Monday, July 30, 2007

Cheap Advice to Young Writers

Before we begin, I'd like to comment that I'll be away the 2 weeks. First I plan to attend Pennsic and get run over by a bunch of 300-pound guys dressed as Normans, then I plan to spend a lot of time in bed recovering from said brawl. I have to approve posts, so you might not see your comment come up for a long time, so don't comment after Tuesday morning unless you really have something you want to eventually say.

Dear Rejecter,

I've read some of your blog entries and was especially amused with your response to the pompous 19-year old, who believed she could conquer the world with her writing. As a teenager, I don't believe I am ready to conquer any worlds with my words yet, but I am very interested in taking steps in order to improve my writing. Most of what I have written is academic writing, or, as a guilty pleasure, fanfiction. And, like any other teenager, I have dangerously forayed into the wonderful world of poetry. I understand that the natural tendency of older writers is to dismiss teenage writing, but I still want to pursue writing, even if what I write now is bad. I understand that a few years from now I will look at my writing and slap my forehead, wondering how in the world I was able to write such utter junk.

After reading your blog and learning more about how 95% of submitted writing is automatically rejected, I want to ask this -- what are some things that a young writer can do now to improve their writing, while accepting that their writing may not necessarily be good? I have loved books such as Lolita , for their ability to captivate an audience. I realize that being young, I am likely to "steal" from my influences, borrowing their style. I can't be the next Nabokov, but I would like to learn from someone who has been in the publishing industry, what a young writer can do now to improve their writing and prepare themselves to be in a good position when they wish to submit their manuscripts in the future.

The 95% does not actually represent your chances of being rejected. It just means that 95% percent of our submissions are crap. If you are a great writer, your chances are very good. If you are a bad writer, your chances are very bad. If you were a President, it doesn't matter either way; you're going to get a book deal, no matter how narcissistic or anti-Semitic you are.

You answered the first question yourself, which is why I'm so discouraging to young writers about submitting or mentioning their age in the query. Yes, you will be really, really embarrassed about your old stuff. Generally, writers only get better until they peak, and then they start repeating themselves or just run dry, with a few exceptions. I would cut off submissions at 21. I know that's sort of a randomly-assigned number, but you really do need to have a certain level of adult maturity to write. People can attack me for that statement, but I don't think there's an older, well-published writer out there who wouldn't have a brain aneurysm if someone published the short story he wrote for his high school English class. All right, maybe there's one or two, but seriously.

But you already know that, so let's move on.

It is true that you are very easily influenced when you're young; science has proven that the brain intentionally works that way and that younger people are more capable of learning new things. This is a survival skill. However, that doesn't mean older writers aren't just as easily influenced by their favorites or the novel they read last week. Show of hands - Who here has put down a great novel, or even just a fun one, and said, "Why can't I write like that?" OK, you should all be raising your hands now. I see you in the back there. Raise it!

I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. My writing is an amalgamation of techniques I picked up along the way, consciously or unconsciously. Eventually, with enough practice, you develop your own style, which is what comes naturally to you, and even that can change rapidly. Read whatever you want. Ray Bradbury was once interviewed by The New York Times and when they asked him what he was reading and why recent science fiction wasn't on the list, he famously said, "That would be incest. You don't read in your own field. You read in that field when you're young, so that you can learn. I read Jules Verne, H.G. Wells. When you're older you want to learn from other people." Once you find your genre (if you decide you only like one), you'll either fall into the category of writers who feel like Ray did or the writers who read everything else written in that genre that they can possibly get their hands on.

As for developing your writing, I would say fanfiction is a great way to go. A lot of people knock fanfiction, because yes, there's not a lot to be said in justification of incestuous Weasley slash, but it's just a great place to write. You get a lot of positive feedback, and more importantly, it's an exercise in not writing about yourself, which I hate. Don't write what you know. Writing is about creativity. Fanfiction is like training wheels - you get a setting and a set of characters, and you can do what you whatever you want with them, and people will read your work because they like the characters and they want to see what you did with them. The best fanfiction is by people who come up with something legitimately new and interesting to do with familiar characters without making them unfamiliar. Also, I like fanfiction, so go write some. Just no Weasley slash. Or anything with a character played by Orlando Bloom. And geez, when did real person become socially acceptable again? No. Not cool.


Stranger said...

