Friday, June 17, 2011

My real advice to new writers

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately. One question I answer frequently is what sort of advice I’d offer to new writers.

Since no one wants to see me blather for twelve paragraphs on a single response in a long Q&A, I generally offer something pithy and concise and only moderately useful.

You want the real answer?

I have to tell a story.

When I was 23, I went to Venezuela to teach English. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re young and crazy with a freshly baked college degree and more wanderlust than money or common sense.

Hiking in the Andes mountains.
I was there for almost 5 months, and when I wasn’t in the classroom, I was traveling around the country. I backpacked through the Amazon. I climbed in the Andes. I swam in the Caribbean.

I was also robbed at gunpoint in a remote beach town. I contracted a weird intestinal parasite. I came this close to being bitten by a mapanare while hiking in a jungle so isolated it took several days to reach the spot on foot and in a dugout canoe. I was detained along the Colombian border in the middle of the night by two guards who ushered everyone off the bus except me and a friend, and then questioned us while holding machine guns inches from our heads.

Writing those things just now gave me goosebumps. At 36, I look back at my 23 year old self and shake my head at my own youthful naïveté.

Did I even have health insurance? Would I have made it home safely without the money stuffed secretly in my bra when I was robbed? If I’d been bitten by that snake, is there even a remote chance I would have survived with no medical care nearby and no way to phone for help?

The answer to all those things is “probably not.”

But I look back on those experiences now as some of the most exhilarating and educational moments of my life. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was too young and fearless to consider all the scary things that could happen.

Those are the same feelings I had when I started writing fiction. I believed success was just around the corner. I hadn’t yet experienced the sting of my first rejection letter or the niggling fear I might be writing a long damn time before I landed a book deal. I got to enjoy the exhilaration of spreading my wings without the knowledge that a strong wind or a powerline or a kid with a slingshot might knock me out of the sky.

What I want to say to new writers is this: slow down. Don’t fill your head with fears about querying agents or building a platform or the possibility you might die from an infected papercut obtained from your 2000th rejection letter.

Enjoy your early efforts. Just write for the pleasure of writing, and know that you’ll have plenty of time later to fret about the things that might go wrong. Don’t worry that you don’t know enough about plotting or publishing or branding strategies. That comes later. For now, enjoy your own goofy, hopeful, deliriously dopey moments as a new writer.

I know I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

30 comments :

Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

Now see, I was just learning not to be a scaredy pants when I was 23.
I did all my daredevil stuff at 36.
Now I'm 53 and I wonder, what was I thinking?
Good advice. I must admit to being relieved when I decided to take 6 months hiatus from trying to be published and serialize a novel on my blog instead.
This is the 7th Friday that I've put up a novel section of Hungry Ghosts and I'm having fun writing again.

Shakespeare said...

I've already earned several rejection letters, but I see them as an adventure, too. Right now, though, I'm just writing, writing, writing, revising, revising, revising, and learning more every step of the way.

I'm so glad the snake didn't get you. So glad you came back in one piece.

linda said...

Thank you so much for this! Despite all the writing/publishing blogs I read, I'm not really worrying about querying or publishing at this stage. I just hope to write a book that my teenaged self would adore. :)

Joyce said...

If you combine a lifelong scaredy cat and an eternal optimist, you'd get--well, me. In a blink of an eye, I can go from being petrified to being absolutely positive I'll sell a book one of these days.

Then again, maybe I just have some kind of mental disorder.

Linda G. said...

Great post, Tawna! So glad Fate decided to keep you around long enough to entertain us with your funny take on the world. :)

lora96 said...

I like to think I did most of my reckless stuff in my early 20s as in "Sh** this was bad planning" when I found myself at some weird guy's house and no one knew where I was/got stranded with a flat and no idea how to change it/got stuck on a bad first date literally stuck as in wheels-in-mud at the remote drive in theater.

Although we'd probably never do much of anything if we were well-informed and cautious. If I bothered to look up stats on how many queries get rejected, I sure as heck wouldn't be sending any out.

I'm pregnant and I avoid those scary What to Expect books and anything with Dr. Oz because they frighten the crap outta me. I avoid what I don't feel I want to know.

So I don't look down.

Michelle Wolfson said...

Awesome advice.

Charissa Weaks said...

