A Guest Post by Jaimie M. Engle
How I learned to Write Without Even Knowing It
I knew at seven years old I wanted to be an author. I’d read Shel Silverstein, then pluck out poetry on my typewriter (yes, BC folks) about all the foods I hated, trying to mimic his voice and style. I’d watch Mary Poppins, then take Michael and Jane on an adventure of my own using P.L. Travers’ characters. Or watch The Goonies, then write a story about two sisters looking for pirate treasure beneath the mansion next door.
I was basically lifting literary weights, using my own undeveloped creativity through devices that had worked for others. Silverstein’s style. Travers’ characters. The Goonies’ setting.
Of course at the time, I just felt incapable.
Looking back, I realize I was practicing.
I remember my Pop-Pop would tell me these elaborate Hulk stories, which he made up on the spot. Orange hulks and purple ones. Red hulks and of course, the green hulk who started it all. Pop-Pop would finish one, and I’d beg for another. My ear for storytelling was being crafted: the cadence of words, the beat of the story, and the pacing from start to finish. He would use clipped sentences approaching the story’s climax, pushing it along as an accelerating train. And as everything slowed to happily ever after (even hulks need some down time), I remember the satisfaction the stories gave me.
When I was in the third grade, I was home sick for a few weeks. Bored, I decided to write. First, I put my boom box (come on people, don’t judge the 80s technology) beside the television. I recorded Grease, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. Starting with Grease, I’d play a couple words, then write down the characters name and what they said. I transcribed the entire movie.
My first screenplay.
I started with The Wizard of Oz, but only made it out of Munchkinland. To this day, I can quote the movie up till that point. If we ever meet, I’ll prove it.
These weren’t my stories, but I still wrote down the words, learning a little bit about dialogue. It sounds different in real life than it does on the page if you’re not careful. I think this exercise helped me to grasp that subconsciously.
The other thing I remember as a kid was watching the same movies over and over again. Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, there was Back to the Future. I must have watched this movie a million times. Star Wars, A New Hope, ET, and Rocky were also repeats in my VCR. And every Christmas I watched It’s a Wonderful Life about fifty times. I still do this, watch the same movies over and over again. Don’t get me started on The Princess Bride. I believe doing this has taught me about plot. Instinctively, when I write, I feel when it’s time for a plot twist, when I’m nearing the climax, and at the resolution, I know it should close the book, but keep the story open.
Of course, I read a lot too. My grandparents gifted me with ornate hard-covered books at every birthday and Christmas. They were so special, I wasn’t even allowed to hold them until I reached a certain age, for fear I would scribble on the pages or break them. They were classics, and I read and re-read them over and over again. Black Beauty. Heidi. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The Chronicles of Narnia. Plus I’d read all the contemporary novels I could get my hands on when my class checked out books at the school library.
I would spend my alone time reading and writing short stories. I wanted to write a novel, even that young, but I lacked the discipline to finish one. Instead, I wrote dozens of short stories and twice as many poems, in different colored crayons, about candy cane mansions and pet monkeys and Betty Brown Bikini Bear’s trip to the beach. I compiled them into a binder (in rainbow-color order, of course) and produced my first anthology.
Then in third grade, I entered my school’s writing contest. The assignment was to create a project to teach kids how to take care of their teeth. I decided to create two teeth, Mr. and Mrs. Molar, and have them teach through rhyme. And it won first place. Not just for my school, but for the entire state of Florida.
Actually Tooth Talk became my very first children’s fiction piece that I published as an adult. After publishers kept rejecting it, I decided to think outside the box and contacted the Florida Dental Association. I had an artist illustrate a single scene and submitted the project to Reception Room Magazine. While they’ve only published industry news in the past, the magazine welcomed my cute little poem and picture with a wink and a smile.
So from a young age, I studied the craft of storytelling. I used other author’s characters to learn character. I mimicked their style, recycled their settings, and mastered true dialogue. I trained my ear by listening to Pop-Pop’s stories, and I understood plot by watching the same movies over and over again.
Take one of my techniques and apply it. Write a short story using another author’s characters. Mimic an author’s voice and style by copying a chapter from their book onto paper. Use a known setting and write your own story in it. Listen to a few audio books, new or repeats. Watch your favorite move with a notebook to trace plot.
Jaimie M. Engle is an award-winning young adult author from Melbourne, Florida. Before releasing her debut middle grade novel Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light she ran a body shop, managed a hip-hop band, and modeled bikinis. Her sci-fi novella, The Regime, received honorable mentions in the 2013 L. Ron Hubbard’s Writer’s of the Future contest. When she’s not writing, she’s drinking coffee at the dog park or hanging with her family. Download free stuff at www.jaimiengle.com.
Read our Book Review on Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light