(depiction of a Young Writer™ hard at work)
I get a lot of requests to dish out advice for young writers. I've been hesitant to do so because advice is often better given retrospectively, and being twenty-one, it's an understatement to say that I'm still learning; I'm still learning some of the advice I'm about to give. But hey! I'll do my best.
I discovered the value of theft in kindergarten. Our teacher had read us a book where each letter of the alphabet corresponded to a drawing of something that started with that letter, but also incorporated that letter (so, like, an illustration of a butterfly shaped like a B), which was probably the cleverest thing I had encountered in my whole entire life. So inventive! So new! Five-year-old me was absolutely dazzled by this unparalleled take on syllabary.
So I copied it.
Pretty much word-for-word (or letter-for-letter). But in the midst of copying, my own ideas began to emerge. The finished product was still probably ninety percent plagiarized, but the remaining ten was purely mine. I'd managed to make something new. I remember my kindergarten teacher lauding that thing like I was some prodigy, the alphabet incarnate, like I hadn't just done something because I had seen it before. But maybe that was why it was good.
The (admittedly tenuous) lesson here is that there's value in copying. I don't mean literally copying. Or plagiarizing. But spend time discovering what you like, why you like it, and how you can incorporate it into your own work. The work of all artists—all writers—is just a coalescence of all their tastes, blended and mutated until something unique is created. Give two writers the same premise and their completed work will look entirely different. Nobody has had the exact same experiences you've had. No one has the exact same taste. So use that. Filter everything through the lens of You.
By the third grade, I had developed a full-blown reading obsession. My favorite teacher at the time had dubbed me "Bookworm," which gave me a secret sort of pleasure; it wasn't really the coolest moniker, but I was happy for my favorite pastime to become part of my identity. Being Bookworm, Wednesday was the best day of the week, because that's when the Bookmobile came.
For those who weren't blessed with a Bookmobile growing up, it was basically a miniature library on wheels, packed with books marked with a color on the spine to designate the reading level. Every week I waddled out of that gussied-up camper van balancing whatever treasures I discovered, savored the delicious crunch of the plastic covers, debated which to read first. Horror was my favorite at the time. Goosebumps, mainly, alongside this godforsaken fever dream of a book called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that they don't even print in its original format anymore because it was too fucked.
(my sweet, sweet Bookmobile)
The lesson here is that writers read. Great writers read hungrily. They read between genres. They read stuff they know they won't like. And they intend to learn from everything they read. Study. Take notes. I rarely read without a pen to note down words, phrases, descriptions, bits of dialogue that I like. Ask yourself what you're feeling while you're reading. What tools has the author used? Would you have done anything differently? When you're finished reading, consider the story as a whole, then break it into its parts. This is incredibly helpful for learning story structure; follow the scenes as they progress, decide why each one is important (or not) and what the author was trying to accomplish with each. Follow character arcs. Recognize foreshadowing. Make predictions. (Though I warn you: Once you start reading critically it's difficult to stop. I scrutinize everything I read even if I don't mean to. I think this is how all my film-y friends experience movies, and why I'm always a blubbering mess walking out of the theater while they're having casual conversations about cinematography. And lights. Bah humbug.)
In fourth grade we were tasked with writing and illustrating a short story. This, to me, was sick. I was getting to do what I'd been doing anyway! For school! I wrote about a girl who could talk to ducks and had to defeat a monster who caused a tsunami in their local pond, which was just a blatant self-insert (because what could be better than talking to ducks?). I was pretty pleased with it. The next year, in fifth grade, I showed it to my new English teacher so I could "get her thoughts." Now, listen. I was ten. I think a part of me just wanted to show her what I'd made so she'd know I was serious business. But I think there's a lesson here that comes in two parts:
Don't be afraid of feedback. Actively seek it out. I really struggle with seeing the forest for the trees, so the feedback of others is often crucial. And with that being said...
Befriend English teachers. They're awesome. The good ones are happy that you're taking initiative outside of class and will be more than happy to offer advice. Obviously, when you're ten, that advice isn't more than some hearty encouragement, but in high school (and into college) their guidance will become invaluable. And no, this isn't just my Dead Poet Society fantasy talking.
So then I wrote some more. All through middle school. All through high school. My reading petered off around the beginning of high school (which I'm still mad at myself about), but I was always writing. I wrote a Goosebumps rip-off. A Wayside School rip-off. A Skulduggery Pleasant rip-off (and then another, and another). I wrote weird poetry that my parents had to sit me down and ask me about. I wrote sci-fi and portal fantasy and mysteries and creepy, fluffy romance when I was fourteen and lonely. I wrote so much that I can't even remember it all. That's an easy lesson: Write constantly. Most of it was terrible, obviously. Nonsensical and boring with the most thesaurus-y prose that had ever thesaurused. But every word, no matter how magniloquent (that was a joke), no matter how awful, has made me a better writer. Keep writing. Keep. Writing.
A few rapid fire tips:
Don't let the fear of failure stop you from writing. You can edit a bad page. You can't edit nothing.
Finish. Starting is fun and exciting. Finishing is hard. You need to learn how to do it.
Don't stress too much about finding your voice. That will come with time.
Keep everything you write. Your future self will thank you.
Finally—and this is important—experience the world. Go out and do things. If you're like me and you hate going out and doing things, consider it research. Travel. Say yes. Talk to weird people. Listen more than you speak. Feel. Hurt. Hurt. Learn what that feels like. But learn what ecstasy feels like, too. Expose yourself to every faraway realm of human experience that you possibly can. Because you're gonna need it. You'll always need it. Of course writing about something doesn't necessitate you having experienced that exact thing, just like how actors don't need to be the person they're portraying. But it certainly helps. It keeps your writing honest. Take notes on living. Seriously. Take notes on what it feels like to be alive. Especially as a teenager! You are feeling everything right now, and yeah, it sucks—so write about it. Words. Phrases. Anything. It's all useful and important. It's like using every part of an animal. Take every chunk of your experience and make something from it. Feed a village with your flesh. Craft weapons from your bones.
Anyway, like I said, I'm still learning. I still haven't read nearly enough. I still haven't written nearly enough. I don't really worry about running out of words; I worry about not having enough time to say them all in. So start now! You're running out of time!