Beginning Writers

John Scalzi told teenagers that their writing sucks. A few (but by no means all) were offended. Mr Scalzi has now responded in detail to teens who do not believe that their writing sucks.

I got a similar response from a small number of teens to a piece I wrote called “Too Young to Publish“. Those offended seemed to think that I wrote the piece to mock aspiring teenage writers. Not true!

Neither Scalzi nor I have any interest in stopping teenagers from writing. Au contraire. We both wrote then and got a hell of a lot out of it, including reasonably successful careers now. I wrote the piece in the spirit of passing good advice along. (As well as to mock the younger me.) When I was a beginning writer lots of people went out of their way to help and encourage me.

Still, were I to write that piece now I would call it “Too Early to Publish” rather than “Too Young”, because the crux of the matter is not age but experience.

I started writing stories very young, but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 20. By seriously I mean writing regularly with the aim of publishing short stories and novels with a reputable publisher. When I first tried to get published in adult markets I was fifteen.

My work was rejected. This made me sulk (for ages) and then (eventually) write something new. I did not sit down and try to figure out why my stories were being rejected. I didn’t try to improve my work because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how because I didn’t think my writing needed to be improved. Back then I believed the problem was not with my work, but with the foolish blind mean editors who were rejecting it.

Which is why, as Mr Scalzi would say, my writing sucked.

I have come across writers in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties who have a similar attitude to their writing. They think it’s wonderful and when told it’s not, even if they’re shown ways to improve it, they are bewildered, hurt or sometimes even angry.

I once critiqued a novel by a long-way-past-teenage acquaintance. I spent a long time on it because the novel showed a vast amount of potential. The writer had bucketloads of talent. But they had been in their novel for so long, and knew the characters and world so well, they’d forgotten to include vital pieces of information, leaving the reader at first intrigued, then bewildered, and ultimately frustrated and annoyed.

It was like reading a novel in thousands of haiku. My edits were pointers to where the confusion lay and to where things could be teased out, and expanded.1 They were really good edits! (Yeah, yeah, self praise is no praise. Whatever.)

The writer, black affronted, yelled at me. Then sent me dozens of emails refuting Every. Single. Point. It was astonishing. I found out later that others who’d helped had met with the same response. This writer would not make a single change. And years later they still won’t.

So despite all that talent—and they were positively corruscating with it—and many completed novels, the writer has not found a publisher. And if they ever do I can’t imagine any editor wanting to work with them more than once.

Technically that writer was not a beginner—they’d been writing for years—and yet they were. Because they weren’t learning. Their writing wasn’t getting any better and they weren’t getting any closer to being published.

I said I became serious about my writing when I was twenty. I did. But that seriousness manifested itself in volume. And it’s true the more I wrote the better I got, but only very very slowly. I didn’t make my next big leap forward until I learned to rewrite. That thing about which most writers bitch incessantly.

Back in my twenties I thought I had mastered rewriting. But what I was really doing was shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. I’d delete a bit, add a bit, push a few words around, polish bits. To say my “rewrites” were merely cosmetic would be too kind. Make up can totally change the way a person looks; I wasn’t changing nothing.

I’m still learning how to rewrite. How to go in and tear things apart and then rebuild from the ground up. It’s dirty, effortful, messy, time consuming work. What I used to call rewriting I now call a quick once over of the final draft.

I think of myself as a beginning writer, but I’m probably more like a journeyman because I actually have some idea of what it is that I don’t know and how very vast that is. Like commas! Stupid bloody commas.

Many beginning writers are clueless about the depths of their writing ignorance. And the beginningest of them squall and rage when it’s pointed out to them. But that has nothing to do with how old they are. I know a few teenage (or just post-teenage) writers who are well into their journeyman writing years. And I’ve come across all too many older writers who are no where near them.

Too many people try to rush their babies into print before they’ve learned how to tell a story, before they’ve learned how to structure a sentence, or even a clause, or, Elvis help us all, how to pick the words they want (I do not think that word means what you think it means).

Whether you’re sixteen or sixty, if you want to be published then you have to learn how to write.

