Ask The Wendigo: My Advice To A Young Writer

An email rolled into my inbox right at the end of November, and the email said this:

Hey man, I’m a big fan of yours and have been following your stuff since I was a kid. I’m 24 now, have just finished my Master’s in Creative Writing, and am seeking an agent for my fantasy novel which I’ve just finished.

I’m a couple of rejection letters deep at this point. Disheartening, as I’m sure you can remember, but I’m far, far from giving up yet. I write every day and take the craft of writing more seriously than, well, almost everything.

I just wanted to reach out to you and maybe get some advice on what I should be doing at this point in my career. Making it as a full-time writer is on my mind every day; my eyes are firmly set on this goal and they haven’t drifted – though at times it seems like an impossible thing to accomplish. After years of practising (and sucking), I am now confident in my skills and my ideas. The experience of writing a novel has honestly shocked me – it’s been exciting, tedious, frustrating, and immensely fulfiling all at once.

And I thought, instead of responding to this person individually, I would respond to him publicly (I asked him if that was okay, to be clear).

My easy, fast answer to this is, “YES, GOOD JOB,” because on a cursory read, hey, everything looks good. He writes a lot. He’s finished a book. He’s mindful of the work and the career. He’s right on about writing a book — exciting, yep. Tedious, sometimes. Frustrating, ha ha, oh shit, yeah. Immensely fulfilling? I certainly find it so, sure.

But I have deeper thoughts, too, if he — and you — care to listen.

Here goes.

a) “…have been following your stuff since I was a kid.”

OKAY SLOW YOUR ROLL, YOUNG MC — you’re only 24 and have been reading me since you were a kid? I’ve only been writing novels for 5-6 years now, jeez. Though I did work in gaming for years before that… oh god I’m getting older, aren’t I? Oh shit. Ohhhh shit. *cups hands over mouth* *eyes wide as pancakes* *quiet panic ensues*

b) “I’m 24 now.”

Actually, let’s hover over that number — 24. You’ve just finished a novel. Good! GOOD. That’s commendable work. You may very well be a talented, eager, and capable lad. But I want you also to realize that your brownies might still need to stay in the oven a while. I don’t know this. I haven’t read your book. But I’d argue most writers don’t really come into their own until their 30s — that’s not to say there are not a number of wunderkind who karate kick open the doors of publishing with their spry, energetic 24-year-old bodies, but at 24, you’re probably very limited, yet, in what you know, in what you’ve done. At 24, your brain literally stopped growing only a couple-few years before, and your heart is still a kettle of excitable fish. You don’t yet know what you know. But you expect to know everything.

You believe, at that age, you should have the world saddled up and already frothy with both vigor and distance. You expect to be miles down the road.

And yet, you’re not.

Here, then, is what I consider to be one of the more crucial tests of being a writer — it is the ability to dig in, demonstrate patience, and keep doing the thing specifically because you realize you’re not ready to do the thing.

What I mean is this: a lot of writers, at this stage, do as you have done. But then this happens: I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. I HAVE RECEIVED THE REJECTIONS. I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE DISHEARTENMENT AND ENNUI. THE WORLD DOES NOT UNDERSTAND MY VERBAL AND NARRATIVE PUISSANCE, AND SO I SHALL REJECT IT BEFORE IT CAN REJECT ME FURTHER.

They fuck off.

They fuck right off, and choose not to admit that they’re unready, but rather, they project it onto the rest of the world. Publishing isn’t ready. The audience isn’t ready.

NOBODY UNDERSTANDS MY GENIUS, MAN.

Now, Guy Who Wrote Me That E-Mail, I’m not saying that’s you! But it is a trap some young writers fall into. I certainly almost fell into it myself. Even older, more experienced writers can experience it from time to time.

The greatest gift you can give yourself is patience — and, should patience fail, give yourself the gift of its darker, crankier cousin:

Bullheaded, spiteful stubbornness.

When one book fails, you write the next book.

