Dear Teenage Me – Writing Advice

Dear Michelle at 16,

Congrats on those half a million words you’ll have by the time you finish high school. I wish I could say that you’ll keep it up that pace in adulthood, but you’ll never have more free time than you do as a teenager. Either way, it’s cool that you spend it writing every day, pumping out a novel, one or two novellas (20-30k words) and multiple short stories (<10k words) a year.

Here’s some advice to you, and all the other teen writers out there, that might make the road a little easier –

1. Don’t feel bad about writing fanfiction. Fanfic teaches you about the basic elements of storytelling – the three act structure, plotting, conflict, dialogue, character motivations, tenses, POV, building suspense. Yes, a lot of that sandbox is built and there’s no world-building or character creation. But world-building and character creation are two of the hardest parts about being a writer. I don’t see any issue in discovering your voice, and how to tell a decent story, with fanfiction first.

2. Don’t feel bad that what you’re writing isn’t and/or won’t be published. Even if you wrote original stuff, it wouldn’t have been the Great American Novel. Sorry.

In fact, you’re going to look back on 90% of your current stuff with disdain. But if you write enough, and make the most of your time, that last 10% will stand the test of time. The first 30% is almost unreadable, the middle 30% has redeeming traits, the third 30% is enjoyable even if it’s dated or not publishable, and that last 10% is where you’ll say “dang. I was good. What happened?”

3. Once you get to that 10% area of good writing, the worst thing you can do is stop. That’s what I did, and now I’m back to that 55%-65% area. You’ll lose your skills if you don’t read or write for a few years. It’ll be hard to keep up with your talent in college, but make it a priority.

4. It’s not just about writing quality though. You don’t know this yet, but a lot of your work is ignorant to how the real world operates. That isn’t your fault. It’s just part of living in a manufactured bubble of public school and no bills. A lot of your opinions are just regurgitated from peers and elders, and a lot of your understanding of how the world works is rather elementary. No, the economy cannot be fixed by simply printing more money – and so on.

5. It’s not all bad – you can still write what you know and you do know a lot. You know one thing in particular that adults always seem to forget: how teenagers think, write, and behave. Really, your piece of work, pre age-18, that has held up the best is  The Outcasts. The one about teenagers doing teenager things. Not the political thriller or the high fantasy or the surrealist comedy. You weren’t ready for any of those others yet, so not much can be done with them now. Ignorance of politics makes thrillers nearly impossible and I think a good sense of humor needs some age on it too.

6. Tumblr and WordPress don’t exist for you yet, and you know you’re writing about copyrighted properties anyway. So you’ll never have to hear “teens can’t write anything worth publishing.” I see a lot of teen writers hear this now though, in 2015. I think it sucks. I get where the critique comes from, and I can offer my own interpretation of it – but the last thing you should tell a writer is “what you’re writing doesn’t matter.”

7. Publishing at 22 or 52 is just as impressive as publishing at 18 or 15. Don’t bother chasing an arbitrary deadline to publication just because Christopher Paolini did it. People can hardly believe Veronica Roth is 24, so you still have plenty of years left to impress people. Even still, no one cares how old you are when you do it. Age is kind of gimmick in that way. Just write a good book, no matter what age you are, and publish it when you know it is finished.

8. It was a good idea to graduate early from high school and major in chemistry. To this day, that choice  I made at 16 is probably the best I’ve ever made. You won’t end up a pharmacist like you intend, but you’ll still have a solid career that allows you freedom, money, and time to pursue all your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you that majoring in creative writing or film is the only way to follow your heart. No one ever did amazing things by following the expected path – think outside the box and make your own fate.

12 thoughts on “Dear Teenage Me – Writing Advice

    • I’m fortunate not to have many regrets from that time, so there’s pretty much nothing I’d like to “fix.” However, I would like to see the look on Teen Me’s face if I told her the boy she fruitlessly adored in Econ class would end up loving her and being her future husband. I think I’d like to see the relief on her face, haha.

