writing advice for teenagers

03/16/15 Uncategorized , Writing , Young Writers Series # , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Online Young Writer’s Series Week Three; Publishing Options

Last week in the Young Writers series we talked about self-editing. Namely, what you should really be looking for when revising your work before passing it on to someone else. I got quite a few messages about the post and am glad it was helpful to so many of you.

This week we’re talking about the different kinds of publishing. Or SOME of them anyway. It used to be that you sent your book to an agent or editor at a traditional publishing house and left it in the hands of universe. There were big publishing houses and small publishing houses, but they all pretty much did the same thing. The big houses just had more money and more clout.

All that has changed over the last decade or so. With the advent of self-publishing, it’s become easier than ever to to see your words in print. But it’s also become more confusing than ever, because now you have OPTIONS, and all of those options come with inherent pros and cons. It can be tough to know what to do and how best to get your work to readers.

And I hate to say it, but there’s no easy answer. Plus, I’m not big on giving people answers. I like to give information instead. Then YOU can come up with your own answers.

😉

Let’s start with TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING. For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to call traditional publishers those that typically pay decent advances and have similar processes when it comes to acquiring new work, marketing, etc. We’re also going to stick with the bigger companies that have been around a while in this category, not because smaller houses don’t add value to the process, but because I’m giving them their own section in Boutique Publishing (below).

When you think of traditional publishers, you probably think of companies like HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Little Brown, and Penguin. But the are lots of companies that would be categorized as part of Trad Pub, and many of the smaller ones are divisions of the bigger ones (called IMPRINTS).

Traditional Publishing is the toughest way to get your work to the general population. This is because to many, it’s still the gold standard in publishing, and there are many layers to the process of being signed with them.

First of all, barring some personal connection to an editor, you MUST have an agent. Editors at traditional publishing houses stopped accepting unaccented manuscripts a long time ago. There are just too many of them, and an agent is one way editors can narrow their focus to work that has, on some level at least, already been vetted by a professional. Once an editor reads your book and likes it, they typically have to take it to Acquisitions, and that means getting a whole bunch more people on board with your book (more on that process in Week Five: How Do I Sell My Book?). By the time your book is actually bought by the publisher, LOTS of people have agreed that it’s a viable book, which means one that will make everyone money. And while it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss this part of the equation, remember that advances to authors cost money. Paying editors and marketing people and cover designers and accountants and legal people cost money. Having offices to do all of this stuff costs money. Marketing books costs money.

So… yeah. I have thoughts on the Trad Pub model of deciding where this money goes (because I don’t always agree), but I’ll save that for another time. For now, let’s just accept that big business costs big money to run, so they’re not going to buy books  they don’t think they can sell.

One note of clarification; just because THEY don’t think they can sell it doesn’t mean it WON’T sell. Keep reading.

😉

So it’s hard to break into Trad Pub, but the silver lining is that there is a certain amount of quality control involved with books that are traditionally published. At the very least, they’ve been edited and deemed good enough to buy by lots of people on the publishing team. That PROBABLY means the book doesn’t suck, and that is worth something to readers, most of whom view books that are trad pubbed as safer bets than books that are, say, self-pubbed (I’m not saying this is always true, just that this is a typical school of thought… keep reading!). Some of that street cred is passed onto you when you publish traditionally. Whatever happens to your book in terms of sales, you’ve SOLD BOOKS to big publishing houses, and that isn’t very easy to do.

Upsides to Trad Pub include more money to spend on advances and marketing. Not that this money will go to you – advances and marketing treatments vary wildly in publishing. But at least you know they HAVE it. It’s also easier to get placement for your book in bookstores, which have limited shelf space and are very picky about what they put on display. Lastly, you have access to a lot of expertise in all facets of publishing, so at the very least, it’s a tremendous learning experience, both on the editorial side (working with a great editor will make you a better writer like nothing else) and with regards to cover design, marketing, etc.

But I’m not going to lie; there are downsides. Remember all that money I told you about? Money for advances and marketing? Well, it’s far from even distribution. One book might get a $5,000 advance and another might get $500,000. One book might get a teeny-tiny marketing budget while another gets a massive campaign. And let me stop you before you say you don’t care about marketing.