Thank you for answering my question! My other writer-friends have told me that fanfiction isn't "real" writing, so it discouraged me from writing it for a while. However, it's sort of become a guilty pleasure of mine and I do write it, though I generally hide it from those who know me. Thanks for all your advice, it is very practical.

The Rejecter said...

Write what you love. You'll fail if you do otherwise. And you'd be surprised how far practice will get you, and you're more likely to do more writing if you're writing what you love.

Miri said...

As a teenager myself: thanks for this, Rejector.

Also, you're going to Pennsic? My, I think I've just turned green.

WordVixen said...

Have a great time at Pennsic! I've never made it, though I always intend to... I do have a piece of the Towel of Tanaka! Does that count?

Molly said...

Great advice! I've seen better writing in some fanfic than in many trade paperbacks (although certainly it's more often the other way). The "core" writers in any fandom are typically gifted, dedicated, inventive, polished writers, and worth studying, and moreover they're massively more available for questioning than Tolstoy and Vonnegut (neither of those guys ever wrote a "DVD commentary" laying out all the planning and execution of a novel!).

Anonymous said...

I agree; write your fanfic and enjoy it! I believe one's writing improves dramatically while writing fanfiction, because people actually read fanfic, not out of obligation, but for pleasure. And they'll send you feedback, and a good portion of that feedback will be supportive.

I write original stuff now, but the year I spent writing fanfic I believe catapulted me above other learning writers who wrote original stories, because they were writing in a vacuum, sharing only with crit partners, and I was getting feedback and lots of it.

Anonymous said...

Have fun being run over at Pennsic. I'm sure that will be an event well worth missing out on two weeks of blogging.

I don't think fanfiction is all that bad. I got my start in writing unreadable fanfiction; I'm glad to say I can drop the "Un" now after doing it for so long.

Like so many other people that seem to read your blog, I too am 19 years old, and I will agree with most other readers, in that I still have a ways to go. So I thank you on this insight you gave us in this entry

One thing I've noticed though on writing is that nothings is seldom original anymore. Most people who make brilliant works that sound innovative and original are only building it up on top of older influences. In a more colorful way of saying it, it's like coral: you build new calcium deposits over older deposits.

Many people seem to suck up inspiration and then cleverly change it around in such a way that it looks original. So In a sense I've quit trying to be "original" in my writing. I've had enough of trying to write in a way no one else has (lest I'd have to throw syntax out the window) and just write what comes to mind. That's just my take on it though. ^^

Anonymous said...

Everyone has to write their million words of crap--even if their crap isn't as crappy as the next guy's. Fanfic is a good place to start. You get to immerse yourself in a world you love, play with characters you've already gotten attached to, you get lots of useful feedback, and you're not laying your entire soul on the chopping block by publishing your own baby on the net. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.

But don't think you won't keep looking back and blushing, even when you're, ahem, thirty-five-ish, koff, koff, and you're reading stuff you wrote when you were the tender age of thirty. Not even if it was good enough to be published. That's the problem when you're always getting better. You only really have to worry when you look back at what you wrote five years ago and you can't see any room for improvement.

Anonymous said...

95% of submissions are crap!!! That sounds way too high. Or else I hate the idea that my query might fall in the 95% pile.

I know you've said that there are many automatic no's that are easy to reject. Still, 95%? What percentage of the remaining 5% is fiction?

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

I have a friend who made huge improvements in her writing by doing fanfic. She used to spend pages and pages telling about the characters. Now she just tells the story.

I don't even like the band she writes fanfic about, but I love her stories. And like, Gentle Reader, is a sign of good writing!

Anonymous said...

You go to Pennsic? Say hi to Paul Pogue from me.
Small world.

Anonymous said...

Re: That deluded 19-year-old and the New Yorker. I swam across the Internet and found this interview of David Remnick.

"As the myth goes, does The New Yorker actually have piles of manuscripts sitting around?

No. The myth and the reality is that we are sent hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, especially fiction and poetry, every week and we read them. Now, the top fiction editor is not reading everything that's sent from every corner of the country, but certainly we have readers who do and then pass it up the line. That's worth pursuing. We want to try to encourage one of the aspects of the magazine, which is the discovery of talent. Sixty or 70 years ago, a fiction editor named Katharine White discovered John Cheever. It happens. It doesn't happen every week. It maybe doesn't happen even every year. A discovery of a writer such as John Cheever may happen once in a lifetime."

Can anybody make sense of this? This "pass it up the line" business looks rather suspicious. It seems to suggest that you can get their attention without knowing somebody. Very unorthodox. Very rebellious.

