Ten Things I’d Like To Say To Young Writers

More and more I’m allowed the benefit of corrupting the minds of creative writing students out there in the world, which is awesome for me, and probably disturbing for them.

Regardless, as I am occasionally mistaken as some kind of “person who knows things” when it comes to writing, I feel like I have a few things I’d like to say to you Young Penmonkeys out there — those of you between the ages of, mmm, say, 16-21. Not to say this won’t also apply to others who want to be professional writers when you grow up, but it is aimed specifically at that age range both in terms of what I remember being like then (ugh!) and what I see when I meet these amazing, ass-kicking creative writing students.

I’m about to be 38 next week (my mantra being a loudly hooted NOT YET 40 WOOOO) and I had my first short story published at 18, and my first taste of professional writing work at… age 21? Or something like that? So, I’ve been out there quite a while. Which means you should listen to me.

*whacks you in the head with my old man cane*

LISTEN TO MY WISDOM YOU YOUNG PUNKS

You Do Not Require That Degree

You don’t get a creative writing degree because you need it. You get it because you want it, and because you have chosen a program that holy crap does what it’s supposed to do — teach you how to write a goddamn story. But don’t go for this degree hoping it’s some kind of Magical Wonka Ticket to the Dreamy City Of Authoropolis in the clouds — in all the writing I have done over the last 18 years, over the literal millions of words I’ve written, nobody, not one motherfucker on the paying side of the fence, has asked me about my degree. They want to know: “Can you write?” And then I write. It is a pure and wonderful relationship.

I’m not saying your degree is worthless. I’m happy I have mine because I really did learn how to hone my wordsmithy as a creative writing student. And besides, these days almost no degree is a Magical Wonka Ticket. Hell, I’m pretty sure most college degrees double-up as placemats and paper towels (though not particularly absorbent, I am sad to report).

And if you’re thinking about an MFA…

If you need it, great.

Otherwise: just get out there and write, yeah? Student loan debt ain’t awesome. That money is better spent on travel, life, experiences, crates of Ramen noodles, porn, boxed wine.

You’re Not That Good

Sorry! Nope. Not that good.

This will frustrate the vibrating fuck out of you because you want so badly to be good. Anybody does when they begin an endeavor, particularly when they’re young — you pick up a guitar or sit down at a video game or Try To Do The Sex and you’re basically clumsy thumbs and inward screaming and then a lamp breaks and someone is crying. You’re looking at published work. Or the work of your peers. And you want to be instantly that awesome. It’s frustrating to be not-that-good because you feel like, this is what you want to do, and you need to justify that desire now by putting out top-shelf, high-octane writing. And you’re young, so life feels shorter than it really is. You have time. This is, as I have said many-a-time, a long con, not a short game.

Ira Glass actually said a wonderful thing about this:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

But You’re Not Supposed To Be Good

You’re not actually meant to be good. Not being good is how you get better. Not being good means you’re in that formative, fundamental blobby parthogenesis period where The Authorial You just starts to emerge. Not being good is how we are forced to take the time to not just Get Good, but also Become Us. You’re not yet the Author That You Will Become. This is all normal. Be bold enough to suck with gleeful abandon — but also know that your critical urge to be better-faster-now is a good one. Don’t quit. Don’t rest. Force yourself to improve.

And You’re Still Probably Better Than You Sometimes Think

Let’s be honest. The Internet is mostly writers. We’re everywhere. Like roaches inside a hoarder’s house, feeding on whatever old pizza and dead chihuahuas got trapped under that collapsing stack of National Geographic magazines. We’re breeding like cats and rabbits. (“Crabbits?”)

Thing is, if you’re actually in a creative writing program, you’re probably better than a lot of the yahoos on the Intertubes who want to be writers. I’ve read some really awful things by some truly deluded people — people who do not have writing professors tell them, “This is actually very shitty. D-minus. Do better, for Chrissakes.”

So, no, you’re not that good.

But you’re probably better than you sometimes think, or fear.

And you’re almost certainly better than the delusional sub-layer of authorial treacle found on these here Internets. That’s gotta be worth something, right? Hell, most people can’t string together a cogent Facebook status update, so.

Worry Less About The Business Now

You want to ask about publishing and payment and all the perks of being a writer, I get that. And yes, every writer does get a special Members-Only jacket to begin with, and after that it’s like leveling-up your character in a roleplaying game. You can choose new Talents and Tricks. I can actually type with my tongue, for one. I also can transmogrify coffee into words!

But the publishing industry right now is like Los Angeles: it’s sitting squarely atop a giant trembling fault line, and constant earthquakes big and small continue to move the crusty mantle beneath our feet. So, by the time you’re ready to actually sell words, who knows what will happen? PERHAPS WE WILL ALL BE HUNTING EACH OTHER IN A DOOMED WASTELAND. Or maybe it’ll be limousines and eight-figure book-deals, I have no idea.

