Q & A for Young Writers

Q. What gave you the idea to write the Droon books?

A. Well, there came a time in my writing when I wanted to create a really big world, with many people, creatures, cities, rivers, seas, mountains, deserts, magic, and problems. As I was thinking about it, the word Droon popped into my head. I knew right away that Droon was the name of this world. And I wanted it to be a world that we could reach from our own real world, so Eric, Julie, and Neal came into the story. They are like you and me. They discover a way to get to Droon. The other big part of Droon is that I have always loved the collection of stories called One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which has tales about genies, flying carpets, magical cities, and so on. Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp is one of these stories. I wanted Droon to be like the world of the Arabian Nights. As all these things began to fill my head, the idea of a series of books about the world of Droon began to come down on paper. That's how The Secrets of Droon was born. One of the things I really love about Droon is that it has gotten so big! I began writing the first stories in 1997. Since then, some fifty or so different places around Droon have come to life, and in those places live some fifty or sixty characters, both good and not-so-good. This makes Droon a large and complicated and real place to be. I love when I write a new story in the series, because, like Eric, Julie, and Neal, I get to go down those rainbow stairs, but also because Droon is like home to me.

Q. How do you write books like the Droon books? 

A. Wow, that's a big question. I guess the most important thing I do to help me write books is to read books. I read everything and I read often. Books are my favorite things. From reading, I have learned the power of the printed words sitting on pages like little doodles of ink. Those printed words can make you see things in your head, experience emotions along with the characters, and feel as if you've been far away in the places the writer describes -- all this JUST FROM WORDS. That is the magic of what simple words can do. Once you understand this, you will want to use words yourself, just like the authors have done, and then you will begin to write. One of the other fun things that happens when you read is that the more you read, the more you will notice how the author builds a story with conversations among the characters, descriptions of what is going on, and thoughts the characters are thinking. Then you will begin to see the overall shape of the story, how it may start with something simple, introduce a problem, and how that problem gets resolved. Anyway, read, read, read! And have fun doing it, because reading leads to writing, writing is fun.

Q. What inspires you to write?

A. I think maybe my biggest inspiration is that I love being with the characters I create and seeing what kind of adventures they get into (and out of!) with each new story. The moment the characters begin to speak in chapter one, that's really when the story gets wings and starts to take off. I love being on that flight with them. Tales about magical worlds help me to write about the characters in fun ways and to stretch the way I see the world I live in.

Q. Where do you get your ideas?

A. I get them everywhere. I read as much as I can. I read the newspaper, books about history, biography, archaeology, and some fantasy, and with just about everything I read I ask myself if I can learn anything more about Droon from what I am reading. Droon has a great long past, so history and archaeology always seems to inspire me with ideas about what might have happened in Droon's past. Sometimes, what someone says might help me think of a conversation the characters might have; once I hear the characters talking, then a story begins to shape itself. Above all, I guess, I feel as if there is some sort of imagination machine in my head always coming up with new ideas. For instance, I have a book coming up and I thought it would be good to have a scene in a palace, but the more I thought about it, it would be much better to have it outside, with more fun going on. So now, it's not inside a palace room, it's during a parade! How did I think of that? I don't know, really. It's that imagination machine.

Q. Why are the question marks in the Droon books upside down?

A. I get this question quite often. When I was writing the very first books of the series, the person at the publishing house who designs what the page looks like (the book designer) wanted to use a typeface that had an element of fantasy about it. Most of the letters are lively, but normal. For some reason, the question mark is a little more strange. I have always really liked it. It makes me think of smoke coming up from a campfire at night. Alas, after twenty or so books, it was decided to make the question marks normal; I suppose the publisher got as many questions as I did! Now, though, I rather miss them. Only about half of the books have upside down question marks now.

Q. Will there be more Droon books?

A. I plan on writing a lot of Droon books. As you might know, even though there have been almost 40 books so far, they are really parts of one long and big story. I've been planning out the next few books, and the story isn't done yet. So, yes, there will be more Droon books!