And for anybody who cares, I'm that deluded 19-year-old. I just discovered the seventy-something comments analyzing my inflated ego and sexual identity. I appreciate the beatings you've all given me. Now go back to what you were doing. I'm embarassed for the both of us.

Rob said...


I was a little surprised at your promotion of fanfiction. The main story I've been working on is taking the direction of attempted originality, but I do have a fan fiction idea I was thinking of "saving" until I published my first original story.

My fan fiction idea may be too late to gather interest (based on a Star Trek Voyager episode), but what about copywrites? Do you have to get permission before trying to publish fan fiction?

Anonymous said...

I think good work will rise to the top, even at the New Yorker. People who work as interns or entry level editorial there are readers. They know what's good. It makes them look good to find something.
I recall reading a famous editor's obituary a couple of years ago. She was elderly. The obit included a note about an author she discovered in the slush pile! That book was Peyton Place. Unfortunately, I don't remember the editor's name, but she made her reputation on that discovery in the slushpile.
So take heart.

ssas said...

You'd better write us a post about Pennsic!

And I agree with Anon--a million words of crap. A blog will help you learn to structure your thoughts, essays in school help, letters to the editor, and yes, fan fic. My first novel was a thinly veiled copy of the OUTSIDERS but I finished it, by god. I wrote it at age 14 and I still have it.

Also, write when you don't want to. That will teach you that writing is 90% dedication to craft and 10% artistic talent. Good luck, kid.

Kidlitjunkie said...

Do you have to get permission before trying to publish fan fiction?


You can't publish fanfiction.

There are companies that publish licensed fanfiction - like Pocket Books at Simon & Schuster for example, that publishes Star Trek novels. I don't know what their submissions guidlines are, and if they're even looking for new writers.

But you can't ever just submit a fanfiction novel to a mainstream publishing house. The best you can do is self-publish it, which is kind of dorky. (And also might get you in legal trouble.)

Anonymous said...

" matter how anti-Semitic you are." Nonsense. Even if you disagree and dislike Carter's views, calling him anti-semitic is a boorish, reactionary attempt to avoid the debate. Your writing advice is better than your political ear so I'll feel free to dispense my own advice on the latter: think outside of narrow identities.

Anonymous said...

but what about copywrites? Do you have to get permission before trying to publish fan fiction?

The Rejecter is not advocating writing fanfiction to sell, if that's what you mean by "publish". She's saying it's a good training ground for writing, and it's an easy way to write something and get feedback from a wide audience. I suppose you could consider putting fanfic up on a website or posting it to an online community "publication"--and indeed some people do--but fans always/often put disclaimers stating that they're not trying to profit. (It's a much bigger violation of copyright to try to sell fanfic.)

Media tie-ins (Star Trek novels, for example) are not exactly fanfic, as they are generally commissioned by the owners of the copyright. I wouldn't write a media tie-in on spec, btw.

none said...

Laura, take a job as a slush reader somewhere--a small magazine will do. Then come back and tell us that 95% is too high! :D

If you saw the things I've seen....

Anonymous said...

So you're going to Pennsic! Enjoy yourself, Mme. Rejecter, I went for ten years although I avoided the pickle-barrel armies whacking away at each other with rattan swords. No, I preferred to rest up during the day so I could belly dance around campfires at night, surrounded by screaming Hordesmen, Tuchux, Vikings and the occasional anachronistic blond-haired blue-eyed samurai swordsmen.

Did it for about ten years - then I earned enough money to go to more exotic locales than Slippery Rock, PA and spent my money going to Europe and the Caribbean instead.

Why, it's entirely possible I even ran into you once or twice, as I was at that time living in CT, although you would have been a little halfling back then since I was last there around 1994 or so ;)

If you run into a large Middle Eastern doumbek player named Baron Dur (SURELY you know BARON DUR ;) tell him Lady Gisele says hi ;)

Anonymous said...

I have a question...

It's been said that the majority of authors, if had a high school story published, would...uh...die, pass out from embarrassment?

But shouldn't authors look back on their first publish piece and want to slap their heads anyway, regardless of when it was written? Shouldn't they be constantly getting better and challenging themselves?

What does it matter when something was published if you're just going to look back on it and regret everything you didn't do, the plot you didn't develop, the characters you could have done more with?

Just a thought,

oh...and sorry for posting so late

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:08, I just went back and read your letter to Rejecter, in which you brag about your "freakishly" well written book and your good looks. You deserved every slap you got, and more.

