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A Little Pick-Me-Up for 2012

Every once in a while, I hear from readers who inspire me to see the bright side and feel wonderful about the creative work that we all do when we sit down to write. 13 year-old writer M wrote just such a letter. Since I know I always need a creative pick-me-up, especially as I crank on a soon to be revealed very secret project (cue mysterious music), I wanted to share the exchange between M and I, in the hopes that it will get you to care about your own craft as the New Year gets underway.

This is what M wrote to me a week or so ago:

I’m a beginning novelist (if that’s the proper term) and I’ve been writing since second grade to my current age of thirteen. I’ve always known what I wanted to be an author. Unfortunately, I’m a very nervous writer. Whenever I’m writing a “non-serious” story, the words flow so easily, but whenever I’m working on a story that I’m serious about, the words only come in short spurts. It’s so frustrating, mostly because the story and the scenes are laid out perfectly in my head, but I can’t translate them onto paper without worrying myself to death.

I’ve also read a lot of your blog, which has been an amazing source of information for me, and one of your blog posts really jumps out at me: That one about making readers care. I totally get where you’re coming from, mostly because I’ve read a few books that really have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The thing is, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it right. Is there such thing as a writer that just isn’t able to make the reader care about the character no matter what they try? Or is it just a matter of practice and revision? Do you have any tips for manipulating the reader’s emotions? What about making my inner editor shut up? Is there a significant difference in the quality of manuscripts written by older and younger people?

Well, thank you in advance. I just wanted the chance to ask you some questions and tell you how much I admire you. (And here I am, worrying about whether or not this email makes me seem too formal, or- God forbid- obnoxious.)

Sincerely,
M

Immediately, I could see so much of myself in M (and no, M isn’t code for “Mary,” this is a real letter, not one of those “well, my, uh, friend really wanted some writing advice” type of situations, hehe). I mean this in the most loving way possible — the girl’s neurotic. But so am I! And so is almost every other writer I know. There’s a lot to love about being up in one’s head all the time, but there’s also a downside to thinking and caring so intensely. This was the core of my answer to M, which you can read below:

M,

Thank you so much for writing in. I love hearing from writers, and young writers especially. Now, I know exactly how you feel about being creative even under pressure (a serious story vs. a non-serious one). Here’s the thing…you can’t do anything well when your brain is getting in the way. When your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never get down on the page what you have in your head. When you start worrying whether people will care about it or not. That kind of anxiety is the absolute enemy of creative work.

It’s easier said than done, but I would tell you to write something “non-serious” and then part of your “serious” work EVERY DAY. Get yourself in the mood by doing something that’s just for fun, the push through to the real stuff you want to accomplish. And as for making your readers care, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem there. You obviously care very much about your writing, that’s why you’re worried about it so much. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about.

When a writer has emotions about what they’re writing, then they’re likely to stir up a sense of caring in the reader. However, do keep in mind that the best way to make a reader care is to create a character who cares deeply about something — a goal, a person, an outcome — and then take it away from them or put obstacles in their way. Think about it like this: We don’t care about a story that goes, “They were together and happy, with no problems in the world.” We care about, “They were separated from one another by the worst luck on the planet and moved mountains to be reunited.” We like to read about struggle, we like to read about accomplishing the impossible goals, we like to read about characters who would do anything in the world to get what they want. Why? Because we all know what it feels like to yearn, to want, to hurt, to be frustrated, etc. Give your characters something they want, then get in their way. I think that’s central to making a reader care.

Nobody’s inner editor will ever shut up all the way, but you have to keep going through it. You said some very nice things in your email about my blog. You probably think I have it all together and just cruise around, inspiring people and being helpful. But you know what? I have to write it almost every day and almost every day I have those nagging voices in my head that I’m going to run out of stuff to talk about or that the article I’m doing isn’t what writers need to hear, etc. So it’s not something you can ever get rid of, but it’s something you can learn to deal with. The worst thing you can do is worry yourself so much that you become creatively paralyzed.

Finally, stop worrying about whether younger writers or older ones make better manuscripts. I’ve read wonderful things from young writers, awful things from older writers, and vice versa. When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success. Don’t let anything else obsess you in the meantime. In a word, make it your New Year’s Resolution to quit worrying so much and focus on the writing. :)

***

Sorry for the slow start to posts in 2012. There are just so many events that I need to promote as the year gets underway. Watch this space for more focus on craft…and that big announcement I promised…(mwahahahahahaha).

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  1. M.W.’s avatar

    Hi Ms. Mary and Miss M,

    Such lovely letters! It was something nice to wake up to and read. :) Ms. Kole knows her stuff, so listen to every word she’s saying, Miss M.

    Writing at your age takes dedication. (Heck, writing at ANY age takes dedication, but it’s nice to hear about a teen who puts FaceBook and Twitter on the back stove so she can write.) So keep writing, relax. Read, write, and remember to LOVE writing. I hope you the best on your writing path.

    Sincerely,
    M.W.

  2. Diana Dart’s avatar

    What a brilliant, touching and genuine exchange. I’m SO with M on the need to clamp my inner editor; thanks for the kind warning and thoughtful advice.

    Cheers to writers of every age! And to agents that truly get us :D

  3. Mike Billeter’s avatar

    First things first, I love both the question(s) and the response. Both are extremely well-written and well-answered (and frankly, 25 year old me is jealous that 13 year old “M” already writes as well as she does).

    One other thought I’d add for M’s sake is to consider picking up a copy of Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” It’s a worthwhile investment for any aspiring writer/artist/creative person and might help push past those moments of uncertainty or “writer’s block” when you’re truly passionate about a story you’re writing.