  1. This is really unusual for a beginner novelist, by the way. Normally they err on the side of too much. I certainly did. []

21 comments

  1. Rebecca on #

    it’s true that it’s not about age, it’s about where you are in your writerly development. i’m not sure where i fall in all this, b/c i’ve never thought anything i wrote was really good enough to publish. (the one time i submitted something to a teeny tiny publisher, i was banking on them liking the general idea and seeing promise, blah blah blah, and then having me work with an editor to make it better. ahahahahahahaaa. in my defense, i was only fifteen at the time. :P) after a while it finally hit me that maybe, even though i wasn’t in high school anymore, my writing still wasn’t where it needed to be, and that it wouldn’t be there for years. it needed time and experience, as well as practice. and i needed to be writing to write, not writing to get published. as a teenager, though, that’s what i got bogged down in. yet i knew that my writing wasn’t up to snuff. i just didn’t know why exactly. i figured i wasn’t trying hard enough, that i had it in me somewhere. well, i still think i have it in me, but it needs time to come out. it isn’t ready right now. and i’m glad i figured it out, b/c i’d've been mortified if, say, that publisher had accepted my manuscript back in 9th grade. *shudders*

    i think a problem with some teens who want to jump straight into publishing is that they’re encouraged by adults around them. in most cases it seems, these adults either don’t know enough about publishing to realize any better, or they don’t have the heart to tell the kids they’re probably not ready. no one told me until long after i’d spent wayyyy too much time stressing about it. and sure, even when i did hear it, i didn’t want to believe it, and i made excuses for why it was different in my case. and like scalzi said, plenty of teenagers are unlikely to listen if someone does tell them that their writing sucks right now. (people in that age bracket seem to have a reputation for being obstinate. can’t imagine why. ;)) but they won’t all of them do that, even though they might not get it right away. the information needs to be out there so that when writers (of whatever age) are ready, they’ll understand. (so cheers to you and scalzi and maureen and everyone else who’s written about it.)

    um, so, i guess what i’m trying to say is: i agree. :P and, like miss snark always said, all that matters in the end is whether or not you can write.

  2. on #

    Learning to write is not so mysterious. I see it like learning most things. So here’s my javelin analogy of writing progression.

    If you throw the javelin irregularly you will only have that session’s throws to build from. You might get better, you might not.

    If you throw every day but think you’re great you will just throw it incorrectly, not pay attention, and will slowly reinforce your bad habits. Progression will be random if at all.

    If you throw every day but are more critical you’ll stop when you do it well or specifically poorly and adjust in the appropriate direction. Slowly, over time these tweaks will add up and you will improve.

    If you throw critically and also pay attention to what people who are better than you do, and try to work out why and learn from them you’ll get better faster.

    You can add coaches to the analogy too. Amateur coaches being people who say, “no, that was worse, do it like you did last time,” will help if you’re not good at being critical of yourself, but they’ll only get you to the speed of learning more critical people are at. A professional coach who knows not only how to throw but how to coach it will push you on a lot to learn much faster… but I’m sure there aren’t that many truly great javelin coaches in the world.

    The different styles of writers groups fit in there too like buddies practicing. They’re only useful if they’re not yes men, and try to help you deconstrust and reconstruct your technique when needed.

    There are people out there who have a natural advantage because they’ve just always been really great at chucking stuff. Chances are, whoever you are, you’re not them. But even they need to pay attention to what they’re doing to get better.

    Mostly, like learning anything, it takes time and effort, and anyone sufficiently inclined can learn to do it well.

    I pick javelin instead of golf because although golf has seperate areas of expertise, (putting, short game, driving,) like writing, there’s a definite goal, lowest number of shots, to map improvement. With Javelin you’d need a really long tape measure every time you went out to the field, so everything is more comparative, but great leaps forward can be guaged easily. I’ve thought too much about that, I know.

