Basic Advice about Writing
By Jess Mowry
I get a few letters every week from new writers, showing me
stories or parts of their novels and asking advice about how to
write, what to write about, and how to get their writing
published. This site has been up for about five years, and in
all that time I've only seen three or four stories that I would
call "bad writing", and even those weren't hopelessly
bad if the writer really wanted to put some effort into learning
how to write better.
Not surprisingly, the natural talent of very young writers
usually shines the brightest, and it saddens me to know that
many of these natural story-tellers will either not go on to
develop their talent, or will become discouraged by rejections
and give up writing.
As with any god-given talent, whether it's an aptitude for
playing an instrument, a knack for painting or drawing, or the
natural ability to tell a good story, your talent alone is not
enough. Your natural skills have to be developed through
practice. Developing your natural talent for writing a good
saleable story (novels are stories too) is no different from
developing a natural talent for shooting hoops or freestyle
rapping: you pick up advice from experts in the game, you check
out other people's styles and imitate those you like.
And most of all you practice.
As you might guess, I don't have time to write a detailed
critique to everyone who sends me samples of their work, so I
hope this page will give you some basic advice about how to
develop your own natural talent for writing.
Probably the best advice I can give -- especially to young
writers -- is to READ. Read until your eyes go blurry and your
head is stuffed with all kinds of things you never thought you'd
want to know! Besides making you a better writer, you may not
have to work for the white man the rest of your life.
Knowledge is power!
Knowledge is the only true power in the world. If you've got
knowledge you can do just about anything and survive just about
anything... and the best way to survive the ghetto is to get
smart enough to get your ass out. Knowledge is better than money
because with knowledge you can always make money in some way.
But ignorant folk are always poor and usually stay that way.
In the U.S., being poor and ignorant leaves you with better than
a 50-50 chance that you'll end up in prison before age 25. And
If you're black and ignorant, you're probably in prison already.
There is nothing cool or "bad" about being locked in a
cage and treated like an animal... an ignorant monkey. If you
believe that getting locked in a cage is some sort of black
passing rite to manhood ("everybody has to do time
sometime") then you're ignorant. Period. The concept that
wasting months or years of your life in a white man's prison is
some sort of black ritual, isn't a black thing, it's a white
thing. It's also a white thing to play gangster games and feed
on or kill your Brothers and Sisters. If you weren't an ignorant
monkey, then you'd ask yourself who really benefits by locking
up black boys, or teaching them it's "cool, bad and
manly" to kill each other?
Anyway, back to writing... and reading.
Develop your natural writing skills . . . READ!
Black History and current black issues are very important to
know, but don't restrict your reading to only these things. And
don't limit your reading to only black authors. To be a good
writer you have to know a little about a lot. Also, by reading
many different writers, you will gradually develop your own
writing style. There are many times when I can tell what few
books a young writer has read -- or who his or her favorite
author is -- just by the way they write. So can most editors at
publishing houses and magazines.
Imitating your favorite author is normal: in fact it's how most
successful writers got started. But it does reveal that a new
writer is still a little wet; and just as in most professions,
whether trades, sports, music or film, very few people in the
writing business have time to deal with a wet one.
A new writer may have tons of natural talent that shines through
his or her rough or imitative style -- hardly a week goes by
that I don't see an example of this -- but editors don't have
time to help a new author develop their skills. Most editors are
not writing mentors or teachers, they are business people, and
their jobs are to chose books and stories that will make money
for their publishing house or magazine.
The general attitude of most editors who encounter a gifted new
author who hasn't yet polished their writing to a saleable
degree is basically the same as a band leader or a film director
when a talented but unpolished young musician or actor comes in
for an audition... "nice, kid, come back when you've
learned a little more."
There are many definitions of "writer". Can you call
yourself a writer on the legit and not be published? Sure. There
are lots of really great writers who aren't published yet, and
probably just as many who will never be published, just as there
are many great painters who will never be recognized, and many
great sports players who will never be professionals. In many
cases, these great natural writers will never be published
because they either won't work hard enough polishing their
writing to a saleable degree (which usually means learning the
right form for novels and stories) and/or they won't put enough
effort into trying to get their writing published.