I'm not embarrassed. You should be, but I'm not.

Anonymous said...

Rob, fanfic writers do not get permission...otherwise there wouldn't be any fanfic out there. Just write your best, post it on one of the many sites, and prepare to get lots of feedback if readers feel passionately about your work.

And fanfic doesn't mean dreck, necessarily. Didn't StarGate run a novel contest recently, picking the entrants out of the ranks of SG fanfic writers?


writtenwyrdd said...

fanfic can be awesomely good writing. So write it if you like it. I've written some, myself, and had a blast.

Anonymous said...

Rob, fanfiction isn't published per se. It's posted on the Web. It is absolutely an infringement of trademark to use the characters without permission, but MOST shows turn a blind eye to fan fiction as long as the writers don't try to sell their work. Try to sell fan fiction without getting permission from the trademark holders, and you'll get sued FAST.

Published novels that are written using trademarked characters are published with the permission of -- and within the restrictions set by -- the owners. Some, like Star Trek, are fairly lenient and open. Others, are very, very, very restrictive -- which is why you see few or no novels done.

Kanani said...

what are some things that a young writer can do now to improve their writing,

Read. Read widely, outside the genre of your choice.

Get to know history, if you're not curious then now is the time to develop that habit. Ask questions and dig.

Take writing jobs --newsletters, business writing, letters, anything to get you into the habit of honing those words down to a minimum and using them correctly. Some of the jobs you'll take will be volunteer --writing that newsletter for a club can teach you invaluable lessons on editing. But do them and view each experience as one to learn from

Good luck! And good for you for asking this question!

Heather Dudley said...

Rob - Fanfiction, as a general rule, can't be published. Licensed fiction (such as Star Wars or Star Trek) is usually done by invitation only, by established genre writers or existing stables. Trying to get such things published is honestly an exercise in futility.

However, you can "publish" online in places such as, and get feedback from other fans. If there is such a thing as Teletubby fanfiction, you'll find interest for your Voyager fic. ;)

The important thing about fanfiction is to remember that it should not be the end-all be-all of your talent. Don't pigeonhole yourself into the pointless career of fanfiction writing, unless you never intend to write for anything other than fun. You simply can't make a living at fanfic. It's a great way to exercise your writing ability, but I've seen it suck away too many truly talented writers.

It is just that... training wheels. Some day, the wheels have to come off. ;)

Anna said...

Rob - Bwuh? Fan fiction isn't published book-form, it's only on the internet. Nobody will come after you unless you're trying to make money off it.

I can't say it enough: I think fanfic is the best way to practice writing and have fun at once. I've improved an amazing lot since I started (5 years ago) and I'm finally starting to feel like I might have the skills to write a novel I can sell (we shall not speak of my previous 'novels').

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out that Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was 15--he was New York Times bestselling author by the age of 19. (Seems you 19-year-old writers posting here are getting a late start. Time to panic.)

As for mentioning your age in a query... why? I wouldn't mention that I'm 30.

Austin Williams said...

"Even if you disagree and dislike Carter's views, calling him anti-semitic is a boorish, reactionary attempt to avoid the debate."

I was actually thinking about Richard Nixon, who made many well-documented anti-Semitic remarks. Whatever...

"Just wanted to point out that Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was 15--he was New York Times bestselling author by the age of 19."

...And if you'll look back on Ms. Rejecter's original blog about that 19 year-old primadonna, you'll note that Ms. Rejecter correctly says that his writing sucks.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out that Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was 15--he was New York Times bestselling author by the age of 19. -- Anon

Helps that Mommy & Daddy had clout in the publishing industry. (Remember what Rejecter said about "If you're a President"? It applies to all Celebrities (TM).) And that after Lord of the Rings, publishers were on a bandwagon to find the next Fantasy Bestseller. If it wasn't Eragon, it would have been some other "Elves, Dwarves, etc". (Or Dragons, or Emo Bishonen Vampires...)

Result: A "19-year-old best-selling author" who never learned how to write acquires a bad case of "Bow Before Me! I'm A CELEBRITY!" And because he's an instant CELEBRITY(!) Author, he will NEVER learn how to write. Pity because the kid had enough drive to write 200,000+ words; now all his beginner's bad habits will be reinforced by CELEBRITY!

Check out the Anti-Shurtugal Live Journal for more details on that.

Anonymous said...

