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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Writing Radar

Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories

Jack Gantos

Square Fish



Trust Me

I’m a writer and I’m on your side.

There comes a time when every good reader decides they want to write a book, so I’m writing this book just for you. You have chosen to read this book because you want to be a brilliant writer, and I chose to write this book because I want you to be the best brilliant writer. I want you to take advantage of your every writerly thought, every clever observation, and every powerful emotion to create unforgettable stories that come from the very center of your life and that will live forever in a reader’s mind. And you can do it.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a great reader, you know how to read yourself. The words you use to describe the world around you and the world within you are a form of reading. Take the expression “I can read you like a book.” Well, you are a book on the inside. Writing just turns you inside out, and all your thoughts become words on a page. Think of the word reading this way and do not doubt yourself. Everyone has talent, and my aim in this book is to help you develop yours.

In this book I will focus on the greatest tool in every writer’s life: the writer’s journal__a book that puts you first in your writing life and activates your Writing Radar to help you spot and capture the stories you want to tell.

The journal is a basic tool that all writers use. A slender notebook is easy to carry around in your pocket. Plus, it is a tool you can use very quietly, which is why it is so effective for when you are sneaking and snooping around the world you live in and capturing uniquely clever story ideas.

I started keeping a journal in fifth grade, and once I got it properly set up and put myself at the center of my writing life, I discovered that stories were taking shape around me all day long. My job in this book is to show you how to set up your own journal to capture, organize, and polish the great stories that are taking shape around you all day long.

Once you get your journal going and see how brilliant you are, then you’ll want to keep it going. There is no greater motivation than the taste of self-made success.

Just so you know I’m not some big talker about writing books, let me give you a little background about me. After keeping journals and dreaming about becoming a professional writer all through school, I went to college for creative writing. While there, I published my first book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976. It is a picture book illustrated by my friend Nicole Rubel and based on a menacing pet we shared. Rotten Ralph is still in print, and I have published more than fifty books since then. A good number are picture books, but I also have five volumes of short stories that I took from my early kid journals about a boy named Jack Henry. (I changed the name of the character in the stories from Jack Gantos to Jack Henry to keep from embarrassing my mother__well, to keep from embarrassing my entire family.) I’ve also written five novels about a funny, bighearted, but wired kid named Joey Pigza; a couple of wild autobiographical novels set in my hometown of Norvelt in western Pennsylvania; and two books about some trouble I got into during and after high school.

In short, I have written everything from picture books, to upper-elementary and middle school novels and collections of short stories, to high school books__and they all began in my journals.

Aside from publishing my own books, I was a college creative writing professor for twenty years, during which I directed a children’s book writing and publishing program that launched the careers of other writers. Plus, I have also visited over a thousand schools, where I have worked directly with tens of thousands of young writers like you on setting up their journals and creative writing projects.

Everything I know about writing stories is in this book. I want to be the best creative writing teacher you ever had, and I’ll show you how your basic pen and journal (which may be collecting dust on your desk) will become the essential everyday tools you carry in your pocket in order to capture your true writing voice__a strong voice that will enable you to define both the vastly detailed world that surrounds you and the richly unique world within you.

In this book I will tell you a lot of stories that are full of truths, mayhem, emotion, and personal insights into myself and others. Along the way I’ll share my best how-to writing tips so you can see how a story is built, step by step, and then polished to perfection.


Getting Started

Without lifting a pencil (or chewing on one), you began your journey to become a writer a long time ago. It actually began before you could read, when you were sitting in someone’s lap. They read you a storybook__and you liked it! The words and pictures captured your imagination, and you wanted more. You reached out and held the book. Then you hugged the book. You may even have chewed on the book, but certainly you wanted it read to you over and over so you could memorize every word and feel the story living inside you like a virus__a friendly book virus.

Well, most of the world’s greatest writers started the same way. Someone read them a storybook when they were young, and they, too, were captured by it and wanted more. Then, when they learned to read, they became nonstop readers, and I suspect you are a nonstop reader, too. It’s probably impossible for you to count up how many books you have read since you were very young, but I bet you can still remember some of the classics that got you started: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?… The Very Hungry Caterpillar … Harold and the Purple Crayon … The Snowy Day … Where the Wild Things Are … Miss Nelson Is Missing!… Sylvester and the Magic Pebble … The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales … Frog and Toad Are Friends … Arnie the Doughnut

And then as you got older, along came James and the Giant Peach … The Borrowers … The Cricket in Times Square … Half-MagicCharlotte’s Web … Island of the Blue Dolphins … From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler … Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone … One Crazy Summer … Stella by Starlight … Hatchet … Under the Blood-Red Sun … Baseball in April … Tuck Everlasting … The Goats … The Chocolate War … The Outsiders … The Wednesday Wars … Brown Girl Dreaming … Esperanza Rising … Pax … Booked … (maybe even Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key).

