To My 15-year-old Self
Life and my own wonky brain chemicals caught up with me, and the meds that are supposed to help, well, don’t work as well as they used to. While I’ve felt like writing, I haven’t felt particularly clear or been able to settle even on a single thing to play with or work on. So, I decided to go back and read some of my very oldest work.
Now, I save everything. I still ache, knowing over a hundred pages ended up in a dumpster somewhere after my backpack was stolen – it was just an experiment, but it was part of me. I have roughly thirty 2-inch-ring binders that are filled to capacity with the longhand work from about 1988 onwards. It’s been a long time since I looked at the oldest. I actually spent a day last week laughing myself to tears because some of it is just so bad – and yet, from there I reached my current level, even though all I really had going for me at the time was lots of vague and unrefined ideas, decent technical language skills, a head full of things I’d read, and a huge amount of free time since we lived in the country and I had few chores to do.
And yet, as bad as it is… it also gives me a direct window into the way one teenager thought, and maybe more importantly, how she felt. It’s hard to remember how the world looked, over two decades ago, but reading the oldest, I can see it. Hundreds of pages of my own young self’s dreams, emotions, speculation, as she struggled to grasp things that were a stretch at the time: gender roles, priorities, personal responsibility, same-sex relationships, ethics and morality, the value of life and individuality, the difference between sex and love. I think it should probably be considered an invaluable and unreplaceable resource.
So, for anyone else in the kind of position I was in then, just getting going but questioning whether it’s worth it, I thought I’d figure out what I would say to myself of 25 years ago. (It’s long enough for 2 posts and then some, so maybe I’m making up for missing a couple lately!)
Dear 15-year-old Steph:
You’ve stumbled over the most wonderful high in the world, one that can keep you going no matter how dark life gets. Eventually you’re going to come up with the idea that you need to get published by the time you turn 30 or you’ve failed; well, forget that idea, there’s more to it than you understand yet. Just write and love it and let it fill you until it becomes who and what you are. It’s going to help you figure out a lot about the world and about yourself, all via a safe medium where you can simulate reality and change details at will.
Your writing is, at this point in your life, extremely rough, but you know that. Over and over, you come up with fragments of ideas, pulled from books, songs, movies, occasionally real life, and sometimes from nowhere you can name, and you play with them until they run out of juice; you scrawl notes like, “Where is this going?” and abandon them, because you don’t yet know how to look at them and find the good parts and discard the flawed parts. When you do seize on one that has more strengths than weaknesses, you pursue it joyfully, but you write yourself into corners. Dangers are overpowered, the consequences of failure are unnecessarily extreme. Many scenes are shaky as a house built on sand, written because you get a flash of a specific situation; there’s no foundation because there’s no thought behind how the characters got into it or why a Bad Guy would do this or why such a natural trap should exist.
Despite all that… some of those ideas have the seeds of genuine potential in them. Some of them failed you mainly because you don’t yet have the sophistication to handle subtle concepts that need a light touch, or because you don’t yet have the life experience to really grasp it fully and see the potential uses. You’ll gain both of those in time. Many of your characters are already vivid and three-dimensional, something that will be the first comment most readers voice when reading your work in the future; you know which ones those are, because you can feel it, and those are the characters you keep drifting back to, trying to devise a plot that will let you express what you know about them. You have an intuitive grasp of some forms of interpersonal dynamics that is going to startle your self in 25 years, even though other sorts of dynamics are heavily coloured by your upbringing and mass media messages. You’ll outgrow that latter bunch, and you’ll start doing it a lot sooner than you think. You have characters and situations that you’ll be able to look at in 25 years and pick up and understand how to refine without substantially changing them, like sanding and polishing a rough carving made with a pocket-knife. Of course, you also have characters and situations that are beyond salvation, but that’s always going to happen.
There are a few things you should think about:
1) Dial down the angst. And the drama. And also the dramatic angst and the angsty drama. You do not need to have them cranked up way past eleven most of the time in order to create emotional intensity. This means in the phrasing, for one thing. There is probably never going to be a time where prefacing an imperative order with “As you love your life” is going to really be called for, and in the middle of a battle when seconds can count, even less so. Ease up on the adjectives a bit and remember to show rather than tell; a dream that’s full of “fear, loathing, terror and horror” is probably a story in itself. As for content, see the next several points.
2) It is not necessary to pit your characters against ridiculously overwhelming odds of a hundred to one or excessively powerful (mixed mobs of) magical monsters in order to demonstrate how bad-ass they are. They can be seriously bad-ass without the impossible odds, without being The Best, and for that matter without ever killing anyone or Saving The World. Go live your life. Know that it’s sometimes going to hurt, and accept that and use it. Learn that the loss of an important relationship or of faith in something can hurt at least as much as a wound from a sword. Learn that fear can be a healthy thing and sometimes it’s smart to run away. Learn that you can’t always tell who you can trust, because:
3) The world is not cleanly divided between the Good Guys, who never do bad things, and the Bad Guys, who never do good things. The Bad Guys do not consider themselves to be the Bad Guys any more than the Good Guys do. People are a mixture of the selfish and the selfless, of the kind and the cruel, of the honest and the deceptive, to varying degrees in different individuals and even at different times. It is far more likely that the Bad Guys are ignorant, close-minded, or simply not thinking about consequences, or are acting in ways prompted by their own past emotional injuries and experiences, than it is that the Bad Guys are deliberately malicious. Motivations can be irrational without the character in question having twelve different psychiatric conditions; humans are innately irrational.
