the reader turn the page and keep reading? How can I keep the reader asking, “What happens next?”

Tip #5: Don’t Try to be Perfect!

One thing that will really mess you up as a writer is the feeling that you have to write perfectly. Don’t try to be perfect when you write. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to write badly. The important thing is to just write!”Get the words down, even if your sentences are terrible, even if you’re not sure of the spelling, even if you think it’s the worst piece of writing anyone has ever done. That’s okay. Just write!

You know what? I think I’m a pretty good writer—but I write badly all the time! And that’s okay! It doesn’t bother me a bit to write badly. You know why? Because it’s just a first draft. First drafts are supposed to be terrible! That’s why they call them “first drafts”! I don’t worry about a bad first draft, because I know I’m going to do a second draft, and a third draft, and by the time my third draft is done, it’s going to be a very good piece of writing.

When you write your first draft, write it as fast as you can. Don’t criticize it. Don’t go back over the sentence you just wrote and keep fiddling with it. Write that sentence and move on to the next sentence, and keep going, going, going, without looking back. The faster you write, the better you write. When you write quickly, you write with the creative side of your brain; when you write slowly and try to make it perfect, you write with the critical side of your brain.

The best writing is done by the creative side of your brain, because that is writing that flows, that soars, that inspires! Then, after you create your first draft, you let the critical side of your brain go over it, tidy it up, and make it sparkle. Both sides of your brain are important, but when you do your first draft, write it quickly, write it creatively. Don’t let the critical side of your brain interrupt your creative flow. 

Tip #6: Welcome Criticism

Lost in Cydonia by Jim Denney

Never fear criticism—instead, welcome it! I always have people criticise my books before they’re published, because I want my books to be as good as can be. If there are mistakes or boring places or dumb ideas in my books, I hope someone helps me catch them before the book is printed!

Remember that writing is a matter of taste—and what one person finds interesting, another person will find dull. So don’t expect to please everybody, and don’t be surprised if you get conflicting advice from different people. That’s okay. Listen to the criticism and see if it makes sense to you. If the advice makes sense, then follow it. If the advice doesn’t ring true, ignore it and write it the way it seems best to you.

Show your writing to your friends and teachers. Start a writing club and share your stories with each other. Criticize each other’s stories—not in a mean or hurtful way, but in a helpful way: “I think this dialogue could be improved if you did such and such,” or, “What if your character decided to do this instead of that?” Encourage each other and help each other to do your finest work.

Keep writing!