Fifty years ago, Viking Press published S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders, a mainstay in schools and a worthy novel on any young adult’s bookshelf. Part of the reason the book has stood the test of time, Hinton believes, is because readers still can relate to the emotions in the book.
In flipping through our archives, I found an interview with Hinton in the 2000 edition of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, written by Anne Bowling. The interview covers Hinton’s writing life, and her switch from writing young adult to focusing more on children’s picture books, like The Puppy Sister and Big David, Little David.
Below, I pulled nine writing tips from Hinton’s interview that you can apply to your writing life:
Be patient with your release:
[The Outsiders] wasn’t an overnight success. It got some attention because I was so young, but the success of it built over the years. It was definitely a word-of-mouth book.
On writing for an audience:
I wasn’t thinking about the audience, which I try never to do. You start feeling them looking over your shoulder, and you start thinking you’re going to make a mistake. I’ve never thought, “Oh, kids would like this, I’ll stick this in.” I especially don’t make that mistake when I’m writing for young adults.
I have to write a story the way I see it and take the consequences. You never can completely get the audience out of your mind once you’ve been published, and after The Outsiders, I found that very difficult to deal with. But since then, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Overcoming writer’s block:
Get the right boyfriend. I was in college and I was reading good writers, but at that time, I couldn’t write. I was seeing everything that was wrong with The Outsiders; I was feeling the pressure of, “What is she going to do next?” and, “She wrote this well when she was 15, and she’s going to have a masterpiece.” And I knew I didn’t have no masterpiece.
My boyfriend, who is now my husband, was saying “I don’t care if you never get published again, but you’ve got to start writing again. Enough of this gloom and doom stuff.” He said, “Write two pages a day. Nobody’s every dropped dead of two pages.” And he’d come over to take me out, and if I hadn’t done my two pages we wouldn’t go out. So that was a great motivation for writing. And I was so careful with That Was Then, This is Now—I was thinking, “I’m not going to make the mistakes I did in The Outsiders.” I did two pages, but they were hard. I didn’t put down a word that I didn’t want, and when I had a stack about the size of a book, I sent it off.
Think of all writing as practice:
The Outsiders was the third book I had written; it was just the first one I had tried to publish. The first two ended up in drawers somewhere—I used characters from them in later books, but I certainly didn’t go back and rework them. Everybody’s got to practice.
Find your reason for writing:
One reason I wrote [The Outsiders] was I wanted to read it. I couldn’t find anything that dealt realistically with teenage life. I’ve always been a good reader, but I wasn’t ready for adult books, they didn’t interest me, and I was through with all the horse books. If you wanted to read about your peer group, there was nothing to read except “Mary Jane Goes to the Prom” or “Billy Joe Hits a Home Run”—just a lot of stuff I didn’t see any relevance in.”
The key to success:
The only way you’re going to be a writer is to read all the time and then do it.
On thinking about specific writing elements:
Don’t think about what you’re doing, just keep your story going. Years later somebody’s going to write you a letter and tell you what you wrote about. So don’t worry about that part of it.
How to write believable characters:
With your characters, you have to know their astrological signs, you have to know what they eat for breakfast, and so on. That doesn’t have to come out in the book, you just have to know it anyway in defining your character. But on the other hand, no matter how well you think you’re imagining somebody, or even basing it on somebody you know, the writer is still the filter that the character goes through, so the character is still some aspect of yourself.
On writing for the young adult market:
I think the most common trap is the idea that the writer is going to take a problem and write about it: You’re going to take divorce, date rape, or drugs, and write about it, instead of thinking you’re going to take Travis, and write about him, or Rusty James, and write his story.
I think the problems are identical to the characters. One reason The Outsiders is still selling as well as it ever has, including the year the movie came out, is the kids identify with those emotions. The names of the group change, the uniforms change, but the emotions remain the same. If you’ve got ten kids in a school, they’re going to divide up into the “in” group and the “out” group.
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