A common question I’ve been asked by teens, teachers, and parents is what advice I have for young writers. I usually only have time at events for a quick response: “Read a lot. Write a lot.” While that’s the truth, there’s so much more.
To the young writers out there, some advice:
1. As a high school English teacher myself, I have to admit to you that, unfortunately, your English classes in high school did not prepare you to write fiction. Learn from the pros. Read Stephen King’s On Writing as a starting point. For editing advice, try Cheryl B. Klein’s Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. Also, authors often share free tips online about the craft of writing. Attend book events and talk to authors. Take classes in writing fiction. Watch great television, movies, and attend theatre. There are phenomenal scripts behind those works, with excellent storytelling, dialogue, and character building.
2. Read widely across genres to develop flexibility and range as a writer. Read the classics as a foundation to see where literature has been, but read contemporary works to see how we’ve grown.
3. Learn vocabulary. Words are your paint. Big, small, doesn’t matter. Variety is key. Learn how to play with the cadence of language, how sentence structure, length, and sound affect a story.
4. Learn grammar so you don’t make editors run from you. You can break grammar rules for stylistic reasons once you know the rules. You don’t need to be perfect, no one is perfect, but the more you know, the easier editing will be.
5. Enjoy writing. It doesn’t get better than this, even once you are published. Savor those moments of creative bliss when you fall into a rough draft and lose yourself to timelessness. Bask in the creative zone, a magical place where you get to reset the world and populate it with people and problems and solutions. You are a writer in this place, a magical keeper of secrets and lies and doors and keys. Practice developing characters, plots, style, and voice. Try writing fanfiction as practice since you won’t have to build original characters or setting along with plot. Wattpad and other places are fine if you want to post your work for an audience, but please don’t expect to be discovered that way. Publishers almost never want work that has been previously published online.
6. Learn to use Microsoft Word. It’s the industry standard for submissions. You might be using Google Docs, Pages, a notebook, or even your cell phone to write and/or dictate notes. Eventually, you will have to transfer all files into a Word doc, so might as well get used to it.
7. Learn how to do real research, not MLA academic research. Writers have to research the weirdest facts to make their stories work. Real research means researching online, talking to experts, and asking the right questions to solve a problem.
8. Experience life. Be curious and open-minded. Meet people unlike yourself. Listen. Develop your empathy for the human condition. This is the stuff dreams and books are made of.
9. Get to know yourself deeply because it will show on the page even if you are writing fiction. Try keeping a journal. Your most painful, embarrassing, joyous memories will help you connect with readers. Writing is about the transfer of emotional resonance regardless of plot. It’s about getting your audience to feel something. Tapping into those same emotions from your experiences will make the writing feel authentic.
10. Don’t rush. Think of yourself in training for the writing Olympics. You will need determination, patience, and resilience. Each story you write presents a new challenge and teaches you how to be a better writer. When I was in elementary school, I wrote poetry in journals. In eighth grade, I tried writing my first horror story, Bloody Revenge (I was on a Stephen King and Dean Koontz reading kick), and I quit writing after the third chapter. I had no idea how to make a novel work. My debut novel, CONSIDER, was the fifth manuscript I’ve written. Those earlier manuscripts developed a different set of writing techniques in me. Some stories also need more time to marinate than others. The best way to learn how to write is to write.
11. On that same note, they say it takes over 10,000 hours to master a craft. You have to be willing to put in the work. Can you commit to doing that on your own, with no one telling you to get it done? Self-motivation and commitment is key, even over talent.
12. Learn how to accept critique. Writing a rough draft is solitary work. Publishing is a team sport. Find yourself a trusted writing group for feedback. Think of all critique as a gift to make your writing better. If your final, polished draft gets picked up by a publisher, it will go through several more editing passes, including content editing and copy editing. You might be asked to delete a chapter, a character, fifty pages. You have to learn how to take feedback and apply it.
13. Keep your social media clean. Seriously. You should do this anyway for employability in any field. Being an author makes you a public figure and a role model if you are writing for children and teens.
14. Get used to talking in front of people. I know, I know, many writers are introverts by nature so this one’s tough. Figure out what will make you the most comfortable speaking to people. Here’s my secret: I always wear my glasses at book events even though I really only need them for reading.
15. Plan for your writing career, including a separate day job. Unless you have a financial support system (family or spouse willing to pay your bills) you need to plan to have a day job that provides the income and stability writing doesn’t provide. Traditionally published writers get paid once or twice a year and amounts are unpredictable and unreliable. Hard to budget. The average yearly income of writers is currently around 48K. Writers also do not receive workplace health insurance. Of course, you could be the writer that hits it big time, but chances are that will still take many years and/or may never happen. Write because you can’t see your life complete without having written.
16. If possible, get training in graphic design, website design, social media marketing, photography, and/or freelance taxes. All of these come in handy when becoming an author. If you don’t have these skills, you may have to pay others to do these tasks for you.
17. Learn how to multitask and stay organized. Once you become a published writer, you will be balancing multiple projects, editing one while writing the next, and keeping up with the business side of publishing, never mind if you also have a day job. Learn how to write professional emails. Get yourself a professional email account with your name. Gmail is fine.
18. Once you have a viable, polished draft, you will need to learn how to write a query and a five-page synopsis of your book, including spoilers. Join a professional writing group like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Meet other writers, editors, and agents in person. I always thought “networking” was this adulting thing where people got together in serious dating mode, talked terms and exchanged contact info. Networking is simply meeting people in the industry. That’s it. Don’t go into those moments thinking you are selling your work. Just be human.
19. Avoid scams. Many writing contests and vanity presses only want your money and will do nothing to help your career. Rule: You should never pay money to a publisher, they should be paying you. If you’d like to self-publish someday, please do it when you are older and ready. It can cost a lot of money without return. Publishing is a business completely separate from creative writing. If you aren’t good at sales and marketing, and you don’t have a lot of upfront money to spend, don’t self-publish. Also, don’t sign a book contract without an agent or a literary contract lawyer/consultant going over it first. DON’T DO IT. If you want a career in traditional publishing, you need a reputable literary agent to protect your interests. They will typically earn 15% of your sales, and they are worth every penny. A good literary agent can help with long-term career planning, they have access to publishing houses that are closed to queries from writers (usually the houses which offer higher advances), and they can sell sub rights for you, such as film rights. Unfortunately, I believe it’s harder to get an agent than an editor. You may have to get a sale or two under your belt before an agent will consider you.
20. Keep yourself healthy, mentally and physically. Develop coping skills for stress. Writing is rollercoaster of a career. Once your work is published, you have to learn to deal with harsh criticism. Not everyone will like you or your story. Some will hate it. Some will think it’s the worst thing they ever read. You will never survive in the business side of writing if you can’t block out critics.
Still with me? Good. I think you’re ready.