What Advice Would You Give to Young Writers?

By Jordan Dane

Today I am presenting a workshop to the Creative Writing students at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). This is a free offering of like-minded authors getting together to share their thoughts on the publishing industry and the craft of writing. I plan on sharing my thoughts on the latest trends in publishing with a focus on the Young Adult and New Adult markets. I will also spend more time talking about author craft and the epiphanies I have learned through the books I’ve written. Each book teaches you something different, right? Writing is the best way to learn those things, mostly through trial and error when you learn best from your mistakes.

I also want to spend time talking about the writer’s life and the discipline to accomplish daily goals. Usually life, the day job, and other obligations can force you to set aside your passion to write, but if it’s important to you, I say make time for it, even if that’s only a page a day.

The hardest thing I will broach is the crazy things happening in the publishing industry with regard to the changing contractual terms and what it means to self-publish or navigate the ebook services being offered by large publishers and agents, etc. But I find it hard to stop the long list of warnings that I would want them to be aware of so they don’t sign their copyrights away for the life of their book, simply to get published. It’s a scary world out there in this interim phase while the industry is sorting things out. But I don’t want to scare them off either. So I am limiting my warnings to only the most treacherous ones that dangle like gems stones and look all polished and pretty, but have complications. Things like royalty value for digital books, the ala carte subrights menu, rights reversions, and what agents and publishers are offering that could be troublesome. When the goal is to get them to incorporate writing into their daily life, or to nurture something that could become a passion later in life, I don’t want to discourage them from the start.

When I talk to young writers, I want to simply encourage them to write and recognize that if they have the drive and passion for writing, they should write whether they get published or not. I remember how important reading and writing was for me in school and how it stayed with me for my whole life. But first comes the desire and getting hooked on it. It’s a quality of life thing. I usually encourage them to keep a journal of their thoughts or characters they want to develop, or keep a file of ideas for future books. I will share James Scott Bell’s wonderful TKZ post on how to write a short story or share one of my favorite Joe Moore posts on editing your work in Writing is Rewriting. There are so many posts that I’ve found useful at TKZ that I’m still pinching myself that I am a member here.

But my question to all of you is – what advice would you give to a young writer? Someone who is in college or high school and has the writing bug? Everyone here at TKZ would have something to offer young writers. What would you tell them?

43 thoughts on “What Advice Would You Give to Young Writers?

  1. I’d first give them Heinlein’s Rules for Writing:

    1. You must write
    2. You must finish what you write

    And then I’d say don’t go looking for an agent, or self-publish, until you’ve completed a novel and gone through a rigorous editing process. Study the craft as you do.

    Oh yes, and keep repeating Heinlein’s Rules over and over the rest of your life.

    • Jim–I especially love your advice on finishing whatever you start. It’s important to know how to dig yourself out of a hole and you learn best from mistakes. Once I finished a manuscript and got proposals out, I started that next book so I wouldn’t be waiting for their response. I wanted to have inventory of completed projects if I sold and that’s what happened. So finishing is GREAT advice.

    • Definitely, Joe. Love your advice. I learn something different from each project by design. I always like that feeling of over-reaching my abilities do I stretch myself.

  2. I’ll echo to some degree the advice above. In my case though I’d edit it to “Just write, write, write. Don’t wait around till you think you’re ready to write.”

    I got started writing late in life and now I wish I had spent all those months and years of my twenties writing. I feel like I’m ten years behind. I kept thinking “well, once I get my MFA, THEN I’ll start writing.” Nuh uh. Bad philosophy. Even if it’s just writing a blog, making a daily ritual of a diary or throwing together short stories, or anything, write write write.

    The problem? I’m sure people told me this same thing when I was a student. Also, after reading your question I looked through my posts and found this little nugget on rewriting and editing, another aspect of writing I wish I had started much earlier (http://puborperish.blogspot.com/2010/07/ten-years-not-that-impressive.html) If I was in your shoes, these would be the things I bring up.

    I hope it goes well. I’m jealous of the students.

  3. Thanks, Dick. Man, I had a BLAST with those kids. A great group of curious minds who really wanted to be there. Some stuck around and were late to their next class. I will be doing some critiques for them too.

    One thing I would say to YOU is that you begin your journey toward writing when you are meant to do it. I know, it sounds like a Zen thing, but I firmly believe that you have to be completely ready to embrace “the life.” And now that you are more seasoned, with more life experiences behind you, your writing can be made richer from those experiences when you channel those experiences through your characters.

