17 Apr 2014


Many have asked, and so I will answer. 

First of all: I suspect some of you really mean to ask me for advice to writers generally, because a young writer is not some strange species of writer that can't benefit from general writing advice, and fortunately I keep a blog full of my thoughts for writers generally, with a small database of posts about various topics. I will copy that database at the end of this post so you can poke around my blog if you feel like it.

And if you want advice about how to get published, you'll have to frequently ask that question separately, my dears. (That is sort of a joke. You only have to ask once.)

Young writers! Guess what? I am one of you. Despite no longer being an adolescent, I am still 24, which is on the way low end of the writer age spectrum. I am not a source of great wisdom, because great wisdom develops over time, and quite frankly, I haven't had a whole lot of that. But I'll do my best.

When I was a teenager, I was in gifted/extended/whatever you want to call it English classes, which meant two things: 1. I had gotten external affirmation of my writing skills, so I was kind of arrogant, and 2. I was very defensive and insecure, because pretty much everyone in my classes was smarter than I was. (No, seriously.)

Maybe you are not like that, my young writer friends, but I know that at least some of you are, because I just do. It's okay, don't worry, I feel the utmost sympathy for your position! And I still like you. And in fact, it's my intimate knowledge of your position (well, our mutual position) that leads me to give you the following advice:

Cultivate humility, patience, and courage.

Oh look, three words. Let us see if they can form a list!

1. Cultivate Humility

Humility is a word that people are not sure how to define, I think, because for some it reminds them of the word "humiliation." When I say the word "humility," I am not talking about beating yourself up or convincing yourself that you suck. For our purposes, I am defining humility as "seeing yourself the way you truly are." 

What I mean is: you are young. You have not had a lot of time to develop your skills. You may be advanced for your age, but that doesn't mean that your writing is well developed. I can say this because MY writing is not usually well developed! It's okay. It is okay to say that you are simultaneously talented and in need of help, because that's the truth of where you are, and it's the truth of where you always will be. You will never, ever get to a place where you don't need help or work or development as a writer, no matter how old you are.

So when your English teacher writes critiques all over your creative writing assignment or papers, don't spend your time after class bashing him or her and defending yourself against those critiques. Instead, hold these two ideas in tension in your mind: your work is not worthless. Your work could use improvement.

Become like a sponge that absorbs every piece of advice or teaching or criticism or praise that it can possibly hold. Realizing that you have a lot to learn is cultivating humility. The actual act of learning cultivates humility. When you hand your writing over to a friend or teacher to get their feedback, and you do it with the attitude of "here is my work. I love it, but I need your help to make it better," you are cultivating humility. And when you are proud of yourself for writing something you think is good, or happy when you get an A on an assignment, that is not NOT cultivating humility. It is embracing the truth of where you are, which is that you and your writing have succeeded in some way. 

2. Cultivate patience

Sometimes young people are in a big hurry to do everything. You think, "If I don't get a book published at 17, I'm a failure!" Even if you know that's irrational, you might still feel it, and my advice to you is to ignore that feeling of urgency as much as possible. Basically, apply the brakes and give yourself some time. 

I was always pretty good at patience, mostly because I was terrified of showing my writing to anyone. But I sometimes get messages from young writers saying "help! I can't finish a manuscript, what do I do?" or "how do you stay interested in a manuscript long enough to finish?"-- very perplexed people wondering what's wrong with them, that they can't stick it out until the end.

There is nothing wrong with you! I just went back and counted, and I have 48 unfinished manuscripts in my writing folder. 90% of them are from before I reached age 18. Some of them are two pages long and some are 150 pages long. Yes, that's right, it took me AT LEAST 48 tries to stick with an idea long enough to finish it, and I didn't worry about it, because I wasn't in a hurry. 

Cultivating patience doesn't just mean that you're patient while you wait for query responses or critique partner feedback or what have you. It means that you are patient with yourself, and with your plan for your life. There are so many paths to take, and so many definitions of success, and so many second, third, fourth chances to get it right. Don't pressure yourself or badger yourself or other people to make things happen now now NOW. Go at a pace that feels comfortable, and that makes you love the process of writing-- because if you hurry so much to get to the finish line, you may not enjoy getting there, and that's where the writing IS.

In writing and publishing, you cannot usually control how fast things happen, or if they happen. What you can do is fall in love with writing, and that way, if the success doesn't come when you want it to, you still have something truly valuable, which is the time spent doing something you love.

3. Cultivate courage

The thing is, if you spend all your time trying to be humble and patient, you may never take any risks. And there must always be risks. All these things I'm telling you are like juggling balls-- it's a constant fight to keep them all in the air without dropping one. So seriously, don't drop courage. Courage will urge you to send your writing to people you trust to get their feedback. It will motivate you to send your writing in to contests. It will tell you to apply for tough schools or programs. It will make it possible for you to accept people's critique and still keep writing. It will help you to brave the bad critiques, the disparaging remarks, the raised eyebrows, and the internal doubts that tell you that you are not good enough and it's not even worth trying.

It is always worth trying-- and it's always worth failing! Courage will arm you against failure in a way that nothing else can. It is the little stirring inside you that says, "that person who hated my writing or told me it would never happen for me, or that bad grade, or that little voice in my head that thinks I suck, can all kiss my butt, because today I am going to try again." You need courage to face what's ahead of you, young writer, because it won't be easy. But if you love to write, and you love books, you can do it. So be brave and take risks.

So that's my advice for young writers. I can guarantee that even if you agree with it and want to take it, you won't follow it all the time. What I'm saying isn't, "Do this perfectly!" it's, "hey, here are some things that are worth trying to do." I hope it helps! Young writers, I salute you.