You do. You SO do.

That’s because once you publish a book, those numbers follow you to the next book. And the next. If your book doesn’t sell well (which it’s much less inclined to do without significant marketing – there are just SO MANY BOOKS in the world now), your next contract, if you can get one, will likely be much less lucrative, setting you up for an endless cycle of low advance/low marketing that almost assures your authorial demise in Trad Pub. Publishers want to protect their investment, so they spend most of their marketing dollars on books that garner big advances. And those are a tiny minority of books that are bought by them, which means it’s tough for all the other books in the line up to get the kind of attention that makes Trad Pub an advantage over other methods of publishing.

Timing is also a factor with Trad Pub. Because they’re so big and have so many books, your book likely won’t be published until at least a year-and-a-half after the publishing house acquires it (I waited more than two full years for Prophecy of the Sisters).

Lastly, the amount of input you have in a traditional publishing house will likely be small. This is true when it comes to everything – marketing, cover design, even the title of your book. I’ve been lucky with LIES I TOLD, because HarperTeen has been very inclusive about title and design, but that hasn’t always been the case. And the bottom line is this; when you sell your book and accept an advance, you are no longer its sole proprietor.

In a perfect scenario, one where you get a good advance and a great marketing plan and have lots of talented people rooting for you at the publishing house, Trad Pub can be awesome. But that endorsement comes with the caveat that I’ve sold books to four major publishing houses now, and my experiences have been mixed.

Let’s move on!

I’m going to refer to BOUTIQUE PUBLISHING here as companies that are small and/or up and coming. Just a few years ago, these publishers were divided into camps; traditional boutique publishers (small companies who published print books) and digital boutique publishers (those starting to publish books on digital platforms for ereaders). Back then, many traditional boutique publishers didn’t really have a handle on the rise of digital publishing, and digital publishers didn’t have a mechanism for getting printed books into bookstores.

All of that has changed. Most small traditional publishers have become savvy about digital publishing and how to use it to their advantage, and new distributors have stepped up to provide brick-and-mortar placement for boutique houses that once specialized in ebooks. This is all awesome news for writers, so let’s start with the upsides!

Working with a boutique publisher can mean more hands-on input about cover, title, and marketing. This isn’t always the case, but most of the time you have fewer cooks in the kitchen with a small house, and that means you have direct access to the people collaborating on these decisions. Timing can also be accelerated with a small publisher (although not always), meaning your book may make it in front of readers much faster than it would with traditional publishing.

Small publishers tend to cater to niche markets. That means if you write romance or sci-fi or erotica, or any “genre” novel, you won’t be competing against all of those books PLUS books in every other category for a spot. And once the book is published, that publisher may have a loyal following of readers in that genre who trust them to publish the books they like. Translation; sometimes it’s an easier way in.

Most importantly, small publishers can be more accessible to writers both before and after publication. You don’t always need an agent to get your manuscript in front of an editor, and after your book is acquired, you’ll likely have direct access to many of the people on your team.

As with anything, there can be downsides. Easier access and acquisition isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes (not all the time!) a book isn’t picked up by Trad Pub because, well, it’s just not good enough. It could be that it needs more editing or it’s in a waning genre or any number of other things, but sometimes having your book rejected by Trad Pub is a blessing in disguise.

When I first got an agent, we tried to sell my second book. I loved that book. I thought it was absolutely perfect. But it didn’t sell, and while I was super disappointed, I’d spent the months it was on submission working on a Gothic fantasy called Indigo Sky. That book became Prophecy of the Sisters. The failure of my second book to sell prompted me to seek out a new agent, and I ended up with Steven Malk and Writer’s House, who have been amazing to me and amazing for my career. Prophecy sold for a much larger advance than that second book ever would have, insuring me more marketing and a better start in the business. I believe I would have been published either way (I wrote five books in two-and-a-half years – I was DETERMINED), but I think it would have been a rougher start with that second book, and there’s no telling where I’d be now.

The thing is, those editors knew my second book wasn’t ready, even if I didn’t. If I were trying to sell it now, maybe I’d sell it to a smaller publisher or self-pub it. But that wouldn’t magically render it ready. It wouldn’t magically render it GOOD. And do I want a book with my name on it floating around out there if it’s not, at the very least, GOOD?

