Thursday, March 23, 2006

For the Children (and the Adults)

I spoke at a Jr. High this morning, to a group of about 30 kids who want to be writers when they reach adulthood.

Here are the main points I hit, which don't only apply to young writers, but to all writers struggling to make it in this business.

  • Write when you can, finish what you write, and submit what you finish.
  • Know your genre and your market before you begin writing.
  • Avoid passive voice.
  • Show, don't tell.
  • Use proper manuscript format.
  • You can't learn from praise, but you can learn from criticism.
  • Luck is more important than talent, but you can improve your luck with hard work.
  • Pay attention to white space on a page; more is better.
  • You need an agent if you're writing novels.
  • If you write short stories or poetry, you don't need an agent. You'll also starve.
  • This is a business, and a very hard business.
  • Most of your future writing teachers won't be successful authors, and you can learn more about this business on your own (writing and submitting) than in school.
  • Conferences are good.
  • Money flows to the writer---never pay for anything (except for conferences).
  • Query letters need a greeting (Dear Ms. Jones), sucking up (I love your magazine), a brief description of the story, and a closing (hope to hear from you soon) and NOTHING ELSE.
  • Read a lot.

I also did some critiques of their stories, and explaned the difference between storytelling (they were all good storytellers) and salable writing (it's not what you say but how you say it.)

When I left, I felt pretty good about the future of this profession. These kids were anxious to discuss The DaVinci Code, and James Frey, and Eragon, and they really wanted to become writers when they grew up. They took criticism well, and were willing to work hard to improve their craft. In fact, they seemed to have a lot more dedication than I did as a 12 year old.

As technology gives us more (and cheaper) way to entertain ourselves, I don't think books are in any danger of disappearing. I'm happy to report that the insatiable desire to read and to write is alive and well in the youth of today, and that the writer is every bit as important now as when I was growing up.

34 comments:

Marcus Sakey said...

Oh lord. Joe, I love you, but I've seen the impact you can have on a roomful of ADULTS that want to be writers. I suspect some of these kids may be sobbing in their pillow tonight. ;)

Joking, of course. Truth is, they are probably in a far better place to receive the facts than your average MFA student...

Peter L. Winkler said...

" Luck is more important than talent, but you can improve your luck with hard work."

Implicit in your statement is the premise that an untalented writer who works like a demon may succeed.

That is terrible advice, for it only encourages the hapless, hopeless writers out there to persist endlessly, eventually leading them down the road to Publish America.
"
"Pay attention to white space on a page; more is better."

I am writing a new kind of novel. It has only one sentence per page. It is very readable.

Stacey Cochran said...

Okay, today I set a personal record. In one span of four hours, I had three different novels rejected via three different mail sources: email, snail mail, and UPS. For (respectively) Culpepper, Maggie Redcrest, and Claws.

That brings the total of rejections since just last Friday to over twenty-five.

Of course, as always, you can read more of this tale at staceycochran.com.

Not since Joe Konrath has a writer sent out as many queries for as many different novels at one time.

I plan to mail out 50 more queries by Sunday.

Stacey

Kayla said...

...and you can learn more about this business on your own (writing and submitting) than in school.

Hehehe... I bet the school officials appreciated that comment.

If you ever feel like dropping by a highschool in the Seattle area, I'd be happy to point out a particular one. ;)

Jude Hardin said...

Good tips, Joe. One thing I might add if I were talking to a group this age (or any age, really) is to stay in school and earn a degree they can make a living with.
Law, medicine, engineering, nursing, criminology, etc. Not only will a profession provide them with a means to make a living, the life experiences they gain will enhance their abilities to write fiction. Most authors of medical thrillers are doctors or nurses. Most authors of legal thrillers are lawyers. An FBI agent or a military pilot has insides to those trades that most writers will never have access to. Even old Stephen King got himself a teaching degree before he hit it big (have you noticed that most of his protags are either writers or teachers?). Anyway, that's what I would suggest to anyone thinking about a career in writing. Earn a solid money-making degree. That way, if the novelist gig doesn't pan out (and let's face it, it rarely does) they always have something to fall back on.

James Goodman said...

That is fantastic, Joe. It sounds like a great experience for all concerned.

Mark Terry said...

Hmmm,
My oldest son is 12 and wants to be a writer. I'm not sure I would have approached it quite like this,although it's all good advice.

You might have added: Learn how to type. Your dad won't always be around to type up your papers.

I think the advice about getting the degree is good if for no other reason than it gives you something to write about... but then again, so is living.

And then again, I followed this dream and maybe I can provide a shortcut or two that I wish I had known about earlier, but...

then again, most of us learn via mistakes and only take advice we already think we know.

JA Konrath said...

That is terrible advice, for it only encourages the hapless, hopeless writers out there to persist endlessly, eventually leading them down the road to Publish America.