  3. lili on #

    i really hope i’m still at the beginning. Because i look at writers that i love, and i know that i’m not that good… yet. but i hope one day i will be. or at least closer.

    but… it really is hard. those big rewrites. when you look at your editor’s comments which say things like “it’s brilliant. i love it all. now throw it out and start again”. and you KNOW they’re right. but you’ve worked on it so hard… and it’s so much work…

    but i think the difference between a real writer and a wannabe, is that the real writer, in the end (after some self indulgent whinging, if you’re like me) understands that editing and rewriting make the book better. and that’s the number #1 priority. making it the best book it can be.

  4. jenny davidson on #

    Good post! But as a teacher I would also add one further qualification. I often find myself explaining to grad students why they shouldn’t try and turn a particular piece into a published article, and one important and true thing here that also applies to a teenager writing fiction is that (how will i put it?) the kind of good writing you should do when you’re learning how to perform in a particular genre is often quite at odds with the kind of writing that’s publishable. for better and for worse—i’ve read quite a few seminar papers in my time that were more interesting, more original in their thinking, more stylishly written than quite a lot of published articles, and yet were totally unsuitable for publication. the same goes for much fiction written by children and teenagers. take jane austen’s juvenilia—i love that stuff, and it’s wonderfully good–but it’s quirky, often quite satirical, abruptly paced, oddly-lengthed fiction that could not have been published at the time, however enjoyable readers might have found it. it was what she needed to write to learn, and it’s wonderfully interesting in its own right, but it doesn’t fit in to any available published genre in her own time. if you’re a young person starting out, you need to spend your time writing what most calls to you—what will stretch your sense of the language, develop your means of building character, etc.—and it is quite likely that the pieces you turn out will not necessarily look like the kind of stories published in a particular magazine or the kind of novel published by a particular publisher. it is no shame to write something mainly for (a) the satisfaction of writing it (b) the pleasure of a few friends who read it and (c) to learn your craft. if you model your own writing on professional published writing you will actually limit your horizons and not learn the things you need to—just as my seminar students would be very ill-served by trying to write at that stage more like the professional journal articles, it would be less imaginative and interesting work even if it gave them something “publishable” a little sooner.

  5. David Moles on #

    Ugh. I’ve had that same critique experience, and I totally share your pain.

  6. megan crewe on #

    I’ve got to agree, too, that it’s important to say it’s not about age but level of experience. Certainly, the stuff I wrote when I was a teenager “sucked”. And certainly I couldn’t evaluate how good it was very well. I started submitting to various magazines around age 14. The difference is, I was always trying to write better, and when I got rejections, I always assumed it was because I wasn’t writing well enough yet. I knew it would be a real long shot for me to get published in a magazine where I was competing with adult writers, but I still wanted to try, just in case this story or that one might have gotten just good enough. :) The most important thing, though is that if I hadn’t been submitting, the only feedback I would have had to go by was my English teachers, who uniformly told me my stories were wonderful. So if I hadn’t been trying to get published at that age, I might not have realized how much I needed to improve.

    I have however seen a lot of beginner writers impatient to get the first things they write out there in the published world, and it worries me. I’ve seen a lot of teens go the self-publishing route without even trying to get traditionally published, because they can sense it’s not going to happen. So they (or their parents) spend all that money on (often) scam artists and the like, for what? Because they can’t wait until they’re written a couple more novels and improved? It’s sad that published is the be-all and end-all of writing for so many people, when the writing itself, and writing the best story you can, really should be.

  7. Steve Buchheit on #

    I see the same thing in graphic design. It’s not just young writers. This is okay, being young means you’re invincible. Eventually you learn that you aren’t. Then you drop out or you learn and get better.

    I’m constantly asked by “young” or “early” designers to critique their work. I’ve only rarely run into those who can accept professional level critiques of their art. So I try and make my critiques into “you can do it, but you’re not showing it here” kinds of speaches.

    So, now in my mid-years I’m going back to writing, and I can take my experience from design to writing. I know my work isn’t the best now, as I haven’t been published. But I am learning and getting better. And once I’m published, next is winning awards, etc. All of which require me moving the goal posts of what I think is “good enough” for myself. And probably on my dying day I’m going to be thinking, “you know, if I switch these sentences, delete this adverb, find a better adjective here, stregnthen this simile…” gasp, last.

