Things I Wish Someone Told Me as a Young Writer

I’m gonna level with you. I was not a good writer when I was a teenager. Not even a little bit. No matter what my parents tell you, no matter how great I thought I was, I was absolutely crap. And I mean, I feel like most writers have to go through a phase of being a bad writer. It’s like we have to go through character development before we understand how to write character development. (And everything else.) So this goes out to 14-year-old Senna who was writing her heart out about faeries and magic and destined meetings. And of course, it’s for anyone else who needs a push in the right direction, too.

Sometimes the best name is not your favorite name.

I don’t think you understand how many characters I had named “Luna.” There was a freaking Luna epidemic in my stories. And that was because Luna was my favorite name at the time. I liked it so much that my online pseudonym for the longest time was Luna (since Senna was such a unique name, and my parents didn’t want me using it online.) Then there were the noun names, (Windy, Crown, Snapdragon,) the anime names (Kai, Makoto, Ami,) and of course,the made up names. There was Firia. There was Etha. There was a very briefly-used Andelia. And sure, those names have their places. Fantasy, mostly. But I used names like that in everything. I had a story about a runaway whose name was Precautia. (To be fair, if my parents had named me that, I might have run away, too.)

I am guilty of naming characters things like this.

Sometimes, the best name you can pick is Jamie. Or Craig. Or Alice. Every name has a story it could belong to. All those names do not have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) included in one story.

The thesaurus is not your best friend.

I was a huge believer in “said is dead.” I also believed that the best thing to do instead of saying “said” was so replace that word with an interchangeable one. And heck, why stop at “said”? Any word that could easily be switched out, I did it. Sometimes, you need a word like “consume.” But in the sentence “It looked like something he would have consumed,” the word “eaten” is probably a better choice.

As for the whole “said is dead” argument… dialogue tags do have their place. Sure, you probably should keep using the same ones over and over. But at the same time, if you end every single bit of dialogue with “he gasped,” “she stated,” “they groaned,” it’s going to be even more noticeable than if you just said “said” all the time. If you’re trying to avoid dialogue tags (words like “said,” “replied,” “interjected,” etc.), write the actions that accompany what is being said.

“I don’t really care what you think.” He sauntered across the room, a wicked grin on his face. “The ice cream shop belongs to me now, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Doesn’t that read nicer than…

“I don’t really care what you think,” he chuckled, sauntering across the room. A wicked grin crossed his face. “The ice cream shop belongs to me now, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he challenged.

Some would argue the second version looks better, and in some novels, maybe it would fit better. Nevertheless, I urge you to connect words to actions if you’re trying to avoid “said.”

For the love of god, use a new line when someone new is speaking.

I cannot begin to tell you how lost I got when I tried to read my old writing. Especially when characters interrupted each other. It would turn into a mess of “Listen, I just want to –” “Just want to what?” “Hey, cut her a break, Riven!” “Don’t tell me what to do!” “Stop fighting, you guys!” Who is talking there? How many characters are present and talking in that scene? It was a never ending battle of “someone said something, but I’m not sure who said it, or who it was directed at.” Whenever someone different from the current speaker is talking, there needs to be a new line. For example.

“Listen, I just want to–”
“Just want to what?”
“Hey,” David cut in, “cut her a break, Riven!”
Riven whirled on David. “Don’t tell me what to do!”
“Stop fighting, guys!” I yelled.

Doesn’t that read nicer? Most readers are used to this format, because that’s how most published books are written (and it just looks a lot cleaner.)

Your characters have to have flaws.

I will admit, Mary Sues have their place in the literary world. When I look back on some of the books I read when I was in the 8-12 range, just about all the books I read had Mary Sues. And at that age, I needed them. I needed strong big sisters who could take on the world in a single blow. They were especially important to me because of how heavily I was bullied in middle school; I felt like those girls were my only friends, and if they were real, they’d beat the crap out of my bullies. But Mary Sues then became all I ever wrote about. They were unstoppable girls that everyone loved (except for the bad guys, who hated them, except when they fell in love with them at the end,) had no problems whatsoever, and were just totally misunderstood by society.

Think about your absolute best friend. What don’t you like about them? What is bad about them? Do they procrastinate? Are they a pessimist? Do they refuse to talk to anyone on the phone because they have phone anxiety? My point is, even your favorite person in the whole wide world has flaws. Your characters need some, too.

Understand that you are not at your prime.

Your writing right now is not the best writing you will ever do. You will get better. You will look back on your old work and go “oh my god, I wrote this?” You will hope you didn’t ever give a copy to anyone else. You will cringe at the memory of your teacher reading it aloud to the class. And, despite all that, you will continue to write. And the more you write, the more you’ll improve. (Protip: the more you read, the faster you’ll improve, too.)

You need to understand you will always be growing and getting better in your writing. I don’t think I know anyone who has reached their “peak” when it comes to their writing. You will always have room to improve, and because of that, you will always continue to improve. So keep at it. No matter what anyone says. Keep going, keep writing, keep creating characters and putting them in sticky situations. You’ll have setbacks, you’ll have breakthroughs, you’ll climb over walls of writers block, but you’ll only be able to do this if you keep at it. So do it. Keep going, kid.

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