Secret Tips for Aspiring Authors

Read a letter from Jack to young writers
My writing desk, with my journals at the ready

Keep a Journal!

Here is the best tip I can give you. My sister had a journal, a small red diary, and she would write in it. I was kind of a younger brother copycat type of kid and so I kept an eye on everything she did. And I thought, “Dang, she’s so good at writing.” Then I thought, “Well, if I read it, I’ll probably be as good at writing as she is.” That made perfect sense to me.

When she left the house I did read her diary. It was an awful, unethical thing to do, but I was compelled. I read it, and it wasn’t terribly interesting to me. I’m not trying to run my sister down, but it seemed to me that she was missing all the good stuff of life—the juicy stuff. Here we were moving from western Pennsylvania to Cape Hatteras to Barbados to St. Lucia to Miami—you know, there was a lot going on! We were bouncing from one neighborhood to another and they all were filled with crazy characters who did the wildest things—but none of that stuff made the diary.

I thought, “That’s really peculiar, because the world I’m living with and in is really interesting.” So I got my little red diary and got started.

A map of my neighborhood in Florida, the setting for Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade

Draw a Map!

When I first began keeping journals, I tried to set them up in such a way that they would help me get started. Because when you look at a blank piece of paper on your desk, or open a diary and see a blank spread, it’s really hard to get started. All that perfect white space is intimidating. It’s begging you to improve upon it. And it’s hard, because every time you put that pencil down on the page, you sort of mess it up.

So as a kid I started organizing my journals in ways to help me get going. I’d work up a detailed drawing of my house and all the rooms and the yard and then I would draw where everything happened: where I threw up on the wall—where my dog was eaten by an alligator in my back yard—where I broke my brother’s arm—where my dad ran my bike over with his car, and on and on. No detail was too small.

Then I would use the drawings for jumping-off points for writing. I had the confidence to write because with the map in hand I could see that I had really good material to write about. I kept this up all through my life. My maps now are much the same as when I was a kid. I have a house map. A neighborhood map. A city map. And I can draw little pictures where things happen, or where I make certain curious observations and then I can use this raw material for the beginning of a story and try to capture the first draft in my diary. Later, I can type it up and revise it. But the first draft in the diary is the key to it all.

Get the Right Tools for the Job

You have to have some tools. You need a small, unlined notebook. Get a good pen, a decent pen that feels good in your hands. One that you can write swiftly and draw well with. You want a good tool, but you do not have to spend a lot of money on a pen. A dollar or a dollar fifty on a pen is good. You can get a sketchbook journal at an art supply store for five dollars or so. It’s a perfect size. Then once you get it started you can plaster the pages with Post-it note ideas, and taped bits of paper and all kinds of stuff. The idea is to turn that diary into an encyclopedia of your life.

A great book about a writer

Go Crazy!

I like journaling a lot, because it’s the one place I can go to say anything, be anyone, wear any hat, say anything silly, or emotional, or rowdy, or secretive, or be as loud or as quiet or as crazy and wacky as I can be. And it is also a place where I can discover, maybe, another little section of myself—like a room in my house I’ve never entered before.

Pay Attention!

If you pay attention to the world around you every day, and to the world within you every day, then you will have plenty to write about. Think about the book Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, one of my favorites. Harriet the Spy has a diary, and she walks around the neighborhood spying on everyone and writing about them in her notebooks. And I have always thought, “That is the greatest job in the world. I want that job: Spy.” Because I have always been good at looking in windows.

A Nicole Rubel sketch for Three Strikes for Rotten Ralph

Write About People (And Animals!) You Know

The Jack Henry books and my novel Dead End in Norvelt are all about me and my life so the Jack and his family and friends in those books were easy to come up with. Joey Pigza is a combination of a lot of kids I knew as a kid—he is kind of the classic kid who has a full-time desk in the hall way because he is so disruptive in class. And his family—which is pretty dysfunctional—was based on a number of families I know. Rotten Ralph was based on a used cat I got out of the Boston Globe classifieds. Nicole Rubel and I were writing and illustrating some pretty awful books that never got published and we knew there was this rule of writing called “write about what you know about.” Well, I knew about cats from growing up with them but at the time I did not have one so I opened the newspaper and went to the used pet section and there was a cat that was listed as “sweet, nice and loving.” The cat lived nearby at Harvard University so we went and adopted it. It was instantly a menace. Psychotic, really. There was nothing nice or loving about that animal except for about once a month it would purr for ten minutes. So that cat became the template for “Rotten Ralph” who is rotten most of the time except for when he feels contrite for ten minutes toward the end of each book.

Write Every Day!

Take yourself seriously. Set up good writing habits. Make yourself write in your journal ten or fifteen minutes each day. Then use another ten minutes to work on a story. First, you take out the journal, look at your map and start writing a wild first draft of some story you know. Once you get that first draft you can type it up and begin to give it shape and work through it. You bring structure to the work (beginning, middle, and end) and make certain the character is changed by the events. You need to consider that about half a story is physical and half is emotional. If you write a little each day you just simply improve your skills and you build confidence and your talent can shine through.


I read all the time. All kinds of books—picture books, chapter books, old books and new books, grown-up novels and all kinds of history and biography. When I start working on a new book, I do all sorts of background reading and research. I read my old diaries if it’s a story about me, and I read books by other people. Books will help you get your own story ideas, and you can learn all sorts of different ways of telling a story by figuring out how other writers do it.

The main reason that I’m a children’s author is that I know that kids are the best readers. You know how to live in books, how to imagine books. You can travel emotionally and mentally into books. You are the most absorbent readers there are. I feel lucky to have you.

(Copyright © by Jack Gantos.

Adapted from interviews for,, and Jack Gantos: An Author Kids Love by Michelle Parker-Rock.)