Point is, don’t sweat it. Don’t sweat genre. Don’t sweat medium. Learn as much as you can about the actual process of writing — think about narrative construction across multiple formats and aim to be well-read and well-taught across the spectrum. The industry will be what the industry will be when you get there. You’re not there. Worry about you and your work, not where you or your work will end up. Think present more than future.

This Is The Time To Write Whatever The Fuck You Want

Not thinking about markets or industry yet means: you can and should go bug-eyed apeshit cuckoo bananapants when it comes to your work. Write anything. Anything that itches so bad at your fingertips that to not write it would constitute a drug withdrawal reaction. Any genre. Any genre mix. Any medium. Any mix of media. Whatever. Fuck it. You are afforded an early chance at play-time. That’s what this stage is. It’s sand-boxes and cheap wine and you making your own toys without anybody telling you what your toys should look like.

Embrace it.

It’s Okay To Ape The Voices Of Others

You will try to sound like the authors you love. This is normal. This is okay. This is also perhaps often expressed as fan-fiction, and that is very rad. Again: this is play-time. So? Play.

Write Often And Write Enough And Your Voice Will Find You

You will chase your voice like a dog chasing a car, but you’ll never catch it. Because you were your voice all along. You were never the dog. You were always the car. You were never Jack. You were always Tyler Durden. And yes, Fight Club is just one big metaphor for becoming a writer. (Okay, maybe not.) (But maybe?) (Nah.) (Buuuut…)

You find your voice by doing. And by rewriting. You won’t want to rewrite now. You won’t want to edit. Edits feel like you’re not good, like you’re being insulted, like having to fix it means it was broken to begin with. But recognizing broken things is a value. A skill. You get as many shots at the goal as you want. Let that be freeing, not punishing.

In writing a lot and rewriting a lot, your voice will find you.

One day you’ll say: “Oh, so that’s what I sound like.”

And it’ll be amazing.

The World Will Lie To You About Being An Artist

Almost nobody in a position of Adult Responsibility thinks you should be a writer. Even your professors will probably, if pressured whilst drunk, quietly whisper: hurry, go learn accounting.

Being an artist is not a path that accords a lot of respect, which is almost ironic given how much our society is driven by art and artists — it is a monster-sized industry, and yet somehow everyone seems to think that it’s tiny and impenetrable, like an old-timey bank safe. A lot of this doubt comes from a good place. They want you to be safe and taken care of and admittedly, being an artist is a risk. Society all on its own doesn’t support artists very well (though it’s getting there, and I swear to Sweet Saint Fuck if anybody tries to take away my new guaranteed healthcare I will shiv them in the pancreas), and so people tell you not to be an artist and the cycle continues.

But creative work exists. It exists, and pays.

You have to get good doing it.

You have to learn how to make money doing it.

Art isn’t just Doing Art all the time, and this is why you should also learn other skills that your creative writing classes probably won’t teach you — from marketing to editing to business practices to how to budget and balance your bank accounts and pay your taxes. I know, ew, taxes. But this is how being an artist is done. Your parents or whoever will tell you just not to bother. I’m telling you to bother, but gather the skills needed — skills that go well-beyond writing, painting, singing, or other art-making.

(A small rant of mine is that so many creative writing programs are way over-focused on writing — particularly writing literary books rather than genre-flavored anything. Art programs in general need to teach more than just the creative stuff. Because you have to also survive at being an artist, and in that survival, practical skills are key.)

Finish Your Shit

But then it all comes back to this.

You will never be the writer you want if you cannot complete what you begin.

Ironically, some of the professors who are teaching you have not yet mastered this.

You’re young, and you will leave behind you a trail of unfinished story-corpses. That’s okay. No shame, there. But there comes a point when you have to stay on that bucking bull till it finally tires and dies in the dust. You can’t just keep not finishing things. Art must reach a conclusion. Stories have endings. You can always go back and edit — but you have nothing meaningful to edit if you don’t finish what you begin in the first damn place.

This is the hardest skill, I think, that I learned as a young writer. Just merely to finish. It’s easier not to. It’s easier to talk about writing than to do the writing. The work you never finish always exists in what appears to be a perfect, gleaming state — a young, preserved corpse on display, its James-Deanian potential perfectly captured in its youth and naivete. But fuck that jibber-jabber. Storm the beach. Suck if you must. But finish what you begin.

And then rewrite until it’s right.