No it doesn't. When I said "Money flows to the writer" it was specifically to discourage POD.

And untalented writers succeed all the time--or are you saying that every book you've ever read was brilliant?

Jude Hardin said...

I think it takes SOME degree of talent to ultimately succeed as a writer, but there are many talented writers who will never succeed because:

1. They are not persistent enough.

2. They aren't lucky enough to be read by the right person.

3. They're too difficult to work with.

4. They publicly make snide comments like "I am writing a new kind of novel. It has only one sentence per page. It is very readable."

When you get down to it, it takes talent (at least a little I think), persistence, AND luck to make it in this business.

And, like any business, it helps if you can play well with others.

Maybe I'm just hapless and hopeless, but I don't think so. I think the reason I haven't succeeded yet is lack of persistence.

I'm trying really hard to change that.

I agree with Joe. The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

It's encouraging to know that there are kids out there who actually want to become writers. I figured most of them wanted to be horse trainers or game designers. :)

Phil said...

Joe said, "Luck is more important than talent, but you can improve your luck with hard work."

I certainly agree with the first clause. I think it was Samuel Goldwyn who said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

It's the first clause that I have trouble with--that luck is more important than talent. I think your statement understates the importance of talent. Sure, there are poorly written books published each year, but that fact doesn't confirm your argument. It merely proves that publishers make mistakes. I doubt your second statement--that untalented writers succeed all the time. If success is judged by a sustainable writing career, I believe the opposite to be true--I think it's probably rare that someone with little or no talent succeeds as a writer.

Like everyone, I've read bestselling novels that left me scratching my head, wondering how on earth those books became so popular. But whatever I may think, a very large number of readers found much to like in those books. IMO, the only fair-minded conclusion I can draw is, those books have attributes that just don’t register with me.

In any case, I'm virtually certain that talent is more important than simple luck. Does luck often play a role in the timing of success? Sure. Does luck sometimes play in role in the careers of those with moderate talent? Absolutely. But, if you asked me to place a bet on the success of two unpublished writers--one with enormous talent and unlucky in life, the other with no talent but very lucky--I'm going to bet on the talented writer every time, and I suspect I'd win that bet almost every time.

Joe, on a different note let me commend you for your service to the next generation of writers and readers. It's really a great thing you're doing, speaking to young students.

Jude Hardin said...

Right now my 13 year-old son wants to be a game designer, Rob. I hate video games, but I always tell him that I'll be proud of him whatever he chooses to do.

What I haven't told him yet, haha, is that you have to be a good storyteller and devise multiple obstacles and conflicts to create a good game.

Same as with a good novel.

Phil said...

Oops. The second paragraph of my post above should read:

I certainly agree with the second clause. I think it was Samuel Goldwyn who said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Jude Hardin said...

Phil,

No talent = no success.

Supertalent - persistence - luck = no success.

Marginal talent + persistence + luck = success.

Supertalent + persistence - luck = no success.

Marginal talent - persistence + luck = a long shot.

Marginal talent + persistance - luck = no success

And they said I wasn't any good at math. Ha!

As you can see from the above formulas (there are more variations, of course, but I think you get the point) someone with marginal talent has a shot, equal to or greater than someone with super talent. If I were to handicap the above, I would bet on marginal talent plus persistence plus luck over supertalent minus one of the two other variables every time.

I can name a (Seattle) slew of best sellers to prove my theorem.

kalbzayn said...

Peter Winkler - what do you realy have against hapless, hopeless writers persisting endlessly. Sounds inspiring to me. It's there time and money. Let them do what they want. When I was in junior high I sucked at basketball. Teachers tried to get me to quit and do the things I was good at in my extra curricular time. I went on to be a varsity starter good enough to play at small D1 colleges if I had decided to go that route. At what age do you decide that somebody doesn't have talent. Maybe if they just put in a couple more years everything will start to click for them. Maybe they'll never be good enough to win a Pulitzer, but will end up writing a sitcom. I don't think we should ever tell kids, and he was talking to kids, not to persue an interest.

Anonymous said...

Jude,

You're being naughty, adding a new variable like that. :)

Of course persistence is a must. No one succeeds without doing the work, writing the books, etc. That's assumed in my calculus--you can't sell books you don't write, and you won't succeed if you wilt after receiving your first rejection letter.

I was responding to Joe's statement, which dealt only with the relative contribution of two influences--talent and luck.

As for your formulas, I guess we simply disagree about the relative importance of talent and luck. And that's fine.

Jude Hardin said...

Phil,

I do think luck and talent are equal variables in this fickle business. Persistence is the only thing we have any control over, so I think it carries the greatest weight. Without persistence, everything = no success.

JA Konrath said...

