Words for Young Writers

I don’t often do “writing advice” sorts of blog posts because I don’t perceive myself as having too much to offer, as I know I’m still learning. I definitely don’t have this writing thing all figured out. But I have learned a bit over the past few years, and though it’s weird to me to realize that I might be further along on this “author path” than some (I often feel that I’m just running along after the coat-tails of greater authors, like a hobbit trying to keep up with the likes of Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli) I guess I might have a few insights worth sharing.

So, consider this a “If I could send a note to my younger self, I’d say…” post:

Pray About Your Writing

This isn’t something I’ve always done. Arrogant young imp that I was, writing has always come naturally for me. It was easy to get good grades on papers through high school and college without really giving it my best efforts. Thankfully, I had a few tough teachers who strove to help me hone this skill, but I still managed to get As without too much effort.

In starting down the path of being an author, however, I have learned how much I don’t know, and found it necessary to turn to the Greatest Author for help. Just because God gave me a talent, does not mean that I can just coast along on it. He wants me to ask for His guidance and help, and He wants me to continue to learn and improve. Just as my earthly father always told me growing up, “I love you too much to let you be content with mediocrity,” I feel that God is calling me to a higher standard… one I cannot meet without His help. And so, I encourage you to pray before you write. Pray while you write. Ask God to help you get through a slump or past a writer’s block. He gave you the talent, I’m sure He’d love you to talk to Him about it.

Don’t Compare

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You can’t compare yourself to other authors. I mean, sure, you might compare your style to someone else’s, or your story to another story… those comparisons are fine. “If you liked Lord of the Rings, you’ll love King’s Warrior…” that’s fine! (See what I did there?)

But you can’t compare your journey as an author to anyone else’s. You will always be behind someone, and you’ll always be ahead of others. You can pick up tips and tricks and learn as much as you can, but at the end of the day, it’s you writing your stories… at whatever pace life allows you to do so.

Learn to Accept Advice

I wish I had learned this one earlier in life. It took me a long time to be able to accept constructive criticism with anything resembling grace. I’m not saying you need to implement every piece of advice every person gives you (this is an exercise in madness), but to be able to take someone’s advice, parse through it for what you agree with and don’t agree with, and glean the nuggets of gold hidden within… that is a skill which is absolutely necessary for taking your writing beyond the level of “hobby.” Because without those additional sets of editing eyes, your story will never be as good as it could be. Sometimes editors can seem harsh, but that’s because sometimes we writers need a coarser grain of sandpaper in order to really remove the grit so that the shining glory that is at the heart of our writing can gleam through.

Learning which advice to accept and which to look at, go, “Nope!” and move on, is also important. And sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which.

“Write What You Know” doesn’t mean what you think it means

I have never been to a desert. I’ve never been through a sandstorm. But I have been on the beach of Lake Michigan on a day where the wind speed was over 30mph. In shorts. That experience led me to write about the Harshlands in King’s Warrior.

I did not live in the Old World time period that Stone Curse is set in, but I did a ton of research and was able to insert details that made the setting feel realistic.

I’ve never had the man I love reject me, causing me to hurl a stone curse over everyone I love and run off to live in the woods by myself. But I have been betrayed on a smaller scale, and felt like lashing out with that hurt. I’ve been lashed out at by someone I hurt. I can take that experience and put it into a more fantastical setting and still have it feel real.

I’ve never hiked across the world through freezing rain on a quest to save all that I hold dear… but I did ride a horse for 7 hours in the cold pouring rain, and I have jumped into a river whose water temperature was only 52 degrees, and I can imagine how miserable that would have been if it hadn’t been an 80 degree day. I can take those experiences and draw from them when I want to make my characters trek through less-than-idea elements.

“Write what you know” does not have to mean that you write stories about an author struggling to overcome writer’s block. Or that you have to write about only things you’ve actually seen and done. It just means that you need to insert parts of YOU into the story. Pull from your experiences and then insert those excruciatingly real details: thoughts, feelings, dialogue, etc into a setting or scene that may be far grander in scope than what your original experience was.

Your Debut Novel Won’t be Your Best Novel (though it may always be your favorite)

This is possibly the hardest thing to really accept. Harder than a rejection letter from a publisher. Harder than notes from an editor that make you feel like Hiccup, “You just gestured at all of me!”

But that doesn’t make it less true. Your first novel — and I’m not talking about the first novel you ever write, the one that you already know is so bad you’ll never let it see the light of day, the one you pretend you never wrote, I’m talking about the first novel you thought was really good, that you poured your heart and soul into – is not, and will never be the best thing you write. I’m not saying it will be awful or rubbishy! On the contrary, it may be excellent, it could land you a publishing deal, and you will always have a special place in your heart for it. But the fact remains, that it is your first novel, and no matter how much you might wish otherwise, you will move on and grow and mature as a writer with every step you take beyond that first novel. And when you look back, 2, 3, 7, 10, 20 books later, you will be forced to admit (perhaps only to yourself) that you have improved since then, and that your beloved first work was not the best you could do. Oh, it was the best you could do then! But if you are doing this author thing right, you’ll continue to hone your craft, and there will always be a part of you that wishes you’d come to that story later, when you were better at this, and knew what you were doing. Despite even being able to admit this to yourself, I will warn you now: negative comments about that particular novel will always cut the deepest.

