The Danger Of Writing Too Young

The Danger Of Writing Too Young

When she was younger, my older sister wrote books.

When she was about fifteen, she wrote a very very long novel called (I think) The Ninth of Nine. I don’t know how long it was in words, but when it was printed out it filled a lever-arch file. I think it was around 200,000 words, though it might have been 250,000. She wrote most of it on an electric typewriter, not because we didn’t have a computer but because she didnt’ have one of her own and she wasn’t allowed to spend all that long on the family one, and when she printed it out at the end of a day’s work (or each week, or however often she did it), it was incredibly noisy. And I know this because she was doing it while she lived in the back bedroom (my current room) and I lived in the one next door, on the other side of a thin wall, so I had to listen to this typewriter churning out pages and pages of the stuff.

I was nine or ten, and on one occasion I asked if I could read it – because I was so impressed that she’d managed to write something so long, as my longest stories had been twenty pages – and she said no. And I asked why and she said that I was too young for it.

About a year ago, when was fifteen, I brought the topic up and asked if I could read it. And she said no. And I asked why, because I was as old as she was when she wrote it so she wouldn’t be able to say I was too young. And she said that when I was twenty and somebody asked to write a novel that I wrote when I was fifteen, I would understand.

I was a little put out by this, because I’ve written some things I’ve been proud of, over the last few years. I mean, I’ve written a lot that was bad to the point of hopeless and a lot that needs work in order not to be bad. But underneath all that, I think I’ve written a few novels that were halfway decent.

Before I go any further, I just want to stress that anything above may be inaccurate. The novel may have been longer/shorter. It may have had a different name. (Something about hawks, perhaps. Her email address is still Ninth Hawk. There’s a theme going on with this number 9.) But it filled a lever-arch file and though I never ever told her this, one of my ambitions for several years (until I found out that word count is more accurate than page count), my goal with writing was to write a book that when printed, filled a lever arch file. I don’t know if I’ve managed it yet. I can’t afford to print them.

Anyway, it often seems that she assumes because we started out in much the same way – loving books, and therefore wanting to write books – we’ll continue to travel in the same way. I believe she thinks, or perhaps hopes, that in a few years’ time I will have seen the light, stopped wanting to be a writer, and gone off to study something vaguely normal at university before going on to get a job I hate in a city I don’t like earning not quite enough to pay the rent.

I kid. She likes the city.

And there is a danger that this is what will happen. It’s not a danger because I don’t want to stop wanting to be a writer, but a danger that I’ll write too much too soon.

They say, “Write what you know.” But other people say, “Write whatever you want.” And others say, “You can’t write until you’ve lived,” while we’re told, “Writing is living a thousand lives at once.”

The whole point of the Teens Can Write Too! blog chain is that you don’t have to be an adult to write. A grown-up, as it’s always written in children’s books. There are published authors, both trad and indie, at the age of twelve, thirteen, and the like.

And yet when I was leading a session of Creative Writing Club for the younger students at school on the subject of the changing publishing industry (it was the first week of term, and I had a 20-slide powerpoint. Talk about starting as you mean to go on…the students hated me), I went on and on about the glories of e-publishing and the indie revolution and then told them not to go out there and self-publish their work.

Why? Because I’ve read their stories. And however much I don’t want to sound like my sister, I know that when I was twelve, I wrote like that too, and I look on it now and I think, “What the hell was I thinking?

Stephen King is purported to hate his first book, whatever that was. I’m not too well-versed in his novels. I’ve read two: I liked one (Misery) and didn’t like the other (Firestarter), and never got around to reading any others. But anyway, even though it met with a good response and people like it at the time, he doesn’t like it. He thinks it’s bad.

Why? Because it was his first novel and he’s written a whole load of novels since then and improved greatly.

Me? I hate my first novel too. That’s why I’m rewriting it completely in my spare time at the moment. Many authors prefer to wait a month or two before reading a first draft in order to be able to look back at it with fresh eyes. Between writing a first draft and a second draft, I make sure to write a first draft of another novel, or a second draft of a previous novel. Why? Because with a novel’s worth of extra experience, I know I’ll have improved by the time I come to rewriting.

I know I’m getting better. I know my work now is infinitely more coherent, stylish and worthwhile than my work from two years ago. But I know I’ve got a whole lot more to learn.

And so it’s dangerous to start writing too young. You’ll write about things you’ve never experienced and if you’re like me, you’ll be way too stubborn to see that you didn’t quite imagine it right, or your prose wasn’t worth reading. And then you’ll regret it, when you’re older and you read over it, or when the bad reviews come back to haunt you.

Your imagination and determination must not turn into wackiness and stubbornness. Be imaginative, but don’t go overboard. And be determined, but be sensible enough to say, “Actually, you’re right. This needs work. I’ll edit that chapter.”

My novel Watching is at seventh-draft stage. If you want to read what the first draft was like compared to the most recent opening, you can click here.

19 thoughts on “The Danger Of Writing Too Young

  1. It is a danger to be a very young writer, mostly because you’ve got this sense of imperviousness about you that ironically only takes a few blows to dissolve. The main danger is actually to write too young, have a lot of people criticize you, then looking back later and getting depressed because you realize they were right. But writing young in itself isn’t dangerous. Writing young means you’ll have more experience when you enter the ages of normal writing. I don’t mean to say that it’s a fruitless endeavor to write while young just because you’d never get anywhere, but when you start young, you’re more mature later. If you never started living until age twenty, you’d have no idea how to go about it when you did start, and it would take you another quarter of a lifetime to figure it out. I think that writing while young teaches you things, though you shouldn’t pin too much hope on it.