Imagine if all of these great books you read and loved, and who knows how many hundreds more, could be stacked up on your bedside table to form an incredibly tall pillar of books. At this very moment, while this book is in your hands, I want you to picture standing on top of that imaginary pillar. Your intense eyes are as bright and observant as lighthouse beacons as you scan your world.

From your towering perch of favorite books, you can spot brilliant stories popping up and coming to life all around you. Also, from the top of your tall stack of books, you have the ability to shine a light deep into yourself to search out hidden ideas that are just waiting to be discovered and turned into stories.

Reading good books turns on the powerful Writing Radar story-finding talent within you. Reading sharpens your eye for discovering keen details and unforgettable images. Reading coaches your brain to keep working until you discover the perfect words to describe powerful actions and precise emotions. Reading gives you an ear for clever dialogue that makes characters jump off the page and light up the imaginary theater within the reader’s mind.

The Power of Reading

When I read a book it reads me in return. When I finish the last page the book remains the same, but I am changed forever.

Even though your world may seem large and mysterious, do not panic. Because when you sit down with a writing journal in your hands the whole untamed world of your raw ideas and imagination will then curl up snugly onto your lap, like a favorite pet.

All writers know that reading quickens your writing talent for describing characters and their actions and their range of emotions. Plus, reading well-organized stories that have a solid beginning, middle, and end helps you structure your stories. But unless you have content__story material__and capture a lively story on paper, all your solid creative writing and organizing skills will go to waste and rot.

So let’s turn to the next chapter and begin to exercise our Writing Radar by finding good story material.


The Best Journal in the World Is Yours

When I open my journal, pick up my pen, and begin to write, I know deep inside me that the journal is the one place I can go to express any thought, be anyone, wear any hat, say any silly thing, say any rowdy thing, and be as loud or as crazy or as wacky as I want to be. It is also where I can be creative and thoughtful, and where I can quietly capture my own raw emotions with just the perfect words.

My journal is a book full of surprises, and if I’m lucky the writing leads me to discover something new about myself that I can use in a story. In your journal I want you to have the same untamed freedom of expression that leads to self-discovery and the thrill of creating “something out of nothing” with your written words.

Today I have more than two hundred journals packed away in boxes. I try every day to do a little purposeful writing in my journal, such as bits of story ideas, imagined conversations, or character notes. But a lot of times I just walk around with a packet of Post-it notes that I scribble on and later stick in my journal. Believe me, not every one of my journal entries is a great, thoughtful, heartfelt, genius moment. Sometimes what I add to my journal is just as mundane as a grocery list for a dinner recipe I’m thinking of, or the title of a book I want to read, or song lyrics that are stuck in my mind, or a thought I have on how to write books. It could be a drawing of my cats. Or even a taped-in picture from something interesting I cut out of a magazine or the morning newspaper.

Working in a journal makes you pay attention to the whole world around you. It makes you aware of good days, bad days, embarrassing days, days when you were dealing with homework, sports, music, friends, enemies, romantic feelings, angry feelings, and so much more. The journal is the place where you start making connections between how you are growing up, what you know about yourself and others, and how you fit in. It gets you thinking about the connections between everything__and it’s this sequence of connections between what you see, feel, think, and imagine that builds a story from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. There is no greater tool than the journal for connecting all the dots in your life, so keep your journal-writing tools with you at all times. Trust me, I do.

The more you stuff your journal with the odds and ends of life, the more you find that the odds and ends connect to create complete stories. Try to add to your writing journal every day. I make it a rule to see or hear something interesting, find something interesting, or imagine something interesting that I can either write about or glue into my journal.

Journals are easy to come by. Maybe your parents or grandparents or a teacher gave you one and you are wondering what to do with it (besides hiding it under your bed).

Or maybe you are a kid who has a dozen journals sitting on a shelf and just one unfinished sentence written in each one. I can imagine how tortured you might be when you slip up at home and say to your parents, “I’m bored!”

In a snap they both sing out, “Why don’t you go to your room and open your birthday journal and do some writing?”

Argh! Doesn’t that crush you? Doesn’t that make you want to crawl inside one of your journals and pull the cover down over yourself as if you were settling into your own coffin?

Or what about this: How do you feel when your super-excited teacher rings a little bell on her desk and says with blissful delight, “Class, take out your fabulous journals and let’s have fifteen minutes of quiet freewriting time”? I bet that sends you into a fifteen-minute cold panic of What should I write about? And fifteen minutes later you scramble to write one word: Help!

So let’s start with the first, most thorny worry that faces most young writers (and older ones, too):

This is the all-ages writer’s lament.

Yet, with a little prodding, some well-directed questions, and some prompts, most writers soon find that interesting things do happen to them__and either they were not paying attention or they just didn’t fully trust that their personal experiences were worth writing about.