173 comments

  • This is … a little depressing (that may be because I’m 15). Maybe I don’t have the emotional complexity of some adult writers, I don’t know. But at least I can (and have) finished novel-length works. That has to count for something, right?

    Strangely enough, I don’t think I ever went through a phase of copying my favourite writers… Hm.

    And yeah, now I’m editing/2nd Drafting and I’ve just spent months patching enormous plotholes but at least they’re fixed now and I can go back to doing what I enjoy – actual writing (this time with an outline. I’m many things, but I’m not crazy. Much.)

    • Yeah, it’s a bit depressing to hear adults tell you that you’re not that good. Yet. But it’s true: this is a patience game, a long con, and the older I get and the more I write, the better I get at it.

      And I hear horror sells really well, so maybe look into that, if you’re interested.

      Something universities don’t say is that you will probably Figure It Out a year or two after uni, when it’s had time to settle into your brain. Or maybe that was just me…

    • Rose, that you’ve finished novel length works at 15 says something very important… you’re serious. I’ve had…hell, probably hundreds of adults, in their forties, fifties and up–people who are doctors, lawyers, mechanics, cashiers, the gamut–say to me… Ya know, I keep thinking about writing a book…I just don’t know how. You figured out what they haven’t. You write a book by starting it. Then you’ve gone all the way through and finished.

      So yeah, it counts for something. It actually counts for a whole lot…and keep writing. That’s how you get better. 🙂 😉 My first ‘real’ story was 30 hand-written pages of purple schlock in a notebook, written during 7th grade history glass.

    • What a huge accomplishment for someone your age! I used to teach junior high and I don’t think I ever had a student who could write an entire novel. It’s a tough business to be in but you’re starting very young to practice your skills and that counts for an awful lot. Keep on writing!

    • What they said.
      You’re miles ahead.
      Multiple novel length works? That’s… I’m 39 and I started three and haven’t finished one. Think on that. Working on completing one at the moment, yeah but. You’re ahead of me in that respect.
      The writing and FINISHING’s the start of the thing, but the EDITING’s the thing.
      Go start finding people who can edit hard as much as you’re arting hard.

    • I know I never consciously copied the voice of other writers, but I also know there have been a few times, particularly at the beginning, that I go back through a finished piece and think “Geez, could I be anymore of a [Neil Gaiman/Joss Whedon/insert name here] fangirl?” when I really evaluated the thing critically. Writers I admire bleed into my work, unconsciously.

      Also, “not that good” isn’t a critique, or an insult, it’s freedom. It’s not about not being old enough, in people years; it’s about not being old enough in writer years. For example, I’m twice your actual age, but we’re about the same age in literary years (nope, you’re probably ahead of me). And you know what? Being Not That Good is freeing. It means that when I’m writing and it reads like I’m throwing feces-words at the page because the words in my head and the words in my hands just aren’t communicating, dammit, it’s all fine because I’m Not That Good anyway. Not That Good just means I get to do more writing! Yay!

      The older I get, the better at writing I may get. But I definitely end up with more writing. And that’s the point.

    • Like you, I was writing as a teenager. I didn’t know how long a novel was supposed to be at the time, so I was still trucking along at 150K…

      I was also depressed when I tried seriously for publication in my early twenties and people kept talking about how much your first novel sucks. I’m 29 now, and much better now than I was then, but I still have miles to go.

      And I think that’s the thing. It’s not your age, mostly, but the lack of time you’ve had available to develop your skill. A writer at 30 isn’t necessarily worst than a writer at 40, if the 30 year old has been writing for ten years and the 40 year old has only been writing for two. If you work at writing for years, there’s a good chance you’ll be a better writer at 21 than most writers will be at 30 who haven’t been doing it for as long.

      I think you’re doing great, you’re much further than most writers out there for finishing and editing your work. Just keep at it, keep finishing and editing and reading about how to write better and you will get there. I am sure you are already wildly talented to have made it this far, this young.

      I think this post is spot on, but there’s also an element that no matter who you are, you will always be able to get better. Stephan King talks about the clumsy attempts of his earlier novels, but he’s had decades now to get better. Of course his twentieth novel is better his first. But you have to actually write those twenty novels, which is something most people miss.

  • There are times when I actually wish I had done creative writing at uni instead of wasting three years on a computer game development degree I ended up hating. But, at the same time, I do wonder if trying to develop my voice in an educational setting would have killed my passion for it. I certainly have to imagine they’d have frowned upon my first serious novel attempt being a pulp exploitation work called Post-Apocalipstick.

    That said, at the tender age of 24, there is a lot here that rings true for me. I am definitely not as good as I’d like to be, with description and action being my biggest areas of weakness. (Seriously, I’m a dialogue fiend. My WIPs look like screenplays at times.)