No.

Small publishers also have less money to spend on marketing, although this is only an issue if we’re talking about the BIG money spent in traditional publishing compared to the small money spent in boutique publishing. If your book falls into the latter category, there might not be much of a difference between small money in Trad Pub and average money in Boutique Pub. Also, your advance with a small publisher will likely be small or even non-existent. Maybe you’ll make it up in royalties, maybe not.

Let’s move on to our last category; SELF-PUBLISHING.

Self-Publishing used to be a four-letter-word in publishing. It was only done (supposedly) by hacks; people who weren’t good enough to sell their books to a “real” publisher. And to be fair, this criticism wasn’t always unfounded. There are downsides to making it easy for anyone and everyone to upload their writing and call it a book. Because let’s face it; writing is harder than it looks, and just because you love to read and own a computer, well, that doesn’t mean you’re a great writer.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t write! I say if something brings you joy, do it! But as a reader, let’s be honest; it sucks to take a chance on a book, pay for it with your hard earned money, and then have it be downright bad.

Luckily, self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it once did, and there are endless resources available to make sure your work is as professional as possible before you show it to the world. You can hire editors and cover designers and even PR people to help you get the word out. And if you’re on a budget, there are countless resources online that will give you information about how to do these things yourself. You can collaborate with other self-published others on Twitter and Facebook, cross-promoting and learning the ropes from each other.

You also have complete control. Over your title, your cover, your release date. Everything. If your cover doesn’t play well with readers, you can change it and have the new one up in twenty-four hours. If you need to make edits after it’s been published, you can do that, too. Your book can be released within days, and your paychecks (if your book sells) will start arriving within a couple of months.

All of that control comes with a price, though, and it’s called RESPONSIBILITY. Your cover will only be as good as the cover designer you hire or the cover you design yourself. Do you have the expertise to do it? Does your cover designer REALLY know what makes for a cover that sells books? Your book will only be as good as  the editor you hire and the revisions you make. Nothing can destroy a book’s potential like a bad editor — or an author unwilling to make the changes necessary for the book to shine. Are you willing to do that? Do you have access to an editor that REALLY knows what he/she is doing? Marketing is a HUGE part of self-publishing. There is no publisher to send press releases or get your book up on Goodreads or give out advance copies to librarians and teachers at conferences. Do you have the time and knowledge to make all that happen?

If so, self-publishing may be for you, and many authors have made a name for themselves (and a good living) doing it.

Bottom line; there are more options than ever for writers. By taking a hard look at your work, your goals, and your resources, you can decide which route is best for you. The good news is, if it doesn’t work out, those other options are still out there, and there’s nothing saying you can’t switch gears later on. Many traditionally published authors are now “hybrid authors”, which means they traditionally publish some of the their work and use other methods as well.

I hope this helps! Please feel free to leave questions in the Comments section. And check back next Monday for Week Four; A Word About Outside Advice.

Because not all advice is good advice.

😉

Also, we’re doing an awesome video project for the LIES I TOLD launch and would love for you to participate! All you have to do is send a video via Skype to LIESITOLD detailing a lie you’ve told yourself or one someone else has told you, how that lie has impacted you or your self-esteem, and how you go about moving on from the lie. The first five people to submit videos win a personal Skype video from me plus a signed hardcover of LIES I TOLD. And I’m participating, too. Yikes!

Check out the details an my video message about the project here.

 

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03/09/15 Uncategorized , Writing # , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Online Young Writers Series Week Two; Self-Editing

Welcome back, young writers!

🙂

Last week we talked about the things you can do now to give yourself a head start if you’d like to write as a career. This week we’re going to talk about self-editing, because while EVERY writer needs an editor other than themselves, it wouldn’t be nice to give your book to someone else without first doing some work on it. That’s because NO BOOK IS EVER “DONE” right after you finish writing it.

One more time for good measure.

NO BOOK IS EVER “DONE” RIGHT AFTER YOU FINISH WRITING IT.

It doesn’t matter how awesome it is or how much you love it. And that goes for every author everywhere.

