ANSWER: Ideas come from everywhere, by observing life and your surroundings.  Sometimes a story idea comes in a flash and quickly takes shape. Other times, creating a story is a slow, lumbering process that takes months and years. Sometimes you have one solid idea to work on, and other times you end up weaving together many bits of ideas to create a whole.

barbara dacosta books i like


A: As a child: the stories and art of Frank Baum’s Oz books, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Walt Kelly’s Pogo books and comics, A.A. Milne, E. Nesbitt, Margery Sharp, Crockett Johnson, comic books, and Mad Magazine. As a teenager, Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and Ray Bradbury’s short stories. Other writers I am inspired by are the poet Naomi Replansky, Amy Tan, Harper Lee, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Andrea Barrett, Sherman Alexie, and so many others. Working on Mighty Moby took me into the magnificent world of Herman Melville.


A: Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned about writing:


  • It’s hard to learn to swim if you don’t try it. Writing takes practice, too.
  • Writing is hard work, even something as short as a poem or a picture book, or even a five-word-long fortune cookie fortune!
  • You have to find your own unique writing voice, which you’ll find as you practice.
  • Through practicing, you’ll also figure out your best work style. Some people try to write a certain amount of words, pages, or minutes, every day. Other people write only when they are inspired to. Some write best when they have a deadline. It’s good to develop all of these abilities; you’ll be able to make use of all in your writing life.


Untitled 7METHODS

  • Try different methods of writing, till you find one that works for you. I scribble ideas and first drafts on scrap paper. Sometimes I use an old typewriter. Only later do I use the computer. For that, I use Scrivener software, as it was designed by a writer specifically for writers. It allows for easy revisions and changes in structure.
  • Some people like outlining and planning before they write. Others get an idea and just start writing and will see where that takes them. Experiment to see what works best for you.
  • Keep a notebook for ideas.
  • Take breaks. Doodle. Take a walk. Let your mind wander.
  •  Don’t be afraid to hang onto things you’ve written, but if they don’t work, don’t be afraid to throw them out (or save them in a separate “Cut Material” folder).
  • Read your work out loud to yourself. Listen to the words.
  • Find other people to read your work who can give honest feedback (ideally in a supportive manner). Help them out in return.
  • Revise. Revise again. At some point, it will be “done enough.” Remember, though, there is no absolutely “perfect” piece. Enjoy the process!
  • Sometimes, a problem spot can be resolved by removing it. Sometimes the problem is actually not where you think it is. It might be pages before or pages after!
  • Jump in!


  • Volunteer to write for your school newspaper or yearbook
  • Write letters to friends and relatives—try doing this longhand, as that allows more time for thinking.
  • Read a lot of different authors and topics and styles
  • Keep a journal or diary
  • Participate in writing workshops or programs
  • Take writing or journalism classes
  • Copy out samples of other writers’ works so you can experience their style more closely.  Think about what you like or don’t like about their style. Read them out loud. Try to imitate their style for practice. Gradually you’ll develop your own style.
  • Go hear authors speak (don’t worry, you don’t have to buy a book to attend).
  • Listen to author podcasts such as those on “Just One More Book
  • Read about writing
  • Buy a print dictionary and a thesaurus, and spend time using them. If you write poetry and songs, also get a rhyming dictionary.


  • Finish your piece. Be willing to take suggestions to revise and improve it. Don’t take feedback and criticism personally. It’s about the work, not about you.
  • Research appropriate places to which you can submit your work. Each publication has its own needs, process, and timeline.
  • Only submit your best work, work that you feel confident about. Make sure to carefully edit it.
  • Follow submission requirements exactly.
  • You have to be patient; the publishing process can be slow (unless you work in journalism).
  • Be professional and polite. Do not take rejection personally, and do not complain about it online.
  • Writing is an art and craft, and publishing is a business.
  • It’s true—keep your day job.
  • Be prepared to promote your own work (tastefully and tactfully).
  • If you have success, take your turn helping others who are just starting out.