Dear Teenage Writers:
I’m going to talk to you about writing as straight as I can; there’s a possibility that some of what I say to you might come off as abrupt and condescending. I apologize in advance for that, but you should know that I sometimes come off as abrupt and condescending toward everyone, i.e., it’s not just you. Also, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t go out of my way to use current slang and such; there’s very little more pathetic than a 36-year-old man dropping slang to prove he’s hip to the kids. I own a minivan and the complete works of Journey; honestly, from the point of view of being cool, I might as well be dead. You might find what I have to say useful anyway. Here we go.
1. The Bad News: Right Now, Your Writing Sucks.
It’s nothing personal. When I was a teenager, my writing sucked, too. If you don’t believe me, check these out: A short story I wrote in high school, and (God help us all) the lyrics to a prog-rock concept album I wrote in my first year of college. Yeah, they suck pretty bad. But at the time, I thought they were pretty good. More to the point, at the time they were also the best I could do. No doubt you are also pounding out stories and songs to the best of your ability… and chances are pretty good that your best, objectively speaking, isn’t all that good.
There are reasons for this.
a) You’re really young. Being young is good for many things, like being flexible, staying up for days with no ill effects, not having saggy bits, and having hair. For writing deathless, original prose, not so much. Most teenagers lack the experiential vocabulary and grammar for writing well; you lack a certain amount of perspective and wisdom, which is gained through time. In short: You haven’t yet developed your true writing voice.
Now, if you’re really good, you can fake perspective and wisdom, and with it a voice, which is almost as good as having the real thing. But usually, sooner or later, it’ll catch up to you and your lack of experience will show in your writing. This will particularly be the case when you have a compelling, emotional story, which would require the sort of control and delivery of your writing that you only get through time. You may simply not have the wherewithal to express your very important story well. Yes, having a great story you’re not equipped to tell pretty much bites. Normally, this is when teens look for help from the writers they admire, which brings us to the next reason your writing sucks:
b) You’re besotted by your influences. If you look at those two pieces I linked you to earlier, they rather heavily bear the mark of people like whom I wanted to write — humorist James Thurber in the case of the short story, and Pink Floyd lyricist Roger Waters in the case of the would-be concept album. If I were to subject you to other writing of mine from the time (and I won’t), you’d see the rather heavy influence of other favorite authors and lyricists, including Robert Heinlein, Dorothy Parker, HL Mencken, P.J. O’Rourke, Bono, Martin Gore and Robert Smith. Why? Because I thought these people wrote really, really well, and I wanted to write like them.
You are not likely to have my influences, but you almost certainly have influences of some sort, who you love and to whom you look as models and teachers. But since you’re young and haven’t gotten your own voice worked out, you’re likely to get swamped by your influences. My concept album lyrics aren’t just bad because they’re the work of an immature writer, but also because it’s clear to anyone who cares to look that I was listening to whole hell of a lot of Pink Floyd when I was writing them. Extracting Roger Waters out of those lyrics would require radical surgery. The patient would not likely survive. That’s bad.
c) When you’re young, it’s easier to be clever than to be good. Now, when you’re older, it’s easier to be clever than to be good too, and you’ll see a lot of writers doing just that, even the good ones. This is because “clever” gets laughs and attention and possibly sex (or at least flirting) with that hot little thing over there who thinks you’re so damn amusing. And none of that ever gets old. So this is not just a teenage problem. Where teenage writers are at a disadvantage is that you’re not always aware when you’re genuinely being good, or merely being clever. It’s that whole lack of experience thing. Yes, the lack of experience thing crops up a whole lot. What are you going to do.
There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution. Even older writers find this a tough nut to crack, and you’ll find it even more so.
(Update, 6/18/07: I’ve noticed that in the comment thread, quite a few folks seem to stop reading right about here in order to post messages complaining about how I said that teen writing sucks. If you’re about to be one of them, let me suggest two things. One, read the rest of the article first, particularly the next point. Two, read this, which covers most of the major complaints people have had about this assertion. If these do not address your particular complaints, then by all means leave a comment. Otherwise, don’t, because my response will be to refer you to one or the other. Thanks. Now, back to our regularly scheduled entry.)
