Advice for a Young Writer

What I told (and forgot to tell) the college-bound student who approached me while I was shelving books.

“I don’t want books about writing because writing can’t be taught,” she said. “You just do it.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s one philosophy.”

“True,” she said, and then we were off to the races.

She wanted books that she could use as references that weren’t themselves references. She wanted books that were themselves great examples of — mostly — world-building.

I suggested the writers Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, Mercedes Lackey, and Sasha Miller. The first three collaborated on Tiger Burning Bright, while Norton and Miller co-wrote The Cycle of Oak, Yew, Ash, and Rowan. I may have cried super-hard when I learned Andre Norton had passed, and I may have told the young writer as much.

I also suggested that she get hold of a humanities textbook. As a soon-to-be college student, whatever school she attends will require she get one eventually (so she may as well get it early). Plus, world-building isn’t just history and societal constructs, it’s also literary and artistic works designated as sacred or profane as the development of a world and its cultures progress. Basically, humanities books make for great accidental templates for world-building efforts.

Then the conversation turned from world-building to getting started with getting published which — near as I can tell — means two things:

  1. Getting an agent; and,
  2. Self-publishing (preferably regularly).

For these I recommend Poets & Writers Magazine, of their six annual issues they have an issue dedicated to learning about Agents and another to Independent Publishing. They also (as I forgot to mention that day in the bookshop) have many articles about seeking publication with literary journals and an issue dedicated to Writing Contests which often include publication as part of your winnings. Not to mention all the other very useful information in their pages!

As for “big” traditional publishing, what publishers prove they want year after year is the thing that does not exist, the ever-elusive “Sure Thing.” The next best thing after the myth? A pre-set audience.

Which brings us to self-publishing, even if it’s just a blog about detailing your in-progress world-building, complete with a Copyright Info/Terms & Conditions section somewhere to protect your intellectual property. That’s just the first step, the second is signing up for a mailing list provider (I recommend MailChimp) because those built-in “follow” links are designed to help out the platform hosting your blog, not you.

Your list is your audience is your leverage to play ball with the big wigs.

After all that I got a lot more rambly because “What do I know? I work in a bookshop!”

But that’s insecurity talking. And what do I have to be insecure about? I run three sites which each have their own regular posting schedule, I’m a contributing writer (of fairy tales) to an online literary journal, and I’m always at work on my next thing.

Why share that I’m insecure and don’t necessarily need to be? Because as we finished wrapping up our discussion I hesitated to give her the link to my website. And my final advice to her was actually me reminding myself aloud, “I need to be better about sharing my work.”

Writers need readers. No writer ever got readers by hiding what they write. Let alone avoiding writing altogether.

Ah, the joys of being a bookseller. Come for the books, stay for the industry talk, leave with books AND info. Not a bad deal if you ask me.

Also published on Medium.