4) While we’re talking about Bad Guys, always get inside the Bad Guy’s head, even if it’s not pleasant. Make sure that all actions make sense to that character and from their perspective, at least. Go read the Evil Overlord list and think about it. The Bad Guys may exist in one sense as a way for your Good Guys to look awesome while fighting them, but within the context of your story, make sure they have a reason for being and a reason for doing what they do (and “Because it’s a Bad Guy” doesn’t count).
5) No matter how it feels in your teens, one’s useful life does not end at 25 or 30 or even 40. Characters at these advanced ages can still take part in adventures. Seriously. Nor should all the Bad Guys be one generation older than the Good Guys.
6) Not everyone has to be The Best at whatever they do. Your characters do not have to be The Best sword-fighters, archers, magic-users, musicians, healers, weavers, horse-people, or anything else. Nor do they all have to be physically ultra-attractive and superlatively physically fit. (Nor do the sword-fighters need to have the biggest swords, or the archers the bows with the most powerful draw!) This is especially true of the teenagers; if they’ve mastered everything in a few years, where are they going to find any challenge for the rest of their lives? While you’re at it, broaden your range of occupations for your characters. You aren’t writing a Dungeons and Dragons game where everyone needs to be Fighter, Magic-User, Rogue, or Cleric.
7) Self-doubt is normal. Uncertainty is normal. This list could go on at length, but possibly the most important is that making mistakes is normal. It really is not necessary for characters to make major dramatic hay out of questioning their own motivations or worth or flog themselves at length for having inadvertently done something that, if they’d had the time to think about it and the freedom to decide, they would not have done.
8) Along similar lines, not every quest has to be To Save The World (or some significant portion or aspect thereof). Sometimes the hardest battles that best show the worth and priorities of your characters are smaller-scale: saving a single life, stopping a bulldozer, the search for justice, the struggle to survive. Consequences of failure do not have to be catastrophic to be terrible.
9) In any given group, people are highly unlikely to pair off into neat couples. Nor do teenaged sweethearts automatically stay together for life. Relationships end as people grow and change, as circumstances change, and sometimes just because the initial starry-eyed honeymoon phase wears off.
10) “Because it’s magic” is not a valid explanation for anything, ever, period. If you have people using magic, then work out what kinds of things they can do, what things they can’t do, what conditions are necessary to do things, and what prices they might have to pay for it, and then be consistent. Your story will be a lot more interesting without a magic-using character who can do pretty much anything just by wanting to and only runs out of energy after phenomenal efforts. For that matter, your story will be more interesting if you have characters with weak or limited magical abilities who come up with clever ways to use them, or stronger ones who have major restrictions they have to work around or serious consequences to using it. Please pay particular attention to: the shapechanging race that have an animal form apparently at random (a leopard father has a kestrel daughter and wolf son), the concept of mass vs energy in shapechanging, and how a pegasus gets in the air at all let alone carrying an adult human or two.
11) Do research. I know that’s tough when you’re in the country and have only the school library and the township one to use. It’s going to get a lot easier in a couple of years when you move to the city, even though that’s going to be emotionally devastating, and even easier when the Internet becomes readily accessible. Research everything. If you have characters wandering around the wilderness foraging and sleeping outside, research ecology and related subjects and make sure it’s consistent. If you have a weaver, research traditional weaving. Sword-fighters? Healers? Horses? Research. Deviate from it if you want, but know what you’re deviating from and do it with a good reason. Believability matters more than realism anyway, and can be harder to create. After all, truth is stranger than fiction.
12) Do not have one common language sound like modern English and the other sound like dense pseudo-Shakespearean English. Just don’t. Ever.
13) No prophecies, oracles, or destinies. Ever. They aren’t only cliché, they’re a cop-out, a lazy way to avoid figuring out the reasons why everyone is doing what they’re doing.
14) It’s okay to decide you were on the wrong track ten or twenty pages ago and change things. You don’t have to stick with what you wrote then. Admittedly, that gets a lot easier once the computer progresses to the point where you can sit comfortably at it and write for hours on end (there’s a magic of sorts in a stack of blank sheets fastened to a clipboard and a pen in hand… however, physical storage space will eventually be a problem, so go with the computer ASAP). No matter the medium, it does not become immutable Truth once it’s written. You’re going to make mistakes. Fix them and keep going rather than discarding the baby with the bathwater.
15) Learn how to read your own work the way someone else does, without already knowing your worlds. Learn how to read it for the phrasing and the flow and the rhythms rather than the content. Learn to evaluate feedback from others and decide whether it has value and how much and what actions, if any, to take based on it.
Mostly, though, what I need you to know is this: keep writing. As you live, you’ll learn. As you write, you’ll get better. There will always be more ideas and more characters for you to explore. While it feels wonderful to have others read your work and praise it, that isn’t the part that matters, and every time you forget that, you’ll wander off the track and lose it all for a while until you remember. What matters is this:
Just keep writing.