So those are some of the reasons your writing sucks right now. There may be others. But, now having told you that your writing sucks and why, you’re ready to hear the next point:
2. The Good News: It’s Okay That Your Writing Sucks Right Now.
Because, look. Everyone’s writing sucked when they were teenagers. Why? Simple: Because they were just starting out. Just like you are now.
Writing is tricky thing, because everyone assumes that the act of writing to move and amuse people with words is somehow only slightly more difficult than the act of writing to place words into vaguely coherent sentences. This is like saying that playing professional baseball is only slightly more difficult than hitting a beach ball with a stick. Most everyone can hit a beach ball with a stick, but very few people would think that means they’re ready to play in the World Series. Given that, it’s funny that people think that they’re going to be really excellent writers from the first time they try to tell a story with the written word.
Excepting the freaks of nature, which very few of us are, anything we decide to do takes us time to get good at. It’s just that simple. The figure I hear a lot — and which I agree with, mostly — is that it takes about a decade for people to get truly good at and creative with their craft. The prime example of this is the Beatles; at 17 John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beginning their musical collaboration together, and ten years later they were writing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The “ten years” thing is a guideline, not a rule — some people hit their stride earlier, some later, but the point is that there was work involved. This is even true of the people you’ve never heard of before — scratch most “overnight sensations” in whatever field and you’ll find they did their time outside the spotlight.
Understandably, no one wants to hear that you’ve got to wait the better part of a decade to hit your stride — who doesn’t want to be brilliant now? — but I think that’s looking at it the wrong way. Knowing you’ve got years to grow and learn means you’ve got the time to take risks and explore and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s permission to play with your muse, not stress out if every single thing you bang out is not flat dead brilliant. It’s time to gain the life experience that will feed your writing. It’s time you need to write — and time you need to not write and to give your brain a break. It’s the time you need to learn from your literary influences, and then to tell them to piss off because you’ve got your own voice and it’s not theirs. And it’s the time you need to screw up, make mistakes, learn from them and move on.
The fact that your writing sucks now only means that your writing sucks right now. If you keep working on it it’ll very likely get better… and then comes the day that you write something that really doesn’t suck. You’ll know it when it happens and then you’ll get why all that time banging out stuff that sucked was worth it: because it’s made you a writer who doesn’t suck anymore.
So don’t worry that your writing sucks right now. “Suck” is a correctible phenomenon.
3. You Need to Write Every Day.
I’m sure you’ve got this wired, and I’ll note that for teenagers today, it’s easier to write every day, because there’s an entire social structure revolving around writing that didn’t used to exist: Blogs and blog-like things like MySpace, or whatever thing has replaced MySpace by the time you read this. Writing isn’t the isolating experience it (mostly) was before.
Now, be aware that writing in your blog or journal isn’t the same as writing stories or songs or whatever your writing aspirations might be. Blogging very often takes the form of what writers call “cat vacuuming,” which is to say it’s an activity you do to avoid actual writing. You want to avoid doing too much of that (yes, there’s some irony in me writing this in a blog entry — particularly a blog entry being written when I could be writing part of a book I have due to a publisher).
“Cat vacuuming” though writing in a blog may be, any sort of daily writing will help build the mental muscle memory of sitting down to put your thoughts into words, and that’s not a bad thing. So write something today. Now is good.
4. I’m Not Going to Tell You to Get Good Grades, But, You Know, Try To Pay Attention.
High school is often asinine and lame — I’m not telling you anything you don’t know here — but on the other hand it’s a place where you’re actually encouraged to do two things that are a writer’s bread and butter: to observe and to comment. Provided your teachers are not entirely defeated drones who have bought into the idea that their sole purpose is to detain you in soul-numbing classes so you and your fellow students won’t set fire to the school with them in it, they will actually be pleased if you ask a few pointed questions now and then, and as a result, you might learn something, which is always a nice bonus for your day. School is a resource; use it.
(Also, for the love of all that is holy, please please please pay attention in your English composition class. You should know English language grammar for roughly the same reason you should know road rules before you go driving: It avoids nasty pile-ups later.)
Being writers, I don’t need to tell you that observing your fellow students is also hours and hours of fun, but don’t just look for the purposes of wry mockery. Any jerk can do that. Work on your empathy — try to understand why people are the way they are. This will achieve two things. One, it’s a good exercise for you to help you one day create characters in your writing who are not merely slightly warped versions of you. Two, it’ll make you realize there’s more to life than wry mockery.