    But there are also those wonderful moments to strive for where a beautiful golden nugget of prose peeks through the morass of shit around it. Right now it’s all about hammering away at those weaknesses. Thank you Chuck, this blog has proven invaluable over the last couple of years, and I’m sure it will continue to do so.

    • Apocalypstick made me lol a little.

      I also did computer games at one point, and liked it well enough, but it wasn’t Writing. Well, some of it was writing. The C++ bit. And the Powerpoint slides. It just wasn’t what I yearned for. Sometimes you gotta follow what you yearn for.

      Maybe you should actually write screenplays? There’s a lot of crossover, and dialogue is the obvious skill you need for that.

      • Apocalypstick – that’s funny right there. I get the dialog thing too – it moves story in such fun and exciting ways. No harm there. Write a script or a screenplay for giggles. Since you’ve already done the codemonkey thing, you know enough not to write any scenes where HTML is used to represent ‘code’. *cough*

    • “But, at the same time, I do wonder if trying to develop my voice in an educational setting would have killed my passion for it. I certainly have to imagine they’d have frowned upon my first serious novel attempt being a pulp exploitation work called Post-Apocalipstick.”

      Yeah, this is definitely a thing. I loved my undergrad creative writing program, but it took me several years to shake the feeling that I should be writing the next Great American Novel.

      • That’s the other consideration, of course. My writing interests are firmly planted in genre fiction, and most creative writing courses are still entrenched in teaching how to write literary work. Which is fine, but not what I want to do. And, judging by your comment, I’d imagine you don’t either.

        • Over the weekend I stumbled across an MA in Creative Writing offered by a university in Edinburgh which encourages genre writing. They listed both speculative fiction and creative non-fiction in the syllabus, which are my two loves. Plus: Scotland.

          It has gone onto my “if I win the lottery…” list.

  • April 16, 2014 at 8:17 AM // Reply

    I love an internet where Margaret Atwood and Rose share equal billing. I would love Rose to be able, one day, to share the passion she has as a writer. Rose, I am going to ask you to read a Margaret Atwood book, if you have not already, ( anyone of many ) and just for fun ‘copy’ her. A short story perhaps. A great exercise and you will share a great book. Thanks Chuck.

  • I loved reading about the gap between taste and skill. That has caused me so much self doubt and despair over the years. It’s reassuring to know it’s just part of the process.

    • While self-doubt makes us more humble, I don’t think there’s anything wrong about taking pride – realistic, tempered pride – in doing good work. You find the diamond in the rough and you’re like “wow, I actually wrote that gem!” and that’s why you keep doing it. That and your ability to keep going. 100% of those who don’t try, fail. The process is long and time consuming, but it’s so worth it.

  • You have NO idea how powerful your over winded old man speech is. I’m a half accepted person here or there in the writers world. I could build a sand castle from all the dirt I’ve collected on my behind from being pushed down and told. “You’re not doing it right! BEGIN again!” So many authors out there want to say they, believe in creative writers and support them, what they leave out is, ‘in tiny Santa Clause lettering’ only if you don’t suck. WE all suck in the beginning – I’m beginning- and I keep trying! As much as I know I suck …as you have said before, ‘nuclear dog shit’. Know this, I do have broad shoulders I do keep trying and I do support the ‘rip your pages up, burn em and start again club.’ Thanks for recognizing and guiding. You say you’re not the see all end all for writers but you sure as hell have a great voice for us . Thank You, I say as you hold out your hand to help me out of the dirt once more.

  • Never mind young writers, I’d say all of that applies to any writer who is just starting out (I include myself in this). Those who are a little longer in the tooth might not feel the “this is the time to write whatever the fuck you want” line applies to them as they don’t have enough time left in their lives for that. I think it’s an important factor whatever your age, as you still need to develop those writing chops.

    • It’s really more for young-in-experience, not young-in-age. But it’s good advice for anyone at any point in their journey. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but swallow it we sometimes must. And the thing is, you do get better with experience, hard work, dedication and time. Age probably also helps. Maturity, wisdom, experience. And maybe whiskey.

      • Another thing that I’ve been realising lately is that different parts of your craft can mature at different paces. I’ve been writing a long time, and I have some confidence in my ability-to-string-words-together craft. But my story-structure craft is still weak, and I need to remind myself that it’s not that I suck, it’s that I’m still learning.

  • Thanks for all of this–but thanks especially for that first point. Most of my writer friends decided to pursue English majors–and I’m happy for them–but I went for Journalism. Wanted a degree that gave me multimedia training and the excuse to poke into the lives of others alongside some basics in structuring narrative. Am I alone? Any other journos–turned–writers here?

