Heinlein had Lazarus Long say something about not ruining your children by making their life too easy.
This too applies to young writers. And a young writer is anyone who has been bashing his or her head against the deceptively clear pane of the craft for less than five years (or more, depending on rate of production.)
Me, I’m not of the opinion that if you can be discouraged, you should be. Writing talent doesn’t necessarily come with determination. And determination doesn’t make you a good writer, not by itself.
Look at me: started writing with no contacts in the field, in my third language, had no clue even how to submit, took 9 years to make my first short story sale and 13 to sell a novel. (Partly because the idea there was even a market was foreign to me, and also my concept of story was foreign to everyone else.) And yet, I persisted. Does that mean I’m the best thing to happen to science fiction and fantasy? Oh, please! Do you see a money bin of money in which I dive every morning? Not enough people read me for me to be a major author. I have great hopes of one day soon living rather well from my writing, but I also have the full expectation of being forgotten two minutes after I’m dead.
As btw most of the “names” receiving “acclaim” from the establishment of science fiction and fantasy will be forgotten. If they’re lucky two minutes after they’re dead. But right now for most of them that time is about ten minutes after the award ceremony. Back when all there was as trad, and there was no Amazon where I could check the ranks, I assumed my taste was just very different from everyone else’s. I would wander around looking for something I wanted to read in a vast wasteland of worthy books which were getting the awards and — frankly — seemed to be selling extremely well. (Well, they were in all the bookstores, you know, and often in displays of their own.)
So when I ran into people who said they read SF/F (A minority compared to those who said they USED to read SF/F) I would bring these names up, or perhaps one or two of their books I’d forced myself to read. And always the answer was “who?”. This even when I was assured these authors were selling very well.
Store this in a little file, it’s important.
My approach to newbies who come to me looking for help — I’m not a trained writer. Is anyone? But I was in another life a trained TEACHER so I seem to attract any number of newbies looking for help. I apologize only for the fact that in the last five years I’ve only been a notional mentor, because of what I’ll call “the big sickeness” which actually seems to be a chain of illnesses that hit me all at once and I’m solving one at a time — is to praise what they’re doing well and concentrate on a thing at a time that they must improve. My experience is that you give them more than one thing and they crash hard. OTOH if they’re improving one thing at a time, sometimes they improve everything that’s related to it and become grown up writers almost instantly before your very eyes.
Oh, and I encourage them to write a lot, because there’s a lot to be said for practice. No matter how talented you are, if you sit on a story idea for five years, you won’t become a better writer. Nor will you — in general — become a better writer if you rewrite the same story/book over and over again.
I never kick them in the teeth. If they seem hopeless and have no redeeming features, I try to get them to hold off on putting the work up, till they learn a thing or two. Everyone can learn, the question is how much effort it takes.
But I never, ever, tell them they’re perfect (I’ve only ever seen one that was close to, and he abandoned his book half written. This too is important.)
There are very few hopeless writers. Some, sure. But even those aren’t usually really hopeless, it’s just that like me when I started out they’re just writing things that no one will want to read.
In my defense, I did that because I came from elsewhere altogether, and also because a literature degree had corrupted my sense of “good.”
Most of the people who do it now do it by being overly ideological and making the story into a convoluted vehicle for message, also known as selling their storytelling birthright for a pot of message. And message, on either side, btw, just doesn’t sell except to the converted.
Look, you’re never going to have a message-free book. You’re a human being with opinions, and your opinions will form how your world is built and how your characters act. You can’t get away with it. There are many an author I like while rolling my eyes at the fact all their women characters are Simon pure and never termagants, or at the fact that none of their economies work like any economy known to man, ever, since the neolithic. But their people and situations are still interesting enough that I will read them, no matter how much I go “Oh, please. Have you ever heard of a functional economy?” or “Wars aren’t fought that way, you absurd moron.” It’s only after I finish that I go “For the love of Bob.” And then I keep it to myself, because I want the next book.
No one is asking you to write an ideology-free book. I’m not asking you to sing in my choir, either. Some of my best friends have different ideologies from mine (though these days they tend to be the fatal rifts between flavors of libertarian. My more lefty friends left me, I didn’t leave them. Just saying.)
But if you’re writing a book to “show them” or to “tell them” or to “inform them” or to “educate them” don’t. Chances are it will be a very bad book. You can get away with this in short stories (and even there I prefer a light hand) but in novels it usually makes them dreary and leaden.