  1. #7 rings true for me. Christopher Paolini self-published (and then migrated to a large publisher) at age 15, and at the time I thought he was impressive. When I bought the book and read it through and through, it fell short on many fronts. Tolkien plagiarism to the max. Lack of life experience will do that to you. The drive to finish a novel in my teenage years was not out of love but out of ego. As a result, the work suffered. Your age does not matter as long as the work is quality, which is why it doesn’t matter if you’re published next year or in the next thirty years.

    And yeah, #8. I think we both can high-five that!

    • Oh yes, I too found Paolini impressive until I read his work. The writing was alright, I suppose, but it was such a Star Wars/LOTR ripoff that had no right to stand on its own. I’ve had a beef with Eragon for ten years going now, lol.

      And SO MUCH YES to it being out of ego rather than quality. I wanted to be published before 18 too, but it was always out of how “impressive” I’d be. Looking back on it, I realize that was definitely the wrong reason. And I didn’t even recognize how liberated I am from that concept now until you pointed it out. I want to be published in due time, of course, because I’m excited for a day where I can work for myself. But I don’t even look at age anymore. Does anyone know how old Gillian Flynn or Sherrilyn Kenyon are? No – it really doesn’t matter once one shakes off the gimmick of being a teenager :P

  2. An excellent post! Loved the ending

    “Don’t let anyone tell you that majoring in creative writing or film is the only way to follow your heart. No one ever did amazing things by following the expected path – think outside the box and make your own fate.”

    Wise words :)

    • Thank you! It’s not to say that arts majors aren’t useful, but they’re not required to find an audience. Just like traditional publishing isn’t for everyone either ^_^

  3. Oh, how I wish I’d read this letter when I was in high school!

    I wasn’t as prolific as you were back then, but I churned out a fair amount of stuff, and a lot of it was fan fic, or naive about the grown-up world, or derivative of the style of authors I admired. And I had teachers who tore me apart over these things. Long story short, I stopped writing fiction for years because I lost all my self-confidence, and I deeply regret that.

    Seriously, this needs to be distributed to every high school in the world. Every teenager should read this.

    • I’m sorry you had such a dry spell – for better or worse, my writing was somewhat isolated during that time. I had enough people giving me empty praise during the learning years that I was able to push past them, self-teach, take a few classes, and become capable before I subjected myself to real critique. Teachers were always pretty easy on me, but I went to a small school and didn’t take any creative writing classes til college.

      I still wonder if I have the right stuff to be published. I think even famous authors wonder that. Confidence doesn’t come easy to writers as a general rule, but I think we can get a sense of when we’re “ready” for the next level. Right now, I know I’m somewhere between “too good for basic writing advice” and “not good enough to query agents” lol.

  4. It’s interesting to think of what we’d tell our teen selves if we could. In terms of writing, I’d probably tell my teen self to go ahead and follow that nudge that told her to write a book. If I had, it might not have taken me so long to actually get one finished. :)

  5. I love your point about fan fiction, Michelle… the way I look at it, if there wasn’t a need for it, nobody would ever write it. And it is a fantastic learning tool. I wish I’d known it existed when I was a teenager.

  6. Thank you for this post. I’m a teenager and face a lot of those of problems. I always feel the publishing pressure and what not. Now that I think about it, 24 is not such a bad age either. I think I should care about my writing more than the tended audience, because that’s how you shoot both birds with one arrow.
    I always have trouble coming up with a plot, and I have never tried fan fiction because it seemed degrading, unoriginal, but the way you describe it, it sounds like a great writing practice: sharpening skills one by one instead of jumping into cold water at once.
    Thank you once again for this!!

    • No problem! Fan fiction was a really great way for me to figure out plot without having to invent world mechanics, characters, etc. I do think it takes a certain kind of muse though. If you aren’t naturally drawn to character study, shipping, fandom, etc, I’m not sure how much you’ll enjoy fanfic. I do find the best mediums for fanfic are shows/movies/etc that you like, but leave something to be desired. I loved the characters on Heroes but hated some of the storylines. I loved Heavy Rain but wished Madison had more screen time with Norman. That’s the kind of stuff that would fuel me to write fic.

      Also, I always recommend the book Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, which is the most useful tool ever on how to craft a plot. Writing the Breakout Novel is another good one. I’m primarily a commercial writer though, so if you want advice from someone more literary, John Gardner has a few books on writing too.

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