Welcome to Week One of the Online Series for Young Writers.
*throws confetti and hands you a pretty mocktail*
If you were here last week, you know that I announced this eight-week series as a way to give writing advice for teenagers and other young people. You can find that post, which breaks down the topic for each week, here.
This week’s topic is What You Can do Now (Prepping for Your Future Writing Career). I chose this as a week one topic because it’s one of the questions I get most often at book events when talking to young writers. Sometimes it’s phrased differently.
“What is your best advice for young writers?”
“What’s the most important thing for a young writer to know?”
“Did you write when you were young?”
But these are all really asking the same thing. “What can I do NOW?” And I totally get it. If you’re fifteen or sixteen or seventeen and still in high school, your future as a writer can seem a world away, which can make anything you do now seem pointless anyway.
But it’s not. Trust me.
In fact, this is the BEST time to lay groundwork for your career as a writer. Why? Well, for one, you have more free time than you will ever have in your life (unless you’re training to be a ballerina or for the Olympics trials or something like that). I know it might not seem that way. You have school and friends and parents and chores and homework and school events and probably multiple sports and/or extra-curricular clubs. Maybe even a part time job. But you also have weekends and holidays and breaks. You have TV and social networking time you can trade for time to write or read or research.
And here’s what you DON’T have; kids, a house to run, groceries to shop for, a full time job (probably), a spouse who needs your attention, bills to pay, dry cleaning to take in or pick up, older parents who need you to help care for them, etc., etc.
The truth is, it will never be EASY. Making time for something you feel passionately about rarely is in the modern world. But there are times in life when it will be easier than others, and for 99% of you, this is one of those times.
The other good news is that LOTS of unexpected things fall under the category of preparing yourself to be a writer. Of course, writing is very important.
Writing is good! You should do it as much as you can!
But reading is also part of being a great writer. Stephen King has famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
It’s THAT important, guys. So every hour you clock reading? That COUNTS as writing prep. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, whether you’re reading the newspaper or an essay for school. Something crazy happens when you read; your brain processes EVERYTHING, even when you don’t realize it. It’s making little notes about which sentences are pleasing to the ear, which phrases sound “right”. It’s leaving little bookmarks in your brain that your subconscious will go back to later, bookmarks that will tell you (when you’re writing), “That’s too long” or “That sentence sounds clunky” or “That’s not the word I’m looking for” . These bookmarks tell you when you’re bored, when you check out of a story, and when you sit up straighter in the moment a story gets your full attention.
And all that stuff STAYS WITH YOU. It stays with you even if you don’t know it’s there. The next time you sit down to write? Your writing will be informed by all the lessons you’ve learned, often unwittingly, while you’ve been reading.
All of this is why READING is #1 on my list of Things You Need to Make Time for if You Want to be a Writer.
Even before writing.
But of course, writing is next. If you want to be a writer, it’s probably because, well, you enjoy writing.
So make some time for it on a regular basis. It can be every day before bed or every Saturday at 10am, but make time to write SOMETHING, even if it’s just a journal entry or a poem or a snippet of a story idea or a stream-of-consciouness rant about something that’s ticking you off. As with reading, you will learn while you write, even if you don’t realize it. I’ve found that earmarking a certain time of day or certain day of the week for writing makes it more likely that I’ll actually do it (more on this later in Week Seven; Keeping the Balls in the Air (How to Juggle School, Social Life, and Writing)). It can be five minutes before bed in your journal, an hour on Saturday morning to work on a short story, or twenty minutes in Study Hall every other day. But try to find time to write on some kind of regular basis. For me at least, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to jump back in.
Reason enough to regularly put words on the page!
Now this next one is going to seem obvious. And maybe a little weird because it’s so obvious, but stay with me here.
To be a good writer, you have to THINK.
I’m not just talking about school thinking or studying or thinking about what outfit to wear (although all of those things will also inform your writing in unexpected ways). I’m talking about CHALLENGING yourself to see things in another way.
That kid at school that you can’t stand? What’s his story? What might have made him obnoxious/annoying/rude/disrespectful/ chauvinistic? That person who has a different political viewpoint? Where is she coming from? Does she have any valid points? Can you see why she might feel the way they do? That teacher who seems a little beaten down? What is going on behind the scenes? Has she had a rough morning? What might have happened on in the hours before school (an alarm that didn’t go off in time? A sick child who was up all night? A fender bender? Spilled coffee on a favorite shirt?)? You’ll be surprised by the paths you travel and the ideas you get for stories if you think beyond the obvious.
Which brings me to my next point.
OBSERVE. As writers, most of us do this anyway, but sometimes it’s nice to know all those little thoughts you have throughout the day aren’t for nothing. When you feel anxious before a test, note the physical response; are your hands clammy, is it harder to take a good, deep breath? What does school sound like? What does it smell like? That beautiful sunset? How would you describe it on the page? When you see your crush in the hall, do you feel your cheeks get warm? Do you want to run and hide or profess your undying love? Or maybe both.
All of these things are the stuff of LIVING. And you can’t write about life if you’re not living it.
Lastly, I have a fun assignment for you! Seek out other kinds of stories. Plays! Movies! TV shows! All of these things are stories told in different formats. Not only will they keep your creative juices flowing, but you might just find your interest in writing extends beyond book writing.
Let’s recap! To give yourself the best head start possible for a future writing career;
1) Read as much as you can. Anything! Everything!
2) Pick a consistent time each day or week when you will sit down and write something. Anything!
3) Think. Go beyond the obvious to establish empathy for people who are different than you and to see things in a new way.
4) Observe. Pay attention to the little details that make a story – and life – interesting.
5) Broaden your story horizons.
And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Adolescence is a busy time for most people. Keep your eye on the ball of what you want for your future, but recognize that all the living you’re doing now is setting you up to write about it later. Someday you’ll be surprised at all you did and learned when you didn’t even know you were doing it! And believe me when I say that you have lots of time for other writing-related stuff after high school (and even college).
Feel free to put your writing questions in Comments. And join me next Monday for Self-Editing, a Checklist.