Advice for young and/or newbie writers

I’m no longer quite the definition of “young,” both in terms of years inhabiting this planet as well as in my writing career. The years, of course, are right there to be seen in the gray hairs on my chin. The writing thing was a bit more surprising to me — I’ve only been a published novelist since 2013, and really only started considering fiction writing as a thing since 2010.

But I’ve been a professional writer — i.e., making a living from word-slinging — since before I turned 21. Much of that was spent in journalism, and more lately in marketing communications. But words are words, and I’ve been paid to put them in an impactful order for quite some time.  So while the fiction stuff still feels new, the writing isn’t. (Plus, my fourth novel comes out in two months, so that newbie thing in novels is quickly becoming a thing of the past as well.)

This past weekend, I talked to some of the young writers at the Vermont Governor’s Institute on the Arts in beautiful Castleton, Vt. A week before that, I did a Skype thing with a class at the Duke University Young Writers’ Camp. I love doing stuff like this because the young people (I hesitate to call them “kids”) have such enthusiasm for writing, it’s infectious. They’re smart, committed and brimming with ideas, and how can you not love that?

So I fielded a lot of questions and tried super-hard not to crush any dreams. Because that’s really bad karma.

There’s one element to all those questions, however: It’s the “how do I do this” questions. Whether in general or specific to a given story, these young, talented writers want to know how it’s done — the implication being that there’s an easily digestible way to get from point-A to point-B.

Nope. There really isn’t.

If I had to boil down my advice from two-plus hours of talking to young writers, it would come down to two points:

You have to find your own path. I spent a lot of time talking about how I outline, how I view character and plot, how I mash genres together, how I got published. That’s great, and hopefully that left the young folks with some insights. But what worked for me might not work for them. So my advice on anything related to writing is this: If you have a process that’s working for you, then great. There’s no need to change it up just because some middle-aged writer guy (i.e. me, or anyone else really) does it differently.

And if you’re hitting the wall on something, then feel free to try what I do, or what someone else does. Experiment and play around with it. See what fits. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but you’ll know one way or the other. If you find something that really inspires you, run with it. if not, move on.

You are not writing your best writing yet. This is a bit meta and touchy-feely, but I genuinely believe it. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King or little old me, it holds true. You are not, and should not, be writing your best stuff. Your “best” stuff should be an aspiration, not something you can point to. Sure, “my best so far” is fine. I would hope that everything you write is the best so far — hopefully you’ve learned from past works and made stuff better. That’s how it should go.

But best? Nah. Honestly, you don’t get to decide which of your works was the best. That’ll happen when you’re dead and the critics look back on your accomplishments (if you’re fortunate). Right now, just keep trying to write your best work each and every time out of the gate. Make each story or novel or whatever your best so far. Always fight for more quality, more guts, more oomph.

And that’s it. I don’t care if you’re 17 or 77, both bits still apply. (I got my first book deal on my 40th birthday, so I’m not one to equate young with newbie.) Carve your own path, and try to improve each time you write. Of course, the devil’s in the details, which is why I take the time to answer individual questions and try to add perspective. But that’s pretty much what it all comes down to in the end.

So go forth, find your path, keep writing, and keep learning.


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