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Writing tips: ask questions, don't give up

After years of writing, reading books about writing, and taking classes on how to write better, Gail Carson Levine still gets stuck sometimes.

The important thing, she says, is not to give up. For example, after she had written 200 pages of "Ella Enchanted," she heard some bad news. Her writing teacher and classmates said they liked the idea, but the story wasn't going anywhere. Ms. Levine decided to throw out everything but the first 20 pages and start over. "I make mistakes on a very grand scale," she says, and laughs.

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When she can't decide what to write next, Levine makes lists. She writes down every idea she can think of, even the silly ones. "My good ideas are shy," she says. "But if they see that I treat the stupid ideas with respect, they come forward."

If Levine is really stuck, she just starts writing - even if it's about not knowing what to write: "This is stupid. I don't know what I'm doing. I'd be better off painting my toenails."

Sometimes she pretends to interview the characters in her book. Or she'll make up a questionnaire and then fill it out the way she thinks a character would. For instance, one of her questions for the king in the book she's writing now was, "What's in your pockets?"

If that doesn't help, she'll pace. She walks around and around her chimney until she thinks of something.

Levine also teaches a creative writing class for eight students. They range from the fifth grade to the 10th grade. Here are some of the ideas she gives her students to get them started:

1. Pick one of the following magical tools: a cloak of invisibility, a pair of seven-league boots (boots that let you travel 21 miles with one step), a cookie that makes you grow, or a drink that makes you shrink. What's it like to wear or eat the item? Include every detail, because scientists will do research based on your description.

2. Write a story from one of the following sentences:

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- "I have one green eye and one brown eye. The green eye sees truth, but the brown eye sees much, much more."

- "Ms. Fleming's wig had gone missing."

- "If somebody didn't do something soon, they were going to have a catastrophe on their hands."

3. Take a story you know well and replace the story's characters with people you know. Have the people act the way they would act normally. How do things change? For example, if you were Little Red Riding Hood, would you be fooled by the wolf? No? Then what would happen next?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society