  • Thanks for the encouragement! I am within this age bracket and I’m not sure if I am at the point yet where I should be able to spew my word vomit all over the Internet, but I sure do enjoy it and I keep hoping for improvement. In fact just recently I went back to a novel I had tried to write several years ago, when I thought myself somewhat of a literary genius but was in fact producing a form of shit so pure it could be used in a nuclear power plant. And ten years from now I will look back on my writings from today and wonder how I ever could have been a functioning member of society. So thank you for reminding us all that we are works in progress. It is difficult for a kid to remember that she still has a life ahead of her sometimes. 🙂

    • “…when I thought myself somewhat of a literary genius but was in fact producing a form of shit so pure it could be used in a nuclear power plant.” This speaks to me on a spiritual level. Sayeth 14-yr-old me: “I’ll get this published by the time I’m 16 and then I’ll be on Oprah.” Ha. Haha. Ha.

  • @Ben, who I can’t directly reply to because work only lets me use IE (cry). Former Journo here. Journalism is like any skill based degree. IMO it teaches you skills, what you do with those skills is up to you. Journalism (it may have changed) doesn’t teach you to tell a story until later on in studies. At first you learn how to research and how to write a lead, and how to cut your shit down to something people will skim over and get the information out of that they want.

    I got as much out of my journalism years as I did Film Studies and Multimedia/game design. But I’m learning the most about writing and storytelling by actively doing it and harassing those are are futher along the path to look at my work and offer critique.

  • Have you read The War of Art by Stephen Pressman? I blame Resistance on all the unfinished works in my document file and I’m not even young, so there’s no excuse. I like the way you put this together. I’ve been questioning whether I should take a creative writing course or not. Thanks for assuring me that if I did choose to do so, it would not be a waste of my time.

  • Great points, there’s just one thing I’m missing as advice for young people who wanna be artists, and writers in particular: to go out there and live. Make your own experiences, speak with people, see the world, listen and learn (more than to avoid adverbs), get to know yourself and the people around you. In the end, no technique will make you a (good) writer, they just enable you to bring the ideas in your head into a readable form. And the best ideas still come from real life.

    As a sidenote, I liked especially the first point, because outside of the Anglo-Saxon world this whole concept of creative writing degrees is something completely alien and often regarded as something “typical American”. No offense, of course.

  • If I was going to second anything at all, it would be that little bit toward the bottom “Art isn’t just Doing Art all the time” – learn a skill or two to keep you in clothes during the cold weather. I don’t want to soap-box, but I think our education system does a pretty poor job teaching the young about money. Learn how to handle whatever money you might have, and write two novels while working that gas station job.

    I get to talk like that because I’m old and have a cane too. Nyah!

  • Finished Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing workshop recently and, for the first time in my life, have finished not one, but TWO entire stories.

    Man, they suck.

    But there is an undeniable thrill to having learned skills and techniques that let me actually finish a story rather than simply getting lost in the middle and abandoning it on the side of the road, a soggy note stapled to its rotting corpse reading “fuck it.”

    Next up, I’m going to finish a third story. Then I’m going to go back and re-write that first one, maybe make it suck in a different way. Maybe make is suck a little less.

  • This is one of the least patronising articles I’ve seen giving advice to young writers. Yay! 🙂 Seriously, though, a lot of them just assume “young” means “first-time novelist” or “wannabe”. I mean, I’m eighteen. I’ve been writing novels since I was thirteen. Most of the first three years, they were awful. (I wrote them quickly, so there are fourteen of them under my belt, some of them edited several times and some of them left to rot.) After a while I reckon they started getting less terrible, partly because I’d done the trial-and-error part a few times and figured out that sticking to one genre sucked and diverse casts of characters were cool and partly because Life happened a bit and I learned about emotions and experienced things and stuff, and now I’d say they’re halfway decent, although I’ve plenty still to learn. But it frustrates me when people assume that because I’m young, I must be trying to write my first novel when that’s very far from the truth.

  • Youngster! I’m 58, and this is completely relevant to me. I started at 40-something. The stages are there and real, no matter your age. It’s like learning to ride a bike for the first time. Sucks at 58 as much as 7. (Which is why I still can’t ride a bike.)

  • Chuck, thanks for putting the gun back in my hands.

    In my struggle with self doubt, I somehow got soft. Surrounded by well-meaning people with a pious agenda, I questioned my writing skills based on the eye popping stares I received from professors, peers, family and friends. (Although they did laugh, which was the goal all along).

    I changed my voice instead of my name, to appease people who were not going to read my work anyway. A beautiful blond with a Crest-white smile and professional demeanor, I was expected to sit in the corner and write children’s stories or romance.