As your failures pile up, you use that hill to climb to the next level.

c) “A couple of rejection letters”

Ha ha ha, ohhh, hah. Hah. Hee. Yeah. Yeaaaahhh. You’re going to get a lot more of those. You need to get a lot more of those. Rejections are normal. I still get rejections. Since publishing books I’ve written a couple books that just weren’t ready to go out into the world. I have so many rejection letters from my 20s into my 30s I could literally wallpaper my writing shed, inside and out. I could use them to make a siege engine. I could make ten thousand origami swans. I could burn them for warmth and it would provide me with seven years of reliable heat.

Rejections, however terrible, are your friend.

Rejections are scars; proof you’ve been fighting in the arena.

Let them frustrate you. Then do better the next time.

d) “Making it as a full-time writer”

This isn’t the worst goal, but it’s a distant one. Most authors have day jobs. I don’t, because I spent years in the freelance trenches, and once I ejected from that, I got really, really lucky. One day I may need to go back — though, let’s be honest, at this point I have winnowed my skill-sets down to “mashing action figures together to make them fight-and-or-fuck and then I write all fancy about it,” so I’m not sure what kind of job I could even get.

Regardless, let the goal be writing a good book and getting it out there.

Then do it again, and again.

Only worry about the “full-time author” thing when you have no other choice — when you are forced into a position where you can either keep the day job or keep writing books. When that happens, you disengage from the day-job, and you leap into the warm, dark void.

e) “I am now confident in my skills and ideas.”

Don’t be.

Oh, you should be able to write with confidence.

But you also shouldn’t be married to that confidence.

So, this is a weird one, because there’s a line here, and it’s a thin line, but you should try to tap-dance merrily upon it — you don’t want to be overconfident, and you don’t want to be flailing around a pool of under-confidence, either. Overconfidence means you make mistakes. It means you don’t grow because you believe you’re already all growned up. It means you view failure as someone else’s fault rather than your own. Under-confidence means you don’t think you can do it, so maybe, potentially, you just don’t do it.

Gotta walk that line, thin as it may be. Be sure in yourself while at the same time admitting you’ve still so much to learn. Writers possess a peculiar kind of ego, I find — we seem sometimes to have a big presence, a bloated ego, but soon you realize it’s more like a balloon than a wrecking ball. It’s puffy and large and ultimately empty inside. Better instead to have the ego of a small stone. A small stone is small, yes, and small in comparison to the many other stones around it. But it can also be potent in the right hands — it can break windows, it can be slung into the skull of a giant, it can, uhh, what else could you do with a small stone? Choke a bear? Let’s go with that: choke a bear.

The good news is, Dear E-Mailer, if you find the writing of a novel exciting, frustrating, tedious and fulfilling in equal measure, then I suspect you’ve at the very least got the proper mind-set to really do this thing. Just know that doing this thing is not a one-and-done measure.

It’s not about getting a degree and writing a book and then just cashing those sweet checks. It might mean getting a day-job. It might mean writing two, five, seven more novels before you really hit on your voice, your skills, or even figuring out what the fuck you actually want to write. It might mean growing up more than you already are. It might mean endless more rejections, failure after failure, where after each you have to salvage some lesson, some truth, some kind of windy wisdom that will fill your sails and move your boat further upon this seemingly silent and often still sea. It means doing the thing even when doing the thing is hard. Harder this time than the last. Maybe even harder the next time you try.

But try, you must.

Onward you go.

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33 comments

  • I am reminded of Brandon Sanderson’s origins. He was writing book number THIRTEEN when one of his books finally got published.

  • I am not by any stretch a young anything with 40 looming much closer than I’d like. All the same I find this post is super relative. This is great stuff to keep in mind wherever you are in life and writing. Thank you!

  • Excellent post, Chuck. I recall you offering some advice regarding rewriting. I’d love to see a post thst goes through your process.

  • Hey man, I’m a big fan of this post and have been reading and re-reading it since I woke up fourteen minutes ago.

