Letter to a Young Writer

Dear [young writer],
Thank you for your emails. Writing is a deeply intimate, personal moment for every writer. The artistic vision is iron clad in our imaginations – as it should be. It is confidence that starts our writing, allows us to finish our project, and it keeps us writing. Writing is an audacious act. To take what is in our imagination and translate it into words on a page placed side-by-side to create meaning for a reader – [young writer], this is the epitome of audacity, of confidence, of genius. You are a very gifted writer whose poetic skill comes through immediately in your writing. My job is to push you (and that is why you have decided to take this course… to be pushed out of your comfort zone). Your job is to try the craft skills, work on them… then ultimately discard those things that don’t work for you. A great poet once said “Learn the rules; break the rules; make new rules; break those” Marvin Bell (poet who taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop). 

Plot is crucial to the story. This is what makes a story different from the vignette or the poem. The three elements together (plot, character, setting) are the trifecta of the story. Any story without one of these risks moving into some other form. Can you do that: absolutely. Plot does not mean silly genre tactic… an outrageous, over-the-top story arc. Plot is what allows the character to have an epiphany (a moment of insight). Without plot, characterization cannot take place. 

Please don’t apologize for the emails. I’m used to the reactions. Critiques are hard to hear sometimes. Our writing is our darling. Nobody wants to have it critiqued. Many times, we already know what the flaws are… or guess what they are… we just don’t know how to fix them… or don’t want to. Critiques are highly subjective, but I am a good reader, an informed reader, a reader who cares how and what you write. This is the type of reader you want. A careless reader (especially one who is a fiction instructor) is a disgrace and should be fired from teaching. I very much understand the care and the love and the art a writer puts into a piece. I also understand how exposed and vulnerable a writer is after that first draft. My critiques are never careless. They are deeply heart felt and designed to help develop the craft of writing.

You will be told a thousand times or more that “the story just did not grab me” or “the story was just not right for my list” or “You are a good writer but…” and when that happens, you scream profanities, drop your head, raise your hands to God in rage, decide that your brother was right… you really should be a plumber… or go back to school… or try welding…. But then, it all starts again. You pick up the piece, read it like a reader, understand what needs to be changed, say “screw them” concerning those things you believe do not need changed… and send it out again. I have written seven novels. Only two have been published. They are nearly 20 years apart. Some of my best work came after my rejections, when I was so pissed off that I used that energy to fire up the furnace of my muse and kick ass with another story. Because of that, I have published three novels and a total of five books. 

The writing life is one of perseverance. A friend of mine once equated the writing life to the baby sea turtles hatching on the beach. Millions hatch and move to the water, very few survive the onslaught of predators. Even those who make it to the sea have a small chance of survival the first year. Even after that… it is very hard. And year by year, event by event, rejection/publication by rejection/publication the shell grows bigger, harder, and we look back and say – I guess I am a writer. We do it because, well, it is an obsession, a madness, and those of us who have survived the thousands of rejections, have gotten back up and taken more punches… well, I use the analogy of the old testament prophets. Their lives were short, brutish, and nasty. They were the mad dancers to some secret music, and nobody understood them. But they followed the voice of the universe, controlled it, interpreted it, danced to it, and changed the world.

Best wishes and keep carrying the torch



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s