Chuck Wendig

Why The Fetishization of Young Writers Continues

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Girl with fountain of youth
Credit: Pixabay | User: lightstargod

20 under 40 list

30 under 30 age

Addition: I was planning to post this a few weeks ago and thought it would be fitting timing to release my write-up now as Chuck Wendig recently posted an article emphasizing that writers can write at any age. As he states, “You gotta do the work. That’s true whether you’re 16 or 60.” Wise words that we should all take to heart.

In high school, as a budding young writer, I couldn’t escape reading article after article about Christopher Paolini (who self-published Eragon at the age of 15 then went on to publish it with Random House at 19 to millions of sales worldwide). At the time, this gave me hope to think that maybe I could be like him and publish around the same age (suffice it to say, that didn’t quite happen). His commercial success did not always equate to critical approval, but his achievements remain remarkable. Still, the narrative around him is dominated by an almost exclusive focus on his youth.

Not everyone starts writing at a young age, but for those who do, we often feed into the media sensationalism around young writers. Having worked in book publishing for a number of years, I get it. Just as a salesperson and marketer must find unique selling points about products they’re trying to move off the shelves, publicists must do the same for authors. What sets them apart? Oh–they’re super young? Great. There’s the angle. I get it. But not only does it perpetuate unrealistic expectations in the hearts of young writers everywhere, it creates an attitude of ageism, communicating to writers that unless they’ve published their magnum opus by the age of 25 or 30, that they will never do so and that they have basically run out of opportunities to be remarkable in any way.

I thought I was the only one to look at the age of young writers published in the articles that discuss them and to then think, “This person has already done X by Y age. I should be filled with shame that I have failed to do the same.” The media does a bang-up job reinforcing this in aspiring authors and hyperbolizing the youth of published authors, as if the journalist is addressing anyone over the age of 14 and taunting them, saying, “This author has published a book at 15. What have you ever done?”

paolini

Because the media is so fixated on fetishizing the age of young writers, it seldom stops to ask whether the books they write and publish are good. Are they quality novels or are they just overhyped and mediocre? This is not to say no novelist under the age of 30 is a good writer (Helen Oyememi is remarkably good). Closer to home (for me, anyway) is V.E. Schwab, a fantasy and young adult novelist who at the age of 29 (turning 30 this year) has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime and has an infuriatingly excellent quality of writing.

New York Times article about her is what inspired me to write this post. It is called: Not Yet 30, This Fantasy Writer Is an Old Pro. As if they are trying to imply “she is better than all of you. And she’s not even 30 yet. What’s the matter with the rest of you?” As if the Times has not shamed us enough by this point, they add that Ms. Schwab decided “on a lark” to pursue a graduate degree in medieval art history as if to not-so-subtly imply that she is a genius to be exalted and praised on the level of Mozart and that the rest of us mortals are all a sorry bunch of dummies.

To be clear, I am not blaming the writers I have discussed at all. Far from it. I have great respect for many of them and think they have worked incredibly hard to achieve what they have. Paolini, for instance, worked tirelessly to sell copies of Eragon by going to schools and bookstores and toiling to move as many copies as he could. Like all authors, they and their publicists have to work hard to get them media coverage to ensure that their books sell.

amelia atwater

What I do find problematic is the way the media coverage emphasizes their youth, as if that is the only thing remarkable about them. I do think it is important to encourage young writers and give them a sense of hope rather than to crush their fragile dreams as is so often the case by cynical adults who call themselves “realistic” and tell these kids the same thing. I was one of those and can attest to how difficult it is to overcome that much continuous negativity and doubt aimed at you constantly.

The journalists and bloggers writing these pieces to promote the writers they are featuring do not sit down and say to themselves, “My goal is to make all the other writers reading this piece to feel as inadequate as possible. I want them to walk away with a sense of shame and guilt and a suffocating sense that nothing they ever do is good enough.” However, they do know that the indirect result of these types of pieces if often just that.

Many writers who start out quite young often dream big but struggle when we reach college or university and the time comes to “get serious” and “find a real job” and “be an adult.” Some of you may be thinking “Yes, but that’s life, my young friend. This is the battle we ALL undertake and you’re no exception.” Fair enough. Others may feel like pointing out that not every young writer succumbs to these pressures, or that they are well are of these demands but are just more resilient when it comes to filtering them out. I can think of several writers in my age group who started writing at pretty much the same time I did and who are prolific rising stars that are doing wonderful things. In the horror genre, Adam Cesare and Stephanie M. Wytovich come to mind.

But for those of us who aren’t as impervious to the demands I mentioned above about becoming an adult and getting established in the working world, each year that passes marks a larger barrier to carving out writing time while also finding reliable employment after graduation. One of the biggest killers of creativity for many writers is economic uncertainty–some thrive on not knowing where their next paycheque is coming from and battle to defy the odds, but a good number of young writers in this camp succumb to the pressures and struggle.

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Another factor that doesn’t get discussed in the laudatory pieces that sing the praises of these extraordinarily young writers who have achieved so much is their health–both mental and physical. Both of these also influence the likelihood not only of success but also of maintaining a pace. Many writers I know suffer from chronic diseases and ailments but have not let these obstacles get in their way–else they have had to work hard for many years discovering how to make this happen. Not everyone has that kind of strength and endurance, and it can take years to develop this.

Still another factor that’s missing from the pieces about young writers is the frank discussion of their mental health. Some of them have spoken out about suffering from depression and anxiety while others have learned to circumvent them over the years. The point is: health challenges–both mental and physical–affect a writer’s ability to write. Yes, many learn how to work around these things, but that process can take a tremendous amount of time.

roth

Also? Burnout is real. After years and years of taking notes from writing craft books and attending workshops, conferences, conventions, beta reading, critiquing groups, blogging, book reviewing, and balancing that with an education about the business of writing, not to mention the constant slog of rejection after rejection after rejection, it’s not difficult to imagine that a young writer might burn out.

