I’ve been doing quite a few school visits in the last couple months, and one question that almost always comes up is, What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? And I’ve realized I have a lot of opinions on that subject. 🙂 So I thought I’d share my best advice for the teen (and older!) beginning writers out there, for those of you I’m not able to meet in person.
1) Focus on the writing first. The idea of getting published and having your book reach readers beyond your circle of friends is incredibly exciting. I get it, I do. But the most important factor in getting a book published is having a damn good book.
Most of us don’t start out writing great books. Like any other skill, writing well takes practice. I know very few authors who published the first book they wrote (and then, only after lots of revising, to the point that it’s almost as if they had written multiple books). Most don’t reach that publishable level until their second, or third, or (in my case) tenth attempt. And that’s okay. Each story you write is a chance to learn your strengths (to play to) and your weaknesses (to work on); a chance to get a deeper understanding of what stories matter most to you and thus what stories you are most uniquely qualified to tell, that will get readers excited too. It’s time to experiment and play around with formats and styles. To prove to yourself that you can finish a whole book at all, which is an accomplishment in itself.
So let yourself have that time. When you’re starting out, focus as much as possible on writing things you love, things you’re excited about, and try to shut out the inner voice that wants to speculate about whether an idea is high concept enough or how it’ll compete in the marketplace. There’ll be tons of time for that later, believe me. Write the story that’s calling to you the most as well as you can write it, and once you have that, then consider what you’re going to do with it now.
2) Learn to let go. One of the most important skills you need to pick up as an author is the ability to let go of things you love: characters, scenes, plot points, turns of phrase… Just as your first book is unlikely to be a great book because of lack of practice, the first time you write any given book is unlikely to be the best version of that book. You will have made missteps. There will be elements — often major ones — you need to take out or add or vastly change to make the story stronger. And again, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good enough writer. Everyone has to do this. I had to replace an entire subplot and take out more than one minor character in Give Up the Ghost, just as an example.
It takes a far better writer to look at something you love dearly, and pick apart what’s not working and put it back together better, than to refuse to budge from your original vision no matter how it’s come out on the page.
3) Open yourself to feedback. It’s hard for you on your own to look at your writing objectively and see it as a reader who knows nothing about the story other than what’s on the page. So find like-minded people, avid readers and/or fellow writers, in “real life” and/or online, and trade stories. Encourage them to give you their honest impressions, and give them yours.
Not everything other people say is going to be right for your story. And usually when you hear any criticism, your natural response will be to defend what you did. Try to hold that in, and let the feedback sit. Consider it. Consider what other people have said. Consider what’s important to you about this book. And if you’re willing to let go where you need to, you’ll start to see what criticism you need to take — and which people provide you with that criticism most often, for you to go back to. 🙂
4) Expose yourself to other worlds. By which I mean, read lots, of lots of different sorts of things. Read lots of the sort of stories you like to write, so you know what’s already been done, and how it’s been done, and how to do it well… or not so well. Read lots of other types of stories too, so you can learn techniques and find inspirations beyond what’s “standard” in your chosen genre. Think about what you read, what you liked about it, what you didn’t, what you’ve seen that you’d like to be able to do in your own work. There are lots of great writing craft books out there that can be very helpful, but personally, I learned most of what I know about writing fiction from reading fiction.
And I continue to follow this advice myself. Even though I write YA, I try to read at least 50% not-YA (so, adult or middle grade; right now I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). Even though I write speculative fiction, I make sure to read mainstream and other genre fiction as well. As a rule, there is no genre I won’t read — a good story is a good story. And I think my own stories are better for it.
5) Experiment, but trust yourself. Every time I talk about creativity, I emphasize that it’s a strange and mysterious process, and it works a little differently for everyone. An approach that may help one author write amazing stories may leave you stuck three chapters in — and vice versa. When you hear a suggestion that might improve your productivity or craft, by all means, give it a shot! But if it feels wrong, if it’s making the writing harder instead of easier… it doesn’t matter how many famous authors did it. That way doesn’t work for you. Don’t feel guilty about it, or try to force it. I did that in the past, and it always just made me feel worse — and made the writing stop flowing.
What’s important isn’t following any set path, but finding the ways that let you write the best that you can. If you’re finishing stories, and feeling happy with your progress, you’re doing things right, regardless of how anyone else does it.
6) Beware those who would take advantage of your yearning. Once you get to the point of looking into publication, it’s easy, when you want so badly to see your work out there in the world, to ignore red flags and accept offers that really aren’t good for your writing or you. The most basic rule is, the money always flows to the writer. Do not pay an agent to represent your book (reputable agents make their money when you do — they get a percentage of your sales). Do not pay a publisher to publish your book. Anyone who encourages you to pay them for one or the other is almost 100% guaranteed to be a scam artist of some sort who makes all their money by fleecing eager authors like you, not through actually selling books to readers.
If you get an offer that sounds too good to be true, or that you’re simply unsure about, be thankful we live in the internet age! Google the name of the person or company. Google it along with the word “scam”. See what people are saying. (If they’re saying nothing, that’s a bad sign too. How is someone going to get your book out there if no one even knows they exist?) Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is your writing, your story. You have every right to be careful who you give control over it to.
So says me… Anyone else have beginning author advice they’d like to share?