    Fuck it! I KILL STUPID PEOPLE! I write for shock effect and to wake people up. I don’t need a degree or God’s permission to do it. It’s a service I provide which I think goes further in saving the world than sending missionaries to third world countries.

    Sigh…I’m back! I feel liberated, like I just came out of the closet–with a knife in my belt! Thanks for the straight talk Chuck, you’re priceless! And new writers, don’t waste your time writing about shit you don’t care about–it shows.

  • That Ira Glass quote is one I come back to year after year. The more we write the better we become, and yet there’s still always something new to learn. The moment we decide we’re “great” is the moment we stop progressing.

    Nice post, Chuck.

  • I’ve always been a fan of T.S. Eliot’s observation, although I didn’t fully understand it when I was younger.

    He said that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

    I got a better feel when I was older and had read more from entire authors’ careers. Basically, we all start out imitating what we like. When we’re good, we’re done imitating. We steal forms, styles, tropes and fashion something new and different. That’s when we’re good.

    The other hard lesson is “finish what you start.” Still working on that one.

  • Finish. Finish well then go back and make it better. I love Wendig’s style.
    Now I gotta get the image of a shiv’ed pancreas out of my mind.

  • As a young writer… this is exactly what I needed to hear.

    My only caveat is that there are lots (and I mean LOTS) of MFA programs that don’t require you to pay for anything. They’ll give you a place to live, pay fr the tuition, the books, everything – and then also pay you a stipend. True, these programs usually require you to spend at least one year teaching a class, but that’s reasonable, it seems to me.

    • Totally reasonable! Just the same, important to make sure you’re actually *writing* during that time, and not just getting into the mode of *teaching.*

      Teaching writing, while a noble goal (and something I endeavor to do here), is not the same as writing. 😀

  • April 16, 2014 at 10:58 AM // Reply

    I’m forwarding this to my 16-year-old. So I won’t comment otherwise, because he might read it 🙂

  • I’m a few months short of nineteen, so right in the age range. But boy, do I wish I’d run into this when I was younger – or maybe I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it then. It’s hard to say.

    Anyway, this is good to see right now – I’ve been writing for my whole life on and off, but only more consistently the part couple years (thanks NaNoWriMo!), and it’s unbelievable how much the simple fact of writing LOTS made my writing improve in leaps and bounds. I still have issues finishing, though… hoping to break through them with the current book I’m 25k into.

    The hardest thing for me, though, is to not worry about money or marketing or whatever. I’m not only a chronic overthinker and worrier, I have a difficult home situation (not outright dangerous, just… awful) and had a weird upbringing that left me with very few skills BUT writing because my mom thought women shouldn’t have careers or smth of the kind. So I often get into a frantic ‘must make career of writing NOW’ mood that it’s hard to calm down from. :/

    • Your mom actually thinks women shouldn’t have a career? That is surprising to hear in this day and age. Let’s face it, it’s not easy to make a living at writing. Most writers do have to have a day job. Publishing is an incredibly slow endeavor, the slowest one I have ever experienced. Agents say they love your work and can’t wait to read the whole thing and then you hear from them 5 months later. You are very young and you have your whole life ahead of you. Hang in there! I had a horrible home situation growing up that was very abusive. I’m in my 40’s now and life is great. Left all of that way behind me.

      • Thanks for the words of encouragement. And I was raised, like I said, in a very weird way – until I was in my mid-teens I was completely convinced that I’d get married at 18 and never need a job, even though I hated the idea, because my mom is incredibly anti-feminist (and homophobic and more…) and thinks marriage is the Right and True path for women and teaching girls to work undermines that. Then, in my midteens, I got the ‘but in this day and age you’ll probably need a job. good luck’. talk. Even though she still insists careers for women are bad? She’s a super-inconsistent person.

        I’ve been applying for some ‘day jobs’ lately, mainly very low-rung stuff since I have no experience, but my ultimate goal is to make a living off writing. I keep on trying to remind myself that probably everything will have change in 5-10 years, but at the moment everything seems to stretch on forever… late teens are difficult.

        • You hang in there! You have drive and a passion and that will take you far. God did not give you a gift of writing for no reason! I’m so sorry ( and a bit stunned) that you were undermined growing up like this. I am a Christian and pro marriage and all of that, but my goodness, I can’t imagine teaching my daughter to be helpless. Men who are educated and interesting want educated and interesting women as their partners. Marriage is not a life goal. It’s one aspect of your life. I did end up being a stay home mom… after I got my master’s degree and spent ten years in a career. I love the fact that I have had a career, have been blessed to stay home (and pursue my writing and art while I homeschool my kids) and know that if something happened I could get a job and support myself. Husbands can be sick, injured, or even pass away. Or they can be lousy no good jerks who cheat on their wives and leave them for other women. Or they can be abusive. I didn’t play to be a stay home mom. It worked out best for our family and we were able to make it happen. But if things get tough financially I can go to work. You are intelligent and you have drive. You can do whatever you want! Then you will find a man who RESPECTS you and wants you to be his partner, not his servant. Has she even read Proverbs 31???? That woman is a BUSINESS WOMAN! She buys fields and sells things she made. You may have to work some job while you are writing on the side, but you keep writing. Check out freelance work on eLance. It might be boring stuff, but it’s money. I know someone who makes a ton of money writing stuff for eLance in the financial field. Yeah it’s not sci fi and fantasy but it’s money and not sitting in a cubicle.