    It’s a perfect portion of encouraging advice with a tasty side of tough love. I hope the ambitious whippersnapper appreciated it and took it to heart. I’m thinking of sending him a picture of the dump truck full of rejection letters parked in my backyard. That should make him feel better, yet also prepare him for what’s likely coming. But what I’d really want him to take away from said pic is that, if he continues to dedicate himself to and develop his craft, he too may some day earn enough to rent a dump truck.

    Thanks for yet another earnest and entertaining post, Chuck. And for not crushing the kid.

    -GL

  • Love it – thanks, Chuck. And hope it’s received by the young writer in question as positively as can be, considering it’s ‘a perfect portion of encouraging advice with a tasty side of tough love’.

  • “The greatest gift you can give yourself is patience — and, should patience fail, give yourself the gift of its darker, crankier cousin:

    Bullheaded, spiteful stubbornness.”

    I DEFINITELY opted for the latter

  • A wonderful article. To the young man who sent the email. When I was 25 I knew everything. Just ask my mother. Now I am 75 and I know nothing. I am 5 years old in my writing life and what I do know is that I am in the learning process of writing my greatest novel ever. I am continually surprised that a few people like my books. I am always disappointed when some people do not (my sister for instance) like my book or does not even want to read it. But the thing is, I enjoy writing. Do you? Do you love it?

    • “When I was 25 I knew everything. Just ask my mother. Now I am 75 and I know nothing.” <– I love that sentiment, and can totally relate. When I was that age, I knew everything, too. The older I get, the more I realise the less I actually know. When you get out of the mandatory education system, you think your education has finished. Took me a while to realise my education hadn't even begun. 😉

  • I’m one of those people who gave up at the first hurdle… Eventually, I came back, put in ten years of studying and writing and collecting rejections. I finally had my first novel published by a small press and now I’m struggling with the second…

    Still a young writer at (excuse me while I count on my fingers) fifty eight…

    Excellent advice. I wish there’d been someone to tell me back when I was twenty four

  • Was just gonna say, this advice pretty much applies to life in general. In life you get a butt load of rejections. when your young you think you know all there is to know. Basically it comes down to you can either roll over and give up. Or dig in and refuse to give those bastards the satisfaction of seeing you give up. You keep trying, you keep struggling. Eventually along the way you find your path, your groove so to speak. And what was once a struggle is now a smooth path with only tiny bumps for the most part along the way. But never give up learning or trying new things. Its what makes life worth living.

  • Thanks for this! I now feel much better about not publishing my first novel until the age of 31. Me 31, that is, not the book. The book’s only about ten.
    I feel I should be holding some kind of service of thanksgiving that the earlier abortive forms were not permitted to escape into the world. And then maybe I’ll beef up my computer security so no one can hack my archives and blackmail me with them…

  • Some sound advice which I take to heart, even though I’m not a ‘young’ writer. I was probably about 24 or 25 (maybe even younger) when I started writing my first book (which is finished, but not published). I decided to put it away, do some other things, explore different ideas, go back to it later… For a while, I was firmly in the “I Have Published My Debut Novel, I Must Immediately Get It Published” camp. After a few years, and some life experience, and some whisky, and some more years, I’ve realised I want to dip my toes in with short fiction, explore the world of short stories and basically use flash fiction and short stories as my blank, finger-painting canvas to explore different aspects of writing before I write another novel and think I’m ready to stick a fork in it.

    My first novel will still be there later this year, or next year, or in 5 years’ time (unless I lose my PC, and my laptop, and all my flash drives with copies of my writing work on them, of course). I’d rather get the experience that time brings, go back and murder my old darlings, and go at them again with a clearer idea of what they need to be, than try to get them published ASAP. And I very much suspect that the first book I ever wrote will not be the first book I ever have published. I can (and have) done better, and I know exactly which story I have that stands a much better chance of selling.