Actually Jude, I think you're onto something.

All the stars have to align to become successful, and you have to have a combination of luck, talent, and persistence. The portions may vary.

But of the three, writers place the most emphasis on talent, when I believe it is the least important. Writing is a craft that can be learned. Does craft require talent? Or does it require practice and adherence to form?

JA Konrath said...

In any case, I'm virtually certain that talent is more important than simple luck.

It depends on the definition of talent.

I saw a lot of talent today. But none of it was publishable, because these kids didn't have the learned skills (craft, structure, and experience) to make their talent salable.

If you consider the ability to tell a good story talent, then I agree that talent is paramount. But I think that writing is a craft rather than an art, and that craft can be taught, wheras talent cannot.

But luck is extremely important because this is a buyers' market. Writing a good story is no indicator it will sell. You need to be persistent, and hopefully you'll get lucky.

But, if you asked me to place a bet on the success of two unpublished writers--one with enormous talent and unlucky in life, the other with no talent but very lucky--I'm going to bet on the talented writer every time, and I suspect I'd win that bet almost every time.

I would agree, but that isn't the arguement.

If the two writers were a brilliant wordsmith who wrote outside of all known genres and only submitted his books to three publishers a year, and a person of dubious talent who has written 20 books, continues to improve his craft and learn the business, and sends out 300 queries a year, where would you put your money?

Anonymous said...

Passion makes up for what you lack in talent. Because you love something, and push yourself to get better, you will. I know people who had little talent but their passion made them work hard, it made them better than some who had natural talent and who were prone not to push themselves. I think writing is craft. Talent is a double edged sword. If you love something, you'll persue it no matter what. And you'll improve the more you read and write and revise. Luck comes in spurts, enjoy it when it shines its light on you and press on when it doesn't. It'll shine again, when its ready.
Each little step should be a success savored.

Jude Hardin said...

Joe,

If I were to revise your original statement to fit my theorem, I would say: Luck is of equal importance to talent, but you can improve your luck with hard work.

Persistence, hard work, is still the key variable, though.

And I think writing, at its best, is more than merely a craft. At its best, it is an art, and art requires a certain degree of talent.

To paraphrase Stephen King: "There are bad writers, competent writers, and really good writers. Above the really good writers are the geniuses--the Shakespeares, Hemingways, Faulkners, Jude Hardins, etc.

Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals...

While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to to make a great writer out of a good one, it IS possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."

That's where craft come in. You have to at least be competent, at least have a certain degree of TALENT, to expect to be able to improve to "good" status.

Including my name among the greats was a joke, of course, but I do think I'm competent and, with some good old fashioned hard work, I believe I can rise to the status of "good."

Those who are not competent, well, you probably already know it and you're probably not reading this blog.

Everybody else can improve by learning the craft.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Joe:

I don't read much fiction, but even the worst books I can recall reading in the last few years were coherent, readable and clearly the products of writers in posession of their rational faculties. Space and time don't allow me to cite specific titles and discuss each one, plus, I concede that my dislike of a book doesn't mean that it is without merit.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Joe:

An additional note. While I know that you unambiguously counsel writers against PODs and self-publishing, you know as well as I that the very type of eternal wannabe you are hoping to dissuade will ignore your advice.

These writers can't be disabused of their fantasies, as evinced by the continued success of PublishAmerica and the newfound success of upstarts like Lulu.com.

Peter L. Winkler said...

" kalbzayn said...

Peter Winkler - what do you realy have against hapless, hopeless writers persisting endlessly."

Most writers' goal is professional publication. Most writers will never achieve that goal. At some point, their increasingly desperate efforts to achieve an ever receding goal results in significant levels of stress, frustration, and great unhappiness.

To tell them to continue, because success may be just around the corner when they already have a file cabinet full of failed manuscripts and rejection letters is cruel. And unrealistic.

Erica Orloff said...

Peter . . .
Well, I hear you, but as I tell kids when I go to speak to them on being a novelist (I'm a YA writer as well as gorwn-up novelist), SOMEONE has to have this job. It might as well be you. To me, who would have guessed I'd do this for a living? Luck is part of it, tenacity is part of it. Some people are hacks and terrible writers, but you can't underestimate what someone will learn over the course of years of trying to break in. Certain people, single individuals, have been ordinary and achieved extraordinary things simply in the course of human history--writing aside. I'd rather encourage someone's dream than tell them to shoot for the middle rung of mediocrity.

Mark Terry said...

O Lord! Not the talent/money/success talk again.

I've said it before and I'll say it again (and again and again and again, probably). Talent is nice, but in writing, in particular, I can't always recognize it.

I can read something and say, hmmm, if they had more craft, if somebody edited better, if someone guided them...

talent, on the other hand, is so nebulous in the world of writing that I really, REALLY can't identify it. And I sure as hell can't read something by a first-time novelist or inexperienced writer and unequivocally say, "They have no talent. They should quit and take up soap carving instead."

