Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing (TCWT)

I always had a thing for reading and writing. At four years old I was wolfing down Dr. Seuss books like it was nobody’s business, and by first grade I could finish any one of those Captain Underpants novels in less than a day. No big deal. Inspired by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, I started writing my own mostly plagiarized comic books, which kick-started my ongoing writing career.

I’ve since retired from the comic book business, but I have yet to stop writing stories. Most of them have been science fiction, and centered around a main character (always around my age) with similar characteristics. Basically me, except perfect in every way, and everyone who opposed me was just evil, an idiot, or both. Which brings me to this month’s TCWT blog chain:

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started writing?

There are so many things to choose from, so I’m going to cheat and mention several of them. First off, I would’ve loved it if someone had let me in on this particular nugget: characters with flaws are infinitely more interesting than those without them.. Also, books where the main character is almost exactly like the author will never sell well, unless you’re John Green. For years I was writing characters who were idealized versions of myself, and surrounded them with characters who were just shallow versions of my real friends. And the villains were always real people I didn’t like, like my annoying older brother, who was always one-dimensionally evil and/or stupid.

(In my defense, my brother did (and still does) often act in a cartoonishly evil/stupid way. But that doesn’t mean he’d make a great character.)

Another helpful tidbit would’ve been: Your parents’ opinions are almost always useless. This may not apply for those of you who have parents with writing experience, or genuinely criticize your work instead of just “This is amazing! I’m going to put this on the fridge so I can read it every day,” but in my case (and most others) your parents probably laughed at your writing as a little kid; they just complemented it because they didn’t want to discourage you.

Of course, I don’t blame my parents for doing that. If I had shown my dad one of my stories as a little kid, and he replied with, “Don’t quit your day job, kiddo. This story sucks,” there’s a good chance I would’ve been discouraged from writing altogether, and this blog wouldn’t even exist.

Of course, the downside to this is that it gave me unrealistic expectations. I actually thought my work from five years ago actually had a chance of being published. (Heh heh.) And worst of all, I didn’t improve as much as I could have because I wasn’t aware of all the huge flaws in my writing, mostly because no one pointed them out. Which brings me to my next point.

Get people who aren’t your friends or family to read your writing. I wish I had known about beta readers. If you have a blog, you should post a few short stories or something, where people can criticize it for free. People on the internet are not exactly known for being too polite, after all, and they can be extremely helpful when it comes to critiquing your work, especially on WordPress. For my More Than I Can Chew interactive blog story, I have the delightful Plotwhisperer who isn’t afraid to say what she does and doesn’t like about each chapter, and it helps. A lot.

But the main thing I wish I knew from the very beginning is: Don’t censor yourself. Don’t stray from certain topics or themes just because you’re afraid you’ll offend someone. Write about what’s important to you and don’t hold back.* You don’t see this advice being used often on this blog, (it’s a humor/book blog. Topics like gun control and abortion would just be off-topic), but when I do write about potentially controversial subjects, they work out much better than I could possibly anticipate. I was Freshly Pressed from a post titled, “How to be a Young Writer Without Making Me Want to Punch You in the Face,” and I almost didn’t publish it because I was afraid it would upset some people. And it did upset some people. A few people politely disagreed with it, others impolitely disagreed with it, and one guy wrote an angry rant calling me an “arrogant fuck who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” and continued to insult my blog and teen writers in general.

I can still remember large portions of that comment (he was a mean one, that guy), but I also remember the hundreds of other amazing comments from adults and teens alike. A bunch of teenagers were inspired by it, many adults were impressed and a high school English teacher even said she was going to show this article to all her students. For every angry commenter, they were fifty other nice and supportive ones. So I laughed to myself as I deleted that asshole’s comment and moved on with my life.

When you reach a wider audience, you’re bound to get a few mean critics, but if you’re afraid to speak your mind, you’ll never reach that audience to begin with.

Someone should quote me on that last sentence. That was deep.

*Of course, there’s a difference between speaking your mind and being a jerk. If you’re being racist/sexist/homophobic/prejudiced towards any group, don’t be surprised when you are either ignored or receive angry feedback. And I won’t feel bad for you.

(Sorry there’s no photo. I had to resort to using my phone to write the post, and I’m not sure how to add pictures.)

Check out the other participants here:

5th –

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21st –

22nd –

23rd –

24th – – The topic for August’s blog chain will be announced.


29 thoughts on “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing (TCWT)

  1. “Characters with flaws are infinitely more interesting than those without them. Also, books where the main character is almost exactly like the author will never sell well, unless you’re John Green.” Truer words were never spoken. Two days ago I read Paper Towns. I’ve just stayed up from midnight till 5:30am reading The Fault in our Stars. John Green is a diabolical genius. Also, flawed characters are definitely more interesting: who wants to read a story about Mr Perfect Who Can Do No Harm when they can follow the one with the character defect who they can relate to? Totally agree with you on every point.