          • Oh and one more thing. When my novels get published I will NOT let them market me as a stay home mom like they did Stephanie Meyers. That is one part of my life but I am educated and I have a career. She has degrees and was career woman too, but it undermined her credibility as a writer when they marketed her as some mommy who all of a sudden had this idea in a dream sort of thing. She had been writing for years.

          • Oooh, I know what you mean about the ‘stay at home mum’ thing! They did that to E.L. James too – she was the ‘shy housewife and mum.’ Who…errrmmm… also happened to hold an executive position in a tv production company as her day job, but hey, let’s not mention that ‘cos it kills the whole Horatio Alger vibe, doesn’t it?

            In my case, when my time comes to Get My Stuff Published (I’m still saying ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ at the moment – still burning the optimism torch) they’ll have to market me as a stay-at-home mum ‘cos that’s what I am at the moment (crazy UK childcare costs mean I actually can’t AFFORD to work, unless someone wants someone who can only work term-time, school-hours on weekdays only – and they don’t.) But even then I’d prefer to be called ‘a writer’ rather than ‘a stay-at-home mum who’s written a book.’

            And yes, Maure – don’t let your messed-up past or upbringing hold you back! I did that for years, and it was time wasted that I wish I could get back but can’t. You go for your dreams and don’t let anyone – ANYONE – try to pull you off that path. You don’t need a good marriage and beautiful home to chase your goals – in fact, you’d be surprised how much you don’t need in terms of material stuff.

            Fear nothing. Try everything. And trust your own heart.

          • Wendy I know what you mean about childcare. In the U.S. it’s a fortune. You must say “when” you get published! Gotta keep that positive vibe going. I hope I don’t sound unappreciative of being a stay home mom. I love being home with my kids. It’s a real privilege and it’s worth the sacrifices. It offers me the time and place to write. I write all the time and work on my art. In between lessons, while the kids are playing, while we are watching T.V. I get up early and write before they get up. But it bothers me that they market these writers as stay home moms as if they fell off a turnip truck and suddenly wrote Harry Potter. They did that with J.K. Rowling too. Not the stay home mom thing, but the single mom thing writing on a napkin, as if brilliance just ascended on her one day from the clouds. All the “mom” writers have been writing, have some sort of background in English, or literature or used to be teachers, etc.

        • I can relate, Maure. My mom had VERY strong but inconsistent opinions. The mixed messages were crazy making. She believed women should all be homemakers. At the same time she thought I was a genius and should become a famous writer to “make me famous.” (Her words.) Would you like to see the inside of my head? In the end it was all about her. I loved her but I had to do what was right for me. I write for myself because I love it. Fame has eluded me and I’m no genius. (Just in case you were wondering. ) But I get to do what I love. How great is that?

  • You are so right that they need to teach students in any arts based degree how to actually BE an artist in a practical sense. My degree is in musical theater, so I studied dance, voice and theater intensively. The professors, all of whom obviously were not making any sort of living as an artist at that point, were so damn idealistic, as if we all lived in an artist world wonderland. They pounded it into our heads that we should never demean our lofty artist selves by doing such things as horrible commercials or soap operas. Screw that. WORK! One of my fellow students became a huge soap opera star. For years he has been on one of the big ones and I see his smiling face on soap opera digest in the grocery store all the time. The idiot was embarrassed to come to the reunion for the school of arts I went to because he figured he had “sold out.” Meanwhile almost none of us were making a living performing and the few who did are just barely scraping by. They taught us nothing about how to be a working performer and how to manage the business side of things. All this incredible talent and at our reunion hardly anyone was still in the business. Learn the business of whatever art your pursue, but especially writing. Learn how to make money writing and don’t feel like you’re too lofty to take small jobs doing something that isn’t your next great American novel. I make money selling digital scrapbook papers and silly T Shirt and coffee mug designs online. It’s not high art. Who cares? I’m creating stuff. I also write. All the time I write. My writing isn’t making me money yet but I’m in it for the long haul.