    I personally don’t like living with regret. It can become an anchor to carry. You will never know what type of author you would’ve been in your 20’s. But you have control over the type of author you will become now, going forward, because you’ve embraced the challenge.

    Thanks for your comment and good luck with your writing.

    • And hold hands when you cross the street?

      Actually there is a lot of wisdom in your advice, Jim. I think as writers, it is important to be a better listener and observer. I like it.

    • Absolutely! There’s so much “stuff” out there (in the “real” world), you really don’t have to make this stuff up. Every time I sit in a waiting room, I come away with a few new characters and at least one story idea. Every time I go to Costco, I find the place full of book reviewers!

  4. Check your purpose. If you want to write so you can live like Castle. You want to write because writing is cool. You want to be a best seller. Forget it. Writing is too hard.

    Dick mentioned he started later in life. I started when I was 62. Lots of lost time.

    I would tell students this. There are three parts to writing (fiction)

    1. You have stories popping out of your head. You can look at a pigeon eating a donut crum and see a whole story roll out. (By the way, the pigeon is a CIA operated android. The man watching is an Iranian spy. Soon the pigeon will land on his table outside a Starbucks in Cincinnati. The man will look amused until the pigeon explodes. Jack Conlin investigates. Why kill the man?)

    2. You must know how to structure whatever you are writing: novel, shot story, etc. A novel is a certain thing like a ham sandwich. At the least it must have ham and bread. Same thing with each form of writing. Don’t waste your time and talent fighting for originality by breaking the basic rules, unless your name is Cormac McCarty. In that case, move to Texas, write weird books, and get famous.

    3. Learn grammar and punctuation. Learn grammar and punctuation. Learn grammar and punctuation. Learn grammar and punctuation. Learn grammar and punctuation. Got the idea?

    Finally ignore rules like Write what you know. Instead read and write what you like, obsessively. You can always Google what you don’t know.

  5. I love this, Brian. I also loved your pigeon notion of story inspirations coming from weird associations in a writer’s head. I freak people out all the time when I tell them how I got ideas for any of my books, but writers know and understand this stuff.

    And about writing “rules,” I tell them to understand perceived rules before you break them. The creative process shouldn’t be constrained, but it is important to understand the foundation of craft.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. Editing and revision is 80% of the work. Don’t be arrogant and assume your draft manuscript doesn’t need any! And listen to those who give you constructive feedback. They might be right…:)

  7. Great advice all. I have only one thing to add:


    You can’t be a writer if you are not first a reader. I am amazed at how many would-be novelists I have met who readily admit they have not read a book in years. What can you tell a person like that?

    • Definitely. Thanks for adding that tip. I sometimes forget that not everyone who wants to write is a reader. I make the assumption they are, but especially when I talk to them about the Young Adult market, their eyes glaze over and I realize they haven’t read much of the books. Yeah, seriously. Be a reader of any genre you want to write.

  8. I would advise young writers to seek out the company of other writers. When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who made an actual living from writing fiction, so it seemed like an impossible, fantasy goal. I settled for pursuing a career in journalism. I wasted a lot of years before an invitation to write a book fell in my lap. I would develop a long list of writing resources and groups that are available, and hand that list out to any young person who would like to write for a living.

    • Great advice, Kathryn. I researched what was being published before I picked a genre. In the end, all the research helped me, but it took looking at my overloaded book shelves to realize that I should write the story that I most wanted to read. My comfort read of crime fiction cleared a path to publication for me. Thanks for your advice. Well said.

  9. I would encourage them to follow their dream of being the writer but give them a dose of reality in terms of what the writing life really means. Discipline is crucial. They should probably start writing what they like to read. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Attend writing workshops. Read How-To Books. And sit down and write.

    • Love this, Nancy. Very very true. Many hopefuls don’t know how to get networked into these things. That’s why the research and networking into the resources is so important and will pay off in the end. After all my conference & workshop attending, craft book reading, and local writers groups and contest entries, what truly got me pubbed was another writer (Sharon Sala) who read my MS and got excited to see me published. But I would never have met her if I hadn’t done all the local writer’s group stuff and networked. There is no easy, one size fits all, path to publication that works for everyone.

      Thanks for taking the time from your busy writing day.

  10. The advice I always give is: Give yourself permission to be a novice. Expecting to write a bestselling novel the first time you sit down is a recipe for failure. It takes time and practice and lots of rejection and crappy first drafts to learn how to make this look easy.