Because with hard work and perhaps some guidance they can be very, very good indeed, developing talent that--for all obvious purposes--wasn't evident in their initial work.

Will that guarantee publication and a career in writing?

F*** no!

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

I like the advice about listening to criticism more than praise and to read a lot, since I give out the same advice. :) But when you talk about writing being a craft people can learn, hmm...I guess that's true, but I don't think voice can be learned and voice, to me, separates merely serviceable books from the truly great.

Jude Hardin said...

I can recognize talent. It's not something you can put your finger on, but you just know it when you see it.

Not everyone is cut out to be a writer. I've seen people who, no matter how much they are taught, couldn't put a coherent paragraph together for a get-out-of-hell-free card. Their minds just don't work that way. It doesn't mean they're stupid, just that their gifts might lie elsewhere.

"Does craft require talent? Or does it require practice and adherence to form?"

I do think it requires a certain degree of talent to make it as a writer. It requires a clarity of thought, an innate voice, a gift for putting words together that everyone simply does not have. I can recognize talent even among these blog posts. I can recognize potential, and lack of potential, from reading a few paragraphs. I don't think writing is simply a matter of learning the craft. The craft MUST be learned, but I think you have to have a certain amount of raw talent to start with. Not everybody has that raw talent. Not everybody can make it as a writer, no matter how hard they try or how much craft they learn.

Writing isn't simply a matter of putting tab A into slot B. It isn't a matter of painting by the numbers.

There's something else to it, an intangible variable called talent.

JA Konrath said...

Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals...

Agreed, and that is learned, not innate.

To tell them to continue, because success may be just around the corner when they already have a file cabinet full of failed manuscripts and rejection letters is cruel. And unrealistic.

If you believe in fate, yes. If you believe in controlling your destiny, no.

Writers can improve, and of the 1000s I've met, I can only remember less than five that were truly beyond any help.

But the point of life isn't the destination--it's the journey. And I'd rather spend that journey pursuing my interests, whether they pan out or not.

Talent, on the other hand, is so nebulous in the world of writing that I really, REALLY can't identify it.

That's because it is subjective, and talent often gets confused with craft, which can be learned.

but I don't think voice can be learned

I think it can, or else voice would be apparent in the very first thing you ever wrote, back in pre-adolescence.

Voice can be discovered, honed, distilled, and changed. Good writers can use different voices.

I do think that talent is something you're born with, but talent in writing is ability+desire. Talent alone won't get you anywhere unless you learn the craft.

Jude Hardin said...

"Writers can improve, and of the 1000s I've met, I can only remember less than five that were truly beyond any help."

That's because the people you met were WRITERS. They had a certain degree of talent, or they wouldn't have been talking to you in the first place. The carpenters and diesel mechanics were elsewhere.

The 12 year-old kids you talked to were WRITERS. If you walked down the halls of that school and randomly picked thirty kids, you would discover that most of them are NOT writers. Most of them have no talent in that area.

I agree that most writers can improve by learning craft; but you have to be a writer, i.e. have a certain degree of talent in the area of putting words on paper, to begin with.

Which is more important, craft or talent? I think you have to have both. That's all I'm saying.

Teaching craft to someone who has no talent as a writer would be as futile as teaching a chimpanzee (or me) how to build a space shuttle.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I wish my kids had been at that seminar.

Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said...

Good points, but I'd like to disagree on one. I thin you can learn from praise.

t can tell you what you did well. "Your opening really hooked me." is good to know.

"That part where the dragon flew into the wormhole, I couldn't stop reading it." can tell you something about how you're mastering your craft as well as your storytelling.

Do the stuff that begets praise, avoid the stuff that evokes criticism, and you might have something.

For what it's worth.

Ray

PJ Parrish said...

I believe in innate talent.
I believe that one needs mastery of craftsmanship to give shape to that talent.
I believe that craft can be taught.
And, alas, my experience has taught me that some people are truly unteachable.

Ergo, I believe writing cannot always be taught.

Amy said...

Talking to young adults is really refreshing. They are all about their ideas and sharing. I work with that age group and have found some really wonderful writers there.
I like Joe's points here but may add a few more:
1. Direct them to the library or to form creative writing groups. The Schaumburg Twp. Library in IL has a Teen Writing Club (with a second section to open soon as it is full) and 4 teen writing contests a year. A recent one garnered 40 entries, and the annual April poetry one usually gets up to 200 entries.
2. Tell them places which encourage teen writing: teenink.com or the Children's Writers Guide, which lists places for them to publish.
3. Make a handout with the places to publish on one side and places to find out about teen reading on the other, like teenreads.com