Write a book because there’s this gal (or guy) with a problem (and if SF/F a problem that touches on all these fascinating tech/moral/philosophical issues) and the solution of it is interesting and fun, either in the physical fight or the moral quandary sense. And I’ll read it, even if you make me grit my teeth.
Here’s the thing, though, if you’re on the left, and you’re writing a pot of message, you’ll get acclaim very fast.
This is very bad, and not because I’m jealous (look, guys, I write for the money. Ideally I’d have no public persona at all, and the only praise I’d receive would be “pay to the order.” I want to write and make a living, but I’m an extreme introvert who’d prefer not to be known except to those I trust.) but because there is a generation of young lefty writers being destroyed by it.
Look, any of us, old pros (dirty optional) know the marks of a first novel. We will read some novels then go and check and go “knew it!” because there are certain thumb prints (usually world building, but also inability to handle more than two people in a scene, and sudden weird skips in background, where suddenly the character is worrying about the things the writer would worry about in that situation, not what the character with his/her history would worry about.) We can’t point them out precisely, but after a decade or so in the field we KNOW them. As we know that given half a chance, the writer will grow out of them.
Unless you give them an award for their all-thumbmarked-work. That’s the surest and fastest way to freeze a writer. Sure, they might not sell much, but their first book won “most prestigious fan award in field” and so they’re going to try to replicate it, forever, writing Ancillary Noun after Ancillary Noun, no matter how thumb marked, because the right people approve of it (mostly because of the bit of entirely stupid worldbuilding but never mind.)
The teacher in me resents this like hell. There are many promising writers being destroyed by either being given recognition too soon or being told they’re only balked of “due recognition” due to discrimination and hatred of their kind by the “establishment” (even while the establishment trips over itself to assure us it doesn’t discriminate. Reality is far more complicated in all directions, but never mind.)
All I can do is give you the benefit of my experience. I was told many times while I was trying to break in (first under my maiden/pre-citizenship name (long story)) that my success was only held back because I was a woman or Latin or… Were those well intentioned people right? To an extent on the Latin. Not on the woman. By the time I started submitting in the eighties most of the writers and submissions were from women (I know this because I also ran a small press magazine.) Most of the accepted stories too. The Latin? Yeah. Not the way you expect though. I got rejection after rejection chiding me for not writing “authentic” by which they meant ONLY stories about Portuguese and Portugal. As a woman of the world with an extensive education, I didn’t want to be thus constrained, and having shifted to my post citizenship/married name I found white privilege consists of not having pre-conceived images to conform to. (And then I decided to tell them I’m Latin anyway, because the images in THEIR heads are not my problem. But it took being middle-aged and cranky to dare to do that.)
They were wrong too, though. My stories were still too thumbmarked. And I had an odd idea of where my interests intersected other people’s, so I often aimed at an audience that, in fact, did not exist. (I joke my first published trilogy was only fully understood by me and five college professors who specialize in Shakespeare, and who all wrote me fan letters, btw.)
But whether they were right or wrong doesn’t matter. What I figured out is that assuming everyone is discriminating against you, and it’s all based on that will hold you back. Because like people who get acclaim too soon, you’ll think there’s nothing you need to change. And perhaps freeze in your bad habits, just to “show them.”
So, listen to me now. I wasted a good five years on victimhood nonsense. It could have been worse.
Look, the world isn’t fair. It never is. Whether you think they’re discriminating against you for your color, your orientation, or even because you’re to the right of Lenin, you might be right. Some people always are.
And if you’re getting awards or accolades from the side that likes your color, your orientation, your gender or that you’re to the right of Lenin, it’s just as bad, and you should always assume you’re being discriminated FOR. And there is a strong chance of being discriminated for by both sides now. Which will make you think you’re already perfect.
The only people with talent and ability that I’ve seen drop clear out of writing were those who were successful too fast, and then got stuck. Remember that too.
Assuming you’re doing this for the reason I’m doing this — to be read and to tell stories — don’t let either praise or calumny or bad or good numbers hold you back.
ALWAYS assume that you have much to learn. And because writing is most of all a craft, you can always learn. Look at the writers you admire. Study the effects that impress you. Learn. You’ll get better.
Will you be a great in the field? I can’t promise that. But I can promises you’ll be a greater you as a writer than you’d be if you assume your first book is perfect.
Yeah, some of us take three times as long as we should, going uphill both ways in the snow of our own confusion.
But the harder you work the better the view gets. If you stop halfway, you only die of exposure.
Put on your snow boots and go.