Even if you circle back and edit as you go (I do this in 100 page increments), you won’t have an objective view on the book until you get some distance from it and then read it front to back. Even then, you will STILL need an outside reader/editor. But they will hate you less because you will have done at least some of the clean up ahead of time.

😉

When I first started editing my work, waaaaaaay back in 2005 when I started trying to get published, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, and to be honest, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know what I was looking for. Of course, there was the obvious; typos, inconsistencies in the timeline, pieces I’d forgotten to take out when I’d cut other pieces with which they connected, etc.

But I wasn’t focused on the big picture at first. You know what made me start focusing on the big picture? Reading for OTHER people.

I belonged to a few online writer’s forums and began trading work with a couple of people I liked and admired (one of them is now also published, which was so fun and exciting to find out). It was only when I started reading for other writers that I saw the things that REALLY mattered. And it wasn’t typos (although I should say for the sake of clarification that your manuscript shouldn’t be riddled with them).

That was a turning point in my own self-editing evolution, because I was able to look for the things I knew readers would notice.

But before I get to the checklist, I want to stress one very important thing about self-editing; GIVE YOURSELF TIME AWAY FROM YOUR MANUSCRIPT BEFORE YOU BEGIN EDITING.

I know, I know. You’re DYING to read it! DYING to send it out to other people so they can read it! DYING to start querying agents! DYING to put it up on Amazon and Apple and B&N if you’re self-publishing.

But trust me on this; you will NOT see your work objectively until you give your mind time to breathe. Consider it a palette cleanser, like those little dishes of sorbet they give you between courses at super fancy restaurants. Work on something else, read, take walks, hang with friends, watch movies. Anything BUT start revising your manuscript. In a perfect world, you’d be able to give yourself at least a month away from it, but if you absolutely can’t wait that long, promise me you’ll wait at least two weeks.

Pinky promise?

Good.

Once you’ve had a break, go back and start reading your manuscript with these things in mind (this checklist pulls from a talk I give to schools and libraries about self-editing);

1) Setting

Setting is so important to that immersive quality you get in a good book. It’s the thing that makes you really feel like you’re in a different place, like you can taste the food and smell the air and see the trees and flowers and weather unique to that area. A well developed setting makes the reader feel like they are THERE. This was a very big part of Prophecy of the Sisters. The rural New York setting in the late 1800s allowed me to create a lot of the creepy, moody vibe that pervades the book, with fog hanging low over the fields and shrouding the mountains, rain battering the windows, and the wind making an old house creak. In A Temptation of Angels it was Victorian London, its nighttime air sooty with lamp smoke, the clatter of carriages a backdrop to everything outside. In This Wicked Game it was modern day New Orleans with sultry, humid weather, the sound of jazz bands, the smell of magnolias. And in LIES I TOLD it’s a California paradise on a cliff over the water where wild peacocks strut the streets and parrots flit through a thick canopy of trees, the sound of the surf breaking against the cliff like a lullaby to everyone who lives there.

See what I mean? It’s important! And even suburban America has a look, feel, and smell. Your job is to capture it so fully that it almost feels like another character in your book – without distracting from the story.

2) Character Development

This might seem obvious, but the nuances to creating well-rounded characters are many and sometimes difficult to quantify. In short, you want your characters to come on the scene fully developed, with a personality, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, habits and tics. And you want your protagonist to change somehow through the happenings of your story. To arc, if you will. The protagonist could start out strong and be broken by the end. He could be broken and grow strong. She could be rigid and unmoving and the grow to see that things aren’t so black and white. The important thing is that your character be so unique that he or she isn’t interchangeable with just anybody.

In Prophecy of the Sisters, Lia starts out the meeker of the two twins and must grow to own the responsibility that is hers, even if it means forsaking her twin. In A Temptation of Angels, Helen evolves from a sheltered, over-protected Victorian girl to someone willing to risk her life to save others. In This Wicked Game, Clare eventually begins to question her disbelief in voodoo, and her harsh judgement of those who practice it, when she realizes that life is a lot more mysterious than we think. In LIES I TOLD, Grace begins to question not only the things other people tell her about herself, but the things she’s believed to be true as well – all in an effort to become more fully HERSELF. Not the Grace everyone else says or believes she is, but the one she in in her heart, and the one she most wants to be.

