When you first begin writing, the horizon extends promisingly before you. All you see is your creativity and the gift of your words that readers will surely devour. You know intellectually that there will be bumps but those will be quickly cast aside as your energy and muse pour on the coal, slinging amazing ideas into the world. And in this sunshine coated-beginning, you think you actually have very little to learn and a great deal of wisdom to share. Just raw passion and energy. Ah, youth.
I started writing seriously, and by that I mean sending my stories and articles out to be published, at age 23. I’d been a voracious reader for some time and had written some short film scripts and a couple of plays in high school but nothing that I’d show anyone, except to my closest friends with whom I shared my secret desire to write. It would be two years before I had my first professional publication. Acceptances came a little quicker after that, but so did the rejections. Lots of them. Hundreds of them, in fact.
So here, in no particular order, are a few things I’d tell that young but excited fella about what lay ahead…
- As good as you think those first things you write are, they’re really not. What you’re feeling is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not quality of writing. Nothing wrong with that. But as master Hemingway says, the first million words are crap. After that the quality starts to come. But it takes a while to write a million words.
- Don’t be discouraged by rejection. You’re going to get lots of them. And when you get an editor’s personalized response, understand how rare those are. Rejection means you’re putting yourself out there and that you’re completing something. AND…it has nothing to do with you personally. It’s a particular editor’s view of your writing in that moment. Rejection also produces perseverance and tenacity…if you let it.
- Finish everything you begin, even if it’s not working. Walk away from it for a while if you must but always complete the story, article, script or novel. If it still doesn’t work after you’ve finished put it in a drawer. Completing your writing gets you out of the habit of starting numerous projects and never finishing anything. Doing so also puts you ahead of 98% of the people out there who say ‘they’ve always wanted to be a writer but just couldn’t find the time.’ You are finding the time and it separates you from the pack. In some ways, it makes you a professional.
- You’ll start out copying other writer’s voices; Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler. That’s okay, because almost every writer does this in a quest to write the kind of stories they like to read. But keep pushing through this period because your voice is in there and it will come out, but only with time. The imitations and cliches will fall away and your sensibilities, your filter of experience, your psychic roadmap – your voice – will emerge. Trust it.
- You’ll reach a point where you’ve published a few things and then everything seems to stall. The writing seems flat. Your ideas dry up. You think you’ve reached the height of your capabilities. You haven’t. Just a plateau. Keep writing, climb over the hill and you’ll break through. Until you hit the next plateau. It’s part of the journey.
- Your writing will get better if…you keep writing, keep reading, keep trying to improve, not settling for what has been and taking risks with your words. Don’t be afraid to try new styles, new genres, new techniques. It’s all good. And…never stop learning and be both a sponge and humble with criticism. Take your medicine. It’s good for you.
- Write from your heart. You’ll hear that a lot but what it means is write from what moves you…what frightens you…what makes you deeply sad…what makes you ecstatic. Remember to write from that place where the real you exists. Not the masks you put on for others or even the ones you sometimes wear for yourself. No. Write from the naked you, the one that God created because that you is totally unique and he has something to say.
- And remember, always remember why you started writing in the first place. Because it was fun. Because it takes you places where only writing can go. Because there’s something inside you that needs to get out. Because you’re supposed to. And because it’s a gift and you can.
The 23-year-old me was full of vigor, dreams, and a seemingly tireless work ethic. I miss that kid. Well, some of him anyway. What he also had was a lot of naiveté and ignorance about the writing business and objectivity about his own words. We’ve grown up a lot since then (hopefully not too much) and I still carry that magic he always believed was in the stories. We’ve written some things that have had a touch of that magic and have even touched others. What a wonderful thing that is. But we’ll keep trying to get the magic perfect, where the story soars and goes beyond us. Yep. We’ll keep trying.
Because we’re a writer.