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 I 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.