Something else to consider: sometimes when a person starts out at the very top, there’s nowhere to go but down. So when writers that young succeed, they can be like stars that burns very brightly at first then just fade away over time. Part of adulthood includes having to contend with a body and mind that get tired faster. Energy becomes a precious commodity. Grappling with the job market and making sure we know where our next paycheque is coming from often adds to the perils of our creative energy, which dwindles. Life happens. Marriages, births, divorces, job gains, job losses, deaths, and so on.

So, what is a writer to do in the face of constant media fetishization of youth in writers? Chuck Wendig’s piece offers some solutions to consider, most of which can be summarized as: write anyway. Write regardless of your age. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to do so or to give you a signal telling you that you have now officially earned the right and the license to use the term “writer” to apply to yourself granted by some invisible committee that doesn’t exist. Many aspiring authors mistakenly think of the path to publication and success as being the same as what medical school students do to become licensed doctors, or passing the bar that allows law students to become barristers. It’s not the same. Do the writing. Put in the work. And to hell with the rest of it.  

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Why I’m Doing #NanoWriMo in 2015

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nanowrimo 2015 picture

The TL;DR version of this blog post: I used to think writers who attempt NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in addition to their day jobs, schoolwork, family obligations, etc., were insane too optimistic about getting 50,000 words written in 30 days—even though there are tons of stories of people who have achieved this and quite a few writers who have gone on to publish what started as NanoWriMo projects. But I’m trying NanoWriMo this year and I’m going to document how it goes on my blog in November.

Last year, I was humming a very different tune when it came to NanoWriMo.
I used to be vociferously opposed to the entire concept of NanoWriMo.

Why? Because the way I saw it, NanoWriMo and similar programs perpetuate unrealistic standards of how much output a writer can achieve. Writers already feel inadequate on a daily basis so why someone would expose themselves to such a prolonged period of inadequacy and feel Impostor Syndrome, I didn’t get.

What changed this year? My work situation. I’m participating in NanoWriMo because for the first time in a long time, I have the time (and hopefully the energy). We’ll see how long that lasts.

How am I so sure I’m going to succeed? I’m not. This is my first year. I’ve done outlines and character sketches, but my goal isn’t to complete the whole novel in the month of November (that would be closer to 80,000 words). My goal is to write a good chunk of a novel. I know I’m not going to write 30,000 words in December in a mad rush and I’m okay with that. So, I’m hoping for a good start. My goal is not to “win” or to “beat” someone else but to treat this more as an experiment and see how far I can go.

Okay, Smarty Pants, what other steps will you take?

  • I’m going off social media. I did it last year and survived.
  • I’m putting up a site blocker for distracting websites.
  • I’m reducing the amount of TV I watch. TV is my second-most addicting activity next to the Internet, so while I’m not banning it (I wouldn’t last very long and breaks are important), I’m reducing the amount of what I watch.
  • I’m increasing my amount of exercise. My mind works better when I’ve started my day off with exercise.
  • I’m also upping my writing exercise count. My goal is to “warm up my writing muscles” and keep the engine humming.
  • This one might be the hardest—I’m going to switch from a night shift writing schedule to first thing in the morning.
  • I plan out what to write before each writing session so I have a roadmap.
  • I’ve done a fair amount of research ahead of time so I don’t get stalled or distracted during actual writing.

Most of all, I’m going to focus on writing as much as I can and not on editing, fixing or revising. It’s difficult not to revise as I go, but I’ll make every effort to focus on pounding out the words in November and having something I can work with.

Bonus: This year, Chuck Wendig has offered up a more balanced view of Nano, citing both pros and cons of doing NanoWriMo. Check it out!

What about you? Let me know if you’re participating this year and if it’s your first time or you’re a veteran who has done it for years in a row.

Why Chuck Wendig is Awesome (But You Already Know That) ;-)

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I’ve recently been singing the (well-deserved) praises of Chuck Wendig’s how-to book for writers, entitled The Kick-Ass Writer, which, after reading it, has now become the quintessential book on writing for writers that I will talk up and recommend.

Considering the relevance of such issues as self-published writers, hybrid authors (of which Wendig himself is a fantastic example), marketing for authors, but more than that, a return to tips on how to hone one’s craft, I consider this book to be an indispensable resource for writers both aspiring and established. We can all stand to learn a thing or two from Mr. Wendig. I’ve highlighted the three most inspiring pull-out quotes that resonated with me, which you will find below:

On Not Giving Up:

[It] takes time. Stories need to find the right home, the right audience. Stick with it. Push like you’re pooping. Quitting is for sad pandas.

On Connecting with Your Fellow Writers:

[Social media is] a great way to connect with other penmonkeys and creative types and engage, interact, and amuse. It’s important for writers to know other writers. It’s how we get book blurbs or find out what bottle of bourbon we should try. It used to be you had to travel to conventions and conferences to do it. Now you can do it at home. Without pants.

On When You Question Your Sanity and Why We Do This Writing Thing:

You do it because you love it.
You do it because you want to be read.
You tell stories because you’re a storyteller. And because stories matter.

I couldn’t have said those things better myself. One of the best things about Wendig’s blog, is his concession to the fact that ultimately, there are many advice givers out there to guide aspiring writers, but ultimately, there is no one set formula, or one magic trick, or one narrow way of doings things. There are multiple avenues to success. And there are multiple suggestions on how to achieve it. Wendig asserts that advice is just “suggestions” and that what works for one person may not necessarily work with another, so it’s important to take these types of texts with a grain of salt.

What are some of the other “essential” how-to writing books that line your bookshelves?