Just as if you were a poor kid in rural Mississippi with a great
natural talent for playing the guitar, the odds are that you're
never going to be a professional musician and get paid for
playing if all you do is sit on your porch and play for yourself
and your friends. The chance that some big-time music promoter
is going to break down in his Lex in front of your house and be
captivated by your music is pretty damn slim.
Yet many great natural writers seem to think that some big-time
book editor or literary agent is somehow going to stumble across
their novel or story!
Do you think they're going to bust your crib and find your work
in a drawer?
Just like that Mississippi boy, you're going to have to get off
your ass, call attention to yourself, and show off your talent.
You will probably be treated like shit by a few people, and have
a lot of doors slammed in your face; but if you keep on trying
and keep getting better at what you do, then sooner or later
you'll land your first paying gig... sell a story.
No one is going to know how great your writing is if your story
or novel is only shared with friends and family. You're going to
have start sending your work to publishers; and you'll probably
get a lot of rejections and be treated like shit by some people.
But if you keep on writing and getting better at it, and keep
sending your writing to publishers, then sooner or later you
will be published.
Don't be scared of rejections
A lot of new writers have a fear of rejection, and this keeps
them from sending their work to publishers. (Just as it keeps
many young black people from going out into the white world and
building a good life.) But writing is a business, and rejections
are just a part of that business. Most rejections are based upon
editorial taste... meaning the personal likes and dislikes of an
editor. I've had many books rejected by white female editors
just because they don't like stories about young black males.
Editors keep their jobs by choosing books and stories that sell,
which makes money for their publishing house or magazine; and if
an editor has been successful by choosing only certain types of
stories, then he or she probably won't take a chance on
publishing something different.
Unfortunately, black books and stories are often "something
different", so many editors are afraid to publish them. But
that's just another part of the writing business, and you have
to accept it.
You should never take rejections personally... it was your book
or story that was rejected (for whatever reasons) not you.
Practice = work
Most young people are very creative in many ways. For example,
the cartoons that many young people draw are excellent. But the
difference between a cool cartoon on a school binder or a
warehouse wall, and the work of a professional cartoonist in a
magazine, or as animation on a movie screen, is that the
professional cartoonist has to draw his or her characters in
many different poses and situations, and from many different
angles and perspectives, not just the one or two poses that he
or she likes to draw.
Maybe the cartoonist is good with faces but hates doing bodies
or backgrounds. That doesn't matter in the real world of
cartooning: the professional cartoonist has to draw all
of those things to make a whole picture. And, the professional
cartoonist has to draw his or her characters over and over and
over again, and polish them to perfection each and every time,
including the parts of the drawing that he or she may not like
to do or want to do.
And, he or she must draw every day whether they feel like
drawing or not.
The same concept applies to professional writing. That
"inspired" short story you wrote in an hour, or the
first chapter of a novel; the idea that came to you in a dream
or in a in a moment on the street; the scene, the situation, the
protest, the picture, that demanded to be written -- the story
that was "fun" to write or felt good to write -- is
only the beginning of a long and sometimes painful process if
you want to see that story or novel between covers and out on a
book store shelf.
Rewrite and polish!
There are a few successful writers who say that they never do a
rewrite or polish their work. I think that's bullshit. At least
I've never written anything that wasn't improved by rewriting
and polishing. And I don't think any real successful writer ever
has. I can still read one of my most published short stories and
see how changing a word here and there, adding or deleting a
sentence or a paragraph, could make it better.
Sometimes rewriting can be fun, but often it isn't. Rewriting is
work... a four-letter word. Just like a professional
cartoonist who polishes his drawings, polishing your writing is
something that you might not like to do, yet it must be done.
You should think of your inspired story or novel chapter as a
first draft. It probably felt really good when you wrote it;
maybe it got you an "A" in English, and all your
friends liked it: but if you hope to get it published, or go
from a ten-page first-chapter to a 300-page novel, then there's
a lot of hard work ahead, and at least some of it won't be fun.
