email (and advice) to a young aspiring writer

 

 

Okay, as far as blog posts go this is a bit of a cheat. This is from an email I wrote a few months ago to a charming sixth grader who emailed me and asked for writing advice. I found this a very interesting assignment, and gave it some thought (see me in the photo, I’m thinking, thinking). This was my response. Let me know if there’s anything that I should have added.

Dear (incredible young person who had the fantastic taste to read and like my book and wants to be a writer):

Thank you so much for your email, and I am very sorry I took this long
to respond — my life has been a bit crazy lately. I’m delighted
that you enjoyed UNINVITED.

How fantastic that you identify yourself as a writer. I can tell you
this: once you have the desire, the ambition, to write, it never goes
away. I’ve met so many people who started writing when they were
young — and then put that desire away to do more ‘practical’ things
— only to come back to it ten or twenty or thirty years later,
wishing they had been writing all along and regretting that lost
time and development.

So my first advice (and probably most important): don’t stop!
Keep writing! Don’t let anybody discourage you. Find the people who
will support you and help you grow as a writer — and listen to
*them*, not to anybody else. You have a huge advantage because you’re
starting out so young, so make the most of it. The more time and
practice you put into your craft, the better and better you will
become. Not to mention, you are growing up in an era where
storytelling and communication will be more important than ever, and
not just for writers — for everyone and anyone who wants to get a
message across that will reach people on an emotional as well as
intellectual level. Anyone can get facts off the Internet. But not a
lot of people will be able to frame those facts within the kind of
context that can persuade people, keep their
attention, and create actual change in the world. So your creativity
and your ability to reach out to people will only become more
important as time goes on.

I’m sure you already know this, but reading is incredibly important.
Read as much as you can, as often as you can, and follow your
interests wherever they lead you. Read what you want to read, and not
just what you think you ‘should’ read. Do that, and you’ll already be
ahead of the game — most aspiring writers don’t read nearly enough.

Find teachers and mentors who can give you constructive criticism and
help you improve. Writing truly is about revision. It’s fine if the
first draft is lousy — the first draft is just about getting it down.
Revision is about fixing it and making it better. You can
always make it better, so don’t be afraid to write badly. Just get it
down, and then revise.

Try to finish most of what you begin. Nobody finishes every story they
start, and that’s okay. But try to finish most of them. :)

Develop some passions other than writing — so you can write about
them.
Learn about history, philosophy, science, art, pop culture,
travel, psychology, vampires — whatever interests and excites you.
Cultivate a deep curiosity about the world. Learn about people.
That’s how you’ll get your ideas. Originality happens when you
combine different ideas, mix them with your own personality, and come
up with something new.

A writer now is expected to have an online platform — to blog and
Twitter, etc. Publishing is changing very quickly now, so pay close
attention to what writers do online — what works, what doesn’t. Read lots of
blogs, and expect to be blogging one day yourself. It takes a long time
to develop an online platform, so this is another area where your youth is a
great advantage. Plan to learn about social media and online marketing and
personal branding. Think of yourself as not just a writer, but a creative
entrepreneur. Your writing will be your business (as well as your
art). You are an artist *and* a businesswoman.

The most important thing is to have a fresh and distinctive ‘voice’.
The more you write, the more your ‘voice’ will emerge and become its
own original thing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different
styles, or imitate writers you like. Your voice will emerge from that
mash-up of influences. Take chances. Be bold!

As you get older, try to find another job or career that you can do
as well as write (remember, never stop writing). You will have to
make a living, at least until you can support yourself with your
writing (and no matter what anybody says, it *is* possible). But
work is good for other reasons too, not just economic independence —
it keeps you connected to the world (writing can be very isolating)
and it gives you life experience and stuff to write *about*.

And keep reaching out to writers, the way you did with me. Writers
for the most part want to help other writers, because we know how
tough and lonely writing can be, and we’re always excited to find
the members of our farflung, scattered tribe. So you’re also likely to
make some good friends that way.

I hope this helps you. Let me know what you think, and how your own
writing develops.

warmest,
Justine

Jul 23, 2010
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13 comments · Add Yours

Brava on your excellent, empowering advice to that young writer! I know a few not-so-young writers (not just aspiring writers, either) who could benefit from your wise words, too.

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I wish I could go back in time and take a lot of my own advice. :)

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This is fantastic!

Having met David Morrell at a writer’s conference a few years back, I was amazed at how nice and personable he was. And it still shocked me that he returned my email after I read his book on writing. I’m sure a 6th grader will be stoked beyond belief to have gotten such a note from you. Kudos… and I agree with the above. The advice applies to us not-so-young aspiring writers as well!
:-)

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Excellent post..

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Hi Justine,

Great advice. I could us a lot of it myself even though I am not a “young” writer, I am a relatively “new” one. Thanks for sharing! :)

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There’s a lot of good tips for Songwriters & Composers in your e-mail advice. Thanks !

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Yes, yes yes! All important advice, and directions that all writers should follow, as you know. The only comment I was waiting for, which I didn’t read here but you’ve taught in the past was, DON’T BE AFRAID TO LET YOUR FEELINGS OUT. And then dig deeper by asking, why am I feeling this way? I suspect twelve year old writers have matured enough where discovery on this level can happen. If not, perhaps in another year or two. Incidentally, I wish more “adults” followed this counsel!

Irv

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This is where the Internet has changed everything. Yes, in the past we could write letters c/o the publisher and hope to make contact but not like this. The one thing I pined for when I was a newbie poet was contact with other people who were doing it but I lived in a wee town where you just didn’t go round telling people you were a writer.

The first thing I felt when I made contact with other writers was a sense of having come home. I was among people who didn’t think what I did was strange who did accept that I got out of bed in the middle of the night to write and would’ve found it unforgivable if I didn’t.

I may have received no encouragement growing up but I see no reason to make others tough it out.

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Hi Justine,
(Hey, I’m digging that couch! Great photo lead to your post.) ;)

What a kind thing you’ve done — taking time out to send such a thoughtful letter to an aspiring young writer. Kudos to you.

I can’t think of anything I’d have added, other than to be sure not only to read, but to read diverse genres, not only the favorite things, but things that will stretch her (poetry, memoir, comics, flash fiction, etc.).

Great job, Justine. Like the other readers here mentioned, I wish I’d had access to your advice at a young age.

Cheers!
;)

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Your advice is good not just for young writers but all writers. You covered a lot of stuff. I like the part about paying attention to how the industry is changing and learning social media and self branding. Thanks for sharing your advice.

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This is simply delightful advice! I especially loved this bit:
“most aspiring writers don’t read nearly enough”

it’s so true. I try to write around 2500 words a day, but I find it hard to read other people’s works, because my mind is looking to TALK on paper through words, while reading is like LISTENING, it’s harder (for writers)

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Aaaw I wish I’d had somebody like you writing me a letter like that. Or sitting down and talking to me. I had teachers who encouraged me. But nobody who had been there. It is isolating, that’s for sure.

Excellent!!

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wow, what an inspiring and empowering response!
this will serve as a wonderful resource to this young person.
They are our future after all :)

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