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.