    But there are about a billion different ways of achieving Success, and mine is probably too laid-back a way for somebody who wants the agent now, dammit.

  • Great advice there, Chuck – and when I was Mr E-mailer’s age, I could have used it myself.

    However, I was lucky enough to have friends in the Logan Writers’ Guild to tell me to pull back and slow down and stop being such a horse’s ass… yep in those words. We were blunt and didn’t sugar coat things; mainly because that’s how the world turned and if we weren’t going to be ready for it this way, we weren’t ready to be an artist of any form.

    However, I wrote my first novella aged 16… and it got 3 rejection letters. The publishing companies didn’t tell me why. So, when Angus & Robertson wrote me and said it wasn’t good enough, I phoned them up and asked why. They told me why; and I said to them it would be good if they said that in the letter. They told me that I ‘should know’ what they were talking about. I told them in no uncertain terms that I’m not a mind-reader and it’s best to tell writers where they’re going wrong. In the future, when they wrote back, they told me in detail where I went wrong – and I worked hard on my future stories and books to fix the problems; but to no avail. They still didn’t like my work.

    However, my first major book took me 15 years to research, write and complete… and I was around 27 years old when I finally completed it, sat back and found I had learned so much in writing the 180,000+ monster of a book – only to find I had to leave it alone for 3 months! :O Now I’m 44 and am always learning new ways of writing and will always love to write. We don’t stop learning as writers and artists – not matter how long we hone our craft… it’s ongoing. But we gotta love what we do!

  • Excellent advice, sir, and most timely for me personally.

    We can’t all be Stephanie Meyer, or EL James, or Any Weir. Doing this writing thing takes guts and persistence and a certain amount of crazy wrapped in the understanding that it really is better to do and fail than do not and talk about how you could have.

  • Great advice, Chuck! After two novels and approaching 100 rejections it can really undercut the confidence and desire to press on. Especially when I do have a successful day job that fills so much of my time and my brainpower. I needed to hear this today. Thank you for once again for providing the right prescription.

  • Awesome post, thank you! I’ve been in the novel-writing lark a few months now. That is to say, I’ve yet to get my first rejection or even complete my first MS. BUT, this helps a lot!

    Also, small stones? You can use them as a kind of a decorative type thing? On a desk or something? Or a paperweight for really small pieces of paper?

  • Hahaha. Wouldn’t it be great if we really could make a siege engine out of rejection letters? Talk about cathartic. Thanks for the post, sir.

  • Awesomesauce! I’m forwarding this to my 22-yo daughter, who published her 1st book last fall, and whose sequel I’m editing now while she’s writing and illustrating book 3. Writing is not a sprint, it’s a life-long event. And yeah about those day jobs. I find the stress of keeping the roof over our heads with my words alone disruptive to my creative process. It makes me worry about “whether it will sell” while I write, which is *BAD*. There’s nothing wrong with having a day job, not for me, not for her, and not for your Padawan. Well said, and thank you for the always-welcome words of encouragement!

  • I’m 24 and I’ve written six first drafts of novels so far, none of them has been good enough for me to want to actually keep working on them. Planning number seven. And it’s so nice to hear someone say the opposite of “launch, launch, launch! hustle, hustle, hustle!” for once 😀 I’d love to hear about your revision process as well! In 2018 I plan to work on my revision/editing skills 🙂

  • Mr. Wendig, thank you for this post.

    At 40, I am far from a young writer, but the words resonate as much with me as they do with a 24-year old. Although I have heard similar advice in many forms over the last few years, this is still relevant, and I appreciate authors and writers such as yourself taking the time to share their thoughts and their time.

    Thanks again and keep writing.

  • After reading this, I picked up a rock with a deep indention in it off my desk . (I work at a park and put neat rocks I find on my desk.) In the indention was a very small, black stone. It fell out, I picked it up and thought, “Yes, I’ll carry this around to remind myself to keep my ego the size of a small stone.” I immediately dropped it on the floor and can’t find it. How very fitting.

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