I often get emails from teenagers and younger writers looking for advice (or simply moral support) on their writing. For a while I’ve had a sort of generic advice email that I’ve sent them, but I thought it might be worth expanding on that and posting it here in the blog.
Ten tips for teenage writers
- Write all the time
I know you do this already, but do it more. Write something every day. Somebody once said that, for writers, the first million words are just practice. With a bit of luck, it won’t be quite that many, but it might be close (and for some people, it’s more).
- Don’t write all the time
It may be tempting to close off from the world and just write, but that’s not going to cut it. All fiction writing is really a form of journalism; your stories and characters may be made up, but they should be serving to record your impressions and experiences of the world around you. If you don’t get out of your room once in a while and start living, where are these original impressions and experiences going to come from? Remember what Ezra Pound said: “literature is news that stays news”. So go out and be a news reporter.
- Read inside your genre
Many people start writing because there’s a particular genre that they enjoy, whether it’s horror, crime, science-fiction, romance, or fantasy. Writing inside a genre is a great way to learn, because there are stricter sets of rules and structures to follow and copy. Read widely in your genre, from the early pioneers to the latest trashy paperbacks. So, if your chosen genre is horror, make sure that you’ve read both the latest Stephen King and the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M. R. James. Check out any dedicated magazines, too.
- Read outside your genre
Getting a good working knowledge of the development of your genre is a must, but it’s equally important to read other books too. There are plenty of techniques to be learned from every corner of the library, and they’ll really open your eyes to a whole range of possibilities. You might end up writing in a different genre altogether, or you might find yourself coming back to your first love with lots of new ideas. There’s a whole range of books that every writer should have read, whatever they’re writing. Go into your local library, sign up for a library card, and tell the librarian at the main fiction desk to introduce you to the classics…
- Get a good dictionary
You’ll need it. These days, I generally recommend the Oxford Dictionary of English in the UK, or the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) in the USA. (While Merriam-Webster is the American standard, the NOAD has more examples of usage, which can be very handy.) If you have a relatively recent Mac, you’ll find that the NOAD is built into the Dashboard.
- Settle in for the long haul
There’s a reason that writing has traditionally been seen as an older person’s profession, and it doesn’t have anything to do with ageism. It’s simply that it takes a long time to read all the books, do all that practice writing, and acquire the life experience you need in order to write something really worthwhile. So be prepared to watch a lot of years pass before you’re sitting in that publisher’s office, and more importantly, be prepared to make good use of them. Which brings us to the next point…
- Choose interesting work
You really aren’t going to walk out of school, college, or university and straight into the life of a full-time writer. Not only are more years going to pass, but even when you do find that publishing deal, the chances are that it’s not going to make you rich. While there are people who make their living writing fiction—and while there are stories of six- and seven-figure advances, these are rare. Even if you’re a great writer, you’re more likely to be starting with a much, much smaller advance. So think about how you’re going to earn money during that time. Choose a career that’s going to stimulate you and keep you inspired. Travel is a great inspiration, so maybe you can find something to do that involves seeing other parts of the world. More than one writer has learned about life from the inside of a doctor’s coat, or there are the other humanities to be considered: what about something that involves history, say? You can learn plenty about human nature by studying how we’ve behaved over the centuries. Then there’s journalism, which could provide a great training ground for your writing skills.
- Learn about the business
It may not be time to start submitting your work for publication, but there’s no harm in finding out a little about how the publishing industry works. After all, there are a lot of unscrupulous people and scam artists who are very willing to prey on inexperienced new writers who don’t know their stuff. Pick up some good books on the subject, like The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in the UK or Writer’s Market in the US (your library should have these), and start reading some of the more popular writing forums. Find out about copyright, how to find reputable agents and publishers, and the important differences between publishing, subsidy publishing, and self-publishing.
- Join a writing group
While it’s true that other people are often irritating and ignorant, their opinion is going to start being important to you sooner or later. After all, you want people to read your books, don’t you? Joining a writing group is a great way to try your fiction out on other people and see how they respond to it. There may be suitable writing groups in your school, local library, or community centre. If you can’t find one, talk to your English teacher or school librarian (assuming you’re still at school) about starting one.
- Resist the temptation to self-publish
All those years of improving your skills can be frustrating, and there will be times when you’re impatient to see your name on the front cover of a book. Self-publishing seems to get cheaper every year, but resist the temptation to publish one of your books in this way. You may be proud of your work now, but how will you feel about it five years in the future? Or ten? Or twenty? You’ll probably be very embarrassed. Remember that once it’s out there, even if you withdraw it from sale, it will never quite go away. Another concern is that publishers often like to “discover” new authors and introduce them to the world. You’re going to be a less tempting prospect to them if you already have two or three pieces of juvenalia cluttering up even the darkest corners of the internet.