Advice for Teens

On Writing

You’re going to find a lot of the same advice here that you’ll find on other writers’ and writing-oriented sites. And maybe you’ll find some different advice, too. Like everything else in life, you have to keep what works for you and chuck the rest.

On Writing Every Day

Everyone will tell you that if you want to be a writer, you need to write every day.

It sounds like such an imposition, doesn’t it?

But if you enjoy the act of writing, that chunk of time will be the fastest portion of each day. And, if you’re feeling blocked or lazy, you don’t necessarily have to work on a story or a poem. Get yourself a cheap journal or notebook and write a little bit about your day, describe the sunset or your bedroom, write a conversation between you and a friend that you wish you’d had.

The point is simply to use words for your own purposes–not for school assignments or for notes to friends, not for e-mails or tweets. Use words for the sheer pleasure of it. And if you write even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’ve had the worst day ever and you just want to sleep or stare at the ceiling, you’ll eventually find comfort in the process. Lose yourself in the words.

With every sentence you write, with every paragraph you craft, you’ll become a better writer. It’s an inch-by-inch process, but after a few years, those inches add up and you’ll see how far you’ve come.

On Writing Different Kinds of Material

Write a haiku. Write an essay about a memorable childhood experience. Write a flash fiction piece. Write a sonnet.

Experimenting with different forms of writing gives you more flexibility as a writer. It also, especially in the case of shorter forms like haiku and flash fiction, teaches you to wield words with economy and precision. And with every type of writing you undertake–especially more structured, principle-based forms like specific styles of poetry–you’ll learn the rules. Follow the rules enough, and you’ll know where you can break them.

Because you can’t break the rules until you know them by heart.*

And that’s the one rule you should never break.

*If this is the first time you’ve read this rule, I promise you this: it won’t be the last.

On Persistence & Experience

I spent two summers during college writing for the small daily newspaper that serves my hometown. That internship, although I eventually chose not to pursue journalism as a career, taught me more than I can ever express.

In order to get that job and that experience, though, I had to be persistent.

I sent my resume to the managing editor over spring break of 2003, and then I called every few weeks to remind him of my availability.* Every single time, he told me he’d look at my resume and get back to me. And of course, every single time, my phone didn’t ring.

Finally, after the spring semester let out and I went home, I called one last time. The editor, with a put-upon sigh, dug my resume out from the pile of paper on his desk and took a look. Then I snagged an interview, and then he told me to come back on a certain day and time so I could follow another reporter to a local meeting. I would write a mock article for him, and then he would make his decision at last.

I showed up at the appointed time and waited. And waited. Finally, someone informed me that the reporter had already left for the meeting.

After all that persistence, all those calls, and even an interview, I considered just going home and giving up right there. I hadn’t even started the job yet and it was already a pain!

But I gathered up my courage–after reminding myself that I didn’t particularly want to spend another summer waitressing or working in the cup factory.** I drove the twenty minutes to the meeting, which was already in progress, and sat myself down at a table in the back with my notebook. As I scribbled furiously, trying to catch every detail because I had no idea what this meeting was about beyond that it involved the Allegheny National Forest, I noticed something. At the table next to mine, a young man also scribbled furiously. A high-end camera sat on the table not far from his notebook. And he kept tossing curious glances my way, no doubt wondering just what competing publication I was from.

Note: that paper really had no competition in the area. It served the whole county.

So I knew I’d found the reporter who’d forgotten me. I approached him after the meeting and introduced myself, with a huge smile, as the potential new intern that he’d forgotten all about. He apologized up, down, left, and right. By that point, I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself and started being terribly amused by the whole situation, so I laughed off his apologies.

We went back to the office, he gave me a folder packed with previous stories about the same topic, and we wrote our articles. I hate saying this, because it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but it’s the damn truth: I finished first.

The next day, as I met with the managing editor and he read my article, the reporter who’d forgotten me made sure to pop in and tell the whole story. Even when I tried to be modest when the editor asked how long it had taken to write the article, that reporter chimed in to tell him I’d finished first.

I went on to work with that gentleman for the next two summers, and he was one of the nicest people I ever worked with. I feel bad for the curses I silently heaped upon his head in the twenty minute drive to that meeting.

But I’m damn glad I was persistent enough to go in the first place.

