17 Jan 2014



1) You need to develop a self-critical eye.

If you're looking for tips you could do worse than read John Scalzi's post on the topic: 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing. His advice is good. Many people take objection to the "Your writing sucks" aspect of it. What I find enlightening is reading through the comments and seeing all the posts by teenage writers who claim their writing doesn't suck. And yes, in the case of teenage writers, there are always those whose writing is surprisingly good. The youngest person I know to sell a book was nineteen at the time. But the people who are posting and saying that their writing doesn't suck are probably the ones whose writing doessuck. That's because it takes a long time to develop a self-critical eye and see where your writing is going wrong and what about it needs improving. Among the writers I know, many very successful and award-winning, they all think their writing sucks about half the time. The writers I know who think their writing is unimpeachably wonderful mostly do suck, and that goes for adults as well as teens. What you need to do is develop a sense of what you're doing, what needs fixing, how you're writing is flowing, all that stuff. And developing that sense takes time. I often suggest critique groups or classes at this juncture because having someone else critique your writing will get you started on being able to critique it yourself.

2) Quit worrying about being published RIGHT NOW.

Jeez, guys, what's the rush? The number of people who get published in their teens is vanishingly small. And as Justine Larbalestier points out in her wise articleToo Young To Publish, when they do get published, it is not always a good thing. Being published before you're thirty is considered young to be published; when you're published as a teen, it's newsworthy because you are so young, but you're also treated like a dog who paints. It doesn't really matter if the paintings are good, it's just exciting that the dog can do it in the first place. That's not always such a great feeling. Anyway, telling yourself that you need to be PUBLISHED RIGHT NOW is putting an awful lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself. Being published is not the ultimate measure of the worth of what you do. What you should be concentrating on now is working on your writing, polishing it, and making it better. Show it to people (not your parents) who can critique it for you — an online writing workshop like critters.org can be helpful. Or take writing classes — if your school doesn't offer them, a local university probably does. I took writing classes at UCLA when I was in high school, frinstance. Objective, professional adult readers can tell you how ready you are for publication.

3) Read a lot.

If you don't like reading, and you don't read, you probably won't ever be a good writer. That's about as close as I get to making incendiary and definite statements about writing, but I think it's true (and was first said to me by a writing professor in college, who said she couldn't figure out why people who don't like to read want to write — would you really want to be a singer if you didn't like music? — and said that in all the years she'd taught she'd never come across anyone who didn't read who was any good at writing.) Reading will help you develop your own voice, and the more widely you read, the sooner you'll develop an individual voice that doesn't sound just like whatever your favorite book or writer sounds like. Reading can teach you what writing is supposed to sound like, and also what it's not supposed to sound like. For instance, the other day a teen writer sent me a story that began something like this:

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAURGGHGHGHGGH," he screamed. It was dark. Dark! Everything was dark!!!!!!!! 

Have you ever read a book which featured quite so many exclamation points after an observation like "Everything was dark?" Probably not, right? If no one in the history of the published word has pulled this sort of thing off there's probably a reason.

4) You're going to write just like your favorite writers do, and that's okay. For now.

When I was a teenager, everything I wrote sounded like whatever book I liked at the time. After I read The Mists of Avalon I wrote an Arthurian book and after I read the Anne Rice books I wrote about vampires and after I read Ender's Game I wrote science fiction and it was all very derivative and silly. But it was still good practice. All writing is good practice and individual voice develops over time. I can't count the amount of letters I get from teens saying they're writing a book about a girl in love with a vampire. Aha. So you love Twilight, and that's great. It's wonderful when you love a book so much. But it can also be helpful to look under the surface of what it is that you love about a book. Is it vampires you like so much, or the idea of eternal, immutable yet impossible love? — i.e.: maybe it's the dynamic of the book that truly moves you, and there are all sorts of ways to ring changes on that dynamic, and make it your own. Often that comes over time — influences never really fade, but by the time you're an adult writer, you'll probably be a varied amalgam of all your influences, and mixing them together is a great way to come up with something entirely new. Go ahead and be influenced, just be aware of how and why.

5) Don't worry about being perfect.

Yeah, I know I just said you need to be self-critical and you should be. But you should also be having fun with your writing. All that crappy writing I was doing when I was a teenager, I was having a hell of a good time. I wrote a 1,000 page romantic epic called The Beautiful Cassandra based on the story Jane Austen wrote about her sister when she was twelve. (You can read it here. The Jane Austen story I mean, not my novel. ) It was terrible, but boy did I have fun writing it (and my friends had fun reading it.) One of the great joys of being so young and writing for fun is the lack of pressure and freedom to write whatever you want. So don't endlessly beat yourself up about getting everything right — enjoy what you're doing, accept that writing for practice alone isn't writing wasted, and neither is writing for fun alone. Enjoy yourself. Oh, and just as a tiny side note, when you're writing to authors and asking for advice, don't write to ten authors at once and tell them all they're you're favorite author. We do compare notes, and we're on to your shell game. *beady eye* This means you.

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