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Short Story Month: Creativity is all about breaking the rules!

Author Martine Leavitt shares advice to questions from Julie Duffy at StoryADay in May. Learn more about how to write short stories with us this month!

Q: What is your one go-to piece of general advice for young writers?

A: Don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way to be a writer, or one way to write a story, or one way to do anything at all. Rules shmules—creativity is all about breaking the rules!

Someone once told me to “Write about what you know.” Problem was, I didn’t know anything. But I discovered that by researching and using my imagination and practicing radical empathy, I could write about things I didn’t know.

Another teacher taught me that “Said is dead.” In other words, writers should use other ways to express “said" in dialogue, like "'I’m going to the store,' she exclaimed." That sort of thing. WRONG. Use "said" as much as you possibly can—it’s invisible.

My point is, be highly suspicious if anyone tells you that writing has to be done in a certain way.

The only rule that can’t be broken is this: don’t be boring. And even that one might not be true—I’ve read some pretty boring books lately.

Here’s some advice, however, that did work for me: if you want to be a writer, write. A lot. Every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Have fun! Play! Time enough later to get to the work part.

Q: How do I find interesting topics and stay true to myself?

A: It’s important to know the difference between a “topic” and a story. Some years ago, I wanted to write a story about a boy with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a topic. But I had no story.

One day I was re-reading my Calvin and Hobbes collection (as everyone should on a regular basis). I thought, you know, nowadays, parents would probably take Calvin to therapy and they would tell the parents that Calvin has schizophrenia or maladaptive daydreaming or something like that.


The light bulb came on in my head: the character for my book would be named Calvin.

Calvin gets a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He believes that because he was born on the same day that Bill Watterson published his last comic strip, that Bill Watterson made him. Bill Watterson could then also cure him.

So now I had a topic and a character, but still no story.

So I waited.

I let it simmer in the cookery parts of my brain. And one day I found online the true story of a man who walked across frozen Lake Erie in the winter. The weirdest things happened to him on that dangerous trek.

And guess who lives in a city on Lake Erie? Bill Watterson, that’s who.

My Calvin was going to go on a pilgrimage to prove to Bill Watterson that he should draw one more comic strip—Calvin, seventeen, healthy and well. My Calvin was going to walk across frozen Lake Erie.

Now I had a story.

Q: How do I make readers care about my story and my characters?

A: Well, first off, if you’re mean to them, people will invest in them.

Think of Harry Potter: his parents have died, his adoptive parents are evil, he lives under the stairs with the spiders, he only gets hand-me-down clothes and leftover food, and nobody loves him.

And then you must make your character want something really, really bad.

When Harry makes a wizard family in Gryffindor, he’ll do anything to get them house points—study wizardry, win in Quidditch, etc. He’ll try and defeat Voldemort to save his wizard family.

Give your characters an object of desire (not money—money is boring), and your readers will turn the pages as fast as ever they can to make sure your character gets his or her desire.

Why is story like that? Because life is like that. Understanding this one concept helped me become a published writer.

Good luck! Writing is the best job in the world.

Writing Dare from Martine Leavitt

You character finds out they can go back in time and change one thing about their life. What would it be? Tell me the story.

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Martine Leavitt has published ten novels for young adults, most recently Calvin, which won the Governor General's Award of Canada. My Book of Life by Angel was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year. Other titles by Leavitt include Keturah and Lord Death, Tom Finder, and Heck Superhero. Her novels have been published in places like China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Currently she teaches creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a short-residency MFA program. She lives in High River, Alberta.

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