A big part of the fun and challenge of reading about interesting characters is watching them grow and change. Make sure yours are fully developed from the beginning, and that the main characters make some kind of emotional, physical, or mental journey in the story.

3) Relationship development

This is very similar to Character Development. In real life, our relationships with others are sometimes complicated, full of love and dislike and competition and jealousy and admiration. And as people undergo change, so too, do our relationships with others. This should be reflected in your story. Relationships should be authentic, backed up by what you show or tell us about them. This is easiest to illustrate in a love story. In a good one, we see the gradual progression from first meeting to love through a series of (hopefully realistic) encounters and exchanges. But relationship development can be more complicated when it comes to other types of relationships. If two people have always been competitive, that should be evident, even subtly, in their interaction and/or the accompanying exposition, and that should be true of any relationship you build. If you show us that someone is protective of someone else, that dynamic should be evident throughout, until and if it isn’t anymore.

In Prophecy of the Sisters, Lia and Alice grow from having a slightly distant relationship to being actual enemies, and then find their way back to each other in a more honest way. In A Temptation of Angels, Helen has an adversarial relationship with Darius, Griffin’s older, cynical brother. But in the end, Darius comes to respect her, and she comes to see beneath his brittle facade. In This Wicked Game, Clare and her parents are at odds. Clare doesn’t want any part of voodoo, but it’s an important part of her parent’s history and current business. We see them clash in the beginning, but gradually Clare’s stance softens, and her mother thaws a bit, too. In Lies I told, Grace and Parker start out close, like the adopted siblings they are, then grow apart as their goals diverge.

Whatever the relationships in your story, make sure they are authentic and fully developed. Think about the complexities of your own relationships! Try to capture them on the page.

4) Pacing

Pacing is the speed with which a reader moves through your story, and it is largely dependent on the things you’ve included, the things you’ve omitted, and the way the story is structured.

When I’m preparing to write a book, I use a screenwriting “beat sheet” to outline the pivotal moments in the story (you can find sample beat sheets online). Then I write a 4-5 page summary of the story, laying out those pivotal moments within the narrative of the story. To keep things moving, you want to move between pivotal moments as quickly as possible.

When you read a book that feels slow, it’s often because the writer has rambled a bit in the space between pivotal events. It’s okay to mention what a character’s wearing from time to time, for example, or to show us what they order at a diner. But we don’t need to see what they’re wearing everyday (unless this is a book with a fashion component or it serves the plot somehow), and we don’t need to hear about every meal they eat.

When I was working on pacing it helped me to visually my book like a movie. In a movie if two people are going to a diner to eat, we don’t always see them in the car in the way there. And indeed we SHOULDN’T – unless something happens in the car that is material to the plot or some other important facet of the story. More often than not we’ll see two people agreeing to go to the diner, and then the director will cut immediately to the diner and the conversation that takes place there, because THAT is the next pivotal moment.

See what I mean?

Structure can play a part in this, too. Sometimes we can most easily see the things we need to see with POV shifts or flashbacks. Whatever it takes!

5) Voice

Voice is that intangible quality that makes you feel like you’re inside a character’s head. It’s a hard thing to learn, so I can’t really tell you how to do it. But I can say the best way to cultivate voice is to first look closely at the things I’ve laid out so far. If your setting is rich and atmospheric, if your characters are fully fleshed out, if their relationships with others are real and sincere, voice will often come naturally.

I heard Lia’s voice in my head before I ever started writing. It was somber and a little heavy. Helen’s voice was young and scared in the beginning and grew to be strong and even a little impetuous. Clare was difficult for me at first. She was just a normal, modern girl. How could I make her stand out? I waited for a long time to start This Wicked Game because I couldn’t hear Clare in my head. I thought about her when I drove or when I cooked, imagined what she would think of various things. Then one day, she was just there. Grace came easily to me and by the time I’d written the Prologue, I had her in my head. Her voice in LIES I TOLD is a little sad, a little weary. I had trouble with voice at first in my current WIP, so I wrote a stream of consciousness narrative for each of the two main characters until I felt like I “knew” them.

You can do this too!

