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 24—literally as I was changing my six-month-old daughter's diaper—I 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.
3. I never said "if I 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.
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 could—Shakespeare, 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 obstacle—move 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?