5. Read Everything You Can Get Your Hands On — Even the Crap That Bores You.
And here’s why the crap that bores you is worth reading: Because someone sold it, which means the writer did something right. Your job is to figure out what it was and what that means for your own writing. It should also give you hope: If this bad writer can sell a book or magazine article, then you should have no problem, right? Excellent.
This suggestion is actually more difficult to follow than you might think. People like to read what they like, and don’t like to read what they don’t like. That’s fine if all you want to be is a reader, but if you want to be a writer, you don’t have the luxury of just sticking to the stuff that merely entertains you. Writing that’s not working for you is still working for someone; take a look and see if you can find out why. Alternately, pinpoint why it doesn’t work. Fact is, you can learn as much from writers you don’t like as you can from writers you do — and possibly more, because you’re not cutting them slack, like you would your favorite writers.
A corollary to this is: Read writers who are new to you. Don’t just stick to the few writers you know you like. Take a few chances. You don’t have to spend money to do this: Most towns have this wonderful thing called a library. We’re talking free reading here, and the publishing industry won’t crack down on you for it. Heck, we like it when you visit the library.
6. You Should Do Something Else With Your Life Than Just Write.
There are practical and philosophical reasons for this. The practical reason: Dude, writers make almost nothing most of the time. Chances are, you’re going to have a day job to support your writing habit, at least at first. So you want to be able to get a day job that doesn’t involve asking people if they want fries with that. Just something to keep in mind.
The philosophical reason: the writer who only writes isn’t actually experiencing much of life; his or her writing is going to feel inauthentic because it won’t reflect reality. You want to get actual life experience outside of being a writer, otherwise your first novel will be like every other first novel out there, which revolves around a young writer trying to figure out his life, and then sitting down to write about it. People who write books where the main character is a young, questioning writer should be shot out of a cannon into a pit filled with leeches. Don’t make us do that to you.
“Doing something else with your life,” incidentally, also includes your college major. There are people who would advise you to be English majors and then go after an MFA, but I’m not one of them (I’m a philosophy major myself — useless but interesting). The more things you know about, the more you’re able to incorporate your wide range of knowledge into your work, which means you’ll be at a competitive advantage to other writers (this will matter). You might worry that all those English majors and MFAs are learning something you really need to know, but you know what? As long as you’re writing (and reading) regularly and seriously, you’ll be fine. Writing is a practical skill as much as or even more than it is an area of study.
Now, I’m sure many of those English majors and MFAs might disagree with me, but I’ve got ten books and fifteen years of being a professional writer backing me up, so I feel pretty comfortable with my position on this.
7. Try to Learn a Little About the Publishing Industry.
If you’re going to be a writer for a living (or, if not for a living, at least to make a little money here or there), you’re going to have to sell your work, and if you’re going to sell your work, you should learn a little how the business of writing works. The more you know how the publishing industry works, the more you’ll realize how and why particular books sell and others don’t, and also what you need to do to sell your work to the right people.
This is not to say that at this point you should let this information guide you in what you write — at this point you should write what interests you, not what you think is going to make you money one day, if for no other reason that the publishing industry, like any industry, has its fads and trends. What’s going on now isn’t going to be what’s going on when you’re ready to publish. But there’s nothing wrong about knowing a little bit about the business fundamentals of the industry, if you can stomach them.
If you think you’re going to write in a specific genre (science fiction or mystery or whatever) why not learn a little about that field, too? A good place to start is by checking out author blogs, because authors are always blathering on about crap like that. Trust me. Also (quite obviously), authors are prone to offer unsolicited advice to new writers on their sites, because it makes us feel all mature and established to bloviate on the subject. And sometimes our advice is even useful.