Try writing something short from the first-person POV of someone you know. It could be someone from school, a sibling, a friend, your bus driver. Imagine what that person thinks about, what matters to them. There are no rules! Just choose something to write about and go. It can be about that lonely kid on the bus who never talks to anyone on the way home or the bus driver who always looks so tired. What is he/she thinking about? What matter to him/her? Just write a stream of consciousness something in this person’s POV. You can do this anytime you want as an exercise, and you can do it with the characters in your book if you’re having trouble nailing their voice. In the case of the latter, do it until it feels right, because it’s important that you have that down when you begin.

Voice is also YOUR voice. That is, the unique quality to your writing that will make a reader know they are reading a Michelle Zink book or a John Smith book or a Jane Doe book, even when those books seem wildly different on the surface. That isn’t something that can be taught, but it can be cultivated. How?

Simple. You have to write. A LOT.

6) Authenticity

Few things are as important as this. Have you ever read a book and groaned aloud because, well, people don’t TALK like that!?! Or you just know that character wouldn’t do that? In movies this is a big pet peeve of mine. I call it the “Running from an Explosion” effect. It’s like, really? The building explodes  and they just run and they’re okay? They don’t get hit with debris or anything? They don’t get cut or banged up?

But dialog and narrative can be tricky too. Try to hear your characters in your head (having their voice down will help with this) so you can imagine them talking. Remember that most real people use contractions. They do not say something like this. They’re much more likely to say it like this.

😉

I’ve been lucky to have teenagers and young people in my house for the last ten years, so I’m pretty much surrounded by youth speak at all times. The downside is that I probably sound like a sixteen year old sometimes, but the upside is that I’ve always gotten compliments on my dialog. Just remember that speech, like everything else, is affected by character development. A surfer from California probably won’t sound the same as a street-wise kid from New York City, and THEY will probably sound different from someone who’s grown up on a farm.

But one word of warning; don’t make caricatures out of your characters! Just because someone is from the Bronx doesn’t mean they Towk Like This. And just because they’re from California doesn’t mean they’re, like, soooo stupid! Think about your character, where and how they grew up, who they ARE, and let that inform your dialog and the story to make both authentic.

7) Plot

This is kind of a loaded bullet point for the sake of this online series. There are TONS of diagrams and graphs online to illustrate story arc. As I’ve said, I use a beat sheet when I plot out my books, but it doesn’t matter what you use; just make sure your books HAS a plot.

Most plots are made of up the following; Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, and Climax. You could go crazy looking up all the varying perspectives on plot. There are subcategories to the above, and sometimes subcategories to subcategories. But the main thing to remember is that a plot has CONFLICT, and pretty much everything in the book revolves around the resolution of that conflict. Sometimes it helps me to see Conflict as Goal. In Prophecy of the Sisters, the goal was to figure out the Prophecy (first book) and then bring it to an end (in the second and third books). In A Temptation of Angels, it was for Helen, Griffin, and Darius to figure out who was hunting them and why, and then eliminate that danger. In This Wicked Game, it was for Clare to figure out what the mysterious woman wanted and how she was connected to the Guild – and to Clare’s family. And in LIES I TOLD, it’s Grace’s internal conflict between staying on the grift with her family even if it means betraying someone she loves or finding a way to have a real life.

A plot isn’t wandering around in a made-up world seeing interesting things and it’s not just people talking. There has to be a conflict, and from that conflict a goal typically arises (goal=to resolve conflict). Make sure your story has these things, and it will also have the kind of order that makes a book readable and engaging.

Whew! That was quite a lesson. I hope it helps. Please feel free to leave any questions in the Comments section, and please pass this along to any other young writers.

Remember that you can go back and read last week’s lesson about how to prepare for a future writing career. There are lots of different ways to get your words to reader, and next week we’ll be talking about the different paths to publication and the pros and cons of each, including traditional publishing, boutique publishing, and self-publishing.

And you guys! Less than a month until LIES I TOLD releases. Then you can all read Grace’s story.

🙂

 

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03/02/15 Uncategorized , Writing # , , , , , ,

Online Young Writers Series Week One; Preparation

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.

<3

 

 

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Michelle Zink is the award-winning author of over seven novels. She lives in New York with too many teenagers and too many cats.
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