FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #215: Advice to a Young Writer & the Idea of “Downshifting”

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I’m posting this one for two reasons. First, Megan’s sweet reply, so simple and direct, surprised and moved me. That last sentence. And secondly, because I am frequently asked for “advice” and often fail to give a satisfactory answer. In this case, I don’t fail quite so miserably as usual and it included a notion that applies to a great many young writers I’ve encountered over the years — the idea of downshifting. I don’t have time for many exchanges like this, but I do what I can.
 –
This begins, atypically, with my response. Megan, I’d guess, is 13 or 14, and she genuinely aspires to be a writer. This wasn’t a question of a student dutifully asking a question that her teacher would approve of. No, Megan wanted to send me her book and I was like, “Oh, please, don’t do that. Send me an excerpt.”
 
This is my reply, which she waited for patiently.
 –
Megan,
 
Greetings. I’m very impressed with your story, and I’m grateful for your persistence & patience.
 
I am wrestling with a deadline of my own, have a pile of unanswered letters, etc., so I hope you’ll understand that this will be brief, of necessity.
 
In general, I’m not a great advice-giver when it comes to writing. I’m not full of tips, largely because I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. The standard pieces of advice are still the best: Read widely, read often, & read with a writer’s eye; and write. You’ve got to write. Have a place where you can write, a crummy journal, anything. And try to write everyday. Don’t let all your best work be text messages.
 
The other thing that I really believe in is that you should trust your enthusiasms. If you are excited about a topic, an idea, a writer, a series of books, an activity — then pursue it. Don’t worry so much if it will be practical or publishable or realistic. Just try to find those things that get your heart racing. That make you happy. And trust that good things will come out of it.
follow-your-enthusiasm
 –
As for your story, you are filled with many interesting characters and ideas. When I read, I know there is a lively mind at work here. An interesting mind. That’s very good to see. So many good, descriptive details. At the same time, your work reflects an inexperienced writer. That makes sense, because it’s true. You are young and inexperienced and you have not yet honed your writing muscles.
 
The one idea I want to convey to you is “downshifting.” Slowing down. You have enough ideas in here for a 500-page story, so all of it feels rushed, like you are in a hurry to get to the next thing, then the next, then the next. You need to slow down, add a beat, let each scene, each moment, have it’s own moment (if you will).
 
I loved the initial sense of the magical in the air that begins the story. The girl in the woods. (I didn’t like that she was trudging, especially after I learned that she was sent to give an urgent message; to me, that’s not a trudging errand, that’s running, exhaustion, resting, eating, running, and so on). It’s lungs burning, muscles aching. Then as readers, we are caught up in that feeling. There’s a deadline, a rush, and something important is at stake. We are eager to know why.
 
The visit with Corporal Hillson’s needs to slow down. Take your time. I didn’t understand why Hillson was telling Vivian all this. Why did he trust her? What was she doing there? I didn’t completely get it. His news is “extremely secret,” yet he blabs it to her. Why? You need to set this up better.
 
Next, almost as suddenly, she is in a cavern. That’s cool. The two girls. Again, slow down. Stay in the moment more, linger over the details, set the scene.
 
Downshift.
downshifting
 
Good work, Megan. You have talent and, as I said before, a lively, inventive mind. You probably have more story here than you are fully capable of writing at this point in your life. Keep at it. Focus on individual scenes. Word by word, sentence by sentence. And also, write poems, write short stories, and keep writing.
 
You are already much more accomplished than I was at your age.
 
Good luck,
 
James Preller
 
 
Megan replied:
 
Dear Mr. Preller,
– 
Thank you for your support. You have no idea how much this means to me. I will edit my story so that I do that. Thank you for your time. I would give anything to write like you. 

2 comments

  1. Kim Namkoong says:

    What a gift you have given Megan in taking the time to read her story. Good for her for asking for your input. And kudos to you for giving such honest, constructive and valuable feedback!

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