Just how to go about rewriting and polishing your work is
something you have to find out for yourself. It's helpful to ask
how other writers do it; but eventually you'll discover what
works best for you. My own way is to read over the beginning of
a story, or the start of a new novel chapter from yesterday,
polishing as I go along, and let this polishing flow into
today's new writing.
Some authors write their whole story or novel all the way
through with the first inspiration and then begin at the
beginning to polish and rewrite it all over again. But, no
matter how you do your rewriting, you will always find that
fresh words, descriptions, ideas, scenes, characters and
perspectives come to mind and improve the story.
Go into any bookstore and you'll find hundreds of books about
how to write and how to get your writing published. A lot of
those books were written by published professional authors. Most
are full of good advice, and many will claim to give you all the
tricks you need to "write to sell."
But, what works for one person may not work for another. The
best advice I can give you about these kinds of books is to read
a lot of them so you'll get many different opinions and
Tricks are for kids
Don't pay much attention to "writing tricks". The
trouble with so-called writing tricks is that most editors
already know them, and will see them in your work. Some editors
will even know which "how to write" book you got those
tricks from! A book of writing-to-sell tricks is a lot like
those infomercials on TV where somebody who supposedly made a
million dollars selling self-cleaning cat-boxes wants to show
how you, yes YOU, can do it, too.
For a price, of course.
There's a big difference between writing-tricks and good
writing. About the only real trick a black writer can use to
sell his book is to tell the whitefolks what they want to hear
about us -- a trick the whitefolks never wise up to -- but I
assume you have higher standards than that.
Learn the form
But the only on-the-real trick to sell your writing is to use
the right form when shaping your story. Form is one of the
writing rules you're going to have to follow whether you like it
or not. Besides, if you need tricks to sell your work, then
you're not much of a writer anyhow.
Obviously I can't go into every detail of how to write in the
space of a web page: all I can do is give you some basic advice.
The basic form (or rule) for a short story or novel is that you
have an interesting character (or characters) and that character
is faced with a problem. This problem can be anything...
something as simple as buying new jeans, right on up to getting
drive-byed. It's up to you, the writer, to make your character
and his problem interesting enough that someone wants to read
Let's say your character is a 13-year-old boy named Terrel.
Having Terrel get drive-byed on his way to school would catch
most readers (and editors) attentions no matter what color they
were. It sure as hell caught a lot of people's attentions when I
had the Friends in Way Past Cool get drive-byed on their
way to school.
Creating an interesting character in an interesting situation
that most people would want to read about is not a writing
trick, it's a necessity.
But, stories don't have to be life-and-death, dirty, dark, or
violent to be interesting (like having Terrel get drive-byed).
For example, just finding the right jeans when Terrel doesn't
have much money, or having Terrel venturing out of the 'hood to
some uptown whitebread mall for his jeans -- or venturing
into the hood from middle-class suburbia to score a pair of
genuine G jeans -- could be just as interesting to read about as
Terrel in a life-threatening situation.
You start your story by introducing your character and his
problem to your readers. Some writers like to describe their
characters and settings -- Terrel's room, his building, his
house, his neighborhood, how he looks and dresses -- while other
writers keep all that to a minimum. That's a matter of style...
your style. You present Terrel's problem as soon as you can in
the story... set the stage... and Terrel fights in some way to
overcome or solve that problem.
If Terrel has just been drive-byed on his way to school, his
problem might be to find out who did it and make sure it won't
If Terrel wants to score a new pair of jeans, his problem might
be how to get the green, or how to get into that whitebread mall
past a racist security guard.
Or, Terrel's problem could be how does a middle-class black boy
from the 'burbs survive in the 'hood long enough to score those
G jeans and come home alive?
Terrel's fight to overcome his problem builds up your readers'
interest and adds tension and excitement to the story. If you
write well, it keeps your reader reading to see what happens
next. Will Terrel discover who drive-byed him? And if so, what
can he do about it?
Will Terrel from the 'hood be able to outsmart the racist
security guard and get into the mall? Will he be chased by the
guard? Will he get his jeans?
What about middle-class Terrel? What kind of problem does he
have to overcome in the 'hood to score his jeans?
Finally, in the end, Terrel either solves the problem and
wins... he finds out who did the roll-up and deals with him.
