The Writing Excuses podcast (run by my friends Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells) recently had an episode that has really stuck with me for the last week. The concept was that they were going back in time and got to give writing advice to their teenage selves. Their advice ranged from the very specific (Dan told his teenage self to stop playing video games) to the abstract (Howard’s advice was to quit waiting for things you can’t control).
I was listening to this podcast while driving through the barren wilderness of northern Nevada, and it gave me a lot of time to ponder: what would I tell myself? As a teenager, I was in a different situation than Dan and Brandon—I had no idea I wanted to be a writer. At the time I thought I’d be a visual artist. I didn’t spend my spare time conjuring up stories; I spent my time painting and drawing. So, any advice I gave my teenage self would be along more abstract lines: quit being lazy, practice harder, don’t assume you know everything, etc.
But if we’re talking about advice I would give myself in my early writing days, there are several things I can think of. The first would be the same as my advice above: quit being lazy. Early on, I didn’t like revising at all. Even my first published book was very rough, and it got published because of a miracle rather than because of literary quality. It wasn’t until my third book that I really learned the benefit of rewrites and revision. It was a painful lesson to learn. One major rewrite was caused by a hard drive failure, the other was at the request of my publisher. It was horrible at the time, but I learned how much better writing can be if you work at it again and again.
By the same token, I think I’d give myself the advice to work from an outline. I’ve always been a hybrid of discovery writer and outliner, but it was only relatively recently that I realized how helpful it is to know the structure of the story—especially how it’s going to end. I spent two and a half years muddling through a YA novel—one that had a fantastic premise—that had no end. I didn’t know the end, so I didn’t know the scope, and I type a hundred thousand words that just couldn’t go anywhere. On the other hand, every time I’ve outlined something from the very beginning—even if I go back and change the outline later—the books have gone much better.
All of that said, I wonder if giving myself writing advice back then would have helped anything. To a large extent, I think that the best way to learn about writing is simply to write, to screw up, to write some more, to revise, to get feedback, and to keep at it.
I recently read through The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. I’d read it before, back when I was first starting to write, and I remember thinking how stupid the book was. The advice was dumb, and it was obviously written by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about. Now, when I read through it again, I found myself nodding my head on almost every page, thinking about how correct the advice was. There’s a lot you can learn through How-To books, but I don’t think you really understand any of it until you write and write and write.
So, I guess my main advice to my younger self would simply be: Write. By amazing coincidence, that was the very first advice that anyone gave me when I started down this path. As I’ve mentioned before, eleven years ago my brother Dan told me “Everybody says they want to be a writer. Everybody says that one day they’re going to sit down and write The Great American Novel. The difference between a writer and everybody else is that they actually do it.”
So, what writing advice would you give younger self? Do you think it would even be helpful, or do you need to learn from experience?