Monday, May 30, 2005

Ah, to be a young writer again...

I just wrote a letter for my student intern as part of her year-end evaluation for working with me. I've had several interns over the years, students from area high schools who ask to intern with me because they wanted to be writers. All have come to me with some talent, but not all were eager to learn and grow.

It's not that they don't want to be authors when they grow up, it's that many of them haven't hit that point in their writing where they think changing what they do or how they do it will improve their work. They are resistant to more information, averse to criticism and basically, to be frank, are often just here for an ego stroke from a "big" author (LOL).

Well, I'm not in the business of ego strokes. :-) I will, of course, give praise when I see something well done, but if the writer is weak in an area, hasn't written a good opening, hasn't created a scene/chapter ending that will carry the reader forward, eager to devour the next words, then I tell them so. Then I hear the defense back, the arguments that Dickens or Shakespeare or whomever didn't do it that way.

Well, sorry, gang, but those two are very much dead and not competing in today's market ;-). While I'm not saying every writer has to become a commercial hack--not at all, they all need to learn to become a compelling writer who can compose stories that appeal to today's reader--a reader who wants a heck of a story, one that will make it well worth their five bucks or twenty-five in hardcover.

One thing that Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. did is tell a story that hit the reader on an emotional level. Remember, just because the authors of old may have taken a couple chapters to get to the initial set-up, or thrown in a forty-page flashback, doesn't mean you can. Dickens, remember, was paid by the word. It was in his best interests to write a LOT of them ;-). However, what made all of them required reading is that they grabbed the reader, took them on an emotional ride, and didn't let them go until the very last word.

And, they had an individual style and voice that made their stories uniquely their own. They didn't get published just because they were cute ;-)

The sad thing I have seen in many writers--young and old--that I meet today is that they want to be published but don't want to do the work it takes to get there. They expect it to come easily, to write perfect first drafts, to have everyone adore every word, and for publishers to come knocking on their door, begging for that manuscript.

Until this term. This past semester, I had a student who came to me with a great talent, but more importantly, an eagerness to learn and then incorporate that into her work, making it so much stronger, so much more part of her because it reflected her voice. She read Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel, did the exhaustive exercises in the accompanying workbook, and in general worked hard to polish, revise, write fresh, then do the process all over again.

And most of all, she reminded me of what it was like to be young, with an entire publishing career ahead of me. While I wasn't always good with criticism and came late to learning how to write fiction, I saw that same eagerness I had within her. That willingness to learn, that fire to write.

I'm excited for her. For what her future holds. And I am that much more invigorated again, simply by having met and worked with her.

If you're a writer (or anyone who is pursuing a dream), may you find that same combination of passion and thirst for knowledge. May you realize the bumps on the road are there to toughen your tires for the journey ahead.

It will be worth it, I promise :-)


PS: Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. As a daughter of a veteran and a wife of a former military man, I want to send a HUGE HEARTFELT THANKS to all our men and women in uniform. They put their lives on the line so I can enjoy my life here in the United States. I admire their bravery, their commitment and most of all, the honor that two very special military men have brought to my life.


  1. Yes - and a Thank You to the US Military from Canada. Someone has to stand up on the wall and I thank you for doing it!

    Shirley... if I move to Indiana can *I* be your intern?? LOL Since immigration says I can't work for three months I have to do SOMETHING!

  2. Thank you, Shirley, for your thanks to us veterans. As a former Airman and a disabled vet married to another disabled vet, we were very proud and happy to serve our country and all of its wonderful citizens.

    As an author, I hear where you're coming from, and I agree wholeheartedly. Writers who are willing to take constructive criticism, who are motivated to keep improving their craft and submitting their work, are those that succeed.

    Ashley Ladd

  3. I love your answer to the person who said they were trying to write like the classics. I had someone in a crit group once, and everytime someone would make suggestions, he would say... "That's my style." He compared his writing to some classic writer. I wish we'd have been able to come up with that come-back!


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