Advice for the Young Writer

A fan asked me for some advice for the young writer in the house who had recently won an academic writing award and was wondering about internships and other academic opportunities. This was my response:

Sounds like you have every right to kvell. It’s actually quite a tough call, really. Once you get past the initial startup talent hurdle—and it sounds like he has—the rest is wildly variable.

I don’t know many writers who followed anything like a straight path or even the same path. The one core piece of advice that is entirely true is that if you want to write you must actually write. There is no substitute for time spent in the chair putting words on the page. That plus learning to assess and improve your own work are what makes up the heart of the craft of writing.

Journalism internships and practice all teach observation, putting words on paper on deadline, and force practice. John Scalzi followed that route as did my friend Neil Gaiman. Theater teaches you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how to build characters, discipline, and story. That’s where I come from and it makes a strong part of the backgrounds of people like Mary Robinette Kowal and Ellen Kushner. English exposes you to a lot of different writers and helps you build the world of reading that all writers need as a foundation. My friends Lyda Morehouse and Pat Rothfuss are among the English majors in the field. Publishing and editing offers a path into the world of the business of writing that can show you a lot about how to think critically about story as well as to get practice without starving. See Laura Anne Gilman among many others.

There are downsides to all four of those paths too. Journalism often leads to burning out on the joy of writing, without which there’s not much point. Theater is a gorgeous all-consuming passion that may never let you go. It’s like eating the food in faerie. English as it is taught right now often emphasizes form and style at the expense of story and substance, and that’s a terrible choice for the writer who wants to be read by people who aren’t English majors. The jump from one side of the editorial desk to the other is a very long one and it’s awfully easy to get sucked into the idea that doing this thing which is like writing is the same as writing.

Diverse experience helps the fiction writer enormously. The more you do and see and learn, the more fodder you have for your work.