There’s no reason to be obsessive about acquiring knowledge of the industry at this early age, but it doesn’t hurt to know; it’ll be one less thing you have to ramp up on when you’re ready to start putting stuff out there. Which reminds me:
8. Be Ready For Rejection.
It’s very likely the the first few years that you submit material to publishers and editors, or query them for articles, your work and queries are going to come back to you unbought. Why? Because that’s just how it is. I’ll give you an example: Recently I edited a science fiction magazine. For the issue of the magazine I edited, I had between 400 and 500 submissions. From those, there were about 40 I thought were good enough to buy. And of those, I bought 18. That’s a 95.5% rejection rate, and an over 50% rejection rate of stuff I wanted to buy, but couldn’t because I didn’t have the space (or the money, because I had a budget, too). Now, as it happens, for this magazine I also managed to give first sales to four writers because I wanted to make a point of finding new writers — but I imagine if you asked them how long they’d been submitting work before that sale, you’d find most of them had been doing it for a while.
There are things to know about rejection, the first of which is that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. The second is that there are any number of reasons why something gets rejected, not all of them having to do with the piece being bad — remember that I rejected a bunch of pieces I wanted to buy but couldn’t. The third is that just because a piece was rejected one place doesn’t mean it won’t get accepted somewhere else. I know that at least a couple of pieces that I rejected have since been bought at other places.
Rejection sucks, and there’s no way to get around that fact. But if you’re smart, when you start submitting you’ll consider pieces that are rejected simply as ready to go on to the next place. Keep writing and submitting.
(Which brings up the question: If you have pieces now that you want to submit, should you? Well, I’m sure submissions editors everywhere will hate me for saying this, but, sure, why not? If nothing else it’ll get you used to the rejection process, and there’s always a chance that if it is good, someone might buy it. But, on behalf of the submissions editors, I implore you not to submit unless you really think the work in question is the best you can do.)
9. Start Getting Published Now — Yes, That Means the School Newspaper.
I know, I know. But, look, you’re going to have to deal with editors sooner or later. And you know how many editors in the real world were editors of their school newspapers? A whole lot of them. Lots of writers were, too (I was editor-in-chief of both my high school and college newspaper, so that makes me a two-time loser). Basically, as a writer you’ll never be rid of these guys, so you might as well learn how they work. But also, and to be blunt, school newspapers may be piddly, but they give you clips — examples of your writing you can show to others. You can take those clips to your tiny local newspaper and maybe get a few small writing assignments there — and then you’re professionally published. And then you can take those and use them to get more serious gigs over time, and just keep trading up.
You can also also use those high school clips to help you get on your college paper, and when you’re in college, working at the college newspaper can be very useful. I used my college newspaper clips to freelance with the local indie papers in town and also with one of the major metropolitan newspapers… and those clips help me get my first job out of college, as a movie critic at a pretty large newspaper. And all of that started doing little articles for my high school newspaper, the Blue & Gold.
What does this teach us? First, that it can be worth it to deal with the high school newspaper editor, even if he or she is an insufferable dweeb, and second, that all the writing you do can matter, and help you to continue on your writing career.
10. Work on Your Zen.
Being a writer isn’t easy; it’s a lot of mental effort for often not a lot of financial reward. It takes a lot of time to get good at it — and even when you are good at it, you’ll find there’s still more you have to learn, and things you have to deal with, in order to keep going in the field. It takes a measure of patience and serenity to keep from completely losing it much of the time, and, alas, “patience” and “serenity” are two things teenagers are not known to have in great quantities (to be fair, adults aren’t much better with this). Despite that, you’ll find as a writer that there is a great advantage in keeping your head, being smart and being practical, even when everyone around you is entirely losing their minds. It helps you see things others don’t, which is an advantage in your writing, and also in the workaday aspect of being a writer.
So: Relax. Spend your time learning, observing, writing, and preparing. Don’t worry about writing the Great American Novel by age 25; don’t worry about being the Greatest Writer Ever; don’t worry about winning the Pulitzer. Focus on your writing and getting better at it. As they say, luck favors the prepared. When the moment comes, if your skills are there, you’ll be ready to take advantage of it and to become the writer you’ve been hoping you would be. Your job now is to get yourself ready for the moment.
You’ve got the time to do it. Take it.
Update: Hey, teens — before you rattle off what are some of the now standard complaints about the entry above, why not check out the follow up entry, which has me addressing some of those complaints. It’ll save you time in writing out your complaint, and save me time having to point you at the piece later. Thanks!
Update 2: A number of you have taken to asking me to read your work, or sending it unsolicited for me to read. I can’t do that, sorry. Here’s a longer explanation why.