Or, Terrel outsmarts the racist security guard and scores his
jeans after an exciting chase through the mall.
Or, suburban Terrel comes home alive from the hood with his
jeans after being chased by gangstuhs. Etc.
Comedy or tragedy?
This, by the way, makes the story a "comedy". A story
doesn't have to be funny to be a comedy. A comedy is where your
character overcomes his problem and has a happy ending.
On the other hand, the problem might be too big or powerful for
Terrel to overcome. ...Terrel gets capped while trying to find
out who drive-byed him.
Or, the racist security guard catches Terrel and frames him for
boosting a pair of jeans.
Or, suburban Terrel gets put on his back and his jeans are
This would make the story a "tragedy". Romeo and
Juliet is a tradegy... they both died. They didn't overcome
Of course, Terrel doesn't have to die for this story to be a
tragedy: he just doesn't manage to solve his problem.
So, that's the basic form or rule for writing a story...
interesting character, interesting problem, does Terrel solve
his problem or not? If you're a good story-teller, then you've
probably gotten several ideas from these examples. Remember that
Terrel's problem doesn;t have to be life and death to make a
good story or grab a reader's attention.
Story or novel?
It's hard to define the difference between a short story --which
can be pretty long sometimes -- and a novel; but usually a short
story is about one character and one main problem. A cast of
thousands is usually reserved for novels.
There's no rule about how long a short story can be, but very
long short stories don't sell well these days because there's no
market for them. Most magazines and short story books
(anthologies) only want stories that are around twenty
(See the Submitting Your Work page to find out what a manuscript
page is all about.)
Sometimes a short story idea pops into your mind all complete
from beginning to end and can be written down in an hour or two
-- the first draft, anyhow -- but a novel usually takes a lot of
time and thinking to work out; and sometimes you don't even know
where it's going until you get there.
Three of my seven books began as short story ideas and just kept
growing, while a few of my novel ideas became short stories
because there just wasn't enough material to build a novel. Some
writers say they can tell the difference between a short story
and a novel idea before sitting down to write it. Maybe they
Point of view
An important thing to consider is from what point of view you're
going to tell your story. Many young writers start out with the
"I" point of view... like, "How I Spent My Summer
This is the easiest way to write for a lot young people... your
character tells the story to the reader. For example, here is
Terrel telling the story:
I woke up and shoved off my blankets. Outside it was warm and
sunny. I could hear birds singing in the park. But I felt like
shit 'cause I got real drunk last night.
This may be the easiest way to tell a story for many young
writers, but using the "I" point of view has a lot of
limitations and some disadvantages. For one thing, if it isn't
done right it gets boring pretty fast, unless Terrel is really
good at expressing himself and describing his surroundings. And,
unless you have Terrel checking himself in a mirror...
I checked myself in the bathroom mirror; my eyes were a
... it's hard to tell your reader what he looks like. For
example, If Terrel is handsome and muscular, he's going to sound
full of himself by telling that to your reader...
Also, since 13-year-old Terrel is telling the story, he can't
use words and descriptions that a person of his age,
environment, and life-experience wouldn't use.
With the "I" point of view, nothing can be going on in
the story that Terrel isn't there to see, hear, smell, feel,
touch, or think about. Terrel might hear what sounds like 1970s
muscle car cruising his hood, but he can't know that its full of
bangers waiting for him until he goes out and gets drive-byed.
If Terrel is telling this story, then your reader is sort of
like inside Terrel's head. Your reader can only know what Terrel
sees, hears, feels, smells, etc. And all these things can only
be described in Terrel's own words... the words of a 13-year-old
boy. And your readers can't know what Terrel is thinking unless
Terrel tells them.
Probably the biggest disadvantage for a young writer using this
"I" point of view is that it looks like a story
written by a beginning writer, and this can turn a lot of
Another way to tell a story is sometimes called "the
narrator point of view." In this style you, the writer, are
sort of like God... you know all, see all, hear all, etc. And
you tell the story instead of Terrel...
It was a warm sunny morning in West Oakland. Birds were
singing in the park. Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets.
He was a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen, with big,
puppylike hands and feet and a normally cheerful smile. But he
didn't feel much like smiling today. He'd gotten really drunk
last night and his head hurt like hell.
