It’s been years since I was a teenager, but I was everything you’d expect from a young, naive writer. I thought I was great at writing, I wanted to major in it, and I was determined to write for a living. I was a novelist. A writer! All I had to do was, you know, finish a novel. But I loved to write, so clearly I was destined for something special.
Ah, youth. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.
1. Finish Everything You Start
Finishing is everything. I now believe that it’s more important than skill. It certainly more important than perfection. Finishing a project is literally the most important skill you can ever learn. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you can’t see a project through to the end.
I spent my teenage years writing the opening chapters of dozens stories. I wrote scenes. I created characters. I created supplementary languages and poems. But I didn’t actually finish a manuscript until I was 21 years old. (Then it took me 3 more years to write one that was the correct length for my genre.) I loved writing, but I had nothing to show for it until my mid-20s. And that’s awful.
Do you want someone else to edit your work? Finish it. Do you want to submit it somewhere? Well, you aren’t going to submit the first 4 chapters. Even if your first novel is trash and you hate it and you know it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, finish it. You can do something with an imperfect manuscript. You can’t do anything meaningful with a fragment of a story.
2. Write For Every Market You Can
I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to write novel-length fantasy. So that’s what I did. I wrote nothing but fantasy novels, all the time. And since writing novels is hard, that meant I just never published anything.
But oh, short stories are wonderful. It takes me less than a week to write, edit, polish, and submit one, and 2-3 months to get a response. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and re-edit a single novel (and I still haven’t gotten an agent.)
But the moment I started writing short stories, I started getting publishing credits. And you know what? I can put that on an agent query. Now I don’t have to shyly, innocently avoid the fact that I’m unpublished.
So be flexible. Write your novels and finish them in a timely manner. But write short stories, too. And articles. Anything. Write for any legitimate market that will take you. That’s way better than being unpublished and waiting until your novel gets lucky.
3. Write in any Genre You Can
And, finally, don’t limit yourself to what you love. Every genre can teach you something about the art of writing.
My journalism degree taught me loads about being pithy. (You probably can’t tell. But trust me, I was much worse before.) Professional communications taught me how to simply describe complicated topics. All these made me think about my writing, and all of them made me better at it.
So don’t be afraid of non-fiction. Write for everything. Anything. If you like it, do it. If it pays, try it.
I still have a lot to learn, of course. I’ve only sold two short stories. But I finally have a goal, a plan, and a little success to show for it. I wish I had been this organized ten years ago.