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.