Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Advice for Young Writers: Above All, Do the Work

I think I've gotten asked about what advice I would give to young writers a few times recently, so, here goes.

My advice to young writers is manifold. The first is: learn to love criticism.

When I was a young(er) writer, I never wanted anyone to read my writing because I was afraid they would tell me that it sucked. So I hid all my stories away until college, when I took my first writing class, and no longer had the option of hiding anymore. So I lovingly crafted my first short story, revised it a million times, and then submitted it for workshop, thinking, "I'm pretty good. Maybe they'll like it."

And I. Got. Smashed. To. Bits.

Ouch.

But this story has a good ending, or I wouldn't be telling you. I went through the obligatory period of mourning, involving some anger and some tears. And then, several days later, I finally sat down with my story and something interesting happened. I found that I was able to look at it honestly. To see what some of my classmates had seen in it.

Soberly I set about revising it, toning down its ridiculousness, refining its rough edges, and reworking some of its themes. And the story, while still not very good, got better.

I've always been awed by people who do extreme sports (you know: skateboarding, BMX, etc.) because they continually get injured (and not just injured, but REALLY freaking injured) and then, weeks or months later when they finally heal, they're right back on that giant ramp on that little board with wheels, itching to try again. Is it masochism? Or is it something else?

But the thing is, if you want to be a good writer, you have to be a little like people who do extreme sports. For me, critique always hurts. But I keep throwing myself back into it because I love to write-- and not just to write, but to see my writing improve over time. There was nothing more rewarding than taking another class with my first writing professor, about a year after The Story We Do Not Speak Of, and hearing her tell me how much I surprised her with the progress I had made.

So my advice? Let people read your work. Not just ANY people, mind you, but people you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback. And when you get that feedback, don't be so stubborn that you can't listen to it. You're young and you don't know everything; I know that because I'm young too. But that's okay, because you have time to learn.

One of the quotes I see most often from writers is this one: "Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Samuel Beckett) I'm not REALLY into inspirational writer quotes, but I take that "fail better" to heart. I find it extremely useful to think about my writing that way. Because I still get criticized. (The only difference is, now a lot of it is/will continue to be public!)

I just tell myself to fail better next time.

The second piece of advice is: be persistent. I will say this: if you're only writing because you like the idea of being published, or something like that, you probably won't be able to make it through all the criticism you're going to get before you reach the "published" point. If you write because you love stories and you love words, you will continue to write no matter how hard people hit you with critique. And you should. Write your adolescent fingers off. Write so much your family thinks you're turning into a recluse. (Mine did!)

And last: be patient. It's hard, because everything in life feels like it's hurtling along so fast when you're a teenager that you get used to it, and you want everything to work that way. But if you declare your book finished too soon, and send queries too soon, you will get frustrated too soon. Take the time to learn, not just about writing, but about the publishing world and how it works.

Really, it all boils down to this: do the work. Writing is fun, but it's also work, and improvement and success don't just fall into your lap. That's true of any profession.

(But ours is the best one.)

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