    Only one point I would add – and a weak one after you hit the nail on the head here – is to not over-edit. Once you’ve written something and re-written, and re-written you just grow to hate it. Two, three max. Then stop. It’ll never be perfect if you aren’t happy with it after that much editing. I hate large chunks of my novel simply because I can’t stand reading it now, and I always find things to change. My advice? Writing is like a Dominoes pizza: you can make two changes for free, then the rest will cost you.

    1. Ooh, do you mind if I quote you on that last part? It’s cleverer than a… really clever person.

      And I agree with the over-editing thing, although I find that if I don’t re-read my stuff a couple thousand times or so, there will always be at least one huge typo that I didn’t notice. I was reading a post from a few months ago and noticed one typo that made the whole sentence impossible to understand. (Which made me wonder, why didn’t anyone point it out?)

      And yes, John Green is a diabolical genius. A bit too diabolical, if you ask me.

      1. Haha, thought it up as I was typing it. Quite pleased with it 😛 Feel free to quote if you wish! You have a point on the typo front. I guess that’s where beta readers and such come in. Still, weird how tons of people can read the same thing and not spot a mistake.

  2. Is it wierd that we oddly have the same beginnings? The comic book thing I mean…like don’t get me started on those things. Or my terrible short superhero stories…My dad still has them all saved on his computer.

    I occasionally reread them, cringing all the while, to remind myself never to go back to that…

  3. This is excellent. I’m sheepishly trying to write something that is outside of my comfort zone, and your post here is quite helpful. Writing can be such a vulnerable exercise! Cheers.

  4. “When you reach a wider audience, you’re bound to get a few mean critics, but if you’re afraid to speak your mind, you’ll never reach that audience to begin with.”
    You’re welcome 🙂
    But yes. It’s always my best-received posts that I’m most nervous about publishing. When you get the anxiety butterflies in your stomach, that’s when you know you’re onto something good.

    1. True that. I’m the same way, although sometimes there’s a surprisingly popular post that I put very little effort into. (Like that one where I made that “bold statement” saying that pepsi was better than coke.)

      And thank you. Hopefully people will still be repeating those words a thousand years from now. 🙂

  5. I used to make my characters a little too similar to me too. I’m getting better at that now, though. While I still infuse some of me into my characters, I also make sure to make some of their personality traits and struggles different than mine. Fortunately, my parents are actually really good at critiquing my writing. While they do encourage me, they also honestly tell me what I need to fix. I still have to learn how not to censor myself. I think I’m getting better at it, but I’m still a little insecure. Congrats on having your post featured on Freshly Pressed! Do you mind sharing a link to that post?

  6. *nodnod* I agree with all these points – excellent post! I feel uncomfortable having my parents read my writing because they rarely offer the criticism and suggestions that I NEED.

    And I second the part about not censoring yourself! Lately a few commenters on my blog have said that they like how I’m not afraid to speak my mind…

    1. I agree with those commenters! Your willingness to speak your mind is one of your best qualities.

      (And wow, I took eight days to respond to this comment. I really am slacking.)

  7. These points are so true. I think most of us have dreamt of publication as a child – I know I did, but I’ve long since realized I don’t even want it published.

    And kudos to you for speaking your mind. (Checks the teen writer post) Great post! Ohhh. I definitely use awesome too much. 😦 Well, don’t blame me. Blame Barney Stinson.

    1. Thanks. I love Barney Stinson, but by overusing that word, he has started what might just be the worst crisis since that one with the Cuban missiles.

      (sorry for the late reply.)

  8. I completely agree with all of these, and I laughed at the John Green one. I adore him and his writing, but it’s infinitely true that he IS his characters, and from what I know of his wife, his wife is the love interests. Well, TFiOS may be the exception to that, but all of his other books, while I love them, have the exact same setup with very similar characters. But you’re right; usually when you write yourself into your book, it doesn’t work out. I love putting pieces of myself and people I know in real life into my characters because I think it adds authenticity, but too much can be really boring.

    1. True. I definitely think TFiOS is his most unique novel, character-wise, although at times Hazel seems like the female teenage version of John Green. Luckily, John Green has been blessed with an amazing personality, so all is okay.

  9. I am one of those few people who have parents who actually give criticism honestly. My mom is an English teacher, and my dad use to be, so I get lots of help.
    I haven’t been to your blog before, but I like it! I also have a blog about life, writing, reading,a nd somewhat random things.

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