Monday, February 14, 2011

Advice To Young Writers

This is to Nobody426 and all of the young people who have contacted me from asking for a beta and writing advice. You guys are so amazing to ask for feedback and to message other writers. That's REALLY brave, and not something I ever did at that age. I don't consider myself an authority, and I'm pretty young myself, but here's my best attempt at a response. 

1) Read. A lot. All of the time. Read everything from magazine articles to historical romances to science fiction to the classics. None of it is wasted, I promise. The first thing to being a writer is not writing. It's reading. You can hone your craft for as long as you want, but you will not get better unless you're reading widely, and you're reading with purpose. Read YA, read kidlit, read adult fiction. Read good fiction. Read bad fiction. Read the New Yorker. Read Joyce Carol Oates. Read C.S. Lewis. Read short stories! Don't stick to things you think you'd like. I never, ever read chick lit until last summer, and then I realized I was missing out on writing styles I wasn't familiar with. Read books by men. Read books by women. There are two things you need to do when you read. One, you need to read to understand the craft. Look at how the author breaks scenes. Look at how dialogue is written. Pay close attention to how emotions are conveyed. Why do reading certain parts make you feel happy or sad? How does the author do that? Notice the pacing. Two, you need to read for pleasure. Do both. Not always at the same time. But always, do both.

2) Learn the rules. Get some books on writing. For starters, I like ON WRITING WELL (Sol Stein), PLOT & STRUCTURE (James Scott Bell), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (Donald Maass), and BIRD BY BIRD (Anne Lamott). That pretty much covers your bases on good books on the craft of writing. For people who struggle with writing in its technical aspects, definitely invest in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (Strunk & White). Read these books. Learn the rules. Always "said" for dialogue tags. Start with action. Don't do info dumps. Avoid adverbs. Concise as possible; don't describe things you don't need to. Don't use stupid similes. Inciting incident needs to be within the first fourth of the novel. Learn the rules.

3) Break them. But you are not allowed to break the rules until you learn them. If you're breaking them, there has to be good reason. There can't be good reason unless you know what the rules are.

4) There are going to be people who tell you they know how to write a novel. Write in the morning. Write in the afternoon. Write 500 words a day. Write 2,000. Character-driven is best. No, plot-driven. Write when you're inspired! Butt-in-chair method every day gets it done! Spit out your first draft; edit later. Take your time. Outline. Don't outline. The point is, nobody has a godforsaken clue how to write a novel. This is something you discover on your own, by yourself. Whatever gets it done for you is how to do it.

5) This is obvious: Write. When I was little, I used to write at dinner parties my parents dragged me to with nothing but a notebook and a pencil -- the old fashioned way, kids. I used to write until the skin on my fingers had grooves and my hands hurt so bad I couldn't even hold dining utensils. I'm not saying you should hurt yourself in the process. I'm just saying, anything worth doing is worth doing until it hurts.

6) A lot of what you write is not going to be very good. Open those old notebooks of mine. Everything in them is TOTAL JUNK. I have a account with stories from when I was in junior high. Barring being held at gunpoint, I will not ever reveal what my user name was. Because everything is embarrassingly bad. There's a lot of embarrassingly bad stuff on my account. But I still use it, so I can't hide anything. C'est la vie. Just know, you have write mountains of unusable ugliness before you get anything remotely okay. I don't regret anything I've posted, because every story I wrote taught me something new.

7) Don't let anyone make you stop. People used to say I was "so cute" when I was constantly scribbling in a notebook. What they were really thinking was, wow, this kid is a nutcase. She's probably going to end up wearing beanies, unemployed, smoking weed on street corners, and reciting shitty poetry to homeless people in New York. Doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Writing is about you and who you are writing for. You are not writing for the cynics. The cynics don't deserve your awesomeness anyway. Someone once told me teenagers didn't have enough life experience to write. Someone was an idiot. Don't listen to someone. You are never too young to start writing. America could use a lot more kids who want to write. Don't be that kid in college who can't even string together a decent sentence for a Letter to the Editor. Seriously, don't be that kid or I'll be the one sitting behind the computer screen, making sure you don't sound like a dumbass to the public, and judging you.

You should hang out at Write On Teens and read Ten Rules For Writing Fiction (from various authors). You should check out the blogs of authors you love. I suggest Gail Carson Levine, because she has lovely writing advice. And because she's lovely. I also like Maureen Johnson, because she's hilarious and one day I will be her best friend (meaning, one day I will be Libba Bray, the coolest woman I have never met). Probably Stephanie Perkins, whose book I have not read yet, but I've already decided she must be a pretty cool lady too because she has the best blue hair dye job I have ever seen. 

Finally, I know it's not "hip" or whatever to write or tell people you're an unpublished writer. But a) your real friends will think you're cool no matter how actually strange you are and b) anyone else is not your friend. You will learn that people who are not your friends are not worth your time. 

Thank you for reading, reviewing, and favoriting. You are -- wherever and whoever you are -- always welcome to message me. No matter where you go or who you meet, I hope you keep writing.


  1. Seriously, #4 and #7 are KEY!

    Discover what works for you, and don't give up because people think your cute little hobby is getting in the way of hanging out on Saturday nights.

    I want to be published someday, and I missed out on a lot of Saturday nights to write. But just as important as finding time to write, is to live life. Life experiences color our writing, and provide inspiration.

    Don't give up!

    Great post, Xixi!

  2. Great post! As you said in the beginning, they're brave to ask. But the advice you give here is really awesome. Nice job, Xixi!

  3. Thanks Xixi,
    I would have posted the comment earlier if I got time, but the fact that I had millions of homework and competitions did not help at all. Being a junior high kid is hard, especially when you are bracing for the high schoolers.
    I am very honored to have you sending me (more like everyone, still) a post back, tying all these up. I am glad you give me these advices, they may be the most important ones I ever received on writing in my life. I'm also glad that I'm indeed worthed your time replying, and what you said was all crucial. Maybe it's just that my level is still too low, but honestly, I think all of your stories that I read on your profile on are fabulous, the absolute best ones I have ever read on that site. You really do appreciate all types of literature, I know that you are going to be successful one day, sooner or later.
    Looking back at my own notebooks, (I didn't learn how to type until last year, so I wrote) I found out all the crappy, full-of-error (not that I'm that much better now) and gramar mistakes stories that I wrote since I was a second grader and I think I really improved quite a lot. I will surely, surely read the books you introduced to me, and perhaps, one day, I might have something too.
    You're right, kids, no matter what age, are all suitable to write stories. Sometimes what adults lack of is imagination. All the while, kids have all the imagination in the world, and many times I'm surprised at what my eight year old sister and four year old brother come up with. Their ideas can be very, very refreshing.
    Once again, I'm extremely thankful for your reply.
    ~Laan (or Rainbow as my other friends call me)

  4. Wow, you're awesome. :)

  5. Hi XiXi,
    I just wanted to say--you are awesome. Your writing (I'm a huge fan of your Percy Jackson fanfiction) blows me away, and I hope someday you are a published author.
    Thank you for all of your beautiful words.