  8. Nadine on #

    I remember the first time I thought I could be a published, paid author… I was 11… ELEVEN! And I actually had the cojones to look up my favorite YA publisher (Hachette – I grew up in Quebec reading La Courte Echelle books) and asked if they’d consider publishing books by kids. To her credit, the lady on the line was very nice and told me they’d consider anything well written. I pondered that for a moment… and then promptly went off to watch Jem, or something.

    On a completely unrelated topic, I just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert, and was stunned to see your name listed as one of the doners to Wayan’s house in Bali… I don’t think I ever believed in the six degrees of separation theory until that moment! Congrats on having participated in such a worthy endeavor. Where would ou planet be if our governments were as civic minded and generous as regular people who help strangers in need, one little house at a time?

  9. PJ Hoover on #

    There’s nothing as valuable as a good, honest critique. It’s hard to take. The initial human reaction is to throw your fists up in defense. I guess it’s because writing can seem so personal. But I’ve gotten some amazing critiques for which I will always be in debt.

  10. Gabrielle on #

    When I was twelve, I vaguely thought maybe I could get the project I was working on someday. Someday meaning in the next few years. I am now thirteen, and barely a year later, I laugh at myself. Because I reread what I’d written, and frankly, I realized it wasn’t very good. So that shows how much you change even in a short amount of time. Imagine how much I’ll have changed in ten years. How much my writing will be better. What I’ve seen a lot is people thinking writers are all complete lunatics. I may have said this before, I don’t remember, but my aunt gave me a quill for my birthday. Le sigh. I’m also very grateful about all the writers who blog and who have taken so much time to write about it and make me and bunches of teenagers realized it. Scalzi’s title shouldn’t be taken literally. Teenagers’ writing doesn’t suck as teenagers’ writing: it does suck as adults’ writing.

  11. Jackie M. on #

    In defense of the poor teenagers, I would like to say that from time to time I do come across the odd bit of teenage poetry and/or short prose that leaves me utterly astonished. And green with the kind of jealousy that poisons the very air and water with its sickness, oh yes.

    Fractionally I suspect these gems are very rare–often the piece is the lucky by-product of a teenager who has been producing reams and reams of mediocre-to-bad writing; often that same teenager has absolutely no idea what is is that makes this particular piece good, except that it is different from what they normally write.

    And often the teenager who consistently produces award-winning poems in high school (or college) is NOT the one who will be continually driven to write, who will eventually emerge years and years later with five published books and a collection of short stories. The high-school poetry star has gone on to start their own medical practice and raise five children and run for Congress and simply doesn’t have the time to write. Or isn’t driven by the need to write… who knows.

    But the fact remains: every now and then I come across something written by teenager, and it is truly good.

  12. Dawn on #

    I was on Maureen’s website yesterday and I listened to a podcast that featured her agent, Daphne Unfeasible. Near the end of this podcast Daphne said much of the same things. Young writers aren’t necessarily bad writers, they just have the chance to become much better writers the older they get. I am incredibly proud of what I’ve written in the course of my teenage years, and even as I write now, when I’m 20. But I can definitely see when I go back the difference between now and then and the leaps in skill are HUGE. I had good ideas back then, some of them even great. But I was still learning how to write and I’m STILL learning how to write. In some instances, I understand why people get so hurt when their stories are ripped to shreds. Your heart and soul not to mention time and effort are poured into your work and your characters. It can physically hurt to be told that it’s not good enough. I think of my writing and my characters as my baby, and I love it as such. But if you really want to succeed you need to let other eyes and opinions help you out. That’s one of the goals of getting published, after all, isn’t it? To let other people read and enjoy it. How horrible would it be if you let it go out into the world without being used and abused quite a few times first? I wouldn’t want my published book to be known as a completely terrible book because of how it was written or my complete disregard for proper comma usage. (Major problem of mine.) I am extremely harsh on myself, though. So harsh that single comments of praise send me soaring and why, in part, editors don’t scare me.

