Writing Lessons All Around You

Break out the sparkling cider, Figs! Something new has hit the shelves, and that something is Wuftoom, the debut novel by Mary G. Thompson. It’s the story of Evan, a boy who will do anything to stop his transformation into a Wuftoom, the wormlike creatures who visit him while he is trapped in his bed. Evan makes a deal with the sworn enemies of the Wuftoom, the Vitflys, to save his humanity, but will his bargain put the whole human race at risk? Publishers Weekly says, “Dark and unsettling, Thompson’s adventure presents a break from the same-old-same-old by creating something utterly new and weird.” Sounds good to us! Read below about Mary Thompson’s indirect path on her journey to authorship, and be sure to check out Wuftoom.

Now that I’m a published author, people are often surprised to hear that I wasn’t an English major in college. In fact, when I began writing novels about five years ago, I’d never taken an English class in my life that wasn’t forced on me. I hated being told what to think about books! I decided to study economics in college, instead. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t studying how to become a writer that whole time. There are so many places to learn how to tell a story that don’t involve sitting in an English class.

Before I started writing books, I was a lawyer. It may not seem obvious, but law school was fantastic for my fiction. It taught me how to think cohesively and how to work. Practicing law was a big help, too, because I was writing all the time, honing my skills on everything from grammar and punctuation to how to write in a clear and simple style. Being a lawyer even helped me with my storytelling skills, because making a case for a client involves creating a narrative out of chaotic facts and persuading a jury to see the story that you see. My evidence would be lifeless documents with boring numbers, but my story would be about a person desperate for money, overcome by addiction, abandoning his morals as he sank deeper into the morass! Or something. The point is, I had to keep the jury awake, and creating a story worked for me.

I also read a ton, which every serious writer needs to do. If you love books, you’ll be able to read a lot more on your own than any teacher will ever assign—and absorb more lessons, too. And when I say books, I don’t just mean fiction. Nonfiction writers are often amazing storytellers. In a way, they have a harder job than fiction writers, because they have to take something real and make it interesting. I know that all the reading I’ve done, from Wuthering Heights to the back of the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box, has improved my skills. This may sound strange, but I especially love newsmaker biographies—the more salacious the better. I ate up Escape, the story of a woman who escaped from Mormon fundamentalism, and Scared Silent: The Mildred Muhammad Story, about the wife of the DC Sniper. These are fascinating, real-life stories that wouldn’t have been nearly so fascinating if not for the writing. And by writing, I don’t mean flowery language or dependent clauses. Pop biography writers know how to focus on what’s exciting—what to put in and what to leave out. These things are much more important to engaging a reader than using a particular style.

Writers also need to learn to be observant of the world around them, and that doesn’t require any special training. People often ask me where I get my ideas. Well, some things come straight from the imagination. I didn’t actually see the monsters I write about in my book, Wuftoom! But even seemingly unique monsters start from somewhere. I used the idea of a giant worm as a base for the Wuftoom because worms are things that everyone can picture. But then I added unique characteristics like fangs, glowing eyes, shriveled mouths, and sallow membranes. The villainous Vitflys started out as, you guessed it, giant flies. So hopefully, if you read the book, you will be able to see what I’m talking about—creatures that you wouldn’t want in your bedroom! In creating all my characters, both human and Wuftoom, I also used what I know about people. How would a mother who loves her son act if he were sick? How would kids react if their friend suddenly started acting differently? How do people decide whom to trust? I get a lot of my material just from watching everyday life, and if you have eyes, ears, and a notebook, you can, too!

After writing for a few years, I decided that I wanted to go to school for writing because I knew that there was always more to learn, and I wanted to meet other writers who were as passionate about teen books as I am. So I went to The New School to get my MFA in Writing for Children, where I spent two fantastic years honing my craft. Going through a formal program built on the lessons I’d already learned and took my writing to the next level.

So what’s the best way to learn to write? In my opinion, there is no best way. Every author reads different books, has different experiences, and writes different words along the way. What they all have in common is a commitment to keep writing and keep taking every opportunity to learn!

Thumbnail credit: Tobyotter via flickr.

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