King’s Warrior has a special place in my heart. I love it to pieces. It was an amazing, beautiful, growing experience to write it, to edit it, to publish it. But I have to admit, it is not the best thing I’ve ever written. Every story since then has been better. The book I just finished drafting is now the best thing I’ve ever written, and I am excited to keep learning and getting even better with every book I write.

Keep Writing (“That’s the trick, isn’t it?”)

“If you want to be a writer, you should be writing.”

These simple words so succinctly encapsulate everything it means to be an author. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. It doesn’t matter how you write… maybe you create massively complex outlines and then just have to fill in the gaps. Maybe you speed through from beginning to end by the seat of your pants and then have to go back and fix all the plot holes. Maybe you write in snippets. Maybe you work on 12 projects at once. Maybe you are super focused and can’t even conceive of ever having another idea for a story until the one you’re writing is complete. Maybe you can finish a novel in 3 weeks. Maybe it takes you 12 years. It doesn’t matter. Write your stories your way, and keep writing, dear Writer. Because only you can tell your stories. And the world will always need good stories. Whenever you finish, at whatever pace you go… we readers will be ready.

Not that I’m promising fame and fortune… getting beyond the point where your writing can support your coffee habit is a whole ‘nother post on the travails of marketing…

~ jenelle

11 Comments

sarahtps

Fabulous advice . . . but I will confess that my brain got slightly sidetracked by going “OOOH! I KNOW THAT PERSON! THAT’S A FIREFLY GIF! JENELLE IS A FIREFLY FAN! OOOH!” I didn’t know you’d watched that show! Did you see the movie sequel thing? (I haven’t, partially because I haven’t managed to get my hands on it and partially because I figure that as long as I don’t watch it, I can still say everyone’s alive, ’cause I heard people die in it.)

Anyway. Sorry for the fangirl ramblings. Carry on with being awesome!

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jenelle

*grins* I do love Firefly. I don’t talk about it here on the blog much, as it isn’t exactly the most family-friendly show, and I try to keep my recommendations to things that fit with that criteria. I actually was introduced to the show the summer before the movie Serenity came out, so we finished watching the show, then went pretty much straight to the theater opening weekend… and then went back and saw the movie in theaters three more times! The movie is FANTASTIC! It stays true to the show and the characters, but actually is something I felt comfortable recommending to my family (they liked it a lot).

Yes… sadly, some characters died. And while one of those deaths absolutely ripped my heart out and tore it into a thousand pieces (I sobbed for hours after seeing the movie the first time) it was also kind of beautiful. I mean, if you have to kill off one of my favorite characters, doing it in an epic, pinnacle of achievement for that character, save-everyone-else, awesome sort of way is the only way to do it. IMHO. As opposed to taking a relatively intelligent, awesome character and having him foolishly stand within lightsaber distance of his evil son… I will never forgive JJ Abrams for that one. Never never never.

Ahem. A little off topic there… but seriously, if you liked Firefly… Serenity is truly the best thing ever and a great wrap-up to the show.

You never have to apologize for fangirl rambling here. There is very little I enjoy so much as chatting about nerdy awesome books and movies and tv shows!

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sarahtps

Heh. Yeeah, it definitely isn’t for younger viewers. Still a great show, though. And wow, four times in theaters? It must be pretty impressive. As I said to Deborah, I found the movie on TV.com (which is a fabulous website which I only found out about in . . . April, I think? when I was searching for somewhere to watch Merlin online), so my roommate and I are going to watch it once we’re back at college.

Well, if the death is awesome, that is indeed somewhat better . . . still not looking forward to it, though. (Also, I’m now curious about which one of the characters who died is one of your favorites, because I have an idea who dies and yeah.)

Thank you for the recommendation!

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jenelle

I agree. It was a great show. Ooh, glad you found it to watch. Hope you enjoy it… and that we haven’t hyped it up too much, now. Yeah, there aren’t many movies I’ll pay to see in theaters more than once.

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Deborah O'Carroll

@Sarah: I KNOW THAT FEELING. XD Serenity is a really really good movie, yes. :D Sad for the sad things, and less western-feeling, more sci-fi feeling; but good. :D I loveth it. Mal and co. are awesome in it! You should definitely see it sometime! :)

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sarahtps

Wow, that’s two glowing reviews from people I highly trust; now I definitely have to watch it! Thankfully, I found the movie online today, and my roommate and I have made plans to watch it once we’re back at college. So that’s going to happen.

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Deborah O'Carroll

I love this post. SO much good advice. Thanks, Jenelle!! :) (Also, superb gif usage; and I’m not gonna lie, that Serenity gif at the end is so perfect and made my day. XD)

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jenelle

Thanks! I was not sure if my gif-usage was what it was supposed to be… but I enjoyed playing with it. Methinks more of them will have to make it into my posts in the future…

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Madeline J. Rose

I struggle sooo much with knowing my first novel will not be perfect. I’m a huge perfectionist, and everything needs to be JUST. RIGHT. :P But I’m realizing now that even if it’s not perfect, it’s still a part of me, and I will love it always. :) Thanks for sharing this! Totally bookmarking this one!

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jenelle

Aww, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

Yes, perfectionism is a problem for us writers. My grandma had a great saying for things like farm-work and writing and other activities that are kind of always ongoing, “The work was never done, but you could stop.”

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