    1. I think you just said what I spent 1100 words trying to say and failing. I think the writing you do when you’re young is never going to be your best work. By all means write, but see it as practice and not as the next bestseller.

  2. You speak the truth! I’ve wanted to hit my younger self so many times when reading old stuff of mine – the longest of which was approaching a hefty word-length! Nevertheless, it was godawful stuff, and even reading it against things I hate that I wrote only last year isn’t half as bad.

    Still, one can always find rough diamonds among the dreck. Maybe, like you, you’ll still like the story’s concept, or a particular character, or setting, or maybe even one sentence will strike you as rather good.

    Learn from the old to make the new even better :)

    1. It’s interesting reading through the first draft of Watching and seeing how much of the dialogue I kept throughout the drafts – and how much I threw out (mainly from the description). And also what I added.

      But who can forget “Bite me.” ?

  3. Every writer has a file of first works that probably aren’t fit to read. But we learn something with each attempt, IF we keep working at it.

    Another part of the process is learning to accept criticism. A book… ANY book… needs to be developed far beyond that first draft stage, and some who jump into writing just don’t realize what a long haul it will be. They write, read back over it, decide their work sucks, then quit.
    Maybe it isn’t really their calling… or maybe it isn’t their calling YET. Time might incline them to try again down the road.

    I’m older than a lot of folks that reply on this blog. I’ve written all my life, but it took many years) for me to finish something I’d want anyone else to see. (Okay… not THAT many years! I’m not 90 or anything!) I completed my first novel 3 years ago. It needs a major rewrite, but my 2nd work is much closer, and will go out to a professional editor soon.
    So hang in there. You are definitely on the “write” track. (Yea… lame pun. I know.) And your sister might just change her mind someday too!

    1. It’s lovely to hear from you. We get a lot of teen writers here, so I like to get some different perspectives.
      It’s true that any first works are usually bad. In my experience, though, older folks are more experienced at analysing if something is any good. This also means they’re more likely to give up, whereas younger people will stick with it, but its advantage is that they don’t labour under any delusions :-)

      1. LOL… Believe me, delusions are plentiful with people of all ages. There’s a reason why some self-pubbed works sell a grand total of about 10 copies.

        I like Cathryn’s idea of 10,000 hours, or your one-million words. I heard it was 10 years. Truth is, when we love writing, we will always be studying the craft, and as long as we strive to be better there will always be improvement.

        Thanks for writing a great post!

  4. They say you need 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something (or was it more, I forget). But I think it’s not the danger of writing too young, but the danger of thinking your ready to show it to the world.

    You get to be my age and you can look back on your 12 year old self and laugh at the writing. But at the same time, there might also be gems. I love Rainbow Island, which I started back in 1987. But it is horrible. After all I was 10. But if I work hard now I might be able to take that concept (which I never finished) and turn it into a YA, or children’s book.

    But I digress. All I really wanted to say is that the practice is good, but knowing when you’re ready to show the world is hard. I think I might be… I keep hoping I am. :}

    1. 10,000 hours, or one million words for writers, that’s what I’ve heard. If you count each draft of Watching as a separate 85k, I hit 1,000,000 words some time ago! :D

        1. Sky full of stars – 50k
          Legacy – 60k
          Memory – 60k
          Destroying – 85k
          Returning – 85k
          Beneath the branches – 125k
          Figurehead – 85k
          The quiet ones – 70k
          And then Watching. 85k but seven times.

  5. I think writing should be done when you are younger because you think it is fun and not looking at being published. Just playing in your mental playground and gaining confidence to be true to your voice and vision. I don’t think most people gain real strides in writing until their late 20s to early 30s (I know you can point to some great writers from the past and say how well they did younger, but life made them grow up faster then and they are the outliers).

    So much is how much life experience you have and I’m not talking about the distractions in life that people substitute for experience, but real personal interactions. Also observing real people and places. You don’t know what you don’t know.

    I once read a book that suggested writers prepare for writing a story the same way a method actor would prepare to be a character in a movie. I think to a point that’s accurate – and I am guessing since most of us have been caught mumbling our dialogues out loud we writers come to this naturally.

    Long rambling reply short, there is benefit to writing young. A ten year old has a vision that should be honored, but that doesn’t mean every ten year old story will hold the interest of the whole world. I think writing should be for their own rewards and then built upon as they grow more mature.

    PS I thought the seventh draft of Watching was very good, but the voice in first draft was interesting. Actually your eye for detail is one of your strengths, don’t be afraid to use it for your advantage. Most people lack your observation skills – so the adage of not too much detail may have to be taken with a grain of salt in your case — FWIW.

    1. Thanks for your comment, on both the post and the drafts ;-)
      I know I observe a lot. The thing I have difficulty with is not sharing everything I have observed immediately. I also struggle with the fine line between too much and too little – I’m working on it! :-) Much of the first draft is redundant because of changes made later – for example, back then Jennie actually had friends. Some of that description I reused at a later point, but in my experience a more minimalist opening is better, because you get drawn into it.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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