(An open letter to a friend of mine).
Once again it has been brought to my attention your ability with writing, more importantly your love of writing. So I thought I would take it upon myself to offer some advice, along the lines of “things I wish someone had told me sooner.” Of course, I expect you to take all of this with a grain of salt, indeed, to ignore most of it. Remember, Mr. Edwards is a curmudgeon and a cynic, a bitter old man, a wannabe-dissident, a malcontent, never published, and wont to submerge himself in self-indulgent dissatisfaction. On the other hand, I have written well over a million words of fiction, some of which, I’m sure, your mother will let your read when you’re well into your twenties.
- Don’t bother trying to make your writing “good.” You’re old enough to understand words like gestalt, zeitgeist, and paradigm. These are the factors that will determine if your writing is considered “good” or not, and you don’t really have any control over them. So just write.
- But if you still insist on getting “better,” here’s a trick: help other people first. Help your sister and brother, encourage them and tell them what you like about what they’ve written. Help your cousins, your friends. Yes, you can help adults as well, if they have written something they want to share. Hey, look at this, this essay I’ve written. Want to help me make it better? I welcome your suggestions.
- Don’t try to fix the first sentence until you finished the last sentence. This goes for paragraphs too, and pages, and chapters. Have you ever watched a movie for the second time? Notice how the beginning is different, since you know how the film’s going to end? How can you know how to fix the first chapter if you don’t even know how the book ends?
- Don’t listen to anyone’s advice or criticism. Well, it’s okay to listen, and consider, but don’t worry about what they say too much. This goes for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as voice, tone, characterization, and plot. People have a billion ways to tell you what’s wrong, but so few ways to tell you what’s right. Don’t let them bog you down with those billions.
- Ignore the so-called “write what you know” rule. It’s poppycock. Most of the time we write to discover, so of course we have to write what we don’t know. Can you imagine how many fantasy or sci-fi books would have been written if people had followed this absurd rule? Certainly there is a place for writing what you know, and some people do like that kind of autobiography, or expertise. But there’s no sense in limiting yourself. Write about whatever you want, and if you don’t know it, make it up.
- Ignore, also, the “show don’t tell” rule. You’re going to hear this one a lot. It’s such nonsense. It’s vague advice from people who don’t care enough to read what you’ve actually written, trying to sound all wise and useful. Showing versus telling depends entirely on the tone you’re trying to set, the mood, even the themes involved with what you’re writing. It has everything to do with the situation at hand, and you are on control of that in your writing, you alone.
- You don’t have to show what you’ve written to anyone, ever. Writing begins as a deeply personal act, and I wish someone had told me this, a long time ago. I self-censored myself, eschewing certain topics, ideas, even words, for fear nobody would like them. And in doing so I limited myself, I left whole parts unexplored. Don’t worry about anyone’s judgment—not even your own, if you can help it.
- However, once you do share your writing, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. Sort of. People bring all kinds of things with them when they read, and you can’t control that. If someone reads your story and it reminds them of something, how can you tell them they were wrong to have a memory? It’s okay to explain yourself, but someday you’re going to write things that will be read by people you’ll never meet. So, once your done with a story or a book, let it go.
- Write every day, if you can. But if you can’t, don’t give up. If you find you haven’t written in days, weeks, months, years, that’s okay. You can always come back to it. Always. Writing is going to be something that stays with you forever. It can be your best friend (and sometimes your worst enemy), it will always be a part of you. Cherish it, nurture it, trust it, rely upon it. And when you write, write about anything, everything. Break the rules, be silly, see how hard it is to make no sense at all. Every word you write is exercise, and exercise will only make you stronger.
- Don’t only write, however. Yes, exercise can make you stronger, but it can also make you tired. It’s okay to not write sometimes. To do things, to explore the world, explore your friends, to have other interests. The great thing about writing is that it’s compatible with everything, so you don’t have to worry about choosing between writing and something else. So feel free to try as many something-elses as possible. At the very least, that will give you something to write about.
I could go on, (ask your mother, she knows how I tend to prattle) but I think that’s a good start. The truth is, everyone should write, not just geniuses like you, but everyone, all the time. Writing is a gift, a wonderful gift, better than any other gift I’ve ever received, and it’s free for everyone. And you know I’m always available to discuss writing, (at your mother’s discretion of course), whenever you like. Which reminds me—your mom’s no slouch either, when it comes to pen and paper; you’ve got more than one gift there, it seems, so use them well. And thanks for listening to an old man babble.