    • Hey there Red-headed Stranger. How are things, girl?

      Yeah, I like your tips here too. You gotta polish a few turds before you are more certain what will work–and that takes getting those rejections. Only writers know what a “good rejection” is, right? HA!

  11. I second your Zen point there Jordan. I didn’t start writing novels till I was 38, and I think the books are better for it. Some folks can start when they’re young and hit it big right out of the chute in their twenties or even teens, but I think most of us need it to percolate a while and our own life experiences to grow before it is convincingly expressible.

    That being said, next weekend I am presenting a workshop series to Middle & High School students with several other Alaska Writer’s Guild authors. I always look forward to doing these presentations, but especially with the kids, because if they catch the writing bug at their young age, by the time they’re my age they will be living the dream.

    The workshop will be mostly middle school and some high school future writers. I’m presenting a session titled “Movies in My Head: The World of Audiobooks” and intend to have plenty of hands on exercises for the kids.

    Get them started early, and they will run the longest trail.

    alternate titles for my workshop were:

    “Laughing Privately in Public Isn’t Always a Sign of Insanity.”

    “Caution: Audiobooks may cause uncontrolled twitching and paranoia. Avoid sharp objects and dark hallways while listening audiobooks.”

    “Audiobook Narration: Talking To Yourself in a Closet is Normal Actually.”

    “Mommy, the voices told me too.”

    • I would LOVE to attend one of your presentations to kids, Basil. HA! I love that you’re doing that. The art of storytelling is something that can benefit anyone in all facets of their life. It’s definitely good to catch them early. Thanks for being the good guy you are, my friend.

    • Speaking of story telling…perhaps I could talk the guild to inviting you up for our AWG writer’s conference next year…if you’re up for it.

  12. I was a late bloomer too. I didn’t finish my first novel till I was 40. I knew how to diagram a sentence in 7th grade though. 🙂 I wish I wouldn’t have been so hung up on trying to make that first book good enough to be published. Not that it was a waste of time, I wrote a heck of a query letter for it, got a request, and of course it boomeranged right back to me. within ten days too!

    Try different things, like short story, and novellas, etc. I never did that either and am sorry for it. If the students can afford it they should definetly go to a conference and just soak it all in. Network, ask questions, don’t try to sell anything, just learn and enjoy.

    • I agree with your idea of them being willing to try other lengths. I jumped into the novel, but when these writers are so young, it is best to get them to even keep a journal of their observations and story ideas. Anything to keep them into the craft. I suggested that they also write a first person POV of a character they may want to develop so they can jumpstart an idea.

      Great stuff, Jillian, from a seasoned pro.

  13. Just thought of one last piece of advice:

    Give yourself permission to write badly.

    I think too many of us get hung up on the idea that everything we do must be wonderful. Sometimes you have to get some really mediocre stuff out to make room for the good.

    • Even when you think your writing is as good as you can get it, without any typos, you find some repeat pattern of certain cadences or compound sentences, or some other word or phrase you apparently love again and again. Once your eyes are open to that, you don’t repeat it, but it takes mistakes to show that to you.

      Thanks for this addition, Kris.

  14. 1. Write daily
    2. Read your genre daily
    3. Read at least one writing craft book every one-two months. Take notes. Learn something.
    4. Join a critique group. Listen.
    5. Don’t try to publish anything for the first three years. Just enjoy writing like the wind.
    6. Take inventory. Where are you now?

    • Great list, Beth. I especially loved your “enjoy writing like the wind” tip. Trying to get pubbed can take over your time, when discovering the joy of writing can be the best foundation to build from. Well said.

  15. I am always so impressed with the contributions everyone at TKZ makes to enhance the post with your comments and discussion. You guys are awesome.

  16. I agree with everything that’s been said, and want to add two more things: 1. I would urge any student who finds reading a burden to re-think his/her plan to be a writer. If reading is not a natural inclination,it’s probably best to forget the whole thing. 2. In addition to reading a lot, it’s important to write a lot, and not just for the obvious reason of learning the craft. The other reason is to create temporal distance between a completed project and revision. The longer this time, the better. Ideally, months pass before a writer goes back to look at what’s been written. Does this seem unrealistic? Maybe it is for someone taking a class, but ideally, no, I don’t think so. The new writer who finishes something needs to plow ahead with a new story, and another, and another. Then, down the road, s/he goes back to that first story/novel, and sees it fresh, with more detachment, and a sharper critical eye.

