I recently received a rather lengthy e-mail from a young writer. Some of the questions s/he asked are so universal that I figured it was time to dust off the old Writing Advice column and drop some knowledge on the young’uns. (Sorry. I’ve been watching The Wire.)
To start with, I’ve redacted the introductory part of the e-mail, as well as any identifying information. So we start with:
I’ve read your FAQ, and don’t worry, I’m not planning to send you a manuscript or anything. I’ve also read your Writing Advice blog, but if you have time, I’d really appreciate it if a published author (you) could read this for a minute.
Can I just say here that I really appreciate it when someone who e-mails me takes the time read my FAQ and — where appropriate — the previous entries in the Writing Advice series? You’d be surprised how many e-mails I get where the answers are already somewhere on this site. So, kudos to you, and thanks!
OK, with that out of the way, here’s the rest of it. Take a read through, then check out my response at the end.
Now I know you probably get emails like this all the time, and I can’t help but feel naive writing it, but I guess I just would like to ask… how? I’m 20 years old and I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid, and it was only in the last year or two that I decided to start taking it more seriously. And believe me, I’m not one of those people who say they’re going to write a book, because I’ve been working on mine for the last year+. I’ve been editing and pruning since I can’t afford to send it to a real editor, but it’s hard to stay confident. It’s hard to keep putting yourself on the page and hope and pray that maybe you’re better than most other people, because it feels obnoxious to think that way. I’m a few weeks away from sending my manuscripts out to publishers (I don’t wish to give up and self publish). I’ve been trying to build a name for myself lately as well; I’ve started writing for websites (most notably [well-known website redacted]) where I get to plug my own blog at the end of every article, and it’s given me a few followers who enjoy what I say. But in the end it’s all going to end up on how decent the manuscript is, and, I guess… I don’t really know what to feel. Am I being stupid to try to be a writer? I’ve read how hard it is to get into the business and from the few who DO get published, how little actually have success… I do believe in my story, and I believe in my writing. While working on [well-known website] (which hopefully you’ve heard of [I have]) I observe people who try to pitch ideas and books to the creators there (who are also published authors) and I watch them get torn down for being so naive. It gives me insight on what other people who say they’ve written a book/other people in my shoes are like, and it makes me feel a bit better about it. But, I don’t know.
Whew! OK, here we go…
The first thing to remember is this: You’re 20. And I know — you hate being told that. I am considerably older than 20, but I remember that age with a painful clarity. (I know young people hate it when old people say, “I remember being your age!” But here’s the thing: I remember being your age!) Not conquering the world (or achieving your life’s dream) at the age of 20 is no sin. It’s no sign of failure. Despite what the Olympics and the existence of Justin Bieber might have you believe, very few people in this world achieve monumental success at such a young age. We hear about the ones who do precisely because they are flukes.
I know, I know — you don’t feel young. You’ve wanted to write forever. You’ve been working on this book forever (a year plus!). You want your success and you want it now, but there’s a part of you that wonders if you deserve it or not. A part of you that says, “Am I really any good at all?”
Here’s the bad news: That feeling pretty much never goes away.
I am fortunate enough to be friends with some extraordinarily talented and successful authors. And I can tell you that if you sit down with them while they are working, they will clutch their heads in agony and beg the heavens for the sweet release of death. Anything but having to write this book. Anything! Why? Because they believe — no, no, they know — that they suck. They know that this book is terrible and awful and that if by some miracle or curse it does end up finished, it will be the worst thing ever published and most likely the end of their career.
You can point out that their books are all fabulously popular, bestsellers, award-winners, etc. Doesn’t matter. They are convinced that is all just happenstance and God playing dice with the universe.
So, you have that to look forward to. Which is nice. 🙂
The truth is that it’s never been easy to be a young, talented person trying to make his or her way in the world with that talent. It sure wasn’t when I was a kid, and I suspect it’s even worse now. Nowadays, you see some idiot fifteen-year-old going viral with a supercut he posted on YouTube or an ironically clever Twitter feed and you think, “What the hell? Why can’t I be that successful?”