For example, a young girl came up to me after one of my school presentations and said she wasn’t sure if she had anything interesting to write about.

I asked her if she had had a recent embarrassing moment.

“Yes,” she replied, and blushed.

And then, with a good bit of hand-wringing, she told me what had happened to her a few months earlier. It was the week when school pictures were taken and she had been preparing to look her best. All her previous ones had been pretty lousy__missing teeth, huge fake smile, blinding shiny spot on forehead, frilly outfit with super-large lace collar__and so this time she was determined to be poised, dignified, and well groomed. She’d just gotten her braces removed and was ready to show off her new smile.

On the big day she chose her most sophisticated outfit and had her thick hair tucked behind her ears so it wouldn’t cast a shadow across her face. Still, when her class was called down to the library for the picture session she felt some butterflies in her stomach. She had her big orange comb in hand and as she nervously waited in line she compulsively combed her hair into place. And then disaster struck. Somehow in her combing frenzy the comb got knotted up in her bangs and she couldn’t get it unfastened, and suddenly it was her turn to take a seat. Before she knew it, she’d had her picture snapped with the big orange comb hanging down over her forehead and covering her nose.

I listened patiently.

“So,” she concluded, “is that worth writing about?” And then she opened her purse and pulled out the picture.

It was a classic.

“Are you kidding?” I declared. “Your story is certainly worth writing about.” Then I asked, “Do you have a journal?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then paste the picture in your journal and use it as inspiration to write the story ‘The Worst Picture Day Ever.’”

She bit down on her lip. “Thanks,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure it would be interesting.”

I walked away thinking, If she doesn’t use that story, I will.

I didn’t get far down the hall before I was cornered by another student.

“I think I might have something interesting to write about,” he said, and stuck his tongue out at me. There was a crusty purple circle right in the middle of it.

“Tell me about how you got that hideous spot,” I insisted.

He told me that he’d heard that if you pressed your tongue onto something very, very cold the tongue would stick to it. So one freezing winter day when his parents were away, he went outside to where his hockey goal was set up. He pressed his tongue onto the metal goalpost and proved to himself that he was right__tongues do stick to cold things! Only now he couldn’t remove his tongue and was trapped outside.

A couple hours later his parents came home and saw their son stuck to a metal pole by his tongue. They ran outside and poured warm water on his tongue until he could peel it off. But it left a circular purple crust on his taste buds. His father called it the “birthmark of a misunderstood genius.”

Never forget: Every painful moment in life is a story waiting to be told.

And on it went. Students lined up to tell me their stories that they were unsure about. But it turned out that these were the most amazing stories of them all. By the end of the day I had heard enough stories to fill a book. But they were not my stories. They belonged to those new young writers who were already scribbling away in their journals and capturing their “most embarrassing moment ever!” or some other powerful or quirky incident that with some writerly thought could be crafted into a great story.

Remember, good stuff to write about is happening to you all the time. So don’t panic. When your Writing Radar spots a hot story and goes off like a fire alarm, just pull out your journal and a pen and write it down.

I do the same thing. Usually I have anywhere from three to five journals or Post-it pads with me at all times__each a different size, from a small and slender one that is the size of a credit card and fits inside my wallet to my largest journal, which is about the size of the meaty palm of my hand. I often wear a jacket with a lot of pockets, which is like wearing a secret well-stocked office. I have two fountain pens (one blue and one red). They clip into my left jacket pocket with two unlined three-by-five note cards (unlined is best for drawing). I have a narrow journal in my right jacket pocket. I also like to keep a packet of Post-it notes in my inside jacket pocket. In case of emergencies (jacket stolen by a rival writer), I even keep a skinny “spare” journal in the back pocket of my jeans.

Once I’m loaded up with my writing tools I’m like an old-time gunslinger and I’m ready to step out into my world__the city of Boston, where I live__or anywhere I travel across the United States and around the globe. Some portion of this journal equipment is always with me, and if my Writing Radar goes off, I can jot down an idea or observation so I don’t forget it.

I’ve tried keeping a journal on a cell phone or on my laptop, but I never liked it nearly as much as writing by hand in an actual notebook. If you have a cell phone, you can capture physical details with your camera or quickly dictate notes to yourself. This can be helpful for recording bits and pieces of material__but, again, I prefer a journal because when I am writing I am more aware of using the language to capture the action and emotions. Plus, all my senses seem alerted__a photo can capture visual details, and video can add movement and sound, but through the written word I can more accurately re-create the things I feel and smell and even taste. And you can’t ruin a journal completely. Once I was in a rowboat on the Amazon River and dropped my journal in the water. I plucked it out quickly (before a piranha nipped me). But when I dropped my cell phone in the airplane toilet I just waved goodbye__and later wrote about it in my journal.

Text and pictures copyright © 2017 Jack Gantos