    There’s some weird stuff going on over at Amazon where older versions are selling for way more than they’re supposed to, but the newest edition of the paperback is selling for its appropriate price on THIS Amazon listing – http://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Through-Creative-Battles/dp/1936891026/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326825470&sr=1-2 (if you’re interested).

    Anyway, good luck with the writing, M. And good luck to everyone else on here who writes as well. I know I struggle just about every day with the projects I’m working on, and it’s always nice to get support and motivation from other people who are in the same boat.

  4. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Way to go M! I love that you’re so serious about writing. A book that you might enjoy is Gail Carson Levine’s “Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly.” I think it’s perfect for you!

    Also, if you have a chance, I would highly recommend participating in NaNoWriMo–they have a youth division. NaNo is a great way to learn to turn off the inner editor and let your nervous defenses down and just write! You don’t worry so much about making it perfect, you just let the words flow, knowing you can go back later and make it perfect.

    Good luck to you!

  5. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thank you so much, Mary and M! I really needed to hear these words today.

    M, have you checked out Verla Kay’s discussion boards for writers? At thirteen, I think you’re old enough to participate. There are boards especially for young writers, but there are also threads for everybody–young, old, whatever.

    For the record, M, I’m thirty-two and still experiencing the kind of doubt you describe in your letter. I suspect that the oldest person who reads it will think, “Yeah, me too.” Ditto for the most successful writer.

  6. Caitlin Ownby’s avatar

    I feel the exact same way when it comes to writing funny stories versus serious stories. Funny stories are so much easier for me. When I write serious stories, it feels like a journal entry, and it’s awkward, and sometimes it turns melodramatic. It’s tough! Almost unbearable to read over again, let alone have someone else critique it :-) . But I like Mary’s tip about getting the fun stuff out of your system each day first.

  7. Cathy Mealey’s avatar

    Miss M – Congrats on being such a self-aware young writer and for seeking out resources that can help you become an even better writer! I can identify with feeling stuck at times and being frustrated about getting ideas smoothly onto the page. Sometimes it helps me to go for a long walk or exercise and ‘jot’ the words onto a voice memo as I am moving. HTH and good luck!

  8. Patti Nielson’s avatar

    I wish I would have been brave enough at 13 to write a letter like she did. I always wanted to be a writer, but let my inner critic quell any kind of writing. Good for her to recognize it and seek help.

    I loved your response, especially the line: When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success.

    Great advice.

  9. Alicia’s avatar

    Thank you so much for this post. I feel like I “need” to read everything you post because even if it deals with a form I don’t write in (ie. picture books) I still find it very uplifting and filled with advice that can be transferred to other writing as well. I feel where this writer is coming from, especially since I started writing pretty much as soon as I knew how and have continued to now (I’m 21). I could have used this site when I was younger, I’ll tell you that.

  10. Dianna Winget’s avatar

    Great to hear from you M. I also started writing when I was very young, third grade I think. I used to fill notebooks and stuff them under my bed because the thought of allowing anyone to actually read what I wrote was horrifying. As the years passed, I studied my craft and kept reading and writing. I started to sell short fiction and non fiction, which is something you may want to consider working at, it gives you confidence for the longer stuff later. Anyway, after many years and much effort, my first middle grade novel, “A Smidgen of Sky,” will be out next fall. Mary is my agent, and I can guarantee she knows what she’s talking about, so take her advice and run with it!

  11. Gwen’s avatar

    Rock on, M.

  12. Joy’s avatar

    Great letter and fab reply, thanks for sharing. 48-year-old me could get insanely jealous at the talent of 13-year-old Miss M but I think I’ll just feel excited instead! Well-timed topic for me as I seem to have lost my ‘mojo’ and am struggling to get back into writing … but a few days spent visiting this super place should help me on my way — thanks, Mary, for your brilliant advice!

  13. Miles’s avatar

    Aw, that was such a sweet letter from such an inspiring girl. I’ve been in that position countless times (and when I say countless, I pretty much mean all the time), and God knows it can get very, very annoying. But, like you said, Mary, her being neurotic and constantly worrying about how things will take shape and why her inner editor won’t just shut up are very blatant signs she very much cares about her writing. And that, thankfully, seems to be one of the magic ingredients that turns our own stories into something emotional and gripping.

    Wow. There’s just so much more I could say. Both of you inspire me, and I’m glad I stumbled across this post! Here’s to her and everyone else’s success in the writing world (oh, and mine, too)! Thank you, M and Mary! :)

  14. Shannon’s avatar

    Keep going, M.! That’s the most important thing. I’ve been fighting my inner editor since I was your age, and only now, at 29, am I starting to get her under control. (She’s Swedish, and has a whistle.) When you’re in the writing process, it may help to stay away from blogs, Absolute Write, and even those dangerous Amazon Look Insides. All of those things can turn up the volume on the inner editor, making you focus more on the career aspects of your work and less on the actual getting something on the page that you can work with later, when you’ll need Greta or whatever you call your inner editor. Or if you want to visit those sites, set a daily time limit for yourself, i.e. “I’ll visit from 7 to 8 in the morning to learn about craft and see what’s getting published out there, but then I’m cutting myself off.” The quality of what you read will be higher that way, too, because you’ll know that you only have a limited amount of time to do it. And don’t worry about getting published. The best way to become a better writer is to write more and more and more. You’ve heard this before, but really, you learn so much just in the process of getting your thoughts down on the page. Maybe your first book won’t be published, but by the time you’ve written your fourth or fifth, you’ll probably only be a few years older–unlike all of us elderly people here. ;) There’s no formula for a successful hook. Some people start in the middle of the action, but I’m sure that we can all think of successful books that don’t start with action or even scenes at all. Your job is to think, “Would I keep reading this?” You don’t know who the audience for your book is, but you know what you would read. Write something that you would want to read yourself and you’re sure to be successful.

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