Q. What advice do you have for young writers?

A. The first piece of advice I like to give young writers is to do everything you can possibly do so you can learn what it feels like to be in different situations -- without doing anything inappropriate or risky, of course. The more you can feel and know about the world, the better your writing will be. Talk to people (in safe, appropriate situations) to learn what they are like, how they talk, what they think, how they think. Also, do a wide variety of activities like gardening, running, hiking, visiting museums, going to the city if you live in the country or to the country if you live in the city, volunteering, anything and everything that puts you into new situations. You don't have to be loud or showy about what youíre doing, you can do things quietly -- the important thing is to be aware of what is around you. When you are at the mall, just look at what is going on between people. Then write about what you have seen and heard and felt. Writing about things not only helps you remember what youíve experienced, it helps you explore your experiences and how you feel about them. It is also absolutely essential that you read everything. I mean everything. In every book that has ever been written, the author has solved some of the problems of writing, and writing is all about solving problems: how to start a book or a chapter that draws the reader in, how to juggle five characters talking at once, how to write a quiet scene that moves mountains, how to write an action scene that forces the reader to run with the characters, how to make the reader laugh out loud, how to make the reader cry, how to end a chapter, how to end a book, how to foreshadow events so that the reader will feel a part of your story, and so on. Now, there has to be pure enjoyment for you when you read, without it seeming like homework. Of course. But . . . a part of your brain, if you are a writer, will notice the author%27s craft as you are reading, and you will learn how the writer used dialogue, narration, humor, and action to get the scene and the story to work. So, feel and read. And the final thing is to write%97all the time. The more you use words for any reason, to tell a story, to make a list, to write an email, whatever, the better craftsperson you will become. Write something knowing that it may not be a great work or even an adequate work, but write to get the feel of words, even if at first you use them badly. You won't make the same mistake more than, say, ten times, and then you will have learned something and you will have become a better writer.

Q. How do you make a simple story idea longer and more interesting? 

A. There are a few things you can do to help make a story longer. I often get to a point in writing about characters where the characters begin to talk for themselves. You may find that the characters say things that don't seem as if YOU wrote them, but as if they are saying things themselves. Of course, this is not really true, but it seems true when you're writing. So, one way to make a story longer is to LISTEN to your characters. They may tell you things (or whoever they are talking to in the story) that will add scenes to the story. Another way to fill out a storyline is to add characters. I had a short story and I wanted to make it longer, so I thought about adding some characters to make the story bigger. Because I had to write some new parts to make blend in these characters, the story just naturally grew. For instance, I had some bad guys in the middle of a story. Then I thought, well, wouldn%27t it be good to see them in the beginning? But the reader wouldnít have to know who they are, or that they are bad. You just see them, think about them a little, and move on with the story. Then, when you see them again in the middle of the story, you say: Oh, I remember them! And now I know that they are bad!

Q. How do you write a mystery?

A. Even if your story doesnít start out as a mystery, you can add a little sense of mystery to it by leaving out information and filling it in later, little by little. Mysteries happen to us all the time when we ask ourselves questions about things: why did that person act in an unusual way? What will happen when a new student is added to my class? Adding a bit of a mystery helps give a story more substance. Let's say that you have a character in a scene, and he says: "Sorry, I can't play soccer with you today. I have something else to do." This leads the reader to wonder what the character will be doing instead of playing soccer. Later, we might see him helping an elderly neighbor to take a walk. The idea is to look at all the parts of your story and see if there is more you can say about them.

Q. How do I make my story more fun to read?

A. I would suggest you break up your short story into "chapters." These don't have to be more than a page or even a paragraph, but beginning a new chapter separates your story thoughts and helps to add a "beat" to the flow of your story. Once you have the story broken into chapters, think about how to make that chapter full and complete. Let's say your character (let's call her Ann) is in school. Something unusual happens and Ann has to leave the school building and go home. Ann sees a suspicious stranger and decides to follow her. Ann tries to hide in order to spy on the stranger. She is caught. She escapes. End of story. Okay, it's a dumb story, but here are the chapters: 1. Your character (Ann) is in school. Something strange happens. 2. Ann has to leave the school and go home. 3. Ann sees a suspicious stranger and decides to follow her. 4. Ann hides to spy on the stranger. Ann is caught. 5. Ann escapes. Breaking the action in pieces like this helps you to see your story in blocks as it is being built. You might find that you need a new chapter 3, something like: 3. A teacher offers Ann a ride home. Ann has to make up an excuse to keep following the suspect. Now you have an extra chapter.

Q. Should I write a book?

A. Yes! You should write a book! You should write lots of books. The great author Patricia Reilly Giff tells young writers to imagine a character, and put him in a place, and give him a problem. Once you imagine a character, you will begin to hear them talking and hear them as they think. When you know what they are like, they begin to do things, say things, and the story begins to happen. If you want to write a fantasy story, like The Lord of the Rings, or a funny, weird thing like the Lemony Snicket books, imagine your character in a fantastical place, or have a crazy thing happening to them. Then your story is off and running. In the Droon books, I plan out a lot of what will happen in the books, but some of it comes by surprise and by chance when the characters suddenly say something or move in a direction I haven't thought of. I have pages and pages of notes in any new story that are filled with character conversations. Once I know what they are saying, I get a very good idea about where the story is headed. The main thing is to get your pencil or pen on the paper, or your fingers on the keyboard, and start. Once you start, even with a short sentence, the story begins to grow and you are on your way! Maybe someday, I will see your name on a bookshelf not too far from mine!

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