Helena Coggan's 10 Don'ts for Writing as a Teenagerby Jess N, Monday September 28, 2015
The 16 year old author of The Catalyst has some sound advice for Movellians
Insofar as I ever get asked anything about writing— which, thankfully, is not very often—it’s usually about how to find the time to write. I don’t have an answer to that question, or at least not a very helpful one (‘you have more spare time than you think’), but it is at least better than the rare, but evil, ‘How do you do it?’
Nobody has ever been able to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how to write, and if someone could, it sure as hell wouldn’t be me. No one has all the answers about writing, and there are as many different experiences of it as there are writers, so anyone who says they know some big universal truth about it is either lying or deluded, and if the latter, then rather amusingly so.
I can, however, say from my current standpoint that there are some things that anyone trying to write whilst still in full-time education should probably not attempt to do, for the sake of efficiency and their own mental health. This is only my own experience, of course; other people may have broken these guidelines to outstanding effect, in which case I can only congratulate them.
This is not me pointing at a fork in the road and saying sternly, ‘Do not go this way!’ This is me standing on the edge of the motorway as you head towards the fork, wincing slightly, and saying quietly, ‘I might want to try the other one, if I were you.’
You have been warned.
1. Do not lie to yourself about why you want to write.
This is the only rule that I would say is absolute, because there is no scenario in which breaking it ends well. Do not write because you want to get rich and famous (you won’t. Trust me). Do not write because all your family are writers. Do not write because you want to prove to everyone how clever you are (if you’re not keen on writing itself, this will likely backfire). Most importantly, do not write because you feel you should. Write because you enjoy writing. Why you enjoy it is both irrelevant and your own affair; but let that be your sole, or at least primary, motivation. There are many other ways to express your creativity, especially when it comes to worlds, characters and storylines, than typing for hours. Writing is not a means to an end; or if it is, believe me, the end is not worth it.
2. Do not pretend your writing is more important than schoolwork.
It isn’t. Sorry. And I mean under any circumstances, not even if the story is ‘really promising’, or you’re ‘on a roll’. I’m not saying these things don’t matter; I’m saying homework matters more. I was working on the book for two years before I was ever allowed to change my schedule to accommodate it (and it wasn’t that big a change- I was let off my one compulsory weekly PE lesson, and that was as much a weight off the sports’ department’s shoulders as it was off mine). This was, incidentally, nine months after we knew the book was going to be published, and only because I had actual physical deadlines that I was contractually obliged to meet. School is always your first priority, especially if you have exams coming up.
3. Do not base your characters on yourself or people you know.
There are, of course, people who can do this with the utmost subtlety, poignancy and eloquence, but there’s close to a hundred percent chance that you are not one of those people. And if it goes wrong- and it almost certainly will- it will go very, very wrong. People can always see themselves on the page, and they are rarely flattered. And it is unlikely that basing your hero on yourself will lead people to finally see the witty, brave, charming genius you always were inside. NB: Changing the names is NOT a good enough disguise.
4. Do not expect people to take you as seriously as an adult writer.
They won’t. Adults don’t treat teenagers with respect because they still recall what they themselves were like as adolescents and cringe at the memories. This is very much their problem, not yours. On the bright side, if you actually are even semi-articulate, then this will lead them to look at you with a level of astonishment bordering on the offensive. This is what I call the ‘talking goldfish’ effect.
5. Do not think you’re above second drafts.
No one is. Every few days, read back through your last ten pages or so to check your work. There will always be something you need to change, no matter how good it is (and I don’t just mean typos). If you don’t think there is, then it’s because you can’t see it, and you need to get someone else to read through your work. Do not be shy or ashamed about this; if you ever do publish your writing in any form, people will read and criticise it anyway, and they will have far less concern for your feelings than a friend or parent. This applies even if you can see the problems in your first draft. Other people can always tell if the story has been written and edited entirely within the echo chamber of your own head.
6. Do not think you’re above third drafts.
A piece of writing cannot be edited ‘too much’. It can be cut too much, fine, but there is no such thing as too many second opinions. Before a book is published, it goes through at least one full round of edits- my first one had three, one of which involved me having to cut seventy thousand words in one afternoon- as well as copyedits (sentence-to-sentence edits) and proofreading (word-to-word edits). I estimate The Catalyst went through seven drafts, and I can still see whole scenes and paragraphs I would rewrite if I had another shot. This is partly a rant at people who think their work has been edited ‘enough’ after one cursory glance through it by a friend, but mostly a word of sympathy to those obeying the entirely natural and understandable urge to shield the world inside their head, and the people they love, from the brutal, uncaring criticism of someone who can never truly understand their creations: this, I am afraid, is the pact you struck when you decided you wanted to share your stories with the rest of the world. If you want people to read them, then you need to have them edited. It may infuriate you, it may hurt your pride, it may break your heart, but it is necessary, and they will be much the better for it.
8. Do not use other people’s writing for your own ends.
I’m not just talking about plagiarism here- I hope we’re all clear that’s off the table. If you are in the lucky and flattering position of being approached to have a look at someone’s writing, you are not allowed to show it to others without the writer’s consent, no matter how amusingly bad you find it. This is not, incidentally, some kind of secret writers’ pact that you can kid yourself you haven’t signed up to. This is common human decency, and you don’t get an opt-out from that.
9. Do not sacrifice your friends for your writing.
No matter how well-crafted, complex, and fascinating your characters are, they are still only voices in your head. You need to spend time with real people, especially your friends and family, or you will go mad. It’s not noble or dedicated to lock yourself away for the sake of your writing; you’re not ‘suffering for your art’. Isolation will not make your writing any better. Go out for a coffee with someone. Your laptop will still be there when you come back.
10. Do not forget to check your demographics.
It is fine to accidentally make all or most of your characters straight white men once, and then only if you correct yourself. It is not fine if you continue to cast this way, either out of unwillingness to recognise that it’s a problem or reluctance to learn how to solve it. Please do not think that this doesn’t apply to you just because you’ve been open-minded enough to put a woman, a BAME person and a gay person in your story; diversity is about your characters’ actions, not just their presence. If your female characters are all under thirty and described as ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’, if they exist simply as love interests, or to be attacked, raped or rescued, or if they are brutally murdered so as to inspire the hero; if your LGBT characters all have a particular interest in Broadway musicals, interior decorating, fashion or the repeated use of the word ‘girlfriend’; if your BAME characters serve only to ask the hero to explain the plot and are killed halfway through the second act- if any or, God forbid, all of these things are true of your story, alarm bells should be ringing.
Oh yes, and this still applies if- indeed, especially if- you are writing in the fantasy genre. Black people are not more implausible than dragons.
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
You should never cause yourself pain, physical or mental, for doing something you enjoy. Loving and wanting to live in imaginary worlds is not stupid or illogical: it is purely human, and it is joyous, and joy is never a bad thing. Nor should you let writing consume your life as a teenager because you believe you are somehow running out of time, and that you should do everything you can as young as possible. There is no time limit to any of this. The most important thing- more so than writing, than school or grades or exams- is that you are happy.
( PS- If you ever think I can be of any use regarding any of this, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love talking to people, and if I can be helpful in terms of writing advice, or just to chat, then drop me a line. Hope you’re okay- H)
Got a question for Helena? Write it in the comments below and you just might get it answered in our Q&A next week!