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. 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.