  • I fall slightly outside your parameter for young writer (five years to be exact – makes me feel old) but all of this is, either stages I’ve been through or are impending. I’m stuck at the reality of #2, there was a time when that would induce an alcohol fueled sabbatical and I’d sulk – away from the keyboard – for a month, wondering if I really was delusional; I may well be, but I decided against giving up.

    So after several years of false starts, I’m making this the year I stop trying, and start doing. I have, no matter how it feels, written everyday without fail; that’s the longest period I’ve successively written for. This will also be the year that I finish a novel; it’s terrible, and I don’t know if I’ll ever save it with editing, but it’s a milestone in itself, and I’ve learned a lot.

    So I guess what I’m saying is: I’m finally taking it seriously, and I see it, one day, as being more than just a pipe dream. Thanks for the words of wisdom Chuck; although they’re things you’ve mentioned before, it’s nice to have them here in one post to revisit when in doubt.

  • So 16-21 is the new ‘young,’ is it? Dammit, the goalposts keep moving… INTO THE PAAAASSSTT!!!

    *howls at the sky*

    Sorry, where was I?

    Chuck, I wish they’d invented the internet and put you on it in a prominent place when I was a young writer. I’d have let you bang me on the head with your old-man cane as much as you liked and still have listened to every word you said. (Apologies if that sounds a bit ‘Fifty Shades’… wasn’t what I was going for)

    And for all you 16-21-year-olds out there… burn every word of this blog into your brain, for they are gold and this man knows the secrets of the universe.

  • Damn I’m one week outside of the applicable age range! But seriously this is possibly the best post I’ve read in a long time, you hit so many nails on the head, including the whole ‘be an accountant instead of writing’ and especially actually finishing shit 😛 so thanks.

  • I love this post, Chuck. So much truth! I wrote my first novel when I was 19, and oh my God it was awful. But I kept writing novels, and putting them away, and finally got published when I was 29. 10 years of learning how not to suck, by writing really sucky books! 😉 (Heh. She said suck).

    For me, going to nursing school and getting a BSN while writing on the side was the way to go. I was able to work and make money until my writing income replaced my nursing income.

    When I first got published in 2010, I made a five-year goal of hitting the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, bc if the impossible had happened for me to get published, then why the hell not, amirite?

    It was a ridiculous goal considering I write “smut,” but it forced me to try harder and do better with each book. The goal was reached (I know, I should say “I reached the goal,” but it really feels like something that happened *to* me, thanks to my readers, and not something I had an active part in somehow.) Still doesn’t feel real, which means now I need to do it again to prove to myself that it wasn’t just a fluke.

    Point being: no matter what stage of your career you are in, self-consciousness follows. Unless you’re Chuck Wendig or Margaret Atwood, I imagine. 🙂

    My friend IRL told me she wanted to write a book. (Everyone says that. I don’t believe them unless they’re already in the process, bc it’s easier to talk than to write…). I told her she better start actually writing, and write a lot, because she’s going to create some really awful stuff for a while…and she needs to get that crap out of her system so she can get to the good stuff!

    But you, sexy Chuck, have said it all so much better (as usual!) 🙂 Thank you for your word-magic. You can hit me with a cane any day (but *only* in a 50 Shades way, sorry.) 😉

    I imagine my first lick will be for writing an overly-long blog post comment. *waits*

    • Oh, man, self-consciousness dogs me every step of the way.

      And I think a ten-year-plan, while not universal, is pretty apt for how long it takes to Figure Things Out.

      High-five, and go you.

      *twirls cane*

      *sinister gleam*

      *beard*

      — c.

  • My creative writing tutors have such high standards; they hate Sophie Kinsella and adverbs (but some don’t mind Stephen King?). What you’re saying is all true Chuck, but man oh man this is the only time you can get regular feedback on your work, integrated into the price of your degree of course.

  • I’d just like to say that I absolutely LOVE these sorts of posts. I just turned fourteen by the way, and as usual, your posts help me keep things in perspective so you are welcome to continue corrupting my young mind. 😛

  • April 16, 2014 at 3:55 PM // Reply

    I’ve written five “novels,” all of them acknowledged but not embraced by academia, agents, big deal workshops. They probably are crap, but they’re done and saved/shelved. I have written my “million words,” and still haven’t written THE book. I’m 64 years old and one year into my MFA, which has been helpful, but is so youth-oriented, I’m not sure of my place in the program. It’s one of my bucket-list tasks. Write a real, readable book that SAYS something. Some of your advice is well-known: “Butt in seat and write and you’ll get there,” is one of the oldies, but I appreciate most your addressing the passion and how the words on paper are not exactly what you hear in your mind. Thanks for all the good advice.

1 2 3

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds