Monday, August 18, 2014

10 Things I Did In My Teens That Helped Me Get Published

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

At age 24literally as I was changing my six-month-old daughter's diaperI got The Call from my agent. It was a multi-book deal with a well-respected publisher. After the diaper change, I headed out to meet my husband and brother-in-law for lunch, but I could barely eat a bite. I just kept thinking, "I'm a published author! It's happening!"



And I know that the reason The Call came in my early twenties rather than my thirties or forties is because of choices I made in my teen years. Here are ten things I did in my teens that made a difference in my writing journey:

1. I wrote. A lot.

Maybe you think this is a no-brainer, but I'm not so sure it is. Because I meet a decent amount of writers who love to talk about writing, read about writing, and plan time for writing ... but who fail to, you know, actually write. 

I wrote a lot in high school. Most of the reading I did was for school, and I regret not branching out more, but I wrote regularly. Often when I shouldn't have been. Like during geometry class. (Though I can't remember the last time I used geometry in my real life, so maybe my B in that class was just fine.)

2. I pushed myself to write a complete book.

The first full book that I wrote was my junior year of high school. With the exception of some short stories I had written in middle school, it was the first book that I'd ever tried to end. It's a horrendous book, but I learned a lot.

3. I never said "if I get published."

I should have doubted. As a girl who lived in Kansas, knew no other writers, and who had never really achieved anything in writing (aside from the occasional "A" on an five-paragraph essay), I really should have doubted that I would get published.

But I didn't. I sometimes feared it would take a long time or that I might not get published in high school, but in my head it was always "when I get published." And I think that kept me inching toward my goal.

4. I went to a writers conference.

My mom was the one who found out about a writing conference happening in Kansas City. (This was in a time long ago before loads of blogs. I don't think Google was a verb yet.) The conference was hosted by a community college here in town, and it was mostly local-ish people with a few agents flown in from New York. I took the day off school, asked my dad to come with me, and didn't even do my normal lurking thing. I asked questions during classes. I shared when instructors asked for volunteers. I approached an editor after class to ask a submissions question.

Did anything lasting come out of that conference? While I didn't form any crucial relationships, I did walk away feeling like this literary world wasn't so impenetrable as it seemed at first glance.

5. I took every English elective my school had.

I went to a small high school, which meant limited class options. But during my junior and senior years when my schedule opened up, I took all the English electives I couldShakespeare, Lit into Film, Creative Writing, and possibly one more that I've spaced. Any class that has you studying stories is a good thing.

6. I listened to people who knew more than me.

I really want to pull out a soap box and get my preach on, but I'm going to limit myself to one very long sentence: I cannot tell you how many times budding writers ask me questions about how to become an author or how to get an agent ... and then completely ignore what I say or just bemoan that it sounds really hard and they're probably better off self-publishing. (Side note: I'm not knocking self-publishing. I've self-published books, and I think it's wise move for many writers. I do, however, disagree with doing it out of fear.)

When I went to my writing conference, I listened and took extensive notes. I studied Bird by Bird in English class and read Stephen King's On Writing multiple times. When an author was at my high school for career day, I kinda sorta took over the Q&A time.

And it's never been easier than it is now to be in touch with published authors, agents, and editors. Stalk industry people on Twitter. Read blogs and comment. Learn from those who know more than you. And don't be ashamed that you're just starting out. That's where we all began.

7. I focused on the next step.

I really wanted to be a bestselling author. (I still would like that, actually.) But a person doesn't go from writing a book to being a bestselling author in a snap. What's the next step for you? Is it writing a full book? Is it editing a full book? Is it saving up money for a conference? Whatever your next step is, focus on it, not the others.

8. I learned from the (many) mistakes that I made.

And, oh boy, did I make mistakes. Like sending my complete manuscript instead of a query letter. Like writing query letters when I couldn't have even told you my genre. Like assuming that I was the only person writing young adult fiction. (I wish I were joking. Again, Amazon.com barely existed at this point in time...) 

You will make mistakes. Sometimes someone will tell you kindly. Sometimes someone will tell you not-kindly. Learn from them and they won't be wasted experiences.

9. I learned how to write for an audience.

Shortly after high school, I took up fan fiction. This is seriously one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer, so don't let anyone tell you it's a waste of your time. I wrote Gilmore Girls fan fiction, and I learned so much about how to end scenes and how to wait until I had done my best before I clicked publish. I even learned how to deal with someone who accused me of stealing her idea. (Really. On a fan fiction site.) I don't write fan fiction any more, but it was excellent training.

10. I discovered the value of shutting my door.

Once upon a time, I used to share every chapter I wrote with my friends. Whether they wanted to read them or not, honestly. And when a friend deeply hurt my feelings with a thoughtless comment, I instantly stopped.

I stopped because I was afraid and hurt. It hurt to receive criticism. I showed people chapters because I wanted them to tell me how brilliant I was, not because I wanted honest feedback.

I kept my door shut for years. And you know what happened? My writing voice flourished. I learned how to write without need for instant gratification or without the voices of others in my head.

Number 10 may seem to contradict the value I expressed in number 9, but I think an important skill for a new writer is learning when to keep their writing door closed and when to open it up.

One other reason I was published fairly early is that I really wanted it and went after it. Not like when I wanted a horse or wanted to live in New York City. Those were passing interests, not passions. When I wanted to write for television, all it took was hitting the first big obstaclemove to Los Angeles—to make my dream fizzle. But that didn't happen with novels. I really wanted it, and I kept after it.

You're probably already doing a number of things on this list. Way to go! Which ones?

40 comments:

  1. Stephanie this is one of the greatest posts I've ever read. Thank you so much!
    As to ones I do... definitely 1., 2., 3. is a sometimes :/ , 6. is always fun :D , 8., 9., and 10.
    I often share my writing with my critique partner and her sister, after I've finished, to ask for ideas and to point to some of those major things that need to be fixed. Right away. But I have learned to shut my door some with posting everything I wrote on my blog. I did want people to tell me how brilliant it was.
    But now I've decided against it... :)

    This is a great post, and one, that I think, all teen writers need to read. :D THANK YOU!!! :)

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm so glad you felt it was a valuable read! I love seeing all the ways you're taking your writing seriously :)

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  2. I did/do number 1 and 2, I try to do 8 ;-), 10. 9 partly, because my audience is mostly a single person I let my story read for commenting on it, unless it's for a contest of course. Number 7 I do as well, but maybe a bit different than you mean here. I try something new for every project I start. For example: I tried outlining a bit (which worked quite well), I'm now working on a map and some history for another project (I'll have to see if it works ;-)).
    But I also try it in terms of writing a full manuscript and editing it and stuff like that.
    And number 6 is one of the reasons I'm here ;-)

    Thanks for this great post!

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm so glad to hear you try something new for every project you start! That's a great way to ensure you that you keep growing as a writer.

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  3. Thanks for the post, it's great! :) I do 1 and 2, 3... I guess I do that one. I really want to do 4! I haven't yet though...and for 5 I'm homeschooled, so I have one literature class and that's pretty much it... 6 and 7, I try to do. For 8 and 9, not so much...well I have done 8 some... And 10 I do! :) Thanks for the post!

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    1. Wow, look at everything you're doing, Naomi! How awesome!

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  4. This was so awesome, Mrs. Morrill! :) Thank you! I definitely do 1 and 2; I've actually completed a few books, and write a. lot. :) 3 . . . Well, I normally say "if I get published" or "when I get published, Lord willing" - probably mostly the latter. I really want to do 4 someday when I have enough money. :) 5 - I was homeschooled, and did a lot for English and took a novel writing course; and I have lots of writing books! 6 - I try really hard to do this, with God's help. :) I love learning about writing and value what authors and writers say! For 7, my "next step" is COMPLETELY editing a novel and get it all ready, which I'm working on right now. :) 8 and 9 . . . I have been learning a lot just through editing, etc., and perhaps need to work on the audience thing.

    And for 10, I totally understand what you mean there. Things went wrong with me there earlier this here, so I have "closed the door", and just share with my dear writing friend (we share our writing with each other and give each other feedback, etc.), another dear friend, and my family.

    Thank you so much for this post, Mrs. Morrill!! I really appreciate all the posts here, and they have been so helpful in my writing journey. Thank you and Jill for doing what you're doing and sharing!!! :D I've learned so much from you both. :)

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    1. I love that you have close writing friends you can trust. They're the best!

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  5. And with "closing the door'' for me was a difference of our convictions/theology.

    I also meant to say, "Thank you and Mrs. Williamson . . .". :) Sorry about that!

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    1. We're both totally fine with being called by our first names, so no worries :)

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  6. LOVE this post, Stephanie! I try to write as much as I can every day, even if it's only for a few minutes one morning. Last year I took Creative Writing at school and this year I'm scheduled to take AP English. One of my major writing goals is to attend a writers conference one day. I'm going to work on saving up money this year :) Oh, and I'm working on #6 right now!

    Thanks for this post, as always!

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    1. Hopefully we'll be attending the same conference, and I can finally meet you!

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  7. This list really helped :-) I do most of these things! Now I need to get back on track from the small vacation I had. I didn't write much at all darn. My goal is to write around 1,000 a day. Hopefully.

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  8. Wow, this is such an awesome post to read through! Thanks so much Mrs. Morrill, I really love reading everything on here but this is nice to see when I'm stuck.

    I do 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8 although I've not gone and made any truly large mistakes yet by keeping away from the publishing portion until I feel confident in my own work. They happen, and learning is the best way to deal with them. My small high school only offered a secondary English level course below the typical curriculum because the students weren't doing well enough to pass. It hurt people who could do well, and I would have really wished we had more and a teacher who didn't hate Shakespeare. (I love the bard.) Number 7 is especially true - following a progression even if its from short to novella to novel to editing gives a direction to follow that you can actually see.

    My two favourite points on here are 9 and 10. Seriously, you never see fan fiction mentioned anywhere as a good starting point but you are absolutely right. I've found it to be harder than writing something of my own at times. There are expectations, set rules, an audience that knows exactly what they want to see, and work that goes into fan fiction that really does make it rewarding to at least try.

    Shutting the door on the other hand is something I do with almost every project. I don't have many writing friends so there isn't much sharing, but I have shared with mixed results. It may have just been the particular handful of people I was approaching (even a few online) but after a while I discovered that it was so easy to take the sections being presented and make up the rest of the story themselves. Negative comments were slowing me down and actually stopping the writing as I second guessed every single thing. By keeping the shutters on my project like you suggest I finished a sketch filling in the blanks of the parts not fully written. After that for some reason I actually got constructive feedback instead of more useless things like 'oh, this should happen for blank storyline' or 'I can't see where this is going'. You've only got the second chapter - that isn't the whole thing! I mean, if the draft is rough and at least the main points are in writing having that feedback in revisions is such a big help.

    Thank you again for your list and website! - Kelsey

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    1. Kelsey, I too have found the criticism is much better when someone is looking at the full manuscript. Maybe it has something to do with them feeling a bit of respect for the book being finished? I don't know, but I definitely receive much more helpful feedback at that point.

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  9. I do a few of these, and I'm planning a fanfiction. I haven't shut my door to my twin, we're sort of like writing partners, but not exactly. It's great when you guys post things that helped you with getting published, because then we can try them out for ourselves.

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    1. It seems like if there was an exception for anyone, it would be a twin :)

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  10. I think I need to do #1 much, much more. thank you for all these. ;)

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  11. I've done 1 and 2, though I don't do 1 nearly as much as I should. And also 7 and 8, to some degree anyway ;)

    walking in the air.

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    1. Sounds like you're in great shape, Hannah :)

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  12. It's funny that you mention fanfiction, Stephanie! That's really all I've been writing since March and I've been feeling kind of... Conflicted? About it. Like I should be writing something more sellable. But on the other hand, I feel like my best piece of writing to date was a 5k fanfic, soooo.

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    1. It's great practice, Allison. Be kind to yourself :)

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  13. These are great, Stephanie! #7 is one I need to keep in mind right now; sometimes I feel like finishing my first read-through/ brainstorming rewrites isn't writing (well, it certainly isn't in way the mad-scribbling-of-draft-during- class was), even though I've read enough good advice to know that rewriting is an important part of the process, too. It'll be a long part for me...let's see, I'm doing book surgery - My MC is going to have goals now! - , changing most character names, including the MC's...

    As for #9, did anyone ever object to not being able to read your work? My friend helped me brainstorm a long time ago, and she's rather impatient to read it, even though I am not ready to let anyone do so. The story's changed a lot anyway, and sometimes when I mention a plot point she'll make an offhand comment that kind of hurts. We used to have more similar tastes in books, both in reading and book ideas, but my stories have since become all about characters, whereas she reads mostly fantasy action. I don't want it to become an issue between us, but I'm worried that means I have decide if it would hurt her more not to read my book or hurt me more to hear unhelpful critiques. Of course, all my worrying could all be for nothing, and maybe she'll love my book as is once she sees the whole picture...

