Advice to the Stumped Fan

(From the Willamette Writers newsletter of April 2011.)

Recently a fan wrote to me asking for help – she felt blocked from writing by the idea that there were too many writers out there already, that she’d never be as good as her favorite authors, and that there was nothing new to write about since it had all been done before.

I wrote back to her with the best advice I could think of, but I admitted that I didn’t really struggle with these particular demons. Maybe it would have made more sense, when I was young, to second-guess myself, but that didn’t come naturally to me.

I started writing my first short stories when I was ten when the line between fantasy and reality was still fuzzy. I started my first attempt at a novel when I was in tenth grade during those years when one tends to feel invincible. I had constant encouragement from family, friends, and teachers. Failure wasn’t a concept I was very interested in.

I was more into my crush on stories. I loved the fiction that I loved – sounds silly but what I mean is that I really loved that which I chose to love: the novels, short stories, movies, plays, and TV shows that charmed or thrilled me were held tenderly in my heart like dear friends. I loved to look at the posters of my favorite movies, sing along to the theme music of my favorite shows, even sniff the indescribable scent of my favorite books. (What is that? Ink? Pressed pulp? Binding glue? I still find that subtle perfume comforting.)

 I wanted to create my own characters, plots, and settings, just the kind of stories I would adore reading myself. Perhaps I was overly optimistic, but I did not begin my writing career by comparing myself or my writing to someone or something else. Maybe it was all that positive reinforcement I got as a child, or maybe I was gifted with “happy” chemistry, but I didn’t spend much time judging myself. (Not to say that I haven’t had my moments over the years. I remember finishing a Barbara Kingsolver novel once and thinking I’d never write that beautifully. And I have certainly read lines that I wish I had written myself. I just don’t dwell on those thoughts.)

My best advice for the intimidated writer is this:

There’s room for you on the Lit Train. If you weren’t born with optimistic tendencies, or if you grew up with a lack of self-esteem building reinforcement, bless your heart for knowing you were a writer. You are right – they were wrong – you are worthy. And just believe me when I say that there is no maximum capacity in the literary world. New writers break in every day.

It takes all kinds. There are all types of books out there. They don’t all have to be poetic masterpieces. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want to read something devastatingly gorgeous and other times I just want to read something fun or funny or scary or light. We’ll always need new stories to feed our reading hunger. And think about it this way, perhaps every story idea has been done (I don’t believe this, by the way) but every writer expresses an idea differently. Thank goodness the basic plot of, let’s say, a boy meets girl story was not written only by William Shakespeare but also by Jane Austen and Nicholas Sparks and Madeline L’Engle. Thank goodness the pain of war was approached by Victor Hugo as well as by Margaret Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut, etcetera.

Your snowflake is not a copy. Just as there is an infinite number of ways ice crystals form a snowflake, no two writers have the same voice. So don’t bother to compare yourself to anyone else, unless it’s for inspiration. (Or unless your agent wants to know who to compare you to in order to pitch your novel better.) I think of my own writing as something no one but me could produce, not because it’s better than other writing, only because it’s unique to me. Why feel unworthy? Your self-criticism should only help you rewrite your novel, never stop you from writing.

Breathe words. Every day suck language in and let it pour out of you. Read a lot, practice writing a lot, and write what you would love to read rather than what you think will sell. (Those two could be the same thing, of course.)

Feast rather than diet. Read the authors you want to learn from as well as the ones who merely please you. You may love the novels of Mr. Jones but you might want to also read Mr. Smith because you admire him and have no idea how he did this or that. Don’t eat only one favorite dish – be open-minded. Challenge yourself. The lit world is full of delicious and exotic delicacies.

Don’t give up. It’s okay to take a break, but refrain from thinking, “If I don’t get a book deal by the end of this year, I’ll quit.” You never know when you’ll be discovered. And don’t say, “I hate the way this story is going. Maybe I’m just pretending I can write.” Pretending, making believe, practicing, is what makes a writer. And perseverance also includes the drudge work of sending out query letters and pitching your work. Even if you’ve written to every agency in Writers Market and gotten rejected from every publisher, you’re not done. You’re writing a new manuscript, right? That one might be The One. And new editors and agents join the field every year.

Don’t panic. When you feel stressed, set the query letter or revision aside and do something that feels good. Something that makes you happy. You’ll sell yourself better, and write better, when you are relaxed. Remember, everything will be okay. Stop and smell the books.


5 Responses to “Advice to the Stumped Fan”

  1. A. L. Sargeant Says:

    Thanks for this. The “It takes all kinds” and “Your snowflake is not a copy” sections are pieces of advice that I need to memorize, tape to the wall by my desk, and staple to my forehead.

  2. Mary Virginia Munoz Says:

    Beautiful. I kept hearing terrible statistics (especially from agents) about how impossible it is to escape the slush pile, be read past the first page, get anyone’s attention except a ‘preditor’, be published, etc. Good thing I’m stubborn.

    I would add that you should connect with other writers and writers-in-training. Maybe try out the contest circuit. Your writing will stand on its own, but being able to say ‘finalist’ of something can help to get some attention. Maybe my agent would have taken more than 3 mintues reading my pages without my having won any contests, maybe not. But it probably helped.

    Plus, just getting that first little certificate in the mail made me feel good! 😀

  3. Sara Mosier Says:

    this was nice to read, especially the way I’ve been feeling lately. I’m a student working on getting my bachelors in English and I really want to be a professional writer. But with all the classes I’ve been taking I feel like there is nothing unique about me or that I’m just a dime a dozen kind of writer. I feel like there are so many people, especially at school, that are so much more talented or creative etc. Seriously, everything in this post is what I’ve been worrying about lately and sometimes it gets so overwhelming you start to really question yourself. Thanks for the positive words! 🙂

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