Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Advice to Young Writers

I was one of those kids who always knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. Sure, I toyed with the idea of fantasy jobs (rock star, astronaut) and half-heartedly admitted to myself that I would need a day job, but I was always hell-bent on writing, ever since I was six years old. A lot of writers have trouble "coming out of the closet," admitting that they're writers to friends, family, and acquaintances. I was never one of those. I made sure everyone knew my writerly inclinations. Being so verbose about it made me open to a lot of criticism and strange behaviour, though.

I've been thinking about it a lot, and I decided to post my advice for young writers here for the world to see. I'll start with a statement of the advice, and back it up with my personal experience. If you aren't a young writer yourself, pass it on to one you know. I hope it helps somebody out there.

1) Write -- a lot.

It sounds really, really obvious, but strangely enough, it's something people have trouble with. When I was young, my family went to my dad's company Christmas party every year. When I was probably about eight, one of my dad's bosses got a little tipsy and took a great interest in conversing with the little kids. He wasn't really listening to anything they said, though, until he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a writer. He flipped. Got so excited he sprang up out of his seat.

"That's great! Do you write?" he asked me. "Because you have to write to be a writer."

I said yes, I did write, I wrote a great deal. I briefly detailed a story I was working on.

"Wow," he said, shaking his head. "Wow! My daughter wanted to be a writer all her life, but she never actually wrote anything. Now she takes care of old people."

This conversation has always stuck in my head. It seems so simple: if you want to be a writer, you have to actually write. "To write" is a verb, which requires action. You can't call yourself an artist and never actually do any art. The only way to become a writer, or to become more comfortable in your identity as a writer if you're still "in the closet," is to write. I stopped writing for a while when I was nine and ten, and those are some of my most miserable years -- I wasn't doing what I was meant to be doing. If you're a writer, write. A lot. Which leads me to my next point.

2) You have to want it bad.

Some people, people who aren't writers and don't understand it, think that writing is a surefire get-rich-quick venture. It is not, in any way, shape or form, a path to easy money. I've been writing for more than ten years now and I've never made a cent. Why do I do it, then?

You have to want to write, for no other reason than that it makes you feel complete. You can't just be writing because people think it's cool, that you're some fancy genius scribbler. Your primary motivation can't be what others think of you. If the only reason you're writing is to get rich, be on a bunch of prestigious awards lists, and have droves of adoring fans, you're not going to get very far.

When you're a young writer, people are going to think it's cool. When I was fourteen, I started writing a novel that I really loved. I showed the first chapter to a friend. She showed it to our other friend, who passed it on to someone else. Before long, every chapter I wrote was being passed around the school, as I wrote it. People I didn't know, students years older than me, were coming up to me in the halls and telling me how much they loved the story, and what was going to happen to such-and-such character, and OMG so-and-so is awesome! It was hard not to let it go to my head. Having fans was pretty awesome, in a lot of ways. Heck, one girl even did her grade 10 book report on my book!

But there were a lot of negative aspects to the attention. I became "the writer girl." Teachers would expect a lot from me in class, since they'd heard (and read for themselves) that I was good at English. I was flooded with requests to write articles for the town and school newspapers, to be the editor of the yearbook, to do all this random stuff I didn't want to do. I had people requesting to read stories I didn't want to share yet, and getting huffy when I told them no. I got cold-shouldered by one girl because I killed off a character she liked. I got sneered at by a lot of bullies, who would sometimes read my work aloud in a mocking tone.

If you're going to be a writer, if you're going to tell people about it and make something so personal public, you have to be fully committed to it. So many things could have gone wrong for me. I could have taken on all the extra projects people gave me and not had time to write for pleasure. I could have caved to the pressure from my "fans" and sacrificed my integrity, writing exactly what they wanted. I could have stopped writing altogether, scared by the people who made fun of me. It was the love of the work that pulled me through, not the applause.

3) If you really want it, you have to make sacrifices.

I missed out on a lot. In high school, I would come home after school, sit down at my desk, and write for a few hours (I envy that dedication! I'm such a procrastinator now). Then I would eat dinner, do homework, mess around online, and go to sleep.

Meanwhile, other people my age were getting boyfriends, going to parties, and just being teenagers. I was kind of high-and-mighty about that stuff, saying I didn't care, that I'd rather be writing. And that was true, but there was a part of me that ached to be normal. The writing was more important to me, and I don't regret the decision to put it first, but I still sometimes think of the person I could have been had I gone out and done all that teenager stuff.

For me, the sacrifice was worth it, and it may be worth it for you, too. But think about it, long and hard. Nowadays, since I write for teens, I supplement my lack of real-life experience with imagination and second-hand stories. But when you can get some life experience, go do it.

4) Don't let the dream die.

I don't really have a personal story to explain this one. All I can really say is... don't stop writing. Not for any reason. I don't mean don't take a day off, that kind of thing is fine, but don't let anything stop you.

Pretty much any time you tell any "responsible adult" that you are a writer, they're going to tell you something along the lines of, "Oh, you better get a good day job, otherwise you're going to starve, ha ha!" I get this all the time. In high school I had people making fun of me for being this reclusive writer-type.

Don't let those people kill your dream. Do everything you can to keep the dream alive. Write all the time. Write stuff that inspires you. Write thinly-veiled fanfiction if it makes you happy. Keep gorgeous notebooks in your backpack all the time. Find a pen you really love. Doodle your book title all over your school work. Compose blurbs the New York Times will someday say about your book ("a little slice of genius" or "profoundly, exceptionally awesome" are my favourites). Read, read, read, constantly.

The world needs young writers and the fresh perspective they bring. Don't you dare give up.


  1. Just came over here from AW to say that I love this post so much.

    I'm young too and when I tell people that my dream is to be an expat novelist, I get a lot of "hurr durr I hope you like being poor in a foreign country." That may very well be true. But, tbh, I'd rather be "poor" and waiting tables for a living and writing in my free time than spending my time doing anything else.

  2. I too really love this post and agree with all the advice. I'm currently a junior in high school and I'm working on my third WIP, but man, sometimes it gets so tough. I'll keep this advice in mind whenever I have another one of my motivation-fail moments.

  3. Awesome, I love this post :) I won't explain my reasons why, though. *Adds to 'motivation' file*