1. Write what you want to write about. When I was ‘ten and eleven twelfths years old,’ I wrote a prologue to my novel Scrapbook: “I always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know how. I thought I would write about sports or animals or dolls or life but somehow I couldn’t put these thoughts into words. I racked my brains out trying to think of a topic. . . but then I decided to write about me and my life and all the things I love. It would be the best book ever written. It would win a Newberry award. People would vote it the best book of the year! Oh! There I go dreaming again! Well now it’s time to start my wonderful, fabulous, marvelous, exciting book.”
2. Count the pages. When I was even younger than ten and eleven twelfths, I discovered something that worked for me as a writer: I counted out ten sheets of paper or twenty or fifty and, however many pages I’d choose—sometimes randomly, sometimes deliberately—that’s how long my story would be. It was the same with the little blank books my mother would give me. First of all, I loved these—each one was a miracle, full of possibility, a place to create new worlds and people. I would write and write and fill them up, and whether I was writing on notebook paper or in those blank books, when I came to the very last page, I would wind up the story.
3. Know when to wrap things up. Sometimes counting the pages made for a very rushed ending, everything wrapping up in just a paragraph or two—there was a good amount of “Even though there was still lots to do, everything worked out in the end, and the mystery was solved!”—but clearly it was a method that worked for me. By the time I was ten, I had already written numerous songs, a poem for Parker Stevenson (“If there were a Miss America for men, You would surely win…”), two autobiographies (All About Me and My Life in Indiana: I Will Never Be Happy Again), a Christmas story, several picture books (which I illustrated myself) featuring the Doodle Bugs from Outer Space, a play about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister entitled Blindness Strikes Mary (which my fourth grade teacher very generously let me produce, star in, and direct), a series of prison mysteries, a collection of short stories featuring me as the main character (an internationally famous rock star detective), and a partially finished novel about Vietnam.
4. Don’t worry about the middle. The Vietnam novel was partially finished because I wrote the beginning and I wrote the ending (flipping to the very last pages of the blank book), but was so undecided and overwhelmed about what needed to happen in the middle, that I left it blank. In a way, this is how I’ve written each novel in the Velva Jean series: I know my beginnings and my endings, but it’s the middle that I struggle with. I’ve found that the best thing that helps with this is to…
5. Keep it moving along. In The Mystery of Sandsky Prison, which I wrote when I was eight and three quarters, I barreled right through the story, the action, and the plot like a rampaging bull—“At a signal from Valeri, they pounced on the men. Then the girls brought the men to the police station. The policeman in charge said thank you very much. ‘It was our pleasure,’ said Valeri. Then the girls drove to Valeri’s house. They walked up the stairs and into Valeri’s pretty pink bedroom. They sat down on her canopy bed and talked about the two thieves. They could not believe who did it! Valeri was already impatient for a new mystery. She got one, so don’t worry! The End.”
5. Have fun. As I wrote at the end of Scrapbook: “I don’t know if this will be given a Newberry Award or voted the Best Book Ever Written, but it gave me a lot of pleasure to write it.” And as Mark Twain said along those very same lines, “Possibly the book may not sell, but that is nothing—it was written for love.”
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society