As "God", you, the narrator, know everything about
Terrel, his neighborhood, his friends, and everything else
that's going on around him. You watch his every move, and you
see and know things he can't. You also know what he's
Two goddamn forties of O.E.! thought Terrel. I'm never gonna
do that shit again!
You can say things like: Out on the street, a black '75 Chevy
Camaro rounded the corner. Inside were six bangers from over
East. They seemed to be trolling around for somebody.
Most books and stories are written from this narrator
point-of-view. It's often more interesting to a reader than the
"I" point of view, and it gives you, the writer, a lot
more room to move. For one thing, you don't have to restrict
your vocabulary and descriptive powers to those of a 13-year-old
There are several other points of view to write from, but my
favorite is sometimes called
"stream-of-consciousness". I think it combines the
best parts of both the "I" and "the
narrator" points of view.
Like the "I" point of view, stream-of-consciousness
storytelling is limited to what your character sees, hears,
smells, tastes, thinks, etc. Terrel still can't know that black
Camaro is packed with bangers trolling for him until they do the
roll-up. But Terrel isn't telling us the story through his own
voice; instead, you, the narrator, are telling it.
Like the "I" point of view, we are inside Terrel's
head sometimes, but now we know what he's thinking without him
having to tell us out loud as if he was talking.
In the stream-of-consciousness point of view, the same scene
would go something like this...
Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets. Outside it seemed
to be a beautiful day. He could hear birds singing in the park.
Birds! The hell were they good for? Why didn't they just shut
the fuck up! His head hurt as he rolled from the bed and padded
into the bathroom. Two goddamn forties of O.E. last night on an
empty stomach! His eyes were red when he checked himself in the
mirror, seeing a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen with big,
puppylike hands and feet.
Get the idea? Not only can you, the narrator, tell the story,
but Terrel can also tell it by thinking... Birds! The hell
were they good for? Why didn't they just shut the fuck up!
That's the basics
So, we've covered the basics of writing a story: you need an
interesting character with an interesting problem to overcome,
and you need a point of view from which to tell your story.
A few writers switch points of view during their stories. While
this can make a story more interesting, it can also confuse and
annoy your reader if it isn't done right. In most cases there's
no need to do it. Confusing or annoying an editor is almost
always a guaranteed rejection; and even if your story is
published, confusing and annoying readers will make them stop
reading your story.
Finally, I want to warn you about what I think is probably the
all time worst piece of advice young writers can get...
usually from your English or Creative Writing teacher.
Don't ever... ever... let anyone tell you that you must
only "write about what you know"! This advice is bad
enough for white writers, but it can keep you down forever if
Did space aliens write Star Trek? Do real detectives
write most mystery novels? Nope.
One of the best novels about the American Civil War, The Red
Badge of Courage was written by someone who had never been
in that war.
Better advice would be: If you don't know, then find out
before you write about it.
If you don't know, don't guess
If you don't know, don't guess and don't fake it -- do your
research, get your facts and details right . The internet is a
good place to find out just about anything you need to know.
Write about anything you damn well want to! Don't let anybody
say you can't!
And don't be afraid to dream... BIG.
Jess Mowry is the author of Way Past
Cool as well as other novels for and about Black children and
teens, such as Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz, Rats In The Trees,
Ghost Train, Bones Become Flowers and Children Of The Night.
Check the Site Index page for details. His stories have appeared
in many anthologies, such as In The Tradition, Cornerstones,
School Is Not Cool, Follow That Dream, I Believe In Water, Face
Relations and Brotherman.
* * *
* * * * *
Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All
By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that
wealth is rooted in much more than the
market. True wealth has more to do with
what's in your heart than what's in your
wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons
became one of America's shrewdest
entrepreneurs, achieving a level of
success that most investors only dream
about. No matter how much material gain
he accumulated, he never stopped lending
a hand to those less fortunate. In
Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare
blend of spiritual savvy and
street-smart wisdom to offer a new
definition of wealth-and share timeless
principles for developing an unshakable
sense of self that can weather any
financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy
can make you money, but money can't make
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 30 December