  17. Take some time away from a book before starting to query or e-publish it. The longer you’re away from a book, the more emotional distance you get, and the more likely you are to make wise decisions about what to edit, new scenes or additions to scenes to write, what to rewrite, etc.

    A well-written book, by a skilled writer, comes in at the right length for the type of story it is. Don’t stress about trying to pre-plan a book around a specific length. The great writers of the past didn’t freak out if their book ended up much longer or shorter than some perceived norm. They cared more about telling a good story than staying in some preconceived notion of “acceptable” length.

    As a typography geek, I encourage other writers to find a font that speaks to them, instead of sticking with the program default. You’re going to be typing in that font for hundreds of pages, and, if you keep with writing, many, many years. It might as well be something that’s pleasing to your eyes. Palatino has been my font soulmate for almost 20 years, and I couldn’t imagine typing in anything else.

    • Thanks for the advice, Carrie-Anne. I would add on the length part that they should be aware of traditional publishers notions of word count if they choose to submit to an agent or publisher. I’ve heard countless stories from new authors that their manuscript turned into something the length of a phone book. They had to find a way to cut it into 3-4 books, but most never bothered to try & sell it. There is a threshold word count a publisher shoots for in a single title novel that ranges between 80,000 – 90,000 minimum that becomes a contractual obligation. Production costs on their proforma P&L calculations to determine an author’s advance is around 110,000 words. The length of a novel can also affect to font size if a house crams in a longer word count book into a set page count.

      I like your advice on working with a font you prefer to visually see as you write the book. I love Times New Roman, usually in 12-14 or I enlarge the book on my monitor. I also work in single space to save paper in my edit process, but I electronically submit the way my publisher asks.

      A young writer should be aware, however, that publishers have guidelines on how their authors need to submit. Mine asks for Courier New or Times New Roman set at 12 with a word count of 250 words per page. That helps them determine production page count.

    • Jillian–It was AMAZING. I loved every minute of it. The kids were so interested in talking about trends and new books that were coming out and their issues with writing. I had a general guideline geared specifically to the young writer, but I also kept it open for discussion and I’m glad I did that. The kids stayed into the last hour of the time we had the room reserved, even if it meant they’d be late for their next class. Some stayed to talk after and one girl really touched me with how she felt about attending. All great kids who I knew were more dedicated to becoming writers than I was at their age. They were sponges for learning.

      We’re going to have another one of these presentations in the fall and open it up to more area writers, but we now know more about how to format it.

      As for learning things from them, I always do that. I actually watched their interactions and read between the lines of the things they were asking–and got ideas for characters or dialogue based on some of them. Great kids. But they had more interesting questions and shared some of their writing problems, like thinking so fast that they couldn’t keep up with the words on the keypad. I think the next one I have, depending on the time, I might have a general format, but let the discussions happen through them. Sometimes kids don’t ask enough questions, but when they are as intelligent and ambitious as these kids were, you can let them guide the discussion. It was a really great experience.

  18. I think I would tell them that they have a leg up on the rest of us because some of the truisms of our generation go a bit vice-versa as they cross the time divide to theirs. Take traditional publishing for example. To our generation this is the familiar ballpark where we are comfortable playing even though the turf may be uneven and the chalk lines too blurred to make out a lot of the time. To many of the younger generation that old diamond never had as much shine and is now simply old school. Meanwhile the world we think of as new and somewhat scary and requiring great courage to enter is pretty much old hat to them. They were practically born tapped into the technologies we tiptoe toward with trepidation. The young among us have already boldly gone where we do our stumbling best to boldly go… So I would tell them that they face a world of burgeoning possibility that is well suited to youthful optimism. Then I would ask nicely if when they get there they might turn around and give us a hand up.

    • Ha! Nicely said, Alice. After doing the workshop, I found the bridge of writing brought us all together for a common purpose. We all were writers, regardless of age. A great experience and you would have fit in nicely.

  19. My short answer to young writers: Get some life experiences. Yes, I know that the adage “Write what you know” is stupid. I don’t know anything about vampire romance, but I COULD write about it. All I’m saying is that my first novel, written at 13, had characters that had no grown-up human qualities…and they weren’t vampires. For characterization and plotting, you need some depth, and you can’t imagine that when you’re 15.

  20. Very true, Steven. The college kids I spoke to would probably benefit from more life experiences, but I am really looking forward to reading their projects. I gave away 3 critiques. They see things & tell stories differently than I would and have great imaginations.

    And I would bet you could write one helluva vampire story, hopefully without doing actual research.

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