Advice for a Young Writer

I rarely give out writing advice unless asked and I’m rarely asked. Writers staying at it for approaching two decades with minimal extrinsic success (and by extrinsic success I mean an audience) are probably the best people to seek writing advice from, but to be fair, how would they find us? Last time I gave advice it was to a work friend who mentioned wanting, one day, to write but right then was content to read avidly. My advice was “follow your interest.” Follow your interest might not sound like much but you could do a lot worse for writing advice. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing advice was similar just a tick more harsh: “Read a lot and write a lot and figure it out yourself.” And he was a writing instructor. So it goes.

A friend at work mentioned that his thirteen-year-old daughter had been reading a lot of work uploaded to Watt Pad (? Not familiar with it but I’m guessing it’s a website where people upload work and get feedback) and had posted four chapters of a book she had started. She was discouraged by the response. This is infuriating to me. There is a stage where positive-only critiques are the only feedback a writer should be getting and a thirteen-year-old taking a stab at a first book is in that stage. So I wrote her a letter on break and gave it to her dad to give her. I basically told her she was the only person who could give value to the work she was doing and to let her own sense of having fun be her guide. She must have appreciated it because she sent a message through her dad thanking me but she told him she’d more just run out of ideas and that was why she got discouraged. Oh, ideas! That would have been a different letter.

What works best for the most people is to write on a schedule. Some might do well writing only when inspired but most of us would have pretty bleak writing lives to look back on if we always waited for inspiration. After I finished the first draft of Flowers on Concrete, I knew my prose needed improved. I set out to fill a notebook page every day. I walked to either my favorite coffee shop on Pike street in Seattle or to Charlie’s for a beer, almost panicky most nights, and wrote without ideas. I never expected anything but almost always surprised myself with the kernel of something or at least one line. In two years, I missed six or seven days. I still worry about ideas coming but that habit of sitting down and confronting the blank page was instilled. The earth doesn’t always move but I still always surprise myself with a line here or there. Of course, I wouldn’t tell a thirteen-year-old to write on a schedule. What I would tell her is, when she’s in the mood to write, to sit down with a pen and a blank page (or a laptop or her gizmo of choice), let go of her worry of coming up with something good or even of coming up with something, and just concentrate on enjoying the time and having fun. I would tell her to follow her interest.

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