*Note: please don’t take this as permission to call every agent and every editor whose contact information you can find. This was for a job, not a potential article, story, or literary representation. Also, I did this at my mother’s urging. Thanks, Mom.

**Yes, that’s right. I spent four months of my life working the evening shift in a factory, assembling plastic travel mugs. I highly recommend it to anyone who needs motivation to stay in college or even just keep writing.


Every single day during my two summers at the paper, I wrote at least one article. Granted, that left me little energy or drive to write for myself, but the experience was priceless nonetheless.

I wrote about the local branch of the state transportation system’s plan for summer roadwork. I wrote about the bear problem in the eastern corner of the city. I wrote about political rallies, sick kids, feral cats, ultralight airplanes, the planned demolition of a local bridge and its effects, the very unplanned demolition of a historic railroad viaduct in a tornado, and school board/borough supervisor/city council meetings. I covered a rodeo and a bike race. I–yes, it’s a fact–wrote obituaries (just for a while, after our regular guy quit).

I hiked into the woods with my brother to track down some AmeriCorps workers who were doing trail work, and we got lost for four hours and almost didn’t find my potential interviewees.

For a week straight, I wrote about the effects of a local flood…until the word “flood” started to lose all meaning.

I was lucky. I’d fully expected my internship to involve organizing the file room and fetching coffee. Instead, I spent more time outside the office, running all over the county to get this photo or interview that person, than I did at my desk. I found that odd but wonderful, because it made the job immensely interesting and also taught me to work on deadlines.

One day, as I made my appointed rounds to the courthouse to pick up the marriage license and arraignment notices, I spotted some people walking down the main drag with what appeared to be a map held in front of them. Now, my hometown is pretty small, but it’s also pretty attractive (if you ignore the oil refinery that greets you when you enter from the south) and surrounded by national forest…but still, tourists aren’t something you see every day. I debated with myself for just a second before approaching them and asking if they were from out of town.

Yes, they were, in fact. They were attending a gathering of customized RV owners at the local fairgrounds, and they invited me up to take a look.

BOOM. I found myself a story. And an awesome story it was–some of those RVs were the definition of swank, with short spiral staircases, plush seating, real crystal in the cabinets, and so on.

Lesson: sometimes stories appear when you least expect them. I learned to keep my ears open everywhere I went: restaurants, bars, the grocery store, the salon my mom owned. I didn’t eavesdrop, but I picked through every conversation I had for interesting tidbits that might lead either nowhere or to a page one story that would bring a grin to my editor’s face.

This tendency to listen, both to people around me and my own thoughts, became a very useful tool when I started writing novels. I listen hard when my mind wanders, and sometimes, as in the case of GRIM LIGHT, I find a story I never expected.

You can do this, too. If you live in a small town, you can offer your services to the local paper (for free or for an hourly charge, but I’d advise you to take what you can get, since journalism is struggling); you may or may not get to write for them, but you’ll spend time around experienced writers and see how the business works. If you live in a city, smaller publications abound, and they frequently need help.

You’ll learn how a newspaper or weekly publication functions. You’ll meet people who share your interests and have a lot of experience in it. You’ll get some great experience to put on your college applications or job resumes. But most of all, you’ll see firsthand just how important it is to be persistent when necessary, and to listen to yourself and the world.

On Reading

When I was just a little thing, I read anything my eyes could catch. Cereal boxes, random newspaper clippings, billboards. I used to read speed limit signs to my mom everywhere we drove…you know, just to keep her posted. I didn’t even know what they meant at the time.

I stole my older sister’s English textbook and read Jane Eyre. I read issues of Reader’s Digest from the forties in my grandpa’s basement. I read everything.

As a writer, you probably read a lot as well. If you don’t, you should. Read the good stuff and read the bad stuff, because you can learn from every single bit. Read classic literature, read poetry, read romance novels, read post-modern stream-of-consciousness novels. Just freaking READ. Eventually, you’ll find yourself reading like a writer: picking out little things done well or done badly, acknowledging what captivates you about something even while you can’t put it down, seeing symbolism and metaphors and all that literary stuff.

And the more you write, the more you’ll read like a writer. Does it suck some of the pure joy out of reading? Sure. Does it give you a great excuse to buy more books? YES. Do it for that, if nothing else.

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