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    1. That's a great question. I understand your friend's point of view - she's excited and wants to see how it turned out and she's a writer too - but I really encourage you to wait until you feel comfortable. And you're the one who gets to make that call, not somebody else.

      None of my friends were writers, so I think as soon as I told them I wasn't working on the book any more, they stopped asking and didn't push for details. Then it was senior year and we were all applying to colleges and such. After that, I was with a new social circle and they had no expectations of being able to read what I was writing. So the problem took care of itself as life went on.

      My writer friends know that I'm particular about when I open the door, and they're great about it. So is my agent. I don't think it's too unusual of a practice for professional writers.

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  14. I love that you mention fanfiction because that's actually what got me writing consistently, and I still do it on a regular basis.
    I do most of those things (yay, I'm doing something right! lol), but I haven't been to a writer's conference yet.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. That's a harder one to cross off, especially depending on where you live. They can be so expensive!

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    2. Yeah, and it seems like nobody comes near here (mid-Virginia). But I do hope to go to one eventually.

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  15. This was so inspiring! Thank you so much, Stephanie ^ ^

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  16. What an excellent post! As I'm coming to the end of my teen years, I found myself nodding along with all your advice. Especially the actually writing tip. I just wanted to comment and say how much I enjoyed your post! Thanks!

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  17. This is quite truthfully one of the most amazing articles on writing that I have ever come across.

    I am only now approaching my 14th birthday, so obviously I haven't had very long in the way of teen years, but I can say that I have done, and am doing, No.1. It's hard. My parents do not entirely "believe" in my writing, unfortunately...

    No.2 I am also doing. I am PUSHING myself to finish my first novel--currently on handwritten draft-page 320 or thereabouts, and not halfway done. Talk about overambition.

    No.3. Hmm. Maybe I ought to work on that. Even though I have gotten published, internationally, in print, once, for an essay I won in a contest, I still find myself thinking "if I get published."

    No.4? Oh, how I wish! Why don't they have those sorts of things where I live?

    No.5. I was planning on that!

    No.6. I am doing that now, by reading this!

    No.7. Yes, this is me all over.

    No.8. Ouch. This is just ouch. I have made more mistakes than I can count, and am probably making mistakes now that I do not realize are mistakes. But I cannot doubt it's an amazing learning opportunity when you realize your mistake.

    No.9. I am still learning this. I hope I'm doing it right.

    No.10. This is just SO right. Criticism used to trample my spirits. But I have by now learned to let rude or disparaging comments pass over my head. And although what little trickles into my ear hurts, I do my best not to let it get me down. And it's working!

    My special thanks to Ms./Mrs. Morrill. This has been so helpful and inspiring, and I am glad to think that I am (mostly) on the right track!

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  18. I'm doing 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9. I'm working on 3, and I'm kinda sorta doing 5...I'm homeschooled, so electives work slightly different.
    As for 10...well...I'm not really extremely open with sharing my writing, but when I do, criticism doesn't actually bug me. I mean, I already know it's trash...that's what editing fifty more times is for. :P What actually bothers me is when I share my very flawed work with someone, and they say it's fine. I don't want to hear that, when I know it's not. What I want to hear is a suggestion on how to make it better. But I'm about halfway doing 10...I share my unfinished work sometimes, but only with certain people, and I try to be discerning as to when it's ready to share.

    I love this article, it is so helpful! Thank you so much for posting it. :)

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  19. Okay I absolutely adore your blog! I am 14 and I just completed my first novel (yay!) But I just wanted to say your entire blog is so helpful and I am getting ready to order you book!

    Because of this article, I recently found a teen writers conference here in Colorado, and I'm getting a group at my school to go!

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    1. Congratulations, Madison! So glad you found us :)

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  20. I'm doing 1,2,3,6,7, and 8. I've been writing my book for the past couple years and I'm always looking for more advice. I'm so excited to read more of your posts!

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  21. I have done/am doing all but attend a writer conference. I've finished three novels, my most recent being for NaNoWriMo.

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  22. I almost didn't read your blog post. The title kind of discouraged me and I thought "I'm not a teen anymore, this advice won't help me". Boy was I wrong. This is a great post and all of these ideas can be put into practice right now or at any point in life. I plan on starting right away. Thanks so much for posting!
    God Bless!

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  23. This was the little shot of nitrous oxide I needed. Thank you so much for posting!

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