    Getting published IS work. But I think that it’s worth it.

  13. Chris S. on #

    As a bookseller, the Teen Author phenomenon really bugs me, mostly because it produces a kind of talking dog reaction (‘Look! Some kid wrote all these chapters in book form!’), rather than interest in the book itself. That’s not good for anyone.

    Sure, there are some really talented teenaged authors. But there are very, very few Gordon Kormans out there, and far more …well, I won’t name names.

  14. The Bibliophile on #

    I think once a person is at the point in their life where they can step back and begin to comprehend just how much they don’t know, both in their chosen field and outside of it, that person is able to grow the most.

    And I have to agree with Chris S.: there are some well-known and widely-read books by teenagers that may have compelling and interesting stories, but I had to work hard to let go of my frustration at how poorly written and contrived much of the books were in order to enjoy them at all.

  15. TadMack on #

    I’ve only learned recently the depths of my knowledge about rewrites — and I learned it from my editor. I *thought* I had rewritten a lot for my agent.

    Think again.

    But after doing it — twice, because the first time was really purely cosmetic — I have found a weird peaceful rightness to it — ripping everything out by the roots and knowing that you’re doing the right thing is very …much like cleaning the house, in a way. Just open up something lemon-scented and get to it, I guess.

  16. calliope on #

    i think this post has, on average, the longest comments ever

    thats all i have to say

  17. Justine on #

    Calliope: I love it when there are such long, thoughtful responses. Makes the blog overlord happy.

  18. jodi on #

    i think the reason teens & adults people rush to get published is because writing is such a solitary art form.

    When i think i might have created something decent i want feedback!
    writing wants to be read!

    teens don’t have that many places to put out their work. if you are 16 who can you show? your english teacher, a parent, another 16 yr old? although it is actually a giant leap, it makes sense that a teen would think the next step would be submission!

    i was lucky enough to attend a performing arts high school w/a writing dpt (way back when) so i had access to incredible feedback.
    best writing teacher i ever had told me that if at 14 yrs old i actually managed to write 14 good lines – out of all the poems/short stories/journal entries i would write that year – then i was in incredible shape and i should keep on keeping on! (at first i howled…then i realized i better get to work if i wanted to get a halfway decent book written -not published,just written- by the time i was 50. ha!

    she told me that it is work, it is that hard, it is that demanding, the monetary compensation will not be glorious, but!!!
    if you have to do it, if you can’t stop, if it is who you are at 14…if you sort of know what it will be but you keep doing it anyway…then all you really need is to get discipline, learn that people don’t usually criticize unless it’s worth it, find a place for feedback & someone to tell you to keep on keeping on. Last but not least – read, enjoy & learn from other people’s work.

    (btw…i’m 30 now, and that list is still exactly what i need!)

    she said i had three choices: run away, grow out of it, or accept that this is what i would do.
    i have run…but i keep comming back.:)

    i love what i do, but the solitary aspects can be just as delightful and horrific as they were ehen I was 16. that’s why writing blogs (such as brilliant justine’s) make me blissfully happy. i know i am not the only one!

    productive, honest writers groups (especially for middle grade/young adult fiction! i have found it doesn’t always get treated the same way by the group) are hard to find whether you are 14 or 44!

    any advice on finding/starting/avoiding writing groups? for teens & adults? y/a & middle grade fiction in particular?

  19. Penni on #

    I’m like Lisa Simpson when she begs her mum, ‘Grade me’…’Please, edit me!’

    As a (freelance) reader of unsolicteds for a major publisher, can I just say we do actually take young writers very seriously – after all, they buy and read our books, it’s the least we can do to see what they’re writing themselves. Plus it’s extremely fascinating and sometimes, yes, I am genuinely blown away.

    But we’ve never published one, not while I’ve been there. I’m inclined to think even for a young writer that is genuinely brilliant, publishing them too soon would be doing them a big fat disservice. Surely you gotta suffer a bit for your art for it to really mean something. I am also sure that they would struggle with the complicated and often confronting editorial process.

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