I used to think my stories were most authentic in their first draft, because that was when my idea was freshest. So I would type “The End,” do a spell-check, and send it off to whatever literary magazine I hoped would publish it. My stuff never got accepted, and I wondered why.
The answer of course was that my first drafts weren’t perfect. I was so close to my original vision that I didn’t see the holes or the clichéd writing. Both of my published novels went through EIGHT major drafts where the changes I made were sweeping enough that I saved the file under a new name (i.e. “Ballads of Suburbia Draft Six”). In addition to that, there was a lot of minor editing during each draft, as well as a copyediting phase.
This may sound like a lot of work, but the point is: feedback is crucial. I’ve actually come to think that revising is the best part! It’s when you get to tinker and add those flairs that make everything come together. (You also get to use fun little tools like highlighters!)
I like to send my drafts to critique partners or CPs. These are people I regularly exchange manuscripts with. They help me brainstorm when I’m stuck and find flaws in my manuscript that I may have overlooked. There are tons of writing organizations (like Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Romance Writers of America) and writing-related listservs on Yahoo where you can find a partner.
After the big-picture edits are done, I like to polish the prose. I recommend “Deep Editing,” a technique that helps you address and balance the different elements of your story, including action, dialogue, description, and emotional reaction. (And, again, it involves lots of pretty highlighters!)
Making strong word choices is essential in every kind of writing, so I recommend getting a good thesaurus to use for finessing your language—The Synonym Finder by J.I Rodale happens to be my favorite. Also, proper grammar is HIGHLY underrated these days, but it’s very important. (Seriously, these are skills you will need for fiction, college essays, cover letters, and IN LIFE.) If you’re really committed, you need a resource like The Chicago Manual of Style as well as something like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which makes reading about grammar feel a little less like English class homework.
My final suggestion is READ YOUR WHOLE STORY OUT LOUD. It sounds like a huge ordeal, and it is—stock up on tea and cough drops—but it’s so worth it to make sure everything sounds perfect and to pick up on any words you may have accidentally left out.
Decide how much you want to share.
Writers are often told “write what you know.” If taken literally, this may result in extremely personal writing, stuff that feels too close to your heart to share with anyone, even your best friends–especially if disguised versions of those friends appear in the piece. Examine what you write and decide if you can use what you know imaginatively, or if you want to write something somewhat autobiographical, or if you are interested in straight-up memoir. Over the years and especially since I’ve been writing for Rookie, I’ve gotten more comfortable publishing pieces about my real life. However, for the stuff that I want to write about but is still too personal to share, I keep a diary that is just for me. Make that separation for yourself. There should be no limitations to your creative freedom, but once you commit something to the page, it will likely stick around forever. This is definitely something to keep in mind.
Consider your education carefully.
School is approaching and with that can come decisions about what to study. I pursued degrees in creative writing because I wanted to spend a few years completely immersed, honing my craft, writing as my homework, and making contacts in the publishing world. While there are no guarantees that a creative writing degree will lead to getting published, it definitely helped me.
On the flipside, I know plenty of other writers who chose non-writing-related majors, because they didn’t want to burn out on or they had other interests. Studying something else can be valuable because it gives you something to write about with expertise, whether it be history or science or law or child psychology or veterinary medicine. And of course, it may also help you earn a living one day.
Like most careers in the arts, it takes a lot of time and work to establish yourself as a writer, and many writers have to find other jobs to support themselves. Even though I have two published books, I have to bartend, write freelance pieces, and teach to pay the majority of my bills. Research the kind of job you might like to do and find out what degree(s) you need, OR if there is a field of study you are already interested in, research what kind of jobs you might be able to get after college. For example, after getting an MFA in creative writing, I’ve been able to work as a teacher of college-level English, write and edit for a variety of publications, and use my skills for fundraising campaigns and grant writing.
When choosing what to study or do after high school, you will probably need to think about where your passion for your art ranks in your life and consider what sacrifices you are willing to make. It is still my goal to make my living off of creative writing alone. Working towards that means that I’ve always had to live with other people, I have to juggle a lot of different jobs, I don’t have much free time, and I rarely have extra money for shopping sprees, expensive nights out, and vacations.
Writing doesn’t have to be the center of your life to be a fulfilling and meaningful part of it. Building your own world out of words is an exhilarating experience, even if it’s just for fun. ♦