I had a strange email recently from a woman I did not know. I usually delete emails from strangers without even opening them. But this person was clever in getting my attention by appealing to my vanity. She wrote a compelling subject line. “I liked your novel Clean Break.”
Of course I opened the email. I could use a little stroking. Who couldn’t?
But that wasn’t the purpose of her email. She said her daughter wanted to become a writer and she was looking for advice. She didn’t explain why she was turning to me for advice—other than the fact that she liked one of my books. I’m sure she’s liked many books, so why me? Unexplained.
In her email, she said her daughter, a high school student, kept a journal she wrote in every day. She was constantly reading books to see how other writers went about their craft. She writes a new short story every week and also writes poems. She takes English electives.
Could I offer advice on how to become a writer that she could pass on to her daughter?
I thought for a while about how to respond. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to be wise.
I wrote back: Your daughter doesn’t need any advice. She already is a writer.
I didn’t hear back from the mother. Did I respond inappropriately? Did mother not get her five cents worth?
But mother was asking me something else. Such as: How does my daughter become her generation’s Celeste Ng, or Britt Bennett, or Liane Moriarty? Damned if I know. I didn’t exactly become my generation’s Hemingway. Publishing, financial success, and fame are the outcomes of an undefinable, uncategorizable mélange of unrelenting passion, hard work, and a lot of luck.
Sounds to me like the daughter already has the passion and work ethic. The luck part? Hey, say your prayers, perform your rain dance, clutch your talisman.
There are all kinds of writing advice out there. Here’s a website with advice from 42 different writers—over 350 rules and tips!
Some of them are ridiculous—“Don’t have children.” (Richard Ford).
Some are uninspired—“Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.” (Neil Gaimon)
Some are hard truths—”Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are doing is no good, accept it.” (Jeanette Winterson)
Many of the tips are good ones. One of my favorites is from Elmore Leonard, who said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
This one has always stuck with me. It’s a great piece of advice because it forces the writer (at least one who wants to be read) to look at their work critically from the perspective of their audience. Whether writing a novel, a business email, or a love letter, you must keep your audience engaged.
That’s it. What do you expect? I’m not even charging five cents.