My life suddenly seems very boring.:)And...I would read the book about the girl who went to Venezuela and was held at gunpoint, trekked through the Andes mountains, became infected with a parasite, was nearly bitten by a whatever that was, all the while hiding a money stash between her tatas. :)

Kelsey said...

Hearing your experiences, I feel like I haven't lived! :P

Kristi Helvig said...

I didn't know what a mapanare was until just now, and I'm sorry I clicked the link--I'm going to have nightmares for weeks! This is such a great post--and you could definitely write a memoir. :)

Kelly Breakey said...

When I was 23 I was living overseas, trekking through Hong King, Thailand, and Japan. And like you, I would not change any of it. I was fearless, and at that age...fearless is good!

Delia said...

I was married two weeks before I turned twenty-three. Not very adventurous, but I suppose it shows it's own type of fearlessness. Either way, I'll take that last bit of advice. It's good stuff.

Anna said...

I'm easing into my late 20s and starting to do the adventurous stuff. Thanks for this post-I needed it!

Danica Avet said...

Hm, what is it about the age 23? That's when I finally broke my good girl mode and became party girl. I went out every night in spite of my looming college graduation date and mounting bills.

I would agree with you on that piece of advice, Tawna. I think I even mentioned to someone not long ago that I sometimes wish I wasn't published because now there are expectations and deadlines to meet. I'm not sorry about them, I don't resent them, but they can sometimes interfere with the writing process.

Very sage advice, my friend.

Lisa Ahn said...

Love this, love this, love this. Best writing advice I've seen. Thanks.

Claire Dawn said...

ESL in Japan is so much safer! And we have health insurance.

I'm really trying to live each day its own right, but I'm a dreamer. It's super hard :(

Danielle spears said...

You'll have to tell us more about your adventures in Venezuela.

I can tell from the picture it was the nineties from the cut-off jeans and the Jansport backpack. Gosh I miss the nineties...

But I was in my early twenties when I drove from Washington to Maine with barely any money. We would get to KOA campgrounds really late and leave really early just so we could avoid paying but still get to shower and sleep. We never got robbed or anything that scary but we had a few unforgettable moments.

Thanks for sharing and great advice for us hopefuls :)

Pamala Knight said...

Thank you Tawna, for the wise words and encouragement. You are such a breath of fresh air and sunshine. I love coming to your blog every day to see what you'll say.


Happy Friday!

Jason said...

I echo Charissa - I would totally read that book. :)

Apparently I was much too responsible when I got out of college. I came thisclose to hopping on a cruise ship to work and get some kind of adventures...but instead got a job at a law firm thinking I wanted to prep for law school. Thankfully I changed my mind on law school, but still haven't done stuff too crazy.

Part of me wishes I had...but another part of me is like, well, that wouldn't have been responsible. :)

See what I'm dealing with when I write? I have all these voices telling me to be responsible. :)

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Me hugs you. And I was a wussy so I think you're cool!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I definitely agree, that new feeling is everything, that writing purely for the sake of writing. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Amen, sister!

But, was this supposed to make me cry a little? Because it didn't. I swear.

Sydnee said...

You were definitely one crazy SOB. I read that one paragraph and I think I peed a little. BUT I'd probably do the same thing if I had the money and my parents weren't so concerned about me getting robbed at machine gun point... if nothing else, it's great material for stories :)

Abby Minard said...

Wow, when I was 23 I had baby ;p I can't believe all that happened to you! That was wonderful advice. I have to remind myself to slow down sometimes and not freak out that I'm almost 30 and not published. I haven't even started querying yet, lol. Thanks for putting it in perspective :)

Patrick Alan said...

You keep money in your bra? Can I borrow a dollar for the soda machine? I can just grope, uh, grab it, right?

Patrick Alan said...

Also, weren't you 36 last year?

Bria Quinlan said...

Wonderful advice Tawna.

I'm about to get started on the next book and have gone through the agent hunt...the agent break-up...another agent hunt...revisions...revisions....revisions... I keep thinking, "Will I get to get back the joy of just falling into a story and writing?"

Today's post makes me say, YES! And I really can't wait!

Anne R. Allen said...

Wow. A whole novel in a blogpost. And the BEST advice to young writers ever!

ninabadzin.com said...

LOVED this.

Spook The Scribbler said...

Thanks for the great advice! As a slightly panicky sixteen year old writer-to-be, this is great help. Thank you so much! :D