"Helps that Mommy & Daddy had clout in the publishing industry..."

You sound jealous/bitter/pouting.

The fact of the matter is a teenager wrote the book, not his parents, and it became a bestseller because other teenagers bought and read the book.

Let me guess: If you publish a book and become a bestselling author, it will be because of your own brilliance. If someone else publishes a book and becomes a bestselling author, it will be due to one of the following reasons: luck, mistake, timing, readers' bad taste, stoled your idea, WHO they know, mom and dad, their cat, global warming, or the war on terror.

tkkerouac said...

Great advice and read!

Anonymous said...

"What starts the process really are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. Sometimes it's because you're poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or simply that you are skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence and personal gut performance."
--Richard Nixon

I welcome your discouragement! The angrier I am the better I'll be. I am happy to have had my naivete beaten out of me. The same cannot be said for most of us. I am grateful for all of you who are obviously more creative than myself. All of you have more personality than I do! This is an obscure place to declare myself humble, but all the more consistent. I should hate to have carried my ambitions into publication. And let me hope, here, quietly, where surely nobody will read, that my words will crawl out of the slush like life did from the oozing early earth. If I cannot conquer the world, at least I can conquer my own thoughts. That is the highest ambition.

Anonymous said...

Fanfiction can server other purposes besides teaching teenagers how to write.

Earlier this year, I'd grown so sick to death of the constant stream of form rejections that I was nearly ready to quit. After three books and a total of 67 rejections, I'd finally come up with a book that passed all the tests; that my stable of beta readers loved; that the "Share Your Work" section on AbsoluteWrite thought was terrific. And what did it get me? Four new form rejections. Yeah, four isn't a lot, but after what had gone before, this was four anonymous form rejections too many. I'd just about had it.

Then, simply to distract myself from my own despair at ever getting published, I wrote a fan fiction story (based on Eureka Seven, for those of you who follow anime) and posted it to

Much to my surprise, the readers went wild, dishing out more praise than I'd seen in the past ten years. They loved it, and wanted more. So I followed it up with a sequel, and that produced even more hosannas. And then another sequel, and I found that I actually had fans, who loved what I'd written and were eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Yeah, I'm perfectly well aware that good as these stories are (I don't short-change readers, even when it's fan fiction), can't be published. It's been a very long time since I was nineteen.

But now I'm certain of something that I always believed but didn't know for sure -- that I can write a damn good story that makes total strangers clamor for more. Whatever reasons have been behind my past rejections (I have yet to get a rejection that actually tells me why the submission is being rejected), it isn't the quality of my work. That knowledge has meant a great deal to me.

And so, with the dread month of August quickly sipping away, I'm ready to start submitting again -- and in the meantime, I've been hard at work on my next book.

Oh yeah, and I'm rounding out the Eureka Seven series (which has grown to novel length) with a final installment. After all that the readers have done for me, I owe them that.

enchantedsleeper said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote on fanfiction. Lots of people say that fanfiction is like cheating, because you've got a setting and characters ready-made, but in actual fact good fanfiction is quite challenging, because you have to really get inside someone else's characters and write them realistically. Besides which, you can create your own settings and characters whilst still writing fanfiction - and a lot of people do.

Many people call fanfiction a 'guilty pleasure' - the first person to respond to this post even said it. But I openly and proudly assert that I am a fanfiction writer, because I enjoy it and there's nothing wrong with it, and moreover I am prepared to defend it if needs be.

Anonymous said...

Personally I write fanfiction for the feed back. If there's something wrong with my fic I edit and continue writing. It helps me improve.

Anonymous said...

(Found a link to your blog, Rejecter, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading through it for the past two hours. ^_^)

When I first started writing, I went for what I saw was popular in the FF.N community: stories of the "real-world, anime-loving teenage girl gets magically teleported into (insert series here)" variety. I only realized that it was terrible after my parents confiscated my notebooks to see what was keeping me from my homework. They read it, corrected my spelling in several places, and told me it made no sense. I, being the mildly depressed teen that I was then, decided that they were wrong and I was right. That my writing was the best piece of "literature" I had read in the past year. So, now I understand completely how awful it was. My character was a complete "Mary Sue" though she didn't have an Asian nam--wait, yes she did. Dang, I failed!

So, may I ask a question? (Err, a question other than that, I mean.)
About how often do you see fantasy queries that aren't trash?

Thank you for your time,
"Anonymous" Savannah