But, again, they are the flukes. (And most of them are flashes-in-the-pan. You want something more sustainable than that, right?) Most people who “hit big” don’t do it so early.
I’m going to say something that you’re going to hate. I know you’re going to hate this because God knows I hated it when people said it to me. But: You’re young. There’s time. There’s plenty of time.
Hell, you’re already on your way. If you have a regular gig writing for a real-deal website, then you’re already ahead of most people who want to do this. You’ve taken that first step.
The hardest thing in the world to do is to be patient. Because patience seems at odds with striving for more and better. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
So you’ve been working on a book for a long time? Great. Finish it, send it out, and start on the next one. Don’t wallow in “I’ve spent all this time on this book…” It doesn’t matter. Finish it. Send it out. Start on the next one. The best cure for “What about my book?” is to work on a new one.
My best advice for you? Get an agent. I’ve beat this drum before in the Writing Advice series and I’ll beat it again here. In your case, you can already point to published clips in a legitimate forum. That will get some agents to sit up and take notice. Get an agent and let the agent handle selling the book so that you can work on the next one.
You say you’ve been writing since you were a kid, and that you only recently started taking it seriously. Well, just taking it seriously isn’t enough. Taking it seriously isn’t the finish line — it’s the starter’s pistol. Now the hard work really begins. Now you have a marathon ahead of you.
When I was your age (insert old age joke of your preference here), I quit writing so many times. I understand exactly how you feel because I was there, too. And, yes, I gave up. Repeatedly. I would get a rejection on something I felt passionately about and it would come at a time when I was already down for some reason, or it would be one of a string of rejections, or the moon would be waning gibbous, and I would think, “OK, that’s it. This dream isn’t going to come true. I quit.”
And I did. I quit.
For a little while.
Then I would come back. Maybe a month later. Maybe six months later. And the cycle would repeat.
Until one day, I decided to quit and realized, “Hey, wait a second. I’ve done this before. I’ve quit before. Get real, Barry — you’re not really quitting. You’re just sulking. And in the meantime, add up all the time you’ve wasted ‘quitting.’ It’s a good chunk of time, and you squandered it.”
So from that point on, I never quit again. I just pushed through.
I wish I could tell you it became easier. But it didn’t. We all have to get through those million bad words. I don’t know where you are on that particular mission, but you have to go through it like the rest of us do.
In the meantime, here’s the thing: If you can give up — I mean, really, truly put writing out of your head — then you should.
But if you can’t, well… Sorry, but you’re cursed. The only thing to do is keep trying.
I’m sorry that I went off on a rant, but I hope perhaps you know what it’s like to be hoping that you’ll make it big someday, since you’ve made it big.
It’s funny, but I truly don’t consider myself to have “made it big.” And I am baffled by people who think I have. I know so many authors who are so much better than I am, who are quantum leaps ahead of me both in talent and in success…
I haven’t “made it big.” I’m just on the first rung of a whole new ladder, is all.
I guess the perfect life that I can imagine is something like yours, writing novels (I write YA fantasy) and not having to go to a job you don’t like.
Not gonna lie to you: For all the stress, hard work, and craziness it entails, yeah — it’s a pretty sweet life.
If you have any tips at all for someone who’s spent nearly 2 years writing and editing a book, about to send manuscripts out to publishers, something you haven’t written before, I would really appreciate them.
Nothing I haven’t said before: Get an agent. And don’t wallow on that first book. Finish it. Move on. You get better the more you write, not the more you tweak the commas. Revising is an important skill to have, but so is having something worth revising in the first place.
And if not, I still appreciate that you read this far. Sometimes I get emails like this from people because of my [well-known website] articles and I know it always makes me feel giddy inside, like I’m actually someone important, and I wonder if someone at your level still gets that giddiness (although it’s probably less since you get so many of these, most likely).
I wouldn’t call it “giddiness,” but getting e-mail from readers is one of the great, shocking, unforeseen pleasures of this career. I’m always excited to see it.
Thanks for yours. 😉